Supreme Order ratifies compensation against Airport Authorities of India

In an important judgment, the Supreme Court of India has ratified the order of the National Consumer Commission that had awarded an overall sum of Rs. 38.04 lakhs (including interest) compensation against the Airports Authority of India for dereliction leading to the death of a child. In a horrific incident on December 13, 1999, a family arriving at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport saw their 7 year old daughter getting sucked into the gap at the end of the escalator and getting crushed to death. It was an incident that sparked a lot of outrage, more so, because this was an incident that could have been avoided.

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an order of the national consumer commission awarding Rs 38.04 lakh compensation to the mother of a seven-year-old girl who died after she was sucked into an escalator at Delhi’s international airport in December 1999. The order marked a stinging rebuke to the Airports Authority of India which, despite strong evidence pointing to its callousness in not maintaining the escalator, had sought to dispute the compensation granted to Geeta Jethani.
While awarding the compensation, the commission had criticized the cussed attitude of AAI in questioning the compensation for a death which clearly resulted from its apathy, saying the case pointed to the extent “we have developed the tendency to deny the obvious, in litigation”. “Except admitting the trapping of a young child in the escalator, the AAI has tried to dispute its liability and deficiency in service. We do not know when we will change our jurisprudence which encourages such attitude of denials and protracts litigation and increases burden on adjudicating forums/courts,” Justice M B Shah, chairman of the commission, had said in his verdict.

The whole incident was extremely shocking when it happened. From my memory, investigation seemed to show that the escalator was not being maintained properly, and in addition, there was no immediate button to stop the escalator. It seems a default now that every escalator has a Red stop button that will immediately stop the escalator, but such was not the case at that point of time. It was only after that incident was there increased focus on making sure that the escalator can stop in an emergency.
The other major problem that becomes evident from this case is that nature of Government enterprises. There is an incredible amount of lethargy, work-saving, and passing the buck that happens. This very rarely gets pointed out since these are after all Government enterprises, but one hopes that more judgments like these will ensure that even Government run enterprises are responsible for ensuring safety at their premises and for ensuring that customer service is their motto. This is hopeful thinking, but one rarely knows whether such an attitude change could happen.

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