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Friday, February 28, 2020

Why Punjab failed to win a conviction for factory collapse

Witnesses who lost relatives turned hostile, prosecution found a cause for the disaster and fixed responsibility but did not discuss culpability

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Published: February 2, 2016 1:56:04 am
 punjab, factory collapse, jalandhar court, sheetal vij NDRF team and Army jawans during Night Resque Operation at the site of Disaster in Jalandhar focal point where a four story building collaps, hundreds labourer traped inside.Express File potoExpress Photo

Last week, while ruling on the collapse of a factory building that had killed 23 persons and injured 43 others four years earlier, a Jalandhar court took note of evidence submitted that the digging of a trench by sewerage board officials had led to the disaster. Yet, the court observed while acquitting six accused including the factory’s owner Sheetal Vij, the culpability of these board officials was not discussed by the prosecution.

Another reason reason why the prosecution’s case fell was that witnesses had turned hostile even after having lost their relatives, and none of the witnesses backed up the prosecution’s claim that the material used in the factory building was substandard.

The five-storey Sheetal Fibres building collapsed in April 2012, when workers were making blankets. The probe was carried out by a special investigation team (SIT) while the Punjab government prosecuted the accused. The Jalandhar additional chief judicial magistrate’s ruling came Thursday.

Hostile witnesses

One close relative each of three victims turned hostile while a relative of a fourth victim called the disaster an “act of God”. Besides, the testimony of none of the witnesses backed up the prosecution’s case on material aspects after police registered a case that substandard material used in construction of the building had led to the collapse.

Witness Varinder Yadav told the court he had lost his son Monu and identified him in the hospital but had not given any statement to the police. He was declared hostile.

So was Guddu, who lost his brother Parmod Kumar, both workers at Sheetal Fibres. That night, Guddu was not on duty while his brother was on the night shift. Guddu said he got a call, reached the factory and found the building down and people being taken out of the debris. He identified his brother’s body the following week, but told the court he did not know the cause of death.

Chaman Lal deposed he was employed with the factory but was not working at the time his brother, Arvind Mandal, died in the collapse. He said he did not know how the building had collapsed and had not gone to the spot. He had identified his brother’s body in the hospital. He too was declared hostile.

One witness not declared hostile was Pun Kesri, who too was one of a pair of brothers working at the factory. He said his brother Ram Kesri had died due to the collapse and he had identified the body; this statement was recorded.

Gulshan Kumar said he was on duty elsewhere and did not know anything about the case. He did not support the allegation on substandard material, saying the structure was safe, the premises fell by “an act of God”, none of the accused were responsible.

Machines and materials

The prosecution submitted the trench they blamed for the collapse had been dug by sewerage board officials as a storm-water channel. Besides, the court observed, a key officer was silent on who had hired the machines to dig the trench.

“It has come in the evidence of the prosecution that this digging was being done by sewerage board officials. The officials wanted to lay a storm-water drainpipe but the culpability of the officials has not been discussed by the prosecution,” the court observed. “The matter as regards the hiring of the ditch machines was investigated by DSP Balkar Singh but in his testimony the said witness does not say anything about the matter as to who had hired the machines, who was operating the machines,” the judgment reads. “The silence of DSP Singh on this crucial aspect warrants an adverse inference to be drawn against the prosecution and thus it cannot but be inferred that the prosecution has failed to adduce any evidence in respect of the fact that the accused, Sheetal Vij, had in fact hired the services of the ditch machine which was found at the spot.”

The court noted that the ADCP, Mahal, had submitted that construction material samples were taken from the debris, yet there is nothing on record to suggest the samples were evaluated for quality control.

“The prosecution has failed to drive home the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt,” the court ruled.

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