UPSC MAINS 2019 : Basic needs, basic rights

Basic needs, basic rights

Topic : Basic needs, basic rights

Topic in Syllabus : General Studies Paper 2: Indian Polity



Basic needs, basic rights

India must recognise the right to a minimally decent life, so that no person falls below a certain level of existence.The horrific tragedy in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, where the systemic failure of health care has killed over a hundred children. Just as individuals are punished for legal violations, the government of the day must also be punished for the violation of these basic rights.



What are basic rights.

  • Basic rights flow from basic needs such as physical security or subsistence.  Their non-fulfilment can cause great harm, even kill.
  • The failure to get an antibiotic if you have a bacterial infection can hurt you very badly.
  • Needs depend on the way human bodies are constituted. They are a solid necessity; one cannot get on without them.
  • Nor can they be fulfilled by substitutes.
  • For us, nothing can take the place of water, food and air.
  • basic needs are not what we live for. They don’t make our life worth living. But anything really worth pursuing depends on the satisfaction of basic needs.
  • When basic needs are not fully met, we feel vulnerable and helpless.
  • We grieve, cry for help, seek assistance. We complain and demand elementary justice from our community, especially from the state.
  • Elementary justice requires that before anything else, the state does everything at its disposal to satisfy all basic needs of its citizens, particularly of those who cannot fend for themselves.
  • We feel aggrieved when the state abdicates this responsibility.


Need for right to a minimally decent life

  • First, like the constitutional principle of a basic structure, it is time to articulate an equally robust doctrine of basic rights.
  • Second, these basic rights must be viewed primarily as positive, rights not against interference from the state (negative rights) but to the provision of something by it.
  • Thirdly, just as individuals are punished for legal violations, the government of the day must also be punished for the violation of these basic rights.
  • This punishment need not await the next round of elections but must be meted out immediately, by the law itself.
  • In short, defaulting governments must be held legally accountable.
  • As a matter of fact, the systematic violation of basic rights must be treated on a par with the breakdown of constitutional machinery.


 Why basic needs must be treated as a right?

  • A right is something that is owed to us; it is not a favour. So, rights help the recognition of anything that satisfies basic needs as an entitlement.
  • Basic rights are claims on the state to provide us with goods and services that satisfy our basic needs.
  • when something is identified as a basic right, it puts the state under a duty to enable its exercise. The state becomes its guarantor.


Constituents of basic rights.

  • Right to physical security
  • The right to physical security, the first basic right, is socially guaranteed when the state provides its people a well-trained, professional police force.
  • It follows that basic rights are a shield for the defenceless against the most damaging threats to their life which include starvation, pestilence and disease.
  • Right to Minimum Security and Subsistence:
  • The second is the right to minimum economic security and subsistence, that includes clean air, uncontaminated water, nutritious food, clothing and shelter.
  • By showing the devastation caused by its absence, the Muzaffarpur tragedy amply proves that the right to primary health care is also an integral part of the right to subsistence.
  • For this, proper budgetary allocation is required that depends in turn on getting one’s political priority and commitment right.When a government fails to provide primary health care to those who can’t afford it, it violates their basic rights.
  • The right to free public expression
  • The right to free public expression of helplessness and frustration, if deprived of other basic rights.
  • The scope of freedom of expression is large and one doesn’t imagine all of it can be deemed basic. But the relevant part of it is.
  • The right to make one’s vulnerability public, be informed about the acts of commission and omission of the government regarding anything that adversely affects the satisfaction of basic needs, to critically examine them and to hold state officials publicly accountable is a basic right on a par with right to physical security and subsistence and inseparably linked to them.
  • It follows that governments must make arrangements for people to demand that their basic rights be satisfied, to complain when these demands are not met, to report lapses and omissions on the part of governments, point fingers at apathetic government officials, criticise the government for its failures and to do so without fear.



These three basic rights can be summed up in a single phrase, the right to a minimally decent life. This is a threshold right. A society may soar; strive for great collective achievement. There are no limits to the longing for a better life. However, the point of having a threshold of minimal decency is that our life must not fall below a certain level of existence. Anything short of a minimally decent life is simply not acceptable. It is this precisely that horrifies the citizenry about the callousness of the Bihar government in Muzaffarpur and governments in India more generally.This is why we must ask why governments are not immediately and severely penalised when they undermine the exercise of these basic rights.


Sample Question

 Why there is a need for India to recognise the right to a minimally decent life. Comment.



Basic needs, basic rights infographs