This article has been written by Varun Tuteja.

Procedural history

A hundred and more young children, along with a dozen teachers, spent an entire day having fun and frolic in the beautiful surroundings of Kothamangalam town. As evening fell, the group decided to round off their picnic with a short boat trip along the enchanting Periyar river near Thattekkadu.

The much-anticipated picnic, which was supposed to conclude with a boat trip, instead resulted in the deaths of 15 of the young children and three teachers. The boat allegedly sank after water leaked into it, causing the passengers to drown. What began as a lot of fun for everyone turned into a watery grave for at least a dozen and a half people. The tragedy’s announcement sent shockwaves through the state.

The authorities blamed the boat driver and charged him with a culpable homicide that did not amount to murder. The offender was found guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder by the trial court, additionally, he was charged for death caused by a rash and negligent act under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code. He disputes his conviction and punishment, hence the accused appealed in the High Court.

Size of the bench: Single bench.

Name of the Appellant: P.M. Raju.

Name of Respondent: State of Kerala and Ors..

Names of the Judges: Justice Bechu Kurian Thomas.

Name of Appellant(s) advocates C.P. Udayabhanu, Preethi K. Purushothaman, Boban Palat, P.U. Pratheesh Kumar, Navaneeth N. Nath, Rassal Janardhanan A., Abhishek M. Kunnathu and P.R. Ajay, Advs.

Name of Respondent(s) advocates Sylaja S.L., Public Prosecutor, S. Rajeev and Dheerendra Krishnan K.K., Advs.

Material Facts

  1. On 20.2.2007 at 6.05 pm, the accused, who was the owner as well as the driver of a boat by the name “Sivaranjini”, carried 61 persons including 53 students, 7 teachers and 1 non-teaching staff of Elavoor St. Antony’s U.P. School.
  2. The boat that was involved in the accident had an unusual design. It is made up of three boats that were connected by a platform and a roof. Two white painted boats were on either side, with a yellow-coloured boat in the middle.
  3. The boat having a passenger capacity of 6 persons.
  4. The water seeped in through a hole on the yellow boat attached in the middle, causing the boat to overturn, the accused defended that the boat capsized when the students came towards one side in their attempt to catch a glimpse of rare bird nests, the boat tilted, and suddenly PW44 – a teacher, jumped out of the boat causing it to overturn. 
  5. While the boat was being turned to return, the boat capsized and sank in the river due to being overloaded.
  6. This caused the death of 18 persons including 15 children.

Issues Involved

  1. Whether the decision held by the lower court is valid?
  2. Whether the accused had committed an offence coming under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code?

Rule

Section 304 in The Indian Penal Code

Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.—Whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine, if the act by which the death is caused is done with the intention of causing death, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both, if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any intention to cause death, or to cause such bodily injury as is likely to cause death.

 

Section 304A in The Indian Penal Code

Causing death by negligence—Whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Precedence on which court relied

  • In the decision in Mahadev Prasad Kaushik vs. State of Uttar Pradesh and Another [MANU/SC/8125/2008 : (2008) 14 SCC 479], it was held that mere knowledge on the part of a person is driving a vehicle that his act is likely to cause injury or death is not sufficient to make out the offence under Section 304 Part II of the IPC. In other words, the extent and ambit of the knowledge required to be established to bring home guilt under Section 304 Part II are different. It requires an appreciation and an objective enquiry as to how a person, placed in the situation of the accused would have regarded the chance of the act causing death.
  • The observations of Douglas Straight J., in Empress of India v. Idu Beg [MANU/UP/0001/1881 : (1881) ILR 3 All 776], are quite poignant. It was observed as follows: 

“Criminal rashness is hazarding a dangerous or wanton act with the knowledge that it is so, and that it may cause injury, but without intention to cause injury or knowledge that it will probably be caused. The criminality lies in running the risk of doing such an act with recklessness or indifference as to the consequences. Criminal negligence is the gross and culpable neglect or failure to exercise that reasonable and proper care and precaution to guard against injury either to the public generally or to an individual in particular, which, having regard to all the circumstances out of which the charge has arisen, it was the imperative duty of the accused person to have adopted.”

Arguments of the Appelant(s)

  1. The prosecution had miserably failed to show the accused’s guilt, according to the appellant’s learned counsel, Adv. C.P. Udayabhanu. The learned counsel also stated that the components of Section 304 IPC were not attracted in this case and that no evidence was shown that could attribute knowledge to the accused that the act he committed would result in the deaths of the children. 
  2. It was contended that the accident occurred as a result of the passengers’ actions and that as the accused’s act was not the primary cause of the accident, conviction under Section 304A of the IPC is not warranted in this case.
  3. The accused did not have that degree of knowledge to the extent of knowing that an accident would occur causing the death of passengers.
  4. It cannot be held from the evidence of PW1, PW 37, PW40, PW42, and that of PW44 to PW48 that the prosecution had proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had knowledge that the death of the passengers will occur if the boat ride is taken.

Arguments of the Respondent(s)

  1. The learned Public Prosecutor, Smt. Sylaja, stated that the accused’s act clearly falls within the parameters of Section 304 IPC and that the appellant does not deserve pity because 18 people died as a result of his act, which meets the requirements of Section 304 IPC.
  2. Supporting the prosecution, Adv. Dheerendra Krishnan K.K. argued that the unscientific alteration of the boat, as well as overload, were the main causes of the boat capsizing, which resulted in the deaths of 18 people, and that such unscientific alteration was completely within the accused’s knowledge.
  3. He cited the evidence of PW46, PW47, and PW48, arguing that the lack of life-saving equipment, combined with the unscientific modification, without displaying the boat’s capacity and the absence of a permit or fitness certificate to ply the boat on the water, and the owner of the boat himself being the driver, clearly evinced the factum of knowledge, as required by section 304 IPC.

Obiter Dicta

After a lengthy review of the expert evidence presented during the trial, the Court stated that merely knowing that there is overloading on a boat and there is a possibility of the boat sinking, was not the required knowledge contemplated under Section 304 IPC.

The Court stated that it was obvious that Raju had carried passengers above the capacity of the boat, without required licences, and without life-saving equipment in an unscientifically modified boat, but that his actions could not be classified as Section 304 violations.

Justice Kurian explained,

“Knowledge of a mere possibility that the act may cause death is not the knowledge envisaged. The degree of knowledge required to bring an act within the realm of culpable homicide must be a knowledge that is almost on the verge of certainty and not a mere possibility.”

The Court determined that the prosecution had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Raju possessed the amount of knowledge required for conviction under Section 304, citing Supreme Court decisions on the subject.

The Court decided that Raju’s act of permitting 61 people on a boat with a capacity of six people without safety equipment, permissions, or other requirements amounted to a rash and negligent act, and convicted him under Section 304A.

Ratio Decidendi

The Court ruled,

“The accused as an owner and driver of the boat was the person directly in control of the navigation of the boat. He was the person who had knowledge of the passenger capacity of the boat. He was the person who permitted the passengers on board the boat, which was altered unscientifically. He permitted 61 persons to board the boat, knowing fully well that the capacity was only 6 passengers. He was also aware that the boat had no sufficient life jackets or other life-saving equipment to cater to 61 persons. In spite of knowing the deficiencies of the boat as stated above, if the accused permitted 61 persons to board the boat and navigated it through the waters of Periyar river having a depth of more than 6 metres, it bespeaks of a rash and negligent act. This act of navigation, in gross disregard of the consequences without sufficient precautions to guard against injury, amounts to gross negligence and rashness warranting a finding of guilt under section 304A IPC.”

The Court also ruled that the owner of the boat and the driver were solely responsible for providing safety equipment on board. Raju was therefore ineligible for benefits under the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, and was subject to the maximum term that may be imposed.

As a result, the accused was sentenced to two years in prison and was directed to pay a fine of Rs 1,50,000. The victims were also given the option of going to the State Legal Services Authority and asking for a larger compensation amount under Section 357A of the Criminal Procedure Code.

Conclusion

In the present case, Raju being the owner and driver of the boat had the complete knowledge of the passenger capacity of the boat and he was fully aware that the boat was not equipped with sufficient life jackets to cater 61 persons, this act of his amounts to gross negligence and rashness making him liable under S. 304A IPC. I completely agree with the court’s findings; the laws applied and the cases cited were correctly applied, and the court was fair in imposing the punishment.

I believe that the compensation ordered to be given in accordance with this judgement is insufficient as a means of rehabilitation for the victims and that it is a topic that requires consideration of a number of factors. The question of whether the plan is applicable to the victims in this case if any compensation was paid to the victims previously, and whether the victims are entitled to be rehabilitated as provided for in the provision are all issues that need to be thoroughly considered.


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