Buzzing Blogosphere – Kollam Temple Incident: Man-made tragedy

When a massive fire erupted in the premises of the Putungal Devi temple in Kollam, killing in its wake at least 107 people and injuring many more, a wave of shock and disbelief swept over the nation. The incident which took place in the wee hours of Sunday, April 10, was a result of a stray firecracker lighting up a large stack of fireworks – reportedly 50 tonnes. The fire caused severe damage to surrounding properties as well, the impact of which can be best understood by the fact that the glass walls of a showroom situated two kilometers away were shattered. Understandably, the reactions from the Blogosphere about this incident were angry and frustrated, with a sliver of hope that such ‘incidents’ don’t take place in the future.

kollam temple fire

In the worst pyrotechnics disaster that Kerala has seen lies evidence of the fact that such incidents are no ‘accidents’. These occurrences are not merely the result of ‘a fireworks display gone wrong’ or ‘it was just fate’. These tragedies are products of gross negligence on the part of several people. Negligence that has costed the community dearly several times and continues to do so.

Angered and provoked by the findings from the ongoing investigation into the Kollam Temple Tragedy, bloggers and thinkers from different parts of the country have been vocal about criticizing the temple authorities and everyone who ignored the many warnings and red flags, that if considered could have avoided this gut-wrenching mishap. Many others are of the opinion that the tragedy in Kollam should be a warning message to alter the celebration of other festivals; of which fireworks displays are an integral part.

Bringing to light a first hand account of the impact of the Kollam tragedy, The Better India tells us the story of Pankajakshi Devi, an octogenarian living just 50m away from the temple, who first noticed a large pile of firecrackers close to her house back in 2012. Despite repeatedly notifying the concerned authorities, no action was taken.

“This year, I decided to write a petition myself to the Collector,” Pankajakshi Amma says.

She listed the series of events and the consequent structural damage her house endured every year. The Collector accepted her petition, and forwarded it to the village officer, who then conducted his own inspection, spoke to the neighbours and assessed the damage. He promised to take action: “I was happy he did take down my grievances,” says Pankajakshi Amma.’

In a thought provoking read, Radhakrishnan Nair asks an important question – do we conduct firework shows as a form of reverence or for our enjoyment? And who is to blame for this tragedy?

‘And now there is a debate over banning firecracker shows. Mata Amritananda Mayi known as Amma has hit the nail on the head. The spiritual leader has said God is not deaf. These firecrackers are done to please man, not gods. When people go without food and water in many drought prone parts of the country why do we blow up cash like this? Doctors in Kerala are approaching the court to stop these high decibel fire crackers. A high court judge in a rare move has himself gone to court to put an end to this noisy, deadly mess.’

But it’s the politicians who are playing to the gallery…dancing to the tunes of powerful festival committees. CM Oommen Chandy says it’s not possible to ban century old traditions. Devasom boards and church managements are silent on this. If we believe in flouting rules in the name of gods, it’s better to ban.’

Tomichan Matheikal writes about how festivals have become more about the pomp and show as opposed to commemorations of the real reasons behind them. In this race to proclaim that one’s religion is grander than the others, have we forgotten to be humane?

‘The latest tragedy in a Kerala temple, like most other such tragedies in places of worship, is a man-made one. The organisers and operators of the fireworks display flung all norms to the cosmic winds for the sake of enhancing the impressiveness of the show. It’s a kind of competition. Our temple festival must be more ostentatious than the festival of all other religious institutions in the neighbourhood. The grander the display, the greater the religion!’

Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhath opines that the mishap in Kollam shouldn’t lead to a ban of fireworks and that temple festivities must go on according to tradition.

‘The accident that happened at Paravur near Kollam was unfortunate. et me share my pain and sorrow. The tragedy that struck the revellers has become the sorrow of the entire state. The courts, the government and the police have taken precautions after the tragedy. These are commendable. Violations of law cannot be allowed to take lives, even in the name of festivities. Human lives are more important than festivities.

However, in the case of Thrissur Pooram, the organisers always take great precautionary measures. Subjecting fireworks and the display of elephants to intense scrutiny in light of the new rules is a good thing, but that should not interrupt the Thrissur Pooram. Without the ‘Madhathil Varavu’, ‘Ilanjithara Melam’ and ‘Kudamattam’, Kerala’s cultural capital feels incomplete. The temple managements should be allowed to perform the fireworks by ensuring that the amount of explosives are kept to a low and the display is within the prescribe decibels. The present situation can be converted to an opportunity to switch to new technologies.’

On the contrary, Times of India Editorials iterates that endangering public safety cannot be justified with claims of respecting age-old traditions.

‘In Kerala competitive displays of fireworks are seen not only in temples but also among Christians and Muslims. All communities must clean up their act now. So-called traditions can change, as sati made way for widow remarriage. Kerala owes it to Sunday’s victims to punish those who flouted fireworks safety norms and make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

Reports suggest that presence of Potassium Chlorate, a banned substance, lead to the explosion, pulverising everything in its path. Vaibhav Jain writes about the the role played by the chemical in the disaster.

‘Potassium Chlorate (KClO3) is an oxidizing operators which has numerous mechanical employments. But on the other hand it’s the most generally utilized as a part of making unrefined bombs. The synthetic has additionally been connected to numerous before mishaps amid firecrackers shows in Kerala.

The concoction makes the wafers louder and more intense as far as vivid blasting and statures accomplished before blasting. It is likewise less expensive than most generally utilized choices.’

Following the mishap, PM Narendra Modi headed to the scene with burns specialists and medical experts, a step that The Political Funda dubbed a publicity stunt.

‘Even before the news of the Kollam temple tragedy had been adequately grasped by a shocked citizenry, the news came that no less than the Prime Minister is heading for the site with widely publicised photos of medical experts (raising obvious question why would they wear their dresses to the plane if not for government’s publicity?)

This step of PM Narendra Modi has come for intense scrutiny as politicians indulging in tragedy tourism is a widely resented, but still for the PM himself to do it is taking political conduct to another low.’

In the end, has this negligent approach to a public safety hazard taught us anything? Apparently not, says Binoo K. John.

‘Now as Kerala mourns the death of over 100 innocent people, it is clear that no one can be blamed directly. Such temple festivals operate outside the purview of the law. For instance, this fireworks display did not get sanction from the young, brave district collector Shainamol, who refused permission but was clearly overruled. It got sanction from the collective conscience of a population, which has one foot pushing ajar the door of modernity with the other still stuck deep in the muck of myth and superstition.’

With the Kerala government debating a ban on fireworks while the Thrissur Pooram festivities carried on with firework shows as part of the celebrations, it’s hard to tell towards which side the debate leans. But to put many lives in danger despite prior warnings and prohibitions is a serious crime of negligence. Whether those deceased and affected in the tragedy get justice, and not just compensation, is a responsibility the government is going to have to take very seriously.

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