The government of the state of Meghalaya introduced a policy that made it compulsory for individuals to get vaccinated before they resume work. The policy was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Meghalaya in June 2021 on the basis that it violated a myriad of fundamental rights including the right to privacy, right to work, and right to livelihood.
The right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has been given the widest possible interpretation. The Supreme Court of India has held that it includes the right to lead a healthy life and forces a commitment on the State to defend the right to life of every individual. In Vincent Panikurlangara v. Union of India, the Supreme Court opined that the ‘right to maintenance and improvement of public health’ is included in the ‘right to live with human dignity’ enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. It held that a healthy body is the very foundation of all human activities and in a welfare state “maintenance and improvement of public health have to rank high amongst the State’s obligations, as these are indispensable to the very existence of the community.” Thus, since experts worldwide have recognized vaccinations as the only long-term solution to COVID-19, the compulsory vaccine policy was enacted with a legitimate State aim to battle the issue of vaccine hesitancy and protect individual wellbeing. However, it was dismissed on the grounds that compulsory vaccinations are executed involuntarily and the lack of consent and intrusion of one’s physical body oppose the fundamental right to privacy.
Both the right to health and the right to privacy are facets of Article 21. However, the right to privacy is not absolute. In his theory, the Greek philosopher Aristotle divided society into the public sphere of political affairs (‘the polis’) and the personal sphere of human life (‘the oikus’). Aristotle’s distinction between the public and private realms can be regarded as providing a basis for restricting the governmental authority to activities falling solely within the public realm. The individual has greater autonomy in the private sphere and the applicability of authority in the public sphere is also conditional on the effects it has on society.
In Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v Union of India, the Supreme Court simplified this theory through an example. An individual who builds upon a plot of land will be subjected to zoning regulations. If the law defines the height of the boundary wall around the property, the magnitude of the individual’s right to privacy is determined by regulations designed to protect the interests of the community in planned spaces. Hence, “while the individual is entitled to a zone of privacy, its extent is based not only on the subjective expectation of the individual but on an objective principle which defines a reasonable expectation.”
Therefore, insofar as the decision of getting vaccinated comes within the private sphere of the individual and their right to body autonomy, the decision of the Meghalaya High Court is justified. However, the court has interpreted the right to privacy as an absolute right by ruling against the policy in totality. According to Puttaswamy, State has the right to regulate the behavior of an individual when it negatively impacts society. An unvaccinated person resuming their work in public will put everyone they interact with at risk by potentially exposing them to the virus, thus encroaching upon the right to lead a healthy life of other individuals. Therefore, while it is well within the rights of an individual to decide against getting vaccinated, the State is also justified to regulate the interaction of an unvaccinated person with the society to protect the right to life and health of the public; thus striking a balance with the individual’s right to privacy.
Another question raised in the judgment was whether the right to livelihood under Article 21 and the freedom of all citizens to practice any profession and carry on any business under Article 19(1)(g) can be curbed. The High Court in the instant case opined that the compulsory vaccination policy affects an individual’s right to choose significantly more than affecting the general public. However, we believe that the court failed to consider the collective wellbeing of the society that must take precedence over an individual’s freedom of choice. As held in Olga Telis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, rights under Article 21 can be restricted by a procedure established by law, given that the procedure is just and fair. Reverting to the decision in Vincent, it is the primary obligation of the State to ensure and sustain conditions congenial to good health. The government, by way of this policy, aimed to protect members of society from potential virus infection by an unvaccinated individual. The policy is, therefore, in the ‘interest of the general public’, and also has a just and fair basis of protecting societal health. Thus, the negative reinforcement it proposes, aimed at protecting the life and health of individuals, must be considered as a ‘reasonable restriction’ to the aforementioned rights.
In conclusion, the judgment is justified only to the extent that it interprets the right to privacy in the context of the personal zone of an individual, i.e., the right to bodily autonomy. The right to privacy and livelihood must be read in light of the interest of the public at large when applied in the public realm. As the policy withstands the touchstone of permissible restrictions on fundamental rights by meeting the three-fold requirement of ‘legality, need and proportionality’ propounded in Puttaswamy, it must not be held unconstitutional.
Sambhav Sharma is a final year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Amity Law School, Delhi (GGSIPU), India. He serves as a Staff Editor at JURIST. He holds a keen interest in the fields of Human Rights Law and Dispute Resolution.
Ramayni Sood is a final year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at Amity Law School, Delhi (GGSIPU), India. Her research interests lie in the fields of Human Rights, Arbitrations and Insolvency laws.
Suggested citation: Sambhav Sharma and Ramayni Sood, Do Compulsory Covid-19 Vaccinations Violate the Rights to Privacy and Livelihood?, JURIST – Student Commentary, August 2, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/08/Sharma-Sood-compulsory-vaccinations-privacy-livelihood/.
This article was prepared for publication by Giri Aravind, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org