Emergence Of Public Interest Litigation In India

“Access to justice through class actions, public interest litigation and representative proceedings is the present Constitutional jurisprudence”.[1]’ – Justice Krishna Iyer

The emergence of Public Interest Litigation was initiated by few Judges of the Supreme Court.[2] The method was to redress the public grievances and relax the governing rules of locus standi. Standing is required to have a court for hearing the aggrieved person. Since the court will not hear the party unless the person has sufficient stake in the particular case, judicial perception of who has sufficient interest (i.e. the person aggrieved) is critical.

The Supreme Court has lowered the standing barriers by widening the concept of the “Person Aggrieved”. The traditional approach of PIL was restricted only to a person whose own right was in jeopardy was entitled to seek the remedy.[3] When the term was extended to public action this meant that a person asserting a public right or interest has to show that he or she had suffered some grave or special injury over and above what members of the public had generally suffered.

In 1970’s two forces combined to erode the doctrinal limitation of standings.[4] The first of these arose at the start of the decade with the spreading of the concept of Social Justice and the second was the emergence of Legal Aid Movement. Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice P.N Bhagwati one of the most remarkable Judges of the Supreme Court who delivered early judgments liberalizing standing were also deeply involved in fostering legal service institutions for the weak, aggrieved and poor.[5] Significantly both judges played a very important and crucial role in widening the aspect of PIL in India and it was the National Committee on Judicare which in its final report in August 1977, expressly recommended the broadening of the rule of Locus Standi as a means of the emergence of Public Interest Litigation.[6]

Judicial Activism

The second characteristic of many PIL cases is the court’s ingress into the fields traditionally reserved for the executive. Finding the executive response to be absent or deficient the Supreme Court has used its interim directions to influence the quality of administration, “making it more responsive than the constitutional ethic and law”.[7] Professor Upendra Baxi defined described this gradual takeover as the direction of administration in a particular area from the executive as “Creeping Jurisdiction”. A very good example has been set by the Supreme court regarding creeping Jurisdiction in the case of Dehra Dun Quarrying case where Supreme Court considered, balanced and resolved competing policies- including the need for the development, environmental conservation, preserving jobs and protecting substantial business investment- in deciding to close number of limestone quarries in Mussorie Hills and to allow others to continue operating under detailed conditions. In rendering this judgement the court reviewed the highly technical reports of various geological experts and gave varying weight to the expert opinions.[8]

Article 32 and 226 of Indian Constitution

The powers of the Supreme Court to issue directions under Article 32 and that of the High Court to issue directions under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution have attained great significance in environmental legislation. Courts have made use of these powers to remedy past maladies and to check immediate and future assaults on the environment.[9] Dr. B.R. Amedkar, the architect of the constitution of India, himself laid the foundation and importance of Article 32 in the following words;

“If I was asked to name any particular Article in this Constitution as the most important – an Article without which this Constitution would be a nullity- I could not refer to any other Article except this one ……It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it. ”[10]

It is true from the declaration of fundamental rights conferred by Part III of the Indian Constitution is meaningless unless there is an effective machinery for the enforcement of the rights. It is the remedy which makes the right real. If there is no such remedy there is no right at all.

Article 32(1) guarantees the right to move to the Supreme Court by “Appropriate Proceeding” for the enforcement of Fundamental rights conferred under Part III of Indian Constitution. Clause (2) of Article 32 confers the power on the Supreme Court to issue appropriate directions or orders or writs, including writs in the nature of Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, Prohibition, Quo- Warranto and Certiorari for the enforcement of many rights conferred by Part III of Indian Constitution. The constitution-makers did not lay down any particular form of proceeding for the enforcement of Fundamental Rights nor did they stipulate that such proceeding should conform to any rigid pattern or a Straight Jacket Formula because they knew that a country like India where there is so much poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, deprivation and exploitation, any insistence on right formula of proceeding for the enforcement of Fundamental Right would become Self Defeating.[11]

Article 226 of Indian Constitution

An important aspect of the Indian Constitution is the jurisdiction it confers upon the High Court to issue writs. The writs have been among the great safeguards provided by the British judicial system for upholding the rights and liberties of people. It was an act of wisdom and foresight on the part of the constitution-makers to introduce the writ system in India and thus constitute the High Court into the category of guardian and protector of people’s legal right.[12] Under Article 226, a High Court is empowered to issue directions, orders or writs including writs in the natures of Habeas Corpus, Mandamus, Prohibition, Quo- Warranto and Certiorari for the enforcement of any rights conferred by Part III of Indian Constitution. The Jurisdiction conferred upon on a High Court is to protect not only the Fundamental Rights but even any other legal right as is clear from the words “Any other Purpose”.[13]

Public Interest Litigation- A Dynamic Concept

The traditional rule of Locus Standi that a petition under Article 32 can be filed by a person whose fundamental Rights is infringed has now been considerably relaxed by the Supreme Court in its ruling. The court permits Public Interest Litigation or Social Action Litigation at the instance of “Public Spirited Citizens” for the enforcement of constitutional and the legal rights of any person or group of persons who because of the poverty or socially, economically or due to disadvantaged position are unable to approach the court for any kind of relief.

“Personal interest cannot be enforced through the process of this court under Article 32 of the Constitution in the grab of public interest litigation. Public interest litigation contemplates legal proceedings for vindication or enforcement of fundamental rights of a group of person or community which are not able to enforce their fundamental rights on account of their incapacity, poverty or ignorance of law. A person invoking the jurisdiction of this court under Article 32 must approach this court for the vindication of the fundamental rights of affected persons and not for the purpose of vindication of his personal grudge or enmity. It is [the] duty of this court to discourage such petition and to ensure that the course of justice is not obstructed or polluted by unscrupulous litigants by invoking the extra ordinary jurisdiction of this court for personal matters under the grab of the public interest litigation”.[14]


“Public Interest Litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large number of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position, should not go unnoticed and unredressed.”[15]

The nature and scope of PIL ensure that community rights and interests associated with the environment and biological biodiversity are effectively safeguarded. The community rights and interests concern the vast majority of people who are deprived of their rights to access to justice because of ignorance, poverty, remoteness and social and economic disadvantage. In this manner, our Judiciary has played the tool of PIL quite effectively for the cause of environmental protection. Hence, PIL has proved to be a great weapon in the hands of higher courts for the protection of the environment & our judiciary has certainly utilized this weapon of PIL in the best possible manner.

[1] Akhil Bhartiya Soshil Karmachari Sangh (Railway) Vs Union of India A.I.R. 1981 S.C. 298

[2] The most notable contributions were made by Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice Bhagwati. From an international perspective, the evolution of ‘public interest law’ is an American contribution. Many trace its beginnings to the landmark desegregation decisions of the 1950s when the U.S. Supreme Court required schools in southern American States to end racial segregation. See Brown Vs Board of Education (Brown II) 349 U.S. 294,299 (1955), as cited in Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 134.

[3] There are several narrow but notable exceptions to this traditional rule. For example, any person can move a writ of habeas corpus for the production of a detained person; and a minor may sue through his or her parent or guardian.

[4] Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 135.

[5] Government of Gujarat, Report of the Legal Aid Committee (1971), (Chairperson: P.N. Bhagwati, then the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court): Government of India, Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs, Report of the Expert Committee on Legal Aid: Processual Justice to the People (1973), (Chairperson: Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer), as cited in Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 135.

[6] Government of India, Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs, Report on National Juridicare: Equal Justice-Social Justice, (1977), p. 61. [The Committee on Juridicare was composed of Justice Bhagwati (Chairperson) and Justice Krishna Iyer (Member)], as cited in Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 135.

[7] Upendra Baxi, ‘ Taking Suffering Seriously: Social Action Litigation in the Supreme Court of India’, 29 The Review (International Commission of Jurists) 37, 42 (December, 1982), as cited in Shyam Divan and Arinin Rosencranz, Environmental Law and Policy in India: Cases, Materials and Statutes, (2001), p. 147.

[8] Cunningham, ‘The Emergence of Public Interest Litigation in Indian Supreme Court: A Study in the Light of American Experience, ’ in (29) Journal of the Indian Law Institute, (1987), p 494.

[9] P. Leelakrishnan, Environmental Law in India, (1999), p. 141.

[10] C.A.D. Vol. VII at p. 953, as cited in Dr. J. N. Pandey, Constitutional Law o f India, (2001), p. 313.

[11] S.P. Gupta Vs Union of India (The Judges Transfer Case), A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 149.

[12] M.P. Jain, Indian Constitutional Law, (1993), p. 207.

[13] Dr. J. N. Pandey, Constitutional Law of India, (2015), p. 314.

[14] Subhash Kumar Vs State of Bihar, A.I.R. 1991 S.C. 420.

[15] People’s Union of Democratic Rights Vs Union of India, A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 1473 at p. 1477.

Pranav Kaushal

Pranav Kumar Kaushal, Content Writter, Law Corner, Student B.A., LLB 7th Semester, School of Law, Bahra University, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

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