In this brief analysis of the historic case of MC Mehta v. Union of India, we examine the complex legal framework that was constructed around urgent environmental issues. Stripping away extraneous details,  this article explores the fundamental legal questions and precedent-setting rulings that have profoundly impacted India’s environmental law.

This approach aims to facilitate a comprehensive grasp of the key legal facets at play in MC Mehta v. Union of India. 

In 1986, MC Mehta(MC Mehta, the “Green Avenger of India,” is an Indian environmental activist and public interest lawyer who has succeeded in winning numerous precedent-setting rulings in environmental public interest lawsuits (PILs) on his own. He is often referred to as the “green lawyer of India” because of his efforts and worries on environmental preservation.), the petitioner-in-person, filed the case MC Mehta v. Union of India, which has since become a seminal ruling in Indian environmental advocacy. The case is noteworthy in a number of ways. Following the fatal Bhopal Gas Disaster in 1984, the ruling altered the reach, scope, and application of not only India’s environmental laws but also Article 21 (which deals with the right to life and personal liberty) and Article 32 (which deals with remedies for violations of the Constitution of India’s fundamental rights). 


On December 4, 1985, a significant oleum gas leak occurred from one of Shriram’s facilities. A large number of the general public, including both outsiders and workers, were physically impacted by the leak. In addition, an advocate who worked in the Tis Hazari Court passed away from oleum gas inhalation. The Delhi Bar Association and the petitioner both attested to the incident. Two days later, on December 6, there was one more little oleum gas leak from a pipe’s joints.

The Delhi government swiftly reacted to the next two oleum gas leak events by issuing an order under Section 133(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, directing Shriram to take the following actions:

  • To remove the dangerous gasses and chemicals from the unit within two days; 
  • To move the chemicals to a safer location within seven days; and 
  • To refrain from storing the chemicals in the same location where the accident occurred;

Alternatively, on December 17, 1985, to appear in the Delhi District Magistrate’s Court and provide justification for the order’s non-enforceability.

Both of the aforementioned writ petitions were scheduled for hearing at the Supreme Court the next day. The District Magistrate’s aforementioned order was also acknowledged by the Supreme Court, which pointed out that the “inadequacies” prevent the necessary actions from being taken immediately.


The two decisions rendered by the Supreme Court on February 17 and December 20, 1986, respectively, addressed a number of legal concerns.

The first ruling looked at the range of environmental law-related public interest litigation and primarily addressed:

  • Was it within the purview of Article 32 for the Supreme Court to order Shriram to reopen its caustic chlorine plant?
  • What prerequisites must be met in order to operate an industrial facility in a densely populated area?
  • The regional decision to establish Environmental Courts in India.

The final ruling included a thorough discussion of the crucial constitutional issues. The following legal concerns are covered therein:

  • Whether the Supreme Court’s Article 32 jurisdiction and authority may be expanded;
  • Whether victim compensation applications may be maintained under the aforementioned Article;
  • If Shriram is subject to the “other authorities” described in Article 12; Whether a private company such as Shriram can be sued for violating the right to life under Article 21;
  • If a letter addressed to a specific judge qualifies for litigation in the public interest;
  • In the event of an accident, what liability does any hazardous industry have? Is the idea of strict liability, which was established in the Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) case, appropriate in this particular circumstance? What level of compensation is appropriate in the event that a hazardous industry causes an accident?
  • Finally, if the Supreme Court of India must abide by rulings established in foreign case laws, and whether a new legal concept may be created if the current ones are inapplicable. 

The ruling included a thorough analysis of the arguments and numerous significant comments on legal issues and various legal concepts. The Court demonstrated compassion by taking into account the employees’ futures in addition to following the law. The following is a discussion of the many aspects of the judgments:

The Court cited the views of the numerous expert panels that were previously established when debating whether or not to allow the reopening of Shriram’s caustic chlorine factory. Although the expert panels’ opinions differed, they all agreed that while risks to workers and the public outside may be reduced with appropriate safety measures, they could not be completely eliminated. Because of this, moving the plant was the “general consensus” among all the committees. The Court further stated that every expert group unanimously agreed that there were flaws in the plant’s structure as well as significant maintenance and operating neglect. The caustic chlorine factory may be reopened because there is no immediate risk to the community or the workers, despite the management of Shriram initially displaying apathy and then implementing all of the recommendations of the three expert committees. The Court also took into account the likelihood of unemployment resulting from the plant’s closure.  

The Supreme Court ultimately decided to grant permission to reopen the aforementioned facility. The first two orders, dated December 7 and 24, 1985, issued by the Inspector and Assistant Commissioner of Factories, were suspended but not revoked. The Court imposed fines, established ten rigorous criteria to be strictly adhered to, and granted an interim license to operate the facility. Additionally, the Court stated that the authority it had granted would be revoked if the terms were not upheld. 

In order to compensate the victims of oleum gas leaks, the Court ordered Shriram to pay Rs 20 lacs. In addition, within three years, the Registrar should receive a bank guarantee of Rs. fifteen lacs to be utilized as a security deposit for compensation claims in the event that any locals or employees are hurt or killed as a result of a chlorine gas leak. The District Judge of Delhi would determine the appropriate amount of compensation in such a case; the court ordered.

Following this historic judgment, the Supreme Court ordered the government to establish environmental tribunals in different regions to appropriately handle disputes involving a range of environmental challenges, including pollution, ecological damage, and other conflicts. Two scientific and technological specialists from the “Ecological Sciences Research Group” should sit on the Environmental Court in addition to one professional judge to help the court decide the case. Nonetheless, the Environmental Court’s ruling may be appealed to the Supreme Court by any of the parties.

The Court really appreciated petitioner MC Mehta’s efforts in bringing this important issue to the Court, even though it allowed the caustic chlorine plant to resume. The Court requested that Shriram provide him Rs 10,000 as costs in recognition of his “valiant battle” to protect the environment.

The Court in this instance also determined that letters submitted to certain judges should be recognized within the epistolary jurisdiction. 

Further, the Court developed a whole new liability theory known as the rule of absolute liability in resolving the case, concluding that the strict liability rule was not applicable. The principle of absolute liability states that if a person or industry engages in an activity that is inherently risky or hazardous and any injury is inflicted upon anyone while doing so, the person or company in question should be held fully accountable.


Following the Bhopal tragedy, there was an immediate need for a comprehensive Act that addressed liability, compensation, governmental authorities, cognisance of offenses, and providing assistance to victims of hazardous enterprises. In this instance, the Court emphasized the same point. Later, in 1991, the Public Liability Insurance Act was passed in order to address these concerns.


The recent case of re: Gas Leak at LG Polymers Chemical Plant at RR Venkatapuram Village, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh (2020), also referred to as the Visakhapatnam gas leak case (2020) or the Vizag gas leak case (2020), reflected the new legal principles and changes. In one instance, a dangerous chemical known as styrene spilled from LG Polymers’ factory, harming the environment and resulting in the deaths of 12 individuals and numerous injuries. Under the Act, the corporation was deemed fully accountable and had to deposit fifty crores of rupees with the National Green Tribunal.


Due to a public interest lawsuit, an industry was held fully responsible for an accident for the first time in Indian legal history and had to pay a substantial amount of compensation. Because the ruling reiterated epistolary jurisdiction, it was also possible to restore the public’s faith in the judiciary. Because it would halt all scientific and technological developments, the Court refrained from declaring a blanket ban on industrialization, which makes its decision exceptional. Rather, it emphasized the necessity of policies to prevent accidents and subsequent liability in case of accidents, considering the necessity of industrialization and the fact that accidents are inevitable.

Since then, the 1986 case of MC Mehta v. Union of India has become recognized as a seminal case in the fields of judicial activism and environmental activism. Even so, it continues to set a precedent for instances of a similar nature.

  1. https://blog.ipleaders.in/mc-mehta-vs-union-of-india-1986-case-analysis/
  2. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1486949/
  3. https://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-10282-case-analysis-m-c-mehta-vs-union-of-india-vizag-gas-leak-.html

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