The horrific fire at Puttingal Devi temple complex in Kollam district of Kerala in the wee hours on Sunday has sent shockwaves across the country. But judging from the response of the Travancore Devasam, the temple board that mages over 1,250 temples in the state, no lessons seem to have been learnt. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the temple board said it will not obey any government ban on fireworks display, at the same time asserting that ‘it is the government’s responsibility to ensure public safety’. Because of this mindset among a large section of temple authorities and festival organizers, such tragedies are waiting to happen in many other places of worship. Over 110 lives have been lost and at least 350 injured in the Kollam tragedy, the death toll is likely to be higher with several critically burnt devotees battling for life, and much property in and around the temple complex have been gutted in the fire. Every year, a fireworks display has been held in the temple on the last day of a seven-day festival honouring goddess Bhadrakali, just ahead of New Year celebrations in mid-April. This year, the Kollam district administration had refused permission for the pyrotechnic event since it was supposed to be a ‘competitive’ display. According to the district collector, permission was denied over fears that ‘competing sides would try to outdo each other, which could result in a tragedy in an overcrowded temple’. Besides, some people living around the temple had complained about the nuisance and danger posed by these fireworks. Since all these fears have come to pass with great loss of lives — the question being asked is how did the temple committee go ahead with the event despite the ban order? It now transpires that the police allowed the fireworks show to go ahead, ostensibly after the temple authority maged to convince them that token quantity of fireworks would be used to keep up the tradition.
Considering the devastation wrought by the fire, the amount of fireworks used was anything but token. According to eyewitness accounts, sparks from a flying explosive fell inside a building in which a large quantity of fireworks had been stockpiled. A huge fireball erupted, blowing off the entire roof and spping power lines. The resultant panic maximized the damage, as thousands of devotees ran for their lives in the darkness. The explosion was of such power that a flying block of concrete knocked dead a person riding a two-wheeler about a mile away from the temple. Large iron grills reportedly fell farther. Investigators are now saying that banned chemicals were used by the makers to fabricate very powerful explosives in gross violation of norms. The temple trust office-bearers are now absconding, with the police registering crimil cases against them and the fireworks contractor. Some residents near Puttingal Devi temple complex have long been complaining about fireworks shows going on for 8-9 hours and explosives ‘sounding like dymite’, but to no avail. The entire chain of events reveals a pattern of willful law-breaking and scant regard for public safety. Many temples and places of worship in the country are vulnerable due to poor ventilation, rrow and dark passages and totally idequate number of entry and exit points. In the huge crush of devotees, a minor incident or even a rumor can set off a deadly stampede. Electric lines and installations are rarely well-maintained, leaving the door open for dangerous short-circuits. As if such risks are not enough, some temple magements hold fireworks competitions and hand out trophies to those who make the flashiest show and loudest noise. It is now upon state governments and district administrations to ensure that temple authorities follow rules strictly. Lives of innocent devotees lost cannot be justified as having been sacrificed at the altar of gods.