Ten years is a long time, but not long enough, at times, for the Indian judicial system.
On June 13th 1997 a fire broke out in a New Delhi movie theater, killing fifty-nine people and injuring a hundred and three, many of whom were women and children. The fire was small and no one died of burns; they all died of asphyxiation, suffocated by the toxic smoke, which had no outlet. The people in the hall were trapped when the lights went out. There were no well marked exits, some of the doors were bolted from the outside, another emergency exit had been permanently shut to provide for more seats, and there were no emergency lights. Not only that, fifteen minutes after the fire started, the theater manager ran out with the cash box, leaving everyone inside to their own fate.
The relatives of the victims were devastated; some lost their entire families in the tragedy. Neelam Krishnamoorthy was one such person – she lost both her children in the fire, a seventeen-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son. Not being able to come to terms with the fact that her children had died because of the negligence of a few people and that they would’ve been alive had the officials followed simple fire safety norms, she and her husband decided to fight for justice and punish the guilty. She was advised by family not to go down that path, since taking on real estate tycoons who owned the theater would not be an easy task. But she didn’t hear any of it. Neelam said she owed it to her children to bring those responsible to justice.
Ten years on, she is still fighting that battle. And in the course of it, becoming a good example of how things are – slowly – changing in the Indian legal system. There’s much made in India over the slow pace at which disputes are resolved in the courts and other protections that are said to make it hard to do business in this country – but it’s smaller cases involving individuals that are often a better measure of progress toward an equitable implementation of the law.
Soon after laying her beloved children to rest, Neelam set out to look for the other relatives of the victims and founded the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) – Uphaar was the name of the theater – which has tirelessly fought for justice in the last ten years, wanting to bring the guilty to book. The case has gone through its ups and downs, and there have been some major victories.
The association won a verdict that awarded it monetary compensation, to be paid by the real estate group, the Ansals, and the government departments that were held responsible for negligence, including the Municipal Department of Delhi, which runs this massive city. The ruling was welcomed by the association not so much because of the money, but because in this case the rich and as well as the civic authorities were seen as guilty. And in India, both of these parties mostly get away with flouting the law, often because they have colluded in winking at each others’ bad behavior.
There have been other cases of negligence by officials where hundreds of lives, again of children, have been lost, but no one was held accountable. The worst of this was the 1995 fire in Dabwali (a small town in the north Indian state of Haryana) where about four hundred children died during an annual school event that was being held in a tent. Again, there were no safety rules being followed and there was only one small exit through which everyone tried to escape.
The crux of the matter is that safety is not taken very seriously in India, and this often leads to horrific tragedies that get talked about when they happen, but are soon forgotten. The Uphaar case, in that, has proved different. By it’s sheer perseverance it has achieved a couple of victories: it has set an example by winning a historic verdict for monetary compensation, something that offenders will think about before cutting corners on safety, and it has also forced the government to seriously address safety issues with the civic authorities.
For AVUT, it’s been a long ten years but the association has kept up its struggle and not allowed the incident to be dismissed as just another tragedy and forgotten, only to be remembered by those who still feel the loss. The criminal liability case is still to be decided. And while no one can predict how much longer the case will carry on, it does seem to be nearing the end. The verdict, closely watched decision that was supposed to have come last week, has now been postponed to Oct 22nd.
In the meantime, in the last ten years, Neelam’s children’s room has remained unchanged, the books, the clothes in the closet and even the bed sheets remain untouched, as though the children still live there. Neelam says she finds peace in the room and sits there whenever she feels disheartened, feeling that they are with her. She does not seem to want closure; all she wants is justice.