M.C Mehta vs Union of India & Ors

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Every person has a right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution[1], which was breached in this case. An American company, Union Carbide had an agreement with the Indian government in 1969, where they came under a deal in which 51% shares of the factory went to the union carbide company and the rest of the 49% to the Indian investors.

With this deal, the company was established as Union Carbide India Limited. Union carbide India limited was a pesticide plant, that produced a pesticide named seven. To manufacture this pesticide a chemical, methyl isocyanide (MIC) was used. This chemical was highly toxic This chemical required a highly maintained facility, but union carbide India limited was so careless in such matters that the leakage of MIC was frequent.

Many cases related to the leakage of this gas were also reported earlier before the tragedy happened, a reporter also wrote about the poor maintenance of the facility and the safety of the workers, But the government ignored it and did not take any action. The chemical methyl isocyanide is supposed to be kept under very high pressure of inert nitrogen and at a temperature of below 0 degrees Celsius. A tank containing MIC should not be filled more than 50%.

Facts of the case

On the night of 3 December, the tank containing the MIC had a leak and the water started to rush to the tank, coming in contact with the MIC gas resulting in a lethal reaction, at the time of this reaction the tank was filled to 90%, the tank couldn’t hold pressure for long and started leaking, causing the poisonous gas to spread freely in the environment, people started coughing heavily and their eyes became very itchy, they were also having a problem with breathing.

People started rushing to the hospitals but the doctors had no clue of what may have caused this to happen and were unable to treat the people, some even tried to run away from it, but at this point, it was probably too late for them as the gas was spreading quickly, some thought that cleaning themselves with water would get rid of it, but that just resulted in sudden deaths of many.

Approximately thousands of people died and hundreds suffered serious injuries. Those who survived the tragedy became invulnerable, the impact had left them with disabilities and their generation to come too. In the end, the factory was shut down by the order of the government and the manager of the factory was ordered to be arrested by the government. An international medical commission was formed in 1993 to provide medical treatment to the victims.

Due to the problem regarding the claim for compensation, many cases were filed on behalf of the victim as there were many victims that had very low financial status and could not afford a long-running lawsuit. Efforts were made to claim the compensation outside the court, but the results just ended up being unsuccessful, leaving no other choice than filing a case in court. The lawsuit was filed in the court of Bhopal as well as in the court of the USA against the company Union Carbide.

Following the events, the parliament of India passed The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, of 1985. Section 3(1) of the Act gives the right to the government to file the case on behalf of the victims.

A lawsuit was filed in the district court of New York, United States by the Indian government against UCC. However, the UCC pleaded that filing a case in the district court would be very inconvenient as the incident took place in India and all the evidence can be found there only, so the most convenient place to file a case would be in India.

The plea made by the UCC was accepted by Keenon j. and a new case was filed in the district court of Bhopal, India where the UCC was ordered to 350 crores. UCC filed an appeal with the Madhya Pradesh High Court against the Bhopal District Court’s ruling, where the result was a decrease in the interim compensation from RS 350 crore to RS 250 crore.

UCC tried to make a direct settlement with the tragedy victims but the court passed an interim order asking UCC to not make any settlement. In the end, the settlement was made at the sum of Rs 750 crore as the final price to pay for compensation.

Issues raised

  • Does the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher apply in this case, or is there another principle that can be used to decide liability?
  • What is the extent of an enterprise’s liability if people are killed or hurt because of an accident occurring in a hazardous industry?


For issue 1 In Rylands vs Fletcher case [2]the principle of Strict Liability was applied that is even if the defendant did not intentionally cause harm, still be made liable under this rule in which the defendant was not liable to pay for the damages caused. The Strict Liability does not include Natural land use.

If the rule of strict liability was applied in this case then the hazardous industries causing damage to the people would be able to escape from liability so the Supreme Court developed an effective rule of Absolute Liability preferable to the strict liability rule and appropriate for the conditions present in India developed an effective rule of Absolute Liability[3].

For issue 2 in the principle of absolute liability, it was stated that if an industry is permitted to carry on hazardous activity and if any harm is caused due to a company’s hazardous work, then the company cannot run away from its liability and has to pay for compensation to the victims

Related Provisions

National Green Tribunal Act, 2010

The National Green Tribunal was established to enable effective and quick resolution of matters involving the preservation and protection of forests and natural resources as well as to pay compensation for harms that have been incurred by an individual.[4]

The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991

After the Bhopal Gas Leak broke out, the Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991 was passed. Its primary goal is to offer relief to those who have suffered harm while handling any hazardous substance.[5]

The Environment Protection ACT, 1986

After the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Environment Protection Act was enacted in 1986 under Article 253 of the Indian Constitution. The Act is divided into twenty-six sections and five chapters. the main objective of this act is to protect, preserve and prevent the environment from future hazards.[6]


The principle of absolute liability was introduced in this case. When introducing the new principal, Bhagwati C.J. made the following statement:

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 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.[7]

The Court gave the following statement as well:

“Where an enterprise is engaged in 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 the 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-a-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher.”[8]

As compensation, around Rs. 2 lakhs was given to the families of the deceased and to those people who became permanently disabled. Rs. 1 lakh was given in case of partial disability and Rs. 50,000 to those who were only temporally disabled. The court directed the central government to create a 125 km wide green belt surrounding such companies.


Although there were other parties at fault for this disaster, the government should receive most of the blame because it was the one responsible for it. Firstly, since it was known that the plant would use dangerous chemicals that could harm people, the government should not have allowed the company to set up a factory in a heavily populated region.

The government was also at fault for failing to act upon reports of the factory’s poor management and disregarding them. Not only the people died but every living organism in Bhopal that was impacted by the lethal gas suffered a permanent or temporary loss. The impact of the gas had left not only them but their generations to come with uncurable disabilities.

To meet the requirements of society, the law must change. The government should implement preventative steps to ensure that the people are not harmed in this way again in the future.


[1] INDIA CONST. art. 21.

[2] Rylands v Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330.

[3] R.K Bangia, The Law of torts 398 (Allahabad law agency, 2010).

[4] See The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.

[5] See Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991.

[6] See The Environment Protection Act, 1986.

[7] Indian kanoon, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1486949/ (last visited Jun. 29, 2022).

[8] Indian kanoon, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1486949/ (last visited Jun. 29, 2022).

By: Janvi Shukla

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