What is the benefit when godowns are full and people are starving?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday questioned the Centre's approach to eradication of malnutrition and its failure to take steps to prevent starvation deaths in certain pockets of the country.

A Bench comprising Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Deepak Verma, hearing petitions relating to the streamlining of the public distribution system (PDS), expressed serious concern over the increasing number of starvation deaths.

Justice Bhandari told Additional Solicitor-General Indira Jaisingh: “See what the stark contradiction in our whole approach is. You say we are a powerful economy. You have a bumper crop this year and our godowns are full, and it is a happy situation, no doubt. When you have your godowns full and people are starving, what is the benefit? You cannot have two Indias.”

When the ASG explained the various steps being taken to prevent malnutrition and said the percentage was coming down, Justice Bhandari said: “Coming down is not the answer. You must eradicate malnutrition as early as possible.”

Earlier, senior counsel Colin Gonsalves submitted that though India was a signatory to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, starvation deaths were still taking place in the country. He wanted the court to direct the Centre to release foodgrains to the 150 most starved districts as a one-time measure to prevention starvation deaths.

Justice Bhandari told the ASG: “On the one hand you say adequate quantity of foodgrains is allocated to BPL [below the poverty line] families, and only thereafter APL [above the poverty line] families are supplied. But malnutrition has increased in large pockets in Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar and a few other States. They [people who starve] are also citizens of this country. You are bound to protect them. They cannot be denied foodgrains. You take instructions whether adequate foodgrains could be released to these districts as a one-time measure and file an affidavit in this regard within one week.”

Justice Bhandari also asked the Planning Commission to explain on what basis it estimated that 36 per cent of the population were BPL when several States, including those ruled by the Congress, had disputed this figure and said the actual percentage was much more even by the parameters fixed by the Planning Commission.

He wondered how the Planning Commission, which was impleaded as a party, could fix Rs. 20 and Rs. 11 per capita daily income for urban and rural areas respectively to determine BPL status.

Justice Bhandari asked counsel: “How can you justify such a meagre amount? Let the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission file a comprehensive affidavit in one week because the entire case rests on your figures.”

The Bench took on record an affidavit filed by the Centre on computerisation of the PDS. Mr. Gonsalves suggested that the Chhattisgarh model on computerisation of the PDS be adopted in other States as well.

The Bench asked the Justice Wadhwa Committee to take into account the Chhattisgarh model, as well as the model in other States, and suggest a suitable one for adoption by all States and submit a report by July 8. It said that a proper system to prevent pilferage from procurements and distribution till the end user must be put in place, and that the modules followed in the U.S. or U.K. could be implemented here as well. The Bench posted the matter for further hearing on May 10.