The Supreme Court has held the National Highways Authority of India liable for the death of a mother and daughter due to the collapse of a hill and the debris left on the highway on account of illegal mining.
The bench, comprising Justices RF Nariman, S Ravindra Bhat and V Ramasubramanian, while upholding the order of the National Green Tribunal, directed the NHAI to pay compensation to the legal representatives of the deceased.
On June 6, 2013, when Ms Vishakha Wadekar was driving her car with her young daughter, Sanskruti, her car slid on the debris left on the road. The debris was the leftover from a hill collapse, resulting directly from illegal mining in the area. The car crashed, ending the lives of both.
Thereafter, on an application by a registered organization, Aam Aadmi Lokmanch, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Pune bench held the NHAI and a man named Rathod jointly liable for the accident and the death. The NGT directed the NHAI to pay compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the legal representatives of the deceased.
The NHAI thereafter preferred an appeal before the Supreme Court, contenting that there was no material record to show that NHAI was negligent and had failed to perform its duty.
The issue before the court was that “whether the NHAI, which indisputably owns and controls the highway, and on whose behalf it was constructed, and for which the maintenance and operation agreement was entered into, led to a duty of care, to the users (of the highway)”.
In this regard the bench observed: “Having regard to the duty imposed on the NHAI by virtue of Sections 4 and 5 of the Highways Act, read with Section 16 of the NHAI Act, there can be no manner of doubt that the NHAI was responsible for the maintenance of the highway, including the stretch upon which the accident occurred. The report of the sub-divisional officer clearly shows that inspection reports were furnished to the NHAI shortly before the incident, highlighting the deficiencies; also, the NHAI’s correspondence with Rathod, and the local administration, reveal that it was aware of the danger and likelihood of risk to human life, and the foreseeability of the event that actually occurred later. Further, letters addressed by the local administration and the NHAI to Rathod similarly show that it was incumbent upon him to take remedial action. The failure of the NHAI to ensure remedial action, and likewise the failure by Rathod to take measures to prevent the accident, prima facie, disclose their liability.”
The court further upholding the jurisdiction of NGT observed that, “This court is of the considered opinion that the expression “environment”and “environmental pollution” have to be given a broader meaning, having regard to Parliamentary intent to ensure the objective of the EPA. It effectuates the principles underlying Article 48A of the Constitution of India. The EPA is in essence, an umbrella legislation enacting a broad framework for the central government to coordinate the activities of various central and state authorities established under other laws, such as the Water Act and Air Act. The EPA also effectively enunciates the critical legislative policy for environment protection. It changes the narrative and emphasis from a narrow concept of pollution control to a wider facet of environment protection. The expansive definition of environment that includes water, air and land “and the interrelation which exist among and between water, air and land, other human creatures, plants, micro-organisms and property” give an indication of the wide powers conferred on the Central Government. A wide net is cast over the environment related laws. The EPA also empowers the central government to comprehensively control environmental pollution by industrial and related activities. For these reasons, and in view of the above discussion, it is held that the NGT correctly assumed jurisdiction, having regard to the nature of the accident in the facts of this case.”
Read the Judgment here;27371_2015_34_1502_22897_Judgement_14-Jul-2020
-India Legal Bureau