India's parliament has approved an $18 billion (13.5 billion euro) plan to provide cheap grain to the poor. The bill, meant to "wipe out" hunger and malnutrition, is a key part of the ruling Congress' re-election plan.
The Food Security Bill was approved by India's lower house of parliament on Monday after nine hours of debate. Under the program, the government will subsidize grain for around two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people.
India is one of the world's biggest food producers and has experienced years of economic growth. However, a quarter of the world's hungry poor live in the country, according to the UN, and more than 40 percent of Indian children are malnourished.
The bill would allow each person in eligible households to receive 5 kilograms of food each month, costing just 3 rupees (0.05 dollars, 0.03 euros), 2 rupees and 1 rupee per kilogram for rice, wheat and coarse grains respectively. Up to 75 percent of the rural population and half the urban population would be eligible for the program.
The measure was initially implemented through an executive decree in July, but now must be passed in the upper house and signed into law by the president - moves that are expected to happen.
The food security program was one of the electoral promises made by the ruling United Progressive Alliance government in 2009. The current bill is seen as a populist, albeit expensive, program. With general elections scheduled for next year, the measure received widespread support.
In a speech to parliament, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi said that India was ready to eliminate malnutrition, which she described as a "national shame."
"The big message which will go out to the country and rest of the world is clear and concrete: that India is taking the responsibility of providing food and security of all its citizens," she said. "Our goal for the foreseeable future must be to wipe out hunger and malnutrition from our country."
India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) had initially opposed the measure, saying it did not go far enough. But on Monday the BJP voted for the bill.
"We will support it today, but we wait for the day when we can enforce a better bill," said the BJP's lower house leader, Sushma Swaraj.
In a moment of drama during the debates, Gandhi had to be admitted to the hospital several hours after her speech, apparently suffering from a fever. Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury told Zee News TV that the 66-year-old had been working "under tremendous stress."
dr/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)