Malti Tayal is dead. She died long ago, on April 10, 2006, when a sudden, furious fire engulfed three large canopies hosting an electronics fair at Victoria Park, Meerut. The tragedy left 65 people, including Malti, dead in a matter of minutes. But hers was the only body never to be found. Nine years on, the official death toll of the fire continues to stand at 64, with Malti being the missing statistic, the unrecognised 65th victim.
“My mother died in the fire,” says Naresh Tayal over and over again in an hour-long conversation with The Sunday Express at his modest home in Manoranjan Park, Meerut.
It’s a phrase the 55-year-old has repeated “innumerable” times over the last nine years before policemen, doctors, judges, and district authorities. On the next date of his hearing at a lower court in Meerut, he will once again try to “prove” the time and place of his mother’s death.
The time was 5.35 pm, April 10, 2006. The place, the Brand India Consumer Show at Victoria Park, Meerut. Malti, her husband Ramesh Chandra, her son Tayal, her daughter-in-law and two grandsons had gone to the fair to buy electronic items being sold at a discount. “We reached at 5 pm. My wife, sons and I were in one tent, my parents in another. I suddenly felt stuffy, and came out of the tent with my wife and sons, even as my parents were still inside. Right before my eyes, all three tents went up in flames,” says Tayal.
The police immediately cordoned off the site, and as he saw firemen rescue people, he desperately hoped his parents had survived. He then went from hospital to hospital to look for them among patients admitted in the burns wards. At 11 pm, he was outside the Meerut Medical College’s mortuary where “burnt corpses were piled up haphazardly, like a heap of vegetables”. He was told to return to the mortuary at 4.30 am for identification of his parents’ bodies. Among the mangled, charred corpses now lined in a passageway inside the mortuary, Tayal spotted a shoe and a ring. “That was my father. He always wore that ring, and that day, he had put on those shoes,” he says. But his mother’s body was still not to be found.
The next day, he filed an FIR at the Civil Lines police station, stating his mother has been missing since she was last seen at Victoria Park at 5 pm. He also approached the Meerut district administration, which gave him a list of hospitals in Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Delhi where some of the seriously injured were admitted. He travelled to these nearby cities, but returned in vain.
On April 18, there was a glimmer of hope. He got a call from a private hospital, which had just been handed over a body lying unclaimed in the Meerut Medical College’s mortuary since April 10. Tayal and his family went over but none could identify the body as that of 65-year-old Malti. “It was highly decomposed, only the teeth were intact. The body’s teeth were real, but my mother wore artificial teeth,” he says. The body later turned out to be of a 35-year-old woman and lay unclaimed in the hospital for nine months till it was handed over for cremation to Meerut Victoria Park Agni Kand Rahat Samiti, an association of families of victims of the 2006 Meerut fire.
It took another four months for Tayal to convince himself that Malti was “mistakenly identified and cremated by someone else, perhaps the family of the 35-year-old woman”. Not once did he doubt his mother was dead. “She never left my father’s side. She died with him,” he says.
Like all kin of the victims, he received Rs 1 lakh from the Centre and Rs 2 lakh from the UP government as compensation against his father’s death. His mother, however, was still listed as “missing”. He would have to wait another seven years before he could approach the court for official declaration of his mother’s death, because according to the Indian Evidence Act, a person missing for seven years is presumed to be dead, provided the court gives it in writing.
It took a year and about 20 hearings, cross-examinations and depositions by Tayal’s relatives for the lower court to declare his mother as having died in the 2006 Meerut fire, and deem that Tayal is entitled to compensation. But this January, the Meerut district administration appealed against the court’s order, saying again there was not enough evidence to prove Malti died in the fire.
In order to “disprove” his claim, the police, says Tayal, contacted the neighbours of his two sisters — one lives in Shahjahanpur, the other in Gurgaon — to find out if Malti was with them on April 10, 2006.
Tayal, Malti’s only son, says he is not “running after money”. “I just want my mother to be given the dignity of death, time and place included. If the administration doesn’t think she is dead, then find her if she’s missing. Why has no action been taken on the missing-person FIR I filed nine years ago?”
Tayal is embroiled in two other litigations. Along with families of other victims, he is pursuing a legal fight to bring to book the organisers of the exhibition and district government officials who gave permission to hold the event “despite inadequate fire safety arrangements such as poor wiring, no emergency exits and synthetic material used to make the tents”. A criminal case was filed in a lower court in Meerut in 2006, but the trial is yet to begin. In the meantime, the organisers who were arrested after the fire, sought and were granted bail by the Allahabad High Court, which also appointed the O P Garg Commission to probe into the fire. The same year, the families, led by Sanjay Gupta who lost five relatives to the fire, filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a CBI inquiry into the tragedy and higher compensation. The SC, which began hearing the case only in 2012, quashed the O P Garg Commission report which had indicted and recommended action against the organisers, the then DM and other government officials. In its place, it ordered another commission led by retired judge S B Sinha be formed. The apex court, however, accepted the petitioners’ demand to increase the compensation.
After the SC order, Tayal was given an additional Rs 5 lakh by the UP government as compensation against his father’s death. He is also hopeful the S B Sinha Commission report “would be just”. He draws solace from the fact that he is joined by several other families in pursuing action against the organisers and the district administration.
But the quest to get his mother declared a fire victim is a “lonely” one. “I am alone in this battle. I feel left out,” he says.
A year after his parents’ death, Tayal lost one of his two sons to a sudden illness. “In a matter of a year, my family size halved, from six members to three,” he says. Tayal’s other son, an engineer, left his job in Bangalore and moved to Meerut to help him with his construction business.
“I can’t do my business alone anymore. I have lost my mental balance and can’t pay attention. I don’t go anywhere except shuttling between home, office, courts, or an odd death or wedding,” he says.
2006 Meerut fire accident:
> No. of victims: 64
> No. of years: 9 and a half
> No. of court hearings: 0 in lower court, Meerut. 13 in Supreme Court
> Compensation per victim: For families of the deceased: Rs 1 lakh from the Centre, Rs 2 lakh from the UP government in 2006; additional Rs 5 lakh from the UP government after 2014 SC judgment.
> Charges against accused: IPC Section 304A (causing death by negligence), 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others)
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