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Kerala fire tragedy: Why such incidents keep happening in the state

Kerala (Kollam): The Paravur Puttingal temple where many people lost their lives following an accident caused by a firework display on April 10, 2016 in Kollam district of Kerala, about 60 km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo: IANS)

Kerala (Kollam): The Paravur Puttingal temple where many people lost their lives following an accident caused by a firework display on April 10, 2016 in Kollam district of Kerala, about 60 km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo: IANS)

Why do we have so many stories of disasters foretold in Kerala? The tragedy in the early hours of Sunday due to the explosion of fireworks in a temple woke us again from our weekend slumber and callous apathy. Once the disaster happens we all get shocked, the government gets in to responsive mode, media highlights the issues and a commission of inquiry gets established. Once those steps are taken we wait for the next story of the disaster to unfold for another set of predictable response. However, we as a society or as a government hardly learn from the past stories of disaster and we move on to the comfort-zones of ‘business- as usual’ mode.

The tragedy that killed more than hundred people Sunday morning by fireworks at Puttingal Devi temple , Paravur, near Kollam, once again exposed that the government and people are yet to learn from the tragic lessons of the past. As I write now, the entire government paraphernalia, media and all the powerful and mighty from the government and political parties are rushing towards Paravur to express their concern and to make a point that government, both at the centre and state is responsive to the tragedy. In the next two days media will have stories full of this tragedy and experts will dissect the causes and consequence of tragedy.

The government will announce a judicial commission and after a week everyone in the media and political parties will be busy with the election. Thus one more tragedy and hundreds of dead people will move into the backyards of history.

In the aftermath of a ‘man-made’ (as mostly men are responsible for disasters of war and destruction) disaster, there is an almost a predictability of responses. Most of the leaders would make it an opportunity to demonstrate their ‘crisis-management’ skills and media will have lots of work to do for few days after the disaster. In India, there have been a series of fire accidents in the last ten years killing more than hundreds of people in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. There have been so many deaths due to the explosion of firecrackers in Sivakasi as well as in Kerala. In a huge explosion of fire-crackers at the Peruvuruthy Malanada in Kollam District, around 33 people died in 1990. There have been number of incidents firework explosion in Kollam district alone.

In the last few years Kerala witnessed a series of man-made disasters. In 2009, around 45 people,mostly tourists lost their life when a boat sank in the Thekkady Lake. In 2011, more than hundred people lost life and so many hundreds were injured during a stampede at Pullumedu near the hill shrine of Sabarimala. In road accidents at least one person die, every two hours in Kerala. Last year there were around 39,000 road accidents and 29,000 people were injured. Of these 9,000 suffered from serious injuries. It is estimated that more than 4200 people die every year due to road accidents.

Kerala is supposed to be one of the well-governed states. Kerala society is relatively more literate, educated and empowered. The southernmost state is also supposed to be relatively more democratic in terms of party politics and elections. However, there are more and more instances of man-made disasters in Kerala. Despite concerns of the media and society, and the quick response of the government, the fact of the matter is that Kerala society in general and the government paraphernalia in particular are simply cynical. There is an entrenched sense of callous apathy at various level of governance. We have become a rhetorical society devoid of responsible action to prevent or manage disasters.

Soon after the boat tragedy in Thekkady, there were lots of discussion about safety measures and if there is a quick check on the safety measures or disaster preparedness of boats in Kerala, there will be serious safety and security lapses. Soon after the fire-work explosion at the Malanada temple there were number of discussions on ensuring safety measures to prevent such disaster. But soon after, the media and those in the government and the society in general forgot about all those measures. The usual approach is to put the blame on someone and then make a customary noise for the ban of all fire-works etc.

Those of us involved in disaster responses and disaster mitigation have been asking the government to ensure an active disaster prevention approach across Kerala. In 2012, the government of Kerala organised an excellent international conference on Disaster Preparedness and I was personally involved in organising this important learning event. All the experts on disaster mitigation and management provided a series of recommendations. One of the recommendations that I have given was to ensure that there is a disaster and safety protocol at the level of panchyat and municipalities. The key recommendation was to designating a standing committee on disaster preparedness and safety at the level of local government at the district, block and panchayat level. It is also important to include safety and disaster preparedness training to police, fire-force and the entire official concerned.

In the last fifteen years, the number of high-rise buildings have increased exponentially in Kerala. However, most of the corporations or municipalities don’t have even a single rescue lift or evacuation device if there is a fire on the high-rise building in Kerala. Despite such a decision in 2012 and despite so many requests the government is yet to invest in a fire-and safety system for high-rise residential and office buildings in Kerala. Though there is a relatively more active state disaster management authority and Institute for Land and Disaster Management in Kerala, there are serious issues of capacity and preparedness at the grassroots level.

In the context of the present fireworks tragedy, the immediate knee jerk reaction will be to ban all fire-works in Kerala. The real villain of the story is not the art and science of pyrotechnics. The real villain of the story is the sheer sense of cynical apathy within our society or government in preventing such tragedy. The aesthetics of fire-work was invented in China in the 7th century. In China, the firework was used to ward off evil spirits from the temples. There was active trade-links with China and the present day Kerala for centuries. The chances are that the idea of using firework to ward off evil spirits from temple must have been influenced by the Chinese traders settled in Kollam for few centuries. Kollam was thriving port and a hub for Chinese trade and ships from 8th century to 14th century. There is a whole range of Chinese influence in the art, architecture and cuisines of Kerala.

Instead of asking for a knee-jerk response of banning pyrotechnics in Kerala, what is required is a set of key policy measures and systems to ensure safety and security of such fireworks. As of now almost all in the fireworks trade are those who practise it as a family business and often the training and skill-development is through informal networks without any training in safety or science of pyrotechnics. The government must institute at least six months compulsory training and regular ‘in-service’ training before granting licence to such practiconers. There has to be a strict safety and security protocol to ensure that all such practice of pyrotechnics are done in safe, and secure environment and ensuring minimal air and noise pollution. Both the police and fire-and rescue departments should be trained in ensuring that there is spot-check to provide final approval for such a pyrotechnic performance. There has to be strict measure to ensure the safe storage, secure transportation and ensuring that people are at a safe distance from the site of pyrotechnics and the magazine store house.

I have had the privilege to witness the sheer beauty of the pyrotechnics across the world. The largest of the event was held in Norway where I used to live. The Beijing Olympics stunned the world with the beauty of the pyrotechnics. Both Singapore and Japan are also famous for the pyrotechnics. However, in all these countries, the pyrotechnics is managed through a professional safety and security management system. In the case of Kerala, there are hardly any safety and security measures comparable to the international standards. The second issue is that most of the fireworks is a part and parcel of the temple festivals in Kerala. Hence, it is a sensitive issue to question the validity or rationale for such fireworks in densely populated areas and crowded spaces. In the present context of increasing sectarianism, even those who are deeply concerned about safety will adopt the convenience of silence as they would be termed as ‘communal’ to raise such issues. What we need to challenge and change is the all pervading sense of cynical callousness at different levels of governance and society. The most important tribute to all our brothers and sisters who lost their lives in this tragedy is to ensure that we commit ourselves to ensure safety and disaster preparedness in every panchayat , municipality and corporations of Kerala.

(John Samuel, a former International Director of Actionaid has coordinated the disaster response to the Asian Tsunami. He is presently the International Consulting Advisor to the UN Agencies and other international development organisations)

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