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May 14, 2003
Implications of Uphaar Cinema judgement

There is wide consensus that the award of Rs.17 crores to the victims of the Uphaar Cinema fire, is a landmark event. Both the petitioners’ and defence lawyers concur that the Delhi High Court judgement of April 24, 2003 will force businesses and government bodies to become aware that their neglect of laws will cost them dear. There are many other positive gains too for India, but we will come to them later. First the facts.

In the year 1997 as India was preening itself to celebrate 50 years of Independence a patriotic film, ‘Border’ premièred on June 13 at Uphaar Cinema, Delhi. It was a Friday the 13th and lived up to its reputation. A fire began in the car park and engulfed the cinema. 59 died and over a hundred were seriously injured.

But then something happened that would change the way liability is apportioned in India.  A diligent Deputy Commissioner of Police Mr.Naresh Kumar produced within 20 days, a devastating indictment of many bodies. He catalogued the culpability of a huge cast in the tragedy:
--Delhi’s power utility [DVB] had shoddily installed a transformer in a private property, the Uphaar basement.
-- The car park meant for 15, usually packed twice that number
--Following a fire in Gopal Towers in 1983, all high-risk buildings were inspected and Uphaar was found to be deficient. Its licence was cancelled but it obtained a ‘temporary’ and carried on the next decade till the 1997 fire.
--Ansals, the owners had illegally constructed a balcony and fitted in extra seats
--An entire rows of exits had been been blocked to create the added facilty
--The fire services were barely equipped to cope with the disaster

The first gain out of the ashes of this tragedy was directly due to the Naresh Kumar Report.  Tulsi says, “it was not difficult for us to apply the principle of Public Law Liability on the basis of Strict Liability Principle, without having to prove the actual loss suffered by each victim.” Previously it used to be a heartless evaluation of the income of the deceased lost to the heirs. Presumably a plumber’s life is less valuable than that of a tycoon’s. Now the rule of the game has changed.

Next, the victims here formed themselves into an association which helped them stay the course for six years, support each other in their grief and anxieties, manage the costs and prove formidable for the defendants.

Finally --and most imporatantly-- the Court divided the award of Rs.17 crores among the Ansals [55%] and three municipal services. The Court indicted the fire services and the power company and the licensing authorities and to make their censure memeorable, made them pay cold cash. This is a first for India and commentators say it bodes well for the rule of law.

Ansals have just two months to pay up or else their property is to be auctioned to satisfy the liability. Expectedly, whispers have arisen saying that this judgement would open the floodgates of liability litigations prompted by lawyers. Tulsi retorts: “ the open defiance of safety laws can only be contained by opening these floodgates. We are glad that the floodgates have been opened, albeit only a little.”

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