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SC rules railways must compensate rooftop travellers who die. It's problematic

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:48 IST

Just how far should judicial compassion go? Should it extend to acts which are illegal under existing laws?

India does not have any particular legislation on tort law and governmental liability, but as legal scholar Marc Galanter mentions in the context of the Bhopal gas tragedy, there is a "legal torpor" in this area of law.

In a decision which can be termed questionable at best, the Supreme Court has ruled that people who travel on the roofs of railway trains, and either die or get injured, would be entitled to a compensation of Rs 5 lakh, even though this action is illegal.

This ruling of the Supreme Court comes in the case of Anil Kumar Gupta v Union of India (Writ Petition (Civil No. 68 of 2011), in which the court had reserved its judgement on 7 February this year.

Relying upon its previous rulings in the cases of Chandrima Das (2000) and MS Grewal versus Deep Chand Sood (2001), the court has held that the railways owe a "duty of care" to anyone and everyone who is availing of any of their facilities.

The court does not, in any part of its judgement, deal with the issue of legality.

And that is exactly what makes the ruling problematic. Because, in law, a "duty of care" is owed by an organisation only those who avail of its facilities.

Facts of the case

The court's ruling comes in the wake of an incident which happened on 11 February 2011. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police had advertised jobs in the Group IV category, and interviewees/applicants turned up in droves. There were over two lakh applicants, coming from all parts of the country.

Tragedy struck on the Himgiri Express at Hathaurda Railway Station near Uttar Pradesh's Shahjahanabad.

The train was overcrowded, and many applicants, coming from far-flung areas, had no option but to travel on the roofs of the train's coaches. The superfast train then hit a high-tension wire, resulting in 14 rooftop travellers being crushed to death, and 20 being seriously injured.

Knotty issues

The apex court's ruling, authored by Justice UU Lalit, raises several questions which have gone unanswered.

First, although the loss of human lives is a tragedy, on what legal basis did the court direct that compensation be awarded?

Chandrima Das's case was where she was gangraped in a waiting room of Kolkata's Howrah railway station.

The MS Grewal case involved an incident in which 14 students of Dalhousie Public School died while on a picnic, and the teachers escorting them were held criminally liable for negligence.

But, in both cases, no one was travelling illegally.

Second, the court puts an undue burden on the railway administration by making it incumbent upon it to make "adequate arrangements" to avert and avoid such tragedies in the future.

What does the court really mean? That the railways should run special trains whenever the military and paramilitary forces conduct recruitment drives? Even if it does, should the same largesse be extended to all other categories of government and private recruitment initiatives?

Last, but not the least, doesn't the top court's ruling pave the way for all those who indulge in pranks aboard trains, and consequentially meet with fatal results, to wean money off the government?

One only has to look at the scene in the suburban trains in Mumbai, where a staggering number of people lose their lives because they try deadly stunts.

Therefore, the court's ruling, even though it will undoubtedly be welcomed by the families of the deceased and injured, raises troublesome questions in the arena of jurisprudence and legal policy. And these must be resolved.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 8 July 2016, 12:22 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.