Fundamental rights vs Directive principles

Fundamental rights vs Directive principles


Why in the news?

In the recent hearings before a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India in the case of Property Owners Association vs State of Maharashtra, two critical questions have emerged for consideration. Firstly, the interpretation of the term “material resources of the community” as enshrined in Article 39(b) of the Constitution is under scrutiny. This term holds significant implications for understanding the constitutional framework concerning resource allocation and societal welfare.

Secondly, the case raises the pertinent issue of whether laws crafted to advance the objectives outlined in Article 39(b), particularly those focusing on ensuring fair resource ownership and distribution for the collective welfare, enjoy immunity from legal challenges based on the fundamental rights to equality and freedom. 


Debate regarding FRs vs DPSPs

The debate surrounding Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) in India is crucial in the Indian constitutional setup, embodying the tension between individual liberties and state responsibilities towards socio-economic justice. Enshrined in Part III and Part IV respectively of the Indian Constitution, these provisions reflect the framers’ vision of a balanced society where rights are safeguarded alongside state action to promote welfare and social justice.

Fundamental Rights, articulated in Articles 12 to 35, guarantee civil liberties such as equality before law, freedom of speech and expression, and the right to life and personal liberty. These rights are justiciable, meaning they can be enforced by the courts against any encroachment by the state or private entities. They serve as the bedrock of democracy, ensuring the protection of citizens from arbitrary state action and fostering individual dignity and autonomy.

On the other hand, DPSPs, outlined in Articles 36 to 51, embody the socio-economic goals and directives that guide the state in policymaking. They include provisions for securing social and economic justice, promoting welfare measures, and striving towards a just and egalitarian society. Unlike Fundamental Rights, DPSPs are not enforceable in courts, and their implementation is subject to the discretion of the state.

One key aspect of the debate is the hierarchy between Fundamental Rights and DPSPs. While both are integral parts of the Constitution, conflicts may arise when state action aimed at fulfilling DPSPs infringes upon Fundamental Rights. The judiciary plays a crucial role in adjudicating such conflicts, often employing the doctrine of harmonious construction to reconcile conflicting provisions and uphold the spirit of the Constitution.

Another dimension of the debate concerns the justiciability of DPSPs. Unlike Fundamental Rights, which can be directly enforced through judicial intervention, DPSPs lack enforceability in courts. This has led to criticisms regarding the efficacy of DPSPs as mere pious declarations without legal teeth. Proponents argue that while DPSPs may not be justiciable per se, they provide a guiding framework for legislative and executive action, influencing policy formulation and governance.

The debate also extends to the role of the state in balancing individual rights with social welfare objectives. Some argue for a more interventionist approach by the state to address socio-economic disparities and uplift marginalized communities, even if it entails limitations on individual freedoms. Others advocate for a minimalist state, emphasizing the primacy of individual liberties and market mechanisms in driving socio-economic progress.

Historically, the Indian judiciary has played a significant role in interpreting and reconciling the tensions between Fundamental Rights and DPSPs. Landmark cases such as Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973) and Minerva Mills Ltd. v. Union of India (1980) have shaped the constitutional jurisprudence, establishing the doctrine of basic structure and reaffirming the supremacy of Fundamental Rights while acknowledging the importance of DPSPs.


Evolution of the discourse

The evolution of the debate surrounding Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) in Supreme Court judgments reflects the dynamic interpretation of constitutional principles and the changing socio-political landscape of India

The watershed moment in the evolution of this debate came with the case of Golaknath v. State of Punjab (1967). In this landmark judgment, the Supreme Court held that Parliament could not amend Fundamental Rights, including the right to property, through constitutional amendments. This decision underscored the Court’s commitment to protecting Fundamental Rights as sacrosanct and immune from legislative encroachment.

Subsequently, the debate shifted towards defining the scope and limitations of state action in relation to Fundamental Rights and DPSPs. The case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973) marked a turning point, where the Supreme Court introduced the doctrine of basic structure, holding that while Parliament had the power to amend the Constitution, it could not alter its basic structure. This judgment affirmed the supremacy of Fundamental Rights while recognizing the importance of DPSPs in shaping state policy.

In Minnerva mills case, the Supreme Court struck down several provisions of the 42nd Amendment Act, including those related to the restrictions on judicial review. The Court reaffirmed the primacy of the basic structure doctrine and held that Parliament could not abrogate or alter the basic features of the Constitution, including the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.


An opportunity 

The Supreme Court has yet to provide a definitive analysis on the constitutionality of Article 31C, as introduced by the 25th Amendment, and its compatibility with the basic structure of the Constitution. This lack of clarity has perpetuated a perpetual conflict between Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs). Despite subsequent judgments like Sanjeev Coke vs Bharat Coking Coal (1982) building upon the precedent set by Waman Rao, there remains an unresolved tension between the two constitutional provisions.

The ongoing case of Property Owners presents an opportunity for the Court to address this long standing clash and potentially offer clarity on the relationship between Fundamental Rights and DPSPs. By providing a comprehensive analysis and resolution in this case, the Supreme Court has the chance to reaffirm the supremacy of the Constitution’s most cherished guarantees while also harmonizing the objectives of individual liberties and collective welfare. This could significantly enhance the integrity and coherence of the constitutional framework, ensuring a more equitable and just society in line with the principles enshrined in the Constitution.


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