India votes to expand food welfare

India plans to subsidize wheat, rice and cereals for some 800 million people under a $20 billion scheme to cut malnutrition and ease poverty.

India has some of the world’s worst poverty and malnutrition with two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people poor and half of the country’s children malnourished.

The Food Security Bill legislation allows those who qualify to buy 5 kilograms of rice a month for 3 rupees (4.5 cents) a kilogram. Wheat will cost 2 rupees a kilogram, and for cereals the cost is 1 rupee.

Pregnant women and new mothers will also receive at least 6,000 rupees ($90) in aid. In a deviation from India’s patriarchal traditions, the scheme designates the eldest woman in each home as the head of the household, hoping to prevent rations from ending up on the black market. This would also help keep subsidy costs from escalating, the government said.

The very poorest families, already receiving subsidized rates for up to 35 kilograms of grains a month, will continue to receive those benefits, the government said.

India has offered free midday school meals since the 1960s in an effort to persuade poor parents to send their kids to school. That program now reaches some 120 million children. The country gives a similar promise of a hot, cooked meal to pregnant women and new mothers — a promise the new bill extends to children between 6 and 14 years old.

Food Minister K.V. Thomas called the bill a first step toward improving food distribution in a country where poor transportation and lack of refrigeration mean up to 40 percent of all grains and produce rot before they reach the market.

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