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SC Pulls Up Union Govt For Citing Old Data to Claim No Recent Starvation Deaths

While hearing a PIL seeking the setting up of a pan-India community kitchens scheme, the top court criticised the government for making no progress towards drafting a scheme.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a national-level policy for the implementation of community kitchens, pulled up the Union government on Tuesday, January 18 for relying on outdated data to claim that there had been no starvation-related deaths in the country in the recent past, LiveLaw reported.

During a previous hearing in the case, the bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices Hima Kohli and A.S. Bopanna had asked Attorney General (AG) K.K. Venugopal whether there was any report published by the Union government which detailed statistics of starvation-related deaths. 

The AG responded by saying that, according to the affidavit previously filed by the government, no state had reported any starvation-related deaths. However, the data cited by the AG relied on the National Family Health Survey 2015-16.

“You can’t be looking at it from the prism of what happened five years ago. Are you willing to say, today in this country, there are no starvation deaths except for one from Tamil Nadu, that also because it is reported in some newspaper? Can we afford to take that as a correct statement?” Justice Kohli asked the AG.

It should be noted that the bench had initially referred to data from the National Family Health Survey Report 2019-2021, which is published by the Union government and was cited by the petitioner. However, this report includes data from 2010-2013 and thus the government had asked for more recent data.

The AG noted that the Union government is dependent on various state governments reporting data on starvation deaths and that the states have not reported any such deaths.

Advocate Ashima Mandla, appearing for the petitioner, said that a starvation death cannot be determined unless an autopsy is conducted after an individual’s death. Therefore, reporting starvation deaths requires the proactive functioning of state governments in this regard. Even though the media reports starvation deaths from time to time, no state has reported any such death in the recent past.

AG Venugopal then suggested that the states file affidavits regarding the starvation deaths they have witnessed within their geographical bounds.

As such, the bench adjourned the matter for two weeks and gave state governments liberty to file affidavits on starvation deaths and malnutrition data as well as make suggestions with regards to the formulation of a central model scheme on community kitchens.

Case background

The matter at hand is a PIL filed by social activists Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan and Kunjana Singh which sought to raise the matter of increasing instances of hunger and starvation-related deaths and sought the apex court’s intervention to make the Union government formulate a pan-India plan for setting up community kitchens and hygienic food at subsidised rates. The plea pointed to state-funded community kitchens which were already being run in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Jharkhand and Delhi.

Over the course of subsequent hearings, the court had ordered the Union government to consult various state governments and formulate a model policy which could be implemented on a national level.

The court had also imposed fines on several state governments for failing to submit affidavits on the issue, despite the court’s orders.

In the last hearing in the case on November 16 last year, the court had expressed displeasure at the Union’s affidavit being filed by the under-secretary of the ministry of consumer affairs, saying that it expected the response to come from a secretary-level officer.

Also read: ‘Last Warning’: SC Takes Dim View Of Centre’s Response To Community Kitchen Scheme

It also pulled up the Union government on its sluggishness in formulating the requested policy, stating that the 17-page affidavit showed no concrete work towards formulating any such policy. 

Additionally, the court had noted that a welfare state’s first responsibility was to “provide food for people dying due to hunger.”

After AG Venugopal stepped in to represent the government, he told the court that a meeting would be held with the respective state governments and sought four-weeks-time to come up with a policy within the framework of the National Food Security Act. 

The bench concurred that the policy would need a statutory framework so that it could not be discontinued with a change of policy and subsequently granted the Union government additional time to hold a meeting with the state governments and formulate the policy.