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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 213
October 29, 2005

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Human Rights Monitor

Right to life and food adulteration

Dr Belal Husain Joy

The first and the foremost fundamental right of a man is 'Right to Life'. Article 32 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh states that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty save in accordance with law. What is Right to Life? To almost all of us, having every respect to the probable arguments, right to life is (1) adequate safe and clean food, (2) safe drinking water, (3) hygienic sanitation, (4) fairly comfortable sleeping arrangement, (5) medicine and (6) security. They are the basic necessities of a life just for a plain living. Article 15 of the Bangladesh Constitution confirms that it shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to secure those provisions of basic necessities. Of course, the Constitution itself will not describe all these elements in details. The lawmakers, the law interpreters (the Judiciary), the law enforcers, the law officers and the lawyers will explore the meanings to uphold those to comply with the fundamental rights in the Constitution of all citizens. Ironically, as of right, the citizens themselves can raise their voice, to bring attention of the Government, to provide those basic necessities, as they are the sole purpose of a Government and of the State.

In addition to those basic needs, we have our individual visions and missions, ideals, philosophies and beliefs; surrounded by socio-economic and political activities that are the essential elements to lead our lives as members of the community, the state, and the modern global society as a whole.

The above right to life is protected by law under Article 31 of the Bangladesh Constitution, stating that to enjoy the protection of law ... is the inalienable right of every citizen ... no action detrimental to the life, liberty, body, reputation or property of any person shall be taken except in accordance with law. This is clearly echoed in the Article 2 of the European Union Human Rights Act 1998 saying 'Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law'. Let's see how adequately the citizens of Bangladesh are protected with regard to the above basic necessities, in real life situation, to comply with the fundamental rights in the Constitution of the country.

In recent months, we see news, articles and public opinions in the media on the continued series of legal actions taken by the Government against food outlets on the ground of adulteration, contamination and other health hazards. This is undoubtedly good step, and the campaign is widely appreciated by the people of the country in general. There is no argument or apparent opposition to this other than some protests made by the owners, managers and workers of the shops, restaurants and hotels affected by such actions.

Legal actions, like fines, warrants for arrest to the concerned owners and managers and cases against adulterators are taken on the basis of examination of foods using only senses like taste, flavour, colour, texture etc. other than the general health and safety of the food premises; so far, from the press it is apparent that no scientific taste was made yet to draw the verdict. Such verdicts may face legal challenges in court, where the lawyers on behalf of the adulterators may demand scientific proof and/or justification in terms of their business rights and the government duties to prepare the food traders to perform their jobs efficiently and effectively and also up date them to comply with the Government Standard(s).

Admittedly, our people, in general, seriously lack basic knowledge on Health and Safety and Food Hygiene. Traders hardly know about the laws, restrictions and about punishments to be imposed in case of their breaches, apart from moral duties; consumers hardly know about their rights; government hardly undertook any awareness campaign for the traders and consumers; government's concerned departments hardly took any venture to train the food handlers. Frankly speaking, this is where the problem lies.

We have laws like Pure Food Ordinance of 1959, BSTI Act of 2003 and Bangladesh Penal Code of 1860 (sections 272-273) in addition to the Constitutional rights, duties, responsibilities and various provisions. Under the laws, the mobile courts are on patrol in the streets of various cities and towns to enforce laws and punish the perpetrators of adulteration of food products. BSTI is an appreciable initiative by the government for the purpose of formulating, adopting and monitoring a national standard for Bangladesh, but the food traders and consumers in general haven't yet seen any copy of the codified 'Bangladesh Standards' in relation to Food industry.

Although the on-going legal actions against the food traders are quite appreciable, but it is also true that such actions do not have long, effective and positive solution to the problem of food adulteration. We may have sufficient laws and legislations to back up the actions; practically we have to have a tri-dementional methodical approach in communicating information on enforcement of laws from the government to the traders and consumers. They may be as follows: (1) government should undertake a vigorous awareness campaign on Health and Safety and Food Hygiene for both the consumers and traders; (2) government should provide active training on Food Laws and role of the law enforcers to the concerning government officials; and (3) government should train the food handlers (owners, managers and employees) from food shops, restaurants, industrial caterers and hotels etc. We must remember that the way enforcement of law to punish the perpetrators is a must, exactly the same way punishing someone who has either very limited or no knowledge of food hygiene and health and safety is also not ordinarily acceptable by law.

The other name of 'water' is 'life' [ucvwbi Aci bvg Rxeb], a well known Bengali proverb; but it has been left uncared for by the Governments that came to power over the decades. The drives taken so far to supply water to the people living in the urban and rural areas, are found to be inadequate and also unsafe. Water and Sewerage Authorities (WASA) in Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna cities for years tried their best to meet the consumers' requirements in their respective jurisdiction. The water supplied by these authorities are boiled for a reasonably long time and filtered by the upper class consumers to make the water free from known bacteria and other germs, and the rest of the consumers drink the water directly from the tap having no other affordable means to purify it.

In addition to the filtering process, the elite class can also drink bottled water readily available for sale. However there are complaints and questions raised from time to time on the quality and safety of those bottled water too.

In the rural areas, tube wells are installed under private and public initiatives. The governments, for decades, with the help of overseas governments and international agencies, installed tube wells either on full grant or with subsidy and tried to supply drinking water throughout the country. But due to ill research and planning, three-fourth of the water sources in whole country are now found to be drastically affected by Arsenic. Thousands of people are suffering from various diseases as direct effect of the arsenic contaminated water. The matter has been raised by the Human Rights activists here at home and abroad, and demanded rescue of the affected people and taking preventive measures immediately. Many of those activists directly blamed the corrupt bureaucrats for such sufferings of the citizens today. This appears as a breach of right to life and demands the concerning personnel brought to justice. Surely, the country doesn't have shortage of experts, engineers and scientists in the field but maybe honest and patriotic bureaucrats.

However the Government undertook an initiative and drew a 'National Arsenic Mitigation Policy and Plan 2004' to protect the constitutionally guaranteed right to life, including the right of access to safe water of individuals and communities across the country. Only formulating policy and drawing plan is not enough to justify the Government position on ensuring safe water supply to the people. In 1999, a former lawmaker, Barrister Rabia Bhuiyan, filed a petition before the High Court Division challenging the 'failure' of the Government to take effective and adequate steps to protect the constitutionally guaranteed rights to life. The petition was rejected by the High Court Division and the Appellate Division granted leave to appeal against the High Court judgement. On 27th August 2005, in response to the pleading for the appellant by Dr Kamal Hossain, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court directed the Government to take necessary and effective steps to implement the National Policy and Plan 2004 and to comply with its legal duties to provide safe water supply. The saddest part of life is, the people will have to wait for implementation of the policy to get adequate supply of safe drinking water, probably for another decade or so. In the mean time, thousands of others will die or suffer from deadly water-borne diseases; hopefully the bureaucrats and others at the helm will not be one of them.

Hygienic sanitation and appropriate sewerage facilities are also fundamental rights as a part and parcel of the right to life. Food and Sanitation go side by side. Ensuring only supply of food without providing sanitation and sewerage facilities are of no substantial meaning. Providing sanitation and sewerage facilities to every single citizen of the country is the fundamental responsibility of the Executive.

Unfortunately, if we forget the governments that came to power during Pakistan regime, the failures of the governments since 1972 till to-date cannot be forgiven, for such breach of fundamental rights, allowing causes for nationwide health hazard. Although sanitation and sewerage facilities are installed in large cities, the fact is, much of the system is found to be ineffective and remain as the same as widely found in the rural areas, the open sanitation system.

Admittedly, the Department of Public Health and Engineering, with the help of the donors, has been trying its best to provide the sanitation facilities especially in the rural areas, but compared to the demands and requirements, they are still extremely inadequate.

Learned from a news, published on 28th August last in a section of print media that 31 public toilets out of the newly built 36 in Dhaka city will soon be opened for use. The news also confirmed that the toilets were constructed with Asian Development Bank funds and 96 more toilets will be constructed by the City Corporation with the financial assistance of the government and the Asian Development Bank. This is a good initiative and we are grateful to the donors for their assistance in this project.

But again the fact raises a series of questions like, who will be managing those toilets? Will they be managed up to the standard required? Who will ensure that the toilets be kept safe from potential health hazard? If the managers of the toilets are not capable of doing the job, then the project may create an example of another failure. On the other hand, if they are successful, such ventures can be taken to the other cities and towns of the country.

Discussing on food, water and sanitation require technical experts, here we wanted to address it only from the legal and management points of view. Article 18 of the Bangladesh Constitution again confirms that the State shall regard the raising of the levels of nutrition and improving public health as its primary duties. On one hand we, as citizens, have our rights to life; on the other, the State has the fundamental responsibility to ensure provision of basic necessities, maintain law and order and provide security to the people. We, as citizens are deprived of our rights and the State and its Executive arms are constantly failing to discharge their duties. Who bothers? Where do we go?

The author is a researcher and Barrister-at-law.


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