Ensuring dignity in life and death selectively

By K Raveendran

 The Supreme Court has upheld the right to die in dignity, saying such right must be considered inherent in one’s right to life. It naturally follows that if a person has the right to die in dignity, it also implies the right to live with dignity, although the court has not elaborated on this aspect. And that opens a pandora’s box.

In the case of death, a person of sound mind can decide in advance and create a ‘living will’ that in the event of one falling into vegetative condition, he or she can decide to prefer death, of course with certain safeguards and guidelines, in which doctors play a crucial role.

Perhaps more significant is the part of the verdict that deals with a distressed person’s right to end life voluntarily. As a first step towards giving judicial support to the right of a person to commit suicide, the court reversed a 22 year-old judgment that said the right to life did not include the right to die. The new thinking is that it is inhuman to punish a distressed person who tried to commit suicide and failed, as provided under section 309 of Indian Penal Code. The change of thinking has not yet become law, but the government has already indicated its inclination for a change.

“It may also be argued that the right to life and the right to die are not two separate rights, but two sides of the same coin. The right to life is the right to decide whether one will or will not continue living. If the right to life were only a right to decide to continue living and did not also include a right to decide not to continue living, then it would be a duty to live rather than a right to life”, Justice D Y Chandrachud, who issued the verdict, pointed out. He, however, left the question open because no party in the present case had sought a ruling on this aspect. But it is patent that, should someone take it up in future, the court has already indicated its mind.

It may be argued that If the right to live with dignity is established as per law, the big question then is: who will decide if someone is able to live with dignity? If it is left to the individual, the definition of dignity could vary from person to person. Or should there be common standards of dignity that can be applied across the board? In India’s current setting, the issue may sound to be farfetched. But it is not because the principle itself is irrelevant, but the reality of life in our country is far removed from a position where such delicate issues matter. It rather indicates the failure of our governance and system.

How can we talk about dignity of life when a majority of Indians are living a wretched life? When the courts of the land raise issues of dignity in life and death, is it not pertinent to examine the rights of these huge sections of people? That we don’t take such rights seriously does not mean these rights do not exist. And if a person decides that he or she is not able to live with dignity, will it not suggest the culpability of whoever has failed to provide such dignity? All these are ticklish questions that demand answer.

According to World Bank statistics, India accounts for one-third of poor people in the world, with 30 per cent of population under the $1.90-a- day poverty measure. The poor people are forced to spend more than half of their earnings on their food alone, with just 6 percent available for health and education. What does then a ‘dignified life’ mean for one-third of all Indians? Our approach of completely overlooking this aspect does not minimise the size and importance of the problem at hand.

Our impoverished populations do not have enough of lighting, fuel for cooking, affordable and accessible healthcare, clean water, elementary education, housing and sanitation. Although there are government programmes to supply these needs, those are plagued by corruption, with some estimates saying 50-70 per cent of all welfare spending in India is soaked by the administrators in the form of bribe. It has been found that many of India’s anti-poverty programmes end up feeding the rich more than the needy and when it comes to traditionally administered government programmes. The poor often get less than their due because of corruption in disbursement, with a major part being sponged by middlemen.

Does anyone care about the right of these people to live in dignity? The approach of problem-solving by ignoring them completely may be expedient for those who are in charge, but it does not minimise the magnitude and importance of the problem at hand.

The column appeared first in Newspack 

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