Uphaar cinema to Kollam temple: Very few lessons learnt on fire safety | india | Hindustan Times
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Uphaar cinema to Kollam temple: Very few lessons learnt on fire safety

Thousands have died in major fires since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze in Delhi, where smoke from a burning electricity transformer choked 59 people to death.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2016 01:21 IST
Rajesh Ahuja
Thousands have died in major fires since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze in Delhi, and the latest tragedy, the Kerala fire shows few lessons were learnt in the past two decades.
Thousands have died in major fires since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze in Delhi, and the latest tragedy, the Kerala fire shows few lessons were learnt in the past two decades.(AP)

A blaze at Kerala’s Puttingal Devi temple last Sunday blew the lid off India’s poorly implemented safety norms that have made fires and stampedes recur with alarming frequency at shrines and public gatherings.

Thousands have died in major fires since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze in Delhi, where smoke from a burning electricity transformer choked 59 people to death.

But as the Kerala fire shows, few lessons were learnt in the past two decades.

“In Kerala, a fireworks show was happening at 3am when there is a Supreme Court ban on bursting crackers after 10pm,” said Neelam Krishnamoorthy, whose two children died in the Uphaar fire.

“Pamphlets were distributed advertising a fireworks competition, so everyone, including the police personnel, knew such a show was to take place.”

On Jan 25, 2005, 340 people killed in stampede at Mandhar Devi temple in Maharashtra’s Satara district. (AFP)

India’s poorly staffed fire and emergency services often struggle to control such man-made disasters. The country only has 2,900 fire stations as opposed to the home ministry-mandated number of 8,500.

Firefighters are operating at just 8% of their sanctioned strength and there is 83% shortage in fire tenders and vehicles.

On Sept 30, 2008, 224 pilgrims died at Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur after falling off the narrow pathway on a hillock. (PTI file photo)

The crunch affects response time but authorities say temple trusts and festival organisers flout norms.

“The (Kerala) temple authorities should have taken no-objection certificate from the fire department and a license to store explosives. They should have conducted fireworks competition at a safe distance,” said DK Shami, fire adviser to the home ministry.

On Jan 14, 2011, 104 pilgrims were killed and 100 others injured in a fire on Makara Jyothi Day at Sabarimala in Kerala. (PTI)

Massive pilgrim congregation at festivals and holy shrines several times a year also causes stampedes with distressing regularity.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in crushes at major religious places in the past six years, with authorities saying temple trusts often allow far more people to gather than is permitted.

In Kerala too, more than 10,000 people had congregated for the fireworks display.

“I heard the fireworks competition is organised to attract more devotees. Even in the Uphaar case, extra seats were installed by closing the gangway and exit door. Greed seems to be the common factor here,” said Krishnamoorthy.

INDIA’S UNHOLY TRAGEDIES

  • Jan 25, 2005
  • 340 people killed in stampede at Mandhar Devi temple in Maharashtra’s Satara district. People panicked after sparks flew from an electrical short circuit in the wiring. The crowds rushed to a narrow path leading to the temple, and people tripped and fell over each other
  • August 3, 2008
  • 162 dead and 47 are injured in a stampede triggered by rumours of a rockslide at Naina Devi Temple in Himachal Pradesh
  • Sept 30, 2008
  • In Rajasthan’s worst-ever stampede, 224 pilgrims died at Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur after falling off the narrow pathway on a hillock. Devotees apparently slipped on water from smashed coconuts offered to the deity
  • March 4, 2010
  • 63 people, mostly women and children, killed after main gates of a temple in UP’s Pratapgarh district collapsed due to crush of devotees, leading to a stampede
  • Jan 14, 2011
  • 104 pilgrims die and 100 others injured in a fire on Makara Jyothi Day at Sabarimala in Kerala
  • Oct 13, 2013
  • 115 devotees crushed to death or drowned after falling from a bridge near a temple in Madhya Pradesh’s Datia district
  • Apr 10, 2016
  • 113 killed and more than 300 injured in fireworks explosion during a temple festival in Kollam district of Kerala
  • Officials say a deterrent for law-breakers would be swift and strict punishments for those who make shoddy arrangements. But probes often take years to complete and court cases go on for decades, often without any relief for the families of the victims.