Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoorsamity v. State of West Bengal and Anr

1996 SCC (4) 37; JT 1996 (6) 43; 1996 SCALE (4) 282
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The Applicant, Hakim Seikh, fell from a train one evening and suffered severe head injuries. He approached, and was turned away from, six different hospitals during the course of this evening. Hakim eventually spent Rs. 17,000.00 for treatment at the Calcutta Medical Research Institute. The hospitals kept turning him away because they claimed not to have enough beds. One hospital, however, claimed it had inadequate facilities to provide the necessary treatment. The Petitioner, Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoorsamity, and Hakim Seikh thereafter filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court. The primary issue before the Court was whether the lack of available facilities amounted to a denial of Hakim Seikh’s right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution. During the pendency of the petition, the Respondent, Government of West Bengal, appointed an enquiry committee (the Committee) to report on why Hakim Seikh was repeatedly denied treatment and to give recommendations to avoid similar incidents form occurring again.

Regarding the duty the State of West Bengal has towards its citizens, the Court held that the Constitution envisages the establishment of a welfare state both at federal and state level. It further held that one of the ways in which this obligation is discharged is by “running hospitals and health centres which provide medical care to the person seeking to avail those facilities.”

Interpreting Article 21, the Court held that preservation of life should be of paramount importance for the state. Connecting the state’s welfare obligation and Article 21, the Court held that government run hospitals and its medical officers were under a duty to extend medical services for preserving life.

The Court further held that failure to extend medical assistance was a violation of Article 21, therefore, Hakim Seikh’s right to life was violated. The Court also held that lack of financial resources could not be claimed as an excuse by states to deny its citizens fundamental rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. It held that the constitutional obligation to provide adequate medical services could not be ignored on account of financial burden.

On the issue of compensation, the Court held that the Supreme Court under Article 32 and High Courts under Article 226 had the power to enforce fundamental rights by issuing any appropriate order, including awarding damages. The Applicant was awarded Rs. 25,000.00 in damages.

Issuing its own recommendations, the Court indicated that its recommendations along with the Committee’s recommendations were to be implemented not only by the Respondent but by all the States. The Court also directed the respondent to take administrative action against the medial officers found guilty in the Committee’s report.

“Providing adequate medical facilities for the people is an essential part of the obligations undertaken by the Government in a welfare state.” Page 5.

“Failure on the part of a Government hospital to provide timely medical treatment to a person in need of such treatment results in violation of his right to life guaranteed under Article 21.” Page 5.

“It is no doubt true that financial resources are needed for providing these facilities. But at the same time it cannot be ignored that it is the constitutional obligation of the State to provide adequate medical services to the people. Whatever is necessary for this purpose has to be done.” Page 12.