Thursday, February 22, 2024

Politics on fate of food bill


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Securing the nation’s belly
By Harihar Swarup
Congress party’s election slogan is bhookh- mukt Bharat (hunger-free India); the BJP’s battle cry is Congress-mukt Bharat (Congress-free India). It is like Indira Gandhi’s slogan of early seventies: Garibi hatao. The opposition slogan at that time was: Indira hatao. Mrs Gandhi shrewdly twisted the opposition slogan to her advantage — mai kahatein hun, garabi hatao, woh kahatein hain, Indira hatao (I say remove poverty and they say remove Indira Gandhi). It is well-known now that Mrs. Gandhi swept the poll on the garabi hatao slogan. One wonders if the Congress will sweep the 2014 poll on bhookh-mukt Bharat slogan and Food Security bill; they are inter-linked. It may not be an exaggeration to say that they have potential of catching up.

It will be a sad day indeed if the Food Security bill, now before Lok Sabha, fails. Both the ruling party and the opposition were getting ready to make their points in the debate on the bill when three TDP members disrupted the proceedings for three successive days. Among the first speakers were the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and BJP stalwart Murlimanohar Joshi; both were brushing up their speeches. Joshi even made a rehearsal in presence of media men in the Central Hall of Parliament. Of course, Joshi did not do so on his own but in reply to persistent questions as to what he was going to say on Food Security Bill; his logic and reasoning were sound.

It is gracious of both government and the opposition to have agreed for an in depth debate in both the houses before passage of the bill. Evidently, no government can make a hundred per cent foolproof legislation on matter like food security involving expenditure of thousands of crores of rupees. There is bound to be some lacuna on a bill of this magnitude and it is the duty of opposition to point out shortcomings and table amendments to rectify them.

Unfortunately, politics has crept in ensuring the passage of the bill of this very important piece of legislation even after the BJP, main opposition party, promised to support the bill. As a matter of fact no political party can oppose the bill, which seeks to eradicate hunger from India but they can derail it. This was what seen in Lok Sabha last week.

Narendra Modi virtually hijacked the functioning of the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj and leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. Congress leaders say it is Modi and not Sushma and Jaitley who are running the parliamentary wing of the BJP. According to them, the two parallel lines seen in the BJP are the result of a section within the BJP taking its cue from Swaraj and other from Modi, now being described as Gandhinagar line.

So even as the BJP Parliamentary had decided in principle to support passage of the Food Security Bill, Modi’s letter to the Prime Minister, pointing out deficiencies in the Bill and suggesting a meeting of Chief Ministers before it is passed, has created ripples in the BJP Parliamentary wing.

Modi’s claim is that the bill, in its current form, will push India towards malnutrition. He says that poor families have been made ‘food insecure’. The legislation, now before the Lok Sabha, “does not fulfill the basic objectives of food security”. He also says that the bill proposes to reduce the entitlement of BPL families from 35 kg per family to 25 kg per average family of five persons. Obviously, this cannot the objective of any food security legislation.

Despite a move to push amendments supported by the BJP, Left and some regional parties, the food security bill is expected to be passed by Parliament next week. The Biju Janta Dal is expected to move amendments that will seek changes in the beneficiary criterion from individual to family units as well as a hike in quantity of cheap food grains to be provided. The opposition amendments will also seek pegging the rate of cheap food grains at just Rs 1 and Rs 2 a kg instead of Rs 3 for certain commodities.

The amendments reflect concerns expressed by Chief Ministers that the Centre will set quantum of food-grains and fix a ceiling on those who will benefit, with states saddled with the tricky job of deciding 67 per cent beneficiaries. But while the amendments will be pressed, the food security bill is unlikely to be stalled as the BJP does not intend to try and vote it down. The Left too does not seem inclined for a confrontation with the government.

The opposition looks set to make the point but not seriously oppose the bill as no party wants to be ranged against a “pro-poor” law that sets out food-grain entitlements for as much as 75% of rural population and 50% of urban dwellers.

On its part, the government will not move any amendment to the Food Security Bill. It is also doubtful if it will accept any of nearly 200 amendments for which various opposition parties have given notices. It is too late to accept any amendment at this stage. The Government has given six months time to states to complete the process of identifying the beneficiaries and start implementing the provisions of the bill. The rights based legislation provides 67% of population availing itself 5kg of subsidised wheat or rice or coarse cereals every month.

Food and Consumers Affairs Minister, K V Thomas, said after the enactment of the law, two-third of the population would become legally entitled to receive highly subsidize food-grains. Each entitled person will receive every month 5kg of rice or wheat or coarse grain of Rs. 3, Rs. 2 and Rs. 1 a kg respectively. The poorest of the poor who had been getting 35 kg of food-grains would continue to receive the same quantity per household. [IPA]


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