Article 21 of the Indian Constitution reads: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” While the wording appears succinct, the ramifications and interpretations of this Article are profound. Over the years, the Supreme Court of India has expanded its scope beyond mere survival, interpreting it to ensure the quality of life and dignified existence.
Dimensions of Article 21:
- Life: The term ‘life’ doesn’t merely imply an animalistic existence. It encompasses living with dignity, good health, pollution-free environment, and more.
- Personal Liberty: Beyond physical restraint, ‘liberty’ now addresses issues ranging from the right to travel abroad to the right to privacy.
Supreme Court’s Interpretations:
- Expansion of the term ‘Life’:
- Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978): The Supreme Court held that the procedure depriving a person of his life or personal liberty must also be just, fair, and reasonable, and not merely a statutory ritual.
- Francis Coralie Mullin vs. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi (1981): The Court expressed that the right to live isn’t confined to physical existence but includes the right to live with dignity, free from exploitation.
- Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985): Here, the Court recognized the right to livelihood as an integral part of the right to life, indicating that no one can live without the means of living, i.e., means of livelihood.
- Right to Health:
- Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India (1989): The Court ruled that the right to health and medical aid is a fundamental right under Article 21, making it obligatory for the State to ensure timely medical treatment in government hospitals.
- Right to Clean Environment:
- M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India (1987): The Supreme Court emphasized that the enjoyment of life and its attainment, including the right to life with human dignity, encompasses the protection and preservation of the environment, ecological balance, and quality of life.
- Right to Privacy:
- Rights of the Arrested Person:
- D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal (1997): The Court issued specific guidelines to protect the rights and personal liberty of arrested persons, ensuring they aren’t subjected to torture, harassment, or degrading treatment.
- Rights of Women:
- In several judgments, the Supreme Court has reinforced women’s rights, whether it’s the right to a safe environment, protection against sexual harassment, or reproductive rights, under the purview of Article 21.
Article 21, through its interpretation by the Supreme Court, stands as a testament to the adaptability and depth of the Indian Constitution. What began as a simple declaration has morphed into a robust safeguard that caters to the myriad challenges of a dynamic society. The Supreme Court, acting as the guardian of constitutional rights, has consistently expanded the ambit of Article 21 to include aspects crucial to an individual’s existence, ensuring not just the right to life but a right to a dignified life.