With half of its women and children malnourished, India is home to the largest population of malnourished people in the world. The PIL exposed the excessive amounts of food grains rotting in government granaries, while people continue to die of hunger and starvation. Representing the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Rajasthan), HRLN filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in April 2001 - seeking legal enforcement of the ‘Right to Food.’ The Court stepped in to stop the rot and corruption in the public distribution system and issued several orders strengthening various social security schemes. India is the first and only nation in the world to protect the right to food in its Constitution. Though much work needs to be done in order to enhance service, delivery and access to the above stated rights, the outcome of this historic case is a major victory for economic, social and cultural rights globally.
Case Details and Status
In 2001, during a visit to Jaipur it was observed that 5 kms. outside the city of Jaipur city, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns were overflowing with grains. The grains were kept outside the godowns and the rain had fermented the grain and it was rotting. 5 kms from the godowns was a village where the people were eating in rotation, classically called “rotation eating”, or “rotation hunger” where some members of the family eat on one day and the remaining persons eat on the other day. In 2001, 60 million tonnes were in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns, whereas the buffer stocks required were 20 million tonnes. The Government had 40 million tonnes above the buffer stock and people were dying of starvation - such were the reports all over the country. On that simple proposition the PUCL in Rajasthan filed a case, which came to the Supreme Court.
Due to lack of purchasing power, increasing debt, massive unemployment, natural disasters (i.e. droughts), and other factors, starvation remains a tangible and pressing threat to many across the country. According to figures of the Government of India, there are thirty-six crore people living below the poverty line and there are more than five crore people who are victims of starvation. In response, the PUCL sought recognition of the right to food under the Supreme Court in 2001.
India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is the world’s largest and most comprehensive edifice to safeguard national food security. It manages the large-scale procurement and distribution of grain; grants farmers a reasonable price to maintain production levels of cereals; and provides a means of distributing food grain and other basic commodities at subsidized prices to qualifying families. The petition pointed out that distribution of foodstuffs is irregular and often entirely absent. In 1997, the PDS requirements became “targeted” and granted different entitlements to households “Below the Poverty Line” (BPL) and to those “Above the Poverty Line” (APL). Today, both BPL and APL households are entitled to 35 kgs of grain per month, but the issue price is higher for APL households. Since the APL rate is beyond the means of most families in that category, the PDS is, by and large, restricted to BPL households. Even more, the amount given is hardly enough to fulfill the basic nutritional needs of a family.
In view of the availability of resources, the petition brought to notice the State and Central governments’ negligence in executing the above stated provisions. Despite the epidemic of hunger, statistics showed that food production increased in the 1990s, while availability of food declined. In Rajasthan, for example, close to 50 million tones of grain were lying idle in the government’s reserves while nearly half of the rural population is below the poverty line. Even worse, poor storage conditions have caused deterioration of much of the grains. Though the amount of food being wasted far outweighs the amount needed to assure food security, the government continues to pay the expense of storage instead of distributing it to those in dire need.
The court affirmed the right to food as necessary to uphold Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees the fundamental right to “life with human dignity.” It decreed that all the PDS shops, if closed, were to be re-opened within one week. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was ordered to ensure that food grains do not go to waste. The states were given the responsibility over implementation of the following schemes: the Employment Assurance Scheme, which may have been replaced by a Sampurna Gramin Yojana, Mid-day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme, National Benefit Maternity Scheme for BPL pregnant women, National Old Age Pension Scheme for destitute persons of over 65 years, Annapurna Scheme, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, National Family Benefit Scheme and Public Distribution Scheme for BPL & APL families. Additionally, issues of chronic scarcity and man-made droughts and famines were highlighted as major areas of concern.
Since the inception of the case in 2001, 427 affidavits have been submitted by the petitioner and respondents and 71 IA’s (interlocutory applications) have been filed. 21 of the main or important orders issued are available here. The case has contributed significantly in the consolidation and expansion of the National Campaign on the Right to Food. In a classic example, the combined action of a people’s campaign and the Courts has resulted in positively impacting millions of poor in India. However, much remains to be done to ensure effective implementation of the Court’s orders as well as to combat hunger and starvation.
The case has demonstrated that States cannot escape the responsibility of ensuring the Right to Food and the case continues – seeking to further strengthen the formulation and implementation of food and other related social security schemes.
Orders and Documents