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How food bill deal was clinched

delhi Updated: Dec 20, 2011 00:38 IST
Zia Haq

A crucial pre-Cabinet meeting food minister KV Thomas held with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his top aides, where he tore down all red flags raised by agriculture minister Sharad Pawar on the food security bill, paved the way for the Cabinet unanimously signing off on it an hour later.

Apart from a strong message from Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to break the logjam, a firm backing from finance minister Pranab Mukherjee helped clear all doubts about the bill's financial implications, sources said.

The PM's principal secretary, Pulok Chatterjee, and minister of state in the PM's office V Narayanasamy, also attended the meet.

The bill to guarantee cheap food grains to more than half of the country's people, which could give a big boost to UPA government's ratings, nearly came unstuck at last Tuesday's Cabinet meet when Pawar deemed it unviable.

A last-minute letter from Bengal CM Mamataa Banerjee, in which she wanted the bill deferred, ensured the food bill got downgraded from being the "number one" item on the Cabinet's agenda.

Few ministers, except Mukherjee, seemed to have detailed idea of the bill because of which they could not defend it in the face of Pawar's opposition, sources said. Two of Pawar's major objections related to grain output and availability were laid to rest, ironically, by a note from his own ministry. In it, the ministry had made crucial yearly projections on food output till 2040, essentially arguing that there would be enough grains to keep the food bill going.

A letter to the PMO from economist Jean Drèze, a development economist influential in Indian policymaking, citing "impressive revival" of the public distribution system demolished Pawar's other concern over the pilferage-prone system.

Banerjee, who wanted that states should get to decide the beneficiaries, came around after Thomas talked to her several times. Mukherjee's nod on the funds required to pull off the bill — about R1 lakh crore — clinched the deal. The bill is likely to be introduced in Parliament on Tuesday.