A total of 28 families whose close members died in the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy in 1997 continue to wait for justice for their irreparable loss. They have been campaigning for action and compensation against the theatre-owners, who violated laws for getting more money from the extra seats that blocked the way of safety
On Thursday, 13th October, the Supreme Court reduced the compensation for the victims of the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy by nearly 50%, which is Rs18 lakh to Rs10 lakh for those who were above 20 years when they died and from Rs15 lakh to Rs7.5 lakh for those below 20 years. The owners, the Ansal brothers, were let off by being asked to pay just Rs25 lakh instead of the Rs2.5 crore for punitive damages which the Delhi High Court had imposed upon them. And that too, some of this money will be paid by the Delhi Vidyut Board.
Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost both her teenage daughters in this tragedy and is the President of the Association of Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) which was formed on 30 June 1997 after 59 people were killed on 13 June 1997 during the screening of the Hindi film Border, was distressed at the Supreme Court judgment. She said to the press that it is not about the money as much as it is about demanding accountability and stringent safety norms in safety in public places which are often flouted by the owners.
In a press release dated 13 June 2011, when the two main accused, Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal were given a sentence of just one year by the Delhi High Court, Ms Krishnamurthy had stated, “a rankling sense of injustice tortures the 28 families who lost 59 relatives in a fire at Uphaar Cinema… the struggle to ensure safety in public places and create accountability for innocent lives lost remains a distant dream.”
She also stated, “In July 2009, AVUT petitioned the President, Congress party’s Sonia Gandhi and the Law Minister, proposing legislation to prevent manmade tragedies in public places. “For over two years, the matter has been pending with the Law Commission, but the absence of strong legal deterrents that instill fear in the minds of those who willfully or casually inflict harm continues.”
A look at the serious violations of the Ansal brothers and the negligence in enforcing the required safety norms for the cinema theatre by the authorities will give an insight into the grave crime done by them resulting in so many innocent deaths.
In the judgment of the High Court in December 2008, when it convicted 6 out of the 12 convicted earlier by the trial court, paragraph 9.74 of the High Court judgment lists the following violations:
“The most crucial decision of the company which had direct links with deaths of 59 patrons and grievous injury to 100 others is beyond any question or doubt attributable to Sushil Ansal & Gopal Ansal. Thus:
1. The decision to install a DVB transformer, contrary to sanction plan and without the permission or approval of the Licensing Authority and MCD;
2. Absence of fire safety measures within the transformer room, again contrary to regulations;
3. The Structural Deviations in the cinema hall;
4. Use of several portions of the cinema hall for commercial purposes;
5. Negligent management of parking;
6. The decision taken to completely shut the right side gangway in the balcony, that reduced the number of gangways, correspondingly increased the seats and also crucially blocked the right exit;
7. Failure to ensure proper supervision within the cinema at the time of the show contrary to the mandate of DCR 1953 & 1981;
8. Failure to ensure functioning fire safety equipment that would have warned patrons to leave the cinema hall immediately upon the outbreak of fire or an emergency and also facilitate their escape through proper lighting, were directly attributable to the owners and occupiers of this cinema hall.”
This is what AVUT asked for in its writ petition to the High Court and subsequently to the Supreme Court:
“The Association of the victims of the Uphaar tragedy (AVUT) filed a civil writ petition on 28th July 1997 in the Hon‘ble Supreme Court against 40 respondents which includes Sushil Ansal, Gopal Ansal, company’s shareholders, staff of Uphaar Cinema & various government agencies , but the same was referred to the Delhi High Court. The main prayer in writ of the association is as under:
1. Direct the Union of India to ensure that no cinema hall in the country is allowed to run without licence granted after strictly observing all the mandatory conditions prescribed under the law.
2. To award punitive damages against the Respondents to pay sum of Rs100 crore jointly or severally to AVUT for the purposes of setting up and augmenting the centralised accident and trauma services and other allied services in the city of Delhi under the supervision of the Hon’ble Delhi High Court.
3. To award damages against the Respondents jointly or severally to all the victims who lost their lives, a sum of Rs11.80 crore with the directions to equally distribute the same to the first degree heirs of all the victims.
4. Award damages against all the respondents jointly or severally to the tune of Rs10.30 crore to the injured to be distributed evenly or as may be considered just and proper by the Hon’ble Court.
This is what the Delhi High Court had ordered:
“The total compensation amount awarded was Rs18.50 crore of which Rs2.50 crore to be paid by Ansal Theatre & Clubotels (P) Ltd to the Union of India towards setting up of a trauma centre in Delhi. Of the balance amount the apportionment is as follows:
Ms Krishnamurthy said, “The collusion of callous and greedy officials, big business houses and an apathetic system flourishes. Civil society movements that insist on appropriate judicial mechanisms that compel offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission & commission, that can endanger human life, are the need of the hour. Till such time, there can be no closure or healing for the families of the victims of the Uphaar fire.”
Is it so difficult for the government to make strict laws that would also bring in compensation and imprisonment—which would serve as a deterrent to the defaulters who take the innocent public for a ride?
AVUT, in its appeal to the President, Ms Gandhi and the Law Commission, has proposed stringent legislation for such manmade tragedies. It rightly points out: “Under our prevalent system, such offenders are booked under Section (304) (A) of the Indian Penal Code, which translates into causing death due to a rash and negligent act. It is by itself a mockery of our legal system that someone who causes the deaths of hundreds and thousands just to satiate his greed, is charged with only rashness and negligence. The irony of the situation is that even the said provision is classified as ‘bailable’, meaning thereby that unless an accused is convicted, there is no fear of his being incarcerated, irrespective of the number of deaths he may have caused. Being a popular notion that criminal trials in our country never get over, still, if someone’s misfortune gets him convicted for the said offence, he need not worry as he is bound to get relief from the appellate courts, since the maximum imprisonment provided is a mere two years. In this grim scenario, incidents of such catastrophic magnitude are bound to recur since there is no legal deterrence that can instill fear in the minds of possible wrongdoers.
“The need of the hour is to have an appropriate legislation to tackle such manmade calamities and put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that compels future offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission or commission that can endanger human life. The legislation must prescribe the mandatory stipulations that need to be met with by owners, occupiers and/or builders of places inhabited and/or visited by the public at large. Strict adherence to public safety norms and rules/regulations thereto, must be ensured through this legislation. Not only should adequate punishment be prescribed for the offenders but care must also be taken that the punishment is of such a nature and degree that it has the necessary preventive effect.”
|WE MUST NOT FORGET THE FOLLOWING TRAGEDIES
Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984): Over 10,000 dead.
Dabwali Fire Tragedy (1995): 452 school-going children dead.
Fire tragedy at mental asylum, Erwadi (2001): 25 dead.
Kumbakonam school fire tragedy (2004): 90 primary schoolchildren dead.
Victoria Park Fire tragedy, Meerut (2006): 50 dead.
Carlton Hotel tragedy, Bengaluru (2010): 9 dead, 50 injured
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected]).
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