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Right to Food and Covid-19

It seems like yesterday, but we are just shy of a year from when the world around us started coming to a halt. With the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic a nationwide 21 day lockdown was announced by prime minister Narendra Modi. This attempt to contain the spread of the infection by bringing the entire nation to a standstill resulted in putting the lives of approximately 122 million Indians at the risk of starvation.

In order to prevent this situation the government initiated a policy under the National Food Security Act, 2013 which promised to provide 5kg of wheat and 1 kg of preferred pulses free of cost alongside additional 2 kg[1] of pulses at subsidised rate for two months to 80 crore people including the migrant workers which were not eligible under the NFSA.[2]

However, this scheme which appeared to solve India's hunger crisis during the pandemic instead further highlighted the indefinite loopholes in India's public food distribution system. After the announcement of this scheme under the NFSA news articles flooded the newspapers with the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of this scheme.

An article from 'news click'[3] quoted an interview with an anonymous food distribution officer stating the lack of necessary allocation of food grains by the government for the distribution under this scheme. The news article further went on to highlight the apathy faced by several families due to the inefficiency of the scheme. In one interview by the same newspaper a family highlighted the lack of allocation of adequate food grains by the government for a family of 13 people.

The allocation of food to the beneficiaries is based on the census collected in 2011 for the NFSA 2013 but there has been an increase in the population and the number of individuals within a family since 2011. Another interview highlighted how a family struggled to get their allotted ration as there ration card was valid in their home state Patna where it was impossible to reach due to the lockdown.

Pertaining to the extremely cumbersome and corrupt systems adopted to allot ration cards some individuals either opted themselves out of applying for it and some were excluded from being the beneficiary owing to the corruption within the system. There are approximately one hundred and thirty nine interstate and intrastate workers in India[4], as per the data collected by the centre, out of which approximately 6 lakh workers were unable to return to their hometowns of which several had their ration cards connected to their home address. Therefore, preventing a large number of beneficiaries from receiving sustenance under this scheme.

Based on the data provided by the Ministry of consumer affairs, Food and Public Distribution there was failure in distributing the allocated ration to the beneficiaries even in the key areas of the country. As per the report cited by the food navigator-Asia[5] out of the 36 states 11 states distributed only one percent of the apportioned grains and 8 states distributed zero percent.

These failures on the part of the government to provide its people with efficient policies and the much needed help did not just result in many to lose their lives from exhaustion and starvation in an attempt to walk back to their homes in search of food but also resulted in the largescale violation of the fundamental rights of approximately 80 million individuals.

Right to food is not a fundamental right in India however it is mentioned in the directive principles of the Indian constitution under Article 47 which makes it the duty of the state to improve public health by providing it's people with the optimal level of nutrition. This mention of right to food in the directive principle forms a substantial basis to widen the ambit of Article 21 and bring within its ambit the right to food and adequate nutrition.

Article 21 of the Indian constitution states that no person shall be deprived of his/her 'life' or 'personal liberty'. These two terms have a wide range of interpretation and it was held by the supreme court of India in the case of Francis Coralie Mullin v. Union Territory of Delhi that right to life also carries within its ambit the right to food and the right to health[6]. In a public interest litigation filed by PUCL in 2001[7], it was held ' that it is the obligation of the state to support victims in realising their right to food'. In the case of Chameli Singh & others v the state of Uttar Pradesh[8] it was held by the supreme court that the right to live in a civilized society includes within its ambit the right to food.

However, the failure on the part of the government institutions to carry out their duty to uphold the basic fundamental rights of their citizens showed the inefficiencies and lack of consideration of the government institutions for its people. Owing to which several organisation's like 'Sarvahara Jan Andolan' and 'Ghar bachao Ghar Banao' filed PIL's to seek justice for those being wronged.

Based on the 2020 global hunger Index India ranked at the 94th position ranking even below Pakistan and Bangladesh. India is trailing behind massively in being able to provide to its people adequate food and nutrition, a situation which was made more obvious by this recent pandemic. There is an urgent need for the country to step up and fix its food distribution policies.

As a first step the government must first realise that the political-economic environments of every state in India vary resulting in the distribution systems to work differently in every state. In an article in the economic and political weekly[9] the author explains how the same distribution system which appears to be drastically failing in Bihar on the one hand due to diversion of commodities through bogus ration cards, provides a hassle free experience to ration card holders in Kerala on the other.

The author states the main reasons to be the variation in the political agendas and the efficient nature of the state governments institutions in carrying out these policies. Another article titled 'exploring the markers of differential access to PDS'[10] highlights how different social markers like gender determine how beneficiaries interact with the public distribution systems. Attention must also be given to the fact that end to end computerisation of public distribution system is not as effective as it is deemed to be, in fact it is extremely prone to tampering resulting in further leakages.

The government should take the initiatives to understand and solve the problems being faced by the beneficiaries at the ground level while simultaneously tackling the corrupt and inefficient machinery involved in carrying out the distributions by filling in the loopholes in the policy.

End-Notes:
  1. Authorname, title, name of the journal ( state, date) page number, link. FUll stop is Important
  2. Paran Balkrishnan, 'Free Food grain for migrants, rental housing option for middle class' The Telegraph online (New Delhi, 28 February 2021) 1 https://www.telegraphindia.com/business/covid-19-economic-package-free-food-grain-for-migrants-rental-housing-option-for-middle-class/cid/1772985
  3. Varsha Torgalkar, 'Loopholes in Food Distribution, Demand for Universal PDS' News Click (18 April 2020). https://www.newsclick.in/Loopholes-Food-Distribution-Demand-Universal-PDS
  4. Economic survey of India 2017
  5. Pearly Neo, 'India's Covid-19 free food rations: Governments 'compassionate' gesture blighted by inefficiencies' Food navigator-asia.com(13 July 2020). https://www.foodnavigator-asia.com/Article/2020/07/13/India-s-COVID-19-free-food-rations-Government-s-compassionate-gesture-blighted-by-inefficiencies
  6. Supreme Court, Francis Coralie Mullin v. Union Territory of Delhi and others, 1981.
  7. Supreme Court, People's Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India & Ors, 2001
  8. Supreme Court, Chameli Singh & Others v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 1996.
  9. Jos Moij, 'Food and power in Bihar and Jharkhand' [2006], Vol. 36, Economic & Political weekly. https://www.epw.in/journal/2001/34/special-articles/food-and-power-bihar-and-jharkhand.html
  10. Mamta Pradhan,'Exploring the markers of differential access to PDS' [2019], Vol 54, Economic & Political weekly. https://www.epw.in/journal/2019/26-27/commentary/exploring-markers-differential-access-pds.html

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