Public interest litigation (PIL) petitions are cases filed in a court that highlight a public cause and seek to redress for those affected. Because of two eminent Indian Supreme Court judges, V.R. Krishna Iyer and P.N. Bhagwati (both appointed to the Supreme Court in 1973), PIL petitions became the major route for redress of grievances for those who were otherwise kept out of the corridors of justice.
Also read: 1973: Kesavananda Bharati case
The introduction of PIL jurisprudence was nothing short of a revolution: Judges in High Courts and the Supreme Court overlooked procedural lacuna and liberally interpreted Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution, thereby simplifying access to justice. In short, the judiciary stepped in where the executive and the legislature had failed or had not acted with the urgency an issue commanded.
Technically, the 1979 Hussainara Khatoon vs State of Bihar (relating to the plight of undertrials languishing in jails) was the first PIL petition though Justice Krishna Iyer spoke about it in the 1976 Mumbai Kamgar case (Mumbai Kamgar Sabha vs M/s Abdulbhai Faizullabhai and others (1976 (3) SCC 832)). He noted: “Public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances and conceptual latitudinarianism permits taking liberties where the remedy is shared by a considerable number, particularly when they are weaker.”
For the next three decades plus, the PIL petition proved to be a path to justice in many landmark cases that took on State high-handedness or in cases where justice seemed a pipe dream. This included M.C. Mehta vs Union of India (discharge of untreated sewage from Kanpur’s tanneries into the Ganges), Parmanand Katara vs Union of India (any doctor can treat medico-legal cases since saving human life is most important), Javed vs State of Haryana (coercive population control), and Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan (sexual harassment is a clear violation of fundamental rights).
Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1970s
On December 1, 1988, a full court made certain modifications to the PIL rule, including that no petition involving individual/personal matters shall be entertained as a PIL, with some exceptions. “Letter-petitions falling under the following categories alone will ordinarily be entertained as Public Interest Litigation:- 1) Bonded Labour matters. 2. Neglected Children. 3. Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of casual workers and complaints of violation of Labour Laws (except in individual cases),” a court circular said. The Supreme Court made it clear that rushing to the apex court for all cases would not be tolerated.