New Delhi: The United Progressive Alliance government Chairperson Sonia Gandhi's dream project, the Food Security Bill, has been passed by the Rajya Sabha on Monday night paving the way for it to become a law and give the ruling alliance a powerful electoral issue in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It is considered as the biggest programme in the world to fight hunger as it seeks to provide highly subsidised foodgrains to the country's two-third population as a right.
The ambitious bill, seen as a game-changer by the government and expected to benefit 82 crore people in the country, cleared the Parliamentary process after much delay and uncertainty. It now needs just one more step - Presidential assent - to become a historic law.
The proposed legislation was approved by the Rajya Sabha through voice vote after a combined discussion on the measure and a statutory resolution seeking to disapprove the ordinance promulgated on July 5.
All the amendments moved by the Opposition to the Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha last week, were rejected. Some amendments, like the one moved by Samajwadi Party member Naresh Agrawal, were withdrawn while some members including BJP's Venkaiah Naidu and Prakash Javadekar did not press some of their amendments.
The Bill was passed after a day-long debate during which the Opposition attacked the government, saying the measure was just repackaging of some existing schemes and a "gimmick" with an eye on elections.
The Bill will guarantee 5 kg of rice, wheat and coarse cereals per month per person at Rs 3, 2, 1, respectively.
India will now join the select league of nations that guarantee majority of its population foodgrains. At Rs 1,30,000 crore government support, the food security programme will be the largest in the world. It would require 62 million tonnes of foodgrains.
Wrapping up the debate, Food Minister KV Thomas said he was "not saying it is 100 per cent perfect (scheme)" but it was the "first step" towards universalisation of Public Distribution System.
He allayed apprehensions that the measure would hurt federalism as he said the Centre will bear the major part of the financial burden. "The Centre and the state will have to work hand-in-hand," he said. "It protects whatever existing schemes states have," Thomas said when asked by Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley as to what would be the fate of such programmes already being implemented in some states.
The Food Minister said all constructive suggestions made by members would be carefully considered.
At the same time, he wondered whether the country could have more than 62 million tonnes of foodgrains.
"35 kg of rice will be given to each BPL family at the rate of Rs 3. We are giving much more than the Standing Committee had recommended," he said, adding this was the "first step" towards universalisation of PDS.
Jaitley said his party supports the "concept of right to food" but the legislation brought by the government was "only repackaging of all existing schemes and not an effective right that is projected." He urged the government to improve upon the Bill. "My party in favour of right to food. It is essential for everyone to survive. My party, therefore, supports the right to food. But are we substantially increasing on what already exists. Are we increasing the outlay? The answer is no. Are we making food nutritious? The answer is no," he said.
Thomas said "all the constructive and positive suggestions moved during the debate would be carfeully followed when we start having the rules and guidelines during the implementation of the scheme."
A total of 37 members took part in the discussion on the Bill the Rajya Sabha.
Citing example of Kerala's public distribution system, the Minister said the financial burden of running such schemes was more on the Central government.
Referring to queries on the storage capacity in the country, Thomas said it has increased to 75 million tonnes from 55 MT when the UPA II took over.
The Minister said the government was not going to freeze the MSPs and whatever foodgrains come to the market, they will be procured. n the storage capacity, he said the FCI was a "white elephant" but it was the only organisation in the country which stores and procures food grains in the country.
(With additional inputs from PTI)