Trial Court judgment in the Uphaar Tragedy: “A Much Needed Precedent”

The quotation marks in the heading of this post refer to the title of a recent EPW editorial, which begins as follows: The judgment delivered recently by a Delhi sessions court that upholds the guilt of the 12 accused in the Uphaar cinema tragedy sets a much-needed precedent. The judgment proves vital in that, on the one hand, it exemplifies how a sustained campaign by the people, as seen in the struggle waged by the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), can propel the justice machinery, on the other, it draws attention to the need for closure in instances of similar other disasters, where public safety has been deliberately given short shrift. On June 13, 1997, 59 people, several of whom were children, died mainly of asphyxiation, after a fire caused by a poorly functioning transformer broke out in Delhi’s Uphaar theatre, during the screening of a film; in addition, 103 persons sustained grievous injuries. The wait for justice has been pro­longed, and has been possible because of the unflagging cam­paign waged by the AVUT that was formed within a fortnight of the tragedy. An initial committee of inquiry headed by a deputy commis­sioner, Naresh Kumar, and later a Central Bureau of Investigation probe established the culpability of several players, including six from the government, i e, from the Delhi Vidyut Board, the Municipal Corporation and the Delhi Fire Service. The Naresh Kumar report in its every detail has convincingly shown how building by-laws, electricity norms and rules ascribed by the Cinematograph Act 1952 were violated. Along with four theatre employees, the court, in its judgment of November 20, held these government officials guilty of “culpable homicide”, as they had issued no objection certificates (NOCs) permitting several ille­galities such as the construction of a mezzanine floor, the block­ing of exits so as to add to balcony seating space, and locating the transformer in the theatre’s parking space. The Ansal brothers, Sushil and Gopal, too have been held guilty, albeit of lesser charges, i e, of causing “death by negligence”. The Uphaar verdict has seen several legal twists and turns. Victims of the tragedy are agitated about the “lesser” guilt imposed on the Ansals, but to pin responsibility on powerful corporations remains difficult. The editorial goes on to place the case in the context of other recent cases, while also setting out problems with our Indian legal system that seem all too familiar: In being a first in several ways, the verdict also has familiar echoes with judgments received in the recent past – the Jessica Lall and the Priyadarshini Mattoo cases in particular – where the call for justice was driven by well-organised middle class protests against entrenched apathy and callousness. And while the plight of the mainly poor victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy of December 3, 1984 has been highlighted by associational groups of the victims, Dow Chemical Company, which has inherited Union Carbide’s liability for the Bhopal legacy, persistently denies its responsibility. The long-delayed process of compensation remains riddled with problems: the lok adalats have been accused of corruption and the compensation amount, as survivors’ groups have pointed out, has been too little to take care of severe health problems or those that have manifested themselves years after the tragedy. Several newspapers have carried stories about the valiant struggles of the family members of those who died in the Uphaar tragedy. In my view, the best account of this is to be found in a detailed article in a recent issue of Tehelka, which not only documents the heroic elements of this story, but also focuses on the legal strategy employed by AVUT. (This is also an opportune time to put in a plug for the new, improved version of Tehelka, which continues to provide some of the most insightful and critical commentary on contemporary events in India). The Uphaar case is by no means over, as both the AVUT and the lawyers for the Ansals have promised to take the case up on appeal. Apart from other issues, this case points to the persisting problem of delay in our legal system. On the occasion of Law Day (which falls on November 26), the head of the judicial system in India, Chief Justice Balakrishnan, sought to directly address this problem (among others) in his annual speech that is by convention delivered on the lawns of the Supreme Court. Another speech addressing the problem of delay in delivering justice that was delivered, interestingly enough, in China, is available here. Though these speeches cover well trodden paths (and arguments), they provide interesting insights into the manner in which the officials at the helm of our judicial system perceive and respond to the problem, while also providing details about new and proposed initiatives.
These links are from the website of the Supreme Court of India, which has started making a lot of interesting information available to the public, including a regular newsletter called “Court News.” The latest issue of this newsletter provides information about appointments as well as the exact number of cases that were “disposed off” as well as those that are still pending at every level of the judicial system for the period between June-September 2007. These initiatives are to be welcomed, and one hopes that the Court (as well as the judicial system at large) will take further steps to improve transparency about the inner working of this vital wing of government.
Update, Dec 06: In the speeches linked above, CJ Balakrishnan seeks to present a picture of an understaffed, overworked judiciary that is striving to tackle the ever-increasing number of litigated cases. This image would be rendered more credible if the facts set out in this newsitem, which mentions that at present the Supreme Court has only 176 working days in a year, were changed (link to the newsitem via Nanopolitan). The CJI’s argument would certainly apply to the High Courts and lower courts which are woefully understaffed, but this has not been true at the Supreme Court itself for some time. Recent issues of ‘Court News’ bear out the depressing fact that cases pending at the Supreme Court are increasing because the number of cases instituted consistently outpaces those decided. This situation calls for more drastic solutions, and reducing the large number of holidays at the apex court would send out a strong signal to the rest of the system, while also demonstrating good leadership by showing a willingness of those at the highest level of the system to subject themselves to harsher working conditions.
It may also be a good idea to compile and distribute (in future issues of ‘Court News’ for starters) information about the workload of individual judges (at the Supreme Court, for starters). Many other apex courts around the world release such figures, and academics study them to analyse individual voting behaviour of judges, as well as larger trends on specific subject areas. Providing such information publicly will also act as a more effective check on those judges who are falling behind, while acting as an incentive for those who carry more than their share of work.In the past, Rajeev Dhavan has compiled such information about the Supreme Court, but his writings on this issue always note the difficulty he experienced in obtaining such figures.

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1 comment
  • you guys work pretty hard on this blog. What are your views on the Modi comments in Guajarat? How, in your opinion, do you think he shall justify his speech and wriggle out of the mess?