IN a significant judgment, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai has held that bodily integrity is protected under Article 21 of the Constitution and hence, no individual can be forced to be vaccinated. The bench, however, added that the government is entitled to regulate public health concerns in the interest of the larger community by imposing certain limitations on individual rights. These limitations, the court held, must satisfy a three-fold requirement, that is, i) legality- which presupposes the existence of law, ii) need- defined in terms of legitimate State aim, and iii) proportionality- that is, ensuring rational nexus between the object and the means adopted to achieve it. These requirements were laid down in the Supreme Court’s landmark Aadhar judgment on privacy in 2017.
The court thus held that the restrictions imposed by some states and Union Territories on unvaccinated people cannot be said to be proportionate in view of the fact that the material brought to the notice of the court that the risk of transmission from unvaccinated people is almost on par with the vaccinated. The bench thus held that till the infection rate is low, no restriction should be imposed on unvaccinated individuals in terms of access to public areas, services and resources.
“No data has been placed by the Union of India or the States appearing before us, controverting the material placed by the Petitioner in the form of emerging scientific opinion which appears to indicate that the risk of transmission of the virus from unvaccinated individuals is almost on par with that from vaccinated persons. In light of this, restrictions on unvaccinated individuals imposed through various vaccine mandates by State Governments / Union Territories cannot be said to be proportionate”, the bench held.
The bench, however, clarified that it should not be seen as doing away with the requirement of following COVID-19 appropriate behavior. It also directed the Union of India to publish reports on adverse events of vaccines from people and doctors on a publicly accessible system, without compromising the details of the individuals reporting them.
“Regarding segregation of vaccine trial data, subject to the privacy of individuals, all trials already conducted and to be subsequently conducted, all data must be made available to the public without further delay,” the court directed.
Regarding vaccines for children, the court said that it is not possible to second guess the opinion of experts, and the vaccination indeed follows global standards and practices.
The bench was ruling on a petition filed last year by Dr. Jacob Puliyel, a former member of the National Technical Advisory Group, seeking disclosure of clinical trial data of COVID vaccines and a declaration that making vaccination mandatory is unconstitutional.