The smoke has finally settled on a decade-long case. The Delhi sessions court verdict on the Uphaar tragedy case not only signifies justice being done, but also a warning that cutting corners at the cost of putting lives at risk will not be tolerated. In the rough and tumble of the case that has been going on for a decade since 59 people died of asphyxia from a fire breaking out in the Delhi cinema, the difficulty was not so much to pinpoint whether a crime had taken place as much as to pinpoint those who were responsible. It is hard to imagine the feelings of the families who lost their loved ones on June 13, 1997 — not because of an intent to harm, but much more ridiculously because rules had been flouted. But even at the cost of the length of time taken to come to this juncture, it was important for the sessions court to have before it the necessary string of evidence and facts. The CBI had examined 115 witnesses, eight of whom had turned hostile. The verdict is doubly important because this is a landmark case that will set the bar not only in terms of identifying future criminal negligence after it happens, but also to ensure that safety norms in buildings are stringently implemented.
All 12 of the accused (four others having died during the course of the trial) have been found guilty of charges that include criminal negligence under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code. Those found guilty are not only the owners and members of the management of the theatre but also those authorities whom the court believes to have played their part in allowing safety laws to be flouted. The sessions court’s verdict is not going to immediately provide a much-needed closure for the 28 families who have been waiting for justice. The bench’s decision will be challenged and the Supreme Court has already allowed one of the cinema’s owners to file his written submission by Friday, which the prosecuting CBI will be allowed to respond to within a week. But Tuesday’s verdict does drive a nail, if not the final one, strongly into a case that is desperately seeking its own closure.
Safety norms have been generally seen in this country as ‘niceties’ that need not be followed to a T. It is only when something as horrific as ‘Uphaar’ takes place that anguish points to apathy and downright criminal neglect. The 59 people who died inside Uphaar on that needlessly fateful day had no business to die. With the Uphaar smoke settling for the first time, we now wait for the smoke to finally clear.