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Why Pawar scuttled Sonia's dream food security bill

By A Correspondent
December 13, 2011 21:45 IST

The National Food Security Bill was scuttled by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar who threw the spanner with a dissent note in his capacity as the Union agriculture minister.

Pawar asserted that feeding over 64 per cent of the country's population with highly subsidised food grains will hit the farmers as the government will not be able to get the due support price in future. 

Congress president Sonia Gandhi's dream bill was stuck in the Union Cabinet meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday, with indications that a revised one will come up in the next meeting, likely to be held only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returns from his three-day trip to Russia from Thursday.

Several ministers joined Pawar in asserting that the dole-out of food subsidy at a time when India's economy is already in doldrums is not a wise economic move.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee joined Pawar and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia to suggest that the bill may be put on hold, which led the prime minister to decide that it would be better to defer the bill and examine if it can be chiseled to meet the objections raised in the meeting.

Coming out of the Cabinet meeting, Food Minister K V Thomas said, "The Cabinet took up the bill, but discussion remained inconclusive. We are trying our best to introduce the bill in this session." Asked if the draft bill tabled by him in the Cabinet will be modified, he quipped: "Yes, certainly."

The Union Cabinet, however, cleared three major anti-corruption bills being brought to counter crusader Anna Hazare threatening yet another indefinite fast from December 27 instead of conceding his demand to include everything in the single Lokpal Bill.

The bills cleared are: the judicial accountability bill, citizen's charter bill, and disclosure and protection to persons making the disclosures (whistleblower bill).

Home Minister P Chidambaram got a small change made in the citizen's charter bill to require action by the concerned officer within one month and not within 15 days as proposed in the draft bill prepared by Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and MoS in PMO V Narayanasamy.

The principal Lokpal Bill that has to be tweaked on the basis of the parliamentary standing committee's report submitted to Parliament last week, however, was not put on the agenda since the PM is to talk to the allies on Tuesday night and then the Opposition on Wednesday to firm up issues to be included or excluded in the revised bill.

Though the purpose of rushing with three anti-corruption bills is to blunt Team Anna's attack, Anna Hazare has already gone on record that he wants the citizen's charter under the Lokpal and not through a separate bill.

His associates, however, declined to comment until they get to see the approved bills.

Pawar's dissent note on the national food security bill points out that the government should certainly subsidise the poor to be labelled as "priority households" in the bill, but inclusion of the "general households" would create an abnormal situation impairing the open market prices and this will adversely affect the farmers.

The bill provides for coverage of 75 per cent rural population, including 46 per cent priority households, and 50 per cent in urban area, 28 per cent of them falling in the priority category.

Sources said Pawar has no dispute with the bill providing 7 kgs of rice, wheat and coarse grain per head per month to the priority families at Rs 3, Rs 2 and Re 1 a kilo respectively, but giving the food grains at half the minimum support price to others is not acceptable to him.

The bill also provides for cash reimbursement if the government fails to provide subsidised foodgrains because of natural calamities such as drought and floods.

The draft bill envisages the government's food subsidy bill going up by Rs 95,000 crores, while Pawar's estimate is that it may go up to Rs 2,00,000 crores and it may become difficult for the government to procure 61 million tonnes of foodgrains year after year in giving the right to food to the people.

Under the present Public Distribution System, the government provides 35 kgs of wheat and rice per month to 6.52 crore below poverty line families at Rs 4.15 and Rs 5.65 per kilo respectively. About 11.5 crore above poverty line families get between 15 and 35 kilo of wheat and rice per month at Rs 6.10 and Rs 8.30 per kilo respectively.

A Correspondent in New Delhi