The public health challenge confronting novel Covid-19 has triggered a massive
and widespread humanitarian crisis in the country. It's been 125 days that
Covid-19 first hit Wuhan and today no country seems to be left unaffected by
this deadly virus. In reference to India, from a constitutional perspective, the
response to Covid-19 has affected or to some extent abrogated basic fundamental
rights guaranteed by the constitution of India.
These rights are basic minimum for thriving life with dignity and integrity. But due to an unprecedented attack of virus, vulnerability of these rights has been exposed. With the expanding horizons of right to life, the fundamental rights that are affected by Covid-19 are right to health, shelter, food, dignity, speedy trial. Right to trade, form assembly, movement, religion and education are also impaired. Covid-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to these constitutional rights.
Uncertainties in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak have the most obvious and immediate effect on the Right to health. What sets the current crisis apart is that Public health is not only hit by novel coronavirus but is also in danger due to the immediate effect of quarantine life. One of the disconcerting outcomes of the lockdown life is that people are not able to resort to the doctors in the regular course of their life which jeopardizes their Right to Health. What concerns here is that people suffering from diseases like cancer and tuberculosis had to discontinue their sessions. Indeed, Coronavirus has led to complexities in building a society less vulnerable to disease and devastation.
Migrant workers are the most affected and vulnerable community, constantly bearing inhumane wrath of Covid-19. Miseries and distress of migrant workers worsened by Covid-19, compelled them to abandon their place of abode and leave for their hometown, rupturing their right to shelter. The catastrophic impact of Covid-19 does not stop here. Due to the reasonable restriction imposed on the right to movement within the country during the lockdown, these migrant workers in absence of paid work, had become inept in meeting necessary expenses of accommodation. The situation obligated them to walk miles, hungry and thirsty to reach their places. The recent accident of Aurangabad railways whereby 15 migrant workers were ran over by the goods train highlights the vulnerable attribute of non execution of right to shelter. It also affects their Right to dignified life.
Statistically, India is already lagging in terms of nutrition and nourishment. Right to food is another fundamental right grossly affected by the pandemic. Its barbaric and non-discriminatory attack on people of the country has exacerbated the situation of malnutrition and deficiency of food. Imposition of lockdown prevents timely availability of food to the needy, thereby depriving them of food and compelling poor sections to beseech. However, the Central and the State governments have collaborated with each other to prevent the situation of Famine. The Non Profit organizations are also intermittently working within their capabilities to ensure that no person sleeps empty stomach.
Following the closure of all education institutions, the right to education has also been affected severely. There is a momentary loss of learning and developmental opportunities for millions of children across the country. Webinar as an alternative has become a powerful tool to deal with the situation. However, the implications of the lockdown are leading to disparity in imparting education through webinar whereby the marginalized children are at greater risks due to their non access to the internet and non availability of smartphones or laptops.
Covid-19 crises imposed wholesale restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Right to assemble peacefully is a fundamental pre-requisite for any open and self governing society. To incentivize economic activities, the State of Uttar Pradesh, Gujrat and Madhya Pradesh suspended operation of Labor laws.
These labor laws provide potent weapons in the hands of the labor class to demonstrate their grievances by protesting under the garb of the trade union. However, with suspension of labor laws, trade unions are no more in existence.
Owing to pandemic, their right to peaceful protest which forms an essential attribute of right to freedom of speech and expression and right to assemble will also be hampered and eventually, labor grievances will go unredressed. In addition to that, guidelines issued to maintain social distancing by the government allowing not more than 50 people at wedding and not more than 20 people in the last rites of deceased persons. Thus, restrictions on peaceful gatherings in order to tame Covid-19 affects the very freedom to assemble.
One of the important legal issues all through the lockdown is Fundamental right to religion enshrined in the Constitution of India. All forms of social gatherings are forbidden including restrictions on religious gatherings in temples, churches and mosques leading to infringement of the right. Expedition to holy places such hajj to Mecca Medina and yatra to Amarnath and kailash Mansarovar are also forbidden. However, such restrictions are reasonable as the right is not absolute and subject to Public order, morality and health and to other provisions of Part III of the Constitution.
Right to Speedy trial is another fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of India which is a foundational norm to realize justice within time. However, our response to Covid-19 has put this right under imminent threat as justice delayed is justice denied. Due to Covid-19, courts are not working with full efficiency resulting in piling of pending cases and thereby increasing burden upon already overburdened courts.
However, hon'ble Supreme Court and different High Courts of India have adopted Video conferencing to hear the petition but this facility has been restricted to the cases of urgent nature. Similarly, the district courts are also taking up only urgent matters during the lockdown. Therefore, the need of the hour would be to bring about appropriate changes and modifications in judicial mechanism to ensure speedy trial at every level in the hierarchy of courts with the combination of knowledge and digitalization i.e., artificial intelligence.
The economic cost of shutting down the entire nation under lockdown is going to be steep. The right to trade is one more fundamental right which is not in force during lockdown. As estimated by IMF, the aggressive lockdown imposed in order to inhibit the impact of pandemic could bring the country's growth down to 1.9% from 4.8% as it had earlier estimated.
While the country is facing an unprecedented crisis, the public health emergency requires the response with saving lives at its priority. Under these exceptional circumstances, there's no other way out but to take up extraordinary measures such as extensive lockdown in the country whereby it becomes significant to restrict the basic fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and deduced by judicial activism, to mitigate the unintended consequences of pandemic. Truth we are experiencing today is way more startling than a fiction. The fundamental rights are the basic human rights, the existence of which is only confirmed by the constitution.
The Supreme Court accords them protection to do good to the people of India. However, the public health crisis caused by the pandemic is turning into an economic and social crisis with fundamental rights crisis rolled into one. As the going gets tougher, everyone will need to hold onto a silver lining. When the pandemic is over and the Corona virus is tamed, lessons from this human crisis will be learned for a peaceful and more inclusive future, anticipating the basic fundamental rights will be addressed.
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