India is a land of religions — and more religions mean more festivals and pilgrimages. Given the multitude of followers who flock to temples, shrines and churches across India every year, one would expect that festival organisers by now would have perfected the art of crowd management and adhere to safety measures expected to be observed at such events. Sadly, Sunday reminded us that that was not the case. In an accident during an unauthorised firecracker display at the Puttingal Devi temple, in Kollam, in Kerala, more than 110 people were killed and about 300 were injured. The accident adds to the long list of tragedies at religious gatherings India has witnessed over the years: 22 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh in 2015, 89 at the Ratangarh temple in Madhya Pradesh in 2013, 105 at Sabarimala, Kerala, in 2011 are some of the recent ones.
This shows that the safety of the believer is not factored in while organising such religious gatherings. This should not be the case. The State and the festival organisers have the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of people who attend such gatherings. There are existing laws but tragedies happen when they are bypassed — as was the case in Kollam. The tragedy also points to the fact that law enforcement agencies need to get proactive. Since 2003, Kerala has a law that bans the use and storage of certain types of locally-made firecrackers, the ones predominantly used for festivals. That the police raided and seized more than 150 kilogrammes of explosives — the legal limit is 15 kg — from various places in and around Kollam also shows that if officials had been on the job perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided.
A Left leader attempted to pin the blame on the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government. Such politics will not help either the victims or in shaping a discussion that will lead to awareness among the people to avoid such accidents. To make religious gatherings and pilgrimages safe it is necessary to have the required infrastructure that can hold the volume of devotees. Adequate open spaces and wide roads play an important role. Crowd management, including regulating the number of devotees inside the temple/church, is crucial for this. Such places should also have a contingency or evacuation plan, in the unfortunate event of a tragedy.