Most images of the >Kollam tragedy depicted the horror of the fire. Among them stood out Pankajakshi Amma, an elderly citizen who has a house near the site of the fire. She tried to avert the inferno by writing to the district administration seeking a ban on competitive fireworks. I am sure the officials were familiar with the problem of fireworks, but in India even the obvious needs to be stated in order to demand the state’s intervention.
Disasters are believed to be good lessons, but what do they exactly teach us? Each disaster is different because it comprises several local elements. Safety is both a public and private issue. For Pankajakshi Amma, the fireworks were a personal concern, as she lives close to the temple. Why the safety of her house was not a matter of concern for those who wanted to enjoy the spectacle of competitive fireworks is a good question to start with in a social inquiry into the lesson this calamity can teach. Perhaps it is too naïve a question to ask in an era where the right to enjoy takes precedence over concern for safety. When collective enjoyment is at stake — that too as part of a religious ritual — an elderly woman’s anxiety over safety would seem like trivial nuisance. Her writing to the district collector was reportedly viewed as downright objectionable behaviour, apparently because it was anti-collective and hence antisocial. Media reports indicate that she was criticised, even threatened, and told to withdraw her complaint. She did not. The district administration acted on it, yet the catastrophe could not be prevented. Official inquiry will reveal why, but it appears that both the organisers and the police underestimated the scale of the hazard.
State and citizens During cultural events, the state is expected to make arrangements for the safe conduct of activities that have the potential to turn into disasters. The idea that people have the capacity to worry about themselves is alien to our milieu. In the Kollam case, the state was faced with a difficult choice. A concerned citizen made an appeal and the state administration at the district level responded by issuing an order to ban the event. But that did not stop the event. It would seem as if the administration knew that its writ does not run in such matters, so it did not go any further than issuing an order to fulfil its duty. Like the organisers, the administration too left the matter to fate, hoping for the best.Now that the worst has happened, the administration has a new routine to follow. The post-disaster routine covers rescue and relief, but it also includes disbursal of monetary compensations. This is important, of course. Monetary compensation is given to the injured and families of the dead. The packages are publicised as acts of generosity, to be claimed by the kin of victims by presenting the necessary documents. The state’s instrumentalist relationship with the people duly covers all stages of the disaster. It starts with hesitation to interfere and ends with distribution of cheques to rightful claimants.
Kerala is often referred to as a model of development, especially in health and literacy. The State achieved a high level of functional literacy almost a century back. The standard explanation for its achievement in this respect starts with the 19th century when literacy found diverse patronage and a competitive spirit in different communities. This movement was sustained in the early part of the 20th century by modern forms of political mobilisation for setting up of rural libraries. This is an extraordinary history, not to be found anywhere else in India on this scale.
Now, a century later, competitive fireworks leave me puzzled. If Kerala had taken full advantage of its progress in literacy and developed a sophisticated system of education, perhaps the competitive spirit in its society might not have shifted from libraries to fireworks. When I visited several rural pockets during the 1990s to assess the National Literacy Mission, I found village libraries languishing. Kerala has also permitted its education system to stagnate. The machinery of governance ignored the challenge of pedagogic modernism. Education remained vulnerable to struggles for cultural dominance. Neither schools nor colleges and universities aspired for the goal of using knowledge for cultural renewal and transformation. The struggle necessary for maintaining the autonomy of knowledge and creativity waned.
Competition over explosive firecrackers is understandably exciting, especially with advancement in the technique of using chemicals that cause light and sound. This development also suggests greater hunger for sensational stimulation, especially in public spaces. Parallel growth of concern for others might have provided a counterbalancing touch. If nothing else, it might have reduced the aggression with which any questioning of sensational, and sometimes cruel, festivities is greeted. Cruelty to elephants has been debated in Kerala, for instance. The animals perform an important role in religious festivities. There have been occasions when, unable to take it anymore, they have run amok, causing stampedes.
It will not be surprising if the official inquiry recommends that lessons on fire safety should be included in textbooks. Every time something awful happens as a result of public or official neglect, a common knee-jerk reaction is to revise the textbooks. Who can deny that textbooks matter? What matters more is how they introduce civic concerns like public safety. Textbooks are often quite stodgy and wooden, so even if they carry some useful lesson, it makes little impact, especially if the impact is expected to last from school days to adulthood. Textbooks avoid focussing on specific stories, so the Kollam tragedy may not make it to a textbook. But if it does, let us hope it will celebrate the lone voice of Pankajakshi Amma.
Officers who live in civil lines sleep undisturbed by loud prayers and competitive fireworks. They swing into action when law and order breaks down. Then they return to their routine in order to recover from the exhaustion of managing impossible situations.
Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT.