25/08/2015 6:53 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Uphaar Verdict: Victims Pay The Heaviest Price

Anguish and perhaps resignation flickered across the face of Neelam Krishnamoorthy in a recent interview that she and her husband gave to a news channel soon after the pronouncement of the Supreme Court verdict in the Uphaar Cinema case - a fine of Rs 60 crore for the accused Ansal brothers, but no further jail term. Having relentlessly fought this case for more than 18 years, to seek justice for her two children and 57 others who perished in the fire, it seemed as if she had finally lost faith in the judiciary. The CBI is likely to file a review petition, yet another chapter in a tale that has already gone on for far too long.

The Uphaar Cinema fire, which occurred on 13 June 1997, in New Delhi, claimed the lives of 59 persons, mostly children who died due to suffocation, as the exit routes were blocked due to the stampede. The fire exposed the poor safety standards in public places in the country's capital. The victims of the tragedy and the families of the deceased later formed The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT) and elected Neelam Krishnamoorthy as their president. After hiccups at various stages, including delay tactics such as adjournments adopted by the Ansals during the magisterial investigation, the association approached the Delhi Court to intervene in the case. On the specific instructions of the High Court, the trial court expeditiously started the proceedings.

" There is a growing feeling in India that the rich and famous are able to circumvent the law by adopting various delaying tactics, coercing witnesses into becoming hostile or tampering with evidence."

It's not as if the tragedy came without some warning. In 1983, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police (Licensing), who had inspected 12 cinema theatres in Delhi, including Uphaar, had listed 10 serious fire and safety violations. Unfortunately, no corrective action was taken by the owners of the cinema hall, and nor did the inspectors initiate any legal action against them for flouting the safety norms. This negligence was evident when the committee investigating tragedy found serious violations of fire and safety norms, including like blocked gangways and exits.

After a prolonged magisterial investigation, the case finally came up before the trial court (see a timeline here). In its judgment the court awarded a compensation of Rs 25 crores to the relatives and families of the victims and two years of rigorous imprisonment to Ansal brothers, the maximum punishment which could be awarded under the statute. This was hailed as a landmark judgement in civil compensation.

In an appeal filed before the Delhi High Court by the Ansals, however, the judgement of the trial court was upheld but the high court, in its wisdom, reduced the sentencing from two years to one.

The Supreme Court on 13 October 2011, halved the sum of compensation awarded to the survivors by the Delhi High Court, and slashed the punitive damages to be paid by the cinema owners from 2.5 crore to 25 lakh each to the victims.

In an appeal, the Supreme Court on 5 March 2014 upheld the conviction of the Ansal brothers. However, as there was a difference of opinion between the two judges on the issue of quantum of punishment, and it was decided to refer the matter to three-judge bench.

The Supreme Court in a judgment delivered on 20 August 2015 only fined the Ansal brothers for a total of Rs 60 crores, but awarded no jail term, citing the age of Gopal Ansal, who is over 70 years old, and also considering the time already spent by them. Incidentally, both of them had served only about five months in prison! The apex court had given its verdict on a review petition filed on behalf of the victims who were seeking an enhancement of the sentences given to Sushil and Gopal Ansal.

There is a growing feeling in India that the rich and famous are able to circumvent the law by adopting various delaying tactics, coercing witnesses into becoming hostile or tampering with evidence.

At this juncture, there is still some hope that the review petition might eventually lead to a different outcome. It is only then that some faith might be restored in the judicial system and bring some sense of closure to the crusading families of the victims. Moreover, such as SC judgment would hold accountable those government officials who are responsible for issuing licences and enforcing safety norms. Perhaps then we might avert tragedies such as Uphaar.