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 Article Published in The Economic Times  06 September, 2001

Right to Food as human right ?

Amartya Sen would indeed be a happy man with Supreme Court directing the central and state governments to ensure that starving people are supplied with foodgrains. The Judgment of the Apex court confirms Sen’s worst fears and award winning hypothesis that the problem is not about availability of foodgrains, but the real difficulty lies in distribution of stocks to feed the poor. While FCI is running short of warehouse space to stock foodgrains purchased at above-world level prices, vast numbers of poor go without food in certain parts of the country. FCI’s stock of over 61 million tones of food grains has not helped starvation to disappear from the land. It is indeed a shame that fifty-five years after independence, there are reported cases of starvation deaths coming from Orissa. The apex court’s action on the PUCL’s petition is in the true spirit of the fundamental right to life and liberty. But the question is whether the Court has gone beyond in recognizing the right to food as fundamental right or human right.

There indeed has been a long-standing debate as to whether the right to food, health care, housing and other economic benefits can be treated as part of human rights. There is a consensus on protecting individuals’ civil and political rights giving freedom from imprisonment and torture etc, and international instruments like Universal Declaration of Human Rights as ratified by the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognize those rights in an absolute sense. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have actively pursued cases of abuse.

However there has been no such general agreement on protection of economic rights relating to housing, food, health care and fare wages, as envisaged in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Efforts are though being made by Amnesty International to change its mandate to include social and economic rights as well. It recently met in Dakar, capital of Senegal to discuss pros and cons of incorporating those rights within the framework of human rights. Similar efforts are being made by Ford Foundation, Center for Economic and Social Rights in Brooklyn New York and Oxfam, leading overseas-development charity from UK, which has demanded that economic injustice be treated as a violation of international human rights law. Logic for extension of such rights is that without corresponding empowerment on the social and economic fronts, there is no meaning of civil and political rights. Life threatening diseases like AIDS have spurred such debates.

But there are genuine problems in extending the scope of human rights. While civil and political rights have attained the status of moral absolutes, and abuses have invited sanctions and censures, consensus is lacking on bringing right to food and housing etc, within the extended definition. Human-rights campaigners have not been able to convince even the Western countries to their cause. In fact America has not even ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The fact of citizens suing the governments for enforcement of such rights is unpalatable to the developed countries. Secondly governments are not in a position to compulsorily provide equal access to health care, food, potable water, sanitation and essential drugs, to all their citizens. It will be enormously costly and beyond the means of governments in developing countries to ensure such supplies. Further, extending those rights could be the easy part. Difficulties would arise in implementation. Should governments start ‘lunger’ (free food centers) for the poor? Past experience suggests that only middlemen will enrich themselves in the name of benefits meant for those below poverty line. Then there are other administrative issues involved. Some state governments in India like TamilNadu and Karnataka have done quite well in reducing poverty, while the weaker states have fallen victim to spiral corruption and mal-administration. If the economic cost of supplying free food to the poor essentially falls on the center by court diktat, will it not be a case of rewarding the poor-performing states at the cost of better-performing ones. In fact real solution in the long run does not lie in free supplies, which would never work, but in equipping people with necessary skills to become productive work forces so as to make useful contributions to the society and be proud citizens. Case of Singapore is a point where in two generations, people have reached the level of the developed world in terms of per capita income, with around 90% of people owning their own homes. China and countries in South-East Asia have also been able to reduce poverty drastically by developing proper strategies for economic growth. There is no better cure than making people independent and productive instruments of society.

Will India be the first country to recognize right to food as human right?