NEW DELHI: The food security bill, ardently pushed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi as the centrepiece of her party's campaign to win a third term in elections due by May 2014, finally won approval of the Lok Sabha on Monday -- after days of unruly scenes in Parliament.
Described as India's most ambitious and historic initiative, the bill, which is to ensure food and nutritional security to its people at affordable prices, was adopted by the House after an intensive debate and protracted voting process.
About 300-odd amendments that were moved by opposition leaders to extend the scope of the bill's coverage were negated by division of votes and last-minute glitches.
One such glitch even involved leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj's amendment to the bill, which was shown by the electronic voting display system as having a majority support, which was later revised by a re-vote.
In a rare speech to Parliament, Sonia Gandhi urged everyone to unanimously clear her party's flagship welfare scheme and rebuffed critics who questioned finding money to run it at a time when India's economic growth was running aground.
"There are people who ask whether we have the means to implement this scheme. I would like to say that we have to figure out the means. The question is not whether we can do it or not. We have to do it," she said, directly addressing the criticism of the impact of the Rs. 1.30 crore expensive scheme on government's meagre finances .
Gandhi described the welfare scheme as part of an "empowerment revolution" and reached out to the opposition for support.
"This legislation is only the beginning," she said, "we will be open to constructive suggestions, we will learn from experience, but we must put aside our differences."
The latest law proposes subsidized foodgrain for up to 75% of the rural and up to 50% of the urban population.
Eligible households would get five kg of foodgrain per person every month -- Rs. 3 a kilo for rice, Rs. 2 a kilo for wheat and Rs. 1 a kilo for coarse grains.
It also has a special focus on nutritional support to the poorest of the poor, women and children.
In case of non-supply of foodgrains, the deprived will get a food security allowance. The law also provides for grievance redressal mechanism and penalty for non -compliance by a public servant or authority.
Under the plan, the government will sell subsidised wheat and rice to 67% of its 1.2 billion population.
Replying to the debate, food minister KV Thomas promised to make improvements in the legislation, plugging loopholes while pledging not to trample on the powers of the states to implement. He also assured states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala and 18 others that their quota of foodgrains currently drawn, which was higher than what they would be entitled under the new law, would be protected. He also said minimum support price for farmers' produce would not be copmpromised as apprehended by many opposition leaders to cut corners.
In her speech, Gandhi admitted that the exisiting public distribution system that delivers subsidesed food, kerosene and gas was "leaky" needed to be toned up.
"The PDS needs reform. The leakage problem has to be addressed...We are bringing an empowerment revolution in the country," she said, while mentioning in this regard the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education Act and Forest Rights Act et al.She said, "It is my fervent appeal that we shall pass this unanimously. We are open to constructive criticism, we must rise above differences to pass this. The food bill is meant for the less fortunate sections of our society...It is a historic step to eradicate hunger. It is time to send out a big message that India can take the responsibility of ensuring food security for all its citizens."
The debate saw BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi describe it as the Congress party's "vote security bill." Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav too spoke of some reservations.
"Who will foot the financial burden for the states in implementing the bill? The centre should have convened a meeting of chief ministers on the bill before bringing it in parliament," he said. "The bill does not say that all of farmers' produce will be bought. Bring in the amendments for this," he said.
With the general elections eight months away, the Congress considered it would be a game changer as it had won the last two elections on the back of populist programmes such as a rural jobs plan called MNREGA and a loan waiver plan, which were passed before the 2009 general election.