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In this article, Anupam Pandey and Danish Ur Rahman S analyse the case of the People’s Union for Civil Liberty v. the Union of India in light of the right to food being a fundamental right of an individual. Through the course of this article, the authors analyse the various intricacies related to the right to food, like the welfare schemes and policies of the government and, most importantly, the functioning of the Public Distribution System within the country. They also dwell into the essential concept of Continuing Mandamus and the role played by it throughout the case. 

It has been published by Rachit Garg.

Table of Contents

Introduction 

One who is born into this world has an inherent and inalienable right to life. Mere animal existence and fulfilling the animal needs of a man cannot be considered to be part of a proper life and livelihood. A person should not be arbitrarily deprived of his life by anyone. Article 21, incorporated in Part III of the Indian Constitution, guarantees the right to life and livelihood. “The right to food is an inbuilt and inalienable part of the right to life that cannot be compromised on any ground. The right to live guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food, water, a decent environment, education, medical care, and shelter.” “The right to an adequate standard of living for an individual and for his family, including food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions, is also included under the wide ambit of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.”

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Despite gaining independence from the British decades ago, the lack of technology, modernization, transparency, accountability, and incapacity has left the nation under the clasp of slavery to unhygienic conditions, malnutrition, and undernutrition, and devoid of other basic life amenities. Considering the fact that the right to food is one of the most basic necessities and rights of an individual, a writ petition was filed by PUCL in the Supreme Court against the State to protect the right to food.

Right to Food

Living a life with dignity should not be considered a dream but rather a reality. However, in several developing and underdeveloped countries, it is still considered to be a dream for many families. An individual’s human rights could be compromised on many grounds, and food is one such ground, depriving a person of his human rights.

The right to food ensures an opportunity for appetite and access to safe and nutritious sustenance. Several key human rights principles are fundamental to guaranteeing the right to food:

  1. Availability: The quality and quantity of the food should not be compromised and it should be available to every human being on the planet to satisfy their dietary needs.
  2. Adequacy: The quantity and quality of the food should be adequate so that a person can survive a normal life and exist in this world.
  3. Accessibility: Food should be physically and economically accessible in ways that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.
  4. Sustainability: Food should be secure or accessible and should not compromise with either present or future generations.
  5. Non-Discrimination: There should be no discrimination regarding the accessibility to food, as well as the means and entitlements for its procurement, on any ground such as caste, creed, race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinions, birth or other status, which constitutes a violation of the right to food.

Right to Food under Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an international document adopted by the United Nations to ensure the human rights of all humans. The UDHR has declared that everyone who has been born has an inherent right to a standard livelihood adequate for the  good health and well-being of himself and his family. The well-being includes food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

The United Nations in 1948 was the first to declare access to food a right through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and after that, it was inculcated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and India is a party to it. India also joined political affirmations like the 1996 Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit by vowing to keep its political promise to guarantee its citizens access to satisfactory sustenance such as food and shelter.

Under International Law, the right to food is protected by:

  • Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
  • Articles 24 and 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 declares that everyone on earth has the right to a standard of living adequate for himself and his family concerning health and well-being. This well-being includes food, clothing, medical care, and housing.

The right to adequate food was originally adopted in the UDHR under Article 25, but it was more explicitly developed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which was approved in 1966 and enforced 10 years after the date of its approval in 1976. Article 11 of the ICESCR states that the right of everyone to an adequate living also includes the right to food.

In November 1974, the United Nations General Assembly convened the World Food Conference, which adopted 22 resolutions and Universal Directions to eradicate Hunger and Malnutrition. All the participating countries affirmed the implementation of the declaration passed by the United Nations. There are certain conventions that deal with the Right to Food for any particular group, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, where the conventions insist that every single child is provided with an ample amount of nutritious food. 

Right to Food under the Indian Constitution

The Indian Constitution is progressive and dynamic, and it seeks to ensure justice, equity, and liberty for every citizen of India. The right to food is not a fundamental right explicitly mentioned in Part III of the Indian Constitution, but it can be derived from Article 21. Article 21 envisages the right to life and livelihood, which implies that to live, one needs food and bereavement of food would explicitly imply bereavement of the right to life.

Article 47 in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, under the directive principles of state policy, reads, “The State should consider its primary duties as improving the standard of nutrition, the standard of living of the citizens and improving public health. The State should also consider the prohibition of the consumption of intoxicating and harmful drinks and drugs except for medical purposes.” It implies that it shall be the duty of the state to provide an adequate amount of nutritious food to people for their sustainability and standard of living.

The right to food is one of the most basic fundamental rights that is required to achieve economic democracy. A few years ago, with mass hunger prevalent in India, the nutrition indicators in the country had drastically dropped, portraying a situation of “silent emergency” emerging within the nation. The nutrition situation in India a few years before the case of PUCL v. Union of India was a ‘silent emergency’. The right to food can be achieved through three different approaches: through democratic practice, through legal action, and public perceptions.

The PUCL v. Union of India case focuses on recognizing the right to food through legal action, and the right to food can be achieved by linking it  with other social and economic rights like the right to education, the right to work, the right to health, and the right to information. There should be other kinds of intervention from the government for the realization of the right to food as a fundamental right, like reviving the DPSP in Part IV of the Indian Constitution.

Thus, after amalgamating Article 21 and Article 47, it could be inferred that the right to food is not an explicit fundamental right but an implied right under the right to life and personal liberty.

PUCL approached the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution for the enforcement of fundamental rights with the issue of the writ of mandamus.

People’s Union For Civil Liberty v. Union Of India (UOI)

Facts of the case

In 2001, it was observed that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns, which were about 5 km away from the city of Jaipur, were overflowing with grains. The grains were rotting due to the fermentation of rainwater, which had percolated down in the grain stock as it was kept outside the godowns. There was a village near the godown where the village people were eating in rotation, classically called “rotation eating” or “rotation hunger,” where some members of the family ate on one day and the remaining persons ate on the other day. In 2001, 60 million metric tons were in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns, whereas the buffer stocks required were 20 million metric tons. The government had 40 million metric tons above the buffer stock but still people were dying of starvation—such were the reports all over the country. In response to that, the PUCL in Rajasthan filed a case, which came to the Supreme Court.

Lack of purchasing power, massive unemployment, natural disasters (i.e., droughts), and other factors resulted in the starvation and death of many poor people and are still a hanging knife in the neck of the country. According to figures from the Government of India, thirty-six crore people are 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 (hereinafter referred to as “PDS”) is the world’s largest and most comprehensive edifice to safeguard national food security and it is responsible for the procurement and distribution of food grains at a reasonable price to both farmers and consumers. The petition pointed out that the distribution of food grains is irregular and arbitrary and there has been a lack of transparency in the distribution system.

Questions raised in People’s Union For Civil Liberty v. Union Of India (UOI)

Advocate Colin Gonsalves and his group filed the PIL of PUCL v. UOI, which brings up three related issues and requests the Supreme Court’s supposition on issues concerning the right to food in India. The issues relating to this case are:

  1. Who is responsible for the wastage of several amounts of food grains in the government godowns when there were several deaths due to starvation? 
  2. Whether the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 also includes the right to food? 
  3. If Article 21 includes the right to food, whether the government must fulfil that right for people who cannot afford food?

Petitioner’s argument in People’s Union For Civil Liberty v. Union Of India (UOI)

The Supreme Court has evolved the ambit of the right to life to a vast extent and it has also inculcated the right to food as a part of the right to life in many of its previous judgments, like Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administration (1981), wherein it was held that Article 21 is not just limited to mere animal existence but a life with dignity. And hence, the right to life also includes the right to food. The writ has been filed in response to the government’s action, which negated its obligation to supply food to the drought-hit region, due to which many people starved to death.

Petitioner’s reasoning

Due to the negligence of the state, the public distribution system had been vastly disrupted, which eventually led to the restriction of distribution to people living below the poverty line since 1997. The inadequacy of the government was also contended regarding giving relief work to the people to earn a means of livelihood.

Petitioner’s prayer

The petitioner requested the Supreme Court to intercede, issue a writ of mandamus and direct the administration:

  1. To implement the famine code in the famine-hit states. 
  2. To release the surplus stored food grains to meet the shortage of food grains.
  3. To revise the PDS framework and frame a fresh scheme and policy of public distribution for scientific and reasonable distribution of grains to poor people at subsidised rates.

Interim decisions

The Court attested to the privilege of sustenance, i.e., the right to food, as an important constituent to maintain Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which ensures the fundamental and human right to “life with human dignity.” The Supreme Court directed that every PDS shop that has been shut down should be re-opened within one week of the order. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was directed to make sure that food grains don’t go wasted and should be provided to the village people in the drought-hit area.

The states were given the duty over the execution of the accompanying plans: the Employment Assurance Scheme, which may have been supplanted by a Sampurna Gramin Yojana; the Mid-day Meal Scheme; the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS); the National Benefit Maternity Scheme for Below Poverty Line (BPL) pregnant women; the National Old Age Pension Scheme for old people of more than 65 years; the Annapurna Scheme; the Antyodaya Anna Yojana; the National Family Benefit Scheme; and the Public Distribution Scheme for BPL and APL families. Furthermore, issues of incessant shortages, man-made dry seasons and starvation were highlighted as real zones of concern. An order regarding the residence of homeless people was sought out and the government was made to construct night shelters.

With the continuance of the case and the passing of the interim orders, the Supreme Court gradually defined the right to food in terms of the right to life and the policies that the government requires to fulfil this obligation under Article 21. 

Result of interim decision

The interim orders in the case of PUCL v. Union of India had a great impact on society because of their focus on social welfare and social well-being. The Supreme Court took every possible step to enhance the right to food in the country. The various results of the interim orders are discussed in detail in the upcoming part of the article.

Commissioners of the Supreme Court

For the effective implementation of the interim orders passed by the court, the commission was created on May 8, 2002. It was created to address the grievances of the people related to the food entitlement schemes. It appointed advisors for each state to address and refer the grievances to the Supreme Court. In order to achieve its primary objective, which was to ensure the proper implementation of the Supreme Court’s interim orders, the Commission collected and analysed data from the state and central governments regarding food and employment schemes.

D.P. Wadhwa Committee

The Supreme Court appointed Commissioners to monitor the execution of the various welfare schemes framed by the Government of India for the benefit of the poorer and deprived sections of society. It also appointed a High Powered Committee headed by Justice D.P. Wadhwa, a former Judge, called the Central Vigilance Committee. It was the duty of this committee to monitor the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the violation of any interim order passed by the court in this case.

National Food Security Act

On June 4, 2009, the President of India addressed the Parliament and announced that the government would enact new legislation – the National Food Security Act—that would provide a statutory basis for a framework that would assure food security for every individual. The primary focus of the act is on the PDS of food grains and it further intensifies the need for monitoring of its execution mechanisms.

PUCL v. UOI and Public Distribution System (PDS)

The aspect of  continuing mandamus was witnessed in the case of PUCL v. UOI  for 16 years and aided in the regulations and changes made in the Public Distribution System to make it effective and useful. In the original petition, it was requested by the PUCL from the court to order the government to frame a fresh scheme of public distribution system for scientific and reasonable distribution of grains. Its work would be to grant food grains at a subsidised rate to families with ration cards on a reasonable basis.

Public Distribution System (PDS)

Before People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) v. Union of India (2001), the Public Distribution System had a very long history. It was one of the most important government schemes that revolutionised food distribution to needy people.

History of Public Distribution System (PDS)

The Public Distribution System of essential food commodities came into existence during World War II in India, but the PDS for the distribution of food grains to families happened in the event of critical food shortages in the 1960s. The Public Distribution System is not just helpful to families with food shortages but also to the farmers from whom the government buys food grains at fair prices for distribution in Fair Price Shops (FPSs). 

The Public Distribution System (PDS) is a system to manage the scarcity of food in the country by distributing foodgrains at affordable prices to families and individuals who need them. It is one of the most crucial government policies for the prevention of scarcity of food among the common public and for the management of the scarcity of food. 

Under the scheme of the PDS, commonly used commodities like rice, wheat, sugar, dal, cooking oil, and kerosene are distributed to the public at affordable prices. The Public Distribution System is jointly operated under the responsibility of both the Central and the State or Union Territories governments.

Responsibility of the Central Government in the Public Distribution System

The Central Government’s responsibility is to ensure that there is a bulk allocation of food grains supplied to the State and Union territories for distributing those food grains through the PDS stores to the public. The Central Government is responsible for procuring, storing, and transporting food grains to the State and UTs.

Responsibility of the State/UT Government in the Public Distribution System

The State or Union Territory government is responsible for identifying the families eligible for the food grains distributed at affordable prices in the PDS stores, issuing the ration cards to the families, and supervising the PDS stores’ functioning. PDS stores are also described as Fair Price Shops (FPSs).

Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS)

The Targeted Public Distribution System is another food management scheme initiated by the Central Government to distribute food grains to poor families who fall under the Below Poverty Line (BPL). The States used state-wise poverty estimates from the Planning Commission for the years 1993-1994, for the identification of the poor. The TPDS provided a little excess amount of food grains to the families who come under BPL. Also, the price was reduced to 50% for Below Poverty Line families; this was possible because the Above Poverty Line families were required to pay 100% of the economic cost so that the families in BPL could benefit.

Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY)

The Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) was a step ahead of the TPDS, wherein it directed the TPDS among the poorest of poor segments of the BPL. It was found in a National Sample Survey Exercise that about 5% of the total population of India is hungry and sleeps without even two square meals a day. The Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) was launched in 2000, covering more than one crore of the poorest of the poorest families under BPL.

The Antyodaya Anna Yojana provided food grains to the poorest of the poorest families at a subsidised rate of just Rs. 2 per kg for wheat and Rs. 3 per kg for rice. The distribution cost, along with the margin given to retailers and dealers, was to be borne by the State/UT government. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AYY) scheme was initially provided to the one crore poorest of the poor families, but it has been extended to cover nearly 2.50 crores of such families. 

The first expansion happened in the year 2003-2004 when the AAY scheme was expanded to 50 lakh BPL families, which are headed by widows, terminally ill persons, disabled persons, or persons aged above 60 years. The second expansion in the year 2004-2005 further expanded to 50 Lakh more families who were at risk of hunger and they included landless agricultural labourers, primitive tribal families, and rural craftsmen like potters, weavers, blacksmiths, hand cart pullers, snake charmers, etc. The third and final expansion of 50 lakh more families happened in the years 2005-2006.

PUCL v. UOI interim orders on Public Distribution System

The interim orders issued by the Supreme Court regarding the Public Distribution System can be classified into two categories, interim orders passed before the formation of the D.P. Wadhwa Committee, and interim orders passed after the formation of the D.P. Wadhwa Committee. The Wadhwa Committee was influential in the passing and implementation of the interim orders passed by the Supreme Court. 

Interim orders before the formation of the D.P. Wadhwa Committee

The D.P. Wadhwa Committee was not created initially in the case of PUCL v. UOI, but it was created after the passing of several interim orders by the Supreme Court. The D.P. Wadhwa Committee solely focuses on giving reports and recommendations on the subject of the Public Distribution System. 

The PUCL v. UOI order of 23 July 2001

This interim order had the Supreme Court’s opinion that the utmost importance to be given to the distribution of food through PDS is to the aged, disabled, infirm, pregnant and lactating women, and destitute men, women, and children who are at risk of starvation as they and their family members lack funds to provide food for themselves. The Supreme Court, through this first interim order of the writ petition PUCL v. UOI, directed all the States to check all the PDS shops and if any of them were closed, it ordered the same to be reopened and operating within one week of the date of this interim order.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 17 September 2001

In this interim order, the Supreme Court was dissatisfied with the States and the Union Territories for failing to identify the families falling within the Below Poverty Line (BPL) under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. The Attorney General had listed out the States and the Union Territories that failed to identify the Below Poverty Line families.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 28 November 2001

The Supreme Court, while passing this interim order on the writ petition of PUCL v. UOI, focused mainly on two issues regarding the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY).

Interim Order on Public Distribution System

The Supreme Court stated in this interim order that there has been full compliance from the Union of India regarding the allotment of foodgrains to the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The Supreme Court directed the Union of India to take the necessary steps in the States that are showing instances of non-compliance. A direction was given to the States by the Supreme Court to complete the process of identification of BPL families and to issue the cards for the PDS shops, and an order was passed for the commencement of distributing 25 kg of food grains per month to the eligible families.

Interim order on Antyodaya Anna Yojana

The Supreme Court stated in this interim order that there has been full compliance from the Union of India regarding the allotment of foodgrains to the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY). The Supreme Court directed the Union of India to take the necessary steps in the States that are showing instances of non-compliance. A direction was given to the States by the Supreme Court to complete the process of identification of the beneficiaries for the distribution of the food grains. The Supreme requested that the States and the Union Territories provide the food grains free of cost to the families who could not afford to buy the food grains even under AAY due to penury.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 08 May 2002

The Supreme Court ordered clarifications from the Union and the States regarding the issue relating to the non-identification of the BPL families and the Supreme Court asked to work out a  policy to redress the same. The Union and State governments were directed to ensure that the ration shops remain open throughout the month and the details of the same should be displayed on a notice board. In this interim order, the Supreme Court Commissioners were appointed to redress complaints regarding the interim orders and to supervise the implementation of the Supreme Court orders. The Commissioners were asked to get help from the NGOs if needed. The appointed Supreme Court Commissioners were Dr. N. C. Saxena and Mr. S. R. Sankaran.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 29 October 2002

The Supreme Court, in this interim order, gave one last chance to the States and the Union Territories to publicise the orders passed by the Supreme Court along with their translation in the regional languages. The Supreme Court, through this order, ordered that each State should appoint one officer for the assistance of the Supreme Court commissioners. The Court held that if any starvation deaths occur in the States, then the respective Chief Secretaries will be held liable.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 02 May 2003

This interim order from the Supreme Court played a major role in the Public Distribution System by regulating some authorities. The Supreme Court ordered the Union government to evolve a system wherein all eligible poor families are identified as BPL families. The BPL families who could not buy the food grains by paying the full amount in the ration shops were now allowed to buy them in instalments. The Supreme Court ordered the cancellation of the licences of the ration shop dealers in the following circumstances:

  1. When the PDS stores or the ration shops are not open on time,
  2. When the stores overcharge for the food grains,
  3. If the stores make fake entries in the Below Poverty Line family cards,
  4. If the stores retain the Below Poverty Line family cards,
  5. If the stores engage in black marketing of the food grains.

The Supreme Court ordered to give Antyodaya Cards to the following people

  1. All the primitive tribes;
  2. The widows and other single mothers and women who do not have regular support;
  3. Old persons aged 60 and above who do not have any regular support;
  4. Families and households that have a disabled adult with no assured subsistence;
  5. Aged, disabled, destitute, infirm men and women, pregnant and lactating women;
  6. Households where family members have to take care of their members who are old, who lack mental and physical fitness, and who are disabled.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 20 April 2004

The Supreme Court, in this interim order, directed the States and Union Territories governments not to use the BPL criterion for the selection of Antyodaya beneficiaries in respect of tribes. The Supreme Court ordered the issuing of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) cards to all the tribes immediately.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 09 May 2005

The Supreme Court of India, in this interim order, directed the States and the Union Territories governments to respond to the suggestions and complaints made by the Supreme Court commissioner on matters of the Public Distribution System.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 12 July 2006

The Supreme Court formed a committee, headed by former Supreme Court Judge Justice Wadhwa, to look into various issues regarding the Public Distribution System (PDS). The Supreme Court commissioner, Dr. N.C. Saxena, will assist the committee.

Justice D.P. Wadhwa Committee

The Central Vigilance Committee on the Public Distribution System, headed by Justice D.P. Wadhwa, was passed on the interim order of July 12, 2006, which had a significant impact on the right to food campaign. The Committee was primarily directed to focus on four main issues relating to PDS and was asked for remedial recommendations for the same issues. The Committee was directed to focus on:

  1. The method of appointment of dealers in the FPS;
  2. The viability of commission payable to dealers; 
  3. The proper functioning of vigilance commissions for PDS.

Appointment of dealers in the PDS

The Committee focused primarily on the eligibility conditions of the dealers to be appointed, the proper functioning of the shop premises, the time for the selection process, and the procedure for renewal of Fair Price Shops (FPS). The Committee gave certain recommendations dealing with the appointment of dealers in the PDS and they are summarised as:-

  • The existing guidelines regarding the appointment of dealers should be consolidated and should be published through the press and on the Internet through the website of the Department for information for the use of the general public;
  • The prescribed time of 56 days is to be reduced to 42 days required for the completion of the selection process of the dealers in the PDS shops;
  • Where the FPS needs new dealers or when the FPS is facing any vacancies, the person who is going to be appointed as a dealer should be a resident of the concerned circle where the FPS is located.
  • The Department’s guidelines for creating an FPS in any particular area only when there is a minimum of 1000 cards available in the area should be strictly followed. This can prevent the unnecessary establishment of FPS shops.
  • Cooperative societies or women’s self-help groups are to be considered while allocating dealerships for FPS vacancies.

The viability of commission payable to dealers

The committee focused on the inconsistency in paying the commission to the PDS dealers. The dealers were not getting enough commissions for various reasons, ranging from less enrolment of food cards for the particular FPS or PDS shop, delay in supply of food grains, unequal distribution of food or ration cards, higher transportation costs, short supply of goods, and a commission cutoff too low by the government. Thus, the committee focused on the above issues and made recommendations, which are summarized below:

  • The Department of Food, Civil Supplies, and Consumer Affairs (“Department”) should take over the transportation arrangement more seriously and the cost involved in the transportation should be based on the actual cost of the food grains instead of the selling cost.
  • The Department should focus on reducing the present unequal distribution of food cards by an FPS to increase the commission payable to the dealers.
  • An automated system of payment by commission is to be made to improve the delay in the payment. E-banking should be favoured.
  • Incentives are to be given to the dealers if they manage to sell other commodities in addition to essential food grains like rice and wheat.
  • The delay in delivery of the food grains to the PDS shops should be fixed with accountability.
  • The cost of transportation should not be the responsibility of the dealer but of the State government, as the dealer was paying Rs.15/- per quintal towards transportation.

The proper functioning of vigilance commissions for PDS

There are vigilance committees like the Circle Advisory Committees and Citizens’ Watch Committees that monitor the functions taking place in the PDS. The committees primarily focus on complaints regarding the non-availability of rice, wheat, sugar, etc., malpractices taking place that affect the common man, malapportionment of weight in the PDS shops, and black marketing of food grains. Hence, the committee set up certain recommendations, which are summarised below:

  • District-wise vigilance committees should be constituted with appropriate powers and responsibilities by scrapping the present Circle Advisory Committees and Citizens’ Watch Committees.
  • No vigilance committee meeting should be cancelled or postponed because the area MLA could not chair the meeting. In case the area MLA is absent, the Assistant Commissioner of the concerned district should chair the meeting.
  • The State level vigilance committee should hold a meeting once a quarter to review the proper functioning of the district vigilance committees.
  • The selection and appointment of members of the vigilance committees should be made more transparent by involving the common public and household women, and the women should be the ration card holders of the concerned FPS. 
  • A toll-free helpline number for attending to consumer complaints relating to the PDS should be created.

Interim Orders after the formation of the D.P. Wadhwa Committee

The PUCL v. UOI order of 10 January 2008

The Supreme Court accepted the report of the Wadhwa Committee on the functioning of the Public Distribution System and also directed it to extend its functions throughout the country and submit a report on the same within six months. 

The PUCL v. UOI order of 10 January 2008

The Court in this interim order observed that about 50,000 metric tons of wheat had been destroyed and were not fit for consumption, according to the Wadhwa Commission’s Report. Hence, the Court ordered the State and the Union governments to focus on the issue of the storage of food grains and directed that the godowns should hold only that much food grain that can be properly preserved. The Court directed the end of the system of delegating the function of food grain storage to any storage agency. 

The Supreme Court in this interim order directed the government to have stringent policies in matters relating to corruption and also directed the government to regulate the usage of bogus cards and initiate criminal proceedings against the bogus cardholders who don’t submit them back. 

The Supreme Court directed that the ultimate effect of PDS should be on the poorest of the poor. It ensured that every poor person should have at least two square meals a day and directed the abolition of providing food grains to the Above Poverty Line families altogether. 

According to the Justice Wadhwa Committee’s report, there will be less stealing if wheat flour is provided instead of whole wheat, and hence the Court suggested the Centre and the States do the same. 

PUCL v. UOI and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)

Another main issue addressed by the case PUCL v. UOI is the regulation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which is governed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. ICDS was launched in 1975 with the objectives of improving the nutrition and health status of  children in the age group of 0-6 years, reducing mortality, malnutrition, and school dropout among children, helping the child develop proper physical, and psychological and social growth, and enhancing the normal health of both the mother and the child after pregnancy. ICDS aimed to achieve the above objectives by providing immunization, supplementary nutrition, health check-ups, preschool non-formal education, and health and nutrition education through Anganwadis. Anganwadi (courtyard shelter) is a type of rural child care centre where the functions of ICDS are performed at the rural level.

PUCL v. UOI interim orders on Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)

The ICDS is another major issue that was focused on by the Supreme Court in the writ petition of PUCL v. UOI. The main motive of this scheme is the proper growth and development of preschool children in an integrated way in rural and urban areas.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 24 April 2004

The Supreme Court, in this interim order, directed the Central and State governments to have a disbursement center regarding the ICDS in every area that has a population of more than 300 people. The Supreme Court directed the State and Union Territories government to provide each child of up to 6 years of age with food containing at least 300 calories and 8-10 grams of protein; each pregnant and nursing woman with food containing at least 500 calories and 20-25 grams of protein; each malnourished child with food comprising at least 600 calories and 16-20 grams of protein; and each adolescent girl with food having the sufficiency of  at least 500 calories and 20-25 grams of protein.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 13 December 2006

The Supreme Court ordered the Government of India to sanction and operate at least 14 lakh Anganwadis (AWDs) within December 2008, prioritizing the population of SC and ST habitats. The Supreme Court also ordered the government of India, under any circumstances, not to increase the upper limit population for the opening of AWDs.

The Government of India was directed to maintain the upper limit of one Anganwadi per 1000 population and the lower limit of one Anganwadi per 300 population. If any community or slum dwellers have no Anganwadis where there are more than 40 children below the age of six, such communities are to be entitled to “Anganwadi on Demand” within 3 months from the date of demand for a new Anganwadi.

This interim order universalized all the ICDS services like supplementary nutrition, nutrition, health education, immunisation, referral, growth monitoring, and preschool education to every child under the age of six, every pregnant and nursing woman, and every adolescent girl. The Chief Secretaries of the States and Union Territories were held accountable for the proper implementation of the ICDS.

PUCL v. UOI and Mid-day Meal Scheme

The mid-day meal scheme in schools has been one of the most revolutionary steps taken by the government of India that provides free meals for school students. Reducing dropouts due to extreme poverty and eradicating extreme hunger are the objectives of the mid-day meal schemes. It first originated in the State of Tamil Nadu under the then Chief Minister K. Kamaraj. Around 12 crore school students benefit from the mid-day meals. Mid-day meal schemes have proven to be effective in the realization of the right to food as they enable the students of the most socially and economically vulnerable group of society to get nutritious food in schools.

PUCL v. UOI interim orders on Mid-day Meal Scheme

Mid-day meal schemes were not as prioritized as the Public Distribution System in the interim orders of the Supreme Court, but the interim orders relating to the mid-day meal schemes made by the Supreme Court set out stringent standards for supervising and implementing the mid-day meal schemes. 

The PUCL v. UOI order of 28 November 2001.

This interim order from the Supreme Court gave new guidelines as to the nutritious amount of food that is to be provided to the students. The Supreme Court in this interim order recognized the full compliance of the Union of India concerning the mid-day meal schemes and also directed the Union of India to take the required action if any of the states show instances of non-compliance in this matter.

The Supreme Court ordered the states that were distributing dry rations instead of cooked meals to the students to distribute cooked meals within 3 months in the following manner:

  1. To at least half of districts of the State according to the level of poverty within the time period of 3 months.
  2. To the remaining part of the State within a further time period of 3 months.

The Supreme Court in this interim order directed the State governments or the Union Territories to implement the mid-day meal scheme to provide every poor child who is studying at government-assisted schools with a prepared meal having a nutritious value of a minimum of 300 calories with 8-12 grams of protein. It further directed the State Governments and Union Territories that such meals should be provided to the students for a minimum of 200 days in a year.

The Supreme Court directed the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Union of India to ensure that fair quality good grains are provided for the mid-day meal scheme on time, and the Court further directed the States and the Union Territories, along with FCI, to do a joint investigation of the quality of the food grains. If the food grains are not of fair quality, they are to be replaced as soon as possible.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 24 April 2004

The Supreme Court in this interim order, declared that all the states have to implement the mid-day meal scheme and directed the Centre to provide funds for the same. The Supreme Court also directed the Centre to reply to the suggestion that the Centre should share a part of the scheme’s conversion cost, made by the Abhijit Sen Committee. The Court suggested that Dalit people should be preferred when appointing cooks and helpers. 

PUCL v. UOI and other schemes

The Supreme Court in the case of PUCL v. UOI was not limited to passing interim orders on matters directly relating to the right to food but even passed orders on matters that indirectly related to the right to food. As discussed above, the right to food can only be achieved by achieving other economic and social rights. The Supreme Court has also focused on these issues. For instance, the National Family Benefit Scheme (NFBS) focuses on the right to food by giving compensation to BPL families if their primary breadwinner dies, as without the only provider in the family, there would be no access to food. Further,the National Maternity Benefit Scheme (NMBS) focuses on the right to food by providing aiding funds to BPL pregnant women so that they do not suffer from malnourishment during pregnancy. Finally, by passing interim orders on the issue of homelessness, the Supreme Court aimed at preventing deaths due to extreme poverty and starvation. These schemes, along with the relevant decisions of the Supreme Court, have been discussed below.

PUCL v. UOI and National Family Benefit Scheme

The National Family Benefit Scheme is part of the National Social Assistance Programme. The Scheme provides a lump-sum cash amount of Rs. 10,000 to Below Poverty Line families in case the family suffers the death of a primary breadwinner if he is between the ages of 18 and 65. The cash assistance would be Rs. 5,000 in case the death is due to natural causes and Rs. 10,000 if the death is due to an accident, and the assistance is paid to the surviving head of the family. The Supreme Court focused on this scheme in the PUCL v. UOI interim order of 28th November 2001.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 13 December 2006

The Supreme Court ordered the proper implementation of the National Family Benefit scheme along with other food-related schemes and directed that the BPL families should be paid the amount of Rs. 10,000 within four weeks after the death of the breadwinner through the local Sarpanch. The Court ordered that the State or Union Territories governments should not discontinue or withdraw the benefits of this scheme to the BPL families without the Supreme Court’s permission.

PUCL v. UOI and National Maternity Benefit Scheme

The National Maternity Benefit Scheme is another scheme under the National Social Assistance Programme that was an attempt to introduce the “maternity benefits” in the nation’s social security system. The pregnant women of the BPL families would get a lump-sum cash amount of Rs. 500 for up to two live births. The payment should be made before 8-12 weeks after the delivery. It was found that in 2003-2004, only two percent of the total pregnant women were aided by this scheme, and the scheme was practised with long delays because of its application procedures. The Supreme Court passed two interim orders relating to this scheme.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 28 November 2001

The Supreme Court directed that the National Maternity Benefit Scheme be properly implemented along with other food-related schemes. Like the National Family Benefit Scheme, this scheme should not be discontinued or withdrawn by the State or Union Territories governments without the permission of the Supreme Court.

The PUCL v. UOI order of 09 May 2005

The Supreme Court refused the Government of India to provide maternity benefits through a new scheme called Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) instead of the National Maternity Benefit Scheme(NMBS) and the reason for this refusal was that it was not clear whether the new scheme covered all the benefits available under the NMBS. The Supreme Court ordered the government to submit further information relating to JSY and asked the Commissioners to file a report on the same.

PUCL v. UOI and Homelessness 

In the case of Chameli Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1995), the Supreme Court emphasised the importance of the right to shelter and held that shelter for a human is not just mere protection of his life and body but is a home that allows him to grow mentally, physically, spiritually and intellectually. The Supreme Court further stated that the right to shelter is not just a right to a roof over one’s head; rather, it is a right that has all the infrastructure necessary to lead a life.

Homelessness is another major issue addressed in the interim orders passed by the Supreme Court in the case of PUCL v. UOI. The issue of homelessness was first addressed by the Supreme Court because of the alarming number of deaths of homeless people due to extreme weather conditions, mostly due to the cold weather.

The Supreme Court, through its interim orders, imposed the duty on the Union of India and the State Governments to prevent the deaths from taking place due to the lack of shelter at all costs. The Supreme Court, through its various interim orders, passed directions on constructing new night shelters, repairing the damaged night shelters, providing dwelling units for the homeless people, providing healthy and hygienic drinking water, and providing heat blankets in case night shelters are yet to be constructed.

Right To Food Campaign

An association of the individual and the organisation was created for the implementation and securing of people’s right to food as a result of the 2001 petition known as the Right to Food Campaign. The Campaign carried out its task as a decentralised association of independent food security-oriented organizations and was sponsored by designated members of national networks and invited members of local food campaigns. The Campaign was successful in inclining the interim decisions towards the downtrodden and disadvantaged sections of society.

Important judgements on the Right To Food

Chameli Singh and Ors v. State of U.P. and Anr. (1995) decided, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services.”

In the case of Olga Tellis & Ors v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985), the definition of the right to life was sorted out in the context of the right to livelihood and the Court decided, “If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to live, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation.”

In C.E.S.C. Ltd. v. Subhash Chandra Bose (1991), the Court held that the right to health is a part of the right to live and considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Conventions of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which have included the right to food, leisure, fair wages, decent working conditions, etc., as a part of the right to life.

Simply put

This case can be considered to be one of the most successful public interest litigations. The case was active for almost two decades, during which the court monitored every government scheme related to food and sought its proper implementation.

N.C. Saxena, the Food Commissioner, said in one of the instances that “Food is political. That could be a very big reason why this case had the kind of impact it did. However, the court is only concerned with rights enshrined in the Constitution. Implementation of the orders, however, happened as a result of many factors.”

The food campaign reached its apex and succeeded in achieving its primary objective. Judicial activism can be seen in this case as the court analysed all the government schemes related to food and directed them to frame a new framework for PDS. An emphasis on the National Food Security Act (2013) was laid in this case, which would work for the benefit of the people.

Continuing mandamus

A single mandamus order by any Constitutional Court is not sufficient in some cases when the fundamental rights of a huge group of persons are in question. Continuing Mandamus is a series of judicial remedies passed in a particular amount of time. Unlike traditional mandamus, wherein the Courts could pass an order on a specific matter, a continuing mandamus allows the Courts to provide a series of orders.

The most important application of the continuing mandamus is that the supervision of the judiciary is present throughout the case. The Courts are actively involved in the process and check whether the remedies granted by it are being executed. The continuing mandamus also allows the Courts to be flexible in the evolution of the case to prevent inefficiency. Another application of continuing mandamus is that the Court uses them not only to pass continuous orders but also to check whether the interim orders passed are being enforced.

The methods of protecting and recognizing the rights of individuals change from time to time. Hence, a single mandamus order can’t be efficient for a long period of time. Continuing Mandamus is often used in cases where the impact on society is huge, like education, corruption, environmental rights, social justice, public health, and the list goes on.

The case of T.N. Godavarman v. Union of India (1996) is a classic case where the Supreme Court used continuous mandamus for more than 22 years. The case was filed as a writ petition by the people who live in the Nilgiri forest, seeking a remedy from the Supreme Court of India to prevent the huge amount of deforestation in the forest. The Supreme Court, through this case, spread its ambit to matters having a huge public impact, like the depletion of bio-diversity, increased amount of pollution degrading the environment, damage to life support systems, etc. The Court in the interim orders, established a body for the fund management of the funds that were provided for afforestation and supervised the utility of those funds. 

The right to food is also a matter of huge public importance, as hunger and malnutrition are still prevailing in India. Thus, a continuing mandamus is a very efficient process by the Supreme Court to attain the desired justice of food for everyone.

In the case of Dr. Subramaniam Swamy v. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. (2002), the Delhi High Court applied various applications of the continuing mandamus to monitor the criminal proceedings of an accused, which were registered by the respondents of the case.

Is continuing mandamus a judicial overreach

The Supreme Court has proved many times in its decisions that it is the protector of the Fundamental Rights of citizens. The Supreme Court of India, through the writ petition of PUCL v. Union of India, made a revolutionary move in recognizing the right to food as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Still, it has judicially overreached by undertaking most of the functions, which are the functions of the executive organ of the government. It is to be noted that the judiciary has no expertise in engaging in policy matters, which is the function of the legislative organ of the government. Even though the Court passed the interim orders in PUCL v. Union of India for the common good of society it did so in a way that looked like judicial overreach. 

In this case, the Supreme Court not only passed orders but also formed a committee and appointed Supreme Court Commissioners to supervise the implementation of the interim orders, thus undertaking the functions of the executive organs. Though judicial overreach in most cases proved to be effective, it is considered bad in a democracy as the judiciary enters the functions of the legislature and the executive by crossing their functions. The main purpose of the continuing mandamus is to hold the governments of the Union and the States accountable, but it should not be done in an overreaching way.

Disposal of the PUCL v. Union of India

On the date of 10/02/2017, the final judgement for the landmark case of Right to Food (PUCL v. Union of India) was delivered by the Supreme Court of India, thereby putting an end to the interim orders passed through continuing mandamus for more than 16 years to provide and protect the right to food for every individual.

Conclusion

The case was instituted on April 16, 2001 and since the inception of the case, 427 affidavits were filed by the respondents and petitioners, and 71 IA’s (interlocutory applications) were filed as well. The case has contributed significantly to the consolidation and expansion of the National Campaign on the Right to Food. It has highlighted the new facet of Article 21 while emphasising on the grievances of an indigent and downtrodden section of society. It also shed light on how corruption, incapability, lack of transparency, and accountability of the government could deprive an individual of his basic necessities. With an aim to bridge the gaps within the governmental institutions and departments, several interim orders were passed to deal with the main issues regarding the public distribution system and various government schemes for the welfare of the people. Throughout the case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court upheld the right  to food as a constitutional right. This case eventually led to the enactment of the National Food Security Act, 2013 and a drastic improvement in the  accountability and transparency of the public authorities regarding food distribution was also witnessed, with the  Supreme Court being extremely vigilant on the matter. 

Another significant counterpart highlighted by the case of PUCL v. Union of India was that of Continuing Mandamus. Continuing mandamus is a series of orders passed by the Court instead of just giving a single judgement, and it proved to be one of the rarest of the rare cases that applied continuing mandamus by constantly passing orders and simultaneously supervising the same. With the help of continuing mandamus, the Supreme Court in this case passed orders indirectly relating to the right to food by supervising schemes like NFBS, NMBS, and homelessness. It also aided in the formulation of the Supreme Court commissioners and committees to supervise the proper implementation of the interim orders. The extensive implementation and use  of continuing mandamus in this case has proved that instead of a single judgement to address an issue at hand, a more innovative continuing mandamus can do the same along with supervision. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Does the Supreme Court supervise interim orders?

The District Collector is bound to register any complaint relating to the violation of Supreme Court orders. There are various other ways through which even the normal public can supervise the implementation of the interim orders of the Supreme Court. A public hearing can be done to draw the public’s attention to the issue, and community actions can be taken through associations like the vigilance committee for the PDS, the Parents Teachers Association (PTA), or the Village Education Committee (VEC) to monitor the implementation of the midday meals. The initiation of litigation in the High Court can also help in case there is a violation of the Supreme Court’s interim orders.

There are two cases in the name of PUCL v. Union of India. What is the difference between them? 

While there are two cases in the name of PUCL v. Union of India, the subject matter in these two cases is separate from one another. The case of PUCL v. UOI, which was filed in 1997, dealt with the violation of the right to privacy through telephone tapping. On the other hand, PUCL v. UOI, which was filed in 2001, dealt with the right to food.

What is continuing mandamus and why is it used?

Continuing mandamus is a process by which the Supreme Court passes a series of orders and also supervises the implementation of the same. The reason for issuing continued mandamus is that sometimes the problem at hand cannot be solved by a single decision and constant orders and continuous supervision is needed to solve the particular problem.

References

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