In a major setback to the families of the June 1997 Uphaar theatre fire tragedy victims, the Supreme Court on Thursday nearly halved the compensation amount awarded to them by the Delhi high court and slashed punitive damages to be paid by cinema owners Ansal brothers from Rs.2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh.
A bench headed by Justice R V Raveendran reduced the amount of compensation from Rs 18 lakh to Rs 10 lakh to the families of deceased above 20 years of age and for the victims below 20 years, it was reduced to Rs 7.5 lakh from Rs 15 lakh.
The bench also drastically reduced the punitive damages to be paid by Uphaar Cinema owners, Ansal brothers -- Gopal and Sushil -- to the Centre from Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 25 lakh.
While holding Ansals and erstwhile Delhi Vidyut Board as jointly and severally liable to pay the damages, the court asked Ansals to pay 85 per cent of the compensation. The rest would be paid by DVB, it added.
The bench modified the high court's order of April 24, 2003 in which the court awarded a total compensation of Rs 18.5 crore.
The apex court also absolved the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi police of their liabilities to bear 15 per cent each of the compensation.
The court, however, retained the part of the high court's verdict that mandated payment of Rs 1 lakh as compensation to those injured in the incident, in which 59 people were killed and 103 injured on June 13, 1997 during the maiden show of the blockbuster Border.
The bench also issued a slew of guidelines for the theatre owners and the government authorities for safe and incident-free screening of films in theatres.
The bench ordered that before each show, a short documentary film showing dos and don'ts in case of an emergency arising due to a fire should be screened.
It also directed that theatre staff should be properly trained in fire drills and evacuation in case of such incidents and there should be mandatory half-yearly survey of theatres by the government authorities on safety measures.
The family members of victims said they were disappointed with today's verdict. One of them was Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost two children in the Uphaar fire.
She said, "We have been fighting for the last 15 years. Our fight was not about money. We wanted people to get safer public places and the only way to do this was by putting pressure on corporates. The corporates are benefiting by such judgments. So, many more Uphaars will happen."
The fire had started in an electrical transformer in the basement parking lot of the cinema hall and then engulfed the building in the busy Green Park area of south Delhi.
Panic-stricken people in the hall had run to the exit points when the fire broke out. Many died in the ensuing stampede or were asphyxiated after being trapped in the balcony, as the fire exits were locked.