Public Interest Litigation and Protection of the Environment

Public Interest Litigation and Protection of the Environment


The concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was first introduced in Hussainara Khatoon Vs. Union of India [1] in the year 1979. Hussainara Khatoon also referred to as the  “Mother of PIL’s” filed a case on behalf of the under trial prisoners who received inhuman treatment in various jails in Bihar. She fought for speedy justice to be recognized as a fundamental right that was denied to under trial prisoners. Justice P.N Bhagwati, till date is highly regarded for the juristic revolution he brought about through the judgement of this case. PIL was developed in part by Justice P.N. Bhagwati, who saw it as a powerful weapon in the hands of the people in the event of a breach of a public duty that affects the general public. The underlying premise of PIL is that the poor should not be denied access to justice due to a lack of knowledge or resources. PIL allows a public-spirited individual or group to file a petition on behalf of the poor or uneducated. Ever since 1985, numerous environmental cases have been brought before the court for adjudication in the form of writ petitions.

With the growing environmental concerns even the legal issues pertaining to the same have increased drastically. The Indian judiciary, particularly the higher judiciary, which includes the Supreme Court of India, the High Courts of the States, and now the National Green Tribunal, is responsible for much of this innovation by incorporating various international environmental doctrines into Indian environmental jurisprudence. As a result, the notion of PIL has enabled access to justice for people from all walks of life, whether affluent or poor, educated or illiterate, an individual or a community, or even an NGO.


The concept of PIL has not been defined or mentioned under any statute or act. The concept has purely been interpreted and made by the judges in order to protect the interests of the public at large. Hence, there is no exhaustive list of situations as such, under which a PIL can be filed. Some of the circumstances under which a PIL can be filed with respect to the Environmental degradation are:

  • Any matter leading to environmental pollution which is likely to cause harm to the public.
  • Cases involving violation of Human Rights of the poor by disregarding them.
  • Default in duty of municipal corporations in problems concerning water, sanitation and other public facilities.
  • In case of conflict between religious rights and an environmental issue.
  • To question the contents or conduct of any government policy.


The directions and orders given by the Supreme Court and High Court make it evidently clear that the Indian Judiciary has upheld the doctrine of public trust over the years. The National Green Tribunal has specifically been established to adjudicate on environmental related issues. In Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of U.P [2], a PIL was filed under Article 32 regarding environmental degradation caused by the extraction of limestone. The Supreme Court conducted a review of the need for mining operations and provided for funding and administrative oversight of reforestation of the region.

M.C Mehta, a public interest attorney, has played an instrumental role in handling cases of environmental degradation. He has single handedly won cases by filing PIL’s to protect and conserve the environment. The case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and Others[3] is considered to be one of the most important judgements passed in the history of the judiciary.  The case was an aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the oleum gas leak from Shriram Food and Fertilizers Ltd. The case resulted in the creation of the principle of Absolute Liability.

The Supreme Court rendered another landmark judgement in the case of M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India[4] where air pollution from vehicle emissions in Delhi violated the right to life in accordance with Article 21. The case resulted in all the Delhi commercial vehicles to transition to CNG fuel in order to preserve people’s health.

In Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India[5]The petitioner, the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action brought this action to prohibit and remedy the pollution caused by several chemical industrial plants. The Respondents used to manufacture chemicals such as oleum, single super-phosphate and very poisonous “h” acid (a concentrated form of acid that is banned in western countries). The court held that the production of such chemicals were violative of the fundamental Right to Life. It also decided that the central government should consider treating and closely supervising chemical businesses separately from other sectors so as not to harm the environment. It was an excellent proposal to establish environmental courts and to ensure that environmental issues were taken into account systematically and effectively. In addition to the above cited cases, M.C Mehta has filed multiple other PIL’s for matters relating to conservation of water, pollution, industrial accountability, protecting cultural heritage and environmental education. This is the reason why M.C Mehta is referred to as the Green Lawyer of India.


Numerous attempts have been made by the judiciary to resolve disputes related to  development and environment. ​​The environmental jurisprudence in India developed through the instrument of Public Interest Litigation. The PIL allowed the judiciary to liberalise the notion of locus standi so that individuals might approach the judiciary when the activity of the public, the organisation or the person is affected by public interest. The major role played by the PIL is the unique characteristic of Indian environmental law. High judicial activism has taken the moniker of judicial activism with respect to instances relating to human rights and environmental violations. PIL can be seen as a great weapon in the hands of the people to raise matters of concern relating to the protection and degradation of the environment. A PIL can be invoked under Article 32 and 226 whenever there is any breach of duty of a citizen to take care of the environment under Article-51(g) of the Constitution of India.  To conclude, a PIL plays a critical role in providing justice not only to those connected to the case, but also to the community as a whole, by safeguarding the rights of all.

[1] 1979 AIR 1369

[2]  AIR 1985 SC 652

[3]  AIR 1987 SC 965

[4]  AIR 2001 SC 1948

[5]  AIR 1996 SC 1446

Author: Prarthana Vasudevan,
Christ (Deemed to be University), 2nd year B.A. L.L.B

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