Human Rights

26 years since the Oleum Gas Leak Case

SuhasaniRao-Kashyap.jpgDecember marked the twenty-sixth anniversary of the iconic judgment in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, among the most visionary and pro-active from the Supreme Court of India, where it expanded the boundaries of human rights vis-à-vis industrial accidents.

The original petition had asked for an order of closure against different units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers because they utilised hazardous substances that posed a threat to the surrounding areas, but the matter escalated with the escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram in early December of 1985. The Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association made applications for the award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm and the matter was brought before five judges.

The Supreme Court’s judgment stood out for the foundation of strict liability for corporate disasters and the principle of ‘deep pockets’.

Just before this case, India had experienced excruciating pain and loss from the Bhopal gas leak in 1984. The reverberations of that tragedy are felt to this day, with compensation still trickling through, almost three decades since that fateful night.

We have come some distance since then. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act of 2010 provides for compensation to victims from the presumably deep pockets of corporations that own and operate nuclear facilities, in the event of accidents. Some provisions however — such as the fifteen days given to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to notify such an incident — make us question whether we have come far enough.

(Suhasini Rao-Kashyap is part of the faculty on