Public Interest Litigations: A brief History

Vaibhav Dwivedi,

Associate Editor, Legit.


The concept of Public Interest Litigations came in India in the year 1981 through a judgment delivered by P.N Bhagwati, J. in SP Gupta vs. President of India and Others[i]. Speaking for a Division Bench of the Supreme Court of India, he discussed the idea in detail for the first time. The part of the judgment which speaks of the idea at hand reads:

“22. We would, therefore, hold that any member of the public having sufficient interest can maintain an action for judicial redress for public injury arising from breach of a public duty or from violation of some provision of the Constitution or the law and seek enforcement of such public duty and observance of such constitutional or legal provision. This is absolutely essential for maintaining the rule of law, furthering the cause of justice and accelerating the pace of realization of the constitutional objective”

Though the year 1981 is practically considered the year when the concept came into being, the stage for the evolution of the concept was set in the year 1979 with a judicial pronouncement in the Hussianara Khatoon Case[ii]. The petitioner namely Pushpa Hingorani filed a habeas corpus plea in the SC on behalf of certain undertrial prisoners in Bihar. The case resulted in the release of all the undertrial prisoners and subsequently 40,000 undertrials all over the country.

PILs continue to serve their purpose but undeniably, they are being misused at times by certain unscrupulous elements. Dr DY Chandrachud, J. in Tehseen S. Poonawalla vs. Union of India[iii] bats for protecting and preserving the jurisdiction of the SC to hear PILs in the larger interest of the country. He quotes two paragraphs form the State Of Uttaranchal vs. Balwant Singh Chaufal & Ors.[iv] to make his point:

“161. Unfortunately, of late, it has been noticed that such an important jurisdiction which has been carefully carved out, created and nurtured with great care and caution by the courts, is being blatantly abused by filing some petitions with oblique motives. We think time has come when genuine and bona fide public interest litigation must be encouraged whereas frivolous public interest litigation should be discouraged.
“162. In our considered opinion, we have to protect and preserve this important jurisdiction in the larger interest of the people of this country but we must take effective steps to prevent and cure its abuse on the basis of monetary and non- monetary directions by the courts.”

The deteriorating quality of the PILs filed in the SC or even in the High Courts for that matter has also been a matter of concern for the Courts. Recently, Deepak Gupta, J. in his retirement speech expressed grave concerns over this. The Solicitor General of India used phrases like “Professional PIL shops” and “Self-employment generating petitions” for petitioners who approached the top court with frivolous PILs. There has been the imposition of costs on petitioners as well. Let us sincerely hope that PIL petitioners are more pragmatic and genuine in invoking this jurisdiction of Courts carved out for serving a sober purpose, in the times to come.

[i] SP Gupta vs. President of India and Others [1981] SCC Supp (1) (SC), p.87. [ii] Hussainara Khatoon & Ors vs Home Secretary, State Of Bihar [1979] SCR 3 (SC), p.532. [iii] Tehseen S. Poonawalla vs. Union of India [2018] (SC) [iv] State Of Uttaranchal vs. Balwant Singh Chaufal & Ors. [2010] (SC).

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