Eating the seeds from a camel’s dung: A discussion on the right to food

Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Right to Food and the Rule of Law in Asia

Justice H Suresh

Although the Universal Declaration on Human Rights addresses the concept of the right to food in article 25, it is in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that freedom from hunger is recognised as a fundamental right. This article makes clear that by this it means obtaining nutritious food for the purpose of maintaining an adequate standard of living. So eating rotten mango kernels, for instance, as has been suggested by the Chief Minister of Orissa, would not constitute fulfilling the right to food. In assessing whether or not these rights are being fulfilled, we have to look into a range of subsidiary areas suggested by article 11, including methods of production, conservation and distribution of food. These necessarily encompass stability of food supply, and access to natural resources for the production of food.

One of the main reasons for denial of the right to food is poverty. Poverty is the worst violation of all human rights. Poverty leads to the denial of all basic rights–the right to food, right to education, right to health, right to shelter, right to livelihood, and above all, right to live with human dignity. Poverty is also the cause of violence and social conflicts. Very often, poor people are the victims of state terrorism and torture. Therefore, any investigation into the right to food must necessarily take into account all those aspects as well as the causes and consequences of poverty.
In India, economic rights, including the right to food, are not expressly included under the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution. While civil and political rights have been incorporated in the chapter on Fundamental Rights and are enforceable in a court of law, most economic and social rights are in a chapter entitled Directive Principles of State Policy, and are not enforceable judicially. So the question that has come up is, how far we can take up these principles in the courts? Once we obtained a judgement saying that the right to life includes everything that goes towards ensuring life, then we had a chance to give these rights vibrant meaning. We took Fundamental Rights cases to the courts on the rights to housing, health and education, and then we thought that we could do the same for food. And there we made use of article 32 of the Constitution to petition the Supreme Court on a fundamental right violation case involving the right to food. This petition was the first of its kind involving the right to food as a legally enforceable right in India, and it led to every state government being given notice to indicate whether or not starvation deaths are occurring under its jurisdiction. The government of West Bengal replied that there were none; subsequently we went to West Bengal and proved otherwise.

In fact, despite various directions given by the courts in India, until today there are thousands of starvation deaths. In some cases these have occurred because of the closure of mines and other places of employment, and thousands of workers and their families have nowhere to go–some have been there for generations, and most don’t know any other kind of work. Another case involves the closure of tea estates, with the same consequences for the workers. There are also places where even the water from rivers is being sold to companies, and the nearby villagers are being denied access to these resources, with terrible consequences. And yet, to date on the food issue, our courts have not gone beyond some orders for distribution of rice in the event of starvation. So what we are working on now is taking the right to food beyond some simple distribution and rationing system. That is not enough.

Ultimately, the right to food doesn’t mean that you go to the court, knock on the door and get a morsel of food. No, it means many other things: it includes the right to livelihood and everything else that is required for a person to meet their basic food needs. So what we need to establish across Asia is that the right to food is an enforceable right. And the question is, how will we do this? That is the most basic question we are facing.
Professor Buddhadeb Chaudhuri

The right to food does not mean only food–it has much broader implications. It means decision-making power, and it implies an improvement in the quality of life overall. Mere availability of food also doesn’t guarantee the right to food. The important issue is access to food. An important element in establishing access to food is access to the natural resources necessary to produce it. In this respect also, the access to resources of one person shouldn’t affect the access and concomitant rights of another. In particular, this relates to the question of development strategies in Asia. So we have to think about these things in a holistic way.

Recently, for instance, the ruling elites in different parts of India have imposed many restrictions on forests, and set up regimes for protection or development that are not genuine and do not protect the rights of the local people. Comparatively, we can see now that the people living in more remote areas are doing better in terms of their food rights than people in less remote places who are very negatively affected by such programmes. These are the kind of factors and developments we have to consider.

In fact, sometimes the situations we come across in India are so shocking it is hard to imagine. A number of years ago I did a study in the Darjeeling tea areas; there are some sub-divisions there in which other crops are grown also. The land is owned by large landholders living in urban areas, leasing out their property to sharecroppers. There we were shocked to find that the sharecroppers do not eat the rice that they themselves grow. They eat maize. Rice is a delicacy for them, because the entire quantity must be given to the landowner to cover the lease, and the farmers themselves just grow maize with which to feed their own families. This is the kind of issue that needs to be exposed, and pressure made for reforms.

Basil Fernando

This kind of work requires a combined approach of seeking legal remedies along with other methods outside the courts. And the kind of advocacy techniques we have used for work on civil and political issues, like torture, can be applied to work on economic and social issues, like food. The first assumption that we have to make when starting this work, which comes from our work on torture, is that much of the problem is not known even to the persons actively involved in this kind of work. We might have a surface understanding, know a few details, and have good intentions that we should do something, but there is no depth of understanding even among ourselves. Secondly, we have to expect that the answers will not come through conventional research methods, like doing literature studies and empirical surveys the likes of which academics are so fond. These methods don’t touch on the real issues, and don’t come to the problems affecting ordinary people, which is what the food problem is all about.

So we have to find some way to get access to places where things are going wrong, and become aware of what is really happening. This is the method we have used regarding torture. We began by forming small groups not based among the urban elites, who dominate much of the human rights discourse in our countries, but rather, based closer to the ordinary people. So the people in these groups do not go to make artificial visits and find facts; they themselves are living very close to the problems they are addressing, and they get to know about violations by natural ways. When we build and work with such groups, we learn about violations routinely, not as a result of some two-week ‘fact finding’ visit. And the stories we obtained from doing this type of work regarding torture revealed to us that none of the theories about torture put forward in the past could explain what is happening in Asia. So once we understood the extent and nature of the problem, we could start studying why it is happening and what can be done to stop it.

What we have to our advantage these days is modern communication facilities that allow for information about cases to be transmitted very fast, even from remote rural areas, and to be used very effectively. If, for instance, out of some 700 people who have died from starvation in a part of India, 20 of those stores are thoroughly documented and shared widely, they will have a huge impact. In fact, it will far exceed the impact to be had from collecting minimal data in each and every one of those cases, because statistics don’t allow us to understand why something is happening in a certain way. And the effect of this kind of work regarding food can be even greater than the impact we have had when applying these techniques to torture. In the case of torture, there is still some justification for the practice due to ingrained habits of saying that torture is necessary, whereas there can be no justification for hunger or starvation.

In many places in Asia where starvation is taking place it is due to easily correctable conditions. In some cases, of course, such as North Korea, it may be due to an entire social and political system, but in most instances it is not. We need to identify places where quick intervention of this kind, combined with a legal approach, where suitable, can lead to real changes. Even the more extreme cases caused by authoritarianism are deserving of study, for reason that they reveal neglect. It is not that these governments are so draconian that they consist of bad people doing bad things all the time. The real problem is that authoritarian rule causes systemic negligence, which results in so many bad things, including hunger. And to one degree or another we can apply this argument to virtually all of our societies, as most of them have only the façade of democracy. In fact there is no way that anything can be challenged seriously; gradually a culture is built up in which no one intervenes, and no one acts to solve hunger, poverty and other social problems. It is not that we are poorer now than before. So why is it that the problems are exacerbated? It must in part be attributed to the greater degree of negligence that exists today, despite sophisticated systems for communications and management that should be preventing it. So whatever we can do in this respect to challenge these issues will have more effect than actions in the field of civil and political rights, where it may take much longer to bring about a change.

Our concern is not with preconceived ideas of what has happened in a place, but with the actual violations. We let the story determine our thoughts and actions. We are not going to try to prove, for example, that some person’s lack of food is due to the presence of a multinational company. Although that is a legitimate approach for some groups, it is not the object of our work. Without any preconceived ideas, we go to a place and we ask, “What has happened? Why has it happened?” Then we get explanations, and in hearing those, discover so many things that could have prevented this situation. This is the opposite of making sweeping generalisations, such as whether globalisation is right or wrong. You can say a lot of things about globalisation policies, and then go to find poor people to prove your point, but if you go into it, you will find so many other factors to explain a given situation. So we have to look at every facet of a case. This is not to say that there aren’t problems associated with globalisation, development policies, and so on, but just to start from the position that these are wrong and try to make a point about this is not helpful for us.

This is basically a common-sense approach. We are not trying to prove a point. We are victim-oriented, and we seek to intervene on behalf of the victims. What this means is that we make the analysis based on victims’ stories, not from general data. It does not mean that we accept unequivocally the victim’s view of the problem, but it does mean that we don’t exclude the victim’s view. We don’t start by going to the victim in order to tell him what to do and explain the situation. We start by going to the victim in order to listen, and listen seriously. Without this starting point, our work is meaningless. With this starting point, it should bring about a change not only in the life of the victim, but also in the person going to do that work.

When we started article 2 we spoke of the micro-studies approach–not to go into policy and other macro-level issues, but to begin with the small issues and details. At the beginning this can be random. Once the work develops, it can take shape and direction. But at first we start with whatever story comes that shows something is radically wrong. So we let the story reveal to us what is going wrong. And then sometimes as a result, we uncover many more things than we went looking for, much worse than we had thought. We find that whatever the real situation is, it is not as simple as we thought.

This is an area where there is a lot of denial. Food is such a sensitive issue that at the international level various agencies go out of their way to prove they have made progress towards various goals through various strategies. So we cannot follow the normal methods. And that is why even exposure of a small issue can have big impact, because once it is out it cannot be denied. In fact, all the major agencies know that the situation is serious and will grow worse, but in order to continue with the same policies and working methods they deny it. And the newspapers and other media go along with this, and restrict reporting to polite debate, rather than get to the real issues. There are socially prescribed limits that they won’t cross, which means that they don’t reach the real problems. Even the human rights people who go to do research invariably restrict themselves to the statistics, and deny the true stories, or the full extent of them. For example, one thing I have heard from a very reliable person but never seen in writing is that some Dalit groups in India collect the seeds out of camel dung for food. Yet nobody would want to believe this type of thing, and it is the kind of story that can never come out through statistics or conventional reporting.

There is an underlying censorship whereby you don’t bring the most desperate issues into the discussion. The topic is kept polite. We have to break this denial to confront people with the problem. And this is not a question of going out and finding something completely unknown. It is about changing our own attitudes and the attitudes of others towards these issues and our work. Very often the sense of shame about not getting enough food for oneself is so great that the people suffering will themselves also subtly deny the problem. For example, a parent will often talk about not being able to get enough food for their child, but not say that she herself did not eat yesterday. So these people themselves may not tell the full story, unless the person talking to them is very sensitive to their way of talking and what issues need to be raised.

Professor Kwak Nohyun

In my opinion, one instance of starvation is enough to signify some kind of systemic problem. Whether one or hundreds are starving, the system has failed. Under these circumstances, the first natural thing that is done is to provide some relief, but we have to go beyond this.

Although it is not possible to do something practically about North Korea right now, we can concentrate on the thousands of refugees in adjacent areas of China, who are risking starvation and face arrest and deportation from China at any time. A very large number of these are malnourished children, whose height and weight is far less than it should be for their age, such that one would be surprised, when asking a child who looks around eight, “How old are you?” and being told, “I’m 12.” By drawing attention to the plight of such people we can also lead into the situation in North Korea itself. The problem with most existing studies on these people and their situation is that they are excessively politicised and directed towards attacking the regime in the north; so we need to take the discussion far beyond the point at which it is currently stuck. This is a something we can do to great effect.

Professor Mark Tamthai

There seem to be different situations in Asia relevant to our analysis. There are cases of severe hunger that may involve areas of a country where the rule of law has broken down to varying degrees. We may identify two places where the problem of hunger is similar but the degree to which the rule of law has broken down is different. In a situation where the rule of law has completely broken down, it may come as no surprise to us to find that the food situation also is bad. On the other hand, if there are cases where the rule of law as a whole has not collapsed but the food situation is nonetheless bad, it may be deserving of special examination. There are many different situations involving many choices. Sometimes the choices are made at the policy level, for instance, between food security and national security. A government might say, “In order to keep the border secure in this area, some people are going to have to suffer a food shortage.” That kind of decision can be changed if the stories are brought out and there is debate about whether this is a genuine choice or not. That is not a wide systemic problem caused by the breakdown of a system; it is hunger as a direct consequence of a specific policy decision that can be reversed or otherwise altered.

In Thailand there are some hill groups living in areas that up to today are still under martial law, and while many organisations go to work with these people, the issue is always about getting them citizenship. They never talk about the effects of statelessness on earning a livelihood, getting access to public health, getting food. Most of this work is concentrated in the north of the country, where the majority of these people are, and various groups provide services to ensure that they do not fall into utter starvation. However, in the central parts of the country there are also large numbers that have gone unnoticed. In fact, what would really shock people is that many of these people, in order to survive, escape into Burma to grow crops in remote places there. When I tell this story to other people in these areas, they think it is an exaggeration.

There tends to be a view among theoreticians and others that somehow hunger is always going to be with us, that it is not possible to have an economic system that can eradicate hunger. From that position, talk about hunger just becomes more statistics. It doesn’t take on a sense of urgency. It is just a way to measure conditions in one country as against another. It is normalised, and the general population is beguiled into believing this kind of argument. This is something we have to address seriously.

Hunger Alert: hungeralert@ahrchk.netThe Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has announced the launch of a Hunger Alert, to create awareness and generate regular action on poverty-related issues, with particular stress on hunger and malnutrition.

Hunger Alert aims to publicise the stories of individuals or groups either currently facing hunger and related problems, or the threat of hunger. Once verified, these stories will be shared with a large audience throughout the world by way of email networking and websites. The approach will be modelled on AHRC’s Urgent Appeals system(, need Hunger Alert because today we need a new type of e-news, by which actual problems faced by ordinary people in different parts of the world can be shared with as large an audience as possible in order to create quick responses. This is a more effective method than the publication of reports from time to time. Stories of actual problems are shared without delay, to generate action locally, regionally and internationally by individuals and organisations. In this way opinions can be made constantly and a public debate kept up daily on these problems. We need ongoing people’s debates on people’s problems. This can only happen if information on people’s problems is shared constantly. For example, at a recent meeting of Asian human rights groups it was reported that in recent years in some parts of India people have had to eat rats due to lack of food. This is not an area where the eating of rats is a traditional practice; those eating the rats have done so out of desperation. In some rubber plantations, rats are reported to have completely disappeared. However, concerned people in other parts of the world do not know of this situation; it has gone unnoticed and the people have suffered in silence. Hunger Alert aims to break this silence and make such matters issues of public concern.

Stories or reports can be sent to

The individual or organisation sending the information should give sufficient contact details for AHRC to reach them and others, by which to verify the news and obtain further information as necessary. However, the sender may request not to be mentioned in the alert itself.

For further details, contact Basil Fernando at the Asian Human Rights Commission



Footnote: At the end of April 2004, the members of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Right to Food and Rule of Law in Asia met with staff of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong to discuss their mandate. This article consists of an abridged version of some of the remarks made by the participants during the discussion. For details on the Permanent People’s Tribunal and its members, see article 2, vol. 2, no. 2, April 2003

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *