The Cabinet on Wednesday finally approved an ordinance to launch the ruling Congress's showpiece welfare legislation, the National Food Security Bill, after a four-year political roller-coaster ride.
The decision on the ordinance was unanimous, food minister KV Thomas said, adding that it was being sent to the president for his approval. An ordinance allows laws to be enacted when Parliament is not in session, although it needs to be ratified by both the Houses.
The government is now poised to launch a potential vote-winner ahead of the 2014 general election, a legal right to monthly food handouts to 67% of the population - or about 800 million Indians - at a fraction of their market price. The food security bill, likely to cost Rs. 1.31 lakh crore annually, will raise the government's spending on ration for the poor by nearly a third or 31%.
"A commitment for a food security law was made in the presidential address in June 2009. However, Parliament could not pass the bill due to frequent adjournments and disruptions in both Houses. Any further news of hunger deaths in any part of the country would be linked to the government's inaction," a cabinet note, titled "Justification for Ordinance", which the HT has reviewed, stated.
The government's decision to sidestep Parliament could still be acrimonious, with the BJP, Left and SP slamming the move.
The ordinance move was aided by agriculture minister and key ally Sharad Pawar's decision to back it, after initial reluctance. A patch-up with estranged ally, the DMK, and likely support from the JD(U) also added to the ruling Congress's confidence about getting the ordinance ratified.
The bill is the second of two large entitlement-based welfare legislations of the UPA. The previous one, a rural pay-for-work scheme or MNREGA, had helped the UPA win a second term, analysts say.