Legal Action


The right to food campaign is an outgrowth of a "public interest litigation" on the right to food. This litigation began with a writ petition submitted to the Supreme Court by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in April 2001. The petition focuses on the general need to uphold the right to food, which follows from the fundamental "right to life" enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (interpreted in earlier Supreme Court judgements as a right to live with dignity).

This case, technically known as "PUCL vs Union of India and others (Writ Petition [Civil] No. 196 of 2001)", is handled by an advisory group consisting of a few members of PUCL, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the right to food campaign. Supreme Court hearings have been held at regular intervals since April 2001, and the case has attracted wide national and international attention. Although the judgment is still awaited, significant "interim orders" have been passed from time to time. For instance, the Supreme Court has passed orders directing the Indian government to: (1) introduce cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools, (2) provide 35 kgs of grain per month at highly subsidized prices to 15 million destitute households under the Antyodaya component of the PDS, (3) double resource allocations for Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana (India's largest rural employment programme at that time, now superseded by the Rural Employment Guarantee Act), and (4) universalize the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). See the list of interim orders for further details.

The PUCL petition essentially argues that the right to food is a fundamental right of all Indian citizens, and demands that the country's gigantic food stocks (about 50 million tonnes of grain at that time) should be used without delay to prevent hunger and starvation. The right to food can be seen as a corollary of the fundamental "right to life" (Article 21 of the Indian Constitution), in so far as it is impossible to live without food. As the Supreme Court itself noted in an interim order dated 2 May 2003, "reference can also be made to Article 47 which inter alia provides that the State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties".

The petition highlights two aspects of the state's negligence in ensuring food security: the breakdown of the public distribution system (PDS), and the inadequacy of relief programmes in drought-affected areas. Following on this, it asks the Supreme Court to intervene, by directing the government to (a) provide immediate open-ended employment in drought-affected villages, (b) provide unconditional support to persons unable to work, (c) raise the PDS entitlement per family, and (d) provide subsidised foodgrain to all families. The petition also requests the court to order the central government to supply free foodgrain for these programmes.

Interim applications submitted from time to time by PUCL have further enlarged and consolidated these demands. The initial petition focused on the drought situation prevailing at that time, especially in Rajasthan, but the litigation now has a much broader scope. The main concern is to put in place permanent arrangements to prevent hunger and starvation. The interim applications advocate the introduction of a nation-wide "employment guarantee act", combined with social security arrangements for those who are unable to work.

For a user-friendly introduction to the right to food case and the Supreme Court orders, see Supreme Court Orders on the Right to Food: A Tool for Action.    

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