Premlata w/o Ram Sagar & Ors. v. Govt. of NCT Delhi, W.P.C. 7687 of 2010
This petition was filed before the Delhi High Court by six destitute pregnant or lactating women in partnership with Human Rights Law Network. The petition asserted that the denial of food and maternal health benefits violated the constitutional and human rights of the women to reproductive health, food, and equality.
This case was brought by six pregnant or lactating women who lived in poverty in a Delhi slum. The women were denied food rations, as well as prenatal and children health benefits which they were entitled to under several national benefit programs. This can be attributed to the failure of the Delhi government to make ration cards available, and to implement certain maternal health programs. Earlier proceedings showed that 55% of the poor in Delhi were “un-carded.” The Court issued an interim order requiring the government to set up “camps” where the petitioners and others living in the slum could obtain new or renewed ration cards, and to provide access to a grievance hotline. The order also provided for the payment of damages to the individual plaintiffs.
In the course of the case, the Court was informed that no new ration cards were being issued by the Delhi government because the governments of India and Delhi had set a maximum limit on the amount of such cards, a “cap.” As a result, millions of Delhi residents were denied access to life-saving rations. The Court was highly critical of such limits, stating, “This Court is unable to appreciate how …..Delhi, with a growing population and constant influx of new migrants can abide by a ‘cap’ on [ration] cards…there cannot be any ‘caps’… Denial of a ration card to a [person] is virtually a denial of his or her right to food and thereby the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life).” This provision has been interpreted broadly in the past by Indian courts to encompass and guarantee many rights including the right to human dignity, the right to livelihood, the right to health, the right to pollution-free air and many others. Here, the court reaffirmed Article 21’s guarantee of the right to maternal health and explicitly connected the necessity of sufficient nutrition to that right.
The Court ordered further proceedings to ensure the government followed through with improving ration card procedures.
This order of the Court, dated May 13th 2011, is one of a series of interim orders issued by the Court with regard to the original petition. The final ruling in the case was delivered on December 13th, 2011.
Petitioners and community members are receiving their food ration and health benefits on a consistent basis. New ration cards have also been issued to eligible residents. Due to increased state accountability and legal awareness by the local community on rights and entitlements, the scope of corruption and diverting food-grains for sale have reduced significantly.
Similar legal petitions are being developed in other districts in Delhi.
Human Rights Law Network
This case is significant because of its transformative potential in realizing a more transparent and efficient delivery system of essentials for vulnerable communities in India. It is one of several recent decisions where the Delhi High Court has found a constitutional right to maternal health. A noteworthy aspect of the case is the reinforcement of the link between the right to food and adequate nutrition, and reproductive health services, which is vital for ensuring safe motherhood. In addition, this case is part of a larger movement in India to use constitutional litigation to secure rights and services for poor women and children. Affected community members were actively involved with both the case and the implementation of the interim order. This provides a progressive vision for advocacy which combines the power of grassroots strategic litigation with the construction of community-based networks to increase accountability.
(Updated August 2015)