It has been rightly said by Pope Francis that “The right to life is the first among human rights.” Being the epitome of judicial creativity and carrying a sacrosanct aura around it, the right to life has been guaranteed by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution under Article 21 of chapter III of The Constitution of India, 1949. Quoting the verbatim, the eighteen word phrase “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law” has been the most pivotal yet controversial fundamental right among all the six fundamental rights guaranteed to Indian citizens and plays a father figure to the foundation of human rights and also acts as a trunk to the tree of rights from which other branches of various rights arise. Thus, this right has been given the highest importance among all the other rights in order to give the Indian citizens what may be called a proper dignified life instead of mere being or survival and in the recent years, the scope of article 21 has widened immensely through judicial activism and pronouncements, landmark judgments and acts passed by the parliament to include all those aspects of life without which human beings cannot survive in a dignified and humane manner.
In the landmark judgment of Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, it has been rightly quoted by the Honorable Supreme Court of India that the word “Life” does not mean mere animal existence but also includes in its purview what may be necessary to sustain a healthy and happy being. Since the advent of the first wave of Coronavirus or n-CoV-19 in India in March 2020, there have been a huge disruption in medical and medicinal supply system, migration of daily wage laborers across borders of different states, shortage of vaccines for different age groups, lack of adequate livelihood sources for the lower and middle income groups and even oxygen and hospital bed shortage which has led to existential crisis for right to life of the people due to shortage of means to support a healthy life.
The onset of COVID – 19 has thoroughly shook the constitutional mechanism of right to life and left it bleeding through a thousand cuts. Not only right to life but also the disruptions in the medical policies and frameworks of the entire life support system across the states has seen the brunt of this unfortunate and uncalled situation where one cannot foresee any shore to this ocean of problems. To understand the crisis the nation had to face, one needs to look into this aspect through many lenses.
The most important pre requisite for a healthy life and survival is the presence of a well-developed and functioning system of healthcare around the 718 districts of the country. However, this has not been the scenario in India. Even in the normal circumstances during the pre – COVID era before March 2020, it has been a herculean task for the patients to secure a bed and obtain proper medical treatment and support at the already overburdened and understaffed public healthcare facilities while the heavily charging and expensive private facilities continue to remain out of the reach of a huge chunk of population in the country where already nearly 22% of the people live below the poverty line. Historically, both the budgetary allocation and spending on healthcare in India has been significantly low with less than 2% of the GDP of the country being invested in healthcare facilities from the year 2009 to 2019 in a country which sustains nearly 140 million lives.
The oxygen crisis has added fuel to the already rampant fire of a failed healthcare system in many states of India. Due to evil market practices like hoarding, black marketing and stocking, the prices of oxygen cylinders and concentrators have shot to an all-time high touching the sky and making it even far away from the reach of at least 90% of the population. With all this happening at the country wide level, both the central and state governments have remained a silent spectator on this issue with a lot of large scale and reputed state facilities even in the heart of the nation have given up on admitting new patients and providing them with life support. With even absence of air to breathe, the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi has rightly remarked that “State has failed in protecting basic right to life under Art. 21” during oxygen shortage hearing in the capital. Tragically, due to shortage of oxygen, hundreds of patients have lost their life. The Delhi Police also seized nearly 170 concentrators from various sources where illegal stocks of concentrators where reported and the High court had to order their release to facilitate availability of oxygen to the people. Taking cognizance of these issues, the Patna High Court also remarked that “State inaction in providing healthcare to its citizens violates Article 21” and also ordered State Human Rights Commission to conduct surprise raids on COVID hospitals. In the case of Pashchim Bengal Khet Mazdoor Samiti vs. State of West Bengal (1996), it was held by the apex court that “Article 21 imposes an obligation on the state to safeguard the right to life of every person. Preservation of life is thus of paramount importance.”
Poverty has also created huge issues for survival of a lot of people belonging to the lower income groups who do not even have enough resources to afford two square meals a day. With the nation-wide lockdowns initially and state wise lockdowns in the later phase of the pandemic, many business houses, restaurants, movie theatres, gyms etc. have been forced to close down their operations leading to no source of revenue for the owners and affecting the salaries and wages of the dependent employees. With the lack of livelihood, even poverty deaths have been reported in different backward parts of the country. It is worth noting that right to life also includes right to livelihood and right to adequate food to ensure survival which has been shook due to the lockdown. In the landmark judgment of CESE ltd. vs Subhash Chandra Bose (1992), it was rightly noted by the Supreme Court that “Right to livelihood springs from the right to life guaranteed under Art. 21. The health and strength of a worker is an integral fact of right to life.” The inter – state migrant labour crisis also added to the impact of poverty in the lower economic groups where a huge number of workers had to travel by foot to their hometowns devoid of any food or proper means of travel. Due to this, many lawyers and NGOs filed various petitions in the supreme court seeking protection and adequate relief for them under article 21 as right to life also includes right to dignity of individuals, something which had been stripped off the migrant workers while travelling with their kids starving for food.
The vaccination drive launched pan India by the Hon’ble Prime Minister has also received its fair share of bouquets and brit racks when the vaccine shortage led to nearly closing down of vaccination centers in states having highest number of cases and fatalities like Maharashtra, Delhi etc. With less than a meagre fraction of population vaccinated against the deadly disease, the division bench of Karnataka High Court comprising of Chief Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Arvind Kumar observed that prima facie the state must come clear to the public towards policies relating to national interest and should not make statements inconsistent with facts in the reality. Also, it was observed that Article 21 of the constitution stood violated if second dose of COVID – 19 vaccine was not administered to the public.
The most appropriate way forward for this situation is that the government should take cognizance of the issue as a high priority matter to prevent the death of right to life not only to safeguard the constitutional fabric of the country which was woven with a lot of aspirations, hard work and prudence of the founding fathers but also to protect the valuable lives of the citizens of the country. Necessary arrangements in healthcare, pharmacy, migrant crisis and nutrition should in toto should be made as soon as possible so as to cure the contemporary problems with appropriate medicines in form of necessary and relevant provisions in advance, something which government did not do while it had an opportunity during around a hundred days of the nation – wide lockdown due to first wave of COVID in 2020. Also, the judiciary should take active part in bridging the gaps between the necessary provisions required to provide each and every citizen with right to life not only on papers but in reality too by taking suo-moto cognizance whenever it feels the inevitable need to do so, check up regularly on the provisions made by the government and provide directions and guidelines to the police and administration from time to time and penalize those who indulge in malpractices and social evils so as to promote and uphold the sacrosanctity of right to life of all the citizens in the country.
This Blog is authored by Akash Sharma
1. The Constitution of India, 1949 (http://www.bareactslive.com/ACA/ACT401.HTM)
2. Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh 1963 AIR 1295, 1964 SCR (1) 332 (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/619152/)
3. Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoorsamity … vs State Of West Bengal &Anr (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1743022/)
4. C.E.S.C. Ltd. Etc vs Subhash Chandra Bose And Ors (https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1510944/)
5. Migrant Workers and COVID-19: Listening to the Unheard Voices of Invisible India (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2277436X20968984)
7. Picture Credits – Livelaw Blog (https://www.livelaw.in/h-upload/2021/04/19/392103-covid-19-and-sc.jpg)