Coming a long way as a nation dependent on food imports to feed its population, India today is not only self–sufficient in grain production, but also has a substantial reserve. The progress made by agriculture in the last four decades has been one of the biggest success stories of free India. Agriculture and allied activities constitute the single largest contributor to the Gross Domestic Product, almost 33% of it. Agriculture is the means of livelihood of about two–thirds of the work force in the country.
India no longer suffers through large-scale famines as it has in the past. It could feed all of its people, but it doesn’t. The problems are not rooted in the vagaries of natural phenomena, but in deeply embedded political and economic patterns. There are massive governmental programs to help poor people but the problem persists. Somehow, the benefits don’t reach the people who need them most.
Over the past decade, a series of events in India have brought the question of food security into sharp focus. Vast famine-affected areas versus surplus production and stocks of grains, the impact of globalization and World Trade Organization laws on agriculture and farmers, the media’s spotlight on starvation deaths and, finally, the Supreme Court of India’s strong reaction to the plight of the hungry—all make a case for recognizing the right to food.
THE SUPREME COURT CASE
It is a known fact that the central government keeps a large stock of many millions tons of grain and replenishes it every year, yet it does not help those who need it the most. On this backdrop, in April 2001, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) submitted a “writ petition” to the Supreme Court of India asking three major questions:
1. Starvation deaths are widespread while there is a surplus stock of grains in government warehouses. Doesn’t the right to life mean that people who are starving or who are too poor to buy food, gain access to the stored grains that is lying unused and rotting?
2. Does not the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India include the right to food?
3. Does not the right to food which has been upheld by the apex Court imply that the State has a duty to provide food to those who are not in a position to purchase food. Article 21 of the constitution, entitled “Protection of life and personal liberty”, says, in its entirety, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”.
In September 2001, the court directed that 16 states and union territories that had not identified families below the poverty line must do so within two weeks, so that those families could be provided with food assistance. After two weeks, on September 17, 2001, the court reprimanded them on their inaction and gave another 3 weeks extension to comply with the court order. The court also reminded the states that there are many schemes of the Central Government that are required to be implemented by State Governments, for example
The Court demanded a status report with regard to the implementation of all or any of these Schemes with or without any modification and if all or any of the Schemes have not been implemented then the reasons for the same. It also directed all state governments to take their “entire allotment of food grains from the Central Government under the various Schemes and disburse the same in accordance with the Schemes”.
In November 2001, the court directed the states to identify the needy falling under the eight major schemes and provide them with grain and other services by early 2002. For example, for the Targeted Public Distribution Scheme, “The States were directed to complete the identification of BPL (below poverty level) families, issuing of cards, and commencement of distribution of 25 kg grain per family per month latest by 1st January, 2002”.
IMPACT OF COURT’S INTERVENTION
As a result of active intervention and monitoring by the Supreme Court, the battle for the right to food has received a solid boost in the recent years. Today, the directions issued by the Supreme Court are one of the major components for implementing the right to food. In brief, the interventions of the court had three major impacts:
1. It converted the benefits of the eight nutrition-related schemes into legal entitlements;
2. It directed all state governments to begin providing a cooked midday meal for all children in government-assisted schools; and
3. It directed the state and central governments to adopt specific measures to ensure public awareness and transparency of these schemes/programs.