PUCL Bulletin, July 2001

PUCL petitions Supreme Court on starvation deaths
-- By Y. P. Chhibbar

Also see,
High court chastises government as millions of Indians go hungry

The writ petition

The Rajasthan State branch of the PUCL filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court through its President Shri Prem Krishan Sharma raising the following questions of law of public importance, which needed to be adjudicated by the apex court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India seeking enforcement of right to food:

  1. Starvation deaths have become a National Phenomenon while there is a surplus stock of food grains in government godowns. Does the right to life mean that people who are starving and who are too poor to buy food grains free of cost by the State from the surplus stock lying with the State particularly when it is lying unused and rotting?

  2. Does not the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India include the right to food?

  3. Does not the right to food which has been upheld by the apex Court imply that the State has a duty to provide food especially in situations of drought to people who are drought effected and are not in a position to purchase food.

Giving in details the facts leading to the filing of the petition is 18 Annexures covering in detail the situation, the programmes and the failure of the government in the State of Rajasthan the petition sets out the following grounds.

  1. Because the Respondents have been highly negligent in performing their obligations and are causing enormous damage to the lives of the people due to their inaction;

  2. Because the Respondents have abdicated their constitutional obligation under Article 21 of the Constitution of India which makes it mandatory for the Respondents to ensure the right to life of the citizens which includes the right to live with dignity with atleast two square meals a day;
  3. Because the Respondents have failed in discharging their responsibilities by not utilising the resources available for the purposes of drought relief, prevention of starvation and alleviation of misery;
    Because in accordance with the standard laid down by the respondents themselves, open handed employment at the legal minimum wage for all willing to avail of in the drought affected areas or to be provided which the respondents have failed to provide;

  4. Because in a welfare State primary duty of the government is to secure the welfare of the people. Article 21 imposes an obligation on the State to safeguard the right of life of every person. Preservation of human life is thus of paramount importance. The State cannot avoid its constitutional obligation in that regard on account of financial constrains.

  5. Because the abdication of duties by the Respondents is in total violation and abject disregard of the principles laid down by this Hon'ble Court in the case of Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samity and others versus State of West Bangal reported 1996(4) SCC 37.

  6. Because the Respondents have ignored the principles let down by the honourable Court in Chameli Singh versus State of UP reported in 1996(2)SCC State 549 wherein it was held that in any organised society, right to live as a human being is not ensured by meeting only the animal needs of man. It is secured only when a man is assured of all facilities to develop himself and is freed from restrictions which inihibit his growth. All human rights are designed to achieve this object. Right to life guaranteed of any civilized society implies the right to food, water, shelter, education, medical care and a decent environment. These are basic human rights known to any civilized society. The civil, political, social, and cultural rights enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and convention or under the Constitution of India cannot be exercised without these basic human rights.

  7. Because the Respondents have ignored the fact that the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, viz., the bare necessaries of life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading, writing, and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings as held by the this honourable Court in Farcis Coralie Mullin versus Union of territory of Delhi reported in 1981 1 SCC, 608;

  8. Because the parties adapted by the respondents with respect to allocation of food is archaic, un-scientific and without any basis on the demands supply principle.

The petition prays as under

  1. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ, order, or direction, directing the respondents to enforce the famine code;

  2. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ, order, or direction, directing the despondence numbers 1& 2 to immediately release the surplus food grains lying in their stocks for the drought affected areas;

  3. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ, order, or direction, directing the respondents to frame a fresh scheme of public distribution for scientific and reasonable distribution of food grains;

  4. And pass such other orders as the Court may deem fit in the facts and circumstances of the case.

The respondents in the petition are:
1. Union of India, Ministry of Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution; 2. Food Corporation of India; 3. State of Orissa; 4. State of Rajasthan; 5. State of Chhattisgarh; 6. State of Gujarat; 7. State of Himachal Pradesh; and 8. State of Maharashtra.

The Supreme Court was pleased to admit the petition on April 16. The petition has been drafted by Ms. Aparna Bhat, Advocate of the petitioner.

The petition has attracted wide attention all over the country and a number of Indian and foreign TV channels, magazines, and newspapers have run features, reports, etc. on it. The authorities concerned who were denying starvation deaths up till now have reluctantly admitted that the problem of starvation death does exist.

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