Batala: At least 23 people were killed and 27 injured in an explosion following a blaze at an unauthorised firecracker manufacturing unit in a densely-populated residential area in Punjab's Gurdaspur district on Wednesday.
The dead included the firecracker manufacturing unit's owner and six of his family members.
Several people were feared trapped under the debris, the police said, adding that the rescue operation was underway.
The blast took place a day before the 532nd wedding anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev, popularly known as 'Babe da Viah'. The entire city was in festive mood for the celebrations, while tight security arrangements had been made for the same.
The blast took place around 4pm at the factory located in a residential area, Inspector General (Border Range) SPS Parmar told PTI.
The impact of the blast was such that a few nearby buildings and some four-wheelers were damaged. Eyewitness Sukhraj Singh said one car landed in a drain because of the impact.
The explosion was heard a few kilometres away, locals said. An elderly woman and her grandchild, who were passing close to the disaster spot, were among the dead.
Another Batala resident Rajpal Khokkar was passing by after a visit to a nearby gurdwara when the explosion took place.
"When I heard the loud blast, I fell down. When I gained consciousness, I found myself in hospital, he said.
Sahib Singh had just left the factory after buying crackers. The blast left him unconscious.
Another man, Sukhdev Singh, said two others who were with him to buy crackers died in the blast.
Some of the local residents claimed that several complaints were submitted to the district administration in the past for the closure of the factory.
"The firecracker factory has been working in this locality for the many years. We have complained against the factory seven-eight times to the local administration, but no action has been taken against it," a local resident told the media.
He said a similar blast occurred in this area in January 2017, leaving one person dead and three injured.
To a question by reporters, the deputy commissioner said the factory owner had applied for the license but its status was yet to be checked.
President Ram Nath Kovind expressed grief. "Saddened to learn about the loss of lives due to an explosion at a firecracker factory in Batala, Punjab," he tweeted. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too offered condolences.
Gurdaspur Deputy Commissioner Vipul Ujjwal said the immediate priority of the administration was to save those who may be trapped under the debris.
"We are trying to find out if anyone is missing," he said.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident.
The Additional Deputy Commissioner (Batala) had been asked to conduct the inquiry into the tragic incident, an official release said.
Amarinder Singh also directed Rural Development and Panchayat Minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa to immediately rush to the spot and oversee the relief and rescue operations.
"Deeply anguished to learn the loss of life due to the blast in the firecracker factory in Batala. Rescue operations are underway with the DC and the SSP heading relief efforts," the chief minister tweeted.
Cabinet minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who reached the accident spot, announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the next of kin of the dead and Rs 50,000 for the injured.
The government also announced Rs 25,000 for those with minor injuries.
Punjab CM directed both the civil and police administration to extend all possible help to the victims' families in this hour of grief.
He also directed the Deputy Commissioner to provide the best possible treatment to the injured free of cost besides asking the SSP to supervise the evacuation operations being carried out by the NDRF team.
Punjab Jails Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhwala, along with senior officials of the district administration and police, took stock of the situation.
Fire tenders and teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) were deployed for the rescue operation.
(With inputs from IANS and PTI)