NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court Tuesday expressed strong displeasure over the Centre's response on framing a pan-India policy to implement the Community Kitchen Scheme and granted it three weeks to hold a meeting with states, saying that a welfare state's first responsibility is to "provide food to people dying due to hunger".
A bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices A S Bopanna and Hima Kohli, hearing a PIL seeking directions to the Centre, states and Union Territories (UTs) to formulate a scheme for community kitchens to combat hunger and malnutrition, was irked with the Centre's affidavit as it was filed by an official of the level of an Under Secretary and did not divulge details about the proposed scheme and its rollout as sought.
"This affidavit does not indicate anywhere that you are considering framing a scheme. You are extracting information. It does not say what fund you have collected and what you are doing etc. We wanted a uniform model from the Centre. You have to ask the states. Not to collect information like police," the bench said at the outset.
"You cannot ask for information which is already available. Do you conclude your affidavit saying you will consider the scheme now. There is not a whisper in your 17-page affidavit," it said.
The top court then expressed anguish over the filing of the affidavit by an Under Secretary of the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Administration. "This is the last warning I am going to give to the Government of India. Your Under-Secretary files this affidavit. Why can not a secretary-level officer file the affidavit? You have to respect the institutions. We say something and you write something. This has been told several times earlier," the bench said.
Initially, the matter was being argued by Additional Solicitor General Madhvi Divan and later Attorney General K K Venugopal stepped in and assured the bench that a meeting would be held by the Centre and a decision taken on the issue and sought four weeks time from the bench.
The top law officer said that something can be worked out within the framework of the National Food Security Act.
"The question is simple, last occasion we made it clear unless and until states are involved the Centre can not do anything. So we directed the Centre to call the meeting and frame the policy. The issue is now, make a comprehensive scheme, identify areas where there's immediate need, so it can be uniformly implemented," the CJI said.
"See if you want to take care of hunger, no Constitution or law will say no. This is the first principle: Every welfare state's first responsibility is to provide food to people dying due to hunger," the bench said.
In its order, the bench also recorded that it was not happy with the Centre's affidavit filed by the Under Secretary.
"We direct that here afterwards some responsible secretary has to file the affidavit. Still it appears from the affidavit and the submissions by the Centre that they are still obtaining suggestions and views. In view of that, we finally grant three weeks time to come up with some scheme which can be agreeable by states also.
"Otherwise if states have any objection we will consider it on next date of hearing. We direct all states to attend a meeting called by the Government of India in coming up with a scheme," the bench ordered.
Earlier, the bench had asked the Centre to come out with some policy decisions concerning the implementation of the Community Kitchen Scheme by taking into consideration similar schemes which are operational in different states.
The apex court had also taken note of incidents of alleged hunger deaths and malnutrition of children in some states and asked them to file short replies by identifying the "Districts/Talukas/Villages where such incidents have taken place or taking place."
"We are of the considered view that until and unless the State Governments are involved with regard to implementation of the Scheme, it would be difficult to implement the same.
"Under the circumstances, it would be appropriate that the Union of India should come out with some policy decision with regard to implementation of the Community Kitchen Scheme by taking into consideration the other similar Schemes relating to the community kitchen which are already in operation in different States," the bench had said.
The apex court, on February 17 last year, had imposed an additional cost of Rs 5 lakh each on six states for not complying with its directions to file their affidavits on the PIL, which sought formulation of the scheme to set up community kitchens for the poor.
The additional cost of Rs 5 lakh each was imposed on Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Goa, and Delhi.
Advocate Ashima Mandla, appearing for the PIL petitioners, was asked by the bench to prepare a chart of all the states who have filed their replies to the PIL.
She had said 69 per cent of children under the age of five have lost their lives due to malnutrition and it is high time that states take steps to set up community kitchens.
The apex court had on October 18, 2019, favoured setting up of community kitchens, saying the country needs this kind of a system to tackle the problem of hunger.
It had issued notices to the Centre and all states asking for their responses on a PIL seeking directions to all the states and UTs to formulate the community kitchens.
The plea claimed that many children under the age of five die every day due to hunger and malnutrition and this condition was violative of various fundamental rights, including the right to food and the life of citizens.
The PIL, filed by social activists Anun Dhawan, Ishann Dhawan, and Kunjana Singh, had also sought a direction to the Centre for creating a national food grid for people falling outside the purview of the public distribution scheme.
It had also sought the issuance of an order to the National Legal Services Authority (NLSA) for formulating a scheme to mitigate hunger-related deaths.
The plea referred to the state-funded community kitchens being run in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Jharkhand and Delhi that serve meals at subsidised rates in hygienic conditions.
The plea also referred to the concepts of the soup kitchen, meal centre, food kitchen, or community kitchen in other countries where food is offered to the hungry usually for free or sometimes at below-market price rates.