Law

Uphaar: Convicts Allowed to Pay “For Their Freedom” as Pain Lingers For Families of Fire Victims

On the 19th anniversary of the fire tragedy, that claimed 59 lives, the families of victims seek judicial closure through a review petition in the Supreme Court.

File photo of Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi in 1997.  Credit: PTI

File photo of Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi in 1997. Credit: PTI

It has been 19 years since the Uphaar cinema fire tragedy but it still seems like yesterday that I, as a young crime reporter, then with The Hindu, had rushed to the cinema hall at around 4:30 pm in the evening, hearing that a fire had broken out and some people were trapped inside.

It was the day that Hindi film Border had released and one of my colleagues had gone to cover it. The tragedy soon began to unfold after I reached the location of the cinema. There were people trying to escape from the windows and firemen struggling to rescue them.The stairwells were full of soot.

Many had been rescued and rushed to hospital. There was water and smoke all around. The fire, that had started from a transformer kept in the basement, had spread to the cars parked nearby and the smoke had travelled up the stairwells, suffocating those trying to escape.

Soon, the firemen brought out the victims, who were all soaked wet, but did not have any injuries. Some of them had already died, some were unconscious. Most of them were taken to AIIMS, where I also rushed after a while, after not being able to spot my colleague. The scene at the hospital was harrowing, to say the least. Over 40 people lay on the beds, stretchers and even on the floor in the emergency room as the doctors tried hard to revive them. They had already given up on many.

As I moved from one body to the other, in search of my colleague, what struck me most was the fact that they had no external injuries. Relatives of the victims had started arriving by then. One of them was an inconsolable Sikh gentleman. “Sab khatam ho gaya (everything is over),” he said to someone over the phone, as he stood close to where the bodies of five or six of his relatives lay. At least a couple of them were children, who had, like all the others, stepped out for a movie but became victims of human error.

My colleague survived the tragedy as she had jumped to the terrace of the adjacent building, and I still wish her “happy birthday” every June 13. The date, each year, brings back emotions of underlying fear and pain that I had gone through that day. If only the PCR vans had oxygen in them, the victims could have been revived; why did they have the transformer in the basement? If only the victims had not stepped out of the balcony or they had found a safe way to the terrace, no one would have died –  these thoughts keep coming back but to no avail.

For the families of the victims, who later formed themselves into Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), it has been a long battle for justice, one they are still fighting.

This year too they gathered in prayer for their loved ones. The years may be passing by but the memories remain as fresh as ever. While some have resigned to their fate, others are fighting on.

One of them is AVUT president Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost both her teenaged children in the tragedy. She is a mother who wants justice for them. Her words often reveal the anguish within. Recent developments have only added to her anger.

On Monday, she claimed that “after making the victims of the terrible Uphaar tragedy wait for justice for 18 long years, on August 19, 2015, the highest court in the land unjustly permitted the convicted Ansal brothers, Sushil and Gopal, to escape their prison sentence by paying a price of 60 crores to the Delhi Government, ostensibly for the construction of a trauma centre in Delhi NCR. The Ansals deposited Rs 30 crore each to the Chief Secretary, Delhi Government on November 9, 2015 and the same has been accepted.”

Questioning whether the interests of the accused were of greater importance than those of the victims, she cautioned that the message this sentence was sending out “is one that will prove to be dangerous for the safety and welfare of the citizens of this country, and more so for the residents of Delhi. Instead of imposing punitive measures on the convicts, the order actually gives convicts and criminals the option of paying a price for their freedom.”

“By this logic,” Krishnamoorthy argued, the rich and powerful in the corporate sector, who own most public spaces like multiplexes ,hospitals, shopping malls, schools, would remain secure in the knowledge that if there is loss of life due to their negligence, they would get away by paying a penalty of Rs 1 crore per life.

“We have waited nineteen years for justice. But the Ansal brothers were able to walk free after just a few months in jail. With this judgement of the Supreme Court how do we ensure that no more lives are lost because of pure greed and recklessness?” she asked.

Krishnamoorthy said the Supreme Court had allowed an open court hearing of the review petition on January 6, 2016 but it has still not been taken up or scheduled for hearing. “Since the matter was not being listed, AVUT mentioned the matter in the court of Chief Justice on March 17, 2016 for an early hearing. CJI assured the counsel appearing for AVUT that the review plea would be listed for hearing after the Holi vacation. As the matter was not listed after the Holi vacation AVUT mentioned the matter again on April 19, 2016. The court said it would consult the concerned judges of the bench and explore possibility of listing and hearing the plea during upcoming summer vacation. Unfortunately, no orders have been passed.”