Cabinet clears pathbreaking food bill (Roundup)

December 19th, 2011 - 12:42 am ICT by IANS  

Sonia Gandhi New Delhi, Dec 18 (IANS) The union cabinet Sunday approved the draft of the path-breaking National Food Security Bill which seeks to provide subsidised foodgrains to over half of India’s 1.2 billion population.

The bill is likely to be presented to parliament in the next few days and would be referred to the parliamentary standing committee, informed sources said.

The bill is the pet project of Congress president Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council. It was a part of the Congress manifesto for the 2009 general elections and seeks to combat widespread hunger in the country.

“This is Sonia Gandhi’s bill,” Food Minister K.V. Thomas told IANS, adding “it takes the UPA’s commitment one step ahead”.

Sources said Gandhi had to push the legislation after United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies, including Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and New and Renewable Energy Minister Farooq Abdullah, expressed reservations on the bill during a cabinet meeting Dec 13.

They were now all on board, said the sources.

They hinted that Thomas was brought in to head the food ministry in place of Pawar in the June 2011 cabinet reshuffle to push the legislation.

Thomas said the bill will be presented in parliament during the winter session, which ends Dec 22 and will be referred to parliamentary standing committee.

Before that it has to be approved by President Pratibha Patil as financial matters were involved, he said.

In magnitude and political significance, the food bill may be compared to the rural job plan - Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, enacted during the UPA’s first term.

The bill promises 75 percent of rural population and 50 percent of urban households, the right to 7 kg foodgrains per person, at Rs.3 per kg for rice, Rs.2 per kg for wheat and Rs.1 per kg for coarse grains to the priority beneficiaries.

The general category will be provided at least three kilograms of foodgrains per person per month at half the minimum selling price.

It will also provide rations or cooked meals to children under 14 years of age, destitutes, including women and persons on the margins of society.

Food ministry sources said the bill provides for cost-sharing to pacify the states, which will implement the law. The states have also objected over the authority to decide on the criteria to identify the beneficiaries.

A three-tier grievance redressal mechanism at district, state and national level is also part of the legislation.

Sources said Pawar had expressed concern that food subsidy, currently at Rs.63,000 crore ($12 billion), may go up to Rs.1.2 lakh crore ($23 billion) if the bill is implemented.

Rising fertiliser prices and the minimum support price (MSP) of the grains was another concern.

Sources said managing the finances would not be a problem but procurement would have to be improved.

It is estimated that against the current procurement levels of 54 millions tonnes, the requirement may go up to 62 million tonnes. Government foodgrain stocks in August 2011 were 61.27 million tonnes.

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