The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on Monday succeeded in getting its ambitious food security Bill passed in the Lok Sabha by voice vote.
The Bill, which seeks to entitle 67 per cent of the country’s population — about 800 million people — to subsidised food, was passed after a six-hour debate in a late-evening sitting of the lower house. The Opposition, and even the Samajwadi Party (SP), which renders outside support to UPA, raised several questions — on future availability of food, financing of the ambitious programme and its long-term impact on farming practices in the country — but stopped short of opposing the Bill.
Food Minister K V Thomas said the food security programme, which would require 62 million tonnes of foodgrain a year, would entail a burden of Rs 1,30,000 crore on the exchequer. The Bill would have a one-year time period for implementation.
When the Bill was taken up in the Lok Sabha, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said it was a “historic opportunity” for all parties to rise above political differences and help wipe out hunger and malnutrition from the country.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main Opposition, called the Bill more of a “vote security” than food security. But it did not oppose it. UPA allies, including the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), that were said to have reservations about the provisions of the Bill did not cite those explicitly.
The Janata Dal United (JD-U), which had expressed serious reservations two years ago, as it had differences with the Centre on how the poor were enumerated, did not offer any opposition, either, perhaps acknowledging the changed political realities. B Mahtab, a leader of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), flagged availability issues, while the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), opposing the Bill, said the Tamil Nadu government was already providing subsidised foodgrain to the state’s poor. The Bill would only impose a stiffer financial burden on the state, AIADMK said.
SP has on many occasions gone public with its reservations on the Bill. Its chief Mulayam Singh Yadav urged UPA to summon all state chief ministers and consult them before going ahead and implementing the food security programme.
Thomas acknowledged it was not a “perfect legislation” and there would be loopholes in implementation that would need to be plugged. Assuring members that the “federal” system would be protected at all costs, he said “the success of the Bill will depend on how the Centre and states go hand in hand”.
Gandhi emphatically appealed to all parties to pass this crucial Bill, saying: “It’s time to send out a big message that India can take responsibility of ensuring food security for all Indians.”
Negating the naysayers who had expressed doubts on India having the resources and capability to implement the Bill, Gandhi stressed: “The question is not whether we have resources to implement food Bill; we have to mobilise resources anyhow.”
Acknowledging that there were leakages within the current public distribution system, she asked all states to strengthen it. She added that flaws in landmark schemes like the integrated child development services and mid-day meal — all part of the food security programme — need to be rectified.
She also used the occasion to recapitulate the list of rights UPA had given the country in its two terms — the right to information “sometimes to our disadvantage”, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the right to education and the forest rights. The Food Security Bill was another “legal entitlement” to the people, she added. Later in the evening, even as voting on her pet legislation was on, Gandhi had to leave the House due to poor health. She was admitted to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences.
BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi, who opened the debate for the Opposition, said: “This is a vote security Bill, not food security Bill,” adding that there were flaws in the Bill that needed to be rectified. He asked: “What is adequate food? Is it going to be based on purchasing power, calorific value or nutrition?”