An illegal fireworks' show in a temple in Kerala early on Sunday set off a huge fire which left more than 100 people dead and over 400 injured. By most accounts, the tragedy occurred at about 3.30 am in the coastal town of Peravur when a spark from an exploding firecracker landed on a building where a vast quantity of crackers had been stored, setting off explosions and a massive blaze that brought down the structure, witnesses said. Several houses in a half kilometre radius were damaged. So deadly was the tragedy that most people got barely any time to escape from the exploding crackers and leaping flames. Many fell over one another as they tried to flee, according to witnesses. Poor safety planning and lack of administrative accountability have often been the scourge of a country where mass religious gatherings are common. But even by these standards, the tragedy at in the Puttingal Devi temple in Kerala’s Kollam district comes as a shock to many. Suffice to say, the frightening explosions in the storehouse point to a combination of gross negligence, shocking carelessness, and an appalling disregard for the safety of others. As per reports, the tragedy was brought upon by fireworks that were set off, even though the District Collector had refused to give his permission for the same. But more than the action of the organisers, what was especially shocking about the entire sequence of events was the failure of the police to implement a simple order by the district administration, despite prior intimation. It is imperative to note that the Kollam district administration’s decision to deny permission for the fireworks was based on reports from the local police that the temple authorities planned to hold a competitive pyrotechnics display—a practice common to many religious festivals in and outside Kerala. Even the local tehsildar's report had recommended that temple authorities must acquire the consent of neighbouring houses before displaying fireworks. Local residents had complained of the damage brought upon their houses due to fireworks. “The report of the tehsildar (also) said that the temple could only be allowed to conduct the Vishu celebrations if it met four conditions: not using fireworks that were too loud, ensure that too much of crowd does not gather, crowd control measures, ensure that only stipulated amount of fireworks is used,” according to a report in The News Minute. But the temple authorities sought no such consent from the neighbouring houses and failed to abide by any of the conditions that were set out. Despite all these administrative measures, why, then, were the local police officials unable to prevent the tragedy?
Reports indicate a blatant display of power and political connections by the powerful temple administration behind the local administration’s inability to do its duty. Backed by local religious groups and politicians hoping to extract electoral mileage during election season, the temple administration managed to subvert due process and the Rule of Law at every step. According to another news report, both the district magistrate and the additional district magistrate were in fact threatened and had “communal motives attributed to their actions”, since both officials belong a religious minority. A case has been registered against the temple administration and the contractors responsible for the fireworks. In addition, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's government ordered a judicial inquiry and a Crime Branch probe into the incident. But that’s just closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The UDF-led Kerala government did not back its own district administration against the temple committee before the horrific tragedy. Despite the alacrity showed by the Centre and State government in their response, this isn’t the first time Kerala has been witness to a human tragedy brought upon by fireworks. In 1952, a fireworks-related explosion killed 68 people at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The temple banned fireworks soon after. “Twenty-four people lost their lives in fireworks-related accidents in Kerala in 2006, and as many as 42 in 2007,” says a report in Scroll. “By the year 2010, the toll had reached 53 and 58 by the next year. None of the previous tragedies, however, matched the devastation at Paravur.” The State government must step up to the plate and introduce zero tolerance for such flagrant violations of basic safety guidelines with nearly 50 mass religious gatherings around the corner, so as to not hasten the incidence of such tragedies.