Disclaimer: Originally published in December 2017. It is being republished since it still remains an interesting topic till today.
Sometime between the night of 2nd December and the morning of 3rd December 1984, Methyl Isocyanate and other toxic gases leaked from Union Carbide’s chemical plant situated in Bhopal.
This particular incident caused the immediate death of more than two thousand people and has been termed as World’s Worst Industrial Disaster.
UCIL, situated in Bhopal, was a subsidiary company of Union Carbide Corporation, a multi-national company registered in the U.S.A.
Since the disaster had affected such an enormous number of people, majorly from the lower economic strata, it was difficult to recognize or provide for the victims. More so, the filing of suits from each and every person wasn’t feasible.
In order 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 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?
To this, the Indian government replied that the Indian Judiciary is not yet matured enough due to restraints put upon it by the British rule. Our Judiciary is not able for the task. The District Court, however, rejected the argument and dismissed the plea anyway. But Indians are used to embarrassment so no problem.
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 Rs. 350 crores. UCC filed a civil revision petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court where the compensation was reduced to Rs. 250 crore.
Strict Liability v/s Absolute Liability
While the civil petition was still in the process, the rule of Absolute Liability was evolved, which was a more stringent version of the Strict Liability doctrine evolved by House of Lords, the supreme English court. To make it simple for non-legal background homo sapiens:
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.
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 Rs. 250 crores. After four years of litigation, the case finally came to a conclusion.
The Supreme Court of India applied the rule of absolute liability and directed Union Carbide Corporation for payment of Rs. 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 own judiciary and embarrassed itself at an international platform.
Exhibit B: Indian Judiciary proved its worth by way of Judicial Legislation.
Exhibit C: There are still thousands of victims who are yet to receive compensation.
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