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India This Week

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Now, Prepare for a War over Food; Govt Sits on Rs 10 crore Fund; A Supremely Strange Petition in the SC; Seven Deaths and Our Civic Agencies Still Don’t Care

Now, Prepare for a War over Food

People seem to be forgetting that there is another populist legislation that the UPA Government is preparing to introduce in the current session of Parliament: the National Food Security Bill.

While this Bill guarantees nutritional security for all, it still falls short of the promise made by the Congress during the 2009 election. Originally envisaged as a please-all legislation targeted at the poor, the Bill is likely to irk the BJP and the Left alike since it plans to do away with the Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) that the former introduced and does not fully address the latter’s demands on strengthening the Public Distribution System (PDS). Worse still, the draft Act, put together by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and PDS, proposes to reduce the monthly quota for foodgrains to 25 kg per month for BPL families as against the Supreme Court’s directive last year to fix it at 35 kg.

Also, the ministry’s draft gives the Centre the authority to decide on the count of the BPL population, based on which allocations to states will be made. The difference between the Centre’s estimate (65 million BPL families), based on the Planning Commission’s reports, and that of the states is vast. The states have distributed more than 100 million cards to BPL families. By the Bill, extending the benefit of foodgrain distribution beyond what the Centre estimates will have to be paid for by the states themselves. The Centre’s role is limited to procurement, while distribution is the states’ job.

Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi had sent the PMO a draft in June last year based on the party’s manifesto that guarantees foodgrains supply to BPL families at Rs 3 per  kg. The Government’s draft is mum on the price at which the grain will be offered. Also, while the Congress spoke of nutritional security, the Bill limits itself to the hackneyed rice and wheat approach that governments have followed for years.

The middle class, the constituency that UPA II set out to please with the Women’s Reservation Bill, will also bear the burden of the Food Security Act once it is implemented. With the country’s food bowl tapped for the scheme and better availability of grain assured to the poor, food prices can only go one way: up.


Govt Sits on Rs 10 crore Fund

On the day the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the upper house of Parliament, the Jharkhand government was almost forced to admit that it has been sitting on a fund of Rs 10 crore meant for imparting educational benefits to about 35,000 schoolgirls. This money was to be offered to these girls under the Balika Protsahan Yojana (BPY) scheme launched by the Centre in 2008-09. It involves a deposit of Rs 3,000 in the individual bank accounts of girls studying in Class IX. The interest on the deposit can be used by the girls for their education, and the amount can be withdrawn once they turn 21. The Centre, on its part, had released an amount of Rs 10 crore in two instalments.

After being stumped by a question from an opposition leader, the state Human Resources Development Minister, Hemlal Murmu, had to admit that the funds were lying unused in a Delhi bank. Afterwards, the minister promised that the money would be released within a fortnight.

But many are of the opinion that the minister cannot fulfil his promise simply because banks have been asking for a lot of paperwork for opening these individual accounts. Many schools, it has been revealed, have so far been unable to open such accounts.


A Supremely Strange Petition in the SC

When in January the Delhi High Court (HC) ruled against the Supreme Court (SC) of India’s contention that the office of the country’s Chief Justice is outside the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, things seemed to have been set in order. The HC’s order was lauded as a landmark one. Those who keep an eye on jurisprudence and those who are concerned about how the RTI movement pans out waited to see what the SC would do in the matter that concerns bringing its own chief’s office under the ambit of the RTI. Even though at the time of the HC’s ruling, the SC counsels had said they would appeal against it, as days passed it appeared that the SC would accept the verdict and transparency was all set to enter another historic phase. Barely four days were left to file an appeal against the HC’s verdict.

But on the day Parliament initiated the process to create history by introducing the Constitutional amendment Bill to provide women reservations in the legislature, the SC created history of a different kind: it petitioned itself on a matter concerning itself. The SC’s Secretary General moved a Special Leave petition asking for the HC order to be set aside on the grounds that the verdict had the potential to destroy the independence of the Judiciary, guarded by the Constitution.

The HC had ruled twice. This year through a bench headed by its Chief Justice and last year through Justice Ravindra Bhatt rejecting the SC’s appeal against the Chief Information Commissioner’s order that the CJI’s office is covered by the RTI Act. It ruled that a time when the subordinate judiciary is declaring assets, so should the higher judiciary. “So when they are accountable, so are we. Thus, higher the judiciary, higher the accountability towards the public at large,” the HC bench ruled. Nothing has changed since the last order. Not even the SC’s stance. It has now gone ahead and petitioned itself in its own matter, setting a precedent of sorts. The SC’s SLP to itself lists out as many as 39 reasons for its contention that the RTI law doesn’t cover the CJI’s office. But the SC might be ignoring one principle of natural justice: Nemo iudex in causa sua (no one should be a judge in one’s own cause).


Seven Deaths and Our Civic Agencies Still Don’t Care

As public outrage poured in after an Indian toddler Gurshan Singh was found dead near his home in Australia, and rightfully so, no one has spared a thought over the death of seven children in Delhi in a span of ten days. All these deaths were as a result of drains and pits left open by civic agencies like the Delhi Jal Board. On 5 March, four kids died after falling in a sewer left open in north Delhi’s Timarpur area.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit refused to take the blame, saying there was a boundary wall and a gate and nobody was supposed to enter the park where the sewer had been dug.  Five days before this case, a 13-year-old boy drowned in a water accumulated in a pit dug by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). This had been left open and unattended for three months. And nobody had a clue why the pit had been dug. Once again, the police issued notices and that is where it ended.

On 7 March, two boys died in separate incidents, both of them drowning in open drains. In December last year, a Delhi High Court Bench took suo motu cognisance in a case involving the drowning of two boys in a pit dug by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in east Delhi and ordered the agency to pay compensation.

The point is: there is no accountability here and these civic agencies escape by just paying compensation. The people responsible go unpunished. So, while happenings in far-off Australia do deserve attention, what is happening in our backyards must also be looked at.