Varanasi Stampede: Does Legal Recourse Help in Manmade Disasters?
This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives in the light of the stampede at Jai Gurudev Baba’s congregation in Varanasi, whic claimed 24 lives and injured hundreds on Saturday. This article was first published on 12 April 2016, after he Kollam Temple fire tragedy.
Flouting of rules, lax enforcement of regulations, complete disregard for basic norms of safety, and negligence bordering on the criminal when it comes to dangerous materials/activity combine into a potent witches’ brew that takes hundreds of lives in India every year.
The fireworks tragedy at the Puttingal Temple in Kollam, Kerala is no different. Conditions imposed on permissions were ignored, incorrect information was provided while obtaining permission, safety warnings and alternate plans were ignored, political interference was obtained to overcome official resistance and finally, lax enforcement of even the most basic norms. As with all the other prior occasions, this time as well the question is asked: how do we stop this from happening again?
One possible solution that has been floating around for a while has been the enactment of a separate, specific legislation for man-made disasters such as this. As far back as 2010, based on representations made by Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), the victims of one of the highest profile fire tragedies in India, a new law was mooted and was said to be in the works. Nothing has been heard from the Government on the law since. The proposal has been in limbo since then; a Law Commission consultation paper was issued but not followed up with a detailed report with recommendations. A recent report suggests that the Delhi Government might take steps to bring such a law into force for Delhi.
Slow Judicial Process
The standalone law proposed by AVUT reportedly contains more stringent provisions for punishment of those found guilty of causing death by negligence, exemplary/punitive damages to be awarded by courts against those responsible, special courts for fast track trials, among other things. In addition, the Law Commission’s consultation paper has also discussed how it may be made easier for victims to undertake class action litigation against those responsible and obtain damages in law.
While well intentioned, it is difficult to see how these proposals, contained in a stand-alone law, are going to address the problem of manmade disasters in India.
The imposition of a higher penalty will be of no help if the court proceedings and appeals process takes years to conclude. Whether the punishment for negligent acts resulting in death is two, five or fourteen years, at the end of the day, the matter has to be proved on evidence in a trial. While fast track courts have been shown to have some success in improving the speed with which trials are completed, it is a different matter that they have not been involved in disposing of complex cases relating to manmade tragedies.
A Law In-The-Making
- July 2009: AVUT (Association of victims of Uphaar tragedy) submits
a presentation to former President Pratibha Patil and Law Minister Verappa
Moily on man-made disasters.
- June 2010: Moily assures of a standalone law
on man-made disasters within six months.
- September 2012: A report by Law Commission suggests stricter
jail-term in man-made disasters.
- Panel proposed that punishment for negligent act under section 304
A be enhanced from the present two years to at least five years.
- April 4, 2016: News reports suggest Delhi government likely to pass
a legislation for safeguarding victims of man-made disasters in the Capital.
Can Fast-Track Courts Help?
A complex case, which involves multiple defendants, specialist knowledge, and detailed evidence will, under the existing procedural and evidentiary laws, take an enormous amount of time to hear and dispose. Consider the fact it took 16 years for the criminal trial in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to be completed, and the criminal trial in the Uphaar tragedy itself took 10 years to complete.
Expediting such trials is not just matter of setting up fast track courts which can ride rough-shod over procedures and compromise the fairness of trials. Rather, it is necessary to look at the judicial system as a whole, including the rules of procedure, evidence, capacity of judges and institutions to complete complex trials as early as possible.
Theseproposals also do not address the actual, underlying problem which manifests itself in these tragedies – the poor enforcement of laws. In the Kollam tragedy, far from enforcing the ban on fireworks display as ordered by the authorities, the police were in fact facilitating the same.
What must not be forgotten is that there is an elaborate regulatory framework already present at the State level when it comes to conducting such events. There are various authorities who are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of people at events being conducted in public places.
What is really needed is a deeper examination of why these authorities fail to act in time or discharge their duties. It is not as if every time the rule is not followed, tragedy results. Rather it is the general lax attitude towards enforcing laws that is built up over time, when small violations are ignored and repeat offenders let off, that seeps into the culture of enforcement which eventually results in a massive tragedy.
Preventing large scale manmade disasters such as the Kollam fire in the future requires a proper diagnosis of the problem – the failure of institutions and authorities in enforcing the laws as they stand. Why institutions and authorities fail in their responsibilities, and how they can be fixed to ensure that they carry out their duties – the answers to these questions requires much greater effort and political will than passing a law. As a solution to a problem being faced by society, passing a law may be the easiest solution but also one that is not likely to address the problem if the problem has not been understood properly.
Laws are human creations and at the end of the day require humans working within human institutions to enforce.
(Alok Prasanna Kumar is a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.)