India's government Monday tried to justify its decision to launch a huge food-aid program


India's government Monday tried to justify its decision to launch a huge food-aid program without waiting for Parliament's approval, with Food Minister K.V. Thomas telling lawmakers that it didn't want to further delay the law that was initially proposed four years ago.

The law that gives the right to almost-free food to around 70% of India's more than 1.2 billion people is one of the most ambitious food-aid programs ever attempted. Last month, the government implemented it through an executive order while Parliament was in recess. To become permanent, the law still needs to be cleared by Parliament.

Mr. Thomas presented it before lawmakers Monday, the first day of the monsoon session of Parliament.

The legislation was debated in the previous session, but could not be approved as opposition parties repeatedly stalled Parliament functioning over corruption allegations against some ministers. That led the government to issue the executive order to implement the National Food Security Law.

The law is expected to be a crucial plank of the Congress party-led ruling coalition's campaign as it prepares for several state polls this year and the national election, which must be held by the middle of next year. The government is expected to get lawmakers' approval for the program because the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the main opposition party, has favored it.

Meanwhile, the Right to Food Campaign, an activist group, said the program guaranteed extremely limited food entitlements which were "nowhere close to providing food security."

Under the program, beneficiaries will be entitled to five kilograms of subsidized grain per month. The food will cost between two and three rupees per kilogram for wheat and rice, compared with about 20 rupees on the market.

India already provides subsidized rice and wheat to the poor, but the new law has expanded the number of beneficiaries.

The law has sparked debate between those who say it is a way to eradicate deep rural poverty and others who want the state to instead focus on creating jobs and better infrastructure such as irrigation facilities.

According to some critics, the program will likely drive up the government's fiscal deficit beyond its target of 4.8% of gross domestic product in the financial year that began April 1.