Blame and Shame: Kerala temple tragedy forces introspection

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Kerala suffered such a horrific tragedy on Sunday that even the Chinese President was moved to say a few words about the incident in the Leftist state. In a message of condolence to President Pranab Mukherjee, Xi said he was shocked to learn of the tragedy which left many people dead and many others injured in the explosions and fire due to fireworks at the temple near Kollam.

“At this moment of sadness, I would like to extend sincere condolences, on behalf of the government and the people of China and in my personal name, to the government of India and the people affected,” Xi said.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of lives and wish the injured recovery at an early date,” he said, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

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Was this a preventable tragedy? Of course. But the important question is whether this could have been prevented? As the facts on the ground reveal, this is not so easy to establish. We certainly lack the manpower and law-abiding citizens. As Rajesh Ahuja states in the Hindustan Times

“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.

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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.

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.

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In Kerala too, more than 10,000 people had congregated for the fireworks display.”

So such disasters will probably continue to happen until Indians accept that some rules and safety precautions must be taken seriously.

So is the solution a ban on firecrackers? This is a oft-repeated demand by some sides of society. Not a single diwali goes by without a small band of activists demanding that Indians stop bursting firecrackers. The reasons range from safety to pollution. But every such tragedy fuels the outrage and tightens the rules. Mahesh Vijapurkar makes the case in the Firstpost

“Instead of banning them at specific areas and time, we should take the issue of firecrackers head on and ban it at all times and everywhere. In short, ban the industry or make it prohibitively expensive as is done with cigarettes which are loaded with the sin-tax. That is, price it out of reach. Since firecracker industry is smaller than cigarettes, their lobby, hopefully, will be weaker.”

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The problem with this thinking is that while it certainly allows the self-righteous to pat themselves on their backs, this is the same lobby that loses their collective minds when bans extend to things they deem as important – like beef for example.

A ban is a very ineffective solution in the long run. It would be perhaps better to make the usage of fireworks extremely controlled. But a ban is probably the inevitable result anyway. Already bans are being implemented every where from Kerala to Lucknow.

So who is to blame for this tragedy then? A lot of people, as it turns out. The police have arrested about 13 people and a sweeping amount of blame can be dished out for this tragedy. Everybody from the District Collector to the Chief Minister has been caught up in this. For his part, the CM has refused a flat-out on fireworks.

Besides the fireworks contractor and the temple committee, in all likelihood, the local police or district administration will also be taken to task for their failure to ensure that the fireworks display was not held, for an example will have to be made. But the politicians who used their power to allow the fireworks display will go free as there will be no paper trail leading to them.

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The thought on many a mind was perhaps expressed by the Times of India editorial. It said:

“But what’s missing is the political will to fix the structural problems that caused Sunday’s tragedy. Why did police fail to implement the law in poll-bound Kerala? Because assorted commissions’ recommendations and a Supreme Court ruling in favour of police reforms still haven’t been implemented. As long as political heavyweights prevail, police will never be truly responsive to community needs.

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.”

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