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Indian parliament OKs $20B grain plan for poor

| Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 9:30 p.m.

NEW DELHI — India's lower house of parliament approved a plan worth nearly $20 billion on Monday to provide cheap grain to the poor, a key part of the ruling Congress party's strategy to win re-election.

Under the plan, the government will sell subsidized wheat and rice to 67 percent of its population of 1.2 billion. India is home to a quarter of the world's hungry poor, according to United Nations data, despite being one of the biggest food producers.

The vote broke a long stalemate in parliament, potentially clearing the way for several reforms aimed at spurring the flagging economy which the government hopes to pass in an extended session that ends on Sept. 6.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government last month resorted to an executive order to implement the program, which his Congress party hopes will help it win a third consecutive term in power. The next election is scheduled by May.

The Rajya Sabha upper house must now approve the decree before it becomes law.

The main opposition party says the welfare scheme, which expands the cheap food program covering 218 million people, is still too narrow to tackle widespread malnutrition among India's millions of poor.

Lawmakers passed the bill after nearly nine hours of debate and the inclusion of amendments that government sources say could lead to an additional requirement of about 3 million tons of grain.

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