The media often talks about the benevolence of the Supreme Court judges. All law students (and the general public to a large extent) have grown up reading about how courts, particularly the Supreme Court, are a haven for common people to go and get their issues addressed through the mechanism of Public Interest Litigation (PILs).
Even professors like Upendra Baxi have lauded this concept, saying that after the Supreme Court started taking PILs it became the Supreme Court of Indians.
However, the issue is a little more complex. Dr. Anuj Bhuwania, in his book Courting the People, talks about how PILs have been misused by the courts often to the disadvantage of the litigants and public at large.
In the 1980s, a lawyer named MC Mehta filed a number of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) cases in the Supreme Court of India. Unlike other cases, PILs can go on indefinitely, focusing on new concerns as they go on. Four of Mehta’s PILs are still in progress today – more than 35 years later. As cases that have turned the city of Delhi upside down multiple times over the years, they are great examples of why PILs are unlike anything else in Indian law.
Justice Kuldip Singh, who was trying to build a reputation as a “green judge” in the 1990s, took charge of these cases. Various legal professionals have described the discussions around these PILs to be like a medieval royal durbar where the judge, unconstrained by rules of procedure, dispenses his personal wisdom as justice. Unlike other cases, PILs can be defined by the judge in charge, who has great power of the scope and boundary of the issues being discussed.
In Part One of this article, we look at one of those PILs, the Delhi Vehicular Pollution case. After over a decade of hearings, this case took a sudden turn that shot it into public focus when in 1998, Justice Kuldip Singh suddenly ordered that each and every public transport vehicle in the state of Delhi should switch to CNG, even though CNG’s sustainability was still being debated at the time.
The order was disastrous for transport workers. Buses stopped running and their operators lost their jobs. Auto drivers who couldn’t afford new CNG engines had to take loans or sell their autos. Thus, PILs effectively pushed so many of Delhi’s auto drivers into poverty, converting them from vehicle owners into daily wage workers.
And though the case was seemingly being conducted in the public interest, the auto drivers whose livelihoods were being ruined were not heard in court.
The court had justified the order based on a report submitted by a fact-finding team. However, it acted on the recommendations of the report in a selective manner: the court was quick to impose changes on bus and auto drivers, but ignored the same report’s suggestion of limiting private vehicles, especially highly-polluting diesel ones. Private vehicles started increasing in number rapidly and ultimately became the primary cause of Delhi’s pollution crisis.
This case shows how PILs can be made into disastrous policies for the public because of the free reign they allow to judges – and to their upper class bias. One judge’s biased understanding of public interest led to the overhaul of the entire transport system of Delhi. While the working class bore the cost of this in the name of the environment, the worst polluters — owners of private cars — were left untouched.India Ink, PILs promised justice for the powerless. They turned judges into kings instead, accessible here. Attributed under CC BY 4.0.
About India Ink
India Ink is a website that breaks down complex ideas and makes them accessible for people at large. Their aim is to take academic history and explain to people why it is important and they should care about it.
They do it through video explainers and articles. Previously they’ve done videos on topics such as the myth of merit in the Indian education system and the independence of Indian women. They have also done articles on topics such as widow remarriage in India, reservations in India etc.
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