Opinions

Nutrition is not the court's remit, m'lord


One of the Supreme Court’s jobs is to intervene when liberty and citizen rights are threatened or denied. This function it serves as part of its remit, for which India‘s democracy holds it in such esteem. We certainly hope the court continues to play this necessary role, by drawing on the legal principles that animate the law. The apex court is able to discharge this function, because of the constitutional scheme of separation of the organs of the State. That separation, vital for maintaining the system of checks and balances among the organs of the State, is blurred if and when the court suggests specific administrative measures, such as community kitchens to ward off hunger.

Whether hunger should be kept at bay by means of supplying free rations, doles that make use of readiness to perform manual labour as a tool of self-selection and so are dressed up as employment schemes, subsidised grain distribution through a functional Public Distribution System (PDS), or a free midday meal scheme at schools, it is for the executive to decide. If the executive were to fail on this count, it is for the people to hold it to account by voting out a government that cannot protect life. For the courts to drag themselves into an executive function – on the ground that life is a prerequisite for liberty and as the protector of liberty, it is the court’s job to prescribe specific hunger-alleviation schemes – is to seriously blur the distinction between executive and judicial functions. India’s Constitution does give the Supreme Court extraordinary leeway to issue sweeping directives. But that power must be exercised with discretion. For the highest court of the land to presume policy preference for specific administrative choices is to undermine the people’s mandate in electing a certain set of people to lead the executive.

It is tempting for judges to don the mantle of the philosopher king and pronounce on the desirable course in any matter, legal, policy-related or administrative. That, however, is the path to subversion of democracy.



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