#KollamTempleFire is a rude reminder of how self-obsessed we are

Over half the problems we face and the injustices we encounter as a society can be resolved or countered if only each of us is more responsible as citizens.

As I write this blogpost, Kerala is coming to terms with a gruesome tragedy. An unauthorized display of fireworks, in the name of preserving tradition at Paravur’s Puttingal temple, has killed over 100 people and left more than 350 injured.

I graduated from Kerala; I went to the Sree Narayana College in Kollam. And Paravur was a half-hour bus ride from my college. I used to have classmates who hailed from Paravur and I may have even gone to the Puttingal temple at least a few times.

This morning’s tragedy is entirely due to human negligence, irresponsibility, blind faith and apathy. The temple’s request for permission to hold a fireworks contest was denied, and rightly so, by the District Collector of Kollam. Yet the temple, which is apparently run by a local private body (and does not come under the ambit of the Travancore Devaswom Board that administers over 1,250 temples in Kerala), decided to go ahead with the fireworks activity — refusing to obey the Collector’s order. Now, here is the moot point: would the temple authorities have had the audacity to run their fireworks contest if the people of the area had insisted that rules be followed? Of course, an enquiry by the government and later a ruling by a court will pin the blame on the temple — and local administration authorities, particularly the police — for this lapse. But that verdict, given India’s painfully slow judicial process, will take a few years coming.

I however feel that we, the people, are responsible, yet again, for what’s happening around us and to us. We are responsible because we are mute spectators or, worse, we are so self-obsessed that we choose to look away when some drastic wrong-doing happens in our vicinity.

The Kollam tragedy, unfortunately, will not serve as a wake-up call. It is most likely to remain just the flavor of the week that starts today but will soon recede from public memory and consciousness as the next tragedy whets our appetite for breaking news or as the election fever in Kerala conveniently distracts attention. Just pause to consider what’s happening around us. What has happened to all that volunteerism that was the hallmark of public ownership during the Chennai Floods of December 2015 — where is people involvement today in demanding better accountability from the city’s administrators? We are talking of rules being flouted in the Kollam tragedy — what about all the two-wheeler riders in Chennai who refuse to wear helmets despite a Chennai High Court order being in force? What about the Chennai auto-rickshaw mafia that continues to fleece people even though the Chennai High Court has demanded a time-bound implementation of metered fare by the government of Tamil Nadu? These are just random areas of public apathy, concerning Chennai where I presently live, that come to my mind. There are countless such instances all around us, in every walk of public Life, in every nook and corner of India. The problem with India is not that we have corruption and unaccountability at all levels — the problem is that we Indians allow corruption and unaccountability at all levels. And we, despite all our social media and #hastag activism, allow the rot to continue because we are too self-obsessed. We are forever comfortable in pointing out that we are honest, law-abiding, tax payers, that we keep our homes and our books clean and that someone else is responsible for our woes. While this may well be the right way to live, evidently it doesn’t seem to guarantee us a better world. And which is why we must drop our self-obsession and look up to see how we can serve before we say we deserve better.

There is an individual, call it spiritual if you like, responsibility that each of us has. Which is to leave the world a better place than we found it. And this can happen only when we look beyond ourselves. It can only happen only through active individual citizen engagement with the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. For this, we need to stop complaining about what’s wrong and start partnering with whoever’s right or whoever’s willing to correct the wrongs around us. To be sure, there’s a Kollam waiting to happen wherever we are — the shape, size and context may vary, but a tragedy caused by human negligence and irresponsibility is simmering in every pore of our country. And, to be sure again, there’s a champion, like the Kollam District Collector, who’s willing to do what’s right than what appears to be right, out there. All such people need is support — yours and mine. The laws are there. The processes are there. The will is there. What we need is for us — you and me — to be better citizens by being better partners. Not just as those few watchdogs or whistle-blowers who demonstrate courage occasionally. But as a people, by getting more engaged, involved and participating in the process of making meaningful governance happen.

For all this, of course, the starting point is to look beyond yourself and me-firstism. The important step to be taken is to recognize that you and I have not been created to amass and possess, that we have not been created to suffer silently either, but to live a full Life, to contribute, to serve and to leave our world better than we found it!

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Originally published at avisviswanathan.wordpress.com on April 10, 2016.