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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.