Oct 18, 2017
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Article 21 – Right to Life

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Article 21

Article 21 of  the Constitution of India reads as under:

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”

Article 21 secures two rights:

1)  Right to life

2) Right to personal liberty

The infringement of Article 21 – the Right to Life and Personal Liberty can only be claimed against a “State” as defined by Article 12 of the Constitution of India.

Violation of Right by private individuals is not within the purview of Article 21.

Following are the Right to Life guaranteed by Article 21:

Right to live with Human Dignity

In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court gave a new dimension to Art. 21 and held that the right to live the right to live is not merely a physical right but includes the right to live a dignified life. This view was further elaborated in the  Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi; – The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity, here human dignity includes bare necessities namely food, adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter with over the head facilities for reading, writing, learning and expressing ones self in diverse forms like moving about freely, interacting and mingling with fellow human beings, any such conduct to carry on functions and activities of a human character.

Right Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Sexual Harassment of women has been held by the Supreme Court to be a violation of the most cherished of the fundamental rights, namely, the Right to Life contained in Art. 21.

In this context as observed in a judgement by the Supreme Court – “The meaning and content of fundamental right guaranteed in the constitution of India are of sufficient amplitude to encompass all facets of gender equality including prevention of sexual harassment or abuse.”

In the Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court declared sexual harassment of a working woman at her work as amounting to violation of rights of gender equality and rights to life and liberty and amounts to clear violation of Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution. In the landmark judgment, Supreme Court in the absence of an enacted law to provide for effective enforcement of basic human rights of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment laid down the Vishakha guidelines to secure to safety of women at workplace.

Right Against Rape

Rape has been held to a violation of a person’s fundamental right to live a life of dignity, that makes life meaningful and worth living.

As held by the Supreme Court in Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Subhra Chakraborty – Rape is not only a crime against the a woman (victim), it is also a crime against the entire society. It destroys the entire psychology of a woman and pushes her into deep emotional crises. The victim, only by her sheer will power decides to rehabilitate herself in society, but on society on the otherhand coming to know of  her as a victim of rape looks down upon her. Rape, is a crime against the basic human right to live a dignified life – worthy and meaningful of living.

Right to Reputati

Right to live a reputed life, maintains one reputation also comes under the purview of a dignified life.

As held by the Court in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Public Concern of Governance Trust –  good reputation was an element of personal security and was protected by the constitution, equally with the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty and property.

Furthermore, it has been held that the right equally covers the reputation of a person during and even after his death. Thus, any wrong action of the state or agencies that sullies the reputation of a virtuous person certainly comes under the scope of Art. 21.

Right to Shelter

The right to shelter has been held to be a fundamental right which springs from the right to residence secured in article 19(1)(e) and the right to life guaranteed by article 21. To make the right meaningful to the poor, the state has to provide facilities and opportunities to build houses.U.P. Avas Vikas Parishad v. Friends Coop. Housing Society Limited.

Thus, The right to life embodies the right to food, the right to clothing, the right to decent environment and a reasonable accommodation to live in. It is not about bare protection of thee body but also includes an environment for growth in every aspect -physical, mental and intellectual. However, it does not mean that every citizen must be ensured of living in a well-built comfortable house with all housing utilities.

Right to Livelihood

The Supreme Court in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, popularly known as the “Pavement Dwellers Case” a five judge bench of the Court now implied that ‘right to livelihood’ is borne out of the ‘right to life’, as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of Livelihood. That the court in this case observed that:

“The sweep of right to life conferred by Art.21 is wide and far reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect if the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.”

Furthermore, if the right to livelihood is not treated as a part and parcel of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.

In the instant case, the court further opined, the State does not have a compulsory obligation to provide adequate means of livelihood or work to a citizen. However, any person, deprived of his right to livelihood except according to just and fair procedure established by law can challenge the deprivation as offending the right to life conferred in Article 21.

Depriving a person from his right to livelihood, you shall have deprived him of his life.

Right to Social Security and Protection of Family

Right to life covers within its ambit the right to social security and protection of family . The right to social and economic justice is a fundamental base to live a dignified life.

Murlidhar Dayandeo Kesekar v. Vishwanath Pande Barde, it was held that right to economic empowerment of poor, disadvantaged and oppressed dalits was a fundamental right to make their right of life and dignity of person meaningful.

Right against honor killing

Dishonor to the  family for marrying  inter caste or inter community marriage and killing of the married couple, the court  held the  practice of “honor killing” a blot on society and therefore, directed the police to take strong measures, against people committing the crime of ‘honor killing’. [Surjit Kumar v. State of U.P]

Right to Health

The Supreme Court in Vincent v. Union of India, emphasized that a healthy body is the very foundation of all human activities. Art.47, in this regard lays stress note on improvement of public health and prohibition of drugs injurious to health as one of primary duties of the state.

Right to Medical care

In the Parmananda Katara v. Union of India, the Supreme Court, specifically clarified that preservation of life is of paramount importance, as life once lost cannot come back.

Doctors (government or private) are under a professional obligation to provide medical aid an injured person to preserve his life. No legal formalities need police compilation. Article 21 casts the obligation on the state to preserve life of an innocent as well as a criminal. Therefore, it goes with the meaning of protection of the innocent and punishment of the guilty.

Right to pollution free water and air

Right to live is a fundamental right under Art 21 of the Constitution and it includes the right of enjoyment of pollution free water and air for full enjoyment of life. Furthermore, if anything endangers or impairs that quality of life in derogation of laws, a citizen has right to have recourse to Art.32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or air which may be detrimental to the quality of life. [Subhas Kumar v. State of Bihar]

Right to clean environment

Maintenance of health, preservation of the sanitation and environment fall within the purview of Article 21 as it adversely affects the life of the citizens and it amounts to slow poisoning and reducing the life of the citizens because of the hazards created if not checked.

  • M.C. Mehta v. Union of India(1988), the Supreme Court ordered closure of tanneries that were polluting water.
  •  Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, the Court  issued several directions to deal with the environmental problems caused by tanneries for polluting water resources, rivers, canals, underground water and agricultural land.
  • Moreover, in the Milk Men Colony Vikas Samiti v. State Of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court held that the „right to life‟ means clean surrounding which lead to healthy body and mind. It includes right to freedom from stray cattle and animals in urban areas.

Right to Information

The right to life has reached new dimensions and urgency.

If democracy had to function effectively, people must have the right to know and to obtain the conduct of affairs of the State. [R.P. Ltd. v. Proprietors Indian Express Newspapers, Bombay Pvt. Ltd, Supreme Court]

  • Essar Oil Ltd. v. Halar Utkarsh Samiti, the Supreme Court said that there was a strong link between Art.21 and Right to know, particularly where “secret government decisions may affect health, life and livelihood.

Thus, the right to life has reached new dimensions and urgency.

No right to die

The article of Right to Life does not confer on a person the right to commit suicide.

Right to life’ is a natural right embodied in Article 21 but suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and, therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of right to life!

Euthanasia and Right to Life

Euthanasia is termination of life of person who is terminally ill or in a permanent vegetative state. Case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court has distinguished between Euthanasia and attempt to commit suicide. The court held, death due to termination of natural life as certain and imminent and the process of natural death has commenced. These are not cases of extinguishing life but only of accelerating conclusion of the process of natural death that has already commenced.

This may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out. However, the right to life does not mean to right to die an unnatural death curtailing a persons natural life span.

Sentence of death –Rarest of rare cases

The Supreme Court had held that death penalty was not violative of articles 14, 19 and 21 [Jagmohan v. State of U.P]

Moreover, Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, the leading case of on the question, a constitution bench of the supreme court explained that article 21 recognized the right of the state to deprive a person of his life in accordance with just, fair and reasonable procedure established by a valid law. Death penalty for the offence of murder awarded under section 302 of I.P.C did not violate the basic feature of the constitution.


The Article prohibits the deprivation of the above rights except according to a procedure established by law. Therfore, Article 21 corresponds to the Magna Carta of 1215, the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution, Article 40(4) of the Constitution of Eire 1937, and also Article XXXI of the Constitution of Japan, 1946.

Article 21 applies to natural persons. The right is available to every person, citizen or alien. Thus, even a foreigner can claim this right. It, however, does not entitle a foreigner the right to reside and settle in India, as mentioned in Article 19 (1) (e).

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