Judges cannot fix poverty line: Supreme Court
New Delhi: In a pronouncement of considerable significance that could check the judiciary's overstepping into legislative and governmental functioning, the Supreme Court has said the question of fixing the poverty line was in the domain of expert bodies like the Planning Commission and the judiciary could not engage itself in setting the nation's economic policies.
"This should be left to expert bodies. Reviewing the poverty line is very difficult. We can't be setting economic policy," the court said last week in the course of a hearing.
The apex court bench of Justice TS Thakur and Justice Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla said this when senior counsel Colin Gonsalves appearing for People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) invited the court's attention to the low fixation of the poverty line norm at Rs 32 per day, an issue that has led to considerable debate in the country.
As Gonsalves pleaded the government could not shy away from its responsibilities, particularly towards the vulnerable section of society, the court said the petitioner should come with suggestions that could be entertained without stepping into the domain of governmental functioning.
Shrugging off Gonsalves's plea, Justice Thakur said: "Where is it written in the constitution that food subsidy should be given?"
"The poverty line is hypothetical. Its only relevance is for subsidy," he said.
In contrast, the earlier bench of Justice Bhandari and Justice Dipak Verma had put the government in the dock and compelled it to revise its below poverty line (BPL) norms of Rs 32 for urban areas and Rs.26 for rural areas. It even asked the Planning Commission to spell out the basis on which it had fixed Rs.32 and Rs.26 as the poverty norms in urban and rural areas.
It is not just that the court appears to be less than enthusiastic; it appears to be seeking to shrink its monitoring of welfare schemes.
The court made it clear that it was not going to overstep the statutory regimes governing the food subsidy scheme for people living below the poverty line.
The court said monitoring of the public distribution system (PDS) by it had to come to an end.
"It is going on for six years and it could go on for another 26 years," Justice Thakur said.
He said the court would pass the orders and if they were not complied with, then the court could be moved for necessary remedies.
"Once we direct and if they don't follow then you can move the court. It can be before the Supreme Court or the high courts as well."
Apparently, a change in the approach could be read into the restraint that Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia has asked the judges to exercise before stepping into the territory of the government and the legislature.
Chief Justice Kapadia spoke of judicial restraint during his address at a function on Independence Day and also later on.