Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India

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Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India began in the late 1970s. For the first time, the rights of prisoners, bonded laborers, and other neglected people, and issues were considered in the judicial forum. Using their inherent powers under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India, a few Supreme Court and High Court judges made access to justice easier. Moreover, PIL is best suited to the principles in Article 39A of the Constitution of India for protecting and delivering social justice. Anyone acting in the public interest was permitted to file a petition on behalf of those unable to do so themselves, or for issues of grave public importance. Lawyers, social activists, concerned individuals, and even judges approached the courts. Aside from locus standi, other procedural norms were relaxed, including the need to file a proper petition.

Once admitted, attempts were made to resolve litigations using a conciliatory form of justice. Offending state authorities were encouraged to cooperate with the Court, which in turn took on the role of fact-finder, when appropriate, and appointed commissions of enquiry. Most of the reported and many unreported PIL cases, filed from its inception until April 1994, have been examined. Interviews with petitioners and lawyers have revealed much about PIL, and have resulted in the discussion of many unreported cases. Interviews of Supreme Court Judges, administrative officials in the courts, and analysts of Indian law have enabled the study to extend to all aspects of the legal process as it relates to PIL. This new form of litigation in the courtroom thus provides a focal point for the study of the Indian legal system.

The perception that inequities could be resolved through the legislative or administrative processes had given way to a belief that recourse to legal action was the only mechanism through which rights could be upheld. Thus, the initial agenda was to introduce the social justice considerations of poverty and inequality into the court, whilst making legal institutions more accessible. The hundreds of documented PIL cases reflect a huge range of issues and concerns. While many do fulfil the initial mandate, PIL has often been used as another available legal tool that facilitates access to the courts and increases the public profile of the petitioner.

For many of those who have used PIL in an effort to counter serious violations of rights, the inherent limitations of legal action and the poor implementation of favourable Court orders have rendered PIL a meaningless exercise. For some, PIL has provided necessary short-term redress or has focused attention on issues never before discussed in a national forum. Whatever the outcome, PIL has necessitated the recognition that every Indian citizen should have access to justice.

In this current article, the main focus is on making the readers familiar with the concept of Public Interest Litigation as well as the procedure to file a PIL is elaborated. Also, the significance of Public Interest Litigation is discussed for helping those who cannot reach the court and face injustice.  

Historical view and general history of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India

In 1979, Kapila Hingorani filed a petition and secured the release of almost 40000 undertrials from Patna’s jails in the famous ‘Hussainara Khatoon’ case. Hingorani was a lawyer. This case was filed in the SC before a Bench led by Justice P N Bhagwati. Hingorani is called the ‘Mother of PILs’ as a result of this successful case. The court permitted Hingorani to pursue a case in which she had no personal locus standi making PILs a permanent fixture in Indian jurisprudence. Justice Bhagwati did a lot to ensure that the concept of PILs was clearly enunciated. He did not insist on the observance of procedural technicalities and even treated ordinary letters from public-minded individuals as writ petitions. Justice Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were among the first judges in the country to admit PILs.

The expression Public Interest means an act beneficial to the general public. It means an action necessarily taken for public purpose (Wadhera, 2009);
• Public Interest Litigation is concerned with providing access to justice to all sections of society. Public Interest Litigation in India has been a part of the constitutional scheme;
• One of the overarching aims of law and legal systems has been to achieve justice in society and public interest litigation (PIL) has proved to be a useful tool in achieving this objective.

In general, Public interest Litigation (PIL) means litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of “Public Interest”. Any matter where the interest of the public at large is affected can be redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a court of law such as Pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, Constructional hazards, etc.
The expression ‘Public Interest Litigation’ has been borrowed from American jurisprudence, where it was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups like the poor, racial minorities, unorganized consumers, citizens who were passionate about environmental issues, etc. PIL is not defined in any statute or in any act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of the public at large. It is the power given to the public by courts through judicial activism.

However, the person filing the petition must prove to the court’s satisfaction that the petition is being filed for public interest and not just as frivolous litigation by a busy body. Some of the matters which are entertained under Public Interest Litigation are Neglected Children, Bonded Labour matters, Atrocities on Women, Non-payment of minimum wages to workers, exploitation of casual workers, food adulteration, Environmental pollution, and disturbance of ecological balance, Maintenance of heritage and culture, etc.

Also Read: Article 21 of the Constitution of India

How to File a Writ Petition / Public Interest Litigation?

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a petition that can be filed by any member of the public for any matter of public interest, for redress of public wrong or injury. In cases related to forced evictions, any affected person may approach a lawyer to submit a petition in state high courts or lower courts for any injury caused as a result of such evictions. A Writ Petition may be filed by an aggrieved person(s) to seek legal remedies for violation of fundamental rights. According to the Constitution of India, the petition can be filed under Article 226 before a High Court or under Article 32 before the Supreme Court of India.

Steps to be taken for filing a Writ Petition / PIL:

  • Approach a public interest lawyer or organization to file the case. Collect necessary documents such as title deeds, proof of residence, identity proof, notice, resettlement policy if any, and photographs of the eviction.
    List names and addresses of all aggrieved parties approaching the court. 
  • List names and addresses of government agencies from which relief is sought.  
  • List facts giving rise to violations of Fundamental Rights. 
  • List dates indicating the duration of stay at the site, when the eviction took place, when and if an eviction notice was provided, and other important details related to the eviction. 
  • Clearly mention the 'prayers' or the relief being sought from the court Perspectives responsible for the Growth of PIL in India The character of the Indian Constitution. 

India has a written constitution which through Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles of State Policy) provides a framework for regulating relations between the state and its citizens and between citizens inter-se. India has some of the most progressive social legislations to be found anywhere in the world whether it be relating to bonded labor, minimum wages, land ceiling, environmental protection, etc. This has made it easier for the courts to haul up the executive when it is not performing its duties in ensuring the rights of the poor as per the law of the land.
The liberal interpretation of locus standi where any person can apply to the court on behalf of those who are economically or physically unable to come before it has helped. 

Also Read: Defamation laws in India

Judges themselves have in some cases initiated suo moto action based on newspaper articles or letters received. Although social and economic rights given in the Indian Constitution under Part IV are not legally enforceable, courts have creatively read these into fundamental rights thereby making them judicially enforceable. For instance the "right to life" in Article 21 has been expanded to include right to free legal aid, right to live with dignity, right to education, right to work, freedom from torture, bar fetters and hand cuffing in prisons, etc. Judicial innovations to help the poor and marginalised: For instance, in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha, the Supreme Court put the burden of proof on the respondent stating it would treat every case of forced labor as a case of bonded labor unless proven otherwise by the employer. Similarly in the Asiad Workers judgment case, Justice P.N. Bhagwati held that anyone getting less than the minimum wage can approach the Supreme Court directly without going through the labor commissioner and lower courts. In PIL cases where the petitioner is not in a position to provide all the necessary evidence, either because it is voluminous or because the parties are weak socially or economically, courts have appointed commissions to collect information on facts and present it before the bench.

Impact of PIL in India

A controversial study by social scientist Hans Dembowski concluded that PILs had been successful in making official authorities accountable to NGOs. While Dembowski also found some effect at the grassroots level, PIL cases dealing with major environmental grievances in the Kolkata urban agglomeration did not tackle underlying problems (such as inadequate town planning). Dembowsk wrote about it in his book, Taking the State to Supreme Court - Public Interest Litigation and the Public Sphere in Metropolitan India which was originally published by Oxford University Press in 2001. The publisher, however, discontinued distribution because of contempt of court proceedings initiated by the Calcutta High Court. The author, who claimed hewas never officially notified by the court, republished the book online with German NGO Asia House.

PIL Dravyavati River by Committee for Protection of Public Properties Earlier, the princely state of Jaipur used to get water from this river by making a canal, later this river turned into a dirty drain. There are more than 160 tubewells around it. Those who are giving water to the city. There have been infections in many tube wells. The State Human Rights Commission took cognizance of the transition to water in the year 2001. Our citizens committee became a party to the case. And decided that the river should be brought in its original form. An expert committee was formed. In 2007, when no action was ruled on the case, then the PIL of the river was presented. Many constructions were broken and currently, the river is 48 km long. 

The influential people bought land at the cost of Kodis from poor accountants in the river and did not allow the original width of the river to be restored. The current width is 210 feet. later Tata projects worked on rejuvenation of dravyavati river projects with jaipur development Authority. Rapid urbanization in the last 3-4 decades coupled with rampant encroachments in the river area and its catchment areas along with the dumping of sewage, industrial waste water and solid waste converted this once pristine flowing river to a Nallah. In the first-of-its-kind river rejuvenation activity, the Dravyavati River Project will oversee the amortisation of 170 MLD polluted water and have more than 100 fall structures constructed to turn this rain side river to a perennial river. With more than 18,000 trees planted and 65,000 square meters green area developed under this project, the Dravyavati River bank will soon become a lure to the people seeking solitude or refreshment in the city.

 Public interest litigation on publication of property list of princely state of Rajasthan Article 12 (1) and (II) of the agreement provides that immovable properties of former princely states which were public properties of the princely state on August 15, 1947, will be transferred to the state. In this way, two lists were to be made, if there is a dispute over the property of the transferring property to a new state and the personal property of the other princely states, then the Court will not have the right of trial under Article 363 of the Constitution and the State Ministry of the Government of India (the current home). The decision will be final, the former princely states made a single list and made entire public properties their own. Bjp and Congress governments kept silent. Public interest litigation is presented in this regard. See detail HIGHCORT site and attached writ petition. D B Civil Writ (P) 10655/15 Writ Petition was submitted regarding the cradle of the agreement reached with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and 563 former princely states of the country and 18 princely states of Rajasthan.

Case Laws

M.C. Mehta vs Union of India: After Bhopal Gas Tragedy where thousands of people of Bhopal were severely affected due to the leakage of toxic MIC (Methyl Isocyanate) gas from UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) plant. A writ petition was filed by M.C. Mehta under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution seeking compensation for those who suffered from this tragic event. The Supreme Court heard the plea and introducd a new rule for aligning the Indian circumstances and highlighted that defendant was liable under the rule of Absolute liability. It means the accused was held liable even if they had no intention to commit the offence. 

The environmental lawyer also file a writ petition to close Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industry located in congested place in Delhi producing harmful gases and impacting the health of people severely. Herein, strict liability rule was applied for bringing the hazardous polluters under the jaws of justice.


The original purpose of PIL was to empower social activists and environmentalists by providing them with a tool they could use to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves.  We can conclude that public interest litigation is a tool for judicial activists to fight discrepancies in justice faced  by the voiceless. The Higher Judiciary may, however, become overburdened if Public Interest Litigation is misused