Right To Liberty And Duty During COVID-19 Pandemic

“Real Rights are a result of the performance of duty” – Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly created havoc not only in India but the entire world. It nearly made the world “shut down” temporarily. The nation did not truly fathom the intensity of the rapid spread of coronavirus until Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 21 days nationwide lockdown on the evening of 24th March 2020. A set of stringent lockdown measures like the closing of government offices and commercial and industrial establishments, termination of transport services, etc were imposed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.  The lockdown did last for much longer than the 21 days duration that was decided but with that came numerous other problems and struggles that the citizens had to endure and get through. A “complete lockdown” was never anticipated by the citizens of this country, but it felt like the need of the hour in spite of having an endless list of repercussions on numerous sectors of the economy.

Effects of the COVID-19 led Lockdown

This catastrophic event has had a ravaging impact on India. Due to a rapid spike in cases, it became absolutely necessary to shut down all kinds of educational institutions. Places of worship were shut to the public and for quite a few months there was a complete ban on having social gatherings even in the comforts of one’s home. Social distancing was highly encouraged. Although these measures were implemented in order to curb the rampant spread of the virus, a particular class of people seemed to have been hit by the unfortunate consequences of the lockdown. The said class consisted of low-wage earners, lower-middle-class population and less educated workers. Unemployment seemed to have been an inevitable consequence of the first nationwide lockdown. With daily wage earners losing their jobs at midnight, the country was facing a migrant crisis. The lockdown was implemented to ensure that people stay “safe” within the walls of their homes. On the contrary, this was an absolute nightmare for those who would face domestic violence, sexual and mental abuse at the hands of their family members. Being “safe” felt like a far-fetched dream for these women.

Right to Liberty amidst COVID-19: Hampered or not?

The pandemic has been nothing less than a battle between individual liberty and social responsibility. The lockdown involved restrictions upon various civil liberties that are guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution. These include restrictions upon the freedom of movement, freedom to carry out one’s profession, trade or occupation of choice, and freedom to reside in any part of the country. In the case of Burrabazar Fire Works Dealers Association and Others v Commissioner of Police, Calcutta[1] it was held that Article 19 (1) (g) that talks about the “right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business” does not guarantee any freedom which is at the cost of the community’s safety, health and peace.

The usage of the phrase “interest of general public” in Article 19(5) and Article 19(6) has made it possible to impose such restrictions on the freedoms discussed above. Some may argue that the freedom guaranteed under Article 19(1) is to be preserved, otherwise, it would unleash tyranny in India. Although this argument is partly correct, given the present times, preserving the right to life envisaged in Article 21 of the constitution is of utmost importance. This does not indicate that the Right to freedom guaranteed under the constitution is to be deserted, it simply indicates that it must be restricted only if it is for the greater good of the nation and its citizens. Also, the population of India plays a very big role in imposing a lockdown. Therefore, this material fact must be taken into consideration while discussing the restriction placed on various freedoms guaranteed under Article 19(1). Furthermore, it is common knowledge that most nations had imposed lockdown during the initial stage of the pandemic. Therefore, imposing certain restrictions on the liberty of the citizen amidst this catastrophic event is nothing more than a necessity.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to life and liberty. An underlying right in Article 21 is the Right to Health. In State of Punjab & Ors v Mohinder Singh Chawla[2], the Supreme Court proclaimed that the right to health is fundamental to the right to life and should be put on record that the government had a constitutional obligation to provide health services.  This clears the air around the argument regarding the restrictions imposed by the government are unreasonable. This is because the restrictions are partially reasonable as it is just an effort taken by the governments and authorities at various levels to preserve the “Right to Health” while ensuring the least damage to other freedoms ensured by the Constitution. Although this argument is subjective, it can be argued that at present time, India has been drastically hit by the coronavirus, therefore, it becomes the duty of the government to give the “Right to Health” of its citizens more prominence.

Duties of the citizens towards the community amidst the pandemic

Yet again in 2021, India has been hit by the second wave of coronavirus. Consequently, as citizens, it is our duty to comply with every guideline, direction or protocol that is being issued in order to curb the coronavirus. By taking simple measures, we are not only serving and doing ourselves a favor but are also helping the community as a whole to tackle this life-threatening virus. In order to aid the citizens, perform this duty, the Ministry of Health and family welfare has laid down a few steps for the citizens to follow in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

1. Wearing a Mask

It is advisable to wear a mask while going out or whenever necessary. The mask must cover the mouth and nose. Replacing the mask is equally important and removal of the mask must be done without touching the front area of the mask. One must wear a mask if exhibiting any symptoms associated with the virus.

2. Social Distancing

It is extremely essential to make sure that social distancing is being followed at all times. A recommended distance of 6 feet is to be maintained. Notwithstanding this, the citizens should try to avoid crowded places in order to lessen their chances of contracting the virus.

3. Respiratory Hygiene

Practicing good and adequate respiratory hygiene may not just save your own life, but may also help in saving someone else’s life. Respiratory hygiene helps in curbing the transmission of infection to others. One should cover their nose and mouth when sneezing and/or coughing with a tissue. Practicing hand hygiene post coughing or sneezing is equally important. One must avoid going back to work or stay away from others when ill. Handshakes and close contact with people who exhibit symptoms must be avoided.

4. Hand Hygiene

As unimportant as it sounds, hand hygiene plays a key role in helping prevent respiratory diseases. It is recommended to wash hands with soap for not less than 40-60 seconds. While using an alcohol-based sanitizer, it is suggested to rub the sanitizer between the hands for at least 20 seconds.

5. Self-Isolation

If one displays the symptoms of the virus, they must seek medical advice and get self-isolated accordingly. Even during self-isolation, adequate measures must be taken by the infected person as well as those who are in close contact with the infected person. This proves beneficial in avoiding the transmission by the infected person to other family members.

6. Prompt Testing

If exhibiting any symptoms, one must not shy away from getting tested for coronavirus.

Not only must one follow the above-mentioned measures, but also stay updated with the latest news on the spread of the virus. Being a vigilant citizen might go a long way and would help in preventing further spread. With the introduction of the vaccine, every citizen must make sure to get themselves vaccinated. This may help in prevent community spread and help in getting the rampant spread under control. It can be said that by following these small steps, every citizen is playing a major role in this fight against COVID-19.

Duties of the citizens with reference to Provisions in the Constitution

In April 2020, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court stated that Fundamental Duties should not be side-lined, they are to be considered as important as the citizens’ Fundamental rights. The court seemed to have raised a fairly valid point and has drawn our attention to the significant role every citizen plays towards curbing the coronavirus and restoring the country back to normalcy.

Although Fundamental Rights were imbibed in Part III of the Constitution of India since its enactment, Fundamental Duties were not added to the Constitution until the 42nd amendment in the form of insertion of Article 51 A. The Constitution lacks a provision for the strict enforcement of these Fundamental duties. Nonetheless, it is the duty of every citizen to oblige by certain underlying duties. Since the essence of all the basic directions issued by the government with reference to the current COVID-19 pandemic fall within the ambit of these Fundamental Duties, it is necessary to study these in reference to the pandemic.

1. Article 51-A (d)

Article 51-A(d) states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so.” It is of grave importance to note that in the present context, the phrase “defend the country” does not necessarily mean defending the nation against a physical war fought on the border. In fact, COVID-19 can be referred to as nothing less than a war upon the human race as the coronavirus has proved to be lethal. India, precisely, has faced around 3.5 lakh deaths and has had around 2.9 Cr cases to date. Hence, this section can be invoked as taking necessary precautions like staying at home unless it is ineluctable can be a simple and effortless way of helping the nation tackle this war against COVID-19.

2. Article 51-A (h)

Article 51-A (h) states that “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. The citizens have been recommended to wear a mask at all times while visiting a public place or while simply going out and about and are being advised to follow social distancing due to the repercussions the society or community as a whole may face due to the deadly effects of not complying by these directions. These directions have been issued only after doing extensive scientific research about the causes and consequences of this deadly virus. Therefore, it is the duty of every citizen to comply with these basic directions as it is for the larger good of the community.

Duties of the State with reference to Provisions in the Constitution

The Constitution of India, both explicitly as well as implicitly, deals with duties of the citizens as well as the State during such a situation as well as highlights the underlying rights imbibed in certain Articles of the Constitution.

1. Article 47

Article 47 of the Indian Constitution enunciates the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health. Article 47 states “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” Therefore, it is an obligation of the state to take necessary measures to secure the health of its people. Therefore, in order to execute this duty, it is indispensable for the State to regulate all kinds of social and religious events to prevent the spread of the virus. Apart from the State, it is the duty of every individual to regulate his/her conduct and make sure that their behaviour does not worsen the current state.

2. Article 21

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution expounds upon the Right to life and personal liberty of a person. Article 21 states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Article 21 is a fundamental right guaranteed to the citizens as well as non-citizens, but due imposition of this fundamental right, it becomes the rightful duty of the state to ensure the citizens are not deprived of this Right to life at any expense. As stated before, the Right to life includes the “Right to Health”. Amidst the current pandemic, it is more than essential for the governments of every nation to do everything in their power to protect the life of their citizens and preserving the Right to health. Hence, it becomes a duty of the State to ensure that its people are not deprived of this right. In order to do so, the government may come up with certain guidelines (as discussed above) and it would be beneficial for the citizens to oblige by the necessary protocol if it is made keeping in mind the welfare of the people.

It is noteworthy that Article 47 gives due regard to the improvement of public health and Article 21 stresses the Right to life of people. In my opinion, it is safe to say that in the current time of need, the two Articles could be read together, only so to ensure the safety and well-being of the citizens.

Conclusion

The battle against the ongoing fight against tackling COVID-19 seems incessant. In spite of that, with the cooperation of the civilians and the government, the fight against coronavirus could be won. As rightly stated in the case of Javed v State of Haryana[3], “Fundamental rights are not to be read in isolation. They have to be read along with the Chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy and the Fundamental Duties enshrined in Article 51A.” It is time for the citizens to not only acknowledge their rights but also give utmost importance to their duties as citizens, to ensure the safety of the community as a whole in this lethal outbreak.

References

1. Reporter, COVID-19: Examining the Impact of Lockdown in India after One Year, Last Visited: June 7 2021, 11:35 am, https://www.epw.in/engage/article/covid-19-examining-impact-lockdown-india-after-onehttps://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/differential-impact-of-covid-19-and-the-lockdown/article32416854.ece

2. K A Y Dodhiya, Fundamental duties as important as rights during the Covid-19 pandemic: Bombay HC, Last Updated: April 11, 2020 10:13 AM IST, Last Visited: June 6, 2021, 9:32 pm https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/fundamental-duties-as-important-as-rights-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-hc/story-ojv4FD2a0OFdrRr7hC1MCL.html

3. Chittarvu Raghu, Breach of Fundamental Duties led to spread of Corona, Last Visited: June 9 2020, 12:28 pm https://www.dailypioneer.com/2021/columnists/breach-of-fundamental-duties-led-to-the-spread-of-corona.html

4. Reporter, Guidelines on COVID-19 prevention as declared by Health Ministry, Last Updated: May 18, 2021 16:53 IST, Last Visited: June 8 2020, 10:14 pm Guidelines on Covid-19 prevention as declared by health ministry – Information News (indiatoday.in)

5. Nirad Mudur, We are still under the ‘Crown’, so mind it! Last Updated: 23rd March 2021 05:28 AM Last Visited: June 8 2020, 11:18pm https://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/bengaluru/2021/mar/23/we-are-still-under-the-crown-so-mind-it-2280122.html

[1] AIR 1998 Cal. 121

[2] AIR1997SC 1225

[3] 2003 Latest Caselaw 321 SC

This article has been written by Aayushi Mittra, 3rd Year BLS LL.B student at Pravin Gandhi College of Law.

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