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Public Interest Litigation in Protection of Environment


In India, Public Interest Litigation materialized as a blossoming method in the sphere of environmental protection. In environmental litigation, the parties that are influenced may be anonymous or a disseminated herd of individuals and the infringement of a legal right of a person would be grueling to establish. Before the 1980s, the locus standi in writ jurisdictions only involved petitions from an individual who has endured a breach of his/her guarded legal right or interest or is likely to abide such breach, thus no other person was authorized to represent an indignant participant such a person would not acquire the locus standi to initiate a petition. But with the emergence of Public Interest Litigation through the reports of the Committee on Legal help supervised by Justice P.N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer escort about a new development in an environment aligned jurisprudence.

The alleviated procedural rules under PIL can give rise to cases where the plaintiff is seeking implementation of the constitutional or legitimate rights of those persons or society who because of poverty, dysfunction, or ethically, culturally, or economically disadvantageous position find it tough to plea the appellate courts for rectifying. Thus PIL is directed as the judicious arm of legal movement and is serene “ingress to justice” for the re-establishment of the breached human rights of the criticized groups in society. Through this imaginative approach, appellate courts in India have considered environmental petitions under PIL besides the use of contaminated water, vehicular excretion pollution, forbidden cutting of trees in forests, projects including environmental pollution, and transformation of public parks into private hospitals, etc.


The field of environmental litigation has changed tremendously since the introduction of the concept of Public Interest Litigation. It has broadened the scope for the public to exercise their constitutional and statutory rights through public interest litigation. Before the arrival of public interest litigation, litigations were to be filed against environmental pollution and degradation were governed by the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure under criminal law, civil law, and the law of torts. The stipulation for public nuisance under these laws enfolded noise, air, and water pollution and a suit against such environmental pollution could only be initiated by a person or a party that is directly strained by it. There was no stipulation for a person other than the influenced party to prefer a suit to the courts as the courts only acknowledge the violation and the re-establishment of rights of the infected party and did not take a mass of anonymous people that are affected by environmental pollution into reflection. Through PIL, a person or society, not infected by environmental pollution may bring a suit against the same. The dawn with the Dehradun lime stone objecting case in 1983, shadowed by the Ganga Water Pollution case, Vehicular Pollution case, Vellore leather industry pollution case, Delhi, Oleum Gas Leak case, Narmada Dam case, Dahanu Thermal Power Plant case, Bichhri village industrial pollution case, T.N.Godavarman case, and Tehri Dam case, all of them came to Court’s attention through PIL. These cases were established not by the affected parties but by numerous Non-governmental Organizations and environmental campaigners, on behalf of the people affected.


Citizens have started using Public Interest Litigation as a tool to restore their fundamental rights under Article 32 and Article 226 of the Constitution of India which are being affected by environmental pollution and degradation. Public interest litigation against environmental pollution can be filed in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India and Article 226 in the High Court. Dehradun v State of Uttar Pradesh raised issues relating to ecological imbalance and the right to a pollution-free environment. The Supreme Court included the right to a healthy environment within the purview of Article 21 of the Constitution of India and can be claimed by the citizens against the state. Under Article 32, a petition was filed seeking closure of the limestone quarry as the explosion of the mines caused ecological imbalance and health hazards to the people and the environment. The Supreme Court ordained the shutting down of the mine but did not proceed with an ultimate order and cited it as a matter that the Government must settle on.

In Tehri Bandh Anti-Sangharsh Samiti and others. v. UP and other states1, Tehri Dam Pratishtha Sangharsh Samiti filed a petition to stop the construction of a dam as the construction endangered the lives of the people as well as the ecology and environment of the whole of North India as construction was being done in an earthquake-prone area. The Supreme Court, after examining the matter, said that the government was conscious of the danger and damage caused and had taken steps to ensure the safety of people and the environment. Thus the Supreme Court, satisfied with the efforts of the government, dismissed the petition.

In M. C. Mehta v. Union of India2, an oleum gas leak caused injury to a large number of persons. After considering the welfare of the people, negligence of the management, the impact on the unemployment rate on the plant shutdown, and the dangers of the technology, the court allowed the Shriram Chemicals plant to continue conditionally. The procedure of “sustainable development” was alleged in this case. This theory expresses that the polluter will have utter liability to alter the degeneration or vandalism done to the ecology as well as the individual or the mob of individuals swayed by the industry which caused such damage. Further, in the case, Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India3, the court held that the precautionary standards and the polluter payment ethic are vital to the process of “sustainable development”.


The establishment and evolution of PIL in the Indian Judiciary have not only introduced and given the rise in environmental cases attacking the public at a wide range but have also revealed many stumbling blocks of the concept. Giving the right to “public-spirited” citizens to move to court on behalf of the affected society or majority of individuals has shown a hike in cases related to private suffering and has become more customized and grabbed attention. The method of PIL was to furnish cheap and speedy redressal of subjects uplifting the environment and the public at large, but this has not happened.

T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union Of India & Ors4 is a classic example of how the court has occupied this problem for more than a decade and a final solution has a long way to go. The petition was filed in 1996, endeavoring the intervention for the conservation and preservation of the Nilgiri forest land from desertification and logging, proved to be a case of enormous shares which led to disputes in administrative functions, traditional ways of forest management, and insufficiency of acknowledging the rights of the forest habitat. It is also seen that the Court has discarded or dismissed most of the PILs stimulating groundwork projects and considered it as the impugn of PIL, in the Narmada Bachao Andolan v Union of India.5 In some cases, the Court has also held that, if a project is stalled on account of a PIL that is subsequently dismissed, the petitioner shall be made liable to pay for the damages caused by the delay in the project needed.


India being a developing country has witnessed environmental degradation and an increase in pollution, for which PIL on Environment Protection has proved to be an effective mechanism for restoration and redressal of the environment and the citizens of the country. With the amended environmental law and new PIL procedures, any citizen or organization, whether directly or indirectly affected, can file a petition against ecological and environmental imbalances that not only harm citizens but also contravene their fundamental rights. It has demonstrated to be a new dawn for the criticized citizens who are inadequate to voice their beliefs on the act of brutality committed on them as well as the environment by several industries and also the Government. Through judicial activism as an instrument of public interest litigation, courts investigate the functioning of the government and provide remedies and re-enforcement of violated fundamental rights of citizens. Thus, the introduction of PILs for environmental issues by the Indian judiciary has been a boon to the citizens of the country.


1 1990 SCR, Supl. (2) 606 1992 SCC Supl. (1) 44.

2 1988 AIR 1115, 1988 SCR (2) 530.

3 (1995) 5 SCC 647.

4 2002) 10 SCC 606 (627).

5 (2000) 10 SCC 664.

This article is written by Ashmita Dhumas, who has completed her BA LLB from Agra College and is doing a diploma in Corporate Law from Enhelion.

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