In May this year, the Supreme Court had directed the Union and state governments to take specific measures to address the desperate crisis of food for drought-affected communities. (PUCL vs Union of India and others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001). The Court has also appointed two Commissioners (Dr. N.C.Saxena and Mr. Sankaran) to monitor its orders. The Commissioners are empowered to enquire about any violations of these orders and to demand redressal from the governments, with the full authority of the Supreme Court. They are also expected to report to the Court from time to time, and work with a team of assistants and advisors in every state.
SC 2003 Right to Food ruling

The Commissioners' work is beginning to reveal its full power and potential. Instead of taking complaints on a case-by-case basis, they have focussed on redressal of issues that are likely to have a wider impact. For instance, the Commissioners have taken up policy issues such as the coverage of Antyodaya Anna Yojana and other social security schemes, delays in the implementation of mid-day meal programmes, and the use of labour-displacing machinery in relief works (see below). Occasionally, the Commissioners have also taken up specific, ground-level cases of violations. The Commissioners also respond to reports and complaints sent by their advisors.

Commissioner N C Saxena has asked the state governments to put up information on employment projects on a website no later than a month after sanction. This would help concerned citizens and organisations to identify `ghost projects'.
The Commissioners's effectiveness came to light mainly in Madhya Pradesh, in the wake of public hearings and other events. Issues raised by them have elicited swift responses from the concerned authorities, and in many cases of violation of Supreme Court orders, redressal has been obtained. Of course, there is a long way from case-by-case redressal to systemic accountability, but this is at least a step forward. Among the issues currently receiving scrutiny from the Commissioners are: progress of mid-day meal schemes, labour displacement in relief works, the larger issue of right to work, expanding the coverage of pensions, payment of minimum wages, the issue of subsidised exports, and a host of other issues arising from the ground. Some of these are further discussed below.

Checking labor displacement in relief work programmes

There have been frequent reports about the use of labour-displacing machines in relief works and employment programmes. For instance, tractors have been widely used in relief works and the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana, and excavators are extensively used in highway construction projects. Labour-displacing machines defeat the purpose of "labour-intensive" wage-employment programmes. In such programmes, the use of labour-displacing machines is officially banned, but the ban is often ineffective. Reports of large-scale use of machines have come from Andhra Pradesh, parts of Madhya Pradesh, and other parts in the country.

Public awareness and active vigilance are key to ensuring that machines are not used in employment programmes. The Commissioners are lending their support to this effort. Reacting to reports from Barwani (Madhya Pradesh) recently, Dr. N.C. Saxena has asked for an enquiry. He has also insisted on public accessibility of the enquiry's findings, and of muster rolls and other records pertaining to the employment of labour on public works.

Another measure under consideration is the preparation of district level gazettes that would list all the employment projects to be taken up in a district. This would help us know where projects are `being implemented'. The Commissioner has also written to the states asking them to commission an officer at the state level who would put information on projects on a website no later than a month after it is sanctioned. This would help concerned citizens and organisations to identify `ghost projects'. The Commissioners have also directed the states to maintain a book of complaints (based on letters, newspaper reports, petitions, etc.) pertaining to illegal uses of machines on public works. This can potentially serve as a single point through which the Commissioners' interventions could be based.

Redressal on denial of benefits despite funds availablity

Unspent resources that end up being returned to the exchequer are a common phenomenon in India's development programmes. In many cases, timely and effective utilisation of funds would mean that larger funds are subsequently made available for the relevant programmes. Using periodic returns and performance reports submitted by the state governments, the Commissioners have been trying to press for effective utilisation of funds allocated to food-related programmes. In a recent case, some labourers in West Midnapore (West Bengal) had petitioned for work, yet work was not provided to them in spite of unspent funds being available.

As an experiment, the government of West Bengal has been asked to give the petitioners compensation equivalent to a hundred days of work, if the district had not used 90% of available resources. If procedures such as these become institutionalised, there is a prospect of moving beyond "monitoring" to "redressal". Similarly, in many districts, beneficiaries of the Annapoorna scheme have been under-identified. The government has now to complete the process of identification and to pay a monetary compensation worth one year of "subsidy" (10 kgs of grain per month, free of cost) for depriving the beneficiary of the entitlement due to late identification. Further experiments with concrete redressal mechanisms are on the cards in various places.

Madhya Pradesh takes the lead

In recent months, the Commissioners' work has been making special headway in Madhya Pradesh. This is partly because of the active involvement of Dr. Mihir Shah, advisor to the Commissioners for Madhya Pradesh.

In Dindori, following the Jan Sunwayi on the 8th of June 2003 at village Dhaba, block Samnapur, there has been encouraging progress on the decisions taken by the administration that day. The Baiga Mahapanchayat that organised the Jan Sunwayi has informed Dr. Mihir Shah that the district administration has moved fast on distribution of Antyodaya cards to all members of the Baiga "primitive" tribe as per the latest order of the Supreme Court. The process is expected to be completed soon. As a direct result of the Jan Sunwayi, employment programmes have also begun in many `forest villages', where they had been stalled for years due to restrictions imposed by the Forest Department. The District Collector has sent Dr.Mihir Shah a copy of his instructions to all line departments to take urgent steps to act upon the nearly 50 complaints received during the Jan Sunwayi from the Baigas regarding non-payment of wages, corruption related matters, etc. The Baiga Mahapanchayat, the organiser of the public hearing, is closely monitoring action on this.

In Sendwa, the follow-up has not been as encouraging as in Dindori, but there is movement. The state government has immediately issued clarificatory orders relating to use of labour-displacing machines and have issued instructions about provision of muster rolls and other documents. The collector has also been directed to submit a detailed report regarding the issues raised by the commissioners. In the meanwhile, the district administration has reportedly swung into action. Various senior officers have been in touch with the complainants, Advasi Mukti Sangathan, and are trying to persuade them to agree to some soft options like dismissing some junior officers. The sangathan is launching an andolan against the district collector who has not been responsive to any of the demands raised by the gram sabhas, and by the commissioners.

In Sheopur, a team led by Shonali Sen has done detailed investigation of one chosen panchayat – Hirapur, details of which were sent in the previous update (the report will shortly be uploaded in the website). With constant attention from the campaign, the district is geared up to issue Antyodaya cards to all Sahariyas, Baigas, other primitive tribes in the district, aged without support, and widows without support. A plan of action is being made in coordination with the advisor to the commissioner, to ensure that there is follow up to the report on Sheopur. Some of the issues taken up will be improving the accessibility of muster rolls and other basic documents, improving the mid day meal programme, ensuring that Antyodaya cards are distributed and grains are provided, and pressing for at least an employment guarantee in the region.