Uphaar Cinema fire

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The Uphaar Cinema fire, one of the worst fire tragedies in recent Indian history,[1] occurred on Friday, 13 June 1997 at Uphaar Cinema, Green Park, Delhi, during the 3 to 6 pm screening of the movie Border.[2] Trapped inside, 59 people died, mostly due to suffocation, and 103 were seriously injured in the resulting stampede.

The victims of the tragedy and the families of the deceased later formed 'The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy' (AVUT), which filed the landmark Civil compensation case. It won INR25 crore (equivalent to INR37 crore or US$6.0 million in 2014) compensation for the relatives and families of the victims [3] in the case, now considered a breakthrough in civil compensation law in India.[4][5] However the Supreme Court on 13 October 2011, nearly halved the sum of compensation awarded to them by the Delhi high court and slashed punitive damages to be paid by cinema owners Ansal brothers from INR2.5 crore (equivalent to INR3.1 crore or US$500,000 in 2014) to INR25 lakh (equivalent to INR31 lakh or US$50,000 in 2014).[6]

On the morning of the fire, at around 7 a.m, an explosion had been heard by the security guard, Sudhir Kumar, who along with his friend found smoke in the transformer room. The fire brigade and the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) were informed – the fire brigade extinguished this fire and DVB completed their repairs between 10:30 am and 11 am by replacing two aluminium sockets at its B phase.[7]

This was not the first instance of such fires. After an earlier transformer caused fire at Gopal Towers, a high-rise in Rajendra Place, New Delhi in 1983, the licences of 12 cinemas, including that of Uphaar, had been cancelled. The Deputy Commissioner of Police (Licensing) who inspected Uphaar, had listed ten serious violations, however all remained uncorrected until the fire 14 years later.[8] On 6 July 1989, a fire had broken out at Uphaar cinema due to a fault in the sub station.

The fire incident[edit]

The fire broke out at 5:10 pm. According to reports,[9] it was caused when a 1000 kVA electricity transformer, maintained by the DVB, and housed in the theatre’s overcrowded basement car park, spread to and engulfed some 20 cars, where some 36 cars were parked instead of the admissible 18. The fire[10][11][12] eventually spread to the five-storey building which housed the cinema hall and several offices. Most of the victims were trapped on the balcony and died due to suffocation as they tried to reach dimly marked exits to escape the smoke and fire[8] and found the doors locked.[13]

An off-duty Capt. Manjinder Singh Bhinder of the 61st Cavalry of the Indian army and a talented horse-rider, out celebrating his success at a recent national games with his family and a junior officer at the movie hall, gave his and his family's lives up saving over a 150 people, on his personal initiative. Rushing out along with his family at first, realising the gravity of the unfolding tragedy, he and his people went back inside, and tried to set order and guide people out to safety.[14]

Fire services were delayed due to the heavy evening traffic and the location of the cinema hall, situated in one of the busiest areas of South Delhi.[15] At least 48 fire tenders were pressed into service at 5.20 p.m. and it took them over an hour to put out the fire.[16] Later the dead and the injured were rushed to the nearby All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Safdarjung Hospital, where scenes of chaos and pandemonium followed, as relatives and family members of the victims scurried around to look for known faces.[17]

A small fire had earlier broken out in the morning hours in the electrical transformer, which was soon put out and repairs carried out by DVB officials.[18] Hours later oil spilled from the transformer and caught fire.

Causes and Fire violations[edit]

The enquiries [19] done by the Law commission of India, the Delhi Fire department, the Naresh Kumar committee,[20] the Dy. commissioner of Police and the CBI [21] found a number of fire code violations[22][23] including the following:

  • No functional public announcement system (no announcement was made when the fire broke out)[24]
  • No emergency lights, foot lights, exit lights (The cinema hall was in pitch darkness when the fire broke out)[25]
  • Blocked gangways (the hall had made unauthorized extensions and additions to seats)[26]
  • Blocked exits (many exit doors – including the one leading to the terrace – and gates were locked)
  • Unauthorised use of premises (shops were being run from spaces supposed to be empty)
  • Installation and maintenance of the DVA transformer (where the fire had started) – in violation of Indian Electricity Rules (no periodic maintenance, no fire extinguishers, no isolation device, haphazard electrical cables)

The investigation and trial[edit]

In the beginning a magisterial probe took place which submitted its report on 3 July 1997, wherein it held cinema management, Delhi Vidyut Board, city fire service, the Delhi police's licensing branch and municipal corporation responsible for the incident saying "it contributed to the mishap through their acts of omission and commission",[10] it also blamed the cinema management for losing precious time in alerting the fire services, and also for not maintaining proper distance between the transformer room and the car park.[27] It also said that, "when the fire broke out at 1645 hours, the movie was not stopped nor any announcement made to evacuate the audience. Exit signs were not battery-operated and once the lights went out, panic-struck people had to grope in the dark for exits, many of which were blocked by seats".[10] Subsequently the courts issued non-bailable warrants against Sushil Ansal, his brother Gopal, a Delhi Vidyut Board inspector and two fire service officials. After evading arrest for many days, Sushil and his son Pranav Ansal, the owners of Ansals Theatres and Club Hotels Limited, which owned the Uphaar cinema were finally arrested in Mumbai on July 27, 1997, and sent to judicial custody, though were later released on bail. Also amongst those arrested was the company's director V K Aggarwal.[28]

Following the inquiry, Union Home ministry transferred the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) amidst charges of cover-up by victims families,[28] which on November 15, 1997, filed chargesheet against 16 accused, including theatre owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal, for causing death by negligence, endangering life and relevant provisions of the Cinematography Act, 1952. By 2000, the prosecution has completed the recording of evidence with the testimony of its 115 witnesses. The court case ran for over a decade, and the court had over 344 hearings during the first seven years. Four of the accused died,[29] and eight witnesses, mostly relatives of Ansals turned hostile witness,[30] despite High court responding to AVUT's plea and asking trial court in 2002, to expedite the case [3] Meanwhile as the criminal trial dragged on, in 2003, a presiding judge commented upon the repeated requests (for adjournment) as being intended to delay the case.[31]

Almost nine years after the tragedy, a trial court judge visited the Uphaar cinema hall in August, 2006, accompanied by CBI officials who investigated the case to get a first hand look at the seating and fire safety arrangements, which have been blamed for the tragedy. The site had been preserved as “material evidence” since the tragedy. The visit followed a High Court order in which the trial court was asked to examine all available evidence in the matter, and as the courts proceeding were coming to an end. In its report the court observed that on the second floor balcony of the theatre, where victims were asphyxiated, “the space provided for exhaust fans on the walls was found blocked with the help of a cardboard”.[32][33]

Civil compensation case[edit]

In a connected civil court case, 'The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy' (AVUT) sought civil compensation from Ansal Theatre and Clubotels Ltd., which owned the theatre, and the Delhi government alleged 'negligence' on their part led to the fire in the cinema hall. The verdict of this case came on April 24, 2003, and the Delhi High Court found owners of the Uphaar cinema, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Delhi Vidyut Board (electricity Board) (DVB) and the licensing authority 'guilty of negligence', and awarded Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) civil compensation to the relatives of victims,[3] which included Rs 15 lakh each to the relatives of the victims, less than 20 years at the time of the tragedy and a sum of Rs 18 lakh each to those, above 20 years. The compensation included Rs.2.5 crore for development of a trauma centre near New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, situated close to the cinema hall.[29] The court directed the cinema owners to pay 55 per cent of the compensation since they were the maximum beneficiaries of the profit earned from the cinema, the remaining 45 per cent was to be borne equally by MCD, DVB and licensing authorities, each contributing 15 per cent of the amount.[34]

The Supreme Court on October 13, 2011 reduced the amount of compensation to be paid to the victims of 1997 Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy. The compensation to family of deceased above 20 yrs cut from Rs 18 lakh to Rs 10 lakh each; for those below 20 yrs, from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 7.5 lakh.

Evidence tampering case[edit]

In 2003, the public prosecutor in the case reported that several important documents filed along with the charge sheet were missing from the court record of the case or had been tampered with or mutilated. The court ordered an inquiry and dismissed the court clerk. In 2006, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Delhi Police registered the case on a Delhi High Court direction on a petition by 'Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy' (AVUT) convener Neelam Krishnamurthy.

In February 2008, on the basis of the charge-sheet filed by the Economic Offences Wing of the Delhi police for allegedly removing, tampering and mutilating important documents of the Uphaar fire tragedy case in conspiracy with a clerk in a trial court there in 2003, a Delhi court summoned Uphaar cinema hall owners Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal and four others in the evidence tampering case, under Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence or giving false information to screen offenders) and 409 (criminal breach of trust) of the Indian Penal Code.[35]

The verdict[edit]

The final verdict came four years later on 20 November 2007, and the quantum of sentences were given out on 23 November, in which 12 people, including the two Ansal brothers, were found guilty, and later convicted for of various charges including, causing death by negligent act,[12] and were given the maximum punishment of two years’ rigorous imprisonment. They were also fined Rs.1,000 each for violating Section 14 of the Cinematography Act. The court also directed the CBI to investigate the role of other officials who had been giving temporary licences to the Uphaar cinema hall for 17 years.[36]

The other seven accused, three former Uphaar cinema managers, cinema's gatekeeper and three DVB officials, were all given seven years' rigorous imprisonment, under Section 304-A (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and housed at the Tihar Jail.[29][37] The court also fined all the 12 accused with Rs.5,000 each, and also sentenced all of them to two years’ rigorous imprisonment, as they were found guilty of endangering personal safety of others, both the sentences however were to run concurrently.[36]

Post verdict[edit]

One year after the verdict, one of the managers, who had allegedly fled from the hall soon after fire broke out and the fire safety measures were not followed, died at a Delhi hospital on 6 December 2008.[38] In December 2008, the High Court, while upholding the trial court order convicting the Ansal brothers, had reduced their sentences of imprisonment from two years to one year.[39] On January 30, 2009, an Apex bench of the Supreme Court granted bail to Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal. On 5 March 2014, the Supreme court upheld the conviction of the Ansal brothers. The apex court further stated that Ansals were more concerned about making money than ensuring safety of cinema goers. The issue on quantum of punishment referred to a three-judge bench in view of difference in opinion between the two judges who delivered the verdict.[40]

On 26 March 2014, Sushil Ansal left India without seeking permission from the Apex Court. The Supreme Court has expressed displeasure over real estate baron Sushil Ansal, convicted in Uphaar fire case, leaving the country without its permission. The apex court, however, allowed Ansal to stay abroad for medical treatment after he gave an assurance that he will return on 11 April.[41]

Aftermath[edit]

The fire exposed the poor safety standards at public places in the country's capital.[12][13] The court ruled that the lack of a trauma center at the nearby AIIMS hospital had contributed to the high death toll in the incident.[34]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cinema fire one of the worst in Indian history Rediff.com, June 14, 1997.
  2. ^ Venkatesan, V (22 December 2007). "Tragic errors". Frontline. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c India: The Giant Awakens, by Manoher V. Sonalker. Published by Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2007. ISBN 81-269-0769-X. Page 333.
  4. ^ Uphaar Cinema Verdict - A Breakthrough In Compensation Law Legal View, Laws in India
  5. ^ Activism - Implications of Uphaar Cinema judgement May 14, 2003.
  6. ^ SC reduces compensation to kin of victims Times of India, Thursday, October 13, 2011.
  7. ^ Upahar Cinema Fire Accident Case- Judgement. Delhi, India: Delhi Trial Court. 
  8. ^ a b Uphaar verdict: Very uplifting Business Line, May 8, 2003.
  9. ^ "Enquiry synopsis". Supreme court of India. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c Inquiry report indicts Uphaar management, city authorities Rediff.com, July 3, 1997.
  11. ^ Case Study - Uphaar Cinema
  12. ^ a b c Delhi court finds 12 guilty in Uphaar cinema fire Reuters, Tue, November 20, 2007 1:09pm.
  13. ^ a b Friday's fire raises fears that many Delhi movie halls ignore safety norms Rediff.com, June 14, 1997.
  14. ^ "An officer and a gentleman". The Indian Express (PTI Report). June 15, 1997. Retrieved 7 September 2012. 
  15. ^ 60 feared killed in Delhi fire Rediff.com, July 13, 1997.
  16. ^ Delhi cinema fire tragedy claims 59 Indian Express, Saturday, June 14, 1997.
  17. ^ Nightmare and suffering of a birthday girl Indian Express, Saturday, June 14, 1997.
  18. ^ Transformer had caught fire in the morning too Rediff.com, June 14, 1997.
  19. ^ "COurt case proceedings and judgement". Civil Appeal Nos. 7114–7115 of 2003. Supreme Court of India. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  20. ^ Chakravarty, Sayantas (14 July 1997). "Burning questions - Inquiry committee report exposes management's callousness behind Uphaar cinema tragedy". India Today. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  21. ^ "CBI Enquiry and Witness accounts". Delhi Trial Court. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  22. ^ "Manmade disasters - Uphaar tragedy". Law Commission of India. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  23. ^ Raveendran, R. "Supreme Court of India M.C.D. vs Asscn.,Victims Of Uphaar Tragedy ... on 13 October, 2011". Supreme court of India proceedings. India Kanoon. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  24. ^ "Latest High court judgement". Uphaar cinema fire proceedings. High Court of India. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  25. ^ "Photographs showing violations of DCR,Buildings Byelaws & Fire Safety Rules by Uphaar Cinema Management on 13.06.1997". Remembering Uphaar - AVUT. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  26. ^ "Seating plan changes". Remember Uphaar - AVUT. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  27. ^ Uphaar cinema indicted in fire tragedy Indian Express, Friday, July 4, 1997.
  28. ^ a b CBI probe ordered into Uphaar cinema fire Rediff.com, July 23, 1997.
  29. ^ a b c Ten years after Uphaar tragedy, Ansals held guilty The Hindu, November 21, 2007.
  30. ^ Uphaar The Times of India, July 2007, 2000.
  31. ^ Smokescreen after the fire Indian Express, September 5, 2004.
  32. ^ 9 years later, judge inspects Uphaar cinema Indian Express, August 20, 2006.
  33. ^ Judge finds several lacunae in Uphaar cinema The Tribune, September 3, 2006.
  34. ^ a b Uphaar cinema tragedy: Victims finally get justice as Delhi HC orders compensation Rediff.com, April 24, 2003.
  35. ^ Uphaar cinema hall owners summoned The Hindu, February 16, 2008.
  36. ^ a b Two-year RI for Uphaar cinema owners The Hindu, November 24, 2007.
  37. ^ Not satisfied, we'll go to HC: Uphaar victims' kin Indian Express, November 20, 2007.
  38. ^ Uphaar cinema manager lodged in Tihar dies Hindustan Times, December 7, 2008.
  39. ^ Apex court grants bail to Ansals The Hindu, January 31, 2009
  40. ^ http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/uphaar-fire-tragedy-sc-upholds-conviction-of-ansals/article5753123.ece
  41. ^ http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/victim-of-uphaar-tragedy-outraged-at-sushil-ansal-leaving-the-country-114032600527_1.html

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