SC refuses to direct establishment of community kitchens to combat hunger

A Supreme Court Bench of Justices Bela M. Trivedi and Pankaj Mithal has rejected a public interest litigation seeking directions for state and Union territory governments to establish community kitchens to combat hunger and malnutrition.

ON Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to direct state governments and Union territories (UTs) to establish ‘community kitchens’ to combat hunger and malnutrition.

A Bench comprising Justices Bela M. Trivedi and Pankaj Mithal held that the court could not direct states to implement a particular policy or scheme on the ground that it is a better, fairer or wiser alternative adding that the legality of the policy, and not the wisdom or soundness of the policy, would be the subject of judicial review.

The Bench was ruling on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan and Kunjana seeking directions for setting up government-funded community kitchens to combat hunger, malnutrition and starvation deaths in the country.

The Bench noted that there is already a systematic legal framework provided under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 for the implementation of schemes and programmes such as a targeted public distribution system, Mid-day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services and Maternity Cash Entitlement along with a monitoring mechanism and a grievance redressal mechanism.

The Bench added that state governments have already implemented various other schemes and programmes under the NFSA.

When the NFSA, with a ‘right-based approach’ for providing food and nutritional security, is in force, and when other welfare schemes under the said Act have also been framed and implemented by the Union of India and the states to ensure access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity, we do not propose to give any further direction in that regard,” the Bench held.

The Bench, however, clarified that it has not examined whether the concept of community kitchens is a better or wiser alternative available to states to achieve the object of the NFSA. It added that it would be open to the states to explore such alternative welfare schemes as may be permissible under the NFSA.

The court’s ruling is in contrast with what was observed by the then CJI N.V. Ramana led-Bench when the matter was being heard by it. The CJI Ramana-led Bench was in favour of a model kitchen agreeable to all states.

In 2021, the Bench also granted three weeks to the Union government to finalise a model community kitchen agreeable to all state governments and Union territories. The Bench stated that if any state government had any objections to the scheme to be formulated by the Union, it would consider such objections.

The petitioners, represented by advocates Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi and Ashima Mandla, argued that “the right to food is interlinked to one’s right to life and dignity and requires that food be available, accessible and adequate for everyone without discrimination or any inequality”.

Therefore, unavailability and lack of accessibility of food with adequate nutrition are violative of Articles 14, 21, 38, 39, 47 and 51(c) of the Constitution of India,” the petitioners further stated in their plea.

Citing the 2017 National Family Health Survey, the petitioners informed the court that approximately 19 crore people in the country are compelled to sleep on an empty stomach every night.

The petition stated that approximately 4,500 children under the age of five years die every day in the country due to hunger and malnutrition, amounting to over three lakh such deaths every year.

Additionally, the petition noted that 7,000 persons (including children) reportedly die of hunger every day and over 25 lakh persons (including children) die of hunger annually.

The petition also sought to draw the attention of the court to the fact that while statistics on malnutrition deaths of children and adults in the country are available, no official data for deaths of persons owing to starvation is available.

It went on to add, “The irony of the present situation is reflected by a group of activists who reported 56 deaths owing to starvation between 2015–18, out of which 42 deaths took place between 2017–18; while 25 of the 42 deaths were solely related to non-linking of Aadhaar with ration card or loss of ration card, with the highest deaths recorded in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.”

Referring to the Global Hunger Index 2018 report prepared by the Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe, the petition pointed out that the index has ranked India 103rd out of 119 countries.

The petition also referred to the concept of state-funded community kitchens running in some parts of the country. For instance, the petitioners cite examples of states such as Tamil Nadu (Amma Unavagam), Rajasthan (Annapurna Rasoi), Karnataka (Indira Canteens), Delhi (Aam Aadmi Canteen), Andhra Pradesh (Anna Canteen), Jharkhand (Mukhyamantri Dal Bhat) and Odisha (Ahaar Centre), where canteens have been established with the object of combating hunger and malnutrition and providing nutritious food at subsidised rates to the lowest socio-economic strata of the society.

The petitioners had submitted that government-run community kitchens or community kitchens managed with funding from the State as well as under corporate social responsibility could be implemented to complement the existing schemes.

Click here to read the order.