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Discussion on food security bill: Govt walks cautiously

December 14, 2011 00:06 IST

The big budget and big boom National Food Security Bill, which will be to UPA II what the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right To Information Act were to UPA I, could not be cleared by the Union Cabinet on Tuesday and has been deferred to be taken up in its next meeting.

It was felt that the bill, which has been scripted, produced and delivered by the Sonia Gandhi driven National Advisory Council, should be deferred as it required more discussion following dissenting voices against the bill in its present form.

Prominent among the leaders who opposed the bill in its current form was Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and a close aide of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Ahluwalia said that the food security bill has many hidden costs and would cost much more to the exchequer than is being presently estimated.

He was also critical of where the funds would come for such a big project for both urban and rural India. He said the current expenditure is not accurately estimated.

He also made the point that the bill should not specify what is the percentage of people who would have access to food security, as it should not say 75 per cent, since every year the definition of poverty changes, and so does the number of people who come under its ambit.

It is interesting that Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who is seen to be Manmohan Singh's understudy when it comes to their ideological commitments, has deep reservations on social sector and 'pro-poor' measures.

It may be recalled that the prime minister had certain reservations against earlier 'populist' measures undertaken by the UPA government, like the NREGA, RTI, waiving off farmers' debts, etc. but the strong push which Sonia Gandhi gave to these programmes ensured that they saw the light of the day.

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who has consistently been opposed to the proposed food security legislation, again voiced his concerns, wondering from where the government would raise the resources, and also said it would be difficult to procure the quantum of food grains that would be required for the programme.

It is learnt that Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee  had sent a letter to the prime minister on some aspects of the food security bill but the details of that letter were not known.

Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh told the Cabinet meeting that Sonia Gandhi's original food security bill has been diluted and the version which has come before the Cabinet is in a diluted form. He had objections to that.

With allies and others wanting more consultation and discussion, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that let there be more discussion on this bill as no one should feel that they have not had their say.

After the crisis over foreign direct investment in retail trade, there appears to be a great deal of effort to keep the allies happy and on board.

The bill which is being seen by the Congress leadership as crucial for the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh would not be passed in the winter session but would be taken up in the budget session in February end.

The UP elections are to be held in February or April with party general secretary Rahul Gandhi going all out to revive the moribund Congress in that state.

While the food security bill could not be passed, the Cabinet was able to clear all the anti-graft measures which were on the its agenda that included the whistleblowers bill, the judicial accountability bill, money laundering bill and the citizen's charter bill.

Renu Mittal in New Delhi