No legal action on officials in Delhi’s last 3 fire horrors
Even as the families of victims count the cost and demand swift justice for the December 8 fire in an illegal factory in Anaj Mandi that killed 43 people, the lack of substantive action by either the police or the administration over the last three major fires in Delhi highlights poor accountability for blatant safety violations in the national capital.
Eight years ago, 18 people died in a fire in east Delhi’s Nand Nagri, where a community centre was engulfed in a blaze due to a short-circuit in an electricity meter that was running a higher load than sanctioned.
In January 2018, an illegal factory in Bawana caught fire, and all 17 people on the premises were killed because the only door they could have used to escape was locked from outside on the owner’s instructions.
And this February 12, a fire at a hotel in central Delhi’s Karol Bagh – caused by a suspected short-circuit in a hotel that was a tinder box due to rampant fire-safety violations -- claimed 17 lives.
Across these three incidents, in which a total of 52 people were killed, there have been no convictions to date, two people have been let off with fines of ₹200 each, and all the nine other accused are out on bail.
On the departmental front, while there have been internal inquiries, not a single officer has been booked in a magisterial probe for overlooking violations -- across the police, the civic bodies, and the Delhi Fire Services (DFS). None of these officials have ever been arrested.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde said that police must answer for the delay in the investigation. “The laws to check such illegal activities are there for every authority such as police, civic bodies or the fire department. But there is no effective implementation of the law by each department. There is no accountability.”
Senior advocate Vikas Pahwa, who is representing the association for the victims of 1997 Uphaar tragedy – the worst fire in the Capital at Green Park’s Uphaar cinema in which 59 people were killed – said the lack of accountability of government officials was appalling.
“In cases of mass tragedies like these, the trial must be fast-tracked and over within six months. The government officers must also be held accountable for aiding and abetting the crime by giving licences and ignoring fire safety rules. Such government officers fail in their duty. This is one of the reasons why such tragedies happen,” he said.
Here’s a look at what police and administrative action was taken in the three fires.
NAND NAGRI, November 20, 2011
Police: Records show that the police filed a case under Section 304A (causing death due to negligence) of the Indian Penal Code, instead of the more stringent Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder). Under 304A, an accused can be let off with a fine or simple imprisonment of not more than two years, while the maximum sentence under Section 304 is 10 years in prison.
The police filed a charge sheet in the case only on August 12, 2017 – more than six years after the incident. According to legal procedure, if no charge sheet is filed within 90 days, the accused is entitled to bail. A court starts trial only after the investigating agency submits the charge sheet. The two accused persons – a contractor and an electrician -- got bail within two days of the incident, and the trial is still in its initial stages.
Administration: The final report by the district magistrate, who reports to the Delhi government, submitted to the then chief minister Sheila Dikshit in 2012 put the blame for the fire solely on the contractor for operating a higher electricity load than was sanctioned for the building. The fire department and the east municipal corporation were absolved of any responsibility.
“We had called for an inquiry, but in 2013 the Delhi elections happened and the government changed. I don’t know the status of the file now,” said AK Walia, former Delhi minister.
BAWANA – January 20, 2018
Police: Delhi Police registered a case against five persons -- factory owner Manoj Jain, his partners Lalit Goyal, Surjeet Goyal, and Girish Rathore, and his son Ashish Jain. They also filed charge sheets against the original owners of the factory, Uma Mittal and Brij Bhushan Sood, but the two were not arrested. They were named in the charge sheet for not conducting Manoj Jain’s tenant verification, for which they pleaded guilty, and were handed fines of ₹200 each. Ironically, this is the only punitive legal action taken against anyone for the Bawana, Nand Nagri or Karol Bagh fires.
The others are out on bail. The police made a mention of three government officers – the factory licensing officer, the labour department’s assistant director, and the deputy chief fire officer – for being “negligent in their duty”. Police said that the three could not be investigated because their departments did not give its sanction for prosecution.
Administration: Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal formed a three-member, high-powered committee to “fix responsibility of individual officers” in every department or agency involved. However, the report blamed “the failure of multiple agencies” for the disaster without naming any individual officer. It said that five agencies, North Delhi Municipal Corporation, Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation, the state labour department, the Delhi Fire Services and the Delhi Police, were responsible for “lapses” that resulted in the blaze. But no legal action was taken against any of them.
There was an internal inquiry by the north corporation. Senior officials involved in the process said three municipal officials of the licensing department were suspended for 10 days.
KAROL BAGH, February 12, 2019
Police: The complainant in the case, which was later transferred to the Crime Branch, is a Delhi police sub-inspector. The crime branch arrested the owner of Hotel Arpit Palace, Rakesh Goel, his brother Sharad Indu Goel, the guest house’s general manager Rajender Kumar, and manager Vikas Kumar. The FIR filed by local police mentions that there was illegal construction in the hotel, but no government official was arrested or booked by the police. The accused are all out on bail.
Administration: The Delhi government ordered a magisterial inquiry. Though a final report is yet to be submitted, interim findings show that no individual official, either from the north corporation or the fire department, was named though documents showed that there were lapses in granting licences and fire clearances. The interim probe report points to violations by owners.
“The building was found to be operating without an approved building plan...usage of inflammable material including plywood floors and panel...ventilation points blocked,” the report said.
No official from the Delhi government could be contacted despite attempts.
A parallel internal inquiry by the deputy commissioner (Karol Bagh) highlighted that the owner of the guest house was working in “connivance” with the officials from the municipality, fire department, and police. He had also recommended “major departmental” action against all those officials who carried out the inspections at Hotel Arpit Palace since its inception in 1993.
North Delhi Municipal Commissioner, Varsha Joshi, said: “We have taken internal action suggesting major penalty against 15 officials from the building department and 10 from the health department. The in-depth inquiry is still going on to establish the charges against them. Out of these officials around six to seven have also retired recently.”
However, no legal action was taken against anyone.
Neelam Krishnamoorty, president of the Association of the Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) , who lost her two children in the 1997 fire at the Uphaar cinema complex, said the government must bring in a new law to deal with fire and man-made calamities.
“The offence should be made non-bailable and there must be a time set for the trial. Cases go on for decades. We have been fighting for years for a stricter law but the government is yet to bring in one such law.”
Retired IPS officer Prakash Singh, who was the director general of the Uttar Pradesh and Assam police, and Border Security Force, says such fires will continue to be reported until officials know they are accountable.
“The top people know that they will not be touched. If the building inspectors or a constable has taken a bribe for some illegal activity to flourish, then one must understand that he/she has done it because of the backing of their bosses. Unfortunately, such tragedies continue to happen. The one at Anaj Mandi may not be the last.”