It is our culture to ensure nobody goes to sleep empty stomach, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday and asked the Central government to see to it that foodgrains under the National Food Security Act reaches the last man.
A bench of Justices MR Shah and Hima Kohli directed the Centre to submit a fresh chart with the number of migrant and unorganised sector workers registered on eShram portal.
"It is the duty of the central government to ensure foodgrains under NFSA are reaching the last man. We are not saying that Centre is not doing anything, the Union of India has ensured foodgrains to people during COVID. At the same time, we have to see it continues. It is our culture (to ensure) that nobody goes to sleep empty stomach," the bench said.
It was hearing on its own a public interest matter related to the plight of migrant workers during the Covid pandemic and the resultant lockdowns.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for three social activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Harsh Mander and Jagdeep Chhokar, said the country's population has increased after the 2011 census and so has the number of beneficiaries covered under the NFSA.
He submitted many eligible and needy beneficiaries will be deprived of the benefit under the law if it is not enforced effectively.
Bhushan said the government is claiming the per capita income of people has increased in recent years, but added India has slipped rapidly in global hunger index.
Additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, submitted there are 81.35 crore beneficiaries under NFSA, a very large number even in the Indian context.
The ASG said the 2011 census has not stopped the government from adding more people to the list of beneficiaries which is growing.
Bhushan interjected to say 14 states have filed affidavit stating their quota of foodgrains has been exhausted.
The matter is posted for resumed hearing on December 8.
The top court had earlier asked the Centre to ensure the benefits of the NFSA are not limited by the 2011 census figures and more needy people should be covered under the Act, terming the "Right to Food" a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution.
The per capita income in India has increased in real terms by 33.4 per cent since the enactment of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, the Centre had earlier told the apex court, insisting a large number of households have transitioned to the higher income group.
"During last eight years, since the enactment of NFSA, per capita income of the population in India has increased in real terms by 33.4 per cent.
The rise in per capita income of people is bound to have taken a large number of households to higher income class and they may not be as vulnerable as they were in 2013-14," the Centre had said in an affidavit.
The government notified the National Food Security Act, 2013 on September 10, 2013 with the objective of providing for food and nutritional security by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity.
The Act provides for coverage of up to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population for receiving subsidised foodgrains under targeted public distribution system.
In July, the top court had said migrant workers play a very vital role in building the nation and their rights cannot be ignored at all, and asked the Centre to devise a mechanism so they receive foodgrains even without possessing ration cards.
It had observed that citizens are dying due to hunger despite development and that modalities should be set out to ensure the maximum number of migrant workers are given rations.
The top court had issued a slew of directions to authorities on a plea by the three activists seeking welfare measures for migrant workers and ordered states and Union Territories to frame schemes for providing free dry rations to them till the pandemic lasts. It also asked the Centre to allocate additional foodgrains.
It also directed the states and UTs to register all establishments and license all contractors under the law and ensure the statutory duty imposed on the contractors to give the particulars of migrant workers is fully complied with.