The Supreme Court has asked the states to open Anganwadis which were shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic on or before January 31, 2021, unless the State Disaster Management Authority orders against it [Dipika Jagatram Sahani v. Union of India].
The Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, Subhash Reddy and MR Shah also directed that Anganwadis situated within containment zones will not be opened till the containment continues.
The top court has further ordered that all states/union territories shall ensure that nutritional standards as provided in Schedule II of National Food Security Act, 2013, are fulfilled by providing nutritional support to pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children who suffer from malnutrition.
The Court was considering a petition questioning the closure of Anganwadis across the country. The petitioner states that Anganwadis provided nutrition to pregnant women, lactating mothers, adolescent girls, and children up to the age of six years.
While hearing the matter, the Bench remarked,
“Unless and until the children and the women have nutritious food, it will affect the next generation and ultimately the country as a whole.
Inadequate supply of nutritious food to the citizens, more particularly to the children and the women shall 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 of India.”
The Court also stated that services rendered by the Anganwadis are “essential services” and do not stand barred by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) notification dated November 25, 2020. The order states,
“State of Assam is under the impression that the order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs dated 25.11.2020, provides for not opening of the Centres. MHA order states that 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 paragraph as noted above does not in any manner create any prohibition in opening of Anganwadi Centres.”
It was further noted that the MHA guidelines have been issued keeping in view the protection of vulnerable persons amid the pandemic. The guidelines urged pregnant women and children below the age of 10 years to stay at home except for essential and health purposes.
After noting that many states had issued guidelines to comply with the statutory requirements under the Food Security Act, the Court noted,
“The big question however is as to what extent the implementation is on the ground and the benefits are extended to beneficiaries as required by the Statute. The beneficiaries which belong to vulnerable class are not equipped with suitable mechanisms to raise issues of non-implementation and not providing food articles complying with nutritional standards as provided in the Statute.”
The states have thus been directed to put in place an appropriate mechanism for supervision and checks. Child development officers and other district level officers who are entrusted to monitor the functioning of Anganwadis have been urged to be extra vigilant and take steps so that no beneficiary is denied aid.
Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves appeared for the petitioner.