In May, the Supreme Court delivered a wide-ranging order to reduce the distress that consecutive years of drought had caused the people residing in one-third of India's districts. A month on, a ground assessment report by the petitioner Swaraj Abhiyan showed that neither the Center nor state governments had acted with any urgency to mitigate hunger and other problems in rural areas.

“In May, when we started our ground survey just days after the court verdict from Maharashtra, district collectors would tell us that they had read about the drought judgement in newspapers but had not received any orders on this," said petitioner Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan campaign. "In mid-June, when we surveyed Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, it was the same.”

In six weeks since the court's orders, none of the 10 states that declared drought this year had acted on the court orders to offer universal access to grain. The states had been told to provide 5 kilos of grains per person per month to anyone who wanted it, including those who do not hold ration cards. State governments were told to supplement mid-day meals for children with an egg or milk, and provide mid-day meals through the summer vacations. But most state governments have failed to do this.

Among its key prayers in the drought relief petition filed last year, the Swaraj Abhiyan had asked the court to appoint a panel of three independent commissioners – headed by a retired judge, with a retired official with administrative experience of handling drought or other natural disasters, and an eminent rural activist as members – supported by the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare to oversee the implementation of the court's drought relief orders.

The petitioners had proposed that the commissioners should be given technical assistance from the National Disaster Management Authority, and have access to technical expertise from government meteorological experts and agriculture scientists. They would be entitled to seek compliance reports regularly from central and state drought relief commissioners.

This was based on the model adopted in an earlier Right to Food case (PUCL versus Union of India, 2001), which was crucial in strengthening food security schemes and contributed to the National Food Security Act being passed in 2013. This legislation gives access to subsidised grains to 67% of India's population. The central government, however, resisted this suggestion in court, saying it would create a parallel administrative structure.

With poor or no compliance of the court's orders on drought so far, the Swaraj Abhiyan is set to petition the Supreme Court again to set up such an independent panel of commissioners for effective monitoring when the court holds a review on August 1.

Need for independent assessment

“We will present our findings on mid-day meals, ration system and MNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] in districts,” said Anupam, a political activist with the Swaraj Abhiyan. “The Central government had argued that independent monitoring panel is not required. But the results show that since only minor changes have been made on paper and no effective relief was provided, this monitoring mechanism is needed.”

The panel proposed by the Swaraj Abhiyan is based on independent commissioners' appointment in the Right to Food case. In 2001, the death of 41 Sahariya tribals in Rajasthan from starvation triggered the Right to Food case. During its hearing, the Supreme Court appointed two retired bureaucrats – NC Saxena and SR Shankaran – as its commissioners to oversee court's orders on food security in states. These two appointed independent assistants to monitor food security schemes in poor states.

Over the years, a number of the commissioners' recommendations were adopted and even integrated into the draft of the National Food Security Act, said NC Saxena, a retired IAS official and a commissioner in the case. “Based on our recommendations, the number of anganwadi centers for nutrition for vulnerable children was tripled, and the government started providing hot cooked meals not just grains in mid day meals in schools across the country,” he said.

Saxena said that despite several media reports and independent assessments showing that conditions were still dire, state governments had failed to prevent cattle deaths and distress migration in drought-hit areas. “Independent commissioners will certainly help, but the court's orders are anyway binding on state governments," he said. "Why are states not sending regular compliance reports to the court? The Centre should depute teams to visit states.”

Though a good monsoon has been predicted, the rains may help alleviate the scarcity of water and fodder but the problem of food security and livelihood will persist till the summer crop is harvested three months from now, said Dipa Sinha, an activist with Right to Food Campaign. “The next few months are crucial," she said. "Monsoon months see the worst food shortages as well as disease, high infant mortality.”

State and Central governments will submit an affidavit on the implementation of the court's orders by July 25, after which the court will hold a hearing on August 1.