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Pawar gamble on Sonia food bill
Pawar , Sonia

New Delhi, July 7: Differences are said to have cropped up within the UPA over Sonia Gandhi’s ambitious food security bill.

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar’s request to the Prime Minister to reduce his work is being seen as a pretext while the right to food bill is being perceived as the target.

Sources said Pawar was opposed to some of the radical provisions of the bill and communicated to Manmohan Singh that, if passed, the proposed legislation would affect food procurement and send fiscal discipline haywire.

The Prime Minister is said to have sought 10 days to get back to the farm minister. Pawar is said to have insisted that he would prefer to be relieved of the food portfolio before the commencement of monsoon session of Parliament, scheduled for July 25.

The Nationalist Congress Party chief’s view is that universal entitlement of food security is not feasible, given the cost of grain subsidies. Moreover, he feels that it is neither necessary nor desirable to extend food subsidy to the billion-plus population.

Pawar reportedly cited the Suresh Tendulkar Committee’s observation that the number of families below the poverty line (BPL) total an estimated 37.2 per cent of the population.

Pawar is credited with the view that the quantity of foodgrain needed to meet the demands of the right to food bill will be difficult to procure if one goes by the current rate of around 50 million tonnes of rice and wheat.

Supplying 35 kg of grain per household will not be feasible without imports which, the farm minister thinks, will erode the country’s overall food security.

The Sonia-led National Advisory Council (NAC) had deliberated for hours recently to extend the food subsidy not only to BPL families but to some segments above the poverty line.

While no decision was taken, Pawar’s own assessment is that the Congress chief is keen on the food security bill covering various segments that need not be in the BPL category, such as nursing mothers, children, the aged and the physically challenged.

The Pawar camp has also expressed surprise that the NAC wanted to provide 35kg of grain a month at Rs 3 a kg instead of the 25kg mentioned in the Congress manifesto and the UPA’s common minimum programme.

Sources close to Pawar said the agriculture minister had made his reservations clear at a cabinet meeting and a meeting of the empowered group of ministers that was attended by P. Chidambaram, A.K. Antony and Mamata Banerjee.

The Congress’s assessment is that Pawar has raised the work reduction “bogey” to bring the food security bill in sharp focus and exploit the sentiments of those who are for “targeted subsidies”, instead of liberal inclusion of more people above the poverty line.

A view exists in the Congress that Pawar may settle for a climbdown on the bill if his daughter Supriya Sule is accommodated in the council of ministers. Even then, Pawar is unlikely to continue as the minister in charge of food.

The NAC is scheduled to meet on July 14. Sonia is unlikely to relent on provisions such as multi-layered classification of target groups that goes beyond the standard BPL definition.

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