Kerala’s Deadly Inferno

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With more than 110 dead in the Putingal fireworks explosion and scores injured, will these illegal festivities be stopped or continue to pander to the majority community as the state heads for polls?

By Naveen R Nair in Thiruvananthapuram


By the sheer number of lives lost—110­ dead and more than 350 injured—it is undoubtedly the second largest tragedy to hit Kerala. The temple tragedy in Putingal in Paravoor, Kollam district, set a new benchmark in horror as badly burnt bodies were discovered and people with grievous injuries rushed to nearby hospitals. Only the 2004 tsunami might be a bigger tragedy in terms of the number of lives lost. 

On April 10 at 3.30 am, Kerala woke up to a macabre dance of death as a fireworks display at a local temple went horribly wrong. One of the lighted crackers fell into a depot where unused and high intensity explosives were stored. What followed was a loud explosion, heard at least two kilometers away, as leaping balls of fire charred to death dozens that stood in its way. Many others were crushed beyond recognition by flying concrete and debris.

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As the sun rose, a shell-shocked district administration was quick to reveal that the temple had been denied permission to conduct the fireworks display. It soon became clear that what took the lives of so many people was flouting of laws by the governing body of the temple which went ahead with the fireworks ignoring all safety concerns. 

GROSS NEGLIGENCE

Many questions have been raised—why did the fireworks display which started at 10 pm the previous day go on till the wee hours of Sunday morning? Why was it not stopped in spite of policemen being present at the spot? Why did the district administration turn a blind eye despite denial of permission?

 

As always, politics came in the way. With elections hardly a month away, the Hindu vote bank was too precious to be antagonized. The sitting MLA from the CPI and the Congress candidate for the upcoming polls would obviously not want to intervene as a BJP-backed backlash would have hurt their electoral fortunes. It is believed that politicians coaxed the police to stay silent as the deadly show unravelled. Even the district collector’s letter had little value when compared to the rich electoral haul to be gained. 

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It wasn’t as if there wasn’t enough resistance to the show. An elderly woman living some 60m from the temple had run from pillar to post trying to make the authorities ban the fireworks which had nearly destroyed her house and others the previous year. All her pleas to the police, the district administration and the state government fell on deaf ears.

JUDICIAL INTERVENTION

Finally, the judiciary stepped in as this tragedy shook its collective conscience. Justice V Chitambaresh of the Kerala High Court wrote a letter to the court registrar seeking to admit a PIL on banning high decibel explosives from fireworks display. This was an extraordinary situation as it is rare for a sitting judge to do this. 

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Chitambaresh wrote in his letter: “Life is the most precious creation on this planet which cannot be replaced by money and right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is very valuable.” The judiciary had woken up to evils that need to be done away with.

It was obvious that the Putingal temple authorities grossly violated the Explosives Act 2008. The Act clearly states that “there should be no houses, schools or hospitals within 100 meters radius of the fireworks display. Potassium chlorate which is banned in India should never be used”.

The fireworks display was planned on an open ground belonging to the temple, but was hardly 50 m away from a colony nearby. This was gross negligence. What’s more, forensic analysts have now confirmed that potassium chlorate was used, given the intensity and havoc the blast caused. Annamma John, former assistant director at the forensic department, Government of Kerala, said: “It is beyond doubt that the temple had flouted all norms of the Explosive Act 2008. Preliminary investigation clearly shows the presence of potassium chlorate and that too in high quantities. Also the place is so close to a residential area that any explosion can be fatal. It is unbelievable that such a thing happened.”

TRADITION VS RULES

This is not the first time that temple administrators in Kerala have openly flouted rules in the name of protecting local traditions. Every year when the temple festival season arrives, the debate kicks off. By the end of the season, a few people would have lost their lives during some of these pyrotechnic displays which go horribly wrong. But these issues are hardly ever addressed as the political class in Kerala doesn’t have the will to do it, fearing a backlash from the majority community.

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However, the Paravoor tragedy is certainly a rude awakening. That Prime Minister Modi came all the way from Delhi with an army of doctors to take stock of the situation takes the dimension of this tragedy to a different level. Some would argue that Modi may have had an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections in the state when he made the flying visit. But with national and international media picking up the news, post the PM’s visit, this could just be the catalyst needed to stop this malaise forever. The political class in Kerala may finally have the courage to act against such festivities, what with the season of temple festivals getting under way. If the existing rules are not enforced in letter and spirit, more lives could be lost.

Kerala is known as God’s Own Country, and it is baffling that God takes predominance over plain logic in India’s most literate state. The list of such festivities is long in traditional Kerala. Thrissur Pooram tops the list. It is a festival that is touted in almost all record books for parading the maximum number of caparisoned elephants, another cruelty that is still under debate. But perhaps the darker side is the huge fireworks display organized every year to mark the closing of the Pooram, leaving the government, judiciary and the common man mute spectators in spite of a number of accidents that have taken place in the past. And this year too, work is in full swing there to put up yet another grand and potentially dangerous show.

SC RESTRICTIONS

It was after the 2006 accident there that the Supreme Court placed fresh restrictions on the use of firecrackers at temple festivals. But the order, jurists now say, had fallen short of addressing the fundamental issue of safety. It only talked about the permissible decibel levels and the use of crackers between 10 pm and 6 am.

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Senior high court lawyer Kaleeshwar Raj said: “The court seems to have looked at the sound pollution and timings only, not the safety aspect. Regulation alone won’t help. What is needed is total prohibition of the use of high-grade explosives.’’

A Thrissur-based NGO has now petitioned the chief and home secretaries of the state to completely ban the use of firecrackers during Thrissur Pooram, something the government is unlikely to do in an election year. However, there are many devotees who now question the spiritual value behind the use of fireworks. As no religious texts call for such extravagant use of gunpowder and dangerous chemicals, one wonders what the purpose is. 

With the judiciary finally cracking the whip, the state government can heave a sigh of relief. The government has wasted no time in declaring a judicial probe and a thorough investigation by the crime branch. Meanwhile the police is conducting raids across the state and has seized explosives and gunpowder from various locations. These were meant to be used for temple festivals in the coming months.

What is now needed is strong political will from the next government to stop these fireworks during festivals. If not, more Kollams will hit the headlines again and innocent lives lost.

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