Oleum Gas Leak Case

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The Oleum Gas Leak Case, also known as MC Mehta v. Union of India, is a landmark environmental case in India. It involved a gas leak incident at the Shriram Food and Fertiliser Industries plant, a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, situated in Kirti Nagar, Delhi.

In December 1985, there was an escape of oleum gas from one of the units at the factory, which resulted in severe harm to the people who were exposed to the gas. The incident raised concerns about the safety and environmental standards of the factory and its potential impact on the surrounding community.

MC Mehta, a public interest attorney, filed a writ petition under Articles 21 and 32 of the Indian Constitution in the Supreme Court, seeking the closure and relocation of the hazardous plant. During the legal proceedings, questions were raised about the scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, the liability of enterprises engaged in hazardous activities, and the need to modernize liability standards in such cases.

Which Case is Known as the Oleum Gas Leak Case?

The case known as the Oleum gas leak case is MC Mehta v. Union of India. 

Where did the Oleum Gas Leak?

The Oleum gas leak occurred at Shriram Food and Fertiliser Industries, which was a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited (formerly Delhi Textile Mills). The incident took place in the densely populated area of Kirti Nagar, Delhi, and resulted in severe harm to the people in the vicinity. As a result, legal actions were taken, and the Oleum gas leak case became significant in shaping liability standards for enterprises engaged in hazardous activities and addressing environmental and public safety concerns.

Case Details

Case Name: M.C. Mehta v. Union of India 1987 A.I.R. 1086 (Oleum gas leak case)

Jurisdiction: Supreme Court of India

Decided on: February 17, 1986

The bench of judges: C.J.I. P. N. Bhagwati, G. L. Oza, D. P. Madon JJ

MC Mehta vs Union of India – Background

In the city of Kirti Nagar, Delhi, there was a privately owned fertilizer plant called Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd., which was situated in a densely populated area where around 200,000 people lived. Due to the plant’s chemical processes, it released hazardous substances (oleum gas), causing a public nuisance.

In response to the harmful emissions and to seek closure and relocation of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant, a public interest attorney named MC Mehta filed a writ petition to the Supreme Court on December 4 and 6, 1985, invoking Articles 21 and 32.

While the lawsuit was ongoing, there was an incident known as the Oleum Gas Leak case at one of the factory’s plants, resulting in severe harm to those who breathed in the gas. Tragically, the leak also claimed the life of one of the lawyers practising at the Tis Hazari Court.

The situation worsened when the factory collapsed two days after the leakage incident, and there was another minor incident of oleum gas leakage at the site.

Taking swift action under sub-section (1) of Section 133, the Delhi Magistrate ordered Shriram Food and Fertiliser to stop manufacturing lethal substances such as Chlorine, Super Chlorine, Oleum, Phosphate, and others.

Facts of the Oleum Gas Leak Case

In the writ petition under Article 32 for the oleum gas leak case, the petitioners requested the Supreme Court to issue a directive for the closure of various units of Shriram Foods & Fertilizers Industries, citing their hazardous nature and potential harm to the community. 

While the petition was being considered, an incident occurred where oleum gas escaped from one of Shriram’s units. In response to this incident, the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association filed applications seeking compensation for the individuals who had suffered harm due to the escape of oleum gas.


A panel of three Hon’ble Judges in the oleum gas leak case permitted Shriram to restart its power plant and other plants, subject to specific conditions. However, they referred the applications for compensation to a larger Bench of five Judges due to the involvement of significant constitutional issues. These issues include:

  • The scope and extent of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 32, as the applications for compensation were sought under that Article.
  • Whether Article 21 (Right to Life) applies to Shriram, owned by Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, a public company limited by shares, the company is engaged in an industry vital to the public interest. It has the potential to impact the life and health of people.
  • Determining the level of liability of an enterprise involved in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, where accidents may result in loss of life or injuries. The question is whether the rule established in Rylands v. Fletcher (1866 Law Report 1 Exchequer 265) applies or if there is another principle that should govern the determination of liability in such cases.

Judgement in Oleum Gas Leak Case

After considering the applications, the Court made the following rulings in the Oleum gas leak case:

Scope of Application of Article 21 to Private Corporation Like Shriram Foods & Fertilizers Industries

The question of whether a private corporation like Shriram falls within the scope and ambit of Article 12, making it amenable to the discipline of Article 21, is left for further detailed consideration at a later stage if necessary.

The Court referred to various previous cases, including Rajasthan Electricity Board v. Mohan Lal, Sukhdev v. Bhagwat Ram, Ramanna Shetty v. International Airport Authority, Ajay Hasia v. Khalid Mujib, and Som Prakash v. Union of India, among others, for relevant legal context and precedents.

Please note that the Court has not conclusively decided in the oleum gas leak case on whether Shriram is subject to the discipline of Article 21 (Right to Life) under Article 12. They have kept this question open for potential further examination if required in the future.

Compensation for Victims of Oleum Gas

The Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board is instructed to handle the cases of all individuals who claim to have suffered due to the oleum gas leak. The Board should file actions on their behalf in the appropriate Court to claim compensation. The Delhi Administration is also directed to provide the necessary funds to the Board for this purpose.

Public-Spirited Individuals and Social Action Groups as Plaintiffs

In cases where there is a violation of a fundamental or legal right of a person or a group of people who are unable to approach a court of law for justice due to poverty, disability, or social and economic disadvantages, any public-spirited individual or social action group can take action on their behalf. 

This can be done by filing regular writ petitions under Article 226 in the High Court or under Article 32 in the Supreme Court. Alternatively, even if a letter is addressed to an individual Judge of the Court, it should be entertained, provided it is on behalf of a person in custody, a woman, a child, or a class of deprived or disadvantaged persons.

The Court provided further instructions regarding letters addressed to individual Justices of the Court:

1. Letters addressed to individual Justices of the Court should not be rejected solely based on the absence of a preferred form of address.

2. The Court should not rigidly require letters to be supported by an affidavit for them to be entertained. Requiring an affidavit as a condition for entertaining letters would defeat the purpose of the epistolary jurisdiction. This jurisdiction aims to facilitate easy access to the Court for poor and disadvantaged individuals and social action groups. Requiring affidavits might make it difficult for such individuals and groups to approach the Court.

The Court cites previous cases, including Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors., S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, and Union for Democratic Rights & Ors. v. Union of India, as references for these instructions in MC Mehta versus Union of India.

Article 32: Powers and Obligations of the Court

The Court made the following observations in the oleum gas leak case regarding the powers and obligations under Article 32:

  • Article 32 not only empowers the Court to issue directions, orders, or writs for the enforcement of fundamental rights, but it also imposes a constitutional obligation on the Court to protect the fundamental rights of the people. To fulfil this obligation, the Court has the authority to develop new remedies and strategies to enforce fundamental rights, especially for the poor and disadvantaged, who are often denied their basic human rights.
  • The power of the Court is not limited to preventing the infringement of fundamental rights but also includes providing remedial relief against a breach of fundamental rights that has already occurred.
  • The Court can award compensation in appropriate cases as part of remedial relief. However, such infringement must be evident, gross, and affecting many people or should appear unjust or harsh for those financially or socially disadvantaged to pursue action in Civil Courts.
  • Ordinarily, a petition under Article 32 should not be used as a substitute for claiming compensation through the regular process of Civil Courts. Compensation may be awarded in exceptional cases under Article 32.
  • The applications for compensation in the present writ petition seek enforcement of the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. In dealing with such applications, the Court must avoid a hyper-technical approach defeating justice’s ends. The substance of the claim should be considered, not just the form.

The Court refers to various previous cases, including Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors., S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, Union for Democratic Rights & Ors. v. Union of India, and Rudul Shah v. State of Bihar, as references for these observations.

Modernizing Liability in Hazardous Industries

In the past, the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher laid down a principle of liability that held a person responsible if they brought something onto their land that could cause harm and if it escaped and caused damage to someone else. However, this rule applied only to non-natural land use and had exceptions, such as acts of God, actions by strangers, or consent of the injured party.

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher evolved in the 19th century when advancements in science and technology had not yet taken place. As a result, this rule cannot serve as a suitable guide in determining liability consistent with today’s constitutional norms and the requirements of the modern economy and society.

In today’s industrialized society with advanced scientific knowledge and technology, hazardous and inherently dangerous industries play a crucial role in development. Therefore, the Court in MC Mehta vs U.O.I. should not feel constrained by the old rule of strict liability and absolute liability when dealing with enterprises engaged in such activities.

The Dynamic Nature of Law and Expanding Human Rights Jurisprudence

The law needs to evolve to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society and keep pace with the economic developments in the country. It cannot remain static. The Court should not limit its thinking by referring only to the laws of England or any other foreign country. 

While it may draw insights from various sources, it must build its jurisprudence, create new principles, and establish norms that effectively address the new challenges arising in a highly industrialized economy. If necessary, the Court should construct new law principles to handle unique situations related to hazardous or inherently dangerous industries that are prevalent in an industrial economy.

Expanding the Scope of Article 12

Over the years, this Court has expanded the scope of Article 12 primarily to promote respect for human rights and social conscience within corporate structures. This expansion aims to advance human rights jurisprudence. Including private corporations within the ambit of Article 12, thus subjecting them to the discipline of Article 21 concerning the right to life and personal liberty does not seek to undermine the purpose of creating corporations or impede private entrepreneurial activity. The Court opined in the Oleum gas leak case.

Instead, it empowers the human rights movement by creatively interpreting the law and promoting bold innovation. Unfounded apprehensions expressed by those seeking to maintain the status quo should not hinder human rights progress in India.

Strict Liability and Compensation in Hazardous Industries

An enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of its workers and the surrounding community, has an absolute non-delegable duty towards the community. It must ensure that the hazardous activity is conducted with the highest safety standards. Suppose any harm occurs to anyone due to the activity. In that case, the enterprise must be obligated to compensate for it, even if it had taken all reasonable precautions and was not negligent.

When an enterprise is permitted to conduct a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for profit, the law should presume that this permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accidents arising from such activity as a necessary part of its overheads. The enterprise, the party with the resources and knowledge, is best suited to identify and guard against hazards and warn about potential dangers.

The measure of compensation in such cases should be linked to the size and capacity of the enterprise to have a deterrent effect. Larger and more prosperous enterprises should be liable to pay greater compensation for harm caused due to accidents during their hazardous activities.

Relevance of the American Doctrine of State Action in Indian Courts

The historical context in which the American doctrine of State action evolved in the United States is not directly relevant for Indian Courts, particularly considering Article 15(2) of the Indian Constitution. However, the underlying principle behind State aid, control, and regulation doctrine, which imbues a private activity with the colour of State action, can be partially adapted and harmoniously blended with Indian constitutional jurisprudence.

The American exposition of constitutional law does not bind Indian Courts. The provisions of the American Constitution may not always be directly applicable to Indian conditions or the provisions of the Indian Constitution. While some principles from American decisions may offer useful guidance, strict adherence to those principles while applying them to the Indian Constitution should not be favoured, as the social conditions in India differ from those in the United States.

Cases like Ramanna Shetty v. International Airport Authority, Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., Air India v. Nargesh Mirza, and General Electric Co. Maratha v. Gilbert provide relevant insights and serve as a guide for Indian Courts while adapting and incorporating the principles of State action in the Indian context.

Oleum Gas Leakage Case Summary

The Oleum Gas Leakage case involved a privately-owned fertilizer plant, Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd., in the densely populated Kirti Nagar, Delhi area. The plant emitted hazardous substances, posing a public nuisance and a potential threat to the health of around 200,000 people residing nearby.

A public interest attorney, MC Mehta, filed a writ petition under Articles 21 and 32 of the Indian Constitution, seeking the closure and relocation of the factory’s Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant. During the legal proceedings, an incident of Oleum Gas Leak occurred at one of the factory’s plants, causing severe harm to those who inhaled the gas and tragically resulting in the death of a lawyer practising at the Tis Hazari Court.

The Delhi Magistrate took immediate action and ordered the shutdown of manufacturing lethal substances, including Chlorine, Super Chlorine, Oleum, Phosphate, etc., in accordance with Section 133 of the law. Additionally, applications were filed for compensation for those who suffered harm due to the gas leak in this oleum gas leak case.

The case raised crucial legal questions in the Oleum gas leak case, such as the scope of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under Article 32 and whether Article 21 applies to private corporations engaged in industries vital to the public interest. Furthermore, the Court discussed the measure of liability for enterprises involved in hazardous activities and the need to modernize liability standards to align with present-day needs and challenges. Ultimately, the Oleum gas leak case exemplified the importance of balancing industrial development with public safety and environmental concerns.

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