Real lesson from Uphaar fire tragedy: Justice delayed reduces the tragedy to just a number

In a world where there’s always a new scandal around the corner, where Saradha passes the baton to Lalitgate and Vyapam, the 1997 tragedy of Uphaar Cinema is a distant memory for most of us.

Sandip Roy August 20, 2015 23:54:31 IST
Real lesson from Uphaar fire tragedy: Justice delayed reduces the tragedy to just a number

I have to confess when I saw the headline in the morning newspaper for a minute I was not sure what it was about.

Wages of Uphaar sin: Rs 60 cr.

In a world where there’s always a new scandal around the corner, where Saradha passes the baton to Lalitgate and Vyapam, the 1997 tragedy of Uphaar Cinema is a distant memory for most of us.

Except, ofcourse families like the Krishnamoorthys. They spent 18 years fighting a legal battle for their teenaged children who died in the blaze that engulfed the cinema. Now the highest court of the land has decided that the Ansal brothers, who owned the cinema, should pay a fine of 30 crore each. Time served in jail for the fire that killed 59 and injured scores – five months. The Ansal brothers preside over a business empire whose turnover was more than Rs 900 crore last year.

"They (the Ansals) have got freedom with Rs 60 crore. We waited for a full 18 years to see the Ansals go behind the bars...." the newspaper quoted R Krishnamoorthy as saying.

Real lesson from Uphaar fire tragedy Justice delayed reduces the tragedy to just a number

Reuters image.

This is not to question the legal standing of a fine versus jail time. Or whether it is tantamount to “blood money” as the Krishnamoorthys feel it is. The money apparently will go to the Delhi government for setting up a trauma centre. The court’s business is to ensure justice according to the existing laws of the land, not according to the expectations of the parents of the victims.

According to The Telegraph, the court might have seen fit not to impose 10 years rigorous punishment on 78-year-old Sushil Ansal even if it had that option. But when the fire happened in the theatre he owned Sushil Ansal was 60 and his brother Gopal was in his early fifties. Charges were filed by the CBI in November 1997. It’s August 2015 now.You can see the entire story here.

The story is really not about fines or blood money. It’s about how justice delayed is inevitably tragedy forgotten. This happens over and over again. The furore fades. Ennui takes over. The candlelight vigils sputter out. The story recedes into the back pages.

Newer scandals dominate the news cycle getting their fifteen minutes of outrage. And slowly business as usual resumes. If the rich and powerful are the accused they can spin out the process and just wait it out. It’s only the dogged like the Krishnamoorthys who head the Association of the Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy who stick it out. But every tragedy cannot have its Krishnamoorthys. People eventually have to move on and chasing justice becomes a chore rather than a mission. Life gets in the way of court dates that keep moving.

In 2011, we were gripped by news of another inferno – this time at the private AMRI hospital in Kolkata. Over 90 people died in that fire. There were horrific reports of elderly patients asphyxiating in the smoke, abandoned to die, trying desperately to call relatives. None had burn injuries. They all suffocated to death. It was quickly established that the hospital was flouting all kinds of safety codes and building codes. AMRI ignored rules about ventilators and ducts. It stored liquid chemicals and diesel for the generator in the basement.

Initially here again there was great outrage and political brinksmanship. The hospital was closed with much fanfare. Six board members, including some prominent businesspersons were arrested. Mamata Banerjee who personally supervised the firefighting operations vowed “the harshest punishment possible” for those responsible and called the tragedy an “unforgiveable crime”. "As per my announcement that offenders will be arrested, six persons, including SK Todi, have been arrested," Mamata told the media. “Law will take its own course.”

The law would also take its own time. Within a few months, R S Agarwal one of the directors was out on bail on the grounds that he was not involved with the day to day operations of the hospital. The initial spurt of fire safety checks on other hospitals petered off. In 2013, a part of the hospital quietly opened its doors again. In 2014 that unit became fully operational with the CEO saying he was “happy to inform” that the “hospital received all statutory clearances to resume operations”. By 2015, with the trial not even begun, AMRI moved court to resume “any type of legal commercial business” in the fire ravaged annexe that had been shut down. Emami which owns AMRI also ramped up its investment in Bengal something the government desperately needs.

AMRI is entitled to try to pick up the pieces after the devastating fire and go through the proper procedures to get its permits. The problem is its return to normalcy is not matched by movement on the case.That case has over 400 witnesses and though a chargesheet has been filed against 16 people, the rich and powerful have successfully delayed the process through various legal hurdles. An advocate for the families of the deceased told The Telegraph "Radheshyam Agarwal (one of AMRI directors) had once taken time from the court on the grounds of illness. But the very next day he was seen at Nabanna with the chief minister (Mamata Banerjee)." When the 2014 anniversary rolled around, the media noted that in 1,095 days the only progress had been filing the chargesheet.

"The accused are out on bail. There is no punishment for them. Even the hospital has not sent us one line in condolence," a father of a young girl who died on the fire told NDTV. The petitioners feared at this rate this trial would drag on 20 years. The Uphaar case offers them no reason for optimism.

And then by the time it ends, like the Uphaar case, it could just boil down to a number that does not feel like justice, whether it's large or small. The irony is the victims of the Uphaar fire died while watching Border, a patriotic film about honour and sacrifice where a band of merely 120 soldiers successfully defended their post against an entire tank regiment of the Pakistani Army. But that's Bollywood. Life is another matter. After the verdict Neelam Krishnamoorthy told The Hindu “I am very much disappointed. 18 years back, I lost faith in God and 18 years later, I lost faith in judiciary.”

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