Cover Story : Obsession ends in Tragedy
Many a times, we do not understand when customs become mere rituals. In the process, such customs should not defeat the core purpose of those traditions that is collective celebration of individual connect with the integral whole. Outlawed practices like fireworks competition lead to Puttingal Temple like disasters and provide ammunition to anti-Hindu voices
On fatal day of April 10, both Krishna and Kishore, siblings studying in standard X and VII respectively, had a very close call with a catastrophe when a fireworks display gave way to a devastating explosion. The day rendered them orphans by taking away the lives of their parents in the tragedy. Both the children were present at the spot till a few minutes before the accident took place. They were helping their parents who were vending tea on temple ground. April 10 is a grave day not only for them or the state of Kerala or the country but for the whole world.
RSS workers along with Seva Bharati rushed to the mishap spot in the early hours of the day and engaged in the rescue and relief activities. They joined hands with the police for taking the victims, whether live or dead, to the hospital. Once they are brought to the hospitals, swayamsevaks took the responsibility of giving them clothing and food. They are carrying out relief activities in 14 hospitals in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram. RSS volunteers lined up outside the Trivandrum Medical College to donate blood for the victims. Amritanandamayi Math, MA Yousuf Ali, Ravi Pillai and BR Shetty are among the donors who extended liberal financial assistance to the families, which suffered the losses.
The fireworks in connection with the festival of the Paravoor Puttingal Temple of Kollam District converted the calm village into a graveyard. When this correspondent scribbles the happenings the death toll has touched 113 and around 400 people are found to have suffered serious injuries. They include the contractor and his brother.
Message of the Gurus
Mannathu Padmanabhan, social reformer and founder of NSS— caste orgnisation of Nairs, has identified four evil practices (“Nalukettu” literally means four knots). They are “Case Kettu” – the bundles of litigations, “Thali Kettu” child marriage, “Kuthira Kettu” – processions with decorated idols of horses or temple cars and “Vedi Kettu” – the fireworks. He had always urged the society to abandon these practices.
Around a hundred years ago, Sree Narayana Guru, saint, social reformer and the founder president of SNDP Yogam (caste organisation of Ezhavas), had warned the Hindu society against the extravaganza of fireworks displays. Guru preached thesociety to utilise the money for public good instead of wasting it on fireworks. He decreed, “We don’t need Kari (elephants) and Karimarunnu (gunpowder) anymore”.
The firework is a significant attraction of the festivals. In the light of Puttingal Temple disaster, Kerala High Court sitting Justice V Chitambaresh sent a letter to the High Court seeking court’s intervention to act suo moto. While considering the letter as PIL, Kerala High Court banned high-decibel crackers and fireworks display between sunset and sunrise across the state enforcing guidelines under the Explosive Substances Act for pyrotechnic shows held during the day. The Court order was expected to affect the charm and glare of the Thrissur Pooram, a spectacular world famous festival held at Vadakkumnathan Temple in Thrissur. But on April 14, while hearing a plea by the organisers Paramekkavu and Thirvambadi Devaswoms, the High Court exempted Thrissur Pooram from the ban. The Pooram is scheduled to be held on April 17.
To be or not to be?
Parading the decorated and caparisoned elephants in the temple festivals is another mode of show off. Elephants are deployed for the traditional Ezhunnallathu, the arrival of the God. Most ‘beautiful’ elephant carries kolam, the golden or gold coated shield like ornament which is said to be having the chaithanya, the power of the deity sitting in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The number of elephants rallied for the festivals vary from temple to temple, based on the financial situation of the management. Most of the temples do not have own elephants hence they have to hire them. During March, April and May mercury hits high. The elephants are exposed to this; their feet are always in contact with the red-hot surface. Some elephants in musth get angry and go violent. In that frenzy mood, elephants kill the people around. During the last 15 years about 516 people have been killed in such incidents.
To understand and analyse the gravity of the incident, we need to virtually flip through it. Puttingal Devi Temple, a five hundred-year-old shrine, is situated in Kollam District 50 kilometres far from the capital city of the state i.e. Thiruvananthapuram, draws thousands of devotees on the annual Meena Bharani festival, which falls on March-April months of Gregorian Calendar. Like many other temples in the region, the fireworks along with the display of temple cars or decorated forms of chariots, horses, oxen etc are the centre of attraction in the Puttingal Temple festival. It has been roughly estimated that around 10 lakh rupees worth firework materials used this year. According to the application (seeking permission for the fireworks) submitted by the temple Devaswom managing committee secretary J Krishnankutty Pillai, the fireworks were to be organised under a licensee namely Ms Anarkali. The police have later found that the temple administration has also signed an agreement with a second team under Umesh Kumar from Thiruvanantha-puram. So it has been evident that it was competitive fireworks between the two teams.
Even though Paravoor incident assumed a global dimension, the state has come across several fireworks mishaps in the past. Ten incidents have taken place during the fireworks. Twenty two mishaps have taken place when Kambappura caught fire. The following is a district-wise statistics of the death toll:
In Maradu near Kochi, three people died when Kambappura caught fire one month before. At least three such incidents have taken place there since the last 40 years resulting in the death of nearly 15 people. More than 550 people might have died during the last six and half decades.
Citing the objections of the families surrounding the temple as well as the findings, the District Administration rejected the application and called for a ban on the fireworks on the temple ground. Despite the ban, the temple authorities decided to go on with that as it was previously planned.
Recalling the dreadful night with shuddering horror, an eyewitness said that the fireworks started by 11pm and lasted up to around 3.30 am, in early morning. After 3 am, one team fired a ‘Suryakanthi’, a kind of fireworks, which displays the shape of a sunflower in the air. As it was a competitive firework, the other team was urged to come up with a stronger one. In that hurry, as the workers started to pick up heavy explosive firework materials with bare hands without any precautions, there was a huge explosion. “As I fell down, I could see heavy concrete slabs flying in the air”, he said with a trembling voice. After 20 minutes, when he regained his consciousness, he found himself in a van along with three other people but later realised that the three were dead! Several vendors on the temple ground have died in the accident. They are basically poor guys coming from faraway places. They shift from festivals to festivals during the season. Another recognised body was of a police constable.
Administrative lapse or political intervention?
The shocking part of the tragedy is that the temple committee managers, most of them are reported to be CPM workers and fellow travellers, had defied the order of ADM, who asked them not to carry out the fireworks contest. ADM issued the order after receiving a negative report from the Asst. Commissioner of Police. Reports suggest that later temple committee office bearers informed the police that there would not be any contest, the fireworks will be to satisfy the temple rituals, etc. What Organiser could gather is that the committee impressed the local police by stating falsely that they had got verbal permission from the District Administration.
There is a background story, which has to be examined in this context. Every year the temple fireworks had been causing damages to the nearby houses. People had been lodging complaints to the authorities in this regard, but in vain. This time, Smt. Pankajakshy Amma had lodged a complaint to the authorities as she herself and others had been doing yesteryears. It is reported that local police had agreed to her argument. It was followed by the committee members’ successful attempt to convince the police that there was no contest. The reports suggest that a former Congress MP and a sitting CPM MLA had some roles in convincing the police. There are allegations that the temple authorities had expressed their thanks, during a public programme in the temple on April 9 evening, to these two VIPs and a senior ruling coalition leader for helping them to conduct the fireworks, which were apparently a contest. The incident took place during the wee hours of April 10.
The explosive experts, after their preliminary study, said in tough words that safety measures were much below the requirements. Explosive Control Department said that more explosives were used than the permissible limit.
Competition that became a faith
While talking to Organiser Jagdeesh, RSS activist who was involved in relief work after the incident, informed that temple is an ancient one and it is the traditional deity of the people around. The fireworks and even contests had been there in the Puttingal temple since 1940s. It denotes the culmination of the 9-day long Meena Bharani festival. But it was stopped during 1940s or 1950s due to some disputes between two prominent communities. Later, a consensus was reached concerning the temple administration. Hence, the fireworks restarted. Interestingly, such firework competitions take place at other religious places also like Churches in Kerala.
This time, despite the Collector’s ‘NO’, the committee members went ahead with the kambakkettu, that is, fireworks contest. And, it was run with acute negligence. The Kambappura, the place where the fireworks materials were stored, was hardly 50 metres away from the place of fireworks. The materials, when carried from one place to another, should be covered with gunny; the idea is safety from even the minute sparks from the air while fireworks going on. Here, a man who was carrying a bundle of materials came out from Kambappura and ran back to the shed as some sparks came from the sky. The man did not think about the chances of spark falling on the bundle he carried. The moment he realised it, he threw it on the floor of Kambappura. This is how the explosion might have taken place.
It has been reported that when the police came to know about the deployment of more materials than the permissible limit, they asked the committee to stop it, but they were brushed aside. Since the accident occurred when people had started to disperse, the number of casualties is less than what it would have been if the explosion had been taken place a bit earlier.
Another parameter neglected was the nature of Kambappura. The fireworks materials are always stored in thatched sheds or storage places. The idea is to minimise the impacts an explosion of a concrete building can cause. In this particular case, the grave gravity of the explosion was the result of the concrete storage building. Many buildings were broken and badly damaged due to this explosion of the concrete Kambappura. More than 500 houses have been badly damaged. The debris of the Kambappura travelled about 1.5 kilometres away and hit a boy standing near his motorbike. He was killed immediately. So many household wells have been caved in and most of them are suspected to be containing mortal remains of human beings and remaining of fireworks. The dead bodies of the victims and hands, legs, etc. of the fatally injured victims were scattered in 1.5 to 2 kilometres radius. Some people who were sitting on top of a Gurumandiram (the shrine of Sree Narayana Guru) were killed when the mandiram itself was totally destroyed including the Guru statue.
Recent reports suggest that city Police Commissioner has refused to give a report to the District Collector; he would give the testimony before the judicial commission, appointed by the state government, when it calls him for an affidavit. This sort of intransigent and impervious stand of the Commissioner definitely brings bad tastes in millions of mouths.
There are people who suspect a terrorist hand in the mishap even though they do not have any substantial evidence to show. To circumvent the restrictions on the quantity of the materials which can be stored in for formal fireworks, it was reported that the temple men transferred some materials near a Kambappura near Sharkkara Temple, not far away from Paravoor. The news of some vehicles taken into custody by the police has to be viewed from this angle. The vehicles in question were deployed to bring the materials from Sharkkara to Paravoor when the stock exhausted there.
The explosion was so fatal that most of the dead bodies were unrecognisable due to the mutilation. Some of them lost the head somewhere. Some scattered legs and arms of the killed have been kept in the gunny bags. They are waiting for DNA tests. Total 17 men are still missing. But organs of about 12 men have been recovered. The question of 5 other missing persons still remains unanswered.
Several children have been turned parentless. Society is grateful to NGOs like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar movement, Amritanandamayi Math, Sai Bhajan groups and Government of Kerala for the noble succour they extended to the families of victims. Several people suffer from psychological problems and mental trauma. Arrangements are being made for counselling for them. Similar incident had taken place in Malanada temple bit far away from Paravoor in 1990. Twenty five people were killed in that mishap. Since then fireworks were stopped there.
Puttingal Temple Committee members went underground immediately after the mishap. They surrendered before the police after a couple of days. People of the area hear in grapevine about a nexus among the Left leaders, police and the ruling parties. Local people are for a full stop to this killer entertainment. For them, enough is enough.
The Centre rises to the Occasion
Even though the state administration led by CM Oomen Chandy and his team reached the spot immediately after the news broke, the relief activities got a shot in the arm only after the lightning visit of the Prime Minister. Modi asked the CM not to implement the protocols which can be inconvenient for the people. BJP leaders were not taken with him when he visited the accident spot and the hospitals where the victims were taken to. He made sure that no citizen suffered due to his arrival. Even Amit Shah was not with him during these visits even though he was very much in Thiruvanantha-puram. He had brought with him burn care experts of AIIMS and asked them to stay back till their mission is over. He promised the necessary medicines as per the requirement. Modi government deployed six helicopters, four from Indian Air Force and two from Indian Navy and two AN-32 transport aircrafts along with two teams of the National Disaster Relief Force for the relief activities. The Army deployed two teams from Thiruvananthapuram to Kollam to facilitate immediate medical relief. Navy helicopters carrying three doctors and six medical personnel reached the spot by mid-day. Prime Minister asked Union Minister JP Nadda to stay back for coordinating the relief activities.
After Nadda took over, the relief activities got an impetus. The hospitals sans proper bedding, cots and fans got the lacunae fulfilled. His eyes and ears reached every nook and corner of the relief activities hence it moved smoothly. Earlier BJP chief Amit Shah, after visiting the victims at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, declared the Centre’s relief of Rs 2 lakhs each to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 to the injured. After visiting the places, PM said that the victims who need further treatment can have it either in Delhi or in Mumbai; his government will pick up the tab.
State government rose to the occasion and declared Rs 12 lakhs each to the kin of the dead victims and Rs 2 lakhs each to the seriously injured. The injured will get Rs 50,000 each. The government will meet the expenses of treatment. The state government has declared a Judicial Inquiry by the Retd. Justice N Krishnan Nair.
The state and the temple authorities have to learn several lessons from Paravoor accident. First of all, is it necessary to go for such spending spree for temple festivals? Hindu community suffers from lot of lacunae. Poor children are unable to study as per their aptitude and calibre. Millions do not have food and shelter. Medical facilities are mere mirage for them. And, when we go for the dangerous entertainments can we simply forget the safety measures? How can the state and the temple management forget their responsibilities to the masses and forget their human rights? Authorities should keep an eye on the latest addition of the killer fireworks – Nasik Dhol. The experienced people say, it is too fatal if something goes wrong. Reports hint, CM had declared in 2013 that the violators of fireworks rules would be punished. But, the people still have to feel its materialisation.
The accident took place around 3.30 AM. It was a loud explosion capable of tearing the eardrums even about two kilometres away. He informed that the swayamsevaks came to the spot immediately after the mishap took place, before 4 AM. The power supply had gone off immediately after the fatal explosions. What they could witness was a war zone like place— filled with dead bodies. Swayamsevaks joined hands with the police in rescue and relief operations. Even though policemen carried the dead and fatally injured victims to the hospital, the packing and dispatching of the dead bodies to the houses of the deceased were done by RSS swayamsevaks. They are still working round-the-clock.
Lend an ear to experts
The sane people in the state have been lamenting about the fatal accidents caused by the competitive fireworks and the criminal waste of money in this regard since long. But, all has been falling on the deaf years.
Shri Ranga Hari, veteran RSS Pracharak and former Akhil Bharatheeya Bouddhik Pramukh told that Hindus should follow what Gurudev had instructed about hundred years ago. He was inaugurating the state conference of the Hindu AikyaVedi near Thrissur on April 10. Later VHP, RSS and several Hindu organisations have come out with such appeals. Now, the top Christian spiritual leaders also have declared their decision to avoid fireworks in church festivals.
In the meantime, Shabarimala Thanthri Kantararu Maheshwararu Mohanaru and Melshanthi (chief priest) SC Shankara Namboothiri told the media that fireworks and elephant parade are not the part of temple rituals and have nothing to do with ThanthraVidya or Vedas. Both the programmes came up as a systematic endeavour to add flavour to the festivals. If they are turning dangerous to the human life and properties and are not being carried out safely and becoming a threat to the surroundings, they should be banned. A few years back a temple in Kottyam District conducted the festival parading a dummy elephant made of plaster of Paris. Many people had appreciated it.
While hearing the PIL, the High Court stated that it appears that there are lapses from the sides of the police and the administration. There should not be outside intervention in permitting the licence. Court suspects such intervention in giving permission to the Paravoor temple fireworks. Police failed to answer the court’s question regarding the quantity of the fire materials used in Paravoor.
The Court sought an immediate reply from the police and the district administration. Additional Solicitor General N Nagaresh informed the court, on behalf of the union government, that there was a violation of rules in conducting the fireworks. He said, the materials were stored sans permission. The court sought the possibility of a CBI inquiry into the accident. Earlier the court has even asked the Oommen Chandy government to consider handing over to CBI the probe into the Paravur temple fireworks. Now a crime branch probe is underway under the close observation of the High Court.
The state cabinet has set up a three-member sub-committee comprising Health Minister VS Sivakumar, Labour Minister Shibhu Baby John and the Revenue Minister to suggest measures for the rehabilitation of the victims.
Meanwhile, BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan demanded CBI inquiry into the mystery behind the mishap. He says, the enquiry should be carried out to find out the source of banned chemicals said to be found in the fireworks materials. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala cannot escape from the responsibility. CM Oommen Chandy informed the mediapersons that the state government is ready for any sort of inquiry including CBI.
As an indication of division among the different pillars of the state government, the cabinet expressed its dissatisfaction about Kollam District collector Shainamol IAS’s allegations against the city police commissioner for permitting the temple committee to carry out the fireworks beyond the permissible level.
ADM Shanavaz refuted the allegation that he had given verbal permission for the fireworks. DG of Police TP Senkumar says, he is for the total ban on fireworks. But, the union government is for a ban after 10 AM and against using the banned elements in the materials. The spot of the fireworks should be at least 200 metres away from the school premises.
Akin to this, an important document has gone to the media. It is the copy of the letter dated March 31, 2016, signed by the Government of India’s Deputy Chief Controller of Explosives and addressed to the Kollam City Police Commissioner. It stipulates some conditions for fireworks. Sound should be restricted to 125 decimal; Pollution Control Board should examine the samples of the materials before the permission is given. This is in the wake of the banned elements and chemicals which were allegedly used during the past; people should be kept 100 metres away from the spot. No doubt, the central government notification was ignored!
The poll bound Kerala, immediately witnessed the blame-game between the Congress-led UDF and CPM-led LDF. Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s demanded for the resignation of Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala which was not acceptable to the government. Balakrishnan, who was Home Minister when tragedies occurred at Pullumedu and Thekkady, had not owned responsibility for them.
Not surprisingly, some anti-Hindu voices tried to gain space to attack all the Hindu customs. Now, the noisy arguments about the mishap remind the people of the sound pollution of illegal fireworks. They are fed up with the arguments of the politicians, bureaucrats, police brass, temple managers, etc. They want relief from the play with fire.
What they need is safety and peace. It is the state government that should implement the law equally to all sections of society without succumbing to any religious pressure groups.