Congress’ big ticket food bill stuck in political gridlock

New Delhi, May 8 (IANS) Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s pet legislation, the national food security bill, could not be passed in the budget session of parliament that ended Wednesday as the BJP did not allow the house to run.

Congress leaders said the bill will now be taken up in the monsoon session, scheduled in July-August, or the government may bring it in the form of an ordinance before that.

The food bill, which aims to give legal right to cheap grains to around two thirds of India’s population numbering roughly 800 million, was part of the Congress manifesto in 2009 general elections and is close to Gandhi’s heart.

The bill aims to give 5 kg foodgrains per person per month to 67 percent of the 1.2 billion population – rice at Rs.3 per kg, wheat at Rs.2 per kg and coarse grains at Re.1 per kg, prices far cheaper than market rates.

As per government estimates, the bill will cost around Rs.1.3 lakh crore.

The BJP, which has been demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar over their perceived inappropriate conduct and alleged complicity in corruption, fears that the food bill could be a game-changer.

It fears the passage of the bill, expected to be the Congress’ big ticket legislation ahead of the 2014 general elections, will generate huge political capital for the ruling combine as the pro-poor rural job plan Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme MGNREGS did in 2009.

Not wanting to be seen against the food bill among the people, the BJP suggested a quid pro quo saying it would support the bill if the two “tainted” ministers were removed.

The Congress rejected the deal, terming the BJP “anti-poor” and urging it to pass the bill.

The government tried to push the bill by starting a debate in the Lok Sabha Monday but could not succeed as din continued. It repeated the exercise Tuesday but in vain. On Wednesday, parliament was adjourned sine die.

Congress insiders said they were open to passing the bills in the din but the point of concern was the large number (71) of amendments that the government has proposed in the bill; all of them had to be passed separately.

Favouring the passage of the food bill, Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen Monday said “it would lead to a substantial enhancement of entitlements of the poor through the public distribution system”.

He said if the opposition was opposed to the bill, they should have voiced their views in parliament instead of “killing arguments”.

Sen said he was “shocked at media being not able to play up the issue of non-discussion in parliament” on an issue that involved the lives of millions of children and deprived families.

“The food bill is Congress commitment. It will benefit millions of poor people. We tried to pass it but the BJP disrupted the house,” Congress spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das told IANS.

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