Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India
Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India, 1996 AIR 1446, is one of the landmark cases of environment law. This case analysis is done by, Anshumi Maloo, a student of Karnavati University, Gandhinagar.
- This was a writ petition filed against a group of chemical factories (Respondents), owned and run by the same group of individuals and situated in the same geographical area, by an environmentalist organization named the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action (Petitioner). This community was based in Bicchri, a small village located in Rajasthan, India, in the Udaipur District.
- The first major industrial establishment, Hindustan Zinc Limited- a public sector, was established north of this village. The real problem began in 1987 when a chemical factory, Hindustan Argo Chemicals Limited, began producing chemicals such as Oleum (a concentrated form of sulphuric acid) and Single Super Phosphates.
- And the real calamity took place when a sister concern of it, Silver Chemicals, began the production of ‘H’ acid in their plant exclusively for export purposes. The manufacture of ‘H’ acid gave rise to enormous quantities of highly toxic effluents, especially iron-based and gypsum-based sludge, which posed serious threats and consequences to the Earth if not correctly handled. By-products were poisonous.
- These all produced the development of toxic effluents in that particular area which is not properly handled by the industries. Whether it is water, whether it is air or everything that comes into contact with these industries has been polluted.
- According to a survey, during the processing of approximately 375 tonnes of ‘H’ acid, about 2500 tonnes of highly toxic sludge was released. The sludge was not adequately disposed of by these facilities and was actually thrown out in the open in the field areas instead.
- This has had seriously detrimental consequences. These harmful substances started to drain deep into the earth over a period of time, causing the aquifers and subterranean supply of water to become contaminated. In the village area, the water in the wells and streams began to turn dark in color and was badly affected, rendering it unfit for any use.
- The soil had also been degraded, making it unfit for cultivation, which was a huge blow for the villagers for most of them relied on agriculture for their livelihoods. Among the villagers, the chemicals caused death and sickness.
- Such catastrophic results raised an echo in the Parliament and the Minister promised that action would be taken but nothing successful was done on the spot. The villagers then revolted, leading to the imposition by the District Magistrate of the region of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code and the shutdown of Silver Chemicals in January 1989.
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Issues Raised in Indian Council For Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India
- If such activity causes damage to the lives, health, and livelihoods of individuals who might be subject to risk due to such activity, what should be the amount of obligation of companies engaged in a dangerous industrial activity?
- Will the respondents be responsible for paying the original amount of compensation or a new amount of interest because they have deferred compliance with the judgment?
The court applied the ‘Polluter Pays’ concept for the first time. This concept requires that “the financial costs of preventing or remedying the damage caused by pollution should be incurred by undertakings that cause or produce pollution-causing goods.”
In other words, it means that the responsibility for undoing the damage caused by environmental destruction as a result of one’s actions must be borne by that person, and not by the government or taxpayers themselves. In this way, this theory imposes total liability.
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- The Supreme Court relied on the judgment given in M. C. Mehta v. Union of India. This case is responsible for the inclusion and evolution in India of the law of absolute responsibility. This rule states that “if any person is engaged in any inherently dangerous or dangerous activity and if any harm is caused to any person during the performance of such dangerous activity, the person performing such activity will be absolutely liable and will not be able to plead for defense.” The Supreme Court has held that this law extends to the present case.
- Intentionally, the respondent sectors have failed to comply with the orders of the court. As no successful corrective steps have been taken so far, a large number of residents have already been seriously affected. In their policy to fail to comply with the court’s ruling, the respondent industries have succeeded by keeping the case going on for more than fifteen years by making interlocutory requests that were utter without any substance and were thus consequently dismissed with costs.
- The court ruled that the amount of compensation for losses and remedial steps will be determined by the central government. In the event of non-compliance on the part of the respondents, the court noted that, in accordance with the law under which the court directed the factories, plants, machinery, and all other immovable assets owned by the respondents to be attached, the central government could recover the amount.
- The respondent industries were ordered to pay Rs. 37,385,000 INR along with a compound interest of 12 percent annually after 11 April 1997 before the amount had been fully charged or compensated. It also instructed the claimant sector to cover the litigation costs. In addition to this, the court also ordered the claimant sector to pay Rs. 10 lakhs to be used in Bicchri and other nearby areas of Udaipur District to carry out remedial steps.
- The Polluter Pay Principle implemented by the court is very beneficial in reducing the danger and harm to mother earth. There was an uncertainty in the decision that possessed a simple identification of the real polluter.
- The quantum of payment is determined, the law of total responsibility and the Polluter Pays principle enforced, interest is levied on the pay-out amount to ensure that the damage done is paid for and that it is proportionate to the destruction caused so that the accused does not end up taking the benefit of his own wrongs.
- As for the non-compliance of the Respondents with the court order and the evasion of responsibility, it should have been dealt with more harshly and well before the pendency of the case crossed 15 years because the damage caused to the villagers was too great in magnitude and in need of urgent intervention not to have been compensated for 15 entire years.
- In conclusion, while it is clear that all aspects of the case have been resolved and directives have been given to redress the injustices and abuses caused, we can still not claim that justice has been done to the poor villagers who in this case seem to be the only party genuinely at loss.
 1996 AIR 1446, 1996 SCC (3) 212
 [Oleum Gas Leak Case] (1987 (1) SCC 395)