Case Commentary on the Oleum Gas Leak Case

Author: Drishti Banerjee Student, Amity Law School, Kolkata

MC Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leak Gas Case)

Citation

1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819

Introduction

The Indian Judiciary has often been posed with the issue of striking a balance between economic progress and environmental protection. While the former is essential for the country’s economic progress, the latter raises concern regarding the health and safety of not only the present but also the future generation.

The Oleum Gas leak case is a classic example of the above dilemma. It is a landmark judgement in the history of environmental law cases in India because it was in this case that Justice P.N. Bhagwati laid down the Principle of Absolute Liability. In simpler terms, Absolute Liability is Strict Liability that is subjected to no exceptions. If an enterprise engages in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and brings anyone harm, the concerned enterprise is liable to compensate for the same. The concept has a reflection of the principle of Polluter Pays. The bench reached the conclusion that the Strict Liability Principle established by the English case Rylands v. Fletcher cannot be applied to all cases.

Facts of the case

  1. Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries functioning under the public limited company Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. was located in the highly populated area of Kriti Nagar.

  2. The company was spread over 76 acres of land. It was engaged in production of caustic chlorine and oleum along with various other chemicals, all being produced in the same complex.

  3. The complex was surrounded by thickly populated colonies such as Punjabi Bagh, West Patel Nagar, Karampura, Ashok Vihar, Tri Nagar and Shastri Nagar. An approximate population of two lakh people lived within the radius of 5Km of the complex.

  4. The manufacturing process involved various chemical processes that polluted the environment and could prove to be harmful to the people working in the factory as well as living in the vicinity.

  5. Notable environmental activist and lawyer Mr. Mahesh Chandra Mehta filed a Public Interest Litigation[1](PIL) to the apex Court, demanding relocation or closure of the industries.

  6. Within a month’s time, while the PIL was still under consideration, a leakage occurred in one of the units. An oleum gas tank burst out. It affected several people and resulted in the death of a lawyer practising in the Tis Hazari Court. As the people were recovering from this shock, another leakage from a pipe joint occurred after two days, though the damage caused this time was lesser.

  7. This incident came as a shock only years after the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy that had shaken the international media as well.

  8. It came out that the reason behind the oleum gas leak was a fault in the mechanism and structure of the plant.

  9. Following this, immediate action was taken by the District Magistrate of Delhi. He ordered under section 133(1) of CrPC for the stoppage of production of lethal gas and removal of those harmful chemicals and gases from that area within seven days. The Industry was told to show cause why this order shall not be enforced in a court hearing on 17th December, 1985.

  10. Factories were closed down by the Inspector of Factories and the Commissioner (Factories) issued separate orders under the Factories Act, 1948.

  11. The Supreme Court, noting the gravity of the case, directed for presenting the issue to a larger bench.

Issues

Issues presented in this case were of wider ambit than the facts themselves. Justice Bhagwati has remarked, “These questions which have been raised by the petitioner are questions of the greatest importance”.

  1. What is the true scope of Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution?

  2. What are the principles and norms that could determine the liability of large enterprises manufacturing and selling hazardous products?

  3. How to quantify the damages in such cases of liability?

  4. Should such hazardous enterprises be allowed to function in such densely populated areas?

  5. If permission is granted for their operation, what measures should be taken to reduce the hazard to the workmen and the community living in the neighbourhood to a minimum?

Facts important to holding the Judgement

  1. The considerations on both sides had to be carefully weighed and balanced while deciding which of the two preponderate.

  2. Two Committees of experts had been formed before the catastrophe, the Manmohan Singh Committee being important of the two. Subsequent to the incident the Agarwal Committee and the Nilay Choudhary Committee were formed.

  3. They inspected the issues such as whether the plant could be permitted to operate. If so, they were to enlist the procedure to minimize the risks of leak, explosion and pollution. They even inquired about the safety measures already taken by the plants.

  4. The Committees had put forth conflicting decisions.

  5. However, the apex court came to the conclusion that chlorine was a dangerous gas. No matter how much care is taken, the risk of leakage and accidents still remains.

  6. The jobs of four thousand workers at the factory were put at stake. Moreover, chlorine played an essential part in Delhi’s water supply mechanism.

  7. With the newly emerged Absolute liability Principle, the Industry was to award compensation to the victims of pollution and escape of the oleum gas.

Judgement

  1. The court observed that the scope of Article 32 under which the Supreme Court may issue writs was not limited as preventive measures when fundamental rights were at threat, but also as remedial measures when such rights stand violated.

  2. The Court further stated that the rule of Strict liability that emerged in the 19th century in England was not enough to deal with the emerging number of environmental law cases especially when science has advanced a lot.

  3. Therefore, industries were deemed to work with utmost caution and be made absolutely liable in case of any harm caused to the society, even in the absence of negligence on their part.

  4. The Court allowed the caustic chlorine plant of Shriram Foods and Fertilisers Industries to be restarted with stringent restrictions.

  5. The restrictions were in accordance with the procedures laid by the Manmohan Singh and the Nilay Choudhary Committees. They included regular inspections by Pollution Control Boards.

  6. The Court ordered that the amount of compensation was to be in proportion to the magnitude and capacity of the industries.

  7. The Court ordered the Shriram Industries to deposit twenty lakh rupees and further furnish a bank guarantee of fifteen lakh rupees for the payment of compensation to the victims. The guarantee was for compensating the victims if any further escape of chlorine gas happened within three years from the date of order. The amount of compensation was left to be decided by the District Judge of Delhi if such a case ever arose.

  8. The petitioner was also awarded as a token of appreciation a Rs. 10,000 by the way of costs paid by the Shriram Industries.

  9. The Apex Court recommended the formation of an independent Centre “with professionally competent and public spirited experts to provide the needed scientific and technological input”. In needed times, opinions of such Ecological Sciences Research Group could be of value while delivering environment-related judgements. Such a Group could also act as an information bank for both the Government and the Courts.

Impact of judgement on the society

This judgement given by the Supreme Court was a very welcome one. Although already mentioned in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, the scope of Article 32 as a remedial measure was confirmed and strengthened. The Court took a bold stand when the citizens’ right to clean and environment guaranteed by Article 21 was threatened. Simultaneously, the prospects of economic development were also not totally neglected while addressing environmental concerns. This was yet another judicial effort towards upholding the principle of sustainable development. The Absolute Liability Principle has proven to be of great value in many later cases, providing relief to the victims of pollution. Subsequently, it gave rise to the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991.

Conclusion

As Justice Bhagwati had remarked, law is a social process. It can be understood that there were in total three cases related to the Oleum gas leak. While the first two dealt with issues related to functioning of the industry, the third decided the scope of writ jurisdiction, the principle of absolute liability and compensation. This judgement became a pathfinder for the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. The Court directed the governments to see to the fact that settlements do not spring up in locations with hazardous industries and a green belt of 5-10Km is kept. The judgement was in itself very progressive with far-reaching consequences.

[1] Number 12739, 1985

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