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On 14th July 2020, the Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, Justice R. Subhash Reddy and Justice A.S. Bopanna, after hearing a petition filed by the Non-Government Organization PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties), issued a notice in a plea seeking enforcement of provisions of maternity benefits including monetary relief to pregnant women and lactating mothers in accordance with the National Food Security Act, 2013 (hereinafter referred to as “The Act”). The Bench has directed the Central Government to file a report on distribution of Rs. 6000 as a part of the maternity benefits under The Act.
Facts of the Issue
Back in September 2015, the Supreme Court had sought a response from the Central Government on a plea seeking proper implementation of schemes related to maternity benefits and proper distribution of food grains at subsidized rates, to the poor, through the Public Distribution System, by all the States and Union Territories. However, it is claimed that even after the lapse of the statutory time-limit, the process of identifying the beneficiaries of the schemes was not completed and the provisions of The Act were not implemented properly.
Amidst the nationwide lockdown that has been imposed due to the pandemic outbreak, this issue assumes even more importance than usual, on account of the adverse impact of the nutritional and economic needs of lakhs of Indians during the lockdown. Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing on behalf of PUCL sought a status report regarding steps that are being taken by the authorities, extending financial help to poor, pregnant and lactating mothers. The incentive received under Janani Suraksha Yojana may be accounted towards the maternity benefits. The provision of meals under the Integrated Child Developments Services scheme (hereinafter referred to as “ICDS”) had a low coverage. Considering the high mortality rates of women and children coupled with the present pandemic situation, the issue on hand is of utmost importance.
Legal Provisions Involved
According to Section 4 of the National Food Security Act, 2013, all lactating mothers and pregnant women are entitled to no less than Rs. 6000, as a part of maternity benefit. They are also entitled to free meals through local anganwadis during pregnancy, and up to six months after child birth. The guarantee of adequate food and nutrition is derived from Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which provides for right to life. The Supreme Court has on various occasions interpreted proper health and nutrition, as part and parcel of the right to live with dignity. The Act bestows an obligation on the States and Union Territories along with local authorities to provide food to the poor people at subsidized rates as specified under the Targeted Public Distribution System in Schedule I from the State Government. It also includes children below the age of fourteen and pregnant women.
The main purpose of The Act is providing food and nutritional security and to protect men, women and children from food deprivation and hunger by ensuring that adequate quantity as well as quality food is accessible to the people at an affordable price. However, its objectives also included sanitation, healthcare, pensions and many others which are not directly related to food security.
The Act is an opportunity for the Indian Government to address both short-term and long-term food security issues. Therefore, it has to take a step beyond just piece-meal and half-hearted measures to tackle immediate hunger as well as availability, accessibility and nutritional outcomes. To achieve this, the authorities have to invest and make budgetary allocations to ensure production and effective distributions.
The major issues surrounding implementation of The Act is identification of the beneficiaries of maternity benefits. The two classifications of beneficiaries under The Act are general beneficiaries and priority beneficiaries. But the Act is silent on the criteria for classifying a beneficiary as a “priority beneficiary”. The other major problem is related to allocation of funds. The Act provides for cost-sharing between the Centre and the States, but since the cost of major schemes will be borne by the States, it might place a burden on the States, especially if the States do not have funds or the state assemblies refuse to allocate funds to the same. This will result in adverse effects on the implementation of The Act.
The Act can prove to be a game-changer if issues like corruption, leakage and wastage can be overcome by the Government. This can be done by involving local bodies and increasing local participation. By following the example of states like Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh, transparency and efficiency in food distribution can be achieved. One way of increasing local participation is by way of cooperative ration shops, which have proved successful in other States.
It is quite encouraging that The Act provides for free and nutritious meals to children along with pregnant women and lactating mothers. Coupled with proper implementation, the problems regarding food and nutrient security can be reduced by this Act. The many welfare schemes that have been designed for the poor masses in India, can achieve better results if they are integrated with one another. For example, countries like Brazil and Bangladesh have bundles income and food transfers with initiatives dedicated to education and healthcare. The success of all the schemes and initiatives should be measured in terms of the number of poor people who become self-reliant in future.
Author: Samikshya Mishra from National Law University Odisha.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India