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People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) vs. Union of India (1997): A Deep Dive into India’s Right to Food Case

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) vs. Union of India, often dubbed the “Right to Food” case, is one of the most landmark judgments in India’s constitutional history. It is a testament to the judiciary’s commitment to ensuring that no citizen goes hungry, especially when there’s ample food grain stock with the government. Here’s a closer look at this pivotal case and its long-lasting implications.

Background of the Case: The PUCL filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in April 2001, highlighting the paradox of vast food grain stocks with the government on one hand and widespread starvation and hunger on the other. They pointed out that these excessive stocks were prone to rotting and were a waste of national wealth, especially when millions were starving.

Major Takeaways from the Judgement:

  1. The Right to Food as a Fundamental Right: The Supreme Court acknowledged that the right to food is integral to the right to life as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. A life without food is inconceivable.
  2. Accountability of the State: The Court held that it is the state’s duty to provide food security to its citizens, especially the most vulnerable sections of society.
  3. Interim Orders & Continual Monitoring: The Court, in a series of interim orders, issued various directions to the government to ensure the right to food for all. These included:
    • The implementation and universalization of various food-related schemes such as the Public Distribution System, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), and Mid-Day Meal Scheme.
    • Emphasis on transparency and accountability mechanisms.
    • Directions to prevent starvation deaths.
  4. The Appointment of Commissioners: To ensure a regular report on the implementation of the interim orders, the Court appointed Commissioners. This was an unprecedented step, ensuring that the Court received unbiased and comprehensive reports on the ground reality.

Critical Analysis:

  • Expanding the Horizons of Article 21: This judgment is celebrated for broadening the scope of Article 21 of the Constitution, emphasizing that the right to life is not just a mere physical existence but living with dignity, which inherently includes the right to food.
  • Judicial Activism vs. Overreach: While many laud the Supreme Court’s proactive stance as necessary given the grave issue of hunger, critics argue that it tiptoes into the domain of policymaking, traditionally the realm of the executive and legislature.
  • Implementation Challenges: Despite the Court’s orders, challenges persist in the implementation of food-related schemes. Issues like corruption, inefficiency, and lack of monitoring can hinder the realization of the right to food for all.

The Aftermath: The PUCL vs. Union of India case laid the groundwork for the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013. This law aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s population. While the law is a step in the right direction, its effective implementation remains key to realizing the Supreme Court’s vision in the Right to Food case.

Conclusion: The PUCL vs. Union of India is not just a case; it’s a narrative of India’s struggle with hunger and the judiciary’s intervention to ameliorate it. It reminds us of the fundamental truth that in a country with vast food grain reserves, hunger is not an issue of scarcity but of accessibility and distribution.

Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate

High Court Lucknow

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