The Supreme Court on Friday ordered compensation for delayed wages under a flagship rural job scheme and asked states to continue free meal for students in drought-hit areas, pulling up authorities for “throwing social justice out of the window”.
The top court’s stinging criticism of both the Centre and states came on an NGO’s petition seeking judicial intervention to tackle a severe rural distress triggered by back-to-back drought that has affected 33 crore people or 25% of India’s population in 10 states.
The crippling drought has forced water rationing in some states, armed guards at reservoirs and prompted the judiciary to throw cricket matches out of Maharashtra in unprecedented measures to tackle the situation.
A bench of justices MB Lokur and NV Ramana held the Centre guilty of failing its constitutional obligations by not paying timely wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNERGA) scheme.
“This is extremely unfortunate and certainly does not behove a welfare State in any situation, more so in a drought,” the bench said, asking the government to compensate workers whose wages are delayed beyond 15 days.
It also ordered the government to constitute the Central Employment Guarantee Council within 60 days and gave 45 days to the states to have similar panels to “monitor and review” the implementation of the scheme.
Holding that right to food was a constitutional right, the top court ordered all drought-affected states to continue the mid-day meal scheme in schools even during the summer vacations.
Around 1.2 crore students across the country are offered free lunch under the mid-day meal scheme, the world’s largest such programme, during school days.
Pulling up Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for not providing high-protein diet to children, the court said states must give egg or milk at least thrice a week.
“This direction is being passed in the interest of children in drought-affected areas,” the court said, noting its direction was a “sad commentary” on the state of affairs.
The court said that no household in drought areas shall be denied food grains, as required under the National Food Security Act, for not possessing a ration card.
Ordering changes in the public distribution system, the court ruled that the entire population in a drought-hit districts will be entitled to cheap food grain, regardless of whether they qualify for subsidised ration or not.
The apex court agreed to monitor implementation of its orders and asked the government to file a status report before July 25. It, however, declined to appoint court commissioners for the time being.
Yogendra Yadav of the NGO, Swaraj Abhiyan, called the court’s verdict historic and asked governments to act swiftly.
“Great day for judiciary as it stood up for (the) last man. Sad that courts had to order what govts should have,” he tweeted.