The Supreme Court on Friday has issued a notice in a plea filed against the order of the National Green Tribunal taking suo-motu cognizance on a news item published in The Indian Express on January 7 titled “Four workers dead due to toxic gas leak in Rourkela Steel Plant.” The tribunal had directed to pay the compensation to the families/heirs of the persons who died in the gas leakage. The green tribunal had also constituted an expert committee for purpose of suggesting safety measures to be taken by the industries.
A divisional bench of Justice L Nageswara Rao and Justice S Ravindra Bhat while issuing the notice in the above matter said that “this would be really an issue of safety of the factory or an establishment, the only thing is if it is in the middle of the city, many times this is a very old steel plant so whatever city is grown up, it’s around that, but otherwise if you sanction a new plant which you don’t, then it becomes an environmental issue like Bhopal, otherwise you are right, what happens within is a factory or establishment issue.”
The appeal has been filed by Rourkela Steel Plant challenging the NGT order stating that the incident, as reported, did not occur due to a gas leak but the deaths occurred during preventive maintenance work being undertaken at the Coal Chemical Department (CCD) unit of the Rourkela Steel Plant which incident could have been avoided, if the workmen had not, in breach of their instructions and training, removed gas masks with compressed air breathing apparatus, provided to them.
The NGT had directed the plant to provide compensation in the following order, “They will thus be entitled to compensation of Rs. 24 lacs, 16.5 lacs, 16.5 lacs, and 13.5 lacs respectively. Adding future prospects, final compensation is fixed at Rs. 30 Lakhs for dependents of Abhimanyu, Rs. 20 lakhs each for heirs of Brahmanand and Ganesh, and Rs. 15 lakhs for the heirs of Rabindra. However, if they have higher claims, they are at liberty to take the remedy at the appropriate forum as NGT remedy is summary and does not exclude other remedies.”
Ms. Madhavi Goradia Divan, ASG appearing on behalf of the petitioners stated, “compassionate appointment has been given to the dependants of three out of four workers who died on 06.01.2021, and they are already working and very shortly the salaries are likely to be revised to nearly 30 thousand” Whereas, as Justice Rao said “we understand this is the case where four workers died due to toxic gas leak”
Ms. Madhavi submitted that “My lords, number one, there was no leak and we fall within the definition of employer, therefore, we are both the contractual employer and we will pay not under the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Act but under the ESI (Employees State Insurance Act, 1948), I can show my lords those provisions”
Ms Madhavi further added, “at least the committee then should be stayed, because this is only going to create confusion, our whole point is that it’s not an environmental issue at all, and it was a very unfortunate accident where these people took off their masks, and first of all suo motu cases, your lordships have stayed”
Justice Rao asked the Counsel about the directions of the committee, to which Ms. Madhavi replied that “the very first direction is to pay the compensation, which comes to about 85 lakhs.”’
Justice S. Ravindra Bhat said that “one thing is there, the tribunal has listed out many industrial accidents lands which have led to deaths, it is not confined to what happens within the precincts of establishments but it goes beyond, the solvent where neighbouring areas are affected so in that sense it becomes a larger issue, but the point is we will examine whether suo moto proceedings can be initiated”
Madhavi Divan further submitted that “I’ll satisfy your lords on this also it’s not a case of a gas leak and your lordships may record this is not a case of gas leak in our submission, it was never a gas leak.”
The Top Court has issued a notice in the plea while staying the operation of the judgment and final order dated 11.02.2021, passed by the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal. The Apex Court made it clear that the dependants of the workers, who died on 06.01.2021, shall continue in employment till further orders.