The Supreme Court’s decision to let off real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal with a fine of R30 crore each in the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy, which caused 59 deaths, has evoked much displeasure among the litigants and the legal fraternity about the court’s leniency towards the rich and the mighty.
The order has come as a huge relief to the two industrialists, who despite being convicted under Section 304 A (causing death due to rash and negligent act and punishable with a maximum of two years imprisonment, or fine, or both), were allowed to walk free by restricting their jail term to the period already undergone.
The legal fraternity has termed the decision ‘unfortunate’, saying the rich and the mighty escape with mild punishment. They feel the order has shattered the faith of victims who waited for 19 years to see the industrialists behind bars. Activist lawyer Kamini Jaiswal says the traumatic experience gives an impression that the judicial parameters for awarding sentence vary for the rich and the poor.
Senior advocate KTS Tulsi, who represented the Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy, said that Ansals should have been convicted under Section 304 IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), which carries a rigorous imprisonment of a maximum of 10 years.
According to lawyer Rahul Gupta, the law regarding sentencing should be consistently applied irrespective of the background of the accused and punishments can’t be different depending on the social status of the litigant.
This is not the first time that the rich and the mighty have escaped with mild punishment. Of all the ‘man-made’ disasters that have occurred in India, corporate negligence has probably caused the most—Bhopal gas tragedy, Uphaar fire and AMRI hospital fire are no exceptions.
The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy sparked a furious debate on safety standards not maintained by corporate houses and a humiliatingly small sentence to the accused.
Although the employees of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) were convicted in 2010 of causing death by negligence, the verdict came too late. The guilty, including UCIL chairman Keshub Mahindra at the time, were sentenced to a mere two years in prison with a petty fine of $2,000 each. Warren Anderson, the chairman of UCC—the parent company—fled to the US and lived freely till he died in September last year.
Despite calls for stricter regulation and laws for safety models, India’s corporate landscape still looks the same. The Kolkata AMRI hospital fire of 2011 is another example. In the AMRI case, the owners (RS Goenka, SK Todi and other directors) were taken into custody on the charge of culpable homicide. Within a month, Ficci urged the West Bengal government to release the directors who were not responsible in day-to-day functioning of the hospital. The hospital later announced a compensation of R5 lakh for the kin of each of the deceased.
In all these cases, the judicial system rarely acted as a deterrent—mild punishments meted out to offenders do little to deter others. The lack of strict laws, a lacklustre attitude towards safety and corruption increase the threat of such disasters. Ironically, the victims suffer the wrath of the judicial system.
While courts are adopting lenient views, the Kejriwal-led Delhi government is ready to make a law which provides for stringent punishment to those responsible for man-made disasters.
Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost both her children in the tragedy, said, “As the SC has not given any punishment, we want a law where people are given at least 10-15 years of punishment.”
Sharper, well-defined laws explicitly stating basic safety norms, stringent and quicker punishment for the guilty and uniformity in sentencing by the courts should be kept in mind while framing new laws for dealing with disasters.
Time-bound decisions and fast-track trials in such cases can bring some improvement and act as better deterrents.