History of Public Interest Litigation:
The last two decades have witnessed the conceptualization of Public Interest Litigation in India. Through it the courts (High Court and Supreme Court) have acquired the power to grant justice to people on humanitarian grounds. It has ensured access to justice for the deprived, under-privileged and neglected segments of the society. Various public spirited persons and NGO’s have approached the court of law through this resort.
Section 32 of the Indian Constitution conferred a right upon every aggrieved individual to move to the Supreme Court or High Court directly on infringement of his fundamental right. However, Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Ayyer , acknowledged that any individual or organization can approach the Supreme Court if any act is done contrary to the public interest.
Meaning of Public Interest Litigation
According to the Black law dictionary “Public Interest Litigation means a legal action initiated in a court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or class of the community have pecuniary interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.” Thus a PIL has following elements:
1. it is a legal action
2. Initiated in a court of law
3. for interest of people
The PIL has given right to the under privileged to voice against the injustice done to them. In past the Supreme Court has considered complaints, newspaper reports and credible letters sufficient evidence for initiating proceedings. The court has empowered even third parties (who have no self interest in the matter) to file such litigation.
However the shield for public protection is misused by people as a sword for personal benefit. Organizations file cases under this ambit to evade heavy court fee. Sometimes people file such litigation to pursue their political ambitions. There have been instances of frivolous PIL like to rename India “Hindustan,” rename the Arabian Sea “Sindhu Sagar,” ban vastu, reiki, feng shui, tarot, palmistry, zodiac signs etc and replace the national anthem for one offered by the petitioner.
It has also infuriated the fight between the three organs of the state( executive, legislature and the judiciary). On one hand the judges like Justice S.B. Sinha advocates the importance of judge-made law on the other hand judges like Justice Markandeya Katju emphasis the importance of self restraint on judiciary. Some jurists have opined that judicial activism has now turned into judicial terrorism. It is alleged that about 20% of judges are corrupt. Thus Judicial Accountability is yet another concern in this regard.
The judiciary is also heavily condemned on absence of adversarial trial in PIL’s. Dr. Upendra Baxi has criticized that decisions in Bhopal Tragedy Case, WTO accession and Narmada Dame were dominated by the influence of the global economic elites on the Indian Judiciary. It is criticized that since there is no cross examination litigants may give inaccurate information to the court. The PIL’s are given predominance over the existing cases by the courts. Thus if there is a false or irrelevant allegation, it would be detrimental to the interests of many people. Recently a PIL was filed by a former MP M Narayana Reddy seeking direction to the Andhra Pradesh Speaker to decide on the resignation of over 139 legislators. The SC out rightly rejected his claim saying he had no locus standi on the issue.
Further it is a grave concern that there is no mechanism by which the court can check the effective implementation of its decision. In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, the SC had laid broad guidelines on sexual harassment but till date these guidelines have not been legislated.
Judicial Activism has benefited a considerable number of people. In cases like Sunil Batra, Sheela Barse, Charles Shoobraj, DK Basu and Hussainara Khatoon, Supreme Court took a revolutionary step to safeguard the rights of the accused. Similarly in MC Mehta and Vishaka Case the court evolved directions to protect public interests. The objective of PIL was to over-reach every section of society sadly the same is not happening.
The Supreme Court records state that only 0.4% cases filed in the SC involve PIL. One hand the data reveals that PIL cases don’t hamper the normal working of the courts, on the other hand it shows that from the millions of letters send by ordinary people are neglected and only those through formal channel are entertained. Most of the cases relate environmental concerns, child labor and caste disabilities. There has been significant increase in cases filed by advantaged class ( 57.9% in 1961-1989 to 73.3% in 2000-2008) where as there is a decrease in that filed by the disadvantaged social class ( 71.4% in 1961 -1989 to 47.2 in 2000-2008).
I have personally met the victims of Bhopal Gas Tragedy. They write thousands of letters each day hoping that it would be entertained as a Public Interest Litigation. Their letters are till now unnoticed. It is disgrace that the benefits of P.I.L are not reaching the people for whom it was coined. Although the courts have been instrumental in protecting rights of people. There is a duty vested upon individuals too, lodging of frivolous complaints must be discouraged.