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COVID-19 And Its Impact On Socio-Economic Rights in India

Covid-19 pandemic in some way or other has affected every government policy and individual rights, but it is essential to keep in mind that every individual is hit by the pandemic differently. This blog will focus on how this pandemic has affected the Socioeconomic rights of individuals in India. This blog will analyze the impact of covid-19 pandemic on the �right to food� of individuals especially students who avail �mid-day meal scheme� and how the �right to household� of individuals who are dependent to use night shelters is violated.

Impact of Covid-19 on Right to Food

In India, the right to food has a place in both- the fundamental rights as well as the directive principle of state policy. Article 21 of the constitution of India has been interpreted liberally to include various rights including the right to food as part of dignity. Article 39(a) and Article 47 of the Constitution of India envisions state governments to provide adequate livelihood and guides the states to increase the level of nutrition and living standards of the individual. In India Mid-day meal programs is one of the world�s largest food distribution programs to students.

It provides nutritious food to millions of students in state-run schools with the aim and objective of making children learn and provide nutrition simultaneously. However, due to the novel coronavirus schools are forced to shut down and the education sector is one of the worst-hit sectors. This has led to millions of children not getting proper nutrition, as the mid-day meal scheme aimed at uplifting the vulnerable and underprivileged. ("COVID-19 And Its Impact On Mid-Day Meal Program In India")

The National Program of Nutritional support to primary education (NP-NPSE) scheme was formulated in 1995, to provide nutritious fully-cooked meals to school-going children. This scheme is commonly known as the mid-day meal scheme. However, due to the pandemic and shutting down of schools, this scheme has not been able to provide fully-cooked food to students. In India, there are around 1.3 million government schools both primary and upper primary which are covered by the scheme. In a recent circular issued by the HRD Ministry, the government has asked state and union territories to provide the mid-day meal allowance to the students who could not avail the benefit of the scheme due to the pandemic (Ministry of Human Resource Development).

The United Nations World Food Programme, India has provided certain guidelines about the reopening of the schools and implementation of the mid-day meal scheme. The guideline suggests that schools should take proper sanitization measures, proper/effective infrastructure changes should be made, training of cooks/helpers, and standard procedure for daily cleanliness should be followed. The guidelines suggest that even when schools are shut the mid-day meal scheme should be implemented. The guidelines also suggest washing fruits and vegetables regularly, wearing personal protection gear, and setting up of kitchen garden. Annexure 1 of the World Food Program suggests the following steps.
  1. Sanitization of cooking area and the vicinity.
  2. Inculcating hygiene and minimal touch habits to cooks and helpers via video conferencing etc.
  3. Infrastructural upgrade to minimize the risk of virus contamination.
  4. Steps for procurement of raw materials.
  5. Procedure to be followed for preparation before cooking of the Mid-day meals.
  6. Procedure to be followed during cooking o the mid-day meals.
  7. Distribution of the cooked mid-day meal.

Different states in India are using different Modus operandi in operating the Mid-day meal scheme. The state of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh provide raw materials instead of cooked food to fight the pandemic. In Karnataka, the government aims to utilize Anganwadi workers to ensure the delivery of mid-day meals to students. In Kerala, the students are provided with meals at their respective homes with the help of Anganwadi workers.

The Chief Justice of India also observed that �Non-supply of nutritional food to school going children and lactating mothers will result in gross malnutrition, particularly, in rural and tribal areas�. The Hon'ble Supreme Court on this issue observed that all states should come with a uniform policy to ensure that the mid-day meal scheme is adhered to. Hon�ble Supreme Court of India further observed that one crisis should not lead to another.

The revival of the mid-day meal scheme should be the priority of the state governments since it is affecting the lives of more than 9.12 crores of underprivileged students. It is recommended that government should consider the United Nations World Food Programme guidelines to implement the mid-day meal scheme. In a situation where it is not feasible to open the schools, the government should provide an allowance for the meal to school-going children availing mid-day meal scheme.

Impact of Covid-19 on Right to household

The Indian government is under both international legal obligation as well as a constitutional obligation to guarantee the right to household to individuals. The right to household is recognized by Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of human rights which says that everyone has the right to housing. Further, the right to household is recognized by Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is important to note that India is part of ICESCR which is a legally binding international treaty.

The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India on multiple occasions has clarified that the right to life under article 21 of the Indian Constitution does not merely mean life of animal existence but to live with peace and dignity. Supreme Court has interpreted article 21 of the Constitution to say that the right to shelter is implicitly present within the meaning of the right to life. (Olga Tellis V. Bombay Municipal Corporation (1985)3 SCC 545), (Francis Coralie Mullin V. Administrator, Union Territory Of Delhi And Ors 1980 SCC (2) 275. Vol 2). Supreme Court then expanded the meaning of the right to shelter to say that it means adequate living space, hygienic surroundings, clean air, and pure water (Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation V. Nawab Khan Gulab Khan (1977) 11 SCC 123).

It is estimated that India has around 1.7 million homeless people. Delhi alone is home to around 1.5 lakhs to 2 lakhs homeless people. However, this number is grossly underestimated by the government authorities. Night shelters were first proposed by the Ministry of Urban Development in 1992 under the scheme 'The shelter and Sanitisation Facilities for the Footpath Dwellers in Urban Areas'.

The objective to build night shelters was primarily to provide clean living space and solve shelter problems for urban homeless migrants. This scheme was changed in 2002 and was renamed to 'night shelter for Urban Shelter less', the scheme aimed to provide night shelters with toilets and bathrooms for the urban homeless people ("Shelter For The Urban Homeless-A Handbook For Administrators And Policymakers").

In 2013, Supreme Court has ordered different states like Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh who have a bitter cold to mandatorily provide for night shelters so that the homeless Urban population does not have to face bitter cold (PUCL (Night Shelter Matters) V. Union Of India (2013) 11 SCC 505).

It is important to appreciate the fact that resources at night shelters are not enough to provide for Urban homeless people in India. These shelters are often in dilapidated conditions and not maintained properly. The homeless urban seems to be neglected in public policy as there exists no reliable data on the number of urban homeless and the shelters which are required for them.

The guidelines which are suggested by the WHO to maintain social distance, to keep washing hands and sanitize them, to have a balanced diet is just too ideal for these urban homeless population. Self-isolation and home quarantine are essential to flatten the corona curve, but these words become a distant reality when it comes to a large urban homeless population in India. Conditions for the homeless urban population deteriorated because of the sudden imposition of lockdown as they had to travel to their native cities on foot jeopardizing their dignity.

The government should take cognizance of such issues and it cannot have a lackadaisical approach towards socio-economic problems of the unprivileged community members. The government should strive to implement the Constitutional spirit in form of 'fundamental rights and 'Directive Principle of State Policies' so that every citizen of the country can live a dignified life.

The role of 'right lawyers' also becomes very important during the time of pandemic and they should help in the effective implementation of government schemes so that the socio-economic rights of individuals are upheld. The members of civil society should make efforts to create a discourse around such rights of members of a marginalized community and they should further endeavor to create empathy towards the misery of unprivileged members of our society to bring social change.

Award Winning Article Is Written By:
  1. Mahak Tanwar and
  2. Rohan Wadhwa

    Awarded certificate of Excellence
    Authentication No: JU115720253162-6-0621

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