IN what could be seen as a major blow to public safety workers in India, the Supreme Court has drastically reduced the compensation awarded by the Delhi High Court in 2003 for the victims of the fire at the Uphaar cinema in 1997. The fire had claimed 59 lives and left 103 injured.
On October 13, disposing of a civil writ petition, the Supreme Court Bench of Justice R.V. Raveendran and Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan reduced the compensation of Rs.18 lakh, awarded by the High Court, to Rs. 10 lakh for the deceased above 20 years of age and, from Rs. 15 lakh to Rs.7.5 lakh for victims below 20 years. It also reduced the punitive damages to be paid by the Ansal Brothers, the owners of the Uphaar theatre and the chief accused in the case, from Rs.2.5 crore to Rs.25 lakh.
The Bench also absolved the Deputy Commissioner of the Delhi Police (Licensing) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) of their liabilities in the tragedy. The High Court had ordered in 2003 that the liabilities would be shared by the Ansals, the erstwhile Delhi Vidyut Board, the Deputy Commissioner and the MCD. However, the accountability of the Ansals was increased to 85 per cent in contrast to 55 per cent ordered by the High Court. The DVB has to share a liability of 15 per cent after the Supreme Court judgment. The Bench, however, agreed with the High Court's award of Rs.1 lakh each to the injured victims and gave them the liberty to file applications seeking enhancement if they were aggrieved by the order; for this they had to submit their income and birth certificates.
Taking note that the new multiplex cinema halls have no prescriptions for safety, the Bench directed cinema owners to follow a set of guidelines to be put in place by the authorities. In India, only Andhra Pradesh has fixed safety regulations for its multiplexes.
The High Court, in what was considered to be a breakthrough in compensation cases, had awarded Rs.18 lakh to the kin of each victim, saying that the sum would act as a deterrent to any compromise on safety in public buildings leading to such tragedies. However, the Supreme Court changed the order in the absence of any precedent of awarding such a huge compensation but advocated further strengthening of compensation laws in India and directed the Government of India to start the process.
The judgment has come as an added relief for the chief accused Sushil and Gopal Ansal. Earlier, the High Court had pronounced just one year's imprisonment for them. After the apex court judgment, Ansal Theatres and Clubhotels Pvt. Ltd (the company owned by the Ansal brothers which also owned the Uphaar theatre), in a statement, said it had paid more than Rs.8 crore as compensation.
The families of the victims, who have formed an advocacy forum called Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), were disappointed with the judgment. The High Court judgment was a breakthrough by which the judiciary could have set a strong precedent . Money was never an issue. We were hoping that such high compensation could act as a deterrent for people like the Ansal brothers, who put human lives at stake by compromising even on mandatory safety standards. Money can never compensate for the loss of our children, Neelam Krishnamoorthy of AVUT told Frontline. She said that many countries had a uniform compensation package in such tragedies.
She said it was unfortunate that the Delhi Police and the MCD were let off without any liability, as it was because of them that Uphaar cinema was functioning under a temporary licence since 1983. Both knew that safety standards were being compromised. The then Deputy Commissioner of Police Amod Kanth had given his permission to create an eight-seater box in the balcony that led to the closure of the second exit in the theatre, said Neelam Krishnamoorthy. According to the Cinematograph Act, which prescribes safety standards for theatres, the balcony should have at least two exits. In the hearing of the cases relating to the tragedy over a period of 15 years, several of the compromises in safety standards made by the theatre owners came out in the open and were also documented by the Naresh Kumar Report submitted to the government.
The AVUT is determined to persist with its campaign to ensure accountability in such man-made accidents. The struggle to ensure safety in public spaces and create accountability for innocent lives lost remains a distant dream. Such incidencts continue to happen and are passed off as accident cases even when there is proof of deliberate neglect. The court must see the paying capacity of the guilty before announcing compensation, said Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, a member of the AVUT.Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta