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Posted at: Feb 14, 2019, 6:32 AM; last updated: Feb 14, 2019, 8:04 AM (IST)

Murder by negligence

Neelam Krishnamoorthy

Neelam Krishnamoorthy
Man-made disasters can’t be treated merely as rash and negligent act
Murder by negligence
Grim scenario: Incidents of such catastrophic magnitude are bound to recur. There is no deterrence that can instil fear in the minds of possible wrongdoers.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy

President of Association of victims of Uphaar tragedy 
 
Different places, different tragedies. Apart from the number of casualties being different, there is one common thread that runs through each of the mass tragedies that has rocked our nation in the last quarter of a century — all of them were man-made. 

New Delhi has witnessed yet another fire incident, at Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh on February 12, wherein 17 precious lives were lost for no fault of theirs. According to media reports, short circuit was the cause of the fire. The stairs were not wide enough to allow more than two persons from running out together, there was an emergency exit but the same was blocked with stored goods, the hotel staff abandoned the guests and there was an illegal bar on the rooftop. Moreover, there was wooden panelling in the corridors. This aggravated the fire resulting in the loss of lives. This is nothing but murder by wilful negligence.

Ironically, the cause of fire incidents is mainly short circuit and the cause of death is generally asphyxia. People get trapped due to non-availability of egress, which as per law is mandatory. The failure to provide the required number of exits and non-compliance with fire safety measures by the owners/occupiers result in the death of innocent citizens. The owners/occupiers connive with government agencies to violate fire safety measures, thus endangering lives. It is these very government agencies that ‘educate’ the owners of public spaces on how to subvert the rules and bylaws in exchange for monetary consideration.

Each fire incident represents man’s never-ending greed and/or intentional ignorance of public safety laws. These are also indicative of the fact that probably we have learnt nothing from these tragedies. It would be interesting to analyse what happened to the perpetrators of such unpardonable crimes. How many of them were punished and to what extent? The answer is bound to be shameful. It is only the Uphaar fire  tragedy, wherein the owners have been convicted all the way up to the apex court under Section 304A (rash and negligent act) of the IPC, but unfortunately, the Ansals were allowed to walk free by paying a paltry sum of Rs 60 crore towards a trauma centre to be built in Delhi. A fire official convicted of issuing NOCs to Uphaar Cinema, too, was allowed to walk free by paying Rs 10 lakh to substitute his sentence of one year.

The Uphaar verdict is certain to go down in history as a travesty of justice. The judgment is both unfortunate and terrible and one which shows the mindset of the court. Such a judgment will only embolden the owners of public spaces to violate safety rules and compromise on safety. It is a well-known fact that lawbreakers are always ahead of lawmakers, but it is for the courts to see that justice is done and lawbreakers are brought to book. In this grim scenario, incidents of such catastrophic magnitude are bound to recur since there is no legal deterrence that can instil fear in the minds of possible wrongdoers.

I could not comprehend how a man-made disaster could be treated merely as a rash and negligent act. Hence, the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) made a representation to the Government of India to bring about a new law to deal with man-made disasters. AVUT presented the petition for a proposed legislation to prevent man-made tragedies in public places to the then President and the UPA chairperson.

In 2009, the Law Ministry forwarded our petition to the Law Commission, directing it to come out with a law to deal with such disasters on a priority basis. We had several meetings with the chairman of the Law Commission and gave him many inputs, illustrating how such cases were dealt with in other countries. In 2012, the Law Commission published a consultation paper dealing with man-made disasters, which I am sure is gathering dust in an obscure corner of the ministry.  

The need of the hour is to have an appropriate legislation to tackle such disasters and put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that compels future offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission or commission that can endanger human life. The legislation must prescribe the mandatory stipulations that need to be met with by owners, occupiers and/or builders of places inhabited and/or visited by public at large. Strict adherence to public safety norms and rules/regulations thereto must be ensured through this legislation. Not only should adequate punishment be prescribed for the offenders but care must also be taken that the punishment is of such a nature and degree that it has the necessary preventive effect.

I began my journey to get justice for my teenaged children. I was devastated by their loss, but firm in my belief that I would get justice and ensure that such tragedies could be averted. But unfortunately, I have failed in my endeavour to get justice and also to ensure that such tragedies will not recur and no other parents will have to go through the same grief and pain of loss.   

Two decades later, no lessons have been learnt from the Uphaar tragedy. After each incident, the blame game begins, hence we need a single-point nodal agency/licensing authority consisting of experts in structural engineering/building, fire prevention, electrical systems, etc. This nodal agency should be held responsible and accountable for any mishaps. And, the ‘chalta hai’ attitude, which is engrained in the Indian system, must stop.

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