M.C. MEHTA VS UNION OF INDIA & OTHERS – DECEMBER 20, 1986
(THE SHRIRAM GAS LEAK CASE)
Shri Ram Food and Fertilizers (SFF) was a DCM subsidiary, in fact one of its most profitable ventures. It had various units housed in single complex producing Chlorine and other chemicals. The facility was surrounded by thickly populated localities like West Patel Nagar, Punjabi Bagh, Tri Nagar, Shastri Nagar, Ashok Vihar and Karampura.
In December 1985, oleum gas, that was used in making DDT, leaked from a tank of the SFF factory and soon spread to the populated areas around the factory. The aftermath saw around 700 people being hospitalised for eye irritation and respiratory symptoms and death of a lawyer seven Kms away from the factory, at the Tis Hazari court complex.
The Supreme Court, taking a tough stand in the case, for the first time laid down the principal of absolute liability holding the SFF responsible for putting people’s life at risk by compromising environment. The court observed,
“….gas is admittedly dangerous to life and health. If the gas escapes either from the storage tank or from the filled cylinders or from any other point in the course of production, the health and wellbeing of the people living in the vicinity can be seriously affected. Thus Shriram is engaged in an activity which has the potential to invade the right to life of large sections of people.”
Refuting all the contentions made by the DCM that since it was a private corporation, it could not come under the ambit of activities affecting the Article 21, the apex court went on to enlarge its scope including the right to healthy environment as it directly affected the quality of human life. While accepting the compensation claims made in the case, it said the “applications for compensation were for enforcement of the fundamental right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution and while dealing with such applications, the court could not adopt a hypertechnical approach which would defeat the ends of justice.”