This article is written by Akshat Mehta, a student of the Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. In this research article, he has tried to define the changes and development that occurred in Tort and Environmental Law through landmark judgments after the drastic incident of Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
The Deadly Incident
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy was one of the worst disasters which had taken place in the history of India as well as the world. This incident exposed the government and state machinery which was not very serious in regards to the lives of its citizens. One factory plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was set up in Bhopal in the 1970s when the government was encouraging foreign direct investment in the domestic industries. The Indian government also holds 22% shares in UCC by a subsidiary company by the name Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL). UCC was asked to make a pesticide called Sevin, commonly used pesticide in Asia but, over the time UCC was allowed to manufacture harmful toxic chemicals which are not suitable as per the geographical location of Bhopal because it comes under light industrial zone which cannot be used for making hazardous substances.
On December 2, 1984, the deadly ‘Methyl Isocyanate gas’ leaked from the plant of UCC which killed almost 4,000 people immediately within 2 hours of the leak of the gas. Most people died were the people of the slum area residing near the geography of the plant. Till the morning the death toll reached up to 8,000 because lethal gas spread throughout the city. Around 40,000 people died in the next 20 days and more than 1,00,000 people suffered permanent disability. The most horrible part of the incident was that UCC was found shifting the whole liability to Union Carbide India Limited.
Development under Tort Law
Hardly after one year, a similar incident occurred on December 4, 1985, at Shriram fertilizer Factory at New Delhi where oleum gas leaked from the tanks due to human and mechanical errors. Although there were not as many casualties occurred in this incident as compared to Bhopal Gas Tragedy but after these two incidents the government had to face criticism due to its unsympathetic approach towards the life of its citizens in search of industrial growth and revenue centered approach.
In lieu of this, a PIL was filed by MC Mehta and the concept of ‘Absolute Liability’ emerged in the Indian Law as a product of that PIL. Let us understand the difference between already existing strict liability and newly emerged absolute liability from the case of ‘MC Mehta v. Union of India’.
The concept of Strict and absolute liability comes under NO-FAULT LIABILITY under the law of Torts. For having ‘strict liability’ to be applied there are three conditions which need to be satisfied:
⮚ There must be a dangerous thing which has been brought on to the land of the defendants.
⮚ Such dangerous thing must be used for a non-natural purpose.
⮚ Such a dangerous thing must escape from the control of the defendants.
There are five exceptions to strict liability through which it could be avoided:
⮚ If the plaintiff was himself at fault.
⮚ Plaintiff’s consent to suffer the harm.
⮚ Act of a stranger (3rd party).
⮚ Act of God, and
⮚ Statutory Authority.
Now for the ‘Absolute Liability’ to be applied there are four conditions necessary to be satisfied and three of which are same as of strict liability but the fourth one is:
⮚ Such dangerous things must be brought into the land of defendants for the Profit Motive.
Now as the concept is introduced to make absolutely liable to the offender there are no exceptions to the concept of absolute liability.
Further after the MC Mehta v. Union of India in the case of ‘Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India (1990)’ the Honorable Court held that defendants have the absolute liability and they cannot escape by the liability by contending that they have taken the ‘reasonable care.’ So this again proved that there is no exception available to the absolute liability. Also in the case of the ‘Indian Council for Environmental Legal Action v. Union of India (1996)’ the Court held that “Once the event is carried related to hazardous substance then is liable to take all the loss caused to another person irrespective of taking reasonable care while carrying out the activity.”
So this is the major and significant development in the arena of Law of Torts after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Development under the Environmental Law
After these two incidents the government was questioned from multiple angles for not having proper environmental regulations and laws which took away the lives of thousands of people.
After the deadly incident, the Indian Government implemented and passed ‘The Environment Protection Act 1986’, which strengthens the regulations and acts as a vigilant authority over the hazardous industries. This act provides the direction for pollution control and environmental protection from all types of hazards for humans, animals, plants, and all living creatures. The purpose of this act was to strictly implement the narratives and guidelines of Stockholm, The conference is also known as the United Nations Conference on Human Environment which was held in 1972. This act empowers the central government to lay down guidelines, rules, and punishment for emission, discharge, and management of toxic substances. This act also mentions ‘waste management and handling rules’ under Section 25.
The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 1994, defines the kinds of activities which could be a potential threat to the environment in any manner. This notification makes it mandatory for the government to assess the potential threat every industry could cause to the environment and human lives. So this act somewhere poses a sought of liability on the government to properly analyze each and every new industry before allowing it to start its operations. This act also provides ‘Right to know’ to the people who are interested to know what impact will be there on their lives if that specific industry will be set up in their locality and also whether they have any harm from it or not.
In the case of ‘Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar’, the Honorable Court held that “the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 also includes right to pollution-free water and air resources.”
Recently Visakhapatnam could also become new Bhopal because of the gas leak in a similar manner as in Bhopal. Since independence India has gone through various tragedies but the Bhopal gas Tragedy was a nightmare for the whole country especially for those who live in Bhopal. There was a serious need on the government’s part to have a proper analysis before allocation of tenure to the industries who are engaged in making and procurement of toxic and hazardous substances and chemicals which could be a threat to environment and people, because somewhere lives of the citizens and their future safety is much more important than boosting the industrial sector of the country.
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