New Delhi: In 2001, 47 tribals and Dalits were starved to death in south-eastern Rajasthan as the state reeled from its third consecutive year of drought. The tragedy occurred despite India’s warehouses were brimming with an excess of around 40 million tonnes of foodgrains that year.
Weeks later, the Right to Food Campaign, a civil society network of activists and organizations, moved the apex court to secure food security for Indians. The case—People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India (popularly known as the Right to Food case)—sought to transform the government’s policy choices on food into enforceable rights for the citizens.
“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,” the apex court said in an order after the first hearing.
On 10 February, 17 years after the first judicial intervention, the apex court unceremoniously ended the case.
“In view of the passage of the National Food Security Act, 2013, nothing further survives in this petition. In case the petitioner has any grievance with regard to the implementation or otherwise of the National Food Security act, 2013, he may file a fresh petition,” a bench headed by justice Madan B. Lokur said in the order disposing off the case.
“Globally, it is the most cited case on right to food and even judicial activism. It is a disappointment that the case ended without a last order stating access to food is a fundamental right in as many words,” said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners.
A government official involved in the case, on condition of anonymity, said that the court was convinced that the National Food Security Act must be given a chance. “The government was able to convince the court that the legislation can take over and function without constant judicial supervision.”
It is debatable whether the case which issued the longest continuing mandamuses—a legal writ where the court orders a person or entity to do something—in the world on the Right to Food campaign should have been disposed with.
Experts, however, agree on one thing—that the case is, perhaps, India’s most successful public interest litigation.
In a case, which spanned almost two decades, the court monitored every government scheme related to food, its implementation—both at state and Central levels by appointing its own officers to bring ground reality to court room.
In 2002, the apex court appointed N.C. Saxena and S.R. Sankaran, two former bureaucrats, as food commissioners empowering them to investigate violations of interim orders in the case and authority to monitoring and reporting the implementation status of the orders to the court. Harsh Mander, a former member of the National Advisory Council, took over the position after Sankaran retired.
The decision to appoint commissioners of its own—an idea that the court has not replicated since—was the realization that it would be impossible for two judges to ensure their orders are implemented in spite of a reluctant government.
“Food is political. That could be a very big reason why this case had the kind of impact it did. But the court is only concerned with rights enshrined in the constitution. Implementation of the orders however happened as a result of many factors” said Saxena.
Last year, in a public interest litigation seeking the court’s intervention in dealing with drought situations across the country, the apex court dismissed the idea of appointing its commissioners to monitor judicial orders.
“We are not satisfied that any such exercise in the right earnestness has been undertaken,” the court said on 17 September 2001 after only third hearing when as many as 10 states failed to even file their responses on time.
“The Right to Food case can be a considered a spectacular success in the history of social litigation in our country. The biggest reason for that is because the petitioner was not a person but a movement. ” said Anuj Bhuwania, assistant professor at South Asian University, New Delhi. “The idea of appointing commissioners was also a big hit,” he added.
The food security campaign was actively lobbying even before the court’s intervention came in 2001. Reetika Khera, an associate professor at IIT-Delhi, agreed that the court orders only added to an existing active grassroots campaign that had public support.
“There were groups in every state working on the issue already. The case enabled all of them to come together and ensure implementation of the court’s orders.”
On 17 February, the campaign led a protest against the recent Central government notification mandating aadhaar authentication for the mid-day meal scheme. Clearly, the end of the 17-year-old case isn’t, however, the end of the Right to Food campaign.
It will have to be seen if lessons learnt from this case can be applied for other social issues that end up at the court’s doorstep every day.