India MPs pass food-for-poor bill

Opponents slam program as vote grab by Congress party


India’s parliament on Monday passed a flagship $18 billion program to provide subsidized food to the poor that is intended to “wipe out” endemic hunger and malnutrition in the aspiring superpower — despite concerns about its impact on strained public finances.

The Food Security Bill — a key plan seen as a vote-winner by the ruling Congress party ahead of national elections next year — was adopted in the lower house after a nine-hour debate.

The draft law will provide food grains to nearly 70 percent of the population, or 800 million people, for as little as 1 rupee (¥1.5) per kilogram.

Despite decades of fast economic growth, India still struggles to feed its population adequately, with more than 40 percent of children malnourished according to a survey published last year.

In a rare speech in parliament, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi told lawmakers to send a message to the world that India was ready to eradicate malnutrition, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as a “national shame.”

“The big message which will go out to the country and the rest of the world is clear and concrete: that India is taking the responsibility of providing food security of all its citizens,” she said.

“Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to wipe out hunger and malnutrition from our country,” Italian-born Gandhi told lawmakers to applause, having championed the program as a cornerstone of the ruling party’s welfare agenda.

India already runs the world’s biggest food-distribution system covering hundreds of millions of people, but the Food Security Bill will offer grains at lower prices and attempt to better target the needy.

The bill, as laid out in a government draft that was amended Monday, was implemented through an executive decree in July but needed to be passed in the national parliament to become permanent.

It must now be debated and approved by the upper house before being signed into law by the president. The bill is likely to be approved pending amendments.

But the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party attacked the government, with Murli Manohar Joshi, a senior party leader, said the bill was an attempt by Congress to grab votes rather than end hunger. “This is not a food security bill, it is a vote-security bill,” he said.

The Congress party is expected to face a tough time at the ballot box next year, having spent much of its second term struggling with a string of graft scandals involving ministers.

Critics of the food program say India can ill-afford such a costly subsidy burden at a time when economic growth has slowed to a decade-low. The government says it will add 230 billion rupees ($3.6 billion) annually to India’s existing 900 billion rupee food subsidy bill.