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Opinion: How The Govt Failed To Uphold The Fundamental Right To Health Of Citizens

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

*Trigger Warning: Covid Death*

The biggest constitutional value of any democratic society is protecting the lives of its people. Health and medical assistance are some of the most basic tenets of a dignified human life. Various endemics and pandemics have been a part of civilisation like measles, smallpox, cholera, dengue and even the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Every health emergency like this requires an adequate health infrastructure to combat it.

Health is an inevitable part of the right to life of an individual. The right to health amidst many human rights is one of the most valuable rights for citizen. It is the right that has to be granted regardless of the socio-economic status of a particular person. Preservation of human life is of paramount importance. 

Health and life go hand in hand. As the right to life is the heart of all fundamental rights, the right to health remains the heart of the right to life. It is one such right that has to be ensured to everyone in every circumstance. The right to health is a non-derogable and inalienable right.

Daily Life Amid Coronavirus Pandemic In India
Funeral pyre burns at Nigambodh Ghat crematorium, on 17 April, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court in Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity vs. state of West Bengal rightly held that health and medical aid were part of the fundamental rights. From this, we can sense the sensitivity of this right, and thus, its importance. 

Role of the State in Protecting Right to Health

Protecting the sanctity of an individuals life is the first responsibility of the state. In India, health is a subject of state and any public policy needed for health is the state’s responsibility. However, the centre is overwhelmingly responsible for the policy responses like lockdown, national/international travel restrictions, testing, availability of drugs, criteria for global procurement of emergency supplies, etc. 

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution casts the obligation upon the state to preserve life. Therefore, while addressing Covid-19, the systematic application of the right to health to public health policies is quintessential.

India has a public-private partnership model in health infrastructure. The ongoing National Health Policy (NHP) of 2017 has the “health in all” approach and is based on the principles of universality, affordability, equity and patient-centric cure. This policy’s main objectives included:

  • Reinforcing people’s trust in the public healthcare system.
  • Aligning the private healthcare sector’s growth with public health goals and the quantitative goals.
  • Progressively achieving universal health coverage (UHC).

The ongoing pandemic is the best time to analyse the extent of implementation of NHP 2017. As the country got struck with the pandemic in December 2020, the state and the central government took various measures to check the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, these measures were ill-planned and ill-timed and the result is that we are badly engulfed by the second wave.

The first wave at least didn’t affect the rural areas, which have even worse healthcare facilities. The second wave has engulfed the entire country, even the illiterate, unequipped areas of rural India

People are begging all around, searching for leads to arrange ventilator beds, oxygen and critical drugs. Oxygen has become a scarce commodity and many are turned down just because of the non-availability of beds. The supreme court expanded the right to life as not just mere animal existence but dignified human life.

Leave dignified life at this point of time; even mere survival is a victory. The second wave has exposed the glaring gaps between the health infrastructure and government preparedness to deal with the virus. In 2020 itself, the WHO had stated in its Covid-19 report that 5% of total cases needed ventilator support, and around 15% of total tested positive cases needed hospital care. 

Even the health workers had hinted towards a shortage of oxygen and even critical situations as Covid-19 caused Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and high mortality rate. Even after all these warnings, the government was seen napping and the aftermath is the panicked hunt for hospital beds, chronic underfunding and shortage. 

And due to shortages and non-availability, there is an unreasonable and unprecedented hike in prices of everything. At the same time, private hospitals charging an unexpected amount is not uncommon. All this has made our lives miserable. As initiatives began for oxygen generating units, the central government took months to tender the project. 

The centre approved 162 plants, and today, after 6 months, only 35–36 oxygen generating units are installed. The deaths that are recorded and the data that comes from the crematorium show entirely different pictures. This is a testimonial to the fact that not just the unavailability of beds, ventilator and oxygen, we are also lagging in testing. 

We are failing at every stage, from testing to critical drugs to ventilators. The government’s inactivity has taken the lives of many. Vaccination in most states is free at government hospitals, but here again, we are lagging in availability and supply, which puts a big question mark on our public policies. 

All this is a clear indictment of the government, but it is not even thinking to take moral responsibility for all the havoc. The crinkling health infrastructure of our nation is clearly a compromise on the right to health.

Judiciary, Right to Health and the Pandemic

Sport Complex In Delhi Converted Into COVID-19 Care Centre
Representative Image. (Photo by Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

High courts have come forward to protect the right to health of people during Covid-19 as what is expected from a vibrant judiciary. The Delhi high court strictly said that either beg, borrow or steal but provide oxygen. This is evidence of the fact how important our right to health is. 

After the orders, the government came into action and airlifted oxygen generators and other supplies from abroad. Also, customs duty has been removed from the import of vaccines and oxygen. The Delhi high court also well established the seriousness of the scenario by stating that they won’t mind hanging anyone obstructing the oxygen supply. 

Even after these strong statements of the Delhi high court, the state is not seen implementing the orders or understanding the seriousness of the issue. The hospitals in Delhi required 400 metric tonnes of oxygen but were supplied with 292 metric tonnes only. 

The Allahabad high court was also observed calling out the state for these critical situations, including the higher courts and the election commission.

In its judgement In re inhumane conditions at quarantine centres pointing clearly towards elections during the pandemic, the court stated the Election commission, the Higher courts and the government failed to fathom the disastrous consequences of permitting election in few states and Panchayat elections in U.P. at the time of pandemic are definitely a compromise with the right to health of people of the areas, specifically with the right to health of polling officers who didn’t volunteer but under an obligation performed duty during elections even after reluctance.

The cost of these elections during Covid was the lives of 700 deaths of teaching staff in UP elections. 

The Supreme Court ordered the release of prisoners to decongest jails amidst the pandemic. But the government is seen as inactive and unconcerned in this case as well. Jails lack proper care of hygiene, sanitisation and medical facilities. And we are time and again seeing the news of prisoners testing positive to covid, in critical situations and still not released. 

Siddique-Kappan
Siddique Kappan.

Trials, investigation and arrests will make no sense if the accused do not remain alive. The most horrendous and inhumane case which I am aware of is that of Siddique Kappan (for the unversed, he is in jail for attempting to cover the Hathras gang rape case). He tested positive for Covid-19, has diabetes and other serious medical issues, but neither was released from jail nor given proper medical aid and food. 

There are many Kappans in various jails of India. One must definitely note that even the prisoners, those under trial, everyone has their right to health. 

Recently more than 100 dead bodies were seen floating in the river Ganga. There’s a serious discrepancy and underreporting of deaths. Where are we heading to? The state is still in a mode of denial and constantly denying these eye-opening instances and relying upon faulty data. 

Thanks to our judiciary, it understands the sensitivity of the issue and is constantly giving orders uplifting the right to health of every individual during the pandemic.  

Under the NHP 2017, various efforts have been made by the government to ensure the universalisation of healthcare facilities. But the pandemic has proved that we still have an inadequate health infrastructure. The public sector still has medical professionals’ inadequacy like doctors, nurses and paramedics.

The private sector has a better situation, but their costs are high and unaffordable for the majority rural and middle-class Indian population.

The Covid-19 pandemic has bought a clear picture that our health infrastructure and population are not congruent. Human life is impossible unless there’s a right to life. The heart of the right to life is the right to health and it’s the states foremost responsibility to preserve this right.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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