[This is an AHRC Article.]
The Supreme Court’s rap to the Union and to various state governments for their apathy to drought victims is welcome. But, it is akin to a few drops sprinkled onto a parched desert under the oversight of unconscious executive governance.
The verdict in the writ petition, filed by Swaraj Abhiyan on 11 May 2016 (Swaraj Abhiyan v. Union of India and Ors, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 857 of 2015) reaffirms what civil society organisations have been saying for long. The Court has chided both the Union and state governments for showing “lack of will” to combat drought, and singles out a select few states for displaying an “ostrich like attitude”. This verdict, however, does not address the lack of structural remedies offering redress if governments fail their duties in the future as well.
The verdict confirms the set pattern of government response to drought, something civil society organisations like the Asian Human Rights Commission have pointed out. The judgment recognises various stages in this pretence: deny the drought; take ages to “declare it” officially, without which no relief measures can be deployed; and then announce cosmetic measures like disaster tours, or rush water trains that at times have no water in them, in order to be seen to be doing something, anything. Often this drama makes damage irreparable.
What the Court has not done is provide any mechanism for redress for victims of recurrent drought. It seems the Supreme Court stopped short of going all the way for fear its verdict would get construed as “judicial overreach into the executive and legislature’s domain” and therefore opposed by the political establishment of the country.
The ginger approach, however, has not worked for two reasons. First, it is the very failure of the Executive, and of the Legislature, in combating drought, year after year, which has put more than 33 crore Indians (as per the government’s conservative estimate) into a life of unimaginable hardship, punctuated by starvation death, suicide, and death by other means. Second, the political establishment led by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has anyway come down heavily on the Judiciary. In rare unity, opposition benches joined up with the treasury.
The Supreme Court would have done well to remind the Executive that it is Executive failure that brought the matter to Court. Hesitation in doing so and hesitation in offering redress to victims abandoned by governments, therefore, undercuts the promise of a welcome verdict.
The Court has backed-off despite reminding the Union government of the futility of trying to “wash its hands off”, quoting federalism on aspects pertaining to “Article 21 of the Constitution”, which guarantees the right to life for Indian citizens. However, the duty of upholding the same Article applies to the Court as well.
And, this is not the only time the Supreme Court of India has hit the nail on the problem but failed to provide redress. The social justice bench of the court has repeatedly lamented the “mismatch” among wonderful schemes and their implementation on the ground; it’s orders on the functioning of the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (RGSEAG), also known as SABLA, on child malnutrition, on MNREGA, and amongst the numerous that immediately spring to mind.
And whenever the Court has provided redress, it has done so in piecemeal and stopgap arrangements. This is exactly what it did when ordering the union government, on 13 May 2016, to immediately release funds for payment of pending wages to the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and to extend the Mid-Day Meal Scheme that provides at least one meal to school going children even during the summer vacations. Such stopgap arrangements may save lives in the immediate. However, they do not honour the right to life with dignity, which Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees, and which the Executive rarely chooses to uphold for the poorer citizens of the country.
In itself not upholding the Article, such Court verdicts become empty rhetoric, plastering back a tattered façade of order over a dysfunctional Republic. It adds just another loop in the recurrent motion victims of the system are condemned to undergo: the next drought, followed by the next wave of apathy and inaction, followed by the next civil society group rushing to the Supreme Court with a PIL, followed by the next watered down verdict.