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18Aug09

Pubic Interest Litigation

The Definition:
The term Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is composed of two
words; „Public Interest‟- According to Black‟s Law Dictionary/7th Edition states:
an expression which indicates something in which the general public or the
community at large has some pecuniary interest, or some interest by which their
legal rights or liabilities are affected. The word litigation on the other hand
means, a legal action, including all legal proceedings initiated in a Court of Law
with the purpose of enforcing a right or seeking a remedy. Hence, lexically the
expression „Public Interest Litigation‟ denotes a legal action initiated in a court
of law for the enforcement of public interest where the rights of an individual or
a group has been affected.

PLI-IN-INDIA:
The concept of Public Interest Litigation first emerged in USA.
The American concept of PIL is clarified by a statement made by “The Council for
Public Interest Law” setup by the “Ford Foundation in USA”; “Public Interest Law is the
name that has been given to efforts to provide legal representations to previously
unrepresented groups and interests. Such groups and interest include; the poor,
environmentalists, consumers, racial and ethnic minorities, and others”. “However PIL in
India substantially differs from that in the USA”. “A statement made by Clark.D.
Cunningham in his published opinion, “PIL in Indian Supreme Court: A study in
the light of American experience”Pg-494. Prof: Upendra Baxi in his published
opinion “Social Action Litigation in the Supreme Court of India” has pointed out
that the prime focus of American PIL was not so much on state repression or
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governmental lawlessness as on public participation in governmental decision
making. And since the Indian notion of PIL has assumed the character of more of
a moral and humane process in providing justice to the victim as in individual or
to a group in matters relating to infringement of fundamental rights or denial of
civil privileges on the basis of caste, color or creed, Prof: Baxi therefore insisted
that the Indian phenomenon described as PIL should be termed as “Social Action
Litigation”.

PIL in Action:
Because it was seen as a pursuit for the vindication of private
vested interest, PIL in India until the early 1970‟s was in its rudimentary state.
During this time period, initiation and continuance of litigation was prerogative
only to the individual aggrieved party. A complete change in the scenario in the
1980‟s with the efforts taken by Justice P.N.Bhagwati and Justice V.R. Krishna
Iyer which was marked by attempts to bring wider issues affecting the general
public at large within the ambit. As a result, the concept of PIL has evolved
through which legal remedies can be sought out without forwarding any heavy
court fees as is required in private civil litigation.
The PIL jurisdiction forged by the Supreme Court is an extension of its
jurisdiction under Article-32. PIL in India is centered essentially around court
actions with the liberalization of the rule of “Locus Standi”, (Latin-Place to stand. Right
to be heard in a court of law), especially for the poor and deprived. With the change in
the character and functions of the state, the rule of locus standi has been
liberalized. „Ashoke Kumar Vs The State of West Bengal_2004‟(Supreme
Court‟s Verdict); “Under the relaxed rule, any member of the public having sufficient
interest can maintain an action for judicial redress of a public injury suffered by an
indiscriminate class of persons, provided the petitioner acts bona fide and is not moved by
an oblique motivation”. In D.C. Wadhwa Vs the State of Bihar (1987), the

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petitioner, a professor of political science who had done substantial research in
the area of proper implementation of constitutional provisions, challenged the
practice followed by the State of Bihar in re-promulgating a number of
ordinances without seeking the approval of the legislature. The court held that
the petitioner as a member of public has „sufficient interest‟ to maintain a
petition under Art-32.
On 1st Dec 1988, the Supreme Court issued a notification on what matters could
be entertained as PIL. (Source-Guidelines for Entertaining Letters/Petitions as PIL, accessed
from Parivesh News Letter. www.cpcb.inc/legislation/PIL/Newsletter ). Under this
notification, letter petitions falling under certain categories alone would be
treated, but before that the letter would be first screened in the PIL Cell after
which it would be placed before the judge. The categories include matters
concerning bonded labour, petitions from prisoners, petitions against police
atrocities, petition against atrocities on women, children and SC‟s and ST‟s, in
environmental matters etc.
The PIL process, to be effective demands proactive action to be taken requiring
the judges to take cognizance of matters „Sou motu‟ (on their own), as was
practiced by Justice Thakkar of the Gujarat High Court, who converted a letter
to the editor in a newspaper written by a widow mentioning her plight because
of the non-payment of the „Provident Fund Family Pension‟ after her husband
death, and ordered a „Show Cause Notice‟ to be issued without any further
formalities to the Regional Provident Fund Officer. The arrears were paid just
after the first hearing. However there are dangers of suo motu action, e.g. the
judges cannot know the motivation of a person in writing a letter to the editor.
He has no means of verifying the veracity of the contents of the letter, before
he/she commences the proceedings.
PIL in the Indian judiciary is also been focused on matters concerning „prisoners
rights‟. In the Hussainnara Vs the State of Bihar- 1980_SCC 81, the attention of
the court was drawn to the shocking situation of Bihar under-trials, who had

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been detained pending trials for periods far in excess of the maximum sentence
for the offence that they were charged with. The court not only proceeded to
make the right to speedy trial the central issue of the case but also passed an
order of general release of under-trials that had gone detention beyond such
maximum period.
Some of the early PIL‟s had witnessed the award of compensation by the court to
the victims of human rights violations. This principle was reiterated in D.K. Basu
Vs Union of India-1997_ SCC416, a case where the court declared that; “Award
of compensation for infringement of the indefeasible rights guaranteed under Art-21 is a
remedy available in public law since the purpose of public law is not only to civilize public
power but also to assure to the citizens that they live under a legal system wherein their
rights and interest shall be preserved and protected”.
PIL‟s contribution has also been significant in the sphere of environmental laws.
The dangers of globalization and industrialization have paved way for the
judiciary towards the formulation of new principles for the protection of the
environment. Amongst the principles, the “Pollution Pays” principle has been
applied in the cases concerning „Shrimp Farms‟ i.e. (S. Jagannath Vs Union of
India), Tanneries i.e. (Vellore Citizens Welfare Vs Union of India-1996),
chemical industries in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh i.e. (Indian Council for
Enviro-Legal Action Vs Union of India-1996), etc. In the Tanneries case, the
courts verdict stated; “It (tanneries) cannot be permitted to expand or even continue
with the present production unless it tackles by itself the problem of pollution created by
the said industry”.
There even been cases in which the courts have stepped in where the legislature
had not or was not willing to. An example of this would a PIL concerning the
sexual harassment of women at work place i.e. in (Vishaka Vs State of Rajasthan-
1997).

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Criticism of PIL:
The debates over the limits of Judicial Activism in the area
of PIL, has been vigorous. A private members bill entitled “Public Interest
Litigation (Regulation) Bill, 1996” was tabled in the Rajya Sabha. The statement
of objectives and reasons stated that PIL was misused in the name of providing
justice to the poor sections of the society and also that PIL cases were given
more priority over other cases which led to pending of several „general section
cases‟ in the court for years. However the bill did not get passed.
Bearing in mind the power and importance of PIL in making the Constitution a
living reality for every citizen and also the efforts channeled through the medium
of PIL jurisprudence in providing justice to the deprived, the process is
positively succeeding, following the logic of its nature. In a country
characterized by numerous “Variable Ethnicity” and religious diversity, working
via the pattern through a comprehensive bureaucracy, a grieved, poor, deprived
citizen does find it hard to seek justice because of economic disability or lack of
„Know-How‟ or even due to Red tape. The only option left before the deprived
next to a miracle is a PIL petition. In quoting Justice Krishna Iyer “The judicial
activism gets its highest bonus when its order wipes some tears from some eyes”.

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