India's food fight for the common man

Last updated 16:24 05/11/2012

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India's embattled ruling Congress party has staked its immediate political fortune on a contentious retail policy, allowing international supermarket chains into India's massive but cloistered marketplace.

In Delhi on Sunday, Congress held a massive rally in an attempt to drum up support for its Foreign Direct Investment policy for multi-brand retail, which will allow international firms such as Walmart and Carrefour to open stores in India.

The move has met with stiff political resistance, from Congress's coalition partners and political opponents, and from popular mistrust, with fears multinational supermarkets will destroy the livelihoods of millions of small shop-owners and exploit small-scale farmers.

But about a third of all food grown in India rots before it can reach market, and Congress argues that major brands will bring infrastructure to unblock supply bottlenecks, allowing farmers to sell all their produce, and get lower prices for consumers.

The law has been passed, but states will be responsible for which supermarkets are allowed in, and where. Congress has pinned its electoral hopes on the policy meeting public approval, and that it halts India's rampant food price inflation.

Before 50,000 people at Ramlila Maidan in central Delhi yesterday, the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi said all Indians would benefit from a liberalised economy.

"FDI in retail will not only benefit farmers but also unemployed youth and the aam admi [common man]," Mrs Gandhi said.

Her 42-year-old son Rahul, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty but whose reputation as prime-minister-in-waiting is giving way to one as dilettante-in-chief, said efforts by the government to reform the economy were being obstructed by the opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

"At a time when there is a positive atmosphere for the country and India has a standing in the world, the opposition is engaged in opposing every measure of the government without giving a thought to it."

This Congress-led coalition government has been beset by a string of corruption scandals, and efforts to pass a bill to establish an independent ombudsman to investigate corruption have stalled in parliament.

Mr Gandhi promised it would soon be law. "We will get the bill passed in parliament soon. Wait and watch."

After disappointing results in state elections this year, Congress faces 10 provincial polls in 2013, and must call a general election by 2014. It will seek a third term, probably with Mr Gandhi at the helm, replacing the Prime Minister, 80-year-old Manmohan Singh.

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A cabinet reshuffle by Mr Singh last week brought the average age for an Indian cabinet minister down to 64, but Mr Gandhi has still not been promoted, despite his professed ambition and a willingness from the party for him to bear more responsibility.

In response to the Congress rally, the opposition BJP held a series of protests across Delhi.

"If the FDI is implemented, it will badly affect the traders," Delhi BJP chief Vijender Gupta said.

"Also the government has failed to contain the price hike. The life of a common man has become hard."


- Sydney Morning Herald

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