Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is a plain statement on the right to life guaranteeing that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law; it casts no responsibility on the government on how the person lives his life.
It’s the interpretations and enlargement of the scope of the Article by the Supreme Court that converted a passive statement of protection of life into a humane, active, considerate and enabling piece of legislation that offered everyone the right to live with dignity. The apex court has, over the decades, used this as well as other constitutional provisions to remind the governments of their responsibility to come to the aid of the citizens when they are faced with challenges beyond their means to address.
It is in this background that the Supreme Court on Thursday ordering the Union government to ensure free travel home to guest workers who have been rendered jobless after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown on March 24 becomes a welcome move. It has also directed the railways and state governments to provide them food.
Many would think that the apex court’s intervention has come too late. They would remember the silence of the court when the enormous humanitarian tragedy of millions of Indian citizens, deprived of their jobs, food, shelter and a future, was brought before it in the form of petitions in March, and later in May. The court’s directives then were more in line with the government’s efforts to contain the pandemic by not allowing the guest workers go home than coming to the aid of the most hapless lot of citizens.
Between then and now, this nation witnessed scenes with little parallel after Partition. Dozens lost their lives while trekking home thousands of miles away; they included the aged, women and children. There were instances where pregnant women delivered their babies on road. It was not just the mother her toddler son was trying to wake up at Muzzafarpur railway station in Bihar on Monday but six others lost their lives this week alone on their way home in the Shramik Special trains the railways have arranged for them.
It is sad it took a stinging letter by jurists of eminence to the Supreme Court on its “self-effacing deference” to the executive action to jolt the custodian of our constitutional rights to wake up from the slumber and to see the realities for itself.
The government’s statement that it transported close to one crore people between May 1 and May 27 reflects not on its caring attitude; instead, it demonstrates the utter lack of understanding on the ground realities when it ordered the citizens to remain where they were during the lockdown. The courts need to be more considerate when governments show no such traits. The latest order will hopefully redeem the prestige of the apex court as the citizen’s last resort when the executive fails to deliver its basic responsibilities....