5 Landmark Cases of Public Interest Litigation

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a legal action which is taken in a court of law for legal right of the community. The phrase “Public Interest Litigation” refers to particular human claim made in a politically organized society or political institution.

The concept of PIL which has been and is being fostered by judicial activism has been an increasingly important one setting up valuables and respectable records, especially in the arena of constitutional and legal treatment for “unrepresentative and under-represented” . judicial activism necessary to make the ideals enshrinedin the constitution meaningful and reality.

“Public interest Litigation”, in simple words, means, litigation filed in a court of law, for the protection of “Public Interest” (nebulous entity), such as pollution, Terrorism, Road safety, constructional hazards etc.

Article 32 of the Indian Constitution contains the tool which directly joins the public with the judiciary. Public Interest Litigation is not defined in any statute or in any act. It has been interpreted by judges to consider the intent of public at large.

CASE – 1

Rural Litigation Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) vs Union of India

This was the very first case of environmental PIL in
India. This was the First event of its kind in the country. A fierce legal battle was fought between the affected residents on the one side and the rich limestone contractors, powerful industrialists and even the government, on the other, bringing into sharp focus the conflict between development and conservation.

The case served to emphasize the need to reconcile the conflict between development and conservation in the larger interest of the country. Voluminous material was placed before the court and momentous issues arose for decision. The arguments used by RLEK before the Supreme Court were instrumental in passing of the Environment Protection Act in 1986.

RLEK, after having won the historic environmental battle in the Supreme Court, decided to harness the energies of the youth to rejuvenate abandoned mines and denuded foothills. 

After some years, the ecological balance of bare hillsides, including the Sahastradhara springs in Dehradun district, was partially restored,” says Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of RLEK.

Significantly, the then Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board had withdrawn permission to these factories to continue production because of their failure to comply with the pollution control rules. “But despite this and the then Prime Minister’s personal intervention, the factories continued to blow out clouds of smoke affecting visibility in the area and choking the lungs of residents,” he argued.

The Supreme Court ordered the closure of these polluting units. The Supreme Court decision in this particular case set a precedent for enabling residents to file a case against a polluting unit irrespective of whether it is complying with or violating specifications of the Air Pollution Act. The polluting units were closed on the court order on the intervention of RLEK. 

In this case supreme court acted immediately and prohibited the mining operations with a view to determine if the mines were operated with the safety standards. It appointed the Bhargava Committee to assess the total effects of the mines in the ecology of the area. On the recommendations of Bhargava Committee, the court ordered that these operations in such an ecologically sensitive area has to be stopped. The court further observed that preservation of ecology is a task which not only the States but also the citizens must undertake u/A 51 A (g).

CASE – 2

 Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan

Bhanwari Devi, a social worker, was gang-raped in a village in Rajasthan in 1992. The gang rape was a result of her trying to discourage a family’s efforts of marrying their one year daughter. She filed a complaint with police and many NGOs came out in her support. Despite several efforts, when no justice was served to her, a PIL was filed.

The PIL in Supreme Court was filed by Naina Kapur in 1992. She was a lawyer who had attended Bhanwari Devi’s criminal trials. Her decision to file a PIL  in Supreme Court challenged the sexual harassment in the workplace. It was filed against the State of Rajasthan, its Women & Child Welfare Department, Department of Social Welfare, and the Union of India.

The judgement later came to be known as Vishakha judgement and it recognized sexual harassment as a criminal offence. Many important guidelines were then released and many women’s rights also saw the light of the day after this judgement. It was definitely one of the most iconic PILs ever filed.

As part of a governmental campaign against child marriage, Bhanwari Devi attempted to stop the marriage of a one year-old girl in rural Rajasthan. Members of the local community retaliated first by harassing Bhanwari Devi with threats and imposing a socioeconomic boycott on her family. Then, on September 22, 1992, five men raped Bhanwari Devi.

Bhanwari Devi faced numerous obstacles when she attempted to seek justice. Frustrated by the criminal justice system’s inability to provide tangible remedies, restore the dignity of the victim, Naina Kapur, a lawyer who had attended Bhanwari Devi’s criminal trial, decided to initiate a PIL case action in the Supreme Court to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace. The Vishaka writ petition was filed in 1992 in the names of five NGOs against the State of Rajasthan, its Women and Child Welfare Department, its Department of Social Welfare, and the Union of India.

The Vishaka judgment recognized sexual harassment as “a clear violation” of the fundamental constitutional rights to equality, nondiscrimination, life, and liberty, as well as the right to carry out any occupation. The guidelines, directed toward employers, included a definition of sexual harassment, a list of steps for harassment prevention, and a description of complaint procedures to be “strictly observed in all work places for the preservation and enforcement of the right to gender equality.”

It has promoted greater enforcement of women’s rights and broader application of international law at the high court level. The case has thus been described as “path breaking,” “one of the most powerful legacies” of PIL case, and a “trendsetter” that “created a revolution.”

CASE – 3

Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India

Parmanand Katara, a human rights activist, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on the basis of a newspaper report concerning the death of a scooterist who was knocked down by a speeding car. Doctors refused to attend to him and directed that he be taken to another hospital around 20 km away, one that was authorized to handle medico-legal cases. Based on the petition, the Supreme Court held that:-

  • Preservation of human life is of paramount importance.
  • Every doctor, whether at a government hospital or otherwise, has the professional obligation to extend his or her services with the expertise for protecting life.
  • There should be no doubt that the effort to save the person should be given top priority not only of the legal professional but also of the police and other citizens who happen to be connected to the matter.

These public interest litigation case has brought lot of change and amendments. PIL cases in India is of great importance to the working of judiciary. PIL cases are thus need to be a encouraged as it can bring huge change.

This case makes it to the list of landmark cases because of the number of lives that have been saved after the PIL was made. The case dealt with hospitals which were reluctant to attend accident and legal cases. The spark was created in the mind of Parmanand after he came to know about the story of a scooterist who met with an accident and was unable to get treatment in the nearby hospitals.

This case made sure that the ultimate goal of the hospital should be saving a life, and not escaping from troubles. The court gave complete freedom on hospitals to attend an emergency case that comes to them without worrying about legal troubles.

CASE – 4

M.C. Mehta vs Union of India

MC Mehta filed a Public Interest Litigation for escape for poisonous gasses by a plant in in Bhopal.The court in this case extended the scope Article 21 and 32 of the Constitution of India. The case is also famous as Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

M.C Mehta filed a PIL under Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution and sought closure and relocation of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant which was located in a thickly populated area of Delhi.

Factories were closed down immediately as Inspector of Factories and Commissioner (Factories) issued separate orders dated December 8 and 24, 1985 . This incident took place only a few months before Environment (Protection) Act came into force, thus became a guiding force for having an effective law like this.

CASE – 5

M.C. Mehta vs Union of India and Others (1988) 1 SCC 471

(Ganga Water Pollution Case)- Despite of sufficient provisions under the water act, the Kanpur Mahapalika did not take necessary steps to prevent pollution. SC issued directions to it for the same. Held rights of people residing near Ganga must be protected against pollution.

This case was against those who were polluting the Ganga river. The case was filed by the notable environmental attorney M.C.Mehta where he fought against numerous industries and cities which mixed the Ganges with effluents and toxic waste. This case made the court to pass numerous orders against the industries to set up a sewage treatment plant. The cities and towns were also made to follow strict guidelines. Many numbers of industries were made to relocate. Thus, this case is considered to be one of the important cases in the history of PILs.

The judgement delivered on January 12, 1988 lashed out at civic authorities for allowing untreated sewage from Kanpur’s tanneries to make its way into the Ganges.

The court passed three landmark judgments and a number of Orders against polluting industries, numbering more than 50,000 in the Ganga basin, from time to time. In this case, apart from industries, more than 250 towns and cities also had to set up sewage treatment plants.

600 tanneries operated in a highly congested residential area of Kolkata. The ruling shifted them out of the city and relocated them to a planned leather complex in West Bengal. The Court closed down several industries, allowing them to reopen only after setting up effluent treatment plants and controlled pollution. As a result, millions of people escaped air and water pollution in the Ganga basin, covering eight states in India.


  1. https://www.lawnn.com/top-20-landmark-judgements-public-interest-litigation/
  2. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/features/rlek-fought-won-first-environment-case-in-sc-227108
  3. https://www.lawyered.in/legal-disrupt/articles/5-pil-cases-every-indian-must-be-grateful/
  4. https://www.newsgram.com/5-landmark-pil-cases-india
  5. https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/case-analysis-m-c-mehta-v-union-of-india-shriram-industries-case-by-roopali-lamba/
  6. https://blog.ipleaders.in/barhacker-pil-case/
  7. https://vakilsearch.com/advice/pils-changed-face-india/
  8. https://www.thebetterindia.com/104204/5-pil-cases-every-indian-citizen-grateful/
  9. https://www.lawyered.in/legal-disrupt/articles/5-pil-cases-every-indian-must-be-grateful/

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