The ongoing lockdown in India has resulted in economic insecurity for millions of people, particularly those working as casual or daily wage labourers. Migrant workers were some of the hardest hit by the lockdown, given that the loss of their only source of income impacted their ability to support themselves in metros and industrial towns. This, in addition to the sudden closure of state borders and public transport systems, meant that these workers were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back to their homes without any aid or assistance.

The reports of migrants perishing on these journeys – due to a combination of heat, exhaustion, and a lack of food or water – opened up the government to the criticism that it has failed to assess the impact of its public health policies on vulnerable groups. Moreover, the lack of assistance provided to the migrant workers who do not have the means to sustain or protect themselves on their journeys home, indicates that the government does not consider their welfare as essential to the preservation of public health.

The implication of this is that when the government formulates policies about public health, it does not account for the interests of the vulnerable communities who most require state intervention and assistance to survive a public health crisis. The government’s attitude towards migrant workers runs contrary to the way in which the framers of the constitution approached the topic of public health, i.e. as interlinked with the welfare of vulnerable groups.

The Nehru Report, 1928, the Karachi Resolution, 1931, and the Draft Constitution of the Republic of India (Socialist Party, 1948) were documents which informed the content of the Indian constitution today. They all emphasized a constitutional right to public health, with a focus on the protection of vulnerable groups, who at the time were identified as women, children, and the working class.

The right to public health was formally included within the Constitution of India, 1950 in the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) under Article 39 (duty of the State to protect the health and strength of workers) and Article 47 (duty of the State to improve the standard of living and public health).

India’s constitutional history tells us that the framers intended for the DPSPs to be ‘made the basis of all executive and legislative action…taken hereafter in the matter of the governance of the country’. Perhaps the government can borrow from this history, and re-frame its approach to public health policy to be in line with the DPSPs?