Food supplies minister K V Thomas assures foodgrain allocation to states would not be reduced
The Lok Sabha on Monday night passed the landmark National Food Security Bill. After nine hours of discussions and 319 amendments proposed by members of Parliament, the lower house voted in favour of the Bill. Brief speeches from major political parties and a voice vote preceded the passing of the Bill. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the Bill with its leader Sushma Swaraj saying: “we support the current Bill and wait to strengthen it when we come to power.”
The Bill has been in the making for the past three years and is UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s pet programme; it will be taken up for voting by the Rajya Sabha this session itself.
The discussion on the Bill was marked by a comprehensive debate on the country’s public distribution system (PDS), which will be the main vehicle for implementing the food security law. Parliamentarians said that the main challenges for the law would be fixing PDS and identifying the beneficiaries. Much of the discussion focused on these two aspects.
Even the minister in charge of consumer affairs, food and Public distribution, K V Thomas, admitted that food entitlements under the law would not be effective under the existing system; something pointed out by leader of Opposition Swaraj. Currently, a country-wide survey is on to identify the below poverty line (BPL) households that will be eligible for entitlements under the law. Members from all the 15 political parties who spoke on the Bill sought changes in PDS and system of identifying of beneficiaries. “As we move on with implementation of the law, these loopholes will be fixed,” said Thomas.
This makes the drafting of the rules and division of responsibilities between the Centre and the states challenging. A significant number of amendments moved but defeated dealt with these two points. However, the government assured on floor of the house that these concerns would be factored in while drafting the rules.
The discussions also saw Opposition parties accusing the ruling UPA government of bringing the Bill just for electoral gains—senior BJP leader Murali Manohar Joshi called it a “vote security Bill”. At the same time, BJP and AIADMK highlighted the success of the food security laws in Chhattisgarh (ruled by BJP) and Tamil Nadu (ruled by AIADMK) and demanded these be treated as the model law in place of the current Bill.
Political parties of all hues expressed resentment over one point: states were not consulted during the drafting of the Bill. Members feared that states would lose out on the present allocation of foodgrains from the Centre and that cash entitlement would replace foodgrain allocation. The government defended itself by saying consultations with state governments were held over the past two years and that the recommendations of Parliament standing committee that deliberated the food Bill have been accepted. In a major concession, Thomas assured that states giving extra foodgrains to cover above poverty line households also would be protected and would not be impacted by the new law. Besides, the average quantity of foodgrains lifted by states in the past three years would be protected. This addressed Tamil Nadu government’s concern over losing out on foodgrain allocation.
Cash entitlement provision intact
An important amendment to the Bill was proposed by leader of Opposition Swaraj. She moved an amendment to drop the Bill’s Article 8 that provides for cash entitlements in lieu of foodgrains in specific situation. There was a major hue and cry in the House when the amendment was voted in during the first round. A re-vote was held and the amendment got defeated. Cash entitlement has been a major contentious provision in the Bill that experts and civil society groups have been opposing.
Opposition leaders expressed apprehension over another provision—clause 38—of the Bill that empowers the Central government to direct the states on effective implementation of the law which states are bound to follow. The leader of Opposition moved an amendment to drop this provision also. But it was defeated. Samajwadi Party chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav, also said the clause would affect Centre-state relations.
The Bill’s Article 44 that exempts government from the guarantee clause during war, flood, drought and other emergencies was proposed to be deleted. “It goes against the Bill’s spirit that government will not provide helps at time when people need food the most,” said Swaraj. But this proposed amendment was also defeated.
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