“We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms, which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in a highly industrialized economy. We cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails.”
Chief Justice Bhagwati
Beginning with the first few instances in the late-1970’s, the category of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has come to be associated with its own ‘people-friendly’ procedure. The foremost change came in the form of the dilution of the requirement of ‘locus standi’ for initiating proceedings. Since the intent was to ensure redressal to those who were otherwise too poor to move the courts or were unaware of their legal entitlements, the Court allowed actions to be brought on their behalf by social activists and lawyers. In numerous instances, the Court took suo moto cognizance of matters involving the abuse of prisoners, bonded labourers and inmates of mental institutions, through letters addressed to sitting judges. This practice of initiating proceedings on the basis of letters has now been streamlined and has come to be described as ‘epistolary jurisdiction’.
The phrase ‘public law litigation’ was first prominently used by American academic Abram Chayes to describe the practice of lawyers or public spirited individuals who seek to precipitate social change through court-ordered decrees that reform legal rules, enforce existing laws and articulate public norms. However, the evolution of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India, or Social Action Litigation – as Prof. Upendra Baxi chooses to describe it, has accommodated several other distinctive features.
In Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the nature of proceedings itself does not exactly fit into the accepted common-law framework of adversarial litigation. The courtroom dynamics are substantially different from ordinary civil or criminal appeals. While an adversarial environment may prevail in cases where actions are brought to highlight administrative apathy or the government’s condonation of abusive practices, in most public interest-related litigation, the judges take on a far more active role in terms of posing questions to the parties as well as exploring solutions. Especially in actions seeking directions for ensuring governmental accountability or environmental protection, the orientation of the proceedings is usually more akin to collective problem-solving rather than an acrimonious contest between the counsels. Since these matters are filed straightaway at the level of the Supreme Court or the High Court, the parties do not have a meaningful opportunity to present evidence on record before the start of the court proceeding. The Supreme Court of India has been able to shape appropriate remedies for a variety of situations on account of the wide discretionary powers for granting constitutional remedies that have been conferred on it as per the language of Article 32 of the Constitution. Furthermore, under Article 141 of the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court’s rulings are considered to be the ‘law of the land’ and become binding precedents for all courts and tribunals in the country’s legal system. Hence, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Public Interest Litigation (PIL) matters have progressively shaped a unique jurisprudence that gives due weightage to the interests of the underprivileged and backward sections in society. A significant consequence of this is that creative remedies designed for particular fact-situations come to be widely reported and are referred to by Courts all over the country. In this way, the rulings given in PIL cases create an active judicial dialogue within the whole legal system.
The advent of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is one of the key components of the approach of ‘judicial activism’ that is attributed to the higher judiciary in India. The Courts’ interventions have played a pivotal role in advancing the protection of civil liberties, the rights of workers, gender justice, accountability of public institutions, environmental conservation and the guarantee of socio-economic entitlements such as housing, health and education among others. This has not only strengthened the position of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other wings of government, but has also raised its prestige among the general populace.
Nativity of Public Interest Litigation
Traditionally a petition could be filed by a person who suffered infraction of his rights and was ‘an aggrieved person’. Exception was made in the case of petition for Habeas Corpus where a relative or friend could file a petition on behalf of the person in detention. The emergence of pro bono publico litigation, that is litigation at the instance of a public spirited person espousing cause of others, known as public interest litigation or social action litigation has relaxed the traditional rule considerably.
Peter Cane has suggested in his book on Administrative Law that in public law matters grant of remedy depends upon the consideration of public policy. In public law matters the court will hear and grant the remedy if they are satisfied, that the public interest demands that such remedy be granted. We can see this incorporated in the judicial process of our country. After careful and thorough examination of developments of law standing in various countries including our own, Bhagwati, J. in S.P.Gupta v. Union of India allowing, among others, petitions of lawyers against a circular of the Ministry of Law and Justice on ground of violation of or threat to the independence to judiciary, held:
“Any member of the public having sufficient interest can maintain an action for judicial redress for public injury arising from breach of public duty or for the violation of some provision of Constitution or the law and seek enforcement of such public duty and observance of such constitutional or legal provision.”
Such extended approach on the question of locus standi, Bhagwati, J. observed “is absolutely essential for maintaining the rule of law, furthering the cause of justice and accelerating the pace of realization of the constitutional objective”. One of the several propositions laid down in support of this extended approach was repeated in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India in the specific context of Art 32 in the following words by Bhagwati, J. :
“Where a person or class of persons to whom legal injury is caused by reason of violation of a fundamental right is unable to approach the court for judicial redress on account of poverty or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position, any member of the public acting bona fide can move the court for relief under Art 32…..so that the fundamental rights may become meaningful not only for the rich and well to do who have the means to approach the court but also for the large masses of people who are living the life of want and destitution and who are by reason of lack of awareness, assertiveness and resources unable to seek judicial redress.”
The Honorable Supreme Court of India had explained the nature of Public Interest Litigation in Sheela Barse v. Union of India, the technique of public interest litigation serves to provide an effective remedy to enforce group rights and interests . Many a time important public issues involving interpretation of Constitutional provisions are raised through PIL.
With the introduction of PIL one can potentially check government actions with an environmental impact that threaten to dislocate poor people and disrupt their lifestyles. Conservative estimates place the figure of India’s project displaced people over the past four decades at 16 million no more than a quarter of whom are satisfactorily rehabilitated. The Morse Report to the World Bank which reviewed the Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada notes that the ‘the record of resettlement and rehabilitation in India ….has been unsatisfactory in virtually in every project with a large resettlement component’. Now the court can take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo moto or on a petition of any public spirited individual or body.
Milestones of Public Interest Litigation in India
One of the earliest cases of public interest litigation was that reported as Hussainara Khatoon (I) v. State of Bihar. This case was concerned with a series of articles published in a prominent newspaper – the Indian Express which exposed the plight of undertrial prisoners in the state of Bihar. A writ petition was filed by an advocate drawing the Court’s attention to the deplorable plight of these prisoners. Many of them had been in jail for longer periods than the maximum permissible sentences for the offences they had been charged with. The Supreme Court accepted the locus standi of the advocate to maintain the writ petition. Thereafter, a series of cases followed in which the Court gave directions through which the ‘right to speedy trial’ was deemed to be an integral and an essential part of the protection of life and personal liberty.
Soon thereafter, two noted professors of law filed writ petitions in the Supreme Court highlighting various abuses of the law, which, they asserted, were a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. These included inhuman conditions prevailing in protective homes, long pendency of trials in court, trafficking of women, importation of children for homosexual purposes, and the non-payment of wages to bonded labourers among others. the Supreme Court accepted their locus standi to represent the suffering masses and passed guidelines and orders that greatly ameliorated the conditions of these people.
In another matter, a journalist, Ms. Sheela Barse , took up the plight of women prisoners who were confined in the police jails in the city of Bombay. She asserted that they were victims of custodial violence. The Court took cognizance of the matter and directions were issued to the Director of College of Social Work, Bombay.
Public interest litigation acquired a new dimension – namely that of ‘epistolary jurisdiction’ with the decision in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, It was initiated by a letter that was written by a prisoner lodged in jail to a Judge of the Supreme Court. The prisoner complained of a brutal assault committed by a Head Warder on another prisoner. The Court treated that letter as a writ petition, and, while issuing various directions, opined that:
“…technicalities and legal niceties are no impediment to the court entertaining even an informal communication as a proceeding for habeas corpus if the basic facts are found”.
In Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardichand, the Court recognized the locus standi of a group of citizens who sought directions against the local Municipal Council for removal of open drains that caused stench as well as diseases. The Court, recognizing the right of the group of citizens, asserted that if the:
“…centre of gravity of justice is to shift as indeed the Preamble to the Constitution mandates, from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of public interest litigation, the court must consider the issues as there is need to focus on the ordinary men.”
In Parmanand Katara v. Union of India, the Supreme Court accepted an application by an advocate that highlighted a news item titled “Law Helps the Injured to Die” published in a national daily, The Hindustan Times. The petitioner brought to light the difficulties faced by persons injured in road and other accidents in availing urgent and life-saving medical treatment, since many hospitals and doctors refused to treat them unless certain procedural formalities were completed in these medico-legal cases. The Supreme Court directed medical establishments to provide instant medical aid to such injured people, notwithstanding the formalities to be followed under the procedural criminal law.
In many other instances, the Supreme Court has risen to the changing needs of society and taken proactive steps to address these needs. It was therefore the extensive liberalization of the rule of locus standi which gave birth to a flexible public interest litigation system. A powerful thrust to public interest litigation was given by a 7-judge bench in the case of S.P. Gupta v. Union of India. The judgment recognized the locus standi of bar associations to file writs by way of public interest litigation. In this particular case, it was accepted that they had a legitimate interest in questioning the executive’s policy of arbitrarily transferring High Court judges, which threatened the independence of the judiciary.
The unique model of public interest litigation that has evolved in India not only looks at issues like consumer protection, gender justice, prevention of environmental pollution and ecological destruction, it is also directed towards finding social and political space for the disadvantaged and other vulnerable groups in society. The Courts have given decisions in cases pertaining to different kinds of entitlements and protections such as the availability of food, access to clean air, safe working conditions, political representation, affirmative action, anti-discrimination measures and the regulation of prison conditions among others. For instance, in People’s Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, a petition was brought against governmental agencies which questioned the employment of underage labourers and the payment of wages below the prescribed statutory minimum wage-levels to those involved in the construction of facilities for the then upcoming Asian Games in New Delhi. The Court took serious exception to these practices and ruled that they violated constitutional guarantees. The employment of children in construction-related jobs clearly fell foul of the constitutional prohibition on child labour and the non-payment of minimum wages was equated with the extraction of forced labour. Similarly, in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, the Supreme Court’s attention was drawn to the widespread incidence of the age-old practice of bonded labour which persists despite the constitutional prohibition. Among other interventions, one can refer to the Shriram Food & Fertilizer case where the Court issued directions to employers to check the production of hazardous chemicals and gases that endangered the life and health of workmen. It is also through the vehicle of PIL, that the Indian Courts have come to adopt the strategy of awarding monetary compensation for constitutional wrongs such as unlawful detention, custodial torture and extra-judicial killings by state agencies.
In the realm of environmental protection, many of the leading decisions have been given in actions brought by renowned environmentalist M.C. Mehta. He has been a tireless campaigner in this area and his petitions have resulted in orders placing strict liability for the leak of Oleum gas from a factory in New Delhi, directions to check pollution in and around the Ganges river, the relocation of hazardous industries from the municipal limits of Delhi, directions to state agencies to check pollution in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal and several afforestation measures. A prominent decision was made in a petition that raised the problem of extensive vehicular air pollution in Delhi. The Court was faced with considerable statistical evidence of increasing levels of hazardous emissions on account of the use of diesel as a fuel by commercial vehicles. The Supreme Court decided to make a decisive intervention in this matter and ordered government-run buses to shift to the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), an environment-friendly fuel. This was followed some time later by another order that required privately-run ‘autorickshaws’ (three-wheeler vehicles which meet local transportation needs) to shift to the use of CNG. At the time, this decision was criticized as an unwarranted intrusion into the functions of the pollution control authorities, but it has now come to be widely acknowledged that it is only because of this judicial intervention that air pollution in Delhi has been checked to a substantial extent. Another crucial intervention was made in Council for Environment Legal Action v. Union of India, wherein a registered NGO had sought directions from the Supreme Court in order to tackle ecological degradation in coastal areas. In recent years, the Supreme Court has taken on the mantle of monitoring forest conservation measures all over India, and a special ‘Green bench’ has been constituted to give directions to the concerned governmental agencies. An important step in the area of gender justice was the decision in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan. The petition in that case originated from the gang-rape of a grassroots social worker. In that opinion, the Court invoked the text of the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and framed guidelines for establishing redressal mechanisms to tackle sexual harassment of women at workplaces. Though the decision has come under considerable criticism for encroaching into the domain of the legislature, the fact remains that till date the legislature has not enacted any law on the point. It must be remembered that meaningful social change, like any sustained transformation, demands a long-term engagement. Even though a particular petition may fail to secure relief in a wholesome manner or be slow in its implementation, litigation is nevertheless an important step towards systemic reforms. A recent example of this approach was the decision in People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India, where the Court sought to ensure compliance with the policy of supplying mid-day meals in government-run primary schools. The mid-day meal scheme had been launched with much fanfare a few years ago with the multiple objectives of encouraging the enrolment of children from low-income backgrounds in schools and also ensuring that they received adequate nutrition. However, there had been widespread reports of problems in the implementation of this scheme such as the pilferage of foodgrains. As a response to the same, the Supreme Court issued orders to the concerned governmental authorities in all States and Union Territories, while giving elaborate directions about the proper publicity and implementation of the said scheme.
Conclusion- Balancing a double edged sword
The power of the Court to entertain any circumstance that may hinder societal growth, or may cause hardship to a class of individuals is not uninhibited. It is carefully regulated with tight reins, and cases of public interest are taken up only after rigorous scrutiny. For instance, in a case wherein a challenge was made to the Government of India’s telecommunication policy, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the matter on the ground that it purely concerned a question of policy. Similarly, public interest litigations that have sought to prohibit the sale of liquor or the recognition of a particular language as a national language, or the introduction of a uniform civil code, have been rejected on the ground that these were matters of policy and were beyond the ambit of judicial scrutiny.
At the time of admitting matters in the form of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), the Courts have to carefully consider whether or not they are overstepping their domain. Upon considering the issues at hand, they must then consider whether the orders they intend to pass can be realistically implemented. Judges must also be attuned to the fact that inconsistencies in the observations made by different Courts with respect to the same set of issues, can add to administrative difficulties. There is also a need to keep a watch on the abuse of process by litigants so as to avoid a situation where such cases occupy a disproportionate extent of the Courts’ working time. Justice S.P. Barucha has expressed the need for caution in the following words:
“This court must refrain from passing orders that cannot be enforced, whatever the fundamental right may be and however good the cause. It serves no purpose to issue some high profile mandamus or declaration that can remain only on paper. It is counter productive to have people say ‘The Supreme Court has not been able to do anything’ or worse. It is of cardinal importance to the confidence that people have in the Court that its orders are implicitly and promptly obeyed and is, therefore, of cardinal importance that orders that are incapable of obedience and enforcement are not made.”
Name: Nikit Bala
Occupation: Law Student
University: Hidayatullah National Law University
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