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India's food handout fuels poll speculation

Almost a billion to get access to cheap grain

Swati Deb, New Delhi

July 4, 2013

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India's cabinet on Wednesday approved an ordinance allowing two-thirds of the population access to 5 kg of food grain every month at highly subsidized rates.

The move has fueled speculation that an early election in the world’s biggest democracy is just around the corner.

The National Food Security ordinance guarantees 5 kg of millet, wheat and rice per month to poor people at rate of 1-3 rupees (up to 0.5 US cents) per kg.

The government estimates it will cover at least 700 million people -- 67 percent of India's 1.2 billion population — who can only afford to spend less than US$2 day.

It is expected to come into force once the president signs it tomorrow.

An ordinance is an emergency measure passed when parliament is not in session; this one comes after months of indecision and resistance from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the passage of a National Food Security Bill and just weeks before parliament resumes later this month.

The BJP and other opposition parties had seen the bill as a calculated populist measure and political game-changer to bolster support for the ruling Congress-led coalition.  

The timing of the ordinance has sparked accusations that the government has sidestepped parliament and speculation that an election could be called within months if not weeks.

"This [ordinance] is a deliberate attempt to bypass parliament. Why the hurry? Are they [Congress] going for early elections?" BJP leader Sushma Swaraj tweeted yesterday.

Revati Raman Singh an MP from the socialist Samajwadi Party agreed, saying the ordinance suggests the government plans to declare early polls.

Singh's party had opposed the bill, saying it would turn millions of “bread-givers [grain farmers] into beggars” as the price of their produce would plummet.

Congress spokesman Ajay Maken yesterday allayed talk of an early election and said the ordinance was necessary to help guarantee food for those in most need.

At an annual cost of US$20.8 bn, the government plans to introduce the scheme in August after state governments determine who qualifies for the subsidized grain.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) welcomed the ordinance, saying it will help people hit hard by rising food prices.

"This will protect a large number of people from inflation and would ultimately help the country” with regard to human development, ASSOCHAM President Rajkumar N Dhoot said yesterday.

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