On Saturday, Kerala’s biggest annual fireworks display on the penultimate day of the Thrissur Pooram temple festival will lack its usual bang.

After last April’s tragedy at the Puttingal temple in Kollam, when about 110 people were killed and 700 injured after a stray firework fell into stockpile of explosives, the government and the Kerala High Court have restricted the use of fireworks during temple festivals.

While giving the green signal to the pyrotechnics display at the Thrissur Pooram – the state’s biggest festival, held at the Vadakkunnathan Temple in Thrissur on Friday and Saturday, with small events throughout the last week – the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation under the Centre laid down several restrictions, including a ban on the use of firecrackers with dynamite or potassium chloride. The Centre has also cleared only the use of low-decibel explosives.

The clearance came on April 31 after weeks of uncertainty over whether the fireworks display, the highlight of the Thrissur festival, would be allowed to take place. Though festival organisers as well as attendees were relieved that they could go ahead with the display, they felt the Organisation’s guidelines against the use of dynamite and potassium chloride (which adds colour to the explosives) will take the sheen off the event.

Thrissur Pooram/via Facebook
Thrissur Pooram/via Facebook

Danger zone

The Kollam tragedy on April 10 last year had highlighted the dangers of large-scale pyrotechnic events, often held without following adequate safety measures or getting necessary permissions. An investigation by the chief controller of explosives into the catastrophe found that not enough precautions were taken while storing and handling the fireworks. It also found that the poor quality of fireworks and lack of crowd control mechanisms worsened the impact of fire at the Puttingal temple. But the incident was hardly a one off, as the Hindu reported last year: more than 750 firework accidents have taken place in the last 20 years in Kerala.

However, the intense debate that followed the incident and calls to ban firework displays during temple festivals did not yield results as festivals organisers and people’s representatives took a firm stand against this. Even the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages more than 1,000 temples in the state. said that fireworks were major attractions during temple festivals and it would be difficult to prohibit them.

Fireworks a major attraction

Thrissur Pooram is held during the Malayalam month of Medam and usually falls in April-May. Apart from the fireworks show, the parade of elephants – decked with ornaments and headdresses – and ensembles of percussion instruments are major attractions of the festival.

But the festival has not been incident-free. Firework-related accidents during Pooram have killed 14 people so far: eight in 1978 and six in 2006. In 2012, several people were injured after an elephant ran amok during the festivities.

Thought anti-firework and animal rights activists have highlighted these incidents to campaign for restrictions and safety precautions, the Pooram never faced legal hurdles until last year’s Puttingal tragedy.

But this year’s restrictions have not dampened the spirit of revellers, as was evident on Wednesday when thousands turned up to catch a glimpse of the sample fireworks display ahead of the main show on Saturday, which will start at 3 am and go on till 6 am.

Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar, who represents Thrissur Assembly Constituency, said Pooram and fireworks share an umbilical cord-like relationship. “Thrissur Pooram will not be complete without fireworks display,” he told Scroll.in. Fireworks are not just a spectacle. They are an art. That is why people get hooked to it.”

Kumar said Saturday’s fireworks will be incident-free. “We have taken all precautions to avoid accidents,” he said. “Most modern security measures, including a High Volume Long Range monitor to extinguish fire, have been installed to meet emergency situations. Special barricades have been put in place and luminous jackets have been distributed to those who handle explosives.”

Kumar was the people’s representative from Thrissur and said he worked hard to get state government’s permission for the fireworks display on April 13. Later, he held many discussions with officials of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation to convince them of Thrissur’s preparedness to host the event.

Sample fireworks display during Thrissur Pooram on Wednesday. Photo - Anup K Venu
Sample fireworks display during Thrissur Pooram on Wednesday. Photo - Anup K Venu

Some dissent

However, not everyone is pleased with the clearance for the pyrotechnics show. Anti-fireworks activist and Thrissur resident VK Venkatachalam said that the Pooram has become an opportunity for petty politics. “Communist minister Sunil Kumar took credit for removing all the curbs on fireworks display, while Bharatiya Janata Party’s Corporation Ward Councillor tried to convince people that she pressurised the Narendra Modi government for the clearance,” he said. “Politicians are not worried about the safety of the people. They want just publicity.”

Venkatachalam said fireworks are not mandatory for Pooram. “Pyrotechnics had claimed many lives during Thrissur Pooram. A few people still believe that Kochi ruler Sakthan Tampuran had introduced fireworks, but they ignore the fact that Tampuran was incapable of making explosives which led to his downfall in the fight against British,” he said.

Dr AK Yadav, Joint Chief Controller of Explosives with the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, who watched the sample fireworks on Wednesday, said he was happy with the preparations for Saturday’s event. “We will allow [the use of] only approved firecrackers during the festival,” he told Scroll.in “A team from the PESO [Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation] will constantly monitor the situation.”