On April 15, one person was killed and four others were seriously injured in a fireworks accident at the Assissi Nagar Chapel in Angamaly in Kerala’s Ernakulam district.

A little before that, on March 27, as many 12 people, including children, were injured in a similar accident at a temple festival in Vandithavalam in Palakkad district.

The incidents brought back memories of Kerala’s worst fireworks tragedy, at the Puttingal Devi Temple in Kollam district on April 10, 2016. The fire left 114 people dead and more than 700 injured after an explosion during a pyrotechnic display at the temple. A spark from the display ignited a lot of fireworks stored in the complex.

The recent accidents have cast a shadow on Thrissur Pooram, the state’s biggest temple festival which began on April 19. The festival kicked off with a flag-hoisting ceremony at the Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi temples in Thrissur, which are among the 10 temples participating in the event. The fireworks display – one of the biggest attractions of the festival – will be held at the Vadakkunnathan Temple on April 26. In addition to the fireworks, major Pooram attractions include a parade of elephants decked with ornaments and musicians playing percussion instruments.

Firecracker accidents

The period between March and May is peak festival season in Kerala, as temples and churches across the state celebrate their annual festivals. These events draw thousands of people to the brightly decorated shrines, where fireworks displays are often included as part of the celebrations. The shrines often compete against each other to put on the biggest or loudest display.

According to a report, most of the over 750 firecracker-related accidents in Kerala in the last 20 years have occurred during this peak festival season.

Officials with the responsibility of monitoring the use of explosives during these festivals blame the increase in accidents on illegal displays that do not meet safety standards, and which are organised without the mandatory permission of the district magistrate.

SK Kulkarni, deputy chief controller of explosives at the central government’s Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation, who is based in Ernakulam, said that the April 15 incident took place at an illegal event at Assisi Chapel held in a thickly populated area. “The accident happened when one firecracker misfired and fell inside a room where the crackers were kept,” he said.

Sony Mathai, sub-inspector of police with the Angamlay police station, said cases have been registered against the event’s organisers for the accident. “They have been charged with culpable homicide and [holding an] illegal fireworks show,” said Mathai.

What the rules say

According to the Explosives Rules of 2008, issued by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, which is part of the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, people can hold public fireworks displays only after getting permission from the district magistrate. Before issuing permission, the magistrate is required to inspect the venue where the event is to be held, check if it is able to safely store large quantities of fire crackers, and review emergency plans.

Kulkarni said that accidents could be prevented if people organising such events simply adhered to two important provisions in the rules. “Firecrackers should be kept inside a PESO-approved [Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation] storage facility and the distance between the fireworks display premises and spectator areas should be 100 metres,” he said.

He admitted that Kerala does not have a single Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation-approved storage facility for crackers. “It shows the lack of thrust on safety,” Kulkarni said.

He said that district magistrates have issued around 250 licences for fireworks events in Kerala this year. “But many more events are being organised in the state without permission,” he admitted. “Our organisation cannot keep a tab on all illegal events. It is time law enforcement agencies acted tough on offenders.”

On April 19, Thrissur district collector A Kowsigan denied permission for a fireworks display at Pavaratty Church. “The organisers failed to meet the safety guidelines,” Kowsigan said. “The distance between the fireworks premises and spectator [areas] was less than 100 metres, and there was no proper facility to store the firecrackers.”

Kowsigan told Scroll.in that he would give permission for the pyrotechnics at Thrissur Pooram with riders. “I will ask the organisers not to use firecrackers with dynamite or potassium chloride,” he said. “They can use only low-decibel explosives. These restrictions were in place last year too.”

Pooram organisers told this correspondent that they had received permission for the event. “We have already got the permission to conduct the fireworks,” said M Unnikrishnan, president of Thrissur Pooram co-ordination committee. “It is going to be grand affair.”

At the Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala.
At the Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala.

Thrissur Pooram has had its share of accidents over the years. Fireworks-related accidents during the festival 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.

Kulkarni said the absence of a Petroleum and Explosive Safety Organisation-approved storage facility for crackers is a big concern this time too. “We have been pressurising the Pooram organisers to construct a safe storage facility for the last two years, but have not seen any results.”

Thrissur district collector A Kowsigan said that he hoped the Pooram organisers would build such a facility before next year’s celebrations. “The construction could not be carried out [so far] due to the non-availability of land,” he said.