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National Green Tribunal | A bench comprising of Adarsh Kumar Goel (Chairperson), Sudhir Agarwal (Judicial Member), JJ., and A. Senthil Vel (Expert Member) took suo motu cognizance based on media report about footwear factory fire hazard in outer Delhi’s Narela Industrial Area on 01-11-2022 at around 9:30 a.m. and directed district magistrate to ensure compensation is paid to the victim within two weeks.

In the instant matter, a fire broke out in a footwear factory in the Narela Industrial Area and two people (Akhil (20) and Sonu Thakur (24)) died and 18 were injured. It was noted that combustible material such as plastic and rubber had led the fire to spread in other areas within minutes and produced a lot of smoke.

The Tribunal issued advance notice dated 02-11-2022 seeking response from CPCB, Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), District Magistrate, North Delhi, Director, Industrial Safety and Health (DISH) and M/s Balaji Footwear, the Project Proponent (PP).

The DISH submitted its report stating that the factory is covered under S. 2(k) of the Factories Act, 1948 and was engaged in manufacturing PVC Footwear. The report stated that the factory did not have firefighting equipment, certificate of first aid trained person was missing, emergency exit had not been provided, it failed to maintain all practicable measures to prevent outbreak of fire and its spread, the factory was being run without a licence and precautions were not taken for safety and health of the workers. The report also stated that the fire had occurred on the first floor of the building due to an electric short circuit and it was followed by an explosion of solvent stored as raw material kept on the same floor.

“There were violations of provisions of Sections 61 of the Factories Act, 1948 read with Rule 79 of the Delhi Factories Rules, 1950 in not having firefighting equipment as prescribed under Rule 61 of the said Rules read with Section 38 of the said Act, not having certificate of first aid trained person amounting to contravention of the provisions of Section 45 of the said Act read with Rule 63 of the said Rules and emergency exit had not been provided from basement to ground floor, ground floor to first floor, first floor to second floor, second floor to terrace in the factory and failed to maintain all practicable measures to prevent outbreak of fire and its spread, both internally and externally amounting to contravention of the provisions of Rule 61 of the Delhi Factories Rules, 1950 read with Section 38 of the Factories Act, 1948. The factory was being run without a licence, amounting to contravention of the provisions of Rule 3, 3-A & 11-A of the Delhi Factories Rules, 1950 read with section 6 & 7 of the Factories Act, 1948.”

The DPCC submitted its report stating that two units, M/s Bala Sundari Industries and M/s Sandeep Plastic were functioning at the plot and were engaged in manufacturing footwear, PVC granules and printing on footwear. M/s Bala Sundari Industries had not been granted consent to operate “due to generation of hazardous waste from printing activities”. The report stated that “the incident took place due to the negligence of untrained or unskilled workers and labours inside the premises and also due to the negligence of the owner of the factory.”

According to the report submitted by the district magistrate, North Delhi, workers were mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The number of deaths has gone up to six, out of which three workers died on the day of the fire, while the others succumbed to injuries in the hospital about a week later and 14 were injured.

Relying on M.C Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395, where the law on ‘absolute liability’ was laid, the Tribunal observed that death took place during hazardous activities of the PPs operating without requisite precautions and thus PP has ‘absolute liability’ and the victims are entitled to compensation as per applicable law including the Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923.

The Tribunal noted the submission of counsel for the district magistrate that there is a policy of making ex-gratia payment in such cases but the same cannot be executed due to want of bank details and stated It is a matter of regret that the Administration took such long time in collecting the bank details when all particulars of the victims are available, and victims require immediate help in such tragedy. The attitude of the Administration shows lack of sensitivity in handling such a human tragedy by a Welfare State.”

The Tribunal directed the District Magistrate to ensure that all necessary payments to the victims were made within two weeks and for the same he can interact with all concerned Authorities including the Commissioner under the Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923 for enforcing statutory liability of the employer. The Tribunal also directed the DPCC to ensure that further actions are taken for violation of environmental safety norms.

The Tribunal mentioned In re: News item published in The Indian Express dated 12.07.2021 titled “Six killed in factory fire: Owner held, raids on to nab second accused”, 2021 SCC OnLine NGT 2933 which was like the present case and observed that

“While primary liability to pay compensation is of the owner/occupier of the premises where the incident happened but if compensation is not paid or there is a delay in making such compensation, the State Authorities must make payment and recover the same from the Project Proponent. Victim should not remain without remedy. Access to remedy has to be provided.”

The Tribunal directed District Magistrate to ensure that the victims were adequately compensated according to the law and if the compensation is not paid within three months from the date of incident, the State itself is obligated to pay compensation to the victims. The Tribunal stated that

“…the State itself will be liable to pay compensation at the rate of Rs. 20 lakhs in respect of each of the deceased victims and Rs. 15 lakhs to persons who have burns in excess of 50%, Rs.10 lakhs for persons who have burns from 25 to 50% and Rs. 5 lakhs for persons who have injuries between 5 to 25%. Victims who were treated as outpatients and who had minor degree of burns or other forms of simple injuries shall be paid Rs. 2 lakhs.”

The Tribunal directed DPCC to ensure that till payment of compensation and compliance of environment safety norms, the units in question are not to resume their operation or create third party rights in their assets and hoped that Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA) will provide necessary legal assistance to the victims.

[In re: News item published in The Indian Express dated 01.11.2022 titled Delhi: 2 dead in factory fire in Delhi’s Narela, Original Application No. 804/2022, decided on 23-11-2022]


Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr. Atif Suhrawardy, Counsel for CPCB;

Ms. Jyoti Mendiratta, Counsel for GNCTD;

Mr. Narender Pal Singh, Counsel for DPCC.


*Ritu Singh, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In an appeal regarding the jurisdiction of National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) to pass an order to operate a unit without Environmental Clearance and against the decision of closure of the unit, the bench of Hemant Gupta* and Vikram Nath, JJ. has observed that there was no error in the order passed by the Tribunal that opportunity should be provided to re-rolling or cold rolling units to fall within Environmental Clearance (EC) regime by granting a period of at least one year to operate for the purpose. However, the order of closure of the unit cannot be sustained.

The Court noted that an application was filed before the Tribunal on 20.7.2019 on the ground that the Project Proponent has set up the unit in violation of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification as such plant would fall within category 3(a) i.e., secondary metallurgical industry, for which prior environmental clearance is required. The Tribunal took a prima facie view that the industry requires environmental clearance and thus stayed all activities of the project. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommended the granting a grace period of one year to the industry that has been established after Consent to establish and Consent to operate, and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change were in favour of the same, on this basis the Tribunal passed the order that opportunity should be provided to such units to fall within the Environment Clearance regime by granting a period of at least one year to operate for the purpose.

The applicant/appellant challenged the time granted by the Tribunal on the ground that the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to grant period for obtaining Environmental Clearance as the EIA notification mandates a prior Environmental Clearance and as consent was not obtained before the setting up of the industry, the time limit of one year is against the mandate of Section 21 of the NGT Act, 2010.

Further, the Project Proponent/appellant, aggrieved against the order passed by the Tribunal, challenged the findings recorded that Environmental Clearance is required as during the pendency of the appeal a closure notice was served by the Gujarat State Pollution Control Board and the unit was closed in terms of the said notice.

Per Contra, the Government has published a notification on 20.7.2022 in terms of Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to apply Terms of Reference within one year followed by Environmental Clearance and has taken a considered decision in line with the NGT order.

The Court noted that there was an ambiguity whether such Rolling Steel Mills are required to obtain prior Environmental Clearance, and viewed that there was no error in the order passed by the Tribunal as it was based upon the recommendation of the EAC which suggested that one year time should be granted to the industry to comply with the EIA notification. Further, it is not a case of ambiguous interpretation in respect of one or two units but the entire country was having the same interpretation that Re-Rolling Steel Plants do not require a prior Environmental Clearance and that ambiguity has been removed on 20.7.2022 when the notification has been amended. Since there was ambiguity earlier, the Tribunal had granted time to the Project Proponent to comply with the requirement of Environmental Clearance.

The Court further viewed the decision in Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Rohit Prajapati, (2020) 17 SCC 157 , wherein the Court found that the circular is contrary to the EIA notification of 1994 wherein the Ministry decided that the industrial units which had gone into production without obtaining an EC would have to apply for and obtain an ex-post facto EC has no applicability to the facts of the present case where the Ministry itself is of the opinion that there was an ambiguity in the EIA notification of 2006 which was subsequently amended in 2022.

The Court took note of the ruling in Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai v. Ankita Sinha, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 897 wherein the Court held “that the NGT Act, when read as a whole, gives much leeway to the NGT to go beyond a mere adjudicatory role and the Parliament’s intention is to create a multifunctional body, with the capacity to provide redressal for environmental exigencies”. Thus, such directions of the Tribunal are, in fact, arising out of the scope of powers conferred on the Tribunal under Section 21 of the NGT Act.

The Court also took note of the ruling in Pahwa Plastics (P) Ltd. v. Dastak NGO, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 362, wherein the Court held “that the ex-post Environmental Clearance should not ordinarily be granted but it cannot be declined with pedantic rigidity, regardless of the consequences of stopping the operation”. Hence, the order of the Tribunal to close the units was found to be erroneous.

The Court further observed that out of 1689 units in the country, the applicant has chosen the Project Proponent as it appears to be a motivated petition to target the Project Proponent though the Cold Steel Rolling Mills in the country were operating under the same regime. Moreover, not only the Project Proponent, but the country also has suffered immensely on account of closure of the unit which was export oriented unit. The unit has been lying closed since 2021 and in view of the amendment in the EIA notification in 2022, the unit has time to seek EC in terms of the time line mentioned in the notification. Therefore, the order of closure of the unit cannot be sustained.

 [Gajubha Jadeja Jesar v. Union of India, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 993, decided on 10.08.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Hemant Gupta