The Delhi High Court Thursday halted a proposed scheme for doorstep delivery of ration in the national capital. From the moment the proposal was given a go-ahead by the Arvind Kejriwal government in 2018, it faced stiff opposition from the Lieutenant Governor as well as the central government on technical grounds. When the AAP government decided to go ahead with the scheme in 2021 notwithstanding the opposition, the matter reached the High Court. In its verdict, the HC concurred with the LG’s view and said the scheme cannot be implemented in its present form.
The scheme and the hurdles
In March 2018, the Delhi Cabinet approved a scheme for delivery of ration at the doorstep of beneficiaries under the Targeted Public Distribution System. It was called the ‘Mukhya Mantri Ghar Ghar Ration Yojna’. The first objection to the plan came from none other than the Lieutenant Governor, who said it may not eliminate corruption – one of the scheme’s stated objectives – as it only sought to replace old service providers with new ones. The LG also advised the AAP government to place the matter before the Centre for approval.
However, the Delhi government in 2021 decided to go ahead with the scheme despite the LG reiterating his earlier objections. The scheme was notified in February 2021, and the Centre in March objected to its name. The Centre also said that it “will have no objection if a separate scheme is made by the state government without mixing elements of the NFSA (National Food Security Act) foodgrains”.
After this, the Delhi government dropped ‘Mukhya Mantri’ from the name and decided to go ahead with the implementation. It also clarified that the existing fair price shops will not be closed and people will be given an option to choose.
The proposed implementation
The foodgrain stock for the scheme was to be lifted by millers empanelled with the Delhi State Civil Supplies Corporation Limited and transported to milling units for processing and packaging. The packed items were then to be delivered at designated Fair Price Shops to be set up by Delhi Consumer’s Cooperative Wholesale Store Ltd. The last step involved delivering the packaged items at the doorstep of beneficiaries through government-empanelled direct-to-home delivery agencies.
The court battle
The Delhi Sarkari Ration Dealers Sangh and the Delhi Ration Dealers Union moved the High Court last year challenging the scheme and the tenders issued by Delhi government in January 2021. They argued that the scheme bypasses existing fair price shop owners. The tenders were for selection of agencies for home delivery. The unions argued that the NFSA nowhere contemplated doing away with the existing Fair Price Shop structure, and it was not right to replace the same with a completely new set of dealers. The Centre, while supporting the petitions, argued that the tenders and scheme are in contravention of the NFSA. It contended that the Delhi government cannot tinker with the architecture of the PDS, which had Fair Price Shops as an integral part of the distribution mechanism.
The court’s verdict
A division Bench headed by acting Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi held that a state can offer delivery of foodgrains at the doorstep of beneficiaries, but with its own resources. The court also said that Delhi government cannot proceed to implement the scheme without addressing the concerns of existing FPS owners regarding their financial viability that it held to be statutorily protected.
The court also agreed with LG’s view that the scheme required the approval of the central government since NFSA is a law enacted by Parliament.
The court further pointed out that the Delhi Cabinet was required to refer the matter to the President for decision after a difference of opinion with the LG. The scheme, the High Court held, would necessarily have to be rolled out in the name of the LG, adding that the approval by the council of ministers in itself cannot be described as an action of the Delhi government or even executive action.
LG’s powers in Delhi
The Delhi High Court also deliberated on the existing constitutional scheme in Delhi. The court held that the powers of Delhi cabinet are not unfettered. It pointed out that though there may be no necessity, under the constitutional scheme, for a Cabinet decision requiring LG’s approval, “there is an obligation for the CM to communicate the decision of the Council of Ministers to the Lieutenant Governor”.
It said that in cases where differences arise between the Cabinet and the LG, the matter is liable to be referred to the President for a final call.
“The Lieutenant Governor shall then act according to that decision of the President. Pending such a decision, in case urgency requires the Lieutenant Governor to act, he may act, and give directions in the matter, as he deems necessary,” said the Bench.
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