Eleven Years and Counting: The Victims of the 2006 Meerut Fire Continue To Struggle for Justice With No End in Sight

By Kabir Agarwal | 14 April 2017

The Brands India Consumer Show—a five-day consumer fair held at Victoria Park in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh—entered its final day on 10 April 2006. The organisers Lakhan Tomar, Asit Gupta and Siddharth Manohar, had arranged for three centrally air-conditioned halls to be constructed for the fair. At around 5.40 pm that day, 20-year-old Paras Vij was manning his family-owned stall, “Delight Xerox” in Hall A, when he heard people scream “Fire!” He told me he saw people scampering and searching for an exit, but having spent five days at the fair, he knew that there was only one exit—at the end of the third hall. Tickets for the fair were sold at the entrance in Hall A, and  “people could only exit from Hall C, after having gone through the entire fair,” Paras said. But, seeing a crowd running towards the entry gate in Hall A, Paras and his brother Puneet joined them. As they made their way out of the gate, the brothers were hit by a blaze of fire, and they fell down. “Both of us were burnt, my brother more badly than I was,” Paras said. He continued, “I used my bare hands to try and put out the fire on my brother.” I met Paras at his printing-and-photocopy shop in Meerut on 9 April 2017—nearly 11 years after the incident. He said it took nearly a year for his injuries to heal. As we spoke, he held up his hands. They were permanently deformed due to the burns. Paras told me that Puneet died in the hospital, three days after the fire.

The Victoria Park fire killed 65 persons—though the Uttar Pradesh government contests that the figure is 64—and grievously injured 81 others. In the subsequent years, several cases were filed related to the fire. In April 2006, the state police registered a first information report against the organisers, booking them with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, among other offences. In June 2006, the state government constituted a one-member commission headed by OP Garg, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, to conduct an inquiry into the incident. Around the same time, Sanjay Gupta, who lost five family members in the fire, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, requesting that the investigation of the case to be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Gupta also asked that the families of the deceased be given Rs 20 lakh as compensation, and the injured receive Rs 5 lakh. In September 2007, the Supreme Court granted bail to the three accused, the organisers. In April 2008, Tomar, one of the three, filed an application in the Allahabad High Court asking for the criminal proceedings against him to be quashed.

All of these cases are still pending before their respective courts, 11 years after the fire. In the criminal trial, charges have not yet been framed against the organisers. In Sanjay Gupta’s petition for compensation, the Supreme Court passed a detailed interim order in July 2014.  In the order, the court constituted a new one-member commission presided by SB Sinha, a former judge of the Supreme Court, to conduct the inquiry into the incident, due to procedural violations in the Garg commission’s inquiry process. It also directed the state government to pay an additional interim compensation to the victims—Rs 5 lakh to the family of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh to the seriously injured and Rs 75,000 to those with minor injuries—it refrained from directing the organisers to pay any compensation to the victims. The Supreme Court only directed the organisers to deposit a sum of Rs 30 lakh with it as an interim amount, pending the submission of the Sinha Commission report and the court’s decision on the apportionment of liability between the state and the organisers.

I met Sanjay and his nephew Apoorv Gupta on 8 April 2017. Apoorv, who is now 31-years-old, lost his parents, his younger sister, and two cousins—Sanjay’s two daughters—in the fire. They used to live together as a joint family, Apoorv told me. “At home, there would be the eight of us. Suddenly, it was just the three of us—chachu, chachi and I,” he said, as he removed his spectacles and pinched his tear-filled eyes.

Sanjay told me that after the fire, he practically locked himself in a room for almost a year. His emotional state added to the woes of the family. “It was a very difficult time,” Vimmi, Sanjay’s wife, told me. “A person who used to be so energetic was lying on the bed all the time.” Eventually, about a year after the fire, Vimmi said she told Sanjay, “Either you leave or we will have to leave.” That proved to be the turning point, Sanjay told me. “I pulled myself together and forced myself to get back to life,” he said. Sanjay and Apoorv have since been spearheading the fight on behalf of the families of the victims.

The Sinha Commission submitted its report to the Supreme Court in August 2015. Sanjay obtained a copy of the report soon after, and shared it with me when I met him. According to the report, the fire began in Hall B of the fair due to a short circuit or overheating of substandard cables and wires. The report records that the fire then spread to Halls A and C, at a time when approximately 4,500 people were present at the fair. Dr Ram Janam, who conducted the forensic examination at the site, was the assistant director of the Vidhi Vigyan Prayogshala—the forensic-science laboratory—in Agra at the time. In his deposition before the commission, Janam stated, “The pandals were made of synthetic fabric and after melting, started dropping on the floor like lava. The entire structure which was made of iron also got heated up. … All the stalls which were also made of synthetic material started burning. The entire structure became like an oven within a few seconds.”

The report repeatedly indicts the organisers and states that “at all stages” they “suppressed material facts” with respect to their compliance with statutory provisions such as Section 54 of the Electricity Act, which regulates the transmission and use of electricity. In its final finding, the report concludes, “The Organizers had a complete control not only on the erection of structures, but also on the materials used.” It goes on to state that the organisers were “wholly negligent” because the event was organised “without taking due care and caution without obtaining the requisite permissions.”

The report also notes that “For all intent and purport, there was only one entry gate and one exit gate.” When I spoke to Lakhan Tomar on 9 April at his bungalow in Meerut, he disputed the report’s finding. Tomar claimed there were adequate emergency exits because of which “so many people were able to make their way out.” He said that given the number of people who were present at the fair and the number who suffered in the fire, “95 percent of the people managed to come out within the three–four minutes that the fire allowed. How is that possible if there did not exist adequate exits?” Tomar also claimed that the organisers are being unfairly targeted by the commission and the victims. He said they have “zero responsibility,” and the state administration is “wholly and solely responsible.” Nepal Singh Soam, the trial court lawyer for the three accused, echoed Tomar’s position. “There is insufficient evidence to frame charges,” he said.

In response to Tomar’s application before the high court to quash the criminal proceedings, the high court passed a temporary stay order on the criminal proceedings ongoing in the trial court in Meerut. The order, passed on 28 April 2008, read: “Arguments have not been concluded today. Continue tomorrow. Till the next order of this court the charges will not be framed.” “Nine years later, the arguments are yet to be concluded,” said Swetashwa Agarwal, the lawyer for the victims in the high court, before adding, “Delays of this kind are common.” Despite several attempts, I was unable to reach Dileep Kumar, Tomar’s lawyer in the high court.

According to Anil Tomar, the District Government Counsel (Criminal) in Meerut, who is responsible for all criminal cases filed by the state, the government lawyers and the lawyer of the victims in Allahabad High Court should have been proactive in pursuing the case. “If a case has not been heard for nine years, it means that the lawyers in Allahabad have not been following up,” he said.

During the course of my reporting, it became clear that the trial-court government lawyers had not been proactive or following up on the high-court proceedings either. On 3 December 2015, the Allahabad High Court had passed another order in Lakhan Tomar’s quashing petition. It stated that “the interim order dated 28.4.2008 is applicable only in the case of the applicant, Lakhan Tomar. Trial court to proceed against all other persons, arrayed in the case, if there is no other legal impediment against them.” I asked Anil why proceedings had not been initiated against the other two accused despite the high-court order. He checked the case file in the trial court and discovered that the Allahabad High Court order had not reached Meerut. A lawyer in the trial court told me, on the condition of anonymity, that often these orders are “managed,” and “it is made sure that the orders don’t reach” the trial court. Tomar, meanwhile, conceded that “the public prosecutors have been negligent.”  “We will now follow up on the matter in the trial court,” he added.

Asit Gupta, one of the other organisers and the accused, said that the organisers cannot be held solely accountable, and that the district administration, the police and the fire officials are to be blamed as well. “Did we put it all together by ourselves? Did we put the wiring? There were many people who were involved. How can just three people be responsible?” Asit asked. “We are being made the scapegoats,” he added. Siddharth Manohar, the third accused, echoed Asit. He said that the accused are victims “as much as” those who were injured or died in the fire, and their families. “We have been suffering for the past 11 years. If we were negligent, the court should tell us what we could have done to take more precaution. But that hasn’t happened,” he said.

The Sinha Commission report also notes the careless and non-cooperative attitude of the state government: “The state of UP neither examined any witness, nor prayed for summoning any witness on its behalf. Apart from cross-examining a few witnesses who were summoned by other parties, the State has not rendered any other assistance to this commission.” The report continued: “The least the state of UP could have done was to examine some experts in the area or to place before the Commission materials in regards to different facets of the incident with a view to assist it to arrive at a correct conclusion.”

State apathy in the Victoria Park fire is not restricted to passive inaction, but also appears to involve active intervention in denying justice to the victims. Naresh Tayal, a 57-year-old contractor in the construction business was at the fair on the day of the fire with his wife, two sons and his parents. Along with his wife and sons, he had stepped out of the tent to get some air. His parents stayed back to buy some electronics. “Within a minute of stepping out, I noticed the fire in one of the tents, and it spread to all the tents in no time,” he told me when I met him at his house in Meerut. “I ran to the entry gate to look for my parents, but there were already 15-20 dead bodies there. I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find them,” he said. At 3.30 am the next day, Naresh and his wife, Jaya, went to the mortuary to identify his parents. Jaya identified his father’s body by his shoes. But, the body of Naresh’s mother, Malti Tayal, was not found.

Naresh told me that over the next few days, he visited many hospitals in Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Delhi and Meerut, but did not find his mother. Since then, he has been embroiled in a legal battle to prove that his mother died in the Victoria Park fire. Seven years later—the requisite time period for a court to declare a missing person to be presumed dead—Naresh approached the district court. After a year of hearings, the court declared that Malti Tayal died in Victoria Park on 10 April 2006. The order would entitle Naresh to compensation owed by the state to the family of the deceased. However, before Naresh could seek such compensation, the Meerut District Administration filed an appeal alleging that “there was not sufficient evidence to say that Malti Tayal died in the Victoria Park fire.”

“How did she die if she didn’t die in the fire?” Tayal asked. “They cannot allow a person dignity even in death,” he added, wiping his tears. Malti Tayal continues to be the disputed sixty-fifth victim of the fire.

The attitude of the administration has added to the grief of the victims. “I have felt exasperated at times because of the non-cooperative attitude of the state,” Sanjay told me. He continued: “This one time, I was at the district magistrate’s office for a compensation-related matter, and one of the security guards held me by the collar and pushed me.” “Tears just started rolling down my eyes,” he added. “Not due to the physical push. But it felt like the administration was pushing me away at a time when they should have been helping me.”

Neelam Krishnamoorthy led the legal battle on behalf of the victims in the Uphaar Cinema fire in Delhi in 1997. The fire killed 59 people, including her two teenage children. After a 20-year long struggle, in February 2017, the Supreme Court sentenced one of the accused to one year in prison, while the other accused was spared any jail time due to his age. According to Krishnamoorthy, the fight for justice in the Meerut case will be difficult. “The support of the media is crucial,” she continued, “which unfortunately the Meerut case is not getting.”

After the Supreme Court’s July 2014 order, there have been no developments in Sanjay’s petition. The case had been adjourned pending the Sinha Commission report, but more than 18 months have passed since the commission submitted its report. The petition is listed for its next hearing on 27 April 2017. Vikas Pahwa, Sanjay Gupta’s lawyer in the Supreme Court, told me he was concerned about the pace of the case. “I hope there is renewed media interest in the matter and that justice can be done for the families,” he said. Tomar’s application in the high court is due to be heard on 3 May, whereas the criminal proceedings in Meerut against Gupta and Manohar will be initiated only after the trial court receives the high court’s December 2015 order. Given the manner in which these proceedings have been conducted so far, and if the pace of the Uphaar Cinema legal proceedings is any metric, the victims of the Victoria Park fire have a long and frustrating struggle ahead of them.

Sanjay will continue the struggle and “not stop until justice is done,” he told me, as he looked at a framed picture kept on the table next to him. It was a picture of the five members of his family who had died in the fire, which was taken a few months before the incident. “Saath hi ghumte the ye paanch”—The five of them always went out together, he said. As I got up to leave, Gupta’s eyes were still fixed on the picture. He added, “There was no plan to go to the fair. They were supposed to go for a film.”

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist who has written for The Kashmir Walla, Times of India, Mint and Al Jazeera English. His Twitter handle is @kabira_tweeting.
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