The Constitution of India is often regarded as a living document because, since its adoption in 1950, it has continuously evolved to meet the changing needs and aspirations of society. One of the clearest reflections of this dynamism is in the interpretation of Article 21 – the right to life and personal liberty – by the Indian judiciary.
Article 21 – A Brief Overview:
Article 21 stipulates, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” On the surface, this appears to be a simple protective clause. However, the Supreme Court of India has progressively expanded its scope to incorporate a range of rights that define the quality of life and personal freedom.
Expanding Horizons of Article 21:
Right to Dignity: The apex court, in the landmark Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India case, stated that the right to live is not merely a physical right but includes the right to live with dignity.
Right to Health: In the Parmanand Katara vs. Union of India case, the court held that the right to health and medical aid is a fundamental right under Article 21, making it obligatory for the state to provide timely medical treatment to a person in need.
Right to Privacy: The Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. Union of India case in 2017 reaffirmed the right to privacy as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty.
Right against Torture and Cruelty: In several judgments, the Supreme Court has emphasized that the right against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is enshrined in Article 21.
Right to Clean Environment: In the M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India case and several subsequent rulings, the court expanded Article 21’s scope to include the right to a wholesome and clean environment, stressing the principle of sustainable development.
Right to Livelihood: In the Olga Tellis vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation case, the court observed that the right to life also encompasses the right to livelihood. Depriving someone of their livelihood was seen as depriving them of their life.
Right to Speedy Trial: Recognizing the maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied,” the court, in Hussainara Khatoon vs. State of Bihar, held that speedy justice is a fundamental right under Article 21.
Right to Sleep: In the Ramlila Maidan Incident vs. Home Secretary, Union of India, the court pronounced that sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival.
The expansive interpretation of Article 21 showcases the Indian Constitution’s adaptive and dynamic nature. The judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, has played a pivotal role in this evolutionary process, ensuring that the Constitution remains a living instrument, responsive to the socio-economic and cultural changes of the times. It is through this dynamism that the Constitution remains not just a foundational legal document but a testament to India’s progressive ideals and aspirations.