NEW DELHI, Aug. 26 (UPI) -- India's lower house of Parliament, after a lengthy debate, gave its nod to a $19 billion bill to provide subsidized food to about 800 million people.
The 1.3 trillion-rupee populist measure, supported by the Congress Party that leads the ruling coalition, seeks to benefit two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people and eradicate hunger and malnutrition, which continues to be a huge problem in India despite its impressive economic growth in recent years.
The measure now goes to the Upper House. Under it, low-income people would be eligible to obtain rice, wheat and other grains far below the market price. Rice would be available at 3 rupees a kilo, wheat at 2 rupees and cereals at 1 rupee per person per month.
The bill, approved by a voice vote, drew much discussion in the Lower House and was approved about 10 p.m. Monday after a nine-hour debate. Some opposition parties saw it as an effort by the Congress Party to boost its chances of winning a third term in general elections next year. Some critics also said the bill would only add to the growing deficits which have hit economic growth in recent months and which have been blamed for the sharp decline of the Indian rupee.
The Wall Street Journal quoted critics that the bill would add another $4 billion to existing food subsidies to raise it to about $20 billion a year.
The Journal said there are also concerns about how the bill would tackle corruption, already burdening existing programs. The report quoted a 2005 report by India's Planning Commission that about 50 percent of the grains under government procurement programs had been siphoned off by middlemen.
Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, fighting a viral fever, led the discussion on the bill, calling for support from all parties, the Press Trust of India reported. She is also the chairperson of the ruling coalition.
Addressing concerns about whether the country can afford the measure, she said: "Our goal is to wipe out hunger and malnutrition all over the country."
"The question is not whether we have enough resources or not and whether it would benefit the farmers or not," she said. "We have to arrange resources for it. We have to do it."
After her speech, the 67-year-old Gandhi complained of uneasiness and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to undergo various tests, a party spokesman said. She was later discharged from the hospital.
Murli Manohar Joshi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, said the bill is not much of an improvement over current benefits. "This is not a Food Security Bill, this is vote securing bill," the Times of India reported.
The Times of India reported that despite the various objections, no party outright rejected the measure.