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Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Written by: P. Sandhya


Public Interest Litigation as defined in S.P. Gupta vs President of India[1] is a

“litigation undertaken for the purpose of redressing public injury, enforcing public duty, protecting social, collective, 'diffused' rights and interests or vindicating public interest” and any person who is acting bona fide and who has sufficient interest has to be accorded standing.

Two broad categories can be established from the PILs file:

1. A petition filed by a member or members of a class, which is adversely affected by an administrative wrong

2. A petition filed by a public-spirited individual or by a group of persons to vindicate the rights of other persons or the public at large against administrative wrong, though the person/the group filing the litigation may not by itself suffered any legal injury

In the second category, people approach the court for the public good, with altruistic motives and not for personal benefits. it can be further classified into two categories -

A PIL filed:

● To redress an administrative wrong/injury that is arising out of commission or omission on the part of the administration which is against the constitution

● On behalf of people who are unable to do so themselves due to poverty, ignorance, disability, or social and economic disadvantaged conditions.

In any of those conditions, an individual acting bona fide can move to the court for redressing the grievances in question.


The initial trends of public interest litigation started in the 1970s. The first case that upheld or voiced public interest was Mumbai kamgar sabha vs Abdulbhai Faizullabhai & Ors[2], wherein Justice Krishna Iyer, one of the torchbearers of public interest litigation, stated that:

Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances, conceptual latitudinarianism permits taking liberties with individualization of the right to invoke the higher courts where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker’

And from then, the concept of public interest kept echoing in various judgments of the Supreme Court. In the case of Akhil Bharatiya shoshit karmachari Sangh vs union of India 1981, an unrecognized association of workers instituted a writ petition in the supreme court while maintaining the writ petition, justice Krishna Iyer observed - whether the association is recognized or not, the fact remains the same that a large body of people with common grievances exists and had approached the court under article 32 of the constitution.[3]

The concept of public interest litigation was given by justice p.n.bhagwati in S.P.Gupta vs President of India and ors 1982 popularly known as judges case wherein, several lawyers and activists across the country questioned the validity of a government circular relating to the transfer of judges and were awarded standing on the lines of public interest by relaxing the principle of locus standi.


The initial motive behind the establishment of PIL was to make justice accessible to everyone, especially to the poor and the marginalized sections of society. PIL continued to serve a significant purpose by not only addressing the grievances of the poor but also by taking cognizance of the issues that affected society as a whole. E.g. environmental issues, atrocities against women, etc. The court expanded the meaning of the right to life and personal liberty that is article 21 of the constitution, liberalized the traditional concept of locus standi, took up suo moto actions, Accepted letters as writ petitions, appointed fact-finding committees to find the proper facts that couldn’t be exposed by the petitioners due to their inability or ignorance.


There are many instances where PIL stood for rendering justice to the public. Few issues would have been unresolved till today without the emergence of public interest litigation. A few of such instances are as follows -


Public interest litigation is indeed a blessing for environmental protection, the power of the court to protect the environment is in art.21 of the constitution that provides the right to quality and dignity in life. Although the executive came up with environmental laws prior to the introduction of PIL, it did not yield many results. However, in many of the cases, the state itself was the worst offender.

The case of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of Uttar Pradesh[4] was noted as the first case to deal with the environment and ecological balance. This case is filed on behalf of the residents of doom valley against the limestone quarrying in the foothills of Mussoorie. The Supreme Court appointed a committee to probe into the issue, and relying on the committee's report, the court directed the authorities to stop quarrying.

Bonded labor

A letter was written to the supreme court addressing the issue of bonded labor in Bandhua Mukti moksha vs union of India,[5] supreme court took cognizance of it and ordered for inquiry by appointing a commission, which was opposed by the state government, the court rebuked the Government for objecting to stalk the inquiry and issued directions to the central as well as the state government of Haryana to take steps for prohibiting bonded labour.

Child labour

Bandhua Mukti moksha vs union of India, 1997[6] in which supreme court dealt with the child labour. The writ petition was filed by an organization working for a cause to release the bonded labor, the court accepted the petition and appointed a commissioner for inquiry in the state, and came up with an order directing the state government of Uttar Pradesh to eliminate child labour in that industry, and to issue welfare directives prohibiting child labour and providing better education and health care to the children.

Criminal justice

Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration [7]- In this case, the Supreme Court allowed a habeas corpus petition from a prisoner, complaining of a brutal assault by jail authorities on behalf of another prisoner. The significance of this case is that it expanded the scope of the habeas corpus petition, making it available to the prisoners, not only for seeking personal liberty but also for the enforcement of the rights to which he is entitled.

Atrocities against women

In Vishaka and ors vs State of Rajasthan[8] a PIL filed by a women rights group called ‘vishaka’ supreme court laid guidelines to govern the behavior of employers at the workplace to prevent atrocities on women.

In the absence of a law, the Supreme Court played a crucial role in filling the vacuum in the legislature by providing guidelines.


For many years after its emergence, Public interest litigation served a significant purpose. But there arose many issues due to the blatant misuse of public interest litigations which diluted the initial mandate of Public interest litigation.

Many frivolous PILs with oblique motives, private interests, and political interests were filed in the

Supreme court. Few of them were just for publicity and monetary benefits.

PIL as Publicity Interest Litigation

A PIL challenging IIT-Joint Entrance Exam results and to withhold the result has been rejected by the Supreme Court. The Apex court described the act of the petitioner as a publicity stunt.

PIL for Monetary Benefits

In Dattaraj Nathuji Thaware vs State of Maharashtra and ors the Supreme Court noted that “Public Interest Litigation which has now come to occupy an important field in the administration of law should not be "publicity interest litigation" or "private interest litigation" or "politics interest litigation" or the latest trend "paise income litigation". The High Court has found that the case at hand belongs to the last category. If not properly regulated and abuse averted, it becomes also a tool in unscrupulous hands to release vendetta and wreak vengeance, as well.”


In Kalyaneshwari vs union of India and others the supreme court dismissed the petition observing the petition to be at the behest of the rival business that wanted to promote alternatives for the respondent’s product (asbestos). Supreme Court thus stated, “A petition which lacks bona fide and is intended to settle business rivalry or is aimed at taking over of a company or augmenting the business of another interested company at the cost of closing business of other units in the garb of PIL would be nothing but abuse of the process of law[9]


In Raghunath Singh Negi vs state of Uttarakhand and ors.- A PIL filed seeking directions to the respondent for proper implementation of the Tripathi commission report, and for taking action against erring officers. This petition was considered to be filed for political benefits and was hence dismissed.

Few other instances of blatant misuse of PIL are as follows:

PIL was filed

- to recall the Indian cricket team in Australia

- questioning the marriage of Ms. Aishwarya rai, with a tree

- Against M.s Shilpa Shetty, for not resisting a public kiss by a Hollywood actor Richard Gere amid an anti-aids show.

- Challenging the indo-nuclear deal.

- Seeking the implementation of “one nation one education board”


As the above-mentioned phenomena continued to exist, the supreme country framed a compilation of guidelines, to be followed to entertain letter/petitions as public interest litigations in December 1988,

These guidelines were later expanded in august 1993 and august 2003.

The guideline mentioned the category of cases that will be entertained as PILs and also mentioned those grounds on which a PIL is denied.

A PIL CELL was formed to scrutinize all the letter-petitions received by the court and the letters that are eligible to be entertained as PILs according to the guidelines framed will be placed before a judge nominated by the chief justice.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court started imposing fines on petitioners coming up with frivolous PILs.



The introduction of Public interest litigation is a significant step in the Indian judiciary. It benefited many disadvantaged sections of society. Many grave concerns were raised and were redressed through PILs. Indeed, in the absence of such extra-judicial remedy, those problems would continue to exist in the present society. For example, the vishaka judgment, where guidelines of the court played a crucial role for 16 years in the absence of a law i.e until the introduction of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The emergence of PIL in India instilled faith in the judiciary in the minds of the people.

As every coin has two sides, the dark side of the Public interest litigation came to light from the mid -1990s with a flurry of frivolous PILs being filed. According to a report in New Indian Express, the Supreme Court observed that the whole concept of the PIL has been lost. PIL intended to provide cost-free, effective, and speedy justice to the disadvantaged but, the judiciary being laden by such unworthy, frivolous PILs is delaying the justice for those who are in actual need of it.

PIL as a concept of providing justice to the needy is a boon in a country like India with a lot of problems like poverty and illiteracy, what also matters is its effectiveness.

Preventing Extraneous PILs, and making sure of the effective implementation of the guidelines and directions of the Supreme court can bring back the luster of PIL.

[1] S.P Gupta V. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 149 [2] Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs Abdulbhai Faizullabhai, AIR 1976 SC 1455 [3] Akhil Bharatiya Shoshit Karmachari Sangh v. Union of India, 1981 AIR 298 [4] Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 1985 SCR (3) 169 [5] Bandhua mukti moksha vs Union of India, 1984 SCR (2) 67 [6] Bandhua mukti moksha vs Union of India, (1997) 10 SCC 549 [7] Sunil batra v. Delhi administration, (1978) 4 SCC 409 [8] Vishaka and ors vs the State of Rajasthan, (1997) 6 SCC 241 [9] Kalyaneshwari vs Union of India, (2011) 3 SCC 287

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