Topic of the Day: Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

UPSC Exam Preparation: Topic of the Day – Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

Topic of the Day:
Polity: Public Interest Litigation UPSC

The concept of public interest litigation (PIL) rests on the principle that any member of the public can initiate legal proceedings on behalf of an aggrieved person, especially a person who is unable to move to court on his or her own. Such proceedings can be initiated in either the High Court or the Supreme Court for the enforcement of the constitution or legal rights of a person or a group of person. The practice of PIL emerged on account of the liberal attitude of the Supreme Court, which instead of insisting that only a person whose fundamental rights has been infringed can file a petition, permitted public spirited citizen to move the court for the enforcement of constitutional and legal rights of persons or groups who, because of their poverty or economically disadvantaged position, were unable to approach the court for relief. It may be noted that key role in enunciating the principle of PIL was played by Justice J. Bhagwati. He did not insist on observance of procedural technicalities and even treated ordinary letters from public-minded individuals as writ petition.

To ensure that PIL is not misused, justice Bhagwati cautioned the court to satisfy itself that the person bringing the case to the court was not doing so for personal gains or private profit or political motivation or other oblique considerations. It is to be observed that the Supreme Court, by permitting PIL or social action litigation, has considerably widened the scope of Article 32 of the Constitution. In terms of principles of PIL, under Article 32, the Supreme Court can interfere whenever and wherever any injustice is caused or being caused, by state action to the poor and helpless person who cannot approach the court. By the exercise of this power, the court has provided appropriate remedy to aggrieved persons. Some of the important issues on which court issued appropriate writs, orders and directions on the basis of PIL or social action litigation, include Bihar Blinding case, flesh trade in protective home of Agra, protection of pavement and slum dwellers of Mumbai, the abolition of bonded labors, protections of environment and ecology, etc.

The principle of PIL is a welcome development which will go a long way in creating a sense of responsibility among the public authorities exercising enormous powers under the Constitution and the law. This principle would certainly minimize, if not completely eliminate, the abuse of power by public authorities.

The scope of PIL was further widened by the Supreme Court through its judgment in the case of M. C .Mehta v. Union of India. It ruled that poor in India can seek enforcement of their fundamental rights from the Supreme Court by writing a letter to any judge of the court even without the support of an affidavit. This virtually brought legal aid to the door steps of teeming millions of India.

The doctrine of PIL has also been subjected to a lot of criticism. It has been alleged that by entertaining cases of violation of fundamental rights through letters, the court will be flooded with litigation, resulting in the delay in the disposal of several other important cases. Secondly, PIL is likely to lead to conflicts between the three organs of government on account of the right of courts to interfere in the working of other two organs. Thirdly, it has been alleged that the decision of the courts in PIL cases are not likely to be enforced. However, this criticism is not valid because under the Constitution all authorities in the territory of India have to act in aid of the Supreme Court and if any of these authorities fail to carry out the orders of the court, the court can punish them for contempt of court.

Despite the criticism leveled against PIL, it cannot be denied that it has not only helped the poor and destitute to secure justice but has also helped in cleansing the administration by insisting on the punishment of those who are involved in various scams and corruption cases in public life. It is well known that several scams like the Hawala Scam, Urea Scam, Fodder Scam in Bihar, Illegal allotment of Government Houses and Petrol pumps etc., came to light only through PIL.

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