Lessons from the Vizag industrial accident

| Updated on May 09, 2020 Published on May 08, 2020

The LG Polymers accident raises issues of culpability and industrial planning

The industrial accident at the LG Polymers plant in Vishakapatnam on Thursday morning raises questions of law, industrial policy and urbanisation. Nearly four decades after the Bhopal gas tragedy, it is doubtful whether the ecosystem for hazardous industries has changed for the better. This is despite the fact that the Bhopal gas tragedy led to some significant changes in the law, such as amendments to the Factories Act in 1987. These changes include instituting safety committees and setting up medical facilities in the vicinity of such units. It is worth taking stock of the implementation of these provisions and whether they require changes in keeping with evolving technologies and global best practices on occupational safety.

As for the law itself, the 1986 Oleum gas leak case provides the template. The then chief justice of India PN Bhagwati established the principle of ‘absolute liability’, which makes the Indian civil liability law among the most stringent globally. Strict liability was developed by the House of Lords in the iconic Reylands-versus-Fletcher case where the presence of a dangerous substance, its escape from the premises and non-natural use of the land were held to be grounds for imposing strict liability on the owner of the premises/establishment where the dangerous/toxic substance was kept. But the defendant can escape liability if the dangerous substance were to escape due to a natural disaster, or the person to whom damage was caused had consented to the eventuality, or had acted in a manner as to invite damage. However, the concept of absolute liability as evolved by the Supreme Court in the Oleum gas leak case does not take into account any of these exceptions. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the circumstance of lockdown can work in LG Polymers’ favour. For an event that bears parallels to the Bhopal gas tragedy, it is important that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The tortuous course of justice in the case of the Bhopal disaster, where Parliament stepped in through the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 which was then challenged on the basis of its Constitutional validity, basically hampered the delivery of damages. The clarity of the law insofar as civil liability is concerned needs to be availed of expeditiously. Damages can be established for death and disability through an ICMR-led survey.

The accident raises questions of whether hazardous industries should be situated near urban centres. A disaster management protocol should be in place for such industries, which can be organised as clusters with environmental controls. Governments too should pitch in with infrastructure.

Published on May 08, 2020

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