People's Health Rights

One of the most critical challenges facing India today is reduction of funds allocated for the health of its people. In fact, the State has discreetly withdrawn from the public health system in the country, handing over more and more services, treatment and medications to the corporates, making it impossible for those with low incomes to pay their way through. Espousing the WHO’s broad definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, the People’s Health Rights Initiative (PHRI) works to safeguard human rights enshrined in the Constitution of India and ensure the right to life and health through the use of law.

What SLIC Does

Given the intrinsic link between health and the work that the Socio-Legal Information Centre undertakes through its HIV/AIDS, Disability, Women, Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Rights Initiative, etc, this Initiative’s efforts are reflected in all our programmes.

Our primary concern is to provide legal services to persons who have been denied treatment, discriminated against, or excluded from the public health system. To this end, the PHRI has filed a series of cases relating to people’s health rights and is setting numerous legal precedents through these cases. Through the strategic use of litigation, it not only provides access to justice for individuals contesting the case, but also develops the definition and concept of people’s health rights in the Indian judiciary by developing positive case-law precedents.

PHRI firmly believes that India must provide access to free medical treatment for its poor and marginalized populations. It therefore strongly advocates against the government’s recent moves to privatize health, insisting that the health system has to prioritize the needs of the poor and needy above all else. Its lawyers and activists participate actively in national debates on health law and policy, engage in advocacy on health rights, train lawyers, activists, and the public about people’s health rights under Indian law, and collaborate with health activists around the country to monitor the implementation of existing government health schemes such as the National Rural Health Mission, the National Maternity Benefit Scheme, the Jannani Surakha Yojana, etc.

Main Concerns

·      Right to life
·      Right to health
·      Universal access to treatment
·      Free access to treatment for the poor and marginalized
·      Universal access to essential drugs
·      Right to information
·      Right to informed consent
·      Right of choice
·      Medical negligence
·      Reasonable care

SLIC Impact

Prior to SLIC’s interventions in the sphere of public health rights, there was virtually no case law that the courts could rely on in cases of violation of people’s right to health. The PHRI team has filed a number of cases that have set case law precedent in Indian judicial history and have expanded the national judicial discourse on health rights. These legal precedents have allowed for people across the country to use the courts to litigate for their right to health.

One landmark petition raised issues that vitally affected the public health and bio-security of the country by challenging the closure of several public sector vaccine production units in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Vaccines are vital in the public health programme of all nations as they are necessary for immunization programmes. The closure of various public sector vaccine production units by the government in favor of privatization would severely impede the availability of vaccines to the poorest and neediest groups. This case achieved its objective as government had to reopen the closed vaccine units. Although this case continues to be heard in the Supreme Court, the larger-scale impact of this petition has been that health activists across the country are now pressing for a rational vaccine policy, which will ensure vaccine security of the country in the long term. (See SP Shukla Vs. Union of India for further information).

Another case filed before the Supreme Court challenged the government of India’s decision to introduce legislation that would alter India’s patent laws and de-subscribe essential medication that was previously subject to price controls. This would have the effect of making new and essential medicines more expensive, effectively placing them beyond the reach of millions of India’s poor. Although this case is still being heard, it has the potential to impact millions by calling for a just and equitable pharmaceutical policy based on the public health needs of the masses, and by ensuring that the government issues a list of essential medicines that would be subject to price controls.

The initiative has filed a series of cases that have achieved results by ensuring the rights of persons with specific health violations. This includes a case arguing for the rights of haemophiliacs to essential life-saving drugs at affordable prices, a case ensuring that the medical costs of prisoners are borne by the state, and a case enquiring into state officials engaging in religious practices in government hospitals that was causing hardship to people whose medical treatment was cancelled as a result.

Its team has also filed a series of cases relating to the conditions of Public Health Centres, Community Health Centres, and facilities in public hospitals. Due to its legal interventions, the government has ordered that blood facilities be made available and has given directions for a number of states to conduct inquiries into their public health systems.
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