108 people lost their lives as Muslim bureaucrat who imposed ban on safety grounds was told to not interfere with the religious sentiments of another community
A day after a fireworks display killed at least 108 people and injured nearly 400 at the Puttingal temple in Paravur, Kerala, it emerges that the temple authorities had been told by government that they could not put on the show for safety reasons.
The temple authorities not only openly flouted safety norms and a ban imposed by the district administration, but also actively bullied an 80-year-old resident who has complained about damage caused by the festivals, as well as two officers of the district administration who had denied them permission for their explosive display. In the early hours of April 10, the temple authorities, backed by local politicians, went ahead with the fireworks show, resulting in one of the worst fire-related tragedies the state has seen.
Local authorities recommended ban
The Indian Express has reported how district officials, in the run up to the disaster, had recommended the outright banning of the fireworks display or it being allowed only under strict conditions.
The tehsildar’s report said the temple authorities had not taken permission from the 11 houses in the vicinity of the temple, despite several residents having complained about the noise that is created every year by the huge show.
The police report also said that the show was a safety hazard and that the temple authorities were trying to hide its competitive nature.
The fire and rescue department, and the tehsildar had both recommended that permission to hold the display be given only if certain strict conditions were met, including the use of a limited amount of fireworks and adequate crowd control at the venue.
Based on these reports, and a complaint by 80-year-old Pankajakshi Anandan, whose house is in the vicinity of the temple, additional district commissioner A Shanavas passed an order on April 8 banning the show.
On the evening of April 9, Anandan and her family were subjected to verbal abuse and threats to their lives if they did not take back the complaint. Hindu groups and politicians also bullied Shanavas and district collector A Shainamol, who are both Muslim.
According to the newspaper, a senior officer at the Kollam district collectorate said, “Once the order was issued, it was vetted by Collector Shainamol, so the pressure started mounting on her. A senior minister called her to demand a change in her stand and asked whether she really wanted to upset religious sentiments of a section to which she does not belong. Local Hindu groups also used it against the ruling party, and eventually, police and politicians decided to make the fireworks happen despite a ban.”
Ignoring the ban
At the time the fire broke out, over 10,000 people were watching the fireworks display on the grounds outside the temple.
Police personnel, who were posted at the venue in large numbers, and who were supposed to implement the ban, did not do so. They claim that the temple authorities did not show them a written order saying that they had received permission to hold the fireworks show and forcibly went ahead with the show.
The blaze started when a stray cracker fell on a shed in which fireworks were stored. The explosions that followed led to the collapse of the roof of the administrative block of the temple, and another building. The fire, and the impact, killed many instantly. Many others received severe burns and had fractures.
Rescue operations went on through the night. Twenty-one bodies are yet to be identified. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed to Paravur. Chandy announced a compensation for the families of those killed and injured, and has also ordered a judicial probe into the incident. The crime branch of the Kerala Police will also conduct an investigation.
Five people have been held for questioning, and the police have filed criminal cases against the contractor who supplied the fireworks to the temple and office-bearers of the temple trust, who are currently absconding.
It is unclear whether the politicians who backed the flouting of the ban – in order to use the event for political gains in a state headed for elections next month – have been questioned.
This is not the first time that people have been injured and killed in fireworks displays during religious festivals in the state. Anandan has said that she will fight a legal battle to get the state to completely ban fireworks displays. The question that looms large is why the state government does not immediately constitute and implement such a ban, the absence of which has caused so many totally avoidable tragedies.