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Comparative Analysis Of Citizens Suit With Public Interest Litigation

The hue and cry about Citizen's Suit in USA and the Public Interest Litigation in India has become rampant in both these two countries due to the comparative analysis drawn between the both set of litigations in order to weigh their effectiveness in matters where there are instances of serious infraction of fundamental rights of the citizens of both the countries.

PIL in India is an outcome of judicial activism in order to remedy the bureaucratic unresponsiveness to the public needs.

PIL today offers such a paradigm which locates the content of informal justice without the formal legal system. Non Anglo-Saxon jurisdiction directs courts to transcend the traditional judicial function of adjudication and provide remedies for social wrongs. PIL had already moulded the state in to the instrument of socio-economic change. Social justice is the by product of this transcends from the formal legal system.[1]

Citizen's suit on the other hand is a statutory provision in USA which categorically gives opportunity to the citizens to bring a suit against the administration for enforcement of the valid law in force. These suits can be an important tool to obtain diligent law enforcement, especially when years of federal and/or state negotiations have yielded no results.[2] Citizen suits are lawsuits that are brought by individuals or non profit groups under the provisions of certain environmental laws.

Because agencies do not catch and prosecute all violators of environmental statutes, citizen suits can be extremely useful, empowering anyone with an interest in environmental protection to demand that laws be enforced. Provisions for citizen suits have been created on both the federal level and in some states' environmental statutes.

On the federal level, provisions for citizen suits are generally narrower, limited to specific laws. Conversely, when states allow citizen suits, there are usually fewer hurdles for plaintiffs. State-level citizen suits also tend to have a greater impact on overall enforcement.[3]

In this paper the researcher purports to make a comparative analysis on the PIL and citizen's suits thereby examining the effectiveness of both kinds of suits in enforcement of the law in the best way possible which ultimately would protect the human rights of citizens in both these two countries. Here the ambit of human rights is different within the framework of both these two law suits, the ambit being confined only to protection of human right to clean environment, which shall also be discussed in this paper.

Effectiveness Of Public Interest Litigation In India

Social change is the necessity of any society. In India it is done through Public Interest Litigation. In this article, the researcher makes an attempt to examine the impact of PIL over the citizens of India and in order to do this it is essential to understand the jurisprudence of PIL in India. PIL as it is seen today has made a significant departure from the traditional judicial system in India, which is not a drastic phenomenon. It was an idea that was in the making for some time before its vigorous growth in the early eighties.

But in recent time it has dominated the public perception of the Supreme Court in India. The Court is now seen not only as providing remedy to citizens through its writ jurisdiction but also formulating policies which makes it mandatory for the states to follow.

Our judicial system is a very visible part of the inheritance from the British Raj. We continue to rely on a sizeable body of statutory law and precedents from the colonial period, with the exception of what is repugnant to our constitutional provisions. However, the framers of our Constitution incorporated influences from several countries and adopted the idea of ��judicial review' as opposed to the British formulated ��Parliamentary' form of government.[4]

This very principle has levelled up the power of the courts to interfere in the policy formulation of the other wings of the government and PIL is the result of such interference. Nevertheless, through the conceptual practice of PIL, the judiciary has expanded the ambit of fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India to include a list of innumerable rights which came to be protected by the courts of law.

Concept of PIL:

According to the jurisprudence of Article 32 of the Constitution of India, The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this part is guaranteed.[5] Ordinarily, only the aggrieved party has the right to seek redress under Article32. In S. P. Gupta v. Union of India[6],

The Supreme Court articulated the concept of PIL as follows:
Where a legal wrong or a legal injury is caused to a person or to a determinate class of persons by reason of violation of any constitutional or legal right or any burden is imposed in contravention of any constitutional or legal provision or without authority of law or any such legal wrong or legal injury or illegal burden is threatened and such person or determinate class of persons by reasons of poverty, helplessness or disability or socially or economically disadvantaged position unable to approach the court for relief, any member of public can maintain an application for an appropriate direction, order or writ in the High Court under Article 226 and in case any breach of fundamental rights of such persons or determinate class of persons, in this court under Article 32 seeking judicial redress for the legal wrong or legal injury caused to such person or determinate class of persons.

The rule of locus standi have been relaxed and a person acting bonafide and having sufficient interest in the proceeding of Public Interest Litigation will alone have a locus standi and can approach the court to wipe out violation of fundamental rights and genuine infraction of statutory provisions, but not for personal gain or private profit or political motive or any oblique consideration[7]

Supreme Court in Indian Banks' Association, Bombay and ors v. M/s Devkala Consultancy Service and Ors.[8], held that:
In an appropriate case, where the petitioner might have moved a court in her private interest and for redressal of the personal grievance, the court in furtherance of Public Interest may treat it a necessity to enquire into the state of affairs of the subject of litigation in the interest of justice. Thus a private interest case can also be treated as public interest case.

In Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Commit. And Anr. Vs. C.K. Rajan and Ors[9] held:
The Courts exercising their power of judicial review found to its dismay that the poorest of the poor, depraved, the illiterate, the urban and rural unorganized labour sector, women, children, handicapped by ignorance, indigence and illiteracy and other down trodden have either no access to justice or had been denied justice.

A new branch of proceedings known as 'Social Interest Litigation' or Public Interest Litigation was evolved with a view to render complete justice to the aforementioned classes of persona. It expanded its wings in course of time. The Courts in pro bono publico granted relief to the inmates of the prisons, provided legal aid, directed speedy trial, maintenance of human dignity and covered several other areas. Representative actions, pro bono publico and test litigations were entertained in keeping with the current accent on justice to the common man and a necessary disincentive to those who wish to bypass the, real issues on the merits by suspect reliance on peripheral procedural shortcoming. Pro bono publico constituted a significant state in the present day judicial system.

They, however, provided the dockets with much greater responsibility for rendering the concept of justice available to the disadvantaged sections of the society. Public interest litigation has come to stay and its necessity cannot be overemphasized. The courts evolved a jurisprudence of compassion. Procedural propriety was to move over giving place to substantive concerns of the deprivation of rights. The rule of locus standi was diluted. The Court in place of disinterested and dispassionate adjudicator became active participant in the dispensation of justice.[10] Therefore, the higher judiciary in India took a proactive step towards remedying the infractions of the fundamental rights of the citizens and the non citizens caused by the state.

Features of PIL

Through the mechanism of PIL, the courts seek to protect human rights in the following ways:

  1. By creating a new regime of human rights by expanding the meaning of fundamental right to equality, life and personal liberty. In this process, the right to speedy trial, free legal aid, dignity, means and livelihood, education, housing, medical care, clean environment, right against torture, sexual harassment, solitary confinement, bondage and servitude, exploitation and so on emerge as human rights. These new reconceptualised rights provide legal resources to activate the courts forth enforcement through PIL.
  2. By democratization of access to justice. This is done by relaxing the traditional rule of locus standi. Any public spirited citizen or social action group can approach the court on behalf of the oppressed classes. Courts attention can be drawn even by writing a letter or sending a telegram. This has been called epistolary jurisdiction.
  3. By fashioning new kinds of relief's under the court's writ jurisdiction. For example, the court can award interim compensation to the victims of governmental lawlessness. This stands in sharp contrast to the Anglo-Saxon model of adjudication where interim relief is limited to preserving the status quo pending final decision. The grant of compensation in PIL matters does not preclude the aggrieved person from bringing a civil suit for damages. In PIL cases the court can fashion any relief to the victims.
  4. By judicial monitoring of State institutions such as jails, women's protective homes, juvenile homes, mental asylums, and the like. Through judicial invigilation, the court seeks gradual improvement in their management and administration. This has been characterized as creeping jurisdiction in which the court takes over the administration of these institutions for protecting human rights.
  5. By devising new techniques of fact-finding. In most of the cases the court has appointed its own socio-legal commissions of inquiry or has deputed its own official for investigation. Sometimes it has taken the help of National Human Rights Commission or Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or experts to inquire into human rights violations. This may be called investigative litigation.

Role of PIL in environmental matters

The role of the PIL in developing an environmental jurisprudence in India has been phenomenal. Many leading decisions in the realm of environmental protection have been made by the Indian judiciary through the suits brought by environmentalist in the form of PIL.

One among such names is that of MCMehta who has been a tireless campaigner in this area and his petitions have resulted in orders placing strict liability for the leak of Oleum gas from a factory in New Delhi[11], directions to check pollution in and around the Ganges river[12], the relocation of hazardous industries from the municipal limits of Delhi[13], directions to state agencies to check pollution in the vicinity of the TajMahal[14] and several a forestation measures. Also in the area of water pollution PIL has played an important role in future prevention of water contamination through the principle of polluters' pay and precautionary principle.[15]

The environmental degradation has in the present time caught the attention of all the nations across the globe. Massive efforts both at the national and international level were, and are being, made to ward off the danger that looms large.

While at the international level scores of conventions and documents were made part of an international effort to deal with this man-made menace, endeavors at the national level were initiated with all earnest to create a framework to see that we can ensure a conducive and viable environment for a better and safe future. A crucial aspect of the entire outburst of environmental protection has been the contribution made by judiciary in India. It has been an embankment against any assault that threatens to tinker with environmental faithfulness and tends to impure same.

It has been doing so for some time through its decisions resulting in a labyrinth of doctrinal enunciations that have to a large extent served the cause of environmental protection. In the realm of environmental protection to the citizens the Indian judiciary played a commendable role in balancing the twin goals of environmental protection and economic growth of the nation. A reason the Supreme Court has adopted this activist stance is based on its perception of the lack of remedies available in current legislation.

While this activist approach may be necessary to pursue an aggressive environmental protection policy, the result of this judicial activism may be more harmful then helpful, especially in cases where the judiciary oversteps its authority. This has been a constant fear associated with jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in entertaining PIL in environmental and other matters where citizens' rights are concerned.

Comparative analysis of PIL with Citizens' Suits in USA

The U.S. Congress placed citizen suit provisions in practically all of the federal environmental statutes. Once the prerequisites to suit have been met, citizens stand in the shoes of regulatory enforcement authorities to enforce the law without any prospect of personal benefit.[16] Causation is usually not an issue, damages cannot be obtained by the citizen-plaintiff, and the citizen-plaintiff is not required to be harmed, as is a tort plaintiff (however, if a citizen-plaintiff is harmed, he may seek to remedy broader environmental law violations at the same time that he seeks tort damages).

In fact, the highest and best purpose of a citizen suit is to prevent environmental harm. For the extra cost and litigation complexity, the citizen-plaintiff's only reward is enforcing the law and having the polluter pay the plaintiff's citizen suit lawyer and pay the costs incurred that are related to environmental law enforcement. Quite often, citizen-plaintiffs are the only entities seeking to enforce federal or state law. Under citizen suit statutes, public interest and other lawyers can be awarded attorneys' fees and costs if they achieve the level of litigation success that each statute requires.[17]

To bring the claim of Citizen suits, the plaintiff must show that they have standing, meaning they are personally injured by defendants' action. Under the provisions of Citizen Suits, individuals are automatically authorized to file claims against their violators. In the recent past there have been several appeals filed in opposition to filing of such citizens suit however, despite the efforts Citizen Suit standing was upheld.

In a law suit titled Friends of the Earth vs. Laidlaw Environmental Services, the US Supreme Court reinforced and extended its recognition to inclusion of claims brought against violators even after they have come into compliance of the law.

Citizen suits have improved better implementation of environmental laws in US over the past quarter century. In response, during the 1980s, polluters created a defense strategy against these lawsuits. Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits are civil lawsuits brought by alleged polluters against the citizens who attempt to compel enforcement action against them. These suits are usually based on claims of defamation, discrimination, or contract interference, and can effectively deter individuals from pursuing environmental enforcement cases. Despite certain industries' counteractive measures, however, citizen suits continue to be a valuable tool in environmental enforcement.[18]

In the light of the present practice of lawsuits in USA and India for the public interest it can be suggested that PIL is an improved version of the citizens' suits in certain aspects and in certain aspects the later finds a better footing. This can be said in case of discussing the subject matter of the suits. Citizens' suits are normally filed in case of environmental pollution to protect and prevent environment and related hazards whereas PIL has a broader spectrum, can be filed whenever there are instances of violation of fundamental rights enshrined in Part III of the constitution of India.

This places citizens' suit at a higher platform because it narrows the ambit of jurisdiction thereby ensuring division of labour on the judiciary as assigned by statutes.[19] The advantage spoken of is directed towards efficiency of the enforcement of these suits by the judiciary which is deficient in case of PIL.

However, from the point of view of procedural requirement in deciding a case PIL has made certain relaxation whereas in case of citizens' suits such relaxation is not available and strict procedural formality is mandated in case of entertaining citizens' suits. In present practice of PIL there are no winners or losers and mind set of both lawyers and judges are different from that in ordinary litigations. All the three parties viz. the court, the lawyers and the parties are expected to participate in the resolution of the problem.

This practice is again absent in citizens' where procedural requirements are inevitable in order to remedy the damage caused. In citizen suits the following prerequisites are mandated viz. prior notice, diligent prosecution bar, fees and cost payment etc. Nevertheless, they are allowed to intervene in government suits as a matter of right.

They are given a wide range of rights in litigations which also include their active participation therein. In PIL, due to the relaxation of procedural requirement, the judiciary also at times fail to hear parties in times of awarding a pronouncement.[20] The flexibility of procedures that has characterised PIL has raised another set of problem. The courts traditionally working under an adversarial framework were bound by rules to delineate the issues in a manageable form and required an amicus curie to ascertain the allegations of the opposite party. This has eventually become extinct in the recent PIL suits.

As a result the courts have been facing serious criticisms where justice in true sense has been tarnished. Moreover, the reports submitted by the court appointed commissions' lacks evidentiary value.[21] No court can found its decisions on facts unless they are proved according to the law. In PIL most of the decisions falls short of validity due to the over activist psychology of the judges. Also, since it encompasses a variety of cases apart from environmental issues, these kind suits over languish in the court racks for years. On the other hand, citizens' suits flourish owing to specific nature of litigation. This consumes less time for disposal of justice in such cases unlike that in the PIL in India.

Finally, citizens suits are statutory provisions whereas PIL is a complete judge made rule which has its weak roots in the constitution of India. It can be advanced that constitutional provisions provides for a general framework whereas statutory provisions provides for a specific mandate with strict rules of enforcement which is the case of citizens' suits in USA.

Therefore, citizens' suits provision in the environmental statutes of USA provides better enforcement mechanism in the sphere of legal rights and duties unlike PIL. A citizen may commence a civil action against any person, including the United States and any other governmental instrumentality or agency and including any past or present generator, past or present transporter, or past or present owner or operator of a treatment, storage, or disposal facility, who has contributed or who is contributing to the past or present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.[22]

These suits are effective in strict enforcement of environmental guidelines and principles and protection of human rights to clean environment in USA. Therefore, from the point of view of procedural efficacy and enforcement mechanism of environmental protection to the benefit of the human beings, citizen suits holds a better platform of efficiency than PIL.

The public interest litigation is the product of realization of the constitutional obligation of the courts. This led to the evolution of environmental jurisprudence in India through the instrumentality of the courts and the courts in India especially the higher judiciary has spearheaded the development of PIL in order to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large numbers of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and unaddressed.

Through various decisions (few mentioned above) the courts have proved in reality its efficiency in this field. Even in case of citizens' suits this protection is guaranteed through the statutory provisions of USA which gives certain latitude to the citizens to remedy the inactions of the government.

However, they are not allowed to file suits in cases where there is no violation of environmental standards. The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has affirmed that private citizens have no right to sue under the Clean Water Act for matters that are not related to violations of effluent standards.[23] This reduces the scope of citizens' suits in comparison to PIL; nevertheless, it has its advantages of its own taking into consideration the prevailing situations in the country. Based on the national fabric of both countries the public interest suits are devised in order to protect and promote human rights at an optimal level.

Books referred:

  • Jain, M.P., Indian Constitutional Law, Wadhwa Nagpur, 5th edition,2005
  • Pandey, J.N., Constitutional Law of India, Central Law Agency, 44th edition,2007
  • Seervai, H.M., Constitution of India, Universal Law Publishing Co., 4th edition, 2008

Articles referred:

  • Pathak, Ravindranath, Emergence of Environmental Jurisprudence in India: A Tale of Judicial Courage and Craft, All India Law Journal, 1998
  • Lefkowitz, Susan, Futrell, The Evolving Role of Citizens in the Environmental Enforcement Fourth International Conference on Environmental compliance and enforcement, 2002
  • Jie, Gao, Environmental Public Interest Litigation and Vitality of Environmental Courts
  • Rajamani, Lavanya, Environmental Citizens Suits Provisions in USA, 2000 (2)
  • Shantakumar, V, Will Public Interest Litigations and Citizens' Actions Lead to Sustainable Development?An economic analysis with empirical cases from India
  • Bowonder, B. and S. S. Arvind (1989), ��Environmental regulations and litigation in India', Project Appraisal 4: 182-96.
  • Ramakrishna, K. (1985), ��The Emergence of Environmental Law in the Developing countries: A Case Study of India', Ecology Law Quarterly 12: 907-935.
  • Sahasranaman, P.S. (1997), Law of Environment Protection, Bangalore: Classic Publishers.
  • Desai, H Ashok, Muralidhar, S Public Interest Litigation: Potential and Problem, International Environmental Law Research Centre, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Legislation referred:

  • Clean Air Act
  • Clean Water Act(Federal Water Pollution Control Act )
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (Solid Water Disposal)

Reports referred:

  • Balakrishnan, K.G., Growth of Public Interest Litigation in India, Singapore Academy of Law, 15th Annual Lecture, 2008


  1. Refer: Susan D. Susman, ��Distant voices in the Courts of India: Transformation of standing in Public Interest Litigation', 13 Wisconsin International Law Journal 57 (Fall 1994)
  2. David Altman, Amy M.Hartford, and Justin D Newman: Citizen's Enforcement of Environmental Laws. Sierra Club, et. al.v. Bd. of County Comm'r of Hamilton County, et. al., No. 1:02-CV-00135 (S.D. Ohio, filed Feb.27, 2002). Sierra Club is a Clean Water Act (CWA)
  3. http//: www.pollution
  4. There is an express provision for ��judicial review' in Article 13 of the Constitution of India. Article 13(1) says that all laws that were in force in the territory of India immediately before the adoption of the Constitution, in so far as they are inconsistent with the provisions containing the fundamental rights, shall, to the extent of such inconsistency, be void. Article 13(2) further says that the states shall not make any law that takes away or abridges any of the fundamental rights, and any law made in contravention of the aforementioned mandate shall, to the extent of the contravention, be void.
  5. Article 32 of the Constitution of India.
  6. 1981 (Supp) SCC 87
  7. Ashok Kumar Pandey v. State of W. B., (2004) 3 SCC 349
  8. J. T. 2004 (4) SC 587
  9. J.T. 2003 (7) S.C. 312, S.C.
  10. V. Shantakumar, An economic emphasis of PIL in India, 2004.
  11. M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395
  12. M.C Mehta v. Union of India (1988) 1 SCC 471
  13. M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1996) 4 SCC 750
  14. M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1996) 4 SCC 351; Also see Emily R. Atwood, ��Preserving the Taj Mahal: India's struggle to salvage cultural icons in the wake of industrialisation', 11 Penn State Environmental Law Review 101 (Winter 2002)
  15. Vellore Citizens' Welfare Forum v. Union of India; 28/08/1996
  16. The pre-requisites include written notice, and in most cases, a 60-90 day waiting period before filing; R.C. �3734.101 requires a 150 day waiting period.
  17. David Altman, Amy M.Hartford, and Justin D Newman: Citizen's Enforcement of Environmental Laws
  19. Clean Air Act (Sec7604), Clean Water Act (Sec1365) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Endangered species Act etc.
  20. S.Jagnath v. Union of India (1997) 2 SCC 87.
  21. Kehar Singh v State (1998) 8 SCC 609
  22. David Altman, Amy M.Hartford, and Justin D Newman: Citizen's Enforcement of Environmental Laws
  23. Board of Trustees of Painesville Twp. v. City of Painesville, 200 F.3d 396 (6th Cir. 1999).

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