Kerala’s fascination with pyrotechnics ended in yet another horrific tragedy. At least 107 people were killed and over 350 injured in a blaze on Sunday that broke out during a fireworks display at a temple in the coastal town of Paravur, some 60 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
The fire started around 3.30 am when a spark from a firecracker kindled another bunch of crackers stored in the complex of the Puttingal Devi temple. There were 15,000 people in and around the temple at the time of the conflagration.
Elaborate fireworks displays have been an integral part of temple and church festivals in Kerala for decades, and their scale has been rising year after year. At many places the displays are held as competitions, with one group trying to outdo another. Nothing is seemed excessive in these exhibitions of financial clout – not even incendiary material of dangerous potency. Indeed, banned chemicals such as potassium chlorate are known to have been used in the crackers burst at festival contests.
At Paravur, too, there used to be a competitive fireworks display every year, with judges picking a winner. But this time, the competition was cancelled when the Additional District Magistrate refused permission because of local complaints. The temple authorities went ahead with the fireworks anyway.
In terms of firepower, the display at Paravur was small compared to the spectacles created at the Thrissur Pooram, the week-long festival that attracts people from across the world, Vallangi Vela at Nenmara in Palakkad district, and the Uthralikkavu Pooram at Wadackanchery in Thrissur district.
With the growing scale of pyrotechnic displays, fireworks-related accidents have also been on the rise. People have died in explosions as firecrackers were being manufactured or burst.
The first such accident was in 1952, when 68 people were killed in a blast set off by crackers at the Sabarimala shrine. Another tragedy occurred in 1987, when 27 spectators sitting on a railway track and watching the fireworks at the Sri Jagannatha Temple in Thalassery were run over by a train. The deafening noise created by the display had drowned out the sound of the approaching train.
Twenty-four people lost their lives in fireworks-related accidents in Kerala in 2006, and as many as 42 in 2007. 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.
Demands for ban
Since early Sunday, there has been a louder clamour for a ban on fireworks, or at the very least a significant reduction in the permissible noise level at temple festivals. People are pointing out that apart from potentially causing deaths, crackers lead to air and noise pollution. Also, they torment people with cardiac complications and animals.
Dr AV Jayakrishnan, state president of the Indian Medical Association, said the society will file a petition before the Kerala High Court on Monday seeking a curb on the use of crackers that cause noise pollution during festivals and other occasions.
The courts have not been sympathetic towards such pleas in the past.
In 2014 the Supreme Court turned down a petition by a member of the Catholic Church who, citing damage to his house, sought to restrain the St Anthony’s Forane Church in Ollur from using high-decibel fireworks. In its order the court said the fireworks were part of a long tradition.
The court also did not entertain a plea by three toddlers from Chennai seeking a blanket ban on fireworks during Diwali due to the pollution they cause. In October 2015, then Chief Justice HL Dattu categorically refused the ban because it might infringe on religious rights. The court also dismissed a plea to prescribe a time limit or to designate public spaces where crackers can be burst.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has already refused the idea of a blanket ban.
“I don’t think a ban is possible in a state like Kerala where fireworks have become part of the tradition of the people,” the chief minister said. “We might explore the possibility of tightening the rules regarding the safety in the light of the Paravur disaster.”
'Vehicles cause accidents too'
A top official of Paramekkavu Devaswom, one of the two players behind the fireworks organised during the Thrissur Pooram at Thrissur, said they will strongly oppose any demand for a ban on fireworks.
“Can anybody ban vehicles because they cause accidents?” asked K Manoharan, president of the Paramekkavu Devaswom. “Accidents can be avoided if vehicles are driven carefully. We organise the fireworks with utmost care. We ensure proper safety and security.”
The Thrissur district administration has meanwhile called a meeting of all stakeholders, including the Paramekkavu Devaswom and the other co-organiser of the fireworks, Thiruvambadi Devaswom, to review the safety arrangements in the wake of the Paravur disaster. The fireworks display on April 17 at the Thrissur Pooram will involve 8,000 kilo of crackers and pyrotechnic materials.
The State Disaster Management Authority will also have a look at the arrangements to ensure that the Standard Operating Procedure for Festival Disasters released in March last year is followed.
As a mark of respect for those who died in the Paravur temple tragedy, two temple bodies at Thrissur cancelled the fireworks to be held on Monday as part of “kodiyettam” (hoisting of festival flag). This ceremony marks the beginning of the Thrissur Pooram.
With state assembly elections around the corner, nobody expects restrictions in the conduct of fireworks displays in Kerala. Banning them outright may not be possible because they have become an integral part of the state’s culture. The most probable solution in sight is implementing the rules that are already in place but are flouted with impunity while the authorities look the other way, bowing down to popular sentiment.