Over the six weeks leading up to the Kollam fire disaster, officials at every level recommended denial of permission to the Puttingal temple for the fireworks show, and a day before it, banned the display. The powerful temple administration simply ignored the order, helped along by local politicians with an eye on elections.
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Top sources in the Kerala Secretariat and the Kollam District Collectorate said that both Additional District Magistrate A Shanavas and District Collector A Shainamol, who were instrumental in denying permission for the fireworks, were also bullied and threatened by local politicians and Hindu groups, with communal motives attributed to their actions. Both Shanavas and Shainamol are Muslims.
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Sources said there was uncertainty regarding the fireworks show till Saturday afternoon, hours before it began. “But the temple authorities managed to get the support of political parties. The fireworks display is held dear by many, it is an emotional issue. It was only in the evening that the temple announced that the show would be held. Since it is election time, the temple authorities were confident that no one would stop them,” a source said.
Police, who were supposed to implement the ban order, were present in large numbers at the fireworks venue on Saturday night. Kollam City Police Commissioner P Prakash claimed the ban order was only against “competitive” fireworks. “The organisers requested us to allow the show as a ritual at least. We asked them to come to us with permission. Just before the event, they said they had got the permission. When police demanded a written order, they refused to show it and started the show.”
They didn’t intervene, Prakash adds, as “Thousands of people would have turned violent. When the accident happened, only 20 per cent of the fireworks were left (of the stockpile).”
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Earlier, Shranavas had sought a report from the tehsildar, police, and fire and rescue services over granting permission for the fireworks show. The inquiry was ordered on a complaint by a resident who lives near the temple, Pankajakshi. She had said that her house had sustained damage in previous years when the fireworks show was held.
On Friday, based on the probe, Shanavas passed an order, saying, “Based on the inquiry reports and the application of the temple trust, it is understood that what is going to be held is not fireworks display, but competitive show by two groups. Hence, the temple trust’s petition seeking permission is denied and the show is banned. Legal action as per the Explosives Act would be initiated against those who violate the order.”
The application submitted by J Krishnankutty Pillai, secretary of the Puttingal Dewaswam Managing Committee that runs the temple, had said it was being organised by a single party.
The ADM marked a copy of his order to the superintendent of police, Kollam, and assistant commissioner of police, asking police to ensure that the temple authorities didn’t violate the order, and to take action and report back if they did. Local revenue village officials, the fire and rescue services department and the environment department were also informed of the order.
Explaining why the display still went on, a senior officer at the Kollam District Collectorate said that over the course of the probe ordered by Shanavas, officials who handled the issue had come under immense pressure from local political leaders and ministers.
“Once the order was issued, it was vetted by Collector Shainamol, so the pressure started mounting on her. A senior minister called her to demand a change in her stand and asked whether she really wanted to upset religious sentiments of a section to which she does not belong. Local Hindu groups also used it against the ruling party, and eventually, police and politicians decided to make the fireworks happen despite a ban,” said the officer.
Labour Minister Shibu Baby John, who hails from the same region and who is alleged to have “pressured” Shainamol, doesn’t deny calling up the Collector. Refusing to comment on the allegation though, he said, “Whatever happened, she stood by her stand. I did enquire about the issue since it concerns people. I did not force her to withdraw the ban.”
Shanavas said allegations such as being communal were part and parcel of his career. “All such allegations will come when we go by the rule of law,” he said.
Asked whether she was bullied by local politicians, Shainamol said certain things are best left unsaid. “When we go by the rulebook, any kind of allegations could arise. Usually, I don’t bother about such allegations. So I don’t want to talk reveal anything about this issue.”
Incidentally, in its report to the district administration, police had also advised against granting permission for the fireworks, warning that use of a huge quantity of explosives in a competitive show posed big risk. It had also said that the temple trust had tried to hide the fact that the show was competitive in nature.
In his report, the tehilsdar had said there were 11 houses such as Pankajakshi’s located close to the temple, and that the temple trust had not taken necessary permission from them. Several residents had also complained about the noise created by the show.
The tehsildar had told the ADM that permission be given only after ensuring that a limited amount of explosives was used and the mob at the temple controlled.
The fire and rescue department had also suggested conditional permission for the fireworks.
Defending the police role, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala said, “When lakhs of people are assembled, if there is police action, it will lead to another problem. So we have to consider all these aspects.”