The scale of Sunday's tragedy at a temple in Kerala is staggering. More than 100 people have been killed and at least 380 left injured after a massive fire broke out at the Puttingal Devi Temple in Kollam, where more than 10,000 people had gathered ahead of the Vishu New Year festival. The disaster was not only catastrophic – with the explosion being felt almost a kilometre away – it was also almost entirely avoidable, considering the district authorities never gave permission for a fireworks display.
But such is the story of fireworks in India. These pyrotechnics have become an integral part of celebrations across the country, from sports events to weddings to religious functions like the one at the temple in Kerala.
They've also become intensely competitive. Wedding planners and event organisers informally attempt to outdo each other, while Kerala's religious organisations – Hindu and Christian – include fireworks competitions as part of the official attraction. This means fireworks manufacturers and contractors work harder to make the displays more impressive, occasionally resorting to illegal means to get there.
The hazardous nature of the material and the need to make everything louder and flashier means compromises at every stage of the process. And, it turns out, fireworks are killing us at each one of those stages.
An average of 25 workers die in accidents while manufacturing fireworks every year, according to the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, a government body dedicated to monitoring the industry. The vast majority of these happen in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, where 90% of the country's fireworks manufacturers are located. And most of the accidents are the result of faulty handling of dangerous raw materials.
Indeed, stories of workers in woeful conditions with no safety norms being forced to handle explosive material are commonplace. The industry is also notorious for employing child workers.
Every year, usually around Diwali when people around the country burst crackers, people bring up the amount of pollution caused by an entire nation that seems to be resorting to pyrotechnics on the same evening. Since 2010, Diwali peak pollution levels have hit ten times the standard level, suggesting a heavy build-up in particulate matter in the air.
The Supreme Court last year refused to ban crackers on Diwali, in part because of concerns that this would ruffle community sentiments, considering Indians have been using traditional fireworks for centuries now. The court did, however, specify guidelines that govern when firecrackers can be burst.
Increasing eco-consciousness has certainly led to a drop in the amount of crackers being sold around Diwali, at least in Delhi, but their indiscriminate use for other occasions over the rest of the year continues unabated.
The need to make fireworks displays louder and brighter often tempts contractors into using banned substances while making their crackers. The government has taken some efforts to ban the import of low-cost Chinese fireworks, which use potassium chlorate, a banned substance, thereby boosting the sale of Indian-made products as well as keeping a check on some of the more dangerous material.
But the manufacturing process also requires a careful calibration of temperatures and humidity, which is why Sivakasi, with a reasonably stable humidity profile year-round, is so preferred as a manufacturing destination. Those attempting to store crackers in other parts of the country, especially in places that have started to get hotter, are more likely to have unfortunate accidents, such as an incident at a Palakkad factory in 2013, which killed seven people.
The Kerala government, having regularly had to deal with such incidents, has a number of strict guidelines that govern which units get a licence and what needs to be monitored. As with most such things though, these are rarely implemented, leading to a danger not just to public safety but also of the material getting into the wrong hands.
More than half a century ago, a fireworks-related explosion killed 68 people at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Soon after, the temple banned fireworks. This hasn't prevented human tragedies at Sabarimala – stampedes continue to take lives – but it has at least brought down the potential for large-scale catastrophes.
The same cannot be said for other temples and even churches in the state, which have made fireworks displays part of their tradition. It is commonplace for two groups connected to a temple or a church to have competitive displays of crackers, in an attempt to outdo each other. The Kerala government and the High Court have sought to regulate these after countless incidents, refusing permission altogether for certain kinds of fireworks, while insisting on written authorisation for all displays.
Indeed, this competition is what district authorities refused to give permission for in Kollam. Yet temple authorities went ahead with the performance, an evident reminder that simply making laws and laying down guidelines by no means ensure that tragedies will be averted.
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