The Supreme Court has upheld an order passed by the National Green Tribunal directing the National Highways Authority of India to pay compensation to legal representatives of a woman and her daughter who died in an accident while travelling through a National Highway.
On 06 June, 2013, Vishakha and Sanskruti, were travelling through a National Highway when over-mining resulted in the destruction of a small hill by the side of the national highway. The resultant debris and a part of the hill collapsed and slid down to the road, leading to the accident in which they died.
After this incident, the Pune bench of the National Green Tribunal, on an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch issued various directions in this regard. It noted that the accident is a result of the illegal mining and activities and hill destruction by one Rathod. The Tribunal observed that the NHAI and Rathod are jointly liable to pay an amount of Rs. 15 Lakhs towards compensation to the legal representatives of the deceased.
In the appeal before the Supreme Court, NHAI contended that that there was no material on record to establish that the NHAI was in any way culpable or had failed to perform a public duty or neglected to avert a foreseeable calamity and therefore the findings of the Tribunal in so far as they pertained to the neglect or alleged omission of the NHAI, were contrary to law.
The Apex court considered the issue whether the NHAI, which owns and controls the highway, led to a duty of care to the users of the highway.
"The question is 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)", the Court said, framing the issue.
Taking note of the inquiry reports in this regard, the bench comprising Justices RF Nariman, S. Ravindra Bhat and V. Ramasubramaniam 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. "
In this regard, the SC referred to a series of precedents which held that a statutory corporation or local authority can be held liable in tort for injury occasioned on account of omission to oversee(Municipal Corpn. of Delhi v. Sushila Devi,Vadodara Municipal Corporation v Purshottam V. Muranji, Rajkot Municipal Corpn. v. Manjulben Jayantilal Nakum etc.)
Rejecting the challenge against NGT's Jurisdiction, the bench observed that there was violation of the Environment Protection Act in the present case, because Rathod's mining lease covered an area in excess of 5 hectares; it fell within the regulatory notification of 2006. By virtue of the said notification, environmental clearance was necessary even for minor mineral extraction where the area of operation is less than 5 hectares. Referring to various provisions of National Green Tribunal Act, the Court said that they enable the tribunal (NGT) to direct, payment of compensation, "having regard to the damage to public health, property and environment". It observed thus:
"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."
Case name: THE DIRECTOR GENERAL (ROAD DEVELOPMENT) NATIONAL HIGHWAYS AUTHORITY OF INDIA vs. AAM AADMI LOKMANCH
Case no.: CIVIL APPEAL NO. 6932 OF 2015
Coram: Justices RF Nariman, S. Ravindra Bhat and V. Ramasubramaniam