Vedikettu, the ritual exploding of gunpowder-filled firecrackers is not unique to temples in Kerala. It is a part of large occasional celebrations in churches too. It is often amatter of pride. People love to boast about how their vedikettu could be heard kilometres away or how it went on for a long time.
Stockpiling of fireworks at temples is not unheard of. An entire arsenal must have been stockpiled at the Puttingal temple in Paravur for the inferno to have snuffed out105 lives at last count today.
At the Puttingal temple this year, it was not just the regular fireworks that was planned, but a competition between two groups. They were to be judged on the decibel level, duration and display of the pyrotechnics. An additional district magistrate (ADM) had denied permission to the event specifically because it was a competition. This has not been declared by the temple authorities, as per a letter that is doing the rounds of social media. Instead, they sought permission for a regular fireworks display involving just 12 kg of explosive material.
The ADM’s letter denying permission for the competition also quoted the district superintendent of police, who warned of the possibility of exactly the kind of explosion that spiraled out of control today, taking 105 lives. The letter also stipulated that before planning to conduct the fireworks display, written permission would have to be got from the neighbours, as loud noises both physically and mentally affect the elderly, those with cardiac problems, pregnant women and infants — who in many cases are forced to leave home during the period of the temple festival.
However, in cases of rituals associated with places of worship, denying permission can get tricky -- especially in the election season. Imagine the furore it would have caused if the state government led by a Christian, Oommen Chandy, banned the vedikettu. In a state where the politics is getting increasingly communalised, you can see what kind of tone the dialogue could take.
And so such things go on, with the authorities unable to enforce norms to prevent such tragedies. In the past, some 50 years ago, a similar incident at Sabarimala claimed 68 lives. Since then, there have been about 400 smaller instances of fireworks displays going out of hand.
The New Year fireworks at Dubai and Sydney, and the July 4 display in the US have shown, year after year, how such pyrotechnics can be organised as a brilliant spectacle. It’s the people that have to take a stand if things are to change.