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Public interest Litigation (PIL) means litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of “Public Interest”. Any matter where the interest of the public at large is affected can be redressed by filing a Public Interest Litigation in a court of law such as Pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, Constructional hazards, etc.

The expression ‘Public Interest Litigation’ has been borrowed from American jurisprudence, where it was designed to provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups like the poor, the racial minorities, unorganized consumers, citizens who were passionate about the environmental issues, etc.
PIL is not defined in any statute or in any act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of the public at large. It is the power given to the public by courts through judicial activism.

Some of the matters which are entertained under Public Interest Litigation are Neglected Children, Bonded Labour matters, Atrocities on Women, Non-payment of minimum wages to workers, exploitation of casual workers, food adulteration, Environmental pollution, and disturbance of ecological balance, Maintenance of heritage and culture, etc.

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The concept of PIL in India was introduced in the year 1979 wherein, the rights of under-trial prisoners and the inhuman conditions of the prisoners was discussed by the court in the case of Hussainara Khatoon Vs. Union of India (1979 AIR 1369, 1979 SCR (3) 532).

The constitutional justification of public interest litigation can be traced in Article 39-A1 of the Constitution which is part of the directive principles of State policy and is inserted by way of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976 with a view to aid the State organs, more particularly the judiciary, to protect and promote social justice through the instrumentality of law.

The concept of “Public Interest Litigation” was initiated in Akhil Bhartiya Soshit Karmachari Sangh (Railway) vs. Union of India, (AIR1981 SC 298) by V. R. Krishna Iyer, J., wherein an unregistered association of workers were permitted to institute a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution for the redressal of common grievance.


In simple words, public interest litigation means any public-spirited citizen can move/approach the Court for the public cause (in the interest of the public or public welfare) by filing a petition:

In Supreme Court under Art. 32 of the Constitution;

In the High Court under Art. 226 of the Constitution; and

under Sec. 133 Cr.P.C. before the court of Magistrate.

The court can treat a letter as a writ petition and take action on it. The court has to be satisfied that the writ petition complies with the following: the letter is addressed by the aggrieved person or a public-spirited individual or a social action group for the enforcement of legal or constitutional rights to any person who, upon poverty or disability, are not able to approach the court for redress. The court can also take action on the basis of newspaper reports if it is satisfied with the case.

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The Supreme Court in S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India, (AIR 1982 SC 149), popularly known as “Judge’s Transfer Case”, Bhagwati, J. firmly established the validity of the public interest litigation. Since then, a good number of public interest’s litigation petitions were filed.

So Justice P.N. Bhagwati played a major role in developing the concept of PIL and a potent weapon was given in the hands of the people in case, there is a breach of a public duty which affects the public at large.

Significance of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India

The original purpose of PILs has been to make justice accessible to the poor and the marginalized.

  • It is an important tool to make human rights reach those who have been denied rights.
  • It democratizes the access of justice to all. Any citizen/agency who is capable can file petitions on behalf of those who cannot or do not have the means to do so.
  • It helps in judicially monitoring state institutions like prisons, asylums, protective homes, etc.
  • It is an important tool in judicial review.


A PIL can be filed with respect to the Environmental degradation under the following circumstances:

  • Causing Environmental Pollution in any form which is likely to cause harm to the public.
  • Causing violation of the basic Human rights of the poor by disregarding them. For e.g. if a farming land has been taken away from a farmer and not being paid proper compensation for the same.
  • Default in duty by the municipal corporations or the panchayats like not taking proper care of the water and sanitation facilities in the locality.
  • If there is a conflict between the religious rights and the environmental issue arises due to the same. For e.g. use of loudspeakers in the temples or mosque creating noise pollution.

In the area of environmental protection, PIL has proved to be an effective tool. In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of U.P. (1) the Supreme Court prohibited continuance of mining operations terming it to be adversely affecting the environment.

In Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India (2), the Supreme Court cautioned the industries discharging inherently dangerous Oleum and H acid. The court held that such type of pollution infringes right to wholesome environment and ultimately right to life.

In another case M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (3) the Supreme Court held that air pollution in Delhi caused by vehicular emissions violates right to life under Art. 21 and directed all commercial vehicles operating in Delhi to switch to CNG fuel mode for safeguarding health of the people.

In Church of God (Full Gospel)in India vs.KKR Majestic Colony Welfare Association (4) the Supreme Court observed that noise pollution amounts to violation of Art.21 of the Constitution.

In landmark case Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum vs. Union of India (5) the Supreme Court allowed standing to a public spirited social organization for protecting the health of residents of Vellore. In this case the tanneries situated around river Palar in Vellore (T.N.) were found discharging toxic chemicals in the river, thereby jeopardising the health of the residents. The Court asked the tanneries to close their business.

In this manner, our judiciary has used the tool of PIL quite effectively for the cause of environmental protection. But the judiciary has shown wisdom in denying false petitions seeking to advance private interests through PIL as evident from the decision of the Supreme Court in Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar. Also, it is the duty of every citizen to take care of the environment and have compassion towards living creatures according to Article-51(g) of the Constitution of India. PIL under Article-32 and Article-226 must be invoked whenever there is any breach of duty.

Ultimately, it is the court who decides whether a case requires a hearing or how much graver is the offence. But, PIL plays a major role in delivering justice not only to the one who is involved in the case but to the community at large protecting the cumulative rights of all. Hence, PIL has proved to be a great weapon in the hands of higher courts for protection of environment & our judiciary has certainly utilized this weapon of PIL in best possible manner.



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