Right to Food - a Fundamental Right

In the above mentioned Proceedings, the Commission has taken the view that the Right to Food is inherent to a life with dignity, and Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees a fundamental right to life and personal liberty should be read with Articles 39(a) and 47 to understand the nature of the obligations of the State in order to ensure the effective realization of this right.

Article 39(a) of the Constitution, enunciated as one of the Directive Principles, fundamental in the governance of the country, requires the State to direct its policies towards securing that all its citizens have the right to an adequate means of livelihood, while Article 47 spells out the duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as a primary responsibility. The Constitution thus makes the Right to Food a guaranteed Fundamental Right which is enforceable by virtue of the constitutional remedy provided under Article 32 of the Constitution.

The Commission has, therefore, additionally taken the view that there is a fundamental right to be free from hunger and that starvation constitutes a gross denial and violation of this right. Holding ‘misgovernance’ – resulting from acts of omission and commission on the part of public servants, to be the reason for starvation deaths occurring in different parts of the country -- the Commission has stated that these are of direct concern to it under the provisions of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.

Persons living in conditions of poverty and hunger have often been found to be suffering from prolonged malnutrition. Even when their deaths could not, in strictly clinical terms, be related to starvation, the tragic reality remained that they often died of prolonged mal-nutrition and the continuum of distress, which had rendered them unable to withstand common diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea. The Commission considered this situation to be all the more painful in view of the fact that granaries of the Food Corporation of India were overflowing.

Agreeing with the view of a petitioner, Dr. Amrita Rangasami, Director, Centre for the Study of Administration of Relief, the Commission has thus said that the present practice of insisting on mortality as a proof of starvation is wrong and needs to be set aside. It has added that there are obvious policy implications as far as the obligations of the State are concerned. The Right to Food implies the right to food at appropriate nutritional levels and the quantum of relief to those in distress must meet those levels in order to ensure that this right is actually secured and does not remain a theoretical concept.

The continuum of distress should be viewed as the necessary condition for the prevalence of starvation. The Commission also found merit in the view of the petitioner that there was need for a paradigm shift in public policies and the Relief Codes in this respect and that the shift had to be made from the domain of benevolence to that of the right of a citizen. The Government of India’s current conceptualization of calamity as well as the reason of its prevalence, has limited relief to the short term only. In contrast, a human rights approach to food and nutrition would imply that the beneficiaries of relief measures should be recognized as “claim holders”. Viewed form this perspective, the prevalence of distress-conditions threatening starvation constitute an injury requiring the imposition of a penalty on the State. The Commission was of the view that the remedy provided under Article 32 of the Constitution applied to groups no less than to individuals.

In concluding its Proceedings on this subject, the Commission observed that they were being held at a time when, universally, there was a demand that every effort be made by the State and by civil society to eradicate the poverty and hunger that constitute an affront to the dignity and worth of the human person. First and foremost among the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is the pledge made by all Heads of State and Government to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s poor and of people who suffer from hunger. Given the circumstances of our country, India has a special responsibility in this regard. The prevalence of extreme poverty and hunger is unconscionable in this day and age, for not only does it militate against respect for human rights, but it also undermines the prospects of peace and harmony within a State. For all of these reasons, the Commission will continue to be deeply involved with the issues raised in these hearings in the period ahead.