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Covid-19 & Oxygen Crisis: Debacle of Article 21

Covid-19 & Oxygen Crisis: Debacle of Article 21
-Priyam, Shambhunath Institute of Law, Jhalwa, (U.P.)

Prologue :- 

In the unprecedented year of 2020 whole world witnessed a deadly pandemic which was emerged and spread eventually, from Wuhan, China. It was an unprecedented situation for which several countries were not developed and still thriving to build medical infrastructure. The Covid-19 virus metastasized itself from a country to continents including India. The very first case which was found in India was in the month of January after which the Central Government, all the State Governments, and Union Territories started power packing itself to protect the thing which is paramount i.e. citizens.

Consequently, Central Government promulgated complete lockdown in the country to minimize human contact and endeavored to upgrade the existing medical facilities. Eventually, the Central Government and all other State governments initially got exciting results that succeed in diminishing the consequences but later turned out to be a nightmare for many. Apart from the prior admonition of subsequent waves of the virus Centre and State both embarked on early celebrations in the form of Kumbh, elections, etc. and this negligence on the part of both the government as well as citizens played a wicked role in the sudden surge of Covid-19 cases in the year 2021and revealed a ravaging repercussion. The second wave explicitly revealed the temporary dubious dealing of the legislature and executive both. Instead of prior warning of coming waves the government is not well prepared to put up on the bold front for battling the same. There was a fallacy that \'we did it, we did it. But it is not so in de facto. 

Crisis and Constitutional Implications :- 

The negligence is primarily seen inter alia blatant oxygen crisis and scarcity of life-saving drugs along with the black-marketing and hoarding of same. The second wave highly affected the lungs and most of the infected persons need oxygen support. Death magnitude was severe because of the scarcity of oxygen. People were hustling and bustling, standing in long queues, using their all possible contacts, etc. just to get at least one oxygen cylinder to save their family. People were dying on roads, outside the hospital, in the hand of their relatives and the government was proving itself mere spectator. 

Mishandling of Covid-19 not only endangered the number of lives but also the oxygen crisis put a curtain on Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It is well established that Article 21 is the heart and soul of fundamental rights. And it can only be exercised in its real sense when the life people will be saved. The rights under Article 21is not momentary or conditional instead it is present every second and facet of life from our birth till death. And even after death, corpses are entitled to honorable cremation but it shivers up and down how bodies were found drifting down the Ganges River. It is an alienable right whatever the crisis of oxygen taken away this very pivotal right by non-availability of basic necessity for supporting human life and dignified death. 

Article 21 in its gist ensures that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. The definition which has been incorporated might sound short and precise but its interpretation and implementation in the real sense are on a larger canvas, delineated by the judiciary in its judgments from time to time. Article 21 ensures a life of dignity but before living a life of dignity there should be a life and protecting the lives is also ensured under the same. The preceding year when the lockdown was announced it manifested its initial implications, people were struggling for livelihood, jobs, food, home, etc. especially migrant laborers, and the oxygen crisis just increased this list of the negligence of Article 21. 

In the case of Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India, the Court held that the \'right to life\' as embodied in Article 21 is not merely confined to animal existence or survival but it includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity and all those aspects of life which go to makes a man\'s life meaningful, complete and worth living. And in the present scenario availability of oxygen and also all other life-saving drugs is that aspect of life that a common man needs.

In the case of Parmanand Katara vs Union of India, it has been held that Article 21 of the Constitution casts the obligation on the State to preserve life. It is the obligation of those who are in charge of the health of the community to preserve life so that the innocent may be protected and the guilty may be punished. This observation of the Supreme Court in this case not only made the State accountable but also the medical community which played a crucial role in this pandemic. In this crisis of oxygen incompetency of government is the root cause of the sudden rise in death rates in the country from the beginning of April but also in various states, medical facilities were collapse instead of previous experience neither the hospitals were ready nor the government sufficient inquiries to know about the current status of the hospitals all over the country whether private or public, that they have or have not essentials which are necessary for the treatment of Covid-19 especially oxygen. In a state like Uttar Pradesh with such a huge population, the hospitals were not taking patients because their oxygen-providing system was exhausted and collapsed. Several hospitals have not any prior arrangement for the same and even some of them have the oxygen system installed then either it is not updated or in working condition so that it can be immediately employed for saving lives. With the increasing number of deaths in the State, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath claimed that there is "no shortage of oxygen" in any government or public hospital. 

Article 21, if read, is a colorless article and would be satisfied, the moment it is established by the State that there is a law that provides a procedure which has been followed by the impugned action. In the simple course of life, the aforesaid is easily applicable but the skepticism arises when there will be an adverse situation then also it will be assured and intact. In this pandemic initially, the government\'s malfunctioning was evident. 

Judicial Promptness to “Break the Chain” and Regulate the Government :- 

When the legislature and executive both failed to ensure Article 21 a crucial fundamental right then the Judiciary came into action to externally compel both to perform their obligations as soon as possible. One of the latest examples of this is when the Delhi High Court harshly said that "We will hang that man. We will not spare anyone" which will become a hurdle in supplying oxygen. As the conditions were worse in the capital of the country, the Delhi High Court also issued the show cause notice to Central Government to make them cast their order in action and made the availability of required oxygen in hospitals. Along with the Delhi High Court, Hon\'ble Supreme Court also ordered the Centre to present a comprehensive plan that how they will going to tackle with oxygen requirement in Delhi and as well as in the other parts of the country. 

In case of violation or negligence of fundamental rights, it is the role entrusted to the judiciary to safeguard the civil right of the general public, which must not be impeded by any legislative and executive action. In the Covid-19 pandemic and oxygen crisis, the legislature and executive not violated Article 21 but their negligence towards the same by not pre-preparing itself to face the subsequent waves of Covid-19 shadowed Article 21. The Judiciary came into action and infiltrated its boundary, and redirects both the legislature and executive to opt for all the preventive measures to fight the pandemic and make ample amount of oxygen to all the hospitals as early as possible. 

Conclusion :- 

If we culminate the whole crisis and major lapse that occurred in one of the important fundamental rights i.e. Article 21, it is evident that not every violation of fundamental rights needs to occur by a person or any authority and for redressal of which we can file a writ petition either in Supreme Court or High Court, sometimes a pandemic make the whole governance so incompetent that it negligently started denying the right. There was a huge design-reality gap between what was planned and how it resulted on ground level. And without any dubiety, we as a citizen also failed in ensuring the same as Indian population is a great harness to take control of anything. And then what we faced as a country was unprecedented neither we got a dignified life nor an honorable cremation after death. Downright, Article 21 is not only about the negligence of the right to oxygen in the present milieu but other veiled rights as well which were overlooked in the storm of crisis.  


1.AIR 1978 SC 597.
2.AIR 1989 SC 2039
3.PTI, “Will Hang Anyone Blocking Oxygen Supply: Delhi High Court” (The Economic TimesApril 24, 2021) <> accessed June 2, 2021.
4.Richa Banka, “Delhi High Court Pulls up Centre over Oxygen Crisis” (mintMay 5, 2021) <> accessed June 4, 2021.
5.“Bodies of COVID-19 Victims among Those Dumped in India’s Ganges -Govt Document” (ReutersMay 15, 2021) <> accessed June 4, 2021.