M. C. Mehta v. Union of India

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M. C. Mehta v. Union of India
Emblem of the Supreme Court of India.svg
Court Supreme Court of India
Full case name M.C. Mehta Vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors.
Decided December 20 1986
Citation(s) 1987 SCR (1) 819
Case opinions
Majority C. J. Bhagwati[1]
Laws applied
Articles 12 and 21 of the Constitution of India

The case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India originated in the aftermath of oleum gas leak from Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd. complex at Delhi. This gas leak occurred soon after the infamous Bhopal gas leak and created a lot of panic in Delhi. One person died in the incident and few were hospitalized. The case lays down the principle of absolute liability and the concept of deep pockets.

Facts[edit]

The case came up before the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court after a three-judge bench had referred it to a higher bench because certain questions of seminal importance and high constitutional significance were raised in the course of arguments when the writ petition was originally heard.

  1. The Bench of three Judges permitted Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries (hereinafter referred to as Shriram) to restart its power plant as also plants for manufacture of caustic chlorine including its by-products and recovery plants like soap, glycerine and technical hard oil, subject to the conditions set out in the Judgment.
  2. The main issue in the original writ petition which was filed in order to obtain a direction for closure of the various units of Shriram on the ground that they were hazardous to the community.
  3. But while the writ petition was pending there was escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram on 4 and 6 December 1985 and applications were filed by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association for award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of escape of oleum gas.
  4. The Court thought that these applications for compensation raised certain important issues and those issues should be addressed by a constitutional bench.

Preliminary objection of the defendants[edit]

There was only one preliminary objection filed by the counsel for the defendant, and this was that the Court should not proceed to decide these constitutional issues since there was no claim for compensation originally made in the writ petition and these issues could not be said to arise on the writ petition. However, the Court, while rejecting this objection, said that though it is undoubtedly true that the petitioner could have applied for amendment of the writ petition so as to include a claim for compensation but merely because he did not do so, the applications for compensation cannot be thrown out. These applications for compensation are for enforcement of the fundamental right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution and while dealing with such applications we cannot adopt a hyper-technical approach which would defeat the ends of justice.

Judgment[edit]

The first question which requires to be considered is as to what is the scope and ambit of the jurisdiction of this Court under Article 32.

The Court wholly endorsed what had been stated by Bhagwati, J. in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India and Ors. as regards the true scope and ambit of Article 32. It may now be taken as well settled that Article 32 does not merely confer power on this Court to issue a direction, order or writ for enforcement of the fundamental rights but it also lays a constitutional obligation on this Court to protect the fundamental rights of the people and for that purpose this Court has all incidental and ancillary powers including the power to forge new remedies and fashion new strategies designed to enforce the fundamental rights.

The next question which arises for consideration on these applications for compensation is whether Article 21 is available against Shriram which is owned by Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, a public company limited by shares and which is engaged in an industry vital to public interest and with potential to affect the life and health of the people. The issue of availability of Article 21 against a private corporation engaged in an activity which has potential to affect the life and health of the people was vehemently argued by counsel for the applicants and Shriram.[2]

The Court traced the evolution of the Doctrine of State Action to ascertain whether the defendants in this case fall under the definition of the term state, as provided under Article 12, or not. The Court also looked into the Industrial Policy of the Government. Under the Industrial Policy Resolution 1956 industries were classified into three categories having regard to the part which the State would play in each of them. The first category was to be the exclusive responsibility of the State. The second category comprised those industries which would be progressively State owned and in which the State would therefore generally take the initiative in establishing new undertakings but in which private enterprise would also be expected to supplement the effort of the State by promoting and development undertakings either on its own or with State participation. The third category would include all the remaining industries and their future development would generally be left to the initiative and enterprise of the private sector.[3]

If an analysis of the declarations in the Policy Resolutions and the Act is undertaken, we find that the activity of producing chemicals and fertilisers is deemed by the State to be an industry of vital public interest, whose public import necessitates that the activity should be ultimately carried out by the State itself, in the interim period with State support and under State control, private corporations may also be permitted to supplement the State effort. The argument of the applicants on the basis of this premise was that in view of this declared industrial policy of the State, even private corporations manufacturing chemicals and fertilisers can be said to be engaged in activities which are so fundamental to the Society as to be necessarily considered government functions.

Issue of strict and absolute liability[edit]

On the question of developing a new doctrine to attach liability the court commented that;

We must also deal with one other question which was seriously debated before us and that question is as to what is the measure of liability of an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, if by reason of an accident occurring in such industry, persons die or are injured. Does the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher apply or is there any other principle on which the liability can be determined? The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher was evolved in the year 1866 and it provides that a person who for his own purposes being on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes must keep it at his peril and, if he fails to do so, is prima facie liable for the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape. The liability under this rule is strict and it is no defence that the thing escaped without that person's wilful act, default or neglect or even that he had no knowledge of its existence. This rule laid down a principle of liability that if a person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do harm and such thing escapes and does damage to another, he is liable to compensate for the damage caused. Of course, this rule applies only to non-natural user of the land and it does not apply to things naturally on the land or where the escape is due to an act of God and an act of a stranger or the default of the person injured or where the thing which escapes is present by the consent of the person injured or in certain cases where there is statutory authority.[4]
This rule evolved in the 19th Century at a time when all these developments of science and technology had not taken place cannot afford any guidance in evolving any standard of liability consistent with the constitutional norms and the needs of the present day economy and social structure. We need not feel inhibited by this rule which was evolved in this context of a totally different kind of economy. Law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast changing society and keep abreast with the economic developments taking place in the country.
We cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in any other foreign country.
We are of the view that an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken.
The enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm and it should be no answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.
We would therefore hold that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. We would also like to point out that the measure of compensation in the kind of cases referred to in the preceding paragraph must be co-related to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deterrent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.[5]

Order of the court[edit]

The Supreme Court made the following observation:

Since we are not deciding the question as to whether Shriram is an authority within the meaning of Article 12 so as to be subjected to the discipline of the fundamental right under Article 21, we do not think it would be justified in setting up a special machinery for investigation of the claims for compensation made by those who allege that they have been the victims of oleum gas escape. But we would direct that Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to take up the cases of all those who claim 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 may be filed by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board within two months from today and the Delhi Administration is directed to provide the necessary funds to the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board for the purpose of filing and prosecuting such actions.

Thus the High Court was directed to nominate one or more Judges as may be necessary for the purpose of trying such actions so that they may be expeditiously disposed of.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "M.C. Mehta And Anr vs Union Of India & Ors on 20 December, 1986". Indian Kanoon. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  2. ^ paras 8 and 9
  3. ^ para 21- 24
  4. ^ Para 31
  5. ^ para 32