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Being a Good Covid-19 Citizen

The apex court has said that directions issued by the centre during the pandemic fall within the ambit of basic duties of citizens. What qualities does good citizenship encompass? Vivek K Agnihotri

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“Ask not what your country can do for you,

ask what you can do for your country.”

—John F Kennedy, former US President

On April 6, 2020, the Supreme Court invoked its extraordinary constitutional powers under Article 142 to step away from the convention of open court hearings and switch over to video-conferencing. The chief justice of India (CJI) observed that every individual is expected to cooperate in the implementation of measures designed to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. It is necessary that courts at all levels respond to the call for social distancing. “This is not a matter of discretion but duty,” he added. It was a timely reminder that citizens, apart from enjoying the protection of fundamental rights, should also commit themselves to the performance of their duties, as per the requirements of society and governance.

Only a few months ago, on November 26, 2019 (Constitution Day), Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to a joint sitting of Parliament said that the Constitution highlighted both rights and duties of citizens and it’s time to focus on responsibilities as well. “Rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand. Mahatma Gandhi had explained this relationship well.… Let us think about how we can fulfil the duties enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.

Addressing the International Judicial Conference (February 21-23, 2020) orga nised by the Supreme Court in Delhi, CJI SA Bobde drew attention to the Constitution’s Fundamental Duties. Citing Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, he observed that “real rights are a result of performance  of duty”.

Way back in 1976, the Constitution 42nd Amendment Act inserted Article 51A (Part IVA) to prescribe ten duties for citizens. An 11th duty [“(k) who is a parent or guardian to provide opportunities for education to his child or, as the case may be, ward between the age of six and fourteen years”] was inserted through the 86th Constitution Amendment Act, 2002.

There is no provision in the Constitution for direct enforcement of any of these duties. Even though the list of duties in Article 51A is prefaced by the statement—“It shall be the duty of every citizen of India”—according to the Supreme Court, these provisions cannot be enforced by writs. But it may be expected that in determining the constitutionality of any law, if a court finds that it seeks to give effect to any of these duties, it may consider such law to be “reasonable” in relation to Article 14 or 19, and thus save such a law from unconstitutionality. It would also serve as a warning to reckless citizens against anti-social activities.

The courts have also held that the new Part (IVA) has been inserted in the Constitution to regulate behaviour and promote excellence, which means surpassing merit, virtue and honesty. Our lawmakers have enjoined that citizens shall perform their duties in an excellent way.

Fundamental Duties have been particularly invoked in litigation concerning environment with reference to Article 51A (g)—to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures. On the principle that as the duties are obligatory on citizens, the state should also observe them, the Supreme Court has, with reference to Article 51A (g) issued orders stopping quarrying operations at certain places in Uttar Pradesh (Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs State of Uttar Pradesh). Similarly, the Supreme Court in order to give effect to duties enshrined under Article 51A (g), read with Articles 21, 37 and 48A, adopted the principle of “sustainable development” as a balancing concept. It further held that Precautionary Principle and Polluter Pays Principle are acceptable as part of the law of the country and should be implemented by courts of law (Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs Union of India and Ors (1996)).

There is, of course, a contrarian view regarding enforcement of Fundamental Duties. According to it, “real duties are the result of the fulfilment of rights”. The enforcement of duties can end up entrenching the existing power structure by placing the burden of duties upon those who are already vulnerable and marginalised.

Be that as it may, leaving aside the somewhat esoteric moral precepts underlying the constitutional provision and the controversy thereon, there is another set of routine and more mundane duties of citizens at a practical level. These could be understood to include duties to follow the laws laid down by Parliament, to obey the legitimate directions of the government, to pay taxes, and, maybe, to vote. In one sense or the other, they are relatable to Article 51A, such as clauses (a): “to abide by the Constitution”; (i): “abjure violence”; and (j): “to strive towards excellence in all spheres…so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement”.

The directions issued by the government in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis too fall within the ambit of these basic duties of citizens and are relatable to Article 51A. Thus, the Supreme Court’s observation that “social distancing” is a matter of duty is relatable to “abjure violence”. Similarly, the requirement of wearing masks conforms to common “scientific sense” that their use will provide increased protection against Covid-19 and is thus germane to clause (h) “to develop the scientific temper and humanism”.

Ultimately it all boils down to being a good citizen. What qualities does good citizenship encompass? (see “Imbibe and exhibit” below) It is part of the omnibus concepts of humanism, humanitarianism, morality, et al.

A good Covid-19 citizen is not only expected to wear a mask and observe social distancing, but also encourage others to do so. He should also, to the extent possible, support all government initiatives to tackle the pandemic. He is also expected to have the moral courage to report to the authorities about those who are, knowingly or unknowingly, attempting to derail the march towards victory over the coronavirus.

Above all, we, the citizens of India, should take a pledge to get into the habit of standing in a queue, symbolically as well as physically, not only now but always and every time. As poet John Milton said: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Imbibe and exhibit

Some of the qualities expected from a good citizen could be listed as follows:

  • Honesty—tell the truth.
  • Integrity—be morally upright.
  • Responsibility—to take responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Respectfulness—respect the rights of others.
  • Compassion—show fellowship with one’s compatriots.
  • Kindness—be kind to the downtrodden.
  • Tolerance—be tolerant of others’ views, race and religion.
  • Courtesy—be considerate of others.
  • Self-Discipline—Follow the law and have self-control.
  • Moral Courage—stand up for what one considers right.
  • Love of Justice—be fair and ask others to be so as well.

—The writer is a former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha, and a retired IAS officer of the AP cadre

Lead Picture: UNI

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