This article has been written by Ishani Samajpati, pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons) under the University of Calcutta. The article explores judgments passed in the landmark case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986), also known as the Oleum gas leakage case or the Shriram Food and Fertiliser case, as well as the implications and relevance in contemporary times.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.

Introduction

MC Mehta, known as the Green Avenger of India, is an Indian public interest attorney and environmental activist who has single-handedly won multiple landmark judgments in several public interest litigations (PILs) filed on environmental issues. For his activities and concerns to protect the environment, he is also known as the “green lawyer of India”. 

The 1986 case titled MC Mehta v. Union of India, with MC Mehta being the petitioner-in-person himself has become a landmark judgement in environmental activism in India. The case is significant in various regards. The judgement, after the deadly Bhopal Gas Disaster in 1984, changed the scope, extent, and application of not only the environmental laws in India but also that of Article 21 dealing with the right to life and personal liberty and Article 32 dealing with remedies for violations of fundamental rights of the Constitution of India

The present article enumerates the judgments passed in this case by the Supreme Court of India and also explores the underlying legal issues and findings of the Court as well as several newly evolved legal principles from this case.

Background of the case

Shriram, a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd., had several units situated in a single complex comprising land of approximately 76 acres in a densely populated area around it. The enterprise manufactured various chemicals like caustic soda, chlorine, hydrochloric acid,  sulphuric acid, alum, anhydrous sodium sulphate, high test hypochlorite and active earth and regularly used products such as bleaching powder, superphosphate, vanaspati and soap. The caustic chlorine plant in question was commissioned in 1949 and had a strength of 263 employees.

After the Bhopal Gas Disaster in 1984, the Central Government appointed a firm named ‘Technica’ to inspect the caustic chlorine plant owned by Shriram, and a preliminary report identifying potential areas of concern and suggestions for improvement were submitted by the firm.

In March 1985, the possibility and dangers of any major leakage from the caustic chlorine plant of Shriram were discussed in Parliament. In response to that, an expert committee called the Manmohan Singh Committee was constituted to further inspect the caustic chlorine plant. They submitted a report after a detailed inspection with recommendations for various safety and pollution control measures.

The petitioner-in-person MC Mehta filed the first Civil Writ Petition 12739 of 1985 under Article 32 of the Constitution of India to seek a direction for the closure of various industrial units owned by Shriram Foods & Fertilisers  Industries (here-in-after referred to as ‘Shriram’ for convenience) since they were located in a heavily populated area in Delhi and were hazardous to the people living in the vicinity.

During the pendency of the abovementioned petition, there was an incident of leakage of Oleum gas from one of the industrial units of Shriram for which awards of compensation were filed by both the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association.

Another Civil Writ Petition 26 of 1986 was filed by Shriram contesting the validity of multiple orders asking to stop their production.

The Supreme Court laid down several new legal principles in the case. The landmark judgments were the result of two Civil Writ Petitions 12739 of 1985 and 26 of 1986. 

The first order, passed by a three judges bench consisting of the then Chief Justice of India, PN Bhagwati along with Justice DP Madon and GL Oza on 17th February 1986, dealt with whether the caustic chlorine plant owned by Shriram Foods and Fertilisers should be allowed to be reopened or not. 

Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries filed an application for clarification. The Court found the application asking for modification of certain orders and based on the order for which the Supreme Court pronounced another order on 10th March 1986. 

The final judgement separately dealing with constitutionally significant questions was pronounced by a five-judge bench (also known as the Constitution Bench under Article 145(3) of the Constitution of India)  on 20th December 1986.  

Facts of the case

On 4th December 1985, an incident of a major leakage of oleum gas happened from one of the units of Shriram. The leakage physically affected many common public – both the workmen as well as common people outside. Moreover, an advocate practising in the Tis Hazari Court died after inhaling oleum gas. The incident was confirmed by both the petitioner and the Delhi Bar Association. After two days, another minor leakage of oleum gas took place from the joints of a pipe on 6th December.

Due to the subsequent two incidents of oleum gas leakage, the Delhi administration immediately responded by issuing an order under Section 133(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 which directed Shriram to take the following steps:

  • To stop using harmful chemicals and gases in the unit within two days;
  • Remove the said chemicals to a safer place within seven days and not keep or store the chemicals in the same place where the disaster happened again;
  • Or, to appear in the Court of District Magistrate, Delhi to show cause for the non-enforceability of the mentioned order on 17th December 1985.

On the next day, both the above-mentioned writ petitions came up for hearing in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also took cognisance of the above order by the District Magistrate and noted that due to the “inadequacies”, it is not possible to take the steps urgently.

Steps taken by the Supreme Court and administrations

Firstly, the Supreme Court, before taking the writ petitions for hearing on 7th December, 1985, appointed a team of experts called the “Nilay Choudhary Committee” to perform an inspection of the caustic chlorine plant and to report whether the recommendations of the Manmohan Singh Committee were properly implemented or not. The team conducted a “cursory inspection” for a few hours and reported verbally that most of the recommendations were implemented by the management of the plant and the main sources of hazard, two tanks of chlorine, each with the capacity of one hundred MT, were emptied.

Secondly, the Court also gave the petitioner the liberty to appoint his own team of experts and was directed to have access to the caustic chlorine plant for inspection of any possible sources of hazards to the workmen and common people and further checking of the implementation of the recommendations of the committee.

Thirdly, the Court appointed the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate before whom the victims of oleum gas leakage can claim compensation. The Court also directed the Secretary of Delhi State Legal Aid and Advice Board to ensure the medical checkup of the victims by experts to gather evidence against the compensation claimed in the incident.

Steps by the administration

The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi formed an expert committee called the “Seturaman Committee” on 4th December, 1985, immediately after the first leakage, to inspect the following:

  • Examine the reasons for the leakage and the effects;
  • Whether proper safety measures and rules were properly followed by the management;
  • Persons responsible for the leakage;
  • Reviewing emergency measures for further risks;
  • Examination of risks and hazards from the factory on common people and make specific recommendations; and
  •  Advise whether the location of the company should be shifted or not;

The report of the Committee mainly dealt with the safety measures in the sulphuric acid plant where the oleum gas leakage took place but was referred to by the Supreme Court since it was relevant regarding the risks and safety measures to be taken in the caustic chlorine to minimise dangers to the common people. 

During the ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court on 7th December, 1985, the Inspector of Factories in Delhi exercised the powers given under Section 40(2) of the Factories Act, 1948 and banned Shriram from any further use of both the caustic chlorine and sulphuric acid plants until proper and adequate safety measures were adopted to eliminate the risks posed to people living nearby.

The Assistant Commissioner of factories under the Municipal Corporation of Delhi sent a  show cause notice to Shriram on 13th December, 1985 to explain why their licence should not be cancelled under Section 430(3) of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957 for violating the mentioned terms and conditions. After Shriram showed cause, the Assistant Commissioner directed Shriram to stop using the premises containing the caustic chlorine plant for any industrial purposes by an order on 24th December, 1985.

However, both the orders by the Inspector and Assistant Commissioner of factories dated 7th and 24th December, 1985, respectively, were suspended in the first order of the Supreme Court.

Legal issues dealt in the case of MC Mehta vs. Union of India (1986)

The Supreme Court dealt with multiple legal issues in the two judgements passed respectively on 17th February and 20th December, 1986.

The first judgement examined the scope of public interest litigation in the area of environmental laws and mostly dealt with:

  • Whether the Supreme Court had the authority under Article 32 to decide Shriram to restart its caustic chlorine plant?
  • What are the necessary conditions to be satisfied in order to run an industrial unit in a heavily populated area?
  • The decision of constitution of Environmental Courts in India regionally.

The constitutionally important questions were discussed in detail in the final judgement. The legal issues addressed therein are as follows:

  • Whether the jurisdiction and authority of the Supreme Court under Article 32 can be extended;
  • Whether applications for compensations to victims are maintainable under the said Article;
  • Whether Shriram falls under “other authorities” as mentioned in Article 12;
  • Whether the right to life under Article 21 is available against a private corporation like Shriram;
  • If a letter addressed to any individual judge is maintainable as public interest litigation;
  • What is the liability of any hazardous industry in case of an accident? Whether the concept of strict liability established in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) applicable in such a situation? What should be the amount of compensation in the case of an accident occurring due to a hazardous industry?
  • Whether a new legal principle can be constructed if necessary where the existing legal principles are not applicable; and
  • Lastly, whether the Supreme Court of India is bound to follow the decisions laid down in foreign case laws. 

Contentions raised by the parties in MC Mehta vs. Union of India (1986)

Arguments by the petitioner

On the basis of the liberty given to him by the Supreme Court, the petitioner-in-person formed a committee of experts named the “Agarwal Committee” and inspected the caustic chlorine plant of Shriram. The Committee found multiple inadequacies in the safety measures and was of the opinion that the complete elimination of hazards was impossible due to the location of the plant in a densely populated area. Based on the findings, the petitioner-in-person submitted before the Court that the caustic chlorine plant should not be allowed to restart since there would always be a significant possibility of hazards to the people living nearby even if all the recommendations made by all the expert committees were properly implemented by the management of Shriram.

Submission by counsel for the trade unions

The counsel for Lokahit Congress Union and Karamchari Ekta Union, the two trade unions of Shriram submitted that the permanent closure of the plant would result in the unemployment of about 4,000 workmen.

Statement of Additional Solicitor General

The Additional Solicitor General appeared on behalf of both the administration of Delhi and the Union of India. Both the Delhi administration and the Union of India did not withdraw their objections on the issue of reopening the plant. However, it was submitted that if the Court decided to permit the reopening after examining the absence of any real hazards to the local community, the reopening could only be ordered after imposing strict safety measures to ensure the safety of the employees as well as the people nearby.

Pleadings of counsel of Shriram

The counsel for Shriram pleaded before the Court to allow Shriram to restart operations in the caustic chlorine plant since the management of Shriram had taken all the possible steps and safety measures and implemented all the recommendations made by both the Manmohan Singh Committee and the Nilay Choudhary Committee. With all the precautions, there was no or very little possibility of leakage of chlorine gas. Furthermore, due to the closing down of the factory, about 4,000 employees would be unemployed and the Delhi Water Supply Undertaking would face non-availability of chlorine and a short supply of downstream products used to purify water. It was also submitted that other plants of Shriram would be opened after adopting proper maintenance and safety measures.

The counsel also raised a “preliminary objection” before the Court regarding the dealing of constitutionally significant issues since the leakage occurred after the filing of the petition. According to him, the petitioner could file an amendment to the writ petition for compensation. The Court accepted the fact but did not sustain his objection because the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association had already filed applications for compensation.

Judgement of the court

The judgement consisted of several important discussions on the points of law and multiple legal principles, as well as consideration of the arguments. The Court, rather than merely dealing with legal provisions, applied a humane touch by considering the fates of the employees. The various aspects of the judgements are discussed as follows:

Decision on the relocation of the caustic chlorine plant

On the question of whether the caustic chlorine plant of Shriram should be permitted to be restarted or not, the Court referred to the opinions of the various expert committees constituted earlier. Though the opinions of the expert committees were conflicting, all of them unanimously expressed the view that the risk to the employees and people outside could be minimised with the adoption of proper safety measures, but it was not possible to fully eliminate them. For that reason, the “general consensus” of all the committees was to relocate the plant.

For future reference, the Court directed the government to form a national policy for the location of such hazardous industries to eliminate risk factors.

The Court also noted that all the expert committees had the unanimous opinion that considerable negligence in maintenance and operation and defects in the structure of the plant were present. However, despite showing initial indifference, since the management of Shriram later implemented all the recommendations of the three expert committees, the caustic chlorine plant may be restarted due to the absence of imminent danger to the employees and the community. The Court also considered the fact that the factor of unemployment would arise due to the closure of the plant. 

Consent order under Water Act and Air Act

The Central Pollution Control Board had raised a question regarding the discharge of effluents and waste water since they did not properly follow the standards set by the board to discharge wastes by using appropriate technologies.

Shriram had to obtain a consent order under the Water (Prevention And Control Of Pollution) Act, 1974 for discharging effluents from the plant. So, the Court directed the Central Water Board to grant a temporary consent order for one month. The Court also asked the Board to collect samples from discharged effluent to ascertain that the collected samples comply with the standards mentioned in the consent order. If the standards were found to be violated, the Board should inform the Court about the violation and might take any action against Shriram accordingly.

Similarly, the plants of Shriram were situated in the air pollution control area as notified by the Central Government under Section 19(1) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. Hence, to run the plant, Shriram had to apply for a consent order under Section 21 of the Act. Shriram complied with all the conditions mentioned in the consent order under the Air Act, 1981 at that time. However, the Court gave the Board the liberty to take appropriate disciplinary action against Shriram if the Board found any violations of the consent order.

Grievance with Delhi Municipal Corporation

The Court expressed certain grievances with the Delhi Municipal Corporation due to their failure to keep the sewer clean so that it could be used for the discharge of effluent. The Court noted that no positive steps were taken by the municipality to clean the choked sewer situated in the Najafgarh area. Though the Court did not issue any direct order to clean up the sewer, it regretted the indifference of the Delhi Municipality to clean up the sewer due to which the process of discharging the effluents was affected.

Final decision

The final decision by the Supreme Court was to give Shriram permission to reopen the mentioned plant. Though the earlier two orders passed by the Inspector and Assistant Commissioner of factories dated 7th and 24th December, 1985 were not vacated, both the orders were suspended. The Court gave temporary permission to run the plant and set ten conditions to strictly follow, along with fines. The Court also mentioned that failure to maintain the conditions would result in the cancellation of the permission granted by the Court. 

Conditions to be followed

The strict conditions set by the Supreme Court for Shriram to restart the caustic chlorine plant were as follows:

  • The Court noted that only after filing the PIL, Shriram was forced to implement all the recommendations given by the expert committees. Hence, the Court directed an expert committee to monitor the safety measures and maintenance once a fortnight twice and then submit a report before the Court. The Court directed Shriram to pay Rs thirty thousand as the cost of various expenses of the expert committee.
  • The Court directed Shriram to engage one plant operator to supervise the safety and security measures of the plant. In case of any further future mishap, the operator would be held responsible personally.
  • The Chief Inspector of Factories or any other inspector under his direction was supposed to pay a surprise visit without prior information once every week. The duty of the inspector was to inspect whether the management of the plant was following all the safety measures as directed by the expert committees.
  • In addition to the above, the Court further asked the Central Board to engage another senior officer to examine whether Shriram was properly following the waste management rules.
  • The Court directed the Chairman and Managing Director of Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd, the company which was the owner of all the units of Shriram, to submit an undertaking to the Court declaring that in future, they would be liable for further accidents and should personally pay compensation to every victim.
  • The two trade unions of Shriram, i.e., Lokahit Congress Union and Karamchari Ekta Union, were asked to form a committee containing three representatives after nomination from each of the unions to supervise the safety arrangements of the plant and to inform the management in case of any negligence. The Court further directed them to inform the Labour Commissioner if the management ignored such defaults or wilful negligence. The Court also directed the management to train the representatives regarding the functioning of the plant within two weeks.
  • A detailed chart in both English and Hindi containing side effects of chlorine gas in the human body and what to do in case of emergency leakage should be in every department as well as at the gate of the premises.
  • The employees in the caustic chlorine plant should be educated and properly trained regarding the functioning of the plant and the steps to take during leakage. The Court suggested using audio-visual programmes to educate, and after that, a “refresher course” along with mock trials should be conducted at least once every six weeks.
  • The Court also directed the installation of loudspeakers on the factory premises to warn local people in case of accidental leakages.
  • A proper vigilance by management to ensure that the employees were also abiding by the safety procedures and conducting regular medical checkups.

Payment of compensation

The Court directed Shriram to pay a sum of Rs twenty lacs for the payment of compensation to victims of oleum gas leakage. Besides that, a bank guarantee of Rs fifteen lacs should be submitted to the Registrar as a security deposit to be used as funds for compensation claims in case of any injury or death of any local people or employee due to chlorine gas leakage within three years. In such a situation, the District Judge of Delhi would decide the amount of compensation to be paid.

Suggestions and directions of the Supreme Court to the Government of India

  • The Court suggested the Government of India set up a “High Powered Authority” after consulting with the Central Board to supervise the functioning of such industries. The Court further requested to formulate a national policy regarding the location of such industries in places where there are little or no health hazards to the common public.
  • Scientific and technical knowledge is required to determine the legal cases regarding the environment. In the absence of any independent machinery, it becomes difficult. Hence, the Court requested the Indian Government to set up a piece of independent machinery called the “Ecological Sciences Research Group” consisting of various science and technology experts to assist the Court in cases relating to environmental issues.

Setting up of Environmental Courts

After this landmark case, the Supreme Court directed the government to set up environmental courts regionally to deal with cases regarding various environmental issues such as pollution, ecological destruction, and other conflicts with proper attention. The Environmental Court should have one professional judge and two experts in science and technology from the “Ecological Sciences Research Group” to assist the judge in adjudicating the case. 

However, either of the parties may appeal the decision of the Environmental Court to the Supreme Court.

Judicial recognition of the efforts of the petitioner

Though the Court permitted the restarting of the caustic chlorine plant, the Court deeply appreciated the petitioner MC Mehta for his efforts in bringing such a serious issue before the Court. For fighting a “valiant battle” to save the environment and as a token of appreciation, the Court asked Shriram to pay him a sum of Rs ten thousand as costs.

Discussion of legal principles

The constitutionally significant questions decided by the five-judge bench gave rise to some new legal principles.

Epistolary jurisdiction

The Court reiterated the rulings of the landmark cases SP Gupta v. Union of India (1981), People’s Union For Democratic Rights And Others v. Union Of India & Others (1982) and Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors. (1984) which discussed the scope and ambit of the Supreme Court under Article 32. The Supreme Court should decide on a writ petition by giving appropriate directions and should protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha, it was further decided that the procedure should not act as an obstruction to justice and broadened the locus standi and gave rise to epistolary jurisdiction.

Epistolary jurisdiction is different from regular writ jurisdiction, which refers to the situation when the court acts on the basis of any letter sent by a social group or any public-spirited individual. 

In the present case, the Court also decided that letters addressed to an individual judge should be taken cognisance of under the epistolary jurisdiction.

A new principle of liability

Under the rule of strict liability as evolved in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868), the defendant is liable for any harm or damage caused to the plaintiff even if it is completely unintentional or without any fault or any awareness on the part of the defendant. 

While deciding the case, the Court did not find the applicability of the rule of strict liability and evolved a completely new principle of liability called the rule of absolute liability. According to the rule of absolute liability, if any individual or any industry is engaged in an inherently dangerous or hazardous activity and any harm is caused to anyone while carrying out such activity, the said individual carrying out such activity should be absolutely liable. 

The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991

The need for a comprehensive Act dealing with liability, compensation, powers of officials and cognisance of offences and providing relief to victims due to hazardous industries arose immediately after the Bhopal tragedy. The Court also stressed the same in this case. The Public Liability Insurance Act was later enacted in 1991 to deal with such issues.

Future implications

The new legal principles and the reforms were reflected in the recent case of In re: Gas Leak at LG Polymers Chemical Plant in RR Venkatapuram Village, Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh (2020), also known as the Visakhapatnam gas leak case (2020) or Vizag gas leak case (2020). In this case, a hazardous gas called styrene leaked from the factories of LG Polymers, causing the deaths of 12 people and injury to many more, as well as damaging the environment. The company was held absolutely liable under the Act and was required to deposit Rs fifty crores with the National Green Tribunal.

Conclusion

Because of the public interest litigation, an industry, for the first time in Indian legal history, was held absolutely liable for an accident and was required to pay a large sum as compensation. The judgement was also able to reinstate the faith of the judiciary in common people due to the reiteration of epistolary jurisdiction. The judgement is unique because the Court did not declare a blanket ban on industrialisation since it would stop all scientific and technological advancements. Rather, it took into account the need for industrialisation and the fact that accidents are inevitable and accordingly emphasised the need for policies to prevent accidents and subsequent liability in case of accidents.

The case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986) has ever since emerged as a landmark case not only in environmental activism but also in judicial activism. It still acts as a precedent while deciding similar cases.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) on MC Mehta v. Union of India (1986)

Who is MC Mehta in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India?

The full name of MC Mehta is Mahesh Chander Mehta, and he is a public interest attorney dealing with environmental issues. He currently runs an NGO called the M.C. Mehta Environmental Foundation which advocates for the protection of the environment.

What was the plea in MC Mehta v. Union of India?

The petitioner MC Mehta demanded the permanent closure of the caustic chlorine plant of Shriram since the location of the factory was in a highly populated area in Delhi. Though the Court did not order the same, it appreciated his efforts for bringing out certain wilful negligence of the factory in dealing with hazardous substances in safety measures to light.

What is the importance of MC Mehta v. Union of India?

The case of MC Mehta v. Union of India is important mainly because it initiated the rule of absolute liability.

References


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