July 24, 2021

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All you need to know about the Uphaar fire tragedy case

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This article is written by Gitika Jain pursuing BBA.LLB (Hons) from Amity University, Kolkata. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the Uphaar fire tragedy case.

Table of Contents

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Justice TS Thakur said in this case that enforcement of laws should be given equal importance as an enactment of laws. The easy-breezy and chalta hai attitude of people often costs society as a whole. The undemanded attention of the media in some serious cases, their switching of sides to gain TRP, somehow indirectly managing to declare a judgement even before the judiciary, putting peer pressure on either of the parties and the court, everything adds to the already worsened situation altogether. A somewhat similar story is presented in the case of Sushil Ansal vs State through CBI. Sad but true. 

Uphaar Cinema building at Green Park Extension shopping centre, New Delhi had a cinema auditorium with 750 seats along with a balcony with 250 seats. The auditorium had two floors; the ground floor parking lots and the three separate rooms one of which was used to keep 1000 watts transformers. On 13th June, 1997, at about 6:55 am, one of the transformers caught fire. By 7:25 a.m., the fire was brought under control. The transformer was repaired and the cinema hall regained electricity supply by 11:30 a.m. on that same day. Even after the repairs, the transformer had sparkling which resulted in a loose connection and which burnt a hole in the radiator fan. It was through this whole that the oil started leaking out.

The transformer even did not have an oil soak pit which according to the regulations standard practice was needed and because of which they kept spreading the fire to the adjacent parking lot. The area of the chimneys through which the gas passes was also shut. All of these things happened while a large number of people were seated in the auditorium watching the movie border.

Due to the smoke and carbon monoxide, people started feeling suffocated. People present in the balcony had to run in the dark towards the exit. Due to the huge rush and the suffocation, 59 of the people present at the spot died. After a while, a rescue operation was attempted by Delhi fire service at 5:10 p.m. The whole operation took nearly 45 minutes to save the rest of the people. None of the staff from the management in the theatre was present for help in the theatre. 

Initially, the investigation into the case was looked after by Dilip (Delhi police inspector in chief) to leave but soon thereafter it was transferred to the crime branch and eventually to the CBI under Delhi special police establishment Act 1946. All the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against them and they demanded a trial. Not only that, all of the accused persons filed a writ petition before Delhi High Court. 

115 witnesses were examined during the trial by the prosecution. The witnesses narrated all the events inside the hall. Uphaar Cinema was owned by a company of Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal and other family members who violated several rules and regulations. After relying on the documentary and oral evidence for the prosecution, the trial court found that one of the applications for grant of electricity for Uphaar Cinema was signed by Sushil Ansal. 

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The Uphaar Cinema fire was one of the worst fire tragedies in India. The Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy occurred on 13th June, 1997 Friday at the green park of Delhi where there was a premium screening of the movie: Border. During that time, there were people who were trapped inside and as many as 59 people died because of the suffocation and 103 people were seriously injured. The fire at the place broke out at 5:10 pm. According to the report, the fire was caused when a 1000 KVA electricity transformer that was maintained by Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) at that time and was maintained in the theatres’ overcrowded basement car park, burst and destroyed 20 cars where 36 were parked but the capacity was only 18.

The fire slowly and gradually spread into the five-storey building where the cinema hall and several other offices too were housed Most of the victims of the tragedy were trapped on the balcony and died because of the suffocation as they were trying to reach the exits to escape from the smoke and fire surroundings but because of the dim lights and the locked doors, they got trapped there. An off-duty captain Manjinder Singh Pinder of 61st Cavalry of the Indian army, who was also a talented horse rider, was celebrating his success at National games with his family at the movie hall who himself initiated to save his family’s life along with 150 other people on his personal initiative.

First, he rushed out along with his family, then gradually after he realised the gravity of the tragedy he went back inside along with his people and tried to guide other people out to safety. The fire services were even delayed because of the heavy traffic in the evening and the location of the cinema hall was also situated at one of the busiest areas of South Delhi. There were at least 48 firefighters who reached there to give their services at 5:20 p.m. and it took more than an hour for them to put out the fire. Later on, the dead people and the injured were immediately rushed to the nearby hospital named All India Institute of Medical Sciences AIIMS and Safdarjung hospital. The scene in the hospital was very chaotic and pandemonium because the relatives and other family members of the victims were rushing around looking for their known faces. 

It was said that, earlier in the morning hours, a small fire broke in the electrical transformer but it was soon put out and repaired by DVB officials. In the later hour, the oil spilt from the transformer caught fire and spread everywhere. When the transformer cost fire at Gopal Towers which is a high rise in Rajendra Place, New Delhi in 1893, the licences of as many as 12 cinemas including upahar were cancelled.

Uphaar cinema was inspected by the Deputy Commissioner of police and it listed 10 serious violations and all remained incorrect until 14 years later of the fire tragedy.  

The first investigation and trial took place and submitted its report on 3rd July 1997 where it was held that the management of cinema Delhi Vidyut Board, the Delhi Police licensing branch and municipal corporation, Salwa was responsible for the incident because they all contributed to the mishap through their act or omission in some of the other manners.

It was also blamed that the cinema management was losing precious time by not allotting the fire services and also not maintaining a proper distance between the transformer room and the car park.

Another blame was that when the fire broke out at 16:45 hours, the movie was also not stopped nor there was any announcement made for bewaring the audience is about the mishap and allowing them to exit no exit signs were wrong battery operated and hence whenever the lights went out people were all in dark and the panic-struck waiting and looking for someone to show them the way to the exit and the free them from the suffocation caused because of the fire.

There were even seeds exceeding the limiting capacity that blocked the way of many people and the door itself that was an exit door. Subsequently, the court issued a bailable warrant against Sushil Ansal, his brother Gopal, Delhi Vidyut board inspector and two fire service officials. After the wedding arrest, Sushil and his son Pranav Ansal, the owner of the theatres and club hotels limited which even owned the Uphaar Cinema were finally arrested on 27th July, 1997 in Mumbai and were sent to judicial custody who was later on released on bail.

Amongst them, there was another company director who was arrested was VK Agarwal.

Following the enquiry transfer to Central Bureau of Investigation was made by the Union Home Ministry, other missed charges of cover by the victim families on 15th November 1997 where various charge sheets were filed against 16 accused including the owners Sushil and Gopal Ansal, for causing death by negligence and endangering the lives of many under the provisions of Cinematograph Act, 1952. By the year 2000, the prosecution completed the recording of evidence of hundred and fifteen witnesses. The case had a total of 344 hearings during the first seven years and it ran over a decade.

Even four of the accused died and this witness, mostly the relatives of Ansal turned hostile witness. The criminal trial in 2003 of the presiding judge commented that the case was being intended to delay.

Almost after nine years of the tragedy, a trial court judge visited the Uphaar Cinema hall again in August 2006 along with CBI officials who investigated the case and the dog got the first-hand look at the city and fire safety arrangements that were blamed for the tragedy.

The court was sealed for it to be preserved as material evidence since the tragedy. Another visit was followed by a High Court order in which the trial court examined the available witnesses of the case and the court proceeding was gradually coming to an end. In that report, it was observed that on the second floor of the theatre, that is the balcony, the victims were trapped because the space provided for exhaust fans on the walls was blocked with the help of cardboard.

Again in 2003, the public prosecutor of the case reported that the documents filed along with the charge sheet of the case were missing from the court record and were tampered or manipulated. 

Again in 2006, Delhi Police registered the case in Delhi High Court on a petition by association of victims of Uphaar tragedy.

In February 2008, on the basis of the charge sheet that was filed by the Economic Offences Wing for removing or tampering the important documents of the case, the Uphaar Cinema hall owner was summoned by Delhi High Court along with four others in the evidence tampering case under section 120 B 201 and 409 of the Indian Penal Code.

                   

The final judgement came after 4 years on 28th November 2007 and sentence was given on 23rd November 2007 in which 12 people along with two answer brothers were held guilty and later on convicted for various offences so charged against them including causing death by negligent act and they were given a maximum punishment of 2 years rigorous imprisonment along with a fine of thousand each for violating Section 14 of Cinematography Act. Another direction given by the court term to the CBI was to investigate the role of other officials who gave temporary licence to the Uphaar Cinema for 17 years down the line. 

The other 7 accused, three former Uphaar cinema managers and the cinema gatekeepers and officials, were also given 7 years of rigorous imprisonment under Section 304 a of Indian Penal Code and were jailed at the Tihar Jail. The twelve of the accused were also fined 5000 each and were sentenced to two years of rigorous imprisonment because they were found guilty of endangering the personal safety of others. 

The victims of the tragedy and the family which filed the landmark civil compensation case won rupees 25 crore compensation and the Supreme Court on 13th October, 2011 declared the sum of compensation awarded to them by the Delhi High Court and slashed down the unit of damages to be paid by the owners from 2.5 crores to 25 lakh. 

The final verdict of the case came on 24th April 2003 where the Delhi High Court held the owners of the Uphaar Cinema and Delhi Vidyut Board guilty of negligence and awarded 25 crores civil compensation to the relatives of the victims including the 15 lacs to the relatives and the 18 lakh who were above 20 years. 

However, later on October 13, 2011, the Supreme Court reduced the compensation amount from 18 lakh to 10 lakh each to 15 lakh to 7.5 lakh each. 


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