Till 2008, in a case of firecrackers mishap, the buck would have started and stopped with Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), responsible for controlling and administering the usage of explosives including crackers. But the "Explosives Rules 2008" which came as a 163-page gazette notification changed that. It passed the buck to district authorities in case of small-scale firecracker makers, like the ones who make the supplies for Kerala’s numerous temple and church festivities.
That’s the reason why, Kollam’s district collector A Shainamol had a look at a complaint by Pankajakshi Amma, a 80-year-old woman, who said her house was getting damaged every year by the bursting of crackers by the nearby Puttingal Devi temple.
Note that the annual fireworks “show” at this temple was always in two parts: fireworks “display” and fireworks "competition". Then Shainamol asked deputy collector and additional district magistrate A Shanavas to look into it. On his part, Shanavas asked police, fire, environment and revenue officials about it, and they either wanted the show to be stopped or allowed with conditions.
At the same time, official and political sources confirm, local Congress politicians, who included both Hindus and Christians, tried another tack. They attempted to impress on Shainamol and Shanavas, both Muslims, that they should honour the feelings of Hindus and allow the show to go on. The Congressmen were under pressure of elections. They tried to transfer this pressure to the two officials. But the collector and the deputy went by the rule book—they had the recommendations of sundry other officials. Shanavas passed an order, rejecting the temple's application for the fireworks show.
And that’s when Shainamol and her deputy thought the story had ended. It should have, but it didn’t.
Semantics over pyrotechnics
The story didn’t end because the temple's committee members went ahead with the festivities, perhaps confident that nobody dared to act against them with elections round the corner. The committee claimed that the Collectorate’s rejection was only for fireworks “competition” and not for “display” and so began the “display”. That’s what the police say the temple committee members said. We have no way of crosschecking this with those worthies, since they have disappeared. But one thing is clear: either the police are lying about what the temple committee said. Or the temple committee was lying to the police.
At last on Saturday night, the show began as a “display”, which soon degenerated into “competition”.
And it took 112 lives. So who’s responsible?
Collectorate passes the buck to the police
Collectorate officials say it was the job of the police to see that the temple didn’t go ahead with the show. Aren’t they the law-enforcers? This does make some sense. But does it?
Didn’t the collector have any inkling of the fact that the temple had begun the show? Maybe she did know. Maybe she didn’t.
But whether the collector knew it or not, you can be sure that the police did. Policemen were present at the festivities where some 15,000 people had gathered.
Police pass the buck back to the Collector
And that’s when things begin to look murky. Kollam’s Commissioner of Police P. Prakash has told the media that the temple committee members had told him “orally” that they had “oral” permission to conduct the “display” and not the “competition”, and so he allowed it go ahead.
That leaves us with plenty of questions.
1) How do police accept oral claims in a matter of this kind?
2) Shouldn’t the police have checked at least orally with the collector about whether permission had been given for a "display"?
3) How can the police feign ignorance about the fact that the show was meant to have a “competition” too?
4) How could the police be ignorant about the fact that the temple committee had distributed pamphlets and brochures listing contestants and prizes?
5) If the police allowed the show under the impression that it was only a “display”, why did they take some three hours to find it was a “competition” too before asking the organisers to stop it?
6) Were they blind not to see that dangerous and potent firecrackers were going up into the sky and exploding, just above the spectators and just above the building where crackers were stored?
The answers to all these questions may revolve around only one thing: the police succumbed to the same Congress politicians who had no luck with the collector and her deputy.
The authors of the "Explosives Rules 2008", while leaving the onus of enforcing those rules on district administration, had clearly not foreseen a divided district administration—divided between law and the complete lack of it.