Fire tragedies: Urgent need for legislation to deal with human negligence-triggered accidents - Hindustan Times
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Fire tragedies: Urgent need for legislation to deal with human negligence-triggered accidents

ByNeelam Krishnamoorthy
May 29, 2024 08:57 PM IST

The need of the hour is to have a single point nodal agency consisting of experts in structural engineering, fire prevention, and electrical systems.

This past week, India witnessed two major man-made tragedies, one in the TRP Gaming Zone, Rajkot, where 33 people lost their lives including young children and the other at Baby Care Hospital, New Delhi, where seven infants died.

Firefighters attempt to douse the fire after it broke out at a New Born Baby Care Hospital in Vivek Vihar on May 25 (ANI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Firefighters attempt to douse the fire after it broke out at a New Born Baby Care Hospital in Vivek Vihar on May 25 (ANI)(HT_PRINT)

Tragedy struck at the TRP Gaming Zone in Gujarat’s Rajkot on May 25 at a time when the venue was bustling with visitors, mostly youngsters. As per media reports, the fire, which swept through the gaming arcade could have been caused by sparks from a welding machine that inadvertently landed on highly flammable materials stockpiled within the premises.

As it turned out, fire safety norms had been violated in the arcade and the staff abandoned the visitors when the fire broke out. It emerged that the management had stored combustible material indoors and, in addition, there were no emergency exits from the building.

The cause of the fire at the Baby Care hospital in Delhi could have been an electrical short circuit.

Again, the list of violations was long and callous: The hospital had permission for five beds but at the time of the incident there were 12 infants admitted to the hospital. It was operating without a valid license, there were no emergency exits from the building, fire extinguishers were not installed on the hospital premises, and it did not possess a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) issued by the fire department.  

Uphaar tragedy lessons not learnt

I cannot help but say with the utmost regret, disappointment and anger that no lessons have been learnt from the Uphaar cinema tragedy that took place 27 years ago on June 13, 1997.

I call these tragedies man-made because they are caused by gross negligence and a complete disregard for the value of human lives. These tragedies are nothing but murder by wilful negligence.

The cause of fire in such incidents is usually an electrical short circuit and the cause of death is generally asphyxia. Owners are squarely responsible for the incidents because in many cases they do not comply with fire safety measures including providing the required number of exits from the premises.

Often, the owners and occupiers connive with government agencies to violate fire safety measures, inevitably endangering human lives. Officials from these very government agencies are known to tell the owners of public spaces how to subvert rules and by-laws in exchange for money.

In the aftermath of such fire-related incidents, it is always interesting, insightful and, many times, frustrating to analyse what happens to those responsible – the owners, managers and staff of these spaces -- of such spaces: How many of them face punishment and the quantum of punishment.

At the end of the analysis, the conclusion is bound to be both eye-opening and a source of shame.    

It is only in the Uphaar fire tragedy case that the owners were convicted under section 304(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) (Rash & Negligent Act) after the case went up to the Supreme Court.  

Unfortunately, the convicted Ansal brothers were allowed to walk free by paying a paltry sum of Rs 60 crores  as a fine to the Delhi Government to build a trauma centre in Dwarka. the city. The fine amount was deposited with the Delhi Government on 9th November 2015. But unfortunately, this centre has still not come up.

A fire official convicted for issuing NOCs for Uphaar cinema while on casual leave,  was allowed to walk free by paying a sum of Rs 10 Lakh to the Delhi government.

Those involved in such serious and fatal incidents of negligence are often booked under IPC section 304 (A), which deals with  rash and negligent acts. The provision is classified as “bailable”: This is a mockery of justice.  

Only in some cases, and mostly because of public outrage, investigating agencies book those responsible under section 304 (II) IPC  (Culpable Homicide Not Amounting to Murder) being fully aware of the fact that it will not pass the test of the court.   

The Uphaar cinema case verdict

The Uphaar verdict is certain to go down in history as a travesty of justice since those said to be involved were convicted under section 304 (A) of the IPC. Such a judgement will only embolden the owners of public spaces to violate safety rules and compromise on safety.

It is for the courts to see that justice is done and lawbreakers are brought to book. Incidents – like the Uphaar tragedy and the two recent fires in Rajkot and Delhi -- are bound to recur since there is no legal deterrence, which can instil fear in the minds of those who could potentially violate or bend rules and regulations.

The fight for a new law

 I am unable to comprehend how man-made disasters 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 Indian government to bring about a new law to deal with accidents, which are likely triggered by human negligence.

In 2009, the Union 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 from AVUT 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 lying in an obscure corner of the ministry. 

My journey for justice

I began my journey to get justice for my teenage children whose lives were cruelly cut short in the Uphaar Fire tragedy. I was devastated by the loss of my children but was firm in my belief that I would get justice and ensure that such tragedies could be averted in future.

 Unfortunately, I have failed in my endeavour to get justice and also to ensure that such tragedies do not recur and that no other parent goes through the same grief and pain of loss.    

As many as 27 years later, no lesson has been learnt from the Uphaar fire tragedy. After each incident, the blame game starts. Hence the need of the hour is to have a single-point nodal agency or licensing authority consisting of experts in structural engineering, fire prevention, electrical systems etc. This nodal agency should be held responsible and accountable for mishaps.  

Another key requirement is to have appropriate legislation to tackle such incidents and put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that compels potential offenders to think twice before committing acts of omission or commission that can endanger human life.

The legislation must prescribe the mandatory stipulations that need to be met by owners, occupiers and builders of places inhabited and visited by the public at large. Strict adherence to public safety norms, rules and regulations 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. 

Until this is done, we can forget about building smart cities and becoming world leaders; instead, we will continue to be busy dealing with the tragic aftermath of accidents in public spaces, which are run illegally and without adequate safety measures.

Neelam Krishnamoorthy is president, Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy. The views expressed are personal

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