Right to Food: Analysis And Enforcement

Right to food is a basic human right to survive. It forms an integral part of the right to life, guaranteed under Article 21. The physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food is essential to living an active and healthy life which is the basic requirement of every human being.Hunger and malnutrition are the major issues related to the Human Right to Food. The right to adequate food can be achieved through progressive efforts of the developing countries and the connected organizations.


The Right to Food is a Human Right recognized under both national as well as international law. It protects the right of people to access food and feed themselves, either by purchasing or producing it. The Right to Food can be achieved through the four pillars of food security i.e., availability of food, access to food, stability and food utilization. Availability refers production of enough food for both the present and future generations, enough long term availability and the notion of sustainability along with the protection of the environment. Adequacy refers to the availability of food not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality to fulfil the dietary needs of an individual. Accessibility implies that the right to food being a basic need should incur an accessible financial cost to be utilized and availed by every citizen whether poor or rich.

National Food Security Act, 2013

The Bill has been referred as the “biggest ever experiment in the world for distributing highly subsidized food by any government through a ‘rights-based’ approach”by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). The Right to Food Act, 2013 is an Act of Parliament. The main aim is to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people.

The major concerns of the Act are:

  1. Division of poor into below and above poverty line groups to avoid significant errors of exclusion;
  2. The system of cash voucher or transfer in the place of distribution of food leads to diversion of the amount to areas other than food items by the beneficiaries. It should be removed;
  3. Lack of emphasis on access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health care education which are complementary conditions for nutritional absorption;
  4. Adequate budget allocation for the implementation of the bill;
  5. Another important concern is that the food under this act has to be distributed through Indianotoriously,  corrupt and leaky state-owned cheap food ration shops which might prove to be catastrophic.

Government initiatives and programmes:

The government launched a number of programmes in 2016 to double farmers’income by 2020. They include:

  • National Food Security Mission,
  • RashtriyaKrishiVikasYojana (RKVY),
  • Integrated Schemes on Oilseeds, Pulses, Palm oil and Maize (ISOPOM),
  • Pradhan MantriFasalBimaYojana,
  • The e-marketplace,
  • Massive irrigation,
  • Soil and water harvesting programmes

Also,  significant steps have been taken by the government to overcome under-nutrition and malnutrition issues. It includes:

  • Mid-day meals at schools,
  • Anganwadi systems – It provides ration with the pregnant and lactating mothers,
  • People below the poverty line are provided with subsidised grain through a public distribution system (PDS).

Steps for implementation and promotion of the right to food:

  1. Identification and characterization of the hungry peopleand targeted policies and programmes;
  2. Regular assessment of legal policies, allocation, expenditure and current budget to indicate the change in food security policy and measures;
  3. Food security strategies should be developed with verifiable and time-bound objectives and targets, institutional responsibilities, mechanisms for coordinated action;
  4. Participation of non-governmental sectors and properly defined inter-institutional coordination mechanisms;
  5. To establish long-term binding obligations, the right to food should be integrated into national legislation, such as a Constitution or a framework law;
  6. To assess the implementation process and the impact of policies and programmes, a proper monitoring system should be established;
  7. To redress the effective violation of the right to food, an adequate judicial, quasi-judicial and/or administrative resource mechanisms should be established.

Legal Provisions

  1. Article 25 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949)
  2. Article 11 –International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
  3. General Comment 12 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  4. Article 27 – Convention of the Rights of the Child
  5. Article 12 – Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  6. Article 21 – Constitution of India
  7. Article 39(a) –Constitution of India
  8. Article 47 – Constitution of India

Case study:

PUCL v. Union of India and Others (Right to Food Case)

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan, commenced public interest litigation in April 2001 before the Supreme Court of India, following a number of starvation deaths in the State of Rajasthan which occurred while government warehouses had an abundance of grain stockpiled. The case was subsequently extended to cover the entire territory of the Union of India and all its states and union territories.

The Supreme Court stated the following, regarding this case:

‘In this petition… various issues have been framed many of which may have direct and important relevance to the very existence of poor people: their right to life and the right to food of those who can ill-afford to provide their families with two meals a day. …the major importance was to look after that the food is provided to the aged, infirm, disabled, destitute women, destitute men who are in danger of starvation, pregnant and lactating women and destitute children, especially the family members who do not have sufficient money to provide food. In case of famine, there may be a situation arise with plenty of food. Plenty of food is available, but the distribution of the same amongst the very poor and the destitute is scarce and non-existent, leading to malnourishment, starvation and other related problems.’[i]

The basic argument of the PUCL was that the right to food is part of the fundamental ‘right to life’ enshrined in Art. 21 of the Indian Constitution. The plaintiff requested enforcement of the various food schemes and the Famine Codes (permitting the release of grain stocks in times of famine).

Various interim orders were made by the court over ten years; it has interpreted the constitutional right to live in light of the directive principles concerning the State’s duty to raise the level of nutrition of people andalso theirstandard of living. It is one of the prime responsibilities of the government whether Central or State to undertake the matter of hunger and starvation and resolve it and provide prevention measures.’[ii]

 Early on in the case, the court converted the benefits of eight food-related schemes into ‘legal entitlements’ by interim order and directed state governments to fully implement these schemes as per official guidelines.[iii] These were:

  • Integrated Child Development Services
  • Mid-Day Meal Scheme
  • Targeted Public Distribution System
  • Antyodaya Anna Yojana (highly subsidized grains for the destitute)
  • Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana (food for work scheme)
  • National Old Age Pension Scheme
  • National Family Benefit Scheme
  • Annapoorna Yojana (free food grain for destitute poor over 65)

Analysis: Right to Food

India is a country where the right to food is far from being realized for all. Despite economic growth and policies aimed to ensure food availability and access by the poor, hunger is still widespread. Some social and ethnic groups are more vulnerable than others, in particular Adivasis and Dalits, while women’s social status remains low, despite legal reform.

On the other hand, India is among the countries where there has been most in-depth discussion on right to food, at least within legal and non-governmental circles. The use of public interest litigation for the right to food is one way of ensuring access to justice for the poor. The Supreme Court has not only acknowledged that the right to food is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution, but has issued detailed orders of a quasi-legislative nature. This is of the utmost importance: it sets an example for lawyers and judges worldwide to be creative and work within the legal system of a country while taking a leadership role in promoting the progressive realization of the right to food in the country concerned.

Long-term engagement with the right to food is integral to the methodology of the Supreme Court. The Right to Food Case has been ongoing since 2001 and up to the time of reviewing this paper(December 2009), the Supreme Court shows no signs of issuing a final judgment. This has enabled the Court, with the support of its Commissioners, to keep the issue under activeand constant review – another innovative way of bringing together monitoring and recourse. Similarly, the National Human Rights Commission investigated and followed up on starvation in the State of Orissa for a full decade – from 1997 to 2006 – fielding special rapporteurs and demanding quarterly progress reports from the government on suggested reforms.

While framework laws on the right to food have been adopted in a number of countries, India opted for detailed legislation on specific social programmes, through parliament and Supreme Court orders. Thus, school children’s entitlements with regard to cooked mid-day meals are very precise, as are the entitlements of rural households to guaranteed employment in public works for a minimum wage.

Therefore, while parliaments play a key role in promoting policies and adopting legislation on social programmes that guarantee the right to food, courts also perform the paramount function of protecting the right through a wider interpretation of other fundamental rights.


[i] Supreme Court Orderof  2 May 2003, PUCL v. Union of India and others, Writ petition (civil) 196 of 201.

[ii]Supreme Court Order of 20 August 2001, PUCL v. Union of India and others, Writ petition (civil) 196 of 201.

[iii]Supreme Court Order of 28 November 2001, PUCL v. Union of India and others, Writ petition (civil) 196 of 201.

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