In the wee hours of Sunday, at around 3.30am, tragedy struck the people enjoying the spectacle of fireworks that was about to conclude at the Putingal temple at Paravur near Kollam. It took a while for the people to come to terms with what had happened as the fire that had engulfed the Kambappura - the storehouse of explosives used for the fireworks, set about a chain reaction rendering the vicinity into a blast site in a matter of seconds.
The terrifying moment that stockpile of fireworks was ignited #Kollam. pic.twitter.com/U6Q1tmboGY— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) April 11, 2016
Concrete chunks and splinters were flying in all directions and many people succumbed right at the spot. A vehicle that was parked nearby also blew to smithereens causing further damage even as the power went off.
A second video of the horrifying moment the crowd at #Kollam realises these aren't just fireworks. pic.twitter.com/eKdkvRRdfw— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) April 11, 2016
The shell-shocked people, initially failing to comprehend what had transpired, subsequently swung into action and got on with it. And within a day, the death toll has crossed 100 while some 400 people are injured, with some of them critically so.
The state government has ordered a crime branch enquiry while a parallel judicial enquiry will be conducted by a retired judge and concluded in six months. That the primary culpability lies with the temple committee and their representatives aside, it would be necessary to examine how a disaster of this magnitude could not be averted.
It had emerged that as far back as on April 1, Pankajakshi Amma, an octogenarian lady whose house falls hardly 30 metre from the temple, had approached the Kollam district collector to stop the fireworks display. The collector, Ms A Shainamol had set in motion the process that culminated in the denial of permission to the "competitive fireworks" that had been scheduled.
|Policemen cordon off the area.|
The Additional District Magistrate (ADM), A Shanavas under whose jurisdiction the matter falls had sought reports from the police, the tehsildar and the fire and rescue services on the issue.
On April 6, Wednesday, the police gave a report advising against the granting of permission citing that the usage of large quantity of explosives would pose a risk in a competitive display. The tehsildar too echoed the same, though he was in favour of a conditional clearance after making arrangements for crowd control and ascertaining the amount of explosives used.
The fire and rescue services too did not favour granting of permission unless certain conditions were fulfilled as there were 11 houses falling within 100 metres of the site.
On April 8, Friday, the ADM after applying his mind and on the basis of the recommendations from the others passed an order:
"Based on the inquiry reports and the application of the temple trust, it is understood that what is going to be held is not fireworks display, but a competitive show by two groups. Hence, the temple trust’s petition seeking permission is denied and the show is banned. Legal action as per the Explosives Act would be initiated against those who violate the order."
The order had been vetted by the district collector before issuance as well. The ADM, Shanavas also marked a copy of his order to the Kollam Police. Subsequently, the revenue officials, fire and rescue officials and the environment department were also informed.
What is strange however is that the police gave a second report on April 9 favouring the granting of permission though nothing had changed on the ground. This, even after the additional district magistrate had passed the order, that was binding on them.
The ADM did not take notice as his order stood. Despite the ADM’s order, the police that were deployed on Saturday in the temple premises did not attempt to stop the fireworks that began at around 11pm and lasted for some five hours.
|Prime Minister Narendra Modi with CM Oommen Chandy at the site of the fire tragedy in Paravur.|
Kollam city police commissioner, P Prakash, on being asked about this by the media curiously stated that he was "misled" by the temple authorities that they had obtained "oral permission" to conduct the fireworks.
The assistant commissioner of police, Chathanoor, claimed he could not have stopped the fireworks as the temple authorities defied orders and went ahead with the competitive show and since the large number of people that had assembled in anticipation could have turned violent. This statement was endorsed by the home minister of Kerala, Ramesh Chennithala as well. It is yet unclear whether there was any pressure on the police by the state administration or local politicians.
What is clear though is that the Kerala labour minister Shibu Baby John, who hails from nearby Chavara, called up the district collector, Shanimol. It is reported that he asked if she would really want to take a decision that would upset the religious sentiments of a section of people to which she did not belong. He is also reported to have told her that pressure was mounting from the Hindu groups on the state government.
Though Baby John doesn’t deny calling up the collector, he denies having pressurised her. "Whatever happened, she stood by her stand. I did enquire about the issue since it concerns people. I did not force her to withdraw the ban," was all he would say. The collector too denied that she felt pressurised by the minister.
Another angle is the communal one. Both the collector, Shanimol and the ADM, Shanavas are Muslims and it is alleged that there was an attempt sought to be made from certain quarters, the usual suspects, to emphasise that point.
What is strange is that the order of the ADM was defied and there was dereliction of duty by the police and the tehsildar, who as the representative of the ADM was not present at the site to make sure that the order was complied.
Even officials of the fire and rescue services department were present at the site though they did not have the power to stop the proceedings in the temple to enforce the order.
Though it might take a few days for things to settle down, one hopes that accountability is fixed and everything becomes clearer sooner than later.