This article is written by Jessica Kaur, a first-year student currently pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. This is an exhaustive article exploring the meaning, scope and various aspects of the Fundamental Right to Protection of Life and Personal Liberty under article 21.
The right to live a free, full and dignified life is one of the most basic principles of human existence. Every person is entitled to live their life on their own terms, with no unfair interference from others. A successful democracy can only be one that guarantees its citizens the right to protect their own life and liberty.
In India, the Protection of Life and Personal Liberty is a Fundamental Right granted to citizens under Part III of the Constitution of India, 1950. These Fundamental Rights represent the foundational values cherished by the people and are granted against actions of the state, meaning that no act of any state authority can violate any such right of a citizen except according to the procedure established by law.
Article 21 of this part states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”, and this is known as the Right to Life and Personal Liberty.
Hence, this Article prohibits the encroachment upon a person’s right to life and personal liberty against the state. The state here refers to all entities having statutory authority, like the Government and Parliament at the Central and State level, local authorities, etc. Thus, violation of the right by private entities is not within its purview.
The terms ‘life’ and ‘personal liberty’ encompass a wide variety of rights of the people, which are a result of the evolution in the interpretation of Article 21 by the courts over the years. Here, we shall examine the various aspects of this Fundamental Right; but before that, let’s have a look at the jurisprudential evolution of this concept and the significance of one of the most famous judgements related to it – Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978).
Personal Liberty: Meaning and Scope
The meaning of Personal Liberty of a citizen in India has evolved and its scope has widened. Prior to the Maneka Gandhi case, it had a relatively narrower scope, comprising only some liberties of a person.
Personal Liberty was first interpreted in the case of A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras in 1950, which is explained below.
A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras (1950): Prevention Detention
In this case, the Petitioner, a communist leader, was detained under the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. He claimed that such detention was illegal as it infringed upon his freedom of movement granted in Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution of India and thus also violated his Personal Liberty as granted by Article 21 since freedom of movement should be considered a part of a person’s personal liberty.
The court stated that personal liberty meant liberty of the physical body and thus did not include the rights given under Article 19(1). Hence, Personal liberty was considered to include some rights like the right to sleep and eat, etc. while the right to move freely was relatively minor and was not included in one’s “personal” liberty.
The subsequent case of Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. and Ors. (1964) saw an expansion in the meaning of Personal liberty, explained as follows.
Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. and Ors. (1964): Personal Liberty Curtailed
The petitioner, in this case, was accused of dacoity but was released due to a lack of evidence against him. The Uttar Pradesh Police then began surveillance over him which included domiciliary visits at night, periodical enquiries, verification of movements and the like. The petitioner filed a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of this State action.
It was held that the right to personal liberty constitutes not only the right to be free from restrictions placed on one’s movements but also to be free from encroachments on one’s private life. Thus, personal liberty was considered to include all the residual freedoms of a person not included in Article 19(1).
However, Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978) proved to be a landmark case in the evolution of Personal Liberty, greatly widening the scope of this right as granted by Article 21.
Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978): Right to Travel
The petitioner, in this case, was ordered by the Regional Passport Office, Delhi to surrender her newly-made passport within 7 days due to the Central Government’s decision to impound it “in public interest”, in accordance with the Passport Act of 1967. Upon requesting a statement of the reasons for such impounding, the Government replied that they could not furnish a copy of the same “in the interest of the general public.” A writ petition was filed by the petitioner challenging the Government’s decision of impounding and also of not providing the reasons, as well as not allowing the petitioner to defend herself.
The Honourable Supreme Court held that the right to travel and go outside the country must be included in the Right to Personal Liberty. It stated that “personal liberty” given in Article 21 had the widest amplitude and covered a variety of rights related to the personal liberty of a person. The scope of personal liberty was, hence, greatly increased and it was held to include all the rights granted under Article 21, as well as all other rights related to the personal liberty of a person. Such a right could only be restricted by a procedure established by law, which had to be “fair, just and reasonable, not fanciful, oppressive or arbitrary.”
Hence, the Court adjudged in the case that:
- The Government action was not justified as there was no pressing reason for the impounding of the petitioner’s passport and it was a violation of her Fundamental Rights.
- The principles of Natural Justice were violated as the petitioner was not given the opportunity to be heard.
Since this landmark case, the courts have sought to give a wider meaning to “personal liberty”. The principles of natural justice have also been emphasized upon, as any procedure which restricts the liberty of a person must be fair, just and reasonable.
What is the inter-relation between Articles 14, 19 and 21?
As we have seen above, the inter-relation between Articles 14, 19 and 21 has evolved with the evolution in the meaning of Personal Liberty.
First of all, let us take a look at Articles 14 and 19 given in the Indian Constitution.
Article 14 grants equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all persons in the Indian territory and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth.
Clause 1 of Article 19 grants all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression, to assemble peaceably and form associations, to move freely and reside anywhere throughout the country, and to practice any profession, occupation or trade.
All other clauses of this Article allow the State to impose reasonable restrictions on the rights granted in the above clause “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Earlier, Articles 19 and 21 were held to be completely exclusive and separate from each other. The position changed slowly as Personal Liberty evolved to include all rights other than those mentioned in Article 19, and they were considered complementary to each other.
The case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, however, brought a sea change. The Supreme Court held that Articles 19(1) and 21 are not mutually exclusive as the Right to Life and Personal Liberty covers a wide variety of rights, some of which have been given additional protection under Article 19(1).
Article 19 and Article 21 go hand-in-hand and the procedure established by law restricting these rights should stand the scrutiny of other provisions of the Constitution as well – including Article 14. Thus, a law encroaching upon one’s personal liberty must not only pass the test of Article 21 but also of Article 14 and Article 19 of the Constitution.
These three rights are, hence, interconnected and provide safeguards against arbitrary actions of the government. They are meant to be read together and interpreted in accordance with each other. All three of them grant basic human rights and freedoms to the citizens and their immense collective importance has given them the name “Golden Triangle” in jurisprudence.
Scope of Right to Life and Personal Liberty
We have had enough discussion on the expansion in the scope of Article 21. What exactly constitutes this Right today? We shall hereafter examine the various aspects of Right to Life and Personal Liberty.
Right to live with human dignity
It is not enough to ensure that a person has a Right to Live. An essential element of life is one’s dignity and respect; therefore, each person has been guaranteed the right to live with dignity – which means having access to the necessities of human life as well as having autonomy over one’s personal decisions.
In Occupational Health and Safety Association v. Union of India (2014), the protection of health and strength of workers and their access to just and humane conditions of work were taken as essential conditions to live with human dignity.
Occupational Health and Safety Association v. Union of India (2014)
In this case, a non-profit organisation filed a petition seeking guidelines for occupational safety and health conditions in various industries, especially thermal power plants. This was in view of the various skin diseases, lung abnormalities, etc. suffered by their workers due to unhealthy working conditions. It also called for compensation to victims of occupational health disorders.
The court recognised the State’s duty to protect workers from dangerous or unhygienic working conditions and remanded the matter to various High Courts to check the issue of thermal power plants in their respective states.
The Supreme Court, in the case of Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India (2018), said that the Right to dignity means the right to “full personhood”, and “includes the right to carry such functions and activities as would constitute the meaningful expression of the human self.” In this case, a very important aspect of human dignity was talked about – the control over one’s own intimate relations.
In this case, the petitioner NGO filed a Writ Petition challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 as it criminalised sexual acts between LGBT persons, claiming that it was against the Fundamental Rights.
The court, applying the principle of human dignity, said that Section 377 was violative of Articles 14, 15, 19, and 21 of the Constitution to the extent that it criminalised consensual sexual acts of adults (i.e. persons above the age of 18 years who are competent to consent) in private. Hence, sexual acts between LGBT adults conducted with the free consent of the parties involved were declared legal.
As can be observed, human dignity is not a straightjacket idea. Rather, it involves all those rights and freedoms which enable a person to live life without encroachment upon his or her self-respect, pride and safety.
Right to livelihood
To survive, a person requires access to financial and material resources to fulfill his various needs. The law recognises that every person, whether man or woman, has an equal right to livelihood so that he or she may acquire the necessary resources like food, water, shelter, clothes and more. No person deserves to live in poverty and squalor because of being deprived of the chance to earn for himself.
An important case in this matter has been described below.
Olga Tellis and Ors. v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1986)- Right to Livelihood
The petitioners, in this case, were slum and pavement dwellers in the city of Bombay. They filed a writ petition against an earlier decision of the State of Maharashtra and the Bombay Municipal Corporation to forcibly evict dwellers and deport them, which led to the demolition of certain dwellings. They challenged these actions on the grounds that evicting a person from his pavement dwelling or slum meant depriving him of his right to livelihood, which should be considered a part of his constitutional right to life.
The court concluded that though the slum and pavement dwellers were deprived of their Right to Livelihood, the government was justified in evicting them as they were making use of the public property for private purposes. However, they should not be considered as trespassers as they occupied the filthy places out of sheer helplessness. It was ordered that any evictions would take place only after the approaching monsoon season and the persons who were censused before 1976 would be entitled to resettlement.
While the case failed to bring successful resettlement to the dwellers and, in fact, is sometimes cited as justification for eviction of people by the State, it did play its part in establishing the Right to Livelihood as part of the Fundamental Right to Life.
Right to privacy
Right to Privacy sounds like a very basic and obvious right to possess, but for a long time, it was not recognised as a distinct right by the Government because of not being mentioned explicitly by the drafters in the Constitution of India. Over time, there has been a growing recognition of a person’s autonomy over his or her personal body, mind and information which has been given due emphasis by the courts in various judgements.
The Right to Privacy first saw mention in the following case.
R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu (1994)
In this case, a person convicted of murder wrote his autobiography, in which he also disclosed his relationship with the prison officials, some of whom were his partners in crime. His wife sent it for publishing to the Tamil magazine ‘Nakkheeran’, but the prison officials interfered in the publication. The editors of the magazine filed a petition to restrain the government or the prison authorities from stopping the publication of the autobiography.
The court held that it was the right of the criminal Auto Shankar to do whatever he wanted with his private information. Thus, the magazine could not be stopped from publishing what it called the “autobiography” of the criminal.
This case set the stage for future judgements regarding the Right to Privacy and paved the path for it to be established as a part of the Fundamental Rights granted under Part III of the Constitution.
Is Right to Privacy an absolute right?
Although Right to Privacy is one of the most essential rights of a person, especially in a modern democracy, it is not an absolute and untouchable right. There are certain situations where reasonable restrictions can be placed on this right of a person for the greater good.
One such situation can be seen in the infamous case of Mr X v. Hospital Z.
Mr. X v. Hospital Z (1998)
The appellant, in this case, was found to be HIV(+) when his blood sample was tested. This fact was disclosed by the Hospital to others without the appellant’s express consent. Due to such disclosure, the appellant’s proposed marriage to Ms. Y was called off and he was shunned by society.
The aggrieved person approached the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission claiming that there was a breach of confidentiality on the part of the Hospital, but his complaint was dismissed. The appellant then approached the Supreme Court contending that the Duty of Care of the medical professionals as well as his Right to Privacy were violated.
The court held that the appellant’s Right to Privacy was superseded by Ms. Y’s right to know such a material fact about the person she was about to marry, as it was bound to affect her life as well. It was further held that a medical professional’s duty to maintain confidentiality could be breached in cases where public interest was at stake.
Telephone-Tapping: An invasion of Right to Privacy
In today’s digital world, Right to Privacy has acquired a new meaning. In a world where your finger controls everything you put out for everyone to see, can you imagine your personal information being secretly spied on by someone?
In the 90s, telephone-tapping of private conversations by the State became a much-talked-about issue in the case of People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India (1997). Let us take a look at the facts of the case.
People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India (1997)
In this case the petitioner, a voluntary organisation, challenged the constitutional validity of Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 which empowered the Central or State government or its authorised officer to intercept and record messages in case of public emergency or in public interest. This came in the wake of the report on telephone-tapping of politicians which showed that many interceptions were not backed by proper authorizations and in many cases, no proper records or logs of the same were maintained.
The court held that interception can be made only by specific top government officials, only when it is necessary, and it should not exceed a total of six months. The copies of such intercepted messages should be destroyed as soon as they are no longer useful. Recognizing a person’s Right to Privacy, it ordered the formation of a Review Committee to check that such interception was not in contravention of Section 5(2) and if it was, the messages shall be destroyed immediately.
Right to Privacy and Aadhaar Card
One of the most important judgements related to Right to Privacy came in the case of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India (2015). This case established Right to Privacy as a Fundamental Right granted to the citizens by the Constitution.
Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India (2015)
The case was brought by a retired Karnataka High Court Justice before a nine-judge Constitutional bench, challenging the government’s scheme of making the Aadhaar card (a uniform system of biometrics-based identity card) for all citizens. He claimed that it was a violation of the Right to Privacy, and the fact that there were no strict data protection laws in India meant that people’s personal information could be misused. The Attorney General argued that the Constitution did not guarantee a separate Right to Privacy.
The bench unanimously held that Right to Privacy was a part of one’s Right to Life granted by Article 21 and included the right to keep personal information private. While it upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Card, it struck down certain provisions of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016.
Right to Health and Medical Assistance
The Right to Life, of course, cannot be upheld if every person is not given access to proper health and medical assistance. It is the most primary prerequisite to living a full life.
However, sometimes doctors and medical institutions hesitate to assist the ailing persons due to fear of long formalities and complications, especially in medico-legal cases. An example of such a situation is given below.
Pt. Parmanand Katara v. Union of India (1989)
In this case, a scooterist faced an accident upon crashing with a car but upon being brought to a hospital, he was refused treatment and directed to another hospital 20 km away due to the non-occurrence of legal and police formalities. A writ petition was filed in public interest to make it an obligation for doctors to provide medical assistance immediately and not have to wait for completion of formalities.
It was recognised that Article 21 renders paramount importance to the preservation of human life. Thus, it is the obligation of all medical professionals to give immediate health assistance to all patients, without being put under any legal impediment. It was decided that no medical professional shall be harassed for any investigation and he or she would not be asked to testify in court unless necessary and absolutely relevant.
Thus, this case freed the medical professionals of any legal restrictions and thereby made it an obligation and duty for them to provide immediate assistance to patients to uphold the Right to Life.
Right to sleep
All of us love sleeping, right? But many are not aware that the Right to Sleep is a distinct part of one’s Fundamental Rights, which protects against any actions of the State leading to the unlawful deprivation of a person’s sleep.
Re-Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary and Ors. (2012) was the case which led to the establishment of this Right.
Re-Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary and Ors. (2012)
In this case, a Yoga training camp was to be held in Ramlila Maidan during June, 2011 but on 4th June it turned into a hunger strike against black money and corruption led by Baba Ramdev. The protests took place all day and at 12:30 at night, when all the protestors were sleeping, a large number of CRPF, Delhi Police force and Rapid Action Force personnel reached the venue to bring the sadhu out. A scuffle ensued between the personnel and the sadhu’s supporters which ended in throwing teargas shells on the people.
The court acknowledged that sleep is an essential part of a healthy life and a necessity for the maintenance of individual peace. Thus, it held that every person is entitled to sleep as comfortably and freely as he breathes. If any person’s sleep is disturbed without any reasonable justification, it amounts to torture and is a violation of his human rights. Therefore, making the sleeping persons flee and causing mayhem at the location was held as unlawful, since there was no illegal activity taking place there.
Arrest and detention of a judgement-debtor
The first question that comes to mind is, who is a judgement-debtor?
A judgement-debtor refers to a person against whom a judgement has been made ordering him to pay a sum of money i.e. damages, which remains unsatisfied. Thus, he is a debtor of those damages with respect to the judgement passed.
Now, if the judgement-debtor continues to fail to pay the money, what is the recourse?
Jolly George Varghese and Anr. v. Bank of Cochin (1980)
In this case, a court warrant was made for the arrest and detention of two judgement-debtors as they had not paid the money due to the Bank. Their property was also encroached upon for the purpose of selling it and obtaining the money. All this was done without ascertaining that the judgement-debtors had the means to pay but had intentionally evaded it, i.e. had committed an act of bad-faith. Hence, an appeal was filed by the two.
The court declared that it was necessary to ascertain whether an act of bad faith had been committed, and only then the judgement-debtors should be arrested and detained.
Thus, the court, keeping in mind the life and personal liberty of the judgement-debtor, narrowed down the circumstances in which he can be arrested. Therefore, if a judgement-debtor fails to pay the money, he can be arrested – provided that he deliberately avoided paying it even while possessing the means to do so.
Bonded labour system
Having to work in a bonded labour system is one of the most obvious violations of one’s Right to Life to Personal Liberty. Treated as slaves, the bonded labourers face working conditions full of destitution and misery and are often greatly exploited.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act was passed in 1976 as a step towards ending this system, but it isn’t always abided by completely. It is in times like these that the court has to step in and ensure that the labourers can enjoy their Fundamental Rights.
To truly achieve personal liberty, the labourer must not only be freed but also rehabilitated in order to establish an independent life. This was reiterated in the following case.
Neeraja Chaudhary v. State of M.P. (1984)
In this case, a writ petition was filed in the matter of 135 bonded labourers working in stone quarries in Faridabad, who had been released as per an earlier court order and returned to their home villages in Madhya Pradesh with the promise of rehabilitation. However, even six months down the line, they had not been rehabilitated and, in fact, were living on the verge of starvation. Because of this, many wanted to go back to bonded labour rather than starve.
The court emphasized upon the need for proper rehabilitation of the labourers to uphold their Right to Life and Personal Liberty granted by Article 21, and ordered the State government to undertake appropriate measures for the same.
Right to die
The Right to Life confers upon the person the right to live a full life and dictates that the State cannot interfere in this right except through procedure established by law. But, what if a person chooses to end his own life? Can he interfere in his own Right to Life?
Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 criminalises attempt to suicide, with the convicted person facing up to two years of imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
Section 306, meanwhile, criminalises the abetment to suicide i.e., the assistance given by a person in the process of the commitment of suicide by another.
You might say that such a view is inhumane because a person, especially one who is depressed or frustrated to the point of wanting to die, should not be criminalised for attempting suicide. A person has the Right to Life which should naturally imply the Right to end his life too.
Such a view was taken by the court in the case of P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994).
P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994)- Right to Die
In this case, two petitions were filed challenging Section 309 of the IPC on the grounds that it stood in violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.
Keeping Article 21 as well as the principles of natural justice in mind, the two-judge bench ruled that Right to Life also included the right to not live a forced life. Therefore, Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code was declared void.
However, the court then changed its position in the subsequent case of Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996).
Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab (1996)
In this case, Gian Kaur and her husband Harbans Singh were convicted under Section 306 of the IPC due to abetment to the suicide of Kulwant Kaur. Subsequently, the constitutional validity of Sections 306 and 309 was challenged.
Here, the judgement given in the previously-mentioned case was overruled and it was held that Section 309 of the IPC was not unconstitutional and that Section 306, criminalising abetment to suicide, was Constitutional. The court concluded that suicide being an unnatural termination of life, it was against the concept of Right to Life.
The term euthanasia comes from two Greek words – eu meaning ‘good’ and thantos meaning ‘death’. Thus, it essentially means ‘good death’. It is the practice of ending the life of a person suffering from an incurable disease but still breathing, thus undergoing great agony and distress. It helps him or her go through a gentle and painless death instead, by either an act or omission upon his or her body. It is, thus, also known as “mercy killing” or “assisted suicide”.
There may be two types of euthanasia- active and passive.
- Active Euthanasia involves doing something to a patient to end his or her life, with their consent. For eg. giving an injection.
- Passive Euthanasia involves withdrawing medical services with the intention to end the patient’s life. In other words, it means not doing something to a patient, which if done would have saved his or her life. For eg. stop feeding the patient.
In Smt. Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, the court observed that euthanasia could be made lawful only by legislation. The reasoning behind this was to prevent unscrupulous actions by ill-intentioned people.
The landmark case in this matter, however, was Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India (2018), which made passive euthanasia lawful.
Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India (2018)
In this case, an NGO filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court to legalize living will and passive euthanasia. It contended that a person’s right to life included the right to have a dignified death as well, but modern technology enabled the unnecessary prolonging of an incurable patient’s life, only causing pain and suffering to him and his family. Thus, living will by the patient could authorize the family and the hospital to end his agony.
A five-judge Constitution bench ruled that Right to Life also includes a person’s Right to Die with dignity, and thus allowed passive euthanasia i.e. the will of patients to withdraw medical support in case of slipping into an irreversible state of coma.
Thus, currently, active euthanasia is illegal in India, just as in most other countries. On the other hand, passive euthanasia is legal in our country, subject to certain strict guidelines.
Right to a Healthy Environment
Nature has showered us with its gifts since the beginning of time, and these gifts and resources act as the backbone of human existence. A clean, healthy and harmonious environment is one of the necessities for the true enjoyment of life, and thus, it comes as no surprise that our right to live in a pollution-free environment is included in the expansive Right to Life.
The rapid growth of technology beginning with the Industrial Revolution and growing over the centuries has, however, not helped the environment at all. The establishment of more and more industries and a rise in the demand for products manufactured by them has increased the waste churned out by them. Where does all this waste go? Unfortunately, it ends up in the land, water, and air.
Several court judgements have led to the establishment of our right to a healthy environment and the measures to curb the pollution of the Earth.
Right to get pollution-free water and air
Without clean drinking water, we can’t last half a week, and without air, we can’t even last half an hour. It is very important to have access to pollution-free water and air for a sound mind and body.
The case of Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991) emphasized this right as a part of Article 21.
Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar (1991)
In this case, a Public Interest Litigation was filed against two iron and steel companies alleging that they were polluting the nearby river Bokaro by dumping waste into it. The petitioner pointed fingers at the State Pollution Control Board for failing to prevent this and offered to collect the waste and sludge himself.
The court confirmed that the Fundamental Right to Life includes the right to enjoy pollution-free water and air, and if anything endangers the quality of water and air then a citizen can file a petition in court.
However, this particular PIL was dismissed on the grounds that it had been filed in personal interest for the petitioner’s own gains, and that it lacked any basis as the State Pollution Control Board had taken appropriate measures to control pollution.
Protection of Ecology and Environmental Pollution
Nature needs to be protected not just for our own eating, drinking and breathing, but also to preserve the entire ecosystem which maintains the ecological balance on Earth.
Examine the cases below to understand some of the judgements which have contributed towards greater protection of the environment.
Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of U.P. (1985) or the Dehradun Valley Litigation
In this case, an NGO filed a petition against the limestone quarries in the Dehradun-Mussoorie area, alleging that their work was unauthorised and was leading to ecological imbalance in the surroundings due to the landslides caused.
The court only allowed a few mines to remain open while all the others, which were causing harm, were shut down. The Valley was declared as an ecologically sensitive area and measures were taken for its restoration. Most importantly, this case led to the enactment of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
M.C. Mehta and Anr. v. Union of India (1987) or the Shriram Food and Fertilizer Case
In this case, the chemical plant Shriram Food and Fertilizer Ltd. in Delhi suffered a major leakage of the deadly oleum gas in October 1986 and faced another minor leakage two days later. This incident affected almost two lakh people in the near radius.
The court held the industry liable for its negligence and ordered it to pay Rs 20 lakh as compensation to the victims. It also ordered the establishment of an Expert Committee to overlook the operation of the industry. It was directed for all workers to be properly trained, and for loudspeakers to be installed in the premises to warn people in case of any leakage.
Thus, this proved to be a landmark case in environmental legislation as it established the principle of absolute liability, which involves holding the industry dealing in hazardous substances absolutely liable for all damages caused by its faulty operations.
Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India and Ors. (2011)
In this case, Heavy chemical industry plants were being operated in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan, producing dangerous chemicals like oleum and the “H” acid. The petition was filed to prevent and remedy the pollution caused by them.
The court condemned the pollution caused by the industrial company Hindustan Agro Chemicals Ltd. and imposed a heavy fine of almost Rs. 38 crores for remedying the environment damages caused.
Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India and Ors. (1996)
In this case, large-scale pollution was being caused to River Palar in Tamil Nadu due to the discharge of untreated waste by the nearby industries into it. Moreover, over 35,000 hectares of agricultural land had become unfit for cultivation. A Public Interest Litigation was filed against the same.
The court admitted that on one hand, the industries were contributors to the development and a source of employment to thousands of people but on the other, they were the cause of environmental degradation. Therefore, it imposed a fine of Rs. 10,000 on them and emphasized the setting-up of a Green Bench in court to deal with environmental cases in a speedy manner.
Mining in Aravalli hills range banned
The court has emphasized the need to protect the Aravalli hills, one of the few non-concrete areas left in the National Capital Region. Mining activities being undertaken here were banned in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and Ors. (2004).
M.C. Mehta v. Union of India and Ors. (2004)
The petition, in this case, was raised against mining activities 5 km away from the Delhi-Haryana border and the Aravalli hills area, which was causing environmental pollution due to the blasting operations involved.
The court held that the Aravalli hill range had to be protected at any cost and so prohibited any mining activities in the area. It appointed a Monitoring Committee to oversee the restoration of the environment quality.
Freedom from noise pollution: Another component of Article 21
In this fast-paced, chaotic urban world, the noise has become a major deterrent to a peaceful and healthy lifestyle. The huge public loudspeakers, noisy firecrackers, and even the incessant honks of vehicles on the road have become a source of great annoyance and also of serious health hazards.
In the Re: Noise Pollution case (2005), the court addressed the issue of noise pollution and moved a step towards controlling it.
Re: Noise Pollution case (2005)
In this case, a petition was filed against the use of loudspeakers in religious congregations, political rallies, social occasions, etc. and the use of firecrackers which created a lot of noise pollution and disturbance. This was in the wake of a thirteen-year-old rape victim’s cries for help going unheard due to the blasting of music on loudspeakers in the locality.
The court acknowledged the grave adverse effects of loud noise and gave certain directions to prevent the same-
- Prohibition of bursting noisy firecrackers at night.
- Fixation of cap on the noise levels of loudspeakers.
- Prohibition of honking vehicles in residential areas at night.
- Spreading awareness about the hazardous effects of noise pollution.
- Directing the state to confiscate loudspeakers operating beyond permitted noise limits.
The environmental-pollution situation probably stands on a better legal platform than it did a couple of decades ago, but there is still a very long way to go in its implementation if we want to save the Earth in the face of alarming climate change statistics.
Prisoner’s Rights and Article 21
Fundamental Rights form the basis of human existence and are not denied to anyone except under special circumstances. A person convicted of a crime too, therefore, is not deprived of his Fundamental Rights. Restrictions are usually placed on a criminal’s movement, the practice of the profession, etc. but the Right to Life and Personal Liberty is one right that is not snatched from him, except through procedure established by law (for eg. a death sentence).
What constitutes the Right to Life and Personal Liberty of a convict? We shall examine that below.
Right to free legal aid
Article 39A of the Constitution provides that the State must secure a proper legal system based on the equal opportunity by offering free legal services to people (in the form of lawyers to represent them in a trial), in order to ensure that no one is denied justice due to his economic weakness. This is in consonance with Article 14 which provides equal protection before the law and Article 22(1) which states that every arrested person must get the chance to be represented by a legal practitioner of his choice.
Hence, this right helps to ensure one of the most essential elements of justice – that it is made accessible to all.
Right to a speedy trial
Right to speedy trial means that the accused should be put under trial as soon as possible to ascertain whether they are guilty or not. It safeguards against the accused being put into prison for a long time with no foreseeable date in the near future to face trial. It is available to the accused at all stages including investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal etc. This right is based on the principle which says that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
This right was discussed by the court in detail in the following case.
Hussainara Khatoon and Ors. v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar (1979)- Right to Speedy Trial for Under trials
In this case, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed by a number of undertrial prisoners who were in jail in Bihar for years, awaiting their trial.
The Supreme Court held that though the right to a speedy trial is not specifically listed as a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution, it is implicit in the broad scope of Article 21. Speedy trial is the essence of criminal justice and hence, no procedure which does not ensure a reasonably quick trial could be “reasonable, fair or just.” Thus, the Bihar Government was ordered to start the trials of the prisoners as soon as possible.
Right to fair trial
A fair trial is a trial characterised by the complete impartiality and fairness of judges during the hearings. What use is the trial for the accused if the people making the decisions are inherently biased towards them?
Every person undergoing a trial should be given a fair chance, so as to ensure the application of fundamental elements of human rights and proper administration of justice. It forms part of International Law as well, given under Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The qualitative difference between a speedy trial and fair trial
Speedy trial and fair trial are alienable elements of the judicial process and must go hand-in-hand for the best-possible administration of natural justice. Every party to a case has the right to get a reasonably quick dispersion of justice as well as fair treatment and decision by the court.
However, there does exist a qualitative difference between these two elements. Seen at face-value, we can say that the principle of fair trial holds dearer value in the judicial process, as its denial would mean a direct snatching of the person’s right to be properly examined before being declared guilty. Justice must not only be done but also clearly appear to be done, and hence, the principle of fair trial must be followed at all times.
Constitutionality of a death sentence
The death sentence is a type of punishment awarded to criminals who have committed the grossest or serious offences. Oxford Dictionary defines it as the “legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime.” But, does that mean that the State can take the life of a person as per its will? Doesn’t that completely nullify the person’s Right to Life?
The constitutional validity of a death sentence has been much discussed and debated, with many arguing that it is inhumane, that it violates the Fundamental and Human Rights, or that the ‘eye for an eye’ ideology behind it achieves no purpose in law and justice.
Take a look at this landmark case.
Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980)
In this case, Bachan Singh was convicted of the murders of three people and sentenced to death by the Sessions Judge, which was confirmed by the High Court. Bachan Singh appealed whether the facts of the case fell in the category of “special reasons” to warrant the death penalty.
The court upheld the constitutional validity of the death penalty saying that it did not violate Articles 14, 19 and 21, but reiterated that it could only be awarded in the “rarest of rare” cases, and not as a substitute for life imprisonment.
Thus, while capital punishment is a very harsh punishment, it is essential in the grossest and most serious cases like the murder of several persons, a brutal rape, etc. to properly administer justice and act as a deterrent in society. Its constitutional validity has been upheld by the Supreme Court. However, a high burden must be placed on the judge to duly consider and be satisfied with the awarding of a death sentence.
Public hanging means the execution of a convict by hanging in a public space where the members of the general public are allowed to attend voluntarily. While today they are regarded with a general distaste, public executions used to be more commonplace earlier as they acted as a strong deterrent for others, showing the power of the State to deal with unfavourable elements of society.
In India, convicts have a Right against Public Hanging as part of their Fundamental Right to Life, due to the barbaric nature of such an execution. This was established in Attorney General of India v. Lachma Devi and Ors. (1985).
Attorney General of India v. Lachma Devi and Ors. (1985)
In this case, Lachma Devi set her daughter-in-law Pushpa on fire due to bad relations and dissatisfaction with the dowry brought by her, causing her death. She was sentenced to death by public hanging in a place like Ramlila Maidan by the Rajasthan High Court. An appeal was filed by her against this decision.
The bench condemned public hanging as being unconstitutional and grossly violative of Article 21 of the Constitution, thus deleting that order of the High Court.
Thus, while a death sentence remains a method of punishment in the most serious crimes, it need not be taken to the extent of a public hanging to further humiliate the convict and cause turmoil in society.
Right against delayed execution
The Apex court has ruled that an unreasonable and undue delay in the execution of the sentenced person is akin to torture and is in violation of the Right to Life. The Supreme Court is further of the opinion that delay in execution is enough grounds for commuting the punishments to, say, a life sentence. This is because an unduly delayed execution means the distortion of proper justice and causes great psychological distress to the convict, which is unnecessary.
Police atrocities and custodial death
Police are one of the most necessary institutions of a State as it is the acting arm of law and legislation. Police keep a check on unwanted activities and ensure order in society, for which it is given considerable powers.
However, sometimes, certain members of the police get caught up in the power and try to take undue advantage of it. They cease to abide by the law and instead, take it in their own hands. It is a sad sight to see the very guardians of law compromising it – leading to cases of police brutality and atrocities.
Police officers sometimes unfairly arrest individuals, beat and torture the prisoners, and commit various other crimes. One example of such a situation was seen in Smt. Nilabati Behera Alias Lalita Behera v. State of Odisha and Ors. (1993).
Smt. Nilabati Behera Alias Lalita Behera v. State of Odisha and Ors. (1993)
In this case, the 22-year-old son of the petitioner was taken into police custody. The next day, his dead body was found on the railway tracks. The death was unnatural as the body was found with multiple injuries. The petitioner alleged custodial death.
The court confirmed the allegation and awarded compensation to the petitioner. It directed the state to ascertain the responsibility of the officials involved in the death and take appropriate actions against them. It upheld the Right to Life of accused under trials and persons in custody and the fact that no police official can deprive someone of their life and liberty without a lawful procedure.
Trial of rape cases
Rape is one of the most horrific crimes of all, and one of the few crimes for which no reason given can be considered justified by any member of society. Unfortunately, it is also a crime that threatens to never die in our country, with India being the most dangerous country for women according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report in 2018. Government data says that over 90 rape cases are reported in the country every day – but the actual number is probably much higher.
Rape has remained a grossly under-reported crime, which can be attributed to the psychological stress and fear of ostracisation by society in the minds of victims and their families, and also to the long-drawn, painful and often unsatisfactory trial procedure. Over time, efforts have been made by the courts to enable dispersion of easier, quicker and greater justice to victims of rape.
It was in the brutal rape case of Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India (1995), that the court laid down parameters to assist the victims of rape in the trial process.
Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India (1995)
In this case, a Public Interest Litigation was filed against the rape of six women travelling in a train from Ranchi to Delhi, by seven army personnel.
The Court recognised the defects in the system where complaints are not handled properly and victims are often humiliated by the police and suffer grave psychological stress. The parameters laid down include-
- Provision of legal representation to the victims from the moment they arrive at the police station for the complaint, and the duty of the police to inform them of this right.
- Maintenance of anonymity of the victims as far as necessary.
- Establishment of Criminal Injuries Compensation Board to award compensation to victims even before conviction of offender takes place.
Prevention of sexual harassment of working women
When we think of a good life, it probably includes living with respect in the community without any unfavourable actions taken by others against you. However, in this patriarchal society, women are often treated as sexual objects meant for the pleasure of men, and it leads to unwanted sexual advances towards them.
Women’s safety outside their homes has been one of the reasons why even in the urban areas in modern times, there is a dearth of women in the workspace. For a woman, the Right to Life includes the right to not face any sexual harassment while they go out to earn a living and achieve their professional goals – thereby enabling them to exercise their right of practising any profession, occupation or trade.
Keeping this issue in mind, various provisions have been ordered by the Court and implemented by the Government to prevent sexual harassment of women, which can be mainly credited to the following landmark case.
Vishaka and Ors. v. State of Rajasthan and Ors. (1997)- Right against Sexual Harassment
In this case, a writ petition was filed to prevent the hazards to the safety of working women in the wake of an alleged gang rape of a social activist in a Rajasthani village. It contended that sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace was in violation of the Fundamental Rights granted in Articles 14, 15 and 21.
The court defined sexual harassment and laid down certain guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, which include (but are not limited to) the following-
- Duty of employers and responsible people to prevent sexual harassment.
- Duty of employers to provide a safe and appropriate working environment for women.
- Establishment of a complaint committee (headed by a woman) and a complaint mechanism to redress grievances.
- Rules for disciplinary actions to be taken against misconduct.
- Spread of awareness regarding the rights of working women.
Unwanted remarks and advances towards women don’t just stop at closed professional or domestic settings. Unfortunately, they also occur in public places like trains, metros, and even streets, and this is known as Eve-teasing.
While eve-teasing has often been dismissed as harmless or less serious than other issues, it acts as a big blot on women’s safety and can lead to violent situations as well.
Let’s examine the case of Dy. Inspector-General of Police and Anr. v. S. Samuthiram (2012), which led to the formation of guidelines to prevent and punish eve-teasing.
Dy. Inspector-General of Police and Anr. v. S. Samuthiram (2012)
In this case, a police personnel eve-teased and misbehaved with a woman who was waiting with her husband at a bus station in Tamil Nadu.
The guidelines laid down by the court include (but are not limited to) the following-
- All governments to ensure the presence of plain-clothed female police officers in public places.
- Installation of CCTV cameras in strategic locations.
- Orders to persons in-charge of public institutions and public service vehicles to immediately report any acts of eve-teasing to the police, failure of which would lead to adverse consequences.
- Establishment of Women Helpline in all states and union territories.
While noteworthy guidelines have been formulated by the court for both, sexual harassment and eve-teasing, the fact that these horrid practices still prevail questions the quality of their enforcement. One gets no points for observing that women’s safety is still a gigantic problem in our country, and it is the responsibility of law and order to buckle up and ensure that the unequally-placed half of the population gets the right environment to live and flourish, which has been long overdue.
Emergency and Article 21
Emergency refers to a situation where immediate action is required by the authorities in the State to deal with dangerous conditions involving internal rebellion, external aggression or financial bankruptcy. In India, an Emergency can be any of these three types-
- National Emergency
- Failure of Constitutional Machinery in a state (hence, President’s rule)
- Financial Emergency
In a situation of Emergency, the liberties of the people may be temporarily suspended, with the reasoning that the State needs to prevent mayhem and effectively cope with the dangerous situation. Article 359 of the Indian Constitution empowers the President to suspend the Fundamental Rights of the people given in Part III for a specific period of time. However, this is not without exceptions.
Article 21, granting the Right to Life and Personal Liberty, is one of the only two rights that can not be suspended by the authorities even in case of an Emergency. It says that no person is deprived of his life or personal liberty except through a procedure established by law, and this procedure must not be arbitrary or unreasonable (as recognised in the Maneka Gandhi case).
The fact that Article 21 cannot be suspended ensures that people are not exploited during times of stress and danger and that they still possess their basic and cherished human rights.
This provision of non-suspension of Article 21 was brought about by the 44th Amendment to the Constitution in 1978, which amended Article 359 to exclude Articles 20 and 21 from its scope.
Right to Education: A Fundamental Right under Article 21A
Life without education remains to be a mere animal existence, as it is education that broadens the horizons of a person’s mind, making him capable of not only earning a livelihood but also of achieving happiness and respect and making a mark for himself in the world.
The Right to Education in India was added under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution by the Constitution (Eighty-Sixth) Amendment Act, 2002. This Article provides free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of six to fourteen years (6–14) as a Fundamental Right.
Two cases had an important bearing on the establishment of the Right to Education. We shall take a look at them below.
Miss Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka and Ors. (1992)
In this case, student of a Government Medical College in Karnataka was refused admission as she could not afford to pay the Rs. 60,000 capitation fee which was charged from the students not belonging to Karnataka. She filed a petition against this action.
The High Court declared that it was illegal to charge capitation fee from students under any circumstances. Moreover, it acknowledged that education was what ensured a life of dignity and happiness to a person and not transforming the right to education mentioned under Article 41 of Part IV of the Constitution into a Fundamental Right would defeat its purpose and also keep all existing Fundamental Rights beyond the reach of the illiterate. Thus, it declared that Right to Education is a part of the Fundamental Rights.
Unni Krishnan, J.P. and Ors. Etc. v. State of A.P. and Ors.: Article 21(a)
The petition in this case was filed by certain educational institutions in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu challenging the decision made by the court in the above case of Mohini Jain v. the State of Karnataka. They claimed that a person had the right to open an educational institution with a profit motive and if that institution was self-financed, then the quantum of fees charged by it would be the discretion of the institution and not the State.
It was held that every Indian citizen has a Fundamental Right to Education. No person can be deprived of his or her education by the State. This right includes free education until the person attains 14 years of age and thereafter, it will depend on his or her personal economic capacity as well as that of the State.
It is clear that the recognition of Right to Education as a Fundamental Right was mainly brought about by the above-mentioned cases, which ultimately led to the Eighty-Sixth Amendment.
The Right to Life and Personal Liberty has a wide ambit which is only growing over time. There has been increasing awareness about the various aspects of a person’s life which he or she is entitled to control and which would, thus, facilitate the enhancement in quality of his or her life. This Right has been described as the “heart and soul” of the Constitution of India by the Supreme Court and certainly proves to be so – representing the very basic necessities of human life.
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