Updated: Nov 22, 2021
The M.C. Mehta case is a watershed judgment in the constitutional, tort and obviously the environmental jurisprudence of the country. The significance of the judgment can be grabbed from the fact that the Parliament included a new chapter to the Factories Act, 1948 largely influenced by the judgment and also lead to the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1872. The M.C. Mehta case also sets forth the positivist attitude of judicial activism and judicial innovation measuring both the flexibility and due rigidity in interpretation of te laws well in consonance of the facts of the case.
BACKGROUND/FACTS OF THE CASE
Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industry which is a subsdiary of the Delhi Cloth Mills Limited manufacturing dangerous chemicals. Mahesh Chandra Mehta filed a writ petition in the Hon’ble S upreme Court asking for the shutdown of the industry. During the pendency of the petition, large gallons of oleum gas spilled and the leakage lead to the death of plenty of people. There was frequent spillages thereafter that led to stinky environment around the area for the years to come.
It was the 6th date of December in 1985 that the District Magistrate of Delhi ordered Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industry to immediately terminate the further production in the industry and also cleaning and fogging of the atmosphere near the areas of Delhi.
The case infamously was christened with its gas leak as it was the first prominent jurisprudence after a gas leak setting a significant jurisprudence in tort, constitutional and environmental law.
The following were the issues dealt by the Hon’ble Court in the case:
1. Whether the Hon’ble Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to hear the said case?
2. Whether Shriram Industry owned by Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. falls within the ambit of meaning of Article 12 of the Indian Constitution?
3. Whether the compensation for the victims of the gas leak tragedy be duly provided with the compensation and also what would be the extent to which an enterprise engaged in innately hazardous industries would be liable for the same?
One of the prominent issues that the case dealt with was the powers of the Hon’ble Supreme Court since the PIL filed had an application of the victims of the tragedy. The court ruled that the court’s duty defined fundamental rights over ride its mere duty to issue writs under article 32. Also, the ruling by the court substantiated the fact that the power of the court under article 32 is not just injunctive but also remedial in nature. The court ruled that the infringement should be of a large scale affecting broader population. The Court spearheaded ‘Public Interest’ to suo motu award compensation [symbolically] to the victims.
Both the applicant and the respondent extensively argued over the contention regarding Shri Ram Food and Fertilizer Industry falling within the ambit of Article 12. The court after due discussion and concussion remarked that Shri Ram was indeed working under the shadow of the governement. Furthering the stance, the court ruled that the private corporations could not be handled in such a way that for setting up liability they be bracketed as public bodes which will impede the overall development of the nation.
The court however, refrained from deciding the issue and ordered the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to file cases on behalf of the victims to civil courts for grant of compensation.
The case is also landmark for its novel interpretation of the liability that an enterprise would have to undergo. The court ruled that an industry involved in an inherently dangerous which poses a potential threat to the health and security of the workers and the residents nearly owes an outright and non-delegable duty over the harm caused due to operations of the industry. The court propounded the ‘Absolute Liability’ rule where there are no defences for a firm working in inherently dangerous industry. The profits earned through such industry is huge which must be equated for the victims of any mishap either intentional or unintentionl the court opined.
APPROPRIATENESS OF THE JUDGEMENT:
The judgement by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta case set forth a classical judicial precedent especially in the environmental law jurisprudence. The judgement is even more pertinent as the oleum gas leak in the outskirts of Delhi occurred one year after the Bhopal gas leak case. The judgement is instrumental as it propounded the ‘Absolute Liability doctrine’. The doctrine held the industry unconditionally liable for the escape of hazardous substancs the firm was involved in. The India like any other third world country lacked duly structured and construed environmental jurisprudence and the legislations. The judgement proved to be a trailblazer especially when there existed a legal nvoid regarding the gas leak and environment protection.
Also, the court absolutely justified its guardianship under article 32 as envisioned by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during the constitutional debates for the Indian Constitution.The court through dispensing the methods of compensation appointing Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board for fighting compensation against the industry provided a leeway in the role of judicial activism for the years to come. The judgement was also a linchpin for the times to come as it served to be a source to embolden progressive judicial activism.
The judgement took into account social, economic, safety and legal aspects revolving around the issue of liability, enviroment and victomology.
SCARS AND OMISSIONS:
The judgement was first of its kind and a hallmark of dutiful exercise of judicial activism in many respects but lacked due delivery of justice in few areas. The major issue omitted by the court to decide whether ShriRam Food and Fertilizer Industry qualifies to be liable as per a state corporation under article 12 of the Indian Constitution sets forth a disappointment in the face of such an issue being the most extensively heard by the court. Also, the court had the opportunity to provide a test or parameters on what grounds an entity is subjected for liabilities under article 12 which court conventiely omitted by calling it an issue to be decided by the courts in future.
Even more so symbolic was the remedial force exercised by the Supreme Court under article 32 for addressing the plight of the gas leak tragedy victims. The Supreme Court had ordered the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to fight the compensation on behalf of victims in the civil courts of Delhi. The court held the industry absolutely liable, infact propounded an all new doctrine for the same but left it without duly addressing the compensation for the victims which was anyway great cry little wool.
The oleum gas leak case is touted as the watershed case in which Supreme Court emerged as the protector of people but such protection was just rauckous symbol lacking substance. Also, the flaws in the reasoning employed by the court was also present which needs to be named and adressed. Justice J. Bhagwati, who authored the judgement mentioned even though hazardous chemical industries are harmful to the public, but cannot be closed completely, it can be expected that the hazard can be reduced by taking all preventive measures. This observation by the court stands fundamentally antithetical to the ‘Absolute Liability Principle’ where presence of sufficient measures was totally immaterial for deciding liability. Moreover, the court constituted a committee to oversee all the company’s activities and the committee had one of its recommendations that te ShriRam Industry’s employers will sign an undertaking for holding responsibility in case of prospective gas leaks by the company. The Supreme Court’s approval of such recommendation is full of skullduggery as even the employees of the industry were victims of gas leak an liability setting must have been done to the people at accountable positions.
NEED FOR M.C. MEHTA FOR THE PRESENT TIME
The Centre for Public Interest Litigation[CPIL] had filed a PIL regarding the Central Government’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and PM-CARES fund where the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on 18th August, 2020. The Supreme Court rejected the same without duly attending the meritorial submissions on the behalf of litigants. The PM-CARES was a public body and received funds from the public and hence, qualifies to be under section 2[h] of Right to Information Act, 2005 but the court accepted the government’s argument that the contributions being voluntary vitiates the transaparency for the Trust under the RTI Act. Moreover, the government had invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to effecutautae the curbs or restricts for restricting the virus spread, the court acknowledge the same but held National Disaster Relief Fund constituted under the same incompetent for managing crisis of such a state of affairs on the ground of it being a public health emergence or biological calamities. The court exercised judicial restraint while declaring PM-CARES constitutionally valid and did not held the fund accountable by Comptroller and Auditor General. The court in the recent past have also practised judicial restraint but the fact is that the court has in recent past has just interpreted the laws but did not intervene with the grey areas in the policy which anyway shows relentless strive for judicial inactivism.
Infact, similar is the journey for the PIL seeking for due share of relief for addressing the biggest humanitarian crisis i.e. when the migrant labours in numbers of thousands and probably lakhs lost shelter and wandered in the streets helpless. The primary petition regarding the same issue – Alakh Alok Srivastava vs Union of India under which the Hon’ble Court again acted sluggish as it just directed the centre and the concerned states to submit a report by 31 March. It was after two months on 25th May, 2020 when 20 senior advocates wrote a letter to the Supreme Court stressing the plight of migrant labourers and advocating how it is not a policy issue but a humanitarian crisis and a matter of human rights crisis after which Supreme Court submitted its recommendations for both the state and central government. But the reality was even then hardly the plight of migrants was meted out and moreover, there were instances where the cooperative foreplay between Central and State government set the stage for newsheadlines on the burden of travel through Shramik trains.
The Oleum Gas leak case led to breakthrough in the Indian set-up with the catena of legislations and judgements related to the environmental safeguard and the effectuation of penalities for offenders. The Oleum gas leak case also proved to be the first case decided that lead the ground for universal acceptance of Right to Clean Environment as also a facet of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court’s Inactivism or Restraint over the migrant crisis, holding PM-CARES not accountable, sluggish attitude towards draft Environment Impact Assesment, 2020 pose an insurmountable threat for a transparent, accountable and responsive democracy.
The judgement was instrumental in various respects out of which the most prominenet was that it was the first of its time that a private oganisation was held exclusively liable for paying compensation to the victims. The judgment lacked in few areas but otherwise was well-reasoned as it striked a balance between economic development and environmental determinism thus, expounding a legal backing for sound sustainale development. Above all, was the Supreme Court’s inorthodox interpretation of its prerogrative and powers under article 32 of the Indian Constitution which laid the ground for inadvertent usage of judicial activism by the constitututional court for serving the public interest.
The Supreme Court was touted to be the guardian of the Constituton, it must remain liberal to its assigned role which otherwise will require another MC Mehta and Justice Bhagwati to set down to the dark inactivity by the Supreme Court
 Surajit Bhaduri, M.C. Mehta v. Union of India - Article 12 of the constitution, (Nov. 6. 2008), http://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l265-M.C.-Mehta-v.-Union-of-India.html  C. M. Abraham and Sushila Abraham, The Bhopal Case and the Development of Environmental Law in India, (Apr., 1991), https://www.jstor.org/stable/759728?seq=1.  COVID Coverage: Migrant Labourers, Supreme Court Observer, (May 25, 2021), https://www.scobserver.in/the-desk/migrant-labourers-crisis-and-the-supreme-court.  Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union Of India, Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No(s).468/2020.  Supreme Court Dismisses Petition on PM CARES Fund, Supreme Court Observer, (Sep. 9, 2020), https://www.scobserver.in/the-desk/supreme-court-dismisses-petition-on-pm-cares-fund.