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Govt defers food bill ordinance, opts for parl debate

Facing opposition from allies and the opposition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Thursday deferred a proposal to bring in the food security bill through a government ordinance and suggested one last attempt to get parliamentary nod for the welfare legislation, informed sources said here.

The prime minister made an announcement in a cabinet meeting that the ordinance proposal - which in effect meant getting the bill into law through decree instead of parliamentary approval - should be deferred as many political parties had suggested a debate on the bill in parliament, the sources said.

While the prime minister asked Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and Food Minister K.V. Thomas to hold fresh consultations with the opposition parties to evolve a consensus on the bill, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram hinted at a special session for the purpose.

"We would like to pass it as a bill but the ordinance version is also ready. We will make one more effort to ask the opposition parties whether they will cooperate in passing the bill in a special session (of parliament)," Chidambaram said.

"The bill will be passed in a special session of parliament based upon the response of the main opposition party," he said.

The BJP, which did not allow the parliament to debate the bill in the budget session which ended May 8 due to its demand that the prime minister should resign over irregular coal blocks' allocation, said it favoured passing the bill in the monsoon session with "some amendments".

"We want the food security bill passed in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament with some amendments," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh told reporters.

Key UPA ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), welcomed the government's decision to take up the controversial bill in a special session of parliament, saying that it needed to be discussed thoroughly.

Nawab Malik, an NCP legislator from Maharashtra, said the party supported the bill but had certain reservations.

"We want to discuss it on the floor of the house. It is a very important bill and some of the allies also want to discuss the issue," he said.

The Samajwadi Party also preferred a parliamentary debate.

"It is a very serious issue as all political parties have their own reservations. We want to discuss it in parliament," said Kamal Farooqui, spokesperson for the SP.

Communist Party of India-Marxist politburo member Sitaram Yechuri said: "We want a serious discussion on this issue as we want that the proposed 67 percent (people) to be covered under the bill should go up to 90 percent."

Thomas earlier said that the government will take the ordinance route to bring in the National Food Security Bill, seen as the flagship welfare legislation of the UPA government.

Over the decision to defer the ordinance, he said the proposal on the "ordinance was still with the cabinet".

The bill aims to provide subsidised food grain to around 67 percent of India's 1.2 billion people. Around 800 million people - with limited income - would thus get the subsidised grain, at an initial cost of around Rs.1.3 lakh crore (nearly $20 billion).

The beneficiaries of the proposed scheme will be identified on the basis of a formula still to be finalised by the central and state governments.

It is seen as a big-ticket legislation of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and could prove to be a game-changer ahead of the 2014 general elections.