Holding the State Accountable for Hunger
Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLIV, No. 33, August 15-21 2009, pp 8-12
5 Pages Posted: 26 May 2014
Date Written: August 1, 2009
India has the largest number of people in the world living with chronic hunger. This paper looks at efforts to define and enforce the right to food in India. It distinguishes between States that dispense food to the hungry as welfare and those that deliver it as a right. It argues that where social security measures are discretionary rather than obligatory, citizens cannot demand these measures, or publicly critique state policy. It goes on to trace the connections between civil and political rights on the one hand, and the right to food on the other, and discusses Dreze & Sen’s argument that democratic protections such as a free press and elections have effectively prevented extreme hunger, these basic protections have proved far less successful at generating the political will to tackle endemic hunger, which is not headline-grabbing or politically controversial, but kills many times more people than extreme, episodic famines.
The paper examines an attempt to tackle chronic hunger – a public interest case launched in 2001 in the Indian Supreme Court demanding that the State recognize and enforce the right to food. In the course of long-running litigation, the Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to implement its existing policies on food for the poor, expanded the reach of these policies, used “continuing mandamus” to monitor compliance with its orders and appointed commissioners to monitor the executive and report to the Court. The paper points out that this particular litigation avoided the trap of high rhetoric but low impact that has bedeviled other public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, but nevertheless, like any top-down project of social justice, had serious limitations. This litigation could not effectively address individual grievances regularly and on a large-scale, nor did it craft the cross-sectoral reform that are urgently needed. Day to day accountability for violations of the right to food remains remote. The paper concludes by arguing for a law on the right to food that draws upon domestic practice and jurisprudence, international law, and legislation in other jurisdictions to comprehensively codify the right to food and provide accessible administrative and legal remedies for individuals whose right to food is violated.
Keywords: socio-economic rights, right to food, public interest litigation, legislation on the right to food, food security
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