This case was the famous landmark case named Olga Tellis v. Bombay municipality corporation (1985)[1] The Olga Tellis case considered as one of the important case in judicial history. In the case, the court gave the fundamental right on ‘Right to livelihood”. If we say in two lines, this case emerged when Bombay municipality went to slum and pavement dwellings to remove slums, the dwellers approached the Bombay high court and high court gave interim relief, despite the interim relief, the dwellings were removed and dwellers forcibly deported to their home towns.

Against this the dwellers approached Supreme court with the help journalist and social activists and one of the journalist was Olga tellis.

Read the entire backstory of this case, here

In this article, we will discuss the reasoning and thoughts of the court upon which the court propounded the right to livelihood and declared that right to life also includes right to livelihood.

Reference to the case

In the case, an argument put forwarded by the petitioners’ counsel that the eviction of pavement and slum dweller will lead, in a vicious circle, to the deprivation of their employment, their livelihood and, therefore, to the right to life.

The attention of the court drawn to an extract from the judgment of Douglas J in Baksey v. Board of Regents, in which the learned Judge said:

“The right to work I have assumed was the most precious liberty that man possesses. Man has indeed, as much right to work as he has to live, to be free and to own property. To work means to eat and it also means to live.”

The right to live and the right to work are integrated and interdependent and, therefore, if a person is deprived of his job as a result of his eviction from a slum or a pavement, his very right to life is put in jeopardy. It is urged that the economic compulsions under which these persons are forced to live in slums or on pavements impart to their occupation the character of a fundamental rights.

Whether the right to life includes the right to livelihood.

The court was of the opinion that it does. The sweep of the right to life conferred by Article 21 is wide and far reaching. Article 21 provides-

“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

It does not mean merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of the death sentence, except according to procedure established by law.

That is but one aspect of the right to life. An equally important facet of that right is the right to livelihood because, no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood.

What if the right to life does not include right to livelihood?

The court made an important observation that If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation. Such deprivation would not only denude the life of its effective content and meaningfulness but it would make life impossible to live. And yet, such deprivation would not have to be in accordance with the procedure established by law, if the right to livelihood is not regarded as a part of the right to life.

That, which alone makes it possible to live, leave aside what makes life liveable, must be deemed to be an integral component of the right to life. Deprive a person of his right to livelihood and you shall have deprived him of his life.

Indeed, that explains the massive migration of the rural population to big cities. They migrate because they have no means of livelihood in the villages. The motive force which people their desertion of their hearths and homes in the village is that struggle for survival, that is, the struggle for life. So unimpeachable is the evidence of the nexus between life and the means of livelihood. They have to eat to live: Only a handful can afford the luxury of living to eat. That they can do, namely, eat, only if they have the means of livelihood.

That is the context in which it was said by Douglas J. in Baksey that the right to work is the most precious liberty because, it sustains and enables a man to live and the right to life is a precious freedom. “Life”, as observed by Field, J. in Munn v. Illinois, (1877) 94 U.S. 113, means something more than mere animal existence and the inhibition against the deprivation of life extends to all those limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed. This observation was quoted with approval by this Court in Kharak Singh v. The State of U.P., [1964] 1 S.C.R. 332.

Constitutional Provision in support of right to livelihood

Article 39(a) of the Constitution, which is a Directive Principle of State Policy, provides that the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood.

Article 41, which is another Directive Principle, provides, inter alia, that the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work in cases of unemployment and of undeserved want.

Article 37 provides that the Directive Principles, though not enforceable by any court, are nevertheless fundamental in the governance of the country.

The court said that the Principles contained in Articles 39 (a) and 41 must be regarded as equally fundamental in the understanding and interpretation of the meaning and content of fundamental rights.

If there is an obligation upon the State to secure to the citizens an adequate means of livelihood and the right to work, it would be sheer pedantry to exclude the right to livelihood from the content of the right to life.

The State may not, by affirmative action, be compellable to provide adequate means of livelihood or work to the citizens. But, any person, who is deprived of his right to livelihood except according to just and fair procedure established by law, can challenge the deprivation as offending the right to life conferred by Article 21.

The consequence to snatch the right of livelihood

The landless labourers, who constitute the bulk of the village population, are deeply imbedded in the mire of poverty. It is due to these economic pressures that the rural population is forced to migrate to urban areas in search of employment. The affluent and the not-so-affluent are alike in search of domestic servants. Industrial and Business Houses pay a fair wage to the skilled workman that a villager becomes in course of time. Having found a job, even if it means washing the pots and pans, the migrant sticks to the big city. If driven out, he returns in quest of another job.

The cost of public sector housing is beyond his modest means and the less we refer to the deals of private builders the better for all; excluding none. Added to these factors is the stark reality of growing insecurity in villages on account of the tyranny of parochialism and casteism.

It is estimated that about 200 to 300 people enter Bombay every day in search of employment. These facts constitute empirical evidence to justify the conclusion that persons in the position of petitioners live in slums and on pavements because they have small jobs to nurse in the city and there is nowhere else to live. Evidently, they choose a pavement or a slum in the vicinity of their place of work, the time otherwise taken in commuting and its cost being forbidding for their slender means.

To loss the pavement or the slum is to lose the job. The conclusion, therefore in terms of the constitutional phraseology is that the eviction of the petitioners will lead to deprivation of their livelihood and consequently to the deprivation of life.


Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation; 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51

[1] : 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51