Environment Protection through Public Interest Litigation

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This article is written by Ishanvi Jain, a student of Galgotias University, Noida


The expression litigation means a legal action including all proceedings therein, initiated in the court of law with the purpose of enforcing a right or seeking a remedy. Therefore, lexically the expression ‘PIL’ means a legal action started in court of law for the enforcement of public interest or general interest in which the public or class of the community have pecuniary(relating to money) interest or some interest by which their legal rights or liabilities are affected.

In the subsequent Para of said judgment, it was observed as follows:

It is thus clear that only a person acting bona fide and having sufficient interest in the proceeding of PIL will alone have a locus standi and can approach the court to wipe out the tears of the needy, suffering from violation of their fundamental rights, but not a person gain or private profit or political motive or any oblique consideration. Similarly, a vexatious petition under the color of PIL brought before the courtfor vindicating any personal grievance, deserves rejection at threshold.

Public Interest Litigation or PIL as it is more commonly known entered the Indian Judicial process in 1970. It will not be incorrect to say that it is primarily the judges who have innovated this type of litigation as there was a dire need for it. At that stage, it was intended to vindicate public interest where fundamental and other rights of the people who were poor, ignorant or in socially or economically disadvantageous position and were unable to seek legal redress were required to be espoused. PIL was not meant to be adversarial in nature and was to be a co-operative and collaborative effort of the parties and the court so as to secure justice for the poor and the weaker sections of the community who were not in the position to protect their own interest. Public Interest Litigation was intended to mean nothing more than what the words themselves said, namely, ‘litigation in the interest of the public’.

While PIL was initially invoked mostly in cases connected with the relief to the people and the weaker sections of the society and in areas where there was violation of human rights under Article 21 of the constitution, but with the passage of time, petitions have been entertained in other spheres and the extent of the jurisdiction.

Public Interest Litigation is a strategic arm of legal aid movement intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, and is totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversarial character where there is dispute between two litigating parties, one making a claim or seeking relief against the other and that opposing such claim or resisting such relief. Public Interest Litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in ordinary litigation, but it is extended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violation of constitutional or legal rights of large number of people who are poor, ignorant or in socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed.

It is now observed that the problems of poor are now coming to the forefront and the entire theatre of law is changing. These observations marked as an exception to the traditional rule of locus standi.

Exception to the traditional rule of locus standi

The traditional rule regarding the locus standiis that judicial redress is available only to the person who has suffered the legal injury by reason of violation of his legal right or legally protected interest by the impugned action of the state or a public authority or any other person or who is likely to suffer a legal injury by reason of threatened violation his legal right or legally protected interest by any such action. The basis of entitlement of judicial redress is personal injury to property, body or mind or reputation arising from violation, actual, threatened, of the legal right or legally protected interest of the person seeking such redress. This is a rule of ancient vintage and it arose during an era when private law dominated the legal scene and public law had not been evolved.

Environment and Ecology

A PIL can be filed with respect to the Environmental degradation under the following circumstances:

  • Causing Environmental Pollution in any form which is likely to cause harm to the public.
  • Causing violation of the basic Human rights of the poor by disregarding them. For e.g. if a farming land has been taken away from a farmer and not being paid proper compensation for the same.
  • Default in duty by the municipal corporations or the panchayats like not taking proper care of the water and sanitation facilities in the locality.
  • If there is a conflict between the religious rights and the environmental issue arises due to the same. For e.g. use of loudspeakers in the temples or mosque creating noise pollution.

In M.C Mehta V Union of India, directions were given for creation of environmental awareness amongst the students through education. In M.C Mehta V Kamal Nath, the Supreme Court recognized and approved the principal of ‘polluter pays’ but distinguished it from imposition of fine, observing that pollution is a civil wrong, and a tort and the Supreme Court even in a PIL can award damages, though the consideration for which ‘fine’ can be imposed upon a person on conviction for committing an offence are different from those on basis of which exemplary damages can be awarded. If an industry is established without obtaining the requisite permission and clearance and if industry is continued to be run in blatant disregard of law to the detriment of life and liberty of the citizens living in the vicinity, the Supreme Court has power to intervene and protect the fundamental right to life and liberty of citizens.

Interim decisions were given regard to limestone quarrying in Dehradun in Kalpa Vriksha V Chhatargun Gujral and in rival litigation and environment Kendra V State of UP, it was directed that quarrying operations in the area should generally be stopped and mining activity in the area should be permitted only to the extent it was necessary in the defense production and to safeguard the foreign exchange position.

In MC Mehta V Union of India Union Government was directed to release funds for protection of plants in pursuance of the Taj Report submitted by Krishna Mahajan Committee.

Constitutional Provisions

Under Article 21of Indian Constitution, we have a right to live and breathe in a safe and non-polluted environment in factpart iv of our constitution contains directive principles which states that it is the duty of the state to protect the environment.Our constitution has given various right to us but in case of their infringement,most of us are unable to exercise the remedies available to us since the procedure to avail those remedies is out of our reach and quite expensive and complicated.therefore, Supreme Court thus expanded and liberalized the rule of ‘Locus Standi’. As a result of this expansion, all the social activists, NGO’s, lawyers, public spirited citizens, etc. are now entitledto file a writ on behalfof the person whose right has been infringed. In addition to this, a court is also entitled to take suomoto cognizance of matters involving the abuse of environment, prisoners, bondedlaborers and inmates of mental institutions, through letters addressed to sitting judges. Supreme Court started Public Interest Litigation (litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of “Public Interest”) to safeguard us against such infringement and entitle every citizen to file a petition for punishing such offender, the Supreme Court of India has played an active role in dropping the increase of pollution levels through PIL. PIL has proved to be an effective tool for the society. There are many cases where Supreme Court has issued various guidelines and directions for the protection of environment. Some of the leading cases are:

Important Landmark Judgements

  • Sanitation in Ratlam: In a landmark judgment in 1980, the Supreme Court explicitly recognized the impact of a deteriorating urban environment on the poor. It linked basic public health facilities to human rights and compelled the municipality to provide proper sanitation and drainage.
  • Gas leak in Shriram Factory: In the historic case of the oleum gas leak from the Shriram Food and Fertilizer factory in Delhi, in 1986, the Supreme Court ordered the management to pay compensation to the victims of the gas leak. The “absolute liability” of a hazardous chemical manufacturer to give compensation to all those affected by an accident was introduced in this case and it was the first-time compensation was paid to victims.
  • Construction in Silent Valley: In 1980, the Kerala High Court threw out a writ filed by the Society for the Protection of the Silent Valley seeking a ban on construction of a hydro-electric project in the valley. However, despite an unfavourable judgment, active lobbying and grassroots action by environmentalists stopped the project.
  • Against vehicular pollution in India the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in 1992. A retired Judge of the Supreme Court was appointed along with three members to recommend measures for the nationwide control of vehicular pollution. Orders for providing Lead free petrol in the country and for the use of natural gas and other mode of fuels for use in the vehicles in India have been passed and carried out. Lead-free petrol had been introduced in the four metropolitan cities from April 1995; all new cars registered from April 1995 onwards have been fitted with catalytic convertors; COG outlets have been set up to provide CNG as a clean fuel in Delhi and other cities in India apart from Euro 2 norms. As a result of this case, Delhi has become the first city in the world to have complete public transportation running on CNG.


Public Interest Litigation has been used by the Courts as an effective tool in dealing with cases involving Environmental issues. The courts must ensure that the use of PIL for private interests should not be entertained because it defeats the very purpose of this concept. Serving the public at large is the most important characteristic of PILs.

Also, it is the duty of every citizen to take care of the environment and have compassion towards living creatures according to Article-51(g) of the Constitution of India. PIL under Article-32 and Article-226 must be invoked whenever there is any breach of duty.

Ultimately, it is the court who decides whether a case requires a hearing or how much graver is the offence. But, PIL plays a major role in delivering justice not only to the one who is involved in the case but to the community at large protecting the cumulative rights of all.

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