This article is written by Saurav Gupta, student of Hidayatullah National Law University.
India’s government has taken a number of steps to strengthen the country’s food security governance over the last 60 years. “One of India’s most effective alternatives to food security and malnutrition is the distribution of food grains through the government-controlled Public Distribution System (PDS)”. Following World War II, the PDS was developed with the intention of increasing domestic agricultural production and improving food security. Since then, it has developed into the world’s largest universal distribution scheme for subsidised food grains including wheat, rice, sugar, and kerosene.
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is a central nodal agency charged with procuring food grains from farmers at a price that is often higher than retail in order to facilitate distribution. The FCI then sells food grains to state governments at a discounted price known as the “central issue price,” which they then distribute to consumers through fair price or discount shops.
What is Food Security: Food protection is described as the supply, access, use, and stability of food for all citizens at all times.
What is Public Distribution System: The public distribution system is a government-sponsored network of stores tasked with supplying basic food and non-food products to the poorest members of society at low prices.
This article seeks to understand the constitutional and legal framework regarding Public Distribution system in respect to food security.
Constitutional and Legal Framework
International Context: The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined food protection as a human right in 1948, and it was later codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), of which India is a signatory. India has adopted diplomatic statements such as the 1996 Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit.
Internationally the right to food is protected under:
- 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
Article 21: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
This right has long been regarded as the Constitution’s nucleus, the most organic and democratic clause of our living constitution, and the bedrock of our legislation. In several cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to life requires the right to live in peace and what that entails, including the right to food.
Article 32(1): “The right to move the Supreme Court by appropriate proceedings for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Part is guaranteed.”
Article 39(a): “The State shall… direct its policy towards securing that the citizen, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood…”
Article 47: “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…”
“The legal basis of the right to food has been helpfully spelt by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the Proceedings of a hearing held on 17 January 2003:
“Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees a fundamental right to life and personal liberty”. The expression ‘Life’ in this Article has been judicially interpreted to mean a life with human dignity and not mere survival or animal existence. In the light of this, the State is obliged to provide for all those minimum requirements which must be satisfied in order to enable a person to live with human dignities, such as education, health care, just and humane conditions of work, protection against exploitation, etc. In the view of the Commission, the Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity, and Article 21 should be read with Articles 39(a) and 47 to understand the nature of the obligation of the State in order to ensure the effective realization of this right.
Article 39(a) of the Constitution enunciated as one of the Directive Principles, fundamental in the governance of the country, requires the State to direct its policy towards securing that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood. Article 47 spells out the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people as a primary responsibility. The citizen’s right to be free from hunger enshrined in Article 21 is to be ensured by the fulfilment of the obligation of the State set out in Articles 39(a) and 47. The reading of Article 21 together with Articles 39(a) and 47 places the issue of food security in the correct perspective, thus making the Right to Food a guaranteed Fundamental Right which is enforceable by virtue of the constitutional remedy provided under Article 32 of the Constitution.”
People’s Union for Civil Liberty Vs Union of India is a notable case both legally and politically, but most importantly it is remarkable for the tangible and ever-growing positive effects that it has had on the lives of the poor and the hungry.
Interim Decisions: This case has been the subject of regular hearings since April 2001, and it has gotten a lot of coverage both at home and abroad. In this case, the Court has attempted to explain Right to Food not only by putting it under Article 21, but also by linking it to Articles 39 (a) and 47(17], which, although not enforceable in the Court of their own, may be extended as expressions of the universal right to life. It has made a number of interim orders.
- The court laid an emphasis on the right to food as an important constituent to maintain Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
- To Provide them with 35 kgs of grain per month at extremely subsidized prices to 15 million needy families under the component of the PDS.
- Expanded resource allowances for Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojna, now superseded by the Employment Guarantee Act.
- Implementation of eight central schemes as legal entitlements. These include PDS, Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).
- Universalize the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).
Major Outcomes from Interim Decisions of PUCL case
Appointment of Commissioners of the Supreme Court: As a result of the interim order issued on May 8, 2002, a commission was established to ensure the successful execution of the court’s interim orders. It was established to hear people’s complaints about food assistance programmes. It assigned advisors to each state to resolve and refer the complaints. It also formed the Central Vigilance Committee to keep an eye on the public delivery system (PDS) and any violations of any temporary orders issued by the court in this situation.
Enactment of National Food Security Act: The passage of the National Food Security Act, 2013, is perhaps the most visible example of how the PUCL litigation has catapulted the right to food into popular political debate and collective consciousness.
Salient Features of NFSA
- The National Food Security Act of 2013 (NFSA) currently governs the Public Distribution System (PDS).
- According to Census 2011 demographic figures, the Act covers almost two-thirds of the country’s total population.
- Under two groups of beneficiaries – Antrodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) households and Priority Households – 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population are qualified for heavily subsidized food grains (PHH).
- The erstwhile Planning Commission (now NITI Ayog) determines state/UT coverage based on the NSSO’s 2011-12 Household Consumption Expenditure Survey.
- The Act provides for 35 kg of food grains per AAY household per month, compared to 5 kg per PHH individual per month.
- Under the NFSA, beneficiaries are identified by the respective state/UT government, which is expected to set its own requirements.
- Central Issue Prices of Rs. 1, Rs. 2, and Rs. 3 for coarse grains, wheat, and rice, respectively.
- There will be no reduction in food grain distribution to any state or territory under the NFSA. If there are some distribution holes, Tide-Over allocation fills them.
- For the reason of issuing ration cards, the recipient household’s oldest woman (18 years or older) is called the ‘Head of Family.’
- Grievance resolution mechanisms are provided for women empowerment by State Food Commissions, DGROs, and Vigilance Committees at various levels.
- Assistance to States/UTs in meeting intra-State transportation and handling of food grains expenditures, as well as FPS Dealers’ margins.
Public Distribution System Framework: The Public Distribution System (PDS) of India is the world’s largest distribution network. It has developed into its present form since the late 1930s. The National Food Security Act of 2013 was passed by Parliament. To distribute food grains as legal entitlements to poor families, the Act primarily relies on the current TPDS. The Public Distribution System (Control) Order 2001, which was notified under the Essential Commodities Act of 1955, governs TPDS (ECA).
Working of the Public Distribution System
Identification of poor and needy: The central government and states use a systematic procedure to identify eligible BPL households. The AAY initiative was launched in December 2000 for the weakest BPL households. Individuals who fall into one of the following preference categories are eligible for an AAY card: (i) landless agricultural workers, (ii) marginal farmers, (iii) rural artisans/craftsmen, (iv) slum dwellers, (vi) destitute, (vii) households headed by widows or terminally ill people, disabled people, and people aged 60 and up.
Procurement of Food Grains: Farmers are paid a minimum support price (MSP) for their food grains, which is then offered to states at central declared prices. It is responsible for transporting grains to the go downs in each province. The states are responsible for transporting food grains from these godowns to fair price stores (ration shop). FCI is responsible for (i) procuring grains at MSP from farmers, (ii) maintaining working and buffer stocks of grains to ensure food security, (iii) allocating grains to states, (iv) distributing and shipping grains to state depots, and (v) selling grains to states at the central issue price to be passed on to beneficiaries.
Issue of ration cards to poor people: State governments provide exclusive ration cards to below the poverty line, and Antyodaya families to purchase basic products from fair price shops, and check and validate ration Cards on a regular basis.
Storage: The food grains procured for the planned public distribution scheme and other contingencies are stored in the central pool storage. The Food Corporation of India is the main government agency in charge of the central pool’s food grain preservation.
Allocation of food grains to states: Foodgrains are allocated to state governments for sale to BPL, AAY, and APL households from the central pool. The number of households mentioned is used to determine how much resources goes to BPL and AAY societies.
Transportation of food grains to all Fair price shops: “Food grains and other goods are usually transported by roads and rail. Food grains are distributed and spread over short distances by means of roads and by railways over long distances”.
Fair price shop (Ration Shops): Fair Price Shops (FPS) are generally referred to as ration stores. These centres supply consumers with a Ration Card, which helps them to collect food grains. Ration Shops have been given permission by the state government to market food grains at a discounted price.
Consumer: Consumers are those who buy food grains from Fair Price Shops at the lowest possible price. They can only purchase food grains if they own a ration card. The use of Aadhaar (a specific national identification card) in the public distribution system to streamline a range of procedures was recently authorized. Section 12(2)(C) of the NFSA directs the use of the Specific Identification Program “Aadhaar” to administer food grains through the PDS. Right-holders’ biometric data from Aadhaar has been linked to their accounts in the PDS database, and the list of right-holders has been digitized.
Final Disposal of PUCL case: The supreme court unexpectedly terminated the litigation on February 10th, 17 years after the first judicial interference. It was held that “In light of the enactment of the National Food Security Act of 2013, nothing more survives in this petition,”. In the order dismissing the lawsuit, a bench led by Justice Madan B. Lokur said, “If the petitioner has any grievance with regard to the application or otherwise of the National Food Security Act, 2013, he will file a fresh petition.”
Food Security in context of the Farm Bill, 2020
It is feared that as there will be no government regulations and bar on stockpiling, the market force will manipulate everything including the government procurement. The three farm bills passed by the Parliament will have an adverse impact on the public distribution system (PDS) in the long run by ending assured procurement at the minimum support price (MSP).
However, there has been no directive given by the government to lift procurement policy or the PDS as of now. According to the Procurement Policy, the Food Corporation of India would continue to operate as before and buy food grains from the farmers at the MSP.
This move is said to increase food security by eliminating the dangerous middlemen, facilitating better realizations for farmers, attracting investment, and enhancing technology in the sector.
It’s disappointing that the litigation didn’t conclude with a final order declaring that access to food is a fundamental right. The government was able to persuade the court that the act is capable of taking over and operating without the need for continuous judicial oversight. It’s debatable if the lawsuit on the Right to Food movement that issued the world’s longest running mandamuses should have been disposed of without any instructions.
The PDS is a key component of government nutrition and food security strategy. The enactment of the NFSA in 2013, which reinforced the PDS by offering regulatory backing, was one constructive response. Policy initiatives aimed at enhancing the PDS and NFSA’s organizational efficiencies and viability are critical for their performance, as demonstrated by the study.
The results will come in future, however, the new farmers bill 2020 are being projected as fear to food security as States would have no information about the availability of stocks within the State. Government on the other hand seem pretty confident that these moves will benefit the entire system in the long run.
- PUCL v. Union of India and Ors., Supreme Court Writ Petition [Civil] No. 196 of 2001.
- E Gazette, National Food Security Act 2013, available at: http://www.egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2013/E_29_2013_429.pdf.
- World Bank Group [IBRD, IDA], “Food Security” (last updated: 20th October 2020), available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/food-security.
- Global Hunger Index, ‘Global Hunger Index Scores by 2020 GHI Rank’, available at: https://www.globalhungerindex.org/ranking.html.
- UN, Sustainable Development Goals 2030, Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/.
- The Hindu Businessline, Narendar Pani, ‘Farm Bills and PDS Conundrum’, available at: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/farm-bills-and-the-pds-conundrum/article33015693.ece#.
- FAO, ‘Constitutional and Legal Protection of the Right to Food around the World’, available at: http://www.fao.org/3/ap554e/ap554e.pdf.
- Government of India, Planning Commission (November 2001), Report of the Working Group for 12th Five Year Plan (2002-2007) on ‘Public Distribution System and Food Security’, available at: https://niti.gov.in/planningcommission.gov.in/docs/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp/wg_pds.pdf.
- The Hindu, Krishnadas Rajagopal, ‘SC asks States for report on Food Security Act’, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/sc-asks-states-for-report-on-food-security-act/article30259526.ece.
- SCC Online Blogs, ‘Right to Food’, available at: https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/tag/right-to-food/.
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