The 'Right to Food' Case

[w/p (civil) 196 of 2001]

To read to full petition click here

The prevalence of "hunger amidst plenty" in India took a new turn in mid-2001, as the country's food stocks reached unprecedented levels while hunger intensified in drought-affected areas and elsewhere. This situation prompted the People's Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan) to approach the Supreme Court with a writ petition on the "right to food". Initially, the case was brought against the Government of India, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), and six state governments, in the specific context of inadequate drought relief. Subsequently, the case was extended to the larger issue of chronic hunger, with all states and union territories as respondents.The legal basis of the petition is simple. Article 21 of the Constitution is a guarantee of the "right to life", and imposes upon the state the duty to protect it. This right is fundamental. The Supreme Court has held in previous cases that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity and all that goes along with it, including the right to food. The petition argues, in essence, that the response to the drought situation by central and state governments, in terms both of policy and implementation, constitutes a clear violation of this right. The bulk of the petition is attempts to establish this using (government and field-based) data from Rajasthan.The petition points out two aspects of the state's negligence in providing food security. The first is the breakdown of the public distribution system (PDS). The failures of the PDS arise at various levels: its availability has been restricted to families living below the poverty line (BPL), yet the monthly quota per family cannot meet the nutritional standards set by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Even this is implemented erratically: a survey in Rajasthan indicated that only one third of the sample villages had regular distribution in the preceding three months, with no distribution at all in one sixth of them. The identification of BPL households is also highly unreliable. All in all, the assistance provided to BPL households through the PDS amounted to less than five rupees per person per month.The other focus of the petition is the inadequacy of government relief works. Famine Codes operational in various states govern the provision of these works, and make them mandatory when drought is declared. Despite being required to give work to "every person who comes for work on a relief work", the Rajasthan government has followed a policy of 'labour ceilings', which restrict employment to less than 5 per cent of the drought affected population, by the government's own statistics. Actual employment has been even lower, and failure to pay the legal minimum wage has been reported at many places.The petition demolishes one official excuse for both these problems, namely the lack of funds. The Supreme Court has already held that shortage of funds cannot excuse the failure to fulfil constitutional obligations. In any case, that excuse is singularly inapplicable, given the availability of gigantic food stocks. The state government has repeatedly requested free grain for relief works from the central government, with little success. However, its failure to utilise the quantities already allotted to it undermines its own case.

The petition concludes with a request to the Supreme Court to intervene. Specifically, the petition asks the court to order the Government of Rajasthan to (a) provide immediate open-ended employment in drought-affected villages, (b) provide "gratuitous relief" to persons unable to work, (c) raise the PDS entitlement per family and (d) provide subsidised foodgrain to all families. Finally, the petition requests the court to order the central government to supply free foodgrain for these programmes.