In most cases, courts are a last remedy for the vast number of citizens. Injustice stemming from government’s delivery failures and inaction of officials is a big factor behind the spate of cases in recent decades. The ability of courts to deliver justice, in situations where the cause of inaction (or wrong action) is clear, is impressive.
There are, however, situations where court intervention has been less than successful. In other cases, the chances of success are low. The reason for this lies not in the courts’ lack of zeal or their ability to take governments to task, but more likely due to their overreach and the complexity of the problem in question. One such matter, which is before the Supreme Court, is that of food security.
On Wednesday, during the course of a hearing, the court made an observation on the government’s estimate of the number of persons below the poverty line (BPL). It felt the number, at 36% of the country’s population, was low and not accurate. It said, “It is astonishing as to how you can fix 36% people in the BPL category in 2011 by relying on the 1991 census data.”
This is not merely an issue of counting the poor properly: a lot depends on the yardstick by which poverty is defined. Changing the measuring rod changes the number of poor estimated. There is no one “scientific” way of doing it. If anything, the matter is quite political. State governments have every reason to want a higher estimate of poor in their territory. This is because the larger this number is, the greater is the possibility of getting more financial resources from the Union government for anti-poverty programmes. The Union government’s incentives in this matter are directly opposed to those of the states. This constant tug of war between the two is one reason for the proliferation of these estimates.
It is not clear how the court’s intervention, beyond a point, can change matters in what is a problem that has no easy or clear cut solutions. It can, to be sure, demand a new count or fix a new set of criteria for counting the poor. But will that help reduce poverty? That is doubtful given the serious weaknesses in administering anti-poverty measures in most states. Clearly, this is one of those cases where the link between injustice and its cause is not direct but quite circuitous. The history of the country’s efforts to solve the problem—all the way back to independence—shows that its solution does not lie in the judicial domain.
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