January 1, 2016

Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy Case: A Landmark in Criminal Case Compensations?

By Srivats Shankar, 2nd Year Student at National University of Juridical Sciences.

The Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy, which took place on June 1997, is regarded as one of the worst fire tragedies that had taken place in post-independent India. However, the fire was merely a consequence of the negligence committed by a number of individuals involved in the case, which as a result amounted to the deaths of over 59 individuals. According to the Delhi High Court, the case involved a number of violations of the Cinematograph Act 1952, that as a result led to the event of June 1997.

During the investigation it was found that a number of serious violations had been made in relation to safety standards, not only by the Uphaar cinema owners but a number of cinemas, dating as far back as 1983. That year was particularly relevant due to a fire that had broken out in a competitor cinema hall, Gopal Towers. This led to a scrutiny of safety standards by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Licensing). It was found that there were at least 10 serious security violations. These violations were primarily, associated with the Cinematograph Act 1952 and its rules and regulations; it was observed that the licensing conditions and Delhi Cinematograph Rules had been violated, under which the required infrastructure for fire safety had not been implemented.

Among these violations were the lack of sufficient exits and the blockage of space in the basement for evacuation. Additionally, no emergency alerting method for intimating patrons was present. This led to a scrutiny of the standards adopted by a number of cinemas, including Uphaar. These cinemas had to reapply for receiving a license only after they conformed to the minimum security and safety standards. However, the High Court concluded that there was some foul play involved as it was revealed that the cinema did not conform to the minimum safety standards, while it continued to function without meeting the minimum safety standards. It was revealed that they had received some form of 'temporary' licensing that allowed them to continue functioning.

This negligence had its effect on June 13, 1997, when a generator that had earlier in the day malfunctioned had a leakage. This in turn led to an oil spill into the parking lot and escaping into the nearby vicinity, since no drainage system had been established as mandated by guidelines. Eventually the oil was ignited, which according to the court evidence was due to the poor quality of maintenance work carried out on the generator. A total of 59 individuals lost their lives, along with over 100 others sustaining injuries. Most of these deaths were caused by asphyxiation induced by the inhalation of deadly vapours, such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Despite the undisputed loss faced by the family members, this case has made two contributions towards compensation given or provided to victims of a case and the quantum of punishment versus the payment of damages. Each of these issues has been increasingly politicized following the Supreme Court order to pay compensation and the quantum of punishment.

The Delhi High Court initially agreed to compensate the families of the deceased an amount of 10 lakhs each, however when this came before the Supreme Court the amount was reduced to 7.5 lakhs. Additionally, the compensation for the victims who suffered from some form of injury fell from 2 lakhs to 1 lakh each. Despite this the compensation provided is regarded as the highest ever given by a court in this country. Apart from that, the two primary accused Ansal brothers were collectively charged a fine of 60 crores, which failing to pay would lead to the serving of an additional two years of imprisonment. Prior to this, the Supreme Court has never handed down such a level of punishment.

It is argued by many groups (including the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy [AVUT]) that the compensation is insufficient. But it is new ground that the Supreme Court is exploring by offering such large compensation. This has never been seen in the Indian legal system. However, looking back it seems to be the natural course of events that such a large quantum of compensation would be paid to those affected in such a situation.

Referring to the case Prabhu Prasad Sah v. State of Bihar, Justice P N Bhagwati made a very important observation, which was that if someone lacks the ability to pay, then that person must be given the option to either, pay back the necessary amount in relation to compensation or serve the remaining amount in the form of a punishment. Therefore in addition to the amount of compensation that must be determined, the payment capabilities of that individual, should also be considered.

Over time this concept has clearly developed to offer a large quantum of compensation. The Supreme Court has applied the concept of ‘deep pocket theory’ in a certain sense to such situations to serve as a long-term deterrent to groups that do not follow regulations as mandated. However, there have been some questions about allowing the accused in this particular case to finish their sentence if they paid the compensatory amount. It is argued by the AVUT that this is against the idea of justice and the accused in this case must be punished for their actions, which resulted in the tragic events.

The argument put forth by AVUT is restricted to the retributive aspect of criminal law. The judgment given by the Supreme Court in contrast is based on principles of fairness and equality in light of restorative justice. The Supreme Court recognized that, two of the main accused had reached a very advanced stage of life by serving a long period in prison, before the final hearing. Taking all these factors into consideration the Supreme Court gave a relatively sound decision.

On the whole, while it can be argued that the compensation theoretically needs to be higher, the Supreme Court has pushed the boundary and allowed for a wider ambit in relation to compensation for the first time ever and it will be able to build upon such situations if they ever arise in the future.

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