15 years on, Uphaar victims' kin yet to get their due

Written by: Sreekumar Narayan
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It says a lot about the efficacy of our legal system that 15 years after one of the most shocking man-made tragedies in India, relatives of the unfortunate victims are still waiting for proper justice.

A total of 59 people were killed when a fire ravaged Uphaar cinema in south Delhi on Jun 13, 1997. They had gone to watch 'Border', a Hindi film starring Sunny Deol, Sunil Shetty, Akshaye Khanna and Pooja Bhatt.

As moviegoers desperately tried to get out of the burning theatre, 103 of them sustained serious injuries in the resultant stampede. Meanwhile, those seated in the balcony could not reach the exits in time. Some were asphyxiated while others were charred to death.

Subsequent investigations revealed that a blast in one transformer in the parking lot beneath the building sparked the fire. The nearby cars were gutted first. Within minutes, the flames spread upwards and engulfed almost the entire five-storey building wherein several offices were situated beside the theatre.

In 1997, a magisterial probe concluded that apart from the theatre owners, Delhi Vidyut Board, city fire service, the Delhi police's licensing branch and municipal corporation had "contributed to the mishap through their acts of omission and commission".

It held the cinema management responsible for the delay in alerting the fire and rescue services department and also for not maintaining proper distance between the transformer room and the car park.

"When the fire broke out at 1645 hours, the movie was not stopped nor any announcement made to evacuate the audience. Exit signs were not battery-operated and once the lights went out, panic-struck people had to grope in the dark for exits, many of which were blocked by seats," the probe report said.

In 2006, the trial court observed that on the second floor balcony of the theatre, where victims were asphyxiated, "the space provided for exhaust fans on the walls was found blocked with the help of a cardboard".

In Nov 2007 after a lengthy trial, Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal who owned the theatre were found guilty of causing death by negligent act. The brothers were sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs 1000 each for violating Section 14 of the Cinematography Act.

In Dec 2008, the Delhi High Court reduced the duo's sentences of imprisonment from two years to one year but both did not stay behind bars for long because the Supreme Court granted bail to them on January 30, 2009.

The victims' kin aver that the Ansal brothers getting off so lightly is a travesty of justice as they were the main culprits. The former have another reason to feel despondent. In Apr 2003, the Dehi High Court awarded them Rs 25 crore civil compensation but the apex court has since drastically reduced the same.

The HC granted Rs 15 lakh each to the relatives of the victims who were not 20-years-old at the time of the tragedy and Rs 18 lakh each to those above 20 years. However, the SC in Oct 2011 decreed that the kin of those below 20 yrs category will only receive Rs 7.5 lakh while the other category will get a maximum of Rs 10 lakh.

Considering the above mentioned facts, one can see why the kin of the deceased are feeling short-changed. On the fateful day, they lost their near and dear ones due to the lapses on the part of the authorities concerned. Their loss has since been compounded by the apathy of the judiciary and officials.

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