This article has been written by Mahak Rastogi on the gas leak that happened in Vishakhapatnam recently.

An unfortunate incident that took place on May 7 ,2020 at the Gopalapatnam, vigaz as the residents of habitation close to the site where the LG polymer was located, passed out as the hazardous styrene vapors swept around the area.   It created an atmosphere terror among the people. With this sudden leakage, people around the the radius of 3 km were severely affected causing death of 13 people and thousand people were hospitalized. People were terrified as the similar situation that took place a long ago, known as Bhopal gas tragedy where thousands of people died, and several were affected with permanent injuries due to leakage of hazardous gas called methyl isocyanate from union carbide pesticide plant.

Absolute Liability Invoked

The doctrine of absolute liability was invoked by the court where liability of the company can be fixed even if there is no negligence on the part of the accused company. The case was filed by the Indian government against union carbide corporation in US court demanding 3.3 billion dollars. By 1986 all these litigations in the US District were transferred to India on the grounds of forum non convenient.  An out of court settlement between the Government of India and Union Carbide was arrived at, which fixed the liability of the company to pay $470 million as per the full and final settlement of all claims, rights and liabilities arising out of that disaster.

Law Involved

The Vizag incident has shaken the very soul of the people and forced the evacuation of thousands in this current situation where the whole world is dealing with this pandemic situation. The chemical, styrene which was involved in the disaster struck plant, is included in the schedule of manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemical rule,1989. There are strict norms on how it should be stored and handled. It is a flammable liquid that is used in manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. Short Term Exposure to styrene can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues. Long-Term Exposure can affect the central nervous system drastically and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy. It can also lead to cancer.   

Compensation for Victims

After this miserable incident, The Andhra Pradesh government took a major step by announcing compensation of Rs. 1 Crore to the families of the people who had lost their lives, Rs. 10 Lakhs to the victims undergoing treatment on ventilators and Rs. 1 Lakh to the other victims who were hospitalized. It was made clear by the Government that the aforesaid compensation would be in addition to the compensation by LG Polymers. Moreover, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh took Suo motu cognizance of the incident and directed the State to take all necessary steps to mitigate the loss that may be caused due to this incident. Consequently, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) also took Suo motu cognizance of the incident and directed the company to deposit an initial amount of Rs 50 crores with the District Magistrate, Visakhapatnam. The Civil Appeal preferred against this Order before the Supreme Court has been kept pending. However, the Supreme Court neither issued notice nor, did it interfere with impugned order of the NGT. The NGT invoked the principle of ‘strict liability’ against LG Polymers for adversely affecting the public health and environment through its failures.  Strict liability, a legal doctrine that holds a party responsible for their actions or products, without the plaintiff having to prove negligence or fault.

Furthermore,  an affidavit was submitted by the company to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority on 10th May, 2019 admitting that the unit did not have ‘environment clearance substantiating the produced quantity issued by the competent authority for continuing operations’ from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The affidavit submitted by the company proves the fact that there was clear hobnobbing and negligence of the government officials who were involved and designated by the respective government departments to ensure compliance of the environmental laws, and thereafter issue commencement certificate. It also brings out the fact that LG Polymers did not have the requisite permissions and clearances right from the inception. However, the chemical plant carried on the industrial activities without any mandatory clearance and the facts prove that the industry was even de-listed as it refused expansion as per the directions of the ministry, yet it carried on the production and the negligence of the authorities, both at the Centre and at the State.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court in Poisonous gas leakage in Visakhapatnam v. State of Andhra Pradesh issued directions in which the Government was ordered to seize the company premises of the LG Polymers chemical plant, Vizag and the directors were not allowed to enter the premises. In addition to this, assets, fixture, machinery and contents were not allowed to be shifted without Court’s permission.

Conclusion

If we consider the aforementioned incident of gas leak , then it seem as the strict liability invoked by the NGT was wrong as the the facts and circumstances of the case of LG Polymers, it is evident that the nature of the substance used and the activities of both the companies (UCIL and LGPI) are similar in nature, and thereby, the principle of absolute liability should have been applied in this case too. the application of the principle of absolute liability does not require the cause of incident or the ‘consent’ of the facility’s operators to be known to make any enterprise liable. The liability is triggered by the mere escape of hazardous substances, irrespective of the cause. Hence, NGT should have invoke the absolute liability. In my opinion , the  government officials involved  should be taken to task immediately by the High Court and departmental inquiries should be initiated against such  officials and it should be seen that the people responsible in our system along with the Directors of the Company, are awarded the maximum punishment for such deliberate negligent act, which claimed innocent lives. Only then, it can act as a deterrent for other officials and companies who act in such brazen defiance of the statutory norms. This incident proves the very fact that no matter how much we try, until and unless we raise our voice against corruption, innocent lives will continue to get sacrificed.

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