Coronavirus and the constitution: A case of conflicting rights
Coronavirus, or COVID- 19 was first detected in the December of 2019, originating in China. In the coming months, it has gripped most of the world in it is throes and has caused substantial toll in the daily infrastructure of the world. By the end of February, India too started facing an increase in the number of people showing positive signs of the infection. This did gradually caused the disruption in the daily life of the people. The abject disruption of the daily life is visible in the form of multiple notifications and guidelines that have been issued by the government of the respective countries in an attempt to arrest the spread of the infection. They range from curbing international travels and isolating India from the rest of the world, to closing down all the schools, colleges, shopping malls, swimming pools and other places of potentially large public gatherings.
Indian Government, in light of the threat has also established a lockdown over entire India; consequently workplaces have now to let their employees work from home, and many are accordingly following suit. For almost all the jobs that are present in the organized sector, such has become the mandate, and shall follow suit at least for the coming months. Most of them will receive their salary, albeit maybe reduced. Even those laid off would in most cases have sufficient savings to let them get through these turbulent times. But the same is not true for the unorganized sector. In India, as late as 2016s, almost eighty two percent of the work-force was engaged in the unorganized sector.[i] For those engaged in non-essential services, it means the same home quarantine as others. This is death knell for all those people who are daily earners, which includes the Street food fellers, travel guides, and other roadside businesses etc. In fact, there more than 45 million underprivileged workers in the non-agriculture sector.[ii] The people who live on daily earnings are left bereft of any support as they cannot do business in these turbulent times.[iii] In light of the constitutional provisions, it sparks a potential debate in relation to the Right to life, in the two aspects of its interpretation of the very same provision
Article 21, which is Right to life and personal liberty, has been interpreted to include in its ambit, the Right to Health.[iv] In light of this, it becomes apparent that every individual has a basic inalienable right to live a healthy life. This should in effect also include the acts that can be taken, should be taken to protect the person from any disease, or steps necessary for preventing the spread of diseases. In pursuance to this, the directives from the Central Government and various State Governments to have a lockdown makes sense, keeping in mind the public interest involved. In a contagious disease, especially one of which there is no cure yet, after all, the primary method to fight the spread is to ensure people stay isolated from one another. This means shutting down the normalcy, so be it, to save lives of as many as possible.
On the other hand, Article 21, Right to life also, does not mean living a mere animal existence, but a decent life.[v] As it is only possible to do so when having a livelihood, the article has also been extended to include within its ambit the Right to Livelihood i.e. the means of subsistence.[vi] This has been reiterated in multiple judgments that no person can live without a livelihood, hence livelihood is critical to life.[vii] Deprivation of livelihood thus would not only denude the life of its meaning, but would make survival impossible to live. In the current context, while the Coronavirus is a threat to all, it is not the only threat in the existence. Starvation is another threat, as well as other issues like medical expenses for existent conditions. The lockdown while an effective method to protect the public health, is still not enough to protect these vulnerable people from having their livelihood uprooted.
For all these classes of people, the daily earners, having no source of income now and for near future, it is a threat on their very lives. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it is a miserable existence, at least till the time the reality of this pandemic becomes a distant memory. The only way out of this conundrum is to uphold the right to be protected from the pandemic, being in the general public interested be upheld over all others. Simultaneously, relief can be provided to the daily earners in form of food, medicine and other facilities at least till the time they are able to stand on their own two feet.
The Central and the State Government has already engaged in the same, but it is still not properly implemented, and has not reached all the desired recipients. This is true because of the immense migrant population of India, remote settlements and multitude of other reasons. This has though, prompted various NGOs and other private entities to provide relief work in their surroundings.[viii] Though there have been relaxation in regards to non-critical sectors in certain parts of the country, it is still limited to only certain areas and sectors.[ix] Furthermore, it has to be noted that public trust in the services and products from these daily earners has eroded, and even when the lockdown is over, it would take quite some time for restoration of complete normalcy, and hence efforts to alleviate the problems of the biggest victims would have to be maintained.
[i] The unorganized workforce of India, Geography and You, (August 10, 2018) https://www.geographyandyou.com/the-unorganised-workforce-of-india/. [ii] Prasanna Mohanty , Coronavirus Lockdown I: Who and how many are vulnerable to COVID-19 pandemic, Business Today (March 27, 2020) https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/coronavirus-covid-19-daily-wage-workers-vulnerable-landless-labourers-agricultural-workforce/story/399186.html. [iii] Vivek Singh, India's poorest 'fear hunger may kill us before coronavirus', BBC (25 March, 2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52002734. [iv] State of Punjab v. Mohinder Singh Chawla (1997) 2 SCC 83. [v] Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh 1964 SCR (1) 332. [vi] Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation v Nawab Khan Gulab Khan (1997) 11 SCC 121; see also State of Maharashtra v. Chandrabhan where it was held in case the livelihood of the person is curtailed due to certain pending enquiries, he must be paid certain subsistence allowance. [vii] Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, AIR 1986 SC 180. [viii] Manjeet Sehgal, Coronavirus lockdown in Chandigrah: Daily wage workers are surviving on donated food, India Today (April 2, 2020), https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/coronavirus-lockdown-chandigrah-daily-wage-workers-food-condition-1662638-2020-04-02. [ix] Press Trust of India, Odisha relaxes lockdown norms for agriculture, allied activities from April 15, Indiatoday (April 13, 2020) https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/odisha-relaxes-lockdown-norms-agriculture-allied-activities-from-april-15-1666521-2020-04-13 Submitted by,
KIIT Law School.