The article by Shrishti Vatsa of Symbiosis Law School, Noida discusses the landmark case of MC Mehta vs Union of India and the impact it had on the Indian legal environment.
Right to Clean Environment
The environmental law being a civil tort presents us with expansive legislations and statutory provisions to seek remedy for the harm caused to the environment. Up until the seventies, not much was done to improve the degrading environmental scenario in the country. Owing to certain industrial disasters, the courts in India have produced landmark judgments, introducing certain new reforms. Statutory laws concerning the environment have come into being today; Some of them being The Wildlife Protection Act, The Air (prevention and control of pollution Act), The Water Act, etc. The widespread destruction caused due to the Bhopal gas leak gave way to the inclusion of The Environment Protection Act,1986. A landmark judgment that changed the scope of Environment Law in India was that of MC Mehta vs Union of India, also referred to as the Oleum Gas Leak case.
Facts of the Case
The most important element of the case are the facts that led to the commencement of the proceedings. Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry, a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, was engaged in the manufacture of dangerous chemicals. The original petition was filed by MC Mehta for the closure of various units of Shriram as they were hazardous for the community. While the petition was pending, a huge amount of oleum gas spilled from one of the units that resulted in the death of many people. The spillage was a result of human blunders. It led to an outcry among the general population dwelling close-by and within two days, another spillage, a minor one, broke out because of the oleum gas escaping the joints of the pipe. On 6th December 1985, the District Magistrate, Delhi requested Shriram to stop the production of dangerous synthetic compounds and manures at their factory in Delhi and to expel such synthetic substances and gases from Delhi. Further, applications were filed by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board for compensation for the victims of the tragic disaster.
Change of Bench
The case was first referred to a three-judge bench which allowed the power plant and the other concerned plants to begin its operations subject to certain regulations laid down by the court. Considering the issues to be of utmost importance to the legal and environmental scenario of the country, the bench further referred the applications for compensation to a larger bench of five judges. Thus the matter was eventually looked upon by the larger bench of five judges.
Invoking the jurisdiction
The court, in this case, ruled that the legal procedures are only a set of rules that need to be conformed with to get access to justice. Though, they should not stand in the way of justice. People from the poor, disadvantaged society who may get affected due to such tragedies may not be able to conform to the guidelines. Any individual from the public or social group may maintain an application for a writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in the Supreme court under Article 32 if a breach of his fundamental right takes place. Thus, even a letter from an affected individual or social worker would be sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Since there exists a Public Interest Litigation Cell as well, all the letters addressed to individual judges shall be forwarded to the former to be scrutinized thoroughly. Thus, letters addressed to the individual judges as well may be sufficient in such cases.
Scope and ambit of Supreme Court
One of the major issues regarding the case was the extent of the Supreme Court to decide upon cases under article 32 since the application for compensation was sought to be maintained under the said article. The court iterated that the court’s job was to not only issue writs for the enforcement of the fundamental rights but also protect the fundamental rights of the people. The court has also earlier enforced new strategies as and when was required for the protection of people’s rights especially when masses are concerned. Additionally, the power of the court is not only injunctive in nature but also remedial. Thus, the power of the court to grant such remedial relief includes the power to award compensation in appropriate cases. The infringement should be of a large scale affecting a large number of people or economically disadvantaged people. Ordinarily, a petition under Article 32 is not accepted as a right to claim compensation through the ordinary process of Civil Courts. In exceptional cases though, compensation can be claimed. Thus in the mentioned case, considering the factors, the claim for compensation was maintainable.
Would Shriram fall under the ambit of Article 12 so as to be subjected to the discipline of Article 21?
This was the central issue to the case over which the court debated extensively. According to the constitution, article 12 states that the State includes the Government and Parliament of India and the Government and the Legislature of each of the States and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India. Whether Shriram would be included within its scope would further decide its subjection to article 21.
As per the petitioners, article 21 was available, as Shriram was carrying on an industry which, according to the Government’s self-announced policies, was eventually intended to be carried out by itself, but instead of the Government immediately embarking on that industry, Shriram was permitted to carry it on under the active control and regulation of the Government. As the mode of carrying on the industry could vitally affect the public at large, the control of the Government was linked to that aspect of the industry which could affect public interest at large.
Nevertheless, the regulation of a private corporation’s activities by the State under statutory laws such as the Industries Development and Regulation Act, 1951 is only in the exercise of police power. Thus, such regulation could not convert the activity of a private corporation into that of the State and that it would be unfair to extend the ambit of Article 12. After an extensive debate, the court stated that Shriram was indeed working under the shadow of the government. It also contended that there would always be an element of risk when a new industry is introduced for development. Since the development was integral to the country, the private entities could not be kept under the looming threat of being labeled as a public entity which could discourage them from opening new private corporations. Since this issue required a lot of time and deliberation, the court eventually did not take a decision.
Application of Ryland v Fletcher
The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher was evolved in the year 1866; it proposed that a man who for his own purposes keeps on his land any object likely to escape and cause damage to others, should do so at his own risk. The liability under this rule is strict and it is no defense that the thing escaped without that person’s willful act, default or neglect or even that he had no knowledge of its existence. While the concept of strict liability was an essential rule laid down by the court, the Indian courts chose to look at it rather differently. With technological advancements taking place for the required globalization of the country, hazardous industrial work was integral for the successful development of the country. Additionally, the rule was laid down in the 19th century which could certainly not encompass the obligations that an enterprise would have in the current era. Hence, the court ruled that there existed no need for the court to blindly follow the rules set down by a foreign court. Since Indian laws are of expansive nature, the court felt new regulations could be set as per the requirements of the case.
While the foreign rule of Strict Liability was not completely accepted, the court brought in its own interpretation of the liability that an enterprise owner had. The court was of the view that an enterprise which is engaged with an innately unsafe industry which represents a potential risk to the health and security of the people working in the processing plant and dwelling in the neighbouring regions, owes an outright and non-delegable obligation to the group to guarantee that no loss/ harm is caused to the group on account of the activities committed by the industry. The activities should be undertaken with due care to not cause harm to anyone involved or residing in the neighbouring region. Additionally, an enterprise that seeks to work with the aim of earning profits is permitted only when they guarantee to compensate the victims in case of any harm/ loss suffered by them. Thus the rule of absolute liability was arisen by the court in this case where the enterprise is completely liable for the damage caused and no exceptions or defense may absolve them of this liability. As opposed to strict liability, no exception to be held liable for the damages can be used as a defense. The enterprise/person shall be held totally liable for the acts.
Public benefit at large most integral
An important issue which was debated over was why compensation should be provided by Shriram when no such claim was made in the writ petition. The petition only asked for the company to stay shut and not otherwise. It was conceded by the opposition party that the gas leaked occurred subsequent to the filing of the petition; hence any claim for compensation could not be made earlier. The objection raised was why the writ petition was not amended to claim damage after the leak materialized. The court after much thought decided in favour of the public at large. It iterated that the court could not be completely technical in its approach and that a certain level of flexibility is required. The purpose to obtain justice cannot be done away with due to technical issues on part of the petitioner in cases of such mass tragedies. Additionally, these applications for compensation are for the enforcement of the fundamental right to life enshrined in article 21 and thus cannot be compromised on.
Flexible Interpretation of the Constitution
An important facet of this case was the court’s willingness to introduce newer and innovative concepts to the existing legislation of the constitution. The Indian jurisprudence cannot stay static and that has been reiterated by the court with their focus on improving the law in consonance with Human Rights Jurisprudence. With such a mass tragedy having materialized, the court took all required steps to ensure that justice was meted out to each of the individuals affected. Thus the constitutional interpretation may keep changing as per the era and situation before the court.
Since the court eventually decided to not adjudicate on whether article 21 is available against Shriram or not, no special machinery was formulated to decide on the compensation to be received by those who alleged that they were victims of the Oleum gas leak. But they did direct the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to take up the cases of all those who claimed to have suffered on account of oleum gas and to file actions on their behalf in the appropriate court for claiming compensation against Shriram. Such actions claiming compensation were to be filed by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board within two months from the date of the judgment; the Delhi Administration was directed to provide the necessary funds to the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board for the purpose of filing and prosecuting such actions.
The court adjudicating on the issue of 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 stringent laws and legislation were introduced, there seems to be a blatant violation of 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.