Sonia Gandhi vows to banish hunger with cheap food scheme

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday launched a landmark public food scheme for hundreds of millions of people, declaring it would banish hunger and be free of corruption.

Mrs Gandhi told hundreds of cheering supporters that 800 million Indians would benefit from the scheme, aimed at fighting endemic malnutrition, but also considered a vote-winner for Congress ahead of next year's elections.

"We have to struggle much more as there are millions of our brothers and sisters who go hungry and hence it is our responsibility to take care of them," she said at an indoor stadium in New Delhi.

"And that is why we forged a law like the Food Security Bill so that hunger can be banished."

The multi-million-dollar programme, the world's largest, offers subsidised grain to nearly 70 per cent of the population.

Indians classed as below the poverty line already receive subsidised kerosene, cooking gas, fertiliser and wheat through what is the world's biggest public distribution system.

But the chaotic welfare programmes are notoriously inefficient and riddled with corruption.

"We also know there are many shortcomings in the PDS (public distribution system) and this law will bring in reforms and ensure there is no corruption in the system," Mrs Gandhi said.

The government says the programme will add 230 billion rupees (S$4.63 billion) annually to the country's existing 900-billion-rupee food subsidy bill.

It will offer five kilograms of grain per person per month for as little as one rupee per kg.

Parliament on Tuesday delayed debate on passing the long-delayed bill.

Mrs Gandhi has pushed the flagship programme to honour a 2009 election pledge, despite concern about its impact on public finances.

Hundreds of Delhi's poor, mainly women, were bused to the stadium where they declared support for the new scheme.

Clutching their new ration cards and wearing their best saris, some said they hoped the measure would help them make ends meet at home.

"I think this will help us. Food will be cheaper now and I can feed my family," said one woman, who survives with her three children on her husband's wages of about 200 rupees a day.

Delhi and two other Congress-ruled states launched the programme on August 20 - the anniversary of the birth of Mrs Gandhi's late husband, former premier Rajiv Gandhi, who was slain by a suicide bomber in 1991.

The Congress-led national government, under intense pressure over a string of corruption scandals and a faltering economy, hopes the scheme will boost its chances of winning a third term at next year's elections.

Despite two decades of strong economic growth, India still struggles to feed its population adequately. A major survey last year showed 42 per cent of children under five were underweight.

"We made the scheme so that nobody remains hungry in the country and no-one's child sleeps hungry. Giving food security in such a large scale is unparalleled in the world," Mrs Gandhi said in her speech.

The left-leaning party, she said, is "continuously marching forward to bring revolutionary changes in the lives of the common man".

Critics of the food programme say that India can ill afford such a costly subsidy burden at a time of slowing economic growth.

Supporters of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) protested near the stadium against the food programme and police used water cannon to disperse them.

The BJP has called the food scheme a "political gimmick" to win votes.