M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, WP 12739/1985 (1986.12.20) (Oleum Gas Leak Case)

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India

Air 1987 Sc 1086

Bhagwati, C.J.:— This writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution has come before us on a reference made by a Bench of three Judges. The reference was made because certain questions of seminal importance and hight [sic] constitutional significance were raised in the course of arguments when the writ petition was originally heard. The facts giving rise to the writ petition and the subsequent events have been set out in some detail in the Judgment given by the Bench of three Judges on 17th February 1986 (reported in AIR 1987 SC 965), and it is therefore not necessary to reiterate the same. Suffice it to state that the Bench of three Judges permitted Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries (hereinafter referred to as Shriram) to restart its power plant as also plants for manufacture of caustic soda and chlorine including its byproducts and recovery plants like soap, glycerine and technical hard oil, subject to the conditions set out in the Judgment. That would have ordinarily put an end to the main controversy raised in the writ petition which was filed in order to obtain a direction for closure of the various units of Shriram on the ground that were hazardous to the community and the only point in dispute which would have survived would have been whether the units of Shriram should be directed to be removed from the place where they are presently situate and relocated in another place where there would not be much human habitation so that there would not be any real danger to the health and safety of the people. But while the writ petition was pending there was escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram on 4th and 6th December 1985 and applications were filed by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association for award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of escape of oleum gas. These applications for compensation raised a number of issues of great constitutional importance and the Bench of three Judges therefore formulated these issues and asked the petitioner and those supporting him as also Shriram to file their respective written submissions so that the Court could take up the hearing of these applications for compensation. When these applications for compensation came up for hearing it was felt that since the issue raised involved substantial questions of law relating to the interpretation of Arts. 21 and 32 of the Constitution, the case should be referred to a larger Bench of five Judges and this is how the case has now come before us.

2. Mr. Diwan, learned counsel appearing on behalf of Shriram raised a preliminary objection that the Court should not proceed to decide these constitutional issues since there was no claim for compensation originally made in the writ petition and these issues could not be said to arise on the writ petition. Mr. Diwan conceded that the escape of oleum gas took place subsequent to the filing of the writ petition but his argument was that the petitioner could have applied for amendment of the writ petition so as to include a claim for compensation for the victims of oleum gas but no such application for amendment was made and hence on the writ petition as it stood, these constitutional issues did not arise for consideration. We do not think this preliminary objection raised by Mr. Diwan is sustainable. It is undoubtedly true that the petitioner could have applied for amendment of the writ petition so as to include a claim for compensation but merely because he did not do so, the applications for compensation made by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advise Board and the Delhi Bar Association cannot be thrown out. These applications for compensation are for enforcement of the fundamental right to life enshrined to Art. 21 of the Constitution and while dealing with such applications, we cannot adopt a hypertechnical approach which would defeat the ends of justice. This Court has on numerous occasions pointed out that where there is a violation of a fundamental or other legal right of a person or class of persons who by reason of poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantageous position cannot approach a Court of Law for justice, it would be open to any public spirited individual or social action group to bring an action for vindication of the fundamental or other legal right of such individual or class of individuals and this can be done not only by filing a regular writ petition but also by addressing a letter to the Court. If this court is prepared to accept a letter complaining of violation of the fundamental right of an individual or class of individuals who cannot approach the Court for justice, there is no reason why these applications for compensation which have been made for enforcement of the fundamental right of the persons affected by the oleum gas leak under Art. 21 should not be entertained. The Court while dealing with an application for enforcement of a fundamental right must look at the substance and not the form. We cannot therefore sustain the preliminary objection raised by Mr. Diwan.

3. The first question which requires to be considered is as to what is the scope and ambit of the jurisdiction of this Court under Art. 32 since the application for compensation made by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advise Board and the Delhi Bar Association are applications sought to be maintained under that Article. We have already had occasion to consider the ambit and coverage of Art. 32 in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, (1984) 2 SCR 67: (AIR 1984 Sc 802) and we wholly endorse what has been stated by one of us namely, Bhagwati, J, as he then was in his judgment in that case in regard to the true scope and ambit of that Article. It may now be taken as well settle that art. 32 does not merely confer power on this Court to issue a direction, order or writ for enforcement of the fundamental rights of the people and for that purpose this Court has all incidental and ancillary power including the power to forge new remedies and fashion new strategies designed to enforce the fundamental rights. It is in realisation of this constitutional obligation that this Court has in the past innovated new methods and strategies for the purpose of securing enforcement of the fundamental rights, particularly in the case of the poor and the disadvantaged who are denied their basic human rights and to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.

4. Thus it was in S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, 1981 Supp. SCC 87 : (SIR 19832 SC 149) that this Court held that where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reasons of violation of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened, and any such person or determinate class of persons is by reason of poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the Court for relief, any member of the public or social action group can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Art. 226 and in case of breach of any fundamental right of such person or class of person, in this Court under Art. 32 seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons. This Court also held in S.P. Gupta`s case (supra) as also in the People`s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, (1983 1 SC 1473) and in Bandhua Mukyi Morcha`s case (supra) that procedure being merely a hand- maiden of justice it should not stand in the way of access to justice to the weaker sections of Indian humanity and therefore where the poor and the disadvantaged are concerned who are barely eking out a miserable existence with their sweat and toil and who are victims of an exploited society without any access to justice, this Court will not insist on a regular writ petition and even a letter addressed by a public spirited individual or a social action group acting pro bono publico would suffice to ignite the jurisdiction of this Court. We wholly endorse this statement of the law in regard to the broadening of locus standi and what has come to be known as epistolary jurisdiction.

5. We may point out at this stage that in Bandhua Mukti Morcha`s case, (AIR 1984 SC 802) (supra) some of us apprehending that letters addressed to the individual justices may involve the Court in frivolous cases and that possibly view could be taken that such letters do not invoke the jurisdiction of the Court as a whole observed that such letters should not be addressed to individual justices of the Court but to the Court or to the Chief Justice and his companion judges. We do not think it would be right to reject a letter addressed to an individual justice of the Court merely on the ground that it is not addressed to the Court or to the Chief Justice and his companion Judges. We must not forget that letters would ordinarily be addressed by poor and disadvantaged persons or by social action groups who may not know the proper form of address. They may know only a particular Judge who comes from their State and they may therefore address the letters to him. If the Court were to insist that the letters must be addressed to the Court or to the Chief Justice and his companion Judges, it would exclude from the Judicial ken a large number of letters and in the result, deny access to justice to the deprived and vulnerable sections of the community. We are therefore of the view that even a letter is addressed to an individual Judge of the Court, it should be entertained, provided of course it is by or on behalf of a person in custody or on behalf of a woman or a child or a class of deprived or disadvantaged persons. We may point out that now there is no difficulty in entertaining letters addressed to individual justice of the Court, because this Court has a Public Interest Litigation Cell to which all letters addressed to the Court or to the individual justices are forwarded and the staff attached to this Cell examines the letters and it is only after scrutiny by the staff members attached to this Cell that the letters are placed before the Chief Justice and under his direction, they are listed before the Court. We must therefore hold that letters addressed to individual justice of the Court should not be rejected merely because they fail to conform to the preferred form of address. Nor should the Court adopt a rigid stance that no letters will be entertained unless they are supported by an affidavit. If the Court were to insist on an affidavit as a condition of entertaining the letters the entire object and purpose of epistolary jurisdiction would be frustrated because most of the poor and disadvantaged persons will then not be able to have easy access to the Court and even the social action groups will find it difficult to approach the Court. We may point out that the Court has so far been entertaining letters without an affidavit and it is only in a few rare cases that it has been found that the allegations made in the letters were false. But that might happen also in cases where the jurisdiction of the Court is invoked in a regular way.

6. So far as the power of the Court under Art. 32 to gather relevant material bearing on the issues arising in this kind of litigation, which we may for the sake of convenience call social action litigation, and to appoint Commissions for this purpose is concerned, we endorse what one of us namely, Bhagwati, J., as he then was, has said in his judgment in Bandhua Mukti Morcha`s case (supra). We need not repeat what has been stated in that judgment. It is our full approval.

7. We are also of the view that this Court under Art. 32 (1) is free to devise any procedure appropriate for the particular purpose of the proceeding, namely, enforcement of a fundamental right and under Art. 32 (1) the Court has the implicit power to issue whatever direction, order or writ is necessary in a given case, including all incidental or ancillary power necessary to secure enforcement of the fundamental right. The power of the Court is not only injuctive in ambit, that is, preventing the infringement of a fundamental right, but it is also remedial in scope and provides relief against a breach of the fundamental right already committed vide Bandhua Mukti Morcha`s case, (AIR 1984 SC 802) (supra). If the Court were powerless to issue any direction, order or writ in cases where a fundamental right has already been violated, Art. 32 would be robbed of all its efficacy, because then the situation would be that if a fundamental right is threatened to be violated, the Court can injunct such violation but if the violator is quick enough to take action infringing the fundamental right, he would escape from the net of Art. 32. That would, to a large extent, emasculate the fundamental right guaranteed under Art. 32 and render it impotent and futile. We must therefore, hold that Art. 32 is not powerless to assist a person when he finds that his fundamental right has been violated. He can in that event seek remedial assistance under Article 32. The power of the court to grant such remedial relief may include the power to award compensation in appropriate cases. We are deliberately using the words "in appropriate cases" because we must make it clear that it is not in every case where there is a breach of a fundamental right committed by the violator that compensation would be awarded by the Court in a petition under Art. 32. The infringement of the fundamental right must be gross and patent, that is, incontrovertible and ex facie glaring and either such infringement should be on a large scale affecting the fundamental rights of a large number of persons or it should appear unjust or unduly harsh or oppressive on account of their poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position to require the persons or persons affected by such infringement to initiate and pursue action in the civil Courts. Ordinarily, of course, a petition under Art. 32 should not be used as a substitute for enforcement of the right to claim compensation for infringement of a fundamental right through the ordinary process of civil Court. It is only in exceptional cases of the nature indicated by us above, that compensation may be awarded in a petition under Art. 32. This is the principle on which this Court awarded compensation in Rudul Shah v. State of Bihar. AIR 1983 SC 1086. So also, this Court awarded compensation to Bhim Singh, whose fundamental right to personal liberty was grossly violated by the State of Jammu and Kashmir. If we make a fact analysis of the cases where compensation has been awarded by this Court, we will find that in all the cases, the fact of infringement was patent and incontrovertible, the violation was gross and its magnitude was such as to shock the conscience of the Court and it would have been gravely unjust to the person whose fundamental right was violated, to require him to go to the civil Court for claiming compensation.

30. Before we part with this topic we may point out that this court has throughout the last few years expanded the horizon of Art. 12 primarily to inject respect for human rights and social conscience in our corporate structure. The purpose of expansion has not been to destroy the raison d`etre of creating corporations but to advance the human rights jurisprudence. Prima facie we are not inclined to accept the apprehensions of learned counsel for Shriram as well founded when he says that our including within the ambit of Art. 12 and thus subjecting to the discipline of Article 21, those private corporations whose activities have the potential of affecting the life and health of the people, would deal a death blow to the policy of encouraging and permitting private entrepreneurial activity. Whenever a new and advance is made in the field of human rights, apprehension is always expressed by the status quoists that it will create enormous difficulties in the way of smooth functioning of the system and affect its stability. Similar apprehension was voiced when this Court in Ramanna Sheety`s case, (AIR 1979 SC 1628)(supra) brought public sector corporations within the scope and ambit of Art. 12 and subjected them to the discipline of fundamental rights. Such apprehension expressed by those who may be affected by any new and innovative expansion of human rights need not deter the Court from widening the scope of human rights and expanding their reach ambit, if otherwise it is possible to do so without doing violence to the language of the constitu-tional provision. It is through creative interpretation and bold innovation that the human rights jurisprudence has been developed in our country to a remarkable extent and this forward march of the human rights movement cannot be allowed to be halted by unfounded apprehensions expressed by status quoists. But we do not propose to decide finally at the present stage whether a private corporation like Shriram would fall within the scope and ambit of Article 12, because we have not had sufficient time to consider and reflect on this question in depth. The hearing og this case before us concluded only on 15th December 1986 and we are called upon to deliver our judgement within a period of four days on 19th December 1986. We are therefore of the view that this is not a question on which we must make any definite pronouncement at this stage. But we would leave it for a proper and detailed consideration at a later stage if it becomes necessary to do so.

31. We must also deal with one other question which was seriously debated before us and that question is as to what is the measure of liability of an enterprise which is engaged in an hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, if by reason of an accident occurring in such industry, persons die or are injured. Does the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868 (19) LT 220) apply or is there any other principle on which the liability can be determined. The rule in Rylands v. Fltcher was evolved in the year 1866 (1868) and it provides that a person who for his own purpose brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes must keep it at his peril and, if he fails to do so, is prima facie liable for the damage which the natural consequence of its escape. The liability under this rule is strict and it is no defence that the thing escaped without that person`s wilful act, default or neglect or even that he had not knowledge of its existence. This rule laid down a principle of liability that if a person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do harm and such things escapes and does damage to another, he is liable to compensate for the damage caused. Of course, this rule applies only to non-natural user of the land and it does not apply to things naturally on the land or where the escape is due to an act of God and an act of a stranger or the default of the person injured or where the thing which escapes is present by the consent of the person injured or in certain cases where there is statutory authority. Vide Halsbury, Laws of England, Vo. 45 para 1305. Considerable case law has developed in England as to what is natural and what is non-natural use of land and what are precisely the circumstances in which this rule may be displaced. But it is not necessary for us to consider these decisions laying down the parameters of this rule because in a modern industrial society with highly developed scientific knowledge and technology where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary to carry a part of the developmental programme. This rule evolved in the 19th Century at a time when all these developments of science and technology had not taken place cannot afford any guidance in evolving any standard of liability consistent with the constitutional norms and the needs of the present day economy and social structure. We need not feel inhibited by this rule which was evolved in this context of a totally different kind of economy. Law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast changing society and keep abreast with the economic developments taking place in the country. As new situations arise the law has to be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations. Law cannot afford to remain static. We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in a highly industrialised economy. We cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in any other foreign legal order. We are certainly prepared to receive light from whatever source it comes but we have to build up our own jurisprudence and we cannot countenance an argument that merely because the new law does not recognise the rule of strict and absolute liability in cases of hazardous or dangerous liability or the rule as laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher as is developed in England recognises certain limitations and responsibilities. We in India cannot hold our hands back and I venture to evolve a new principle of liability which English Courts have not done. We have to develop our own law and if we find that it is necessary to construct a new principle of liability to deal with an unusual situation which has arisen and which is likely to arise in future on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous industries which are concomitant to an industrial economy, there is no reason why we should hesitate to evolve such principle of liability merely because it has not been so done in England. 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 nature of the 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 assount [sic] 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. Since the persons harmed on account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity carried on by the enterprise would not be in a position to isolate the process of operation from the hazardous preparation of substance or any other related element that caused the harm the enterprise must be held strictly liable for causing such harm as a part of the social cost for carrying on the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity. If the enterprise is permitted to carry on an hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit, the law must presume that such permissionis conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads. Such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for private profit can be tolerated only on condition that the enterprise engaged in such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity indemnifies all those who suffer on account of the carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards. We would therefore hold that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident on the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting for example, in 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 in Ryland v. Fletcher (supra).

32. We would also like to point out that the measure of compensation in the kind of cases referred to in the preceding paragraph must be correlated to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deterrent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.

33. Since we are not deciding the question as to whether Shriram is an authority within the meaning of Article 12 so as to be subjected to the discipline of the fundamental right under Article 21, we do not think it would be justified in setting up a special machinery for investigation of the claims for compensation made by those who allege that they have been the victims of oleum gas escape. But we would direct that Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board take up the cases of all those who claim to have suffered on account of oleum gas and to file actions on their behalf in the appropriate Court for claiming compensation against Shriram. Such actions claiming compensation may be filed by the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board within two months from today and the Delhi Administration is directed to provide the necessary funds to the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board for the purpose of filing and prosecuting such actions. The High Court will nominate one or more Judges as may be necessary for the purpose of trying such actions so that they may be expeditiously disposed of. So far as the issue of relocation and other issues are concerned the writ petition will come up for the hearing on 3rd February, 1987.
Order accordingly.

Fecha del Recurso: 
1986
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