I react to the Uphaar case with unease and a huge burden of guilt. Soon after the Uphaar tragedy, led by Ashok Desai, I appeared for Ansals on the preliminary question as to whether the appropriate remedy was a writ petition in the high court or a civil suit. Chief justice Variava of the Delhi High Court refused further delays and the liability of Ansals and others was to be determined in a writ petition by justices Mahajan and Mudgal.
With Ashok Desai unable, I was left to argue for the Ansals.
The continuous embarrassment for me were two questions continually put to me, especially by Justice Mudgal. The first why did the Ansals run away and not visit the injured and parents of the dead. To this I had no answer. In order to avoid arrest, they completely lost their humanity. The second question was equally embarrassing: Why did the Ansals not offer even a paisa of ex gratia compensation. To this question, repeated again and again, I had no answer. The third issue was raised by me as a direct question to Sushil Ansal's team to accept responsibility. In the Tata (Jamshedpur) Tent Fire case, Fali Nariman admitted Tata's responsibility and asked the Supreme Court to fix any damages paid. Ex-chief justice of India Chandrachud was asked to determine the liability Tatas' agreed to pay. If Ansals had done this, they might have been saved further litigation, including criminal indictment, and come out of the case with honour. They wanted to fight on, making false inducements to lawyers to stay with the case.
My strategy was to ensure that the Ansals alone were not responsible for the tragedy. The fire started because of faulty wiring being laid out that very morning by the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) substation in Uphaar from where the fire travelled.
The fire and ambulance vehicles arrived late and were not equipped; and the hospitals were inefficient and could have saved some victims. On April 24, 2003, the high court partly accepted my strategy and awarded Rs 25 crore including a trauma centre worth Rs 2.5 crore. The damages were distributed. Ansals would pay 55 per cent of the compensation and the Munucipal Corporation of Delhi, the DVB and licensing authorities would pay the remaining 45 per cent (15 per cent each).
The hospital, ambulance and fire services were let off. The Ansals would have to pay about Rs 12 crore. In addition the criminal law would take its course.
Then came the next embarrassment.
The "Ansals" met me and senior advocate Parasaran in the latter's office. Both Parasaran and I asked them to pay their share of Rs 12 crore. The "Ansals" team flatly refused. We requested them to pay eight crore rupees or even half of that. "Ansals" flatly refused again - giving the reason that for a builder, Rs 12 crore could earn a profit many times over than in record time. Aghast, both Parasaran and I refused to carry the case forward.
By some stroke of luck, the Supreme Court (justice Raveendran and Radhakrishnan) gave an erroneous decision that the MCD and licensing authorities were not liable, the Ansals contribution to the trauma centre was reduced from Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh, Ansals liability was increased to 85 per cent while that of the Delhi Vidyut Board remained at 15 per cent.
But the overall compensation was reduced. Where the high court had awarded Rs 18 lakh for the dead aged over 20, the amount was reduced to ten lakhs; and for those deceased who were aged under 20, the amount was reduced from Rs 15 lakh to 7.5 lakh. Good grief why? The Ansals succeeded, but were hardly vindicated.
The criminal proceedings found penultimate conclusion in the high court judgement of justice Ravinder Bhatt on December 19, 2008 whereby the Ansal brothers' sentence was reduced from two to one year, with a Rs 1,000 fine for violating the Cinematograph Act and a direction given to the CBI to investigate the role of other officials who had given temporary licences to the Uphaar Cinema for 17 years.
The reduction of the Ansal brothers' sentence had little basis in justice. The Supreme Court was out of sorts in appeal. While justice Thakur felt that one year imprisonment was enough, justice Mishra thought they should pay Rs 100 crore for the trauma centre. Off this went to three judges, (Dave, Joseph and Goel) who reduced the sentence to that already undergone. Sushil Ansal had spent five months in jail and Gopal Ansal about four months. The trade off was that they would now have to pay Rs 60 crore for the trauma centre to the Delhi government. Reasons were to follow.
This judgement is flawed even if we take into account the age of the Ansal brothers of 75 and 67 years. The offences were not compoundable. There were no mitigating circumstances. The crime had occurred on June 13, 1997, the closure on the case has come in August 2015. The delays were caused by Ansals litigation tactics. Justice deserted the Supreme Court fully and totally. What do we say to Neelam Krishnamurthy who lost two children and her friends? What explanation can we offer as they travel to the memorial in the park in front of Uphaar, disturbed by memory. Justice is for the rich, who can persist in strategy after strategy. The courts have shown indulgence to Ansals, society should never forgive them.