Declaring Congress' goal to "wipeout hunger and malnutrition", Sonia Gandhi on Monday asked all political parties to set aside differences and support the food security bill so that a "big message" could be sent out about India's capabilities.
Opening the Congress innings on the debate in Lok Sabha on food bill, she rejected questions over whether the country had resources to implement the landmark measure.
"It is time to send out a big message that India can take responsibility of ensuring food security for all Indians, our goal is to wipe out hunger and malnutrition all over the country," Gandhi said about her pet agenda.
Making a strong pitch for smooth passage of the landmark legislation, the UPA chairperson said the measure is a historic opportunity to provide food security to tens of millions of people in the country which will end the problem of hunger once for all.
She sought to dismiss questions over whether the ambitious scheme could be implemented.
"The question is not whether we have enough resources or not and whether it would benefit the farmers or not. We have to arrange resources for it. We have to do it," she said in the House where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also present.
Gandhi said farmers and agriculture have always remained priority of the UPA.
Agreeing that reforming public distribution system (PDS) was a must for the food law, Gandhi noted that there was basic need to remove the leakages to ensure that benefits of the food bill reached the intended beneficiary.
Gandhi said the Congress had made a commitment to the nation in the 2009 election manifesto to bring forward such a legislation. It is one in a series of various rights promised and provided by UPA like Right to Information, Right to Education, Right to Work and Right to Forest Produce.
Gandhi said the House got an opportunity today to take a historic step to end difficulties of the poor.
"This legislation is only a beginning. As we move forward, we will be open to constructive suggestions; we will learn from experience," she said.
In essence, she said, the country has 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 wellbeing," she said.
"It is my fervent hope and my humble appeal that we, as representatives of those very people, should convert this Bill into an Act and do so, unanimously," she said.
Gandhi said while some sections have got fruits of economic prosperity which is a matter of happiness, some sections are still deprived.
"Now the big issue before us is, what is the responsibility of government towards these people who are less fortunate than others. It is not their fault but they still live with the curse of hunger and malnutrition," she said.
The food security bill is the fifth in a series of steps to provides legal entitlements to people, which puts pressure on the executive to be more responsive and accountable, and also puts in place 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," she said.
Looking back at ten-year-long UPA rule, Gandhi said, the government brought the Right to Information law in 2005, which has ushered in an unprecedented transparency in public life, "sometimes, to our own disadvantage".
"A little later that year, the Right to Work, Mahatma Gandhi NREGA became a reality. This has provided employment to one in four rural households in the past seven years and has led to increased rural wages," she said.
In 2006, the path-breaking Forest Rights Act came into the Statute Book. This has benefited lakhs of tribal and other families who have traditionally relied on forest for their livelihood, she said.
In 2008, the Right to Education came into being. "This has already led to a sharp increase in enrollment in schools," she added.
It's vote security bill: BJP
Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi on Monday described the bill as nothing but a 'vote security bill'.
"This is not a food security bill, it is a vote security bill. The government took four years to come up with the food security bill, and I thought it would be an extensive bill," he said in the Lok Sabha on Monday.
He further echoed objections raised by Narendra Modi in his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this month, where he had stated that the scheme will not entitle beneficiaries to adequate calorie intake, and promote malnutrition.
"The bill says adequate nutrition. But what is the meaning of 'adequate'? This bill says household. Does it also include those households where a single member lives? The bill says ready to eat food, nutritional food and fortified food. Where will all of this come from? Where will you get protein from if you made no provision for Dal? Will you give them chicken soup?" he questioned.
Initiating the debate on the UPA government's landmark food security bill in the Lok Sabha, food minister K V Thomas on Monday said the bill would ensure more transparency and accountability in the PDS system.
Bill will hurt farmers: SP
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav contended that the bill was being brought with an eye on elections and said it should be kept in abeyance till chief ministers are consulted as it would put additional burden on states.
Raising a number of questions over the bill, Yadav said it would badly hurt the farmers as there was no guarantee in the provisions that all the produce would be bought by the government.
"It is clearly being brought for elections...Why didn't you bring this bill earlier when poor people were dying because of hunger? ... Every election, you bring up a measure.
There is nothing for the poor," he said.
He questioned the government whet her it had any assessment of the number of poor in the country. "There is no mention in the Bill... You don't have any figure. You are only going by assumptions," Yadav said, adding the bill could be brought only after the BPL census was completed.
He said he would support the bill, which provides for highly subsidised foodgrains to two-third of the country's population, if certain amendments are moved to it. "This bill is neither for the poor, nor for the farmers."
Good for poor: BSP
On the other hand, Dara Singh Chauhan of the BSP, another key outside supporter, backed the bill saying it would provide food security to the poor.
JD-U president Sharad Yadav, whose party recently parted ways with BJP-led NDA over Narendra Modi issue, praised Sonia Gandhi for "speaking in the language of the country" while participating in the debate on the bill.
At the same time, he said the measure is a national scheme and no burden should be put on the state governments.
Political gimmick: Trinamool
Kalyan Banerjee (TMC) said the bill should not be used as a political gimmick. He expressed apprehension that this would be treated as political gimmick in the coming elections.
Banejree said the Centre will bring such schemes at the time of elections but states would be compelled to bear the burden.
Banerjee said TMC will support the measure if the government deleted Section 38, which makes state governments equally responsible for implementing the scheme.
T R Baalu (DMK) praised provisions in the pro-poor measure enacted under the leadership of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
He, however, said prevalence of problems like malnutrition are very high in India.
Give food grain to all: NCP
Praful Patel (NCP) said the government should endeavour to give universal coverage to the food bill and give foodgrains to all section of poor population and not just limit it to 75% or 50% of the rural and urban population.
He said the Nationalist Congress Party is in favour of the Bill. "We need to work for welfare and prosperity of this country," he said, adding that food security should be provided to people.
Patel said he does not agree to the poverty line of Rs 28.65 per capita daily consumption as given by Planning Commission.
Per-household idea needed: BJD
Bhartruhari Mahtab (BJD) observed that the bill should give food security to people on the basis of per-household, instead of per-capita as proposed.
Mahtab said the per-capita approach would create confusion among people and lead to harassment when new members are introduced in the family.
He demanded that states should be given flexibility to decide whether they want the per-capita or per-household approach.
The exclusion criteria should also be state specific, he said and suggested that the public distribution system should be strengthened to provide food grains.
Later on Monday evening, the Lok Sabha started voting on amendments proposed to the UPA government's landmark food security bill.
(With inputs from PTI, ANI, IANS)