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Competitive Fireworks, Festivals & Crowds Getting Bigger in Kerala


Article108.pngGods in God's own country Kerala seem to have been displeased by man's callous disregard for the lives and safety of fellow human beings. The devastating explosion in the wee hours of Sunday caused by fire crackers in a store house at the century-old Puttingal Devi temple in the coastal town of Paravur in Kollam district, some 60 kilometres from the state capital Thiruvanthapuram, that killed as many as 110 people and injured some 350 people was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was a result of gross negligence and callous attitude. Mishaps from bursting of fire crackers have been a regular occurrence in Kerala temple festivals but April 10 tragedy that flattened an entire area near the store house apparently stocked about 50 tonnes of gunpowder and assorted explosive material, which sent shock waves across the country. There were around 15,000 people in and around the complex when the fire started. Temples in Kerala always have an fascination for pyrotechnics and decorated elephants and it is an integral part of festivals in Hindu places of worship and churches for decades and their scale has been rising year after year, mainly due to the element of competitiveness.

Competitive fire works displays are relatively recent additions in festivals to entertain and attract crowd and business in Kerala. At many places, such displays are held as competitions with one group trying to outdo another. Nothing is seemed excessive in these exhibitions of financial clouts - not even incendiary materials of dangerous potency. Banned chemicals are known to have been used in crackers burst at the festival contests.At Paravur too, there used to be a competitive fire works display every year. But this time, the District Collector and the Additional District Magistrate had decided to refuse permission for fire works show on the grounds of safety. The temple authorities flouted the ban and went ahead with the display. With growing scale of pyrotechnic displays disregarding all safety norms, fire works related accidents have also been on the rise. Many have died in explosions as fire crackers were being manufactured or burst. The first major fire works mishap that shocked Kerala was in 1952 at the famous hill-shrine of Sabarimala in which 68 people died and many maimed. Another tragedy occurred in 1987 when 27 spectators sitting on a railway track and watching the fire works at the Sri Jagannatha temple in Thalassery were run over by the train.

The deafening noise created by the display had drowned out the sound of approaching train. Since then, there have been major fire works accidents every now and then killing and injuring people in different parts of Kerala. Rough estimates show that in the last 50 years, there have been more than 400 such incidents and they have claimed many lives. The world famous Thrissur pooram, around the corner, an annual temple festival, which is known for its mutiple rounds of competitive fireworks display held at the Swaraj Round at Vadakkunnath temple, has been hit thrice with high casualties. It is not just the pyrotechnics that make Kerala temples veritable disaster sites during the annual festivals but also parading elephants and over crowding. Along with the fire crackers casualties, what is also on the rise is the loss of lives and property due to attacks by elephants who run amok. Festivals in Kerala are getting bigger and bigger and both the fireworks and elephants have a pride place in the scheme of things. Incidents have also taken place where terrorised elephants due to stampede have gone astray and injured mahouts and innocent bystanders.

Most often this is the outcome of continuous tortures of these giant creatures by the insensitive owners and mahouts, who overwork them, bundle the elephants in lorries, tie them so that they cannot move and ferry them from one temple to another without food in searing heat to collect maximum possible revenue during the festival season.The state's temples - managed by rich and powerful trusts that often flout local regulations - and a clutch of religious organisations have planned to do away with fireworks displays. But the Travancore Devaswom board that manages about 1,255 temples in Kerala said it does not favour a blanket ban. Since 2003, Kerala has a law that bans the use and storage of certain types of locally-made firecrackers, the ones predominantly used for festivals. That the police raided and seized more that 150 kilograms of explosive- the legal limit is 15 kg-- from various places in and around Kollam also shows that if officials had been alert, this tragedy of such magnitude could have been avoided. Kerala High Court has banned use of high decibel crackers and fireworks display after sunset in places of worship across the state.Thirteen people, including the members of the managing committee of Puttingal Devi temple have been arrested in connection with Sunday'sfire crackers tragedy."

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