MC MEHTA V UNION OF INDIA (1986) OLEUM GAS LEAK -CASE COMMENT

AUTHOR : NADIYA YAKUB PATEL
Content Writer

ELECTORAL DISQUALIFICATION :

  • Court: In the Supreme Court Of India
  • Case Name: MC MEHTA V UNION OF INDIA
  • Citations : 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819
  • Petitioner: M.C Mehta and ANR
  • Respondent: Union of India and ORS
  • Bench: Bhagwati, P.N. (CJ) Misra Rangnath OZA, G.L. (J) Dutt, M.M. (J) Singh, K.N. (J)

Keywords: Mc Mehta v Union of India, Delhi gas leak attack, Oleum gas leak case, Mc Mehta v Union of India case summary, Mc Mehta v Union of India case judgement

INTRODUCTION: MC MEHTA V UNION OF INDIA

The M.C. Mehta v Union of India originated in the aftermath of the oleum gas leak from the Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd. complex in Delhi. This gas leak occurred soon after the infamous Bhopal gas leak and this created a lot of panic in Delhi. One person died in the incident and few persons were hospitalized. This Case lays down the principle of absolute liability and the concept of deep pockets.

FACTS OF THE CASE :

  • The Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry, a subsidiary of the Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, was a privately owned company engaged in the manufacturing of the caustic chlorine and oleum gas.
  • The writ petition was filed by the social activist lawyer M.C Mehta for the closure of the Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry as it was situated in a very densely populated area of Delhi.
  • While the petition was still pending. On 4th and 6th December 1985, a major leakage of the petroleum gas took place from one of the units of Shriram Food and Fertilizers Limited in the heart of the capital city of Delhi which resulted in one person died and several health issues.
  • Two orders were issued to shut down the plant on the 7th and 24th of December, respectively under the Factories Act 1948. By the Inspector of Factories and the Assistant Commissioner of the Factories.
  • Shriram responded by filing the writ petitions of itself (No. 26 of 1986) to nullify the two orders and interim opening of its caustic chlorine plant manufacturing; glycerine, hard oil, soap, etc.
  • On behalf of the gas leak victims, the Delhi Legal aid and the Advice Board, and the Delhi Bar Association filed for the compensation along with the original petition of M.C. Mehta and was also pleaded not to allow the closed establishment to restart.

ISSUES :

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

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

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

RULES :

Article 48-A

Article 48-A says that “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”. Though the  Directive Principles are not enforceable in the Courts, the State has to comply with its provisions when creating laws.

Article 47

Article 47 says that An attempt has also been made to provide for the right to a healthy environment to its citizens by Article 47 which states that the “State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties.”

Fundamental Duties

It is the duty of every citizen to protect and preserve the environment under Article 51-A(g).

Fundamental Rights

The provision of Article 19 (1) of the Constitution which deals with freedom of speech and expression has been used by the Supreme Court to approach the problem of noise pollution. It has been stated that the right to speech and expression doesn’t include right to use amplifiers or loudspeakers. Such right cannot be used so as to cause problems for others.

Article 21

The Protection of life and personal liberty– No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law

Article 32 and Article 226 of the constitution has been used time and again to raise the issue of environmental protection through Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

Penal Provisions:

The Public nuisance is defined under the Section 268 of IPC.

Sections 269 to Section 271 of the IPC deals with negligent acts that are likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to the life of people. These acts are punishable under the said sections.

Section 277 of the IPC relates to water pollution. It makes fouling water of public spring or reservoir punishable with imprisonment or fine or both.

Section 278 of the IPC relates to air pollution. It states that whoever the voluntarily vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighborhood or passing along a public way, shall be punished with fine which may extend to 500 rupees.

Section 290 of IPC makes public nuisance punishable and prescribes punishment for the same.

Section 133 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 empowers the Magistrate to take immediate actions for removal of any public nuisance that might have been reported to it by police after considering any evidence as it thinks fit.

ARGUMENTS:

ARGUMENTS BY PETITIONER :

  • On behalf of the petitioner, the argument to be presented is that Shriram, a private enterprise that was engaged in the operation of a caustic coloring plant should be subject to closure of all it’s units as it posts a hazard or risk to the community that was a violation of the Rights and Personal Liberty which is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21. The DPSP under articles 39, 41, 42, and 47 which deal with health care provides the state with a mandate to race public health standards. The petitioner vehemently argued that the court must not permit Shriram to restart its caustic chlorine plant because there was always an element of hazards to the community in its operation. He urged that chlorine is a dangerous gas and even if utmost care is taken. The right to life under article 21 should be interpreted to incorporate the right to health.
  • Shriram can be held absolutely liable having engaged itself in the manufacturer of hazardous substances that are injurious to the common at large.
  • Shriram can be considered to be a “state” with the meaning of article 12 so as to subject it to comply with compensation claims for the violation of article 21 which is a fundamental right. Shriram must be considered to be a state under article 12 and be held liable to pay compensation. It would also be imperative to observe that the power granted to the Supreme Court under article 32 is not only preventive but also remedial in nature and has the right to provide relief against the breach of fundamental rights and it must be observed in this case.
  • On account of the injury caused to the people due to the gas leak, claims for compensation must be entertained, as these applications for compensation are for enforcement of the fundamental right of right to life enshrined in article 21 of the Constitution.

ARGUMENTS BY RESPONDENT :

  • The defense counsel had emphatically argued against the permanent closure of the caustic chlorine plant by stating that if the plant was not allowed to restart its operation, it would not be possible to operate the plant manufacturing the downstream products, resulting being than more than 4000 workers would be thrown out of employment. It was also stated that since Shriram had complied with all the recommendations of the Manmohan Singh committee and Nilay Sing Choudhary committee, the possibility of risk to the community had been considerably minimized and brought to nil, and therefore the caustic chlorine plant must be permitted to restart its operation.
  • On the behalf of responded the defense that counsel has pleaded is that Shriram should not be considered to be a state within the ambit of article 12 of the Indian Constitution. The liability of compensation under article 21 of the Constitution which provides for remedial measure for the breach of fundamental rights. The defense would like to argue that Shriram an enterprise owned by Delhi cloth mills Ltd is private cooperation that cannot be said to come within the purview of article 12 that defines what could be included to be a state. Article 12 explicitly mentions that the state does not include a non-statutory body exercising any statutory powers. Judicial authority and private bodies having no statutory power or not being supported by any state act.
  • The defense argued on behalf of the responsibility with regards to its liability to pay compensation, the enterprise in his defense would like to state that court should not proceed to decide this constitutional issues since there was no claim for compensation originally made in writ petition and this issues could not be said to a rise on writ petition and since , the defense has already prayed to the Honourable court that Shriram could not be included in the definition of  article 12 of the constitution, it should not be held liable to pay compensation

JUDGEMENTS :

The MC Mehta case Judgement was delivered on 19th December 1986.

The Supreme Court decided not to adjudicate on the matter whether the compensation should be paid by Shriram Industries under Article 21.

They directed Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to file a comprehensive action on the behalf of all those who claimed to have suffered from this incident before an appropriate court within 2 months from the date of judgement.

It also stated that the amount of the compensation should be equal to the magnitude of the harm caused to the community and should also be correlated to the capacity of the Shriram industry so as to have a deterrent effect.

Court also instructed the Shriram to comply with all the recommendations of the Nilay Choudhary and the Manmohan Singh Committees and issued a strict notice that failure to do so will result in the immediate closure of the plant.

DIRECTION ISSUED BY THE COURT :

The court introduced a new “no-fault ” liability standard absolute liability. Industry engaged in hazardous activities that pose the potential danger to the health and safety of the persons working and residing near owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harms results to anyone. Such an industry must conduct its activities with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results the industry must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm.

It should be no answer to the industry to say that it has taken all the reasonable care and that harm occurred without negligence on its part. Since the persons, the harm would not be in the position to isolate the process of operation from the hazardous preparation of the substance that caused the harm the industry must be held absolutely liable for causing such harm as the part of the social cost of carrying on the hazardous activities. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the industry alone has the resource to discover and guard against the hazards or dangers and to provide warning against the potential hazards.

PRECEDENT :

Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of UP, 1989

In 1987, a petition was filed by the Rural Litigation and the Entitlement Kendra on behalf of Doon valley residents to stop the quarrying of limestone in the Mussorie valley. It was argued that these quarrying activities are disturbing the ecological and environmental balance in the valley. Supreme Court ordered to stop the quarrying activities in the valley which was later declared an ecologically fragile area under the Environment Protection Act.

F.K. Hussain vs Union Of India and Ors, 1990

Recognizing that right to health is a part of the right to live under Article 21, the Kerala HC has observed that the right to clean water and air are attributes of the right to life

ANALYSIS :

The judgement of the case proved to be significant for the enviro-legal cases to come as it produced several important stances.

The SC took a proactive role in the disposal of the case and made sure that the Fundamental Rights of the people are not to violate, by giving wide connotation to the Right to life under Article 21.

This case originated in the aftermath of an oleum gas leak from Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd at Delhi.

 A PIL was filed by M.C Mehta who is a well-known PIL attorney in India.

He filed this case in 1986 which enlarged the scope and ambit of Articles 21 and 31 to include the right to a healthy and pollution-free environment in it.

The Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati showed his deep concern for the safety of the people of Delhi from the leakage of hazardous substances (oleum gas). According to his opinion any policy which was to do away with the chemical or the hazardous industry could not be adopted as they helped to improve the quality of life, even if these industries were hazardous they had to be set up as they are essential for the economic development and advancement of well being of all the people.

Thus the SC believed that the total ban on the above industry of the public utility will impede the developmental activities.

CONCLUSION :

The court adjudicating on the issue of the Shriram’s closure produced several new stances that are hailed even today. It remains to be one of the landmark judgments by the court in the environmental Indian context. While the stringent laws and the legislation were introduced there seems to be a blatant violation of the environmental laws in our country today. The degrading situation of natural resources is an example of how the resources are being misused by corporations and people alike. It is integral that we cautiously use the resources to be able to sustain our environment for the future.

REFERENCES :

  1. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1486949/

2. https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/case-analysis-m-c-mehta-v-union-of-india-shriram-industries-case-by-roopali-lamba/

3. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/104313664/

4. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1965629/

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