India: Negligent about negligence: Mass disasters and the Indian State

Asia Human Rights
April 22, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

On 9 April 2016, a massive explosion at the Putingal Temple near Paravur in Kollam, Kerala, resulted in the death of more than a hundred people and injured more than 350 others. A fireworks display had been in operation for the Temple festival, and initial reports suggest that a firecracker fell into a stockpile, causing an explosion. The result of traditional competitive pyrotechnics between two groups, playful sparring in the skies, had tragic consequences.

Display conducted despite ban

It has been reported that banned substances were used to make the fireworks louder, and, crucially, the Kerala Fire and Rescue Services had not given clearance for the fireworks display. Further, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for religious mass gatherings in Kerala has been in existence since last year. Prepared by the Institute of Land and Disaster Management, of the Kerala Government's Department of Revenue and Disaster Management, the document provides "a guideline... for event organizers, emergency services and government departments involved in extending services to religious festivals".

The SOP clearly warns of dangers involved in conducting a pyrotechnics display if adequate safety precautions are not taken. A critical aspect of this case is that the Kerala Fire and Rescue Services Department claims that it had not given clearance for the fireworks display to take place and it was conducted despite this. It has also been reported that the District Collector and Additional District Magistrate had both denied permission for a pyrotechnic display to be conducted at the venue. Permission was denied on the basis of a complaint filed by a woman who lived in the locality, who alleged that her house was damaged due to the fireworks displays of earlier years and stated that she suffers from health issues that were exacerbated due to the fireworks. She also alleged that she was threatened and pressured to withdraw the plea. She claimed that she was alone in her complaints, as there was "a superstition that complaining against the fireworks display would invite the wrath of the goddesses".

Foolhardy machismo

The behavior of the Temple authorities exposes the complete lack of respect and regard for the law of the land. In spite of the lack of clearance by the Kerala Fire and Rescue Services Department and an order by the Additional District Magistrate denying permission to conduct the pyrotechnic display, the Temple authorities brazenly went ahead and conducted it anyway.

This serves as a reminder of a recent event, the Art of Living Cultural Festival, which was organized on the banks of the Yamuna River. The Festival was embroiled in controversy, with allegations and cross-allegations bandied. In that case too, the Delhi government told the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that the event had not received police or fire safety clearances initially, due to larger-than-expected footfalls. Clearance was finally given after the National Green Tribunal slapped a fine of Rs. 5 crore on the event authorities for the environmental impact the event would cause, which has reportedly still not been paid. The NGT also hauled up the Festival authorities for preventing an expert panel constituted by the NGT from visiting the site. At the time the initial compensation of Rs. 5 crore was ordered, Sri Sri Ravishankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation and spiritual guru (in)famously said,

"We have done nothing wrong. I will go to jail but not pay the fine."

The festival was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and went ahead as planned, with no whisper from the Prime Minister about this contempt for the NGT order by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Begging for justice

India seems to have a history of being negligent about negligence. The Bhopal Gas tragedy and the Uphaar Cinema disaster have resulted in decades old litigation and, as usual, the victims and their families have had to run from pillar to post to obtain a semblance of justice. In 2015, the Supreme Court allowed the Ansal brothers, owners of the theater to deposit a fine of Rs. 60 crore in lieu of further jail time for the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy. The litigation surrounding the Bhopal Gas tragedy too has dragged on for more than three decades (since 1984) and many victims still haven't received compensation. The amount awarded to individuals has also been severely criticized, along with the inability of the State to comprehend and acknowledge the scale of the disaster.

More recently, and closer home to the Kollam Temple fire tragedy, is the Thekkady boat accident in 2009. The accident resulted in the death of more than 40 people, when a Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) owned boat capsized in Thekkady Lake. Almost seven years later, the trial is still going on, with no concrete action having being taken against the accused. Here too, umpteen safety precautions were violated and it was even alleged that the boat driver was not a professionally trained one. No action has been taken against the KTDC, despite the judicial commission set up to probe the accident very clearly pinning part of the responsibility on the State authority.

Blockaded by all parts of the system

Our failing criminal justice institutions, coupled with a complete lack of will on the part of the State to take a stand on mass disasters, especially when they involve a large religious community and its sentiments, or powerful people, have cost our people dearly. Blockaded by all parts of the system, victims have nowhere left to turn and no authority left to trust when a disaster occurs.

"Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel". - Judge Sturgess

Licensees who organize the event pay scant regard to State-mandated rules; the police do not do enough to ensure that the rules are followed and when violated fail to arrest the guilty ones, charge them, and bring them to trial ; the Executive plays vote-bank politics, pandering to group sentiments, afraid to hurt religious feelings and powerful egos; the Judiciary, the last resort, drags its feet and fails the people time and again. And, as always, the majority of victims are always the most vulnerable: the poor and the powerless, who hold no sway over the State.

"The right to profess, practice and propagate the religion of one's choice under Article 25 of the Constitution of India does not take in the freedom to use dangerous crackers."

It is time for the State to take a serious stand on these issues and push for stern action against those responsible without desecrating the democratic oaths they have taken, parrying to "popular sentiment" and denying justice to the hundreds who await it.

The one heartening statement has come from senior Kerala High Court Judge, Justice Chitambaresh, who said,

Despite the history, it is hoped that the tragedy in Kerala sees swift justice for the victims.