The Delhi High Court last week awarded compensation of Rs. 10 lakh with interest of Rs 2.47 lakh as an additional sum to the mother of an 11-year-old boy who died during a school picnic after falling into an uncovered rainwater harvesting pit at the Millennium Park in Southeast Delhi.
The Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar directed the Public Works Department (PWD) to pay the amount to the Registrar General of the Court within four weeks. Detailed instructions were then issued for the Registrar General to disburse the amount to the mother of the deceased child.
The Court had taken suo motu cognizance of a news report published by the Hindustan Times in December 2015 regarding the boy’s death. It had then issued notice to the State as well as the Police, seeking to keep track of the progress made in the case. During the course of hearing, it was revealed that chargesheet had been filed under Section 304A of the IPC against Mr. Devender Kumar (the school teacher who was accompanying the children), Mr. Jai Prakash Singh (Section Officer, Horticulture Wing, PWD) and Ms. Garima Raj, (JE/Civil, PWD).
With regard to fastening of responsibility, the Court took note of an affidavit filed by PWD, noting that PWD had, while admitting that it is responsible for the construction of the rainwater harvesting storage tanks, tried to absolve itself of the responsibility submitting that the area “did not require day to day care”.
The Court, however, noted that by admitting that the uncovered tank “did not draw regular attention of the department”, PWD had taken the responsibility for its officers who had failed to perform their duty of attending to the area, maintaining the tank and ensuring that the manholes were duly covered.
It then held PWD guilty for the death of the child, observing, “The only possible conclusion from the admitted factual position is that the PWD had failed in its duty of exercising even ordinary care & diligence in maintaining a scrutiny over the manholes and keeping the surrounding area in a reasonably safe condition.
The blame for the ill-fated incident, in which a young 11-year-old boy, who had gone for a happy outing as a school picnic, lost his life, therefore clearly lies with the PWD which failed to exercise due care.”
The Court further censured the Department for fixing the blame on junior officers, calling it a culture of “irresponsibility, indiscipline, inefficiency and apathy”, and blaming it on senior officials not discharging their public law obligations and duties which include close supervision, regulation and inspection over the performance of the subordinates in the organization, especially by spot visits where public facilities and places are concerned.
“It is high time that the culpability was correctly apportioned and the senior most in the chain of authority is also held accountable for negligent and illegal acts of commission and omission by public authorities,” it added.
Furthermore, the Court opined that the school teacher accompanying the children cannot be held liable for the incident, as he could not have foreseen the existence of the uncovered manhole. It explained, “No teacher or person could have reasonably foreseen or expected that the authorities would leave an uncovered manhole or that, by letting the child go to the vehicle to obtain some article therefrom, in the open public park he could entail the risk of falling into a manhole.
The proposition that the teacher ought to be liable or guilty of negligence for letting the child proceed to the vehicle is akin to saying that the parents ought to have foreseen that there would be an open manhole in the park into which their child could have fallen. Therefore, they should not to have let the child go on the picnic and by doing so, acted negligently and consequently, ought also to be held guilty of negligence and criminally prosecuted.”
Thereafter, noting that no compensation had been paid to the boy’s family members, the Court directed the payment of an amount of Rs. 10 lakhs, along with interest to his mother. It also issued directions to all public authorities and land owning agencies to ensure that: