India Extends Food-for-Poor Program as Singh Eyes Poll Advantage
India’s cabinet enacted proposals to expand the provision of cheap food to the poor, approving a rarely used executive ordinance to pursue a central plank of the government’s re-election strategy.
Deemed a vote winner ahead of an election scheduled for early 2014, passage of the Food Security Bill in parliament stalled in the last session as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s opponents protested alleged corruption in his administration, paralyzing proceedings in the house. The ordinance will be sent to President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent, Food Minister K.V. Thomas told reporters in New Delhi yesterday.
With a national ballot due before the end of May, Singh and his ruling Congress party are seeking to build on vows to spread the benefits of growth to the more than 800 million Indians the World Bank estimates live on less than $2 a day.
Congress and its chief rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are also trying to woo regional parties as opinion polls predict neither will lead their coalitions to a clear victory at the polls. A voter survey for the CNN-IBN television channel in May found that 61 percent thought Singh should be replaced as prime minister. About 67 percent said his government has lost credibility in the face of a series of graft scandals and rising prices.
The ordinance will lapse if parliament fails to support the measure in a vote within six weeks of the opening of its next session -- scheduled for late July. The government last used an ordinance to tighten its laws on sexual assault in the aftermath of a brutal gang rape in the capital New Delhi.
The BJP says that while the party supports the food security bill in principle, it should be debated in parliament.
“The government is rushing with the bill as they are facing pressure now that their term” is approaching its final few months, said Dipa Sinha, an activist at the Right to Food Campaign, an advocacy group. Provisions to protect farmers’ livelihoods and ensure adequate production and distribution of food need to be improved, she said.
Under the food bill, 67 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people may be entitled to buy wheat, rice and coarse grains at subsidized rates. The government may spend about 1.25 trillion rupees ($20.7 billion) on food subsidy in the financial year ending March 31, 2014. Subsidies have helped widen the nation’s fiscal deficit amid the weakest economic growth in a decade.
The current system for distributing subsidized food and fuel to the poor is riddled with theft and inefficiency. Only 41 percent of the food set aside for feeding the poor reached households in 2005, according to a World Bank study commissioned by the government and released last year.
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