“INNUMERABLE FIRE pockets” burning simultaneously in a room devoid of anything inflammable, barring “lubricating oil” that wasn’t supposed to be present there, along with the absence of safety measures at the factory of Jessop & Co Ltd — India’s oldest engineering company — that hasn’t had a power connection for nearly three years, has led the police to book Pawan Ruia, chairman of Ruia Group and the management of the factory, for “criminal conspiracy” and arson.
On October 18, Ruia — described as the “proprietor” of Jessop & Co Ltd — and the “managerial staff responsible for functioning of the factory” were booked under sections 427 (mischief, causing damage), 435 (mischief by fire/arson), 436 (mischief by fire/arson), 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and 11J, 11L (contravention of provisions for safety measures) and 26 (penalty for not taking out license) of the West Bengal Fire Services Act-1950. Sources said Ruia is likely to be summoned by the state CID next week.
The FIR against Ruia, filed after the initial probe, says that there is a suggestion of “criminal and calculated omission with some ulterior motive on the part of Sri Pawan Ruia, the proprietor of Jessop and Co Ltd and the managers responsible for the functioning of the factory”.
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The Ruia Group, however, claimed that the description of Pawan Ruia as the proprietor of the factory wasn’t true. “This is not true. Pawan Ruia is not a proprietor, a shareholder or an occupier of Jessop & Co Ltd,” said Dhrubyojyoti Nandi, VP (Corporate Communications) of the group.
As per the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Soumitra Ghose, Satyadeo Mishra and Baisali Ghoshal are the directors of the company that has a paid-up capital of Rs 61.51 crore.
After he was booked, Pawan Ruia had met Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, who in turn told mediapersons: “He (Ruia) narrated his version. But I told him the matter was under investigation and I am not in a position to say anything.” Since then, Ruia has sought time to meet Finance Minister Amit Mitra, said sources.
When contacted, Ruia said: “This is a very unfortunate situation. But I am very glad that the CID is investigating the matter. I have full faith in the West Bengal government and the state police.”
The West bengal Assembly in February had passed two bills taking over the management of ailing industrial units Dunlop and Jessop — both run by the Pawan Ruia Group. State Industries and Commerce Minister Amit Mitra had tabled the two bills in the Assembly, barely months before the state went to polls.
But the take over, officials said, is yet to be complete. “Though the matter was approved by the Governor, it is now stuck with the Home Ministry, which has to clear it since the Centre has 4 per cent share of the factory. Following this, the matter will go to the President,” said a senior official.
Following the allegations of arson, the state government had handed over the probe into recurring instances of fire at Jessop at Dum Dum on Tuesday to the CID. Officers said they had made an “important arrest” in a second case of theft at the on Thursday night. Police said the one arrested is suspected to be one of those who had received the stolen property of Jessop.
When contacted, DIG (CID) B L Meena said: “We have arrested Gautam Mondal, a resident of Kaizar Street in Kolkata. He was one of the receivers of the parts stolen from the premises of Jessop. This is our fifth and an important arrest in the case.”
Since the probe was handed over to CID, the team has arrested four people in connection with the theft at Jessop. Police sources said those arrested — Sumit Bhattacharya, Palan Adhikary, Chottu Roy and Prasanta Mandal — would steal machinery at the factory and be paid for it. “During investigation, it was revealed that Mondal was the receiver of these items,” said an officer.
The fire on Monday evening was the third such case in two weeks. After the incident, Dum Dum MLA Bratya Basu had told The Indian Express that “the accident could be intentional” and the administration was “unsure” about the plans of the Jessop owners on “what they want to do with the land”.
According to the FIR, the fire took place around 6:45 pm on October 17 at the railway wagon and coach building. There were “innumerable fire pockets throughout the shed” and the fire was “shooting out and leaping through the entire existed openings of the shed”. It added that “the seat of fire were many at all floors of the factory shed… burning simultaneously”, indicating that the incident “seems to be a sabotage” and “may have a conspiracy angle”. It also said that the movement of fire brigade officials was “obstructed” by two damaged vehicles and led to loss of “valuable time”.
The FIR added that the fire “took place in a shed where there was no wooden furniture” but there were “several machine parts” that weren’t “inflammable”. It was noticed that there “were no natural source of ignition and also the electricity of the… factory… is out of service” for nearly three years rendering chances of “accidental fire” to a minimum. Finally, on the flood of the shed, “some lubricating oils” were found “which are not supposed to be present…” The FIR concluded that there was “reasonable ground” to suggest that the fire was a result of “mischief committed by some miscreants and a criminal conspiracy can’t be ruled out”.
The FIR also stated that “no inbuilt fire and life safety arrangements were installed in the factory, which also had no first-aid fire fighting arrangement” — a gross violation of the West Bengal Fire Services Act-1950. Moreover, due to lack of electricity, while “one person cannot locate another from a distance of 1 feet”, though Jessop has moved the Calcutta High Court for police assistance for stoppage of theft. It added that the “company owners didn’t take any interest in lodging (a) complaint” regarding the incident after the HC directed them to make an application “in accordance with the law”.
Jessop Company Limited worker and employees union’s general secretary Srikumar Banerjee said: “We are hopeful that finally things are moving towards the right track. Some miscreants who don’t want Jessop to function have been intentionally allowing anti-socials inside the premises.”
Meanwhile, locals alleged that they had, on numerous occasions, witnessed instances of theft at the factory. “We have seen anti-social elements taking out materials and parts of machineries from the factory. We could do nothing because they were armed,” said Madan Biswas, a worker of the factory.
Jessop is India’s oldest engineering company. Founded in 1788 as Breen and Company, the firm was re-christened Jessop in 1820 and the Centre took over its management in 1958 and then the company as a whole in 1973. Over the years, it turned into a loss-making unit. In 2003, the government sold its 72 per cent stake to Pawan Ruia. Though the company claimed that it had become a profit-making unit soon after, the company fell into losses and Jessop was closed three years ago.