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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 221
December 31, 2005

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Human Rights Advocacy

Monga: Legal responsibilities of government

Syed Ziaul Hasan, Amatul Karim and Shadeka Jahan

MONGA' is a known feature to all. During the Bangla month of “Kartik” i.e. mid October to mid November, marginal and landless farmers face an economic crisis. This crisis stems from lack of non-agricultural employment opportunities since it is the agricultural incline season. This yearly incident is called “Monga”, a near famine situation that results in severe food crisis for the people of the northern part of Bangladesh. This year “Monga” did not remain limited to the greater Rangpur only, but has spreaded across Faridpur, Gopalganj and Jamalpur districts and severely affected about 30/40 lac people. At least 44 people died due to starvation and diarrhoea that followed, among other causes (as reported in the Daily Ittefaq dated 01.11.2005). But the government has some constitutional obligations to ensure food and other basic necessities to every citizen of Bangladesh especially the vulnerable such as the “Monga” affected people.

Let us highlight some legal obligations of the government to mitigate the situation like “Monga”.

1) Constitutional mandate
Under Articles 15, 16, 18(1), 19 (1) & (2), 20 (1) of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, government is under obligation to provide the basic necessities, rural development and agricultural enhancement, raising the level of nutrition and the improvement of the public health, equality of opportunity and equal distribution of wealth to all citizens and ensure employment as duty to all citizens of the country. The State shall also secure the fundamental rights of its citizens under article 27, 31 and 32 of the Constitution.

2) Food policy undertaken by the government
Under the Food Policy of 1988 the Government of Bangladesh has promised to ensure distribution of food across the country throughout the year. Accordingly, the government through its policies is endeavoring uniform distribution of foodgrains. One of the main objectives of the said food policy is that to ensure supply of foodgrain to vulnerable helpless people of low income group and storage of food for facing emergencies and controlling the its price. To materialise these objectives the government is obligated to adopt necessary policies like the food ministry should store food according to the population and demand of the people, distribute necessary food every year through different distribution centers, and distribute food in the villages by reducing food allotment in the cities. The government should make properly active the MS process for allocation of food and give more emphasis to the most vulnerable people at the time of distribution.

3) Programmes of government
Government of Bangladesh has undertaken Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) Programme, (September, 2002) with the assistance of World Food Programme (WFP) which is aimed at ensuring poverty reduction that exclusively targets ultra-poor rural women in Bangladesh. It identifies ultra- poor women trapped in the vicious cycle of hunger, poverty and vulnerability and provides a vital food ration that enable women to participate in activities that would otherwise be beyond their reach. It also enables the poorest and most disadvantaged women and their family members in rural Bangladesh to overcome food insecurity and low social and economic status in a sustainable way and to improve the nutritional status of malnourished women and children.

Government has the Test Relief programme where it allocates foodgrain for maintenance of rural infrastructure during monsoon. The government has also Food for Work (FFW) and Rural Maintenance Programs (RMP).

The government also has different projects and other programmes like, Kabita (Kajer binomoye taka i.e. money for work) etc. where it takes the responsibility to ensure food or money to people for work.

It appears through different newspapers that the government has already allocated Taka 525 crore and 10,32,000 tons of food under different projects and programmes in the current financial budget, including Taka 300 crores for the KABIKHA (Kajer Binimoye Khaddo i.e. Food for Work) programme, Taka 100 crore to deal with natural disasters, Taka 75 crores to lessen the risk of natural disaster and Taka 50 crores for temporary alleviation of unemployment (as reported in a section of print media on 30.10.2005). The government has also reportedly allocated 501 metric tons of food for distribution under the relief and social safety net measures, 250 metric tons of food for special projects at the rate of 50 metric tons per constituency and 945 metric tons of rice for general 'KABIKHA' project etc. However, it appears that adequate and effective measures had not been taken for distribution of foodgrains and relief goods among the most vulnerable individuals in the “Monga”-affected areas.

It also appeared from the news published in newspapers that the allotments for facing the “Monga” situation was inadequate, there was lack of co-ordination among the Ministries concerned in distributing funds and above all they made delay to distribute the funds.

The Union Parishad and the Upzilla Parishad have the responsibility to get going those different programmes and projects of the government. But they are unsuccessful to do that.

4) International mandate
Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) to which Bangladesh is a signatory expressly recognise the right of every person to an adequate standard of living including adequate food. The right to food is impliedly guaranteed under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) where it is undertaken to reduce poverty by one half the proportion of the world's poor and of people who suffer from hunger by the year 2015.

5) Other laws
The Famine Insurance Fund Act 1937 provides for the establishment and maintenance of a fund called the “Famine Insurance Fund” for expenditure pertaining to insurance against famine and distress caused by serious draught, flood, earthquake and other natural calamities through its different provisions.

Under provisions of sections 30(2)(C) and 33 of the Local Government (Union Parishad) Ordinance, 1983 the Union Parishads are entrusted with the responsibilities to undertake some civic functions like adoption and implementation of development schemes in the field of agriculture, forest, fisheries, education, health, cottage industries, commu-nication, irrigation and flood protection with a view to increasing economic and social emancipation of the people and also being responsible for agricultural, industrial and community development in the Union as well as empowered to make rules and regulations for the purpose of this Ordinance.

Under Upzilla Parishad Ain 1998 (amended in 1999) the local Upazila Parishads of the areas concerned are obligated to administer law and order; health and family planning; agriculture, irrigation and environment; education; social welfare; women and child development; sports, culture and youth development; transport and material infrastructure at the local level. Actually the Upazilla Parishad is responsible for overall development and planning of the area concerned and also its implementation.

Starvation deaths and ongoing malnutrition as reported from the Monga affected areas of the country appear to be the consequence of bad governance resulting from acts of omission and commission on the part of public servants including Deputy Commissioners of the areas concerned and also it is nothing but the failure to take timely and effective decisions for release and disbursement of existing funds and relief for the purpose of addressing the “Monga” situation.

It is a fundamental right of every citizen to be free from hunger. Poverty and starvation constitute a gross denial and violation of the basic right to food. The right to food also implies the right to food at appropriate nutritional level. It also implies that the quantum of relief to those in distress must meet those levels in order to ensure that the right to food is actually secured and does not remain a theoretical concept. The state has the obligations to take requisite positive action to identify vulnerable groups and to design, implement and monitor policies that will facilitate their access to food-producing resources or an income. As a last alternative, direct assistance may have to be provided, to ensure at least minimum freedom from hunger.

The authors are Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh.


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