Right to sleep as a fundamental right under Article 21: A myth or a dead letter

This research is conducted and curated by Mr. Kaustav Ghosh,Advocate, High Court of Calcutta, India

“The right to live with human dignity encompasses within its manifold, some of the finer facets of human civilization which makes life worth living. The expanded connotation of life would mean the tradition and cultural heritage of the person concerned.”

-CERC v. Union of India[1]


According to the Oxford Dictionary ‘Sleep’ is a condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed and consciousness practically suspended.2 Sleep is a necessary daily routine for living a healthy life. Enough sleep ever day keep many diseases away from human body. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development. Sleep deficiency can raise your risk for some chronic health problems. It also can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.3 Sleep is very necessary for well functioning of central nervous system, respiratory system, digestive system, immune system, cardiovascular system. Sleep deprivation ruins the mental health badly and causes impulsive behaviour, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. In this context we can say healthy life is synonymous to enough sleep because sleep is nature’s cycle of life and rejuvenation by which body re-energise for next day. Sleep as we know when regarded as an integral part of human life then right to sleep should be within the ambit of right to life concept.

 [2]“Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life directly from God and not from his parents, not from any society or human authority. Therefore, there is no man, no society, no human authority, no science, no ‘indication’ at all whether it be medical, eugenic, social, economic, or moral that may offer or give a valid judicial title for a direct deliberate disposal of an innocent human life…

— Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession Papal Encyclical, October 29, 1951.[4]

Concept of Right to life

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.” The Constitution does not put an absolute embargo on the deprivation of life or personal liberty but such a deprivation must be according to the procedure, in the given circumstances, fair and reasonable. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.’ The right to life is undoubtedly the most fundamental of all rights. All other rights add quality to the life in question and depend on the pre-existence of life itself for their operation. As human rights can only attach to living beings, one might expect the right to life itself to be in some sense primary, since none of the other rights would have any value or utility without it. There would have been no Fundamental Rights worth mentioning if Article 21 had been interpreted in its original sense.“The right to life and personal liberty protected by Article 21 is not an absolute right but isa qualified right- a right circumscribed by the possibility or risk of being lost according to procedure established by law”– A.K. Gopalan v State of Madras5

“The only right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 which confers a fundamental right against the executive and law in that article means state law or statute law. On the face of it the article only meant to keep the executive power in ordering deprivation of life or liberty within the bounds of power prescribed by the procedure established by law”- A.D.M. v Shivkant6[3]

Right to life enshrined in Article 21 of our constitution cannot be confined into ‘mere animal existence’ because life is more than just survival. Subba Rao J. quoted with approval the following passage from the judgment of Field J. in Munn v. Illinois to emphasize the quality of life covered by Article 21:-

“By the term “life” as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body or amputation of an arm or leg or the putting out of an eye or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.”7 Constitutional provision of right to life has been emphasised and given utmost important position. It has been interpreted broadly several times by Supreme Court of India. That’s why right to life enshrined in Article 21 at present has broad meaning which includes everything that is necessary for healthy life. Right to sleep is one of these principles.

Concept of right to sleep

We have heard of so many rights-human rights, fundamental rights, natural right, legal rights etc. No the question is which type of right is right to sleep. In this regard we have already discussed that how sleep is very necessary for maintaining healthy life. We can realise that sleep is our inalienable natural and human right. While going through my entire article we will be understood how right to sleep can be considered as our legal, fundamental rights too.

First research question may come to our mind while going through the title of my article why and how sleep can be considered as a right and what is the basis of our right to sleep. Like all other mammal animal human needs sleep for its existence. That’s why it struck my mind that when sleep is an integral part of our daily life then it is quite logical to consider right to sleep as a part of right to life, one of our fundamental rights enshrined in Article 21 of our constitution. [4]

Second research question may come to our mind that why I have chosen right to sleep as my topic. During my childhood days I used to saw my elder brother who went to the office at late evening for its night shift and came back to home next day morning or noon. It was then a strange feeling of mine and I thought why he came so late. I realised after obtaining some maturity that he invest majority of time of his life to his office for a meagre salary. Due to the office schedule he was unable to enjoy family life, unable to spend quality time with friends or for fulfilling his long cherished dream or enjoying his personal space. Lack of work-life balance hampered his health. This is the condition of young generations in India. Like my elder brother many youth working day and night to ensure their basic livelihood. That’s why I have chosen this important but uncommon topic.

Third research question may come to our mind what is the basis of right to sleep and fourthly whether these rights can be enforced or not. All those questions will be explained and discussed in rest of this article.

We are approaching towards seventy five years of our independence, but still daily basic livelihood is like mirage in the desert. According to the global hunger index 2018, India stands at 108 out of 130 states8. In India, the 2018 index estimates that there were around 8 million people living in modern slavery in the country in 2016. In terms of prevalence there were 6.1 victims for every thousand people. Among 167 countries, India ranked 53 in terms of prevalence.9 According to NCRB report up to 2018-19 in India there are still prevalence of bonded and forced labour.10[5]

In my childhood days a question used to came to my mind that why night shift and for whom. Who awake all the night. I was introduced later about northern, southern hemisphere in geography but still I could not find the correct answer. My friend who is in B.P.O used to tell me they had to deal with U.S.A, U.K and other developed countries. I realised the bitter truth that we are economically not only backward but also heavily dependent on other developed countries and we all know that India is a hub of cheap labours.

India is suffering severely from unemployment and according to International Labour Organisation report11 there will be close to 19 million jobless people in India in 2019. India had unfortunately overtaken Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Maldova in the global unemployment ranking12. That’s why just securing minimum bread and butter youths in India irrespective of every states serving their blood and sweat for meagre earnings. According to tradingeconomics.com and Indiaspend.com low pay and wage inequality persists in India despite of 7% annual average G.D.P growth over the past two decades and by 2020 wages is expected to Rs 340.95/- day. Though it varies state by state in India from Rs 80/day to Rs 750/day. So we can understand where life is at stake, where primary goal is to ensure one square of meal, then any discussion of sleep is nothing but a luxury. When sleep is itself a luxury, when hunger, joblessness eats away peaceful sleep then there is no place of discussion for the right to sleep; though sleep is necessary part of our daily life. In fact I was not aware of right to sleep until I was introduced with constitutional law. Right to sleep has various other aspects and prospect. In the next chapter of this article this aspect and prospect will be discussed.[6]

Various aspect and interpretation of right to sleep

While conducting this research I felt that right to sleep is very broad concept. It not only has several prospect and aspect but also it has some allied rights. Right to sleep is deeply connected with economic justice and economic freedom. Youths in India forced to choose any kind of under employment. I feel if India had become self sufficient in all means, if the nation had already secure all its basic amenities then youth generation of today may have use those sleepless night for re constructing our nation to Super power. Though we are independent but not at all self sufficient and that’s why like all other third world countries India is also heavily dependent on foreign funds, aids. Those funds either directly came from those developed nations or through various multi-national companies. Those M.N.C set up their business here. We cannot disagree that all those money lending to developing or backward countries has profit motive. In my law school while I was taught on International law, heard of neo colonialism and neo neo colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, former President of Ghana, in his book  Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism13 wrote:

In place of colonialism, as the main instrument of imperialism, we have today neo-colonialism . . . [which] like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries….The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment, under neo-colonialism, increases, rather than decreases, the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world. The struggle against neo-colonialism is not aimed at excluding the capital of the developed world from operating in less developed countries. It is aimed at preventing the financial power of the developed countries being used in such a way as to impoverish the less developed.”

That’s why economic dependence is the road towards easy exploitation of youth. When we have no such job opportunities to prosper, to excel ourselves; when unemployment rate touching new heights every day, when availability of basic elements are lacking then who will dare to raise their voice against those exploitation, against those sleepless night. The answer is simply no one. No one will dare to question when answer will be simple termination. Middle class, lower middle class in this market of unemployment simply can’t afford to get hold of the termination letter.[7]

Imported technologies and transferring of expertise are another aspect of right to sleep and as a student of law when I was introduced with the Intellectual property rights and competition law found that how importing technologies has been used as a tool to exploit under developed and poor countries. Import of technology is obviously advantegous for saving time, money and energy but this often comes with modern form of imperialism attached to it by the supplier countries13. The suppler often unloads obsolete technology on the recipient, sometimes at a very high cost. Since the receiving country doesn’t have the technology, it may not even know how outdated the offered technology might be. The receiving country may have to depend on the donor country, especially in crucial areas like defence equipment. The donor may sell a defence aircraft, but with the condition that the receiver always buys spare and ancillaries from them, the receiver may never become self sufficient. When a country imports technology from more than one country for an industry, then the spare parts may not fit into various models. Another fact is most under developed countries suffers from bargaining weakness due to economic incapacity to introduce technologies in their own. Hidden clauses, costs are also creating hindrance to this technology transfer. Technological dependence though lacks of empirical studies but in reality it does exists. Technological dependence can be considered as the opposite of self sustenance and we all know self reliance is the only way to fight against all form of exploitation.

Right to sleep is a broad concept and this right has so many aspects. Right to have proper rest is one of the essential elements of right to sleep. The basic objective of sleep is rest. Every machine needs some rest to work again. Human is made of bone, flesh, blood, nerve and expected to work like machines for nonstop up to 18 hours. Working day and night nonstop, leaving all ambitions, family, personal space like a saint for sake of the job usually considered as virtue and those are promoted, awarded.

I feel smart work and completing all the work within the time limit is the key to progress, success and conquest. Proper quantity of quality sleeps re energise our body so we can work again with better [8]performance than yesterday. British philisopher  Bertrand Russel once said “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”15 While conducting this research I have found that the principle of the right to sleep has a close connection with the main protagonist of the May day revolution of the late 19th century to early 20th century. After the Industrial revolution so many labours were required to do specific or many kind of jobs in that industry. Owners forced those labours for their 15 to 16 hours non stop sweat. Working conditions were pathetic. These exploitation forced those labours for struggle to ensure their basic requirements and 8 hours per day job. At that time socialism was introduced to fight with these evil, money minded capitalist owner. I feel that the jurisprudence of right to sleep brought out of this revolution. It was initiate to tell all those profit mongers that by virue of capital power no one can deny their basic right to sleep peacefully which is essential for maintaining good health in our daily life.

In this article I have found that the right to proper rest and leisure echoes the same principle which is the soul of precious right to sleep. Martine Humblet and Lisa Hult in ‘The right to rest for domestic workers – Setting a floor’ article says:-

“The right ‘to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay’ is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art.24)….The situation is particularly dire for live-in domestic workers who are often expected to be available 24/7, to respond to the various needs of their employers. Moreover, even when they are legally entitled to breaks, daily and weekly rest, such rights can be difficult to enforce on employers of live in domestic workers. Several countries have already fulfilled the 11/24 minimum standard or are moving in this direction. As an example, Chile recently introduced new regulations regarding domestic workers. Live-in domestic workers have a right to 12 hours daily rest, of which 9 need to be consecutive, and both Saturdays and Sundays off. Working hours of live-out domestic workers are limited to 45 hours per week, with a maximum of 6 working days.”[9]

If one reads through the United states Constitution, will find no mention of right to leisure. In Mcculloch vs Maryland16 prevents the assertion that no social and economic rights are explicitly in the U.S Constitution from being the last word on the question of whether the Constitution embodies a right to leisure17. As Marshall emphasised, if a Constitution  spelled out everything its framers intended, it “would partake of prolixity of a legal code, and could be scarcely embraded by the human mind”18. Thus the right to leisure could be an implied constitutional right, found in the ‘penumbra’of express constitutional language in the way that the right to privacy in marriage and freedom of association were recognized in Griswold vs Connecticut19 as emnaitaion of various Bill of rights. In India right to leisure, right to rest is considered another aspects of right to life which is enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India- “It has then been urged for and on behalf of the petitioners that to ask the petitioners to work for 48 hours is clearly in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India which grants, protection of personal life and liberty. Right to personal life and liberty does not mean an animal existence. It also does not imply a dull, drab and monotonous life. It is wide enough to embrace within its fold to live with dignity and honour which would mean the right to leisure right to take rest, right to enjoy the life. If a man or an employee is deprived of all these things it would be a clear breach of his Fundamental Rights guaranteed to him under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Thus the life as referred to in Article 21 of the Constitution of India means a life full of colour with all its hues. A man is not an inanimate and insensate object of Nature. It is said the Slid of labour is to gain leisure; time to look after his family members; if he feels enervated and exhausted after arduous labour he deserves well earned rest- All these things are part and parcel of life to make it worth living.”20[10]

Right to sleep and Judicial decision

“None can claim an absolute right to suspend other rights or it can disturb other basic human rights and fundamental rights to sleep and leisure…”21

Justice Dipak Mishra said-“Life is a glorious gift from God. It is the perfection of nature, a masterpiece of creation. It is majestic and sublime. Human being is the epitome of the infinite prowess of the divine designer. Great achievements and accomplishments in life are possible if one is permitted to lead an acceptably healthy life. It has been said “life is action, the use of one’s powers” and powers one can use if he has real faith in life. The term ‘life’ as employed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India does never mean a basic animal existence but conveys living of life with utmost nobleness and human dignity – dignity which is an ideal worth fighting for and worth dying for.

Life takes within its fold ‘some of the finer graces of human civilization which makes life worth living. Right to live in its ambit includes right to health and health gives a serene and halcyon signification to life. It has been said that preservation of health is a duty and as per Herbert Spencer, ‘few seems conscious that there is such a thing as physical morality……. Every citizen is entitled under Article 21 of the Constitution to live in a decent environment and has the right to sleep peacefully at night. Not for nothing it has been said sleep is the best cure for waking troubles and the sleep of a labouring man is sweet. Sleep brings serenity. Lack of sleep creates lack of concentration, irritability and reduced efficiency. It cannot be lost sight of that silence invigorates the mind, energises the body and quitens the soul. That apart, the solitude can be chosen as a companion by a citizen. No one has a right to affect the rights of others to have proper sleep, peaceful living atmosphere and undisturbed thought.”22[11]

“From the journals and the reports placed before this Court, it is clearly evident that several millions of people in different parts of the world have had their hearing damages because of generating of these sounds. The noise not only creates pollution but it is also a source of annoyance. Noise is also created by traffic and noise also disturbs sleep. In our country the people have a right to sleep peacefully. A citizen too have right to a decent environment as highlighted by the Supreme Court in various decisions which are all well-known in the field of pollution. The effect of bad night sleep as highlighted by an eminent scientist in the field FIONA GODLEE in his article in British Medical Journal, in which it was stated that noise can have positive effects on health. The effect of bad night sleep includes mood change, reduce cardiovoscular performance and poor performance at intellectual and mechanical tasks and it was further observed, a recent review of research into noise and sleep recommends that sound at night in sleeping quarters should not exceed 45 dB(A). It was held that noise also adversely affects behaviour, increasing anxiety and reducing the incidence of helpful behaviour.”23

Justices B S Chauhan and Swatanter Kumar was unanimous on their verdict that the sleep is essential for a human being to maintain the delicate balance of health necessary for its very existence and survival. Sleep is, therefore, a fundamental and basic requirement without which the existence of life itself would be in peril.24[12]

A myth or a deadletter

Right to sleep is a necessary right for leading a healthy life. From our childhood days we all heard of a proverb-“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That means no rest no productivity no efficiency. Myntra, a fashion e commerce company introduced gym facilities, an engagement area featuring snooker, foosball, and table tennis and breakout areas for employee engagement in its office situated in Bengaluru25. Uber, Flipcart, Amazon, Youtube, Tata, hike, Google and other big giants in business introduced funzone, break out zone in its offices. According to Forbes, Designdesk and other leading institution for survey having game room at workplaces are a great way to boost energy and productivity of employees. This kind of initiative will increase creativity, morale, responsibility, job satisfaction, loyalty among employees. There will be less absenteeism26, stress, frustration.

Sleep sometime considered as a symbol of laziness but reality shares some different view. Even a machine cannot work tirelessly; its needs to be charged. Human body is like a living machine which is made of with bone, tissue, blood, nerves etc. Without rest or recharge machine will not work properly. Human is not an exception. Now the question is whether right to sleep is a myth or a dead letter.

While conducting this research I have found that right to sleep is a myth for under developed countries and a dead letter for all developing countries. Where having a square meal and water is prime concern there is no place for any other right. It is the bitter truth of this century. While making profit this should be remembered and reminded that human body is not a profit making machine. Being a social animal, every person needs some personal space also. Till now this suffering has been faced by millions without raising its voice in protest. None can deny that denying rest and leisure is a modern type of slavery.[13]

Providing employment does not necessarily means taking away of personal space, leisure, sleep or anything by which human body and mind gets refreshed, healthy and energy. That’s why I believe that if we need to implement right to sleep then prima facie at first we need to ensure minimum basic amenities of life. It is disturbing for me when I see somebody had to choose 12-18 hour shifts, without having rest to its ribs. Every employment organisation, companies, big business house should establish a proper welfare cell, fun room for its employees. They need to understand the difference between machine and human body. Being a welfare state, both Central and state Government can introduce welfare policy for the benefit of all working personnel specially for all the employees stationed in private sector.

I suggest there should be monitoring cell established and controlled by appropriate government from district to national level. This Monitoring Cell will look into any kind of unethical breach to the welfare policy adopted by the government and the wrong doers will be taken care of by the procedure established by law. According to me this modern type of slavery is nothing but a clear human right violation. Proper sleep makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. William Shakespeare once said-“We are such stuffs as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with sleep”27. I want to conclude this article by quoting-

“Your future depends on your dreams, so go to sleep”28

  1. (1995) 3 SCC 42; source https://racolblegal.com/
  2. com
  3. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/
  4. “Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession”, 29 October 1951. Pope Pius XII.
  5. AIR 1950 SC 27
  6. (1976) 2 SCC 521
  7. Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh 1963 AIR 1295, 1964 SCR (1) 332 source:indiankanoon.org
  8. https://www.globalhungerindex.org
  9. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/
  10. https://data.gov.in/resources/state-wise-details-bonded-labourers
  11. https://www.indiatoday.in › education-today
  12. https://tradingeconomics.com/country-list/unemployment-rate
  13. https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/
  14. Patel, Surendra J. “The Technological Dependence of Developing Countries.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1974, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/160080.
  15. https://www.standup4humanrights.org/layout/files/30on30
  16. 17 US 316 (1819)
  17. Kramer, Daniel C. “The Constitution and the Right to Leisure.” The Good Society, vol. 10, no. 2, 2001, pp. 64–67. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20711032.
  18. The Communist Manifesto: The quote can be found on P-14 of Marx and Engel- Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy,1959
  19. 19.381 US 479 (1965)
  20. Delhi Fire Service Karamchari vs Municipal Corporation Of Delhi; useful citation: 60 (1995) DLT 482
  21. Moulana Mufti Syed Md.Noorur Rehman Barkati and others Vs. State of West Bengal, AIR 1999 Calcutta 15
  22. Sayeed Maqsood Ali vs State Of M.P. And Others[AIR 2001 MP 220, 2001 (3) MPHT 459]
  23. Burrabazar Fire Works Dealers vs The Commissioner Of Police and Ors. AIR 1998 Cal 121
  24. Ramlila Maidan Incident v. Home Secretary, Union of India, (2012) 5 SCC 1
  25. https://www.scoopwhoop.com/best-office
  26. https://designdesk.in/benefits-introducing-fun-play
  27. https://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/we-such-stuff-dreams-made
  28. https://restonic.com/blog/quotes-better-sleep


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