Nuance is dead in Kerala. The media-driven breast-beating and mudslinging over the Kollam temple fireworks disaster is so deafeningly loud and maudlin that all sense, sanity and social dignity has been given a go by. The net yield so far has been two inquiries — by a retired high court judge and the crime branch of the police — and a spree of announcements of relief, compensation and rehabilitation.
The accident was the result of blatant violation of safety rules by the temple committee, consisting mostly of BJP supporters. The state police, acting on the instructions of their Congress political bosses, turned a blind eye to this. Will those who abetted the illegal competitive fireworks display by the local organisers be brought to book? Can a repeat of such political patronage of powerful syndicates for fear of losing their vote banks be stopped? The sound and fury of the debate indicate that both these are unlikely.
The utter disarray in the state administration that followed the disaster offers telltale evidence of the internal rot in political governance under Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The young Muslim collector of Kollam, who was communally targeted for insisting on compliance with safety rules, squarely blamed the police for failing to stop the illegal fireworks show. The district police commissioner, in turn, blamed the revenue authorities under the collector, claiming the fireworks display had the oral sanction of the additional district magistrate.
That tragedy struck during the assembly poll campaign amplified its political dimension. Congress politicians, including a former Lok Sabha MP who felicitated the illegal competitive fireworks display by two rival local master pyrotechnicians, were acting with an eye on votes. Avid fans of festive fireworks displays and elephant parades constitute a big vote bank in most central and southern districts of Kerala. To insist on strict implementation of safety rules and regulations would have meant the organisers threatening to call off the festival altogether, which would have cost the ruling party dearly.
The dilemma of the political class came into sharp focus almost immediately. Next on the state’s festival, as well as tourism, calendar was the legendary Thrissur Pooram festival, which attracts mammoth crowds for night-long competitive fireworks displays by two local temple managements. Still reeling from the shock of the Kollam disaster, the state government was under great pressure to clamp down, which would have greatly curtailed the show. Egged on by TV media’s shrill cry against fire-works and elephant shows, the DGP went public with his view that regulation would not work and that there should be nothing less than a ban on fireworks. To add fuel to fire, the judiciary jumped into the fray, with a high court judge moving the court through a personal letter petition for more stringent control and effective police enforcement of safety rules. The bench that heard the petition criticised all and sundry. The pooram-crazy public of Thrissur and other parts of the state were up in arms.
Once fireworks were being debated, it was only a matter of time before elephants would follow. An increasing number of accidents involving elephants was already a matter of public concern, and a nervous chief wildlife warden used the Kollam disaster to order fresh restrictions on parading elephants at festivities, including a well-meaning but impractical condition that there should be a minimum distance of three metres between elephants in any lineup, and that elephants could be paraded only after 5 pm.
The Thrissur organisers who had gone ahead with preparations for full-scale pooram festivities on April 17-18 that involved fireworks and elephant parades were furious. A hasty high court order permitting fireworks under conditions laid down in a 2007 Supreme Court verdict and the withdrawal of the forest department order on elephants followed. But the smoke from the Kollam tragedy is yet to settle.
The air has turned thick with competitive populism and blame-games. The first casualty of this was reasoned debate, reflection and decision-making. Faith, tradition, convention, ritual, festival, religious worship, secular celebration, popular entertainment, history and myth — all manner of descriptive and analytical categories have been used by disaster pundits to prove their point. Perhaps what was well understood — though never said in the open by those on primetime TV — was that religious and secular festivities, as they have evolved over time, are also a matter of money and business.