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Updated: Aug 19, 2020



Bench: P.N Bhagawati

Petitioner: M.C Mehta

Respondent: Union of India

Date of Judgement: December 12, 1986


In the case of M.C Mehta Vs. Union of India (Oleum gas Leak Case) the Constitutional Bench dealt with a writ petition on its application pursuant to Article 32 of the Constitution of India (Three-judge bench). Oleum gas fled from Shriram unit and as a consequence Delhi and Delhi Legal Aid and Advisory Board of the Bar Association has lodged applications for compensation for people who have suffered harm because of Oleum's escape. The Supreme Court was obligated to rule on the matter as to the degree and nature of its authority referred in Article 32 of the Constitution. Article 32 sets down a statutory requirement for Order to uphold people's constitutional rights and that is why The Supreme Court shall have both the incidental and ancillary functions Powers like the ability to design and forge new remedies and different methods for upholding the human freedoms. Underneath Article 32 of the constitution can lay down any appropriate procedure for the relevant object of the proceeding. It also has appeal rights, Which may provide redress for human rights abuses and the remedial steps can include the authorisation to pay compensation whenever it is applicable.


Shriram Foods and Fertilizer Industries had multiple units engaged within the manufacture of sodium hydroxide , chlorine, acid , stable chlorinated lime , super phosphate, vanaspati, soap, vitriol , alum anhydrous sodium sulfate , high test hypochlorite and active earth. All units were installed during one complex located in approximately 76 acres and are surrounded by thickly populated colonies like Punjabi Bagh, West Patel Nagar, Karampura, Ashok Vihar, Tri Nagar and Shastri Nagar, with a population of approximately 2,00,000 within a radius of 3 kilometers of this complex.

On 6 December 1985, the District Magistrate, Delhi, ordered Shriram to cease the occupation of hazardous and lethal chemicals and gases, in compliance with Section 133(1) of Cr.P.C, including chlorine, oleum, super chlorine, phosphate, etc., at its Delhi site within two days and to withdraw these chemicals and gases from Delhi within seven days At this juncture M.C.Mehta moved to the Supreme Court to seek compensation for the damages incurred by filing a PIL and pleaded that the closed establishment should not be allowed to restart.


❏ A writ petition was filed by M.C Mehta, a social activist lawyer, seeking closure for Shriram Industries because it had been engaged in manufacturing of hazardous substances and located in a densely populated area of Kirti Nagar. While the petition was pending, on 4 and 6December 1985, there was leakage of oleum gas from one among its units which caused the death of an advocate and affected the health of several others. The incident took place on December 4, 1985.

❏ A large number of people were affected just after one year of the Bhopal gas disaster – both among the workers and the public. This incident also reminded the Bhopal gas holocaust.

❏ Pursuant to Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution, M.C Mehta filed a PIL seeking the closure and relocation of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Vitriol Plant situated in a thickly populated area of Delhi.

❏ Factories were closed down immediately as the Inspector of Factories and Commissioner (Factories) issued separate orders on December 8 and 24, 1985. (This incident took place just a few months before the Environment (Protection) Act came into force, and became a guiding force for having an effective law like this).

❏ There are six recorded orders in the Supreme Court of India's Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry case, out of these six, four were pronounced before the Environment (Protection ) Act, 1986 was passed, and the date it came into effect. Thus the reported orders are relevant and important as they shed new light on how highly toxic and unsafe substances industries should be addressed and contained and controlled to minimize hazards to workers and the general public.

❏ The court also indicated that the Government should establish a national policy for the location of toxic or dangerous industries and that a decision on the relocation of these industries should be taken with a view to eliminate risk to the community.

❏ The Court held that Shriram industries must deposit Rs 20 lakhs and include a bank guarantee for Rs.15 lakhs to pay insurance claims from victims of Oleum gas if any escape from chlorine gas occurred within three years from the date of order resulting in death or injury to any worker or living public in the vicinity. The district judge, Delhi, was able to assess the amount of compensation. It also demonstrates that the court made the industry "absolutely liable" and compensation due as though the accident was proved without allowing the industry to participate. The District Judge, Delhi, was able to decide the amount of compensation. It also indicates that the court found the industry "completely responsible (Absolutely liable)" and compensation payable for the accident was confirmed without asking the industry to attend.


1. What is the scope of Article 21 and Article 32 of the Constitution ?

2. Whether the rule of last Absolute Liability or Rylands vs Fletcher rule to be followed?

3. Issue of the Compensation?

Arguments Advanced

There was one preliminary appeal raised by the defendant's lawyers, and this was that the Court should not proceed with the ruling on these constitutional issues since there was no argument for compensation originally made in the writ petition and it could not be said that these issues arose on the writ petition. Nevertheless, when denying this argument, the Court stated that although it is undoubtedly true that the petitioner could have sought to amend the petition in order to include a claim for compensation, but simply because he did not do so, the demands for compensation can not be dismissed. Such demands for compensation are for the protection of the fundamental right to life which is enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution and we can not follow a hyper-technical approach when dealing with these demands which would negate the ends of justice.

The respondents argued that if it should be considered a State pursuant to Article 12 of the Constitution so as to subject it to legal liability pursuant to Article 21 of the Constitution, which provides for remedies for the infringement of Fundamental Rights and due to these rights they are liable.

Judgement :

Chief Justice Bhagwati demonstrated his deep concern for the safety of the Delhi people from the leakage of hazardous substances, such as the one here – oleum gas. He was of the opinion that we cannot adopt the policy to end chemical or hazardous industries as they also help to improve the quality of life. Therefore, even though dangerous industries have to be developed because they are important for economic growth and the advancement of people's well-being.

"We can only hope to minimize the dimension of danger or risk to the community by taking all the measures possible to locate these industries in a manner that would pose less risk to the community and optimize safety requirements in such industries"

While the Supreme Court was of the opinion that absolute public utility ban on the above-mentioned industry would hinder construction activities.

It was also observed that the factory's permanent closure would result in the unemployment of 4,000 employees, a caustic soda plant, and add to the poverty social problem. The court then issued an order to temporarily open the factory subject to 11 conditions, and formed an expert committee to oversee the industry's work.

The court also indicated that a national strategy for the position of toxic or dangerous industries would have to be established by the government and a decision on the relocation of these industries will have to be made in order to minimize risk to the environment.

The court noted that, apart from issuing directions, it could forge new solutions under Article 32 and develop new strategies for the enforcement of fundamental rights. The power under Article 32 is not confined to preventive measures where fundamental rights are threatened with being infringed, but it also extends to remedial measures where the rights are already infringed (Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India). However, the court held that it has the power to grant remedial relief in appropriate cases where the infringement of fundamental rights is gross and patentable and affects the situation.

It was held that the compensation measure must be correlated with the industry's magnitude and capacity in order to have a deterrent effect for the compensation. If the industry is bigger and more successful then the greater amount of money had to be paid that it can pay. The court did not order the payment of compensation to victims as it left the issue open due to lack of time to determine if Shriram, a private corporation, was a state or authority that could be subject to Article 21 discipline.

The court adopted a new "no fault" (absolute liability) liability standard. That is an industry engaged in dangerous practices that pose a possible health and safety threat to the individuals who work and live nearby owe to the society an utter and non-delegable obligation to ensure that no harm occurs to anyone. This industry must carry out its operations with the highest safety requirements and the company must be entirely responsible for compensating for such damage if any harm occurs.

Critical analysis:

Dangerous industries are undertakings engaged in hazardous processes that may cause adverse effects on people's health and the environment unless special care is taken to leak the raw material or by product. Dangerous industries play a crucial role in economic growth and the progress of the economy in this age of free global market economy, but at the same time they are creating the risk issue for human life and the environment. The developing countries such as India are suffering from the acute environmental pollution problem.

The root of the national chemicals and hazardous industries policy relates to two major gas leakage accidents, the 1994 Bhopal tragedy and the 1995 oleum gas leak tragedy. In these cases, the Hon'ble Supreme Court found that the English doctrine of Strict Liability introduced in Ryland v. Fletcher by the House of Lords would not satisfy the changing need for the liability principle in India. The Hon'ble Supreme Court therefore felt the need to follow the concept of Total Responsibility, or else the Court of Justice would refuse to provide justice to the victims of this large-scale environmental disaster. Where an undertaking engages in a hazardous or inherently hazardous activity and causes harm to anyone as a result of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently hazardous activity for example, in the escape of toxic gas, the undertaking is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those affected by the accident and such liability shall not be subject to any of these liabilities The larger and more profitable the company, the higher the amount of compensation it charges for the harm caused by an accident in the performance of the hazardous or inherently harmful operation.

All this suggests that, in its judgment, the Supreme Court stressed that certain basic standards should be defined by the government and, furthermore, it should also make laws on the management and handling of hazardous substances, including the procedure for developing and running industries with minimal risk to human, animals, etc.

Furthermore, by either demonstrating that they were not reckless in dealing with the hazardous substance or by taking all the necessary and reasonable precautions when dealing with it, the industries can not absolve themselves of responsibility. Therefore, in this case, the court applied the principle of no – fault liability.

Among all these the M.C.Mehta case judgment gave a new dimension to India's Tort Laws. Until this case the principle of strict liability was applied where the defendant may sue for damages, but this Supreme Court decision came up with the Absolute principle. Although the Court of Law is still open to hearing some kind of injustice done to people and it offers redress to victims whose rights are violated or who have suffered damages due to others' negligence but at this juncture the Hon'ble Court they could not offer compensation to the victims of the tragedy of oleum gas leak. The Court could have given the victims and the families of those who have died in the course of the disaster an interim compensation. The transitional compensation may have benefited the victims by ensuring sufficient habilitation, appropriate medical services and others.


[DISCLAIMER: This article is for general information only. We have tried to include as much information as possible but there are chances that some important information may have been missed .It is NOT to be substituted for legal advice or taken as legal advice. The publishers of the this article shall not be liable for any act or omission based on this note].

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