PUCL, 2001

High court chastises government as millions of Indians go hungry
by Palash Kumar

Special Correspondent, South Asia,
Agence France-Presse,


NEW DELHI, Aug 21 (AFP) - India's Supreme Court has reprimanded the
government for mismanaging food distribution in the country, where millions
are threatened with starvation despite overflowing granaries.

The court's decision came after a petition from a human rights group, the
People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), which said nearly 208 million
Indians have been affected by "chronic hunger."

While a bumper crop last year has produced 50 million tonnes of
foodgrains -- far in excess of the 20 million tonnes required to feed a
nation of one billion people -- six Indian states have been hit by severe
drought: Maharshtra, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and
Bihar.

"The excess stocks, stored in sub-standard conditions, is exposed to rot,
pest, theft and other losses. ... Some of it is not even fit for animal
consumption and may end up being dumped in the sea," the PUCL said.
"It seems that the government of India would rather feed the fishes in
the Arabian Sea than the people of India," the group said in its petition.
"There is so much grain in the reserves that there is a shortage of
storage space. In some cases, there is barely a distance of 75 kilometres
(45 miles) between the location of these godowns and the places where
starvation is rampant, people are malnourished, and cattle are dying," it
added.

Quoting government figures, the PUCL stated that out of 360 million
people living below the poverty line, there are more than 50 million people
who are in danger of starvation.

"Already there are reports of starvation deaths. Over and above this,
many people are facing starvation and will die soon if nothing is done
immediately to alleviate their misery.

Based on its report, the PUCL asked the Supreme Court to direct the
federal coalition to give its people their "right to life," which implies
"the right to food, water, shelter, education, medical care and a decent
environment. These are basic human rights known to any civilised society."
In its ruling Monday, the court said it was the "primary responsibility"
of the federal and state governments to ensure that "foodgrains overflowing
in godowns reached the starving people and (are) not wasted by being dumped
in the sea or eaten by rats."

On September 3, the court will pass interim directions to the federal and
state governments to provide immediate relief to the affected people.
The human rights group also asked the court whether it was prudent to ask
the poor and hungry to pay for government rations when unemployment is
rampant in the drought-affected areas.

Even where the foodgrain is distributed free of cost, the amount
disbursed is much less than the average intake of an adult, the PUCL
petition said.

"There is massive unemployment, the people are becoming increasingly
indebted to rapacious money-lenders, children are dropping out of school and
cattle are either dying or being abandoned in large numbers because their
owners cannot provide them with fodder," the PUCL said.
Meanwhile, some states are experiencing their third straight year of
drought.

In the western desert state of Rajasthan, half of all children below
three are undernourished, about half of all adult women suffer from anaemia
and half of the rural population lives below the poverty line.

In western Maharashtra, drought prevails in 26 out of 35 districts,
affecting as many as 20,000 villages and a total population of 45 million
people, the petition said.

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