Sarojini Sawhney v. Punjab University

(2006) 142 PLR 175
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The petitioner was a widow whose husband was an employee of the respondent university before his death. The petitioner had an independent income of 7000 rupees per month. She filed a claim for the reimbursement of medical expenses incurred during the treatment of her husband. However, the respondent university refused this claim stating that she did not qualify under the applicable rules. As per these rules, to be eligible for reimbursement, a claimant was required to have a monthly income of less than 250 rupees. Further, he/she should be ‘wholly dependent’ on the employee. The rules also contained relaxation provisions that gave the government discretionary powers to approve a claim by any person to whom the rules were applicable. In light of these provisions, the petitioner asked the respondent university to treat hers as a special case and refer her claim to the government for approval. This request was also denied.

The petitioner challenged the constitutional validity of these rules and contended that the orders rejecting her claim were arbitrary. Further, she claimed that the respondent university had wrongly rejected her request for the reimbursement of medical expenses and referral to the government.

The court held that the right to health and medical aid to a worker while in service or post retirement is a fundamental right under Article 21 (right to life) read with Articles 39(e) (which directs the state to ensure the health and strength of workers), 41 (which directs the state to make provisions for securing the right to work), 43 (which directs the state to ensure a decent standard of life for all workers), 48-A (protection of environment) and all related articles. It thus directed the State and industries (both public and private) to take measures to promote the health, strength and vigour of workmen during the period of employment.

The court held that the right to human dignity, development of personality, social protection, rest and leisure were fundamental human rights that were guaranteed by the Charter of Human Rights, in the Preamble to the Constitution and Articles 38 and 39 of the Constitution.

The court held that the orders by which the claim of the petitioner had been rejected violated article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution. It reasoned that the rejection of the claim was unreasonable, unjust and arbitrary. The reimbursement of medical expenses would have to be made irrespective of whether the deceased was treated in a public or private hospital.

The court held that the phrase ‘wholly dependent’ implied not just financial but also physical dependence. The fact that the claimant was financially independent would not bar her from claiming reimbursement under the rules.

The court held that the rejection of the claim of the petitioner by the respondent violated articles 14, 16 (right to equality of opportunity in public employment) and 21 of the Constitution. It thus directed the respondent to release the entire amount claimed by the petitioner within a period of two months.

“The right to health to a worker is an integral facet of meaningful right to life to have not only a meaningful existence but also robust health and vigour without which worker would lead life of misery. Lack of health denudes him of his livelihood. Compelling economic necessity to work in an industry exposed to health hazards due to indigence to bread-winning for himself and his dependents, should not be at the cost of the health and vigour of the workman. Facilities and opportunities, as enjoined in Article 38, should be provided to protect the health of the workman. Provisional (sic) for medical test and treatment invigorates the health of the worker for higher production or efficient service. Continued treatment, while in service or after retirement is a moral, level and constitutional concomitant duty of the employer and the State. Therefore, it must be held that the right to health and medical care is a fundamental right under Article 21 read with Articles 39(e), 41 and 43 of the Constitution and make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful with dignity of person... Facilities for medical care and health to prevent sickness ensures stable manpower for economic development and would generate devotion to duty and dedication to give the worker's best physically as well as mentally in production of goods or services. Health of the worker enables him to enjoy the fruits of his labour, keeping him physically fit and mentally alert for leading a successful life, economically, socially and culturally medical facilities to protect the health of the workers are, therefore, the fundamental and human rights to the workman.” (Paragraph 24)