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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Tortuous trajectory of Uphaar case exposes the limitations of the legal framework to bring closure, fix accountability

As the Uphaar case has shown, booking the guilty in such cases is a protracted process because it requires fixing dual liability — in civil law by granting compensation to victims and in criminal law by ensuring the guilty are punished appropriately.

By: Editorial |
Updated: November 11, 2021 10:05:33 am
Hours after the Delhi court’s verdict, a fire that swept through a children’s hospital in Bhopal left at least four infants dead.

On Monday, a Delhi court’s conviction and sentencing of real-estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal to seven years’ simple imprisonment for tampering with evidence in the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy brought a closure to a case that has become emblematic of the tortuous course of fire accident litigation in the country. But the failings that the Uphaar case has shone a light on continue to take a distressing toll. Hours after the Delhi court’s verdict, a fire that swept through a children’s hospital in Bhopal left at least four infants dead. Last week, more than 10 Covid patients lost their lives in a blaze at an Ahmednagar hospital. Whether in the Uphaar case or at Bhopal or Ahmednagar, or at a coaching centre in Surat two years earlier or at another hospital in Kolkata in 2016, fire tragedies are often a result of criminal negligence and disregard of minimum safety requirements. The Maharashtra government has suspended the civil surgeon and three nurses of the Ahmednagar hospital and the Madhya Pradesh government has begun a probe, which at the outset, has revealed that the hospital did not have a No Objection Certificate from Bhopal’s fire authorities. But as the Uphaar case has shown, booking the guilty in such cases is a protracted process because it requires fixing dual liability — in civil law by granting compensation to victims and in criminal law by ensuring the guilty are punished appropriately.

In 2011, the Supreme Court highlighted two key issues in the Uphaar case — one was the lack of fire safety management infrastructure, especially in public spaces such as cinema halls, and the other was the absence of a comprehensive legal framework to fix claims and liabilities. Guidelines for infrastructure and trained staff in cinema halls have partially addressed the first issue. However, Bhopal, Ahmednagar and Surat are reminders that owners of public premises continue to pay short shrift to fire safety requirements. Tragedy after tragedy has also shown that municipal or local authorities are often complicit in such negligence. While states have individual parameters to award compensation, they are often ad-hoc or vary based on political impact. High courts are the first arbitrators under civil law to quantify the damage and assess negligence by government agencies. This is often a time-consuming process that requires victims to organise themselves and engage in costly litigation, multiplying their trauma. The lack of a law for fixing damages leads to courts following arbitrary policies in awarding compensation. In the Uphaar case, the high court fixed compensation for victims in 2003 of Rs 18 lakh, which was reduced drastically by the Supreme Court in 2011 to Rs 10 lakh.

Following the recommendations of the First Law Commission, Parliament had introduced two bills on the government liability in torts as early as 1965-67 in the Lok Sabha but those bills lapsed. A new law that assures accountability for such accidents is urgently needed.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2021 under the title ‘Fire and impunity’.

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