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Public Interest Litigation

Though the Constitution of India guarantees equal rights to all citizens, irrespective of race, gender, religion, and other considerations, and the "directive principles of state policy" as stated in the Constitution obligate the Government to provide to all citizens a minimum standard of living, the promise has not been fulfilled. The greater majority of the Indian people have no assurance of two nutritious meals a day, safety of employment, safe and clean housing, or such level of education as would make it possible for them to understand their constitutional rights and obligations. Indian newspapers abound in stories of the exploitation -- by landlords,factory owners, businessmen, and the state's own functionaries, such as police and revenue officials -- of children, women, villagers, the poor, and the working class.

Though India's higher courts and, in particular, the Supreme Court have often been sensitive to the grim social realities, and have on occasion given relief to the oppressed, the poor do not have the capacity to represent themselves, or to take advantage of progressive legislation. In 1982, the Supreme Court conceded that unusual measures were warranted to enable people the full realization of not merely their civil and political rights, but the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights, and in its far- reaching decision in the case of PUDR [People's Union for Democratic Rights] vs. Union of India [1982 (2) S.C.C. 253], it recognized that a third party could directly petition, whether through a letter or other means, the Court and seek its intervention in a matter where another party's fundamental rights were being violated. In this case, adverting to the Constitutional prohibition on "begar", or forced labor and traffic in human beings, PUDR submitted that workers contracted to build the large sports complex at the Asian Game Village in Delhi were being exploited. PUDR asked the Court to recognize that "begar" was far more than compelling someone to work against his or her will, and that work under exploitative and grotesquely humiliating conditions, or work that was not even compensated by prescribed minimum wages, was violative of fundamental rights. As the Supreme Court noted,

The rule of law does not mean that the protection of the aw must be available only to a fortunate few or that the law should be allowed to be prostituted by the vested interests for protecting and upholding the status quo under the guise of enforcement of their civil and political rights. The poor too have civil and political rights and rule of law is meant for them also, though today it exists only on paper and not in reality. If the sugar barons and the alcohol kings have the fundamental right to carry on their business and to fatten their purses by exploiting the consuming public, have the chamars belonging to the lowest strata of society no fundamental right to earn an honest living through their sweat and toil?

Thus the court was willing to acknowledge that it had a mandate to advance the rights of the disadvantaged and poor, though this might be at the behest of individuals or groups who themselves claimed no disability. Such litigation, termed Public Interest Litigation or Social Action Litigation by its foremost advocate, Professor Upendra Baxi, has given the court "epistolary jurisdiction".

Further Reading:

Baxi, Upendra: Taking Suffering Seriously: Social Action Litigation in the Supreme Court of India.