Tracing the Emergence of Public Interest Litigation in India – Part I

by RajMohan CV, Batch of 2020, ILS Law College, Pune


Public Interest Litigation (‘PIL’) refers to the legal actions initiated in a court of law for protecting the interest of the public. Public Interest is the “general interests of the public that warrants recognition and protection” and “is something in which the public as a whole has a stake, especially an interest that justifies governmental regulation”.[1]

As held in PUDR v. UOI,[2]

PIL is “the strategic arm of the legal aid movement…. intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity”. “…It is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and unredressed.

Several factors contributed to the emergence of PIL in India. However, the primary factor was the liberalisation of the strict Anglo-Saxon rule of Locus Standi. This modification clearly established PIL as an integral part of the Indian Constitution and legal jurisprudence and thus, greatly facilitated the representation of previously unrepresented groups and their collective interests. Through this Article the author has attempted to describe this liberalisation of the rule of Locus Standi through landmark judgments of the Apex Court.

I. The Harbingers

The traditional Anglo Saxon rule of Locus Standi insists that only those who have personally suffered a legal injury may approach the court for relief. As such, this rule is opposed to initiating proceedings solely for enforcing the public interest or when there is a complete absence of some private interest. Hence, the liberalisation of this rule constituted a necessary first step in recognising PIL as part of Indian jurisprudence.

In Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. M/s Abdulbhai Faizullabhai & Ors,[3] the Supreme Court, critiquing the strict rule of Locus Standi, observed that, “public interest is promoted by a spacious construction of locus standi in our socio-economic circumstances”. The Court held that in the absence of foul play or falsehood, sufficient latitude needs to be granted to parties in judicial proceedings.

Later, the court in Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Shri Vardichand & Ors,[4] opined that “blinkered rules of standing of British Indian vintage” considerably affects access to justice and raised significant questions of procedural law. According to the court, these questions of procedural law were to be considered “if the centre of gravity of justice [was] to shift, as the Preamble to the Constitution mandates, from the traditional individualism of locus standi to the community orientation of public interest litigation”.

These observations as well as the observations in Mumbai Kamgar Sabha signifies the court’s commitment to ensure substantial justice by providing, wherever permissible, sufficient “latitude” in procedure relating to legal representation and access to justice. They signify that substantive law granting rights and imposing duties remain mere paper documents if the operation of procedural laws renders them effectively unenforceable.

This commitment may be gathered particularly from the opening lines of the judgment in Municipal Council, Ratlam where the court observed, “It is procedural rules…. which infuse life into substantive rights, which activate them to make them effective”. The same may be gathered from Mumbai Kamgar Sabha, in which the Court observed that procedural laws “are only handmaids, not mistresses of justice” and if technical procedural pleas were to be allowed, such laws would be an added terror to the rural poor, the urban lay and other weaker societal segments.

Following the judgment in Municipal Council, Ratlam, the court in Fertiliser Corporation Kamgar Union v. UOI & Ors,[5] discussing the concept of PIL remarked that the rule of “locus standi must be liberalised to meet the challenges of the times. Ubi jus ibi remedium must be enlarged to embrace all interests of public-minded citizens or organisations with serious concern for conservation of public resources and the direction and correction of public power so as to promote justice.

Further in Akhila Bharatiya Soshit Karamchari Sangh (Railway) v. UOI & Ors,[6] the court emphasised the current broad-based and people-oriented jurisprudence of procedural law which “envisions access to justice through ‘class actions’, ‘public interest litigation’, and ‘representative proceedings”. The court observed that “little Indians in large numbers seeking remedies in courts through collective proceedings, instead of being driven to an expensive plurality of litigations, is an affirmation of participative justice in our democracy” and noted the obsolescence of the narrow concepts of ‘cause of action’, ‘aggrieved person’ and ‘individual litigation’ in other jurisdictions.

II. The Culmination

This approach of the Apex Court in critiquing and liberalising the rule of locus standi finally culminated in S.P. Gupta v. UOI & Ors.[7]followed by Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. UOI & Ors.[8]

a. S.P. Gupta Case

The court opining that the Anglo-Saxon rule of locus standi “is a rule of ancient vintage which arose during an era when private law dominated the legal scene and public law had not yet been born” conceptualised the exceptions of Representative Standing and Citizen/Public Standing.

Representative Standing

Representative Standing is allowed when, a socially or economically disadvantaged person or a determinable class of such persons, suffer(s) a legal injury and due to his/their disadvantaged position he/they are unable to approach the court for appropriate relief. In such cases, any person may approach the Courts on their behalf under Article 32 or 226 (as the case may be) so that the legal injury does not go unredressed and justice is done to him/them.

Citizen/Public Standing

Citizen/Public Standing is allowed “whenever there is a public wrong or public injury caused by an act or omission of the State or a public authority which is contrary to the Constitution or the law. In such cases“any member of the public acting bona fide and having sufficient interest can maintain an action for redressal of such public wrong or public injury.”

b. Bandhua Mukti Morcha Case