Absolute Liability

A recent gas release incident in Ludhiana has generated new concerns about India’s industrial safety norms. The country has seen a rash of toxic chemical leaks in the last four decades as the industry has evolved, but some have resulted in significant human loss, invoking the specter of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Recently, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) initiated suo motu cognizance in the light of a media report saying that three minors were among 11 dead in a Ludhiana gas leak, with the Punjab government announcing Rs 2 lakh ex-gratia. NGT directed the district magistrate of Ludhiana to pay a compensation of Rs 20 lakh each to the kin of the 11 deceased.

The bench, comprising Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, Chairperson, Justice Sudhir Agarwal and Dr A Senthil Vel, constituted an eight-member fact-finding joint committee which is to be headed by the Chairman, Punjab State Pollution Control Board, and other members, including Regional Director (North), Central Pollution Control Board; Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow; a nominee of the Director, PGI, Chandigarh; a nominee of the National Disaster Response Force; District Magistrate, Ludhiana; and Commissioner, Municipal Corporation, Ludhiana.

The incident took place on April 30, 2023, when 11 people (all belonging to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), died after inhaling toxic gas in Giaspura area, Ludhiana. The authorities suspected that dumping of some chemicals in the sewer led to the noxious emissions. Following the incident, residents in the affected area were evacuated and the NDRF reached the spot immediately.

Dr Charan Kamal, forensic expert at Civil Hospital, Ludhiana, reportedly said: “The cause of death has come out as inhalation poisoning, but what type of poison it was will be clear only after viscera examination. Hydrogen sulphide is so toxic that even one breath can kill a person. Probably some acidic waste was thrown into the sewer which reacted with methane, carbon monoxide and other sewerage gases to produce hydrogen sulphide.”

The incident was reported when some people in a local grocery store started fainting; four of them died on the spot while others were rushed to hospital. Upon investigation, a broken manhole was found in the area and there was a strong smell emanating from it. Additional Deputy Commissioner Amarjit Singh Bains suspected that the chemical had been poured into the sewerage from that point. A cat was also found dead near the manhole.

A magisterial inquiry has been initiated. Air quality sensors used by the NDRF detected high levels of hydrogen sulphide gas, a kind of neurotoxin. A senior Punjab PCB official reportedly said: “There are several possibilities that may lead to high concentration of hydrogen sulphide. It indicates that the sewerage system was not cleaned properly, due to which the gas formation continued. There were no vents within the sewerage system to let the gasses escape.”

The district administration announced Rs 2 lakh compensation each to the families of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each for those who fell ill in the incident. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from CM Fund to all the deceased.

Neurotoxins are harmful compounds that have a direct impact on the neurological system. Neurotoxicity occurs when the nervous system’s normal activity is disrupted by exposure to hazardous substances. These compounds have the potential to damage or even kill neurons or nerve cells, which are essential for signal transmission and processing in the brain and other sections of the nervous system.

According to Dr Vitul Kumar Gupta, chairman of The Associations of Physicians of India in Malwa, Punjab, common neurotoxic gases are methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. “While methane and carbon monoxide are odorless gases, hydrogen sulphide has a pungent odor and can be fatal to humans in higher concentrations,” he reportedly said. In this case, a chemical might have reacted with methane gas. To remove such hazardous gases from wastewater, chemical oxidation is done whereby hydrogen peroxide is added.

Gas leak disasters naturally remind us of the most horrendous one that took place in Bhopal in 1984. The incident took place on December 2, 1984, at the Union Carbide India (UCC) Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal. More than 5,00,000 individuals were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins. The hazardous chemical found its way into nearby settlements. The tragedy killed about 15,000 individuals, including children and affected over 6,00,000 workers. People ran into the streets, vomiting and dying. The Bhopal Gas tragedy is known as the world’s worst industrial disaster. Legal procedures between India, UCC, and the US began after this. Eventually, after a series of litigations, an out-of-court settlement was reached where UCC agreed to pay $470 million as damages.

Another deadly incident broke out when oleum gas leaked in Shriram Foods and Fertilizers, Delhi, causing harm to numerous people. A petition was filed by social activist MC Mehta who demanded the closure and relocation of Shriram Industries, which used to manufacture dangerous compounds in Kirti Nagar, a highly inhabited area in Delhi. A leak in one of its units claimed the life of an advocate and harmed numerous others. The matter was handled by then Chief Justice PN Bhagwati, who expressed his serious concern for the safety of Delhi residents from the discharge of hazardous substances such as oleum gas. He said: “If any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm irrespective of the fact that the enterprise had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.”

The apex court ordered Shriram Industries to deposit Rs 20 lakh and issue a bank guarantee for Rs 15 lakh for payment of compensation claims by the victims if there was any escape of chlorine gas within three years of the order resulting in death or injury to any workmen or the general public. As a result, the Court held the sector completely accountable and ordered compensation to be given regardless of whether the harm was proven or not. The Supreme Court of India established the idea of absolute liability in M.C. Mehta vs Union of India and Union Carbide Corporation vs Union of India. Based on the strict liability theory established in Ryland vs Fletcher, the Supreme Court broadened the scope.

According to the principle of absolute liability, a person can be held entirely responsible for the mistake he made without any conditions. This is true in circumstances of dangerous gas leaks. As a result, a corporation operating in a hazardous industry cannot claim any exemption. It must pay compensation regardless of whether the disaster was caused by its fault.

A hazardous enterprise owes the community an unequivocal, non-delegable duty. Section 17 of The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, clarifies the “no-fault principle” of absolute liability, even if the tragedy was caused by an accident.

In 2014, an extensive fire broke out in the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) underground gas pipeline in Nagaram, East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, killing 15 and destroying 20 thatched houses. GAIL donated Rs 20 lakh to the families of each of the deceased, while the state government gave Rs 3 lakh each.

In another incident, six people were killed and 40 others injured in June 2014 at Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh’s Durg district owing to a leak in a methane gas pipeline at a water pump building. Bhilai Steel compensated the families of the deceased with Rs 30 lakh, Rs 15 lakh for those seriously injured and Rs 2 lakh for those with lesser injuries.

Another industrial accident occurred in May 2020 when poisonous styrene monomer vapour leaked out of a storage tank, due to a sudden rise in temperature in the premises of LG Polymers in Venkatapuram village, Vishakhapatnam, and spread over 3 km affecting five villages.

The government led by Jagan Mohan Reddy paid ex gratia payments of Rs 1 crore to the families of the 12 who died in the incident, as well as Rs 10 lakh to those kept on ventilators for an extended period of time, Rs 1 lakh to 485 people who were hospitalised with serious complications and 25,000 to 99 people who were treated as outpatients. Another 19,893 persons were compensated with Rs 25,000 each.

Hazardous industries need to take all measures to see that safety is adhered to. Lives are precious, after all.

—By Ritika Gaur and India Legal Bureau