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This article is written by Aman Verma and Amol Chauhan. This highlights the hardships being faced by lower strata of society during this pandemic in context of Right to Food and analyzing the implementation of the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA).

Introduction

While this pandemic Covid-19 might be one of its kind, an equally serious and ever-present problem i.e. hunger, has escalated. The countries hit by Covid-19 have imposed lockdown as a measure to contain the spread of novel coronavirus. The pandemic has brought up a grave situation for those who have already been facing the hardship of hunger. Unless certain actions are taken, it would result in sharp increase in the number of people suffering from acute hunger.

In India, the effect of ‘unplanned’, ‘tough’ lockdown is very clear as there are numerous reports of migrant workers going hungry after having run out of food and money. Since there was no resource left for them to feed themselves and their children nor there was any facilities provided or even seriously considered by the government, thousands of these workers along with their children decided to head towards their respective native place some thousands or more kilometres away, on their feet, some in broken slippers others literally barefooted, which dishearteningly made many of them to pay high price as number of them died in the middle of their long journey due to exhaustion and starvation. There has been a gravest of the grave incident where 17 migrant workers were mowed down by a freight train, as they fell asleep after being exhausted, on the track which they were following as a marker to their town. Many cases of migrant workers have been reported which shows the inhumane treatment these people are receiving by the authorities and villagers upon reaching their respective destination. They are being denied their entry by the people of their own town; certain videos are doing rounds where these workers can be seen getting sprayed with disinfectant chemicals along with their belongings in a very much unkind manner which is extremely disgusting; some of these workers who somehow manage to reach their native places are made to quarantine in such extremely untidy places such as toilets, where no one could afford to stay.

Needless to say, it is the responsibility of government to take extreme care of such vulnerable class of people by providing them support in such time of crisis. However, there is a survey (Stranded Workers Action Network SWAN) of migrant workers who were stranded across the nation which shows how the government has failed these workers by not supplying rations to 96% of them and any cooked food to 70% of them. As figures mention, since the imposition of lockdown, 89% of them had not been paid by their employers in this trying time. While their source of livelihood has been taken away, an alternate source of income or food has not been made available for all. 

Recently, the Supreme Court after hearing the PIL (Harsh Mander & Anr. vs. Union of India) filed by Senior Advocate Mr. Prashant Bhushan on behalf of petitioners Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj, concerning the situation of payment of wages of migrant workers, strictly ordered the respondent (Union of India) to look into such kind of situations and take steps which should suffice the concerns raised in this particular petition.

The other PIL in Supreme Court was filed by Advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava (Alakh Alok Srivastava vs. Union of India), concerning the welfare of the migrant workers by providing them with proper place/accommodation and basic amenities like food, clean drinking water, medicines etc. to which respondent Union of India presented status report claiming various help has been provided by the government to number of migrant workers, which the court found to be convincing. But clearly, there still remain a large number of them facing the severity of lockdown and are not able to access the basic amenities as can be seen in the survey by SWAN.

Right to Food as a Fundamental Right

The right to food is the most basic right required by a human to live. It has always been the one to be the most often proclaimed and also the most violated right. In the Constitution of India under Article 47, a directive principle, it is explicitly mentioned that it is the primary duties of state to ensure there is rise in level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and to improve the public health.

The Supreme Court has for a long time been committed to the right to food and has strengthened the right through many judgments. The landmark case of People’s union civil liberties (PUCL) vs. Union of India (also known as the Right to Food Case) is widely considered to be the most successful PIL till date. It is an ongoing case which has delivered important judgments and made the right to food enforceable and justiciable. On May 2, 2003 the Supreme Court gave an important order holding that the right to food to be an integral part of Article 21 – the right to life. It stated – “Article 21 of the Constitution of India protects for every citizen a right to live with human dignity.

The Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India observed that right to life under Article 21 includes the right to live with human dignity which means it is essential to include all the aspects of life (food being the most important one) which would make it meaningful, complete and worth living. Also, the court held in Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh that the need for a decent and civilized life includes the right to food, water and decent environment.

In Kishen Pattnayak and Ors vs. State of Orissa when the people of Kalahandi, Koraput and several other districts were dying of hunger, Justice P.N. Bhagvathi held that when social justice is the watchword of the constitution, no one in this country should suffer deprivation and exploitation.

There are three types or levels of obligations the right to food as a human right imposes on the state. These are:

  1. The duty to respect: The duty to respect the right to food is nothing but a duty to ensure that there is no hindrance with access to sufficient food. It is the duty of state to maintain such assurance.
  2. The duty to protect: The duty to protect the right to food requires state to ensure that any individual or any enterprise do not serve as an obstacle to other people of their access to adequate food.
  3. The duty to fulfill or facilitate human rights: The duty to facilitate connotes taking positive steps that strengthen people’s access to food and resources that allows better nutrition to them.

The government had to forego the first two duties by imposing the lockdown, which is understandable considering the absence of any alternative around the whole world. But it also imposes on the government the obligation to perform the third duty in the most efficient way possible.

Problems regarding food distribution and Role of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA)

The government came up with the National Food Security Act in 2013, which sets eligibility criteria for beneficiaries, accountability and quantity to be distributed. Public Distribution System (PDS) comes under the NFSA. It is the largest and the most important authority in combat against hunger. It is responsible to both the farmer and the consumer.

The minister for food and public distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, has repeated on multiple occasions that there is no shortage of rice, wheat or pulses with the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The stocked up quantity is so immense that it can be used to feed the beneficiaries for almost nine months. This reflects the problem in our system, what should be with the poor is stocked up in warehouses. On this issue, the Supreme Court had earlier observed that the death by hunger and starvation is up to the government. Primarily the court is more concerned that the abundance of food grains which is causing the storage receptacles to overflow, mainly which is in FCI godowns, should not be dumped into sea or eaten by the rats rather should reach the poor without any delay. Mr. Paswan had emphasized that the transportation of food grains is continuing with utmost efficiency to the PDS dealers but the job remains only half done as the most important and difficult task still remains i.e. distribution. The free distribution of rations is not happening as states are not doing the work efficiently under PDS.

Under Section 24(1) of the NFSA, it is the duty of the State Government to monitor the implementation of schemes issued by various Ministries and Departments of the Central Government. The states with a well-oiled system like southern Indian states perform these duties better than those states where corruption plagues the system (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar etc).

According to NFSA every person who is a “ration card” holder shall be entitled to collect rations from “fair price shops” under “targeted public distribution system (TPDS)”. All the states barring a few are distributing food grains to NFSA ration card holders and not taking into account those who are migrants, unregistered people or those who do not have card for the area in which they are stuck. 

As mentioned by Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan in an interview, under NFSA, 71crore people are supposed to get benefit across the nation. Unfortunately, 39lakh among these are left out as they do not hold ration cards, out of these 39lakh, 14lakh people are in Bihar.

Section 24(2)(b) of NFSA makes State Government responsible to ensure that foodgrains are delivered or supplied to entitled person of the concerned state. However, there are multiple reports of beneficiaries who have been denied their entitlement by being given a lesser quantity than they are supposed to receive.

Section 29 allows every State Government to set up Vigilance Committees for ensuring transparency and proper functioning of TPDS by regularly supervising the implementation of all the schemes under NFSA and to report to District Grievance Redressal Officer, if any violation or any kind of malpractice occurs in the system. A better implementation of this section would ensure that appropriate checks are in place to stop corruption in the lower levels of the PDS.

Suggestions

‘The availability of the food stock within the public distribution system is a weapon in the hands of authorities to combat starvation.’ stated in the book Hunger and Public Action (1991) by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen.

There are many migrants workers who are not eligible for the benefits in the region they are stuck. This calls for the universalization of distribution of the food grains at least for the next few months considering the vast stock of ration that we have. This can be done by providing those without the cards, temporary cards or some sort of identification. Filtering the beneficiaries in this time of crisis would help no one.

Police personnel, in Delhi, are seen preparing food for migrant workers, which shows that there is a dire need of volunteers or authorized personnel. The problem is of such vast proportions where more than half of the Indian population (71 crore people) is the beneficiary of government schemes. Personnel are required for distribution of the foodgrains to the ration card holders, identifying the people who require the benefit of the schemes but are not eligible for some reason, distributing cooked meal or uncooked foodgrains to those identified people. This course of action can be fulfilled only if State Government through notification assigns such additional responsibility to local authorities of their respective states (sub-sec. (2) of sec.25).

Conclusion

It is the need of the hour that all the parts of our machinery should work as hard and smooth as they can. The reports of any type of corruption or leakages in distribution should be taken very seriously and acted upon. The irregularities in the distribution are a direct violation of the right to food of the beneficiaries. Food being the most vital of things needed for survival, if denied would surely end in catastrophe.

The poor, particularly daily wage workers depend on their daily wages for survival. They neither have ration stocked up for the near future nor do they have any savings to support them. They do not have any social security to fall back on either. The government should understand the miseries of these poor people and should provide help in any possible manner, treating them inhumanely would just worse off their situation rather faith on us. It is very disheartening to see these workers who run our country by selling their labour are now in the time of crisis being treated in such a cruel manner. It should not be forgotten that these are the ones who build us humongous buildings for our residency.


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