The Nehru Report, 1928 was the first historical constitution that viewed public health as a constitutional right. Under the ‘fundamental rights’ section, the Nehru Report mandated parliament to ‘maintain the health and fitness for work of all citizens’. Three years later, the Karachi Resolution 1931 too contained a similar provision: industrial workers had to be provided with ‘healthy conditions of work’; In addition to this, maternity leave was sought for women; children were banned from working in factories. Interestingly, in both these historical constitutions, we find that the articulation of public health is dominated by a concern for the health of (industrial) workers.
M.N. Roy’s Constitution of Free India, 1944 contained a right to health provision and makes it clear that ‘the promotion of public health and sanitation shall be a charge on public revenue’.
The Gandhian Constitution, 1944 had two fundamental rights related to public health. The first gave citizens a ‘right to rest’ and not be ‘compelled to work for more than eight hours a day’; this was reminiscent of the Nehru Report and Karachi resolution – concerns of public health were primarily viewed as a problem related to ‘work’ and ‘workers’. Second, every citizen would have a ‘right to medical freedom’; the Gandhian Constitution seemed to take a position against compulsory vaccination and inoculation.
While the Constitution of India was being framed between 1946-50, the Socialist Party of India produced a Draft Constitution of the Republic of India, 1948 which was heavily influenced by the debates in the Constituent Assembly. This document under a section ‘economic rights’ banned the employment of women and children in conditions ‘detrimental to health’. It also contained directive principles that closely resembled Article 39(E) of the Constitution of India, 1950.
Apart from Article 39(E), the Indian Constitution contains another important provision related to public health: Article 47 places a duty on the state to raise the nutrition levels and standard of living of people of India, consider public health as a primary duty and prohibit the sale and consumption of ‘intoxicating’ drinks and drugs. The public health provisions in the Constitution have a focus on worker’s health, women and children – a clear indication of the influence of the Karachi Resolution and the Nehru Report.