The Supreme Court’s decision to reduce the prison sentence imposed on the owners of New Delhi’s Uphaar cinema, which suffered a horrific fire tragedy that consumed 59 lives in 1997, and instead >award a compensation of Rs.60 crore to the state, reduces the entire criminal process to an empty formality. By preferring to sentence Sushil Ansal and Gopal Ansal to the period they had spent in prison — hardly five months — a three-judge Bench seems to have treated the entire issue of criminal negligence as a matter of civil compensation, and criminal liability a very minor aspect. The verdict almost renders nugatory the 10-year trial process that saw the Ansal brothers, the cinema’s managers and others being sentenced to varying prison terms in 2007. Acting swiftly on the appeals, the Delhi High Court in 2008 >reduced the prison terms of the main accused from two years’ rigorous imprisonment to one year. The trial court and the High Court declined to frame a charge against the Ansal brothers for culpable homicide under Section 304 (part two) of the Indian Penal Code, and instead limited the case to Section 304A (causing death due to rash and negligent act).
The appeals by the accused against the conviction, and by the CBI and the Association of the Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy seeking enhancement of the sentences or challenging the acquittal of a few have now been disposed of after seven years. Last year, a two-judge Bench >came to the same findings on fact against the accused, but differed on the quantum of sentence. One of the judges affirmed the one-year jail term and the other favoured a two-year sentence, of which one year will be offset by a payment of Rs. 100 crore as compensation. Another 17 months elapsed before this final order. Every court has held the Ansal brothers guilty of such gross negligence as to render them culpable for the 59 deaths, and injuries to nearly a hundred people. The court has stressed on compensation, whereas the >issue was decided by the Supreme Court in 2011 when it fixed it at Rs.10 lakh for the death of each person above 20 years, and Rs.7.5 lakh for those younger. If the punishment for someone found guilty of failing to discharge the common law duty of care and committing statutory deviations that caused the deaths of film patrons whose quick dispersal and egress from the premises were prevented by the gross negligence of the accused, is a mere few months in jail, the necessity of the entire criminal process comes under question. The court’s point about the long delay and advanced age of the Ansal brothers is well-taken, but it cannot be forgotten that the wait for justice for the victims was also long and agonising. Thus, this is but one more tragedy.