Fireworks during festivals are a common sight in Kerala. It remains to be seen how the Oommen Chandy government responds to upcoming festivities after the Kollam tragedy.
There’s nothing like a grand finale to end a festival. It is an exhibition of one’s faith and elevates the believer in every follower. And what better way to end it than with a display of spellbinding pyrotechnics. Religious fervour reaches its crescendo as controlled explosions and chemical reactions light up the night sky.
Such displays are disturbingly common during religious festivals across Kerala — where organisers often bypass necessary precautions and leave the burden of safety measures at the doorsteps of ‘tradition’ and practice.
The fire accident at the Puttingal Devi complex in Kollam, Kerala, on Sunday morning was a result of one such fatal omission. The callous attitude of temple officials, which lead to the accident, saw at least 110 people lose their life and more than 300 injured.
The accident might have happened during a religious festival but make no mistake — the Kollam tragedy is a man-made disaster that could have been avoided if temple authorities were not so lax about safety clearances to conduct the firecracker display at the end of the festival.
Firework displays at the end of Hindu and Christian festivals are a common sight across Kerala. When it comes to such tragedies the state’s track record is appalling poor, and is not a pressing issue yet during the current election campaign. That’s because Kerala wears its religious sentiments on its sleeves and no party is willing to bell the cat. Banning the use of firecrackers during a festival would mean upsetting a particular religious community and that would also mean losing their support — a risk no party would want to take in a state where the difference of a few seats decides who forms the government.
Such displays have been going on despite various tragedies over the past decades. Estimates are that in the last 40 years there have been more than 400 deaths from over 60 such accidents.
There are many reasons why such firework displays become disaster zones. More often than not organisers don’t care to obtain safety clearances and certificates. Also, in cases where objections are raised, political and social pressures see that ‘conditional’ clearances are given. Another big reason is that locally-made firecrackers are predominantly used in these festivals. Locally sourced firecrackers, as opposed to branded company-made ones, are cheaper and give more bang for the buck. However, the safety of such firecrackers is compromised.
The real test for the Oommen Chandy government will be to see how effective it will be in addressing the issue. It might have only about a month left in office but before the May 16 assembly elections there are at least six main religious festivals across the state where a firecracker display is part of ‘tradition’. The Kollam Pooram on Friday, the Thrissur Pooram on Sunday and the Edapally Perunnal on April 23 are a few of them. There is also the Puthuppally Perunnal between April 28 and May 7, which takes place at Chandy’s home constituency of Puthuppally. It will be interesting to see how his government ensures safety at these festivals where the excuse of ‘tradition’ is used to conduct these dangerous sound and light shows.
After the Sunday tragedy there are calls to be cautious and even avoid firecrackers during festivals, but it is to be seen if festival organisers and the government are willing to walk the talk when it comes to safety of its folk.
The author tweets at @vijucherian