Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

When The Supreme Court Had To Remind The Government Of Its Constitutional Duty

A government that draws enormous political capital from providing free foodgrains to the poor left 80 million people without any recourse to their Right to Food until the apex court stepped in 
April 2, 2024
Supreme Court
States have run out of their respective quotas of ration cards due to the lack of updated census data, leaving more than 80 million people without access to foodgrains until the Supreme Court gave a reasoned verdict. Photo: Wiki Commons

Though Right to Food is a key aspect of the Right to Life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, it has required the Supreme Court to remind Central and State governments of their obligations by directing them on March 19 to issue ration cards to 80 million unorganized sector and migrant workers — at the prodding of right-to-food activists. The order also underscores the urgency of conducting the inordinately delayed decadal census.

States have been pleading that they have exhausted the quota of ration cards, which was based on the 2011 census. Though population has increased since then, ration card issuances have not kept pace as the decadal census of 2021 has not been carried out. This is the first time since 1881, when the practice of counting India’s people began, that the government of the day has not carried out the most important enumeration exercise.

Between 2001 and 2011, India’s population grew by 181 million. The United Nations’ Population Division projects India’s population to be 228 million more by the middle of this year.

The National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 requires subsidized food grains to be given to 75% of rural households and 50% of urban families, or about two-thirds of the country’s population. The erstwhile Planning Commission had arrived at state-wise coverage of the poor based on the 2011-12 household consumption expenditure survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).

The number of those eligible is frozen at 810 million even after 13 years. According to projections, the number of those entitled should be 963 million though it is possible that poverty levels have reduced since 2011. But the government has been erratic in releasing household consumption surveys.

It withheld the 2015-16 survey because the results were reportedly unreliable. In February this year, it released a ‘fact sheet’ of the 2022-23 household consumption expenditure survey to claim, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections—on the basis of extrapolations—that only 5% of the population was below the poverty line. The full survey has not been published.

In its report to the Supreme Court last April, the government said 288.62 million unorganized sector workers, including migrants, had registered on its e-Shram portal. Of these, 206.3 million had registered with their ration card data. The Court observed that this meant the remaining 80 million registrants did not have ration cards and told the states to ensure that they got them within three months.

The Centre’s report was in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Jagdeep Chhokar in January 2022 —Problems and Miseries of Migrant Laborer’s. (The latter two were also petitioners in the electoral bonds case.)

Finding that states were dragging their feet, the Court in its latest order reiterated its earlier stance and told the states to issue ration cards within two months without being bound by quotas. In passing the order, the two-judge bench noted that the Supreme Court had held that the Right to Food is intrinsic to the Right to Life.

Under the Food Security Act, those below the poverty line — called priority households — are entitled to five kg of rice, wheat, or millets per person per month at ₹3, ₹2 and ₹1 per kg, respectively. The extremely poor among them are entitled to 35 kg of subsidized grain per month per family at the same rates. During the Covid pandemic, both categories of beneficiaries got 5 kg of grain per month, free. This was initially for April and May 2020, when the country was under lockdown.

In May 2020, the Supreme Court had suo motu taken note of the plight of workers in cities, who were out of work and staring hunger in the face. A large number of them had defied the lockdown and begun moving to their homes in villages on foot as transportation was not available.

The Court had directed the Central and state governments to transport them to their destinations. Following the order, the railways had run special Shramik trains. The Court had also ordered the governments to organise community kitchens and provide grain free to the workers and their families.

After the lockdown was lifted, the Centre extended the free food grain scheme in instalments till December 2022, when a further one-year extension was given. Subsequently, the scheme has been extended till December 2028. Politically speaking, providing 5 kg of free food grains to the poor has become one of the main election planks for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Supreme Court

But unorganized sector workers who do not have ration cards do not get the free food grains. In telling the states not to be constrained by quotas in giving ration cards to migrant workers, the Supreme Court has affirmed its support for a rights-based approach to welfare measures. This was a hallmark of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments between 2005 and 2014, which had legislated rights to education, information and, in the case of tribals, to forests and forest produce.

This is in contrast, as Yamini Aiyar of the Centre for Policy Research says, to a new kind of welfare politics, where schemes to mitigate the effects of poverty are projected as “guarantees” of the sole benefactor, Prime Minister Modi. In this model, claimants of welfare are recipients of the State’s benevolence.

They are called beneficiaries or ‘laabhartis’, in an attempt to project the rights of the people as largesse that’s given out by an individual. Modi has also unfailingly sought votes on various campaign trails in return for free food grains.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman asserts that it is a superior approach. In her February budget speech, she said, “the earlier approach of tackling poverty through entitlements had resulted in very modest outcomes.” In contrast, she said, “We believe in empowering the poor.” But her subsequent lines seemed to commend the UPA’s strategy. “When the poor become empowered partners in the development process, government’s power to assist them also increases manifold.” Supplicants or beneficiaries cannot become empowered partners. Rights will not perpetuate poverty as the Modi government fears, if pathways out of it are created for the poor through abundant and gainful employment opportunities.

Expanding the coverage of free or subsidized food grains will raise the Centre’s food subsidy bill. The cost to the government of making a kg of rice and wheat available at ration shops is ₹39.75 and ₹27.74, respectively. The food subsidy was ₹2.73 lakh crore in 2022-23. This year, it is expected to be ₹2.05 lakh crore. The bill will go up by 10% if another 80 million people are added.

Vivian Fernandes

He is senior journalist and columnist for several reputed publication. He was formerly with CNBC-Network18 and specializes in the agriculture sector and economy. He has written more 450 articles on agriculture alone.