Ills of PILs (Public Interest Litigation)

This article is written by Pratyusha Kar. Pratyusha is currently a student of West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata.



“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King,Jr.

If hundreds of poor people lose their livelihood, their shelter and even their constitutional guarantee in the name of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), is it desirable? Definitely, the answer is ‘no’. But this is happening in many cases of PIL.

In order to uplift the image of the judiciary that was tarnished during Emergency period and to gain the confidence of the public, Supreme Court of India has opened the floodgates to PIL. But this development of PIL has also uncovered its dangers and drawbacks.

The earlier PIL cases (1981 to 1985) concentrated mainly on providing protection of the underprivileged of the society. But gradually Supreme Court is looking beyond and other interests are being addressed more. In several PIL judgments the downtrodden, economically weaker sections of the society are being suffered and the very essence of the PIL is being neglected.

The following examples will definitely authenticate my claim.

  1. Bhopal Gas Disaster

In December 1984 the Bhopal Gas disaster resulted in the death of thousands of people and injury to lakhs of people.

Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, was passed by the Parliament.

In December 1987 the District Court of Bhopal ordered Union Carbide (owner of the chemical plant) to pay an interim compensation of 350 Crore.

The High Court reduced the compensation to 250 Crore on union Carbide’s appeal.

Both the Government of India and the Union Carbide (UC) appealed to the Supreme Court (SC) against the verdict of the High Court.

SC surprisingly setting aside the issue of compensation in question assisted settlement and directed the overall settlement for $470 million and termination of all civil and criminal proceedings.

Incidentally, no notice was served to the victims or their organisations.

In spite of hue and cry from different spheres and several review and writ petitions submitted, the SC did not change the compensation amount.

The Criminal liability (fixed by the lower courts) of the UC was reduced from culpable homicide not amounting to murder to rash and negligent act.

This post-decisional hearing thus denied natural justice to the victims.

If SC emphasised on the pre-decisional hearing and could hear the victims’ organisations, the results could have been quite different.

Here there was a departure from the rule of audi alteram partem and the SC had not maintained nemo judex in re sua.

  1. In 1996, in the World Saviors v. Union of India & Others case the SC closed down 26 industries but no directions were given for payment of compensation to the workers.
  2. In 1996, in HariramPatidar v. M.P. Pollution Control Board & Others case, M/s. Staller Drugs Ltd. Doshigaon, Ratlam was closed down till valid consent from the Pollution Control Board was received but the plight of the workers were not addressed.
  3. Again in 1996, in D.P. Bhattacharya & Others v. West Bengal Pollution Control Board case, the SC directed closure of five hazardous industries in Kolkata.
  4. In 1997, in Tarala V. Patel & Others v. Union Territory of Pondicherry case, the Pondicherry Distillery was ordered to be relocated.

The workers were the worst victims of the judgments made by the SC due to closure and/or relocation of the industrial units. They were about to lose their livelihood but they were neither heard nor noticed. These are complete violation of audi alteram partem and natural justice has been denied in all these cases.

Right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution is the most important fundamental right and ‘life’ included ‘livelihood’. Life without livelihood is the deprivation of the right to life as no one can live without the means of livelihood.

PIL is filed under Article 32 (in SC) and under Article 226 (in High Courts) of the Constitution where State is the necessary party and other parties are not given notice where the cases are treated as Class Action Suits. Class Action Suit means that some people are having common rights which are at a stake and one representative can file a suit taking permission from the Court.

But if people other than petitioners are affected the PIL should be treated as regular writ. Courts should be careful during inclusion of the parties as it is not the responsibility of the PIL petitioner to include other people as a party. Courts should be extra cautious to defend the interests of all concerned.

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