The Supreme Court’s decision to evaluate the achievements of public interest litigations (PILs) is bound to generate a debate on whether they have really been effective so far or not. Many feel that several PILs entertained by the judiciary have been frivolous and have done nothing beyond generating headlines. Others feel that they have served the purpose of safeguarding public interest and holding the executive and legislature accountable.
At a time when people have little faith in other arms of governance, they have looked to the judiciary as a beacon of hope for justice delivery.
But the downside has been that many have sought to settle either personal scores or just court cheap publicity by filing PILs. It is this that the apex court is seeking to target and, hopefully, weed out. Armed with weapons like the Right to Information Act, the public today is more aware than ever of its rights. But more often than not, people come up against a wall of bureaucracy and red tape leaving them with no recourse but to reach out to the courts. The courts can be held guilty of weighing in too much on the side of the citizen in accepting petitions that could be settled outside the purview of an overburdened judicial system. But we can only assume that the judiciary has erred on the side of caution. That this course correction has been suggested by the judiciary itself is welcome. The problem has been in the screening process with the judiciary keen not to turn away anyone with a complaint or grouse. There has been considerable pressure on the judiciary to deliver where all other systems of governance have failed.
But it is important that PILs do not lose their effectiveness through overuse or misuse. The courts should also be mindful of where its jurisdiction ends and that of other organs of the state begin. The present review has also been prompted by the lack of progress on the judiciary’s pronouncements on several issues like cleaning up the Yamuna. Now, this is clearly an example of the failure of the civic administration. There is little the court can do to force it to mend its ways except to pass strictures. Often the courts have been forced to pass judgment where civil society has failed to hold its representatives accountable. What we need is a judicious mix of citizen activism and judicial intervention. But the latter should really be a court of last resort if it is to deliver verdicts that can be implemented for the greater common good.