New Delhi: The government moved a step closer to securing legislative approval for providing food security to the vast majority of Indians after the Lok Sabha approved the draft law late on Monday.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Left parties opposed the Bill as the government rejected the amendments they had sought to make the coverage universal or for at least 90% of the population.

Under the proposed law, each beneficiary will be entitled to 5kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains at the subsidized price of 3, 2 and 1 per kg, respectively. About 67% of the population, or 800 million people, will be eligible for the entitlement that will cost 1.3 trillion a year.

The so-called poorest-of-the-poor households that receive 35kg of wheat and rice per month at subsidized prices under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana programme will retain their entitlement. States and Union territories will continue to receive at least as much grain as they currently do from the Centre.

In the process of pushing the National Food Security Bill, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), as the ruling party chief Sonia Gandhi pointed out in the Lok Sabha on Monday, has reiterated its commitment to redistribution through an entitlement regime.

Significantly, Gandhi was missing from the Lok Sabha when the Bill was taken up for voting. Citing unnamed people, CNN-IBN and other television channels reported that she has been admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences for a check-up.

“The food security Bill is thus the fifth in a series of what might be called our rights-based approach," Gandhi said in a rare intervention. “This approach provides labour entitlements to people, puts pressure on the executives to be more responsive and accountable, and also puts in place a credible mechanism to redress grievances. This approach I believe is bringing about an empowerment revolution in our country—something we are proud to have facilitated."

Once the food security Bill is approved by the Rajya Sabha, which is due to take it up this week, the UPA may be in a position to make some electoral gains in coming state assembly polls and the general election due next year. The law is being enacted against the backdrop of obstinately high consumer prices, which rose 9.64% in July from a year earlier.

Lok Sabha approval for the proposed law and the orderly resumption of business in both Houses on Monday has stoked expectations that the UPA would be able to push through some pending economic Bills as well. The government has extended the monsoon session of Parliament until 6 September; it was earlier scheduled to end on 30 August.

“Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to wipe out hunger and malnutrition from our country. This legislation is only a beginning," Gandhi said in a strong pitch for the food security Bill to the treasury and opposition benches.

“Convert this Bill into an Act unanimously," she said. “In essence, we have today an opportunity to transform the lives of tens of millions of our people. I believe that we must together, rise to the occasion, set aside our differences and affirm our commitment to their welfare and well-being. It is my fervent and humble appeal that we as representatives of those very people should concord this Bill into an Act and do so unanimously."

The Congress promised in its 2009 general election manifesto that it would make food security a legal right. While there was no major political opposition to the Bill, both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties, apparently worried about the political mileage the ruling party could garner, raised concerns about some provisions of the Bill. Some economists have opposed the Bill on grounds that the government cannot afford to pay for it; they have also warned that it would have an adverse impact on the fiscal deficit.

While approval by the Lok Sabha is a “good beginning", the Bill needs to be followed up effectively, said N.C. Saxena, a member of the National Advisory Council.

“While it can always be improved, this is a start to it," he said. “However, entitlement itself is not enough until followed by a good oversight mechanism and programme."

Other experts cited the cost of underwriting the programme.

S. Gopalakrishnan, president of industry lobby Confederation of Indian Industry, said in an interview that he was against the food security Bill in its present form.

“Yes, we need to have a scheme that targets the right people. It seems difficult to understand why the coverage should be 67% when the government’s own data says 22% are considered poor. We are saying ‘please look at the coverage, the needy and the distribution mechanism you have set up so that you can eliminate the leakages in the system’," he said.

In an attempt to silence the critics of the food security Bill, Gandhi said the question is not about “having the means", but of “getting the means to do it".

“I want to tell them the question is not if we can do this or not, but we have to do it," said the Congress president, who has been strongly pitching for the early passage of the Bill.

Calling it a “historic opportunity" to deliver a significant message to the country and the world that India takes responsibility for the food security of its people, Gandhi admitted that there were “limitations" in all welfare programmes.

“If there is no honesty in this, it will be injustice to the expectations of the people," she said.

Anuja and Asit Ranjan Mishra contributed to this story.

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