Unni Krishnan, J.P., v. State of A.P. and Others
Please note the summary below draws on the case summary made by ESCR-Net which is available on http://www.escr-net.org/caselaw/caselaw_show.htm?doc_id=404182&
Name of Case
Unni Krishnan, J.P., v. State of A.P. and Others
Children‘s Rights, Directive Principles, Education Rights, Right to life, civil/political rights, constitutional law, India, national level, adult professional education, accessibility, time limits on progressive realisation.
Supreme Court of India
 4 Law Reports of the Commonwealth 234; 4 February 1993
Certain private medical and engineering colleges in India charged capitation fees.
The college management was seeking enforcement of their right to business through the charging of “capitation” fees from students seeking admission. The court expressly denied this claim and proceeded to examine the nature of the right to education - specifically the following articles of the constitution:
Article 45: The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all
children until they complete the age of fourteen years.
[Note. This is an example of a time limit being given for progressive realisation of a right.]
Article 41: The State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education ...
Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
Article 46: The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
The Court asserted that Article 45 has a ten year limit for a reason, and noted that it is the only article in Part IV of the constitution to contain such a limit. It held, therefore, that the passage of 44 years since the enactment of the Constitution had effectively converted the non-justiciable right to education of children under 14 into one enforceable under the law.
However, the Court expressed dismay in adding; ‘it is relevant to notice that Article 45 does not speak of the “limits of its economic capacity and development” as does Article 41, which amongst other things speaks of the right to education. What has actually happened is more money is spent and more attention is directed to higher education than to—and at the cost of—primary education [up to 14 years of age]’
‘The right to education further means that a citizen has a right to call upon the State to provide educational facilities to him within the limits of its economic capacity and development. By saying so, we are not transferring Article 41 from Part IV [directive principles within the Constitution] to Part III [fundamental rights within the Constitution] - we are merely relying upon Article 41 to illustrate the content of the right to education flowing from Article 21. We cannot believe that any State would say that it need not provide education to its people even within the limits of its economic capacity and development. It goes without saying that the limits of economic capacity are, ordinarily speaking, matters within the subjective satisfaction of the State.’
The Court continued by asserting the right to education’s position as being fundamental to enjoying the right to life:
‘We must hasten to add that just because we have relied upon some of the directive principles to locate the parameters of the right to education implicit in Article 21, it does not follow automatically that each and every obligation referred to in Part IV [of the Constitution] gets automatically included within the purview of Article 21. We have held the right to education to be implicit in the right to life because of its inherent fundamental importance. As a matter of fact, we have referred to Articles 41, 45 and 46 merely to determine the parameters of the said right.’
The Court held that the right to basic education is implied by the fundamental right to life (Article 21), when read in conjunction with the directive principle on education (Article 41). The Court held that the parameters of the right must be understood in the context of the Directive Principles of State Policy, including Article 45 which provides that the state is to endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children under the age of 14.
Article 41 indicates that after the age of 14, the right to education is subject to the limits of economic capacity and development of the state.
Indeed it was found that there is no fundamental right to education for a professional degree that flows from Article 21.
Quoting Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Court stated that the state's obligation to provide higher education requires it to take steps to the maximum of its available resources with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the right of education by all appropriate means.
The state responded to this declaration nine years later by inserting, through the Ninety-third amendment to the Constitution, Article 21-A, which provides for the fundamental right to education for children between the ages of six and fourteen. In addition, several States in India have passed legislation making primary education compulsory.
Although the Court in Unni Krishnan stated specifically that it was not transferring Article 41 from Part IV to Part III, in the subsequent case of M.C. Mehta v State of Tamil Nadu & Ors (1996) 6 SCC 756; AIR 1997 SC 699, the Supreme Court stated that Article 45 had acquired the status of a fundamental right following the Constitutional Bench's decision in Unni Krishnan.
In addition, the Court said that, in order to treat a right as fundamental right, it is not necessary that it should be expressly stated as one in Part III of the Constitution: “the provisions of Part III and Part IV are supplementary and complementary to each other”. The Court rejected that the rights reflected in the provisions of Part III are superior to the moral claims and aspirations reflected in the provisions of Part IV.
This case provides a good example of how the right to life can be interpreted as including the right to livelihood, and explicitly the right to education (at least primary education). It should be noted that the Indian courts have thus far been unique in reading the right to education directly into the right to life.