Kerala temple fire: is ban the best bet?

After the horrific temple blaze that has so far claimed 112 lives in Kerala, now the burning question is: will display of fireworks be banned at religious gatherings or can it at the least be regulated as per the existing norms?

Even while the death toll is mounting and the wounds are still fresh, “don’t stop fireworks” is the call of 49-year-old Kuttapan, who is presently bed-ridden with a fractured arm and injured back, leave alone the other injuries he suffered. As crazy as it may seem, it is the tolerant face of India that turns a cold shoulder to public safety especially at religious event such as this. He is among the over 300 surviving victims of the Puttingal temple tragedy that has shocked the entire nation.

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Kerala woke up to a Black Sunday, when firecrackers and pyrotechnics materials stored in the temple exploded trapping devotees within its walls and charring them to death. It happened about 3am and its impact was felt hundreds of meters away. Puttingal Devi temple in Kerala’s Kollam district has been the top story since then, drawing a huge crowd of top politicians, including the prime minister, and celebs to Kerala.

Thousands were gathered at the temple when the fire mishap occurred. Temple authorities were prima facie guilty of violating the district administration’s order against holding a fireworks show. It also violated the Supreme Court’s directive that fireworks must not be used beyond 10pm. A judicial probe has been ordered, about 30 booked and several arrested.

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Media growled, terming the mass deaths a result of gross negligence, a combination of appalling carelessness and a reckless disregard for the safety of others. True. When tens of thousands of devotees, if not lakhs of them, turn up at religious gatherings organised by those whose top-most priority isn’t public safety and who are unprepared and ill-adapted to handle adverse situations, even a minor mishap could cost the lives of many. A stampede claimed over 100 lives at Uppupara near Sabarimala, in the last major temple tragedy in Kerala.

Most of such victims are women and children. Yet on Monday, the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages about 1,255 temples in Kerala boldly rejected demands to ban firecrackers at festivals. That was also when Sudarshan Kamal, chief controller of explosives in charge of monitoring the use, storage and licensing of such items, visited the accident site and pointed to “gross violation of explosive norms”. He said that safety norms were violated and banned chemicals were used.

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Thousands had gathered at the temple when a stray firework landed on a stockpile, triggering a huge blast that partially demolished a concrete building. Kollam district collector A Shainamol said the administration denied permission for the annual fireworks display competition where different groups put on successive light shows for devotees gathered for the last day of a seven-day festival honouring the goddess Bhadrakali, a southern Indian incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali.

Even when the district Collector refused permission for the firework display, the police failed to implement the decision of the district administration and stop the show.

The State’s Department of Revenue and Disaster Management has a research-based institute dedicated to the study of accidents and has brought out a standard operating procedure for festival organisers, which is clearly ignored.

Tragedies associated with public gatherings are a regular affair in religious India. In 2011, the infamous Sabarimala stampede claimed 106 pilgrims, when they were returning from a Hindu shrine on the last day of a yearly festival which attracts millions of devotees. It began after a jeep toppled over.

In 2014, a stampede broke out in Mumbai near the residence of Dawoodi Bohra spiritual leader Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. The stampede started when his supporters had assembled to pay their last respect after the gates were opened and the crowds burst in.

According to the BBC, “reports suggest people were crushed after the gates of the house where the body of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin were kept were closed. Eighteen died. The 2013 Madhya Pradesh stampede claimed 115 when 500,000 pilgrims gathered to celebrate the Hindu festival of Navratri.

In 2013, during the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela, a stampede broke out at the train station in Uttar Pradesh, India, killing 36 people. About 100 million pilgrims participate in this festival.

Earlier this year, a firecracker manufacturing unit in Kochi, Kerala, caught fire leaving a woman dead. The blast took place at a warehouse attached to the Kottaram Bhagavathi temple that is famous for its fireworks display.

In 1989, tragedy struck a church festival in Kerala leaving 12 dead.

Sunday’s temple tragedy raises a serious question on public safety and the norms that need to be adhered to for public gatherings. Negligence of rules formed by authorities regarding making and use of firecrackers has been a major cause of concern in the Indian state of Kerala as in other parts of India where fireworks are traditionally part of a large number of local festivals. It is high time the authorities woke up to this burning issue.

Kerala fire: 3 cars of explosives, 2 sacks of crackers found near temple

UPDATES:

HC judge seeks ban: Senior Kerala High Court judge Justice V Chitambaresh has sought a ban on the use of high decibel fire crackers at Kerala temples and an immediate judicial intervention to stop “man-made” tragedies like Kollam mishap. In a letter to the Registrar General of the high court,  he said, “The time is more than ripe for immediate judicial intervention to stop such man-made tragedies by banning the use of high decibel explosive fire crackers.” The ‘Devaswom Bench’ comprising Justices Thottathil B Radhakrishnan and Anu Sivaraman will consider the petition Tuesday afternoon.

NHRC notice to top officials: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Monday issued notices to the Kerala Chief Secretary and top officials of Kollam district seeking their reports in four weeks on the tragedy. The Commission, while issuing the notices, observed that the life of hundreds of people was at risk by such an event organised by the temple authorities who decided to hold fireworks despite having been denied permission by the district administration. It said media reports indicate that the administration remained a “mute spectator” and was “negligent” in preventing the violation of right to life of the victims. Apart from the Chief Secretary, the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police of Kollam have been served the notices and asked to file reports within four weeks.



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