Parliament approves food security for 800 million Indians

New Delhi, Sep 2 (IANS) Parliamentary approval was Monday accorded to the landmark Food Security Bill, which gives right to subsidised grains to two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion population numbering around 800 million, the largest such scheme anywhere in the world.

Under the legislation, beneficiaries would get five kg of grain per person per month which would include rice at Rs.3 per kg, wheat at Rs.2 per kg and coarse grains at Re.1 per kg.

The Lok Sabha passed the bill Aug 26 while the Rajya Sabha cleared it Monday night after 237 amendments tabled by opposition parties were rejected or not pursued.

After the bill was passed, Food Minister K.V. Thomas told reporters he was "happy that it was passed unanimously".

In his reply during the 10-hour-long debate, he had attempted to allay opposition concerns, assuring that existing state schemes and their grain allocations will be protected.

The bill, introduced in parliament in December 2011, will now go to President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent before it becomes law.

The legislation, a pet welfare measure of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and a part of the Congress election manifesto of 2009, is expected to be a game-changer for the party ahead of the assembly polls in five states this year-end and the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Apprehending that, opposition parties have called it a vote security bill.

The measure, which is expected to entail an expenditure of around Rs.1.30 lakh crore, has also been criticised on the ground that it would further stress a slowing down economy and a sliding rupee.

The Congress says that the additional subsidy burden of around Rs.28,000 crore can be taken care of and would not affect the fiscal deficit.

Incidentally, while Gandhi was taken ill on the day the lower house passed the bill, she flew abroad for a medical check-up on the day the upper house approved it.

In the Lok Sabha, she had strongly defended the bill, saying was a "historic step" to weed out hunger from the country.

In a speech heard in silence, Gandhi, 66, declared: "The food bill is meant for the less fortunate sections of our society. It is a historic step to eradicate hunger."

"It is time to send out a big message that India can take the responsibility of ensuring food security for all its citizens," she added to loud thumping of desks by ruling coalition members.

The real challenge for the Congress is now to get the bill rolled out, a responsibility entrusted with the state governments.

Most parties in the lower house supported the bill while expressing reservations on many of its provisions.

This repeated in the Rajya Sabha where most parties supported the legislation but wanted the government to approve the changes suggested by them.

Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley of the BJP said the bill was mere "repackaging" of existing schemes in different states, and criticised the "hurry" to push through the legislation.

"The BJP supports food security for all, but opposes the way in which it has been introduced and certain contents of the bill," he said.

"On one hand, the government is providing cheap food to people and on the other, (it is) increasing fuel prices," said Communist Party of India-Marxist's Sitaram Yechury.

"There are lots of states which give more. Don't reduce the entitlement of states," he said.

The Trinamool Congress said certain provisions in the food bill are making mockery of the country's federal structure.

"This bill says the state will have to comply with whatever directions the central government gives... This is mockery of federalism," TMC leader Derek O'Brien said.

Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati said several central government schemes for the poor have failed to benefit them in the past, so efforts should be made to ensure proper implementation of food scheme.

Both Mayawati and Samajwadi Party leader Naresh Aggarwal said the centre should have consulted the chief ministers before bringing the bill.

"Many political parties are linking food bill to coming general elections... we also see truth in this," said Mayawati.

The bill proposes meal entitlement to specific groups, including pregnant women and lactating mothers; children between the ages of six months and 14 years; malnourished children; disaster-affected persons; and destitute, homeless and starving persons.

The measure envisages food grain entitlement for up to 75 percent of the rural population and up to 50 percent of the urban population. Of these, at least 46 percent of the rural population and 28 percent of the urban population will be designated as priority households. The rest will be designated as general households.

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