M.C. Mehta v. Union of India(1986) (Oleum Gas Leak Case)

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Case title: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

Court: Supreme Court of India

Bench: P. N. BHAGWATI, C.J.I., RANGANATH MISRA, G. L. OZA, M. M. DUTT AND K. N. SINGH, JJ.

Petitioner: M.C. Mehta

Respondent: Union of India

Citation: (1987 SCR (1) 819, AIR 1987 965)

INTRODUCTION

For having a quality life a clean and healthy environment is needed. It is our duty to keep the environment clean and if somebody does not treat the environment well, it will result in a violation of rules under environmental law and the fundamental right to live in a pollution-free environment. A person can remain healthy or fit only when he has fresh air or say, only if he breathes fresh air, not a polluted one. Suppose, if a person is not living in a healthy environment many problems may arise like sickness, pneumonia and many more. A clean environment is our basic need and for this various acts formed like Environment Protection act and even the Absolute Liability introduced under Law of tort which means if any industry engaged or practicing such inherent dangerous activity which can cause public at harm and also from which they arising commercial gain or in other words, from which they derive profits for personal gain then industry officially are absolutely liable for the aggrieved party. They would never be a part of any exceptions because under this liability they can not state that they were taking full care measures or so on.

BACKGROUND AND RELEVANT FACTS

Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industry was a subsidiary company of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited and was producing chlorine and caustic. On December 4th and 6th 1985, there was petroleum gas leakage from one of the units of Shriram  Food and Fertilizer Limited in the capital city of Delhi which resulted in the death of numerous people, and one advocate who was practicing in Tis Hazari also died among others. The leakage was the result of series of human and mechanical errors. The bursting of the tank containing the Oleum gas leak as a result of the collapsing of the structure on which it was mounted was a cause for this leakage. It created fear in the minds of residents living in the area. Residents living in that area hardly recovered from this incident when the second incident occurred within two days, another gas leakage though was a minor one as the result of the leakage through joints of the pipe. Just after a year from the Bhopal Gas tragedy, a large number of people were affected including the public and workmen. The Oleum gas leak also reminded people of the holocaust of Bhopal gas.  M.C. Mehta, a social activist lawyer, filed a PIL under Article 21 and 32 of the Constitution as he sought the closure and relocation of the Shriram Industries which is engaged in producing and manufacturing harmful chemicals. This industry is located in the densely populated area of Kirti Nagar. The factory was immediately closed down as the Inspector of Factories and  Commissioner (Factories) issued separate orders dated December 8 and 24,1985. The Oleum gas leak incident happened just a few months before Environment(Protection) Act,1986 in force, and this act became a guiding force for having an effective law.  The petition was heard by a three-judge constitutional court. Six orders were passed in this case in the Supreme Court of India. Out of these 6 orders, 4 orders were passed before the Environment (Protection) Act,1986 came into force.  The orders shed light on highly toxic and hazardous substances the industry must be dealt with. And also emphasized the importance of contained and controlled methods to minimize the hazards which occur to workers and the general public. Thus, these orders are relevant and important.

ISSUES RAISED

1. Whether Such hazardous industries to be allowed to operate in such areas.

2. If they are allowed to work in such areas, whether any regulating mechanism is evolved.

3. Liability and amount of compensation how to be determined.

These issues arise in the first case i.e. (AIR 1987 SC 965)

JUDGEMENT

C.J. Bhagwati showed deep concern for the safety of residents of Delhi from the leakage of hazardous gases. He gave his opinion that the court cant adopt the policy to so away with chemicals or hazardous industries because they help to improve the quality of life. The sin of this factory was supplying chlorine to Delhi Water Supply Undertaking which is used to maintain the wholesomeness of the water used for drinking. Thus, the industries even though hazardous to health have to be set up for the purpose of economic development and advancement of the well-being of the people of Delhi.  

“We can only hope to reduce the element of hazard or risk to the community by taking all necessary steps for locating such industries in a matter which would pose the least risk of danger to the community and maximizing safety requirements in such industries “

Thus, the SC was of the opinion that a total ban on these industries will impede developmental activities.

 The SC also observed that the permanent closure of the factory would lead to the unemployment of 4000 workers and add to the problem of poverty. Therefore, the court passed the order to open the factory on a temporary basis subjecting them to 11 conditions, and appointed an expert committee to monitor the working of the factory.

The court suggested that a national policy must be evolved by the Government of India for the location of industries producing toxic or hazardous substances and a decision must be taken regarding the relocation of the industries to eliminate the risk to the community. 

The conditions formulated by the government were:

1. The Central Pollution Control Board to appoint an inspector to inspect and see those pollution standards set under the Water Act and Air Act to be followed.

2. To constitute Worker’s Safety Committee

3. Industry to publicize the effects of chlorine and its appropriate treatment

4. Instruct and train its workers in plant safety through the audiovisual program, install loudspeaker to alert neighbors in the event of leakage of gas

5. Workers to use safety devices like masks and belts

6. And 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 or people living in the vicinity they will be “personally responsible ” for payment of compensation of such death or injury.

The SC also directed the industry to deposit 20 lakhs and to furnish a bank guarantee for Rs 15 lakhs for payment of compensation of the claims of victims of the leakage of gas if there was any escape of gas within 3 years from the date of the order resulting in the injury or death of any workmen or the residents living in the vicinity. The quantum of compensation was determinable by the District Judge, Delhi.  The court made the industry “ Absolutely liable” and compensation must be paid to the victim when the injury was proved without requiring the industry to be present in the case. The conditions were formulated to ensure continuous compliance with the safety procedures and standards laid by the committee to reduce the possibility of hazardous disasters or risk to the life of workmen would be reduced.

The SC in its judgment emphasized that certain procedures and standard qualities must be laid down by the government and should also make laws on handling and management of hazardous substances which should include the procedure to set up and run the industries with minimal risks to animals, humans, etc. The SC also mentioned that The industries can not absolve from the responsibility either by showing they were not negligent in dealing with hazardous substances or they took all necessary precautions while dealing with it. The court applied the principle of “ no-fault liability” in this case. 

And then another case of the same party arises (AIR 1987 SC 982) In this case, the conditions were modified which were laid by the Supreme Court ordered to be closed. 

Further under (AIR 1987 SC 1086) issues raised as:

1. What is the scope of Article 32 of the Constitution?

2. The rule of last Absolute Liability or Ryland vs Fletcher rule to be followed.

3. Issue of compensation to be awarded

And on such issues court stated that:

1. According to first issue.. Scope of Article 32 –

The court observed that under article 32 apart from issuing directions, the court can make new remedies and new strategies designed to enforce fundamental rights. The power of article 32 is not confined to preventive measures when the fundamental rights of a person are violated but it also extends to remedial measures being taken when the fundamental rights are already violated. However, the SC held that they have the power to grant remedy as relief in cases where it is required I.e. in the cases where the fundamental rights are violated ins gross and patent, affecting people on a large scale, or where the people affected are backward and poor.

2. Which rule to be followed Absolute Liability or Rylands v. Fletcher case?

The measure of liability of the industry engaging in a hazardous and dangerous activity in the cases of the accidents, the court examined whether the rule in Rylands v Fletcher would be applicable.

The rule laid down that there will be strict liability of the person if that person brings or collects on his land keep things likely to do harm and if such thing escapes resulting in damages to another person, he is liable to pay the compensation of the damages caused. There will be a strict liability and there is no defense that the thing escaped without a person’s neglect, default, or willful act.

The exceptions of this rule are that it doesn’t apply to things that are occurring naturally on the land or where the incident is due to an act of a stranger, the act of god, or where there is a statutory authority or the default of person who is injured.

The Court held that the rule established in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher will not be applicable in the cases of industries involved in hazardous activities.

3. In relation to 3 issues regarding the compensation:

The Court thus introduced the new “no-fault” liability or “ absolute liability”. The industry engaging in hazardous activities posing a potential threat or danger to the health and safety of people working and residing in the nearby areas owe an absolute and non-delegable duty to those people and community to ensure no harm is caused to them because of the industry’s work. Such industry must conduct activities with the standards of safety and if the harm is caused, the industry would be held absolutely liable and would compensate the victims for such harm.

EVALUATION:

After reading this case, I came to the conclusion that the industry is liable for the same because due to the gas leakage public at large was harmed and everyone’s right to live in a free environment got violated. The bursting of the tank containing the Oleum gas leak as a result of the collapsing of the structure on which it was mounted was a cause for this leakage. Residents living in that area hardly recovered from this incident when the second incident occurred within two days, another gas leakage though was a minor one as the result of the leakage through joints of the pipe. Just after a year from the Bhopal Gas tragedy, a large number of people were affected including the public and workmen. And after this, article 21 also violated the stated right to life under our constitution and after this case, absolute liability becomes a part of article 21. Even according to our Indian Constitution it is our fundamental duty to protect our nature and environment and by their silly act, duty was unfulfilled and which results in a tragedy like several people die and for this they correctly liable for compensation. And even corporations made fully liable for the future suffering of the innocent aggrieved party. 

CONCLUSION

The judgment of this case will be helpful in several environmental legal cases because it gives us several important points which will be helpful further and no doubt that it will be helpful for a common man to get justice if anyone violates his rights. In another case of M.C. MEHTA V. UNION OF INDIA (AIR 1988 SC 1037), there was harm to the public at large which cause due to tanneries discharging effluents from their factory in the river Ganga which results in water pollution and many of the citizens and employees health is also at risk and court held those factories liable for the same. Because of the press, we can evaluate how crucial this topic is because there are both harms firstly life of a person to live and to live in a healthy environment which both are our fundamental rights. And also under the case of ABHILASH TEXTILE V. RAJKOT MUNICIPAL CORPORATION (AIR 1988 GUJ 57), the appellant discharged dirty water on the public road due to which there was public harm at large, and for this their fundamental rights are getting violated by the petitioner firm. The court held that no one carries such business which harms the public at large and violates their fundamental rights granted by our constitution. And at that time India was already suffering from BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY, 1984 where Methyl Isocyanate leaked from pesticide plants of Union Carbide in Bhopal due to which citizens started living in fear due to this tragedies.

Hence, according to me if there any harm caused by any factory or such industries which gaining commercial profits by violating other rights were absolutely liable for the harm caused to the aggrieved party and should be liable for the compensation too.

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