When the Uphaar Cinema Fire tragedy in New Delhi occurred on 13th June 1997, 59 people died inside the cinema hall due to suffocation and 103 were seriously injured in the resulting stampede. An FIR was lodged against Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal, owners of the Uphaar cinema and seven other officials who were directly looking after the affairs of the movie theatre.
The trial court held Ansal brothers guily of “causing death by negligent act” and awarded them the maximum punishment of two years rigorous imprisonment. It was later commuted to one year by the apex court, on condition that they deposited ₹30 crore each (apart from the compensation they had paid to the fire victims). Other seven accused, three of them managers, were all given seven years rigorous imprisonment.
Closer to our time, last month, when a seven-year-old class II student of the Ryan International School was murdered in its Gurugram campus, the case was handed over to the CBI (as the Gurugram police could not be trusted) and an FIR was lodged against the founders of the group and the CEO, all based in Mumbai. The Punjab and Haryana High Court has given them anticipatory bail but the Supreme Court on October 13 served notice on both the Ryan Group and the CBI as to why the anticipatory bail should not be cancelled. Sooner or later, the owners and the top officials will be brought to justice.
This is what happens (the rule of law takes over) when the negligence of private agencies cause loss of lives. But when it comes to government agencies, it seems, the rule of law vanishes in thin air! 23 people died in the stampede at the Elphinstone Road Station ‘foot over bridge’ on September 29. It was a British-era FOB and the sanction for a new FOB had been given in May 2015 itself. But in more than two years, no action had been taken in this regard (the officials suddenly woke up after the September 29 morning disaster and uploaded the tender on the official website the same evening).
The callousness and negligence was evident. But no FIR was lodged; no CBI enquiry was ordered. Was it that the lives of 23 people who died in the Elphinstone incident was any less important than the life of one child in an elite school in Gurugram?
We were told by the Railway Minister that the Railways will hold a time-bound inquiry and fix accountability! Yes, the Railways conducted a time-bound enquiry and came out with a report on October 11. And who did it find responsible for the tragic deaths? The report completely absolved the railway officials of any responsibility; it pointed the accusing finger at the Rain God. “The incident was caused due to panic and confusion created on the bridge coupled with rains. No one can be held responsible for the incident”, the report said.
And then the railway ministry came up with suggestions on how to prevent such tragedies in future. Well, if the Uphaar officials also had come up with suggestions, how to prevent the fire tragedies in future, would they too have been spared? Why were they subjected to the law for their acts of omission and commission?
When will the proverbial long arm of the law bite the upper echelons of the government hierarchy?
The Railways got away saying that the culprit for September 29 tragedy was “the sudden outpour of heavy rains”. Who were the culprits when the Utkal Express derailed in Muzaffarnagar on August 19, killing 24 people and seriously injuring more than 150 people and what action was taken against them?
The accident certainly did not happen due to extraneous factors like rain; it was clear that the negligence during the maintenance work on the track was the cause of the derailment. The Member Traffic of the Railway Board admitted as much in a statement. Taking note of the public uproar, the Railway Minister sent the Member Engineering of the Rail Board, General Manager of Northern Railways, and Divisional Railway Manager of Delhi on indefinite leave and suspended four junior engineers.
Even that punitive action, in itself very small compared to the gargantuan tragedy, was reversed in less than a month. The Times of India reported on September 19: “Railway officials, including senior officers of Northern Zone who were sent on leave or suspended after the derailment of Utkal Express near Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh returned to their duties on Monday.”
It went on to say: “The suspension of senior divisional engineer and assistant engineer of Delhi division were revoked after issuance of a minor charge sheet.”
Just four days after the Utkal Express tragedy, the Kaifyat Express derailed after colliding with a dumper which had been carelessly left on the railway track near Auriya in Uttar Pradesh. More than 70 people were severely injured in this accident.
And what action was taken? The government asked Ashok Mittal, the Chairman of the Railway Board, to resign. Why this prompt action? Because the government was looking for an opportunity to reward its favourite Railway officer as the Railway Board chief before he retired. Ashwani Lohani is such a favourite of the government that though he is a Railway Engineering cadre officer, he was made the Chairman of the Air India.
During his two-year tenure as the Chairman, Lohani, instead of turning around the Air India’s fortunes, brought it to a stage that the public sector behemoth was deemed insolvent and ready for liquidation. Lohani had to be rehabilitated; so, Mittal was made a scapegoat and Lohani was appointed the Railway Board Chairman.
Even Suresh Prabhu ‘magnanimously’ accepted moral responsibility for the series of accidents and ‘offered’ to resign! The Prime Minister ‘accepted’ his offer and made him the Minister for Commerce and Industry!
It was a déjà vu of a kind! On August 2, 1992, when Gaisal train disaster happened – the Brahmaputra Mail crashed headlong into a stationary Avadh-Assam Express – killing 400 people and injuring more than a thousand, the ‘conscience-stricken’ Railway Minister Nitish Kumar resigned; Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee praised Nitish Kumar for his morally upright stand, and, lo and behold, a few days later appointed him as the Agriculture Minister!
This is how accountability works in India!
Why should heads of private agencies go to jail and pay through their nose for negligence in institutions under their command, and why should these political and bureaucratic executives be allowed to go scot free – forget about sending them to jail, they even do not lose their job – in a country we call a democracy where public officials are supposed to be accountable to people?
It is high time the Supreme Court lays down the rule that public officials will be personally responsible for their negligence that leads to deaths and injuries in areas under their respective jurisdictions.
If that does not happen, holding the heads of private institutions for any mishap in their premises will be a travesty of the principle of the equality before law.