Template for tragedy

Print edition : May 13, 2016

The wreckage around the Puttingal temple after the explosion on April 10. Photo: PTI

Crackers collected for safe disposal after the accident at the Puttingal temple. Photo: C. Suresh Kumar

A building near the temple damaged by the explosion. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

A grieving man outside the morgue at the Kollam district hospital. Photo: PTI

The umbrella display competition at the Thrissur Pooram festival on April 17. Photo: PTI

Devotees offering pongala during the annual festival at the Attukal Bhagavathy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: S. Gopakumar

The certificate from the Guinness World Records for "the largest annual gathering of women" for a religious activity displayed at the Attukal temple. Photo: S. Gopakumar

The Paravur temple tragedy in Kerala was a disaster waiting to happen, given the increasing frequency of temple festivals involving pyrotechnic displays in the State, the casual way in which explosives are hoarded and used violating safety norms, and the official apathy.

EXACTLY a week after the worst-ever firework disaster in India, at the Puttingal Devi Temple in Paravur near Kollam, the sky lit up once again in Thrissur, with dazzling pyrotechnic displays marking the Thrissur Pooram, the State’s iconic temple festival, on April 17.

The irony was stark: gaiety and high spirits marked Thrissur’s famous cultural event, but a deathly gloom engulfed Paravur. A local resident described the stillness in that unfortunate south Kerala town as “a scream that would never end”. One hundred and seven families were still in mourning, and 1,090 people were injured during the ill-fated firework competition at the temple on April 10. Over 410 people remained in hospitals, many with horrific burns, wounds or lost limbs. Shock and pain were writ large everywhere. Survivors referred again and again to that terrible blast that snuffed out the spark of an entire festival tradition in an instant, darkened the cloudy night, shook the earth and the air and subdued everything in its path, breaking down buildings and splattering concrete debris and body parts all around.

Paravur is a warning, and a dreadful one at that. It will take a while to get a sense of the chain of events that ended in tragedy, particularly the negligence, irresponsibility, and the series of lapses on the part of the organisers, the firework contractors, government officials and the police that led to it. What is known now is that, as was the custom, the temple authorities had applied for permission from the District Magistrate (Collector) for a routine firework show as part of the festival. They clearly intended, instead, to conduct a fierce and dangerous competition, and had already contracted two licensees.

The show was well-publicised, especially on social media. Everyone concerned knew well in advance that it was indeed a competitive event where the contractors were required to outdo each other and a lot of explosives —much beyond the 15 kilograms a District Magistrate can allow —would be used. The Collector denied sanction, albeit at the last minute, for the competition but not for the routine show. The rest of the story is a haze, the subject of a blame game, especially between the district administration and the police, and of a Crime Branch inquiry.

The Puttingal temple has a long history of conducting firework competitions during its Meena Bharani festival; and the Paravur area itself, filled with temples that patronise the art (known locally as kambam, a Malayalam word meaning “craze”), has long been known for its traditional pyrotechnic masters, some of whom, according to local lore, were so keen on improving their skills that they frequently visited countries like China, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea seeking to perfect their art. Today, the highly coveted rolling trophy for the best performer at the temple is named after one such early master, Govindan Asan.

Preliminary reports indicate that the event was held flouting most provisions of the law. Banned chemicals of high explosive potential were used. Nearly 90 per cent of the deaths occurred after the victims were hit by a barrage of concrete splinters and blocks from the buildings that were torn asunder. The number of people with burn injuries was comparatively low. As the power supply went out, many died in the frantic stampede of panic-stricken onlookers that ensued. The force of the explosion was felt several kilometres away. There was extensive loss of property. The government has estimated that the explosion damaged 1,993 houses and about 200 wells. Nearly a hundred houses were destroyed completely and 409 others were damaged extensively. Debris from the explosion was strewn across 343 hectares and included concrete blocks, unknown pollutants, firecracker residue, toxic waste and human remains.

The firework display was held barely 15 to 20 metres from one of the two buildings where explosives for the show were stored. Explosives were also stored, alarmingly, in three passenger cars parked casually near the temple. The rules prescribe that there should be no buildings or people within 100 m of a firework display. At Puttingal, on that fateful day, things went terribly wrong, when a piece of firework, known locally as amittu, meant to explode at a height of 100 m burst at a height of just 10 m instead and fell on fireworks being carried from the storehouse to the venue. The sparks from the resulting explosion led to a chain reaction which blew up the storehouse.

The toll would have been even higher had this happened during the early stages of the show, which began around 10:30 p.m. As it turned out, by the time of the accident, a lot of the fiery stuff had already been burnt up and much of the crowd had dispersed following a midnight drizzle.

The State Government now describes it, ironically, as the “rarest of the rare” kind of disaster. For any government in Kerala, banning firework displays or the wanton use of elephants at festival venues is an increasingly impossible task because such events are nurtured by a powerful combination of caste, religious, political and commercial interests. Decision-makers are always worried about hurting sentiments if such requests are denied. Even when the risks are high, sanctions are the norm, and all is done in the “public interest”.

“When it comes to tradition and rituals, a ban on festivities becomes a difficult choice to make. In fact, the number of requests seeking permission for firework displays is increasing every year. What we can do is ensure that the regulations are followed,” Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said, in the context of the demands for a ban on fireworks at this year’s Thrissur Pooram.

The pooram (festival) in Thrissur, therefore, was held this time under careful government supervision as dictated by the Kerala High Court, which had, in the wake of the events in Paravur, ordered a ban on the use of “high-decibel” explosives or fireworks in the hours between sunset and sunrise at all places of worship in the State. It had also directed Central and State government officials to ensure that explosives were used in festivals only in accordance with the provisions of the relevant Acts and rules.

The High Court division bench’s initial order, issued two days after the Paravur temple disaster, however, meant that the pooram would have to go without its trademark night spectacle this year. Moreover, this time, the State Forest Department had also imposed its own restrictions on the use of elephants in the festival. They included a bar on parading the animals between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., and a direction that elephants taking part in the processions should be kept at least three metres apart as mandated earlier. The district administration also took steps to strictly follow the rule book to ensure compliance with regard to the quantity and type of explosives used and their storage at the festival venues.

The organisers, representing 10 participating temples, immediately went into a sulk and launched a fast in protest in Thrissur, adding to the heat of the elections in Kerala. They threatened to confine the entire festival, a big draw for tourists from all over the world, to just the essential temple rituals in case they were not allowed to go ahead with the traditional display of fireworks. That would mean dropping the firework show and holding a parade with merely an elephant or two for ritualistic requirements.

Succumbing to pressure

No government or political party in Kerala can withstand such pressure from prominent temple committees for long, even in the wake of a tragedy that took more lives than the tsunami that hit the Kerala coast in 2004. “It is difficult to impose a blanket ban on festivities associated with religious events,” Chief Minister Oommen Chandy explained. Within a day, the State government withdrew the Forest Department order, withheld all its inspections and informed the court that a display of fireworks could be held under “strict conditions for ensuring safety”.

The division bench subsequently gave conditional clearance for the firework display, pointing out that “the pooram was part of the social and cultural ethos of Thrissur” and that the display should be held in accordance with the stipulations laid down by the Supreme Court in 2007. It merely meant that the sound and the potency of the explosions should be within permissible limits and chemicals authorised under the law alone should be used.

For those familiar with the routine flouting of such stipulations by temples, which has been going on for decades, and, above everything else, the perilous grip of commercial interests in the conduct of religious festivals, such an order was a sign that Paravur may not be the last of the firework tragedies in Kerala.

But, for the pooram enthusiasts, the yearly event at Thrissur would never be complete without the fireworks that accompany the opposing parades of caparisoned elephants, parasols, peacock feather fans and what not, amidst milling crowds and open-air ensembles of traditional musical instruments on the sprawling grounds around the magnificent landmark, the Vadukkunnathan temple.

Umpteen religious festivals are held throughout Kerala every year with fireworks and elephants, especially in the summer months between February and May. They are all miniature versions, aspiring in their grandeur and yearly spread to be somewhat like the Thrissur Pooram, the eagerness of the participants for more lively sights and sounds each passing year matched only by the greed of the hidden hands of commerce that drive such events. Elephants and fireworks, along with all the other associated paraphernalia, have now become part of the festivities in many churches too. But unlike in the case of the Thrissur Pooram, which takes place on the sprawling Tekkinkad Maidan, most of Kerala’s religious festivals are held in heavily crowded areas with a lot of buildings.

For example, an unimaginable number of hearths are lit, mostly on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram, on the final day of the Pongala festival at the Attukal Devi Temple there. This event found a place in the Guinness World Records in March 2009 as “the largest annual gathering of women” (then 2.5 million) for a religious activity. With a known history of just under 50 years, with modest, serene beginnings confined to the immediate surroundings of a small temple, it has become a huge affair today, extending to the borders of the capital city, and a major business and commercial opportunity for hundreds of people. The trade in “the essentials”—bricks, earthen pots, cooking utensils, rice, ghee and jaggery—is mind-boggling. The temple itself is located in a quiet residential neighbourhood, which is now sought to be developed into a separate township by the government, with commercial complexes and pilgrim facilities. Space is the only constraint, perhaps, and two years back, for the first time in its history, the temple trust also introduced a finale of firework display on the edges of its parking lot. That is likely to become another “tradition”.

Better-managed festivals

But such well-known events as the Attukal Pongala, the Thrissur Pooram and the Sabarimala pilgrimage are among the better managed temple events in the State. There are hundreds of other venues where festival crowds brim over regularly in heavily built-up areas; explosives are hoarded violating safety norms; fuses and fires are lit carelessly without measures to keep the crowds at bay; cranky, sun-drained elephants are heralded into the midst of carefree devotees, accompanied by the blowing of trumpets and the bursting of loud firecrackers; crude crowd control measures lead to stampedes; and loudspeakers blare continuously despite regulations against them.

As they unveil innovative festival itineraries each year, festival committees leave their neighbourhoods nervous about the lack of assurances on safety. Legal requirements are usually ignored and rules are flouted and the authorities turn a blind eye.

According to some estimates, nearly 750 fireworks-related accidents have taken place in Kerala in the past two decades. A large number of the casualties were workers or the contractors themselves. Most contractors are known to bring in huge amounts of explosives from other States even though they are allowed to use only 15 kg of explosives for an event sanctioned by the district administration. (Only the contractors in a few events such as the Thrissur Pooram are allowed to keep a bigger stock, but it has been reported that they too use much more than the sanctioned limit.) In most cases, accidents occur because of the use of potassium chlorate, a highly reactive chemical which is very sensitive to friction when mixed with sulphur. Some official studies of firework accidents have also found that many workers do not have sufficient knowledge of handling explosives. They are also not provided scientific training.

A traditional art

Firework shows still remain a traditional art in Kerala, and expertise is limited to a few hands, often descendants of old masters or those who learnt the art while working for them. With each passing year, the number of people engaged in this dangerous industry, which demands sound knowledge about the nature of the ingredients and how to mix them together, is coming down.

Most workers, including migrant labourers, employed by licensed contractors are unaware of the nature of the chemicals and the risks involved in handling them. Many cannot read the labels and, as an inquiry in 2011 by former Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar found, try to identify chemicals by their colours, as “yellow”, “black” or “green”. The report also said that thousands of kilograms of explosives are brought into Kerala from other States by the licensees regularly, and that their sale needs to be strictly regulated.

Paradoxically, while the number of people with expertise is coming down, the demand for their art is rising. Given the free regulatory environment, existing contractors succumb to the tremendous pressure during the festival seasons to have surplus stock, manufacture more firework units on tight deadlines and outperform themselves and their rivals if they are to remain in the business.

As pressure mounts for more powerful pyrotechnic shows, safe, proven formulas of chemicals give way to experimental mixtures with highly uncertain results, especially in the hot summer months when those flags and festoons go up.