India parliament begins on stormy note

India parliament
Image caption The last session of parliament was marred by deadlock that meant bills were not passed

India's new session of parliament has been disrupted with opposition parties questioning the government over recent economic reforms.

On the first day, both houses were adjourned for the day without conducting any business.

Opposition parties says the decision to open India's retail sector to global supermarket chains and raise fuel prices will hurt the poor.

The government says the reforms are needed to revive the slowing economy.

The Trinamul Congress Party (TMC), a former ally, demanded a no-confidence vote against the government in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. But the demand was rejected by the Speaker.

The previous parliament session in September ended in deadlock amid uproar over alleged corruption in the allocation of coalfield concessions.

The winter session, which began on Thursday, is scheduled to legislate 25 bills and debate another 10 before closing on 20 December, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

'No assurance'

Although the ruling Congress-led government lost its majority in September after the TMC left the coalition in protest at the reforms, its survival is not at immediate risk because it has the support of some regional parties.

Opponents of the reforms say opening up India's retail sector to foreign supermarket chains will put small shops out of business.

There have also been protests against recent fuel price rises.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to the opposition to co-operate.

"We all have an obligation, in opposition as well as in government, to work together to enable our parliamentary democracy," he said.

"Our parliament has a very heavy legislative agenda during the winter session. I seek co-operation from my colleagues in the house."

Leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sushma Swaraj said the new session could be as stormy as the previous one.

"We want the house to run [but] there are several issues waiting to be discussed," she told reporters.

"Our pre-condition is that the issue on which an assurance was given to the house be taken up first under a rule that entails voting," she said.

The BJP says former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, now India's president, assured parliament last year that the decision to allow foreign supermarket chains into the country would only be made after consensus was reached in parliament.

The Congress party says Mr Mukherjee made no such a promise.

"There was no assurance in that sense of the word," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath was quoted telling reporters by the AFP news agency. "We will go into the records on what Pranab Mukherjee had said."

Correspondents say the opposition parties are divided on testing the government's strength in parliament using a no-confidence vote.

Under the government's proposal, global firms - such as Walmart and Tesco - will be able to buy up to a 51% stake in multi-brand retailers in India.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the reforms will "help strengthen our growth process and generate employment in these difficult times".

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