THEY are reluctant crusaders, having paid the high price of losing two children in the Delhi Uphaar cinema tragedy, which left 60 dead. But the husband-wife duo of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy decided that being pro-active was the only way out. Says Neelam, "We dont want anybody else to meet the same fate as our children did. And we do believe that the work that has been started will bring about some change." Thus the Association Of The Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AV U T) was formed . Not just to book the guilty in the Uphaar case but also to create an awareness and change attitudes towards a whole host of problems and tragedies that are forgotten much too soon.
June 13, 1997 was like any other day in their life. Shekhar and Neelam went off to work as usual (they run a buying agency for uropean companies). Their children Unnati, 17, and Ujjawal, 13, decided to see the afternoon show of the much awaited J.P. Dutta film Border. "When they didnt return till evening, we started getting restive, little knowing that they were dead," says Neelam. Deaths which they feel couldve been prevented. Says Shekhar: "The people sit-ting in the rear stall came out unharmed, while those seated in the balcony were asphyxiated. The policemen who refused to be part of the rescue operation joked that these people were rich, and couldnt move fast enough." Not the only callousness on display that evening. The theatre management had not maintained any of the fire safety regulations. Exits had been locked from the outside, no immediate first-aid was available, and bodies were heaped on top of each other at A I I M S, Indias premier hospital.
The first step was to get together others similarly bereaved that evening; addresses were obtained from obituary columns. Says Shekhar: "People thought this association wouldnt last a couple of months, they even called it an elite group." Explains Neelam: "We do have members who cant contribute towards the expenses of fighting the case." While the initial money to run the association came from their own pockets, singer Shubha Mudgal, a good friend, helped through a fund-raising concert, and Rs 9 lakh were collected. Now AVUT runs on this money.
The couple is devoted to AV U T, leaving them little time to keep their business running. In fact normal life has come to a stand-still. Says Neelam, "We didnt have any incentive to live or earn . Now this association is our obsession." Every 13th of the month, a debate/event is organised. The park opposite the Uphaar cinema has been handed over to AV U T to build a memorial. "Public memory is short but we cant let them forget," says Shekhar.
"Now we have taken up all sorts of issues. We want to work for a safer India," he says. That includes making the officals who issue licenses accountable in the event of an accident and starting a Centralised Accident & Trauma Services (CATS) centre a dream that drives them into going through endless rounds of litigation and bureaucratic hassles. The association wants a total of Rs 100 crore (the damages AVUT is claiming in the High Court writ) to set up the centre, which they feel could save a large number of lives. Says Neelam, "There is land allotted for a CATS centre but nothing has happened as yet."
The Krishnamoorthys have also channelised their energies into music, a passion their children shared. Having just released an album through Magnasound, Shekhar says, "I dont want fame or money through music. Music gives us solace." Proceeds from the album will go towards educating underprivileged children.
Neelam and Shekhar refused to start life afresh abroad as suggested by some friends. Says Neelam, "We want to fight this battle. There is no point in running away." The Krishnamoorthys continue their fight to sensitise Delhi, improve facilities and even bring the mighty Ansals (the owners of Uphaar) to book. A battle that they would like others to join in as well, because they feel, "what happened to us can happen to anybody, any time."
Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy can be contacted at: (011) 6451474/6442750.