Upholding the right to food

Print edition : September 01, 2001

In the battle for the right to food, the Supreme Court lends its weight to the cause of the deprived.

HEARING a petition filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties on August 20, the Supreme Court wondered aloud about the utility of stocks piling up in the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI), while millions across the country remained vulnerable to food deprivation. The three-Judge Bench comprising Justices B.N. Kirpal, Santosh Hegde and Brijesh Kumar affirmed that the Central and State governments had the principal responsibility to see that food reached the poor and the indigent.

The Bench was asked to deal with a series of questions, which could have far-reaching consequences for the directions of economic and social welfare policy. First, did the right to life, as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution, imply that people who were too poor to buy their own food should be guaranteed the minimum means of subsistence by the state? In other words, did the right to life include the right to food? And did this not in turn imply that the state was obliged to provide sufficient and adequate redress to vulnerable sections in circumstances that threatened to impair seriously the right to food?

The petitioners, represented by Colin Gonsalves and Yug Chaudhuri of the Lawyers' Network for Human Rights, placed before the court the options open to the government. The Employment Assurance Scheme, they pointed out, offered a safety net for people without sufficient assets, who would otherwise be unable to cope with adverse fluctuations in weather and employment conditions. The mid-day meal scheme in schools not only provided basic nutritional intake for children in a vital phase of their growth but also contributed to a substantial increase in school enrolment. And the Integrated Child Development Scheme was a means to safeguard children against the ravages of under-nourishment and an inadequate health care infrastructure.

At an earlier hearing, the Supreme Court had issued notice to the Central government and to the governments of Orissa, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, seeking explanations and clarifications on the facts placed before it. After the August 20 hearing, the Supreme Court granted the time requested by the respective governments to file their affidavits and posted the matter for interim orders in the first week of September.

The public interest litigation(PIL) initiated by the PUCL represents a new front in the battle for food rights, which has been waged with varying degrees of intensity in the States worst affected by adverse weather conditions over the last three years. Activist groups in Orissa, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh notably, have been campaigning for increased outlays in employment and rural works programmes, only to be frustrated by the continuing obduracy of financially strapped State governments. And though the pressure eased with the arrival of the monsoon and the start of sowing operations across the country, the damage caused by floods in certain regions has meant that distress conditions have persisted.

Behind the aggregate figures of inflation over the last decade lies a rather brutal reality. Of all the major commodity groups, foodgrain prices have been proportionately the worst affected. If the trajectory of prices were to be plotted over the decade beginning 1990-91, a quick reckoning would show that the prices of manufactured goods just about doubled. In comparison, average prices of the foodgrains bundle that is represented in the wholesale price index, increased by over 2.5 times. The only major commodity group in the case of which prices have increased at a faster pace is in the fuel and lubricants sector. The increase here has been of the order of three.

The price trends distinctly suggest that those at the lower end of the scale of income and wealth have suffered the worst of the changing economic priorities of the last decade. That the adverse movement in prices, which tend to put foodgrain out of reach of the masses, has been accompanied by a rapid build-up of stocks with the FCI - now estimated to be over 60 million tonnes against a norm for this time of the year of 25 million tonnes - is an integral part of the paradox of plenty that today confronts the economy.

In any long-term view, agriculture in the 1990s had been a crisis waiting to happen. Ever since structural adjustment and the curtailment of the fiscal deficit became the ruling mantras, the impetus to growth in the farm sector has been steadily weakened. In comparison to the 1980s, the growth rate of foodgrain output in the 1990s was almost half - 1.8 per cent against 3.54 per cent. The non-foodgrain economy also presents a picture of stagnation, with growth rates having fallen from a trend figure of 4 per cent in the 1980s to 3.17 per cent in the last decade.

It may confound economic commonsense that a decline in output growth should co-exist with crumbling prices in agricultural commodities. This is a paradox that is easily understood in terms of the collapse of demand for these commodities in a global environment dominated by the process of structural adjustment. Massive currency devaluations have created a glut of commodities in the world market, as producers seek to shore up crumbling earnings by pumping in larger volumes. At the same time, falling public investments and vanishing safety nets have meant that purchasing power, especially of the poorer sections, has been rapidly eroded.

In India, these realities have worked themselves out in the form of a growing gulf between those sectors of agriculture that benefit from official procurement operations and those that do not. The two principal foodgrains - rice and wheat - account for almost the entire stockholding in the government's warehouses. The minimum support price (MSP) for these two commodities has been increased rapidly over the 1990s, partly to compensate the farm sector for the escalating price of fertilizer and partly to offset a decline in productivity. But with fiscal correction being an obsessive concern, the MSP offered by the government has worked itself out in the form of a higher issue price demanded from the States. Officially issued grain has effectively priced itself out of the market, leading to an enormous accretion of unwanted stocks with the central warehouses.

Deficiencies of effective demand work themselves out in the form of stagnant output and collapsing prices in other sectors of agriculture. If grain output has grown, though at declining rates, the best that can be said for other major food crops - oilseeds and pulses - is that they have stagnated. Uncertainties of demand are compounded here by vagaries of the weather, with only around a tenth of the land sown with these crops enjoying the benefit of irrigation.

A growing volume of evidence now seems to suggest that this crisis is a consequence of deliberate policy neglect. Investment in agriculture today is in proportionate terms half of what it was in the early-1980s, and public sector investment is less than a third. In the decade of structural adjustment, policy attention has shifted away from building capital assets which could contribute to long-term productivity growth. Rather, the concern now is to get the delicate balance of subsidies right - between increasing the fertilizer price, talking endlessly about levying user charges for canal irrigation and cautiously raising electricity tariffs, the whole pattern of resource use in agriculture has been seriously skewed. Failures of institutional credit have completed this policy of official neglect.

These are the broad parameters within which the battle for the right to food has now been taken to the Supreme Court. Judicial fiat could undoubtedly relieve some of the worst immediate consequences of the long-term crisis of Indian agriculture, provided the worst affected sections are made aware of their rights and endowed with the means to enforce them. But the deeper structural problems clearly call for a different approach. When that re-arrangement of priorities will be accomplished and under what political dispensation, is still a matter for the future.

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