Safeguard Against Kollam-Like Tragedy
Punish the guilty, evolve new festival norms
The senseless loss of 109 lives and grave injury to nearly five times as many at the 500-year-old Devi temple at Puttingal in Kollam, Kerala, in the early hours of Sunday was an avoidable tragedy. Beyond the deaths, and destruction of property, it provides a glimpse into a far more dangerous and common occurrence: the flagrant flouting of norms, the utter disregard for the safety and sanctity of human life by the powerful, and the willingness of politicians to subvert norms if it yields electoral gains. In its twilight hours, Kerala’s UDF government should do right by the people, and prosecute those responsible, no matter how powerful, for having killed and maimed so many. It is welcome that it has instituted a judicial inquiry into the mishap.
It is clear that the tragedy took place because the Puttingal Devaswom managing committee chose to disregard the administration’s order against holding the fireworks competition/show and it had the backing of local politicians in this defiance of the law. The temple administration and its political backers, including, reportedly, state labour minister Shibu Baby John, must be investigated for criminal negligence leading to death and disability. To argue that fireworks are part of the temple tradition is no excuse. Traditions need to evolve, especially when the automatic ceiling imposed in the past by resource constraints no longer apply to dangerous traditions like fireworks displays. Modernity is more than using electric lights to light up old rituals. Kerala’s society must live up to its reputation for advancement and produce a new consensus on such matters.
The government has an opportunity to signal loud and clear that those with temporal and divine access are not above the law. That not only will the government not tolerate the abuse of power, it will act decisively against all those who aided the flouting of norms, because they have aided and abetted the perpetration of a senseless tragedy. The judicial inquiry must not end up as a convenient excuse for not taking action.