Oleum Gas Leak Case – MC Mehta v. Union of India

OLEUM GAS LEAK CASE – MC MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA

Introduction

The case of Shriram gas leak was a very noteworthy case in the field of environmental activism, since the Supreme Court took up the case against one of the largest and most profitable industrial establishments in India – Shriram Food and Fertilizers. This case which took place exactly a year after the horrendous Bhopal gas tragedy which is considered to be one of the worst man-made disasters in the world, took the main aim of addressing certain crucial issues related to environmental safety. This case became a very unique one because it was for the very first time that an industrial establishment was held entirely responsible for such an accident and was ordered to pay compensation by not giving any sort of importance to the defense’s arguments.

It is very pertinent to note that the court’s findings in this case was not made entirely on a legal basis but also considered the case from a scientific point of view which made the Supreme Court perform an extra-judiciary role. This verdict was given after considering the fact that industrialization is an indispensable part of the country’s development and that such accidents are bound to happen. In totality, this case was decided on a very fair basis by taking into account all the possible social, legal and economic factors and made the Supreme Court stand as the guardian for the protection of the environment and the also the citizen’s rights.

Facts of the case

Shriram Food and Fertilizers situated in a densely populated region of Kirti Nagar in Delhi consisting of over 2 lakh people was involved in the manufacturing of hazardous products like caustic soda, oleum and chlorine etc. A writ petition was filed by a social activist lawyer named MC Mehta before the Supreme court seeking closure and relocation of the industrial establishment to a place where it would not pose a threat to people’s lives. But the Supreme Court allowed the industry to continue its operations as usual. During the pendency of this petition, there was a leakage of Oleum gas from one of its units on 4th and 6th December 1985 which caused a huge amount of harm to its residents including the death of an advocate. The leakage was a result of the bursting of the tank containing the gas which occurred due to the collapse of the structure on which the tank was built which caused widespread fear among the residents.

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Another tragedy of the same kind occurred two days later though a minor one when another leakage occurred due to the escape of oleum gas from one of the joints in the pipe even before the residents had barely recovered from the previous tragedy. Soon after the 2nd incident, all the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and Delhi Bar Association filed for compensation for all the citizens who suffered damage due to the accident.

The Delhi administration ordered for ceasing of all the operations and to remove all such hazardous substances from the establishment within 7 days or to appear before the court to show cause as to why this order should not be enforced against them. In addition to this, since a lot of important questions relating to substantial issues of law were involved (Art 21 and 32), the Supreme Court ordered it to be referred to a larger bench.

Issues involved

1. Whether these harmful industries should be permitted to operate in densely populated areas?
2. Whether a regulating mechanism must be brought into place if they are permitted to function in these areas?
3. How should the liability and compensation amount be determined in these cases?
4. Whether the rule of strict liability (Rylands v. Fletcher) or rule of absolute liability must be implemented?
5. What is the scope of Article 32 in such cases?
6. Whether ‘Shriram’ could be considered as a ‘State’ within the domain of Article 12?

Judgement

Justice Bhagwati after taking into account the health and safety concerns of the citizens held that these industries must continue to operate because they contribute to a large portion of the country’s economic and social development, therefore stating that the petition to eliminate these toxic industries cannot be allowed. He held that the risk/danger factor can be reduced to a considerable extent by taking all the possible measures to ensure that these industries must be situated in an environment where the citizens are the least-affected and all the safety protocols must be strictly adhered by these industries.

In addition to this, the reason that it would lead to unemployment of 1400 people was another serious concern. Subsequently, the industry was ordered to be reopened on a temporary basis under 11 conditions and a panel of experts were appointed to control the industry’s operations.

Some of the important conditions framed were:-

  • The Central Pollution Control Board must appoint an Inspector for the purpose of inspection and to see that the pollution levels are under control according to the standards set by Water (Prevention and control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
  • To constitute a safety committee for all the employees.
  • he industry must publicize the appropriate methods of usage, disposal and treatment of chlorine.
  • To train and instruct the employees regarding the safety of the plant through audio-visual services and install loudspeakers to alert neighbors in case of gas leakage.
  • To make sure that the workers must use safety equipment such as belts and helmets.
  • That the workers of Shriram to furnish undertaking from Chairman of DCM Limited, that in case of escape of gas resulting in death or injury to workmen on people living in vicinity they will be “personally responsible” for payment of compensation of such death or injury.
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Though the above conditions have been framed to ensure at most compliance with all the safety standards to avoid any sort of mishap or damage from happening, in addition to this industries cannot reject the liability imposed on them by proving that they have neither been reckless nor have taken all the possible measures required to deal with such potentially dangerous substances. Hence, the court in this case applied absolute liability.

In addition to issuing guidelines by the court, it also decided that for the purpose of enforcement of fundamental rights under Article 32 some new methods and approaches must be adopted. “In the event of a threat to fundamental rights, the power under Article 32 is not limited to only preventive actions, but it also applies to remedial acts where rights are already being violated.” Also, the court has the power to grant remedial relief in cases where fundamental rights have been violated in a gross manner which have an effect on a huge section of the population.

The court could not decide that whether the industry fell under the term ‘state’ within the ambit of Article 12 but stressed for the need to do it in the future.

It was held by the court that all the exceptions set out to the rule laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher cannot be applicable to hazardous industries and therefore adopted the principle of absolute or no-fault liability. The only exception which was available was either a natural calamity or an act by a third party but since in this case, the act was due to human accompanied by mechanical errors, the principle of absolute liability prevailed.

In totality, the court held that any industry engaging in hazardous operations which pose a potential threat to the safety and health of the employees as well as the nearby residents is obligated to ensure that no such harm occurs to anybody. The industry is also required to carry out its business with highest standards of safety and they themselves are liable completely for compensation if any harm arises due to their activities.

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Analysis and Future reforms

The Oleum Gas leak case is a landmark case in the field of environmental law since the Supreme Court introduced the principle of absolute liability because it felt that strict liability principle was not enough to protect the citizen’s rights. The Supreme Court of India was seen as the guardian of protection of the environment and also right to life under Article 21 includes the right to lead a healthy, safe and pollution- free life. The court also set a precedent for the future cases by adopting the absolute liability principle by transforming into an extra-parliamentary body.

This principle of absolute liability is very much visible even in the recent case of LG Polymers in Vizag where styrene had leaked from the chemical plant.

The court also ensured that when the principle of absolute liability is applied, “the death toll would not be applicable to the determination of liability” and in any kind of damages occurred due to such accident, all the costs of hospital from disease to death must be borne by the respective industry itself.

Conclusion

The decision taken by the court was done in a manner such that it did not pose any hindrance to either economic or social development of the country and at the same time was able to ensure justice to the affected. Since this case took place only a few months before the implementation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, it became a guiding force for the effective implementation of such a law. The case set a precedent for all the future cases because it was for the very first time that an industry in India was held solely responsible for an accident and was ordered to pay compensation notwithstanding any of its claims (absolute liability) in addition to adopting more stringent safety practices.

All the reasons for the court’s decision have been based not only on its legality but also on scientific basis considering the need for industrialization and the fact that it may result in such accidents in the future which is a very special judicial function undertaken by the Apex Court. In totality, the Supreme Court’s decision was a very rational one because it took into account all the possible legal, social, scientific and economic factors.

References

1. MC Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 965
2. Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
3. Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, 1984 SCR (2) 67

Author: Haritha Malepati,
3rd year BBA LLB, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

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