Tulip Kanth

New Delhi, April 13, 2022: Coming to the aid of the victims of 2006 Meerut fire tragedy, the Supreme Court has held that the amount of amount of compensation is required to be computed in accordance with the principles of just compensation as in the case of accident under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 by the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal.

Citing incidents of Uphaar Tragedy and Dabwali Fire Tragedy, the Division Bench of Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice V. Ramasubramanian asserted that infringement of Article 21 of the Constitution 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.

The present writ petition had been preferred by the victims of the fire tragedy which occurred on April 10, 2006 at about 5:40 p.m., the last day of the India Brand Consumer Show organized at Victoria Park, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh by Mrinal Events and Expositions(Respondents herein/Organizers). This unfortunate incident claimed the lives of 65 persons and left 161 or more with burn injuries.

The State of Uttar Pradesh appointed a commission in terms of provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952. The appointed Commission submitted its report wherein various witnesses and documents produced were examined. Such report was not found to be sustainable in the order dated July 31,2014 reported as Sanjay Gupta & Ors. v. State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors. This Court while rejecting the proceedings conducted by the Commission under the Inquiry Act, appointed Justice S.B. Sinha (Retired) as a one-man Commission as it was found that the Organizers were summoned after examination of almost 45 witnesses and were not afforded the opportunity of cross-examination.

The Report of the Commission and the objections raised by the Organizers were also handed over to the State Counsel to enable the State to file an affidavit with regard to its view and the action it intends to take. An amount of Rs.30 lakhs deposited by the Organizers in terms of the order dated July 31,2014 was sent to the District Judge, Meerut for pro-rata distribution amongst the victims. In pursuance of the said order, the State had filed its affidavit disclosing the action taken against the responsible officials including lodging of First Information Report and initiation of disciplinary proceedings.

Counsel appearing for the Organizers raised preliminary objection about the entertainment of the writ petition by this Court in respect of private law liability of the Organizers and contended that such liability does not fall within the scope of Article 32 of the Constitution

The counsel appearing for the writ petitioners, referred to judgment of this Court in M.C. Mehta & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors. wherein, in case of oleum gas leakage from the factory premises of Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries, a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India was entertained and the negligence was fixed.

The Court stressed on the fact that the work order issued by the Organizers did not contemplate any duty on the Contractor (who supplied inflammable materials or substandard wires and cables) to provide for fire safety measures, so  the victims or the visitors to the exhibition had no privity of contract with the Contractor. The Division Bench stated that the ticket proceeds were collected by the Organizers, hence it was their responsibility  to ensure the safety and well-being of the visitors. The Organizers had failed in that duty causing loss of life of the innocent victims who came to see the exhibition, which was purely a commercial event with an intention to earn profit by the organizers. Even otherwise, the Organizers were vicariously liable for the alleged acts of negligence on the part of the contractor. The Contractor was only responsible for executing work as assigned to him by the Organizers, added the Bench.

The Division Bench also asserted, “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 Court was of the opinion that the Organizers were the persons responsible for organizing the exhibition and informing people to visit such exhibition after purchase of the ticket. Therefore, the property of the Organizers had caught fire on account of their negligence and hence were liable to pay compensation.

On the aspect of liability, the Bench observed that all permissions were sought by the Organizers and the permission to use the generators was obtained by the Organizers themselves. Moreover, when the application made by the Organizers for grant of load of 1540 KVA was not sanctioned by the Power Corporation, they themselves met the additional electricity requirement from the generators alone. 

Without finding any illegality with the distribution of liability, the Top Court held that the Court Commissioner had rightly fixed the liability on the Organizers to the extent of 60%, and on account of negligence in performing statutory duties by the officers of the State, the State had been burdened with 40% of the total liability. 

The Apex Court said, “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.”

The maxim res ipsa loquitur was found to be applicable as organizing an exhibition of such substantial magnitude without proper and adequate safety factors which may endanger the life of the visitors, had been rightly found by the Court Commissioner, an act of negligence including negligence of the officers of the State. It was also clarified by the Bench that the report of the one-man Commission was not suffering from any infirmity so as to absolve the Organizers from their responsibility of organizing the exhibition.

Keeping these facets into consideration, the Bench mentioned that the State had 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 had 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 had 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 list of deceased and injured persons was produced by the counsel for the petitioners. The amount of compensation payable to each of the victim including the families of the deceased had not been computed and such amount was required to be computed in accordance with the principles of just compensation as in the case of accident under the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 by the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal, held the Bench.

Thus, the Top Court requested the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court to entrust the work of determination of compensation to a Judicial Officer in the rank of District Judge/Additional District Judge at Meerut within two weeks of the order of this Court to work exclusively on the question of determination of the compensation on day-to-day basis. 

Hoping that the nominated Judicial Officer shall calculate the amount of compensation and forward the report to this Court for consideration in respect of compensation in accordance with law, the Bench also mentioned that the amount paid by the State and a sum of Rs.30 lakhs deposited by the Organizers had been disbursed to the victims. So, the said amount, excluding the ex-gratia payments made, has to be taken into consideration while determining the amount payable by the Organizers and the State.

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