Calcutta High Court on Monday said “it is not easy to get things done against the rich” while hearing petitions by two Calcuttans seeking a speedy trial in the AMRI fire tragedy case.
Justice Sanjib Banerjee asked for a status report on the case within seven days from the district and sessions judge and the chief judicial magistrate of Alipore court, where the chargesheet was filed 18 months ago but the trial has yet to start.
The twin petitions were filed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, whose mother Purnima was among the 91 victims in the fire at Annexe I of AMRI Hospitals, Dhakuria, on December 9, 2011, and Rana Ganguli, who lost his father Gouranga.
Aniruddha, a bank official, told Metro that he was “frustrated and tired” of waiting for the trial to begin.
He and his co-petitioner have sought the high court’s intervention to speed up proceedings and restore their faith in the judicial process.
Justice Banerjee started Monday’s hearing by saying: “It is not easy to get things done against the rich.”
Later, when lawyer S.N. Pandey spoke of Mamata Banerjee’s assurance in 2011 that the accused would be prosecuted “as soon as possible”, Justice Banerjee said: “Now you are talking about a political forum. Then why did you approach the judiciary?”
Pandey reeled off statistics to show how the case against the co-owners of AMRI — R.S. Goenka and R.S. Agarwal’s Emami Group and S.K. Todi’s Shrachi Group — was caught in a cycle of postponed or inconclusive hearings in the lower courts.
“Till date, 27 dates were fixed for framing charges against the accused. But at every hearing, lawyers representing the accused sought more time by claiming that their clients were not in the country,” he said.
Pandey said the case would continue to drag unless the high court intervened. “The volume of the chargesheet runs into 1,300 pages. There are 450 witnesses. Unless the trial starts immediately, the family members of the victims won’t get justice in a long time.”
Both petitioners said later that the judicial process had sapped them of patience.Bank employee Aniruddha said: “Most of us have to take leave from office or excuse ourselves from work for a few hours to be present at each hearing, only to find that it won’t be held because the accused are on foreign trips.”
Relatives of some of the other victims too spoke about the frustration of going to hearings and finding that the accused haven’t turned up.
“Of the hearings so far, only on four occasions have all 16 accused been present. And in those four instances, the arguments centred around things like whether an accused can be excused the next time as he would have to go abroad to get a daughter admitted to college,” said Paromita Guhathakurta, whose mother Mridula was among the fire victims.
Raja Ganguly, who lost his father Jaharlal in the fire, said family members had been taking turns attending the hearings. “Today’s order (to file a status report in seven days) has reinstated our belief in the judiciary. We will not rest till the guilty are punished.”
The chargesheet in the incident names 16 people, including 11 directors of the dissolved AMRi board. They have been accused of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (section 304 of the IPC), attempt to commit culpable homicide (section 308), dealing with fire or any combustible matter so as to endanger human life (section 285). The charges carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
The co-owners of AMRI, which has a new-look board of directors with only two faces from the old management, have been trying to get permission to reopen sections of the hospital.
The first sign of the Mamata government having a change of heart came earlier this year when the fire department conducted a pending inspection of the main unit and Annexe II. Annexe I, to which the fire was restricted, is not structurally connected to either the main unit or Annexe II.