The country’s conscience was shaken when 113 people were killed at the Puttingal temple in Kerala, where a fireworks display rocketed out of control. This mishap has its genesis in the negligence on part of the temple management committee. Given the scale of this tragedy, it seems we have become self-centred and callously indifferent to the safety and lives of others, whether it be tragedies like this or breaking road rules. It is noteworthy that Puttingal temple is not an isolated incident as more than 500 were burned alive in similar incidents across the state in the past few years, but shockingly these tragedies have not deterred managements concerned from dangerously ignoring basic safety precautions. Breaking rules and taking risks is not heroic when it involves the welfare and safety of others. It is villainous. Against this backdrop, the question arises: Do we need terrorist attacks at all? We are self-sufficient in creating a misery, which harms in much greater proportion than many terrorist attacks combined. We must learn to value every single life. Here it is to be noted that the print as well as electronic media have commendably put the tragedy in general and fire/crowd management issue in particular in public domain but nobody appears to be addressing the issues of disaster, crisis and event management in a proper perspective. No commentator has appreciated that only the firework should have been banned by the administration, not the event that essentially was a religious mass gathering event. Furthermore, the District Magistrate being Chairman of the District Disaster Management Authority is expected to take steps to anticipate and mitigate likely disasters. So the relevant question is: Was any hazard, vulnerability or risk analysis done by the DM or Police to manage the mass gathering event in professional manner? What arrangements were put in place to manage the crowd? Firework was only one part; we are missing the larger issue. For, it cannot be gainsaid that devotee exuberance is usually compounded by the lack of control over the event by the organisers, normally a local committee of citizens, some with a dubious reputation for managing finances and some with high political connections. And Kerala cannot ill-afford another mishap of this nature and magnitude. It is good and heartening that the Centre plunged into action adequately and in no time, as PM Narendra Modi visited the site and injured with his plane carrying doctors and burns specialists. But the most distressing aspect of this tragedy is that it is getting our attention only because of its scale. Had one or two people died, the matter might have been hushed up. This is because our society does not give proper value to human life. The government has to take necessary follow-up and preventive steps, but, the general public must also change its attitude.
Traditionally, we as a nation and its citizens, our sense of safety is the lowest. An incident like this will awaken public awareness for a time but the implementation will yet be sporadic. Adding insult to the injury is the fact that at overcrowded religious gatherings in India, people are negligent and complacent. Even law enforcement authorities are reluctant to strictly invoke measures to ensure safety of the gathering. And when something goes wrong, it turns out to be a disaster. Accidents do happen, but in the instant case people have literally played with fire and caused a catastrophe. Hence, lessons should be learnt from this tragic incident, safety awareness spread and safety rules strictly enforced so as to prevent such tragedies in future. However, it seems strange, even cruel, that the President of one Devaswom, Prof Madhavankutty, has taken a stand against banning the fireworks. But this is a matter of irrevocable loss of life and limb, though occasional it may be, and it is entirely preventable. Fireworks looked attractive in a bygone age when there was no electric illumination of streets and homes. But now these fireworks only add to the noise and atmospheric pollution in overcrowded, congested towns and villages. Besides, there are other conventional mores to express our religious fervour–devotional songs, dance, open-air theatre and traditional games & art. This insistence on fireworks shows that the temple authorities want to commercialise the faith event and convert devotees into customers/consumers. Also in this perspective, it cannot be denied that temples have ceased to be abodes of God anymore. The devotees are more interested in the ‘paraphernalia’ surrounded them. Prayer has become a minor ritual when compared to the celebrations and pomp aided and abetted by fanatic organisations, political leaders and corporate tycoons. Devotion cannot be substituted by competitions or firecrackers. As long as people (of all religions and races) are misled by the so-called ‘religious heads’–who are more political than religious–the tragedies in such gatherings in festivals would continue and faith would increasingly lose to political and religious gimmicks.