Decided on September 18,1982

UNION OF INDIA Respondents


- (1.) This is a writ petition brought by way of public interest litigation in order to ensure observance of the provisions of various labour laws in relation to workmen employed in the construction work of various projects connected with the Asian Games. The matter was brought to the attention of the Court by the first petitioner which is an organisation formed for the purpose of protecting democratic, rights by means of a letter addressed to one of us (Bhagwati J.). The letter was based on a report made by a team of three social scientists who were commissioned by the first petitioner for the purpose of investigating and inquiring into the conditions under which the workmen engaged in the various Asiad Projects were working. Since the letter addressed by Ist petitioner was based on the report made by three social scientists after personal investigation and study, it was treated as a writ petition on the judicial side and notice was issued upon it inter alia to the Union of India, Delhi Development Authority and Delhi Administration which were arrayed as respondents to the writ petition. These respondents filed their respective affidavits in reply to the allegations contained in the writ petition and an affidavit was filed on behalf of the petitioner in rejoinder to the affidavits in reply and the writ petition was argued before us on the basis of these pleadings.
(2.) Before we proceed to deal with the facts giving rise to this writ-petition, we may repeat what we have said earlier in various orders made by us from time, to time dealing with public interest litigation. We wish to point out with all the emphasis at our command that public interest litigation which, is a strategic arm, of the legal aid movement and which is intended to bring justice within the reach of the poor masses, who constitute the low visibility area of humanity, is a totally different kind of litigation from the ordinary traditional litigation which is essentially of an adversary character where there is a dispute between two litigating parties, one making claim or seeking relief against the other and that other opposing such claim or resisting such relief. Public interest litigation is brought before the court not for the purpose of enforcing the right of one individual against another as happens in the case of ordinary litigation, but it is intended to promote and vindicate public interest which demands that violations of constitutional or legal rights of large number of people who are poor, ignorant or in a socially or economically disadvantaged position should not go unnoticed and unredrssed. That would be destructive of the Rule of Law which forms one of the essential elements of public interest in any democratic form of government. The Rule of Law does not mean that the protection of the law 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 the 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 The former can approach the courts with a formidable army of distinguished lawyers paid in four or five figures per day and if their right to exploit is upheld against the government under the label of Fundamental Right, the courts are praised for their boldness and courage and their independence and fearlessness are applauded and acclaimed. But, if the Fundamental Right of the poor and helpless victims of injustice is sought to be enforced by public interest litigation, the so-called champions of human rights frown upon it as waste of time of the highest court in the land which, according to them, should not engage itself in such small and trifling matters. Moreover, these self-styled human rights activists forget that civil and political rights, priceless and invaluable as they are for freedom and democracy simply do not exist for the vast masses of our people. Large numbers of men. women and children who constitute the bulk of our population are today living a sub-human existence in conditions of abject poverty, utter grinding poverty has broken their back and sapped their moral fibre. They have no faith in the existing social and economic system. What civil and political rights are these poor and deprived sections of humanity going to enforce This was brought out forcibly by W. Paul Gormseley at the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Banaras Hindu University : "Since India is one of those countries which has given a pride of place to the basic human rights and freedoms in its Constitution in its chapter on fundamental rights and on the Directive Principles of State Policy and has already completed twenty-five years of independence, the question may be raised whether or not the Fundamental Rights enshrined in our Constitution have any meaning to the millions of our people to whom food. drinking water, timely medical facilities and relief from disease and disaster. education and job opportunities still remain unavoidable. We. in India, should on this occasion study the Human Rights declared and defined by the United Nations and compare them with the rights available in practice and secured by the law of our country." The only solution for making civil and political rights meaningful to these large sections of society would be to remake the material conditions and restructure the social and economic order so that they may be able to realise the economic. social and cultural rights. There is indeed close relationship between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other and this relationship is so obvious that the international Human Rights Conference in Tehran called by the General Assembly in 1968 declared in a final proclamation : "Since human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible, the full realisation of civil and political rights without the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights is impossible." Of course, the task of restructuring the social and economic order so that the social and economic rights become a meaningful reality for the poor and lowly sections of the community is one which legitimately belongs to the legislature and the executive, but mere initiation of social and economic rescue programmes by the executive and the legislature would not be enough and it is only through multi-dimensional strategies including public interest litigation that these social and economic rescue programmes can be made effective. Public interest litigation, as we conceive it is essentially a co-operative or collaborative effort an the part of the petitioner, the State or public authority and the court to secure observance of the constitutional or legal rights, benefits and privileges conferred upon the vulnerable sections of the community and to reach social justice to them. The State or public authority against whom public interest litigation is brought should be as much interested in ensuring basic human rights, constitutional as well as legal, to those who are in a socially and economically disadvantaged position, as the petitioner who brings the public interest litigation before the court. The State or public authority which is arrayed as a respondent in public interest litigation should in fact, welcome it as it would give it an opportunity to right a wrong or to redress an injustice done to the poor and weaker sections of the community whose welfare is and must be the prime concern of the State or the public authority.
(3.) There is a misconception in the minds of some lawyers, journalists and men in public life that public interest litigation is unnecessarily cluttering up the files of the Court and adding to the already staggering arrears of cases which are pending for long years and it should not therefore be encouraged by the court. This is to our mind, a totally perverse view smacking of elitist and status quoist approach. Those who are decrying public interest litigation do not seem to realise that courts are not meant only for the rich and the well-to-do, for the landlord and the gentry, for the business magnate and the industrial tycoon, but they exist also for the poor and the downtrodden the havenots and the handicapped and the half-hungry millions of our countrymen. So far the courts have been used only for the purpose of vindicating the rights of the wealthy and the affluent. It is only these privileged classes which have been able to approach the courts for protecting their vested interests. It is only the moneyed who have so tar had the golden key to unlock the doors of justice, But, now for the first time the portals of the court are being thrown open to the poor and the downtrodden, the ignorant and the illiterate and their cases are coming before the courts through public interest litigation which has been made possible by the recent judgment delivered by this Court in Judges Appointment and Transfer cases. Millions of persons belonging to the deprived and vulnerable sections of humanity are looking to the courts for improving their life conditions and making basic human rights meaningful for them. They have been crying for justice but their cries have so far been in the wilderness. They have been suffering injustice silently with the patience of a rock, without the strength even to shed any tears. Mahatma Gandhi once said to Gurudev Tagore, "I have had the pain of watching birds who for want of strength could not be coaxed even into a flutter of their wings. The human bird under the Indian sky gets up weaker than when he pretended to retire, For millions it is an eternal vigil or an eternal trance." This is true of the 'human bird' in India even today after more than 30 years of independence. The legal aid movement and public interest litigation seek to bring justice to these forgotten specimens of humanity who constitute the bulk of the citizens of India and who are really and truly the "People of India", who gave to themselves this magnificent Constitution. It is true that there are large arrears pending in the courts but that cannot be any reason for denying access to justice to the poor and weaker sections of the community. No State has a right to tell its citizens that because a large number of cases of the rich and the well-to-do are pending in our courts, we will not help the poor to come to the courts for seeking justice until the staggering load of cases of people who can afford is disposed of. The time has now come, when the courts must become the courts for the poor and struggling masses of this country. They must shed their character as upholders of the established order and the status quo. They must be sensitised to the need of doing justice to the large masses of people to whom justice has been denied by a cruel heartless society for generations. The realisation must come to them that social justice is the signature tune of our Constitution, and it is their solemn duty under the Constitution to enforce the basic human rights of the poor and vulnerable sections of the community and actively help in the realisation of the constitutional goals. This new change has to come if the judicial system is to became an effective instrument of social Justice, for without it, it cannot survive for long. Fortunately. this change is gradually taking place and public interest litigation is playing a large part in bringing about this change. It is through public interest litigation that the problems of the poor are now coming to the forefront and the entire theatre of the law is changing. It holds out great possibility for the future This writ petition is one such instance of public interest litigation.;

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