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Devika Biswas vs. Union of India (2016): Ensuring Accountability in Public Health Camps

The case of Devika Biswas vs. Union of India is a significant decision of the Supreme Court of India that underscored the importance of the right to health and medical care of individuals, especially vulnerable sections of society. The case highlighted the issue of mass sterilizations conducted in government-run health camps and the ensuing medical negligence.

Background of the Case:

Devika Biswas, a health rights activist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in 2012, highlighting the horrific conditions and gross medical negligence in sterilization camps across several states. The immediate context was a mass sterilization camp held in Bihar in 2012, where surgeries were performed under torchlight in highly unsanitary conditions, leading to several complications for the women involved. The petition contended that such practices were rampant across the country and violated the fundamental rights of women.

Key Takeaways from the Judgement:

  1. Violations of Fundamental Rights: The Court acknowledged that the conduct at these camps was a gross violation of the right to health, which is integral to the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.
  2. State Accountability: The Court emphasized the state’s responsibility to ensure that medical services, especially sterilizations that have permanent effects, are conducted under conditions that ensure the maximum safety and health of the individual.
  3. Guidelines and Directions: The Supreme Court issued several directives to ensure that future sterilizations adhere to the highest medical standards:
    • Sterilizations should only be performed in accredited hospitals that have the necessary infrastructure.
    • The Court emphasized the importance of informed consent, ensuring that individuals are made aware of the effects, potential complications, and alternatives before undergoing sterilization.
    • The need for post-operative care was underscored.
    • States were directed to maintain detailed records of sterilizations to ensure transparency and accountability.
    • The Court also directed the central and state governments to conduct regular training sessions for doctors and auxiliary staff involved in the procedure.
  4. Compensation Mechanism: Recognizing the irreversible harm caused to many due to medical negligence, the Court directed the government to put a compensation scheme in place for victims of botched sterilization surgeries.

Critical Analysis:

  • Highlighting Systemic Issues: The case was pivotal in spotlighting the systemic issues in India’s family planning program. By doing so, the Court emphasized that public health campaigns should not compromise individual rights and health for the sake of targets or numbers.
  • Empowering Vulnerable Sections: The judgment was significant in reinforcing the rights of vulnerable populations, especially women from marginalized sections, ensuring they are not subjected to medical negligence or violations of their fundamental rights.
  • Balancing Rights with Public Health Goals: While the judgment acknowledged the importance of family planning and population control, it stressed that these goals should not be pursued at the expense of individual rights and health standards.

In conclusion, the Devika Biswas vs. Union of India case serves as a stark reminder of the state’s obligation to uphold the right to health and medical care of all individuals, especially when implementing large-scale public health initiatives. It emphasizes the need for a rights-based approach to public health, ensuring dignity, safety, and care for all individuals.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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