It is unlikely that the Kollam-Paravur tragedy that killed 112 people will change anything in the way fireworks happen in Kerala’s temple yards. Competitive fireworks that are way beyond the order of a spectacle intended to entertain public but exhibition of money power, religious clout and open defiance of law, would continue to happen in ‘God’s own country’ and have its share of blood (God forbid) as man must pay the price of his misadventures.
The 112 lives, ended abruptly in the premises of Kollam-Parvaur Puttingal temple in Kerala, are the victims of a system that has long lost the ability to enforce its own laws. There was an order, issued by the additional district magistrate, denying permission to conduct competitive fireworks at the Kollam-temple that was promptly ignored by temple authorities. There was a weak government, which did not have command over the violators. Then there was the state police force, who knew only to plead the violators to comply with the order but could make them follow that.
The price was paid by the lives of scores of local men, women and children gathered at the yard, who stayed up till early morning to witness the spectacle, only to fall into a sleep from which there is no waking up.
Even those, who were not in the immediate vicinity to witness the deadly display, had to suffer as they were hit by the concrete blocks scattered around in the distance of over one kilometre, critically injuring them or killing them. The whole scene would have appeared like a mini-battle scene to the on-lookers than a display aimed at entertainment.
Every year, orders are issued against Kerala temple fireworks or restrictions are imposed, citing reasons of noise pollution and use of certain explosives and the quantity that can be used in fireworks. And ever year, these orders are duly ignored by the temple authorities with the connivance of politicians, police and the bureaucrats.
Any effort to enforce the safety laws is seen as an intervention in the freedom of religious community and their customs and is politically sensitive.
The larger and more worrying issue here is that competitive fireworks are the dominant aspects of most temple festivals in Kerala — especially in the middle part of the southern state. They are not mere displays but mini-battles structured and guided aggressive competitive spirit between two temples, two factions or two adjacent geographies, on the pretext of entertainment or displays.
If one looks at the size and quantum of the explosives used, it is unlikely that Puttingal would be counted among the bigger ones. There are festivals such as the famous Thrissur Pooram and Nenmara-Vallangi Vela, where competitive fireworks are held on a much bigger scale and in more dangerous surroundings, putting the lives of thousands at grave risk.
In the case of Thrissur Pooram, the 18-century festival structured by local king Sakthan Thampuran, the competition is held between two temples (Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi). All aspects of the festival, beginning with the drum percussions, kudamattam (exchange of umbrellas) are guided by the spirit of competition. The same goes for the fireworks. The massive display of fireworks that take place right at the heart of the Thrissur town in the wee hours of the day is attended by people much bigger in number.
For Keralaites, fireworks accidents are not new. There are at least 400 similar accidents reported in the past, including at the Thrissur Pooram. According to data from state government, in 2006, 24 persons were killed in as many mishaps. A total of 42 persons were killed in 38 mishaps in 2007, 49 persons in 2008, 57 persons in 2009, 66 persons in 2010 and 58 persons in 2011. In terms of number of people died, the Paravur accident is the biggest ever in the state so far. The Puttingal tragedy also raises questions on illegal explosive markets in Kerala and elsewhere in the country.
The most critical question that the Puttingal tragedy raises is this: Why couldn't the state police enforce the order of an ADM that explicitly banned the fireworks at the temple citing that it is a ‘competition’ not ‘fireworks’? Here is the order of the ADM on the application from Parvaur-Puttingal Devaswam for fireworks which states thus: “In view of the situations mentioned above, based on the records available, and after considering the application from Paravaur Puttingal Devaswom Managing Committee (received on 9 April, 2016) to conduct/perform fireworks at temple premises and based on the subsequent investigation reports on the same, we are convinced that it was not fireworks that were planned in the temple but fireworks competition and hence, hereby, issue order rejecting the application. If this order is violated, due legal actions will be taken against the violators in accordance with the 2008 explosive Substances Act."
The logical question which arises here is this: In the light of the tragedy that happened in explicit violation of the order banning fireworks competition, will the state government ban competitive fireworks in the state, including the one at Thrissur Pooram that is scheduled this year on 17 April? The answer is not hard to imagine. It is unlikely to happen when the weak state laments its helplessness to enforce its own rules and police turn mere onlookers.