It has been two decades since the day when a tragic fire incident in a South Delhi cinema hall had shaken up the residents of the city, bringing them face to face with gross violations of security norms. The Uphaar cinema tragedy that took place on June 13, 1997, claiming the lives of 59 people and injuring several others was one of the worst fire incidents in Indian history. The incident that took place in the midst of the evening show screening of ‘Border’ has also gone down the annals of legal history in the country as being the cause behind the filing of the landmark civil compensation case by the families of the victims.
The investigation of the Uphaar fire tragedy brought to light huge amount of corruption and violations of fire code norms including no proper public announcement system, blocked exits and lack of maintenance of the transformers. Apart from the violation of norms, the investigation also revealed that there was large-scale corruption involved in the case wherein the owner of Uphaar cinema, Sushil Ansal and his brother Gopal Ansal were accused of incorporating more number of people inside the hall than allowed. The large number of extra audience members was one of the biggest factor that stopped people from exiting the hall. The families of the Uphaar tragedy victims meet every year on June 13 to commemorate the gruesome deaths of their family members and ponder over whether enough has been done to provide justice to the deceased.
On June 13, 1997 at around 4:55 PM, a fire caused in the transformer situated in the ground floor led to the parking lot being scotched. The toxic gases released from the fire soon spread into the hall, choking the audience. People were trapped inside with insufficient outlets for escaping. Further, there were no emergency lights, no public announcement systems, no fire alarms and no cinema staff to help the victims either. Added to the the already existing security violations in the hall was the inability of the fire services to reach the theatre on time due to heavy traffic in the south Delhi locality in the evening.
The tragedy resulted in the death of 59 people, 23 of whom were children. The families of the victims later came together to form the The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ (AVUT) who filed the landmark Civil compensation case. The most vociferous among the victims’ families were Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, whose two children, 17-year-old Unnati and 13-year-old Ujjwal died in the incident.
The investigation was first carried out by the magisterial authority. Later the case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) who filed the chargesheet by the end of 1997. There were 16 people who were accused of causing death by negligence. The accused included the owner of Uphaar cinema, Sushil Ansal and his brother Gopal Ansal.
The case had been dragging on in the courts for the last 20 years. At various moments in the trial, the 16 accused were sentenced to jail and the owners were asked to pay a fine of Rs 60 crores to the Delhi government. The cinema authorities, the Delhi Vidyut Board and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi were asked to pay compensation to the families of the victims. In August 2015, the Supreme Court imposed a fine of Rs 30 crore each on the Ansal brothers. The final verdict that came out in February 2017, sentenced Gopal Ansal to prison for a year, while his brother escaped the term by virtue of old age.