Oleum Gas Leak Case: A Landmark Environmental Disaster
LegalStix Law School

Oleum Gas Leak Case: A Landmark Environmental Disaster

Download FREE LegalStix App

The Oleum Gas Leak Case, also known as MC Mehta v. Union of India, stands as a significant milestone in India's environmental jurisprudence. This landmark case revolves around a gas leak incident that occurred at the Shriram Food and Fertiliser Industries plant, a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, situated in Kirti Nagar, Delhi.


Background of the Oleum Gas Leak Case

In December 1985, a devastating escape of oleum gas from one of the units at the Shriram Food and Fertiliser Industries plant resulted in severe harm to the people exposed to the gas. This incident raised serious concerns about the safety and environmental standards of the factory, as well as its potential impact on the surrounding community.

MC Mehta's Petition and Legal Proceedings

MC Mehta, a public interest attorney, filed a writ petition under Articles 21 and 32 of the Indian Constitution in the Supreme Court, seeking the closure and relocation of the hazardous plant. This legal action brought forward crucial questions regarding the scope of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction, the liability of enterprises engaged in hazardous activities, and the need to modernize liability standards in such cases.

The case also witnessed the tragic death of a lawyer practising at the Tis Hazari Court due to the gas leak incident. As a result, the Delhi Magistrate took immediate action and ordered the shutdown of manufacturing lethal substances, such as Chlorine, Super Chlorine, Oleum, Phosphate, and others, at the factory.

Key Issues in the Oleum Gas Leak Case

The Oleum Gas Leak case raised several crucial issues that required careful consideration. Some of the key issues included:

  1. Should harmful industries be permitted to operate in densely populated areas?
  2. Is there a need for a regulating mechanism for such industries?
  3. How should liability and compensation be determined in cases of environmental disasters?
  4. What is the scope of Article 32 of the Indian Constitution in such cases?
  5. Should the rule of Absolute Liability or the Ryland v. Fletcher rule be followed?
  6. Can private corporations be considered as a part of the State under Article 12 of the Constitution?

Judgement and Rulings in the Oleum Gas Leak Case

After a thorough examination of the case, the Supreme Court made several significant rulings that set important precedents for future environmental and liability cases. These rulings include:

Scope of Application of Article 21 to Private Corporations

The court left the question of whether private corporations like Shriram fall within the scope and ambit of Article 12, making them amenable to the discipline of Article 21, for further detailed consideration if necessary. While the court referred to various previous cases for legal context and precedents, a conclusive decision on this matter was not reached during the Oleum Gas Leak Case.

Compensation for Victims of Oleum Gas

The court instructed the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to handle the cases of individuals claiming to have suffered due to the oleum gas leak. The board was directed to file actions on their behalf in the appropriate court to claim compensation. The Delhi Administration was also tasked with providing the necessary funds to the board for this purpose.

Public-Spirited Individuals and Social Action Groups as Plaintiffs

The court recognized the role of public-spirited individuals and social action groups in taking legal action on behalf of individuals or groups who are unable to approach the court themselves due to poverty, disability, or social and economic disadvantages. Such individuals or groups can file writ petitions under Article 32 in the Supreme Court or Article 226 in the High Court to seek justice for those whose fundamental or legal rights have been violated.

Powers and Obligations of the Court

The court emphasized that Article 32 not only empowers the court to issue directions, orders, or writs for the enforcement of fundamental rights but also imposes a constitutional obligation on the court to protect the fundamental rights of the people. The court has the authority to develop new remedies and strategies to enforce fundamental rights, especially for the poor and disadvantaged.

Modernizing Liability in Hazardous Industries

The court recognized that the traditional rule of strict liability established in Rylands v. Fletcher (1866) may not be suitable for determining liability in hazardous industries in the present day. With advancements in science and technology, hazardous and inherently dangerous industries play a vital role in development. The court emphasized the need to modernize liability standards to align with present-day needs and challenges.

Expanding the Scope of Article 12

Over the years, the court has expanded the scope of Article 12 to promote respect for human rights and social conscience within corporate structures. Including private corporations within the ambit of Article 12, subjecting them to the discipline of Article 21, empowers the human rights movement and encourages creative interpretation of the law to advance human rights jurisprudence.

Strict Liability and Compensation in Hazardous Industries

The court held that enterprises engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industries have an absolute non-delegable duty towards the community. They must ensure that hazardous activities are conducted with the highest safety standards. Even if all reasonable precautions are taken and the enterprise is not negligent, it must be obligated to compensate for any harm caused due to the activity. The measure of compensation should be linked to the enterprise's size and capacity to have a deterrent effect.

Relevance of the American Doctrine of State Action

The court acknowledged that the American doctrine of State action may not be directly relevant to Indian courts due to the differences in constitutional provisions and social conditions. However, the underlying principle behind the doctrine, which imbues a private activity with the color of State action, can be partially adapted and harmoniously blended with Indian constitutional jurisprudence.


The Oleum Gas Leak Case serves as a crucial precedent in India's environmental law landscape. It highlights the importance of balancing industrial development with public safety and environmental concerns. The case's rulings regarding liability standards, compensation, and the powers and obligations of the court have shaped future legal discourse in hazardous industries and the protection of fundamental rights. This landmark case demonstrates the judiciary's role in safeguarding the rights and well-being of the people and promoting sustainable development in the country.

For the latest updates on legal news, internships, and job opportunities, be sure to visit LegalStix Law School.

Loading Result...

Download FREE LegalStix App

Get instant updates!

Request a callback
Register Now