A tale of two fire disasters and the contempt for the affected

The blaze in New Delhi’s Uphaar cinema 21 years ago and last year at Grenfell Tower expose the ruling class’ disregard for the well-being of the innocent 

The first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which killed 72 people, coincided almost exactly to the day with the Uphaar Cinema fire in the Green Park area of New Delhi, 21 years earlier, which claimed 59 lives.

These apparently unrelated events have more in common than might first appear. First of all, in both disasters, indifference, negligence and contempt by the authorities for the people involved played a part. Both were transformed, with the help of the media, from crimes into tragedies. In this way, those who were – however indirectly – responsible for loss of life, were scarcely held to account: culpable disregard for regulations and for the well-being of innocents, in the one case, on an afternoon out, and in the other, of those living in homes provided for the most vulnerable by the State was turned into ‘accidents’, which, as everyone knows, will happen.

The reaction by Authority to these disasters shows an astonishing convergence. This suggests the attitude of power and wealth to ordinary people is as callous in so-called ‘developed’ countries as it is in the equally falsely-named ‘developing’ ones. Justice for the victims and the bereaved of Uphaar has been slothful and indolent; while the display on the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire has involved an exaggerated and compensatory display by government to declare ‘solidarity’ with the afflicted. Both have at heart (if that is the right word) an attempt to remove from the scene, the evidence of indifference of public officials, a desire to save money when it comes to protecting the public, a diffusion of responsibility in such a way that no one can be held to account. In London, even Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence, was illuminated in green on the anniversary of Grenfell - the colour of hope, which survivors and their supporters had chosen for their silent march and vigil.

Justice - blind, deaf and dumb
The history of Grenfell Tower is, of course, far briefer than the long drawn-out agony of Uphaar, but the similarities are unmistakable. It is worth revising in some detail the events of both occasions although separated by precisely 20 years. First of all, the scene of the ‘investigation’ at Uphaar remained for two decades. The images are stark – blackened, burnt-out seats, the swirl of dust and grime, stained concrete, a sooty deposit on walls and floor are the physical reminder of corruption and violation of fire regulations. There was no proper public announcement system, exits were blocked, and the transformer which was the source of the fire, had not been maintained, despite earlier problems. The short-circuit ignited and the adjacent parking-lot went up in flames. Toxic smoke swiftly engulfed the building and choked the audience.The cinema hall had accommodated more spectators than it was designed to contain. As a result,16 people were accused of causing death by negligence, and the owners of the hall, Sushil and Gopal Ansal, were arrested in July 1997.

The remains of the parking lot at Uphaar Cinema (Photo: Indian Express)

The association of Victims of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy was formed by relatives of those who had lost loved ones. In 2002, a mere five years later, when the Delhi High Court urged expedition, the brothers were found guilty of culpable homicide as the result of a negligent act. In 2003, the Delhi High Court ordered a payment of Rs 180 million to the victims’ families. The brothers were denied repossession of the theater on the grounds that it remained the scene of a crime and of evidence. In 2007, the Victims’ Organisation petitioned for a swift conclusion to the case. The date for the verdict was postponed several times until November 2007, when all 12 accused (some had died) were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. The two brothers and others were granted bail. But, later the same year, they were sent to Tihar jail. The sentence was reduced to one year in 2008. In 2008, following pressure from the Victims’ Organisation for an enhancement of the sentence, the matter came before the Supreme Court. In 2014, the conviction was upheld, and a fine of Rs 30 crore each imposed. The final verdict came only in February 2017, and the younger brother, by then 69, was to complete the one-year sentence, while his older brother, then 77, was deemed of too advanced an age to be subjected to prison.

The process lasted two decades; an injustice not only to the victims, but equally to the accused: to have grown old under the shadow of such a threat is of itself a sentence. That the lives of those affected were considered of such small account that ‘justice’ was not only blind, but also deaf-and-dumb and torpid at the same time, reveals as much about an antiquated and colonial system of administration as it does about an India as a major player in the contemporary world.

Social justice doesn’t require detectives
The method in Britain of neutralising anger and muting the scandal of neglect and corruption is, perhaps, more sophisticated, but the effect is the same; achieved by a dispersal of culpability which alights on no individual, or is attributed to ‘systemic’ causes, diffusing responsibility until it becomes as impalpable as sunlight.

The events at Grenfell Tower can be quickly told. The fire broke out as a result of a faulty refrigerator on the fourth floor and spread upwards. The residents had been told to remain in their apartments in the event of fire. What the personnel of the fire service did not know was that the cladding on the 23-storey block was highly flammable; and instead of the conflagration being contained, it swept up the building. There was, in any case, only one staircase by which escape was possible. The local community moved in and provided such comfort and help as they could: compassion, humanity and protection emerged from the people of the neighbourhood. The Prime Minister visited the scene, but failed to meet any of the victims, an omission which the Queen and Prince William rectified the following day.

The convolutions of Dickensian bureaucracy in India and the politics of perfunctory penitence in Britain, demonstrate something fundamental about ‘development’ – for this means finding ever more ingenious ways to de-power victims of inequality and injustice

An enquiry was announced, which would focus upon the cause of the fire and how it had spread so quickly. This was headed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge whose record in relation to social housing tenants had not been spectacularly sympathetic. He would ‘gather evidence and establish the facts’. Evidence and facts are not what traumatised and anguished people want when their wounds are so raw. Ruling classes are anxious that their version of events should be heard and that no countervailing story should gain currency. There would be no ‘enquiries’ into the neglect of those who live in social housing.

And this procedure has been very successful. The fact that the Conservative council was re-elected less than a year after the disaster, suggests that a borough which has 12 of the most expensive streets in Britain, can accept that this was indeed a ‘natural’ disaster, a ‘tragedy’ (and tragedies are unavoidable), and that disregard of warnings by residents that the tower was a fire-trap long before the outbreak occurred were mere scare-mongering.

The stress has been on ‘discovering the truth’, ‘getting to the bottom of it’, as though government and its appointees were confronted by a dark mystery, in the solution of which they would ‘leave no stone unturned’ – an unfortunate image in presence of the charred rubble all around them. Social injustice, in any case, scarcely requires the work of detectives. More than a year after the fire, more than half of the survivors had not been permanently re-housed, despite the Prime Minister’s assurance that all would be found a new home ‘within three weeks’ of the fire.

The convolutions of Dickensian bureaucracy in India and the politics of perfunctory penitence in Britain, demonstrate something fundamental about ‘development’ – for this means finding ever more ingenious ways to de-power victims of inequality and injustice, and ensuring they cannot hold to account those who govern, rule or control their destiny.

(Jeremy Seabrook is a London-based author and columnist. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)

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