The court directed both the Centre and various state governments to implement the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
To the uninitiated, the order seeks to reverse the erstwhile state policy on droughts, which moves from one crisis to another. Post-Independent India has introduced certain entitlements that have alleviated some of the suffering induced by droughts: MGNREGA, NFSA, the Public Distribution System and Mid-Day Meal scheme.
On MGNREGA, the Centre must release funds to the states for providing jobs and timely payment, the court said. If the state fails to pay its workers on time, they should be compensated as per the Act. Meanwhile, the NFSA should be implemented regardless of whether they fall in the category of priority households or not.
State governments have also been ordered to put in place a grievance redressal system at both the state and district level to deal with the non-supply of foodgrains in the absence of ration cards. The court’s intervention comes at a critical time, especially in light of back-to-back years of drought and the onset of a brutal summer.
On MGNREGA, the court had observed that the pending wage bill of the previous year was paid after the issue was raised in a petition by Delhi-based NGO Swaraj Abhiyan. At the end of the fiscal year 2015-16, the governments owed more than Rs 12,000 crore as “pending liabilities” which needed to be cleared before payments could be made in 2016-17.
Moreover, the Centre failed to release its full first tranche for the rural jobs scheme amounting to over Rs 45,000 crore that was due in the first week of April. The inability of governments to take real cognizance of the ongoing drought crisis and implement MGNREGA has compelled the court to issue an order for the creation of employment guarantee councils at both the state and central level to monitor and review the scheme.
The Centre has 60 days to constitute a Central Employment Guarantee Council (EGC). Meanwhile, state governments have been given 45 days to set up their councils. The jobs scheme has often dispersed funds to dig wells and ponds in drought-hit areas. It helps generate income for people at a time when work is difficult to find.
Ideally, the court should get involved in matters that involve executive business. But in this case, the executive has not fulfilled the responsibility entrusted to them in the face of a looming crisis. On the other basic entitlements, the court has directed states like Bihar, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to make adequate arrangement for milk, eggs and other nutritional food in mid-day meals for children for five days a week or at least three days a week.
During proceedings in court, the government’s counsel had argued that the state was not under any legal compulsion to offer additional dal and edible oil in the ration or mill and egg in the mid-day meal scheme. If one applies the assertion attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” then it is safe to presume that our governments have fallen short of expected standards.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had directed the Centre to prepare a national disaster plan for drought. This order was passed in light of the fact that both the Centre and many state governments woke up to the reality of a devastating drought many months after the end of the monsoon. In addition to basic entitlement programmes, India has significantly improved its ability to forecast and track droughts, especially in the past decade.
Despite the availability of these resources, governments continue to adopt outdated methods. In its order, the apex court directed the Union government to revise the Drought Management Manual at the earliest till the end of 2016. To the uninitiated, the drought manual was first published in 2009. According to the court, many new developments have taken place and there is a need to revise the contents of the manual. “The manual should carry weightage of all the four indicators of drought with fixed determinants.
These indicators are rainfall, storage water level in reservoirs, surface water, and ground water levels and sowing and crop conditions. Though the current manual emphasises that rain deficiency is the most important determinant of drought, state governments give greater weightage to the crop sown area out of the total cultivable area,” as per a Down to Earth report. It is not as if the warning signs of the current distress in rural India weren’t apparent earlier.
In a country that has been afflicted by back-to-back droughts, it is shocking that governments have not planned in advance to deal with drought more than 10 years after the Disaster Management Act came into force. During court proceedings, the Centre and various state governments admitted to not fulfilling many of its statutory obligations. Hopefully, the court’s intervention will wake them up from their collective slumber.