15/11/2016 4:28 PM IST | Updated 15/11/2016 6:24 PM IST

Why The Demonetisation Drive Violates Our Fundamental Right To Life

What’s going on is a clear violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Seemingly it's getting clearer that the demonetisation drive idea looked good to the powers that be on paper, but turned out to be a dud in implementation.

Even after a week, all that the country and its people have seen are distress, financial emergency and loss of lives and livelihoods while media reports show that the real black money hoarders are employing armies of people to launder their unaccounted money.

It's rather unbelievable that a country which can handle massive and complex operations such as general elections and public examinations has failed in the demonetisation drive. Looks like it was one of the most shoddily planned national operations that the government of India has ever undertaken.

Nobody knows how long the shocks and aftershocks will last, but experts have categorically surmised that the move has done more damage than any good. If the black money hoarders continue to send their hirelings to whiten their money and the banks have no system to detect multiple-counting (although they are now planning to introduce indelible ink, which is unlikely to be readily available across the country), the queues are going to last forever - all the way up to 30 December. By then, the lives of millions of people will be irreversibly damaged.

The biggest damage of this half-baked and poorly-implemented idea is the loss of livelihood of people. It doesn't need an Ivy League or IMF/WB training to understand that non-availability of 84 percent of cash and the literal disappearance of lower denomination of notes, which incidentally replaced the higher value notes for transactions post the freeze, could kill the livelihoods of millions because people wouldn't have money to hire or pay daily/weekly wage earners. The employees can postpone both hiring and paying labourers, but even a few days of deprivation means absolute devastation for the latter.

As Pronab Sen, Country Director for the India Central Programme of the International Growth Centre, notes, the informal sector in India accounts for about 45 per cent of GDP and nearly 80 percent employment. In other words, the livelihoods of about 80 percent of the people in the country have been deprived for more than a week. And there's no clarity if it's likely to change in the near future or not. Going by the ongoing chaos, it's highly unlikely because a considerable part of the currency conversion process has been hijacked by the hirelings of the black-money hoarders.

By the sheer loss of livelihood alone, this move has turned out to be a foolish misadventure, but unfortunately most the media focus has been on the queue-and-wait hardship of the middle class in front of the banks. The real issue is the government's wanton denial of a constitutional guarantee to 80 per cent of the people - their Right to Life and personal liberty under Article 21.

What's going on is a clear violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, one of the widely known fundamental rights. This is what the Constitution says about the Article: "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

Although deprivation the means of livelihood has not been overtly expressed by Article 21- or had not been favourably interpreted by the higher judiciary in the early years - in 1985, the Supreme Court in the Olga Tellis and others Vs the Mumbai Municipal Corporation case categorically said that right to livelihood was part of Right to Life. Tellis and others had gone to the Supreme court to prevent the eviction of pavement dwellers in Mumbai on the ground that the move would deprive them of their livelihoods and hence violate their fundamental Right to Life.

The SC, in its historic order, said: "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 of 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 his livelihood to the point of abrogation."

"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 Art. 21 is wide and far-reaching... That, which alone makes it possible to live, leave aside what makes life liveable, must be deemed to be an integral component on the right to life. Performance of public act must be fair and reasonable. So before eviction of the hawkers from the area, they must be served with notice so that their right is not infringed," the apex court said.

It also went on to order that the dwellers would be evicted only one month after the end of the rainy season. More over, it asked the government to provide alternative accommodation to some of the dwellers.

What happened in the wake of the present currency crisis is no different. People were not given advance notice and there was no procedure established by law before they were deprived of their livelihood. And there's no guarantee that they would be out of the woods any time soon because what's sweeping the country is an uncontrolled demolition drive. Undertaking such drastic steps without safeguards to protect livelihoods is a violation of Article 21.

There is no gainsaying that black money erodes India of its credibility, wealth and even morality, but it's not a good enough reason to burn your house to fright the mouse away. It bespeaks foolish governance.

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