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Fixing policy govt’s job: SC

New Delhi, Aug. 30: The Supreme Court has said it wants to end judicial monitoring of social welfare schemes, saying the task should be left to experts and courts “can’t be setting economic policy”.

The court had earlier taken umbrage at the government for fixing the poverty line at a measly Rs 32 per day per person in urban areas and suggested free distribution of foodgrain, causing consternation in the government which felt that the judiciary was encroaching on the executive’s domain.

The top court, which has been overseeing the functioning of PDS since 2001, indicated a rethink on Wednesday. “This should be left to expert bodies. Reviewing the poverty line is very difficult. We can’t be setting economic policy,” Justice T.S Thakur said, sitting alongside junior judge M.I. Kalifullah. “We can only express concern.”

The counsel for a PIL petitioner, the People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), which has been fighting for the right to food for years now, insisted that the poverty norm was shocking. The amount of Rs 32 only covers food and ignores other expenses such as housing and medicine, counsel Colin Gonsalves said.

But, during hearings yesterday and today, the bench said there was nothing like a poverty line — it was an artificial line linked to subsidies. “Where is it written in the Constitution that food subsidy should be given? “The poverty line is hypothetical, it’s only relevance is for subsidy,” Justice Thakur said.

Gonsalves insisted that the state cannot refuse to reach out to those who can’t fend for themselves, “not in this day and age”, but the bench did not relent. Instead, the bench suggested that he come up with orders that could pass without trespassing into areas of the executive or the legislatures.

The poverty line determines the recipients of government welfare schemes, a key benefit being entitlement to subsidised grains, kerosene and sugar through fair price shops for all those below the poverty line.

An earlier bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma had given the government a mouthful on the issue, made the Planning Commission a party to the court proceedings and urged the panel to revise the figure.

The commission revised the poverty line on the basis of the price index to bring it up to Rs 32 per person per day for urban areas from around Rs 20.

Since then Justice Dalveer has been elected to the International Court of Justice and Justice Verma has retired.

The new bench of Justices Thakur and Kalifullah made it clear right at the outset that it would stick to statutory parameters in passing orders in the case.

Taking a cue from Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia, who belongs to the school of thought that holds judges should not lay down the law but focus on monitoring its implementation, Justices Thakur and Kalifullah said that they would leave certain things to the discretion of the government.

They would only intervene to plug existing loopholes in the PDS system by implementing existing law, the judges said.

The bench also dismissed a plea by Gonsalves to have grains that were rotting outside for lack of storage distributed through fair price shops.

“These are noble intentions. But the possibility of misdirection of funds and commodities and misappropriation is there. The administrative expenses of such distribution will also be huge,” Justice Thakur said, echoing the government’s views on the subject.

The bench, however, agreed to look at plugging leaks by setting up vigilance committees, improving the system of appointing dealers and ensuring BPL cards for anyone who is clearly destitute.

The bench asked the government to discharge its obligation by spelling out criteria on composition of vigilance committees to monitor the PDS instead of compelling the court to pass judicial orders.

“You can’t so easily wash your hands of your responsibility,” Justice Thakur asked the Union counsel P.P. Malhotra. “Otherwise we will act. Why make the court encroach upon your territory?”