The Brands India Consumer Show—a five-day consumer fair held at Victoria Park in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh—entered its final day on 10 April 2006. The organisers Lakhan Tomar, Asit Gupta and Siddharth Manohar, had arranged for three centrally air-conditioned halls to be constructed for the fair. At around 5.40 pm that day, 20-year-old Paras Vij was manning his family-owned stall, “Delight Xerox” in Hall A, when he heard people scream “Fire!” He told me he saw people scampering and searching for an exit, but having spent five days at the fair, he knew that there was only one exit—at the end of the third hall. Tickets for the fair were sold at the entrance in Hall A, and “people could only exit from Hall C, after having gone through the entire fair,” Paras said. But, seeing a crowd running towards the entry gate in Hall A, Paras and his brother Puneet joined them. As they made their way out of the gate, the brothers were hit by a blaze of fire, and they fell down. “Both of us were burnt, my brother more badly than I was,” Paras said. He continued, “I used my bare hands to try and put out the fire on my brother.” I met Paras at his printing-and-photocopy shop in Meerut on 9 April 2017—nearly 11 years after the incident. He said it took nearly a year for his injuries to heal. As we spoke, he held up his hands. They were permanently deformed due to the burns. Paras told me that Puneet died in the hospital, three days after the fire.
The Victoria Park fire killed 65 persons—though the Uttar Pradesh government contests that the figure is 64—and grievously injured 81 others. In the subsequent years, several cases were filed related to the fire. In April 2006, the state police registered a first information report against the organisers, booking them with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, among other offences. In June 2006, the state government constituted a one-member commission headed by OP Garg, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, to conduct an inquiry into the incident. Around the same time, Sanjay Gupta, who lost five family members in the fire, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, requesting that the investigation of the case to be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Gupta also asked that the families of the deceased be given Rs 20 lakh as compensation, and the injured receive Rs 5 lakh. In September 2007, the Supreme Court granted bail to the three accused, the organisers. In April 2008, Tomar, one of the three, filed an application in the Allahabad High Court asking for the criminal proceedings against him to be quashed.
All of these cases are still pending before their respective courts, 11 years after the fire. In the criminal trial, charges have not yet been framed against the organisers. In Sanjay Gupta’s petition for compensation, the Supreme Court passed a detailed interim order in July 2014. In the order, the court constituted a new one-member commission presided by SB Sinha, a former judge of the Supreme Court, to conduct the inquiry into the incident, due to procedural violations in the Garg commission’s inquiry process. It also directed the state government to pay an additional interim compensation to the victims—Rs 5 lakh to the family of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh to the seriously injured and Rs 75,000 to those with minor injuries—it refrained from directing the organisers to pay any compensation to the victims. The Supreme Court only directed the organisers to deposit a sum of Rs 30 lakh with it as an interim amount, pending the submission of the Sinha Commission report and the court’s decision on the apportionment of liability between the state and the organisers.
I met Sanjay and his nephew Apoorv Gupta on 8 April 2017. Apoorv, who is now 31-years-old, lost his parents, his younger sister, and two cousins—Sanjay’s two daughters—in the fire. They used to live together as a joint family, Apoorv told me. “At home, there would be the eight of us. Suddenly, it was just the three of us—chachu, chachi and I,” he said, as he removed his spectacles and pinched his tear-filled eyes.
Sanjay told me that after the fire, he practically locked himself in a room for almost a year. His emotional state added to the woes of the family. "It was a very difficult time," Vimmi, Sanjay’s wife, told me. “A person who used to be so energetic was lying on the bed all the time.” Eventually, about a year after the fire, Vimmi said she told Sanjay, “Either you leave or we will have to leave.” That proved to be the turning point, Sanjay told me. “I pulled myself together and forced myself to get back to life,” he said. Sanjay and Apoorv have since been spearheading the fight on behalf of the families of the victims.