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The Right to Life = the Right to Food

Manu Bhagavan

Updated: September 6, 2013, 5:33 PM IST
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An interview with Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate with the Supreme Court of India

On the 26th of August 2013, the Indian Lok Sabha passed the National Food Security Bill, which will provide subsidized grain to a large majority of the Indian population. The bill has generated tremendous controversy as debate has centered on whether or not the country can afford such a measure, on the ways and means of implementation, and on the ever-looming specter of corruption, all framed by political posturing.

The central question, though, is a simple one. Do people have a right to food? Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate at the Indian Supreme Court and Founder Director of the Human Rights Law Network, is someone who has long thought about just this question. Over a decade ago, he won a landmark case that established the answer in the affirmative. For this and other work, the Harmony Foundation presented him with the 2010 Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Gonsalves, to ask about the famous food case, its impact, and the state of affairs in India today.

Please tell us about the Human Rights Law Network. How was it created? What is its primary mission?

CG: The Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) though registered in 1991 as a pro bono public Trust, was actually formed in the mid 80s when three labour lawyers from Bombay got together and started the Peoples Law Group mainly to represent workers and trade unions in the Labour Court. After its registration as HRLN, activities broadened out to criminal justice and public interest litigation. I was the coordinator. After I moved to the Supreme Court in New Delhi there was a huge increase in the quantity and spectrum of work. Its primary mission is to use the legal system as a shield to protect the poor and the working people from human rights atrocities and as a sword to advance and deepen human rights in India.

Can you please tell us a little about your work on the court? What do you consider some of your most prominent cases? And what do you consider your most significant victory, if any?

CG: I work in the Supreme Court of India and I also argue cases in some of the High Courts of the states. In the Supreme Court I do a number of appeals from the judgments of the High Courts which relate to the plight of slum dwellers, dalits, prisoners, women, children, disability groups, workers, indigenous people and others. I also do a large number of Public Interest (class action) Petitions on behalf of sizeable groups of persons who are either too poor or illiterate to do the cases themselves. Some of the prominent cases include the reinstatement of a teacher having cerebral palsy, stays on the demolition of slums, reduction in the prices of essential medicines, the enforcement of the law relating to sexual harassment throughout the country, the setting up of over 1000 institutions for destitute children in India and so on. The most prominent case was what is now known as the right to food case where, over a span of 10 years and 40 Supreme Court orders, over 250 million school children received the mid-day meal, and pregnant women, lactating mothers, adolescent girls and children upto 6 years received supplementary nutrition among many other benefits. It was the largest intervention ever in the world to combat malnutrition and hunger.

Can you elaborate on this case and its importance? What does a right to food mean? How much food is identified as fundamental, if any?

CG: It is elementary that Article 21 of the Constitution of India the Right to Life must be interpreted to include the Right to Food, because without food surely life is impossible. The case is based on the proposition that no human being should go to bed hungry and that poor people who are unable to feed themselves and their families have an entitlement under the Constitution to obtain free or subsidized grain and other food items from the state. This quantum of food required has been scientifically determined at 50 kg of wheat and rice per family per month. However, the state distributes only 35 kg. This standard is, of course, very miserly but in the face of a government that is disinclined to give any food to the poor and to close down the Public Distribution System of thousands of ration shops, even to sustain this standard has taken a superhuman effort.

Since you won this case over a decade ago, India has put in place a number of mid-day meals schemes, as you mention. Yet as of the latest figures generated by the 2012 Global Hunger Index, India ranks at the bottom of world countries in reducing malnutrition. A staggering 43.5 percent of all Indian children under five are underweight! What can be done about this? Is the problem in implementation? Political will?

CG: Although Government of India has the largest reserves of grain in the world (80 million tons) the distribution is so miserly that malnutrition levels persist year after year. In terms of malnutrition statistics we are today at exactly the same spot as we were when the case began 10 years ago. I shudder to think what the situation would be had the case not been done. Perhaps we would have had famine throughout the land. The problem lies in the central notion of globalization that subsidies are bad and that the market forces will provide all the necessaries of life. This results in the state refusing to take responsibility for food, education, housing, health care and the like. It is this abandonment of core constitutional principles and entitlements and the treatment by the state of the WTO agreements as being superior even to the Articles of the Constitution, that has resulted in deepening misery throughout the world accompanying massive enrichment of the elite.

You have spoken fiercely about the terrible inequality in India, and about the failure of existing systems to address these concerns. What would say is the most important reform India should carry out to address these matters?

CG: India, and indeed the world, has to turn the clock back and return at least to a system of social democracy where the core duties of the states to look after all its citizens and to take everyone forward together in building a stronger democratic world, are reinstated. Globalization is an evil empire where the poor and working people are brutalized and the resources of the world are super exploited so that the planet becomes unsustainable. All this for a tiny strip of capitalists who have neither the morality nor the vision to make this world a better place to live in.

You have also criticized the Indian justice system, taking note of many practices that particularly negatively impact the poor and non-urban populations, including lengthy incarceration without convincing charges (and no resulting convictions), false encounters, and brutal treatment of those deemed a suspect. Can you elaborate on your concerns, and what reforms would you suggest to better the situation?

CG: The Indian legal system is both extraordinary and terrible. It is extraordinary because it has a revolutionary system of public interest law where class action petitions can be filed by any citizen who can act on behalf of millions of Indians to enforce their human rights. It is a model for the world to follow. It is terrible because government of India starves the judiciary of funds as a result of which India has one-fifth the number of judges that the country ought to have. This is the single most important reason for the legendry delays that take place in the legal system. Only a massive expansion of the judiciary can save this, the most important arm of the state today. Unfortunately government of India takes the stand that the decline in the judiciary is really of not much concern.

Is there a crisis of civil liberties in India? Organizations like the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), with which you yourself are associated, have long championed this issue. Does PUCL need to be strengthened? Are there allied organizations that are also doing such work? How can ordinary people get involved?

CG: Probably never before in the history of free India have there been such a large scale violation of basic human rights by the state. Government schools are closing, government hospitals are being privatized, slums are being bulldozed, 60% of the population are malnourished, anaemic and stunted and living below a poverty line of half a dollar a day, trade unions are being battered, women are being trafficked, children are in bondage instead of in schools, the environment is devastated, corruption, violence and discrimination can be experienced everywhere. This is the situation in the land of Mahatma Gandhi and the spiritual east where spirituality is only to be found in the remote recesses of the Himalayas. In response hundreds of social movements such as the tribal and dalit movements fight against repression. They do not call themselves human rights organizations but they are quintessentially the main defenders. Similarly trade unions, womens organizations, disability groups, sexuality minority organizations, slum groups, and the like all go to constitute the movement for civil liberties in India. All who cannot bear the indignity of present day existence may join in a second national movement to usher into India true democracy.

What do you see as hopeful on the horizon?

CG: I see only despair on the horizon. Violence and poverty are on the increase. Discrimination against minorities is reaching a crescendo. All political parties are unified on programmes for the enrichment of capitalists and pauperization of the working people. There is no political alternative in sight. On the contrary a man is projected as the next prime minister of India who many groups allege was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in his state by his party. I do believe that truth will persist and survive but it will take many years and many reverses before the dark forces of domination are overcome.

First Published: September 6, 2013, 5:33 PM IST