In this blog post, the author has discussed the evolving nature of Article 21 of the Constitution. The author has analyzed the new emerging concepts which are now included under the Right to life keeping in mind the present-day life.
When we talk about life in the ordinary sense we tend to mean, “the sequence of physical and mental experiences that make up the existence of an individual.” But it is interesting as well as at the same time important to note that for the interpretation of the Article 21 of the Constitution of India which reads as, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law” the meaning of life doesn’t remain static. It is something that is to be cherished and specifically is attributed to the judiciary of the country, as the Judges with their liberal interpretation of Article 21 over the years have led to the expansion of the scope of meaning of life. When independent India was at the nascent stages the meaning of life was interpreted just in the limited sense as we used to understand it in the previous times as, ‘ensuring the availability of food, shelter, clothing’.
The road taken by Indian democracy has ensured that it is not just making food available to the people but good quality food. The attempt to provide quality food can be deciphered from the extension of the Mid-day meal scheme against which the Supreme Court asked the States to provide information as to whether there is any monitoring mechanism to check the quality of food served to the children in government schools. Further, in case of shelter which was supposed to be just a roof above the head has transformed into providing humane conditions of living where one could live with dignity and not just have merely animal existence. Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) is an indicator that there is a concentrated effort being made towards providing new meaning to shelter as compared to what it was understood in the past. In terms of clothing, the understanding was that the clothing should be just enough to cover the body but the concept has evolved over the years and now is not just limited to a narrow meaning. Now, clothing is to be understood in terms of providing protection to the body as per the weather conditions of the particular area. Therefore, just covering the body is not enough instead of the real purpose of protection of the body by having enough layers of clothing has been accepted as an aspect of changed meaning of life.
Latest additions under the ambit of Article 21
There are many additions that have been made to the scope of Article 21 in order to widen its scope and meet the requirements of the present times. Though the additions are many, we shall be focusing on some of the latest add-ons that have essentially broadened the fields covered under the ambit of Art. 21.
Right to Healthy Environment
The Supreme Court in the case of Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v. Union of India, suspended the Environmental Clearance granted for the development of Greenfield International airport at Mopa in Goa observing,
“The health of the environment is key to preserving the right to life as a constitutionally recognized value under Article 21 of the Constitution.”
This observation of the Supreme Court clearly expresses the need to expand the scope of meaning of life with the inclusion of the right to shelter inclusive of a clean environment, therefore, leading to all-round well-being of the people.
Right to Reputation
Supreme Court in the case of S. Nambi Narayanan v. Siby Mathews, ordered Rs. 50 Lakh compensation to former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan for arresting him and for making him suffer for almost fifty days in police custody. The SC also noted that the arrest had been seriously criticized in the closure report of the CBI and further observed that,
“reputation of an individual is an insegregable facet of his right to life with dignity, and fundamental right of the scientist under Article 21 has been gravely affected.”
This judgement actually made us realize that the concept of life and personal liberty is not to be seen in isolation but in terms of all the things that come attached to it in order to have a broader understanding.
Rights of Mentally Disabled Person
While hearing a writ petition in the case of Gaurav Kumar Bansal v. Union of India, raising issues about patients suffering from mental illness being kept in chains in an asylum the Supreme Court observed that,
“This is not only inhuman and violative of rights of such persons under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, as even a person suffering from mental disability is still a human being and his dignity cannot be violated.”
This is a clear indication of how the meaning of personal liberty has been expanded to include even those who are not capable of making informed decisions independently.
Right to choose Life Partner
In the case of Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, Shakti Vahini, an NGO, approached the Apex Court, seeking directions to the State Governments and the Central Government to take preventive steps to combat honour crimes. The SC in the case observed that,
“When two adults consensually choose each other as life partners, it is a manifestation of their choice which is recognized under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution."
Through this judgement, the idea of personal liberty and freedom was taken to a next level where all the efforts possible were being made to accept the fact that an individual has an independent existence and has full right to make choices that suit him/her the best.
Right to Privacy
When we talk about the expansion of the scope of Article 21, the unanimous decision of the Nine -Judge Constitution bench which overruled the Judgments in MP Sharma and Kharak Singh cases in the case Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, holds a lot of relevance and can’t be ignored. The Supreme Court of India, in this case, held that right to privacy is a Fundamental Right and it is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Right to Alternate Accommodation
The Delhi HC in the case of Udal v. Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, reiterated that the right to housing is an essential part of the right to life which is not merely an animal existence but entitlement to reasonable accommodation. The Delhi High Court, in this case, came to the aid of 14 slum dwellers, earlier declared ineligible by the Delhi government for rehabilitation, as it held them entitled for alternate accommodation after being removed for expansion of National Highway-24. The Court held that,
“It is trite that the right to housing is an essential part of Right to Life and a fundamental right ensured by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It has also been held that the right to life is not right to merely an animal existence but an entitlement to reasonable accommodation.”
This shows that how the right to housing has been admitted to be an essential component of Article 21 and special care has been taken towards ensuring safety and shelter of the poor people who in most cases are not able to fight for their cause due to lack of financial resources.
Liberal Interpretation of Article 21 by the Courts in India has played a pivotal role in expanding the scope of the rights of people. Over the years the words ‘life’ and ‘personal liberty’ have tended to grow towards maturity in the same way as our democracy has matured over the past 70 years. This effort made by the Courts of India has proved to be a boon for the Indian society because at times the government tends to behave as an authoritarian or at times majoritarian government as has been observed during the time of Emergency. In order to counter the situations which can lead to the exploitation of people by the Government, the expansion of the scope of Article 21 has a crucial role to play. Though there are still a lot of areas to be addressed, hopes remain as high as the sky with the ultimate aim of achieving a better and more responsive democracy.
 Life, Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/life.  India Today Web Desk, Supreme Court to government on mid-day meals: 'How will the implementation, monitoring of the scheme take place?', India Today, (Aug. 22, 2017, 2:21 PM), https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/supreme-court-to-government-on-mid-day-meals-1030750-2017-08-22.  Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v. Union of India, (2019) 15 SCC 401.  S. Nambi Narayanan v. Siby Mathews, (2015) 14 SCC 664.  Gaurav Kumar Bansal v. Union of India, (2015) 2 SCC 130.  Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, (2018) 7 SCC 192.  K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1.  Udal v. Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, 2017 SCC OnLine Del 9715.
Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab
(Image used for representative purpose only)