(Over the course of the coming week, The Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog will host a book discussion of Anuj Bhuwania’s Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India. Courting the People is an important new book that brings an entirely fresh perspective to Public Interest Litigation [“PIL”] in India. In this opening post, I will introduce the main themes of the book. This will be followed by comments from myself, Suhrith Parthasarathy, and Aparna Chandra. At the end, Anuj Bhuwania will respond).

Over the last three decades, an almost unshakeable narrative has emerged with respect to the Indian Supreme Court’s PIL jurisprudence. PIL, we are told, emerged out of a contrite Supreme Court’s determination to make up for its constitutional abdication during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Led by pioneering and visionary judges in the 1980s, PIL began as a democratic exercise, seeking to make justice accessible to the poorest and most marginalised of citizens. Defined by relaxed rules of locus standi, an expansion of Article 21 of the Constitution, and wide-ranging remedial action, PIL was a noble and inspiring judicial endeavour. But, as is often the fate with noble endeavours, it was eventually corrupted. In the late 1990s, influenced by a changed political economy and an increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional political executive, a “neoliberal” Supreme Court swerved sharply away from PIL’s original objectives, and began to cater to a permanently outraged urban middle class, taking on issues such as polluted cities, forest management, and so on. Still later, in the 2000s, the Court turned its focus to “good governance”, moving even further away in philosophy and orientation from the 1980s. This has led to natural and obvious problems.

This narrative – that insists upon the fundamental goodness of PIL, while decrying certain “abuses” that have crept in over time – is fundamentally challenged by Bhuwania in Courting the People. Its importance lies in the fact that makes a thoroughgoing critique of PIL as an institution, instead of simply tinkering at the edges. Bhuwania’s core claim – a radically revisionist claim – is that the well-documented “abuses” of PIL cannot be separated from its core features. PIL – Bhuwania argues – originated with certain pathologies; for a while, these pathologies were hidden or obscured, at least partly because what the Court was doing resonated with the ideological predilections of its primary interlocutors in the legal academy, at the bar, and in the media. But now, with the Court itself having committed an ideological volte face, those pathologies appear starker, and are sought to be explained away as “abuses”. This, according to Bhuwania, obscures more than it reveals. In his colourful way of putting it:

“PIL has often been talked of as a romance – if anything, as a romance gone wrong. In this book I will argue that PIL was a tragedy to begin with and has over time become a dangerous farce.” (p. 12)

What are these pathologies? Through a survey of legal doctrine, as well as an ethnographic study conducted by Bhuwania, who spent two years observing (and sometimes being involved with) PIL proceedings before the Delhi High Court, the following themes emerge:

First, after the filing of the petition, the Public Interest Petitioner becomes peripheral to the proceedings. Bhuwania talks of the famous Sheela Barse case (in the mid-1980s), which was about prison reforms; when Sheela Barse herself wanted to withdraw the PIL, the Court refused to allow her to do so, and went on with the case anyway. In the 1990s, this phenomenon accelerates, and is complemented by cases where the Court itself initiates proceedings (Court on Its Own Motion versus ______), without the existence of a public interest petitioner. One result of this – and this is a standard theme throughout the book – is that a PIL that begins as an issue about a specific, narrow subject (such as, say, solid waste management) is transformed into an “omnibus case” that reaches monstrous proportions, and becomes about dealing with social problems on a huge scale (Godavarman, for instance, is basically the Supreme Court undertaking management of India’s forests).

Although Bhuwania doesn’t develop the argument further, the problem with this kind of a process is obvious. PIL began as a mechanism of securing justice to persons who were unable to approach the Court of their own accord, whether because of poverty, a lack of awareness of their rights, or for another similar reason. The public interest petitioner was deemed to be acting on their behalf before the Court. In other words, the public interest petitioner is the only link between the Court and the people whose “interests” are (supposedly) central to the litigation. Removing her, therefore, betrays PIL’s very raison d’etre.

Secondly, Bhuwania shows how, in a number of PIL cases, the Public Interest Petitioner is replaced by an amicus curae (“friend of the Court”), who often happens to be a senior, well-established lawyer. The conversation is limited to the Court and the amicus. Bhuwania cites a particularly sickening example of this in the Forest Case (one of the Supreme Court’s largest PILs): at a hearing, Sanjay Parikh, who was representing indigenous persons directly interested in the outcome of the PIL, was not allowed to make arguments, and was instead told that the interests of the indigenous persons would be taken care of by the amicus. By taking the examples of several PILs at both the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, Bhuwania shows how the direction of “big-ticket” PILs ends up being virtually taken over by the amicus, who becomes a clearing house for interlocutory applications, and assumes the task of guiding the PIL through succeeding benches of the Court.

Thirdly, Bhuwania points out that a number of parties interested parties are never heard in Court. At the very beginning of the book, he recounts an incident where, attempting to halt an ongoing slum demolition, he was shown “a notice [that] listed a writ petition under which its demolition had been ordered, which none of the inhabitants of the settlement had ever heard of.” (p. 11) This – he shows – was particularly common practice during the Delhi High Court’s PIL-managed slum demolition drive in the mid-2000s. Pointing to a PIL that began as something entirely different, but somehow became about slum clearances around the Yamanua bed, Bhuwania notes that:

“The court here made its own accusations, came up with its own facts and ordered its own remedy, without feeling the need to hear anybody else.” (p. 90)

Harsh, but true.

A combination of these three factors – the marginalisation of the original petitioner, the primacy of the amicus, and the failure to hear affected parties – ensures that PIL cannot in any sense be called “democratic”, or be said to be about “democratising justice” (or, in the words of one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders, an instance of “demosprudence”). On the contrary, it is an exemplar of elite, top-down “justice”. One of Bhuwania’s important insights is that despite its elitist and exclusionary character, PIL, from its very inception, has been justified in the name of the people (and hence, the title, Courting the People). Bhuwania draws some disturbing parallels between Emergency-era slum clearances, and the slum demolition drives of the 2000s. Both, he points out, were ultimately justified by similar rhetoric.

Fourthly, the refusal to hear interested parties is accompanied by an eschewal of standard rules of evidence. Bhuwania points out that this began with a case that is normally hailed as the gold standard of PIL: Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs Union of India. In that case, which was about the exploitation of workers at stone-crushing quarries, the Court had appointed a Commission to bring out a report. The defendants objected to the report, arguing that it was based on ex parte statements, which had not been subjected to the rigours of cross-examination. Bhagwati CJI rejected this argument by stating that PIL was not “adverserial” litigation, and characterised by procedural flexibilities. Two decades later, the chickens truly came home to roost when, in the slum demolition cases, the Delhi High Court simply refused to hear factual arguments aimed at demonstrating that the slums, in question, were not illegal structures.

As a related point, Bhuwania also shows how the Courts’ PIL jurisprudence has essentially turned into death by a thousand interim orders. PILs are defined by continuing proceedings: instead of a final judgment resolving a case, the proceedings are kept alive through interim orders, passed from time to time, over years. Unlike a final judgment, interim orders do not have to be reasoned. Consequently, some of the most far-reaching impacts of PIL take place through – what is effectively – pure judicial fiat.

Fifthly, a combination of all the four factors – impoverished participation and a rejection of evidentiary standards – necessarily yields outcomes that often have catastrophic consequences. Bhuwania takes the example of the Delhi Vehicular Pollution Case (which, again, began as a narrowly-focused PIL, but soon ballooned into a PIL for dealing with pollution in Delhi). At various points, the Supreme Court passed orders freezing the number of auto-rickshaws in the city, and also mandating a compulsory switchover to compressed natural gas (CNG). What resulted was the following:

“… studies have shown that before the Supreme Court’s double whammy, most auto rickshaws were owned by drivers themselves, but the effect of the fuel change and the permit freeze was that almost the entire fleet of auto rickshaws came under the control of financiers and drivers were converted into wage labourers.” (p. 55)

Readers will recognise here Lon Fuller’s famous argument that the judiciary is particularly ill-suited for resolving “poly-centric” disputes: that is, disputes involving multiple factors and aspects, where a move aimed at resolving one aspect will have knock-on effects on the system as a whole; such disputes, Fuller argues, require the kind of fine-grained balancing that the Court simply does not have the resources to indicate (in the PIL contest, this argument has been made by Lavanya Rajamani). Bhuwania’s insight, however, takes us one step further: given that the Court has chosen to adjudicate poly-centric disputes through PIL, one would expect it to pay even greater heed than normal to ensuring full representation of all stakeholders, and rely even more on the opinions of domain experts. Instead, the judiciary has gone the exact other way.

Sixthly, these factors lead not only to bad results, but also to inadequate understanding of the problems at hand. As Bhuwania points out, in the context of the slum demolition cases, the overriding rhetoric that emerges from the Courts is that “public land” is being illegally occupied, at the expense of taxpayers, and therefore needs to be cleared. However, this is a very simplistic explanation of both the causal issue, as well as in its attribution of moral agency. What it ignores, for instance (and here Bhuwania draws on the work of Usha Ramanathan), is:

The cause of the ‘illegal’ occupation of public land is… directly attributable to the non-performance of state agencies.’The 10th Plan document of the Planning Commission of India itself noted that up to 90 per cent of the deficit in urban housing at the time pertained to the urban poor and was attributable to the non-provision of housing to slum dwellers. The courts, throughout this period, ignored any attempt to bring to its notice to any such systemic analysis.” (p. 85).

Seventhly, the overarching justification for PIL – right from its inception – was outcome-based. Bhuwania points to many statements made by Justice Bhagwati – which focused on how what mattered were what the Courts were doing (readers will recall that this is also the justification offered by PIL’s primary academic defenders). What this ended up doing, Bhuwania argues, was naturally that:

“Once a frankly instrumental role is accepted for PIL courts, with its decisions moored only by concepts as capacious as ‘social justice’, whose meanings necessarily vary with the zeitgeist, it should be no surprise that the issues taken up by a new generation of PIL judges for their social activism are of a very different sort from the original votaries of PIL.” (p. 116)

This last paragraph takes us to the heart of Bhuwania’s argument. The instances of “bad PILs”, or “abuses of PIL” were simply made possible because of what PIL allowed judges to do, the kinds of power it vested them with, and how it dispensed with existing rules of procedure as unnecessary, or as impediments to justice. In the case of criminal law, for instance:

“… the delegitimisation of legal procedure that accompanied the rise of PIL in India… has actually made it easier for courts to justify and overlook departures from the basic principles of criminal procedure that mark such statutes.” (p. 26).

Consequently – to sum up Bhuwania’s argument – it makes no sense to talk of “good PILs” and “bad PILs”, or “abuses of PIL”. The problem is PIL.

This is a bold and radical argument, that goes against the grain of prevailing academic, legal, and judicial consensus. Over the course of the coming week, we will discuss some of its claims further, and in greater detail.