Governments often complain about judicial overreach. In certain cases, they are absolutely justified. However, when governments do not address the pressing concerns of their poor, judicial intervention is probably the only recourse available. On Monday, the apex court expressed strong disappointment over the non-implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, in certain States. In its observation against the non-implementation of the said law, the court had asked, “How can a State choose to not implement a law passed by the Parliament?” However, a more pertinent point of observation is the inability of certain State governments to ensure food security for its people, as mandated by law. What’s worse, the observation comes at a time when large parts of the country are reeling under drought. The food security law obligates the State to provide 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month at a subsidised rate of Rs 2-3 per kg. Late last year, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said that all States and Union Territories of the country will implement the landmark National Food Security Act (NFSA) by March. The law was passed by the Parliament in 2013 and state governments were given a year to implement it. The deadline has since been extended thrice, with the latest one ending in September, according to various news agencies. Food entitlements are an absolute necessity, considering that vast sections of the Indian populace are not well-off. Moreover, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, approximately 48 percent of India’s children suffer from stunted physical growth. Make no mistake, it’s a cause for deep concern. Under-nutrition, and especially stunting, is one of the least recognised crises for children world over. Stunted growth among children is a consequence of under-nutrition in the first 1000 days of an infant’s life, including during gestation. What’s worse, numerous studies have shown that ill-effects of malnutrition at tender ages result in irreversible health consequences. These studies have gone on to suggest that the ability of stunted children to learn in school is compromised. Consequently, they are more likely to find themselves living in poverty and go on to have children also stunted by poor nutrition. This vicious cycle of poverty only widens the gap between the rich and poor.
In the context of the food security debate in India, it is imperative to understand that poor nutrition is not a consequence of a lack of food. In fact, according to most reports, India is food secure. However, this does not mean that food is being distributed equitably. In light of such disturbing facts, one is surprised by the Centre’s decision to effectively phase out the Antyodaya food scheme launched by the previous NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is an Indian government sponsored scheme for the allocation of food grains to the poorest of the poor families. It is safe to say that such schemes, allied with other government-sponsored programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services, have played a significant part in reducing the number of stunted children less than five years of age by 9.1 percentage points in eight years. This figure was arrived at last year by a renowned global think-tank on food security called the International Food Policy Research Institute. To make matter worse, in the last Budget, the National Democratic Alliance government halved the funds for the crucial scheme in the union budget, from Rs 18,681 crore to Rs 8,335 crore for 2015-16. Suffice to say, the Centre and states have been negligent in performing their obligations, causing enormous damage to the lives of the people due to their inaction. As the petition in the apex court against the non-implementation of NFSA argues, such negligence is in “direct contravention of the rights guaranteed under Articles 21 and 14 of the Constitution of India”. In certain states, unfortunately, more inane policy decisions surrounding the food security of young impoverished children have come to light. Although 52 percent of children in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished, its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, earlier last year, saw it fit to shoot down a proposal to include either egg curry or boiled eggs in Anganwadi meals on a pilot basis in three tribal districts. It has been alleged that certain lobby groups mounted pressure on the State government to implement such a diktat.
Madhya Pradesh is also one of the 12 drought-affected states, according to the petition. The other 11 states are Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha.