The Supreme Court on Tuesday in the Meerut Fire Tragedy that took place in 2006 has fixed 60% liability of the organizers and 40% of the State to compensate the victims.

A two-judge Bench of Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice V. Ramasubramanian has requested the Allahabad Chief Justice to entrust the work of determination of the compensation to be payable to the families of the victims to a Judicial Officer in the rank of District Judge/Additional District Magistrate at Meerut to work on a day-to-day basis.

The Court further has also noted that since the amount of compensation payable to each victim including the families of the deceased has not been computed the same has to be computed in accordance with the principles of just compensation as in the case of accidents under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 by the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal.

Additionally in this context, the Bench further observed –

"The State has paid Rs.2 lakhs each as ex-gratia compensation to the families of the deceased, Rs.1 lakh each for the persons who suffered serious injuries and Rs.50,000/- each for the persons suffering from minor injuries whereas the Union of India has paid ex-gratia compensation of Rs.1 lakh each for the deceased and Rs.50,000/- each for those with serious injuries. In terms of the order of this Court, the State has paid Rs.5 lakhs each to the deceased, Rs.2 lakhs each to the victims suffering serious injuries and Rs. 75,000/- each to the victims suffering minor injuries, apart from the amount paid by the Union of India."

The Bench has further directed the High Court to provide the necessary infrastructure to enable the Judicial Officer to discharge his duties.

Further, the Court also held that the nominated Judicial Officer may permit the parties to lead such evidence as may be permissible and submit his report to the Apex Court for consideration in respect of compensation in accordance with the law.

The Court was hearing a Writ Petition filed by the victims of the fire tragedy that occurred on 10.4.2006 at about 5:40 pm, the last day of the India Brand Consumer Show organized at Victoria Park, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. The incident had claimed the lives of 65 persons and left 161 or more with burn injuries.

On 2.6.2006 the State of UP had appointed Justice O.P. Garg (Retd.) in terms of the provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 with the following terms of reference –

i) To find out the facts causes on account of which the aforesaid accident occurred;

ii) To decide the ways and means to keep up the situation in control;

iii) In respect of the aforesaid occurrence, determination of liability and the extent thereof;

iv) Measures to be adopted to avoid the occurrence of such incidents in future.

The Commission submitted its report on 5.6.2007 which was found to be unsustainable. The Supreme Court while rejecting the proceedings conducted by the Commission under the Inquiry Act, appointed Justice S.B. Sinha (Retd.) as a one-man Commission as it was found that the Organizers were summoned after examination of 45 witnesses and were not afforded an opportunity of cross-examination.

The Commission submitted its report on 29.6.2015 which had determined the liability of the Organizers to the extent of 60% and that of the State was 40%. Further, an amount of Rs. 30 lacs was also deposited by the Organizers and was sent to the District Judge for pro-rata distribution amongst the victims.

Senior Counsel Mr. Shanti Bhushan appearing for the Organizers raised a preliminary objection about the entertainment of the Writ Petition in respect of private law liability of the Organizers and argued that such liability did not fall under Article 32 of the Constitution. To support his contention, he placed reliance on various precedents.

Senior Counsel Mr. Vikas Pahwa appeared for the Writ Petitioners before the Apex Court.

The Supreme Court noted that the precedents for payment of compensation in a Writ Petition under Article 32 of the Constitution fall under three categories of cases –

  • First Category – Where the acts of commission or omission are attributed to the State or its officers;
  • Second Category – Where compensation has been awarded against a corporate entity engaged in an activity having the potential to affect the life and health of people;
  • Third Category – Where the liability of payment of compensation has been apportioned between the State and the Organizers of the function.

The Bench further placed reliance on Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims Association v. Union of India & Ors, DAV Managing Committee & Anr. v. Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims Association & Ors., and M.S. Grewal & Anr. v. Deep Chand Sood & Ors. observed –

"…infringement of Article 21 may be an individual case such as by the State or its functionaries; or by the Organizers and the State; or by the Organizers themselves have been subject matter of consideration before this Court in a writ petition under Article 32 or before the High Court under Article 226 such as Uphaar Tragedy or Dabwali Fire Tragedy."

In this context, the Court added that the view taken in the above cases does not warrant any interference and it endorses the same.

Rejecting the argument of Counsel Mr. Bhushan that the word 'safety' used in the work order would also include safety from fire as well and therefore the responsibility of providing fire safety measures was upon the Contractor, the Court held –

"We do not find any merit in the said argument raised. The word 'safety' appearing in the work order cannot be read in isolation but has to be read in the context in which the word has been used. The term 'safety' was used for the rides to be provided by the Contractor with proper material for ensuring both safety and reasonable light blockade general lighting. Therefore, the expression safety used in Para 1 of the work order does not lead to any inference that fire safety measures were to be adopted by the Contractor."

The Bench after referring to the provisions of UP Fire Safety Act, 1944 and UP Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Act, 2005 held –

"The Organisers have not applied for permission under the said Act nor had the nominated authority caused the inspection, therefore, the Organizers and the State have been rightly saddled with liability for not taking precautions as mandated by the statute."

Additionally, the Court rejected the argument of the Senior Counsel, Mr. Bhushan, that since permission under Section 144 CrPC was granted therefore no separate permission under Section 133 was required, the Bench opined –

"Though the power is to remove any building, tent or structure, or any tree which is in such a condition that it is likely to fall and thereby cause injury to persons living or carrying on business in the neighborhood, such power could be exercised only after the structure is raised. Thus, in case any structure is raised without the permission of the civil administration, the Organizers could be directed to remove such tent or structure. Therefore, it was a pre-requisite condition for the Organizers to inform the civil administration about the structure which they are putting up for the purpose of exhibition so that the civil administration does not pass an order subsequently for removal of such structure so as to avoid any disruption on account of order which may be passed by civil administration."

The Court also held that the Contractor was working on behalf of the Organizers in terms of the work order issue, therefore, whatsoever may be the relationship between the two, the Organizers cannot be absolutely absolved of their liability.

"The victims or their families visited exhibition on the invitation of the Organizers and not that of the Contractor. The Organizers were supposed to make arrangements for putting up the exhibition hall, providing electricity and water and also the food stalls for the facility of the victims/visitors. They cannot now take shelter on the ground that the Contractor who was given work order on 9.3.2006 was an independent contractor and the victims should seek remedy from him. As observed earlier, the contractor has worked for the Organizers and not for the victims. Hence, the Organizers alone are responsible to protect the life and liberty of the victims," the Bench opined.

The Court held that the report of the one-man Commission is not suffering from any infirmity so as to absolve the Organizers from their responsibility of organizing the exhibition.

The Bench has directed for the listing of the matter after 4 months.

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