The historical and political background of the Right to Food (hereinafter also referred to as RTF) is much more than the history and politics of malnutrition. It concerns the development of the notion of access to food as a right. As a right it sets obligations on the State, which have been established as
enforceable through centuries of social struggle for a democratic state in the
service of the people. Traditionally, people had no remedy other than revolt
against a king or state that failed to meet its obligations. The idea of the
human right to food is to establish procedural and legal means for seeking
remedies against authorities when they fail to guarantee access to food. Right
to food has been playing a pioneering role in the renaissance of Economic and
Social Rights during the past two decades. This was the first of the Economic
Social and Cultural Rights (hereinafter referred to as ESCR) rights to be studied by the United Nations Human Rights System.
In 1987 a report titled The Right to Food as a Human Right became the starting point for a series of investigations into the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (hereinafter referred to as the ICESCR).
The right to adequate food means that every man, woman and child alone and in community with others must have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food using a resource base, appropriate for its procurement in ways consistent with human dignity. Fighting the monster of ‘world hunger’ only by increasing food production and not addressing root causes of hunger (i.e. poverty), would not alleviate the conditions that create poverty in the first place.
World hunger exists mainly because of the following reasons:
(1) Colonialism and the low-paid undeveloped countries sell to the highly paid developed countries because there is no local market because the low-paid people do not have enough to pay; and,
(2) the current Third World land owners, producing for the First World, are appendages to the Industrialized world, stripping all natural wealth from the land to produce food, lumber, and other products for wealthy nations. (ii)
This system is largely kept in place by underpaying the defeated colonial societies for the real value of their labor and resources, leaving them no choice but to continue to sell their natural wealth to the over-paid industrial societies that overwhelmed them. To eliminate hunger:
(1) There must be managed trade to protect both the Third World and the developed world, so the dispossessed can reclaim use of their land;
(2) Those societies must adapt dietary patterns so that vegetables, grains, and fruits are consumed in the proper amino acid combinations, with small amounts of meat or fish for flavor. With similar dietary adjustments among the wealthy, there would be enough food for everyone.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (hereinafter referred to as the CESCR) is the body established by the ICESCR considers that the core content of the right to food implies: (a) the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances and acceptable within a given culture; and (b) the accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights.
For progressive realisation of Right to food it points out that States have a core obligation to take action to ensure that, at the very least, people under their jurisdiction have access to the minimum essential food that is needed to ensure their freedom from hunger.
The term food covers not only solid foods but also the nutritional aspects of drinking water. The realization of basic rights such as the right to food should be at the centre of a country’s overall development programme. At the same time, people are reduced to poverty and maintained in poverty by human rights violations including the right to food. The vicious cycle is now increasingly recognized. As the CESCR has observed that, the roots of the problem of hunger and malnutrition are not lack of food but lack of access to available food, inter alia because of poverty, by large segments of the world's population. (iii)
‘Right To Food’ under the Indian Constitution
In India, under the Indian Constitution, there is no fundamental right to food but the fulcrum of justiciability of the right to food comes from a much broader right to life and liberty as enshrined in Article 21.(iv) Also Article 47 which forms a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy (hereinafter referred to as the DPSP)of the Constitution is unambiguous:
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
In recent years, the battle against hunger has been placed at the centre of the development discourse in India. This has come about mainly due to the efforts of the Right to Food Campaign and as a direct result of a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court of India. The petition was filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in April 2001 to seek legal enforcement of the right to food. This case, popularly known as ‘the Right to Food Case’, has since become a rallying point for trade unions, activists, grassroot organisations and NGOs (i.e. Non Governmental Organisations) to make the right to food a justiciable right.
The Indian judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, has on many occasions reaffirmed that the right to life enshrined in Article 21 means something more than animal instinct and includes the right to live with dignity; it would include all these aspects which make life meaningful, complete and living (v). Other statutory constitutional institutions like the National Human Rights Commission have also stated: There is a fundamental right to be free from hunger.
Supreme Court and the Right to Food
While the Indian Supreme Court has reiterated in several of its decisions that the Right to Life guaranteed in Article 21 of the constitution in its true meaning includes the basic right to food, clothing and shelter (vi), it is indeed surprising that the justiciability of the specific Right to Food as an integral right under Art. 21 had never been articulated or enforced until 2001. (vii)
Prior to the Right to Food petition filed by PUCL in 2001, the only other case concerning specifically the right to food, went up to the Supreme Court in 1986 was the case of Kishen Pattnayak vs. State of Orissa. In this petition, the petitioner wrote a letter to the Supreme Court bringing to the court’s notice the extreme poverty of the people of Kalahandi in Orissa where hundreds were dying due to starvation and where several people were forced to sell their children. The letter prayed that the State Government should be directed to take immediate steps in order to ameliorate this miserable condition of the people of Kalahandi. This was the first case specifically taking up the issue of starvation and lack of food.
In this judgement, the Supreme Court took a very pro-government approach and gave directions to take macro level measures to address the starvation problem such as implementing irrigation projects in the state so as to reduce the drought in the region, measures to ensure fair selling price of paddy and appointing of a Natural Calamities Committee. None of these measures actually directly affected the immediate needs of the petitioner, i.e. to prevent people from dying of hunger. More importantly, the Supreme Court did not recognise the specific Right to Food within this context of starvation
In Chameli Singh v. State of U.P, (viii) it was held that right to life guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care and shelter.
The method in which the constitutional social rights or the DPSP have been enforced or made justiciable by the Supreme Court has been through an expansion of the existing fundamental rights, particularly the Right to Life guaranteed in Article 21. (ix) Right from the late 1970s starting from the Maneka Gandhi’s case (x); the Supreme Court started expanding the guarantee of the Right to Life in Article 21 to include within it and recognise a whole gamet of social rights. (xi)
Other Problems are: In spite of the increase in food subsidy, the overall impact on the poor is still wanting. There has been significant diversion of commodities under the Public Distribution System to the open market. There are also problems in delivery, quality and coordination. However efforts are underway to rectify some of these problems. The Supreme Court Orders in response to the PUCL writ petition and the Campaign on Right to Food have had a positive impact.
How to Ensure Right to Food?
Steps required to be taken for ensuring the progressive realization of RTF include: Reforms in procurement and buffer stock; Involvement of the private sector; Decentralized procurement; Diversification of crops; Income policy for farmers; Deciding optimum buffer stock level; Reforms in PDS (i.e. Public Distribution System); and, Effective implementation of nutrition and employment programmes etc. The High Level Committee on Long-term Grain Policy has made recommendations about the food policy. (xii) The Right to Food Campaign Proposal advocates the expansion of the employment guarantee throughout the country and a social security system. Since employment is linked to purchasing power and therefore to food security, right to employment is crucial for realizing the Right to Food.