India mulls special parliament session on food bill

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's government is considering calling a special session of parliament to pass a populist but hugely expensive bill to provide subsidised food to millions of people, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said on Thursday.

The landmark Food Security Bill, approved by cabinet in 2011, would provide subsidised rice, wheat and millet to more than 700 million Indians.

The bill is seen as a vote winner for the ruling Congress party ahead of elections due by next year, but critics say the measure will further strain the country's troubled finances.

Mr Chidambaram said the government would meet with members of the opposition shortly to see "whether they will cooperate in passing the bill in a special session of parliament".

"If that support is forthcoming the bill will be passed in a special session of parliament based upon the response of the main opposition parties," he told reporters in New Delhi after attending a cabinet meeting.

"We would like to pass the bill as early as possible," he added.

Opposition parties have attacked the Congress-led government for attempting to push the bill through without adequate discussion of its impact on farmers and consumers.

The measure, which government officials have said would increase the annual subsidy bill by 1.1 trillion rupees (S$23.5 billion), is considered key to the Congress-led coalition's fortunes ahead of elections.

Food prices have soared in India over the last seven years, causing increased hardship for the 455 million people estimated by the World Bank to live below the poverty line.

Critics of the bill say India can ill afford such a costly subsidy at a time of slowing economic growth, galloping inflation and a yawning budget deficit.

The bill will target 75 per cent of the rural population and up to 50 per cent of the urban population, providing a monthly supply of 3-5kg of grain per household, depending on their economic situation.

Existing food subsidy programmes in India have been marked by rampant corruption and inefficiency, with little of the grain actually reaching its intended recipients and much of it sold on the black market or left to rot inside warehouses.