The Supreme Court has directed the Union Government to seek from the states and submit within two weeks the latest data on the number of people who have died due to starvation in the country and frame a model policy of establishing community kitchens to fight hunger. The court gave this order to the central government on a petition seeking to run community kitchens to save people from starvation and malnutrition deaths across the country.
The petition, filed jointly by activists Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan and Kunjana Singh, last year, mentioned the Food and Agriculture Report, 2018, which said that India houses 195.9 million of the 821 million undernourished people in the world, accounting for approximately 24% of the world’s hungry. The report estimated the prevalence of undernourishment in India to be 14.8%, higher than both the global and Asian average.
The petition also cited a report of 2017 by the National Health Survey that stated that approximately 19 crore people in the country were compelled to sleep on an empty stomach every night. The most shocking figure revealed in that report was that about 4500 children die every day under the age of five years in the country due to hunger and malnutrition. The petitioners had urged the court to direct the Chief Secretaries of the States and Union Territories to formulate a scheme for the implementation of community kitchens and to further ensure that “no person should sleep on an empty stomach”.
Significantly, during a hearing of the petition in November 16 last year, the Supreme Court had said that people are ‘suffering from hunger and dying of it’, and had directed the Union Government to develop a scheme after consulting various state governments for creating community kitchens to take care of hunger deaths or malnutrition of children. The CJI had remarked that it is the first responsibility of every welfare state to provide food to people dying due to hunger.
The Hindu reported that the AG Venugopal representing the union government in the court during Tuesday’s hearing skirted responsibility by arguing the court to ask the States for data on starvation deaths, making sweeping comments about malnutrition in “developing countries” to reading statistics out of a 2015 health survey report and a newspaper article. The union government tried to bypass it’s responsibility in the matter by stating in an affidavit that not a single state had reported starvation deaths.
The Bench suggested the Union Government to make a model scheme to fight hunger and leave it to the states to follow the guidelines. The court asked the States to file reports on the status of malnutrition and hunger deaths in two weeks along with suggestions for community kitchen schemes.
The AG stated that the Union government was already running 131 food programmes and argued that the state governments will have to source funds for the community kitchen scheme by themselves. He agreed to convey to the Union government the court’s suggestion to provide the States with an additional two per cent food grains.
The union government’s response in the Supreme Court’s hearing exposed the scant importance the government gives to this issue. However, a 2019 report titled ‘State of the World’s Children 2019’ by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) highlighted that India reported the most number of deaths — 882,000 — of children below five years in 2018. The report pointed out that malnutrition caused 69 per cent of under-five deaths in India. Also, the Global Hunger Index 2021 had ranked India at 101 position out of a total 116 countries. The report pointed out India among the 31 countries where hunger had been identified as serious. Further, the COVID-19 induced lockdowns and restrictions from March 2020 enforced to contain the spread of coronavirus have only made matters worse.
Image courtesy : Free Press Journal