Protecting the environment OLEUM GAS LEAK CASE, 1986


M C MEHTA, who was single-handedly responsible for making environmental degradation a part of public discourse, says it is vital that PILs have no ulterior motive

“GAS HAS leaked. The gas is travelling. I am worried about your lordship’s life”. Environmental lawyer Mahesh Chander Mehta relives what he told the Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati on December 4th, 1985. Oleum gas had just leaked from the Shriram Chlorine plant in Najafgarh, and Delhi had panicked.

By a strange coincidence, M.C. Mehta had filed a public interest litigation against the Chlorine plant a month earlier (before the gas leak), and was scheduled to argue another case before the Chief Justice of India on December 4th. When the matter came up, Mehta referred to the Oleum gas that had leaked just three hours earlier. “The gas leaked at 11 am; the case was listed and heard at 2 pm; the court immediately issued a notice” gushes Mehta. “No case has been heard this quickly”. Nor perhaps judged so decisively. In siding with Mehta, the Supreme Court punished the company heavily; the entire complex eventually shut down. More far reaching, the Supreme Court created the `absolute liability principle’ — companies engaged in inherently hazardous activities had absolutely no excuse when an accident occurred.



For this Jammu University law graduate, the Oleum Gas Leak case was just one of many landmark environmental cases where his doggednessyieldedresults.

Mehta’szealcoincidedwiththegrowthofPILsinIndia, wherethecourtrelaxed`locusstandi’ restrictions and enforced a wide range of socio-economic rights. His 1984 PIL on pollution around theTaj Mahal damaging its white marble resultedinthe”SupremeCourtrelocating industrial units and even closing down many. The Mathura refinery, a big offender, had to reform.” Over the years, M.C. Mehta has expanded theideaofIndiainotherways–from filingPILsthatcleaneduptheGanga to those that introduced CNG to Delhi. The result: cleaner rivers and clearer air in the capital city. For his efforts, Mehta won the Ramon Magsasay award in1997.

Mehta, who championed green causes long before it was fashionable, has a word of advice for young environmental lawyers. “People who file in court must never have any ulterior motives”, he says. He also believes that PILs must be filed only after proper research. “Sometimes I spend two years reading up before filing a PIL, he says. “It’s very important that you are in a position to honestly assist the court.”

Mehta admits that the awareness level for green causes has gone up now. But he insists that  environmental litigation will always be an unequal battle. “You are fighting people with lots of resources at their command. So the struggle must continue.”



M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, popularly known as the Oleum Gas Leak case, was decided by a 5-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 1986.


The court held that any enterprise that is engaged in an inherently dangerous activity is `absolutely’ liable to compensate all those affected by an accident. They key feature of the judgment was the principle of `absolute liability’, in which no exceptions (such as an `act of God’) are brooked.


The case took place soon after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and was keenly watched as an instance of how the courts would deal with companies responsible for environmental disasters. Unfortunately, the complex court litigation around the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was an example of what not to do in such cases


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