States have to ensure food security for the marginalised in the pandemic

During the first lockdown, the state was an absent actor till the Karnataka High Court showed constitutional concern for the right to food of the marginalised through a public interest litigation.
Community kitchen run by volunteers providing food during lockdown
Community kitchen run by volunteers providing food during lockdown
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The devastating consequences of the second wave of COVID-19 with the criminal deaths due to lack of oxygen and timely, adequate access to hospital services has hit India hard. Even as the headlines are rightly dominated by the crisis, there is another emergency lurking just a little out of sight. The first lockdown exposed the utter precarity of the lives of the poor in India who literally live from day to day. What proved a lifeline to them during the first lockdown was the generous support by ordinary citizens and civil society organisations who organised food and other relief.

The state was an absent actor till the Karnataka High Court began to show a constitutional concern for the right to food of the marginalised through a public interest litigation (Mohammed Arif Jameel v Union of India). The food security policy of the state evolved in a constitutionally compliant direction under the supervision of the Karnataka HC in the above matter.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in its application to the Karnataka HC had argued that the right to food was a fundamental right under Article 21 and that “several vulnerable sections of society including workers in the unorganised sector such as agricultural labourers, daily wage earners, street vendors, construction workers, plantation workers, Hamali (loaders and unloaders) migrant workers, gig workers, garment workers, domestic workers, homeless person, those residing in slums, persons with disabilities, transgender people, nomadic tribes, etc are facing food insecurity”.

Based on this, PUCL wanted the state government to declare the following entitlements to be a part of a comprehensive plan:

  • Universal allocation of food grains and health packets including rice/wheat/ragi, dals, oils, jaggery, garam masala, soaps, masks, sanitisers, etc. sufficient to last the period of lockdown to be delivered at doorstep without insistence on ration cards.
  • Free cooked meals thrice a day for the needy at all mid-day meal kitchens, anganwadis, mini-anganwadis, Indira Canteens, shelter homes, homeless centres, etc. in Karnataka.
  • One-time free universal supply of cooking gas cylinders, shelter homes, homeless centres, etc. in Karnataka.

The state government in its written submissions dated April 7, 2020 put forward a ‘Comprehensive Plan for Food Security’. It noted that ‘distribution of food items and nutrition support by Anganwadi workers once in 15 days at the doorstep of beneficiaries is permissible’ and that there would be ‘take home rations for children in the age group of 3-6 years and pregnant and nursing mothers as well.’ With respect to the mid-day meal scheme as well, ‘the specified quantity of food grains is given to the parent of each child enrolled in school.’

The submissions also noted that the state was implementing the National Food Security Act and providing food grains free of cost/at subsidised rates for those covered under the central and state Food Security Acts. The April and May allocation of food grains was to be distributed in April itself.

The government also committed itself – after prolonged nudging by the HC – to supply ‘dry ration kits at the doorstep of the identified individuals’ as well as ‘prepared meals of at least two meals a day where required. This was recorded by the HC in its order dated April 24, 2020.

When it came to the question of gas cylinders, the Court in its order dated April 24, 2020 recorded that the state had submitted that three LPG cylinders would be supplied free of cost to the 31.17 lakh households covered under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana as well as to 1 lakh households under the Mukhya Mantri Anila Bhagya Yojana. However, the Court noted the submissions of PUCL and other advocates that ‘people who are not covered by the two schemes of the Central and the State Government respectively, but are having LPG connections may not be able to afford the cost of the LPG cylinder’.

Based on these submissions the Court ordered that, ‘The State will have to address this issue by taking appropriate policy decision on the question of providing some kind of subsidy for procuring one cylinder each as a one-time measure. The state will take a decision at the earliest.’ The state government in its submissions dated April 12, 2020 observed that, ‘The estimate cost of providing gas cylinders free of cost at this time may not be feasible given the progressive lifting of the lockdown and the attempt to allow work to resume in most districts in the State’ and left the ‘final decision to the Minister of Food and Civil Supplies’.

As seen in the above exchange, a policy on food security evolved which ensured supply of rations to those with ration cards, supply of cooked food, supply of gas cylinders (to some extent) and supply of ration kits during the first lockdown.

It’s interesting to note that the state declared the lockdown without breathing a word about what it intended do to guarantee food security to those whose livelihoods would be hit by the lockdown. These were to evolve only post the intervention of the Court via the public interest litigation. During the second lockdown, the counsel for AICCTU argued for continuing the measures taken during the first lockdown – including supply of rations for those with ration cards, cooked meals as well as ration kits for those without ration cards. However, the state was not willing to go with the whole menu of options.

The state committed itself to distribute 10 kg of food grains free of cost to PHH (Priority Households) Card applicants and 10 kg at Rs 15 for NPHH (Non Priority Households) Card applicants. The state government also directed Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) to make provision for breakfast, lunch and dinner free of cost at all Indira Canteens. To those who were in need of food assistance and not in easy reach of an Indira Canteen, the Advocate General assured the Court that with the assistance of NGOs arrangements will be made to ‘ensure that cooked food is supplied in those localities’ as well. For those in rural areas, the state committed itself to deliver 150 packed meals to vulnerable households through the Gram Panchayats.

With respect to ration kits for those without ration cards, the Advocate General submitted that ‘such a decision was taken last year as the lockdown was extended for a considerably long time’. He stated that for the present, ‘the lockdown announced is only till 24th of this month’. However, the Court did record his observation that should the lockdown be extended then the ‘State Government will consider implementing the method used last year’ which included the supply of ration kits to those without ration cards.

One should note that the failure to supply ration kits adversely affects migrants, transgender people, the urban poor, and all those without ration cards, and as such compromises the most basic of rights – the right to food. The situation is even more dire this time around. Due to the dangers of the spread of COVID-19, civil society efforts are not at the same scale as the last time. The need for the state to fulfil its constitutional responsibility is even more compelling and one hopes that the state will act in accordance with the order of the High Court were the lockdown to be extended and supply ration kits to all those at risk of hunger and starvation.

The orders of the Karnataka High Court with respect to food security for the marginalised have played a role in the evolution of the state plan to deal with the right to food of all persons living in the state. There is transparency around the state policy because the state has put down its policy before the court in the form of written submissions. The policy itself has evolved with inputs from civil society and the Court has nudged the state government in the direction of ensuring that the right to food as an integral part of the right to life of all persons is guaranteed. It is now up the Government of Karnataka to deliver on its constitutional promise.

Arvind Narrain is a lawyer and writer based in Bengaluru.

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