Sonia Gandhi seeks support for law to banish hunger

INEW DELHI (AFP) - India's ruling party chief Sonia Gandhi urged lawmakers on Monday to support a new US$18 billion (S$23.03 million) scheme to provide cheap food to the poor, saying it would help banish hunger from the country.

After days of unruly scenes in parliament, MPs finally agreed to debate the Food Security Bill - a flagship scheme of Mrs Gandhi's Congress party.

She told MPs to send a message to the world that India was ready to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as a "national shame".

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

The draft law was implemented through an executive decree in July but must be approved in the national parliament to begin functioning permanently.

"Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to wipe out hunger and malnutrition from our country," Italian-born Gandhi told lawmakers to applause in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

The draft law proposes offering five kilograms of subsidised food grains per month to nearly 70 per cent of the population, or 800 million people, and is seen as a vote-winner for the Congress ahead of elections next year.

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.

Mrs Gandhi, widow of slain former premier Rajiv Gandhi, said the law would strengthen India's leaky food distribution network.

"The food security security bill ... puts pressure on (the) executive to be more responsible and accountable and also puts in place credible mechanism to redress grievances," she said.

Her government says the programme will add 230 billion rupees (S$4.65 billion) annually to India's existing 900-billion-rupee food subsidy bill.

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

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

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