“Uttarakhand: Simply Heaven” says a blurb on the official website of the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board. Today, if “heaven” has turned into hell for thousands of pilgrims and residents, the blame rests squarely on the government. In fact, the tragedy that we see today is the result of the administration’s failure on all fronts: those in the seats of power not only allowed ruthless and unbridled exploitation of nature for personal gain, but also failed to put in place a well-laid out disaster warning and rescue plan that would have saved lives and kept the number of fatalities to the minimum.
I am particularly horrified at the way the buildings — particularly hotels — were allowed to come up on the river beds in violation of all safety norms. These hotels that came down like a house of cards were obviously built with no thought to the safety of the guests who paid to stay there.
We now need to zero in on all those responsible for this — not only hoteliers, but also those in the government that allowed them to do so. In respect of each of these buildings, we need to know the date on which permission was given to build and by whom.
And from the chief minister at that time to the urban development minister, the Uttarakhand environment protection and pollution control boards, the state department of environment and forests to the Union ministry of environment and forests, we must hold each and every one of them accountable for the human tragedy that continues to unfold before us.
RL Rawat: Many lives were lost in Uttarakhand because of the unsafe hotels in which the pilgrims stayed. Can the hotel owners be made to compensate the families for the loss of their near and dear ones? Some people I spoke to told me that since the destruction and devastation were all acts of god, we cannot hold the hotel liable. Is this the correct position?
True, the torrential rains, cloudburst and landslides were all acts of god. (Even though here too, the administration has to take the blame for environmental degradation that has brought upon such disasters). But building hotels in violation of the environmental laws, safety norms, and on the banks of the river were “acts of man”. And the hotels cannot escape liability for what they have done — put the lives of those stayed in their hotels in jeopardy.
So the victims and their relatives can certainly sue the hotels — they can file complaints before the consumer courts. They should also hold the administration which gave these hotels permission to build at such unsafe places accountable by naming them in their complaints before the consumer courts.
I must point out here that a hotel has a duty to ensure that the premises is safe for guests in all respects and failure to do so constitutes negligence and the hotel has to compensate the victims of such negligence.
In Manisha Chhabra VS The Director, Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation, decided in 2003, for example, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission laid stress on this aspect, while awarding compensation to Manisha Chhabra, for the tragic death of her husband while on her honeymoon. Soon after she and her husband checked into the hotel (at about 8.30pm) her husband noticed a small door on the western side that was just latched.
Assuming it to be a storage space or balcony, he opened it and stepped outside, only to fall to the ground 35 feet below. Noting that the hotel should have taken every precaution to prevent such an accident, the commission directed it to pay Manisha R5 lakh, along with 10% interest calculated for 10 years.