The Supreme Court of India considered that the body integrity of individuals encompassed the right to refuse medical treatment and could not say COVID-19 vaccine mandates were proportionate.
The Supreme Court of India ruled on May 2 that vaccine mandates cannot be considered as proportionate and that “no individual can be forced to be vaccinated”. It supports the national vaccination policy which encourages people to get vaccinated with no obligation. The Court suggests recalling all restrictions affecting unvaccinated people.
The judges considered that under the Constitution of India, individuals have the right to their body integrity and can refuse to be medically treated as “personal autonomy (…) encompasses the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment in the sphere of individual health”.
The Court is convinced of the benefits of vaccination and the widespread scientific agreements on its benefits. Judges rejected opinions that natural immunity offers better protection against Covid-19 than a vaccine, not because they were scientifically incorrect, but because “it was not pertinent for the determination of the issue”.
The petition was filed in May last year by a pediatrician who sought the release of trial-phase and vaccination data as well as the recognition that vaccine mandates violated the rights of citizens.
In its ruling, the highest court of India shows support for the vaccination policy as laid out by Narendra Modi’s government: It “is satisfied that the current vaccination policy of the Union of India is informed of the relevant considerations and cannot be said to be unreasonable or manifestly arbitrary”.
India mostly provides its population with two vaccines: Covishield and Covaxin. Covishield is the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India and Covaxin has been developed by India. Covaxin is authorized only in a few European countries, and allowed for travel in some countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.
The Union government decided to encourage vaccination but not to make it mandatory, because “no person can be forced to be vaccinated against their wishes,” the Health Ministry said earlier this year. India has twelve mandatory vaccines for children, recommends booster shots during adult life but they are not compulsory.
There have been 43 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 523 753 deaths communicated to the World Health Organization, and approximately 61% of the population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus in India.
At the state level, some governments have however issued different regulations.
The state of Haryana has restricted since January 2022 public transportation only to people fully vaccinated. Karnataka banned unvaccinated people from parks, malls, cinemas. In Punjab, government employees need a vaccine certificate to get paid.
Last summer, the state of Maharashtra excluded people with no complete vaccination from local trains, which the Bombay High Court in February considered illegal. On the other hand, the Kerala High Court in October confirmed the state government’s decision to allow only people with full COVID-19 immunity in education facilities, considering the government can provide advantages to those who are vaccinated. The Kerala government also said the state would not bear the cost of Covid-19 treatment for unvaccinated individuals.
The bench of judges considered that restrictions imposed through various vaccine mandates by state governments “cannot be said to be proportionate” for public health concerns. They justified the decision by the fact that the Union of India didn’t provide data controverting the petitioner’s claims that transmission of COVID-19 was “almost on par” between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
The Court suggested that authorities, including private and educational institutions, should review restrictions on the unvaccinated.