Article 21 of the Constitution of India, a very familiar fundamental right, applicable to all persons under Part III of the Constitution of India. Meaning of term “life” is defined in Munn v. Illinois, 94 US 11,  Field, J. spoke of the right to life in the following words:

“By the term “life” as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by the amputation of an arm or leg, or the putting out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with outer world.”

This article applies to even non-citizen of India. The Supreme Court has emphasized that even those who come to India as tourists also –

“have right to live, so long as they are here, with human dignity, just as the State is under an obligation to protect the life of every citizen in this country, so also the State is under an obligation to protect the life of the persons who are not citizen.”(Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das, AIR 2000 SC 988)


Article 21 of constitution of India, read as:

Protection of Life and Personal Liberty –No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

As, article lays down that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to “procedure established by law”. This means that no person can be denied to life or personal liberty and restraint can be put only with procedure prescribed by law.

In A. K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, AIR 1996 SC 1234 the validity of the Preventive Detention Act, 1950 was challenged. The question arose that whether Article 21 provides any procedure of law enacted by legislature, or such procedure should be fair or reasonable. The Supreme Court held that the Act is valid and according to the due process of the law.

Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597 is a landmark case of the post-emergency period. This case witnessed a great transformation has come about in judicial attitude towards the protection of personal liberty after the traumatic experiences of the emergency during 1975-77 when personal liberty had reached in nadir.

In this case, the passport was impounded under section 10 (3) (c) of the Passport Act, in the interest of general public. Maneka filed a writ petition challenging impoundment under Article 21. Maneka Gandhi case completely overrides the Gopalan view which had held for nearly three decades. Since Maneka, the Supreme Court has again and again underlined the theme that Article 14, 19 and 21 are not mutually exclusive, but they “sustain, strengthen and nourish each other.”



In 1960, the Apex Court was of the view that Article 21 of Indian Constitution does not guarantee right to livelihood.

In Re Sant Ram, AIR 1960 SC 932 a case which arose before Maneka Gandhi, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to livelihood would not fall within the expression “life” in Article 21. The Court said curtly:

“The argument that the word “life” in Article 21 of the Constitution includes “livelihood” has only to be rejected. The question of livelihood has not in terms been dealt with by Article 21.”

Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, AIR 1986 SC 180 is case was brought by pavement dwellers to resist eviction of their habitat by the Bombay Municipal Corporation, that the right to livelihood is born out of the right to life, as no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood. The Court has observed in this connection:

“….the question which we have to consider is whether the right to life includes the right to livelihood. We see only one answer to that question, namely, that it does. The sweep of the right to life conferred by Article 21 is wide and far-reaching. 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.”

If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part and parcel of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.


Deprivation of livelihood would not only denude the life of its effective content and meaningfulness but it would make life impossible to live. And yet such deprivation of life would not 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.

Right to work has not yet been recognised as a Fundamental Right. In Secretary, State of Karnataka v. Umadevi (3), AIR 2006 SC 1806 the argument of infringement on an expansive interpretation of Article 21 i.e., the right of employment was not accepted by the Supreme Court and the reason for that was amongst others, that the employees accepted the employment on their own violation and with eyes open as to the nature their employment. The Court also rejected the argument that the right to life under Article 21 would include the right of employment at the present point of time.

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