COVID-19 and Violation of Rights

During the Covid-19 pandemic, countries around the world are implementing repressive means and methods to curb the spread and keep the situation under control. It is true that no nation was prepared for this sudden outbreak and the rules and regulations imposed aim at protecting the citizens from the health hazard.  For a country with a population of around 1.3 billion, India faced decisions made in haste which ideally may have promised commendable results but pragmatically ended in overlooking some basic human rights. The fight with the pandemic took a burdensome turn when methods were implemented not recognizing that India is not a developed country yet.

Migrant Workers

The pandemic witnessed loss of livelihood on a huge scale. India is home to a large number of daily-wage workers who lost their livelihood with no food, water or shelter. Thousands of workers were left stranded due to shut down of all transportation services including buses, trains, etc. For a country which is so densely packed, the protection of population from the health hazard may just end up in creating another one. The malnutrition of workers and laborers will accelerate their problems to deal with the basic health rights with the non-supply of the essentials.

Partha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik, who work for the Centre for Policy Research, one of India’s leading think tanks, wrote in a commentary piece in The Indian Express:

“Field studies have consistently claimed short-term labor mobility in India was significant. The past week has seen emphatic validation of these claims as highways across the country have been pedestrianized. In its callous haste, the Union government, when it announced the lockdown did not think through how migrants, caught unaware, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, would respond. Now they know.”[1]

Migrant workers in India form 80% of the Indian Workforce who move from their villages and towns to big cities to avail better opportunities of work and earn for their living. With the initial announcement of the 21-day lockdown, movement of the workers from the cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai back to their villages was witnessed in large numbers in this scorching heat. With bag packs on their shoulders and biscuits to survive the day, a large number of people were seen subjected to strict police regulations. Migrant Workers in the states of Delhi and Jharkhand did not possess the BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards due to absence of any permanent address which made the supply of food all the more difficult for them.

It would be not right to say that the government didn’t take any steps to facilitate the well-being of these workers, but it somewhere failed to keep a track of and assure whether or not the workers truly acknowledged the schemes so launched for them and availed benefit from them.

  • The Supreme Court of India issued directions to regulate the medicinal conditions of these migrants and look into their requirements.
  • The Home Ministry asked the states to formulate schemes because the migrant workers might be prone to not only physical but psychological stress during these situations.
  • Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also gave directions to states on how to look after the psychological health of these workers.
  • Appointment of trained counselors in the relief camps was initiated to look after these workers and provide them with the basic medical help.
  • The Kerala and Rajasthan State Governments have permitted a few ‘Shramik’ special trains for the migrant workers to reach their home.

A survey conducted by Jan Sahas (Indian non-profit organization) revealed a radical image of the ignorance of the need for information about the pandemic emergency policies to reach these migrant workers. Where 62% of the workers did not possess any information and knowledge about the welfare schemes so implemented, 36% lacked knowledge on how to access the same.

It cannot be ignored that the workers ended up taking violent steps to put before their demands. Over a thousand migrant workers were seen protesting outside the Bandra Railway Station in the city of Mumbai on 4th April, 2020 asking the government to arrange for means to send them home. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackerey acknowledged the demand and appealed to the workers to maintain their calm in such a situation while the necessary steps are being taken. An offence of disobedience, rioting and unlawful assembly under Sections 188,148 and 141 of the Indian Penal Code was registered against the unidentified persons later that day. The Big International Exhibition Centre (BIEC) in Bengaluru witnessed protests by thousands of workers belonging to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh demanding transportation facilities to their home on 4th May, 2020. The Bengaluru- Tumakuru highway was blocked for some time when Revenue Minister R Ashok and Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao took notice of the protest and assured that they may be sent to their homes as soon as possible.

A situation as recent as the death of 15 migrant workers in a group of 20 on the Maharashtra’s Aurangabad railway track on 8th May ,2020 while they were heading towards their home in Madhya Pradesh highlights how these workers are ignorant of the measures that the government has taken to ease their return , ‘Shramik’ trains being one of them.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Development Guarantee Act, 2005 aims at providing at social security to the Indian labor. It’s time that the scope of this act is expanded to bring social justice in the form of payment of the pending wages for these workers. Rural workers and agricultural workers are facing loss in the harvest season and the government must take initiatives to save the produce.

The marginalized sector was not on the priority list of the Government while implementing orders and this is quite evident but for a country that is built by the same workers, a pragmatic institutionalization of the schemes was the bare minimum that could have been granted.

Assault and Discrimination

The guidelines issued by the Government were implemented a little over the board by policemen in different parts of the country. Where the situation demands strict implementation of the guidelines, harassment and abuse under the veil of implementation was quite witnessed in some places.

Stigmatization of people and vigilant violence has concerned the Human Rights issues in the pandemic.

  • The Maharashtra and Karnataka governments failed practicality while making the names of the people diagnosed with Covid-19 positive getting them exposed to public assault.
  • The Maharashtra Government went on in stamping their hands with inedible ink increasing the risk all the more.
  • Homes of people kept in quarantine were marked in the states of Delhi, Chandigarh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Health workers and airline staff are being threatened with eviction due to people’s fear that they might be carriers of the virus. It is sad that the doctors and nurses who are working day and night to help the nation fight the unwanted outbreak are facing stigmatization, discrimination and threats.

The usage of Aadhar Card as biometric authentication for the distribution of essentials including food and medicine had led to discriminations based on caste and religion in many parts of the country. The Muslim Community displaced by communal violence in Delhi needs urgent supply of essentials which are being denied due to racism in distribution.

The Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, People’s Health Movement wrote a letter to the National Minister of Health saying,

The authorities in India should take all necessary steps to ensure that everyone has access to food and medical care, and that the poor and marginalized are not mistreated or stigmatized. The Indian government’s responsibility to protect its people from the outbreak should not come at the cost of human rights violations.”[2]

When some measures are implemented in a country, the Government must keep in mind that these measures don’t turn out to be reactionary and arbitrary. It is not denied that the situation needed immediate solution in frame to prevent health hazards but every enforcement needed to be viewed pragmatically and enforced in the same god faith it was formulated.

Healthcare Rights

Article 25(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” and Article 7(b) of the ICESCR assures safe and healthy working conditions which were cited by the Supreme Court in the discussion of Right to Health for workers. These covenants find statutory acceptance in the Statement of Objects and Reasons of The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. The Supreme Court has also held that the right to live with human dignity, consecrated in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guaranteeing the fundamental right to protection of life and personal liberty, includes protection of health too.

Health has been identified as an integral part of Right to life and therefore the Supreme Court recognizes the need for the State Government to provide timely medical facilities at hospitals failing to do which can result in the violation of the citizen’s right to life. In the same way, the Court has also recognized the State’s obligation to maintain the health services. Public interest petitions can be filed under Article 21 of the Constitution to respond to the violation of the right to health.

The pandemic brought the need to strengthen the public healthcare system in light. India does not spend more than 2% of its GDP on its healthcare facilities but the pandemic is recognized as an opportunity to redefine the trust of people in the public healthcare facilities. About 65 % of the total healthcare expenditure (2.5% of GDP) is borne privately by the households. The pandemic demands a thoughtful approach when it is dealt with in terms of surveillance and warnings prior to the situations ending up out of control. It is time that India denotes a greater part of its GDP towards the health care facilities to rebuild credence.

There have been cases reported of people escaping the hospitals or the quarantine shelters reason being their lack of trust in the public healthcare system. The fear of isolation and stigmatization has also triggered these escapes in the past few weeks. An over-stretched public healthcare system serves as an impetus to drive towards the unregulated private healthcare system. Stigma has aggravated the problem in the country where people end up blaming themselves for their disease through messaging. The wish to live with their families and the fear of no income is making people not prioritize the need for isolation and social distancing in such a situation. “Stigmatization hampers persons from coming forward. The messaging should be emphasizing that most persons would recover, but since there is a small risk, one should take some extra precautions to keep safe. Those who recover would be the greatest corona-warriors for the community”, says Sundararaman Thiagarajan, Global Coordinator of People’s Health Movement.

Through the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), the government had ordered five lakh rapid antibody test kits from Chinese firm Guangzhou Wondfo on March 27. However, the government cancelled the order of the kits which were reportedly sold at an inflated price by Real Metabolics, the Indian distributor. The government also claimed that these kits were not as efficient as they expected and hence suggested the state governments and hospitals to stop using them. The Covid-19 test pricing Rs.4500 was objected by the citizens when the idea to make the testing free was proposed with the reimbursement counter-part to be dealt with at a later stage. However, with its amendment on April 14, the Court restricted the ambit of free tests to only people under the ‘Ayushman Bharat’ scheme while allowing the private labs to charge the rest as before. The situation is worse for the healthcare officials who are not provided with the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The Supreme Court, in its landmark judgment of Consumer Education & Research Centre (CERC) and others v. Union of India and others[3], [1995 SCC 3] held that “the compelling necessity to work in an industry exposed to health hazards due to indigence to bread-winning for himself and his dependents should not be at the cost of health and vigor of the workman” while enforcing Right to Health for workers working in a hazardous industry. Covid-19 makes the healthcare workers fall under the contours laid down in the CERC judgment, thereby making the lack of PPE a grave violation of the Fundamental Rights of the healthcare workers.

There is urgent requirement for the State Governments to fund the hospitals and install necessary mechanisms to aid the check-ups in large numbers. This is not expected to be done overnight but faster formulation of policies and their implementation is important. The right to health derives from the Directive Principles of State policy and henceforth it is their duty to provide protection of health.

[1] Migrant Workers distrust a State that does not take them into account by Partho Mukhopadhyay, 31st March 2020.

[2] Statement on post-3rd May 2020 measures against Covid-19 Pandemic,

[3] Consumer Education & Research Centre (CERC) and others v. Union of India and others (1995 SCC 3)

Shailza Agarwal from Symbiosis Law School, Noida

You can find her here

editor: vatsala sood

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