The Kerala High Court on Monday stayed the order of the Election Commission directing to defer distribution of subsidised rice to non-priority ration cardholders in the State in view of the forthcoming Vishu-Easter-Ramadan festival season.

Justice PV Asha issued the stay order on a petition moved by the State government seeking to quash the Commission’s order.

Model Code of Conduct

The Election Commission had passed the order on a complaint made by Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala. He had alleged that the distribution of subsidised rice and food kits would violate the Model Code of Conduct.

The court also made it clear that that the rice should be distributed strictly in accordance with the clauses of the code, which required the government to avoid all ostentatious functions and not create the impression that such welfare measures are being undertaken to influence the electors in favour of the party in power.

The State government contended that the Model Code of Conduct did not apply to ongoing programmes. The decision regarding the special distribution was taken on February 4, much before the election notification. The decision was based on the Budget speech by the Finance Minister. The government had announced distribution of additional rice of 10 kg at the rate of ₹15 to 50 lakh families who hold blue and white ration cards, during the Budget. The State had ordered that the rice be distributed to the non-prioritised categories of ration cardholders during March and April, also in view of the forthcoming Vishu-Easter-Ramadan festival season.

The State had successfully got an auction acceptance offer for rice worth ₹84 crore from the the Food Corporation of India (FCI). If the scheme is not materialised by March 30 and the auctioned lot not lifted by the State by that date, the rice will be re-appropriated by the FCI, and the State will have to participate in a fresh auction, which may entail an additional burden on the State, the government said.

The non-prioritised categories are residents who do not fall within the scope of the guidelines prescribed by the Central and State Governments to identify the targeted population covered under the Public Distribution System, in accordance with the provisions of the National Food Security Act.

The Election Commission’s counsel submitted that the order directing to defer the distribution of rice was based on a screening committee consisting of the Chief Secretary, constituted to streamline the grant of permissions in view of the Model Code of Conduct.

The purpose of such a committee was to expedite the grant of permission wherever an issue arises. The proposal of the government placed before the committee did not disclose that it was done as part of its earlier decision taken prior to the announcement of the polls.