Important Public Interest Litigation Cases

This is not an exhaustive list; however, some of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court of India in the last few decades are listed here. There are cases that have dealt with various issues ranging from politically sensitive ones involving public accountability to human rights issues, and environmental issues.

PIL Cases in the 1970s
 In Mumbai Kamgar Sabha v. Abdul Bhai (1976) 3 SCC 832 court gave a soothing decision in this historic case, introducing the doctrine of Judicial Activism. Justice Krishna Iyer stated: “Test Litigation, representative actions, pro bono publico and the like forms of legal proceedings are in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the real issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural short-comings”.

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration [(1978) 4 SCC 494] the Supreme Court dealt with the right to protection against solitary confinement and putting undertrials in fetters for an unlimited duration of time. ”It observed that “the operation of Articles 14, 19 and 21 may be pared down for a prisoner but not puffed out altogether…So also, locomotion may be limited by the needs of imprisonment but binding hand and foot, with hoops of steel, every man or women sentenced for a term is doing violence to Part III”.

PIL Cases in the 1980s
Municipal Council, Ratlam v. Vardichan [(1980) 4 SCC 162] is a path-finder in the field of people's involvement in matters of public importance. The court accepted the locus standi of the citizens of a ward to seek directions against the Municipality for taking remedial action under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and putting an end to the nuisance caused due to open drains, pits and public excretion in the absence of lavatories.

One of the earliest cases in the subject of Public Interest Litigation is the famous Hussainara Khatoon case. There were a series of cases entitled Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar reported in 1980 (1) SCC 81, 1980 (1) SCC 91, 1980 (1) SCC 93, 1980 (1) SCC 98, 1980 (1) SCC 108 and 1980 (1) SCC 115. These were filed by an advocate in the Supreme Court of India by way of a writ petition, in which the plight of helpless undertrials, who were behind bars for decades, for a period much more than they would have undergone in case of conviction, was brought to the notice of the court. It observed that “even under our Constitution, though speedy trial is not specifically enumerated as a fundamental right, it is implicit in the broad sweep and content of Article 21”.

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India in S.P. Gupta v. Union of India [1981 Supp SCC 87] upheld the locus standi of lawyers to file a writ petition by way of public interest litigation. Highlighting the change in the court’s approach to the concept of locus standi, the court observed: (at page 207, paragraph 16) "It must now be regarded as well-settled law where a person who…is unable to approach the court on account of some disability or it is not practicable for him to move the court for some other sufficient reasons…some other person can invoke the assistance of the court for the purpose of providing judicial redress to the person wronged or injured…”

Another famous case, which is significant in the early years of the PIL is Khatri v. State of Bihar 1981 (1) SCC 627, in which the Bhagalpur Central Jail administration was alleged to have gouged out the eyes of thirty-one undertrial prisoners. Advocate Kapila Hingorani filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court contending the violation of fundamental rights of these prisoners under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, and the court came to their rescue. Justice Bhagwati, while considering the relief that could be given by the court, stressed on the need for implementing public interest litigation in very explicit terms: "...Why should the court not be prepared to forge new tools and devise new remedies for the purpose of vindicating the most precious of the precious fundamental right to life and personal liberty".

In Upendra Baxi (Dr) v. State of U.P. [(1983) 2 SCC 308], the Supreme Court’s attention was drawn to the pathetic condition prevailing in protective homes. The Supreme Court took notice of these conditions on the basis of a letter written by two law professors and issued remedial guidelines to improve the same.

Sheela Barse v. State of Maharastra [(1983) 2 SCC 96]: In this case, on receiving a letter from the petitioner, a journalist, the Supreme Court took notice of the complaint of custodial violence to women prisoners in the lock-up in the city of Bombay. The court issued various directions which included the following: “Four or five police lock-ups should be selected in reasonably good localities where only female suspects should be kept and they should be guarded by female constables”.

In Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985) 3 SCC 545, a petition was filed by a journalist challenging the decision of the Municipality to remove huts from pavements, sometimes without even giving a hearing to the slum dwellers. The court held that such an action could be challenged as violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India and ruled as follows: “Trespass is a tort…But, even the law of Torts requires that though a trespasser may be evicted forcibly, the force used must be no greater that what is reasonable and appropriate to the occasion and, what is even more important, the trespasser should be asked and given a reasonable opportunity to depart before force is used to expel him.”

Rural litigation and Environment Kendra, Dehradun and others v. State of U.P. and others [(1985) 2 SCC 431] was a case “involving issues relating to environment and ecological balance with implications to the welfare of the generality of people living in the country.” The Supreme Court held that Article 2l covers the right to a clean environment and that the permanent assets of mankind cannot be allowed to be exhausted.

In Vincent Panikurlangara v. Union of India [(1987) 2 SCC 165], a letter was entertained by the Supreme Court of India as a public interest litigation. It issued directions to the Central Government “to set up Regional Drug Laboratories in addition to the Central Laboratory” to keep a check on sale and use of banned or harmful drugs and also to promote research and to coordinate activity in that regard.

PIL Cases in the 1990s
In Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar [(1991) 1 SCC 598] the Supreme Court held that the “right to live is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and it includes the right of enjoyment of pollution-free water and air for full enjoyment of life. If anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a citizen has right to have recourse to Article 32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to the quality of life.”

i) In M C Mehta v. Union of India [(1992) 1 SCC 358] the petitioner prayed for issuing appropriate directions to various sources of mass media to make aware the people of the country about environmental issues and that environment should be made a compulsory subject in schools and colleges. The Supreme Court accepted these prayers and issued various directions in this respect.

ii) There have been a series of cases filed by M C Mehta on various aspects of the environment: these include inter alia the Taj Mahal case, the Ganges Pollution case, the Vehicular Pollution case, the re-location of polluting industries case, the Delhi sewage Treatment Plant case, the Child Labour Case, the Aquaculture Case and many others. For more information, please see the link:

In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan [(1997) 6 SCC 241], which is the celebrated case laying down guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment of women in the workplace, the court focused its attention in “assisting in finding suitable methods for realisation of the true concept of 'gender equality'; and to prevent sexual harassment of working women in all work places through judicial process, to fill the vacuum in existing legislation.”

In Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra [(1999) 1 SCC 759], the subject of sexual harassment of women at the work place has further been elaborated upon by the Supreme Court of India.

PIL Cases 2000 onwards
In Balco Employees’ Union v. Union of India and Others (2002) 2 SCC 333 dealing with the question of judicial interference in economic policy decisions, the Supreme Court emphasised that “in the sphere of economic policy or reforms the court is not the appropriate forum… Courts will interfere only if there is a clear violation of constitutional or statutory duties.” It also clarified that Public Interest Litigation was intended to mean nothing more than what the words themselves said, namely, "litigation in the interest of the public”.

In Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar, 2003 (6) SCC 1, the Supreme Court noted the plight of the employees of public sector undertakings or the statutory authorities in the State of Bihar. In a letter to the Supreme Court, an Advocate of the Supreme Court, Kapila Hingorani brought to its notice many incidents of death owing to starvation or malnutrition due to non-payment of salaries of the workers working in these corporations. The court pierced the corporate veil in this case and also held the State of Bihar liable.

In Dattaraj Nattuji Thaware v. State of Maharashtra 2005 (1) SCC 590, the Supreme Court of India reiterated the recent trend to the following effect: “Public Interest Litigation which has now come to occupy an important field in the administration of law… (should not become)…'publicity interest litigation' or 'private interest litigation' or 'politics interest litigation' or the latest trend, i.e. 'paise income litigation'. In order to discourage the practice, the court stressed the necessity of imposing ‘exemplary” costs on people for bringing frivolous petitions.

PILs on Civil Liberties
There have been a series of cases dealing with civil liberties making public interest litigation as a medium. These have led to the expansion of the ambit and scope of Article 21. The right to live with human dignity is considered as one of the cardinal fundamental rights available to a person for the "dignity of man supersedes all other considerations". It includes inter alia the following cases:

In Charles Sobhraj v. Superintendent, Central Jail [(1978) 4 SCC 104] the court emphasised “that imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights...”

The principle that free legal services to the poor and the needy was an essential element of any reasonable, fair and just procedure under Article 21 was upheld in M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra 1978 (3) SCC 544.

In T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamilnadu [(1983) 2 SCC 68] the Supreme Court held a prisoner on death row has a right to move the court for quashing of the sentence in case of unreasonable delay in the carrying out of the sentence.

The right against custodial violence was upheld in Nilabati Behera v. State of Orissa, [(1993) 2 SCC 746]. With regard to the question of awarding compensation, the court crystallised the judicial right to compensation and held: “The relief of monetary compensation, as exemplary damages, in proceedings under Article 32…is a remedy available in public law and is based on the strict liability for contravention of the guaranteed basic and indefeasible rights of the citizen”.

In Parmanand Katara v. Union of India 1989 (4) SCC 286 the Supreme Court in the context of medico-legal cases, has emphasised the need for rendering immediate medical aid to injured persons to preserve life and the obligations of the State as well as doctors in that regard.

In Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti v. State of West Bengal [(1996) 4 SCC 37] the Supreme Court observed that “Article 21 imposes an obligation on the State to safeguard the right to life of every person. Preservation of human life is thus of paramount importance. The government hospitals run by the State and the medical officers employed therein are duty-bound to extend medical assistance for preserving human life.”

In Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Subhra Chakraborty [(1996) 1 SCC 490] the Supreme Court suo moto awarded an interim compensation of Rs. 1,000 per month to a victim of rape. At page 500, the court has described the position of women in rather eloquent terms: “Unfortunately, a woman, in our country, belongs to a class or group of society who are in a disadvantaged position on account of several social barriers and impediments and have, therefore, been the victims of tyranny, at the hands of men with whom they, under the Constitution, enjoy equal status.”

The rights of an arrested person are highlighted in D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal [(1997) 1 SCC 416]. The Supreme Court’s observation was as follows: “An enforceable right to compensation in cases of ‘torture’ including ‘mental torture’ inflicted by the State or its agencies is now a part of the public law regime in India.”

Compiled by Aashish Gupta, a final year student of the law programme of Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Aashish is currently interning under New Delhi based advocate Ramni Taneja. He graduated in B.Sc. (H) Zoology from Hindu College, University of Delhi. He finds the study of IPR and Corporate Law most interesting. He can be reached at