Water as human right

Water as Human Right

The beginning of the movement to declare water as human rights started in the year 2000, when the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Covenant’s supervisory body, adopted a General Comment on the right to health that provides a normative interpretation of the right to health as enshrined in Article 12 of the Covenant. This General Comment interprets the right to health as an inclusive right that extends not only to timely and appropriate health care but also to those factors that determine good health. These include access to safe drinking-water and adequate sanitation, a sufficient supply of safe food, nutrition and housing, healthy occupational and environmental conditions, and access to health-related education and information.

In 2002, the Committee further recognized that water itself was an independent right. Drawing on a range of international treaties and declarations,

it stated: “the right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival. The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”— General Comment 15 on the right to water.

 Why Defining Water as Human Right Make a Difference?

Ensuring that access to sufficient safe water is a human right constitutes an important step towards making it a reality for everyone. It means that:

  • Fresh water is a legal entitlement, rather than a commodity or service provided on a charitable basis;
  • Achieving basic and improved levels of access should be accelerated;
  • The “least served” are better targeted and therefore inequalities decreased;

Communities and vulnerable groups will be empowered to take part in decision making processes;

Right to Water and Indian Constitution

The Constitution of India too recognizes the essential tenet of equal access to water.

Article 15(2) of the Constitution explicitly states that

“no citizen shall ‘on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’ be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to ‘the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats.’

The directive principles of state policy,which the Constitution in Article 37 declares to be non-justiciable, recognizes the principle of equal access to the material resources of the community.

Article 39 (b) mandates that

‘the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good.’

Article 21 which speaks of the right to life has been liberally interpreted by to include all facets of life including water.

‘The right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes with it, namely, the bare necessities of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings. The magnitude and components of this right would depend upon the extent of economic development of the country, but it must, in any view of the matter, include the bare necessities of life and also the right to carry on such functions and activities as constitute the bare minimum expression of the human self.’

Various courts have upheld that the right to clean and safe water is an aspect of the right to life. For instance, in Narmada Bachao Andolan v Union of India (2000), the Supreme Court said that “water is the basic need for the survival of human beings and is part of right to life and human rights as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India”.

But judgments do not constitute law or policy; at best, they provide directions for the formulation of laws and policies. As yet, no laws or policies have been formulated asserting that water is a fundamental and inviolable right enjoyed by every citizen of the country.

The ‘right to water’ can therefore be obtained in India only on a case-by-case basis, by going to court.

“Enough Water, Safe Water- Always & for All” fits into the human rights to water dictum. Recognising the ecological requirement of returning water efficiently to the environment to sustain the hydrological cycle is also quite important as well as provision of water for the vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of society.

On the issues of the state’s obligation to uphold the right to water one can agree on the fact that state certainly should have the right to regulate the water management process so that the basic minimum needs of the people are not curtailed. The state should be more like a trustee of the resources and representative of the citizen.


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