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Meaning & Concept of 'Right to Life'

‘Life’ in Article 21 of the Constitution is not merely the physical act of breathing. It does not connote mere animal existence or continued drudgery through life. It has a much wider meaning which includes the right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to health, right to pollution-free air, etc.

Right to life is fundamental to our very existence without which we cannot live as human beings and includes all those aspects of life, which go to make a man’s life meaningful, complete, and worth living. It is the only article in the Constitution that has received the widest possible interpretation. Under the canopy of Article 21, so many rights have found shelter, growth, and nourishment. Thus, the bare necessities, minimum and basic requirements that are essential and unavoidable for a person is the core concept of the right to life.

In the case of Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court quoted and held that the term “life” as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by amputation of an armored leg or the pulling out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.

In Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court reiterated with the approval of the above observations and held that the “right to life” included the right to lead a healthy life so as to enjoy all faculties of the human body in their prime conditions. It would even include the right to protection of a person’s tradition, culture, heritage, and all that gives meaning to a man’s life. It includes the right to live in peace, to sleep in peace, and the right to repose and health.

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 is not merely a physical right but includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity. Elaborating the same view, the Court in Francis Coralie v. Union Territory of Delhi, observed that: “The right to live includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and mingling with fellow human beings and must include the right to basic necessities the basic necessities of life and also the right to carry on functions and activities as constituting the bare minimum expression of the human self.” 

Right Against Sexual Harassment At Workplace - In Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court has declared sexual harassment of a working woman at her work as amounting to the violation of rights of gender equality and rights to life and liberty which is a clear violation of Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. In the landmark judgment, the Supreme Court in the absence of enacted law to provide for effective enforcement of basic human rights of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment laid down the following guidelines:

  1. All employers or persons in charge of the workplace whether in the public or private sector should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Without prejudice to the generality of this obligation they should take the following steps:
    1. Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above at the workplace should be notified, published, and circulated inappropriate ways.
    2. The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules/regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.
    3. As regards private employers steps should be taken to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
    4. Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health, and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at workplaces and no employee woman should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.
  2. Where such conduct amounts to specific offenses under I.P.C, or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.
  3. The victims of Sexual harassment should have the option to seek transfer of the perpetrator or their own transfer.

Right Against RapeRape has been held to a violation of a person’s fundamental life guaranteed under Art. 21. Right to life right to live with human dignity. Right to life, would, therefore, include all those aspects of life that go on to make life meaningful, complete, and worth living.

In Bodhisattwa Gautam v. Subhra Chakraborty, the Supreme Court held that: “Rape is thus not only a crime against the person of a woman (victim), it is a crime against the entire society. It destroys the entire psychology of a woman and pushed her into deep emotional crises. It is only by her sheer will power that she rehabilitates herself in the society, which, on coming to know of the rape, looks down upon her in derision and contempt. Rape is, therefore, the most hated crime. It is a crime against basic human rights and is also violative of the victim’s most cherished of the fundamental rights, namely, the right to life with human dignity contained in Art 21”.

Right to Reputation Smt. Kiran Bedi v. Committee of Inquiry held that “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. The court affirmed that the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. The court affirmed that the right to the enjoyment of private reputation was of ancient origin and was necessary to human society.”

Right to Livelihood  - In Re Sant Ram the court held: “The right to livelihood would be included in the freedoms enumerated in Art.19, or even in Art.16, in a limited sense. But the language of Art.21 cannot be pressed into the aid of the argument that the word ‘life’ in Art. 21 includes ‘livelihood’ also.”

Right to Shelter - Shantistar Builders v. Narayan Khimalal Totame, the Court held that: “The right to life would take within its sweep the right to food, the right to clothing, the right to decent environment and reasonable accommodation to live in. The difference between the need for an animal and a human being for shelter has to be kept in view." 

“For the animal, it is the bare protection of the body, for a human being it has to be a suitable accommodation, which would allow him to grow in every aspect – physical, mental, and intellectual. The Constitution aims at ensuring the fuller development of every child. That would be possible only if the child is in a proper home. It is not necessary that every citizen must be ensured of living in a well-built comfortable house but a reasonable home, particularly for people in India, can even be a mud-built thatched house or a mud-built fireproof accommodation.”

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