(Adds opposition to executive order, details of bill)
By Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI, June 13 India's government is
considering calling a special session of parliament to pass a
$24 billion welfare scheme to give cheap food to the poor, the
finance minister said on Thursday, a move clearly aimed at
public opinion ahead of a general election.
Mired in corruption scandals that have paralysed parliament,
the Congress party-led ruling coalition earlier flirted with the
idea of introducing an executive order to implement the
programme, aimed at providing ultra-cheap food to about 800
The food security law is a pet project of Congress party
chief Sonia Gandhi, who led the party to victory in the last two
elections on the back of similar populist programmes, such as a
rural jobs plan and a $12.5 billion farmer loan waiver passed
just before the 2009 general election.
"Our intention is to get it passed in a special session of
parliament and we are making one more effort to ask the
opposition parties to support us," Finance Minister P.
Chidambaram told reporters.
At a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh on Thursday, many ministers argued that a debate,
broadcast live on television, would give the scheme more
publicity than getting it ratified through an executive order,
sources present at the meeting told Reuters.
A debate would help placate the main opposition Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP), whose support is crucial for getting the
bill through parliament, they said.
Most political parties, including the BJP and government
allies, support the bill in principle, but want it passed in
parliament rather than by an executive order.
The programme aims to provide subsidised wheat and rice to
70 percent of India's 1.2 billion people. The country is home to
25 percent of the world's hungry poor, according to a U.N.
agency, despite being one of the biggest producers of food
But critics said despite the extra spending, beneficiaries
do not stand to gain, as about 40 percent of rice and wheat
earmarked for the poor gets siphoned off due to corruption. An
inefficient distribution channel also leads to waste.
Providing rice and wheat at a fraction of cost could strain
government finances with a hefty food subsidy bill -- estimated
to rise by 45 percent after parliament approves the legislation
-- and could further widen a ballooning fiscal deficit.
The scheme, when implemented, will massively broaden an
existing programme of providing cheap food to 218 million
people. Critics say it is a wasteful use of public finances
during an economic slowdown.
India, sitting on unmanageable stocks of rice and wheat, has
already allowed exports to help trim bulging stocks. But wheat
exports have been slow due to a high floor price.
(Reporting by Anurag Kotoky and Mayank Bhardwaj, editing by
Ross Colvin and Ron Popeski)