Till 1960’s and 70’s, the concept of litigation in India was in a rudimentary form. Moreover, the pursuit of litigation was completely restricted to private interests. There were minuscule efforts to address wider issues which affected a particular class or general public at large. There seemed to be a missing link between the rights conferred by the Constitution of India and a vast majority of illiterate and poor sections of society. Prior to 1980’s, only a particular individual or a class who were affected by a particular issue could file a case and seek grievance. A person who was not particularly affected by the issue could not file a case as a substitute for the victim even if the matter was of a larger public interest. The drawbacks of the absence of such litigation were particularly felt during the Emergency in 1975-1977 when the fundamental rights of people were violated. It was then that Indian middle class became aware of the importance of rule of law.
The Post-emergency Supreme Court tackled the problem of access to justice through radical changes and alterations in the judicial processes and introduced in their work a broad public interest perspective. The efforts of Justice P. N. Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer were instrumental in bringing about a lawsuit which would make it a provision for any citizen or consumer group or social action group to seek legal remedies for any issue concerned with general public interest or a section of public. Public Interest Litigation also known as PIL refers to writ petitions by people who are not necessarily affected by the grievance mentioned. The Judiciary assumed an activist role. The Supreme Court incorporated ‘epistolary jurisdiction’ where it accepted postcards concerning infringements of fundamental rights as writ petitions. The PIL has worked to the benefit of public in large interest. PIL helped to throw light on the neglected sections of society and enact laws to uphold their rights. Issues covered by PIL range from prisoner’s condition, bonded labour, environmental matters, situations of institutionalized ill persons to social acceptance of homosexuality.
The Judiciary thus became an ally of Indian citizens and groups which insist on better performance of Government institutions. PIL established a forum for the civil society to raise its grievances. It is an effort towards creating a public sphere where government’s malfunctioning can be debated; people can be exposed to wide phenomena and redressal of grievances can be provided which would benefit a larger public interest.