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In this article, Anupam Pandey does a case study of People’s Union For Civil Liberty Vs Union Of India.


One who is born into this world has an inherent and inalienable right to life. Mere animal existence and fulfilling animal needs of a man cannot be considered as a 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 under fundamental rights in the Indian constitution guarantees right to life and livelihood. “Right to food is an inbuilt and inalienable part of right to life which cannot be compromised on any ground. Right to live guaranteed in any civilised society implies the right to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care and shelter”[1]. “the right to everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and for his family including food, clothing, housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”[2]

Though, India gained freedom from Britishers decades ago but it is still under the clasp of slavery of unhygienic, malnutrition, undernutrition and devoid of other basic life amenities. These amenities are to be provided by the government and they are responsible for its scarcity due to lack of technology, modernisation, transparency, accountability and incapacity. The fundamental right can be claimed against the state and keeping this view, a writ petition was filed before the Hon’ble Supreme court of India in 2001 by a non-governmental organisation –People’s Union of Civil Liberties(PUCL) for claiming right to food as a part of right to life.

Right To Food

Living a life with dignity should not be considered to be a dream but a reality but in many major developing and underdeveloped countries it is still considered to be a dream for many families. Human right of an individual is compromised on many grounds and food is one such ground depriving a person of his human right.

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

  1. Availability: Quality and quantity of the food should not be compromised and it should be available to each and every human being on the planet to satisfy their dietary needs.
  2. Adequacy: quantity and quality of the 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 generation.
  5. Non-Discrimination: there should be no discrimination regarding the accessibility to food, as well as to means and entitlements for its procurement, on any ground such as of caste, creed, race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, birth or other status constitutes a violation of the right to food.

Access to food was first declared a right in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and after that it was inculcated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)[3], and India is a party to it. India has joined to such political affirmations as the 1996 Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit, along these lines vowing its political promise to guaranteeing its subjects access to satisfactory sustenance.

International law the right to food is protected in:

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

Right To Food Under The Indian Constitution

Indian constitution is progressive and dynamic in nature and it deems to ensure justice, equity and liberty to each and every citizen of India. 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 right to life and livelihood which implies that in order to live one needs food and bereavement of food would explicitly imply bereavement of right to life.

Article 47 in part IV of the Indian constitution under directive principles of the state policy reads as “The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs, which are injurious to health.” It implies that it shall be duty of the state to provide adequate amount of nutritious food to people for their sustainability and standard of living.

Thus after amalgamating article 21 and article 47 and various supreme court judgements it could be inferred that albeit right to food is not an explicit fundamental right but an implied right under right to life and personal liberty.

PUCL reached the court under article 32 of the constitution for the enforcement of the fundamental rights with the issue of writ of mandamus.

People’s Union For Civil Liberty Vs Union Of India

Facts Of The Case

In 2001, during a visit to Jaipur it was observed that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns which was about 5 kms. outside the city of Jaipur city were overflowing with grains. The grains were rotting due to 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 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 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 starvation and death of many poor people and is still a hanging knife on the neck of 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 and it is responsible for procurement and distribution of food grains at a reasonable price to both farmers and consumers. The petition pointed out that distribution of foodstuffs is irregular and arbitrary in nature. There was lack of transparency in the distribution system

Questions raised

Advocate Colin Gonsalves and his group filed a PIL which brings up 3 related issues and requests the Supreme Court’s supposition on issues with respect to Right to food in India. The matter of first importance raised is about the nourishment grains spoiling in the Government godowns when thousands still bite the dust in our nation from starvation. It asks the Supreme Court whether Article 21, which gives the privilege to life and freedom, includes the right to food which was upheld in the case of Francis Coralie Mullin v. The Administration[4]. The last inquiry postures whether the right to food implied that the government has an obligation to give food to the general population influenced by drought.

Ambit Of The Case

Despite the fact that the instance of PUCL was at first brought against the Government of India, Food Corporation of India and 6 State Governments in regards to the issue of starvation because of dry season, the ambit of the case has now been enlarged to incorporate the more extensive issue of perpetual craving and all the State and Union Territories’ Governments are put as the respondents.[5]

The Petitioner’s Argument

Supreme Court has evolved the ambit of right to life to a vast extent and it has also inculcated the right to food as a part of right to life in many of its previous judgements. The writ has been filed in response to the government’s action where it negated its obligation to supply the food to the drought hit region and due to which many people starved to death.

Petitioner’s Reasoning

Due to the negligence of the state, the public distribution system has been broken at various levels, which involves restriction of distribution to people living below poverty line from 1997 onwards. Inadequacy of the government was also contended regarding giving the relief work to the people to earn the means of livelihood.

Petitioners Prayer

The Petitioner requested the Supreme Court to intercede and 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 in order to meet out 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 the poor people at subsidised rates.

Interim Decisions

The court attested the privilege to sustenance i.e. 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.” It announced that every one of the PDS shops, if shut, were to be re-opened within one week of order. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) was requested to guarantee that food grains don’t go to squander and should be provided to the village people in the drought hit area.

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

With the continuance of the case and passing of the interims the Supreme Court has gradually defined right to food in terms of right to life and the policies which government requires to fulfil this obligation under article 21. Judicial activism can be witnessed regarding the framing and implementation of various food schemes.

Result Of Interim Decision

Commissioners of the Supreme Court

For the effective implementation of the interim orders passed by the court the commission was created as a result of the interim order passed on 8th may, 2002. It was created to hear the grievance of the people related to the food entitlement schemes. It appointed advisors for each state in order to address and refer the grievances. In order to achieve its primary objective that was ensuring the proper implementation of the Supreme Court’s interim orders, the Commission collects and analyzes data of state and central government regarding food and employment Schemes.

D.P.Wadhwa Committee

The Supreme Court has 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 the society. It also appointed a High Powered Committee headed by Justice D.P. Wadhwa, a former Judge of called the Central Vigilance Committee. It would be duty of this committee to monitor the public distribution system (PDS) and 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 to the parliament and announced that her government would enact a new legislation- the National Food Security Act-that will provide a statutory basis for a framework which would assure food security for every individual. Primary focus of the act is on the PDS of food grains and it further intensifies the need for monitoring of its executional mechanisms.

Public Distribution System

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 the subsidised rate to the families with ration card on a reasonable basis.

Integrated Child Development Scheme

For the proper growth and development of the pre-school children in an integrated way in the rural and urban areas is the main motive of this scheme.

Right To Food Campaign

An association of the individual and the organisation was created for the implementation and securing people their right to food as a result of the petition in 2001 known as right to food campaign. The Campaign carries out its task as a decentralized association of independent food security-oriented organizations and is sponsored by designated members of national networks and invited members of local food campaigns.

The Campaign has succeeded in inclining the interim decisions towards the downtrodden and disadvantaged section of the society.

Important Judgements on Right To Food

Chameli Singh And Others Etc. vs State Of U.P. And Another[6] decided, “everyone has the right to 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.

Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation[7] , the definition of right to life was sorted out in the context of right to livelihood and 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”[8]

C.E.S.C Ltd. Vs. Subhash Chandra Bose[9]- In this case it was held by the court that right to health is a part of right to live and considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Conventions of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has included right to food, leisure, fair wages, decent working conditions etc as a part of right to life.

Simply Put

This case can be considered to be the one of the most successful public interest litigation. The case ran continuously for almost two decades within which the court-monitored every government scheme related to the food and seek its proper implementation.

“Food is political. That could be a very big reason why this case had the kind of impact it did. But the court is only concerned with rights enshrined in the constitution. Implementation of the orders however happened as a result of many factor”, said n.c. saxena (food commissioner).

Food campaign reached apex level and succeeded in achieving its primary objective. Judicial activism can be seen in this case as the court analysed all the government schemes related food and directed it to frame a new framework for PDS. Emphasis on Food security act was laid in this case which would work for the benefit for the people.


The case was instituted on 16th April, 2001 and since the inception of the case 427 affidavits have been filed by the respondents and petitioners and 71 IA’s (interlocutory applications) have been filed. The case has contributed significantly in the consolidation and expansion of the National Campaign on the Right to Food. This case has highlighted the new facet of article 21 and grievances of indigent and downtrodden section of the society. This case has highlighted the corruption, incapability, lack of transparency and accountability of the government. The main issues regarding the public distribution system, various government schemes for the welfare of the people have been dealt in the case and interim order regarding those have been passed.

Though the final decision of the case has not yet been passed but regular hearings of the case takes place in the Supreme Court. Right to food has been declared to be a constitutional right and government is constantly reminded of its duty through the committee and they cannot escape it.

[1] Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation V. Nawab Khan Gulab Khan & Ors

[2] Chameli Singh and Ors. v. State of U.P. and Anr . [1996] 2 SCC 549

[3] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 11, opened for signature Dec. 19, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 [hereinafter ICESCR].

[4] Francis Coralie Mullin v. Adm’r, (1981) 2 S.C.R. 516, 518

[5] Petitioners named the State of Orissa, State of Rajasthan, State of Chattisgarh, State of Gujarat, State of Himachal Pradesh, State of Maharashtra as Respondents. Writ Petition, supra note 9

[6] [1996] 2 SCC 549

[7] 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51

[8] ibid

[9] 1992 AIR 573, 1991 SCR Supl. (2) 267

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