New Delhi: In an all-too-rare political consensus, India’s Central government and 10 states on Thursday decided to take a call in the following few weeks on reintroducing harsh laws that will severely punish hoarders in order to mitigate food inflation.
A core committee comprising representatives of the states and the Centre, and led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, appointed three sub-groups to come up with a solution within 45 days. One of the sub-groups, led by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, will recommend whether harsh provisions under the umbrella of Essential Commodities Act should be reintroduced to contain prices.
Stern steps: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chairing the meeting. PTI
The two aspects of legislation, which are to be studied by Modi’s sub-group, are the Essential Commodities (Special Provision) Act and amendments under this to prevent black marketing.
Offences under the Special Provision Act are non-bailable and the Act provides for summary trial of such offences by special courts. This is a temporary measure used to deal with emergency situations and was repealed in 2001 by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.
Data released by the department of industrial policy and promotion on Thursday showed that for the week ended 27 March, food inflation continued to pick up for the second consecutive week at 17.7%, compared with 16.35% in the previous week.
Generally, economic offences are judged by a tougher standard as compared with other offences. “Normally (in economic offence), the onus is on the accused to prove that he is innocent,” K.K. Rai, a senior advocate practising in the Delhi high court, said.
According to people present at the core committee meeting held at Singh’s residence, the decision was unanimous.
“Surprisingly, nobody was critical of the government, but came out with constructive suggestions,” a person present at the meeting said.
However, Modi was critical of the Central government’s management of food price inflation after the meeting.
“The government has failed in curbing prices,” he told the media after the meeting.
This has been the consistent stand of his party, the BJP, the main rival of the Congress, which is the dominant member in the United Progressive Alliance coalition that has governed India since 2004.
India’s monthly inflation for all commodities, as measured by the Wholesale Price Index, touched a 16-month high of 9.89% in February.
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Chief ministers suggested changing the manner in which the government picks people for subsidy under the public distribution system, from the current family-based system to one which identifies only individuals.
The two other sub-groups formed by the panel comprise one that will be led by Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and will look into agricultural production, and another, led by Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, will study the country’s food and public distribution system.
The states that are a part of the core committee are Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Punjab. Five of these states are ruled by parties that are rivals of the Congress.
Separately, demanding immediate steps to curb price rise, the four Left parties staged demonstrations across the country, during which the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and the Communist Party of India leaders Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan courted arrest.
Senior CPM leader Sitaram Yechury said the Left, along with other like-minded parties, will try and block the passage of the Union Budget in Parliament if urgent steps were not taken to control spiralling prices. “In that case the government may even fall,” Yechury said.