Uphaar fire victims' kin demand stronger laws

Harish V Nair

New Delhi, June 13 -- The wait for justice has been long and Wednesday marks the 15th anniversary of the Uphaar Cinema fire in which 59 people lost their lives.

Families of the victims are now demanding a tough law to prevent "man-made tragedies" despite repeated assurances to ensure that those responsible for their loss do not get away lightly. President of Association of Victim of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) Neelam Krishnamoorthy, who lost her children in the fire tragedy, says she is tired of repeated letters to the Law Ministry and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

In a letter dated November 15, 2011, a copy of which is with Hindustan times, Gandhi's reply to Krishnamoorthy reads: "I received your letter requesting for a stronger law to safeguard victims of man-made disasters. My office has taken up the matter with the law ministry."

"For 15 long years, the families who lost their loved ones have been praying that the departed souls remain in peace. But how can there be peace without justice," asks Krishnamoorthy, who lost daughter Unnati(17) and son Ujwal (13) in the fire and has been spearheading the fight for justice since.

Like every year, on Wednesday, too, a prayer meeting will be organised at Shanti Upavan memorial in front of the ill-fated cinema hall at Yusuf Sarai by AVUT. It was during the first day matinee show of Hindi movie 'Border' on June 13, 1997 that a fire, which spread from a faulty transformer, snuffed out 59 lives.

Even after cinema owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal were slammed by Delhi High Court on December 19, 2009, for not ensuring the safety of cine-goers and completely disregarding "corporate social responsibility," the court had, on a appeal by the Ansals, reduced the twoyear sentence given to them by the trial court in 2007 to one year.

A petition filed by the CBI and AVUT seeking enhancement of the sentence is still pending in the Supreme Court. Three other cases connected to the incident also await verdict.

Talking about other man made tragedies such as the fire at the Kolkata's AMRI superspecialty hospital on December 9, 2011, which claimed 89 lives, and a two-year jail term given by a Bhopal court in October 2010 to eight convicted in Bhopal gas tragedy which left over 15,000 people dead, Krishnamoorthy says, "Such incidents are bound to recur since there is no legal deterrent to instill fear in the minds of those who, out of greed to make more money, intentionally ignore public safety laws. Only the toll differs."

Dealing on the issue of "mass tragedies", while dealing with the compensation for Upahaar victims, the Supreme Court had said: "It is unfortunate that no legislation has been enacted to deal with such situations. We hope and trust that utmost attention would be given by the legislature for bringing in appropriate legislation to deal with claims in public law for violation of fundamental rights, guaranteed to the citizens at the hands of the state and its officials."

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.