MC Mehta and Union Of India (1986) Case Analysis (Oleum gas leak case)

MC Mehta v. Union Of India (1986) Case Analysis (Oleum gas leak case)

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The case also popularly known as oleum gas leak case is one of the landmark judgement of the Indian Judiciary. The case came after the Bhopal gas disaster which had already acquired everyone’s attention towards the issue of the environment. This case added more to that issue. The case dealt with the substantial play of various Fundamental Rights of the people. The case has also laid down a new and important principle of “Absolute Liability” which has served as a principle of massive importance in Indian Judiciary.


This case was the result of a writ petition filed by a prominent lawyer M.C Mehta. This petition was filed against the Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries as it was located in one of the most populous areas of the city and the emissions coming from it are hazardous for the general public. The main controversy raised in this case was that the firms should be closed or removed and relocated from the place as it can be dangerous to the people residing nearby. This issue was in front of a 3 judge bench which ultimately allowed Shriram industries to function in the Kirti Nagar area of the Delhi subject to certain rules and guidelines which were laid down and this was the only easy question in front of the court to be decided until the major concern had risen and changed the course of action.  As while this writ petition was pending in the court, there occurred a leak in the Shriram industrial units on 4th and 6th December 1985, there was an escape of oleum gas which also led to the death of few. As an action to this application was further filed by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association for the award of compensation to the persons who had suffered losses on account of this gas leak. These new applications raised several new issues of great constitutional importance. Thus the court asked both sides to file their submissions further on the issues of these new applications for compensation. These applications when heard raised various substantial questions of law involving interpretations of Article 211 and 322. In this article, we will deal with those new issues raised under those applications. Let’s proceed.

This case was an aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and this case again awakened the people, that there is a law missing and these environmental issues are too important to be ignored. This incident reminded every one of the holocaust of Bhopal Tragedy. So before moving further we need to take a look at the happenings of Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

The Bhopal gas tragedy is considered as one of the biggest industrial disasters this world has faced. This disaster occured in 1984 in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The disaster was a result of a leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) which occured in the month of december in a pesticides manufacturing plant named Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL). The MIC is considered as the most hazardous chemical used for industrial purposes. On the night of 2-3 December, 1984, there was a leak of the MIC gas in the plant. This leak had increased and contaminated the air and when people got exposed to it, they felt various symptoms like coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and suffocation. This led towards the death of thousands of people and lakhs of people got permanently impaired in one way or another as a result of this disaster. The cases were filed against the majority holder UCC which was a US company. These criminal and civil cases were filed in the US courts. The government of India enacted the Bhopal Gas tragedy disaster Act to deal with the claims arising out of this tragedy. A certain amount of some 470 million dollars was granted initially by the UCC as a part of settlement with the government of India for compensation. This tragedy brought in a havoc and after this attention was brought on in the need of various laws regulating the environment protection. One such act was the Environment Protection Act of 19863 and many more came in line over a period of time.

Contentions from of both the sides 

Petitioners after the spillage of the gas demanded a complete disclosure of the industry in the area and proper remedial measures for the aggrieved.

The respondents argued that the court in this case should not go with these applications of compensation and other constitutional issues. Respondents argued that the escape of oleum gas took place after the filing of the writ petition and petitioners should have applied for the amendment in writ petition and included the compensation part inside it too but no such amendment was made and hence these other issues of compensation  and constitutional importance cannot be considered.

Issues in the present case

  1. What is the scope of Article 32 of the Constitution ?

The court in this case referred to the judgement of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v.    Union of India4 in which court held that scope under Article 32 not only includes preventive measures when Fundamental Rights are under the threat of violation but it also includes remedial measures when rights are already being violated. This is necessary for the purpose of securing enforcement of the Fundamental Rights especially when it comes to the involvement of the rights of poor, underprivileged and disadvantaged section of the society.

  1. What should be applicable Rule of Absolute Liability and Ryland v. Fletcher5 case?

Before discussing this issue and the applicability of the above rules in the present case , let’s discuss first the principle of Absolute Liability and the principle laid down in Ryland v. Fletcher. 

In  Ryland v. Fletcher, the principle of Strict Liability was laid down by the English Court in the year 1866. This principle states that “any person who keeps any hazardous substances on his premises will be held responsible if such substances escape the premises and causes any damage”6. But there are certain exceptions to the rule like Act of God, Plaintiff’s fault and third party’s fault. 

The courts in India were reluctant to accept the concept of Strict liability  as it was believed that with the advancement and technological development the involvement of hazardous and harmful material in the industry has increased manifold and this has posed a greater threat and in order to not make it easy enough for the industries to take the help of exceptions and get away easily, the courts decided not to follow any foreign principle and came up with a new principle in this case. This principle is known as Absolute Liability.

Absolute Liability – The rule is almost as similar as strict liability but there are no exceptions here. According to this rule, any person involved in inherently dangerous or hazardous activity, or any harm is caused to anyone because of any accident occurred during carrying out those activities, the person who carried out those activities would be absolutely liable. 

So in this case the court instead of going with the19th century’s principle of strict liability, decided to come up with the principle of Absolute Liability. The court held that it becomes the complete responsibility of the industry in this present case to keep a check irrespective of the company’s claim that it has taken all proper measures and there is no negligence on its part. The person harmed deserves justice and has Fundamental Rights which should be upheld in any condition.

  1. Issue of compensation to be awarded.

At the question of whether the compensation to be awarded or not court just gave a simple guideline that the magnitude and capacity of the companies will decide the amount and measure of compensation. The bigger the industry is, the more compensation will be. 

But in the present case the court did not order outrightly to Shriram to give compensation because the court had not cleared it there that whether it comes within the definition of State mentioned in Article 127. This question whether it is a part of the State or not will decide how much the industry can be subjected to the provisions of Article 21.8

This was one of the very important questions which was in front of court while the discussions were going over in this case -The petitioner contended that though Shriram industries does not directly working under the shadow of state and prima facie seems like a private corporation because under governments self announced policy it functions independently. But it was contended that the mode of working of the industry determined by the state and its actions effects public and environment at large hence it comes under the definition of State under Article 21. But on the other hand it was argued that such rules which are laid down for serving as guidelines acts only as police power over the industries and do not necessarily take away their independence. Such regulations should not convert a private corporation into a public one. Finally it was affirmed that Shriram was only working under the shadow of the government and did not become an integral part of the state. Court considered that increasing the ambit of Article 12 this way would create a discouragement in new and upcoming private corporations which are very much essential for the development of the nation. But the court also held that this issue is quite more exhaustive then it seems and there is a need for a lot more deliberation over it. Hence the court did not deliver any affirmed judgement in that case regarding this.


The judgement is still considered as one of the major ruling in the field of environmental law in our country. The judgement took up various new situations and ways of interpretation of the laws and Fundamental Rights. The stances laid down in this case are still being used by the court. Hence this case served as landmark ruling in the history of Indian Judiciary.

The case is not all about the rights of people,compensation and economic losses but the case also brought in front of the entire country the seriousness of environmental issues. The disasters like this and Bhopal gas tragedy had acted very dangerously for the environment. In the present world of technological development and industries the threat to the environment is very expedient. As much this advancement is necessary for the development of the society, there is an urgent need to focus attention towards  environmental problems being posed by this development. As each passing day we are bringing ourselves closer to the end of the environment. Environment is a privilege provided to us to everyone residing on this earth and it is everyone’s human right to enjoy a safe and healthy environment and it is also everybody’s duty to work for it and contributes towards its betterment.





4.  1984 AIR 802, 1984 SCR (2) 67

5.   UKHL 1, (1868) LR 3 HL 330



Pragya Dixit

Pragya Dixit


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2 Replies to “MC Mehta v. Union Of India (1986) Case Analysis (Oleum gas leak case)”

  1. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Oleum Gas leak case are not the same. The Oleum Gas leak happened in Delhi, also known as Shriram Food & Fertlisers case, an year after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

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