13 April 2022 3:40 AM GMT
The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Allahabad High Court Chief Justice to nominate within two weeks a District Judge or Additional District Judge to work on a day to day basis for determining the compensation payable to the families of the victims of the fire that broke out during a consumer fair in Meerut in 2006. The bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian also...
The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Allahabad High Court Chief Justice to nominate within two weeks a District Judge or Additional District Judge to work on a day to day basis for determining the compensation payable to the families of the victims of the fire that broke out during a consumer fair in Meerut in 2006.
The bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian also noted that since the amount of compensation payable to each of the victim including the families of the deceased had not been computed, the same required computation 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.
However the Court took note of the fact that,
"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 Top Court also asked the High Court to provide all necessary infrastructure to enable the Officer to discharge his duties. The bench also granted nominated Judicial Officer liberty to permit the parties to lead such evidence as may be permissible and to submit the report to this Court for consideration in respect of compensation in accordance with law.
"The victims or their families visited the 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 further observed.
The bench issued the directions and rendered the observations while considering a writ petition preferred by the victims of the fire tragedy which occurred on 10.4.2006 at about 5:40 p.m., the last day of the India Brand Consumer Show organized at Victoria Park, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. The tragedy claimed the lives of 65 persons and left 161 or more with burn injuries.
On June 2, 2006, the State of Uttar Pradesh had appointed Hon'ble Mr. Justice O.P. Garg (Retired) in terms of provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 with the following terms of reference:
"(1) To find out the facts, causes on account of which the aforesaid accident occurred;(2) To decide the ways and means to keep up the situation in control;(3) In respect of the aforesaid occurrence, determination of liability and the extent thereof;(4) Measures to be adopted to avoid the occurrence of such an incident in future."
The Commission submitted its report on June 5, 2007 but was found to be unsustainable by the Top Court on July 31, 2014. While rejecting the proceedings conducted by the Commission under the Inquiry Act, the Court appointed Hon'ble Mr. 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.
Pursuant to submission of the report by the Committee on June 29, 2015, wherein the Commission determined the liability of the State and the organizers as 40% and 60% respectively, an amount of Rs.30 lakhs deposited by the Organizers in terms of the order dated July 31, 2014. The same was sent to the District Judge, Meerut for pro-rata distribution amongst the victims.
Submission Of Counsels
Appearing for the organizers, Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan while raising preliminary objection about the Top Court entertaining the petition in respect of private law liability had contended that such liability did not fall within the scope of Article 32 of the Constitution. To support his contention, counsel referred to the judgements in Nilabati Behera (Smt.) alias Lalita Behera v. State of Orissa & Ors. (1993) 2 SCC 746, Sube Singh v. State of Haryana & Ors. (2006) 3 SCC 178, Shri Sohan Lal v. Union of India & Anr. AIR 1957 SC 529, Radhey Shyam & Anr. v. Chhabi Nath & Ors. (2009) 5 SCC 616, Radhey Shyam & Anr. v. Chhabi Nath & Ors. (2015) 5 SCC 423, Praga Tools Corporation v. Shri C.A. Imanual & Ors. (1969) 1 SCC 585 and Shalini Shyam Shetty & Anr. v. Rajendra Shankar Patil (2010) 8 SCC 329.
Senior Counsel also argued that the word 'safety' used in the work order would also include safety from fire as well and thus the responsibility of providing fire safety measures was upon the Contractor. It was further submitted that 25 fire extinguishers were provided by the Organizers in view of the request made by the Contractor as he was not locally available and therefore, the same was procured from Meerut with the payment being made by the Organizers to his account.
Senior Counsel had further contended that the report has not given any finding regarding negligence of the Organizers, therefore, the apportionment of liability on them was an unjust conclusion drawn by the Commission.
It was also Mr Bhushan's contention that the Commissioner appointed by this Court was to substitute the Commissioner appointed by the State, therefore, the Commissioner appointed by this Court would only be a Commissioner under the Inquiry Act.
Appearing for the writ petitioners, Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa for the liability of compensation qua the organisers referred to the judgements in MC Mehta & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors. (1987) 1 SCC 395, Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy v. Union of India & Ors. 2000 SCC OnLine Del 216. It was also Senior Counsel's contention that the appointment of the Court Commissioner was that of a Judicial Commission to make inquiry into the factual aspects leading to the fire tragedy and the persons responsible for its cause.
Supreme Court's Analysis
The bench in the judgment authored by Justice Hemant Gupta to adjudicate on the issue categorized the precedents for payment of compensation in a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution under three categories being:
Referring to the judgements in Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims Association v. Union of India & Ors. 2009 SCC OnLine P&H 10273, DAV Managing Committee & Anr. v. Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims Association & Ors., (2013) 10 SCC 494, M.S. Grewal & Anr. v. Deep Chand Sood & Ors. (2001) 8 SCC 151, the bench said,
"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."
The bench added that it sees no reason to differ from the views taken in the precedents.
"The Word 'safety' Appearing In Work Order Cannot Be Read In Isolation But Has To Be Read In Context In Which Word Has Been Used
Rejecting the contentions of Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan that word 'safety' used in the work order would also include safety from fire as well the bench said,
"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."
Organizers & State Have Been Rightly Saddled With Liability For Not Taking Precautions As Mandated By Statute; It Was Pre-Requisite Condition For Organizers To Inform Civil Administration About Structure Which They Were Putting Up For Purpose Of Exhibition So That Civil Administration Does Not Pass Order Subsequently For Removal Of Such Structure
Referring to the provisions under U.P. Fire Service Act, 1944 and Uttar Pradesh Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Act, 2005, the 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."
With regards to Counsel for the organizer's contention that Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure did not provide for any permission, whereas the Organizers have obtained permission to organize exhibition in terms of Section 144 of the Code, the bench said,
"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 a tent or structure. Therefore, it was a prerequisite 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."
Affirming the liability fixed by the Court Commissioner on the Organizers and the State, the bench said,
"The Contractor was working on behalf of the Organizers in terms of the work order issued. Therefore, whatsoever may be the relationship between the two, the Organizers cannot be absolutely absolved of their liability. All permissions were required to be sought and were in fact sought by the Organizers. Even 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. Thus, the Court Commissioner has 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 has been burdened with 40% of the total liability. We do not find such distribution of liability suffers from any illegality which may warrant interference by this Court."
On the aspect of Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan's contention that the report of the Commissioner could not be made basis of any action against the Organizers as it was merely recommendations submitted to the State, Court said,
"In respect of criminal charges, an accused can be tried by a Court of law and not merely on the basis of the report of the Commissioner under the Inquiry Act. Such report is not conclusive and an independent action has to be taken by the State or by the victims against the Organizers before the competent court of law to prove the criminal offences said to be committed by certain accused. We find that the appointment of the Court Commissioner was though to substitute the Commissioner appointed under the Inquiry Act, but under the Inquiry Act, the Court could not appoint a Commissioner. Such power is conferred only on the executive and the legislature. Thus, the jurisdiction exercised in appointing Hon'ble Mr. Justice S.B. Sinha (Retd.) was vesting with this Court under Article 142 of the Constitution. It was a Court Commission to find out the factual positions on the questions of reference. We do not find any merit in the argument that the appointment of the Court Commissioner was as a Commissioner of Inquiry under the Inquiry Act and the same is made out from the fact that this Court has sought comments from the State on the basis of the report so furnished."
Case Title: Sanjay Gupta & Ors. V. State Of Uttar Pradesh Through Its Chief Secretary & Ors.| 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 368 | Writ Petition (Civil) NO. 338 OF 2006
Coram: Justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian
Summary : 2006 Meerut Fire Tragedy - 40:60 Liability On State & Organizers To Compensate Victims - Allahabad High Court Chief Justice to nominate within two weeks a District Judge or Additional District Judge to work on a day to day basis for determining the compensation payable to the families of the victims of the fire that broke out during a consumer fair in Meerut in 2006 - Computation of compensation 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.
Constitution of India, 1950 ; Article 21, 32,226 - 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. (Para 22)
Constitution of India, 1950 ; Article 21 - Where life and personal liberty have been violated, the absence of any statutory provision for compensation in the statute is of no consequence. Right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is the most sacred right preserved and protected under the Constitution, violation of which is always actionable and there is no necessity of statutory provision as such for preserving that right. Article 21 of the Constitution of India has to be read into all public safety statutes, since the prime object of public safety legislation is to protect the individual and to compensate him for the loss suffered. Duty of care expected from State or its officials functioning under the public safety legislation is, therefore, very high. (Para 21)
Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 - The Commission under the Act shall be appointed either by the Executive or by the Legislature but not by the Judiciary in terms of the provisions of Inquiry Act (Para 46,50)
Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952 - In respect of criminal charges, an accused can be tried by a Court of law and not merely on the basis of the report of the Commissioner under the Inquiry Act. Such a report is not conclusive and an independent action has to be taken by the State or by the victims against the Organizers before the competent court of law to prove the criminal offences said to be committed by certain accused. (Para 49)
Legal Maxims - Res ipsa loquitor - Res ipsa loquitor is resorted to when an accident is shown to have occurred and the cause of the accident is primarily within the knowledge of the defendant. The mere fact that the cause of the accident is unknown does not prevent the plaintiff from recovering the damages, if proper inference to be drawn from the circumstances which are known is that it was caused by the negligence of the defendant. (Para 53)
Click Here To Read/Download Judgment