Supreme Court of India.

SC cautions against private interests masquerading as PILs

THE Supreme Court on Monday flagged the issue of ‘thousands of frivolous’ public interest litigations [PILs] that are being filed, burdening the docket of the courts. It opined that the courts need to be cautious while examining the locus of the petitioners in order to ensure that frivolous or private interests are not allowed to masquerade as genuine claims. It added that if litigation is initiated in the shadow of reasonable suspicion, then the Court may decline to entertain the petition on merits.
The Supreme Court, though, acknowledged that genuine PILs have had a beneficial effect on the Indian jurisprudence, and have alleviated the conditions of the citizens in general. 
These observations were made by a bench comprising Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, and Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli while ruling against an order of the Bombay High Court from 2010 allowing the PIL filed by the respondents in the instant case before the Supreme Court. 
The bench ruled that it was not appropriate for the High Court to allow the PIL petitioners to have agitated issues concerning title and ownership. Besides, it noted that the High Court did not examine the bonafides of the private respondents.
The Supreme Court also held that the PIL petitioners had no reason to file public interest litigation when the subject matter was evidently a title claim between a private party and the State.
The present case had its genesis in a title claim over the subject land admeasuring five acres and 20 gunthas in City Title Survey No.229. The dispute regarding title was originally between one Gonsalves family and the state of Maharashtra. Esteem Properties Pvt. Ltd. is the successor-­in-­interest to the Gonsalves family.
The forest Department of Maharashtra initiated an inquiry under Section 20 of the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code. These proceedings were eventually brought before the Revenue Minister, which resulted in the order of October 11, 1995, vesting the property in the Gonsalves family (predecessor-­in-­interest of Esteem Properties). However, on March 17, 1998, an order came to be passed by the Revenue Minister against the order passed in 1995 without affording an opportunity of being heard to the Gonsalves family.
Esteem Properties moved the Bombay High Court challenging the order passed in 1998. The High Court dismissed the petition and granted liberty to the petitioner to make a representation to the appropriate authority. 
It is in this backdrop that the representation of the petitioners was taken up as second review proceedings on procedural grounds before the Revenue Minister. The proceedings resulted in an order passed on December 12, 2007 whereby the earlier order passed on October 11, 1995, was restored. It is this December 12, 2007 order that the PIL petitioner had challenged at the Bombay High Court.
At the Supreme Court, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi argued against the PIL petitioners and submitted that the High Court failed to appreciate that one of the PIL petitioners has an indecorous history with criminal antecedents. Besides, it was argued by Rohatgi that the dispute is only one of ownership of land between a private party and the state government, wherein the High Court could not exercise PIL jurisdiction – especially against a quasi-­judicial order.
Advocate Rahul Chitnis, appearing for the State of Maharashtra, also argued against the High Court’s order. He contended that the order passed by a quasi­-judicial authority cannot be permitted to be challenged by a stranger and/or third party to the proceeding in the guise of a PIL.
In their defence, the respondents/PIL petitioners, through their advocate Tapesh Kumar Singh, submitted that they do not have an interest in the private property. They moved the writ petition as public property belonging to the state government was being transferred to private individuals and would lead to loss of public revenue.
The Supreme Court eventually ruled against the respondents/PIL petitioners. It held that they did not have sufficient locus to maintain a PIL before the High Court. In so far as the validity of the order passed on December 10, 2007, by the Revenue Minister is concerned, the Court said it was not necessary for it to delve into a detailed discussion because it has clearly observed in the said order that the Gonsalves family was not afforded an adequate hearing.
Speaking to The Leaflet, senior advocate Mohan V. Katarki said, “A PIL under Article 32 or Article 226 is a discretionary remedy. Inflexible guidelines like dismissing or appointing an amicus are not fully compatible. Moreover, any summary inquiry into the bonafides of the petitioner will have a chilling effect on the petitioners. It is bound to discourage the well-meaning citizens from approaching the court to espouse a public cause”.
The Leaflet also spoke to Vikram Hedge, who is an Advocate-on-Record at the Supreme Court. According to Hegde, “PIL emerged as a revolutionary remedy in a dysfunctional system. But it lacks the rigour required of a truth-finding mechanism like a trial with evidence. It is hence susceptible to misuse as seen in this case”.
Hedge opined that people cannot be expected to bear the brunt of PIL orders as one of the vagaries of life. It is for the courts to exercise caution and restraint in exercising their extraordinary powers.
Click here to read the Supreme Court’s judgment.