Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Remembering How SC Proved The Govt. Wrong About Its Capability

By Prateek Gupta:

Sometime between the night of December 2, 1984, and the morning of December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases leaked from Union Carbide’s chemical plant situated in Bhopal. This incident caused the immediate death of more than 15,000 people and has been termed as the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster.

UCIL, situated in Bhopal, was a subsidiary company of Union Carbide Corporation, a multi-national company registered in the USA.

Since the disaster had affected such an enormous number of people, majorly from the lower economic strata, it was difficult to recognise or provide for the victims. More so, the filing of suits from every person wasn’t feasible.

To deal with this, the Government of India proclaimed an Ordinance and passed ‘The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985’. This legislation conferred an exclusive right on the Central Government to represent, and act in place of every person who has made a claim, or is entitled to make a claim arising out of or connected with, the Bhopal gas leak disaster.

In pursuance of this, the Government of India filed a suit against Union Carbide Corporation in the District Court of New York on behalf of all the claimant victims. This was really absurd. Why did the government file a suit in New York when the accident happened in India?

The Union of India then filed a petition against the Carbide company in the District Court of Bhopal where UCC was ordered to pay an interim relief of ₹350 crores. UCC filed a civil revision petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court where the compensation was reduced to ₹250 crore.

Strict Liability V/S Absolute Liability

While the civil petition was still in the process, the rule of ‘Absolute Liability’ was evoked, which was a more stringent version of the Strict Liability doctrine evolved by House of Lords, the supreme English court. To state it in layman’s terms, the law meant that:

When someone brings or stores any hazardous substance onto his land, and if such substance escapes, then he would be absolutely liable for the damage caused. The rule has five exceptions including Act of God and statutory authority. This rule is called Strict Liability and was developed in the case of “Rylands v/s Fletcher”.

But.

The Supreme Court of India enhanced this 100-year old rule and removed the exceptions, making it stricter and more stringent. The new rule is called ‘Absolute Liability’ and has evolved in MC Mehta v/s Union of India.

Now that the rule of Absolute Liability had evolved and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case was still being heard, the doctrine was applied to the present case as well.

As mentioned earlier, the Madhya Pradesh High Court reduced the interim relief to ₹250 crores. After four years of litigation, the case finally concluded.

The Supreme Court of India applied the rule of absolute liability and directed Union Carbide Corporation to pay ₹750 crores as interim relief. This sum was thrice the value decided by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

Lessons To Learn

Exhibit A: The Union of India doubted the potential of its judiciary and embarrassed itself at an international platform. While it was obviously capable enough to carry out court proceedings.

Exhibit B: The Indian Judiciary proved its worth by way of judicial legislation and helped many get access to funds.

Exhibit C: There are still thousands of victims who are yet to receive compensation, and we need to do something about it.


A version of this post was first published here.

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