Public Interest Litigation – PIL

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The Indian Constitution has guaranteed equal rights to every citizen. However, many people are deprived of their rights and are unable to fight for justice. PIL is a tool for the enforcement of the rights of the poor and needy person. PIL means litigation to protect the interest of the public. Public Interest Litigation has played a significant role in Indian society. In this article, we will discuss what is PIL, its significance, who can file a PIL and against whom, the procedure to file a PIL, what led to the growth of PIL, guidelines for admitting PIL, and the Criticism of PIL.

Public Interest Litigation is borrowed from American jurisprudence and was mainly introduced for providing legal representation to the group which was earlier unrepresented such as racial minorities, poor, unorganized consumers, citizens who were concerned about environmental problems, etc. Judicial Activism has given the power to the public to file a PIL to protect the interest of the public.

The Kapila Hingorani filed the first PIL in 1979 in the famous Hussainara Khatoon case for the release of 40,000 undertrials from the jail in Bihar. This petition was filed before the Supreme Court led by Justice P N Bhagwati. On the success of this case, Adv. Hingorani came to be known as the “Mother of PILs”.

The first judges to admit Public Interest Litigations were Justice Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer. Justice Bhagwati made sure that the practice of PIL is clearly adopted in the Indian jurisprudence and that there is no hindrance to a procedural technicality. He had also treated a simple letter as a writ petition.

What is PIL?

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is litigation filed for the protection of public interest. If the interest of the public at large is affected, then the matter can be redressed by referring the issue to the court of law through Public Interest Litigation. It is an extension of a writ petition.

It has not been defined in any statute. The main aim of PIL is to ensure justice and thereby promote the welfare of the public. The Supreme Court of India and the High Court have the power to issue PIL. It is used to safeguard the interest of the public at large and not individual interest. PIL originated from the power of Judicial Review. The purpose of PIL is to challenge the decision or actions of public authorities or their failure to act through judicial review. However, a PIL challenging the constitutionality of a statute or rule of law cannot be entertained by the High Court through a PIL.

It is a non-adversarial litigation that is different from the traditional litigation of adversarial nature where in a dispute between two parties, one party makes a claim or seeks relief against the other and the other party opposes such claim or relief.

The following matters are referred to in PIL these include; neglected children, atrocities against women, bonded labour matters, environment pollution, exploitation of casual workers, non-payment of minimum wages to workers, terrorism, food adulteration, road safety, maintenance of heritage and culture, disturbance of ecological balance, etc.

Following matters cannot be referred to in a PIL, such as; matters relating to gratuity and pensions, admission in any medical colleges or other educational institutions, landlord-tenant matters, petition for early hearing of the matters which are pending before the subordinate courts or High Courts, complaints against the local bodies or central or state government, etc.

Significance of PIL India

Public Interest Litigation has played a significant role in Indian society. The main purpose of PIL is to make justice easily accessible to poor and marginalized people. The courts have through various landmark judgments protected the public interest. Some of the significance of PIL are –

  • It is an essential tool to enforce human rights and judicial review;
  • A petition can be filed by any citizen in the interest of justice on behalf of those who do not have the capacity or means to file a petition. Hence, it has relaxed the locus standi rule and has democratized access to justice;
  • It enables everyone such as the court, the claimant, and the government or public official to collaborate so that human rights become more meaningful to the general public at large.
  • It helps monitor the public authority such as protective homes, prisons, asylums, etc.
  • Even a simple letter can be treated as PIL by the Court; provided it has been written to raise issues affecting public interest such as atrocities against women, neglected children, non-payment of wages to workers, harassment of villagers by other villagers or police, etc.
  • It has created a dynamic and welfare-oriented model of the judiciary which aims at providing remedies to the needy who cannot approach the court.
  • It has also strengthened the role of the judiciary in keeping a watch on the actions of legislatures and executives.
  • PIL has helped improve the management and administration of institutions such as woman’s protective homes, jails, juvenile homes, mental asylums, etc.
  • It helps the executive to discharge their constitutional obligations.

Who can file a PIL and against whom?

The relaxation of ‘locus standi’ (locus standi means the right of the aggrieved person to appear and be heard before the court) has enabled any person or an organization to file a PIL either in their own standing or on behalf of the aggrieved person who is unable to enforce their own rights due to poverty, illiteracy or disability are incapable to approach the court.

Any person who is acting in good faith and who is interested in the welfare of the public will have the locus standi to file a public interest litigation and if the person has any personal gain or political or private interest then such petition will not be entertained.

Even a simple letter can be treated as a PIL; provided it is addressed by the aggrieved person or any public-spirited person or a social action group that aims for the enforcement of the constitutional or legal rights of the aggrieved person who due to disability, poverty, or socially or economically disadvantaged position is unable to approach the court for seeking redressal.

In Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun Vs State of UP, 1989, the Court had treated a letter into a writ petition under the Public Interest Litigation, addressing the issue of illegal and unauthorized mining in Mussoorie Hills.

A Public Interest Litigation can be filed against –

  • A State or Central Government including the Parliament, legislature of each state, and all local or other government authorities under the control of the government of India;
  • Municipal authority; and
  • Not against any private party. To include a private party in a PIL, then the state authority should be added as a party. For example, if a factory owned by a private party is causing pollution, then the Pollution Control Board/ Union of India/ Government of Delhi, and the private factory owner should be added as Respondent.

Procedure to File PIL in India

The petition can be filed by any citizen before the court in the public interest. The PIL can be filed before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution or the High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution.

The court has to ensure that the PIL is filed in the interest of justice. The court can treat a letter as a writ petition provided it is written by the aggrieved person, or social group, or a public-spirited person which aims for enforcement of human rights on behalf of the aggrieved person, who is not able to appear before the court due to disability or poverty for redressal of grievances. Even a newspaper article can be treated as a petition if the court is satisfied with the matter in the public interest.

Filing of PIL – PIL can be filed in the same manner as a writ petition.

If a PIL is filed before the High Court, then the PIL should be addressed to the Chief Justice of the High Court of that State. 2 copies of the petition should be filed before the Court. A copy of the petition should also be served on the opposite party only when the Court has issued notice for the same.

In case the PIL is filed before the Supreme Court, then the PIL should be addressed to the Chief Justice of India. 5 copies of the petition should be filed before the court. A copy of the petition should also be served on the opposite party in advance and the acknowledgement of the service should be attached to the petition.

Procedure – A Court fee of Rs. 50 per respondent should be affixed on the petition. The PIL proceedings are the same as any other case. The court may appoint a commission for inspection of allegations in the petition, such as trees being cut, pollution being caused, sewage problems, etc.

Once the reply has been filed by the opposite party or any rejoinder has been made by the petitioner, then the final hearing takes place, after which the final order of the court is delivered.

Drafting of PIL – The PIL should state the name, address, email address, occupation, phone number, PAN number, and annual income of the petitioner. The identity proof of the petitioner should be attached to the petition. The facts of the case, the nature of the injury, and the personal interest of the petitioner should be stated clearly. Details regarding the petitioner involved in any litigation associated with the PIL should be stated. The detail regarding the class of the individual for whom the PIL is initiated and the reason for the person’s inability to appear before the court. Whether any representation has been made before any authority pertaining to the issue. It should also state whether the petitioner can pay the cost imposed by the court.

What led to the growth of PIL in India?

Many factors had led to the growth of PIL in India, some of these are –

  • Part III (Fundamental Rights) and Part IV (Directive Principles) of the Indian Constitution has made provisions for regulating the relationship between the citizens and the government and among citizens’ interest.
  • The Indian legislation has helped the judiciary to keep a check on the executive for non-performance of its duties and ensuring to protect the rights of the poor and the needy.
  • The relaxation of locus standi has enabled any third party to raise issues on behalf of an aggrieved person who is unable to go to court. Even the court has suo moto taken up the matters in the interest of justice based on letters or newspaper articles.
  • The courts have also appointed a Commission in case the petitioner is unable to provide all the necessary documents, either because the party is economically or socially weak or because the evidence is voluminous. The Commission collects the information relating to the facts and circumstances of the case and presents it before the court.
  • The court has also come up with innovative ideas or given a new type of relief to the needy or poor. Such as; the court stated that where any worker gets less than the minimum wage, they can directly approach the Supreme Court without going to the labour commissioner or lower courts (Asiad Worker Case).

Misuse of Public Interest Litigation

PIL is a boon for vigilant citizens who fight for the rights of the weaker sections of society. However, as every coin has the opposite side, even the PIL has some drawbacks. The misuse of PIL has become rampant, many social activists have used the PIL for personal or political gains. As the cost involved in PIL is minimal, many frivolous petitions have been filed without heavy court fees as required in civil litigations. There are instances where the PIL activists have used the PIL as a tool to harass and negotiate with the victims by obtaining a stay order through a PIL.

Therefore, Court has come up with guidelines to safeguard and curb the misuse of PIL.

In Raunaq International Limited Vs IVR Construction Ltd. the Court had held that when a private party obtains a stay order or any interim order which stops any project from proceeding then, such private party should reimburse the public for the costs involved in the implementation of the project and the cost for escalation which resulted from such delay.

Guidelines for admitting PIL

PIL has become an essential part of the administration of justice. As people are becoming aware of the PIL, there is an increase in the number of petitions which has also led to frivolous litigations on irrelevant issues and misuse of the PIL for personal gains. Therefore, the Supreme Court has laid down the guidelines to check the misuse of PIL while admitting any petition –

  • Bona fide PIL should be encouraged and PIL for irrelevant considerations should be discouraged.
  • Before acknowledging a PIL, the credentials of the petitioner should be verified by the court.
  • Contents of the PIL should be acceptable by the court only if it gives priority to the gravity and urgency of the issue involving a substantial public interest.
  • The aim of the PIL should be public injury or the welfare of the public and not for personal gains or private profits or political gains or any other oblique considerations.

Criticism of PIL India

PIL has been criticized on the following grounds –

  • PIL has sometimes added to the problem of competing rights, for example, where the PIL has been filed for closure of a factory that is emitting pollutants then this can lead to unemployment of workmen and has an adverse impact on their families.
  • It has overburdened the court with frivolous PIL filed for personal gains or vested interest.
  • As the court is overburdened with PILs there are many inordinate delays in the disposal of PIL petitions.
  • In the process of solving issues relating to socioeconomic or environmental problems through PILs, the judiciary has done judicial overreach which is violative of the principle of Separation of Power.

Important Public Interest Litigation Case laws

M.C. Mehta Vs Union of India

M C Mehta had filed several petitions to prevent and safeguard the environment. Some of these PILs include

Taj Trapezium Case – where PIL was filed to prevent the Taj Mahal from being degraded. The Court had directed the 292 industries to operate using safe fuel or to relocate the industry.

Oleum Gas Leak Case – where PIL was filed to relocate the industry located in the congested area. The Court had ordered to relocate the company manufacturing hazardous and lethal chemicals and gases which were posing danger to the health and life of the workmen and to take all necessary precautions before re-opening the plant.

Ganga Pollution case – in this case, the Ganga river water was being polluted due to industrial waste discharged by Tanneries. The Petition was filed to prevent the pollution of River Ganga and to safeguard the health of people who consume it. The Court had directed the Municipality to take proper action and set up a proper drainage and sewage system

Rescue of Indian Migrants Stranded in Gulf Countries

In this petition, the PIL was filed before the Supreme Court seeking direction to set up a mechanism for bringing back Indian workers struck in the Gulf countries due to loss of passport and direct the implementation of policies for the welfare of the workers. The Indian workers were also denied proper medical treatment during the COVID-19 outbreak. The PIL also sought to bring the bodies of dead Indian workers and to provide legal aid to the Indian workers who were facing a death sentence and were lodged in jails of Gulf countries.
Hence, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Ministry of Home Affairs, CBI, and 12 states to look into the matter.


Public Interest Litigation is an important tool to protect and safeguard the rights of people who are unable to approach the court themselves. PIL is mostly used in environmental issues. Any person can file a PIL to protect the public interest. The PIL should not be used for private gains. Due to the relaxation of locus standi and the lower cost involved in PIL, it has been misused by many PIL activists to harass others for their own private motives. Therefore, the court has made guidelines to prevent the misuse of PIL. Amidst the lockdown, several public interest litigations were filed for the protection of the rights of sanitation workers, to issue uniform guidelines for the prevention of the spread of coronavirus throughout India, etc.



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