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This article has been written by Avni Sharma, from National Law University Odisha. The article talks about the extended jurisprudence of Right to life and Right to livelihood.


“Article 21 is the procedural Magna Carta protective of life and liberty.”

                                                                                                                       -Iyer, J. 

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Human dignity is the essence of all the rights and liberties created by the constitution-makers. Article 21 stands as a shield against the threat to life and personal liberty. It is important to note that Article 21 has been under scrutiny by various courts of law in the country. It encompasses countless rights which can be indicative of the fact that the ambit of Article 21 will be arduous to restrict.

The courts, through continuous jurisprudence, has interpreted the Article in numerous ways. Some of these aspects include the right to livelihood and the right to live with dignity. The presented article encloses Article 21 and its evolution through continuous jurisprudential interpretation.

The Quintessence of Right to Life

In the initial phase, the courts regarded Right to livelihood as exclusive to the right to life. But the view underwent modifications and the definition of the word ‘life’ started to be taken as broad and expansive. Right to livelihood started to be taken into account after the Board of trustees case.

The case explicitly enunciated that ‘life’ does not merely presage animal existence or continued drudgery through life. Where the outcome of a departmental inquiry is likely to affect the reputation or livelihood of a person, some of the final graces of human civilization which make life worth living would be jeopardized and the same can be put in jeopardy only by law which inheres fair procedures.

A grand step was taken by the court in expanding the scope of Article when it argued that ‘life’ in Article 21 does not mean merely ‘animal existence’ but living with ‘human dignity’. The court has thus given very extensive parameters to Article 21. As the Supreme Court has observed in Francis Coralie, it questioned the right to life and its limitation to only to the protection of limb or faculty.

The other question can be the extent of the right to life in terms of 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. The magnitude and content of the components of this right would depend upon the extent of the economic development of the country, but it must include basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as they constitute the bare minimum expression of the human self.

In Munn Vs. Illinois, Justice Field “By the term life as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg.” 

Article 21 was also very evident in the Indian movement for the ‘Bandhua Mazdoor’ community. People used to be bought at minimal throwaway prices and were treated in inhumane ways. So, in another formulation of the theme of life with dignity is to be found in Bhandhua Mukti Morcha characterizing article 21 as the heart of the fundamental rights, the Court gave it an expanded interpretation- “to live with human dignity,” free from exploitation. It includes the protection of health and strength of workers, men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in a healthy manner.

In Chameli v State of Uttar Pradesh, the court moved further included the right to food, water, and a decent environment. The court observed a certain connection regarding an organized society that purports that right to live as a human being is not ensured by meeting only the animal needs of man.

It is secured only when he is assured of all facilities to develop himself and is freed from restrictions that inhibit his growth. All human rights are designed to achieve this objective. The right to guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food, water, healthy environment, medical care and shelter.

Suggestions through Directive Principles of State Policy

Article 39(a) suggests that citizens (men and women) shall have the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Thus, is indicative of the fact that the constitution-makers were aware of such a requirement and were ready to provide citizens with basic livelihood necessities.

Additionally, Article 39(e) suggests that the health and strength of workers and the tender age of children must not be abused. It can be concluded that Article 21 includes the right to life and right to livelihood and it was intended by our constitution makers but, due to lack of facilities available, were not able to provide adequate necessities.

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Right to Livelihood

Livelihood can include basic shelter, food, education, occupation and medical care. As discussed earlier, the court’s view kept on transforming with time. The Supreme Court in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, popularly known as the “Pavement Dwellers Case” a five-judge bench of the Court now implied that ‘right to livelihood’ is borne out of the ‘right to life’, as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of Livelihood.

That the court, in this case, observed that: “The sweep of the right to life conferred by Article 21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not merely mean that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to the procedure established by law. That is but one aspect of the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.”

If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part and parcel of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation. 

In the instant case, the court further opined: “The state may not by affirmative action, be compelled to provide adequate means of livelihood or work to the citizens. But any person who is deprived of his right to livelihood except according to the just and fair procedure established by law can challenge the deprivation as offending the right to life conferred in Article 21.” 

Emphasizing upon the close relationship of life and livelihood, the court stated in M. Paul Anthony v. Bihar Gold Mines Ltd., it was held that when a government servant or one in a public undertaking is suspended pending a departmental disciplinary inquiry against him, subsistence allowance must be paid to him. The Court has emphasized that a government servant does not use his right to life and other fundamental rights in this case. 

However, if a person is deprived of such a right according to the procedure established by law which must be fair, just and reasonable and which is in the larger interest of people, the plea of deprivation of the right to livelihood under Article 21 is unsustainable. 

The Court opined that the state acquires land in exercise of its power of eminent domain for a public purpose. The landowner is paid compensation in lieu of land, and therefore, the plea of deprivation of the right to livelihood under Article 21 is unsustainable.

In M. J. Sivani v. State of Karnataka & Ors, the Supreme Court held that right to life under Article 21 does protect livelihood but added a rider that its deprivation cannot be extended too far or projected or stretched to the avocation, business or trade injurious to public interest or has insidious effect on public morals or public order. It was, therefore, held that regulation of video games or prohibition of some video games of pure chance or mixed chance and skill are not violative of Article 21 nor is the procedure unreasonable, unfair, or unjust. 

In U.P. Avas Vikas Parishad v. Friends Coop. Housing Society Limited, the right to shelter has been held to be a fundamental right which springs from the right to residence secured in Article 19(1)(e) and the right to life guaranteed by Article 21. To make the right meaning to the poor, the state has to provide facilities and opportunities to build houses. 

“For the animal, it is the bare protection of the body, for a human being it has to be a suitable accommodation which would allow him to grow in every aspect – physical, mental and intellectual. The Constitution aims at ensuring fuller development of every child. That would be possible only if the child is in a proper home. It is not necessary that every citizen must be ensured of living in a well-built comfortable house but a reasonable home, particularly for people in India, can even be a mud-built thatched house or a mud-built fireproof accommodation.” 

In Chameli Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, a Bench of three Judges of Supreme Court had considered and held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen and it was read into Article 21 of the Constitution of India as encompassing within its ambit, the right to shelter to make the right to life more meaningful. 

The Court observed that: “Shelter for a human being, therefore, is not mere protection of his life and limb. It is however where he has opportunities to grow physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. The right to shelter, therefore, includes adequate living space, safe and decent structure, clean and decent surroundings, sufficient light, pure air and water, electricity, sanitation and other civic amenities like roads, etc. so as to have easy access to his daily avocation. The right to shelter, therefore, does not mean a mere right to a roof over one’s head but the right to all the infrastructure necessary to enable them to live and develop as a human being.”

Right to livelihood – Hawkers

Right to livelihood includes the right to the occupation which is often infringed by the demolition of hawkers. 

In Sodan Singh v. New Delhi Municipal Committee, the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court distinguished the concept of life and liberty within Article 21 from the right to carry on any trade or business, a fundamental right conferred by Art. 19(1)(g) and held the right to carry on trade or business is not included in the concept of life and personal liberty. Article 21 is not attracted in the case of trade and business.

The petitioners, hawkers doing business off the paved roads in Delhi, had claimed that the refusal by the Municipal authorities to them to carry on the business of their livelihood amounted to the violation of their right under Article 21 of the Constitution. The court opined that while hawkers have a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) to carry on trade or business of their choice; they have no right to do so in a particular place. They cannot be permitted to carry on their trade on every road in the city. If the road is not wide enough to be conveniently accommodating the traffic on it, no hawking may be permitted at all or maybe permitted once a week.

Footpaths, streets or roads are public property and are intended to several general public and are not meant for private use. However, the court said that the affected persons could apply for relocation and the concerned authorities were to consider the representation and pass orders thereon. The two rights were too remote to be connected together.

The court distinguished the ruling in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation wherein, the petitioners were very poor persons who had made pavements their homes existing in the midst of filth and squalor and that they had to stay on the pavement so that they could get odd jobs in the city. It was not the case of a business of selling articles after investing some capital.


The right to livelihood can have an extended meaning to it as it is the most crucial right when it comes to human life and dignity. The courts will keep on interpreting it in a plethora of ways and this will protect the people from the plight.

To know more about the scope of Article 21, please Click Here.

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