Has Narendra Modi just scuttled UPA's food bill in Parliament?

The BJP's dilemma over how to deal with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi's preferred project Food Security Bill may just be over.

Narendra Modi has drawn a clear and tough line for the main opposition party, and in a three page letter dated 7 August to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has listed five specific objections to the Ordinance, which has already been moved in the Lok Sabha for ratification and passage to become a statutory provision.

The BJP so far had not been clear on as to how to respond to the Congress push to pass the bill.

Internally, party leaders had been opposed to the bill for two reasons, first, just ahead of the parliamentary elections the Congress would take full credit for this populist legislation; Second, the bill would inflict a huge burden on the exchequer and further strain tax payers, leaving far less money for other key sectors like infrastructure, health and so on.

 Has Narendra Modi just scuttled UPAs food bill in Parliament?

PTI

Furthermore, without adequate storage and distribution facilities, the scheme was bound to see a huge wastage of food grains. But barring some initial opposition by Yashwant Sinha, no other BJP leader spoke against the provisions of the bill, least of all oppose it.

Modi has forced his own party, the BJP to a situation where it will now have toe his line, opposing the bill, when the ordinance is taken up in Parliament for discussion and ratification.

By taking a strident position, Modi becomes second chief minister to oppose the bill. By doing so he is also echoing the sentiments expressed by AIADMK Chief and Tamil Nadu chief Minister J Jayalalitha when the draft bill was first circulated to the states. She registered her objections to the Prime Minister in a letter dated 20 December 2011.

Floor leaders of the AIDMK in both Houses of Parliament have registered their objections to the bill at the very beginning of the Monsoon session. It's a widely known fact that Jayalalitha and Modi share an excellent rapport and some of the points raised by Modi are similar to those that were expressed by the AIADMK chief.

With the Samajwadi Party also keeping everyone in suspense on whether or not they would support the bill, its fate has suddenly become uncertain.

In his letter to the Prime Minister, Modi begins by saying "in my clear view this (ordinance) does not contain basic tenets which any food security legislation should meet.....the ordinance which your government has promulgated, in which unworkable statutory responsibilities have been devolved to Central and State governments as well as poor families have been made food `insecure' through this ordinance." (Read the full letter here)

The BJP's campaign committee chief argues that since the bill has "far reaching implications" on the people, the agriculture sector and "centre-state issues", it was only appropriate that the provisions of the bill ought have been widely debated and discussed at proper forums, something which he says "has not been done so far".

He said a meeting of all chief ministers was needed before the Ordinance was taken up by the Parliament for discussion and passage.

This is a demand that Manmohan Singh and the ruling Congress will find very difficult to meet, particularly because Sonia Gandhi is pushing for the early passage of the bill by Parliament. With so little time left in this Monsoon session, calling a chief minister's meet would mean that Bill can only be taken up in the next winter session.

The Key deficiencies of the bill as outlined by Modi are that the number of beneficiaries have been fixed in the ordinance without the specification of an eligibility criteria or even individual entitlements. This, he argues, could cause wide regional disparities in different states.

Even the Standing Committee of Parliament in January, 2013 recommended that that Government formulate eligibility criteria in consultation with the State Governments. But the Central Government has chosen to ignore this.

The food bill ordinance proposes to reduce the entitlement of BPL families from 35 kg per family to only 25 kg per average family of 5 persons. As per the proposed pricing structure for the foodgrain, the BPL family will now have to incur Rs 85 more per month to avail 35 Kg foodgrain which they are getting already.

The proposed entitlement of 5 kg per month per person implies the supply of only 165 gm per person per day. Persons involved in labour intensive activities require about 2,500 calories per day. As 100 gm of food grain gives about 350 calories, 165 gm would provide only 500 calories per day which is hardly 20 percent of the daily calorie requirements.

Even in the midday meal scheme, school going children are entitled to about 150 gm of food grain, and 30 gm of dal for one meal i.e. about 180 gm of grain. As against this, an 'adult food insecure person' is proposed to be given only 165 gm for two meals per day. This does not address 'calorific security', or 'nutritional security', which is after all, the main objective of food security.

On the one hand, the Planning Commission has been claiming a reduction in the numbers of BPL families, but under the Ordinance food support is provided to about two thirds of the population. This illogicality also requires discussion with the states.

Modi's letter to the PM and consequent hardening of the BJP position on the Food security bill is sure to give some jittery moments to the key strategists and floor managers of ruling Congress party.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 21:37:16 IST