April 15, 2008 / 12:00 PM / 12 years ago

Food price protests disrupt India's parliament

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian opposition lawmakers protested against rising prices in parliament on Tuesday, halting proceedings in the lower house, as the finance minister said more measures to ease price pressures were planned.

Indian inflation jumped to its highest in more than three years in late March, reaching 7.41 percent and raising political tensions.

The ruling communist-backed government has been rattled by the surge in prices and has cut duty and restricted exports on a number of food items and other commodities — most recently cement — to try and calm inflation in Asia’s third-largest economy.

The Congress Party and its allies face a handful of state elections this year and a national vote by May next year, and, in a country where a large part of a family’s income is spent on food, a jump in prices is bad news.

Many Indian consumers say they are feeling the pinch even more than the statistics suggest.

“This government is useless. It has not been able to check prices,” lawmakers belonging to the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party shouted in parliament.

Earlier, the government’s communist allies marched to parliament, waving placards and shouting slogans against the administration’s failure to contain prices.

The communists demanded action against anyone found hoarding food and called for a ban on futures trading in commodities, which they say has helped fuel the current spike in prices.

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters a cabinet panel that tracks prices of essential commodities would take more measures to calm inflation.

“I do not know when the cabinet committee on prices will meet, but when it meets I expect some measures,” Chidambaram told reporters without elaborating.

A global surge in food prices around the world has triggered riots in a handful of countries, and Chidambaram said at the weekend that rising food and energy costs threatened to stir more social unrest.

If consumer anger is not contained, it could shape India’s political future as its billion-plus people gear up for general elections sometime between October and May.

The opposition, including the more pro-market BJP and smaller caste and region-based parties, have called for protests over price rises, which they hope to use as an election issue.

Writing by Surojit Gupta; Editing by Mark Williams and Alex Richardson

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