M.C. Mehta And Anr vs Union Of India & Ors , AIR 1987 SC 1086

M.C. Mehta And Anr vs Union Of India & Ors, AIR 1987 SC 1086 is a landmark case in India with regard to the evolution of absolute liability principle.
The present post summarises the facts of the case alongwith the decision of the Court :
Date of Decision–  20 December, 1986

Bench -P.N. Bhagwati, (CJ), Rangnath Misra (J), G.L.Oza (J), M.M.Dutt (J) and K.N.Singh (J)

Facts of the Case
  • The Bench of three Judges on 17th February 1986 permitted Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries to restart its power plant as also plants for the 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.
  • While the writ petition was pending there was an escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram on 4th and 6th December, 1985.
  • Applications were filed by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association for an award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of the escape of oleum gas.
  • These applications for compensation raised a number of issues of great constitutional importance and the Bench of three Judges, therefore, formulated the issues and asked the petitioner and those supporting him as also Shriram to file their respective written submissions so that the Court could take up the hearing of these applications for compensation. When these applications for compensation came up for hearing it was felt that since the issues raised involved substantial questions of law relating to the interpretation of Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution, the case should be referred to a larger Bench of five Judges.

Contentions of the Respondent

  • The Court should not proceed to decide these constitutional issues since there was no claim for compensation originally made in the writ petition and these issues could not be said to arise on the writ petition.
  • The escape of oleum gas took place subsequent to the filing of the writ petition but his argument was that the petitioner could have applied for amendment of the writ petition so as to include a claim for compensation for the victims of oleum gas but no such application for amendment was made and hence on the writ petition as it stood, these constitutional issues did not arise for consideration.
Decision
  • The applications for compensation in the instant writ petition are for enforcement of the fundamental right to life enshrined in Art. 21 of the Constitution and while dealing with such applications the Court cannot adopt a hyper-technical approach which would defeat the ends of justice. The Court must look at the substance and not the form. Therefore, the instant applications for compensation are maintainable under Art. 32.
  • Directed the 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.
  • Directed the Delhi Administration to provide necessary funds to the Board for the purpose.
  • 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.
  • The High Court will nominate one or more Judges as may be necessary for the purpose of trying such actions so that they may be expeditiously disposed of.
Observations of the Court
  • In a modern industrial society with highly developed scientific knowledge and technology where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary to carry on as part of developmental programme, the Court need not feel inhibited by rule in Rylands v. Fletcher merely because the new law does not recognise the rule of strict and absolute liability in case of an enterprise engaged in hazardous and dangerous activity. 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.
  • 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. As new situations arise the law has to be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations. Law cannot afford to remain static. We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in a highly industrialized economy. 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.
  • The Court has throughout the last few years expanded the horizon of Article 12 primarily to inject respect for human-rights and social conscience in the corporate structure. The purpose of expansion has not been to destroy the raison d’etre of creating corporations but to advance the human rights jurisprudence. The apprehension that included within the ambit of Article 12 and thus subjected to the discipline of Article 21 those private corporations whose activities have the potential of affecting the life and health of the people, would deal a death blow to the policy of encouraging and permitting private entrepreneurial activity is not well founded.
  • 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 non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that if any harm results to anyone, the enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity 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 irrespective of the fact that the enterprise had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.
  • If the enterprise is permitted to carry on an hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit, the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such activity as an appropriate item of its overheads. The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards.
  • The measure of compensation in such kind of cases must be correlated 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 carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.
  • The Apex Court under Article 32(1) is free to devise any procedure appropriate for the particular purpose of the proceeding, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right and under Article 32(2) the Court has the implicit power to issue whatever direction, order or writ is necessary in a given case, including all incidental or ancillary power necessary to secure enforcement of the fundamental right.
  • The power of the Court is not only injunctive in ambit, that is, preventing the infringement of a fundamental right, but it is also remedial in scope. The power of the Court to grant such remedial relief may include the power to award compensation in appropriate cases.
  • If we make a fact analysis of the cases where compensation has been awarded by this Court, we will find that in all the cases, the fact of infringement was patent and incontrovertible, the violation was gross and its magnitude was such as to shock the conscience of the court and it would have been gravely unjust to the person whose fundamental right was violated, to require him to go to the civil court for claiming compensation.

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Bhumika Sharma

She is currently a Research Scholar, (PhD) at Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla. She finds peace in writing and researching on a variety of social issues. She believes in the power of education and awareness to deal with various problems.

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