Environmental Law and Policy: environmental activism


The Shriram Gas leak case was a very significant case in the field of environmental activism, as it pitted the Supreme Court, the representative of the people, against one of the biggest and most wealthy industrial establishments of India, Shri Ram Food and Fertilizers. Coming just one year after the Bhopal Disaster, the largest industrial disaster of all times, it also sought to address and rectify the miscarriage of justice of that time and reinstate faith in the judiciary. The Shriram gas leak case was also unique of its kind as it was the first time when an industry was solely held responsible for an accident and forced to pay compensation regardless of what arguments it made in its defence. It is also worthy of noting that the findings for the verdict was made not only on a legal basis but also a scientific one and doing so the Supreme Court preformed an extra judiciary role. The verdict was also decided, taking into account the need for industrialisation and the fact that accidents are an unavoidable consequence of it. Overall it was a fair decision, taking into account all the social, economical and legal factors and established the Supreme Court as the protector of the environment and the rights of the public.


Shriram Food and Fertilizers, a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mill Limited was a privately owned company manufacturing caustic chlorine and oleum. “All units were set up in a single complex situated in approximately 76 acres and they are surrounded by thickly populated colonies such as Punjabi Bagh, West Patel Nagar, Karampura, Ashok Vihar, Tri Nagar and Shastri Nagar and within a radius of 3 kilometres from this complex there is population of approximately 2, 00,000." [1] This by nature of the chemical processes involved was a polluting industry and was creating a nuisance for the surrounding community of people. To address this issue a public interest litigation (No. 12,739, 1985) was filed by environmentalist and lawyer, M.C. Mehta, requesting the Supreme Court for the immediate closure and relocation of the industrial complex.

On the 4th of December 1985, one month after the petition was filed and a day after the first anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the worst industrial mishap in the history of mankind, Oleum had leaked from the complex into the surrounding community resulting in one fatality and many injuries.

Since the tragedy at Bhopal was fresh in the Public’s mind, there was a very strong outcry over this incident and resulted in drastic steps by the administration. The Inspector of Factories and the Assistant Commissioner of Factories issued orders to shut down the plant on the 7th and 24th of December respectively under the Factories Act (1948). Shriram responded by filing writ petitions of itself (No. 26 of 1986) to nullify the two orders and interim opening of its caustic chlorine plant manufacturing; glycerine, soap, hard oil, etc.

On behalf of the gas leak victims the Delhi Legal aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association filed for compensation along with the original petition of M.C. Mehta.

Judicial Proceedings

I. Charges against Shriram Food and Fertilizers and objections:-

The articles of the Indian Constitution under which the petitioners moved the Supreme Court were Article 21, Article 32 and an extension of Article 12. These articles cover the domain of fundamental rights and hence their definition and enforcement becomes subject to different opinions. This caused the debate on whether the Supreme Court even had jurisdiction to hear these case. But the Supreme Court, moved by the plight of the people, went above and beyond its jurisdiction to set up a president and safeguard the rights of the weaker sections of society.

The first objection put by Shriram’s legal team was on the scope of Article 32, that there was no demand for compensation in the first petition by M.C. Mehta, neither was it added by amendment to it after the accident. They also stated that both Delhi Legal aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association were not even the belligerents in the first petition. It seemed that they were unhappy with the Supreme Court championing this case against them. In reply the Supreme Court cited the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha Vs. The Union of India where it stated that the Supreme Court is not merely an institution for constitutional remedy but also confers a responsibility to safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens, especially those citizens who are from weaker sections of society and cannot themselves get justice. The Supreme Court also stated that Shriram Food and Fertilizers was being hyper-technical and hence its appeals on this ground were denied.

The second objection was that on the use of Article 21 (on whose violation the petitions were filed). Shriram Food and Fertilizer was a privately owned enterprise. It did not fall under Article 12 (being party to the state or state machinery) and hence if it had violated any fundamental right of a citizen it could not be taken to court under Article 21. Chief Justice Bhagwati, presiding over the case replied by saying that the hearing for the case concluded on the 15th December 1986, and the verdict was being delivered on the 19th December 1986, just after 4 days due to the lack of time and considering the urgency it was not going to go into the details of definition of state and non-state institutions under Article 12, but since Shriram Food and Fertilizers was involved in the manufacture of commodities essential to the public life, and supplemented the state industries in doing so, it enjoyed all the benefits and liabilities which comes under Article 12, Chief Justice Bhagwati called Shriram Food and Fertilizers as a “Public Character". The Supreme Court also explicatively said that any industry, be it private or public, which engages in the production of goods essential to the public (infrastructure) sector was liable under Article 21. It also stated that Shriram had been recipients of large government grants for their manufacture and hence bore the same responsibility as well.

II. Application of concept of absolute liability:-

Considering that Shriram Food and Fertilizers was in the business of manufacture and handling to hazardous substances, injurious to public health the onus of prevention and caution should have been entirely upon them .The court decided apt to use the concept absolute liability against Shriram Food and Fertilizers. Citing the case of Rylands Vs. Fletcher 1868 “a person whom for his own purpose brings onto his land, collects or keeps anything likely to do mischief must keep at his peril and if he fails to do so is prima facie liable for the damages which is the natural consequences for its escape." [2] It held Shriram responsible for all the damages and liable for paying compensation for its reversal. The only exception for this case was that of a natural calamity or an act of a third party. The court determined that the" leakage was caused by a series of mechanical and human errors. This leakage resulted from the bursting of the tank containing oleum gas as a result of the collapse of the structure on which it was mounted" [3] and not by an act of sabotage by a third party and hence the concept of absolute liability was applicable.

III. Setting up of an Inquiry Commission.

Responding to the petition filed by Shriram Food and Fertilizers requesting the opening of the undamaged caustic chlorine plant, the Supreme Court appointed two committees of experts; the Manmohan Singh Committee and the Nilay Choudhary Committee. The committees were formed by the court to obtain a scientific and objective overview on the situation. These committees were to advice the court in a matter of their own expertise to help the court make a better judgement based on scientific principles. The committees were issued with essentially three mandates.

Whether the caustic chlorine plant can be opened as it is without any modifications.

The possible measures which can be taken to prevent any excessive pollution or accidents in the future.

The safety devices which are installed in the complex and the devices that exist on the market which can be installed to prevent such a tragedy.

IV. Findings of the Committees.

The committees set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the possibility of safely opening and operating the Shriram Caustic chlorine plant made several startling findings which reflected the profit over safety norms of that time.

Old and worn out machinery, which were corroded by chemicals and an accident waiting to happen.

Indifference of the management towards safety, worker awareness and accident training.

Lack of safety equipment eg. Fire extinguishers, rubber gloves, masks, etc.

V. Recommendations of the Committees:-

Both the Manmohan Singh and Nilay committees on inspection of the plant made many suggestions to the management. They strictly stated that if at any time they were violated then the permission for the plant to operate could be revoked.

Shriram was asked to deposit a sum of Rs. 30,000 to meet the travel, boarding and other expenses of the committees.

One operator must be specifically designated responsible for each safety device.

The chief inspector was directed to inspect the factory at least once a week.

The Central Pollution Control Board was asked to depute an inspector to inspect the plant once a week to ensure that it was in compliance with the effluent and emission limits of the Air and Water Act.

The management of Shriram was made to take an undertaking from the chairman and managing director of the Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. (the owners of Shriram) that in case of any future leak or accident resulting in death or damages, the management will be personally responsible for the compensation and must do so within one week of the accident.

A worker’s safety committee must be constituted.

Educational posters on the post-exposure treatment of chlorine must be placed on the gate and inside the premises of the plant.

Training and making aware of all the labourers of the plant via audio visual programmes.

Installation of loudspeakers to alert the neighbouring communities on the event of a chlorine gas leak.

Shriram was made to ensure that the workers made use of safety equipment and provide regular health check-ups.

Shriram was made to deposit a sum or 20lac with the court registrar to settle any claims made by aggrieved party in the leak, and the remaining sum was to be put under interest in a nationalised bank and should there be any further accident in a period of three years, to be invested by the court registrar as compensation.

Considerations in favour of Shriram Food and Fertilizers

The Supreme Court’s decision was not entirely one sided which is reflected in its decision to not entirely shut down the operations of Shriram but force upon it monetary penalties and better safety standards. Many factors influenced the Supreme Court’s decision of not being entirely against Shriram.

Shriram’s caustic chlorine plant employed around 4000 people, and its closure would immediately render them unemployed and unable to support themselves and their families. Considering that most of these people were unskilled labourers and already residing in poverty the Supreme Court decided not to take away their livelihood.

Shriram was in the business of producing daily commodities necessary to the daily life of the public and hence its closure would produce a shortage.

Perhaps the most important factor was that it produced chlorine for the chlorination and purification of water for the Delhi Jal Board. And also the unavailability of another source of chlorine within Delhi and NCR.

Judgement of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court delivered its judgement on the 19th of December 1986 and on the basis of absolute liability and deemed Shriram responsible for the accident and resultant compensation of the victims. The court also instructed Shriram to comply with all the recommendations of the Nilay Choudhary and Manmohan Singh Committees and issued a strict notice that failure to do so will result in the immediate closure of the plant. The court also instructed the victims of the Oleum gas leak to file their complain for compensation in the Tis Hazari lower court of Delhi.

Reaction of Shriram Food and Fertilizers to the verdict

The administration of Shriram Food and Fertilizers accepted all the findings and recommendations of the committees. With regard to the compensation, they did argue that it was unsatisfactory that the court should decide the compensation amount and the people deserving compensation without any consultation from the party made liable (itself). It also claimed that many of the claimants were bogus and not really affected by the accident. Overall they accepted all the judgements and paid compensation because they knew that questioning the verdict of filing further appeals were not possible due the use of absolute liability in their case.

Present Progress

Although Shriram Food and Fertilizers considered many of the claimants to be bogus, they settled with all the claimants on compensation rather than rick violating the verdict that they had agreed to and be forced to cease production. In time they shifted some of their units to Patiala, Punjab and remaining units were directed by the Supreme Court to move out of Delhi and NCR. The Supreme Court admits that oleum is still present in those areas and many cases of still birth have been attributed to oleum poisoning, and the option of reopening the case for fresh claims of compensation is still open.

Scope (Significance) of the Judgement

The scope of the judgement was very significant in the history of enviro-legal cases. It set the Indian Supreme Court to be the protector of the environment and under Article 21, not only a fundamental right of life, but of quality, pollution free and a safe life. There were many significant points of this case worth noticing.

This case pitted the Supreme Court defending the rights of one of the weakest section of society against one of the most wealthy and powerful industrial establishments of India.

The Supreme Court, genuinely concerned regarding the welfare of the people, took a proactive role in deposing of this case and preformed both judicial, executive and legislative functions.

Due to the failure of the statutory body, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) the court itself appointed committees and gave Shriram directions on up gradation of safety standards.

The court also preformed the function of an extra parliamentary body by insisting that the concept of absolute liability be used and thus set a precedent for future cases to come.

Perhaps the most important function of the court was to address the concerns of the Bhopal Gas Leak case which was still very much fresh in the mind of the public. The needed to deliver a strict verdict to ensure to the public that the factory owner will be held liable and such an incidence will not occur again, jeopardizing the public life.

My personal opinions on the case

In my opinion the verdict on the Shriram Gas Leak case by the Supreme Court was fair, balanced and adequate for many reasons. I had previously thought before reading this case that this accident draws many parallels to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which was a complete miscarriage of justice. Therefore only making them pay a compensation and not imprisoning an executive or shutting down the whole plant was being too light on Shriram. As I read on and analysed how objectively, and scientifically the Supreme Court decided the case my opinion changed and I now think that the verdict reached by the Supreme Court is apt and fitting.

There must be a balance between industrialisation and quality of human life. The fact of the matter is that Shriram was doing more good than it did harm, it provided employment for at least 4000 people and their families who otherwise would have been destitute. The factory was also in the business of manufacturing daily commodities for the public and also purification of water. So the decision had to be in such a way as to obtain justice for the victims and not impede industrial growth or frighten future industrialists. Once the accident did occur the victims were in more need of immediate compensation to alleviate their pain than to imprison members of the management.

The Supreme Court by using the precedent of absolute liability greatly crippled Shriram’s chances of making counter arguments and not accept the blame for the accident. And via constituting an expert committee to recommend changes it handled the case very scientifically. This case set an example for all the other industries to adopt more stringent standards of safety and established the supreme court of India as the de facto defender of the environment and the fundamental rights of the people.


M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, Suraj Bhaduri, http://www.legalserviceindia.com/article/l265-M.C.-Mehta-v.-Union-of-India.html, viewed on 14-10-10

Public Interest Litigations, http://cpcbenvis.nic.in/newsletter/legislation/ch18dec02a.htm, viewed on 14-10-10

Article 32 in The Constitution Of India 1949, http://www.indiankanoon.org/doc/981147/

Environmental Law and Policy in India, Second Edition, Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Regulation of Hazardous Substances, The Shriram Gas Leak Case