Right to Food during COVID-19, analyzing the implementation of the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) – By Shivaansh Singh
While this pandemic Covid-19 might be one of its kind, an equally serious and ever-present problem i.e. hunger, has escalated. The countries which are hit by Covid-19 have imposed lockdown; as a measure of prevention to contain the spread of coronavirus. The lockdown would be particularly severe to those who are poor and left without a safety net. “Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread,” said Dr. Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme.
“The COVID-19 pandemic could almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger; pushing it to more than a quarter of a billion by the end of 2020”; warns the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) after releasing a new report on food crisis around the world, believing 265 million people to be facing acute risk.
The poor, particularly daily wage workers depend on their daily wages for survival. They neither have ration stocked up for the near future nor do they have any savings to support them. They do not have social security to fall back on either. The effect of the lockdown is clear; as there are numerous reports of people going hungry after having run out of food and money. According to a report, the lockdown has resulted in about 200 deaths, 53 of which were caused by starvation, exhaustion; or suicide due to a lack of livelihood.
A survey (by Stranded Workers Action Network SWAN); of over 11,000 migrant workers stranded across the country has found that half of them had ration stocks; that would only last them less than a day. Out of these, 96% of workers had not received rations from the government; and 70% had not received any cooked food. As many as 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown, the report added.
The right to food for these people has been denied. While their source of livelihood has been taken away; an alternate source of income or food has not been made available for all. Food being the most vital of things needed for survival; if denied would surely end in a catastrophe like in these cases.
Right to food as a fundamental right
The right to food is the most basic right required by a human to live. All other rights become secondary when compared to this right. It has always been the one to be most often proclaimed and also the most violated right.
The constitution of India has both directly and indirectly mentioned the right to food. Article 47, a directive principle, directly states that; it is the duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition; and the standard of living and to improve public health. But it is article 21, which protects the right to life and liberty of an individual; which expands the scope of the right to food.
The Supreme Court has for a long time been committed to the right to food; and has strengthened the right through many judgments. In Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, the supreme court stated; “right to life enshrined in article 21 means something much more than animal instinct; and includes the right to live with human dignity; it would include all the aspects which would make life meaningful; complete and worth living.”
Also, the court held in Chameli Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh that the need for a decent; and civilized life includes the right to food, water, and a decent environment.
In Kishen Pattnayak and ors vs. State of Orissa when the people of Kalahandi, Koraput, and several other districts were dying of hunger, Justice P.N. Bhagvathi held that no one in this country should be allowed to suffer deprivation; and exploitation when social justice is the watchword of the constitution.
The landmark case of People’s union civil liberties (PUCL) vs. The union of India on the right to food is widely considered to be the most successful PIL to date. It is an ongoing case that has delivered important judgments and made the right to food enforceable and justiciable.
The right to food as a human right imposes three types or levels of obligations on States; which is now a widely used framework for analyzing states’ human rights obligations generally; (“Human Rights in the twenty-first century: a global challenge” by Kathleen Mahoney and Paul Mahoney).
These are the duty to respect, the duty to protect, and the duty to fulfill or facilitate human rights.
The duty to respect the right to food is essentially a duty of non-interference with existing access to adequate food. It requires states to refrain from measures that prevent such access.
The duty to protect the right to food requires States Parties to ensure; that enterprises or individuals do not deprive individuals of their access to adequate food; the duty to facilitate implies taking positive steps that strengthen people’s access to food and resources that enable better nutrition.
The government had to forego the first two duties by imposing the lockdown; which is understandable considering the absence of any alternative around the whole world. But it also imposes on the government the obligation to perform the third duty in the most efficient way possible.
Problems regarding food distribution and Role of the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA)
The government came up with the National Food Security Act in 2013; which sets eligibility criteria for beneficiaries, accountability, and quantity to be distributed. Public Distribution System (PDS) comes under the NFSA. It is the largest and the most important authority in combat against hunger. It is responsible for both the farmer and the consumer.
D.V. Prasad, chairman of the state-run Food Corp. of India, has said in an interview; that the state-run Food Corporation of India (FCI) will have 100 million tons in warehouses across India, compared with an annual requirement of 50 to 60 million tons; under various welfare programs for the poor. The minister for food and public distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan; has also repeated on multiple occasions that there is no shortage of rice, wheat or pulses; with the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
The stocked up quantity is so immense that it can be used to feed the beneficiaries for almost nine months. This reflects the problem in our system, what should be with the poor is stocked up in warehouses. The minister has said that the transportation was being done on a war footing. While these claims do bring a positive note; the job remains only half done as the most important and difficult task still remains distribution.
The food distribution lies with the State Government. Under Section 24(1) of the NFSA, it is the duty of the State Government to monitor the implementation of schemes; issued by various Ministries and Departments of the Central Government. The states with a well-oiled system like southern Indian states perform these duties better than those states; where corruption plagues the system (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etc).
According to NFSA every person who is a “ration card” holder shall be entitled to collect rations from “fair price shops”; under “targeted public distribution system (TPDS)”. All the states barring a few are distributing food grains to NFSA ration cardholders; and not taking into account those who are migrants, unregistered people; or those who do not have cards for the area in which they are stuck.
As mentioned by Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution; Ram Vilas Paswan in an interview; under NFSA, 71 crore people are supposed to get benefits across the nation. Unfortunately, 39 Lakh among these are left out; as they do not hold ration cards, out of these 39 Lakh, 14 Lakh people are in Bihar.
The act explicitly mentions under Section 8, right to receive food security allowance for entitled persons; who are not supplied with entitled foodgrains or meals. Section 24(2)(b) of NFSA makes State Government responsible to ensure that foodgrains are delivered; or supplied to the entitled persons of the concerned state. However, there are multiple reports of beneficiaries; who have been denied their entitlement by being given a lesser quantity than they are supposed to receive.
Section 29 allows every State Government to set up Vigilance Committees for ensuring transparency; proper functioning of TPDS by regularly supervising the implementation of all the schemes under NFSA; and to report to District Grievance Redressal Officer; if any violation of any kind of malpractice occurs in the system. A better implementation of this section would ensure; that appropriate checks are in place to stop corruption in the lower levels of the PDS.
The government has surely worked hard to reach as many people as they can; but the effort can be made even better; if the efficiency is increased in the distribution. There are many families whose all the members are not accounted for in the list considering; that the last time it was updated was in 2011 and is due to be updated next in 2021. There are many migrants who are not eligible for the benefits in the region they are stuck in. This calls for the universalization of distribution of the food grains; at least for the next few months considering the vast stock of ration that we have. This can be done by providing those without cards, temporary cards, or some sort of identification. Filtering the beneficiaries in this time of crisis would help no one.
Police personnel, in Delhi, are seen preparing food for migrant workers; which shows that there is a dire need of volunteers or authorized personnel. The problem is of such vast proportions; where more than half of the Indian population (71 crore people) is the beneficiary of government schemes. Personnel is required for distribution of the foodgrains to the NFSA ration cardholders; identifying the people who require the benefit of the schemes; but are not eligible for some reason, distributing cooked meal; or uncooked foodgrains to those identified people. This course of action can be fulfilled only if the State Government; through notification assigns such additional responsibility to local authorities of their respective states (sub-sec. (2) of sec.25).
It is the need of the hour that all the parts of our machinery should work as hard and smooth as they can. The reports of any type of corruption or leakage in distribution should be taken very seriously and acted upon. The irregularities in the distribution are a direct violation of the right to food of the beneficiaries.
This article is written by Shivaansh Singh, Content writer and Legal researcher at Legal Thirst. He is a 1st year Law student at Llyod Law School.