Sustaining the right to food in India

By Vanita Leah Falcao (KCL) — (photo credit: REUTERS)

On 24th July 2018, India woke up to a tragedy. Three sisters aged eight, four and two, had starved to death in the city of Delhi. An autopsy revealed that there was a complete absence of food and fat in their bodies. This incident was shocking not because it was the first of its kind – a list of documented starvations since 2015 recently released by activists reveals 64 such deaths. Instead what was most shocking was that it took place in the middle of the capital, where services and resources were plenty and in close proximity.

In September 2013 the Indian state recognised the right to affordable and adequate quality food ‘to live a life of dignity’ via the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The multiple instances of starvation, despite the NFSA defining entitlements that include monthly food-grain rations and feeding programmes (for women and children), proves that much more is needed for legal entitlements to translate into socio-economic welfare.

What prevented the guardians of these young children from claiming this right? Perhaps being migrants to the city they were unaware of their entitlement and the process of claiming it. Maybe they did not have the mandated documentation to prove their eligibility. Or was it that state apathy such as the dysfunctional government pre-school centre (anganwadi) where the children could receive cooked food, compounded the precarious living conditions of the family. While the facts surrounding the tragic loss of lives must be ascertained, there remain larger questions that need urgent addressing, particularly what does a formal recognition of socio-economic entitlements mean for the everyday reality of people? Further, what can the state and citizens do to ensure that rights are realised?

India has a long but troubled history of welfare provisioning, plagued by corruption, clientelism and exclusion. This scenario has resulted in citizens having little trust in or expectations from the state. The recognition and realization of a right in such a context requires a shift in how citizens view themselves, and how the state views citizens. A shift that recognises citizens not as beneficiaries of welfare but as rights-holders, entitled to demand welfare from the state.

There is no instantaneous means of initiating this shift, however ensuring access to information and state institutions is a crucial starting point. The possibility of individuals (or guardians) actively claiming their entitlement will exist only if they know they are entitled to certain provisions and that they can demand them from the state. Functional feedback and grievance redress systems to address particular local implementation gaps, and to prevent exclusion of vulnerable castes/tribes, as well as the elderly, disabled, and migrant labour can go a long way to achieve this.

Since socio-economic rights are justiciable, we have seen petitions filed in the Supreme Court to address acute situations of deprivation. The honourable court has responded by ordering the state to deliver in-kind or cash entitlements to citizens. Simultaneously it has also issued orders for the establishment of missing systems of accountability mandated by law. Given that functional systems of transparency, grievance redress and feedback can prevent acute situations of deprivation, perhaps there is a need to examine if the judiciary should be more proactive in ensuring the state establishes these. It can do so by exercising the authority vested in it by the Constitution of India to take suo motu action, i.e. to act on a matter even if a petition has not been filed before the court.

Strengthening systems of accountability will enable citizens to demand their entitlements and also to voice their demands themselves. Apart from addressing service delivery gaps and empowering citizens, functional state mechanisms can help re-establish trust in the state that has been lost due to the troubled history of welfare provisioning.

Without the imagination of a right, access to information, and functional accountability mechanisms, a right can not serve to amplify the voice of citizens. If citizens, especially those traditionally excluded from public welfare, cannot make demands of the state and represent their needs then a formal recognition of entitlements will fail to translate into enhanced state accountability and in turn into citizen welfare.