For Two Years, a Law on Stringent Punishment for Manmade Disasters Has Languished

If the government had considered suggestions made by the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy, the Kolkata bridge collapse victims would have received speedier justice – and faster, better compensation.

An aerial view of the site in Kolkata where an under-construction flyover collapsed on Vivekananda Road in Kolkata on March 31. Credit: PTI

An aerial view of the site in Kolkata where an under-construction flyover collapsed. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: While opposition parties are now falling over themselves to demand an inquiry into the Kolkata flyover collapse, the tragedy has galvanised the Association of Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) which has been fighting since 2014 for stronger legislation that would compel potential offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission or commission that could endanger human life in the first place.

Indeed, when an official from IVRCL, the company that was constructing the flyover described the accident as nothing but an act of God, he was probably not making a thoughtless, throwaway statement but most likely speaking on the basis of legal advice.

For, in the wake of the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy in, which claimed the lives of 59 people, the counsel for Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal – the prime accused in the case – took the same line.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy, convener of AVUT said: “There is no difference between then and now. For all that I can understand, IVRCL has deliberately taken this line on the basis of a legal opinion. The Ansals too had argued similarly and even their lawyer Ram Jethmalani had claimed before the Delhi High Court that the Uphaar fire incident was an ‘act of God.”

No doubt this explanation suits all builders whenever a tragedy takes place.

Speaking to The Wire, Krishnamoorthy said that the verdict of the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the Uphaar case would ultimately also have a bearing on the Kolkata bridge tragedy case, as the initial FIR against the officials of the company has been lodged u/s 304 (II) (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), also 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) and 407 (criminal breach of trust) of the Indian Penal Code.

“I very strongly feel that when the charges are framed, the accused will approach the high court citing the Uphaar judgment where the Ansals have been convicted under section 304 A for causing death due to negligence, which provides for lesser punishment,” said Krishnamoorthy.

Krishnamoorthy, who lost her two teenaged children in the fire, said that Uphaar is the only manmade disaster where a conviction has been upheld by the apex court. But she resents the fact that the owners of the cinema hall were allowed to walk free after paying a sum of Rs. 60 crore for a trauma centre, taking into account their old age.

“I am afraid that looking at the justice delivery system in our country, this case too would take decades and the accused would get the same benefit as in the case of Uphaar,” she concluded.

AVUT’s efforts ignored by Modi government 

AVUT has regretted the fact that the Modi government has done little to move ahead on a comprehensive and stronger law to safeguard the interests of victims of manmade disasters – of the kind that happened in Kolkata.

Krishnamoorthy explained that in July 2009, AVUT had met with and given a representation to the then president, Pratibha Patil, the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and the then law minister Veerappa Moily, and requested a comprehensive and stronger law to safeguard victims of manmade disasters. in September 2009, AVUT’s representation was forwarded to the Law Commission, which was asked to take up the matter on priority.

AVUT members subsequently met the chairman of the Law Commission and even gave a detailed presentation. In response to the request of AVUT, the Law Commission published in 2012 a consultation paper to bring in a new legislation to deal with manmade disasters.

The commission, she said, stated that it was doubtful whether Section 304 could at all be invoked in such cases, and hence they suggested that the punishment under section 304-A be appropriately enhanced to 5 years or more.

However, in response, AVUT suggested an appropriate legislation to tackle manmade calamities and to put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that would deter future offenders.

It demanded: “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. Our suggestion is to have a separate section under IPC so that in case of any manmade tragedy in future the perpetrators can be booked under the said section. We strongly feel that such criminal offence should be made non bailable and term of imprisonment raised up to 14 years depending on the gravity of the offence. The manmade disaster should not be treated as mere accident and brought under [the category of] rash and negligent acts.”

It also suggested that the law should provide for exemplary/punitive damages that would act as a deterrent. “This course has been adopted in other jurisdictions. The consultation paper does not mention anything about punitive damages,” it lamented, referring to the Law Commission document.

Finally, AVUT suggested that these cases be taken up by fast track courts to provide speedy justice to the victims, a consideration which had not been looked into.

Krishnamoorthy said that on June 17, 2014, AVUT had written to the then law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad regarding the need for new legislation, but there was no response from him.

It took up the matter again with the new Law Minister Sadanand Gowda on May 22, 2015 and sent a copy of the letter to the prime minister’s office.

But it was met with stony silence.

If only the Centre had moved ahead with the proposal two years ago, the victims of the Kolkata bridge collapse tragedy would have received speedier and better justice and compensation.


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