The Food Bill: Understanding the legal perspective

No nation can work on an empty stomach. Realising this fact along with the fact that a large number of people are not able to get two square meals a day, the government has taken up a near impossible mission.

No nation can work on an empty stomach. Realising this fact along with the fact that a large number of people in India poorest of the poor are not able to get two square meals a day, the government made up its mind to do what has been so far considered to be next to impossible – to guarantee food to almost everyone in the country, who can’t afford to buy at market rates.

Food would be made available to them almost for free; they’re supposed to pay only a token amount of money.

Opposition parties, commentators and analysts have labelled this move as opportunist, a step to get re-elected in the next elections, encashing vote banks, swaying the votes of the most vulnerable sections of the society, an unnecessary burden on the Indian economy, befooling the people of India, et cetera.

Whatever may be one’s take on this issue, it is certain that creating the right through an enacted law will surely give rise to more disputes as there is always a corresponding duty to every right.

The most pertinent question at this moment to be asked is: whether the Indian legal redressal system – the judiciary and the individuals manning it – is capable of handling fresh disputes which may not be related to any peripheral activity of human existence, but related to the most fundamental and basic necessity of life – food.

It would be foolhardy to believe that the poorest of the poor in the country, for whom the right has been created, would be willing, capable and would have the resources to move the court in case the government of the day does not care about this right.

Most of these people belong to that category which on its own attracts almost all the negatives: illiteracy, poverty, malnourishment, lack of employment, lack of skills to find a reasonable employment, lack of awareness, dependence on middlemen for most of their basic needs necessary for existence, almost no say in governance except a vote to be cast in elections, etc.

In such a scenario, problems simply become manifold and the persons acting as facilitators – often petty local politicians, public servants at all levels and hierarchies, local contractors, business persons, lawyers, and at times genuine public spirited persons – take it onto themselves to act on behalf of these unfortunate persons.

Access to courts in India is not a problem in principle, as the doors of all the courts, including the Supreme Court, are open for each and every citizen and there are special provisions for indigent persons – no court fee, rather provision of legal aid, a lawyer arranged to provide legal services gratis, etc.

There are lawyers empanelled to provide free legal aid, at times paid by the State, and some of them do the work pro bono, that is without charging a single penny.

So far so good. But now the real ordeal begins. Matters in any court take time. Even with the best possible legal brains and lawyers with a face value in different courts, there’s a lot of time needed, often in years and decades, to get the matter resolved, considering the provision of a number of appeals in our judicial system.

The arteries of most of these courts are so badly clogged with heavy deposits of old cases that there is hardly any space available for new matters, howsoever important they may be, to sail through and reach the final destination.

Problems of the poor and needy very often provide excellent opportunities to popularity and publicity-hungry persons, though there are certain genuine individuals also, to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in either the Supreme Court of India or one of the high courts.

Orders passed by these courts against the government of the day in most of these PILs have often fallen on deaf ears as the government invariably tries its best to circumvent the order, not to provide the real and effective remedy, and only continue to provide lip service till the time it is either a question of its own survival, or gaining political mileage from the crisis, typically in the nature of political support or more votes.

Elections in a planned manner are held once in five years for the central legislature and that is the only time when the vote seekers are really interested in appeasing the voters and offering them incentives to vote in their favour.

There is no denying the fact that the ruling party, or the coalition, stands in an advantageous position as it directly or indirectly controls the resources of the State, and also can manage the necessary numbers, by using all the methods practised so far and also created by ongoing innovations, to get a new law made.

The history of the nation tells us that most of the laws in the country have been initiated by the government, and any private member’s bill finally becoming a law is a rarity.

Thus, the government of the day may make this law, gain from it, and can easily afford to forget about its implementation in the spirit, and even in letter.

At this crucial juncture, the most important duty is of the higher judiciary to provide speedy redressal to disputes created by the new law, whenever it gets the presidential assent, and protect the poorest of the poor in the country as the ‘sentinel on the qui vive’ – guard on the vigil – the role envisaged by the Constitution of India.

DNA/Anurag K Agarwal

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