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Public Interest Litigation: All social ills cannot be solved through judicial process

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By : Momota Oinam
Advocate-on-record, Supreme Court

Defined as one of the crowning achievements of India’s judiciary, Public Interest Litigation (‘PIL’) has undergone evolutionary changes in terms of its perception, ambit, accessibility and implications. What started as a juristic revolution of the eighties for poorer sections have easy access to justice delivery system has evolved itself into a multi dimensional judicial mechanism, encompassing almost every aspect of our day-to-day life – consumer welfare, ecology, environment, forests, public accountability, public welfare schemes, illegal immigration, national heritage protection and so on and so forth.  
Judicial activism and PIL as manifestation thereof have certainly opened up new vistas of judicial intervention qua what was hitherto considered ‘beyond judicial reach’. Technically, PILs are for enforcement of fundamental rights under Part III of the Indian Constitution. Nonetheless, seemingly realising its role in a welfare state,  Courts have increasingly taken cognizance of social and economic rights/obligations  in Part IV of the Indian Constitution (otherwise not enforceable) and through PILs, the principles therein have been sought to be read with fundamental rights for a harmonious  understanding and enforcement. For instance, the ‘right to life’ in Article 21 has been expanded to include right to free legal aid, right to live with dignity, right to education, right to work etc.  All the way through PILs, Courts have literally brought legal aid at the doorsteps of the teeming millions like never before.
Yet, PIL as a judicial recourse also leaves enough room for its abuse and  indiscriminate filing to serve vested interests or gain easy publicity. Instances are not wanting when PIL and RTI mechanisms are misused, inter alia, to target political rivals, hassle public authorities and settle personal scores. An inevitable consequence, howsoever unintended, is the on-going debate on judicial activism qua the executive and the legislature. Needless to say, no activity of the State and its instrumentalities is seemingly exempted from being a subject matter of PIL and purview of the Supreme Court and High Courts to the extent public interest/fundamental rights is/are at stake.  
Courts, while dealing with PILs, are certainly aware of the increasing thinning line between justice delivery and possible encroachment on executive and legislative domains and hence, the Supreme Court’s strict guidelines on substance and procedure for entertaining PILs.  Such guidelines are only to be expected in the context of the increasing inclination of many to address even vested personal and  political interest through PIL as a grievance redressal mechanism. As recently as July 22, 2016, the Supreme Court in Mrs. Santosh Singh vs. Union of India & Ors. has opined that judicial process is not an answer to every social ill. Dismissing a PIL seeking  direction under Article 32 of the Constitution for inclusion of Moral Science as compulsory subject in the syllabus of school education from Classes I to XII, the Apex Court underlines the importance of distinguishing matters which lie beyond the province of judicial review. While endorsing the need of providing value based education, the Court is crystal  clear that answers ought not to be ordained by Courts as it, inter alia, singularly lacks the expertise to do so and remedies lie with those who have the competence and the constitutional duty to lay down and implement educational policies to deal with such problems.
The judgment assumes significance in as much as it further clarifies judicial powers under Article 32 of the Constitution vis-a-vis PIL as a grievance redressal mechanism The Apex Court is unequivocal – the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under Article 32 is not a panacea for all ills but a remedy for violation of fundamental rights. Highlighting the alarming tendency/assumption that every good the society aspires to achieve can be achieved through the instrumentality of Courts, the Supreme Court emphasizes that judicial process provides remedies for constitutional or legal infractions only and that on issues of governance, the basic touchstone for invocation of its jurisdiction is addressing the issue within the framework of law or the Constitution. Although PIL as a judicial mechanism permits relaxation of strict rules of locus standi, the Court says it will necessarily abide by the parameters which govern a nuanced exercise of judicial powers. Touching on the contentious issue of judicial review of public policy, the Apex Court reiterates that matters of policy are entrusted to the executive arm of the State and the Court is concerned with the preservation of the rule of law.
Though the judgment is more on Article 32 and the Supreme Court’s exercise of judicial powers there-under,  the principles laid down therein are equally relevant in the context of PILs under Article 226 before High Courts for enforcement of fundamental rights. The judgment enunciate principles on judicial purview on PILs by the Supreme Court, but at the same time seeks to streamline PILs in the light of increasing misuse thereof. The judgement is indeed a fine balance between the wide-felt need for safeguards against abuse of PIL as a grievance redressal mechanism and  the very basis of PIL, propounded by none other than Justice P.N. Bhagwati – “The Court has to innovate new methods and strategies to provide access to justice to large masses of people who are denied basic human rights, to whom freedom and liberty have no meaning” ss(S.P. Gupta vs. Union of India decided on 30-12-1981).

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