AMRI chargesheet clears mist, spares govt nominees
Calcutta, March 1: Sixteen people accused in the AMRI Dhakuria fire case have been charged with offences that can jail them for life.
The 16 — nine owners, two doctor directors, the executive director and four managers — have also been charged under a section that deals with not only acts of commission but also those of omission. This section (36) is stronger than the one relating to common intent, the clause that police had been citing in the initial stages of the probe.
The chargesheet filed today formally answers some of the troubling questions thrown up by the tragedy in which over 90 people choked to death. Two of the questions related to when the fire started and when the fire brigade was informed. They have been answered.
Some other questions have not been answered, such as why the government directors have not been charged.
The Telegraph lists the answers given today and the unanswered questions, based on the account of sources who have seen the 1,285-page chargesheet.
The fire started at 2.30am and the fire brigade was called 1 hour and 40 minutes later, at 4.10am.
The chargesheet blames the hospital for allowing the killer smoke to spread across the seven floors for over an hour and a half. The central air-conditioning had not been switched off, providing easy passage for the fumes. The hospital’s fire alarm was off, allegedly because smoke from the kitchen often seeped in and made it ring, and its sprinklers did not work.
The fire was sparked by a “glowing object” that could be a cigarette or bidi butt that had not been stubbed out.
The basement, meant for a car park, had been illegally converted into an office-cum-storehouse as part of a cost-cutting exercise and comprised over 20 rooms. The fire started in the portion of the basement where the hospital stored its cotton and bandages.
Another part of the basement had the radiotherapy unit that had been allegedly built illegally but then regularised by the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.
The central staircase of the hospital used to be locked at night because the management feared some of the patients could flee without paying their bills.
The hospital had appointed personnel without relevant qualifications in key positions, violating norms prescribed by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals. The chargesheet has cited the example of Sajid Hossain, a “hotel management graduate” who was in charge of the hospital that night.
Preeta Banerjee, vice-president (administration), had suspended a guard for calling the fire brigade a few months earlier, and fears of a similar reprisal prevented the staff from raising the alarm when the smoke started spreading on December 9.
The hospital, the chargesheet says, also lacked a full-time fire-safety officer and a chief (civil) engineer who would have known the layout of the premises and the emergency exits.
The directors might have been aware of all the violations but their approval did not form part of the minutes of the board meetings. The decisions were allegedly made and communicated verbally.
The police are not pressing the charge of common intent (Section 34) against the directors but replacing it with a “stronger” Section 36, which deals with the effects caused “partly by act and partly by an omission”.
Police sources said they had studied the Uphaar cinema verdict in detail during the investigations. In that case, the accused, influential owners of the cinema in downtown Delhi, had got away with the lighter charge of Section 304A (causing death by a rash or negligent act) because of the police’s laxity.
All 16 in the AMRI case have been charged with both culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 304 of the IPC) and attempt to commit culpable homicide (Section 308). The first offence carries a maximum sentence of a life term and the second that of seven years. They have also been charged with negligent conduct with respect to fire (Section 285 of the IPC) and Section 36.
Besides, the 12 directors face the charge of negligence under Sections 11C and 11J of the West Bengal Fire Services Act.
If all the directors were aware of the violations, why are the government representatives on the board not on the chargesheet? They had attended most board meetings and the minutes would have been sent to them even if they hadn’t.
The then director of medical education was the chairman of the board that had another health official. If the violations had taken place over the years, why had the government representatives not reported them to the state, a stakeholder in the hospital?
Why are fire department officials who allowed the alleged violations to continue not being charged? A fire official can use his discretion and allow time to an establishment to correct mistakes on the first occasion but not a second time. AMRI Dhakuria got its fourth extension in November 2011.
Why was a hospital with repeated and serious violations not shut down before? The rules say an establishment should be shut down if it has not corrected mistakes after the first caution. But the government officials who issue the no-objection certificate on behalf of the fire department were allegedly hand in glove with the hospital.