Home Insights Basics Of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) In India – IMPRI Impact And...

Basics Of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) In India – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

Basics of PIL

Session Report
Narayani Bhatnagar

LPPYF Law and Public Policy Youth Fellowship is an Online National Summer School Program, a Two- Month Online Immersive Legal Awareness & Action Research Certificate Training Course and Internship Program, from June-August 2023 by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute. An informative and interactive panel discussion on “Basics of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India” was held on the 21st of June, 2023 by Adv Dr Shalu Nigam, Visiting Senior Fellow IMPRI; Advocate, Author, and Researcher, Gender and Human Rights.

The chairperson for the programme is Professor Vibhuti Patel, who is a distinguished visiting professor at IMPRI, and Panel expert Adv Dr Shalu Nigam.

The session was inaugurated by the chair Prof. Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Distinguished Professor at IMPRI with a summary to the previous week sessions given by experts. She thereafter welcomed the expert Adv Dr Shalu Nigam to commence with the session of Basics of Public Interest Litigation in India. Her talk discussed the fundamentals of Public Interest Litigation, the manner in which to file it, and what is currently being done about PIL.

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is also known as Social Action Litigation (SAL), Social Interest Litigation (SIL), and Class Action Litigation (CAL). In layman’s terms, it refers to litigation brought in a court of law to safeguard public interests such as pollution, road safety, construction dangers, and so on.

There is no definition of public interest lawsuit in any legislation or act. It has been construed by judges to take consideration of the general public’s purpose.

Although the primary and exclusive aim of such action is Public Interest, such litigation can be launched in a variety of areas. For example, the violation of the poor’s fundamental human rights, the content or execution of government policy- Compel municipal officials to execute a public function, and violation of fundamental human rights

Such instances may arise when the victims lack the required finances to begin action or when their right to proceed in court has been repressed or encroached upon. The Court may take cognizance of the problem and proceed on its own initiative, or cases may be initiated on the petition of any public-spirited citizen. The authority granted to the public by courts through judicial activism is known as public interest litigation.

Public Interest, is something in which the general public, or the community at large, has a monetary interest, or something in which their legal rights or liabilities are affected. It does not refer to something as restricted as ordinary curiosity or the interest of certain areas that may be touched by the issues at hand. Citizens’ interest is prevalent in affairs of the local, State or federal government.

“The Court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning.” 

-Justice PN Bhagwati (SP Gupta vs Union of India, 1981)

History and the Indian context

Dr, Nigam shared the history of PILs. According to the Ford Foundation of the United States of America, public interest law refers to activities that provide legal representation to previously unrepresented organisations and interests.

These endeavours have been conducted in acknowledgment of the fact that the traditional legal services market fails to deliver such services to major portions of the population and interests. Environmentalists, consumers, racial and ethnic minorities, and others are examples of such organisations and interests. 

She added that, during the period of Emergency (1975-1977) in India, state and governmental repression. There was rampant lawlessness. Thousands of innocent individuals, including political opponents, were imprisoned, and civil and political rights were completely violated. 

The post-emergency period presented an opportunity for Supreme Court judges to publicly reject the obstacles of the Anglo-Saxon process in giving disadvantaged people access to justice. During the post-emergency period, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of people’s access to justice by making drastic reforms and revisions to the requirements of Locus Standi and party aggrieved.

The evolution was made possible by the exceptional efforts of Justices P N Bhagwati and VR Krishna lyer. By easing the norms of standing, Justice V. R. Krishna lyer and P. N. Bhagwati acknowledged the prospect of granting access to justice to the impoverished and exploited people.

Investigative journalism also began to disclose graphic pictures of official illegality, repression, and prison abuse, attracting the attention of attorneys, social activists and judges. PIL arose from an informal partnership of forward-thinking judges, journalists, and social activists.

This tendency demonstrates the striking contrast between the conventional justice delivery system and the new informal justice system in which the judiciary performs administrative judicial functions.

Locus Standi

She elaborated that prior to the 1980s, only the offended party could physically approach the courts and seek redress for his or her claim. Any other person who was not directly harmed could not seek justice on behalf of the victim or the aggrieved party.In other words, only the parties harmed have the Locus Standi (legal standing) to initiate a complaint and pursue the litigation. As a result, there was no connection between the constitutionally given rights on the one hand and the large majority of illiterate individuals on the other.

The conventional interpretation of Locus Standi in Writ jurisdiction has been that only those who:

a) Have experienced a legal damage as a result of a violation of his legal right or legally protected interest; or

b) is likely to incur legal harm as a result of a breach of a legally protected right or interest. Thus, prior to acquiring Locus Standi. He or she had to have a personal or individual right that had been violated or was threatened with violation.

c) He or she should have been an aggrieved party in the sense that he or she had suffered or was going to suffer from bias, financial or otherwise.

Article 39 of the Indian Constitution:

The notion of public interest litigation (PIL) is founded on Article 39A’s goals of providing legal assistance and promoting justice. Filing a PIL is not as time-consuming as filing a regular legal action; in certain cases, letters and telegrams addressed to the court have been heard as PILS.


Public interest litigation expands on the right to equality, life, and individuality provided under Part III of the Indian Constitution. It also serves as an effective instrument for social reform in society. Any member of the public or an individual can seek redress on behalf of the aggrieved class through public interest litigation.

Writ Jurisdiction under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution of India

The Supreme Court’s Writ Jurisdiction can be used under Article 32 of the Constitution for violations of basic rights protected by Part III of the Constitution. Any provision in a constitution for Fundamental Rights is useless unless proper protections are in place to ensure that such provisions are enforced.

Public Interest Litigation: A Boon

1. Vigilant citizens across the country can find an inexpensive legal remedy in Public Interest Litigation (PIL) because there is just a small fixed court charge involved.

2. In addition, the plaintiffs can draw attention and accomplish outcomes on bigger public concerns, particularly in the realms of human rights, consumer welfare, and the environment. 

At the moment, the court can regard a letter as a petition and act on it. However, not every letter may be recognised as a petition by the court. Only in the following circumstances would the court be justified in recognising the letter as a petition:

(i) It is only where the letter is addressed by an aggrieved person,

(ii) a public-spirited individual, or 

(iii) a social action group for enforcement of the constitutional or legal rights of a person in custody or of a class or group of persons who find it difficult to approach the court for redress due to poverty, disability, or a socially or economically disadvantaged position.

Essentials of Public Interest Litigation (PIL)

She then moved on to explain the essentials of Public Interest Litigations that Justice P.N Bhagwati has pointed out. They are as follows:

To file a PIL, the aggrieved person must be the victim of legal misconduct that is penalised as a breach of any constitutional or legal right.

The victim must be unable to contact the court due to a number of conditions, such as poverty or other socioeconomic concerns. If all of the prerequisites are satisfied, any public official or member may make a complaint on the victim’s behalf.

The court must ensure that the PIL is in the public interest or for the greater good, rather than for the advantage of the victim personally. If all of the requirements are completed, the court has the authority to act on a letter sent to it.

Procedure of Filing PIL:

1. Make a sound decision about whether or not to pursue a case.

2. Consult with any impacted interest groups that may be potential allies. 

3. Be cautious when bringing a complaint because litigation may be costly and time-consuming. A bad judgement might have an impact on the movement’s strength.

4. If you have made your decision 

5. Gather all pertinent information.

i. Be thorough in acquiring information for the case. 

ii. Keep the negatives and obtain an attestation from the photographer if you want to utilise photos.

iii. Write to the appropriate authorities and state your requests clearly. 

iv. Keep records in an orderly form. 

v. Counsel a lawyer about the appropriate forum.

vi. Only a registered organisation may submit a PIL. If you are not registered, submit the PIL in the name of an office bearer/member in his or her personal capacity.

vii. Before filing a PIL, you may need to serve a legal notice to the relevant parties/authorities. 

viii. Filing a lawsuit against the government would necessitate sending a notification to the relevant officer department at least two months before filing.

Procedure for Filing Public Interest Litigation:

(a) Petition is filed in the same form as a writ petition is.

If a PIL is filed in a High Court, copies of the petition must be filed as well. Each respondent, that is, opposing party, must be served with an advance copy of the petition, and proof of service must be affixed to the petition.

(b) The Procedure.

A court charge of Rs. 50 per respondent (i.e. court fees of Rs 50 for each number of parties) must be included in the petition. Proceedings in the PIL begin and continue in the same manner as in other instances. However, if the Judge believes that it is necessary, he may appoint the commissioner to investigate claims such as pollution, tree cutting, sewer difficulties, and so on. Following the filing of answers by the opposing party or response by the petitioner, the final hearing is held, and the judge delivers his verdict.

Against whom Public Interest Litigation can be filed:

According to Article 12, the word ‘State‘ encompasses the Government and Parliament of India, as well as the Governments and Legislatures of each of the States, as well as all local or other authorities within India’s territory or under the supervision of the Government of India.

As a result, the authorities and instruments indicated in Article 12 are:

i. India’s Government and Parliament.

ii.The governments and legislatures of each state,

iii.All municipal governments, and 

iv. Other authorities inside India’s borders or under the control of the Government of India.

After the concerned governmental authority, a private individual may be named as a ‘Respondent’ in a PIL. If a private factory in Mumbai is polluting the environment, a public interest lawsuit can be launched against the Mumbai government, the state pollution control board, and the private factory in Mumbai.


PILS was successful in holding officials responsible and introducing openness. It is about giving folks more authority. PILS addresses environmental complaints, socio-economic rights, civic and political rights, and other more humanistic issues (Right to Food and Vishakha judgement).

A bench composed of Justices Singhvi and AK Ganguly stated that legislation adopted to achieve the purposes outlined in the Constitution’s Preamble were insufficient. The bench stated that it was the Judiciary’s responsibility to preserve every citizen’s rights and guarantee that everyone lived with dignity.

When victims lack the ability to initiate litigation or their right to petition the court has been restricted, such lawsuits may be launched in the public interest. Courts may also proceed based on letters or media articles.

Social action litigation based on Constitutional law and fundamental rights interpretation is crucial to “expanding” the concept of “citizenship” for “India’s poor” (Baxi 1985). Baxi (1985:107-8) attributes this dramatic shift in the function of the Indian higher court to “judicial populism” as a type of “catharsis” in the aftermath of India’s internal Emergency from 1975 to 1977.

During the Emergency, the Supreme Court effectively followed the Executive’s lead. In contrast, throughout the post-Emergency period, notably during the 1980s, the higher court took an active role, frequently providing directives to the Executive to carry out its relevant tasks. 

In the process, the Supreme Court of India, “established the principle that the judiciary was morally required and constitutionally mandated to increase its responsiveness to citizen requests for remedial action” in relation to government agencies (Goetz and Jenkins 2001:367-8).

Hussainara Khatoon Vs State of Bihar.

Kapila Hingorani filed a plea in December 1979, over the conditions of the detainees incarcerated in the Bihar jail whose cases were waiting in court. The petition was signed by Bihar jail inmates, and the case was submitted before the Supreme Court of India before a bench chaired by Justice P. N. Bhagwati. The Supreme Court ruled that inmates should be entitled to free legal representation and expedited hearings. As a consequence, 40,000 inmates were freed from prison.

M. C. Mehta v. Union of India.

The court ordered the closure of multiple companies and only permitted them to reopen after regulated pollution disposal in the Ganga basin. On December 30, 1996, environmentalist M C Mehta’s PIL, resulted in harsh restrictions against Mathura refineries for contaminating the ambient air surrounding the Taj Mahal. Another PIL filed by M C Mehta resulted in the CNG judgement (July 28, 1998), which required cars in the capital to use a different fuel in order to reduce vehicular pollution.

A public interest litigation (PIL) was brought before the Odisha High Court, listing 11 such youngsters, four of them were severely malnourished (SAM) or acutely malnourished (MAM) and were not covered by PDS or NFSA. Following comprehensive evidence and answers, the Court emphasised the need for inclusive government programmes to combat malnourishment and hunger. Having roughly 30,000 SAM and 86,000 MAM children in Odisha in 2023 is reason for concern not just for the state of Odisha, but also for the Government of India. 

Failure to have an Aadhaar Card, a mobile phone, or a legitimate ‘identification’ paper of any type might result in a child or a family being refused basic help in the form of food and supplements, which are so important for basic existence. The absence of these documents cannot prevent people from taking advantage of the programmes.

Anil Yadav v. State of Bihar.

The case of Anil Yadav v. State of Bihar, decided in 1981, highlighted police brutality. According to a newspaper article, the police in Bihar blinded 33 suspected criminals by throwing acid into their eyes. The Supreme Court issued interim directions directing the state government to transport the blinded men to Delhi for medical care. It also ordered that the guilty cops be prosecuted as soon as possible. The court also interpreted the right to free legal counsel as a basic right of every accused person.

Citizen for Democracy v. State of Assam and Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration.

The Supreme Court ruled in Citizen for Democracy v. State of Assam that handcuffs and other fetters may not be imposed on a prisoner when he or she is being transported or transiting from one jail to another, to the court, or back. In Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration, a prisoner complained to a judge about being compelled to wear handcuffs and wanted implied protection against humiliation and torture. The court provided crucial guidance by loosening the Locus Standi norm.

Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra.

A journalist named Sheela Barse reported custodial brutality against female convicts in Bombay. Her letter was considered as a writ petition, and the court issued instructions.

Dr. Upendra Baxi v. State of Uttar Pradesh.

In Dr. Upendra Baxi v. State of Uttar Pradesh, two eminent law professors from Delhi University wrote to this court about terrible circumstances at the Agra Protective Home for Women. The court considered the appeal for many days and issued critical directives that dramatically improved the inmates’ living circumstances at the Agra Protective Home for Women.

Paramjit Kaur v. State of Punjab.

In the case of Paramjit Kaur v. State of Punjab, a telegraph was submitted to a Supreme Court judge, which was considered as a Habeas Corpus petition. The appellant’s spouse was allegedly kidnapped from a busy residential area of Amritsar by several individuals dressed in police clothes. The Court took it seriously and ordered that the case be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In the K. S. Puttaswamy case, the Supreme Court issued a significant decision strengthening citizenship rights, holding that the “Right to Privacy” is vital to living a dignified life.

Parmanand Katara vs Union of India.

In the case of Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India, it was determined that the right to life is paramount, and so exceeding medical-legal requirements in cases of crises was permitted, because once life was gone, it could not be recovered. Doctors’ top priority should be to save people’s lives. Every medical doctor has a professional duty to provide appropriate competence in order to safeguard life. It was also decided that a doctor should not be hauled in for unnecessary questioning or formalities by the police or attorneys.

Samantha vs State of Andhra Pradesh. 

This was the PIL that aided in the protection of tribal rights. The Supreme Court ruled that industrialists, commercial corporations, and nontribal persons cannot access tribal property for mining or lease purposes. Such operations were only approved for tribals or government enterprises. 

Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India and Others.

The necessity of preserving children’s rights to education, health, and development was emphasised in this PIL. The Supreme Court issued an order to outlaw child labour. These instructions gave rise to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986, which aimed to eliminate child labour and bonded labour.

Supreme Court Judgement on Manual Scavengers.

Rajan was one of numerous workers that died, and the Delhi High Court’s Divided Bench ordered the state to pay compensation.

This ruling was appealed by the Delhi Jal Board. The plea exemplifies how the State machinery is inattentive to the safety and well-being of individuals who, due to poverty, are forced to labour under the most inhumane conditions and face the fear of death on a regular basis.

Three questions are raised for consideration: 

1. Whether the High Court was justified in hearing the writ petition filed by respondent No.1 as a public interest litigation to compel the respondents to take effective measures to ensure the safety of sewage workers and to order the payment of compensation to the families of those killed in sewage accidents. 

2. Whether the High Court’s directives amount to invasion of the State’s legislative authority; and 

3. Whether the High Court was authorised to issue interim orders for the payment of compensation to the families of dead workers.

Social action groups/activists/workers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for advocating for the causes of poverty, illiteracy, and/or ignorance, as well as those who cannot seek legal protection and suffer silently as a result of the actions and/or omissions of the State apparatus and/or agencies/instrumentalities of the State.

The State and its agencies/instruments cannot abdicate their obligation to put in place appropriate mechanisms to ensure the safety of personnel engaged to maintain and clean the sewage system. Humans who labour in sewers cannot be viewed as mechanical robots who are not harmed by harmful gases in manholes. 

The State and its agencies/instrumentalities, as well as the contractors hired by them, have a constitutional commitment to safeguard the safety of those who are requested to do dangerous activities. The choice and contractual freedom argument is not accessible.

We believe that the High Court should have followed the decision in Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das and granted compensation that may be considered fair. Though it is impossible to draw any parallel between the trauma suffered by a rape victim and the family of a person who dies due to the negligence of others, the High Court could have taken note of the fact that this Court had approved the award of compensation of Rs.10 lacs to rape victims in 1998, as well as the increase in the cost of living, and done well to award compensation of at least Rs.5 lacs to the families of those who died due to the negligence of others. 

We could have remanded the case to the High Court for a proper order directing the appellant to pay Rs.3.29 lakhs to the victim’s family through the Delhi High Court State Legal Services Committee, but given that further delay would add to the victim’s family’s misery, we deem it appropriate to exercise power under Article 142 of the Constitution and direct the appellant to pay Rs.3.29 lakhs to the victim’s family through the Delhi High Court State Legal Services Committee. This is on top of the Rs.1.71 lakhs previously paid by the contractor.

Frivolous PILs not permitted

The individual (or business) making the petition must demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that the petition is in the public interest and is not a frivolous case initiated for monetary benefit.

S. H. Kapadia, India’s 38th Chief Justice, has said that large “fines” will be levied on petitioners who file bogus PILS.  His comment was greatly applauded because the number of frivolous PILS for monetary gain was increasing.

A High court bench has also expressed concern over the abuse of PILS. The bench published a set of norms that it expected other courts in the country to follow while hearing PILS.

 Kalyaneshwari vs Union of India.

The court emphasised the exploitation of public-interest litigation in commercial conflicts in Kalyaneshwari vs Union of India.

A writ petition was filed in Gujarat High Court demanding the shutdown of asbestos plants, claiming that the substance was hazardous to human health. The petition was denied by the high court, which stated that it was submitted at the request of competing industry organisations seeking to advertise their goods as asbestos alternatives. A similar petition was afterwards filed with the Supreme Court. The plea was rejected, and the plaintiff was fined Rs.1,00,000.

BALCO Employees’ Union (Regd.) v. Union of India & Others.

The Court acknowledged in BALCO Employees’ Union (Regd.) v. Union of India & Others, that there has been an increase in cases of misuse of public interest litigation. As a result, the Court has created a number of techniques to guarantee that public interest litigation is not used to pursue suspect items.

Firstly, the Supreme Court has limited standing in public interest action to those who are “acting in good faith.”

Second, it has authorised the imposition of “exemplary costs” as a disincentive against frivolous and vexatious public interest lawsuits.

Third, the High Courts have been directed to be more selective in accepting public interest lawsuits.

Chhetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangharsh Samiti v. State of Uttar Pradesh

The Court concluded in Chhetriya Pardushan Mukti Sangharsh Samiti v. State of Uttar Pradesh that the applicant launched the claim because of animosity between the parties. The Court emphasised that Article 32 is a vital and necessary guarantee for the preservation of people’ basic rights. Superior Courts must guarantee that this weapon, as defined in Article 32, is not exploited or abused by any individual or organisation.

Neetu v. State of Punjab

The Court determined in Neetu v. State of Punjab that it is important to impose exemplary costs to ensure that the message is received correctly and that petitions submitted with an indirect purpose do not enjoy the sanction of the Courts.

Sanjeev Bhatnagar v. Union of India

This Court went a step further in Sanjeev Bhatnagar v. Union of India. By imposing a Rs 10,000/- monetary penalty on an Advocate for filing a frivolous and vexatious plea. The Court determined that the petition lacked public interest and characterised it as “publicity interest litigation”…

Holicow Pictures Pvt. Ltd. v. Prem Chandra Mishra

The Court must be satisfied with:

(a) the applicant’s credentials; 

(b) the prima facie validity or nature of the information provided; and 

(c) the information not being ambiguous and undefined. The data should demonstrate the intensity and seriousness of the situation. The Court must strike a balance between two competing interests: 

(i) no one should be allowed to make wild and reckless allegations besmirching the character of others; and 

(ii) avoidance of public mischief and mischievous petitions seeking to undermine justifiable executive actions for oblique motives.

Dr. Nigam concluded her presentation by stating that according to a 2009 World Bank report, PILS account for less than 1% of the total case burden. A relatively small proportion of lawsuits are filed by cooperative bodies, such as NGOs, which is a helpful predictor of the chance that benefits would be broadly distributed and win rates for Fundamental Rights claims are now much lower when the claimant comes from a privileged socioeconomic group vs a marginalised group.

Narayani is a research intern at IMPRI.

Youtube Video of Inaugural session for Law and Public Policy Youth Fellowship Programme: https://youtu.be/fT0XLKGJ6LY

Read more session reports for Law and Public Policy Youth Fellowship:

Laws, Public Policy and Media

Public Policy Drivers

Previous articleAnalyzing The Impact Of Feminist Foreign Policy In India: A Critical Perspective On South Asia – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute
Next articleBureaucracy, Laws & Public Policy – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute
IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here