More than 10,000 children died in New Delhi’s 350-bed Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital between 2008 and 2012, accounting for roughly 17% of the under-14 deaths in the National Capital Territory. But the Delhi High Court has deemed this fact insufficient to warrant further investigation, and refused to order an inquiry into the deaths. In a verdict pronounced on May 27, the court dismissed a petition filed in the public interest by an NGO that demanded an investigation of conditions at the government paediatric hospital.

The number, the court observed, did “indeed appear to be high”, but decided it could not set an investigation in motion on the basis of a “half or less baked petition”.

According to the court, the Centre for Human Rights, a Delhi-based NGO, had raised unreasonable alarms without first presenting the full facts of the case. “A petitioner,” wrote Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw, on behalf of himself and Chief Justice G Rohini, “even in a Public Interest Litigation cannot seek commencement of a roving and fishing inquiry”.

As the court noted, there were problems with the petition. There was no mention of any specific illegalities committed by the hospital. The petitioner made no reference to the hospital’s charter, or its rules and regulations, to display precisely how the law had been violated. The petition also neglected to note the total number of children who had been admitted in the hospital for treatment between 2008 and 2012. These misgivings, in the court’s view, were fatal to the petition’s chances of admission.

Looser standards

Yet public interest litigation, by definition, encompasses looser standards of procedure. It has its origins in the wake of the Supreme Court’s failure to restrain wanton state action during the period of Emergency between 1975 and 1977, declared by prime minister Indira Gandhi. In the decade that followed, the court, with a view of re-finding its role as a sentinel of fundamental rights, enormously liberalised requirements of locus standi (the law granting the right of a party to appear and be heard before a court). Petitioners who had not suffered any direct injury were permitted to approach the court on behalf of a larger, offended public. This helped open the gates of the courts to the country’s socially and economically deprived classes, who often found themselves denied proper access to justice.

More than 50,000 children have died in Delhi’s hospitals in five years. The Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital, which was established in 1956 to serve as a specialist in paediatric care, has an exceptionally poor record. According to news reports, due to a lack of facilities, “almost always, two to four babies are kept in a single incubator”, in the hospital. Another Right to Information request established that in a four-month period in 2012, approximately 600 children died while in the hospital.

India’s high courts have a duty to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. In recent years the Delhi High Court has been a particularly progressive constitutional court. Its decision to read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises unnatural sex (since reversed by the Supreme Court), is one of a number of path-breaking decisions. Most recently, in examining whether a minor suffering from Gaucher disease born to poor parents is entitled to free medical treatment, the court ruled that providing access to essential medicines at affordable prices is an inalienable obligation of the state. This is why its refusal to entertain this petition bringing up a particularly grave concern is even more surprising.

Startling numbers

In India, government hospitals cater primarily to those unable to afford the ever-escalating costs of private healthcare. In the years after the Emergency, the Supreme Court even treated letters from public-spirited individuals that highlighted a violation of fundamental rights of the poor as a valid petition. “Where the weaker sections of the community are concerned…who are helpless victims of an exploitative society and who do not have easy access to justice,” wrote Justice PN Bhagwati in SP Gupta v. Union of India in 1981, “this Court will not insist on a regular writ petition to be filed…This Court will readily respond even to a letter addressed by such individual acting pro bono publico [for the public good]".

To use a Latin term fashionable among lawyers, res ipsa loquitor: the thing speaks for itself. The numbers, whichever way one looks at them, are startling. At the very least, they ought to have triggered the court’s constitutional machinery.

The prime objective of public interest litigation – which was conceived to help ensure a more egalitarian society – is to look beyond ordinary procedural constraints to meet the needs of the poor. Litigants, no doubt, owe a duty to be rigorous in their research before invoking an already-burdened machinery of the court. But to rebuff a petition as “half-baked,” on a matter of such critical importance, could seem to be ignoring the core ideals of the Constitution.