December 4, 2022

Article 21- A magic wand in Indian Constitution

The basic spirit of our Constitution is to provide each and every person of the nation equal opportunity to grow as a human being, irrespective of race, caste, religion, community and social status.

Granville Austin while analyzing the functioning of Indian Constitution in first 50 years has described three distinguished strands of Indian Constitution:

(i) protecting national unity and integrity,

(ii) establishing the institution and spirit of democracy; and

(iii) fostering social reforms.

The Strands are mutually dependent, and inextricably intertwined in what he elegantly describes as a seamless web. And there cannot be social reforms till it is ensured that each and every citizen of this country is able to exploit his/her potentials to the maximum. The Constitution, although drafted by the Constituent Assembly, was meant for the people of India and that is why it is given by the people to themselves as expressed in the opening words We the People. What is the most important gift to the common person given by this Constitution is fundamental rights which may be called Human Rights as well.

Fundamental Rights

The concept of equality in Article 14 so also the meaning of the words life, liberty and law in Article 21 have been considerably enlarged by judicial decisions. Anything which is not reasonable, just and fair is not treated to be equal and is, therefore, violative of Article 14.

Speaking for the vision of our founding fathers, in State of Karnataka v. Rangnatha Reddy[1], this Court speaking through Justice Krishna Iyer observed:

“The social philosophy of the Constitution shapes creative judicial vision and orientation. Our nation has, as its dynamic doctrine, economic democracy sans which political democracy is chimerical. We say so because our Constitution, in Parts III and IV and elsewhere, ensouls such a value system, and the debate in this case puts precisely this soul in peril.

Our thesis is that the dialectics of social justice should not be missed if the synthesis of Parts III and Part IV is to influence State action and court pronouncements. Constitutional problems cannot be studied in a socio-economic vacuum, since socio- cultural changes are the source of the new values, and sloughing off old legal thought is part of the process the new equity loaded legality. A judge is a social scientist in his role as constitutional invigilator and fails functionally if he forgets this dimension in his complex duties.”

Article 21- A magic wand

While interpreting Art. 21, Supreme Court has comprehended such diverse aspects as

  • children in jail entitled to special treatment (Sheela Barse vs. Union of India [(1986)3 SCC 596],
  • health hazard due to pollution (Mehta M.C. v. Union of India [(1987) 4 SCC 463],
  • beggars interest in housing (Kalidas Vs. State of J&K [(1987) 3 SCC 430]
  • health hazard from harmful drugs (Vincent Panikurlangara Vs. Union of India AIR 1987 SC 990),
  • right of speedy trial (Reghubir Singh Vs. State of Bihar, AIR 1987 SC 149),
  • handcuffing of prisoners (Aeltemesh Rein Vs. Union of India, AIR 1988 SC 1768),
  • delay in execution of death sentence, immediate medical aid to injured persons (Parmanand Katara Vs. Union of India, AIR 1989 SC 2039),
  • starvation deaths (Kishen Vs. State of Orissa, AIR 1989 SC 677),
  • the right to know (Reliance Petrochemicals Ltd. Vs. Indian Express Newspapers Bombay Pvt. Ltd. AIR 1989 SC 190),
  • right to open trial (Kehar Singh Vs. State (Delhi Admn.) AIR 1988 SC 1883),
  • inhuman conditions an after-care home (Vikram Deo Singh Tomar Vs. State of Bihar, AIR 1988 SC 1782)

Meeting of Directive Principles with Article 21

A most remarkable feature of this expansion of Art.21 is that many of the non-justiciable Directive Principles embodied in Part IV of the Constitution have now been resurrected as enforceable fundamental rights by the magic wand of judicial activism, playing on Art.21 e.g.

(a) Right to pollution-free water and air (Subhash Kumar Vs. State of Bihar, AIR 1991 SC 420).

(b) Right to a reasonable residence (Shantistar Builders Vs. Narayan Khimalal Totame AIR 1990 SC 630).

(c) protection of cultural heritage (Ram Sharan Autyanuprasi Vs. UOI, AIR 1989 SC 549).

(d) Right of every child to a full development (Shantistar Builders Vs. Narayan Khimalal Totame AIR 1990 SC 630).

(e) Right of residents of hilly-areas to access to roads (State of H.P. Vs. Umed Ram Sharma, AIR 1986 SC 847).

(f) Right to education (Mohini Jain Vs. State of Karnataka, AIR 1992 SC 1858), but not for a professional degree (Unni Krishnan J.P. Vs. State of A.P., AIR 1993 SC 2178).

A positive development

A corollary of this development is that while so long the negative language of Art.21 and use of the word deprived was supposed to impose upon the State the negative duty not to interfere with the life or liberty of an individual without the sanction of law, the width and amplitude of this provision has now imposed a positive obligation upon the State to take steps for ensuring to the individual a better enjoyment of his life and dignity, e.g.

(i) Maintenance and improvement of public health (Vincent Panikurlangara Vs. UOI AIR 1987 SC 990).

(ii) Elimination of water and air pollution (Mehta M.C. Vs. UOI (1987) 4 SCC 463).

(iii) Improvement of means of communication (State of H.P. Vs. Umed Ram Sharma AIR 1986 SC 847).

(iv) Rehabilitation of bonded labourers (Bandhuva Mukti Morcha Vs. UOI, AIR 1984 SC 802).

(v) Providing human conditions if prisons (Sher Singh Vs. State of Punjab AIR 1983 SC 465) and protective homes (Sheela Barse Vs. UOI (1986) 3 SCC 596).

(vi) Providing hygienic condition in a slaughter-house (Buffalo Traders Welfare Ass. Vs. Maneka Gandhi (1994) Suppl (3) SCC 448).

The common golden thread which passes through all these pronouncements is that Art.21 guarantees enjoyment of life by all citizens of this country with dignity, viewing this human rights in terms of human development.

The concepts of justice social, economic and political, equality of status and of opportunity and of assuring dignity of the individual incorporated in the Preamble, clearly recognize the right of one and all amongst the citizens of these basic essentials designed to flower the citizen’s personality to its fullest. The concept of equality helps the citizens in reaching their highest potential.

Thus, the emphasis is on the development of an individual in all respects. The basic principle of the dignity and freedom of the individual is common to all nations, particularly those having democratic set up. Democracy requires us to respect and develop the free spirit of human being which is responsible for all progress in human history. Democracy is also a method by which we attempt to raise the living standard of the people and to give opportunities to every person to develop his/her personality.

It is founded on peaceful co-existence and cooperative living. In fact, there is a growing recognition that the true measure of development of a nation is not economic growth; it is human dignity.


After the Second World War, in the form of U.N.Charter and thereafter there is more emphasis on the attainment of individual perfection. In that united sense at least there is a revival of natural law theory of justice.

Blackstone, in the opening pages in his Vattelian Fashion said that the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature.

In fact, the recognition that every individual has fundamental right to achieve the fullest potential, is founded on the principle that all round growth of an individual leads to common public good. After all, human beings are also valuable asset of any country who contribute to the growth and welfare of their nation and the society.


This article has been taken from the judgment of National Legal Service Authority v. Union of India, (2014)

[1] AIR 1978 SC 215