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Right To Food: In Indian Context

If you ask what is the most essential thing to live? Answer would be food. Food is a basic necessity to live, Can you imagine life without food? No because survival without food is almost impossible. We can say that right to food is a human right, and is universal, that means it must be at the national, regional and international level, and is applicable to each and every group of persons.

In India, The right to food is enshrined in the constitution, Article 47 which says it is Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health –The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.

Article 21 says:

No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
It protects all human being's right to live in dignity, free from hunger, availability of food and malnutrition.

What is Right to food?

Although there is no fixed definition of it but roughly we can define it as:
the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

It is a legal right protected under international human rights and humanitarian law and the correlative state obligations are well-established under international law and is recognized in article 25 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as a plethora of other instruments. [i]

Condition in India:

India is an agricultural country and almost 52% of all population is employed in agricultural sector. It contributes almost 14 to 15% in India's GDP. Now, let's see what is the scenario of Right to food in our country? We are second largest exporter of some of food grains but even though we are unable to feed all our population.

We have Article 47 in our constitution which give Right to food to all citizens and it is duty of respective government to provide this basic necessity to every citizen. However, condition of India is unsatisfactory, recently in Global Hunger Index Report 2019 published by Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfewas, India ranked 102 out of 117 countries that is placed at much below to its South Asian neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

In the report it was pointed that:
India is suffering from a serious hunger problem
Rank of our country in GHI is worrying and we should take it serious.

As per the India's latest census data 25.7% population in rural and 13.7% in urban area are living Below the Poverty Line. A huge part of Indian population i.e. approximately 190 million people sleep without food daily.

There is always extreme hunger in our country but one of the reason of this could be natural disasters such as floods and droughts which bring more hunger because it affect our agriculture badly and result in food crisis. Although India has a wide variety of feeding programs, food subsidies, and other sorts of "schemes" to alleviate hunger, but somehow these programs are never quite enough.

Most of these schemes are on paper only because at ground level the reality is different. In data released by Food and Agriculture organization 72% of infants, 51.4% of married women and 37.9% of children in India are undernourished.[ii] Today we see a huge number of our poor people die every year because of starvation although we have ample amount of food production in our country.

A question always pings in our mind that we export grains to other countries but why our people are losing their life due to lack of food? Lot and lots of food grains remain unused and rotting in government warehouses but our people who can't afford it are dying, can't our government able to feed these people?

Is money is above one's life? Most importance thing is to sure that food is supplied to old aged people, children's, pregnant women, destitute men and women who are not able to afford food by themselves. Whenever there is a famine, although there is shortage of food, but main problem is distribution of food to each vulnerable and destitute people.

Right to Food Case:

Death due to starvation is from very long time and there are many cases related to it but one of the famous was People's Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India, this case is popularly known as Right to Food case. In 2001, 47 dalits and tribals were starved to death due to three consecutive year of drought in Rajasthan, although India's warehouses have excess of around 40 million tonnes of foodgrains that year.
Weeks later, PUCL submitted a writ petition in SC asking three major questions:
  1. Starvation deaths is a natural phenomenon while there is a surplus stock of food grains in the Government warehouse. Does the right to life mean that people who are starving and who are too poor to buy food grains ought to be given food grains free of cost by the State from the surplus stock lying with the State, particularly when it is reported that a large part of it is lying unused and rotting?
  2. Does not the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India include the right to food?
  3. Does not the right to food, which has been upheld by the Hon'ble Court, imply that the State has a duty to provide food especially in situations of drought, to people who are drought affected and are not in a position to purchase food?

The Apex court in this case said:

In our opinion, what is of utmost importance is to see that food is provided to the aged, infirm, disabled, destitute women, destitute men who are in danger of starvation, pregnant and lactating women and destitute children, especially in cases where they or members of their family do not have sufficient funds to provide food for them. In case of famine, there may be shortage of food, but here the situation is that amongst plenty there is scarcity. Plenty of food is available, but distribution of the same amongst the very poor and the destitute is scarce and non-existent leading to mal-nourishment, starvation and other related problems.

They further added:
We direct all the state governments to forthwith lift the entire allotment of food grains from the Central government under the various schemes and disburse the same in accordance with the schemes, and added that the Food for Work Programme in the scarcity areas should also be implemented by the various States to the extent possible.[iii]

Some food Schemes:
  • National Food Security Mission
  • Antyodyaya Anna Yojana
  • Midday Meal Scheme
  • Annapurna Scheme
  • Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls
  • National Family Benefit Program and Public Food Distribution Scheme for BPL & APL families

These schemes are launched to provide food to each and every citizen of our country. The National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, was introduced to ensure improved nutritional intake for vulnerable people through its associated schemes and programmes, making access to food a legal right.

Challenges and Suggestions for Right to food in India:

  • Most important thing is long term availability and accessibility of food should be ensured and it can be ensured by proper production of food grains and proper storage and transportation system.

    Wastage of food grains: we see a huge amount of food waste every year due to lack of warehouses and proper care. Government should built more and more warehouses to secure food.
  • Black marketing and corruption: people who are entitled do not get their share due to corruption everywhere. This problem can be resolved by strict law against those who do this illegal work. There should be special court for these cases.
  • Ensuring the food and nutrition rights of marginalized communities like tribal, destitute, dalits, nomadic and displaced, women and children in vulnerable situations, inmates of institutions, and so on, with dignity; the mechanisms for this should be developed in dialogue and in discussion with them.
  • Although government has started many food schemes but these are not properly implemented. Regular inspection should be there to implement these schemes properly.

Right to Food is always a debatable and most contentious topic in India. From all above discussion and decided cases we came to the conclusion that Right to Food is a human rights which is given by our constitution to its the people. It is a right which can't be denied by any action or practices of government.

It is inalienably linked to the dignity of human beings and is therefore essential for the enjoyment and fulfillment of such other rights as health, education, work and political participation. It is primary duty of our government to provide food to each and every citizens and should have availability of food for those who can't afford to buy it from ration shop.

We have sufficient amount of food production to feed our population as well as export to other countries as well, we only have to improve our Public Distribution System, so that food could reach to vulnerable sections easily. It is our duty to pressurize government to enforce Right to Food so that no one sleep hungry or die due to starvation because they are one amongst us. Euripides a Greek tragedian once said' When a man's stomach is full it makes no difference whether he is rich or poor.

  1. Mentioned in UNHRC & ICESCR charter
  3. Chhibbar, Y. P., PUCL Petitions Supreme Court on Starvation Deaths, PUCL Bulletin, July2001.

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