New Delhi: Arguing that the judiciary cannot “import personal preferences in policy matters”, the Supreme Court has upheld the Lakshadweep administration’s decisions to exclude meat from the Union territory’s mid-day meals and shut down its dairy farms.
A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela Trivedi was hearing a special leave petition against the Kerala high court’s decision to dismiss a plea against the Union territory administration’s decisions, which were taken in 2021.
A few months after BJP leader Praful Patel took charge as Lakshadweep administrator in late 2020, the Union territory’s administration removed meat products including chicken (but not fish) from its mid-day meal menu and shut down its state-run dairy farms.
Over 96% of Lakshadweep’s population is Muslim, according to the 2011 census.
The petitioner in the present case, Ajmal Ahmed R., had argued in the high court in 2021 that the administration’s decision was designed to attack locals’ food habits and said they would be forced to purchase dairy products imported from Gujarat.
He also argued that the closure of dairy farms would put an end to the sale and purchase of beef in the Union territory.
In June that year, the high court imposed an interim stay on the administration’s decisions.
But three months later, it dismissed a plea by Ahmed challenging the decision, accepting the administration’s argument that they were not obliged to provide non-vegetarian food in mid-day meals and that the islands’ dairy farms were running at a loss.
“We have no hesitation to hold that the petitioner has not made out any case of arbitrariness or illegality in the policy decision taken by the Lakshadweep administration,” it said according to LiveLaw.
Ahmed approached the Supreme Court following the dismissal of this plea. The top court revived the Kerala high court’s interim stay in May 2022.
The Lakshadweep administration had since urged the court to vacate this interim stay, arguing that the exclusion of items from the mid-day meal menu was in the government’s remit as it was a policy issue.
Justices Bose and Trivedi concurred with this point of view on Thursday (September 14).
“What is being questioned in this appeal is primarily a policy decision of the administration and no breach of any legal provision has been pointed out. It is not within the court’s domain to decide as to what would be the choice of food for children of a particular region,” LiveLaw quoted their order as saying.
“The court will have to accept the administrative decision unless some outstanding arbitrariness is pointed out,” the order continued to say.
When counsel for the petitioner, I.H. Syed, said during the hearing that the new food items – among which are fruits and dry fruits – must be culturally acceptable to Lakshadweep’s people, Justice Trivedi asked if “dry fruits [were not liked]?”
Justice Bose was quoted as saying after passing the order that “we cannot import personal preferences in policy matters”.
The Lakshadweep administration’s decisions have been criticised for not involving enough consultation with the islands’ people.
Omesh Saigal, a former administrator of the island, told The Wire that while a ban on bovine slaughter was understandable, the attempt to ban beef products in Lakshadweep reflected anti-Muslim prejudice.
He also sharply criticised the administrator’s decision to permit consumption of alcohol in what are called inhabited islands.