India’s lower house of parliament has approved a controversial food security Bill, which aims to provide subsidised grain to more than 800 million people in a scheme estimated to cost more than €15 billion.
The Bill, passed late on Monday night after nine hours of debate but which still needs upper-house endorsement, is the world’s largest such welfare initiative.
Many opposition MPs and political analysts anticipate it will be financially ruinous and logistically unworkable, and claim it is part of the beleaguered ruling Indian National Congress party’s cynical strategy to win re-election in polls due before May 2014.
They accused Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s administration, which has been beset by corruption scandals, fiscal profligacy and widespread malgovernance, of resorting to “political populism” through the Bill.
Mr Singh’s government also stands accused of not moving the Bill in parliament after assuming office in 2009, despite advocating its introduction in the run-up to the last general election.
Under the Bill, two-thirds of India’s population of more than 1.2 billion – 75 per cent of those living in rural areas and 50 per cent of those in urban centres – will receive 5kg of subsidised grain every month. A kilo of rice, wheat or millet will cost them between one rupee (0.011 cent) and three rupees (0.034 cent).
“This is one more example of our government’s people-oriented inclusive development,” said Mr Singh.
In a rare parliamentary speech, Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi termed the Bill an "empowerment revolution" aimed at eradicating hunger and malnutrition, which continues to afflict India 66 years after independence.
"Some people ask, do we have the resources for such legislation? The question is not about resources; we will have to do this," Ms Gandhi said.
Shortly afterwards, before voting on the Bill began, Ms Gandhi was rushed to hospital after complaining of chest pains. She was safely discharged a few hours later.
Despite India’s steady economic growth over the past decade, it ranks 67th among 80 developing nations in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s global hunger index, with alarmingly high levels of malnourishment and underweight children.
The global hunger index ranked levels of hunger across India below economically worse-off neighbours including Pakistan and Nepal, as well as Sudan and North Korea. Only countries such as Chad, Ethiopia and Burundi had a higher rate of malnourishment than India.
According to a recent report by the Washington-based institute, some 231 million Indians are malnourished and almost 44 per of the country’s children under the age of five are underweight. According to the report, 7 per cent of these underfed children die of hunger before reaching five.
India has about 160 million children under the age of six and the prognosis for their future under these circumstances remains bleak.
Critics of the food Bill maintain that India can ill-afford such a costly subsidy at a time when economic growth has slowed to its lowest rate since 2003.
The central bank warned that increased public spending could intensify the government’s spiralling deficits and stoke mounting inflation, triggering price rises and widespread social unrest.
Opponents also argue that massive resources will be funnelled into the largely defunct and notoriously corrupt Public Distribution System to distribute the subsidised grain.
In the late 1980s Sonia Gandhi's husband, the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, said only 15 per cent of the money slated for social-welfare programmes, including cheap food, reached the poor.
He claimed the remaining 85 per cent was siphoned off by corrupt officials in a milieu that has only worsened over the past three decades.
Since 2010 India has slipped seven places to 94th in Transparency International’s latest corruption perceptions index, which covers 174 countries.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticised the government over the Bill but ultimately voted in its favour.
“No political party can publicly oppose such a legislation, especially with general elections approaching, as the poor are the largest vote bank for them,” social analyst Seema Mustafa said.
She claimed the contentious Bill was a cunning masterstroke by the Congress party that assured its support across the political spectrum.
Senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi claimed it was a “vote security, not food security, Bill” for the Congress party.