Uphaar Tragedy: A long battle for public safety

Whenever a discussion on public safety is held, the mention of Uphaar tragedy invariably crops up.
Uphaar Cinema (Photo | YouTube Screengrab)
Uphaar Cinema (Photo | YouTube Screengrab)

Whenever a discussion on public safety is held, the mention of the Uphaar tragedy invariably crops up. Last week was the 25th anniversary of one of the most gruesome events to have taken place in the city. June 13, 1997 was a Friday and film ‘Border’ was released at Uphaar Cinema in the Green Park area of South Delhi.

During the matinee show, a fire started in the basement of the cinema hall and the smoke spread to the theatre trapping people inside, as the doors were locked. In the veritable gas chamber, 59 people died of asphyxiation, while 103 were seriously injured, many in the stampede which followed.

This event would have vanished from public memory in the times to come but for the next of kin of those who died in the tragedy. They fought a vehement battle against a system and the wealthy accused to get justice for the dead, who had fallen prey to government apathy and a compromised system.

In 1983, following a fire in a high-rise building in the Rajendra Place area, a safety audit was done across the city. The license of Uphaar cinema was cancelled after an inspection as it was found to have made 10 serious violations.

Sidharth Mishra
Sidharth Mishra

The license was, however, soon restored and in 1997, when the tragedy took place, it was found that none of these violations had been corrected. The sight on the evening of June 13, 1997 was several men, women and children sleeping in absolute peace and calm on the stretchers at AIIMS. They all carried just a tag on their toe-thumb, pronouncing them dead. No scar, no burn, no stress, just the calm of deep sleep on their faces. The next day, as a reporter working for a daily then, one was deployed at the cremation grounds, where betrayed souls moved in unison to meet their respective gods.

After a few days, maybe a month, when the public anger over Uphaar had started to wane, NeelamKrishnamoorthy, who had lost her teenage son and daughter in the gas chamber, emerged on the scene. She organised the victims and ensured that the Ansals, the owners of Uphaar cinema, had a tough battle at hand.

“We went and met advocate KTS Tulsi who advised that we should get organised if we wanted to take on the builder lobby,” Neelam had once said in a newspaper interview. Nine families of 28 victims got together to form the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT).

Krishnamoorthycontinues to fight this battle for 25 years now. When Ansal’s lawyer Ram Jethmalani, the late veteran jurist, called her an insane woman, she hit back saying, “Yes, I am insane and the Ansals and their lawyers have made me insane by continuously threatening me, intimidating me and tampering with the evidence to secure justice. If fighting for justice for children for long years is insanity, then I am insane.”

Following’s Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT) battle, the long-stuck trauma centre at the AIIMS was finally built and commissioned, which in turn has saved many lives. The Delhi Government has promised to build a third trauma centre. The second is located near Metcalf House. AVUT is also fighting for a law for the prevention of man-made tragedies in public places.

Their plea is for appropriate legislation to tackle such man-made calamities and put in place an appropriate investigative and judicial mechanism that compels future offenders to think twice before indulging in acts of omission or commission that can endanger human life.

Sidharth Mishra
Author and president, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice

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The New Indian Express