Bring the guilty to heel

20th Aug, 2015

| by writesolutions

Rs 60 crores means nothing, against the culpability of  their crime

 As the SC let off the Ansal brothers in the Uphaar tragedy, recorded one of the worst fire tragedy in the history of independent India, my thoughts flew back to the Krishnamoorthy couple, who had lost both their teenage children (a boy and a girl) to the accident, and their relentless pursuit of justice.

I’d interviewed the couple several years ago at their Delhi apartment, with regards to a TV documentary script that I’d been commissioned to do for an independent producer and felt saddened by the depth of their grief and the vacuum left in their life.

The script was never used, as the producer never got sufficient funds to film it, but the story is reproduced here in full and unedited and untouched, if only to rub in the need for bringing the guilty to heels.

Circa June 13, 1997.

It was a usual day for Neelam Krishnamoorthy at her 2nd floor flat in Mangla Apartment, Kalkaji. Her daughter, Unnati (17) had just finished her 12th class board examinations, while son Ujjwal (13) was all perked up at the prospect of joining senior school (Class 1X).

The past one-month had been pretty hectic (due to exam stress) for Unnati, who was also a little distressed over the death of her Commerce teacher, Babu Ram from heart attack on March 13. She was quite fond of this teacher.

That very day, it was her Business Studies exam. Neelam, who was also saddened by the news tried her best to console the child, who was caught up with so many other things, as well: her enrolment for Company Secretary’s course, her preparations for GMATT, SAT etc. Though Unnati was not planning to move abroad just yet, at her mother’s insistence, she had reluctantly agreed to sit for these exams, if for nothing, at least to familiarize herself with their basic format. Thankfully, everything got over by the month end.

Come June and Unnati was back into her usual perky mood. The results had been declared and she had scored 80% in the boards. So on June 13, she cheerily announced to her family that she’d take Ujjwal out for a movie. Uphaar Cinema at Green Park was playing the inaugural show of Border and that’s the movie the duo decided to watch that day — the matinee show. Everybody knew that Unnati had this thing about watching every favorite movie on the first day of the screening.

There was just one problem though: there were about half-a-dozen application forms, all filled-up waiting to be deposited at various college for Unnati’s admission in B.Com (Hon.) Apprehensive of taking any chances, over the past few days, Unnati had been preparing to apply to all the leading Delhi colleges.

Today however, Neelam did not want her to stand in long queues under the scorching sun, so she entrusts the responsibility of submitting the forms to an office help. Neelam and Shekhar run a successful garment export business from Malviya Nagar.

On June 13, at about 9.00 O’Clock, the family has breakfast together. The discussion around the table is routine and ordinary. Both Unnati & Ujjwal were excited about their results — a good reason to celebrate with a movie!

At 2.p.m., the family meets again for lunch, after which Unnati quietly gets up from the table to plant a loving kiss on her Mom’s cheek. Neelam forgets to wipe off the lipstick mark, which Unnati notices just before leaving her house and observes, “Why Mom, you still have my lippy on!” Neelam had no clue then, that this was the last time her daughter would ever kiss her.

The general rule in the Krishnamoorthy’s house was that by 7.30 p.m. the curfew hour would start. If anyone got late beyond that time deadline, he or she would inform Neelam or Shekhar about it on their cell phones, or leave a message with someone at the office. Unnati was also instructed to always carry her pager with her.

June 13 turns out to be big day for the Krishnamoorthy couple. After months of dealing with two big Italian companies, they receive a fax message from one at around 6.p.m. confirming a deal that both Neelam and Shekhar had worked very hard to secure. The couple had done lot of sampling work for these companies yet when the deal finally came through, it was a big, pleasant surprise. Neelam was still working on the samples (the rest of the staff had left and only Shekhar was there with her in the office). A few minutes later, she and her husband leave office to see a friend in G.K II, after which they have to go to Escorts Hospital to see another friend. At G.K-I Neelam remembers discussing Unnati’s plans to change her entire wardrobe because she is now joining college and she remembers how they laughed over it.

Then she recalls that it’s  7.30 pm and there is no news from either of her children she immediately beeps Unnati on the pager. The understanding between the mother-daughter was that Neelam would give 10 minutes to Unnati to reach a phone and respond, after which she would begin to page her again. The ten minutes passed and still there was no reply from Unnati.

Restlessly, Neelam calls up the house. Still no response. Quickly, she dials the second No., but no response on this one either. She began to feel a strange chill going up her spine. Her mind begins to tick away fast, warning her that the children should have been home by now — so why wasn’t either picking up the phone, and if they were not home, where were they?

Shekhar asks her not to worry, saying that possibly they’ve gone to a friend’s place or got held up in the evening traffic but Neelam is still uneasy about the whole thing.

But even while this banter is on, Neelam is still feeling very restless. So, at 7.45, she pages her daughter again and thereafter keeps paging her after every few minutes. ‘Where the Hell are they?” she keeps brooding.

“Let’s go home,” she tells Shekhar, but even that 15 minutes drive from Escorts to Kalkaji appear like an unending drive to Neelam, who quickly rushes upstairs as soon as they reach to check on her children.

She finds the house plunged in total darkness. Quietly, she goes up the single flight of stairs to the children’s bedroom and finds it exactly in the same condition as they left it. Next, she slips into the study, where the family have a small puja corner and fervently begins praying to God, asking Him to keep her children safe — least realizing that by that time, they were both already dead. (Records show that the fire at Uphaar started at 4.55 p.m. and could finally be brought under control only by 6.45. p.m.)

One stray thought that comes to Neelam is that since the next day (June 14) was Father’s Day and since Unnati was always very particular about these things, she may have perhaps taken Ujwal to the market to buy a last-minute present for Shekhar. The thought was a little reassuring.

Shekhar meanwhile stood glued to the window, hoping to catch the first sight of their children returning home. Neelam meanwhile, decides to call Uphaar. She tries all the numbers but can’t get through, as all the phone lines appeared to be jammed.

With her fear growing every passing moment, she finally decides to call AIIMS, hoping all the same that there shouldn’t be any casualty. While, she is still toying with the idea of calling up AIIMS, the phone rings and its   Vishal, a close classmate of Unnati. His first question is, “Auntie where is Unnati?”

Reading the tension in his voice, Neelam tells him she’d gone to Uphaar but hasn’t returned. That’s when he blurts out the news, “Auntie, do you know there’s been a fire at Uphaar today? The injured have all been rushed to AIIMS and Safdarjung. But, don’t go there alone. I’ll come with you and Uncle.”

Neelam, Shekhar, Vishal they all pack into the car headed for AIIMS. On the way, while Shekhar is trying hard to keep his mind on the road, Neelam is going crazy calling up all her friends, asking them their blood groups.

She has already begun preparing for a medical emergency. That’s because Unnati’s blood group was A- (like her Dad’s), which is hard to find, while Ujjwal had taken after his Mom — his was A+. She also starts begging her friends to help her locate her children.

They reach AIIMS, which is a scene of utter chaos. There is not an inch of space to set your foot, let alone park the car. Leaving that headache to Shekhar, Vishal and Neelam jump out, heading straight for the AIIMS casualty ward, which is a scene of more chaos. In one corner, someone had also put up a list of the dead and the injured, which Vishal quickly begins to scan. Meanwhile, Neelam’s eyes are frantically searching for a glimpse of her children’s familiar faces, amidst wailing, injured strangers.

Suddenly, a middle-aged woman (whom Neelam had never seen or met before but who didn’t appear to be from the hospital staff) gently took her arm and began guiding her towards the O.P.D block. There, from a few feets distance, Neelam sees Unnati’s outstretched arm on a stretcher. She recognizes it from the black & white churidar-sleeve kurta, she was wearing that day). The body was uncovered but even from a distance, Neelam could make out that her daughter was dead.

Neelam passed out on the hospital floor. Shekhar comes looking for her and when they manage to revive her, her next thought is — “Where is Ujjwal?” They find him on a stretcher next to Unnati — also dead.

With one cruel stroke, fate had snatched both her children from her. Neelam felt her world collapse right before her eyes. Over the next few days, she is like a zombie, frozen and immobile, in a complete state of shock, where she doesn’t even realize the coming and going of hordes of relatives and friends, who came to pay their condolences to the distraught couple. Neelam has no memory of those first few days.

But life has to move on, even for the Krishnamoorthys. So on the 13th day after the Uthala, she and Shekhar sit down to take stock of their lives. With a heavy heart, they start by scanning all the back issues of the newspapers, which they had been ignoring all these days. Their grief-addled minds were yearning to understand what exactly had happened.

Till then, they had deadened their senses to the external world. But reading those papers slowly began to put things back into focus and with stunned silence, deep shock and utter distress, they began to understand the callousness of all the builder and all the government agencies, realizing for the first time that this tragedy could perhaps have been avoided — if, if only, the management, the police, the fire and the others had acted and acted fast. They also figured out that besides, Unnati and Ujjwal, 57 other people had also lost their lives at Uphaar, so there must be other families also grieving over their loved ones.

That’s when she and Shekhar began scanning the newspapers again, tracking people’s addresses from the obituary columns. Meanwhile, Neelam also called up K.T.S Tulsi, a renowned lawyer to urge him to take up their case and the first thing he says is, “You must be in a lot of trauma. I’ll come and see you.” She felt so touched but she declined the offer. “No,” she said. “If I have to fight this case, I must gather the courage to come out of the house. I and my husband will visit you.”

They met and Tulsi was initially very taken aback to see a very young couple standing before him. Without much ado, he accepted their case, but refused any monetary compensation for it Eventually they managed to establish contact with 8-9 families and together they formed the Uphaar Victims’ Association Called “Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy”(AVUT) on June 30,1997.  That day, all the eight members of  AVUT   signed a memorandum.   Later, others joined and presently the Association has 28 members all representing the deceased. At present Neelam Krishnamoorthy is the President of this association.

On July 14, 1997 a petition for compensation got moved in the Supreme Court, which later, the apex court transferred the case to the Delhi High Court. The entire case has been built on the inquiry report filed by Deputy Commissioner (South) Naresh Kumar and the petition has 40 respondents, of which 30 belong to the Ansal family, and the rest are from various government agencies.

Gradually, some pieces of the puzzle began to fall in place. From the Naresh Kumar Inquiry report  the Krishnamoorthys gathered that the 750 people who were seated inside the ground floor auditorium had all managed to come out alive from the complex. Yet more surprising, the staff in the basement (where the fire had started) had also come out alive, along with the occupants of an 8-seater box and an 18-seater box on the floor above the balcony of the cinema hall.

Above that floor was a projector room, various tenants of Uphaar management whose occupants too managed to escape or were rescued by the fire officials. But those in the balcony suffered the maximum fatalities (60%). 59 dead and 104 injured in the 302 capacity balcony! Most surprising was that none of them had died of burns — they had all died of asphyxiation! They had struggled hard to break open the doors but even the glass door from  the foyer to the staircase was bolted.

What had happened was that after ushering them in and after the movie started, the gatekeeper at the balcony latched all the doors and left for home before his reliever came and, calling it a day!

Consequently, none of the victims trapped inside the ill-fated balcony could come out when the fire started, while everybody in the ground floor auditorium walked out to safety or got rescued.

Much later, it was found that the carbon monoxide generated by the burning of transformer oil and the cars had sent toxic fumes through the AC ducts, turning it into a third-degree gas chamber. At first, the wretched audience thought it was “special effects.” But when it began to choke them, they realized it was possibly a fire.

And, while all this was going on and the smoke had started choking the people trapped inside the cinema hall, the Uphaar manager, K.L Malhotra was busy taking out his car from the parking area and was seen with a black bag clutched in his hands, presumably carrying the collection of the day! All this has been captured on video by an electronic channel team.

The eyewitnesses claim that even the fire officials reported late on the scene although their version (as mentioned in the Delhi Fire Service’s official records, a copy of which we have) is that evening traffic made it tough for the fire tenders to reach the site. Strangely, this report also mentions that the first distress call that they received came in only at 5.10 p.m., whereas, the police records assert that it actually started at 4.55 p.m.

The inquiry report also mentions that while the cinema hall management had discovered the fire in the transformer at around 4.55 p.m., they still let the movie run, hoping they would be able to douse the fire without informing anyone. Even when the main grid at AIIMS, tripped and cut off total supply the management did not stop the movie but let it run with the help of their in-house generator. They eventually stopped the movie at 5.10 pm when the fire had gone out of control.

More worms began to tumble out of the can, when it got established that H.S Panver, A.D.O, Delhi Fire Service who had actually issued an N.O.C to Uphaar management on December 22, 1996, was on casual leave on the said day!

Even the PWD, DVB and the MCD were not behind in issuing their NOCs, in complete disregard of all written rules and regulations and without physically verifying whether there was any deviation or variation from set norms. Worse, this is perhaps not the only cinema hall in Delhi, which does not even have a public address system and emergency lights which the management could have used at such an emergency to control a panicking crowd and avoid a stampede, which took a few more lives.

As mentioned in the Delhi Cinematographic Rules (Amended) 1983 (and even in the earlier 1953 Rules), a cinema hall must have a gangway on either side of the viewing area, leading up to an exit, which should always be left free for easy access.

In Uphaar’s case there was no gangway left in the balcony area on the right side and the exit was also blocked because the owners (Ansals) had decided to build an 8-seater box there for family use, which even had a special entry for guests and close friends. So the right side entry into the balcony was completely sealed off for general public. (As fate would have it, the seats allotted to Unnati and Ujjwal were in A-row, No 4 and 5, which lay on the extreme right side of the balcony).

All these shocking lapses have been summarized in an inquiry report. The inquiry was ordered by Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor on June 14 and Deputy Commissioner (South), Naresh Kumar, submitted the a very comprehensive, 80-page report in record time (on July 3rd 1997) which squarely and equally pins blame on all government agencies, besides of course the owner for many of these shocking lapses. This report builds a total case of negligence against all these agencies. It also mentions how while the fire was raging; the manager was busy removing his car from the parking lot and collecting the cash.

Even after the tragedy, the Ansals have not had the gumption to issue a public apology. Instead, they started a media campaign soon after the incident and began issuing half-page ads in all newspapers, claiming that the builder had nothing to do with the mishap and that was a smear campaign launched by a section of the irresponsible media.

The Kirhsnamoorthy couple felt totally stunned upon reading these reports. They began to go around asking for video footage from every electronic media channel and then Neelam and Shekhar would often sit through the night watching, scanning every inch of the footage, hoping to catch a glimpse of her children — but there wasn’t any.

In the past seven years, she has put a thousand questions to herself, to anybody who was there during the accident or the rescue operation: did anyone see her children? Did they suffer and for how long? Did they die inside or outside the balcony? Did someone rescue them, or they could only being out their bodies? How many times did they call out to their parents? Were they together when they died?

There is of course, no answer to any of these questions, except for one: Unnati would never have left her kid brother alone at such a time. And, Neelam finds some reassurance in that thought. The rest, she knows will keep haunting her the rest of her life.

In the past seven years, she may have read every government document, every Act, every clause on fire accidents. She’s often sat up late in the night with Shekhar, banging away at her computer, making copious notes, while trying to figure out every missing detail or loophole in the case. She’s lost count of how many people, government officials, judges, mediapersons  she may have met during this interim, just to find an answer to one question —- Why? And, why did it have to be her? And, both her children? Couldn’t God have spared at least one?

On April 2000, when a team of court commissioners appointed by the High Court to look into the violations and deviations were to inspect the sealed cinema hall, Neelam and Shekhar also accompanied them.

“There are no words to describe what they saw there,” she recalls. “Everywhere I saw signs of struggle, terrible struggle There was the mark of death in every nook and corner of Uphaar, the toilets, the lobbies, the auditorium and yes, the balcony.

The place was littered with discarded shoes, torn salwars and dupattas; with blood stains gone dark; smashed cola bottles and broken chains that people had apparently used to break open the latched doors but in vain. Most bolted doors had come off at the hinges but they were still tightly latched up. The balcony was the worse. It appeared to have been bolted at all possible points. “They had turned it into a gas chamber, a Nazi concentration camp,” she laments.

Completely shaken at the sight, her first thought on coming out of Uphaar was, “We must have a shanti path at “Smriti Upavan” a memorial built by the Association at a park opposite Uphaar cinema.

The petition filed by the Association demanded Rs 100 crores from the accused, but when the verdict came on April 24, 2003, the amount awarded was Rs 21 crores, of which Rs 15 lakh were to go to the families of the deceased who were below 20 years and Rs 18 lakh to the families of the deceased  who were above 20 years, besides Rs 1 lakh for each injured. The High court also announced Rs 2.5 for the setting-up of a trauma center in the capital, which the Ansals had to pay for.

The High Court verdict divided the compensation amongst the respondents in the following order: 55% to be paid by the Ansal Group, and 15 % each by the rest of the agencies i.e. DVB, DCP (Licensing) and MCD. Almost a year has passed but the victims haven’t received a cent of that amount, because although the three government agencies deposited their amount with the court (on the closing day of the deadline), the Ansal have not deposited the compensation taking a plea that the company will not be able to cough up this huge penalty without the sale of Uphaar cinema.

The Uphaar Victim’s Association of course vehemently opposes this ground. They feel that the cinema hall is the one, strong primary evidence against the Ansal and with that gone, their case would go extremely weak.

So they have now filed contempt of court proceedings against the Ansals, charging that they did not follow the court verdict since they have property worth crores elsewhere, as well.

Meanwhile, the CBI has also filed a chargesheet against all the same agencies in the State Vs. Ansals case, which has 16 accused, namely Sushil and Gopal Ansal (brothers), R.M Puri (their brother-in-law, who is also a director in the company), the four managers of Uphaar cinema hall, one gate keeper, three DVB employees, two MCD employees, one PWD employee and 2 employees of the Delhi Fire Service. Two of these accused are already dead.

Ask Neelam what are her thoughts seven years after the tragedy and she promptly and bitterly observes, “It’s a crime in this country to go and ask for justice.”

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Radhika Sachdev

Content Strategist

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