Oleum Gas Leak case (M.C Mehta vs. Union of India)

Oleum Gas Leak case- M.C Mehta vs. Union of India


This is the work of Anamta Khan, a student of National Law University, Delhi. This is one of the landmark cases in Indian history (known as the Oleum Gas Leak case) which demonstrates the interplay of fundamental rights of individual and liability principle. M.C. Mehta v. Association of India[1] case came in aftermath of oleum gas leak from Shriram Food and Fertilizers Ltd. complex at Delhi.

This oleum gas leak happened not long after the notorious Bhopal gas tragedy and made a great deal of frenzy in the capital. One individual passed on in the episode and a few were hospitalized. This incident was reminiscent of the Bhopal gas disaster. The case sets out the principle of absolute liability and the concept of deep pockets.

Facts of Oleum Gas Leak case

M.C Mehta, a lawyer filed a writ petition under articles 32 of the constitution demanding the closure of the above Shriram industries as they were involved in manufacturing extremely hazardous substances and situated in thickly populated areas. The petition demanded the reallocation of the industry and sulphuric acid plant to a place where no danger to public health exists.

While the petition was pending, another gas spill occurred in the area due to a minor hole in the oleum gas container. Many people sue the company and claimed compensation for the damage suffered. Subsequently, Delhi Magistrate issued an order to cease the operation of manufacturing hazardous chemicals and gases such as sulphuric gas, chlorine, oleum, etc., and remove such chemicals and gases from the place within a week.

Petitioners demanded complete closure of the factory and compensation for the aggrieved while the respondents argued that the case should not proceed with this application of compensation issues.

Respondents contended that the spill of oleum gas occurred after the filing of the writ petition and applicants ought to have applied for the revision in the writ petition and incorporated the remuneration part inside it too yet no such correction was made and subsequently these different issues of compensation and constitutional importance should not be considered.

Supreme Court observed that the case involved a substantial question of law regarding the interpretation of articles 21 and 32 of the constitution and referred the case to a larger bench.

visit- Liability of a Company: Tortious, Civil, Vicarious and Criminal

Issues raised in Oleum Gas Leak case

  1. What is the scope of article 32 of the constitution?
  2. Whether the rule of absolute liability laid down in Rylands v Fletcher laid would be followed?
  3. How the quantum of compensation is to be ascertained in the above case?
  4. Whether these factories should be allowed to operate in these areas?
  5. Whether this factory could be considered within the ambit of the state under article 12 of the constitution?

Scope Of Article 32 Of The Constitution- 

The court noted that besides issuing directions, it can under Article 32 lay down novel remedies and new procedures intended to protect and enforce fundamental rights. The court referred to Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Association of India[2] and observed that the scope of Article 32 isn’t restricted to preventive measures when fundamental rights threatened to be abused yet it additionally stretches out to remedial measures when the rights are violated. The court held that it can allow remedial measures in suitable situations where infringement of essential rights is gross and patent and affects the individual on a large scale.

visit- THE PARIS AGREEMENT- Focus on Climate change

Rule of absolute liability laid down in Rylands v Fletcher-

Concerning liability of the factory occupied with unsafe or inherently dangerous activity in case of any mishap, the court analyzed whether the doctrine laid down in Rylands v.Fletcher[3] would be appropriate in such cases.

This principle laid down is that if an individual brings on to his property and gathers and keeps there anything prone to harm and such thing escapes and harms another he is obligated to make up for the harm caused. The risk is hence severe and it is no that the thing got away without the individual’s willful act, default, or neglect.

The principle has no application in cases the things naturally present on the land or where the escape is because of an act of god, default of the third party, or the default of the individual harmed or where there is a statutory authority.

The apex court observed that this rule with all of its exceptions laid down wouldn’t be applicable in the above case. It ruled “This rule evolved in the 19th century at a time when all these developments of science and technology have not taken place. We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in the highly industrialized economy[4]

The court propounded a novel principle to deal with the above type of cases – The rule of absolute liability. As per this rule if an industry is engaged with extremely and inherently dangerous activity which poses a threat to the wellbeing and security of the people working and living close, owes an absolute and non-delegable obligation to the local area to guarantee that no mischief results to anybody.

Such industry should conduct its operations with the best possible precaution and if any mischief results, the industry is absolutely liable to make up for such damage. It ought to be no defense to industry to say that it has taken all sensible consideration and that mischief happened without carelessness on its part.

The exception listed in the liability principle of Rylands v Flecther has no application in the case of absolute liability. The industry is absolutely liable for causing such damage as a piece of the social expense of carrying on the risky operations. This standard is additionally feasible on the ground that the factory or the industry engaging in such activities alone has the asset to find and make preparations for perils or risks and to give notice against expected dangers.

The issue pertaining to compensation- 

It was held that the proportion of remuneration should have corresponded to the size and capacity of the business so the compensation could have a deterrent effect. The bigger and more prosperous is the industry or factory indulges in hazardous activity, the greater is the amount of remuneration payable in case of liability.

The court didn’t order the payment of remuneration to casualties since it left open the inquiry due to paucity of time to settle whether Shriram, a private partnership was a state or authority which could come under the ambit of Article 21.


The issue that whether the Shriram industry was ‘state’ under article 12- 

The answer to the question that whether the industry states under the article or not will decide how much it could be subjected to the provisions of article 21. This was one of the vital inquiries which were before the court while the discussion was going over this situation-The petitioner argued that however Shriram enterprises don’t straightforwardly work under the shadow of state and at first sight appears to be a private organization because under government self-announced policy it works autonomously.

But it was contended that the method of working of the industry is dictated by the state and its activities impact the public and environment subsequently it goes under the meaning of State under Article 21. However, then again it was contended that such guidelines laid down as rules act just as police control over the enterprises and don’t remove the autonomy of the industry.

Such guidelines ought not to change over a private organization into a public one. Finally, the court held that the Shriram industry was just working under the shadow of the public authority and didn’t come under the ambit of ‘state’ under article 12. Court thought that expanding the ambit of Article 12 this way would create a rider for new corporations and private companies and they are necessary for the advancement of the country.

In any case, the court additionally held that this issue is very more thorough than it appears and there is a requirement for significantly more deliberation and discussion over it. Subsequently, the court didn’t deliver any avowed judgment in this case concerning this aspect.

also read- M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and Ors.


Key takeaways from the Judgement of Oleum Gas Leak case

Ratio Decidendi of the case is that right to life under article 21 means right to a dignified life and breathe in a clean and healthy environment. If an individual engages in an inherently dangerous activity or keeps a dangerous substance on his land, and if that substance escapes and harms the public at large, then despite him taking all possible precautions he would be held absolutely liable.

Critical analysis

This Judgment is considered one of the significant decisions in the field of environmental law in our country. The judgment took up different new circumstances and varied interpretations of Fundamental Rights. The rule laid down, in this oleum gas leak case, is still being utilized by the court. Thus this case filled in as a milestone ruling throughout the entire existence of the Indian Judiciary.

The Oleum Gas Leak case showcased the reality of ecological issues. The debacles like this and Bhopal gas misfortune had acted perilously for the climate. In the current scenario of a mechanical turn of events and businesses, the danger to the climate is inescapable. As much as this development is fundamental for the advancement of the general public, there is a critical need to center consideration towards growing environmental concerns.

The asset of the environment is provided to everyone on this planet and it is the right of every individual to enjoy a healthy environment and everyone additionally should work for it and contributes towards its improvement.

Also read- Joint Liability in Criminal Law- Joint Criminal Liability


[1] M.C. Mehta v. Association of India1987 SCR (1) 819, AIR 1987 965 the Oleum Gas Leak case

[2] 1984 AIR 802, 1984 SCR (2) 67

[3] UKHL 1, (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[4]1987 SCR (1) 819, AIR 1987 965 id

[5] Oleum Gas Leak case

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