The apex court slashed punitive damages to be paid by cinema owners Ansal brothers from Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh
It's a case that has managed to occupy the otherwise exiguous public memory space for more than 14 years.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court reduced the amount of compensation for 59 people who died in south Delhi's Uphaar cinema hall fire in 1997, and also slashed punitive damages to be paid by cinema owners Ansal brothers from Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh.
Relatives of Uphaar tragedy victims paying tribute to the departed souls, at the memorial set up near the cinema hall, on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of the tragedy, in New Delhi
The apex court cut down compensation for those above 20 years from Rs 18 lakh to Rs 10 lakh while for those under 20 years, the amount has been reduced from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 7.5 lakh.
The victims' kin expressed disappointment at the verdict. Lashing out at the Ansals as well as government agencies, the families said that those who were responsible should have been made to pay hefty fines.
Speaking to the media after the verdict, Neelam Krishnamurthy, convenor of the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) and also a mother who lost her two children - daughter Unnati (17) and son Ujwal (13) - said, "We are highly disappointed at the judgement.
We had to fight 15 years for justice. Now we will have to see on what basis the compensation money was reduced."
"This is not about money but the point is that if you want to bring in deterrence you must make those responsible pay hefty damages," Krishnamurthy said.
Kin of another victim, Durga Das, who lost his son said, "Our fight was not for money but we wanted a judgment that would act as a deterrent so that nobody else meets the same fate like our children."
The apex court also ruled that the MCD and Delhi Police, the licensing authority, cannot be held responsible for the tragedy. It said that the responsibility lies with the Ansals and the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB).
The Ansals have been told to pay 85 per cent of the compensation, while the DVB will have to pay 15 per cent. The punitive damages imposed by the Delhi High Court on Ansals have also been reduced from Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh.
"I fail to understand how this puny amount will discourage corporates in future. The MCD should have been made liable.
People will continue to die in such tragedies and passing the buck will go on," said Navin Sahni, family member of a victim.
However, MCD lawyer Sanjeev Sen said, "Total quantum of compensation awarded by the HC to the victims has been maintained.
But the liability of MCD in this whole episode has been set aside and so has of the Delhi police, which is the licensing authority.
The stand of the MCD was always that we were not liable; we complied with all the statutory obligations. We had made timely reports, pointed out illegal constructions."
The tragedy occurred on Friday, June 13, 1997 at Uphaar Cinema, Green Park, Delhi, during the premiere screening of Border.
59 people died and 103 were seriously injured in the subsequent stampede; most of the victims were trapped on the balcony and were asphyxiated as they tried to reach dimly marked exits to escape the smoke and fire, and found the doors locked.
The fire broke out at 5:10 pm, after the transformer at the parking level burst, and 20 cars in the parking lot caught fire, eventually leading to a large scale fire in the five-storey building which housed the cinema hall and several offices.
At least 48 fire tenders were pressed into service at 5.20 p.m. and it took them over an hour to put out the fire.