Justice for Blueline victims: Does anyone pay?

New Delhi, July 29 (IANS) The present hue and cry over the Indian capital’s ‘killer’ Blueline buses is lost on no one. But one question nobody seems to be asking is who – if anyone – pays compensation money to victims’ families, many of which have lost their sole breadwinner in these accidents.

The private buses have crushed 66 people under their wheels this year. One of this month’s victims, a ‘doctor’ practising indigenous medicine from a tiny rented room in a crowded east Delhi neighbourhood, left behind seven dependents, including four visually impaired parents and siblings.

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And now victim Parimal Kumar Mallick’s relatives and neighbours are wondering who will look after his family. Will the private bus owner pay any compensation or will the state do something to secure the future of the hapless, including Mallick’s two schoolgoing sons?

According to legal experts who have studied the law of torts, the irony is that the government and the private bus operators are not obliged to pay any compensation to the victim’s kin.

“The government and bus operators – state-owned DTC or Blueline – have no mercy for the victims, many of whom were the sole bread winners for their families. They don’t care how the victim’s family would survive,” Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan told IANS.

In developed countries, the issue of compensation is usually sorted out swiftly, without it having to go to the court. In India, however, the absence of a strong regulatory authority to lay down and enforce strict norms and rules means cases have to go through already overburdened local courts.

It is a tortuous route that invariably puts the victims’ families at a disadvantage.

“The compensation is generally paid by the company that insures the vehicle, but it is up to the designated courts handling accidents cases in every district to decide how much compensation amount should be paid to the victim’s family. And by whom,” said well-known lawyer Rebecca Mammen.

But many of the accident victims’ kin don’t know how to claim the compensation money and those who are aware of that have to fight strenuous battles to win their claim, she explained.

“The trial normally stretches up to four years and families end up paying huge amounts to the lawyers representing them. Their hope to get an appropriate amount to end their immediate troubles often ends in vain. The money is never sufficient,” Mammen told IANS.

“Though there is a provision of interim compensation under which the families get a small amount from the insurer of the vehicle or from the owner of the vehicle, the process also takes some time,” she added.

Asked about how much money could be expected as compensation, Mammen said the amount varies from case to case.

“It depends on various factors like the victim’s employment, salary, age and number of dependants. The court awards compensation after taking into account all these factors,” she informed.

According to an official of the state-run Delhi Legal Services Authority, which offers free legal assistance in the city, a victim’s family gets Rs.400,000 on an average as compensation. But it largely depends on the victim’s earning before the tragedy.

“There have been cases, where people have been awarded of Rs.2 million compensation.”

The officials said that the government doesn’t provide any compensation. However, it can provide free legal assistance to the victim’s family if their annual income is less than Rs.50,000.

“In case of a woman victim, legal aid is provided free of cost irrespective of the income.”

Expressing dissatisfaction over the current practice, Bhushan said that the state government is not bothered whether the poor get justice or not.

“Now, we must consider the required changes, proposed by various law commissions, in the criminal justice system to get an early justice for thousands of victims in our country,” he added.

Delhi is home to a fleet of 4,200 privately operated Blueline buses, whose main motive is making money rather than public safety. On an average a single bus gives its owner at least Rs.90,000 a month.

These buses were involved in the killing of 100 people last year, while 142 people died under their wheels in the year 2005. State-run buses too have a record of accidents, but they have been responsible this year for only 25 deaths, less than half the Blueline tally.

An estimated 100,000 people die every year in road accidents in the country, but only in a handful of cases the kin gets any compensation from either the bus companies or owners of private vehicles responsible for the accidents.

Indo-Asian News Service