The Role Of PIL In Shaping The Constitutional Machinery Of State

On January 27, 2000 then Indian President K R Narayanan addressed the central hall of parliament with the very words “it is the Constitution that has failed us or we who have failed the Constitution”, this was the critical response of him to the appointment of a commission to comprehensively review the Constitution of India and make suitable recommendations from the past 50 years of  experience. The President’s words are an echo of what felt in a modern society with age-old traditions which require a Constitution that mutates with requirements of a developing of society without losing its Core Genetics that makes up the Soul of the Indian Constitution.

The seeds of the concept of public interest litigation were initially sown in India by Krishna Iyer J., in 1976. A Public Interest Litigation can be instituted as a writ petition under Article 32 of Indian Constitution in the Supreme Court of India or under Article 226 of Indian Constitution in the State High Courts and also in the Court of Magistrate under Sec.133, Cr. P.C

Read – Transformative Constitutionalism – The Saga Of Social Change

Upholding equality of Law, Right to Privacy, Right to education are the few examples of the outcomes of Public interest litigations. The judiciary is seen to have taken upon itself the task of infusing into the constitutional provisions the spirit of social justice. Following are a few issues where the Constitutional Articles are provided with modern interpretation by the outcome of Landmark  Public Interest Litigations That Shaped the Constitutional Machinery.

Right to Life

In the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India The Supreme court took a broader view of the scope and content of the fundamental right to life and liberty. Article 21 which deals with the right to life was interpreted to include a bundle of other incidental and integral rights.

On the basis of a PIL, filed by the National Legal Services Authority urging the Supreme Court to give separate identity to transgenders by recognizing them as a third category of gender and directed the government to ensure that they would get job, reservations, and facilities, including voter card, driving license and passport. “The apex court said, the group would be considered as socially and economically backward classes and as entitled to reservations in jobs. The centers and the states also directed to take steps for bringing the community into the mainstream by providing adequate health care, education and employment.”, “Recognition of transgender as a third gender is not merely a social or medical issue but a human right issue.”

The court observed that members of transgender “are also citizens of India. It is the right of every human being to choose their gender. The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.

In a Public Interest Litigation filed by Parmanand Katara, a human rights activist, in the Supreme Court. His basis was a newspaper report concerning the death of a scooterist after an accident with a speeding car. Doctors refused to attend to him. They directed him to another hospital around 20 km. away that could handle medico-legal cases. Based on the petition, the Supreme Court held that:

  • Preservation of human life is of paramount importance.
  • Every doctor, at a government hospital or otherwise has the professional obligation to extend his/her services to protect life.
  • There should be no doubt that the effort to save the person should receive top priority. This applies not only to the legal profession but also to the police and other citizens part of the matter.

Right to Liberty

In the Case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar Which is regarded as the first PIL of India the attention of court is focused on the incredible situation of undertrials in Bihar  who had been in detention pending trial for periods far in excess of the maximum sentence for their offences. The Court not only proceeded to make the right to a speedy trial the central issue of the case, but passed the order of general release of close to 40,000 under-trials who had undergone detention beyond such maximum period

Issues of Public Importance

In the case of Javed v. State of Haryana, The Javed litigants challenged the constitutionality of a coercive population control provision, which governed the election of the panchayat. Upholding the Haryana Provision as “salutary and in the public interest”, the Court’s main emphasis was on “the problem of population explosion as a national and global issue” at the expense of protecting human rights. The Javed decision did not evaluate critically the impact of the contested provision on family planning. The Court described the provision as “well-defined”, “founded on intelligible differentia”, and based on a clear objective to popularize family planning.

Read – Meaning Of Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

Environmental Protection

The Supreme Court is not only the protector of right and liberty but also the institution to make India a pollution free nation. It has delivered some historic verdicts restraining factories and industries from polluting the air and environment, which is hazardous for life. The court’s verdicts are the result of Public Interest Litigations when the inaction of the executive or of the agencies of the executive frustrated environmentalists, social workers and many other NGOs. People have always welcomed the directives of the Supreme Court to such factories and industries causing massive pollution.

In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of U.P. the Court ordered the closure of lime stone quarries those who caused large scale pollution adversely affecting the safety and health of the public living in the areas on the ground that there were serious deficiencies regarding safety and hazards in them”.

In M.C. Mehta Vs. Union of India 

  • relating to Ganga pollution case, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of tanneries at Jajmau near Kanpur, U.P. polluting the Ganga unless they took steps to set up treatment plants.
  • relating to Taj Mahal case the Supreme Court has directed the industries in Taj Trapezium zone to change over to natural gas as an industrial fuel and if they could not do so they must stop functioning and to relocate the same to a place outside the Taj Trapezium zone.
  • The Supreme Court has issued direction to take steps to prevent destruction or change to the environment flora and fauna and wild life. The direction are based the Article 48(A) of the Directive Principles of State Policy.

In Animal and Environment Legal Defence Fund vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court has directed to erect a boundary wall around a test firing range so that probable damages to animals are averted. This direction is in consistence with Article 48(A) of the Directive Principles of State Policy

Justice to Women 

The Vishaka judgment recognized sexual harassment as “a clear violation” of the fundamental constitutional rights of equality, non-discrimination, life, and liberty, as well as the right to carry out any occupation. The guidelines, directed toward employers, included a definition of sexual harassment, a list of steps for harassment prevention, and a description of complaint procedures to be “strictly observed in all workplaces for the preservation and enforcement of the right to gender equality.”

It promoted greater enforcement of women’s rights and the broader application of international law at the High Court level. The case has thus been described as “path-breaking”, “one of the most powerful legacies” of PIL, and a “trendsetter” that “created a revolution”.

Right to equality

The PIL by an NGO Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India, 1984, highlighted the deplorable condition of bonded laborers in a quarry in Haryana, not far from the Supreme court. The court ruled a host of protective and welfare-oriented labor legislations, including the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act and the Minimum Wages Act. In giving extensive direction to the State Government to enable it to discharge its constitutional obligation towards the bonded laborers, the court observed. ”The right to live with human dignity restrained in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Articles 41 and 42 and at least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers, men and women and of the tender age of children against abuse of opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and human conditions of work and maternity relief. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity and no State has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these basic essentials. Since the Directive Principles of State Policy contained in Clauses (l) and (f) of Article 39, and Articles 41 and 42 are not enforceable in a court of law, it may not be possible to compel the State through the judicial process to make provision by statutory enactment or executive fiat for ensuring these basic essentials which go to make up a life of human dignity, but where legislation is already enacted by the state providing these basic requirements to the workmen and thus investing their right to live with basic human dignity, with concrete reality and content, the State can certainly be obligated to ensure observance of such legislation, for inaction on the part of the state in securing implementation of such legislation would amount to denial of the right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21, more so in the context of Article 256

Implementation of ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’

Public Interest Litigation is playing a significant role in the implementation of the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’. It has facilitated enforcement and implementation of many directives and enabled the court to formulate various guidelines so as to do and ensure full justice to an aggrieved person, to recognize class or group rights, to protect freedom and to implement or to enforce the Directive Principles, which is not difficult for an individual to receive through ordinary litigation.

 Indra Sawhney & Others Vs. Union of India  case would amply prove how the Directive Principles and Fundamental Rights are interrelated in our Constitution. The constitution-makers also shaped the Constitution from the perspective of the interrelationship between Directive Principles, Fundamental Rights and Preamble. In the case it was stated that , ‘Liberty , equality and fraternity’ was the battle cry of the French Revolution. It is also the motto of our Constitution, with the concept of ‘justice-social economic and political’ –the sum total of modern political thought, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship has equally been an abiding faith of all human beings , and at all times in this country in particular.

Read – Judiciary – Harbinger Of Human Rights


Public interest litigation or social interest litigation today has great significance and drew the attention of all concerned. The traditional rule of “Locus Standi” that a person, whose right is infringed alone can file a petition, has been considerably relaxed by the Supreme Court in its recent decisions. Now, the court permits public interest litigation at the instance of public spirited citizens for the enforcement of constitutional and legal rights. Now, any public-spirited citizen can move/approach the court for the public cause (in the interests of the public or public welfare) by filing a petition.

Public Interest Litigations Shaped up Indian Constitution by getting a modern interpretation for Constitutional articles and Implementation of Directive Principles into legislation in lieu with the Societal changes.

This Article is written by M.N. Srivaishnavi from DSNLU

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