This article is written by Dev Agarwal, a 3rd-year law student of Heritage Law College, Calcutta University
Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a product of the Legal Aid Movement, a movement that began in the nineteenth century, arguably in the United States of America. This movement emphasized making legal aid available to the weaker sections of the society. In the 1960s, this movement started gaining financial support as well and this encouraged lawyers to fight those issues related to environmental problems and consumer exploitation.
In India, the concept of Public Interest Litigation was for the first time introduced in the year 1986 by the then Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati. The original idea was to provide access to the marginalized sections of the society but within a decade, PILs played an instrumental role in exposing scams of the then ruling government, protecting the Taj Mahal from the pollutants which were caused by the industries surrounding the monument.
However, in the late 90s, it was observed that about 300 PILs were pending in the Supreme Court and more than 1000 PILs were in the High Court and many of the pending PILs were filed either for political or personal motives.
SOME LANDMARK PIL JUDGMENTS
- Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan,(1997) 6 SCC 241: Bhanwari Devi is a social reformist, who hails from Rajasthan. She was the most vocal opponent of child marriage, she attempted to stop a child marriage in her village in 1992, after which her family had to face a total boycott from the village, but this did not stop her zeal to fight child marriage. On September 1992 she was gang-raped by five men, as they wanted to teach her a “lesson”. Naina Kapoor, the lawyer of Bhanwari Devi decided to file a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court challenging the sexual harassment of women in workplace. The Vishaka writ petition was filed in the names of 5 NGOs against State of Rajasthan and its departments and Union of India. The Supreme Court opined that sexual harassment is a clear violation of fundamental rights of liberty, equality and non-discrimination. The Supreme Court also issued several guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment in workplace which is also known as Vishaka guidelines and which is strictly to be followed by the employers.
- Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, (2013) 12 SCC 73: The petitioner here filed a PIL challenging Sections 66A and 79 of the Information Technologies Act, 2000. It was contended that Section 66A which provided that any person who sends offensive messages through communication service would be punishable under law as unconstitutional and violative of Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined in the Constitution. The Supreme Court struck down Section 66A as it was violative of Article 19(1)(a) and it was not a reasonable restriction, it also observed that “what may be offensive to a person, may not be to another” thus it is a very subjective term.
- M C. Mehta v. Union of India (Shriram Industries Case), 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819: Mahesh Chandra Mehta filed a PIL in Supreme Court under Articles 21 and 32 of the Indian Constitution. It sought the closure and reallocation of Shriram Industries located at Kirti Nagar in Delhi. The reason which was given is that it was located in a thickly populated area of Delhi and this risks the lives of the population. When this matter was pending in the Court, there was a reported gas leak from one of the installments of the plant and one advocate died because of this and it created a sense of panic among the population of Delhi as they were worried if the gas leak could be another Bhopal Tragedy. Justice P.N. Bhagwati gave the verdict which allowed the operation of Shriram Industry since this industry was essential for the economy and if this industry shuts then it would mean more than 5000 persons would become unemployed. However, the Court imposed one condition which provided that industries should develop a green belt 1-5 km in width around such industries.
- Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi, 160 Delhi Law Times 277: This was the case that set the path for the declaration of the right to privacy as a Fundamental Right.Naz Foundation, an NGO filed a PIL in Delhi High Court in the year 2001, seeking legalization of sexual intercourse among consenting adult homosexuals. The Delhi High Court, however, refused to entertain the petition, and Naz Foundation moved to Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sent the petition back to Delhi High Court stating that the petition is maintainable. The Court viewed Right to Dignity and Privacy within the ambit of Right to Life and Liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution and held that criminalization of consensual homosexual intercourse among adults violated the above Fundamental Right.
- Hussainara Khatoon v. the State of Bihar, 1979 AIR 1369, 1979 SCR (3) 532: It is often regarded as the first PIL case in India. In this case, the attention of the court was drawn to the situation of undertrials in Bihar who had been detained pending trial for periods far in excess of the maximum sentence for the offenses they committed. The court not only proceeded to make the right to a speedy trial the main issue of the case but passed the order of general release of close to 40,000 undertrials who had undergone detention beyond the maximum period.
- Javed v. the State of Haryana,AIR 2003 SC 3057: The petitioner, in this case, were those politicians who were either disqualified from contesting elections or from holding the office of a Panchayat because of having more than two children. The then Haryana state government made a law that prohibited individuals from contesting panchayat and holding an office in the panchayat if they had more than two children, with the view to control the overpopulation problem. The disqualified members and individuals filed a PIL in the Supreme Court challenging the impugned provision of the Act. The Supreme Court upheld the validity of the provision and it remarked that “overpopulation is a national and a global problem” thus, it defined the act as “well-defined” and “founded on intelligible differentia,”
- Parmanand Katara v. Union of India,1989 AIR 2039, 1989 SCR (3) 997: Parmanand Katara, a human right activist filed a PIL in Supreme Court based on a news report where it was reported that a man who was travelling on a scooter was hit by a speeding car and when he was taken to the nearest hospital.The doctors refused to treat him and instructed to take him to a hospital which was apparently 20 km away from that hospital.This resulted in the death of the man who was hit by the car. The Supreme Court ruled that “Preservation of human life is of paramount importance”, and further ruled that it is a professional obligation of every doctor, be it of a government hospital or private hospital to extend his or her services to those people in need for protecting life
- S.P Gupta v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 149, 1981 Supp (1) SCC 87, 1982 2 SCR 365: In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that a lawyer too has a locus standi to file a writ for the Public Interest Litigation. It is a landmark case in the sense that the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India has told that the very interpretation of locus standihas been changed and thus the locus standi over the filing of PIL by lawyers should be accepted. This paved way for a huge number of PIL petitions by the advocates.
1. Aditya Tripathi, Case Summary: Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, Lawlex.org,https://lawlex.org/lex-bulletin/case-summary-shreya-singhal-vs-union-of-india/18989
2. Lawnn, Top 20 Landmark Judgments of Public Interest Litigation,
3. Lawyered, 5 PIL Cases Every Indian Must Be Grateful For,https://www.lawyered.in/legal-disrupt/articles/5-pil-cases-every-indian-must-be-grateful/
4. Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan,(1997) 6 SCC 241
5. Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, (2013) 12 SCC 73
6. C. Mehta v. Union of India (Shriram Industries Case), 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819
7. Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi, 160 Delhi Law Times 277
8. HussainaraKhatoon v. State of Bihar, 1979 AIR 1369, 1979 SCR (3) 532
9. Javed v. State of Haryana, AIR 2003 SC 3057
10. ParmanandKatara v. Union of India, 1989 AIR 2039, 1989 SCR (3) 997