The huge loss of lives in the Puttingal Devi temple tragedy near Kerala’s Kollam was avoidable. Fireworks are flying incendiary material that can cause considerable damage even in controlled environments.
But despite regulations in safety manuals, the handling of fireworks in public places leaves so many holes that no one can seal them effectively. Initial reports suggest that temple officials did not even have permission to hold the fireworks display. The pathway to the temple — a narrow stretch of land crowded with several thousands who visit the temple and watch the sparkling late-night show — has a hazardous configuration just waiting to implode.
Whatever be the findings of the judicial probe that may try to fix blame, and however strictly the laws are later applied to jail or sanction those responsible for flouting laws and their carelessness in handling dangerous material, nothing will bring back the faithful who lost their lives nor is the slightly bigger solatium, in excess of Rs 10 lakh from the centre and Kerala state, likely to console their families.
It is easy enough to say that fireworks must be banned, but knowing the history of bans in this country, it is futile to even think of such sweeping reforms. Safety standards in fireworks production, even in Tamil Nadu’s Sivakasi, considered the nation’s fireworks capital, are so lax that a high price is paid in lives every year.
Even the ambient summer temperatures across India are a possible cause for dangerous chemicals used in making firecrackers going off unexpectedly. The question then arises: do we need fireworks at all to celebrate anything, including deaths? It’s pretty hard to convince people that the gods are not blind and fireworks are used only to attract people to temple festivals: there’s nothing spiritual about it. Today’s technological advances mean three-dimensional shows can be put up on wide screens to simulate the spectacle of fireworks, but these wouldn’t be the real thing.
Most cities worldwide only allow controlled fireworks displays on special days like New Year’s Eve when all precautions are taken to set up offshore platforms or over water. America’s San Francisco is an exception: it has banned fireworks altogether as most homes there are built of wood.
There are few such regulations in India, only permission has to be taken from the local authorities. Temple fireworks are also meant to be controlled events, but there is no protection from aerial fireworks falling on thatched roofs in rural areas, or safety measures around the storage of fireworks.
Country-made fireworks are also considered more dangerous though they seem to give a bigger bang for the buck. The question is: are we willing as a society to give up fireworks in order to ensure our safety?...