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.

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Foster and Hedison have reportedly been dating since last summer
peopleOscar-winner said to be 'totally in love' with Alexandra Hedison
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Ian Herbert: Manchester United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

The size of the rebuild needed at Old Trafford is a task way beyond Ryan Giggs, says Ian Herbert
Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

The 41-year-old calmed his nerves to perform a classic 'Superman act' when he replaced Petr Cech in Madrid. One clean sheet later, he is now determined to become a club hero
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?