Police have launched a manhunt for a shop owner who they say illegally stored mining explosives that set off a series of blasts that killed 88 people in central India over the weekend, dpa reports.

people gather around the site of an explosion at a restaurant in Jhabua district Saturday
People gather at the site of an explosion near new bus stand square in Jhabua district Saturday

The Saturday explosions at two adjacent buildings near new bus stand at Petlawad town in Madhya Pradesh state were caused after gelatine sticks in an adjoining shop caught fire – not by a cooking gas cylinder blast as initially claimed by the police.

“Investigations show that a fire from an electric short circuit set off powerful explosions of the gelatine sticks,” district police officer Sima Alawa said over phone.

“The owner of the small flour mill who stored these mine detonators is on the run. We are carrying out raids to arrest him,” she said.

Local media reported that the shop owner and his family fled from their residence after the explosions.

Alawa said the man held a license to use explosives for his mining business, but said he had stored them illegally.

Police have sealed his home and also store rooms owned by his brothers to avert similar disasters.

CM, cabinet colleague heckled

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and his cabinet colleague Antar Singh Arya  were allegedly heckled Sunday while they were en route to the site at Petlawad town, PTI reports.

They were stopped at the new bus stand square near the tragedy site by angry protesters, including Congressmen, who came out on the roads in large numbers shouting slogans against the state government and district administration, alleging that it had not taken appropriate steps to prevent the tragedy, eyewitnesses said.

 The locals said the huge pile of explosives should not have been stored in a building at a public place, according to the law.

They demanded stern action against the officials concerned for the lapse.

The protesters also shouted slogans demanding the sacking of District Collector Aruna Gupta. They allegedly manhandled the area’s Sub-Divisional Officer of Police (SDOP) A R Khan, who tried the clear the way for the chief minister.

Gauging the public anger, Chouhan and Arya squatted on the ground and gave a patient hearing to the protesters for more than 15 minutes before leaving for the mishap site.

As news of the blast came trickling in Saturday, it was believed that gas cylinders inside an adjacent restaurant triggered the blast.

“After the initial explosion (of gelatin sticks), many people came to see what had happened. Witnesses said the subsequent blast (at the restaurant) claimed more lives,” said M. L. Gond, an inspector in charge of Jhabua’s police control room.

The blast occurred at 8.30 am Saturday, completely destroying at least two buildings — one in which explosive material for digging wells was stored and an adjacent restaurant, and damaging several houses, officials said.

Kasawa stored the explosive material including gelatin sticks in huge quantity in the residential building having two shops in it and situated close to the busy Sethia Restaurant, a police official said.

District police official Sima Alva said the explosions at the restaurant exacted a heavy toll as the eatery was crowded and a large number of people were waiting for buses outside.

Images on television showed locals scrambling to help the wounded, many of whom were crying out in pain.

One of the injured, Narsingh (42), said body parts were strewn in the area after the blast.

Bodies covered in dust and ash lay in the streets alongside wrecked and burned vehicles.

“We have seen them flying and falling on the ground. Vehicles, specially two-wheelers, were badly damaged and lying on the road,” he said.

“I heard the blasts and ran toward the spot. Dust hung over the area. Bodies were scattered all over the place. A girl was crying and she was rescued,” Babu Lal, a witness told the IANS news agency.

Rescue workers and people used their bare hands to move mangled heaps of steel and concrete.

“There were huge explosions. None of the people in a 500-sq ft radius of the blasts could survive,” top district official Aruna Gupta said.

Due to the impact of the explosion, the double-story house in which explosive material were stored, collapsed trapping several people, he said.

State Home Minister Babulal Gaur said a high-level inquiry has been ordered into the incident.

Expressing anguish over the loss of lives, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced an ex-gratia of Rs 200,000 (US$3,019) each to kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 (US$754) for those injured.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed his condolences on the micro-blogging site.

“Extremely pained at the loss of lives due to the cylinder blast in Jhabua,” Modi said.

“Initially, we heard the sound of crackers from a house that also has two shops on the ground floor. Later, when someone opened its shutter, a huge explosion took place forcing people to run for cover,” Balram, an injured labourer, said from his hospital bed.

“Only those people survived who ran away from the spot but they too suffered injuries,” Narsingh said adding nearly 150 people were injured.

A large number of people were also trapped in the restaurant located in an adjacent three-storey building, he said.

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