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Important Public Interest Litigation

This is not an exhaustive list; however, some of the most important cases decided
by the Supreme Court of India in the last few decades are listed here. There are
cases that have dealt with various issues ranging from politically sensitive ones
involving public accountability to human rights issues, and environmental issues.

PIL Cases in the 1970s

In Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdul Bhai (1976) 3 SCC 832 court gave a soothing
decision in this historic case, introducing the doctrine of Judicial Activism. Justice
Krishna Iyer stated: “Test Litigation, representative actions, pro bono publico and the
like forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the
common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues
on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural short-comings”.

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration [(1978) 4 SCC 494] the Supreme Court dealt
with the right to protection against solitary confinement and putting undertrials in
fetters for an unlimited duration of time. ”It observed that “the operation of Articles
14, 19 and 21 may be pared down for a prisoner but not puffed out altogether…So
also, locomotion may be limited by the needs of imprisonment but binding hand and
foot, with hoops of steel, every man or women sentenced for a term is doing violence
to Part III”.

PIL Cases in the 1980s

Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardichan [(1980) 4 SCC 162] is a path-finder in the
field of people's involvement in matters of public importance. The court accepted the
locus standi of the citizens of a ward to seek directions against the Municipality for
taking remedial action under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and
putting an end to the nuisance caused due to open drains, pits and public excretion in
the absence of lavatories.

One of the earliest cases in the subject of Public Interest Litigation is the famous
Hussainara Khatoon case. There were a series of cases entitled Hussainara Khatoon v.
Home Secretary, State of Bihar reported in 1980 (1) SCC 81, 1980 (1) SCC 91, 1980
(1) SCC 93, 1980 (1) SCC 98, 1980 (1) SCC 108 and 1980 (1) SCC 115. These were
filed by an advocate in the Supreme Court of India by way of a writ petition, in which
the plight of helpless undertrials, who were behind bars for decades, for a period
much more than they would have undergone in case of conviction, was brought to the
notice of the court. It observed that “even under our Constitution, though speedy trial
is not specifically enumerated as a fundamental right, it is implicit in the broad sweep
and content of Article 21”.

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India in S.P. Gupta v. Union of
India [1981 Supp SCC 87] upheld the locus standi of lawyers to file a writ petition by
way of public interest litigation. Highlighting the change in the court’s approach to
the concept of locus standi, the court observed: (at page 207, paragraph 16) "It must
now be regarded as well-settled law where a person who…is unable to approach the
court on account of some disability or it is not practicable for him to move the court
for some other sufficient reasons…some other person can invoke the assistance of the
court for the purpose of providing judicial redress to the person wronged or

Another famous case, which is significant in the early years of the PIL is Khatri v.
State of Bihar 1981 (1) SCC 627, in which the Bhagalpur Central Jail administration
was alleged to have gouged out the eyes of thirty-one undertrial prisoners. Advocate
Kapila Hingorani filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court contending the violation
of fundamental rights of these prisoners under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the
Constitution, and the court came to their rescue. Justice Bhagwati, while considering
the relief that could be given by the court, stressed on the need for implementing
public interest litigation in very explicit terms: "...Why should the court not be
prepared to forge new tools and devise new remedies for the purpose of vindicating
the most precious of the precious fundamental right to life and personal liberty".

In Upendra Baxi (Dr) v. State of U.P. [(1983) 2 SCC 308], the Supreme Court’s
attention was drawn to the pathetic condition prevailing in protective homes. The
Supreme Court took notice of these conditions on the basis of a letter written by two
law professors and issued remedial guidelines to improve the same.

Sheela Barse v. State of Maharastra [(1983) 2 SCC 96]: In this case, on receiving a
letter from the petitioner, a journalist, the Supreme Court took notice of the complaint
of custodial violence to women prisoners in the lock-up in the city of Bombay. The
court issued various directions which included the following: “Four or five police
lock-ups should be selected in reasonably good localities where only female suspects
should be kept and they should be guarded by female constables”.

In Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) 3 SCC 545, a petition was
filed by a journalist challenging the decision of the Municipality to remove huts from
pavements, sometimes without even giving a hearing to the slum dwellers. The court
held that such an action could be challenged as violative of Article 21 of the
Constitution of India and ruled as follows: “Trespass is a tort…But, even the law of
Torts requires that though a trespasser may be evicted forcibly, the force used must be
no greater that what is reasonable and appropriate to the occasion and, what is even
more important, the trespasser should be asked and given a reasonable opportunity to
depart before force is used to expel him.”

Rural litigation and Environment Kendra, Dehradun and others v. State of U.P. and
others [(1985) 2 SCC 431] was a case “involving issues relating to environment and
ecological balance with implications to the welfare of the generality of people living
in the country.” The Supreme Court held that Article 2l covers the right to a clean
environment and that the permanent assets of mankind cannot be allowed to be

In Vincent Panikurlangara v. Union of India [(1987) 2 SCC 165], a letter was

entertained by the Supreme Court of India as a public interest litigation. It issued
directions to the Central Government “to set up Regional Drug Laboratories in
addition to the Central Laboratory” to keep a check on sale and use of banned or
harmful drugs and also to promote research and to coordinate activity in that regard.
PIL Cases in the 1990s
In Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar [(1991) 1 SCC 598] the Supreme Court held that
the “right to live is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and it
includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of
life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a
citizen has right to have recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution for removing the
pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to the quality of life.”

i) In M C Mehta v. Union of India [(1992) 1 SCC 358] the petitioner prayed for
issuing appropriate directions to various sources of mass media to make aware the
people of the country about environmental issues and that environment should be
made a compulsory subject in schools and colleges. The Supreme Court accepted
these prayers and issued various directions in this respect.

ii) There have been a series of cases filed by M C Mehta on various aspects of the
environment: these include inter alia the Taj Mahal case, the Ganges Pollution case,
the Vehicular Pollution case, the re-location of polluting industries case, the Delhi
sewage Treatment Plant case, the Child Labour Case, the Aquaculture Case and many
others. For more information, please see the link:

In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan [(1997) 6 SCC 241], which is the celebrated case
laying down guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment of women in the
workplace, the court focused its attention in “assisting in finding suitable methods for
realisation of the true concept of 'gender equality'; and to prevent sexual harassment
of working women in all work places through judicial process, to fill the vacuum in
existing legislation.”

In Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra [(1999) 1 SCC 759], the
subject of sexual harassment of women at the work place has further been elaborated
upon by the Supreme Court of India.

PIL Cases 2000 onwards

In Balco Employees’ Union v. Union of India and Others (2002) 2 SCC 333 dealing
with the question of judicial interference in economic policy decisions, the Supreme
Court emphasised that “in the sphere of economic policy or reforms the court is not
the appropriate forum… Courts will interfere only if there is a clear violation of
constitutional or statutory duties.” It also clarified that Public Interest Litigation was
intended to mean nothing more than what the words themselves said, namely,
"litigation in the interest of the public”.

In Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar, 2003 (6) SCC 1, the Supreme Court noted the
plight of the employees of public sector undertakings or the statutory authorities in the
State of Bihar. In a letter to the Supreme Court, an Advocate of the Supreme Court,
Kapila Hingorani brought to its notice many incidents of death owing to starvation or
malnutrition due to non-payment of salaries of the workers working in these
corporations. The court pierced the corporate veil in this case and also held the State
of Bihar liable.
In Dattaraj Nattuji Thaware v. State of Maharashtra 2005 (1) SCC 590, the Supreme
Court of India reiterated the recent trend to the following effect: “Public Interest
Litigation which has now come to occupy an important field in the administration of
law… (should not become)…'publicity interest litigation' or 'private interest litigation'
or 'politics interest litigation' or the latest trend, i.e. 'paise income litigation'. In order
to discourage the practice, the court stressed the necessity of imposing ‘exemplary”
costs on people for bringing frivolous petitions.

PILs on Civil Liberties

There have been a series of cases dealing with civil liberties making public interest
litigation as a medium. These have led to the expansion of the ambit and scope of
Article 21. The right to live with human dignity is considered as one of the cardinal
fundamental rights available to a person for the "dignity of man supersedes all other
considerations". It includes inter alia the following cases:

In Charles Sobhraj v. Superintendent, Central Jail [(1978) 4 SCC 104] the court
emphasised “that imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights...”

The principle that free legal services to the poor and the needy was an essential
element of any reasonable, fair and just procedure under Article 21 was upheld in
M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra 1978 (3) SCC 544.

In T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamilnadu [(1983) 2 SCC 68] the Supreme Court
held a prisoner on death row has a right to move the court for quashing of the
sentence in case of unreasonable delay in the carrying out of the sentence.

The right against custodial violence was upheld in Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa,
[(1993) 2 SCC 746]. With regard to the question of awarding compensation, the court
crystallised the judicial right to compensation and held: “The relief of monetary
compensation, as exemplary damages, in proceedings under Article 32…is a remedy
available in public law and is based on the strict liability for contravention of the
guaranteed basic and indefeasible rights of the citizen”.

In Parmanand Katara v. Union of India 1989 (4) SCC 286 the Supreme Court in the
context of medico-legal cases, has emphasised the need for rendering immediate
medical aid to injured persons to preserve life and the obligations of the State as well
as doctors in that regard.

In Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti v. State of West Bengal [(1996) 4 SCC 37]
the Supreme Court observed that “Article 21 imposes an obligation on the State to
safeguard the right to life of every person. Preservation of human life is thus of
paramount importance. The government hospitals run by the State and the medical
officers employed therein are duty-bound to extend medical assistance for preserving
human life.”

In Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Subhra Chakraborty [(1996) 1 SCC 490] the Supreme

Court suo moto awarded an interim compensation of Rs. 1,000 per month to a victim
of rape. At page 500, the court has described the position of women in rather eloquent
terms: “Unfortunately, a woman, in our country, belongs to a class or group of society
who are in a disadvantaged position on account of several social barriers and
impediments and have, therefore, been the victims of tyranny, at the hands of men
with whom they, under the Constitution, enjoy equal status.”

The rights of an arrested person are highlighted in D.K. Basu v. State of West
Bengal [(1997) 1 SCC 416]. The Supreme Court’s observation was as follows: “An
enforceable right to compensation in cases of ‘torture’ including ‘mental torture’
inflicted by the State or its agencies is now a part of the public law regime in India.”

Compiled by Aashish Gupta, a final year student of the law programme of Campus
Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Aashish is currently interning
under New Delhi based advocate Ramni Taneja. He graduated in B.Sc. (H)
Zoology from Hindu College, University of Delhi. He finds the study of IPR and
Corporate Law most interesting. He can be reached at