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In the interest of the public: Meghalaya HC order on Compulsory Vaccination
Context: Recently, Meghalaya government had had ordered shopkeepers, local taxi drivers and others to get the COVID-19 vaccines before they resume economic activities in the wake of lock down relaxation post second wave. This was appealed in Meghalaya High Court
In Registrar General vs. State of Meghalaya, the Meghalaya High Court ruled that the State government’s order is violative of the right to privacy, life, personal liberty, and livelihood.
Significance of the case: It raises important questions of how the government can overcome widespread vaccine hesitancy and bring the pandemic to an end.
What was the Court’s reasoning?
- The court reasoned that forcing people to vaccinate themselves vitiates the “very fundamental purpose of the welfare attached to it”.
- It ruled that the government’s order intrudes upon one’s right to privacy and personal liberty as it deprives the individual of their bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, even though the intrusion is of minority intensity.
- It ruled that the government’s order affects an individual’s right “significantly” more than affecting the general public.
- It found that the government’s order is not maintainable in law as there is no legal mandate for mandatory vaccination.
- It relied on the Central government’s frequently asked questions, which specify that COVID-19 vaccination is voluntary.
- The court felt that the consequences of non-compliance with the order (i.e., non-resumption of economic activities) was excessive.
- The court concluded that the State, rather than adopting coercive steps, must persuade the people to get themselves inoculated.
Counter-arguments to Meghalaya High Court’s order
- Precedence Exists: Compulsory vaccination has often been deployed in India and abroad. The Vaccination Act, 1880, allowed the government to mandate smallpox vaccination among children in select areas.
- International Judicial Orders: Compulsory vaccination has passed the muster of judicial review in several national and international courts abroad. In a recent judgment in Vavřička and Others v. Czech Republic, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) said that the compulsory COVID-19 vaccination scheme is consistent with the right to privacy and religion.
- No right is absolute: Right to Privacy is not absolute rather rights are subject to reasonable restrictions.
- Public health takes priority: Violations of rights from mandatory administration of a vaccine cannot be termed so grave so as to override the health rationale underlying the government’s order.
- Compulsory Vaccination can also pass the three-pronged test laid out in Justice Puttaswamy v. Union of India case, when any restriction is being imposed on rights
- First, the restriction must be provided in the law: State governments have the authority to mandate vaccines under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which allows them to prescribe regulations to prevent the spread of an epidemic disease
- Second, the restriction must have a legitimate aim. Compulsory vaccination pursues the legitimate aim of protecting the public from COVID-19.
- Third, the restriction must be proportional to the object pursued. With more than four lakh reported deaths and a looming third wave, the current scenario counts as a pressing social need.
The Court could have ordered the government to replace the existing order with less stringent consequences, such as a moderate fine.
Connecting the dots: