Three pronouncements made on three consecutive days this month by the Supreme Court of India have brought relief to different groups of economically and socially deprived people. The beneficiaries include children sold out by poor parents to work in circuses as child labour; young men and women determined to get married crossing caste barriers and harassed for that very reason by ‘khap panchayats'; and the hungry poor across the country denied their right to food, even as thousands of tonnes of food grains rot in government godowns.

Interestingly, the media, by and large, have been playing a proactive role in bringing the issues on to the public agenda. Daily newspapers and magazines have published several articles about hundreds of children, mostly girls, who were brought to India from neighbouring countries, especially Nepal and Bangladesh, to work in circus companies that have proliferated across the country. The living conditions were inhuman, resembling slavery. Thanks to some dedicated NGOs working in India and Nepal, the Indian media have exposed the trafficking in girls, who end up being exploited and sexually abused by circus owners and their men. This is the pathetic life of girls bought for paltry sums of money from poor parents not only from adjacent countries but also from Indian States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is the price these hapless children and their families pay to keep our children laughing. BBC News and international news agencies have also reported on the girls' sufferings, while performing high-risk high-wire programmes.

Two decades ago, the hundreds of circus companies were in deep trouble owing to a gradual decline in public patronage. They sought State help to keep them going and save their performers and the emaciated animals that trek with them from camp to camp. The emergence of a large middle class with real purchasing power restored the economic health of the circuses, which have become one of the favourite entertainers for middle class children.

A rights-based judgment

In a rights-based judgment delivered on April 18, the Supreme Court banned the employment of children in circus companies. The court directed the Central government to take immediate steps to rescue the suffering circus workers and arrange for their rehabilitation. Passing orders on a petition filed by the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an organisation working for children, a Division Bench comprising Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice A.K. Patnaik directed the central government to issue suitable notifications prohibiting employment of children in circuses within two months, in order to implement the fundamental right of children under Article 21-A of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to “free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.” The Bench asked the government to raid all circuses and liberate children and check violation of their fundamental rights.

Another Supreme Court judgment delivered on April 19 was highly critical of the caste system and declared ‘khap panchayats” illegal. They were instrumental, the court observed, in encouraging honour killings and indulged in other atrocities against boys and girls married or tried to marry from outside their castes. The Bench, comprising Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra, wanted the government to ruthlessly stamp out the barbaric practice. A significant aspect of the judgment was that it directed the administrative and police officials to take strong steps to prevent such atrocious acts as honour killing. The court also asked for departmental action against officials who failed on this score.

It may be recalled that when States such as Haryana and Rajasthan reported a series of honour killings a few months ago, the media went all out against the spread of the crimes and the failure of the State police and administration to arrest it. When the Central government floated the idea of a ban on khaps, even Chief Ministers and ex-Minister sought to scuttle the move.

Starvation deaths

No less important is the serious concern expressed by Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma over the increasing number of starvation deaths in the country. They were hearing petitions relating to the streamlining of the public distribution system (PDS). The Supreme Court has once again questioned the approach of the Central government to the eradication of malnutrition and its failure to arrest starvation deaths in some areas. Justice Bhandari also questioned the Planning Commission's estimate that 36 per cent of the population was below the poverty line, which was inconsistent with the claim of several States, including Congress-ruled States, that the percentage was much larger. The judge wondered how the Planning Commission could fix a per capita daily income of Rs. 20 for urban areas and a per capita daily income of Rs. 11 for rural areas to determine BPL status. He also wanted the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission to file a detailed affidavit within a week “because the entire case rests on your figures.”

Progressive voices, including economists, scientists, and social activists, have been articulating in the media the demand for a universal PDS. When the National Advisory Committee was about to endorse it, the government ruled it out once again. At a time the Supreme Court has stepped up the pressure for a pro-people solution, a well-informed and decisive media push will certainly help.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

Correction

(* * In the last paragraph of the Online Off Line column, “Pro-poor judicial initiatives: now for a media push” (April 25, 2011), there was a reference to the National Advisory Committee. It should have been National Advisory Council.)