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PUCL v UOI, 2001 – Right to Food Case

Socio Legal Corp

Written By – Dakshita

In 2001, 47 tribal people and Dalits starved to death in the south-eastern Rajasthan, after practicing “rotation hunger”, ie, members of the family eat on alternative days, as the state suffered from its third consecutive year of extreme drought. The tragedy occurred despite India’s warehouses were flooding with an excess of around 40 million tones of food grains that year. A few weeks later, the Right to Food Campaign, a civil society network of activists and organizations, moved the Supreme Court, under Article 32 of the Constitution with a Writ Petition, to secure food security for Indians, under Article 21 of the Constitution. The case — People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India (commonly known as the Right to Food case) — sought to transform the government’s policies on food into enforceable rights for the citizens.

The petition by PUCL questioned the lack of transparency as well as the arbitrary nature in the Public Distribution System (PDS) of that time. Since then, the PDS system has been replaced by the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system, which is an attempt to dissolve the middleman and hence increase transparency in the system.

As part of interim orders, the Court held that the states should be given the duty over execution of the accompanying plans, such as, the Employment Assurance Scheme, Mid-day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Antyodaya Anna Yojana, National Family Benefit Scheme, National Benefit Maternity Scheme for BPL pregnant ladies, National Old Age Pension Scheme for old people of more than 65 years, Annapurna Scheme, and Public Distribution Scheme for BPL and APL families. Furthermore, issues of unnecessary shortage and artificially caused dry seasons and starvations were featured as the real reasons of concern. Orders regarding residence of homeless people was sought and the government was instructed to construct night shelters.

Everyone has the right to standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services.[1] Under the Indian Constitution, Right to Food is not an explicit right yet under Article 21. However, a combined reading of Article 21 and 47 provide an implicit fundamental right to food to the citizens of India.

Access to food was first declared a right in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and after that it was inculcated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and India is a party to it. India is a part of such agreements/covenants such as the 1996 Rome Declaration of the World Food Summit, which exists along the lines of vowing its political promise to guaranteeing its subjects access to satisfactory sustenance. Under International law the right to food is protected in the following – Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[2], Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights[3], Articles 24 & 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child[4]. Right to health is a part of right to live and considered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Conventions of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has included right to food, leisure, fair wages, decent working conditions etc as a part of right to life.[5]

The case has contributed significantly in the consolidation and expansion of the National Campaign on the Right to Food. This case has highlighted the new facet of article 21 and grievances of the downtrodden section of the society. This case has highlighted the corruption, incompetence, lack of transparency and lack of accountability of the government. The main issues regarding the public distribution system, various government schemes for the welfare of the people have been dealt in the case and interim order regarding those have been passed.

[1] Chameli Singh And Others Etc. vs State Of U.P. And Another.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

[4] Convention on Rights of Child.

[5] C.E.S.C Ltd. Vs. Subhash Chandra Bose


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