History of PIL in India – Evolution & 4 Development Phases

History of PIL in India: The origin and evolution of Public Interest litigation (PIL) is traced back in the United States of America (USA) as early as in the 1870s when the Legal Aid Movement was organized for poor people. In this article, “PIL history in India” we have discussed about origin and evolution of PIL in India in detail; development of PIL in India in 4 phases including who initiated PIL, its subject matters, against whom and how judiciary responded, 6 reasons for development of PIL in India, and more. For this you must read the full article.

Table of Contents

History of PIL in India

Origin and Evolution of PIL in India

Origin and Evolution of PIL in USA

Before coming to the history of PIL in India we have to trace the origin and evolution of public interest litigation (PIL) in the USA. In the USA it is related to the legal aid movement which started in the late 1870s. As in 1876 Reginald Heber Smith took the first step towards development of Legal Aid by organizing to establish a Legal Aid Movement for the poor people in the United States of America. 

The Second stage of the Legal Aid Movement was started when the organized form of Legal Aid motivated the law firms to join the movement. As a result the various committed law firms devoted solely towards the development of legal aid programmes. Thus, in the USA it led the formation of  ‘Public Interest Law’ but in the Indian Subcontinent it is called ‘Public Interest Litigation’ i.e. PIL.

Origin and Evolution of PIL in India

The term PIL full form is Public Interest Litigation. The history of PIL in India can be better understood with knowledge of the origin and evolution of PIL in India. The PIL in India started when  Justice Krishna Iyer introduced the concept of public interest litigation for the first time in India in 1976 in the case of Mumbai Kamagar Sabha Vs Abdul Thai. However, the first-ever reported case of Public Interest Litigation was Hussainara Khatoon Vs the State of Bihar (1979). 

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This case was filed by Kapila Hingorani, then a Supreme Court lawyer, on January 11, 1979 through a habeas corpus petition under Article 32 of the Constitution in the highest court of land. This case focused on the inhumane conditions of prisons and under trials, which led to the acquittal of about 40,000 under trials prisoners.

As a result, the right to speedy justice emerged as a fundamental right that was not given to those prisoners. A similar set pattern was adopted in the judgment of later cases. The real and a new period of Public Interest Litigation movement in legal form was started by Justice P.N. Bhagwati in the case of SP Gupta v. Union of India (1981). Here we have discussed the starting period of origin and evolution of PIL in India, let’s know about the history of PIL in India in the next heading.

History of Public Interest Litigation in India

As above said, the history of PIL in India is traced in 1979, when Kapila Hingorani, the Supreme Court lawyer, filed a petition and secured the release of almost 40000 undertrial prisoners from Patna’s jails in the famous ‘Hussainara Khatoon Vs. the State of Bihar ’ case. The lawyer filed the case in the SC before a bench led by Justice PN Bhagwati. 

Hingorani is known as the ‘Mother of PILs’ because of the successful result of this case. The Supreme Court permitted lawyer Hingorani to pursue this case in which she had no personal locus standi making PILs a permanent fixture in Indian jurisprudence.

Justice PN Bhagwati did a lot to ensure the concept of PILs to be clearly pronounced and practiced for the justice of the general public, especially the poor and downtrodden. He did not give emphasis on the observance of procedural technicalities and even treated ordinary letters from public-minded individuals as writ petitions in public interest.

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Justice PN Bhagwati and Justice V R Krishna Iyer were among the first judges in the country who admitted PILs for the betterment of society. Let’s start the history of PIL in India in detail with different phases of development of PIL in India below.

Development of PIL in India: History of PIL

The history of PIL India can be discussed in a better way when we go through all its developmental phases.  The public interest litigation (PIL) journey in India can be judged on four parameters during its three developmental phases and responses of the Indian judiciary. These parameters are:

  1. Who initiated public interest litigation (PIL) cases – the First Phase.
  2. What was the subject matter/focus of public interest litigation (PIL) cases – the Second Phase.
  3. Against whom the relief was sought through PIL -the Third Phase, and overall
  4. How the Indian  judiciary responded to PIL cases – the Fourth Phase.

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Who Initiated History of PIL Cases in India - First Phase

The history of PIL in India began in the late 1970s and continued through the 1980s. The PIL cases in India were generally filed by public-spirited persons like lawyers, journalists, social activists, and academics. Most of the PIL cases in the beginning were related to the rights of disadvantaged sections of society like child laborers, bonded laborers, prisoners, mentally retarted, pavement dwellers, and women

Through these PIL cases the relief was sought against the action or non-action on the part of executive agencies resulting in violations of fundamental rights given to them under the Indian Constitution. 

During this first phase, the judiciary responded by recognising the civic and fundamental rights of disadvantaged sections and giving directions to the government to redress the alleged violations. In other words, in the first phase of history of PIL in India truly became an instrument of the type of social transformation or can say the social revolution that the founding fathers had expected to achieve through the Constitution of India.

What were Subject Matters During History of PIL - Second Phase

When we study the history of PIL in India, its second phase which started in the 1990s, found different subject matters of PIL cases in India. Since then, the filing of PIL cases became more institutionalized because several specialized NGOs and lawyers started bringing different matters of public interest through PIL to the courts on a much regular basis. 

Some of important subject matters and issues raised through filing the PIL cases which expanded tremendously during this phase were — 

  • the protection of the environment, 
  • corruption-free administration
  • right to education, 
  • sexual harassment at the workplace, 
  • relocation of industries, 
  • rule of law, 
  • good governance, and 
  • the general accountability of the Government

It is also during the second phase of development and history of PIL in India, the petitioners of PIL sought relief not only against the action or nonaction of the executives but also against private individuals, concerning policy matters and regarding subject matters that would fall within the domain of the legislature

During this phase the response of the judiciary was by and large, much bolder and unconventional than the first phase. For example, the courts did not hesitate to come up with detailed guidelines where there were legislative gaps. The courts also enforced fundamental rights given in the third part of Indian Constitution against private individuals and granted relief to the petitioner without going into the question of whether the violator of the fundamental right was the state or private person or institution. 

During the study of evolution of PIL in India we found that the courts also took non-compliance with its orders more seriously and in some cases, went to the extent of monitoring government investigative agencies and/or punishing civil servants for contempt of failing to abide by their directions. 

The second phase of development of PIL in India was also the period when the misuse of PIL not only began but also reached a disturbing level. It was seen when it sometimes compelled the courts to impose fines on plaintiffs i.e. the case filer for misusing public interest litigation (PIL) for private purposes. The courts moved to protect the interests of the middle class through the PIL cases’ judgments rather than the poor populace during the end of the second phase of development of PIL in India.

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Against Whom the Relief was Sought in PIL - Third Phase

Third phase of development of PIL in India is the current phase, which began with the start of the 21st century. In this phase anyone could file PIL for almost anything against Central or a state government, local or any other government authorities within Indian territory or under governmental control. It means there is a further expansion of subject matters or issues that could be raised as PIL such as – 

  • Calling back the Indian cricket team from the Australian tour and 
  • Preventing an alleged marriage of an actress with trees for astrological reasons.

How did Judiciary Respond to PIL Cases? - Fourth Phase

After analysis of the development of public interest litigation cases in the history of PIL in India, one could argue that it is time for judicial introspection and for reviewing what courts tried to achieve through PIL. As compared to the second phase, presently the judiciary has seemingly shown more restraint in issuing directions to the government. Although the judiciary is unlikely to roll back the expansive scope of public interest litigation, it is possible that it might make more measured interventions in the future for considering PIL cases.

Another aspect of the judicial response is being seen in the third phase such as the continuation of its approval of the government’s policies of liberalization in Delhi Science Forum. Here, the judiciary has shown general support to the government’s disinvestment and development policies. 

At this juncture, it is disturbing for students of the PIL project in India that this judicial attitude might be at the cost of the sympathetic response towards the rights and interests of impoverished and vulnerable sections of society. People of these sections are slum dwellers and people displaced by the construction of dams who received favors in the first phase. 

Moreover, “it seems that the judicial attitude towards PIL in these three phases is a response, at least in part, to how it is perceived to be the issue(s) in vogue (popularity or fashion)”.

In a nutshell, the analysis of history of PIL in India it is found that if rights of prisoners, pavement dwellers, child/bonded laborers, and women were in focus in the first phase, issues such as environment, AIDS, corruption, and good governance were kept at the forefront in the second phase, while development and free-market considerations might dominate the third phase. So, the way the courts have reacted to PIL in India is merely a reflection of what people expected from the judiciary at any given point of time.

What are Reasons for Development of PIL in India?

6 Reasons Responsible for Growth and Development of PIL in India

  1. The feature of the Indian Constitution

The Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy given in the Part III and Part IV of the written Constitution of India provide a framework for regulating relations between the state and citizens and among citizens inter-se. This framework provides an opportunity to any citizen to file a PIL whenever and wherever the public interest is being compromised.

  1. Progressive Social Legislations for Weaker Sections

There have been more progressive social legislations in independent India relating to bonded labour, minimum wages, land ceiling, environmental protection, etc. This has made it easier for the courts on behalf of a PIL filed either in the Supreme Court or a High Court to direct or bring up the executive government when it is not performing its duties to fulfill its responsibility in ensuring the rights of the poor according to the law of the land.

  1. Judicial Activism and the Liberal Interpretation of Locus Standi

The liberal interpretation of locus standi where any person can file a PIL to the court on behalf of those who are economically, socially, and physically unable to come before it has helped. Judges of the Supreme Court or High Courts themselves have in some cases initiated suo moto (judicial activism) action based on newspaper articles or letters received.

  1. Social & Economic Rights Enforceable through Art. 21—Right to Life

Although social and economic rights of people given in the Indian Constitution under Directive Principles of State Policy (Part IV) are not legally enforceable, courts have creatively read these rights into fundamental rights thereby making them judicially enforceable. For instance, the “right to life” in Article 21 has been expanded to include the right to free legal aid, right to education, right to live with dignity, right to work, freedom from torture, bar fetters and handcuffing in prisons, etc. This is another expanded provision responsible for the increase of PIL in India.

  1. Judicial Innovations to Help the Poor and Marginalized

Judicial innovations to help the poor and marginalized section of society is another cause for filing more PIL. For instance, in the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha, the Supreme Court in its judgment put the burden of proof on the respondent stating it would treat every case of forced labor as a case of bonded labor unless proven otherwise by the employer. Likewise, in the Asiad Workers judgment case, Justice PN Bhagwati held that anyone getting less than the minimum wage can approach the Supreme Court directly without going through the labor commissioner and lower courts.

  1. Appointment of Facts Collection Commission by Courts for PIL Filer

In PIL cases filing to courts if the court felt the petitioner of PIL is not in a position to provide all the necessary evidence, either because it is voluminous or because the parties are socially or economically weak, courts have appointed commissions to collect information on facts and present it before the bench. This provision makes it easy and convenient for filing a PIL without valid evidence to prove it.

Conclusion to History of PIL in India

Now let’s conclude the history of PIL in India in brief in the following words:

  • Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has produced astonishing results by the judgments of courts that were unthinkable three decades ago.
  • Some vulnerable sections of society like degraded bonded labourers, tortured under trials and women prisoners, humiliated inmates of protective women’s home, blinded prisoners, exploited children, beggars, and many others have been given relief through judicial intervention.
  • The greatest contribution of PIL has been to enhance the accountability of the governments, especially the legislature and executive towards the human rights of the poor.
  • Besides the above, the frivolous PILs with vested interests have been discouraged to keep their real objectives in practice and workload of courts manageable.

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FAQs on History of PIL in India

Q. What is the history and development of PIL?

Ans. The term PIL originated in the United States of America (USA) in the mid-1980s. Since the 19th century, different movements in USA had contributed to the development of public interest law as a part of the legal aid movement. The first legal aid office was established in New York city of USA in 1876. The PIL movement began to receive financial support from the office of Economic Opportunity in the 1960s. 

Q.What is fullform of PIL?

Ans. PIL full form is Public Interest Litigation. PIL is a petition that can be filed by any member of the public for any matter of public interest in a court of law.

Q. Who is the father of PIL in India?


Ans. Justice PN Bhagwati has been called the father or pioneer of public interest litigation (PIL) in India due to his contribution to Public Interest Litigation jurisprudence. Justice P.N. Bhagwati worked as the Chief Justice of India from July 12, 1985, to December 20, 1986.

Q. Who started PIL in India?

Ans. The Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was started during the tenure of Justice P. N. Bhagwati in the 1980s to secure public interest and demonstrate the availability of justice to socially-disadvantaged people in India. 

Q. Who is the mother of PIL?

Ans. The mother of PIL in India is Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer of India practiced in the Supreme Court of India.

Q. Which was the first PIL in India?

Ans. The first PIL in India was “Hussainara Khatoon Vs. State of Bihar” which was filed in the Supreme Court in 1979. The Supreme Court issued a notice to the Bihar government in its judgment, which led to the release of all the 40,000 undertrial prisoners across the country.

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