In the Supreme Court of India Civil Original Jurisdiction Equivalent Citation: 1987 AIR 965, 1986 SCR (1) 312 Petitioner M. C. Mehta & Anr. Etc Respondent Union of India & Ors. Decided on 17th February 1986 Bench Hon’ble Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Hon’ble Justice D.P. Madon, Hon’ble Justice G.L. Oza
Article 21 of the Constitution gives the right that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty. It also includes the right to live in a clean environment. The case of M.C. Mehta vs. UOI also known as the Oleum gas leak case is considered as one of the landmark cases as it changed the scope of Environmental Laws in India.
M.C. Mehta the environmental activist lawyer filed a petition in the form of PIL against Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry, owned by Delhi Mills Ltd, for dealing in the manufacturing of hazardous products and chemicals.
While the petition was pending before the Court, on 4th December 1985 a large number of people were affected by the Oleum gas leaking from one of the units of Shriram foods and fertilizer industries. Also, an advocate who was practicing in Tis Hazari Court died by inhaling the gas. Two days later, another leakage took place from the joints of the pipe.
In response to this, the Delhi Administration issued an order ceasing the manufacturing and processing of lethal and hazardous chemicals and directed the removal of same from the place. Further, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate was appointed as an officer before whom victims affected by the disaster could file claims.
Alongside, on 7th and 24th December 1985 orders were issued by the Inspector of Factories and Assistant Commissioner of Municipal Corporation prohibiting the enterprise from using caustic chlorine plant.
Whether, enterprises dealing with hazardous chemicals be allowed to function in a thickly populated area and what measures to be taken to minimize the danger.
Whether, enterprises or corporations are liable for damages caused by manufacturing and sale of hazardous products and if so, how should they be quantified.
Mr. M. C. Mehta contended that permission for starting the caustic chlorine plant should not be granted as there is always a possibility of leakage risking the community while operating.
On the other hand, the Counsel for Shriram industries pleaded that closing of the caustic chlorine plant would not only affect the company but would also result in unemployment of about 4000 workmen. The counsel further contended that since all the conditions and safety measures recommended under Manmohan Singh Committee and Nilay Choudhary Committee were being complied by the Shriram industries there was no danger of escaping the gas and even in case of leakage it could easily be contained. Hence, there was no need to permanently shut down the caustic chlorine plant.
The Court taking into consideration the reports submitted by various Committees observed that by carrying safety measures the risk of hazardous elements can be minimized but not completely eliminated and for the complete removal of community risk the plant may have to be relocated at least 10 km away from urban limits along with safety measures. The Court stated, in consideration of the population around the vicinity of the chlorine plant and the damage it might cause in case of an accident, it was clear that Shriram Industries were negligent in maintaining and operating the caustic chlorine plant.
The Court observed that chlorine is a hazardous gas and even a small leakage is likely to cause danger to life. Also, the state of old and worn machinery and equipment cannot be overlooked. But, one must take into consideration that all the recommendations made by committees complied with in a satisfactory manner. One cannot ignore the fact that Shriram Industries provide employment to over 4.000 workmen and also supplies chlorine to the Delhi Water Supply Undertaking the closing down of the industry would seriously affect the supply of products.
Considering the observations mentioned above the Court held that Shriram Industries should be temporarily permitted to restart its power plant for manufacturing caustic chlorine along with its buy-products provided, certain conditions are followed namely:
- An expert committee should be appointed to monitor the operation and maintenance of plants and equipments.
- One operator shall be appointed in charge of safety device or measures who shall personally be liable for safety measures and instruments.
- Any Senior Inspector or Chief Inspector of Factories should pay a surprise visit at least once per week at the caustic chlorine plant and should report the same to Court and Labour Commissioner.
- On Senior Inspector shall be appointed to visit Vanaspati plant at least once a week, appointed by the Central Board to see whether the standards laid down in Water Act and Air Act are being complied with.
- An undertaking from Chairman and Managing Director of Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. Shall be taken stating, in case of any death or injury caused by leakage of chlorine gas, the company will personally be held liable for compensation.
- Another committee of three representatives shall be made who shall ensure that no malfunctioning or non-functioning are there in respect of safety devices and instruments.
- A chart shall be published in English and Hindi stating the effects of chlorine gas on humans along with the immediate treatment to be taken in case of gas leakage.
- Every worker should be instructed and trained about the functioning of plants and equipment in which he is engaged.
- Timely warning and instructions should be provided to the people living in the vicinity of such plants and for that purpose loud speakers should be installed around the factory premises.
- The Management shall ensure that all the workers are guarded with proper safety measures and instruments and a regular medical check-up should be carried out for the same.
- Lastly, a sum of Rs.20 lakhs shall be deposited as security in the Court by Shriram Industries for payment of compensation claims.
Failing in any of the above conditions shall withdraw the grant to restart the caustic chlorine plant.
Therefore, in the above case, it was observed that the Court granted the permission to restart the caustic chlorine plant provided specific conditions were fulfilled resulting in safety measures for people residing in the vicinity.
Edited by: Purnima
M.C. Mehta & Anr vs. UOI & Ors. 1987 AIR 965, 1986 SCR (1) 312