The recent fireworks accident at Puttingal Devi temple in the southern district of Kollam in Kerala was the deadliest in the state’s history. More than 100 people died and nearly 400 injured. While hundreds of families are struggling to come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy, a blame game is being played out on the sidelines.
Fireworks and accidents are part of Kerala’s temple festivities and they are only likely to increase because the number of temples and the scale of festivals are rising fast. As the Kollam tragedy and many other fireworks accidents show, it’s not just the people who are directly involved in them or those who are in the vicinity who get killed. Instead, people in the entire area are at risk.
Factors that intensified the impact:
- First, the temple and the surrounding were not disaster-proof. In Kollam, a lot of people died from heavy concrete debris that fell on them because the fireworks ignited a warehouse of explosives. If the devotees and people are to be protected from such disasters, the temples and their surroundings should be disaster-proofed, which in effect means that their scale and intensity have to be rationalised. The use of fireworks has to be either stopped or have to be managed with extreme safeguards.
- There was no permission for the fireworks for the Kollam temple as well. The situation could have been mitigated had the local authorities and festival organisers abided by the law. Both the fireworks manufacturers and the organisers need appropriate permissions according to the rules laid out by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation of the central government. There are also guidelines on where the fireworks can be held, how people should be evacuated from such sites, and what are the safe distances to be kept. Certain chemicals and combinations (e.g. sulphur and potassium chlorates) are banned across the country, and the Kerala high court has banned the production of certain types of native explosives because they are really dangerous. These things were not taken care of.
- The contractors in charge of the fireworks did not provide an adequate buffer zone between the area where the explosives were lit and the assembled crowd. Firework was staged in cramped space and people got as close as they can.
- The most dangerous part was that different groups were competing with one another and made the event a test of their financial muscle and fire power. Banned substances were freely used and guidelines were flouted with impunity.
- The district administration is also to be blamed. The district administration, with the help of the local police, could have taken action, but either they ignored the risks or were overcome by the popular interest. Had they inspected the sites, read the rules to the organisers and prevented unlawful manufacture of the explosives, the loss of lives and properties could have been avoided.
Banning fireworks is an unpopular, and perhaps impractical, decision. The Kollam tragedy should be a reminder to all temple managements that the space available for holding events should be the primary concern while allowing crowds into festival venues. It is true that safety and health fears are not deterring many people from joining the swelling number of pilgrims to temple towns and festivals. Good sense would dictate that authorities then come up with ways to ensure that large crowds don’t concentrate in risk-prone areas.
The government should also come out with new and more robust disaster management plans in which prominent public spaces where people congregate in large numbers are mapped and all threats to them are identified.
The Kollam fire tragedy is a warning to officials and the citizenry that public safety must take precedence over all other interests.
There are clear guidelines on the use and storage of crackers and other fireworks. But by all accounts, the administration is unable to enforce the rules. Powerful custodians of religious centres, aided and abetted by a political class that bypasses the local administration and due process, are to blame. Public safety must be a non-negotiable imperative but for that it is crucial that the process of the progressive emasculation of the local authority is reversed.