By: Samriddhi Rai, Associate at Sabkuch Legal Private Limited

The concept of PIL came to Indian jurisprudence in 1979 through Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer who filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of undertrial prisoners in Bihar in the Supreme Court. The case resulted in the release of all the undertrials in Bihar, and subsequently about 40,000 undertrials all over the country. Kapila Hingorani came to be known as the ‘Mother of Public Interest Litigation’ in India. However, it was in a judgment written by Justice P.N. Bhagwati for ‘S.P. Gupta vs President of India And Ors.’, pronounced on December 30, 1981, that the concept of PILs was discussed in detail for the first time. The Supreme Court decided to frame a compilation of guidelines to be followed for entertaining letters/ petitions received in the court as Public Interest Litigation, in December 1988. This was subsequently expanded twice, in August 1993 and in August 2003. The guidelines explicitly say that - 'No petition involving individual/ personal matter shall be entertained as a PIL matter except as indicated hereinafter. Letter-petitions falling under the following categories alone will ordinarily be entertained as Public Interest Litigation: -

  1. Bonded Labor matters. Neglected Children.
  2. Non-payment of minimum wages to workers and exploitation of casual workers and complaints of violation of Labor Laws (except in individual cases).
  3. Petitions from jails complaining of harassment, for (pre-mature release) and seeking release after having completed 14 years in jail, death in jail, transfer, release on personal bond, speedy trial as a fundamental right. 
  4. Petitions against police for refusing to register a case, harassment by police and death in police custody.
  5. Petitions against atrocities on women, in particular harassment of bride, bride burning, rape, murder, kidnapping etc.
  6. Petitions complaining of harassment or torture of villagers by co- villagers or by police from persons belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and economically backward classes.
  7. Petitions pertaining to environmental pollution, disturbance of ecological balance, drugs, food adulteration, maintenance of heritage and culture, antiques, forest and wildlife, and other matters of public importance.
  8. Petitions from riot -victims.
  9. Family Pension'

One can easily recall the cases that were brought on behalf of the under-trial prisoners who were blinded in Bihar, cleaning up of river Ganga, prison reforms, bonded labor, displaced tribal, and the like. The people who moved to the court were genuinely interested in human welfare and their objective was altruistic and admirable. The PIL in the early years contributed a great deal to the development of law and jurisprudence in India and set a new direction in various fields.

Misuse of PIL 

No human system is perfect. A system is only as good as the people who run it. This is equally true of the PIL system, which is being rendered meaningless by elements seeking every other interest but public interest. Over the years, vested interests saw a bright future and opportunity to join the PIL industry. Some saw it as a shortcut to instant fame and recognition in the profession; others to make a quick buck. There is yet another section that is endeavoring to embarrass the duly elected governments under bogus PIL petitions. The PIL is no more limited to the problems of the poor and the oppressed. The Supreme Court guidelines very clearly mentions the don’t for a PIL - 'Cases falling under the following categories will not be entertained as Public Interest Litigation and these may be returned to the petitioners or filed in the PIL Cell, as the case may be:

  1. Landlord-Tenant matters.
  2. Service matter and those pertaining to Pension and Gratuity.
  3. Complaints against Central/ State Government Departments and Local Bodies….
  4. Admission to medical and other educational institutions.
  5. Petitions for early hearing of cases pending in High Courts and Subordinate Courts.'

In the current era there is a section of activists-turned-lawyers who have been misusing PILs to exert influence on the elected government. The activism through judiciary by certain members of the left-liberal ecosystem to hold the elected government into ransom has been criticized several times in the past. The Supreme court observed that the whole concept of the PIL has been lost. A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice NV Ramana and comprising of Justices SK Kaul and BR Gavai said “the concept of the PIL has been forgotten, as lawyers keep filing petitions on what they feel is possible”. “This is not public interest litigation.”

Lawyers have been overburdening the courts by filing frivolous PILs to promote vested interests. The PILs have been largely used today to seek political and personal gains. Up till a few days ago since the lockdown was imposed, the court was only hearing urgent matters, most of which have been PILs. Over 40 PILs have been filed since March, seeking relief and welfare measures for a host of parties, from migrant laborers, sanitation workers, medical professionals to critically ill patients, farmers, Indians stranded abroad, tribal, laid-off journalists, and even zoo animals. Amongst the petitioners in the Supreme Court are a few who regularly approach the courts with PILs.

Some Frivolous PILs in recent times:

  • PIL in Supreme Court seeks nationalization of the Healthcare - Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice S Ravindra Bhat told the petitioner, “It’s not a matter where the court can ask from the government. We cannot order the nationalization of the hospital. How can the court issue such a misconceive direction?”
  • Article 47 of Constitution is not an Enforceable Right': Madras HC dismisses plea for total prohibition of manufacture, sale & consumption of Alcohol - The Court held that “regulation of alcohol is purely a matter of state policy that does not warrant judicial interference. Article 47 is not an enforceable provision and thus, the petition has no leg to stand.”
  • Supreme Court junks plea challenging salary cuts of cops during COVID-19 – The court observed that “the petition before the Court was one that could not be entertained under Article 32 jurisdiction, since it pertains to policy matters.”
  • Supreme Court dismisses PIL challenging PM CARES Fund - Chief Justice of India SA Bobde told the petitioner - This is a completely misconceived petition; We will impose a cost on you”
  • Supreme Court dismisses plea challenging salary cut orders of Police – The court observed that “This is a policy matter, a policy issue. We can't pass orders but you can approach the Government as representation.”
  • PIL filed in Supreme Court citing gaps in RBI loan moratorium circular – The Supreme Court junked all the PILs in the matter and said there was no aggrieved party before it. The court also asked how would the lawyer justify that it was a bad scheme. Anguished with the matter the court said - “How can you file Article 32 petition? Are you an aggrieved party in this petition?”
  • PIL dismissed in Supreme Court which sought GST exemption for face masks and sanitizers – The court came down heavy and said - “Just because there is no other litigation work does not mean you file such PILs. We will impose costs,”
  • Plea moved in Delhi High Court seeking directions to Telecom Companies and ISPs to not charge internet bills for closed businesses or households during the lockdown.
  • PIL filed to lower the marriageable age of men from 21 to 18 years which was dismissed with costs of Rs. 25,000/-
  • PIL for directions to be issued to the Union for the construction of a Great Wall of India along the entire border.
  • Directions for conducting and monitoring cesarean operations.
  • PILs, seeking a declaration of a financial emergency
  • PIL for quashing FIRs filed under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code during the lockdown

Most of these PILs are aimed at seeking publicity, at the cost of interfering with the severely restricted functioning of the courts, which are only taking up matters of extreme urgency.


The institution of PIL was established to ameliorate the misery of the poor and to allow greater access to justice, to give voice to the invisible, and to strengthen the justice delivery system. However, the PIL system has become an existential threat to the very institution that created it. At a time when the Supreme Court is doing its best to keep the ball rolling through virtual courts and video conferencing, it is rather unfortunate that such trumpery proceedings are imposing a mammoth strain on the system laying waste to valuable court time and frustration in the minds of genuine litigants. Courts are not meant for policy formulation. Courts are adjudicatory bodies, meant for upholding the Constitution. Merely to say that the court should monitor or give directions completely upsets the applecart of the government. 

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