Ensure food security for all in drought-hit areas: Supreme Court

No household in a drought affected area shall be denied grains even if they do not possess a ration card, says SC


The Supreme Court asked the centre to release adequate funds under NREGA for drought-stricken states and also release delayed payment to farmers under the scheme. Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint
The Supreme Court asked the centre to release adequate funds under NREGA for drought-stricken states and also release delayed payment to farmers under the scheme. Photo: Hemant Mishra/ Mint

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday ordered that all households in drought-hit areas be supplied with heavily subsidized foodgrains, rebuking the centre and states for delayed implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

No household in a drought-affected area shall be denied foodgrains even if it does not possess a ration card, the court said. Any proof of residence or identity will be sufficient.

The order will clear the way for all rural households in drought-hit states to avail of 5kg of foodgrains per person per month at a subsidized price of Rs.1-3 per kg.

“We are very happy with the court’s order. It is a historic verdict and we have got more than what we asked for. Hopefully, it will be implemented properly by the state governments and the centre,” said Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and co-founder of Swaraj Abhiyan, the organization that filed a public interest litigation bringing the plight of the drought-hit millions to the court’s attention.

Large swathes of India are in the grip of drought after two successive years of below-average monsoon rainfall. The 2015 southwest monsoon, which irrigates over half of India’s crop area, was 14% short of normal last year, after a 12% deficit in 2014.

So far, 266 districts in 11 states have been declared drought-hit, the government told Parliament last month. A total of 330 million people in 10 states are affected, it had earlier informed the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the apex court admonished states such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat for delayed and faulty implementation of NFSA, which took effect in July 2013.

Left to “the whims and fancies of the state governments, it has taken more than two years after the NFS Act came into force for Gujarat to implement it and Uttar Pradesh has only implemented it partially”, the court observed.

“Does our Constitution countenance such a situation? Is this what ‘federalism’ is all about,” the court asked.

The court also put the onus of drought relief squarely on the centre. “The centre cannot hide behind the smokescreen of lack of funds,” justice Madan B. Lokur said.

In other directions, the court ordered states to extend the mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren during the summer vacation and the centre to immediately approve it; eggs or milk must be provided at least three days a week to schoolchildren.

“What the court directed should have been done by governments long back to provide relief to the drought-hit,” said Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and a Mint columnist.

“Unlike targeted subsidies, a universal public distribution system is easier to implement. And it won’t cost substantially more as the Act already provides for 75% of the rural population to be covered,” added Himanshu, who uses only one name.

On the employment guarantee scheme, which promises 100 days of work to at least one member of every rural household per year—raised to 150 days in drought-hit states—the top court ordered the centre to release adequate funds so that there are no delays in wage payments.

It asked the centre to compensate workers whose wages have been delayed by more than the stipulated 15 days.

Under the scheme, workers are entitled to 0.05% of wages per day for every day of delay in payment.

“We are quite pained to note that the Government of India has made no provision for this compensation while releasing the wages for 2015-16 of Rs.7,983 crores,” the court said, adding, “This is extremely unfortunate and certainly does not behove a welfare state in any situation, more so in a drought situation. Social justice has been thrown out of the window by the Government of India.”

The court directed states to constitute a commission within two months for implementing NFSA and monitoring it.

It turned down a request by the petitioners for appointing commissioners to oversee enforcement of its directives and asked the authorities to brief it on compliance with its orders after the summer break.

The case will be next heard on 1 August and the centre has to file a status report before 25 July, the court said.

On Wednesday, the court had directed the government to abandon the existing system of drought management and evolve a transparent, rules-based framework. The new policy will prescribe a standard methodology and time frame for declaring drought, minimizing the current elbow room for states to deny or delay a drought notification.

On Wednesday, the judges had also criticized Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana for their reluctance to acknowledge drought and failure to disclose the ground reality.

“An ostrich-like attitude is a pity, particularly since the persons affected by a possible drought-like situation usually belong to the most vulnerable sections of the society,” said the order.

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