The Supreme Court made it clear on Tuesday that it had ordered free distribution of foodgrains to the poor instead of allowing it to rot and rejected Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar's contention that it was a suggestion which cannot be implemented.
"It was not a suggestion. It is there in our order.It is part of our order. You tell the Minister about it," a Bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma told the government counsel Additional Solicitor General Mohan Parasaran.
The issue of foodgrains rotting in godowns was also raised in the Lok Sabha by the Bharatiya Janata Party which accused the government of not abiding by the apex court's order. Pawar said he had not got a copy of the court order but assured the House that government will honour the decision of the Supreme Court.
"This government will honour the decision of the Supreme Court. Members' suggestions will also be considered," he said responding to the issue raised by Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj.
The Supreme Court hearing on the issue of rampant corruption in the Public Distribution System (PDS), also ordered the government to launch criminal prosecution of those using bogus ration cards in the country.
At the fag end of the hearing, the judges expressed displeasure at the "casual manner" in which the Union Minister chose to treat its earlier order. "We have seen some newspaper reports. Generally newspaper reports are not correct, but it said that the Minister (Pawar) had said it was only a suggestion.
The apex court passed the observation while responding to Pawar's recent contention that the apex court had on August 12 merely suggested free distribution of foodgrains and ruled out the same on the ground that the government was already saddled with a subsidy of Rs 66,000 crore for foodgrains.
The apex court had on August 12 asked the Centre to consider free distribution of foodgrains to the poor instead of allowing it to rot in Food Corporation of India godowns. The court had passed the direction while dealing with a public interest litigation filed by civil rights group PUCL on rampant corruption in Public Distribution System besides rotting of food grains in FCI godowns.
The apex court also today minced no words in expressing displeasure at the manner in which corruption was breeding in the PDS system and said, there has to be "zero tolerance" level to check the menace. "By a newspaper advertisement, a warning be issued asking all the bogus card holders to surrender the bogus cards forthwith, in any event, within two weeks of the date of advertisement, otherwise criminal prosecution may be initiated against them.
"We have to develop a culture of zero tolerance towards corruption. Unless immediate and urgent steps are taken, the ultimate effect will be on the poorest citizen who is deprived of legitimate entitlement for food-grains," the bench observed.
"We must ensure that every poor person is assured of two square meals a day." the bench said. The bench directed the government to conduct a fresh survey of the Below Poverty Line (BPL), Antodya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Above Poverty Line (APL) beneficiaries on the basis of the figures available for 2010 and said the authorities cannot rely on a decade-old data to extend the benefits.
"Why don't you do it along with the census?" the Bench asked the additional solicitor general, who agreed to explore the suggestion. "Procure only as much as you can presrve. Don't allow it to rot, distribute it at low cost or no cost," it said. The Bench said the government's efforts at providing PDS grains to the APL was perhaps one of the main reasons for pilferage and corruption in the system. It referred to the reports on discovery of two lakh bogus ration cards in Orissa alone.
The Bench pointed out that even the foodgrains sold by the FCI in the market was at a much higher rate. "In Madhya Pradesh for instance I conducted my own enquiries and found that FCI supplies foodgrains at Rs 1,235 per tonne in addition to sales tax and transport charges. Whereas in the open market, it is available for Rs 1,200. You create artificial scarcity and price rise, "Justice Verma observed.
The bench reiterated its earlier order that persons above poverty line shall not be entitled to subsidised foodgrains but if the government was determined to extend the benefit, the same shall be given to those families whose annual income is below Rs three lakh.
"There has to be some rationality. You can't distribute 35 kgs to a large family and apply the same logic to even in a family where there is just one member," the apex court said questioning the Government's policy of providing 35 kgs of foodgraints to each BPL family irrespective of the number of memebrs in a family.
The apex court suggested that if the government can also explore its suggestion for enhancing the allocation of food grains to the States to overcome the problem of rotting grains in the FCI godowns. It posted the matter for further hearing to next Monday.