The Supreme Court’s questions on hunger deaths drew a near blank from the Union government on Tuesday.
The government’s response skirted from urging the court to ask the States for data, making sweeping comments about malnutrition in “developing countries” to reading statistics out of a 2015 health survey report and a newspaper article.
“Why are you looking at a 2015-2016 report? Are you looking through that prism to say there are no starvation deaths now? So you have to look at a newspaper report?” a three-judge Bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana, Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli asked the Centre, represented by Attorney General K.K. Venugopal.
The debate began with the Bench referring to an affidavit filed by the Centre, which said that not a single State had reported starvation deaths.
“Can we understand that there are no starvation deaths in the country? Our limited question is whether your officers have the latest information on starvation deaths... Is there any survey report indicating whether starvation deaths are happening or not? Give us some data. Ask your officers to furnish some information,” the CJI asked Mr. Venugopal.
“Officers have said there is no such starvation deaths,” the top law officer replied at one point.
Advocate Ashima Mandla, for petitioners, intervened to submit that starvation deaths could only be detected through autopsy. She said the authorities have to make a conscious effort to identify starvation deaths or they could easily fall under the radar.
The CJI underscored that the “hunger of the poor on the streets has to be satisfied”.
Mr. Venugopal responded that the Centre was on the front foot in food welfare schemes. “We have 131 food related programmes,” he said.
“That malnutrition exists is not disputed by us. That community kitchens are needed is not disputed. The problem is the funding,” he observed. The States have to source the funds for community kitchen programmes by themselves, even if by additional taxation, and the panchayats were obliged under the Constitution to provide the logistics for distribution.
The Union government was already financially stretched by its own 131 food programmes. “We cannot divert money from the 131 programmes. We have a constraint for funds. We have the huge funding of 131 programmes to take care of... Government has so many welfare schemes,” he said.
The Bench asked the Centre to explore the possibility of a “model” community kitchen scheme by which it could support the States to ensure food security for the poor.
The Bench said it was not upto the judiciary to formulate a “uniform” community kitchen scheme for the States, but the Centre ought to do it in consultation with the States.
“We cannot prepare a straitjacket and uniform scheme for the entire country... You can make a model scheme and leave it to the States to follow the guidelines depending on their individual food habits,” the Bench addressed Mr. Venugopal.
The Attorney General agreed to convey to the Union government the court’s suggestion to provide the States with an additional two per cent food grains.
The court asked the States to file reports on the status of malnutrition and hunger deaths in two weeks along with suggestions for community kitchen schemes.
In a previous hearing, the court had questioned the government’s commitment to run community kitchens to stave off hunger across the country, saying the first job of a welfare state was to ensure that people do not starve to death.
“Every welfare state’s first responsibility is to provide food to people dying due to hunger,” Chief Justice Ramana had said.
The court is hearing a petition that highlights how starvation deaths continue to eat into the right to life and dignity of social fabric and a “radical” new measure like community kitchens need to be set up across the country to feed the poor and the hungry.
The petition, filed jointly by activists Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan and Kunjana Singh drew attention to how Tamil Nadu’s Amma Unavagam had become a roaring success by involving peers in self- help groups, employing the poor to serve hygienic food to eradicate the gnawing problem of hunger on the streets.
The petition also referred to Rajasthan’s Annapurna Rasoi, Indira Canteens in Karnataka, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Canteen, Anna Canteen of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand Mukhyamantri Dal Bhat and Odisha’s Ahaar Centre.
“While there are statistics available for malnutrition deaths in children and adults in the country, there is no official data available for death of persons owing to starvation... Food and Agriculture Report, 2018 stated that India houses 195.9 million of the 821 million undernourished people in the world, accounting for approximately 24% of the world’s hungry. Prevalence of undernourishment in India is 14.8%, higher than both the global and Asian average,” the petition had said.
It had urged the court to direct the Chief Secretaries of the States and Union Territories to formulate a scheme for the implementation of community kitchens and to further ensure that “no person should sleep on an empty stomach”.
It had called for the creation of a national food grid by the Centre which is beyond the scope of the Public Distribution Scheme.
It had said it had been “reported in 2017 by the National Health Survey that approximately 19 crore people in the country were compelled to sleep on an empty stomach every night. Moreover, the most alarming figure revealed is that approximately 4500 children die every day under the age of five years in the country due to hunger and malnutrition, amounting to over three lakh deaths every year, owing to hunger, of children alone”.