Uphaar: Wounds get deeper

As one takes a slight turn into the Green Park market one is confronted with a massive building which is deserted and during night time positively spooky. Urban legends surround that building. It was here in Uphaar cinema that 59 innocent lives were snuffed out in the terrible Uphaar Fire Tragedy on June 13, 1997. Eighteen odd years later there is still no closure for the victims of the family. Real estate moguls Sushil and Gopal Ansal today escaped being jailed in the 18-year-old gruesome Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy. 

The Supreme Court has asked them to pay a fine of Rs 30 crore each and has restricted their jail term to the period already undergone by them. Overturning the pleas of CBI and the victims’ association, a three-judge bench of Justices AR Dave, Kurian Joseph and Adarsh Kumar Goel asked them to pay the total fine of Rs 60 crore in three months and deposit it with the Delhi government, which in turn will spend the money on welfare schemes.

While Sushil, 76, had spent over five months in prison, 67-year-old Gopal was in jail for over four months immediately after the tragedy. These seem positively light sentences considering the scale of the tragedy. A jog down memory lane would reveal that it was gross negligence on the part of the <g data-gr-id="36">Ansals</g> which led to this disaster. There were several  factors which cumulatively added to make Uphaar a tinderbox waiting to be engulfed in flames. For the uninitiated asphyxia was the main cause of death. The cinema building had caught fire earlier too in 1989 and no corrective steps were taken to correct this malaise. 

The staff tried to douse the fire themselves, which resulted in smoke getting sucked in by the AC duct and spreading to the entire building. Furthermore, exits were closed and there was no outlet for <g data-gr-id="40">smoke</g>. Delays in informing the fire department and delayed response from Delhi fire service was perhaps the biggest culprit. There was an illegal transformer in the car parking on the ground floor.  It is safe to posit that despite the Uphaar tragedy and the more recent AMRI hospital catastrophe in Kolkata the Indian agencies abilities to tackle fires remains insufficient at best. 

Inadequate funding of fire departments and poor staffing are the other problems that have hobbled our capabilities to deal with fires effectively. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) recently pointed out gaping deficiencies in firefighting capabilities to the 13th Finance Commission—the country has only 2.46 percent of the fire stations it requires, only 3.72 percent of the necessary personnel and 19.96 percent of firefighting and rescue vehicles that are considered a minimum prerequisite. To offer a contrast, New Delhi has only 51 fire stations and 2,500 firemen but New York has more than four times as many firefighters to respond to an area half the size of Delhi with nearly five million fewer inhabitants than Delhi’s 14 million. Some have even pointed out how <g data-gr-id="37">high rises</g> in Mumbai now go up to as many as 70 floors, but the fire department has equipment that can reach a height of only around 25 floors. 

On a national level, a total of Rs 70,000 crore is required but only around five per cent has been arranged for so far. One may try and find an argument for the lack of finances, but there isn’t one for human blunders and violations leading to these repeated disasters. It is perhaps imperative that appropriate legislation to tackle such man-made tragedies is put in place. Also needed are judicial mechanisms that force offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission and commission that can endanger human life.


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