“Unless there are any specific reasons for not opening, all Anganwadi Centres beyond the containment zones should be made functional by all the States/Union Territories at an early date”; SC directs

Supreme Court: The three-judge bench comprising Ashok Bhushan*, R. Subhash Reddy and M.R. Shah, JJ., addressed the instant petition questioning the closure of the Anganwadi Centres across the country. The Bench said, “Government has a constitutional obligation to preserve human life.”

Background

 Through Anganwadi Centres, supplementary nutrition to pregnant women, lactating mothers, adolescent girls and children up to the age of 6 years were being provided which fulfilled the State objective of holistic development of children under 6 years and to provide food and nutrition to the beneficiaries as mandated by Article 47 of the Constitution. After spread of Covid-19, Anganwadi Centres were closed throughout the country in March, 2020. Distribution of special nutrition and other benefits, being essential services were permitted to be conducted by Anganwadi staff by resorting to Take Home Ration. The Supplementary Nutrition Programme supplied under ICDS Scheme was of two types for different beneficiaries’ i.e.

(a)Take Home Ration for pregnant women & lactating mothers and children in the age group of 6 months to 3years; and

(b) Morning Snacks and Hot Cooked Meal for children in the age group of 3-6 years.

Lockdown was lifted by the competent authority in phased manner and gradually specified activities were permitted to be opened but even during the post-lockdown period; beneficiaries, children pregnant women and lactating mothers continued to suffer due to non-opening of Anganwadi in various States. Counsel for the petitioner, Colin Gonsalves contended that pandemic has caused severe strain on the employment and means of livelihood of a large section of society especially marginal sections, therefore, they require immediate extension of all benefits as envisaged in the Scheme. National Human Rights Commission had also made recommendations on 28-09-2020 and 29-09-2020 after impact assessment, issued advisory to reopen Anganwadi Centres immediately. The petitioner further submitted that due to non-providing of hot cooked meals to children up to the age of six years and children who were affected of malnutrition they were suffering which needed immediate attention and remedial action.

Observations

 Considering above mentioned facts, the Bench expressed, “Inadequate supply of nutritious food to the citizens, more particularly to children and women would affect their health. Therefore, the same shall be in violation of their fundamental right to health/right to live with dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.”

 Government had launched an Integrated Child Development Services Scheme in the year 1975; which was designed as an early childhood development programme aimed to address health, nutrition and development needs of young children, pregnant and nursing mothers. Later, another Act, National Food Security Act, 2013 (“the Act, 2013”) was enacted to provide for food and nutritional security by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith. The Act, 2013 by Section 4 creates a statutory right of every pregnant woman and lactating mother of free meals during pregnancy and six months after the child birth. Section 5 provides for free of charge nutritional support to children, in case of children in the age group of six months to six years, age appropriate meal through the local Anganwadi so as to meet the nutritional standards. Anganwadi Centres had been given statutory recognition under the Act, 2013 and Section 7 had created an obligation on the State Governments to implement schemes covering entitlements.

On observing that ready to eat nutritional traditional sweet was provided by some States in lieu of hot cooked meals to 3 to 6 years’ children, the Court stated that the State ought to include certain cereals in Take Home Ration instead of providing only ready to eat substitutes. The nutritional standard as provided in Schedule II of Act, 2013 was mandatory to be complied with by the States.

The Court said, “Children are the next generation and therefore unless and until the children and the women have the nutritious food; it will affect the next generation and ultimately the country as a whole.” Article 47 of the Constitution had also provided that one of the primary duties of the State is to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living of the people.

Noticing that some States were under the impression that the order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs dated 25-11-2020, provided for not opening of the Centres, the Court discussed Para 16 of the said order;

“16. Persons above 65 years of age, persons with co-morbidities, pregnant women, and children below the age of 10 years are advised to stay at home, except for essential and health purposes.”

 The Bench explained that, paragraph 16 did not in any manner create any prohibition in opening of Anganwadi Centres as the services provided by Anganwadi Centres were essential services.

 Decision

 The Court held that the State had to provide an appropriate mechanism for supervision and check. Child development officers and other district level officers who were entrusted to monitor the functioning of Anganwadi Centres had to be extra vigilant so that no beneficiary is denied its dues.

In view of the above observations, the Court disposed of the petition with following directions:

  1. All States/Union Territories which had not yet opened Anganwadi Centres should open the same on or before 31-01-2021 situated outside the containment zone.
  2. Decision for not opening Anganwadi Centres should be taken only after the State Disaster Management Authority direct for not opening of Anganwadi Centres in particular area of the State situated outside containment zone.
  3. Anganwadi Centres situated in the containment zone shall not be opened till the containment continues.
  4. All States/Union Territories should ensure that nutritional standards as provided in Schedule II of National Food Security Act, 2013, is fulfilled by providing nutritional support to pregnant women, lactating mothers, nutritional support to children who suffer from malnutrition.
  5. All the States/Union Territories should issue necessary orders regarding monitoring and supervision of Anganwadi Centres to ensure that benefit reaches to the beneficiaries and a Complaint Redressal Mechanism should be put in place in each district.

[Dipika Jagatram Sahani v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 22, decided on 13-01-2021]


*Justice Ashok Bhushan has penned the judgment

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