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Environmental Justice Prevails: Analyzing the Landmark M. C. Mehta Vs Union Of India-Oleum Gas Leak Case

MC Mehta is an Indian public interest attorney and environmentalist who has filed several public interest litigation (PIL) regarding environmental issue and he has won single handedly many cases related to environment . He has awarded with Goldman environmental prize and Padma Shri For his selfless fights against pollution causing industries in Indian courts. He's also called a green avenger in India.

MC Mehta v/s Union Of India
Court: Supreme Court Of India
Citation : 1987 AIR 965, 1986 SCR (1) 312r
Petitioner : M.C Mehta
Respondent : Union Of India And Ors.
Date Of Judgement: 20 December 1986
Judges : P.N. Bhagwati (Chief Justice), Rangnath Mishra, G. L. Oza, M. M. Dutt, K.N. Singh

The case of M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India, commonly known as the Oleum Gas Leak case, is a significant landmark judgment by the Supreme Court of India that dealt with a deadly industrial accident involving the release of oleum gas from a factory in Delhi. M.C. Mehta, an environmental activist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking compensation for the victims and appropriate measures to prevent similar accidents in the future.

The Supreme Court, recognizing the gravity of the incident and the need to address industrial safety and environmental concerns, took up the case. The Oleum Gas Leak case served as a wake-up call for industrial safety and environmental protection in India.

It highlighted the importance of stringent regulations, effective enforcement, and the need for industries to prioritize the safety of their operations and minimize the risk of accidents. The case also underscored the judiciary's role in safeguarding the environment and protecting the rights of individuals affected by industrial disasters.

Overall, the Oleum Gas Leak case had a significant impact on industrial safety and environmental protection in India, and it played a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of preventing industrial accidents and minimizing their impact on public health and the environment.

There were no specific law to protect environment in India before independence but after many judgments given by courts Related to industrial mishap which deteriorate environment and finally after Bhopal gas leak disastrous incident Environment Protection Act, 1986 came into force in India.

Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd., a subsidiary of Delhi cloth ltd, was located in the city's densely populated area of Kirti Nagar, the emission from industry are hazardous for general public . MC Mehta, a public interest attorney, filed a writ petition under Articles 21 and 32 to the Supreme Court, seeking direction for closure and relocation of some industrial unit of Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd. from densely populated area otherwise it can be dangerous for nearby people .

During suit is pending in apex court , the Oleum Gas Leak incident occurred On December 4, 1985, a storage tank owned by the Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industries (SFFI) in Delhi developed a leak, resulting in the release of oleum gas into the surrounding atmosphere that caused severe harm to people who inhaled the gas.

The leakage also took the life of one of the lawyers who practised in the Tis Hazari Court and caused certain harm to the health of nearby residents. An application was further filed by the Delhi bar association & Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and for the award of compensation to the victims who had suffered losses on account of this gas leak.

The Oleum Gas Leak case brought significant attention to industrial safety and environmental issues in India. It highlighted the need for stringent regulations, improved safety standards, and prompt action in cases of industrial disasters. This incident reminded everyone of Bhopal gas tragedy.

The gas leak occurred on December 4, 1985, in the city of Delhi, India. The incident took place at the premises of Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industries (SFFI) in Delhi.The gas leak involved the release of toxic oleum gas. Oleum is a highly corrosive and dangerous substance it affected health of workers as well as residents of that area . P.After two days, another minor leakage of oleum gas took place on 6th December.

Due to oleum gas leakage, the Delhi magistrate immediately responded by issuing an order under section 133(1)of the Code of Criminal Procedure1973 to to cease the work of manufacturing hazardous chemicals and gases.

MC Mehta, an environmental lawyer and activist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India on behalf of the affected residents.The Union of India, various government bodies, and the Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industries were the defendants in the case. The gas leak resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people from nearby residential areas. It caused severe health issues and several deaths among the affected population.

The case was taken up by the Supreme Court of India, which played an active role in monitoring the situation and issuing directives for remedial measures.The Supreme Court issued several directives, including the evacuation of affected residents, provision of medical assistance, creation of a specialized medical facility for gas-affected victims, appointment of an expert committee, regulation of hazardous industries, and compensation for the victims.

Issue Raised in MC Mehta Vs Union of India Case:
  • Whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction under Article 32 to decide the present matters ?
  • Whether Shriram owned by Delhi Cloth Ltd, a public company, comes within the meaning of state under Article 12 of the Indian Constitution ?
  • Whether the Supreme Court should allow Shriram to restart its caustic chlorine plants and whether it would be a violation of Article 21 under the Indian Constitution ?
  • Whether the demand for compensation to aggrieved persons is maintainable or not ?
  • Whether Shriram should be allowed to continue operation in a densely populated area ?
  • Whether the principle of strict liability established in the case of Rylands vs Fletcher is applicable in this case?

Contentions raised by the parties in MC Mehta vs. Union of India (1986)
Arguments by the petitioner
It was argued for the issue of whether Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide the present matter ,in Bandhua Mukti morcha vs Union of India , the court held that Article 32 of the Constitution of India Not only give power to issue order ,direction , or writs to enforce fundamental rights but also give obligations on courts to protect all those rights and also court have authority to award compensation for violation of fundamental right of individuals. So Application for compensation in present case is maintainable under article 32 of Indian constitution.

According to the applicant, the Shriram industry should be ordered to close permanently, since it would be in breach of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution if it were allowed to operate by Putting lives of people at risk. Right to clean environment is also come under Article 21 of Indian constitution . There is clear Violation of Article 21 of Indian constitution court should grant compensation to victims for violation of their fundamental rights.

The petitioner contended that expert committee after investigation recommended that risk to general public can reduce by using safety measures but entirely risk cannot be removed. The relocation of chlorine plant is only longterm solution .

Argument by respondent
The respondents contended that the Supreme Court should not deal with the constitutional issues that the petitioners added after the case was filed. The claims were also not mentioned in the original procedural documents of the case. The lawyer also argued that the gas leak happened only after the suit was filed and the petition was processed and it has not been decided yet.

Petitioners may not amend merely to add a claim for damages to the victims of this case. No such change was requested in a written statement either. Therefore, it is clear that no constitutional problems arose when the same was filed.

Respondent also contended that permanent closure of plant would result into unemployment of 4000 labours. In addition, the counsel claimed that this case should be subject to the strict liability rule set out in Rylands v. Fletcher.

The Supreme Court, in its judgment, expanded the scope of liability beyond the traditional concept of "strict liability" and introduced the concept of "absolute liability." According to the principle of absolute liability, an enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry is liable to compensate for any harm caused by its activities, irrespective of whether it took reasonable precautions or not.

This landmark judgment shifted the burden of proof onto the industry, making it responsible for demonstrating that it had taken all necessary precautions to prevent harm. It held that the enterprise engaging in hazardous activities is liable for any damage caused, regardless of fault, and must bear the cost of compensating affected individuals or restoring the environment.

Additionally it was stated that closure of such hazardous industries is not possible as it will not good for development

Of county and closure of such big industries result into increase of unemployment As a result, the court issued a temporary operating order for the factory with 11 conditions and created an expert committee to supervise industry operations. The government's top guidance has been as follows:
  1. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 both require that central pollution control board will appoint an inspector who will monitor certain emission levels.
  2. To establish a hand safety commission.
  3. The industry should educate the public about chlorine's effects and applicable regulations.
  4. Installing loudspeakers to warn neighbors in case of a gas leak and providing audio-visual services for hand training and instruction on factory safety.
  5. Staff should use proper safety measures, including belts and helmets.
  6. If a gas leak results in the death or injury of workers or nearby residents, the chairman of Delhi Cloth Ltd is personally accountable for paying compensation.

Critical Analysis:
Judgment of M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India absolute liability case solidified the concept of absolute liability in Indian environmental law, ensuring that industries are held accountable for their actions and promoting environmental protection and justice. The rule laid down, in this oleum gas leak case, is still Used by court in India .it was necessary to make law related to hazardous industries in country like India where lots of industries engaging in harmful chemicals substances.

Overall, the Oleum Gas Leak case had a significant impact on industrial safety and environmental protection in India, and it played a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of preventing industrial accidents and minimizing their impact on public health and the environment. This was yet another judicial effort towards upholding the principle of sustainable development

This judgement became a pathfinder for the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. The case also set a precedent for public interest litigation in India, empowering citizens to seek judicial intervention in matters of public concern.

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Mr.Kunal Sahu
Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: SP363243386243-23-0923

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