The Supreme Court has taken strong note of the Union government's statement that no states have reported deaths due to starvation, quipping whether it be taken as a correct statement. The observations came while hearing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in which the bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana asked the Union government to prepare a model to implement the Community Kitchen scheme across the country and for providing additional food grains to states to run it. While hearing a plea seeking a pan-India policy for community kitchens, the Supreme Court asked the Attorney General of India why the Central Government was relying on a 2015-2016 report with regard to starvation deaths in the country. The bench observed that the Government cannot look at the issue of starvation deaths from the prism of what happened five years ago.
The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that due to “comprehensive policies and steps” taken by both Central and state governments, there have been no starvation deaths in recent times, even during the Covid pandemic, but the court remained unconvinced.
The apex court pressed Attorney General K.K. Venugopal to be crystal clear, if he is making a statement that there are no starvation deaths in the country now, and also sought data to establish this claim.
In an affidavit, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution said: “Indeed, thanks to the progress made by the nation since independence and the comprehensive policies and steps taken by both state and Central governments, there have been no starvation deaths in the country in recent times, even during adverse situations like the pandemic.”
During the hearing, a bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, after the AG submitted that that no state has reported starvation deaths, queried: “Are you making a statement that there are no starvation deaths in the country now?”
The bench, also comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli, further pressed: “Can we afford to say that there are no starvation deaths?”
At this, Venugopal reiterated states have not reported starvation deaths, and the states have to respond on this and added the fact about malnutrition cannot be denied.
The bench then said: “Government of India should give us data on starvation deaths, latest information. Ask your officer to give us information.”
Asking the Centre to develop a model to implement the community kitchen scheme across the country, the court also emphasised that Centre should provide additional food grains to states to run it, and said the issue of “hunger has to be taken care of”.
“Hunger has to be taken care of to be satisfied and the poor people who are on the street and who are suffering because of that.”
The top court was hearing a PIL, filed by social activists Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan, and Kunjana Singh, seeking direction to the Centre for creating a national food grid, for people who do not fall under the public distribution scheme. The petitioners had argued that it is high time states takes steps to set up community kitchens.
During the hearing, the bench said logistics will not be an issue for state governments, as community kitchens is a popular scheme. It added that “popularity-wise”, every government will want to run this.
The Chief Justice said: “I don’t want to comment because this is election time… the governments are giving so many other welfare schemes.” He added that the governments can give something to the deprived to survive.
The bench, citing state governments’ response, said some of them have already established community kitchens and now they seek funds, and some are ready to start but they need funds.
Citing the Centre’s affidavit, the bench said it does not indicate anywhere that government is considering framing a scheme. “It does not say what fund you have collected and what you are doing etc. We wanted a uniform model from the Centre,” it said.
Concluding the hearing, the top court asked the Centre to file its response on providing additional food grains to states and scheduled the matter for further hearing after three weeks.
The top court also gave liberty to states to file affidavits on issues of malnutrition and starvation deaths.
The Supreme Court questioned the Centre for not reporting any starvation death. The court said if it can be understood that there is no starvation death in the country. The apex court asked the government to furnish latest data on starvation deaths and also frame a model scheme, for state governments to implement, on community kitchens to address hunger and malnutrition.
The bench emphasized that the central government should frame a model scheme for community kitchens and leave it on state governments to implement it. The top court clarified that it does not mean that a universal scheme should be framed, as there is no straitjacket formula to address the issue, but at least government can frame a model scheme.
During the hearing, the bench remarked that several freebies are announced by political parties during polls and added that it does not want to comment during election time. The bench asked state governments to provide data on malnutrition, starvation deaths and other related issues, within two weeks. The AG argued that no state government has reported starvation death, but pointed out a news report claiming a starvation death in Tamil Nadu, as doctors did not find food in the body of the 5-year-old child in the post mortem.
In the backdrop of Centre already funding 131 welfare schemes, the AG cited scarcity of funds for the operationality of community kitchen scheme across the country, to address hunger and malnutrition. Venugopal said state governments will have to work the funds for the scheme and also carry out the logistics.
The Chief Justice told the AG to look into the problem as a human problem and engage with the central government to develop a model scheme for community kitchens. Citing AG’s submission on starvation death reported by states, the bench further queried Venugopal, “can we afford to take that there is no starvation death in the country?”
The petitioners counsel Ashima Mandla urged the top court to set up an expert committee in the matter to formulate scheme for community kitchens across the country. AG submitted, “we do not dispute malnutrition. The issue is of funding”.
The Chief Justice told the AG that the Centre can explore possibility of providing additional food grains to the state governments and they can take care of logistics. It further added that the Centre can develop a model scheme after receiving data and suggestions from the states. The top court has scheduled the matter for further hearing after three weeks. (IANS)