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Revisiting the ruling in Uphaar Cinema case

The court took cognisance of the case which was filed in the aftermath of a fire that broke out in the posh Uphaar Cinema complex in Green Park Extension, New Delhi on June 13, 1997.

The court has the responsibility of deciding the guilt of Ansal brothers along with others for the negligence of stipulated infrastructural requirements which led to the demise of 59 people and grievous injuries to others.

During the screening of the film “Border”, a short-circuit in a transformer led to the commencement of the fire. The doors of the hall remained closed as none of the staff followed any evacuation procedures. A significant number of the audience died due to asphyxiation and lack of adequate exit routes to facilitate evacuation due to infrastructural defects.

The Supreme Court convicted Ansal brothers for causing death due to negligence (Section 304A IPC). A fine of ₹60 crore has been imposed on the brothers.

Ansal brothers had been the owners as well as managers of the building till 1988. Subsequently, they had withdrawn from the management on paper, but all major decisions were still in their hands as decided by the High Court. On June 13, 1997, repairs were done by officers of the DVB on the transformers of the building.

After the repairs, it wasn’t checked whether all the other lines were in perfect condition or not. This led to a subsequent short-circuit. The original capacity of the hall was 250, but additions had been made. The result of which had been blocking off the exit route on the right side of the hall.

The mandatory distance between the transformer and car parking wasn’t maintained. Structural defects limited movement during emergencies. The High Court observed that emergency lighting, as well as the PA system, was rendered useless.

The gatekeeper Manmohan Uniyal had bolted the hall door from outside and not passed the keys to the person supposedly on duty. The inability of the people to evacuate the hall during the fire led to deaths due to asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The decision given by the court is of holding Ansal brothers along with others guilty of ‘negligence’. Negligence refers to a breach of duty to do something which a reasonably prudent man under the circumstances would have done. It was the duty of Ansal brothers to keep the theatre in a reasonable safe condition which includes following infrastructural as well as safety regulation requirements due to being occupiers of the premises.

The breach of the duty of care on the part of the defendant led to injury to the plaintiff. The Ansal brothers are liable for vicarious liability for the actions of their employees resulted in the mishap under their employment. The negligence of Ansal brothers and staff is Causa Causans to the death of 59 people.

In view of all the above facts and reasoning taken into consideration the accused need to be convicted under Section 304A of the IPC for causing death by negligence which is consistent with other judgements.

In my opinion, the ruling of the court is perfectly appropriate and in accordance with the laws laid down. The non-compliance of the Ansal brothers company to infrastructural requirements and safety norms endangered as well as caused loss of life. Being fully aware of the breach of rules they did not take due care to provide for alternate evacuation procedures at the time of emergency as well as the inability of the staff to manage such situations with prior training.

In 2003, the Delhi high court had awarded compensation of ₹ 18.5 crores to be paid — ₹18 lakh to the next of kin of each victim above 20 years of age; ₹15 lakh for victims below 20 years of age; and ₹1 lakh each to the injured. The court ordered that this is to be paid with 9% interest.

The ruling was given by the Supreme Court of India on August 19, 2015. The Ansal brothers, Sushil and Gopal, have been sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment for criminal negligence. Due to their age, the court has ordered them to pay compensation of ₹30 crore each. The three DJB officers involved as well as employees of the theatre including the manager have also been convicted under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code.

The Indian Supreme Court is justified in holding the accused guilty. The evidence and facts which have been proved in the courts point to the guilt of the accused. The brothers along with the staff of the cinema hall were aware of the deficiencies in the infrastructure and didn’t take action to rectify the same. The court has taken a humanitarian view and reduced the sentence given the advanced ages of the accused.

This verdict of guilty passed against the Ansal brother’s re-affirms the fate of the people in the Indian judicial system. This judgment proves the principle that everyone is equal before the law. No matter one’s financial or social status, the law will take its course and provide justice to the citizens.

The misnomer that the judgment could have been different if the accident happened in a working class locality in contrast to a posh area does not hold any strength in my opinion.

The judiciary has the role of dispensing justice impartially. The place and status of the parties are irrelevant to the courts of law. It is the material facts and evidence presented which is the basis of judgment by the judges.

The lawyer’s job in the adversarial mode of adjudication which is followed in India is to introduce the case of the parties before the magistrate. It is the sole discretion of the judge to give a rule in favour of a party on the basis of evidence presented. The status of the parties or place of the event ought not to have a say while a case is decided.

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