India: Police Book 25 for Temple Disaster

Vasudevan Sridharan
Bengalaru, India
160411-IN-fire-1000 Indian medical officials and bystanders use a trolley to transport an injured man from a vehicle to a hospital in Paravur, after an explosion and fire at a Hindu temple in Kerala state, April 10, 2016.

Police in south India’s Kerala state said Monday they had charged 25 people in connection with a weekend blaze that killed more than 100 people when a fireworks display at a Hindu temple went horribly wrong.

The suspects, who have been charged with attempt to murder and attempt to commit culpable homicide, include 15 committee members of Kollam district’s Puttingal Devi temple, two fireworks contractors and eight others, police said.

S. Ananthakrishnan, additional director general of Police, told BenarNews that five other men, who were part of the pyrotechnics team, had been detained for questioning.

“We are now looking into the possibility of violation of rules by temple authorities,” Ananthakrishnan, who is leading the investigation, said, adding that those charged “will be arrested soon.”

The fireworks display at the Puttingal Devi temple – which is some 70 km (43.4 miles) from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram – began early Sunday morning and took a disastrous turn within minutes, according to witnesses.

Sparks from the fireworks fell on a shed that stored more firecrackers, setting off a series of explosions at the temple grounds, where some 10,000 people had gathered to celebrate the Hindu new year.

Burned, maimed and trampled

The blasts sent chunks of concrete and iron grills from the 500-year-old temple flying for as far as 2 km (1.2 miles), witnesses told Indian news channels.

As of Monday, at least 109 people had died as a result of being burned alive, maimed by flying concrete or trampled in the stampede that ensued.

More than 300 people, among whom 23 were listed as critical, were injured in the fire, government officials said.

Kollam district’s health department said it was trying to ensure that a post-fire epidemic did not break out.

“We are now conducting a public health scheme in which 30 teams are going door-to-door to ensure there is no spread of an epidemic. The debris (from the temple) has contaminated water in the area. So we are providing drinking water to residents from the district administration,” Dr. Sandhya Nair, spokeswoman for Kollam’s Directorate of Health Services, told BenarNews.

Nair added that a 24-hour makeshift medical camp had been set up in the area to assist victims.

‘Basic precautions had been ignored’

Authorities alleged that temple officials had violated government norms on use of explosives during pyrotechnical displays in the state.

“There seems to be a gross violation of explosives norms. We have come here for an investigation on the explosives used for the display. Basic precautions had been ignored,” Sudarshan Kamal, the chief controller of explosives who is in charge of monitoring the use, storage and licensing of explosives, told reporters.

Just a day before the disaster, Additional District Magistrate A. Shanavas had denied temple officials permission to hold the pyrotechnics show.

“The temple trust’s petition seeking permission [to display fireworks] is denied and the show is banned. Legal action as per the Explosives Act would be initiated against those who violate the order,” Shanavas said an order issued on Saturday.

The Kerala state government, which is in the midst of assembly elections, has ordered a probe into the tragedy.

Fireworks ban not feasible

But despite growing calls for a blanket ban on the use of fireworks in Kerala, where fire-related accidents claim about 300 lives a year on an average, according to official figures, state government and temple officials said such a ban was not feasible.

Prayar Gopalakrishnan of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages over 1,200 temples in the state, said in a statement that his board opposed banning pyrotechnics during festivals because they were part of rituals.

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy also expressed reluctance in supporting the ban.

“In the name of rituals and traditions, we have limitations. We can regulate them (fireworks) but not ban them,” Chandy said.


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