By – Aparajita Patel
In the Supreme Court of India
|NAME OF THE CASE||Director General ( Road Development) National Highways Authorities Of India V. Aam Aadmi Lokmanch|
|CITATION||Civil appeal no. 6932 of 2015|
|DATE OF THE CASE||14, July 2020|
|APPELLANT||Aam Aadmi Lokmanch|
|RESPONDENT||Director General ( road development) National Highways Authorities Of India.|
|BENCH/ JUDGE||Rohinton Fali Nariman, S. Ravindra Bhat, V. Ramasubramanian|
|STATUTES/ CONSTITUTION INVOLVED||National Highways Act, 1956 The National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986|
|IMPORTANT SECTIONS/ ARITCLES||Sections 4 and 5 of the National Highways Act, 1956 read with Section 16 of The National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986|
This Supreme Court decision has been a long time coming, and it is quite welcome given the current situation when around 1.35 million people die each year in traffic accidents. When another party is involved in an accident, the deceased’s next of kin or the aggrieved have someone to blame and seek recompense from. However, in road accidents caused by poor construction, even this level of comfort is rarely possible. These situations are frequently blamed on persons who were not physically present at the time of the incident but may have averted it in some way by their actions or omissions. The Supreme Court has raised the bar for road accident victims by acknowledging the NHAI’s and the Contractor’s involvement in this instance.
In India, automobile accidents are relatively common. They frequently occur as a result of undulations, roadwork issues, and poor construction. If there was no second party involved, and the cause of the accident was potholes on the road or the road having been washed away in the monsoon; what can the injured or aggrieved party do, except do blame his own stars?
In this case of Director General (Road Development) National Highways Authority of India Vs. Aam Aadmi Lokmanch, the Supreme Court handled the subject of an accident caused by a faulty highway road building. The Apex Court, after great deliberation, held that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), who is responsible for making highways in India and is also responsible for maintaining them, owes a duty to the people travelling over them. The Court held the NHAI responsible for their failure to perform their duties and ordered them to compensate the aggrieved.
BACKGROUND OF THE CASE:
Heavy rain fell in the early hours of the morning of June 6, 2013, in Mauje Shindewadi Tehsil, Bhor, and the adjacent areas owing to the monsoon. Water flowing from the hills at Mauje Shindewadi rushed into the road near the Pune Municipal Corporation’s octroi post on NH-4 in Mauje Shindewadi Tehsil Bhor, District Pune. This resulted in a big sheet of water forming an impediment. When the Alto vehicle driven by Vishakha Wadekar and her daughter Sanskruti was hindered in these conditions, they alighted to swim across to safety; unfortunately, the water gushed with such force that it carried away, killing them.
FACTS OF THE CASE:
The facts that led to this judgement were that on June 6, 2013, Vishakha and Sanskruti were travelling on National Highway-04 when a tiny hill at the side of the highway was destroyed as a result of over-mining. Both Mother and Daughter were killed when the rubble and a section of the hill fell and tumbled down to the road. Following the event, the National Green Tribunal’s Pune Bench, acting on an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch, determined that the accident was caused by unlawful mining and hill destruction near the highway by a contractor named Rathod. According to the NGT, the NHAI and Rathod are jointly liable to pay a compensation of 15 lakhs to the deceased’s next of kin. Following the incident, the National Green Tribunal’s Pune Bench determined that the accident was caused by illegal mining and hill destruction near the highway by a contractor named Rathod, acting on an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch. The NHAI and Rathod are jointly liable to pay a compensation of 15 lakhs to the deceased’s next of kin, according to the NGT.
ISSUE RAISED BEFORE THE COURT:
“The question is whether the NHAI, which obviously owns and controls the highway, and for whose benefit it was built, and for which the maintenance and operation agreement was signed, owed a duty of care to the users (of the highway”),” the Court stated, posing the issue.
ARUGUMENTS FROM THE APPELANT SIDE:
- The Lokmanch justified the order of the NGT and blamed the NHAI, the concessionaire, Rathod and the state government for not taking adequate and timely measures in public interest.
- It is alleged that proper channels were not created and maintained alongside the highway to avoid water clogging on the main carriageway.
- According to Aam Aadmi Lokmanch, there were numerous press stories showing the damage of hills around Pune for the purpose of land grabbing and unlawful development. They argued that it is critical to protect the hills because if they are not protected, there will be rampant soil-cutting and land grabbing, which will result in erosion and landslides, as happened to Ms Vishakha Wadekar and her daughter as a result of the NHAI’s negligence in allowing illegal construction of buildings near the hills and not preventing the land grabbing.
ARGUMENTS FROM THE RESPONDENT SIDE:
- The NHAI and its concessionaire were said to have no control over the activities of the state, which provided the mining licences.
- The NHAI further notes that on April 24, 2011 and July 15, 2011, it sent letters to the local authority, requesting action in the unlawful mining and operations, as well as hill degradation, for which Rathod was accountable.
- The licensee, Rathod, had continued illegal mining in the area, causing debris to accumulate. The NHAI argued that there was no evidence on the record that they were liable, had failed to execute a public duty, or had failed to prevent a foreseeable disaster, and that the NGT’s findings that they belonged to the neglect or claimed omission were therefore illegal.
- In the absence of any application by the deceased’s legal representatives, the NGT could not have given directives for payment of any monies, it was asserted. Apart from sending notices for the recovery of money related to alleged illicit mining, neither the state authorities nor the NHAI took any concrete remedial action, according to Rathod’s appeal.
RELATED PROVISIONS INVOLVED:
Related provisions that are involved in the case are:
Sections 4 and 5 of the National Highways Act, 1956 read with Section 16 of The National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
- Section 4 of National Highways Act, 1956:
All national highways shall vest in the Union, and for the purposes of this Act, “highways” include:
(i) all lands adjacent to such highways, whether demarcated or not;
(ii) all bridges, culverts, tunnels, causeways, carriageways, and other structures constructed on or across such highways; all bridges, culverts, tunnels, causeways, carriageways, and other structures constructed on or across such highways;
(iii) all highway fences, trees, posts and boundaries, furlong and milestones, or any area adjacent to such roadways.
- Section 5 of National Highways Act, 1956:
Developing and maintaining national highways is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation. The Central Government is responsible for developing and maintaining all national highways in good repair; however, the Central Government may direct, by notification in the Official Gazette, that any function related to the development or maintenance of any national highway shall, subject to such conditions, if any, be exercisable by the Government of the State within which the national highway is located, or by any official or authority subject to the Central Government or the State Government, as indicated in the notification.
- Section 16 of The National Highways Authorities of India Act, 1988:
Functions of the Authority.—
- The Authority’s function is to build, maintain, and manage the national highways and any other roadways vested in or entrusted to it by the Government, subject to the rules issued by the Central Government in this regard.
- Without limiting the extent of the provisions of subsection (1), the Authority may, in the performance of its functions—
- Nothing contained in this section shall be construed as—
(a) authorising the disregard by the Authority of any law for the time being in force; or
(b) authorising any person to institute any proceeding in respect of a duty or liability to which the Authority or its officers or other employees would not otherwise be subject under this Act.
- The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986:
The Supreme Court affirmed a National Green Tribunal ruling mandating the National Highways Authority of India to pay compensation to the legal representatives of a mother and her daughter who perished in an accident while travelling on a National Highway. Following this occurrence, the National Green Tribunal’s Pune bench issued a number of directives in response to an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch. The tragedy was caused by unlawful mining and operations, as well as hill devastation by one Rathod, according to the report. According to the Tribunal, the NHAI and Rathod are jointly liable to pay Rs. 15 lakhs in compensation to the legal representatives of the deceased. The NHAI argued in its Supreme Court appeal that there was no evidence on the record that the NHAI was in any way culpable, had failed to perform a public duty, or had neglected to avert a foreseeable calamity, and that the Tribunal’s findings, insofar as they related to the NHAI’s neglect or alleged omission, were illegal.
The Supreme Court addressed whether the NHAI, which owns and operates the highway, owes a duty of care to the roadway’s users. The bench, which included Justices RF Nariman, S. Ravindra Bhat, and V. Ramasubramaniam, took note of the inquiry findings in this respect and stated:
“With regard to the NHAI’s obligation under Sections 4 and 5 of the Highways Act, coupled with Section 16 of the NHAI Act, there can be no dispute that the NHAI was liable for the highway’s upkeep, including the stretch where the accident happened. The sub-divisional officer’s report clearly shows that inspection reports were provided 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, as well as the foreseeability of the later event. Furthermore, letters from the local administration and the NHAI to Rathod demonstrate that he was required to take corrective measures. The lack of the NHAI to ensure corrective action, as well as Rathod’s failure to take preventative steps, prima facie reveal their liability.”
In this regard, the Supreme Court cited a number of cases holding that a statutory corporation or municipal government might be held accountable in tort for injury caused by a failure to supervise (Municipal Corpn. of Delhi v. Sushila Devi, Vadodara Municipal Corporation v Purshottam V. Muranji, Rajkot Municipal Corpn. v. Manjulben Jayantilal Nakum etc.)
The Supreme Court has rendered true justice to the surviving relatives of the deceased in this case, demonstrating once again that corporate bodies are not immune from tort claims in this precedent-setting decision. This case is a shining example of our judicial system, exemplifying what justice looks like and demonstrating that, even in these turbulent times, the courts continue to protect their citizens.