In the spirit of life and liberty, the Indian constitution provides Article 21 – Protection of life and personal liberty which says, “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” However, the scope of this article in the COVID-19 era is unclear. Thus, this article examines the scope of the same.
The right to life guaranteed to all persons, citizens or aliens by the constitution of India fundamentally provides that every person has the right to live a life of liberty, with the right to health, education, privacy, livelihood, etc. The procedure established by law, or as due process of law (as in the USA) means that only through the process created by law in circumstances provided by the law can a person be deprived of his right under Article 21.
The very definition of life cannot be limited to the literal definition of being alive and that of an animalistic existence. In right to life in Article 21, the term “life” is used to denote, right of existence as humans, right to human dignity, right to livelihood, right to health, right to a clean environment, right to liberty, right to privacy, etc. Therefore, the right to life is extremely exhaustive and ever-evolving. As found in the Apex court judgment of Sampurnanand v. the State of U.P:
“The courts in India knew early on that understanding the significance of life was the key to providing the security of justice. While interpreting Article 21 of the Constitution of India, the Hon’ble Supreme Court, embraced life in all its breadth and profundity and eschewed a narrow interpretation. The law laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court while construing Article 21 of the Constitution of India brought a citizen’s reputation within its sweep.”
In Board of Trustees of the Port v. Dilipkumar Raghavendranath, the meaning of life is expanded by the court, “The expression ‘life’ used in Art 21 of the Constitution has a wide moaning. It does not connote only existence or continued drudgery through life.”
To understand the right to live in Part III of the constitution, it is necessary to appreciate the expanse and essence of Article 21, which is the right of humans to live a meaningful life. To live a meaningful life is to live a life of personal significance and with all the pursuits which made life worth living.
With the spread of Covid-19 in India, the right to life of lakhs of persons in India was infringed because of the lockdown by the state and the severe impact on the physical and financial health of the people. In this article, I will examine the scope Right to live with dignity as an aspect of Article 21 of the constitution of India.
Right to Life with Dignity: An Analysis
The world human “dignity” has been derived from a Latin “Dignitas” which means worth, merit, quality or state worthy of esteem and respect or high status, reputation.
Human dignity refers to the presence of human respect and honour. Human dignity is the antithesis to exploitation and the violation of some inalienable rights. Such dignity is necessary to live a meaningful life in the face of the earth. The lack of such dignity results in the absence of the ability to live a life of personal significance.
The right to dignity is not expressly provided as a constitutional provision, however since the constitutional provision is considered sui generis, it is open to a wide scope of interpretation, leaning on not the literal words of the provision but the essence, intent, and significance of the provision. The apex court has expanded the scope of the right to dignity stemming from Article 19, 21, and directive principles of state policy.
The intersection of constitutional mandates with the right of dignity is beautifully expressed in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India:
“Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief faith, and worship;
Equality of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all;
Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation.”
Provided in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the highest court held that safeguards of Art. 21 are available along with those Art. 22 For preventive and punitive detention, the right to life, more fundamental than any other forming part of personal liberty and paramount to the happiness, dignity, and worth of the individual, will not be entitled to any procedural safeguard save such as a legislature’s mood chooses.
The supreme court elaborated on the expanse of the right to a life with dignity in its judgment in Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi.
The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing, and shelter over the head, and facilities for reading writing, and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings and must include the right to necessities the necessities of life and also the right to carry on functions and activities as constituting the bare minimum expression of the human self.
It was further elaborated in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India that it is the fundamental right of everyone in this country, citizen or alien, to live with human dignity free from exploitation. This right to live with human dignity enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Articles 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner and conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.
To quote the aforesaid case –
“These are the minimum requirements which must exist to enable a person to live with human dignity and no State neither the Central Government nor any State Government-has the right to take any action which will deprive a person of the enjoyment of these essentials.”
Thus, the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading and expressing oneself in diverse forms freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings as expressed in Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi.
Covid-19 and Right to a Life of Dignity
Drawing parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic in India, it is clear that the constitutional mandates of personal liberty, access to health, and education were curtailed to a large extent especially during the months the country was under extremely strict lockdown.
The plight of the labour workers must be echoed, as they lost their livelihoods and their dignity was withdrawn as they walked to their villages from metropolitan areas, without necessities, so guaranteed by Article 21 of the constitution. Without livelihoods, the dignity of labour is infringed and they were left to inhumane circumstances.
In June 2020, Former Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar has written to the Supreme Court to take suo moto cognizance of news reports on the undignified mala fide mistreatment and improper disposal of the bodies of the deceased COVID-19 patients, claiming that the way the bodies were treated amounted to a “grave infraction of the citizen’s right to die with dignity”.
The right to a life of dignity also means the right to die with dignity, which is derived from Article 21 and is embedded in the very meaning of living a life of human respect. To elaborate, Mr Kumar, said in the highest court that “the fundamental right to die with dignity embraces the right to decent burial or cremation.”
He referred to various cases of gross mistreatment and mismanagement all over the nation, some of which included- A patient being chained to a bed in a hospital in Madhya Pradesh and Puducherry case, a dead body being thrown in a pit for burial without any authorization of even taking the body in the first place. He claimed such cases of extreme infringement to the peoples’ right to die with proper rites and human dignity has shocked the common consciousness of the nation. The SC senior advocate highlighted how the bodies are improperly disposed of and are “piled up” one on top of the other, bare without an ounce of respect for their lives or their death.
Article 21, is central to the constitution and fundamentally attempts to establish in society the values that are innate to human life and happiness, values without which life isn’t one of substance to the one it belongs to. Providing the common man dignity that he is entitled to, in times of COVID-19 and otherwise, is a pursuit of the law, the state, and governance.
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