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The fire within

Among those who died in the Meerut fire was a 35-year-old unclaimed woman who was cremated only after 9 months.

Written by Irena Akbar | Updated: August 17, 2014 9:55 am
fire Each of the deep freezers has two 7 feet long, 30 inch wide trays on which corpses can lie. (Express photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Eight years after the Meerut fire that killed 64 people, Sanjay Gupta, who lost 5 people to the tragedy, hopes to make at least one change. He has put together two deep-freezers to donate to a government hospital morgue, so that unclaimed bodies can be kept for longer.

In a sprawling factory where treadmills, cross-trainers, cycles and weight-lifting machines are being fashioned out of motors and belts, two deep-freezers meant to store corpses stand out. At Sanjay Gupta’s London Sports and Fitness House factory in Saipuram Industrial Area, Meerut, the two deep-freezers are ready to be rolled out and sent to the government-run Lala Lajpat Rai Medical College (LLMR).

“No government hospital in Meerut has a deep-freezer for unclaimed bodies. Unidentified corpses rot in non-AC rooms in government hospitals for 5-6 days. Why can’t governments just supply deep-freezers?” asks Gupta.

There is a reason the 50-year-old gym equipment manufacturer has such interest in deep-freezers. Gupta lost five members of his family — two daughters aged 10 and 12, his elder brother, his sister-in-law and his teenaged niece — on April 10, 2006, when a short circuit led to a fire and engulfed an electronics exhibition held under three huge canopies at Meerut’s Victoria Park, killing 64 people.

Ever since, Gupta has been at the forefront of the fight to seek justice for victims of the fire. Last month, eight years after he moved the Supreme Court seeking a CBI probe into the fire, the apex court ordered the setting up of a one-member inquiry commission to look into the tragedy.

That day, he says, his children had accompanied his brother’s family to the exhibition “because we wanted to buy an airconditioner for the children’s room. As soon as they entered the tent, the fire broke out. I later learnt that that it took just three minutes for the entire tent to go up in flames.” The day that had begun with plans of a movie outing had gone horribly wrong for Gupta and his family.

Among the 64 who died that day was a 35-year-old woman whose body lay unclaimed at the Lala Lajpat Rai Medical College hospital. “The body lay there for two-three days, and because the hospital had no deep-freezer, it was shifted to a private hospital where it was kept for nine months. I wanted the body to be cremated with respect, for which I met the DM and wrote letters to then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was only when Justice O P Garg, who was a heading a commission to probe into the fire, summoned the Meerut SSP about the unclaimed body that he handed it over to me for cremation,” he says.

Each of the deep-freezers has two seven-foot-long, 30-inch-wide trays on which corpses can lie.

About seven months ago, he wrote a letter to the District Magistrate’s office, seeking permission to make the freezers for LLMR.

Dr Ameer Singh Chauhan, Chief Medical Officer of Meerut, says Gupta’s deep-freezers will fill an ignored requirement. “There are over 25 deep-freezers for various medical uses across government hospitals in Meerut. But there is no deep-freezer for unclaimed corpses. LLMR is building a new morgue where Gupta’s freezers will be put,” he says.

Gupta says that he first thought of buying the deep-freezers but when he realised it would cost him “Rs 10-12 lakh” to buy two of them, he decided to make them himself. For research, he looked up the Internet and studied the freezers at a private hospital in Meerut.

“I made both the freezers for Rs 6-7 lakh,” he says. It took him a month to get them ready, and now he is waiting for the air-conditioners he ordered to arrive, which will be fitted onto the freezers before they are sent out to the hospital.

Gupta had moved the Supreme Court a few months after the fire, seeking a CBI probe and action against “callous” government officials who had cleared the exhibition though the organisers hadn’t got an NoC from the fire department and “safety arrangements at the site were clearly not enough”. He has also sought damages for those orphaned or widowed by the incident, on the “lines of the Uphaar cinema fire case”. It is on the basis of his petition that the Supreme Court has now ordered the setting up of a one-man inquiry into the fire and asked for the report to be submitted by January 2015.

Gupta, however, feels the Supreme Court verdict offers “too little, too late”. “Six years after I filed the petition, they started hearing the case. And when they finally did, they quashed the findings of the O P Garg panel appointed by the Allahabad High Court which recommended action against the organisers. Besides, the lower court in Meerut has not even started the trial. Bas date pe date badhti jaati hai,” he says.

The legal lethargy, though, has not dampened Gupta’s morale. He also runs an NGO called Meerut Victoria Park Agni Kaand Raahat Samiti, that helps the kin of the dead or injured to get their compensations from the government.

Besides, he funds the education of five children orphaned by the incident. He has dedicated his life to “easing others’ pain”, Gupta says.

All this has also helped Gupta fight the depression and anxiety that engulfed him following the fire and the death of his children.

“Even after all these years, I can’t work without my medicines. For 20-25 days after the fire, I was not in my senses and would mostly just sleep. For one whole year, I stopped working, and my nephews started taking care of the business,” he says.

It’s only a year ago that he recovered completely and got back to his business. Amid his legal battles, he keeps his wife away from the media “so that she is not affected further”.

They now have a daughter, born six months after the fire.

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