New Delhi: Riding on the determination of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the draft law that will make access to food a constitutional right will be ready within 15 days, a minister said on Monday, even as police detained some members of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
“We are in the process of finalizing the draft Bill,” said minister of state for food K.V. Thomas. “I have discussed it (the Right to Food Act) with Sonia Gandhi and Pranabda (finance minister Pranab Mukherjee), and today I will discuss it with (food minister) Sharad Pawar.”
As Thomas explained how the government hoped to introduce the controversial and costly Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament, NAC members Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander were among those stopped from entering the Planning Commission as part of a public protest to mock the Indian poverty line, fixed by the commission at less than Rs 20 a day.
The run-up to the Bill—it may expand food subsidies by between Rs 15,000 crore and Rs 40,000 crore from the current Rs 60,000 crore—has been marked by disagreements and occasional acrimony between Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) and officials who report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
It now appears Gandhi’s resolve will see a modified NAC proposal go through.
“We see no reason to negotiate further,” Mander, who heads the NAC working group on food security, said on Sunday. “We had a far more ambitious draft, and we renegotiated it. Negotiations are over, as far as we are concerned.” The draft Bill is now being vetted by an additional solicitor general.
Officials within the government are displeased that their modest view on food security is on the verge of being disregarded. “I would really be quite disappointed if the NAC view prevails, but let me remind you the Bill is still not final,” said a finance ministry official on condition of anonymity.
At the heart of the disagreement is how many people should receive subsidized food, to be sold, in the NAC proposal, at Rs 2 per kg of wheat and Rs 3 per kg of rice.
After backing down from their proposal to provide each citizen of India subsidized food, the NAC hopes 75% of the population will get such access. The government view —backed by the Prime Minister—is that this could still be a fiscal disaster and should be limited to about 350 million people officially declared as being poor.
This official poverty line set by the Planning Commission at Rs 578 a month works out to less than Rs 20 a day, or the equivalent of 43 US cents. During Monday’s protests, activists with NAC members offered commission members dabbas (lunch boxes) containing fractions of things that Rs 20 can buy, like half a sandwich. “Fruits poor people can eat every month—two bananas,” one placard read.
The Supreme Court, which has been hearing public interest litigation on food security issues for 10 years, also questioned the poverty line last week.
“It is astonishing that you fix 36% of the population under BPL (below the poverty line),” the court said on 21 April. “In 2011, you rely on 1991 census (sic)… You have fixed Rs 20 for urban areas and Rs 11 for rural areas as criteria. How can you justify the fixation on (sic) this meagre amount? Even in rural areas this amount is not enough. Planning Commission must explain.”
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