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SAGA CORNER

Kerala Temple Fire – An Avoidable Tragedy

Article105.pngPuttingal temple fire in Kollam in Kerala which has claimed more than 100 innocent lives has once again given rise to a raging debate on TV channels and in the print media. But do we learn any lessons from such events except discussing them for a short period? If the recent past is any indicator, the answer would be an emphatic no. India has seen number of devastating fire tragedies in the past which were probed but hardly any lessons learnt. The question also arises that whether the politicians and bureaucrats whose inaction, their whims and fancies result in loss of precious human lives will continue to be unaccountable.

Own Experience

The tragic incident takes me back to my own experience. When I was Assistant Superintendent of Police at Vijayawada, the fire crackers were sold in ‘One Town Police Station’ limits which was very congested market and where in some of the lanes even it was difficult for a fire tender to reach in the event of any mishap. One small incident of accidental fire, in which fortunately nobody was killed, sent shivers down my spine – as we could reach the spot with lot of effort and delay. As Police used to be the licensing authority for storing and selling fire-crackers, in the next festival session, I decided under the active support of my Superintendent of Police not to allow storage and sale of crackers in that part of the market. We also came down very heavily on enforcing the standards prescribed for storage of crackers. There was stiff opposition to our efforts but we stuck to our guns.

We also decided to allow sale of firecrackers in temporary planned market place for which the public PWD ground was converted into a make-shift market with proper storage and properly marked escape routes for any exigency. Fire brigades were placed in each corner of the market. There was huge furore against our efforts. The traders threatened to go on strike – the local politicians took out processions against Police, blaming it for high-handedness. But their efforts did not succeed thanks to the then Chief Minister N T Rama Rao (NTR) who always supported sincere efforts by the Police. In spite of all these efforts we had one fire incident but due to steps in place, it could be brought under control and there was no loss of life.

Later, when I headed a District Police of Khammam, the Pattabhisekam of Lord Sri Rama was to be celebrated- a festival which happens once in 60 years at Lord Rama’s temple situated at Bhadrachalam on the banks of Godavari river attracting a crowd of more than 10 lakhs. It fell in the month of June which is one of the hottest months in coal belt when temperatures soar to 48-50 0C. The Endowment Minister of the state hailed from that area and was closely involved in the proposed celebrations. He informed that they were planning to have an elephant procession carrying the deity. As Superintendent of Police I opposed the idea but the Minister dismissed it. My District Collector supported me but I did not get any support from my immediate superior who advised me not to oppose the Minister. I stuck to my decision – fearful of the idea of an elephant running amok in that heat could result in stampede. The matter reached higher authorities who were not very enthusiastic about my idea.

CM backed the police

Finally, a meeting was called by the then Chief Minister NTR. I decided to oppose the idea in spite of not much support and told the CM that I would not be held responsible in case any untoward thing happened. NTR endorsed my views in his typical filmy style and overruled the Endowment Minister. The festival passed away peacefully.

Enforcing the Rules

The narration of these incidents is not to talk about my achievements or great work. It was simple common sense approach for the welfare of the public and the decision to enforce the correct thing. The enforcement, in my view, is the key to a successful and efficient administration. Rules, regulations and orders unless enforced would mean nothing – however well these may be drafted. What happened at Puttingal temple in Kollam is a typical example when the administration declined to permit the use of crackers but the order was not enforced resulting in tragedy of such colossal magnitude. Enquiry has been ordered and the commission will submit its report in six months’ time which would perhaps gather dust.

It is high time when the officers decide to take a stand and enforce the rules and regulations — be it traffic rules, fire safety regulations, explosive storage rules or even normal encroachments which often make movement of fire brigade vehicles difficult. Second, the accountability of officers who fail to enforce rules and regulations must be fixed and appropriate punishment handed over. Unless that happens, nothing much is expected and we will continue to see more of such avoidable tragedies.

(The writer, an IPS officer of Andhra Pradesh cadre, recently retired as DG of Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) and served for long years in CBI and NIA. The views expressed are personal)”

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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