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Public interest litigation is not defined in any statutes; it is interpreted by the judiciary to protect the interest of public at large. Public interest litigation differs from private interest litigation where the persons whose legal right is violated will file petition. The relaxation of locus standi itself is PIL, where locus standi is the writ applied by the person whose legal right is violated and PIL is the tool in the hands of public spirituated person to provide access to justice to the people who cannot afford justice.
The Supreme Court has ruled that to exercise its jurisdiction under article 32, it is not necessary the affected person should personally approach the court, the court can itself take cognizance of the matter and proceed suo motu or on a petition filed by any public spirited person.
The seeds of the concept of public interest litigation were initially sown in India in the year 1976 in Mumbai Kamagar Sabha vs. Abdulbhai , where two judges of the Indian Supreme Court (Bhagwati and Iyer JJ.
) emphasized on the need for the birth of PIL in India. This included modifying the traditional requirements of locus standi, liberalising the procedure to file writ petitions, expanding Fundamental rights and providing for innovative remedies. The need for introducing PIL was very essential in the country of India where majority of people are ignorant of their rights and are too poor to approach the court.
In Hussainara khatoon case, a large number of men and women including children were behind prison bars awaiting for their trail in the court of law.
K.F Rustamji used to write article regarding this matter, so advocate Kapila Hingorani filed PIL on behalf of undertrials under article 32 of the constitution to protect the rights of undertrials who were not in a position to bail themselves and to protect the personal liberty of the undertrials. .
The concept of PIL was then initiated in S.P Gupta v. Union of India. Where Bhagwati J opined that such extended question of locus standi is very essential to maintain the rule of law and in realizing the objective of constitution by quoting;
“Any member of the public having sufficient interest can maintain an action for judicial redress for public injury arising from breach of public duty or from violation of some provisions of constitution”.
In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India , the petitioner is an organization dedicated to release of bonded labor in India, they conducted survey on some of the stone querries near Faridabad district and it resulted to the knowledge that some of the labors were treated in inhumane conditions, as bonded labors. So on the basis of the survey, the petitioners addressed letter to the highest Court as writs. The Supreme Court entertained the matter and emphasized strict regulation to human trafficking on the part of state government and also to protect the personal liberty of the individual as enshrined in article 21 of the Constitution. The court then went on emphasizing that PIL is the challenge in front of government officials, to give meaning to the basic human rights of the deprived and vulnerable sections of society in turn providing them social and economic justice as explicitly mentioned in the preamble of the constitution.
In the year 1984 to 1985, M C Mehta known as “green messiah” filed a bunch of public interest litigation cases in the Supreme Court of India. These cases were then regarded as the landmark judgments in the history of PIL jurisprudence in India. One such case is MC Mehta v. Union of India, Where the petitioner filed the writ petition in the Supreme Court to prevent the public nuisance caused by pollution in river Ganga by the tanneries and soap factories located at the banks of river at Kanpur. The nuisance caused by river Ganga was public nuisance, huge public was affected while using the water for various purpose and hence the petition was accepted as public interest litigation in the Supreme Court. Coming to the judgment of the case, the top court issued several notice to the Kanpur municipal corporation to prevent and control the pollution in river Ganga. These cases are reflected in signaling a new era shifting the focus of PIL from its dominant concerns for poverty and judicial reform to the whole new concept of environment; these cases have contributed to explore the boundless potentialities of PIL in India, since then there are floods of PIL’s being filed in the court of law specially matters concerning to the environment.
The concept of PIL caught an eye on the most celebrated judgment delivered by the Supreme Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan , it is the landmark case of sexual harassment of women at workplace, not because women were sexually harassed in the work place even after getting independence but because the court laid down some guidelines known as vishaka guidelines to prevent women from sexual harassment. Moving to the facts of case, Bhanvari Devi was a social worker working for the government’s initiative aiming to curb the evil of child marriage. She tried her best to stop the child marriage in Gujjars family, but the marriage was successful even after the widespread protest. So to seek vengeance on her, Ramakant Gujjar along with his friends gang raped her in front of her husband. They lodged a complaint against the accused and they were subjected to harsh cruelty by the female attenders in the police station by procuring her lehenga and she was left with nothing but her husband’s blood stained dhoti. When the trail court acquitted the accused, she did not lose the hope and gathered a bunch of women and filed PIL in the Supreme Court of India collectively in the name of ‘vishaka’. The Apex court then called for framing the guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at workplace and laid down duty on the part of employees and other responsible persons in the workplace.
The importance of PIL was braced in the mass movement led by many environmentalists, NGO’s, human right activists pioneered by the social activist Medha Patkar to save the river Narmada from illegal intrusion of central government in the name of ‘national development’ in Narmada Bachao Andolan(NBA) v. Union of India , the Narmada valley project was all about constructing 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3000 small dams among which the most controversial dam was Sardar Sarovar project although it promised to supply irrigation and water facility it included the forced eviction of thousands of people leading to widespread environmental damage. This engrossed the NBA to file writ petition which also represented the other governmental organizations challenging the project on several ground , their prime contention was the question of world bank agreeing to finance $450 million in building Sardar Sarovar Dam without consulting the indigenous people that were to be evacuated. When the construction began on Sardar Sarovar Dam, the injustice of the governments relocation program were exposed that there was not enough land to be redistributed, low quality of amenities, and the settlers being the indigenous section of society would face difficulties in adjusting to the new environment.
In response to such injustice the local opponents, environmentalists, human rights activists founded a knot of NGO’s and these NGO’s allied to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan (save narmada movement) led by Medha Patkar to fight for the rights of tribal, indigenous, poor people of the locality. These NGO’s suggested few alternatives to the government rather than constructing dams and displacing people but the Supreme Court while considering the evidence presented before, permitted to construct the Sardar Sarovar Dam only on the condition that the affected people are to be displaced with proper rehabilitation, resettlement.
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