New Delhi: A week after the Supreme Court ordered the government to distribute food free to the poor rather than let it rot, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lightly ticked off the apex court on Monday when he told a meeting of editors that the judiciary should not get into “the realm of policy formulation”.
Singh said it was not possible to distribute food free or at a low rate to the estimated 37% of the population that lives below the poverty line (BPL). His government has been under attack for sitting on a mountain of excess food stocks at a time when food prices have shot up.
“I do recognize that food should be available to the people below poverty line at concessional prices. We have not allowed any increase in the issue price of foodgrain to people below poverty line since 2004,” said Singh.
Meanwhile, the department of food and public distribution filed a comprehensive affidavit in the Supreme Court in the right to food case, saying that the government is in the process of finalizing a food security law that would address most of the issues raised by the court. The bench, comprising justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma, referring to the affidavit’s contents, said: “We are happy to note that the Union of India, in pursuance to the suggestions of this court, has decided to allocate to the state governments/Union territories on ad hoc basis an additional quantity of 25 lakh tonnes of wheat/rice at BPL prices for the next six months.”
An empowered group of ministers headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had decided on 2 September to release the extra tonnes of wheat and rice into the public distribution system over the next six months for BPL families, as an interim measure to ensure food security.
The court has now given the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) one week to file a reply to the government’s submissions before the court on Monday. The government has one week after that to give a rejoinder and the court will take the public interest litigation, which had been filed by PUCL, up for hearing next on 24 September.
“Appreciation to the government for filing a comprehensive reply and directing the various ministries on the court’s order,” observed justice Bhandari, when told of the measures taken by the government. However, the government has simply reiterated its position in the fresh affidavit and has declined to distribute grains for free or give subsidized grain to above poverty line citizens.
Experts view the development as yet another instance of a clash between the judiciary and the executive.
Former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee said the Prime Minister has done his duty to the nation by asserting that the court should not interfere with policymaking. “Both executive and judiciary should stick to their duties laid down in the Constitution. I feel that the Supreme Court should not pass orders it cannot implement. Who will decide who is eligible, what’s their number and how it (foodgrain) can be distributed? Can the court appoint a special person or body to implement it? Can the court replace the Central government?” Chatterjee said.
However, he added that the “intention behind the court order is laudable”.
The ruling Congress, however, denied that the Prime Minister has rebuffed the court. “He has said whatever he has to say. We completely stand by whatever he has said. There can be no difference of opinion, not the slightest difference over the issue between the party and him,” party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said.
Meanwhile, Singh rejected media reports that there was a disconnect between the government and the Congress party. He pointed out that there is nothing wrong in ministers and party functionaries expressing their views, and defended his government by saying his cabinet had functioned with a “much greater degree of cohesion” than even the first cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. “I can’t say I will shut up every colleague,” Singh said. He also ruled out early retirement, but indicated that he would look at options for a cabinet reshuffle before the winter session of Parliament, due to begin on 7 November.
Singh listed the Maoist rebellion, the tense Kashmir situation and the forthcoming judgement in the Babri Masjid case as some of the top issues that would have a bearing on how India would be shaped in the years ahead. “I can’t promise you that I can produce a rabbit out of my hat...the country must learn to be patient,” said the Prime Minister, who has been accused by critics of “keeping silence” on such issues.
PTI contributed to this story.