After months of debate within the government and in the public domain — and a nudge from Congress president Sonia Gandhi — the Union Cabinet cleared the draft of the Food Security Bill on Sunday evening. The Bill, which seeks to provide subsidised food grains to 75 per cent of the rural population and about 50 per cent of urban households, is likely to be introduced in Parliament on Monday and will thereafter be sent to a Standing Committee.
Showing a new sense of urgency, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who returned on Saturday from Russia, convened a high-level meeting shortly after his Cabinet cleared the Food Security Bill draft to finalise a fresh draft of the controversial Lokpal Bill. This is expected to be taken up by the Cabinet, which is to meet again on Monday. The plan, top government sources said, was to introduce the Lokpal Bill on Tuesday and try and pass it before this Parliament session ends — if the Opposition is in a cooperative frame of mind.
For the last few days, officials of the Ministries concerned have been working overtime to frame the Lokpal Bill. In the evenings, an informal ministerial group has been putting the final touches. This group includes Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid and V. Narayanasamy.
The government, the sources told The Hindu, was determined that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) should retain its independence, even get greater autonomy; it was even willing to accept a new method to select the agency's director.
In the government note on the Lokpal legislation, the Lokpal is to refer corruption cases to the CBI, and then monitor the progress of these investigations, but the agency does not come under it. With Team Anna insistent that the CBI be placed under the Lokpal, another clash can be anticipated.
The Lokpal's workings would be also be come under the Right to Information Act, the sources said, adding that the appointment of the chairperson/members of the Lokpal committee would have to be cleared by the Central Vigilance Commission.
While the government has agreed to place the Prime Minister and the lower bureaucracy within the ambit of the Bill — the first with safeguards and the second through a mechanism that will see the CVC conducting the enquiries and reporting periodically its progress to the Lokpal — it is in no mood to yield to Team Anna's demand to place the CBI under the Lokpal, or to include the Citizens' Charter in it; the government has drafted a separate Citizens' Grievance Redress Bill. In this, it may not have Team Anna's support but it has the backing of the National Campaign for the Right to Information (NCPRI). Indeed, the NCPRI, which had organised citizens' camps in the capital over the last few days, culminating in a day long workshop, is also pitching for two separate Bills — the Lokpal for corruption in high places, and the Citizens' Grievance Redress Bill for aam aadmi complaints.