The biggest welfare programme in history: Indian government gives 800 million citizens a 'legal right' to cheap food in new bill

£13bn scheme immediately condemned by business community who claim the country cannot afford it

Delhi

The Indian government has passed what has been described as the biggest welfare programme in history - a scheme to provide cheap food to more than 800m people. The project has immediately drawn condemnation from industrialists and critics who say country's fragile economy cannot afford it.

In a move intended to help the hundreds of millions of Indians whose lives are scarred by malnutrition and hunger, the Congress party-led government has passed a £13bn scheme to provide heavily subsidised wheat, rice and cereals to the very poor. Perhaps more importantly, the bill, which was passed by the upper house of parliament late on Monday evening, guarantees citizens a legal right to food.

Though the Indian economy has grown in the last 20 years to the point where it is now the third-largest in Asia, up to two-thirds of the population live in poverty. Unicef says that around half of all children in India suffer from malnutrition, something the country's prime minister, Manmohan Singh has termed a “national shame”.

“The question is not whether we can do it or not. We have to do it,” the head of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, said as the bill was being discussed.

The government's food minister, Kuruppasserry Varkey Thomas, said the bill was the first step toward improving food distribution in a country where poor transportation and lack of refrigeration mean an estimated third of grains and vegetables rot before they reach the market.

The Associated Press said under the scheme's regulations, those who qualify will be able to buy five kg of rice a month at just three rupees (about three pennies) per kg. One kg of wheat will cost two rupees while cereals will be made available for one rupee.

Even as the bill was being debated, a number of voices, including many senior figures from business, came out against the measure, saying that with India's growth slowing to around five per cent and the rupee falling to an historic low, the country could not afford it.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who heads the Bangalore-based biotechnology company Biocon, said: “It is no surprise that the food security bill went sailing through. The question is will it sink us financially?”

Many have said the scheme is designed to win the Congress votes in an upcoming election, due to be held before next May. Aware of the potential support the bill could secure for the government, the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has criticised it by saying it does not go far enough.

Prakash Javadekar, a party spokesman and member of parliament, told The Independent, the scheme underscored the inability of the Congress governments down the years to address poverty

“After 66 years, we still have people living in such poverty. This is why we are having to talk about food security,” he said. “This is testimony to the failings of Congress.”

The Congress party failed to respond to to repeated queries. However, supporters of the bill say it is of historic importance. Mridula Mukherjee, professor of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said the scheme was not simply about giving out cheap food.

“It's different from a scheme or a plan. This is a legal entitlement,” she said. “It's a legal right.”

India has offered free midday school meals since the 1960s in an effort to persuade poorer parents to send their children to school. Though there have been repeated problems with it - this summer at least 20 children died in the state of Bihar after they ate contaminated food - the scheme now reaches 120m children.

The country gives a similar promise of a hot, cooked meal to pregnant women and new mothers. The new bill will extend that to include children between six and fourteen.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015