The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on June 1st, 2020 held that the South Korean company by the name of LG Polymers has a strict and an absolute liability for environmental damage and loss of life consequent to the Visakhapatnam Gas Leak that took place on May 7th, 2020.
The NGT had taken suo moto cognizance of the incident and in their order had directed the company to deposit a sum of Rs 50 crore as compensation before the District Magistrate of Visakhapatman as an initial payment.
Thereafter, the company had approached the Supreme Court over the issue of multitude of committees proving the incident. The Apex Court had directed the company to return before the NGT on the grounds that the Tribunal was already seized of the matter.
Now, the Hon’ble NGT, while stating absolute and strict liability on the company has held that the amount shall be used towards the restoration of the environment and compensation to the victims.
One of the major issues considered by the NGT was a challenge to its earlier order in the suo motu proceedings wherein the deposit of money was directed. The bench headed by Justice A.K. Goel rejected the aforesaid contention, thereby reiterating its power to take suo motu cognizance. The NGT stated that it is a specialized Tribunal and is empowered to take suo motu cognizance of environmental mishaps, and pass orders effectively.
NGT has the purpose and power to provide relief and compensation to victims of environment damage
It was further stated that “NGT has the purpose and power to provide relief and compensation to victims of environment damage, restitution of property, and restoration of environment. To effectuate this purpose, NGT has wide powers to devise its own procedure. In appropriate circumstances, this power includes the power to institute suo-motu proceedings and not keep its hands tied in the face of drastic environmental damage and serious violation of right to life, public health and damage to property. The Tribunal also said that these wide powers are even more pertinent when the victims of such environmental tragedies are those belonging to the marginalised sections. In such cases, it would not only be the power of the Tribunal, but also its duty to exercise such power for effective remedy. Failure to exercise suo-motu jurisdiction in such circumstances would render these victims without remedy, causing irretrievable injustice and 11 breakdown of Rule of Law.”
It was also stated by the NGT in its order that “If this Tribunal is prevented from instituting suo-motu proceedings, these issues and violations would remain unaddressed, citizens’ inalienable right to life and other rights will stand jeopardized, and the serious and irreversible environment damage would continue unchecked.”
Another issue raised by the Company was that there are pending proceedings related to the incident before other forums. In this regard the NGT has stated that “there is no conflict as the scope of the proceedings do not overlap. The order passed by the NGT is not in the teeth of orders passed by any other fora, nor are the findings of various committees constituted to probe the incident, the order states.”
Thus, in conclusion, the NGT has held “We find the Company has strict and absolute liability for the environmental damage and consequential loss including to life and public health in this case.”
The NGT further stated that the liability of the company stands established after placing reliance on the report submitted by the committee that was constituted to probe the incident of May 7.
Therefore, the NGT has upheld its earlier order and further directed the company to deposit the initial amount of Rs 50 crores before the District Magistrate of Visakhapatman, which is to be used towards compensation for victims and restoration of environment. The NGT has further directed that a restoration plan shall be evolved by a committee comprising of two representatives each from the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) alongwith three representatives of the government of Andhra Pradesh. Furthermore, it has also been directed that this plan is to be prepared within a period of two months, after which, post the assessment and the restoration plan prepared by the committee, a final amount of compensation will be quantified.
Moreover, the NGT has also directed the Chief Secretary of the state to identify and take appropriate action against those persons who are responsible for the failure of law in permitting the company to operate without requisite statutory clearances. This shall also be done within a period of two months and a report on the same to be placed before the Tribunal.
Bibhash Kumar Sharma, Advocate