India unveils 'world's largest' public healthcare scheme

India has announced an ambitious health insurance scheme, which is designed to be a safety net for 500 millions of people who struggle to afford medical care

It's thought to be one of the largest such schemes in the world, and is likely to be popular with rural voters.

India presently spends a little over 1% of its GDP on public healthcare, one of the lowest in the world.

The announcement came in the annual budget, aimed at boosting growth ahead of a general election next year.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also allocated billions of dollars for health, education, social security and rural infrastructure.

He said the flagship health insurance scheme would cover more than 100 million poor families and provide 500,000 rupees ($7,825;£5,520) in medical coverage for each family annually.

"This will be the world's largest government-funded healthcare programme," Mr Jaitley told parliament in his speech.

"The government is steadily but surely progressing towards a goal of universal health coverage."

The BBC's Soutik Biswas says although it is laudable to give medical coverage to the poor in a country where quality healthcare costs are prohibitive, what is not clear is how this programme is going to be designed to protect the poor from being exploited by private hospitals.

India's private healthcare system is largely unregulated, opaque and often unscrupulous. It also overcharges patients with impunity, our correspondent adds.

"Private hospitals also have a long history of being hostile towards the poor, and not allocating enough mandated cheap beds for them," he says.

"It is not clear how the government will be able to get around this problem - and where the funds from the scheme will come from."