NEW DELHI (AP) — The Indian president on Friday approved an ambitious food subsidy program aimed at providing cheap grains to hundreds of millions of poor Indians.

The estimated 1.3 trillion rupee ($23 billion) Food Security program targets about two-thirds of the country's 1.2 billion people.

President Pranab Mukherjee approved the program two days after the Cabinet passed the measure as an executive order after failing to push it through the country's chaotic Parliament.

The order must be ratified by Parliament within six months or it will lapse.

The next session of Parliament usually begins at the end of July but no date has yet been announced.

Critics and opposition legislators say the program is a costly political gimmick ahead of national elections slated for 2014. Supporters say it's crucial in a nation with large food stockpiles and many impoverished and hungry people.

Despite the economic gains of the last two decades, a recent U. N. study said India is home to the world's largest number of malnourished children, 61.7 million. It said 48 percent of all Indians under age 5 suffer from stunting due to poor nutrition.

The government has said it pushed through the measure because of a parliamentary stalemate caused by opposition accusations of corruption against the Congress party-led administration.

Parliament may amend the program, but it is expected to approve it since few lawmakers want to be seen as opposing a welfare program ahead of elections.

It will take several months to launch the program even after ratification as government agencies decide how the subsidized grains will be sold and who will qualify to buy them.

The new program will supplement an existing $15 billion food program riddled with corruption in which an estimated 58 percent of subsidized grain, sugar and kerosene is diverted from ration shops.

Ration shop workers often claim the month's shipment never arrived and then sell it on the open market at as much as 10 times the subsidized price. Recipients often receive much less than their full entitlement or are sold lower quality grain. There are ghost ration cards given out under fake names.

The new food aid program, described as the largest such program in the world, was one of the Congress party's promises during 2009 elections.


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