India woos Italian bulk drug makers to cut dependency on Chinese APIs

August 12, 2015  | Raji Reddy Kesireddy | Source : The Economic Times

HYDERABAD: The government is looking to promote domestic pharma companies' tieups with bulk drug makers in Italy to cut dependence on China for pharmaceutical ingredients.

India sources over 70 per cent of its requirement of bulk drugs (ingredients) from Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

A senior commerce ministry official said the government, which will unveil a new bulk drug policy soon, is preparing schemes aimed at wooing Italian drug makers with attractive incentives as a part of its 'Make in India' initiative.

"The ministry is asking Italian drug makers to forge alliances with Indian pharmaceutical firms to set up joint ventures in India," PV Appaji, director general of Pharmaceuticals Export Promotion Council (Pharmexcil), told ET. "The move is primarily aimed at reducing the dependence on China, even while encouraging domestic pharmaceutical firms towards backward integration that ensures greater cost efficiencies and quality control."

Appaji said the proposed new bulk drugs policy is being given final touches to include attractive incentives to lure global bulk drug manufacturers in general, and Italian firms in particular, given their technological strength in manufacture of crucial bulk drugs for life-saving medicines.

At present, India depends largely on China for common essential bulk drugs such as Paracetamol,Metformin, Pen-G, 6-APA, Aspirin, Erythromycin Thiocinate, Sartans, Ofloxacin, Levofloxacin and Vitamin Cfor intermediates, and Metronidazole, Vitamin C, Ofloxacin and Levofloxacin for active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). While India produced about $10 billion worth of APIs last year, its export of APIs remained flat at $3.6 billion. As against this, the subcontinent imports around $3.5 billion worth of APIs every year, mostly from China.

The top 100 Indian medicine manufacturers depend on China for at least half of their API requirement, and at least 150 medicines classified under the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) depend on Chinese imported bulk drugs.

Italy is the world's third largest API producer with about $4 billion and exports more than three fourths of its production, mostly to the US market. Among the prominent Italian API producers are FIS (Fabbrica Italiana sintetici), Angelini Pharmaceuticals and Trifarma.

According to Pharmexcil's director general, since some Italian firms have shown interest in forging alliances with Indian drugmakers, the commerce ministry plans to hold another dialogue with Italian drug makers in October.

Increased cost of production and other European economy related constraints had led to several local drug makers shutting down their unviable units.

"Technology transfer agreements from Italian drug makers is also being actively pursued," Appaji said. Jayant Tagore, president of India's Bulk Drug Manufacturers' Association (BDMA), said overdependence on a few suppliers for key bulk drugs is turning alarming. The factors working against domestic bulk drug makers include fragmented capacities, high cost of land and power, absence of adequate incentives and reservation of certain products for the small scale industry, he said.


Four cops gunned down in Karachi's Korangi area

August 12, 2015 | Imtiaz Ali | Source : DAWN

KARACHI: At least four policeman were killed on Wednesday when unidentified armed persons opened fire on a police mobile van in the Zaman Town locality of Karachi's Korangi area, DawnNews reported.

DawnNews quoted SSP Korangi Naeem Ahmed Sheikh as saying that Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Aqeel and three other cops died on the spot.

Local news channels quoted witnesses as saying that the policemen were having lunch at a roadside hotel when unidentified motorcycle-riding armed men opened indiscriminate fire on them.

The attackers managed to escape from the site and took away the policemen's official weapons.

All victims were shifted to Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC).

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah took strong notice of the policemen's murders.


Pakistani religious party leaders urged to help revive Taliban peace talks

August 12, 2015 | Jon Boone | Source :  The Guardian

Afghan officials meet figures from Pakistan’s religious right in hope that they can influence Taliban away from violence and towards mainstream politics. 

The heads of religious political parties in Pakistan are being urged to use their influence over the Taliban to persuade the insurgent movement to embrace politics instead of violence in Afghanistan.

In recent days Afghanistan’s ambassador to Islamabad visited a cleric regarded as the “father of the Taliban” in his seminary in Pakistan’s tribal belt to discuss efforts to revive flagging peace efforts between Kabul and the militants.

The meeting with Sami ul Haq at his madrasa in Akora Khattak highlighted the role some analysts believe Pakistan’s religious right can play in guiding a movement that has always decried democracy as western and un-Islamic towards mainstream politics.

A spokesman for the faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) headed by Fazal-ur-Rehman said the Taliban needed to follow the “Pakistan model” where Islamist parties further their cause by winning seats in parliament.

“We are telling them they cannot survive as a militant force, and have to sit at the table with other Afghan stakeholders to resolve their differences politically,” the spokesman said. “If they want to evolve they  need to learn from Pakistan.”

As ethnic Pashtuns and members of the hardline Sunni Deobandi movement, both Haq and Rehman are cut from the same ideological and ethnic cloth as the Afghan Taliban.

Although the Pakistani Taliban also overwhelmingly draws from among Deobandi ranks, members of the movement are also active in democratic politics.


Iranian Foreign Minister To Visit Pakistan, India And Russia Back To Back

August 12, 2015 | Sounak Mukhopadhyay | International Business Times | Source : Reuters

Iran is planning talks with Pakistan on the nuclear agreement between the Islamic republic and six world powers. The leaders of the neighboring countries will also talk about measures to improve their military ties.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will visit Islamabad Thursday to meet with Pakistani officials, Iranian Ambassador Alireza Haqiqian told the state news agency IRNA.

“During his daylong visit to Islamabad, Zarif will meet his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz and the country’s Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif,” Iran's PressTV quoted Haqiqian as saying.

The Iranian minister will also hold talks with the speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, and chairman of the Senate, Mian Raza Rabbani.

Zarif visited Lebanon Tuesday as a part of his second regional trip after the conclusion of the nuclear agreement. Zarif is scheduled to visit Syria Wednesday and then leave for Pakistan. In the coming days, he will also visit India and Russia.

Business Standard reported Zarif would visit India Friday, on the eve of India’s Independence Day. Zarif visit to Pakistan Thursday comes on the eve of Pakistan’s Independence Day. The Iranian minister is expected to hold meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In July, Iran reached the conclusion of the nuclear agreement with six world powers including the United States. The text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was finalized in Vienna. Economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted under the JCPOA. In return, the Islamic republic will continue its nuclear program in a peaceful manner.


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Pakistan MQM party quits parliament 'over crackdown'

August 12, 2015 | Source : BBC News

Lawmakers from Pakistan's fourth-largest party, the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), have resigned from both chambers of parliament.

An MQM leader, Farooq Sattar, said the move was in protest over an army-led crackdown allegedly targeting the party's supporters in Karachi.

The authorities say the action has improved security and is not politically motivated.

The MQM has long denied charges of using violence to control Karachi.

Though currently in opposition, the party has joined governing coalitions at various points in its 30-year history.

The resignation decision applied to the party's 24 MPs in the lower house of parliament, its eight senators in the upper house, as well as its 51 members in the Sindh provincial assembly.

The resignations will create a significant vacuum in parliament, if and when they are accepted, says the BBC Shahzeb Jillani in Karachi.

He says this could lead to a major by-election, which the government of PM Nawaz Sharif is keen to avoid.

What is MQM?

1984: Founded as the party of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India at the time of the 1947 partition, known as Muhajir

1988: Wins all seats in Karachi, becoming Pakistan's third largest party

1992: Party chief Altaf Hussain leaves country after an arrest warrant is issued in a murder case; army claims to have busted "torture cells" used by MQM activists to punish opponents

2004: Emerges as major ally of military ruler General Pervez Musharraf

2014: London police raid the home of Altaf Hussain, who still controls the party, and investigate claims of money laundering and murder


India's Rise To 3rd Place In Oil Demand

August 7, 2015 |  Jude Clemente | Source : Forbes

India’s real GDP has been growing by 5-10% per year, up $110 billion in 2014. New Prime Minister Modi’s business reforms could expand the Indian economy by 8% this year, beating China for the first time in decades. At 23% of total energy supply, Petroleum is India’s second largest source, half the market share of coal. Boosted by fallen crude prices, India is expected to overtake Japan to become the world’s 3rd largest oil consumer, at about 4.1 million b/d. India is now where China was a decade ago, and oil consumption is strongly linked to economic growth. Petroleum has no large-scale substitute, so as countries develop and install more extensive transportation systems, oil demand increases. Since 2005, India has been responsible for 20% of incremental global oil demand increase, versus 55% for China.

Compared to last year, India’s oil demand has risen 300,000 b/d, putting the country on track to surpass China in incremental growth for 2015. Because “oil is a global commodity sold on an international market” (why seeking “energy security” is far better than “energy independence”) all oil consuming nations must continually monitor India’s arrival. India imports the great bulk of its oil, and 65% of crude imports come from the risky Middle East, which produces a third of the oil and has half of proven reserves. If/when Western sanctions are lifted on Iran, India has already acknowledged that it wants more imports. After China, India is Iran’s largest oil customer. India is now importing about 285,000 b/d of crude from Iran, up nearly 40% from last year.

Indeed, the Republican party and presidential candidates should loudly be sounding the alarm about a growing U.S. “energy insecurity.” Augmented by a new pipeline that will deliver Iranian natural gas to India, India and Iran have a growing oil and gas alliance, and China and Russia have a growing oil and gas alliance, while we inexplicably continue to block crucial oil and gas links to ally, neighbor, and energy powerhouse Canada. Our leaders must know that oil and gas will still constitute at least half of our energy for decades to come, even in the best case for renewable energy.

India Will Become the 3rd Largest Oil Consumer This Year

Sources: EIA; JTC

Sources: EIA; JTC

Although Indians make less than 5% of what Americans make, India’s strong economic growth is trickling down to rising personal incomes, up 40% since 2008. The world’s poor want and deserve the same personal mobility Westerners have enjoyed for a century. India’s Middle Class could reach 45% of the population by 2030, up from 22% today and 4% in 2000. With 1,270 million people, the latent demand for oil in India is staggering. India has just 40 cars per every 1,000 people, compared to 525 in Western Europe. Bolstered by cheaper cars, lower fuel prices, and solid financing options, India’s passenger-vehicle sales are up nearly 20% this year. And for more economic growth, India’s Prime Minister Modi wants to end government controls on fuel pricing, helping state-run refiners meet rising demand.

Gasoline use is up 20% this year, but still only accounts for 10% of India’s oil demand, versus 20% in China and 47% in the U.S. Fourth globally, behind the U.S., China, and Russia, India now has a refining capacity of 4.5 million b/d, double the capacity of 2006. This is more than any country in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia leads at 2.9 million b/d), and potentially reaching 6.3 million b/d by 2020. Within a few years, India could become the world’s largest market for diesel cars, now standing at over 50% of the fleet. Germany is the global leader but wants more environmental policies to restrict sales. Diesel in India has taken a hit because fuel prices have been deregulated, but the introduction of small diesel engines and a proliferation of popular compact SUVs install an upward trend.


India Losing Opportunity To Become Next Great Power? Narendra Modi's Faltering Revolution

July 30, 2015 | Doug Bandow | Source : Forbes

Last year Narendra Modi won an unusually strong majority in India’s parliamentary election. Previously barred from receiving a U.S. visa because of charges that he incited sectarian violence, Modi visited the U.S. last September and was warmly welcomed by both the Obama administration and Indian-Americans. He was treated as the leader of the next great power.

India won independence in 1947 and long was ruled by the dynastic India National Congress Party. Although ethnic Indians circled the globe as entrepreneurs and traders, the Delhi government turned dirigiste economics into a state religion. Mind-numbing bureaucracies, rules, and inefficiencies were legion. Only the well-empowered and well-connected benefited from the socialist illusion that persisted into the 1980s.

Eventually modest reform came, but the Congress Party was never fully committed. Even half-hearted half-steps generated overwhelming political opposition. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party later broke the CP’s monopoly on power and made further changes, but that still was not nearly enough. Later CP governments were major disappointments. Last May the BJP, led by Modi, handed Congress its greatest defeat ever. He seemed poised to transform his nation economically. Some Americans called him the Indian Reagan.

As the anniversary of that visit approaches, the Modi dream is fading. An Economist report found him widely described as an “authoritarian” and a “megalomaniac” even by supporters. More important, by all accounts he does not believe in a liberal free market. Rather, like so many Republican politicians who routinely applaud free enterprise, he is more pro-business than pro-market. The Economist noted that “he occasionally praises small government, but the list [of official pledges] contains a striking number of big tasks for the state. Half of the goals involve grand, state-heavy expansion.” 

The Modi government exults in the fact that economic growth is up; India may finally surpass China's growth rate. Yet there is little evidence on the ground of rapid economic growth. Unfortunately, few reforms of significance have been implemented. The point is not that Delhi has done nothing, but that its failures overshadow its successes and highlight its lost opportunities.

Critics cite continuing outsize budget deficits, driven by subsidies and state infrastructure spending, as one notable shortcoming. Another is continued state direction of bank lending. Also counterproductive is the 2013 Companies Act, which discourages creation of family companies. On the election anniversary the Economist called the Modi government’s record “underwhelming.” Arun Shourie, privatization minister in the last, and more reformist, BJP government, observed last December: “when all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Unfortunately, Modi has missed the “honeymoon” period during which his political capital was at its greatest. Observed Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute: “a tepid budget, an unseemly tax row with [foreign institutional investors], and few concrete signs of allegedly high growth have dented business confidence.” Time is slipping away.


Pakistan turns up heat against powerful party in bid to secure Karachi

July 28, 2015 | Tim Craig | Source : The Washington Post

KARACHI, Pakistan — A two-year-old government effort to restore order in this Pakistani port city has halved the notoriously high murder rate, but security officials’ tactics have intensified confrontation with a powerful political movement that vows it won’t easily be subdued.

In 2013, as Karachi endured a record 2,789 homicides and a number of bombings, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered paramilitary forces known as the Pakistan Rangers into the city. Their goal was to reverse decades of lawlessness spawned by mafia groups, Islamist militants and drug cartels that had long jockeyed for local control. But one particular target has been gangsters, some of whom were ­suspected of links to the city’s ultra-influential Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

According to MQM leaders, 4,000 of their supporters have been arrested over the past two years, with some saying they were tortured for crimes they did not commit. Now, Pakistani forces appear to be cracking down on the secular party’s long-standing practice of soliciting donations from businesses to help fund its vast charitable network. 

The high-stakes question for Sharif’s government is whether the Rangers can cement the security gains in the city of 20 million without triggering more ethnic and cultural division.

“We are passing through some of the most difficult times of our history, challenging times, as the government and the military establishment have turned against us,” Muhammad Farooq Sattar, head of diplomatic affairs for MQM, said earlier this month in an interview at the party’s compound in Karachi. “MQM is being pushed to the wall.”

Twelve hours later, at dawn on July 17, Rangers stormed the party’s offices, the second such raid in four months, and arrested two senior leaders. Rangers have also plucked MQM workers and sympathizers from their homes and offices.

On the surface, MQM is just another vibrant political organization serving voters who feel oppressed — in this case, mainly Muslims known as Mohajirs who migrated to Pakistan from India during the 1947 partition that established the separate countries. But MQM workers and followers have also been accused of hundreds of murders over the years, part of what analysts and officials say has been an orchestrated attempt by the party to also use force to carve out — and keep — a grip on Karachi’s affairs.

The MQM leaders, who report to the group’s bombastic founder, Altaf Hussain, insist that they eschew violence. But they don’t deny that some of their supporters, acting independently of the organization, may have been involved in illicit activity over the years.

Whatever the case, Karachi today is a much safer place than it was.

The city recorded 1,823 homicides last year, about 1,000 fewer than in 2013, according to police statistics. That decline is continuing this year, with 554 killings reported from January through July 21.

In a sign of improvement, Karachi retail outlets reported record sales during the recent Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“The people of Karachi are taking a big sigh of relief,” said Arif Alvi, a lawmaker from the Movement for Justice Party, which has been trying to cut into MQM’s support in Karachi.

For MQM followers, however, the ongoing security operation is opening a fluid new chapter in what they describe as their ­decades-long struggle to fit into a country under the sway of a few wealthy families. Even some of the party’s rivals say the Rangers need to be mindful of potential consequences. 

“Any misstep by security forces that might seem political rather than fighting criminals will have a disastrous fallout,” said Farhatullah Babar, a senator from the Pakistan People’s Party, a group often at odds with MQM. “Instead of resolving a problem, it will invite a self-destructive crisis.” 

About 7 million Urdu-speaking Mohajirs migrated to Pakistan during the partition, and most settled in Karachi and surrounding areas of Sindh province. They say they have been repeatedly marginalized by ethnic Punjabis, Pashtuns and Sindhis with roots in the areas that became Pakistan.

Hussain, who lives in England, tapped into those grievances to rapidly build a dominant political organization with a platform of tolerance, secularism and moderation.

Supporters treat Hussain like a king; his picture is plastered on lampposts, doorways and car windows near MQM headquarters in central Karachi. The group, which claims to serve as an antidote to Islamist extremism in the city, is backed by a force of 100,000 political workers. 

During the 1990s, both Sharif, serving a previous term as prime minister, and the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto supported crackdowns on MQM amid street battles between it and rival groups. The military ruler who followed them, Pervez Musharraf, maintained an uneasy truce with the group during his tenure from 1999 until 2008.

With the party again feeling under threat, MQM leaders warn that Karachi could face a new period of crisis.

“The more pressure we face, the more they squeeze us, the more people will get upset,” said Ali Raza Abidi, one of 35 MQM lawmakers in Pakistan’s Parliament. “I will be honest and say, ‘This is racism, and it’s discrimination.’ ”

On Thursday night, after Abidi was interviewed by The Washington Post, the Rangers raided a popular seafood restaurant that he owns in Karachi, storming in and seizing video monitoring equipment, according to MQM officials. On Friday, the Rangers issued a statement saying that in the raid they had picked up a person who is a suspect in 10 murders, Pakistani media reported. 

Of the 4,000 MQM sympathizers who have been arrested over the past two years, 750 remain behind bars, according to Sattar. Forty more have died in extrajudicial killings, and 20 are missing, he said. In addition, he said, 200 have been the victims of targeted killings by rival groups.

Shuman Saleh, a 47-year property dealer and MQM supporter who was arrested in September but never charged, claims Pakistani Rangers confined him in a small wooden box for 10 days.

“I was brutally tortured and humiliated,” Saleh said. “They were asking me, ‘How much murder have you done and for whom did you collect [money]?’ ”

Adnan Habib, 30, said the Rangers took him and his younger brother from their home near Karachi University, an MQM stronghold, in May. He was also held for more than a week but never charged, he said.

“First they beat us without any reason, and then afterwards, they asked, ‘How many murders do you admit to?’ ” Habib said. “I said, ‘I am a normal worker who just does preparations for elections.’ . . . They said, ‘If you are married, we will make you impotent.’ ”

Spokesmen for the Pakistan Rangers, the Interior Ministry and the army refused several requests for comment.

But many retired Pakistani army officials and political leaders defend the Rangers, saying the drop in homicides demonstrates that MQM sympathizers were responsible for a big share of Karachi’s past violence.

The Rangers “are arresting criminals across the board,” said Masud ul-Hassan, a retired brigadier and member of the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association. 

At times, the government’s confrontation with MQM has appeared to be just another sideshow in a country where political theater and paranoia are common.

In mid-July, Hussain gave a speech railing against the Rangers and accusing them of corruption. Since then, Pakistanis have filed more than 100 criminal complaints alleging he slandered the Pakistani military — taboo in a country that has lived through three military coups but still reveres its armed forces.

“He has badly damaged the political image of that party,” said Abdul Qayyum, a sitting senator and leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party.

In June 2014, British authorities arrested Hussain at his house in London and charged him with money laundering. He remains free on bail awaiting trial.

Pakistani authorities also appear to be clamping down on MQM’s access to money.

For years, the party has solicited donations — which critics say amounted to shakedowns — from Karachi-area businesses to fund charitable efforts that include a hospital, ambulance service and cash payments to needy families. This year, however, the Rangers are threatening businesses with arrest if they contribute, resulting in a 75 percent drop in donations, Sattar said.

But some analysts predict the Rangers’ actions may end up helping the party. In the past, when the Mohajir community feels threatened, it has rallied behind MQM candidates, said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies.

“If they are trying to disrupt MQM, they instead may just give it another lease on life,” he said, noting that an MQM candidate easily won a special electionfor a Karachi-area seat in the National Assembly in April.

Sattar can’t guarantee, however, that MQM workers will remain focused solely on politics in the coming months. Fifteen thousand workers now in hiding will eventually emerge in search of money and support, he said.

“If you have this mind-set that we are responsible for every problem,” he said, “then where do we go from here?”


HDFC Bank to roll out 'micro-ATMs' across India

July 25, 2015 | Partha Sinha | Source : The Times of India

MUMBAI: HDFC Bank is rolling out handheld machines across India that could work just like ATMs through which customers in rural areas, where setting up full-fledged ATM kiosks is proving to be commercially unviable, can carry out most banking transactions.

Launched less than a year ago, currently through about 1,550 such 'micro ATMs' the bank sees transactions aggregating about Rs 1 crore a month in rural areas. Going forward, these machines could be used in the rural areas for payment to pensioners and direct benefit transfers under MGNREGA, and in the urban areas to ease pressure on bank officers in branches that are crowded with customers, said Vikas Pandey, head-strategic projects, HDFC Bank.

Similar to swipe machines used for debit and credit cards payment at malls, shops, restaurants and other merchant establishments, micro-ATMs are capable of even biometric verifications using Aadhaar, including instant e-KYC for customers. "After an Aadhaar number is fed into the machine and biometric (verification) is done for the same Aadhaar number, it's connected to the UIDAI server which almost instantaneously verifies and gives out the results for KYC," the HDFC Bank official said.

The e-KYC is in addition to cash withdrawal and deposit, account statement, disbursement of preapproved loans and several other banking transactions that these micro-ATMs are capable of carrying out. For example, in some villages in Punjab, bank's customers are informed of a prefixed time and location (usually the gurdwara in the locality) where they could carry out banking transactions on micro-ATMs, bank officials said. Now the bank is in the process of integrating pension payments for the Tamil Nadu government, which will use biometric verification for added security, Pandey said.

The bank sees transactions worth about Rs 1 crore a month in rural areas through about 1,550 such 'micro ATMs'.


Will not allow Chinese military bases , Maldives assures India

July 24, 2015 | Suhasini Haider | Source : The Hindu 

The Maldives government’s move to allow foreign ownership of its islands will not affect India’s strategic interests, said Maldives President Abdullah Yameen.

The Maldives government’s move to allow foreign ownership of its islands will not affect India’s strategic interests, said Maldives President Abdullah Yameen on Thursday, after ratifying the constitutional amendment on freeholds that could benefit countries like China, that are eager to build land holdings in the Indian ocean. “Our sovereignty is not on offer," the new Maldivian Vice President Ahmed Adeeb told The Hindu in an exclusive interview, adding, "We don’t want to give any of our neighbours, including India..any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours.”

Blaming the opposition parties in the Maldives for raising concerns over the law, Mr. Adeeb said, "The opposition wants to say they will come and run military bases, but that is not the reality. We are looking at projects like Singapore's Marina Bay Sands or Dubai’s Palm islands. We are not looking at strategic projects."

Mr. Adeeb, who was sworn in on Wednesday also disclosed that the Maldives was trying to “create the environment” for PM Narendra Modi to visit the Maldives, after he cancelled the trip in March, and said that Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar was expected to visit. While the MEA didn’t confirm any dates for Mr. Jaishankar’s visit there, a senior official told The Hindu the Foreign Secretary “may make a visit soon.”

The conciliatory statements from Male come a day after India raised concerns over the land law amendment that was passed overnight on Tuesday by the Maldivian People’s Majlis (parliament). To a question from The Hindu about whether the concerns had been addressed, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, “The government watches closely all issues that pertain to India’s national security. In the context [of the Maldives], I would refer you to the text of President Yameen’s statement on the issue today.” In his statement, President Yameen specifically referred to India’s objections to China building military bases, or using reclaimed islands for them, as it is accused of doing in the South China Sea.

"The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone,” Mr. Yameen said. The MEA’s remarks indicate that India is willing to accept the Maldivian President’s assurances at face value for now. However it is clear that given the parameters laid out for land ownership, including investments of over 1 billion dollars for projects where 70% of the land has been reclaimed, China will be the obvious beneficiary.

President Xi Jinping’s 21st century new “Maritime Silk Route” hinges on projects in the Maldives, and during his visit to the Maldives in September 2014, Mr. Xi discussed several big projects, like the 1.5 Km “China-Maldives friendship bridge” project connecting Male with the airport island Hulhule. Moreover, with more than a million tourists last year, Chinese nationals now account for the largest arrivals in these tourism-dependent islands, and Chinese hotel and resort chains, who so far were only allowed to lease not own lands, will be keen to move in. “Even if there isn’t a military base being planned, it is China that will benefit the most at present,” said one diplomat.

In sharp contrast, India has seen a dip in its relations with the Maldives, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit there as part of his “Sagar Yatra” in the Indian ocean this March. The Indian decision came over internal disturbances in the Maldives over the arrest and rough treatment of former President Mohammad Nasheed. Since then, the government has kept its communications with Male at low-ebb, and even when PM Modi telephoned his counterparts in Islamic SAARC countries like 

Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to wish them for the Ramzaan month in June, he didn’t called President Yameen. It remains to be seen whether President Yameen’s recent moves for reconciliation with Mr. Nasheed and his party the MDP will evoke a thaw from India, beginning with a visit from FS Jaishankar who has visited all SAARC nations except the Maldives so far.

Since July 1st, the Maldivian government has held at least three rounds of talks with MDP representatives, and extended Mr. Nasheed’s house-arrest as he serves a 13-year jail term on terrorism charges. On Wednesday, President Yameen also sacked his vice-president Jameel Ahmed, a known Nasheed-baiter who belonged to the pro-Sharia DHQ party, and replaced him with his 34-year old tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb instead. “We are trying for a political reconciliation,” Mr. Adeeb told The Hindu, confirming that the government’s prosecutor-general would now assist Mr. Nasheed with his appeal against his sentence.

As a result of the talks, the Nasheed’s MDP party surprised all by backing both the appointment of the new vice president as well as the amendment for land ownership in parliament. The moves also come even as the the Maldives prepares to celebrate its 50th independence day anniversary, and speculation has risen of a deal to free Mr. Nasheed if a political reconciliation, that India has been urging, comes through.


Why there have been no earth shaking ideas from India : The post -independence educational institute was not designed for world class excellence, but rather to train students.

July 24, 2015 | Shubash Kak | Source: Daily O

In a recent speech, NR Narayana Murthy claimed that during the last 60 years India has neither produced any major invention nor an idea that has led to significant changes in the world. In contrast, he said just MIT produced ten major inventions that include the GPS (Global Positioning System), the bionic prostheses and the microchip.

One may quibble with Murthy's examples because the history of modern inventions is tangled but his broader point is correct. He is implying that in the prior period, India had produced world-class scientists such as JC Bose, SN Bose, Meghnad Saha, CV Raman, not to mention the brilliant self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. There are no comparable figures who have graced Indian science since. India is stuck in mediocrity in the sciences as well as the arts and is falling behind other countries such as China, Brazil, and Korea.

Three of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century were Indian: Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Aurobindo. Can we name a figure of comparable stature in the recent times? The post-independence educational institution was not designed for world-class excellence, but rather to train students. If the recognition was not to come from peers around the world, it could only be granted in terms of administrative titles. This fits in with the social scene where pursuit of power is the most desirable objective. In this environment, to paraphrase WB Yeats, "The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity". We see this echoed even in the halls of the Parliament and national assemblies.

One should also realise that doing fundamental work in science requires much greater resources now than was the case in the earlier period. For example, the GPS was a US government project that began in 1973 to overcome the limitations of the earlier navigation systems. The research on this was farmed out to many universities and contractors and it became fully operational in 1995. In 1980, when I was offered a position at North Carolina State University (which I ended up declining), one of the things they dangled before me was research on a GPS project at the nearby Research Triangle Institute.

The academic scene has become global. Since Indian universities are not funded at the same level as are Western universities, some of the best minds leave India. Indians have made major contributions to science on the world stage from their perches abroad, and they are in the forefront of cutting-edge technology and entrepreneurship. Individuals have also made outstanding contributions from their positions in India but this has rarely led to the creation of a world-recognised school of excellence.

If we accept the proposition that India has not been hospitable to the creative mind in the recent past, what might be the reasons for it? It could not be cultural, because the earlier period was more productive. In my view, the problem with the Indian universities and national laboratories is one of effective review and assessment. Not only individuals, but departments, and colleges ought to go through frequent review that has consequences. The administration needs to be granted more autonomy, with structures of oversight, which can only be realised by systemic changes. As things stand, there is excessive centralisation of power at the ministry. The charter under which many universities operate is too restrictive. For example, IIT administration cannot open a new department even if the ministry agreed with the need. The act under which the IITs were chartered describes the departments that are to be run. A new department can only be added if the Parliament changes the charter!

Summarising, the ecosystem of the Indian university needs to be changed for the current culture cannot sustain creativity. We need checks and balances at many different levels and a system that rewards the creative and the hard-working. Otherwise, Narayana Murthy's assessment of the past 60 years will become the prophecy for the next 60.


Pakistan to train 200,000 workers for jobs in Qatar before 2022

July 22, 2015 | Victoria Scott | Source: Doha News

The Pakistani government has said it is training some 200,000 of its nationals to work as blue-collar workers in Qatar to help build the Gulf country’s infrastructure in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, according to media reports.

If the new initiative is successful, the number of Pakistani expats in Qatar would effectively triple over the next seven years.

Speaking to Pakistan Today, Provincial Labour Minister Raja Ashfaq Sarwar said that the country is developing a new initiative that would give employees vocational training, vaccinations, security clearance and basic English language lessons before they leave the country.

During a visit to Qatar in May, Sarwar apparently told the Qatari government that his country would also train future blue-collar workers to have an awareness of industrial safety and give them information about the dangers of human traffickers, as well as advice on how to avoid them.

Many laborers fall victim to unscrupulous manpower agencies who demand large payments for visas before the workers arrive in Qatar.

Sarwar said that two government committees have been established to make the process of finding jobs more transparent, and their work would include the provision of passports and visas for workers.

‘Not a bad paymaster’

Aside from the announcement of these efforts to combat human traffickers, the Pakistani minister did not comment on Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system and its restrictions on freedom of movement for expats.

But political economist Mobeen Ahmed Chughtai told Pakistan Today that although Qatar was “not known to be a bad paymaster, working and living conditions of foreign labor in Qatar have always been a controversial subject.”

The labor minister’s announcement follows a visit to Pakistan by Qatar’s Emir in March, the first trip to the country by a Qatari leader since 1999, according to MOFA.

It also comes after an an appeal from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for Qatar to allow more foreign workers into the country.

There are currently some 100,000 Pakistanis living here, in various blue and white-collar jobs, and their remittances are an important part of their home country’s economy.

Tripling their number in Qatar is a move that Sarwar said could help ease unemployment figures at home:

“Government in collaboration with private sector will train these skilled and semi-skilled workers who will bring foreign exchange of more than 60 billion rupees annually to Pakistan that will also raise the standard of living of their families.”

New flights

The announcement coincides with news that Qatar Airways is expanding its services to Pakistan.

This week, it launched flights to Sialkot and Faisalabad, bringing the airline’s tally of routes into the country to six. Sialkot flights will depart four times a week, and Faisalabad three times a week.

The other Pakistani airports served by Qatar Airways are Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar.

Next month, an additional Pakistani destination, Multan, will also be added.

Thoughts?


India earns $100 million launching 45 foreign satellites

July 22, 2015 | Source: The Hindu

India has earned about USD 100 million launching 45 foreign satellites till date and revenue from its commercial space missions is poised to grow with another 28 foreign satellites planned to be put into orbit between 2015 and 2017.

This information was given by Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh in a written reply in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday while providing details of revenue earned by Antrix — the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) — from launch of foreign satellites.

Mr. Singh said Antrix has signed agreements for launching 28 satellites of six countries — Algeria, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Singapore and the US during 2015-17.

Until now, 45 satellites from 19 countries have been launched by the ISRO and the income generated through this amounts to around 17 million USD and 78.5 million Euros(85 million USD), he said.

Singh also informed that the government has sanctioned 15 smaller PSLV launchers worth Rs 3,090 crore which would be built during 2017-2020.

In a response to another question, Singh elaborated on the initiation of chalking out a roadmap for the country’s space programmes in addressing short-term and long-term areas.

On other issues, Singh said the expenditure on the ground system of the proposed SAARC satellite project will be borne by the regional bloc countries while India will bear the expenses on its building and launching.

“While the cost towards building and launching a satellite will be met by the government of India, the cost towards ground system is expected to be sourced by respective SAARC countries,” Mr. Singh said in his reply.

“The objective of this project is to develop a satellite for the SAARC region that enables a full range of services to all our neighbours in the areas of telecommunications and broadcasting applications like television, DTH, tele-education and disaster management,” he added.

Incidentally, India has maintained that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious SAARC satellite project was a “gift” by the country to its neighbours.


Govt says caste data will be made public at appropriate time | Chetan Chauhan | Source: Hindustan Times

The government formed an expert panel headed by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya on Thursday to analyse 4.6 million entries from independent India’s first caste census that has turned into a charged political issue ahead of the Bihar polls, with parties demanding the data be made public.

The decision was taken in a meeting of the Union cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the ministries of tribal affairs as well as social justice and empowerment to nominate other members of the committee which is expected to file its findings in a year.

About 180 million rural households were surveyed across India for the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, the provisional results of which were released this month with the aim to identify the root cause of poverty and ensure an efficient delivery system for welfare schemes.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley said that states should send their recommendations for caste consolidation expeditiously to the Panagariya committee instead of politicising the issue.

“The caste data will be made public at the appropriate time after the process of classification is complete,” he told a press conference.

The census has become a political hot potato with the BJP’s rivals, particularly in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that have complex caste equations, alleging that the government is not releasing the data as it is wary of its electoral fallout.

The CPI demanded on Thursday the data be disclosed so that special programmes can be planned to uplift those who have been maltreated and suppressed in the name of caste, joining a growing clamour from parties like the Congress, SP, RJD and JD(U), that signals a tough monsoon session ahead for the government.

Experts pointed out that the two caste surveys of 1931 and 2011 were conducted in different social scenarios.

P Padmanabha, registrar general of India in 1978, said that in 1931 people preferred to be listed under a higher caste status.

“A number of caste associations were formed and overnight honorific caste names were adopted, showing descent from Brahmins or Rajputs, etc. Various ambitious castes quickly perceived the chances of raising their status,” she wrote in a report as census commissioner.

Eighty years later, the situation has turned around, as claiming to be backward means entitlement to government benefits. This is a major concern for social sector experts looking at the 2011 caste data.


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Government Gives Nod to India-Canada Civil Aviation Pact

July 16, 2015 | All India | Press Trust of India | Source: NDTV

NEW DELHI:  The government today approved the signing of a pact between India and Canada to enhance
technical knowledge in the field of civil aviation and deepen bilateral cooperation between them.

The Union Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which also seeks to foster greater commercial and economic cooperation between the two countries.

"An appropriate platform shall be formalised for the exchange of views on the possibilities of fostering greater commercial/economic cooperation between the two countries in the areas of civil aviation," an official statement said while underlining the key features of the MoU.

"Both the nations will also have a cooperation programme in the areas of safety of aircraft operations and related issues that will provide more up-to-date knowledge to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to make it familiar with best international practices and latest International Civil Aviation Organisation's safety oversight programme requirements," the statement said.

Apart from these features, Indian firms could benefit from the exchange of technical knowhow with Canadian companies as aviation industry is far more developed in Canada.

"Reciprocally, Canadian companies could gain from enhanced access to the fast developing civil aviation industry in India," the statement said


India and Pakistan blame each other for fighting along border

July 16, 2015 | Associated Press | Source: The Guardian

India and Pakistan have traded blame for a series of firefights and shelling over the past two days along their border in the disputed Kashmir region that killed five civilians and wounded nine people.

On Thursday, four people were killed and five wounded in artillery fire that struck Pakistani villages near the eastern city of Sialkot. Islamabad said India was responsible for the casualties.

India’s paramilitary Border Security Force, meanwhile, blamed Pakistan for shooting at an Indian border post and for firing mortar shells that landed in a border village on Wednesday, killing one woman and wounding four people, including a soldier at a border post.

Pakistan also claimed that an Indian spy drone had violated its airspace on Wednesday and that the Pakistani military shot it down. India’s army rejected that allegation, saying none of its drones “crossed into the Pakistani side”.

A senior officer of India’s Border Security Force said skirmishes between the two sides continued on Thursday morning and that Indian troops only responded to safeguard Indian villagers from Pakistani mortar shells. 

On Thursday, both Islamabad and Delhi summoned each other’s diplomatic envoys in protest at the latest exchanges. Pakistan also denounced the alleged violation of its airspace.

India’s foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, on Thursday insisted that all firefights and mortar shelling over the past two days were initiated by Pakistani troops. He told reporters that the type of drone Pakistan claimed it had downed was not of Indian design or part of India’s arsenal.

The latest exchange of fire came despite a meeting of the two countries’ prime ministers last week on the sidelines of a summit in Russia in an effort to ease tensions.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over competing claims toKashmir. A 2003 ceasefire has largely held despite small but regular skirmishes, which the two sides routinely blame on one another.

While the highly militarised line of control in Kashmir is guarded by the armies of India and Pakistan, each country keeps a separate paramilitary border force guarding their lower-altitude frontier defined by coils of razor wire that snake across foothills populated by ancient villages, tangled bushes and fields of rice and corn.


India awaits windfall from Iran nuclear deal

July 16, 2015 | Ravi Agrawal and Sugam Pokharel | Source: CNN

As a major net importer of oil, India has already benefited from the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Tehran. Oil prices have declined in recent days, driven largely by expectations of more Iranian crude hitting the market. According to India's Finance Ministry, power-hungry India saves nearly $1 billion in import costs for every dollar drop in global crude prices.

India is particularly well positioned to benefit because many of its refineries are designed to receive Iranian-grade crude, analysts said. On Wednesday, after the agreement was signed, Mumbai's Sensex closed up 1% on hopes of cheaper fuel. Shares in the Indian Oil Corporation Limited are up 5% since Tuesday.

But it's not all good news.

Since India refused to fully take part in the U.S. and EU-led sanctions on Tehran, Indian businesses have made substantial inroads in Iran, and the sanctioned country is now India's third-largest trading partner. Exports to Iran nearly doubled to $3.3 billion between 2009 and 2013, according to India's Ministry of Commerce.

Now, Indian businesses will begin to face stiff global competition.

"The sanctions provided us market access in Iran. However, we have to be in the market based on quality and competitiveness," said S. C. Ralhan, president of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations.

"We need to revisit our strategy so as to build on the success which we received during the sanction period," he said.

Pankaj Bansal, a Delhi-based businessman who runs the export firm TMA International, admits that the Iran deal will bring greater international competition for his business, and a new challenge.

"I am worried, but at the same time, we are gearing up to meeting the competition," said Bansal.

Iran accounts for some 40% of TMA International's revenues.

"With the sanctions being lifted, eventually the demand for all goods in the Iranian economy, whether for consumer goods or electrical goods, will grow," said Bansal. "We will lose somewhere but we may gain somewhere else."

While Tehran has benefited from trade with Indian businesses, some worry that Iran will now be in a position to pick and choose profitable trades on the global market.

"Iran will show significant diplomatic strength in getting the best deal from India in terms of its business interest," said M. P. Ram Mohan, an Associate Professor at India's TERI University.

"We can expect a tough customer in Iran, but a customer we will be far more comfortable to deal with."


India expands medicine price control list to include 39 more drugs

July 16, 2015 | Zeba Siddiqui | Source: Reuters

India has extended price caps to an additional 39 drugs ranging from commonly used diabetes treatments to antibiotics, in the government's latest effort to improve the affordability of medicines.

Wide-ranging price cuts over the past year have hit several drugmakers in India and have been opposed by many in the industry, who say drug prices in the country are already among the lowest in the world. The new drugs join a price control list that covers more than 500 drugs.

The latest move will include medicines made by foreign drugmakers such as Abbott Laboratories (ABT.N) and GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK.L), as well as domestic firms such as Lupin Ltd (LUPN.NS), Cadila Healthcare Ltd (CADI.NS) and Ipca Ltd (IPCA.NS).

The move comes after a parliamentary committee said in April that the scope of price control needed to be enlarged even further. In India, the majority of people live on less than $2 a day and health insurance is scarce.

But a study conducted by healthcare research firm IMS and sponsored by the main business association of multinational drugmakers operating in India argues that price controls are not an effective strategy to improve healthcare access for Indian patients.

Price caps benefit high-income patients rather than the low-income patients and put pressure on profit margins for small and mid-sized companies, said the study, which was released on Tuesday.


India lodges protest with Pakistan over ceasefire violation along LoC

July 16, 2015 | Source: India TV

New Delhi: India today lodged a strong protest with Pakistan's envoy in New Delhi, Abdul Basit, over ceasefire violation in Akhnoor sector in Jammu in which one woman was killed.

Government sources said that India lodged the protest both in Islamabad as well.

"Our High Commissioner in Islamabad raised the issue with the Pakistan Foreign Office and Pakistan's High Commissioner in Delhi was also conveyed India's concerns regarding ceasefire violation in which one woman was killed and some people injured," sources told PTI.

On Wednesday, Pakistan Rangers violated ceasefire twice and indulging in firing and mortar shelling in the Akhnoor sector.

They targeted civilian areas with small-arms fire and shelling at Bhalwal Bharth, Malabela and Siderwan. A 42-year-old woman, identified as Poli Devi, lost her life in the firing. Six civials, including two soldiers, were also injured.

Meanwhile, Pakistan yesterday also said that it has shot down an Indian 'spy' drone which it alleged was being used for aerial photography near the LoC, a claim dismissed by India.

"Some reports of a drone crash in POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) are being referred to. No drone or UAV crash of Indian Army has taken place," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

The border trouble comes days after PM Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif held talks on the sidelines of a regional summit in Ufa in Russia.


India simplifies foreign investment rules, banks to benefit

July 16, 2015 | Source: Reuters

(Reuters) - India has simplified rules for foreign investment in companies by clubbing together different categories, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Thursday, clearing the way for private sector banks to raise fresh capital.

The move, flagged by Jaitley in his February budget, lifted shares in lenders like Yes Bank, Axis Bank and Kotak Mahindra Bank, which will find it easier to attract foreign capital up to a 74 percent cap. Yes Bank CEO Rana Kapoor called the move "a significant reform for the economy as a whole" that would boost capital flows and ease investment decisions.

"This will enhance flexibility of various capital raising options," he said in a statement. Yes Bank, India's No.5 private sector lender by assets, plans to raise as much as $1 billion by selling shares to local or foreign investors.

India's dominant state banks are hobbled by bad loans and need to raise tens of billions of dollars in capital to meet prudential norms. The private sector is more dynamic, but a lower cap on foreign portfolio investment had made it difficult for some to raise capital.

"One of the most important decisions in relation to the investment is the introduction of composite caps for simplification of foreign direct investments," Jaitley told reporters after a cabinet meeting. Jaitley said foreign direct investment, foreign portfolio investment and investments by non-resident Indians would be "clubbed together under a composite cap".

Previously, foreign capital had been subject to varying restrictions - a legacy of India's socialist past and its lingering reluctance to allow capital to move freely across its borders.

The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), part of the Commerce Ministry, proposed simplifying the investment rules after Prime Minister Narendra Modi won an election last year by pledging to boost investment and jobs.

For banks, the shift will lead to an increase in their effective free float - or the number of shares that can be easily traded. That in turn would lead to an increase in their weighting in benchmark indexes tracked by many fund investors.

India has also allowed 100 percent investment in pharmaceuticals and railway infrastructure under a so-called automatic route that does not require official approvals.

Sectoral foreign investment caps have been raised in the insurance and defence sectors to 49 percent. No major deals have yet been announced, however, reflecting a lack of clarity over how India treats different types of capital. 


India to grow at 7.8%; land, tax reforms delay a risk: ADB

July 16, 2015 | Source: Deccan Herald

ADB today retained India's growth projection for the current fiscal at 7.8 per cent, making it the fastest growing economy, but cautioned that delay in land and taxation reforms could hinder growth.

In its Supplement to the Asian Development Outlook, which was released in March, ADB lowered China's growth forecast to 7 per cent for 2015, from the earlier 7.2 per cent. For 2016, it is forecast to decelerate to 6.8 per cent.

"India's growth forecasts remain at 7.8 per cent for this fiscal year and 8.2 per cent for next, supported by a healthy monsoon and new investment — and assuming concrete progress on reform," Asian Development Bank said.

Indian economy grew 7.3 per cent in 2014-15.
It also added that "risks to growth prospects could emerge from further delay in passing some legislations crucial to easing land acquisition for industry and to implementing a uniform goods and services tax (GST)".

The land acquisition bill, which aims to make it easier for industry to acquire land for industrial corridors and other purposes, is facing stiff political opposition.

The GST Bill, is currently being scrutinised by a Rajya Sabha Parliamentary Committee. The government proposes to roll out GST, which would subsume excise, service tax and other local levies, from April 2016.

As regards the price situation, ADB said inflation remains low in India. It retained 2015 and 2016 inflation forecast at 5 per cent and 5.5 per cent respectively.

ADB's estimates is, however, lower than the 8-8.5 per cent growth estimates of Indian government for the 2015-16 fiscal beginning April. It is better than 7.5 per cent projection by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

ADB has also trimmed the growth projection for developing Asia because of subdued economic activity in US and China. It expects developing Asia to grow at 6.1 per cent in 2015, slower than 6.3 per cent estimated earlier.

ADB lowered the growth outlook for major industrial economies — the US, euro area and Japan — to 1.6 per cent, from the March projection of 2.2 per cent for 2015.

For East Asia, it said, growth would be subdued and GDP would expand slower at 6.2 per cent in both 2015 and 2016.

As regards Asia's largest economy China, ADB said the growth was slower than expected in the first half of the year. For full 2015, it has been revised down to 7 per cent and 6.8 per cent in 2016.

For India, it said, the pace of GDP growth is expected to accelerate to 8.2 per cent in 2016-17, driven by continued service sector growth and removal of procedural bottlenecks that have hampered investment flow.

"A healthy monsoon extending to early July has seen summer crop sowing increase 57.6 per cent over the last year and is expected to boost growth in agriculture. The number of new investment projects announced has continued to increase for the fourth consecutive quarter during the quarter ended June 2015, indicating brighter investment sentiment," it said.

It added that improvements in indirect tax collection in the first quarter of the current fiscal points to some recovery in manufacturing. The index of industrial production rose at an average rate of 3.2 per cent in January–May 2015, double the 1.6 per cent growth in the same period of 2014.

"Muted hikes in rural wages and minimum support prices and a healthy monsoon would help rein in food inflation, while low crude oil prices globally bode well for fuel inflation as diesel and gasoline prices have both been deregulated," ADB said.

For Asia as a whole, ADB anticipates that food prices would drop by 11 per cent in 2015, much sharper than 6 per cent anticipated earlier.

On the global oil prices, the ADO supplement retained the March forecast of USD 65 per barrel for Brent crude on average in 2015 but revised down the projection for 2016 from USD 75 to USD 70.


India's top court seeks review of drug pricing policy

July 16, 2015 | Zeba Siddiqui | Source: Reuters

India's Supreme Court has asked the federal government to reexamine its pricing policy for essential medicines after a group of non-governmental organizations challenged the provisions, a lawyer involved in the case said.

The Supreme Court labeled the formula by which prices of essential medicines are currently being fixed in India as "unreasonable and irrational", the lawyer said.

The Indian government currently caps the prices of more than 500 essential medicines. But the All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN), a group of NGOs, alleged in a public interest litigation that prices are fixed at very high levels, which makes drugs unaffordable for many.

AIDAN has also alleged that India's current national list of essential medicines does not include many life-saving drugs.

The court on Wednesday directed AIDAN to come up within six weeks with a comprehensive plan to regulate drug prices. The government will have to respond to that within six months, said Gopal Dabade, a member of the AIDAN.

Drug prices are a contentious issue in India, where a majority of people live on less than $2 a day and health insurance is scarce.

A Indian parliamentary committee said in April that the scope of price control needed to be expanded to make all the drugs available in the country more affordable.

Wide-ranging price cuts over the past year have hit both local and foreign drugmakers inIndia and have been opposed by many in the industry, who have said drug prices in the country are already among the lowest in the world.


India top recipient of US economic assistance

July 16, 2015 | Chidanand Rajghatta | TNN News | Source: The Economic Times

WASHINGTON: India has been identified as the largest recipient of US economic assistance over a 66-year period in inflation-adjusted dollars although Washington's pet allies, Israel and Pakistan, received far more American dole in per capita terms.

Data compiled by USAID and released recently shows that India received $ 65.1 billion in economic assistance from the US in inflation-adjusted dollars in the period 1946-2012, closely followed by Israel, which received $ 65 billion. 

But considering Israel's population is less than 10 million compared to India's 1.2 billion-plus, the Jewish state has received 100 times more aid per capita than India. US assistance to India currently is only around $ 100 million after New Delhi embarked on a course of weaning itself away from aid to trade in the 1990s.

The difference between India and US client states such as Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, South Korea and others becomes all the more stark when one examines the American military assistance - negligible in the case of India -- to these countries.

In addition to the $ 65.1 billion in economic aid, Israel received a staggering $ 134 billion in military support during the same period to enable its survival.

Pakistan, which received $ 44.4 billion in economic aid for a population one-sixth of India's, also got with $12.9 billion in military assistance from the US through regular channels, not counting the billions it bilked more recently in the form of coalition support funds. 

In contrast, India received a modest $897 million in military assistance (mostly in the aftermath of the India-China war in 1962) placing it 47 out of a list of 193 countries that have received US military aid.

More recently, India has been purchasing billions of dollars worth of US military equipment and technology on commercial terms. 


India Working With 27 Countries on Earthquake Early-Warning System

July 16, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: NDTV

Taking a lead, India is working on an ambitious project with scientists, geophysicists, and seismologists of 27 countries to develop an early-warning system for "prediction" of earthquake.

The warning could be the issued some seconds before the earthquake strikes. India is also planning to launch a satellite to track the changes that take place on earth's surface before the tremors, a top official has said.

"If the effort is successful and the model is developed, we could reduce the number of human casualties substantially.

Before earthquakes, some chemical changes under the earth's surface and some physical displacements on the surface occur and hoped if parameters are developed to observe, study and analyse these changes, the quakes can be predicted.

"For this purpose, India is going to launch a satellite by 2019 which will send images of surface displacement up to the accuracy of few centimetres," Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, Shailesh Nayak said.

He was speaking at a summit on 'Combating Earthquake Disasters' in Kolkata yesterday.

He added that "we are working on an ambitious project with scientists, geophysicists, and seismologists of 27 countries to develop an early warning system for prediction of earthquake."

Nayak said in the coming years deep bore-wells filled with sensors and other equipment will be put in place in all seismically-active regions in the country to sense the chemical and physical changes under the earth's surface.

India has been conducting experiments in the Koyna river valley in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra.

In India, 22 states are prone to earthquakes of various intensities like severe, high, moderate and low, and urban explosion and densely populated cities with high-rise buildings makes the quake scenario worse.

Sankar Kumar Nath, Professor, Geology and Geophysics, IIT Kharagpur, O P Mishra, senior scientist and DDG (Seismology) India Meteorological Department, Ambarish Ghosh, Prof of Civil Engineering & Head, School of Disaster Mitigation Engineering, Indian Institute of Engineering Science & Technology, Shibpur and Lt Gen N C Marwah, Member, National Disaster Management Authority were among those who participated in the conference.

Speakers emphasised on strict adherence to and implementation of 'Building Structure Codes' as in Japan to make them quake-resistant.


Skill India: Modi says India should emerge as HR capital

July 16, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: Moneycontrol

India should emerge as the 'human resource capital' of the world as China has become a global 'manufacturing factory', Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday while launching the ambitious 'Skill India' Mission as part of the government's "war against poverty".

He said India has the potential to provide a workforce of about 4 to 5 crore to the world if the capabilities of the countrymen are honed through proper and dynamic training in skills and added that the government is focussed on this aspect.

Noting that the world and technology is changing fast, he said, "We need to have futuristic vision and prepare plans for the next 10 years" and advocated the need for regular interaction between industry and technology experts.

"If China is like a 'manufacturing factory' of the world, India should become the 'human resource capital' of the world. That should be our target and we should lay emphasis on that," Modi said addressing an event here to launch the 'Skill India' Mission which was attended by several union ministers and Chief Ministers of various states.

Observing that there are several developed nations which have wealth but not human resources, he said India, in the near future, will be the only country that can cater to this requirement if proper skills are developed here.

"People of India have huge capabilities and this has been recognised the worldover since centuries. We have forgotten the skills. We have to regain those," he said, adding the training institutes in India need to be dynamic.

Asserting that there is no reason for unemployment and poverty in the country, he said "the foremost priority of the government is to create jobs. For this, we have to create proper structures and this mission is an effort in that direction." He said while the Indian IITs made a name for themselves globally in the last century, it is the turn of ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes) to do the same this century.

Prime Minister said the 'Skill India' Mission, under which the government has set a target of providing skill training to 40.02 crore people by 2022, is a war against poverty.

"Through a policy-driven approach we have waged a war against poverty and we have to win this war. We have to form an army from among the poor. Every poor is my soldier. With their potential, we have to win this war," he said.

He also launched a 'Skill Loan' scheme under which credit ranging from Rs 5,000-1.5 lakhs will be made available to 34 lakh youth across the country seeking to attend skill development programmes over the next five years. Sanction letters for the first-ever Skill Loans were handed out by the Prime Minister to aspiring trainees.

He unveiled the 'Skill India' logo along with launching the National Skill Development Mission, the National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneur ship 2015, Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) scheme on the 'World Youth Skill Day'.

"The poor people are no more willing to beg but to earn through self-respect....Skill India initiative is not merely to fill pockets but to give a sense of self-confidence to the poor," he said at the function attended by Union Ministers including Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar, Suresh Prabhu, Rajiv Pratap Rudy.

Through this mission, the government wants to fulfil dreams of people and intent is to do in a structured way, taking states together, he said in the presence of Chief Ministers including Rajasthan's Vasundhara Raje, Maharashtra's Devendra Fadnavis, Haryana's Manohar Lal Khattar and Punjab's Parkash Singh Badal. Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia also attended.

"In poor families, parents usually tell their wards to learn some skill so that they can stand on their feet. If this is an household issue, why it has not reached the ears of the government. We have heard this pain," Modi said, adding that its poor people who are left behind in the race.

Stating that some work has been done in this area, Modi said the Centre, in co-ordination with the state governments, wants to take this initiative forward in a new way. 

Talking about demographic advantage, Modi said although 65 percent of the country's population is less than 35 years, how would they meet challenges if they are not skilled or else they will "become challenge for us". He said the government wants "opportunities to increase" and "that is why we have not restricted ourselves to skills, we have focussed on entrepreneur ship."

Modi said, "We have to create structures and mechanisms to nurture youngsters, enabling them to find employment".


China’s middle class surges, while India’s lags behind

July 15, 2015 | Rakesh Kochhar | Source: Pew Research Center

China and India both succeeded in slashing poverty in the decade from 2001 to 2011. But while that contributed to a rapidly growing middle class in China, it did little to increase the number of Indians who could be considered middle income, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.

From 2001 to 2011, the share of Chinese who are middle income jumped from 3% to 18%. But the share of Indians who are middle income was almost unchanged, inching up from 1% in 2001 to 3% in 2011, the latest year for which data are available.

Shanghai’s gleaming skyline and the ubiquitous “Made in China” tag are among the visible symbols of this economic divide. According to International Monetary Fund data, China is now the world’s largest economy, producing 16% of all goods and services, whereas India accounts for only 7%. As recently as 1991, China and India each accounted for about 4% of global output. The two Asian neighbors, while both demographic giants, appear to be on different trajectories.

The Pew Research study, which covered 111 countries, divided people in China and India into five income groups: the poor (who live on $2 or less daily), low income ($2.01-10), middle income ($10.01-20), upper-middle income ($20.01-50), and high income (more than $50). These figures are expressed in 2011 purchasing power parities and 2011 prices. In annual terms, the middle-income range translates to an income of $14,600 to $29,200 for a family of four.

The one shared achievement between the two countries was their success in cutting the poverty rate. From 2001 to 2011, the poverty rate in China fell from 41% to 12% and the poverty rate in India dropped from 35% to 20%. That moved 356 million Chinese and 133 million Indians out of poverty, or 489 million people in total. This is almost three-quarters of the number of people that emerged from poverty globally.

China was more successful than India in pushing its population closer to a middle-income lifestyle. The transition out of poverty resulted in an increase in low-income Chinese, with their share in the population rising from 57% in 2001 to 66% in 2011. But the share of middle income grew by even more, from 3% to 18%. Also, the share of China’s population that is upper-middle income or high income climbed from less than 1% to 5%.

By contrast, the transition out of poverty in India mainly resulted in an increase in the share of its low-income population, from 63% in 2001 to 77% in 2011. The middle-income share rose only from 1% to 3%, and about 1% of India’s population is estimated to have had an upper-middle-income or high-income standard of living in 2011.

China has pulled away from India in part because it initiated economic reforms in the late 1970s, more than a decade before India launched its own reforms in 1991. China’s economic reforms are also seen as deeper and more far-reaching, resulting in superior trade and investment outcomes.

But this is not necessarily unmitigated good news for China. Research shows that rising prosperity in China is going hand-in-hand with rising inequality. There is also concern about a stock market bubble in China and what it might mean for the country’s near-term economic future.

On the other hand, there is guarded optimism that India may push further forward economically under its new government. Other estimates of the size of India’s middle class suggest that it may account for between 5% and 10% of its population. (Although these estimates use the same $10 threshold for entry into the middle class as the Pew Research study, they extend it to encompass people living on as much as $50 per day and also draw on other data sources.) But for the moment, a sizable gap remains between the economies of China and India.


Bangladesh's prospect as regional transport hub bright: ICCB

July 15, 2015 | Source: The Daily Star

Bangladesh's geographical location between three major regions of Asia -- South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia -- provides a unique opportunity for cross-border movement of goods and services and investment flows, the International Chamber of Commerce and Industry said yesterday.

It will boost sustainable growth by promoting regional economic integration through freer movement of goods, services and investment, and help regional development by creating jobs, the ICCB said in its news bulletin. 

Bangladesh's real income gains will be 6.9 percent of its gross domestic product and export will grow 86 percent by 2030 if connectivity between South Asia and Southeast Asia improves, the chamber said, quoting studies by the Asian Development Bank.

However, Bangladesh needs to spend some $14.268 billion to prepare its roads, rail, ports and energy infrastructure to contribute to the integration, according to the ADB.

The ADB has agreed to invest $505 million for railway link and the World Bank has expressed willingness to provide $1 billion for infrastructure development in Bangladesh for connectivity between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Bangladesh is also likely to receive $5.9 billion between 2016 and 2018 from the ADB for its infrastructure projects.

Bangladesh can transform its geographical advantage through the new initiatives and gain from accelerating the pace of business cooperation among the countries, the ICCB said.

The three key areas for Bangladesh to emerge as a regional economic hub are: development of deep-sea ports; energy cooperation with Bhutan, Nepal, India and Myanmar; and establishment of more economic/industrial zones, it said. 

Since 2013, the initiative of Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor has maintained good momentum of development with collaboration of the BCIM countries, but lot is yet to be done, the chamber said.

The linkages of transport, energy, and telecommunications networks will enable the region to emerge as a thriving economic belt that will promote social development of communities along the Corridor.

The BCIM Economic Corridor is a priority element of the Chinese “One Belt and One Road” initiatives which will connect Kolkata in India, Mandalay in Myanmar, and Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh.

The initiatives will enhance trade due to greater market access and improved connectivity, the chamber said.

Motor vehicle connectivity agreements among Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan were signed during the Indian premier's visit to Bangladesh recently. 

Bangladesh has also signed six bilateral trade deals with its largest trading partner, China, to build mega infrastructure projects in both public and private sectors.

It is estimated that in the next five years, China will invest an additional $500 billion in other countries, import over $10 trillion worth of products and send 400 million tourists abroad. Bangladesh can take an even more favourable posture to make good use of “Chinese opportunities,” the ICCB said.

Also, China is set to invest about $22 billion in India for economic collaboration, which will benefit all four countries of the economic corridor, the chamber added. 


China provides $10 million to Pakistan for rehabilitation of IDPs

July 15, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: The Hindu

China on Wednesday pledged to provide $10 million to Pakistan for the rehabilitation of people displaced due to military operations in the restive tribal region, officials said.

The agreement to provide the special grant was signed between Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong and Secretary, Economic Affairs division, Muhammad Saleem Sethi here.

Backs Pakistan’s efforts

“China firmly supports the efforts of Pakistan to safeguard its national security and the Chinese side will continue to provide assistance within its capacity for the reconstruction and livelihood improvements of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” according to a statement by the Chinese Embassy.

An official of the Finance Ministry said that the grant from China would be utilised for the assistance of people of tribal areas who had suffered due to war on terror.

Over a million people were forced to flee their homes when army launched operation in the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan last June.

Cleared of militants

More than 90 per cent of the district has already been cleared of militants and the government had launched a programme for the phased return of people to their areas.

Last year also, the Chinese government provided $10 million to help the internally-displaced persons.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan in April and announced $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in April. — PTI


How India makes Parsi babies

July 15, 2015 | Linda Pressly | Source: BBC News 

The Parsis of India are a unique community, but their numbers are declining fast. In an effort to change this, the government is spending $1.5m to encourage them to have more children.

Persis Aspi Kamakhan still cannot believe her luck. She clucks and coos at her baby daughter, Hufriya, as she tries to dress her in a new red outfit.

"She's very mischievous," Kamakhan says proudly. "That thing that I wanted for 11 years of my marriage - finally I got this baby. It's like we were given our very own Kohinoor diamond."

Kamakhan and her husband had spent all their savings on unsuccessful IVF treatment, and had given up hope of having a child. Then she heard about Jiyo Parsi - a government-funded scheme set up to encourage Parsi couples to have bigger families.

Kamakhan got in touch with a gynaecologist associated with the scheme who promised to find out what the problem was and solve it.

"Persis had dealt with a lot of disappointments," says Dr Anita Pandole, recalling their first meeting. "Of course, we counselled her there was no guarantee she would get pregnant. But when she did her first cycle with us, she conceived. First time, first shot."

Hufriya was born in October - one of 30 babies delivered so far with the support of the Jiyo Parsi scheme. Seven of them, like Hufriya, were delivered as a result of fully paid-for fertility treatment - the scheme operates a sliding scale of financial assistance for IVF, depending on a couple's income. A further 17 women are pregnant. The aim is to deliver 200 new Parsi babies over five years.

"It's very gratifying," says Pandole, who is also a Parsi. "We are such a small community that even if there is just one extra Parsi baby, I think it's a good thing."

It's estimated that there are 60,000 Parsis in India - half as many as there were in the 1940s. For every Parsi born, four die. The decline in numbers is blamed on late marriage, no marriage, or mixed marriage with non-Parsis.

So why is the Indian government committing resources to bolstering the Parsi headcount, when the country is struggling to control the size of its population?

"I want them to survive," says the Minister of Minority Affairs, Najma Heptulla. "The Parsis have contributed greatly to India as far as education and industrialisation are concerned. There are many famous names like [industrialists] Tata and Godrej, and they have been distinguished lawyers and politicians too."

Most of India's Parsis live in Mumbai - a city whose statues and buildings pay homage to a glorious past when Parsis were a dominant force as traders and shipbuilders, administrators and wealthy philanthropists.

Some time after the beginning of the 8th Century, a group of Zoroastrians fled religious persecution in Iran, and arrived on India's west coast. They settled in Gujarat - the word Parsi means Persian.

In the 17th Century, they began to migrate to Mumbai, where they built their fire temples, and formed alliances with the British.

The Parsi community is more Westernised than many in India, which is partly why it has shrunk in size. They sometimes delay marriage while they save or wait for a property. And couples began family planning decades ago to ensure they could pay for a good education for their children - which for them is as important for girls as it is for boys. Parsi women are high achievers at work, which often makes them reluctant to marry and start a family at an early age. And being single is socially acceptable - 30% of Parsis never marry.

Anxiety about a disappearing population has intensified a long-running debate about who can be counted as a Parsi. More than a third of Parsis marry non-Parsis. A Parsi man's children will always be Parsi whoever he weds. But if a Parsi woman marries out, her sons and daughters are not deemed Parsi.

Goolrukh Gupta is one of those women. In 1991 she married a Hindu. Until 2003 nobody stopped her from attending a fire temple or the Towers of Silence - the place Parsis consign their dead - in the town of Valsad in Gujarat where her parents live. Now, she says, the local Parsi panchayat, an administrative body, has decided women like her are not welcome at those holy places. Her biggest fear is that she will not be allowed to attend the last rites when her elderly parents die.

"The thought my parents would be no more tomorrow and I would not be allowed to enter is like mentally abusing a woman every second - the thought is very unpleasant for me. We're three sisters married to non-Parsis. So, none of us would be able to attend if this law continues. It's like bullying people - who gives them the right to do that?"

Goolrukh Gupta sees this as sex discrimination and has been fighting it in the courts for five years. She is also critical of the Jiyo Parsi campaign as couples only qualify for assistance if the husband is Parsi.

But for Orthodox Parsis, that is how it should be.

"Sorry as one might feel at a personal level, they need to recognise that if they've chosen to marry out they've broken the rules of the religious customs and practices and there is a price one pays for it," says Khojeste Mistry, a trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayet, and founder of Zoroastrian Studies - an organisation dedicated to disseminating information about the religion.

"If we want to preserve the Parsi ethnic identity then marrying out is not the answer. If we turn a blind eye to our kids marrying out, then I do not see Zoroastrianism surviving into the next century. These are the people who are breaking down something we've preserved for 3,500 years - they're destroying the fabric of community existence."

In any case, he says, changing the rules on who is a Parsi will not make much difference to population figures.

"Out of 100 children born to parents of mixed marriage, only one will marry a Parsi. So if the emphasis is on preserving ethnicity, then surely intermarriage and welcoming children from intermarried families is not the answer."

Twenty-four-year-old Ria (not her real name) is a professional Parsi woman searching for a Parsi boyfriend on Mumbai's dating scene. But she says she will look outside the community if no-one suitable turns up.

"Why should one stoop down? If a guy is just sitting on a couch and doing nothing and living off his parents, that's not exactly where you want to be. I would love to marry a Parsi, and that's my first and maybe only preference. But I'm not going to settle for someone who's not doing well in life and who I do not see a happy future with."

Two other young Parsis, Kaizad Deboo and Zeenia Vakil, both looked for a Parsi partner - and found each other. At their wedding on a steamy night in Colaba on the southern tip of Mumbai, hundreds of guests are driven inside by torrential rain. The hubbub is deafening, the waiters move artfully among the crowd with trays of canapes, and the drinkers stand three-deep at the bar.

Upstairs in the function room, Kaizad, who's 34, awaits the arrival of his 30-year-old bride.

"It took me five years to convince her to marry me, because she's far more gorgeous than me," he says.

Both of them work in the airline industry and are based in Dubai. So will they do their bit to halt the decline of the Parsi population - are they planning children?

"Of course, no doubt about it," Kaizad says. "And we start from tonight itself... Just kidding!"


Lockheed Martin upgrading Sniper pods for Pakistan

July 15, 2015 | Richard Tomkins | Source: United Press International

ORLANDO, Fla., July 15 (UPI) -- A follow-on Foreign Military Sales contract has been given to Lockheed Martin for Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods for the Pakistan Air Force's F-16 fleet.

The award covers the production of 15 Sniper ATPs and upgrades to Pakistan's 22 Sniper ATPs now in use.

"Sniper ATP has supported the Pakistan Air Force's mission since 2010," said Rich Lovette, Sniper international program director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

"Additional Sniper ATPs and upgrades will give the Pakistan Air Force a more robust precision targeting capability to support the nation's security requirements."

The Sniper ATP system provides pilots high-resolution imagery for precision targeting, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. It detects, identifies, automatically tracks and laser designates small tactical targets at long ranges.

The system also supports the use of all laser and GPS-guided weapons against multiple fixed and moving targets.

The upgrades to Sniper ATPs used by Pakistan will begin later this year, the company said.

The monetary value of the award was not disclosed.


Narendra Modi unveils bid to make India the 'HR capital of the world’

July 15, 2015 | Agence France-Presse | Source: The Guardian

 

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, launched a programme on Wednesday aimed at imparting skill training to more than 400 million Indians over the next seven years “to make India the world’s human resource capital”.

Indian corporations and industry have often cited unskilled manpower as a big hurdle to filling existing jobs.

Modi described the plan as a key step in overcoming that problem at a launch in New Delhi. “Today China is the world’s manufacturing hub and with this scheme, playing to our strength, India can aim to be the world’s human resource capital,” he said.

The government put the workforce shortage at about 110 million, in key sectors such as retail, textile and clothing and tourism.

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“With only 2.3% of the workforce having received a formal training, India currently faces a severe shortage of well-trained, skilled workers,” Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the skill development and entrepreneurship minister, said earlier this week.

He added, however, that the “12-week training under the programme will now ensure you a job that 12 years of compulsory [school] education may not”.

The scheme will utilise the existing network of about 12,000 industrial training institutes along with decommissioned railway carriages and containers as mobile, makeshift classrooms for remote areas.

“We will also set a specific skills university in every state and hire around 60,000 retired defence personnel for training to be skill-trainers,” Rudy said.

Wednesday’s announcement was bare on funding details, but officials said the government expected close private sector participation.

Modi, who won office on a promise of jobs and economic growth, repeatedly emphasised the scheme’s scope for job creation, particularly for the “economically weaker sections of the society”.

“This isn’t for the rich but for the poor and economically weaker sections where students often don’t even complete formal school education,” Modi said.

“It will empower them with training and confidence to not just serve India but even prosperous countries across the world that need trained manpower,” he added.


Sri Lanka Treasuries yields up

July 15, 2015 | Source: Economy Next

ECONOMYNEXT - Sri Lanka's Treasuries yields rose across maturities Wednesday with the 3-month yield up 7 basis points to 6.22 percent from a week earlier, data from the state debt office showed.

The 6-month yield rose 5 basis points to 6.31 percent and the 12-month yield rose 03 basis points to 6.31 percent.

The debt office sold 12.9 billion rupees of 3-month bills, 6.1 billion rupees of 6-month bills and 800 million rupees of 12 month bills totalling 19.92 billion rupees. There were 21.4 billion rupees of bills maturing this week with settlement on July 17.

There was also large bond maturity on July 15, where several auctions were held, with yield rising slightly. On Wednesday bond prices were largely unchanged, dealers said.

Excess liquidity in money markets rose sharply to 101.2 billion rupees Wednesday from 63 billion rupees a day earlier, indicating a dollar conversion to rupees. A 300 million dollar bond sale was also settled on July 15.

However data show that Sri Lanka has started to monetize debt, with domestic assets of the Central Bank starting to climb.


Taliban leader Mullah Omar hails peace talks to end Afghanistan war

July 15, 2015 | Agence France-Presse | Source: The Guardian

Taliban leader Mullah Omar has hailed as “legitimate” peace talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 13-year war, in his first comments on the nascent dialogue.

“If we look into our religious regulations, we can find that meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited,” the reclusive figure said on Wednesday in his annual message on the eve of Eid, the festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

“Concurrently with armed jihad, political endeavours and peaceful pathways for achieving these sacred goals is a legitimate Islamic principle,” he said in a statement posted on the Taliban’s official website.

Members of the Afghan high peace council sat down with Taliban cadres last week in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, for their first official talks to try to end the militants’ bloody fight, now in its 14th year.

They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing praise from Kabul, Islamabad, Beijing, Washington and the UN.

Although some commanders were optimistic, many others were deeply wary.

The split in responses, with some commanders openly questioning the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators in Murree, underscored the potentially dangerous faultlines within the movement, particularly between the older leadership and younger.

In the statement, Omar sought to dispel any notion of a split.

“All mujahideen and countrymen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoint everywhere,” he said, adding that the purpose of talks was to “bring an end to the occupation” of Afghanistan.

Several informal meetings have been held in recent months between Taliban representatives and Afghan officials and activists, but last week’s meeting is seen as a significant step forward.

Afghan officials have not said when and where the next round of negotiations will take place, but it is widely expected to be conducted after Eid.

Wednesday’s statement marks the first comments on the process from Mullah Omar, about whom rumours of ill-health and even death regularly emerge.

In the absence of a clear lead from the top, some fighters have fallen back on the Taliban’s traditional position: that there can be no meaningful talks until all foreign forces leave Afghan soil.

NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of December, but a smaller residual force remains to train Afghan forces, due to leave altogether by the end of 2016.

Divides within the Taliban between those for and against talks have been made worse by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State (Isis).

The Taliban warned Isis last month against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to Isis chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.

US drone strikes over the past week have killed dozens of suspected Isis-linked cadres in Afghanistan, including the group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan regional chief, Hafiz Saeed.

The notoriously uncompromising Isis has shown no desire to negotiate, and if the Taliban faultlines widen there is a danger the talks process could drive more of its hardline fighters into its arms.


With six new nuclear attack submarines, India officially opens up on its undersea aspirations

July 15, 2015 | Manu Pubby | Source: The Economic Times

NEW DELHI: In a rare, official comment on the Indian nuclear attack submarineproject, a top Naval officer has said that work has started on a new class of vessels after a government go ahead two months ago and the target is to shorten the developmental time to under 15 years.

While India has traditionally shied from commenting on its nuclear fleet - for years the existence of the Arihant nuclear missile submarine was denied despite a large Indo-Russian team working on the project - the Navy has said that it is confident of executing the order with a brand new design.

"The government has given approvals for six new SSNs ( nuclear attack submarines) earlier this year. We have started work but still are at the pen to paper stage," Vice Admiral P Murugesan, the Vice Chief of Naval staff said in response to a question by ET.

The top officer expressed confidence in the abilities of the navy's submarine design bureau to come out with a new class of vessels in less than 15 years. "These things take time but we will be able to improve on the timelines that the pioneers (nations) have set which typically took over 15 years for such a project," the Vice Chief said.

The senior officer shared that the aspiration of the Navy - which currently has 48 ships under construction on various shipyards across the nation - is to become a 200 ship navy by 2027. At present, the Navy operates 137 combatants with new ships being added at a rate of 4-5 a year.

As reported by ET, to boost its underwater capabilities, the Navy is planning to build at least six SSNs in India, with financial sanction given in February for the project that could cost upwards of Rs 90,000 crore. To be fitted with the indigenous vertically launched Brahmos missile, the vessels are to be built at the Vizag-based ship building centre with the involvement of L&T.

India is also in final talks with Russia to lease a new nuclear attack submarine with sources telling ET that the Navy is looking for a newly built, customised submarine under the Chakra 3 project. The only nuclear attack submarine of this kind being produced in Russia currently is the Yasen class, the least detectable submarine it has ever built.


3 Days After Talks, Pakistan Back to Seeking 'More Evidence' on 26/11 Case

July 14, 2015 | All India | Ridhi Razdan and Deepshikha Ghosh | Source: NDTV

ISLAMABAD:  Three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif agreed that the 26/11 trial should be speeded up, Pakistan has lobbed the ball back in India's court saying it wants "more information and evidence".

Mr Sharif's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz controversially also said today that the Pakistani premier had raised the issues of Balochistan and the Samjhauta blast probe during his talks with PM Modi on Friday in Ufa, Russia.

"Sharif raised concerns on all issues (With Modi), including India's alleged interference in the internal matters of Pakistan, particularly its continuing support for insurgency in Balochistan," said Mr Aziz.

Stating that the talks were held on India's request, the top Pakistani official said Mr Sharif had also asked for details on the probe into the 2007 Samjhauta train blast, in which 68 people were killed, mostly Pakistani.

Over the weekend, Nawaz Sharif has faced anger in his country over the absence of "Kashmir" in the joint statement following the talks. His advisor's statements today were seen as an attempt at addressing that criticism.

"We will continue to extend political, moral, and diplomatic support to our Kashmiri brethren. For Pakistan, Kashmir of course tops the list of outstanding issues with India," Mr Aziz said, adding that there can be no dialogue without Kashmir on the agenda.

An agreement on accelerating the trial against seven accused in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, including mastermind Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, was seen as one of the biggest takeaways of the talks.

But Mr Aziz said: "On Mumbai trial case, our view has been, and was so in this meeting as well, that we need more evidence and information to conclude the trial. The reference to 'additional information' is recognition of the need that more information is needed to expedite the trial."

The Congress said it was apparent that the talks on Friday were no breakthrough. "Those who were calling it that should be surprised," said Congress leader Ajay Maken.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: "Ufffff, Ufa is already unraveling. That was quick even by Indo-Pak standards."


At Akodara, India’s first digital village

July 14, 2015 | Samrat Chakrabarti | Source: The Hindu

An hour outside Ahmedabad is a village where anganwadis have CCTVs and schools have audio-visual teaching aids. Can this working model of a Digital India really be replicated?

If you find yourself craving for biscuits in Akodara village, located a little over an hour away from Ahmedabad, in Sabarkantha district in Gujarat, walk past the village ATM and down to the little kirana shop opposite the CCTV-monitored anganwadi. Select your biscuit packet, but don’t reach for your wallet to pay for it. Instead, whip out your mobile phone to pay. Don’t worry, the grumpy old shopkeeper will give you instructions on how to do this; he is used to clueless city people! He will then look at you with mild suspicion until his mobile phone chimes and informs him in Gujarati that the amount has been transferred from your bank account to his. Congratulations. Your purchase is now complete. You may now sit in a cool spot under the big peepal tree and eat your biscuits while surfing Facebook using the village wifi.

A slice of Digital India

Welcome to Akodara, a fully digital village. If you wondered in January, during the high-profile launch of the Digital India initiative, what ‘digitising’ rural India meant or would really look like, little Akodara represents a slice of the vision. The village of 1,200 people has been adopted by ICICI Bank, helped by the local administration, so that it can be showcased as an example of the bank’s vision of the digital future that awaits India’s hinterland. From the merely cosmetic, like embellishing the archway at the village entrance with the ICICI logo, to the very practical improvement of providing access to modern banking to the villagers, the bankers at ICICI have gone all out to showcase their vision in Akodara. If some of the interventions, such as installing CCTV cameras in the village anganwadi and in schools, seem a bit gimmicky, many others are useful and potentially revolutionary when imagined on a large scale — across whole districts and regions in the country.

The first of such useful interventions is financial inclusion and access to modern banking. Almost every adult in Akodara now has a savings bank account with ICICI, which he or she can access through the local bank branch, or the village ATM, or through mobile phones via SMS. The villagers’ most important transactions — selling agri-produce at the local mandi or selling milk at the co-operative society — have been digitised and made cashless. The system has made them automatically less susceptible to corruption and fraud. Also, their accounts are linked to their Aadhar cards, which means that government benefits are now transferred directly into their savings accounts. For the widows of Akodara, who had to earlier spend Rs. 70 to travel to the district headquarters to receive their monthly pension of Rs. 800, this direct transfer and easy access to their accounts makes for real and significant savings.

The second advantage is in the area of education. “Earlier, teaching used to be between just the teacher and the student. Now we have a digital aid,” says Pranav Upadhyay, 32, high-school teacher in Akodara, before beginning his lecture on nanotechnology for Class 10 students. “Earlier when I used to talk about the universe to the students, it was just talk. Now they see it animated on the screen and it gets them interested and more engaged.” The digital aid that Mr. Upadhyay is referring to is an audio-visual device that integrates a projector and a computer. This brings to life lessons in science, chiefly through animation. In primary school, children use electronic tablets gifted by ICICI to learn Gujarati. Also, across all schools, a digital attendance system is being implemented that will inform parents, via SMS, whether their children have shown up at school or not. Apart from its practicality, this is also an important safety initiative.

A market for banks

Of course, Akodara is only a model village — an artificial model of rural India crossing the digital frontier rather than being an organic part of a real, larger digital ecology. But to understand its significance, one has to imagine it as a grand vision, replicated in thousands of villages across the country.

With a nearly saturated urban market and intense competition over a reducing pie, rural India is where the future of banks lies. And the key for this growth is technology, as it is only through mobile phones, the Internet, and tablet banking that banks can keep costs down and open up rural consumption. Akodara’s real symbolic appeal for Indian corporate entities lies in something beyond what ICICI has done. Hiteshbhai Patel, a resident in the village says, “Young men in our village regularly buy things from Flipkart and Snapdeal. It has become common for them to buy phones and shoes and clothes online. They don’t worry about getting a bad product because they know that they can return the goods if there is a problem.”

But before celebrations begin for the Digital India initiative, it is important to remember why ICICI chose Akodara. Before the village got digital connectivity, it already had physical connectivity. Flipkart products come to Akodara on a highway that connects the village to all the urban centres around it. The village had a high literacy rate long before it got digital, and its habitat and livelihood opportunities predate the computers. In other words, a digital future is possible only if other socio-economic indicators are good and the basic needs of the village are already met. A digital future can only be built on top of a physical one. This means that all the old issues still need to be confronted first.


First stage of Sri Lanka elections mostly peaceful - Police

July 14, 2015 | Source: Colombo Page

July 13, Colombo: Sri Lanka police said that the nomination process of Sri Lanka's general election was mostly peaceful except for a few minor incidents.

Few candidates of United National Party (UNP), United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) held illegal parades and processions at several places after handing over nomination.

Police media spokesman Assistant Superintendent of Police Ruwan Gunasekarasaid that the processions have been videoed and actions will be taken against the candidates who held such illegal processions.

The police media spokesman further stated that stern actions would be taken against display of election symbols and preferential vote numbers.

Police have planned to implement a proper plan for the issue of loudspeaker licenses for the election candidates, the police spokesman said.

Police were seen removing the propaganda stickers of a UPFA candidate at Galle District Secretariat after nominations were handed over.


From remote outpost, India looks to check China's Indian Ocean thrust

July 14, 2015 | Sanjeev Miglani | Source: Reuters

One by one, the four Indian warships cruised into a sleepy harbor in the country's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, fresh from visiting Southeast Asian capitals and conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea.

The arrival of the warships at Port Blair earlier this month symbolizes how an island chain better known for its beaches and diving is quietly becoming a key plank in New Delhi's strategy to counter China's growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

In interviews in New Delhi and Port Blair, the archipelago's administrative hub, Indian defense officials outlined plans to transform a modest military base into a strategic listening post with strengthened air force, navy and army capabilities.

While some of the officials noted that earlier expansion plans had largely faltered, they said there was fresh energy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who wants to reassert New Delhi's traditional dominance of the Indian Ocean.

All agreed the chain's location was its biggest asset in watching China's navy.

Scattered between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the Andaman and Nicobar islands are closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than the Indian mainland. More importantly, its southern isles lie near the top of the Malacca Straits, a gateway to the Indian Ocean and through which China gets three-quarters of its oil.

"The world's busiest shipping lanes are just to the south," Lieutenant Governor A. K. Singh, a former military commander who runs the Andamans, told Reuters from his hill-top office in Port Blair, a one-time British penal colony.

"For too long we have had a fortress mentality about the islands, that they had to be defended. The time has come for us to start looking at these very strategically placed islands as a springboard for India."

 

SUBMARINE SURVEILLANCE

India has long had an uneasy relationship with China - a dispute over their Himalayan border led to war in 1962. More recently New Delhi has worried about Chinese submarines venturing into the Indian Ocean.

China's Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that Chinese naval forays were behind any rise in Indian deployments.

The Chinese Defense Ministry said Beijing cooperated with militaries around the region, including India's.

"This is an added positive factor for regional peace and stability," the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Nevertheless, India is building longer airstrips at the top and bottom of the Andaman and Nicobar chain, partly for long-range surveillance planes, defense officials said.

One is at Campbell Bay on Great Nicobar Island in the south, 240 km (150 miles) from the mouth of the Malacca Straits.

When that air base opened in 2012 with a runway of 3,500 feet (1,060 meters), Chinese military commentators saw it as an offensive move. The military plans to extend the runway to 6,000 feet by next year and then to 10,000 feet.

The air force has been flying new Boeing P8i surveillance aircraft with anti-submarine capabilities from India to Port Blair but once the runway was at 6,000 feet they would also rotate through Campbell Bay from time to time, said a navy pilot in Port Blair who has knowledge of the plans.

"Of all the plans, and some are grand, upgrading Campbell is the critical one. You can watch a lot of stuff from there," he said.

 

BUT NO SUBMARINE BASE

India also expects the number of naval vessels based in the island chain to double to 32 before a targeted timeframe of 2022, defense officials said.

Those ships would initially comprise patrol boats, fast attack craft and amphibious landing ships, similar to vessels already here. Frontline warships such as those that spent two months in and around the South China Sea would be stationed in the Andamans in the final phase of the 2022 plan.

The big naval gap is under water.

As early as 2002 the local military command proposed building a submarine base in the sheltered harbor of Kamorta in the southern islands, but defense officials said those plans were on ice.

India has only 13 ageing diesel-electric submarines compared to China's fleet of around 70 submarines, including nuclear-powered vessels.

On land, India is adding a second infantry brigade of around 3,000 troops to the Andamans over the next three years.

One military official in Port Blair, speaking on condition of anonymity, said force levels needed to rise more quickly.

"But we are starting to make investments and we are stronger here than at any time," he said.

One notable roadblock had been erecting a radar station on Narcondum Island, which was delayed for years by local environmentalists who said it would endanger a rare hornbill bird. Modi's administration approved the installation.

Indeed, India was finally realizing the Andamans were a "strategic goldmine", said Jeff Smith, author of "Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century".

"I get the impression that growing concern over the pace of Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean increases the likelihood India will begin to take the Andamans more seriously," he said.


India Inc weighs fund raising options as overseas markets dries up

July 14, 2015 | Source: Business Standard

Indian companies could tap the Singapore and Chinese currency markets to raise money for their immediate requirements or wait for the Greece crisis to blow over to relaunch offers, chief financial officers (CFO) and bankers said.

Just before the Greece crisis roiled financial markets all over the world, three Indian companies hired banks to market their bonds. Bankers said Power Finance Corporation (PFC) was planning to raise around $1 billion from the foreign market, while Adani Ports was looking to raise around $1.5 billion. Another big-ticket issue by the State Bank of India worth $1.5 billion was also delayed due to the Greece crisis.

“If a company wants to raise funds immediately, it can tap other currencies such as the Singapore dollar market or the Chinese renminbi market, but it needs to provide proper cover for any volatility in the dollar versus the local currency as well as for the Indian currency, which means extra cost,” said Prabal Banerjee, president (finance and strategy), Bajaj Hindustan group.

Or these companies can wait for the Greece crisis to blow over and tap the dollar bond market. “Considering the volatility in the global financial markets, it is better to be a fence-sitter,” Banerjee added. Chinese banks provide 10-12 year bonds, while Singapore-based banks offer five-year tenures, he said.

Irrespective of the Greece crisis, CFOs say Indian companies have backup plans in case they fail to tap the foreign market. PFC, for example, has received the government's permission to launch a tax-free bond in the second half of the current financial year, along with five other infrastructure biggies, to raise Rs 40,000 crore. Tax-free bonds have a long-term tenure, with the money raised deployed in infrastructure projects, and can be issued in 10-, 15- or 20-year tenures.

Similarly, Adani Ports needs money to fund its expansion drive in India, which includes a brand new port in Kerala and acquisition of Larsen & Toubro’s container terminal in Tamil Nadu. A large part of the Ahmedabad-based group’s fund requirement for its expansion worth $20 billion in India would be met through domestic banks, said bankers. The dollar bond market has been a favourite for Indian firms in 2014 due to its lower costs and longer tenures.

CFOs said any company that had foreign currency as earnings could use this as a natural hedge against currency volatility. But due to the Greece crisis, in 2015, few companies have tapped the dollar bond market. Reliance Industries raised $750 million in June to finance its petrochemicals expansion and wireless telephony market. It had raised $750 million in January. Bharti Airtel raised $1 billion in June to refinance its earlier loans.

Bankers said foreign fund-raising also slowed as most companies had put the brakes on their capital-expenditure plans.


India needs to invest $74 billion per year to end hunger by 2030: UN

July 14, 2015 | Sayantan Bera | Source: Live Mint

At the current pace of poverty reduction, the world will still have more than 650 million people suffering from hunger in 2030, the report said. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

At the current pace of poverty reduction, the world will still have more than 650 million people suffering from hunger in 2030, the report said. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

New Delhi: India will need to spend $74 billion, or double what it currently does, in social protection programmes, rural development and agriculture annually over the next 15 years to eradicate hunger by 2030, according to a new UN report.

An average of $267 billion is required annually at the global level to sustainably eliminate hunger, according to the report published by UN bodies—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme.

Globally, close to 800 million people still do not get enough to eat despite the progress made in recent years, the report said. With nearly 195 million undernourished people in India, the country is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry.

At the current pace of poverty reduction, the world will still have more than 650 million people suffering from hunger in 2030, the report said.

“This is why we are championing an approach that combines social protection with additional targeted investments in rural development, agriculture and urban areas that will chiefly benefit the poor,” FAO director general José Graziano da Silva said while releasing the report last week.

“Our report estimates that this will require a total investment of some $267 billion per year over the next 15 years. Given that this is more or less equivalent to 0.3% of the global GDP (gross domestic product), I personally think it is a relatively small price to pay to end hunger,” he added.

India needs to spend $33.4 billion in poverty-gap transfers to bring the poorest to an income level of $1.25 per day—the global poverty line determined by the World Bank—according to the report. India will also have to spend $40.7 billion in agriculture and rural development.

This would cost India Rs.4.69 trillion ($74 billion) annually, or 2.53% of its GDP.

“Clearly, this shows that our spending on food security and rural development is not sufficient to achieve the zero-hunger target,” said Himanshu, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “This is not a staggering amount and means India need to double its spending. What it requires is a political commitment to end hunger.”

Currently, India’s central spending on agriculture, rural development and food subsidy amounts to $37 billion (Rs.2.32 trillion).

While many may see social protection simply as consumption, the evidence is strong and growing that even modest savings will be deployed by the poor to enhance their productive capacities and their incomes, the report said.

Social protection in the form of cash transfers will eliminate hunger immediately, it noted, adding that public investments in rural areas could be through small-scale irrigation projects, creating infrastructure such as roads, food processing and stronger institutional support like access to credit and markets.


India second biggest loser of rich citizens

July 14, 2015 | Sharon Fernandes | TNN News | Source: The Times of India

India has the second highest millionaire outflow, or number of Indian HNWIs (high net-worth individuals) moving out of the country, reveals a new report from New World Wealth, a global wealth sector information consulting services firm.

According to the report, the number of rich people changing domicile has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. Over the last 14 years (2000-14), India saw 61,000 HNWIs leave the country. It was second only to China, which witnessed 91,000 millionaires move out.

The top five destinations for Indian millionaires were the UK, US, Australia, UAE and Singapore, in that order, says Andrew Amoils, head of research, New World Wealth. The major reasons for most global millionaires to immigrate include turmoil in their home country, security concerns and pursuit of better education prospects for their children. For Indians, the biggest draws have been standard of living and tax saving. "The UK, Australia and the USA appeal to people due to language, standard of living, schooling and security. The UAE and Singapore also have a low tax structure," points out Amoils.

While these HNWIs have made homes elsewhere, it hasn't been verified if they are holding more than one passport. "We have not checked them individually. They may hold 2-3 passports. We looked at where they were living in 2000 and where they were in 2014," says Amoils.

For the world's millionaires who migrated in this time period, the top eight countries of choice were: UK, US, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, UAE, Canada and Turkey. The UK was the top beneficiary of HNWIs from abroad, most of who came from Europe, Russia, China and India.


A garland of rivers across India

July 13, 2015 | Source: Live Mint

Inter-linking the great rivers of India is a dream that has been around for a while. Many problems that confound the country—flood control, irrigation, limiting droughts and boosting farm output—can be sorted out by linking the country’s rivers in two big garlands. This requires a massive amount of political and financial capital, both scarce commodities. There are signs that the Narendra Modi government may be willing to invest both.

Viewed dispassionately, it is a miracle that India’s irrigation potential rose from 22.6 million hectares (mha) at independence to 113 mha by the end of the 11th five-year plan. This is not enough. As the country’s population grows, the need for better irrigated farmland will only increase. In this context, there are limits to what small and medium irrigation projects can do. While these projects are important for conserving water, their returns from investment are low and their potential is somewhat limited. Beyond a point, India’s geography dictates what needs to be done in this area.

While India boasts of some impressive irrigation projects—including the Bhakra Nangal and Narmada dams—a look at the map of the country shows the strong correlation between water-stressed regions and the distribution of water resources. Most of the water available for irrigation—from rivers, perennial and rain-fed—is to be found in the southwestern and northeastern regions. In contrast, the demand for water is largely in northern India and the eastern part of peninsular India. Local irrigation projects cannot do much unless innovative projects—such as the inter-linking of rivers—are carried out.

Here, by fortuitous circumstance, geography favours plans. A north to south inter-linking of rivers is physically not possible: the barrier imposed by the Vindhya mountains makes it prohibitively expensive to lift water along the north and south axis. It is also unnecessary. The river-water linking plan—one for peninsular India and the other for linking rivers from the east to the north—is an ideal solution for what India needs.

Between 2003 and now, precious little has been done for implementing the project. In the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, a task force on inter-linking of rivers was created under Suresh Prabhu, the current railways minister; nothing much took place beyond the detailed project reports on individual river linking projects. In April, the second NDA government once again created another task force for inter-linking of rivers. The issue now is to move forward instead of replicating the same experience once again. There are plenty of issues to resolve, ones that need political attention.

For one, building consensus among states is essential if these projects are to take off. There are dozens of links in the overall inter-linking plan. One does not need to imagine hard what is required to get those projects started. States have to be convinced of the benefits—even if they are well known. For another some bit of environmental assessment is necessary in case of a project of this magnitude. This need not be of the destructive variety that is designed to derail projects. What is needed is a careful scientific assessment of the project and its impact on the environment, one that is best carried out by academicians.

The other—yet unclear—issue is one of finding the financial and other resources for the task. River inter-linking is an expensive business: from building the link canals to the monitoring and maintenance infrastructure needed requires a tidy sum. Annual budgetary outlays will not do the trick. If one is to create innovative financial schemes required—such as bonds—then investors will need a credible answer on returns to their investment and credible guarantees they want.

None of these issues have been sorted as of now. Playing committee games is an interesting sport but it does precious little for Indians wanting access to water and irrigation. The government needs to get cracking if this project is to succeed at all.


India shuns China, allows Japan in Malabar naval drill

July 13, 2015 | TNN News | Source: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: Cocking a snook at China, India will now include Japan for its forthcoming Malabar naval exercise with the US in the Bay of Bengal in October. But India will host a separate bilateral naval exercise with Australia, which too was keen on joining Malabar, in September. 

The Indian defence establishment had kept Japan out of the initial planning for the 19th India-US Malabar naval combat exercise, leaving it to the PMO to take a decision on the matter. With the Modi government now giving the go-ahead, the trilateral planning conference for the Malabar exercise is to be held at Yokosuka towards end-July. "The formal invite to Japan is now being sent," said a source. 

Just before the Malabar drill, India and Australia will also hold their first-ever bilateral naval exercise off Vizag in the Bay of Bengal from September 11 to 21. The exercise will see Australia participate with frigate HMAS Arunta, tanker HMAS Sirius, submarine HMAS Sheehan, with India fielding a destroyer, a frigate and a tanker, apart from aircraft and helicopters. 

China had lodged a strong protest against the 2007 Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal when they were expanded to include the Japanese, Australian and Singaporean navies as well. China had viewed the multi-lateral exercise as a step towards building a security axis to "contain" it in the Asia-Pacific. 

The previous UPA regime had then restricted Malabar to a bilateral exercise when it was held off India. Japan was inducted into the exercise only when it was held in the north-western Pacific in 2009 and 2014. 

With the NDA government assuming power last year, the Modi-Obama summits in September and January had agreed "to upgrade" the annual war games in the backdrop of both Japan and Australia being keen to join them on a regular basis. 

India, the US and Japan are all wary about China's growing military capabilities and increasing assertive behavior in the crucial Asia Pacific region. But while New Delhi has been muted about it, both Washington and Tokyo have been quite vocal against China's aggressive behavior especially in the East and South China Seas.


India Signs Pact To Give IRS Account Data, Could End Black/White Money Too

July 13, 2015 | Robert Wood | Source: Forbes

India and the United States have moved a step closer, inking a tax information sharing agreement under FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. It is no surprise that India has gotten on board. Virtually every nation worldwide is doing the same, helping the IRS and the Justice Department root out Americans holding foreign accounts everywhere. It isn’t illegal to have offshore accounts, but they must be fully disclosed on money laundering forms known as FBARs.

Accounts must be reported on U.S. tax returns. Any interest, dividends or other income anywhere must be reported on U.S. tax returns too. India may have its own agenda, apart from helping the U.S. root out tax cheats. India has huge problems with its own nationals keeping money offshore as well as undercutting sales and revenue figures with the rampant black money vs. white money dichotomy. Indians without U.S. connections may have more time to get their tax affairs in order. However, the template of global financial transparency is already being charted. 

FATCA—the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act—was quietly enacted in 2010. America’s global tax law took effect after a four-year ramp up. Never before has an American tax law attempted such an astounding reach. FATCA requires foreign banks to reveal Americans with accounts over $50,000. Non-compliant institutions are frozen out of U.S. markets, so there is little choice but to comply.

FATCA grew out of a controversial rule. America taxes its citizens and permanent residents on their worldwide income regardless of where they live. FATCA cuts off companies from access to critical U.S. financial markets if they fail to pass along American data. More than 100 nations have agreed to the law. Countries must agree to the law or face dire repercussions. Even tax havens have joined up.

The IRS has a searchable financial institution list and download tool and a user guide. Countries on board are at FATCA – Archive. Even notoriously difficult China and Russia are on board. FATCA’s 30% tax and exclusion from U.S. markets would be so catastrophic that everyone has opted to comply.

Foreign financial institutions must withhold a 30% tax if the recipient isn’t providing information about U.S. account holders. The choice is simple, and that’s why everyone is complying. Foreign Financial Institutions must report account numbers, balances, names, addresses, and U.S. identification numbers. For U.S.-owned foreign entities, they must report the name, address, and U.S. TIN of each substantial U.S. owner. And in what is a kind of global witch hunt, American indicia will likely mean a letter.

FBARs are still required. FATCA just adds to the burden, including Form 8938. These forms are serious, and so are the criminal and civil penalties for failing to file them. In some cases, even civil penalties can exceed the offshore account balance.

U.S. account holders who aren’t compliant can enter the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program. But for those not willing to pay the 27.5% penalty—which rose to 50% August 4, 2014 for some banks—the new IRS’s Streamlined Program can be a good option for those who qualify. The latter applies now to both foreign and U.S.-based Americans.

Some Americans still want to amend their taxes and file FBARs in a quiet disclosure which could bring civil penalties or even prosecution. Thus, caution is clearly in order.


US set to be India’s biggest arms supplier

July 13, 2015 | Rajat Pandit | TNN News | Source: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: The US is fast consolidating its position as India's largest arms supplier with a flurry of new defence deals and joint projects, after having inked the expansive new 10-year defence framework in June and bagging contracts worth $10 billion over the last eight years.

Sources said the Manohar Parrikar-led defence acquisitions council (DAC), in its meeting slated for Tuesday, is likely to clear the decks for acquisition of another four P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft for almost $1 billion.

"The contract negotiation committee (CNC) has completed its work. Now, the DAC approval is needed for the offsets deviation. The proposed contract will then go to the finance ministry for vetting before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the final nod," said a source.

This "follow-on contract" comes even as the Navy has now inducted seven of the eight P-8Is ordered from Boeing in the $2.1 billion deal inked in January 2009. Based at the Arakkonam naval air station in Tamil Nadu, these radar-packed aircraft serve as "intelligent hawk-eyes" over the Indian Ocean. They are also armed with deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges to take on enemy warships and submarines.

Simultaneously, Pentagon and South Block are also set to begin fresh negotiations next week for the proposed $770 million contract for M-777 ultra-light howitzers, under which the bulk of the 145 artillery guns to be acquired in the government-to-government deal will be made in India.

The 155mm/39-calibre lightweight howitzers, with a strike range over 25km range, can be swiftly airlifted to "threatened high-altitude areas" facing China, which outguns and outnumbers Indian troops all along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control.

Artillery-manufacturer BAE Systems, in turn, will tie up with an Indian partner to set up a production base here on the lines of its facility at Hattiesburg (Mississippi) in the US. The Ordnance Factory Board and PSU BHEL as well as private players like L&T, Mahindra, Tata, VEM Technologies and Reliance Defence Systems are in the fray for the project.


Moreover, the deals for 22 Apache attack and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from Boeing, together worth $2.5 billion, are now being vetted by the finance ministry before they go to the CCS for final approval, as earlier reported by TOI.

Amid all this, India and the US have also pressed the throttle on their "transformative" Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which envisages co-development and co-production in tune with PM Narendra Modi's 'Make in India' policy.

While project agreements for military mobile generators and chemical-biological warfare protection gear have already been finalized, similar pacts for Raven mini spy drones and "roll-on, roll-off" mission modules for C-130J Super Hercules aircraft are on the cards.

But it will be the proposed joint development of jet engines and aircraft carrier design and construction technologies, which includes EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch systems) developed by General Atomics, that will be the big-ticket items under the DTTI.


1.6 million children in India left out of school system

July 12, 2015 | Smita Prakash | Source: Channel News Asia

NEW DELHI: A recent United Nations survey has shown that about 1.6 million young children in India are being left out of the school system. Girls are the most disadvantaged as most parents prefer to prepare them for marriage, rather than a career.

The Indian government has launched several schemes and building facilities such as toilets to encourage parents in the rural areas to send their children to school.

In one of the ‘schools’ in the largest Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, there are cows and animal feed in the classroom, instead of students.

The education minister is clearly embarrassed. "I condemn such a sorry state of the school. I will get an inquiry done," said Uttar Pradesh's Basic Education Minister Ram Govind Chaudhary.

In the neighbouring state of Bihar, the conditions of schools are similar. Many schools also do not have toilet facilities and these have caused students to drop out.

"There are no toilets in our school. We have to go back to our homes to use the toilets," said a student.

In addition, classrooms get inundated during the monsoon season, and teachers do not come to work. Yet no disciplinary actions are taken against them.

"Only 10 to 12 students came to school today. When they saw there weren't any teachers, they went back home," said a teacher.

About a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to build a toilet in every school, and separate ones for girls. The Clean Schools programme aims to provide nearly 300,000 toilets, but more than half have yet to be built. Despite roping in the private sector, the target has not been achieved.

"It will take time, and the administration has been slack. India is a country with some 30 states," said senior journalist R Rajagopalan.

Beyond cleanliness, the government also wants to build more schools.

A recent survey showed that about 36 percent of Indians in rural areas are illiterate, compared with around 32 percent in 2011. In addition, about 280 million Indians have not gone past primary school.

It was in the first address to the nation on Independence Day that Prime Minister Modi had spoken about topics considered as taboos - violence against women, lack of toilets in schools and public places, and education for girls. He had promised quick actions on all these, but one year on and they are still a major concern.  


50% of reclaimed coal mine area of Coal India is ‘barren’

July 12, 2015 | Chetan Chauhan | Source: Hindustan Times

Around half of the 211 sq kms that the country’s biggest coal mining company, Coal India, claims have been planted with trees have actually been found to be barren, forcing the environment ministry to seek an explanation from it.

Mining companies are required to provide funds to plant trees on an area equal to or double that of the area of forests they cut down for their projects, known as compensatory afforestation.

During its presentation at the last meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry, Coal India said it has been converting several excavated coal mines into healthy green zones since 2008. But when the ministry examined the area through Google Earth, it found major differences in what was said in the presentation and what could be seen through Google’s satellites.

An official source said that no green cover was visible on at least 50% of the area on which Coal India claimed to have planted trees. “It was a barren coal mining area,” an official said, adding that the FAC has sought an explanation from Coal India for this discrepancy.

“We have asked for each company of Coal India and other mining companies to furnish complete details of reclamation done,” the official said.
The ministry has decided to seek a “real picture” of afforestation carried out in the country by mining companies.

A 2014 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report found that of the 1,03,390 hectares over which trees were to be planted since 2002, the environment ministry had a record of afforestation on only 7% of the land.

The Centre for Science and Environment, in its flagship State of Environment (SoE) Report in 2014, also asserted that compensatory afforestation was poor in many states, of which seven states - Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Punjab and Rajasthan – had seen no compensatory afforestation at all.  Only Assam and Odisha had showed a high level of afforestation.


U.S. Steps Up Airstrikes in Afghanistan, Even Targeting ISIS

July 12, 2015 | BBC News | Source: RAWA News

A suicide car bomb has killed at least 33 people, mostly women and children, near a military base in Afghanistan, officials say.

The bomber detonated explosives at a checkpoint near Camp Chapman, formerly used by the CIA, in eastern Khost province on Sunday.

Camp Chapman was the site of one of the worst attacks on the agency in 2009 when a bomber killed seven officials.

No US or coalition soldiers were killed in this latest attack.

The base now houses both Afghan and foreign troops, including US soldiers.

A statement from Khost's provincial governor said that 27 civilians and six security personnel were killed.

Youqib Khan, the deputy police chief, told the Associated Press news agency that Sunday's blast hit a checkpoint manned by members of an Afghan unit that guards Camp Chapman.

Officials said those killed were civilians in cars waiting to clear the checkpoint at the time of the blast.

No group has said it carried out the blast, although the Taliban has often targeted troops and launched a fresh offensive in late April.

Khost borders Pakistan and is one of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces.


Celebrating US-India Ties Through Vintage Clicks

July 12, 2015 | All India | J Sam Daniel Stalin | Source: NDTV

CHENNAI:  An exhibition of around 30 vintage pictures in Chennai, titled Kindered Nations, explores the US-India ties that are believed to date back to 1783, the year the US was founded.

Many chronicle the contribution by key Indians and Americans in nurturing business, education besides inspiring through art, culture and religion crossing boundaries.

An 1858 water-colour painting of the landmark Madras Ice House building along the Marina tell the story of Fredrick Tudor from Boston who shipped frozen blocks of water to ice houses he set up in the then Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. The image also beautifully captures how close the sea used to be to the historic building.

Another 1894 vintage click has captured a casual Swami Vivekananda, sitting on a lawn with guests at the Green Acre School, a year after his historic Chicago address.

Rare images of sewing machine major Singer's Bombay office in 1897, Helen Keller meeting Rabindranath Tagore in New York, US businessman Atkinson's Calcutta House after he made India his home,  Indian born actress Merle Oberon who made it big in the USand Indian immigrants landing in the US strike a chord among visitors.

Former Governor of West Bengal, Mr Gopal Krishna Gandhi said, "The connection between the US and India goes much beyond the political, techno commercial and now security connection. I would also add to that the great traditions of the freedom of dissent and freedom of expression in both countries which is valuable in both countries and never so much as today."

The collection is in a sense a treasure trove. There's an 1880 picture of Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree in the US; a picture of Philadelphia-based Samuel Stokes, who's remembered for successfully introducing apples in Shimla which he made his home.

Not many would know that America's first ever live elephant was brought from Calcutta in 1796. A report with a pencil sketch of a jumbo tells this story.

Others include pictures of Director Ellis R Dungan on the set of Meera, in the then Madras, who spent 15 years in India making Tamil and Hindi films, Indian born American actor, Jungle Book fame Sabur Dastagir and the Roosevelt brothers' Indian expedition sporting beard.

Ariel Pollock, Public Affairs Officer, US Consulate in Chennai added, "These pictures are more than just photographs. They are telling stories of extraordinary Americans and Indians who really paved the way for the amazing dynamic great partnership we have now. These photographs are not just about Indian contributions in the US but US contributions to India in so many different fields.


Huge Bangladesh cocaine seizure points to growing south Asia drug route

July 12, 2015 | Reuters | Source: The Guardian

Customs officers arrest two people over a massive liquid cocaine consignment in Bangladesh. Photograph: NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock/NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock

Customs officers arrest two people over a massive liquid cocaine consignment in Bangladesh. Photograph: NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock/NurPhoto/REX Shutterstock

Police who seized Asia’s largest known shipment of liquid cocaine at a Bangladeshi port in late June say it was headed for India, the latest sign drug cartels are increasingly plying their trade in south Asia.

It is not clear whether India was the final destination for the cocaine, worth as much as $14m, or whether it was a transit point for other markets in Asia and Europe.

“They wanted to redirect it to India when it got stuck at Chittagong,” Bangladeshi police official Mohammad Kamruzzaman said. He said they found correspondence that said the shipment was headed for “any port in India”.

Big drug busts in the region are becoming more common. Over the past three months Indian and foreign police sources said larger than usual amounts of high-purity cocaine carried mainly by South American and African drug mules have been seized in India. Multi-kilo hauls have also turned up in Kathmandu.

The seizures point to south Asia’s role as a possible transhipment hub, as highly organised gangs, possibly from Latin America, look to hide their tracks to US and European markets by taking advantage of soft security at the region’s ports.

Like other global businesses, groups such as Mexico’s Sinaloa or Pacific Cartel also see Asia as a growth market, and have turned up in Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines in recent years.

The United Nations believes more cocaine is moving through south Asia undetected.

“This is a huge wake-up call,” said Cristina Albertin, the south Asia representative for the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), referring to the Bangladesh bust.

Up until now, much of counter-narcotics agencies’ work in the region was focused on the smuggling of heroin and synthetic drugs and especially on Afghanistan, which produces around 90% of the world’s illicit opiates.

The recent hauls of cocaine have taken them by surprise.

The UNODC has been training port officials in Chittagong on how to better follow paper trails that help spot suspicious cargos and gave officials drug testing kits.

Officials drug testing kits were adapted to the region and so did not have a test for cocaine.

But the kits were adapted to the region and so didn’t have the test for cocaine. “Now we will also have to give them that,” Albertin said.

Cocaine use, while still low compared with Europe and North America, is on the rise among newly wealthy party-goers in the biggest cities of Asia’s fast growing economies.

“Latin American drug trafficking organisations, those who are well structured, are now looking for new markets, particularly for their cocaine and methamphetamine production,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative in Mexico.

“Asia is that market nowadays,” he said.

The south Asia drug route

Drug gangs exploit the soft security at south Asia’s ports to supply new markets in Asia and to hide their tracks in US and European markets. 

In India, drug seizures almost tripled between 2009 and 2013, data from India’s Narcotic Bureau shows. They dipped last year, but have been increasing in recent months.

One Peruvian man, for example, caught in June with a kilo of drugs hidden in his suitcase had previously visited India four times.

The drugs appear to be for local use in cities such as Bengalaru, Delhi and Mumbai, according to police reports.

Early in May, acting on a tip off from British intelligence, Bangladeshi customs agents seized 107 blue plastic barrels of sunflower oil from a container in the country’s busiest port.

Officials estimate between 60 and 100kg of cocaine were mixed into the oil.

The cocaine likely hails from land-locked Bolivia, listed as the source country for the sunflower oil and a leading cocaine producer.

It was shipped from Uruguay to Singapore on 30 March in a container Bangladeshi police say was owned by a company called South Freight Logistics.

The container was then transferred to a smaller ship that sailed to Chittagong.

A number listed for South Freight Logistics did not appear to be working and the company did not respond to requests for comment.


India stands second on trust in national government: survey

July 12, 2015 | Puja Mehra | Source: The Hindu

India has secured second position amongst 40 countries in a survey of trust in national governments for 2014 conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Switzerland has emerged at the top with Norway coming in third.

An impressive 73 per cent of Indians polled in the survey answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Do you have confidence in the national government?’

For the purpose of the survey, trust represents the confidence of citizens and businesses in government to do what is right and perceived as fair, according to the OECD ‘Government at a Glance 2015’ report.

However, the survey findings could also be an indicator of the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – as also reflected in his decisive electoral victory during 2014 – relative to the leaders in other countries as the report mentions that there is preliminary evidence to suggest that citizens’ trust in government reflects primarily their approval of their country’s leadership.

The report goes on to say that evidence also shows that trust in government is negatively correlated with the perceived levels of corruption in Government.

This is the only survey that collects data on the issue of trust in governments. It is a sampling survey of 1,000 citizens in each country conducted by World Poll, which has been doing it since 2005.

Between the two selected survey years of 2007 — the year before the financial and economic crisis started — and 2014, trust levels in India dropped by 9 percentage points.

The average confidence in national governments across OECD countries between the two years declined by 3.3 percentage points. It was 41.8 per cent in 2014 compared with 45.2 per cent in 2007.

The steepest declines took place in Slovenia (30 percentage points), Finland (29 percentage points) and Spain (27 percentage points).

Changes in trust levels could be affected by many factors, including the economic outlook, political changes such as elections or other major events such as disasters or major scandals including corruption cases. Moreover, expectations of citizens could grow at a faster pace than government responses.

However, India scored less than the OECD average and came 24th out of 35 countries in the comparison on protection of fundamental rights.

These are rights established under international law: the right to equal treatment and the absence of discrimination, the right to life and security of the person; due process of law and rights of the accused, freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of belief and religion, absence of arbitrary interference with privacy etc, the report says.

India fared similarly on the count of constrained government powers where the top ranking countries – Denmark, Finland and Norway – demonstrate a highly balanced distribution of authority within societies.


India, US to create Rs 50 cr fund to promote clean energy

July 12, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: Moneycontrol

India and the US have entered into an agreement to set up a Rs 50-crore fund to support clean energy by providing financial support to develop and test innovative products, systems and business models.

"India and the United States of America signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation to establish the PACESetter Fund," a New and Renewable Energy Ministry press release said.

It further said that India-US corpus of about Rs 500 million (USD 8 million) have been drawn on 50:50 sharing basis (under the pact for the purpose).

According to the statement, the fund will support the Promoting Energy Access Through Clean Energy (PEACE) track of the US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) to accelerate the commercialisation of off-grid clean energy through early-stage grant funding grants to develop and test innovative products, systems, and business models.

The MoU was signed by New and Renewable Energy Secretary Upendra Tripathy from Indian side and United States Ambassador to India Richard Verma from USA side on June 30 at New Delhi.

The Government of India and the United States of America have announced the launch of a new initiative "Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy (PEACE)".

This ambitious cooperation is a new tract under the US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE), a flagship initiative on Clean Energy that combines the resources of several US agencies and Government of India ministries.

This has also been listed in the Joint Statement during the visit of President of USA to India in January. Under this, a Steering Committee comprising the New and Renewable Energy Secretary and the US Ambassador to India, and three representatives from each side has been constituted.

It was agreed to cooperate through technical and commercial innovation and the advancement of clean energy in off-grid space. 


Major political realignments as nominations end

July 12, 2015 | Source: The Sunday Times

  • UNP forms new alliance with JHU, former UPFA stalwarts and SLMC; will contest as United National Front for Good Governance
  • Sirisena under severe pressure; gives various reasons for Rajapaksa’s re-entry but assures he won’t betray Jan. 8 mandate
  • Fonseka’s party also seeks alliance with UNP, but demand for six slots in Colombo District rejected

The bitter truth which some disbelieved, others hoped was untrue and yet others dismissed as impossible was officially confirmed as a reality this week.

President Maithripala Sirisena has given his blessings to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) for the Kurunegala District. He has also done so for Rajapaksa’s close allies to contest from different districts. Rajapaksa also submitted names to be added to the UPFA National List. It included a former Navy Commander, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. He was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Japan until his recall after the UNP Government came into office. That list is now awaiting approval. Among other names in the UPFA National List are former External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, former UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, one-time diplomat Dayan Jayatilleke, former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, former Media Ministry Secretary Charitha Herath, constitutional lawyer Jayampathy Wickremeratne, and scientist/publisher Devindu Kumaratunga.

Interesting enough, some Rajapaksa loyalists are still wary about Sirisena’s decision to accept Rajapaksa’s candidacy. By Friday, they did not seem totally convinced whether his name in the UPFA nomination list would go to the District Returning Officer who is also the Government Agent. The result – close allies have put into place their plan “B.” It contains another nomination list. They remained tight-lipped about the signatures on that list except to say “all that has been done in accordance with the law.” In some areas, the UPFA nomination lists have already been handed over. Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva handed over the UPFA list for Badulla District on Friday. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said his alliance had already handed in their nominations in the districts of Jaffna, Wanni, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. He said nomination papers for the Ampara District would be handed over tomorrow.

In another unexpected development, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), renamed as the National Front for Good Governance, is to join forces with the United National Party (UNP). Though they will be in a joint alliance, to be named the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), JHU General Secretary and Minister Champaka Ranawaka is likely to contest the Colombo District on the UNP ticket under the Elephant symbol. Similarly, his party spokesperson Nishantha Warnasinghe is to contest from the Gampaha District. Venerable Athureliya Rathana Thera, another party stalwart, is to find a place in the UNP National List. With this development, some of the other former parliamentarians who veered away from Rajapaksa and supported Sirisena in the January 8 election campaign are now being wooed to join the new alliance. Minister Rajitha Senaratne is learnt to have welcomed the move. Among the other names being mentioned are Hemal Gunasekera, Hirunika Premachandra M.K.A.D.S. Gunawardena and Wijeya Dahanayake. Ranawaka is holding talks with them in a bid to bring them in. The UNP’s Senior Vice President Lakshman Kiriella told the Sunday Times five per cent of the party’s nominations had been left open for any possible cross over from the UPFA. “By Friday morning we have concluded 95 per cent of the nomination list,” he said adding that an alternative list for those not turning up was also on hand. A formal announcement of the new front was made at the UNP convention yesterday by UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

President Maithripala Sirisena (2nd L), India's top envoy Y. K. Sinha (L), Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (R) and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga (2nd R) look on during a ceremony in Colombo on July 5, 2015, as Kumaratunga marked her 70th birthday with a public lecture in Colombo. AFP PHOTO / Ishara S. KODIKARA

President Maithripala Sirisena (2nd L), India's top envoy Y. K. Sinha (L), Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (R) and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga (2nd R) look on during a ceremony in Colombo on July 5, 2015, as Kumaratunga marked her 70th birthday with a public lecture in Colombo. AFP PHOTO / Ishara S. KODIKARA

Also contesting under the UNP banner and Elephant symbol will be the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Its leader Rauff Hakeem told the Sunday Times, “The only exceptions will be in Batticaloa and the Wanni districts where we will contest as SLMC under the tree symbol. This is by mutual arrangement.” Since the announcement that Rajapaksa was to contest on the UPFA ticket, the vast majority of the Muslim vote was bound to swing to the UNP putting added pressure on Muslim political leaders to back the UNP.

The UNP-JHU alliance indeed is a remarkable turn of events. One of those who strongly opposed the UNP Government’s position on many issues at meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers was Minister Ranawaka. He and Minister Rajitha Senaratne were widely known to be having the President’s ear and influenced many a decision taken by him. However, relations were strained later. President Sirisena did not inform his two closest political confidants of his decision to dissolve Parliament on June 27 and conduct elections. To make matters worse, the two were also formally not told of Rajapaksa being made a UPFA candidate. Some excused Sirisena saying that he probably couldn’t face them in the decision he took to allow Rajapaksa’s nomination.

“We will have a strong foe of Rajapaksa and now Sirisena on our platform,” said a senior UNPer who did not wish to be identified. He added that Ranawaka was better suited to “tell the story about how those who trusted Sirisena were betrayed.” Paradoxical situations in politics are not unusual. Both Ranawaka and Senaratne were not in favour of the dissolution of Parliament, a move which the UNP insisted on. They also strongly opposed the UNP’s electoral reform proposals. They accused the UNP of shielding some who were bribe takers or corrupt. Yet, the UNP leadership believes they together with other former UPFA parliamentarians will give more muscle to their campaign.

It was just last week Minister Ranawaka declared in our front page lead story that “the current situation created the need for a third front. We do not want to betray our January 8 victory.” He was critical of both Rajapaksa and the Wickremesinghe Government. Ranawaka and his like-minded colleagues, who were at the forefront of the campaign to bring Sirisena to power, cannot be faulted for their political U-turn. They threw their lot with Sirisena to oust Rajapaksa, placed their implicit trust in him and now find themselves politically orphaned.

The UNP, however, has declined a request by Democratic Party leader Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to field a list of candidates. The request came when the party’s nomination board headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the national leader of the party, met him last Wednesday. In addition to the party’s office bearers, Karu Jayasuriya and Daya Pelpola form the nomination board. At issue with Field Marshal Fonseka was a demand to field six candidates from his Democratic Party in the Colombo District under the UNP banner. This request was rejected. Now Fonseka will contest in the Colombo District under his own party whilst his wife Anoma will do so from the Gampaha District. On Friday, some UNP leaders were seeking the return of Fonseka so he could be fielded as UNP candidate in the Kurunegala District as a measure to counter Rajapaksa. However, the law prohibits him from withdrawing his nomination papers handed over already to contest the Colombo District. The Field Marshal was in Kataragama on Friday evening and UNP leaders were making hectic efforts to reach him. A conspicuous absentee at different meetings of the UNP nomination board was deputy leader Sajith Premadasa. One of his aides said he was busy with polls work in the Hambantota District and was unable to travel for regular meetings in Colombo.

An official announcement of the UNP-JHU alliance is expected anytime now.
Premier Wickremesinghe told the UNP’s annual convention yesterday “All those of us who supported the January 8 program will come together and form the next government. I invite the other parties to join us to form the United National Front for Good Governance (Yaha Palanaya Sandaha Eksath Jathika Peramuna).

“After the elections we can register this Front as a political party. In Parliament we can represent separate political parties. But to win this let us get together and as the United National party (UNP) is the single largest party, let us contest under the UNP symbol. I invite all the party leaders to finalize the nominations and hand them over. What we have left is to win this battle. After victory we can have a new political culture in the country. Those who went home should stay home, they cannot come back.”

Ranawaka is also expected to hold a news conference. One of the JHU leaders Venerable Athureliya Rathana Thera earlier held a meeting with President Sirisena this week. This was amidst offers of a UPFA National List position for him. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa who wanted to retire from politics has changed his mind. He will now contest on the UPFA ticket from Hambantota. At a farewell to parliamentary staff, he said that he had wanted to retire from politics, but his party wanted him to contest from Hambantota district. He hinted that he would be back — as Speaker.

As reported last week, only four UPFA figures have been refused candidacy — Mervyn Silva, Duminda Silva, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena and Sarana Gunawardena. This was from a list of ten names that came up for discussion between the UPFA, SLFP secretaries and President Sirisena. Mervyn Silva called at the Presidential Secretariat to make an appeal to re-consider the decision. Supporters of Duminda Silva staged a demonstration outside the SLFP headquarters at Darley Road. However, a senior UPFA leader said their decision stood and no nominations would be given to the four.

The UPFA list of candidates emerged after Sirisena brushed aside immense pressure this week to reverse his earlier decision to nominate Rajapaksa. Details of how Sirisena decided on Rajapaksa’s candidature were reported in these columns last week. Such pressure prompted Sirisena to make a telephone call on Tuesday night to Rajapaksa. “Oba thuma chandeta thawamath idiripathwenawada” (Are you still hoping to contest?),” he asked cryptically, adding that it would be good if he did not. Rajapaksa was emphatic he was coming forward. Rajapaksa said deng pramada vedi or it’s too late now. That ended the conversation. What prompted the call is not clear. Rajapaksa loyalists claimed it was after a leading personality met Sirisena and voiced strong objections that the call was made in her presence.

Most livid over Rajapaksa receiving nominations was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the one who persuaded Sirisena to challenge Rajapaksa and contest for the presidency. In the course of discussions this week over nominations, he had left the Gampaha District nominees in her hands before reaching finality. She was not in favour of Prasanna Ranatunga, a staunch backer of Rajapaksa and Chief Minister of the Western Province from contesting. She wanted only his brothers Arjuna and Ruwan to be in the fray. This was whilst Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) detectives wanted to arrest Prasanna and his wife over an allegedly irregular land deal involving Rs. 69 million. Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon has directed that no arrests be made until nominations are concluded. Prasanna’s name has been included in the UPFA nomination list for Gampaha District. An irate Kumaratunga boarded SriLankan Airlines flight UL 503 to London on Thursday afternoon. Her office said she was going on a family engagement planned a year ago. She was set to go on a summer holiday with her grandchildren to Greece. She is not due to return for two weeks. However, she is set to take part in the final stages of the election campaign in the Gampaha District.

Sirisena, who had earlier declined to name his predecessor the prime ministerial candidate, refused this week to allow him to lead the polls campaign. It is to be handled by a Campaign Committee which will include the General Secretaries of the UPFA (Susil Premajayantha), SLFP (Anura Priyadarshana Yapa), Wimal Weerawansa, Dullas Allahaperuma and Manusha Nanayakkara — all supporters of Rajapaksa. As much as the Ranawakas and Rajitha Senaratnes have been orphaned so has Sirisena now with his few close allies hitherto, ditching him in return. An issue over some Provincial Council or local authority members not being given nominations because they were Rajapaksa loyalists was being discussed over the weekend.

When the caretaker Cabinet of ministers met for the first time since dissolution last Wednesday, Sirisena did not make any reference to the candidates or the polls. Official spokesperson, Minister Rajitha Senaratne, told a news briefingon Thursday, “there are two matters to take into consideration” over Rajapaksa’s candidacy. He said, “One is the party and the other its policies. He (Sirisena) was given the party leadership. His responsibility is how to take this party forward without breaking it up. If it breaks up the blame will be on him.” He declared that Rajapaksa’s nomination could be vetoed by President Sirisena at any time. However, SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told the Sunday Times, “the President has already endorsed the UPFA list of candidates after it was finalised.”

He said he and colleague Susil Premajayantha had many meetings with Sirisena. A source close to the presidency said one such meeting chaired by Sirisena was attended by Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, S.B. Dissanayake and Mahinda Amaraweera. Senaratne had asked whether it was not possible to urge Rajapaksa to contest from the Hambantota District. Both Premajayantha and Yapa had turned down the request saying it was not possible. That proposal was to give rise to reports that Rajapaksa was being confined to the Hambantota District. Debunking Senaratne’s claims further were remarks Sirisena made to a civil society group on Wednesday. “After the party General Secretary has taken a decision, I cannot interfere and change it, the President told us,” declared Ravaya editor Jana Ranjana, who was one of the participants. His newspaper ran a page 1 lead story this weekend with the headline; “Maithree janavarama paawadei” (Maithree betrays the mandate).

Reasons for Sirisena ceding UPFA candidacy to Rajapaksa were varied. Well informed quarters closely associated with the Presidency claimed Sirisena feared a refusal would lead to a possible tie up between Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe posing a threat to his position. This paranoia appeared to be without any basis. However, the only known public explanation Sirisena gave ran counter to his strong assertions before the presidential election. One of his most publicised remarks was how he spent the polls night on January 8 at a coconut estate in Dodangaslanda. He said if he had lost, he and members of his family would have been six feet under. He was alluding to Rajapaksa who he referred to as the ekadipathi or dictator during the campaign. Ahead of that, on the day of nominations on December 8, at the Elections Office, Sirisena said Rajapaksa had offered his hand but he did not shake it. It was out of fear. Was it a charm or some hoodoo? Now, the same Maithripala Sirisena, the President, seems to have got over that mortal fear. He was emboldened enough to allow Rajapaksa UPFA candidacy. This time he gave a different personal explanation to a group of civil society activists on Wednesday night.

It came during a meeting with the Collective of Civil Organisations. The meeting lasted over two hours. Their members, who had supported Sirisena, gathered to voice their objections. Some complained that they had been betrayed. Sirisena cited instances where previous presidents and prime ministers have had Governments with a two thirds majority in Parliament. They were the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene. More recently, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as President, had brought about a situation where he too enjoyed a two thirds majority. This led to concentration of power on one side and left behind a weakened Opposition. He said such a situation was not healthy for a country like Sri Lanka. He asserted that there should be a balance.

Those remarks by Sirisena raise more questions than answers. Here is a President who was voted to power on his commitment to ensure democracy and democratic practices. Instead of allowing the voters to elect a Government of their choice, is he now trying to limit their options by a so called “balance” which he is neither legally nor constitutionally required to do? One cannot fault him for believing in the necessity for a “balance” but does that entitle him to manipulate issues to give meaning to his thoughts? Of course one may argue why not, when he is the leader of the SLFP, the predominant partner in the UPFA. He is required to have the interests of his party at heart. On the other hand, Sirisena made a solemn pledge after his election to stay neutral. Some 40 different political parties and organisations that backed him were assured of ensuring good governance and a probe into the lack of it in the past. Such “balancing acts,” could have easily been obviated if he were assertive, dispassionate and ensured checks and balances in governance. There was hardly anything of this. Instead, governance on his part was on auto pilot. That vacillation appears to have assumed newer meaning in the current presidency than ever before. Thus patch work for face saving – became the order of the day.

After their meeting with Sirisena, here are some of the views of those in the Collective of Civil Organisations:
Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: “We told the President we did not expect him to change his stance in six months. It was a betrayal. He told us he had to face several difficulties in keeping the party together. On previous occasions when the two parties enjoyed two thirds majority, they acted in a dictatorial manner. It was not healthy for Sri Lanka and there should be a strong opposition in Parliament.”

Jana Ranjana: “We told President Sirisena he had gone against the mandate given to him by 6.2 million voters. We said if it was his intention to take back Rajapaksa, he should not have taken over the leadership of the party. He said he was forced to take this decision. He had found it difficult to pass the 19A and was not successful in getting the 20A through Parliament.”
Joseph Stalin: “The President told us that though nomination was given to Rajapaksa, he will not leave any room to reverse the pledges made during January 8 presidential polls. He told us that though he was the President of the party, it was the nomination board that handled nominations. He had no control over it.”

Nirmal Devasiri: “To be honest I am not disappointed. President Sirisena was honest about his predicament after taking over the leadership of the SLFP. No one criticised him then. Of course there were contradictions with the mandate he won on January 8. He told us that Rajapaksa’s candidacy was a decision taken by the UPFA leaders. He is fully aware of the reactions. He was very concerned about the way the UNP handled matters. He asked us to understand the situation he is placed in. He said all leaders who received two thirds vote in Parliament had abused their power. I would like to wait and see. He has assured us he will not go against the popular mandate.”

Late last week, UPFA parliamentarians were gathered at the official residence of Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga. Some UPFA leaders were recounting their last meeting with President Sirisena where it was agreed to nominate Rajapaksa as a candidate. One of those who spoke was Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena. He quoted Sirisena as saying that since Rajapaksa has been nominated, the UPFA could now win the parliamentary elections. One of Rajapaksa’s close allies, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa told a news conference at the Abhayarama Temple on Thursday, “We have no doubts that the UPFA will win the elections on August 17 and that Mahinda Rajapaksa will be made the Prime Minister. We call on the people not to be misled by the false propaganda.”

“The biggest issue for us to contend with was nominations for former President Rajapaksa. President Sirisena behaved like a statesman. He carefully listened to me and my colleague Susil Premajayantha (UPFA General Secretary),” Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, General Secretary of the SLFP told the Sunday Times. “We had a number of consultations with him. He has always listened to us patiently and acknowledged our advice. Once he agreed to Rajapaksa’s nomination, he did not interfere with our work,” he said. “Seniors in our party were divided. The question before us was whether we break in two or fight together. Thanks to President Sirisena we will be going to the polls as one entity to defeat the UNP,” he added.

Yapa conceded that President Sirisena had allowed former President Kumaratunga to first submit a list of candidates for the Gampaha District. She had not spoken to the two secretaries. Asked about moves to remove him and Premajayantha, Yapa replied, “if that happened, we decided that we will tell the truth and leave.” Yapa declared “we have had 138 members in Parliament. They have served for almost six years. We are confident of victory on August 17.”

The UPFA’s first election rally will be held in Anuradhapura on Thursday. Rajapaksa, who cancelled his own rally scheduled for last Thursday, is expected to take part.

The UNP’s election campaign will be launched on Tuesday from the George E. de Silva Park in Kandy, one of its strongholds, Senior Vice President Lakshman Kiriella said. Ahead of the event, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who leads the campaign will call on the Mahanayake Theras of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, he told the Sunday Times. He said the UNP had received about 16,000 applications seeking nominations. He said the party had left out persons, against whom there were different allegations, “We have no rogues or corrupt elements on our list,” he said.

Rajapaksa’s candidacy from the UPFA drew comments from other parties. TNA leader Sampanthan said; “We cannot raise objections over his entering a democratic process. This is even if he has been rejected months earlier. He should be entitled to do so. However, that should not minimise the verdict of the people on January 8. There is no comparison between the verdict of the whole country and one that may emerge from a district. One must also remember that at the presidential election, Rajapaksa had at his disposal the entire resources of the Sri Lankan state and he fully used them. It was an uneven playing field. His opponent had barely a few months to campaign. Rajapaksa had been in office for more than nine years. Despite that, he was defeated convincingly. That verdict had a message for the country. The preservation of democracy, the sovereignty of the people, terminating the movement towards a dictatorship, ensuring the dignity of Parliament, ensuring the independence of the higher judiciary and preserving the independence of important civilian institutions were some of the achievements. The impact of the January verdict cannot be minimised.”

The disbelief about Rajapaksa’s candidacy will be laid to rest for good when he appears at the Kurunegala Kachcheri tomorrow for the nominations. Though he is not leading the campaign and that has been tasked to a committee, he will still appear on UPFA platforms. He will therefore be a main attraction at UPFA rallies — in all the districts in the south.

For the UNP, which has consolidated its campaign machinery with a tie up with former UPFA stalwarts, the thrust would surely be against Rajapaksa and his many allies. Thus, inevitably, the former President will become the major campaign issue for them besides their claim of achieving the pledges made in the 100 Day Programme of Work. There will hardly be any dull moments when the campaigns get under way.


UAE supports major projects in Pakistan

July 12, 2015 | Ashfaq Ahmed | Source: Gulf News

Dubai: The UAE government, with the help of the Pakistan Army, started the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme (UAE PAP) on January 12, 2011 with the theme ‘Peace through Sustained Development’.

“The projects were completed in collaboration with the Engineers Division in very challenging and difficult circumstances,” said Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, Director-General of the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations).

He said that Pakistan and UAE have always enjoyed a long-lasting relationship based on trust, friendship and solidarity.

In an interview with Gulf News, Maj Gen Bajwa outlined the various projects being carried out by the UAE in Pakistan in collaboration with the Pakistan armed forces.

“To mitigate the impact of militancy in Malakand Division, Bajaur Agency and South Waziristan Agency, UAE PAP efforts were focused on education, health, water supply and infrastructure,” he said.

The grant provided by the UAE, he added, is being used not only for the development and rehabilitation of terrorism-stricken areas but also during natural calamities. In 2010, the UAE was the first country to help flood-hit areas of Swat by redeveloping infrastructure.

The UAE provided full assistance in rebuilding schools and educational institutions destroyed during the militant uprising. Under UAE PAP projects, 42 educational facilities in Swat district have been built.

“The construction of 64 water schemes, 21 schools and a bridge have also been completed in collaboration with UAE in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and Malakand,” said Maj Gen Bajwa. “As a result, 1,200 families have been provided with clean drinking water, while thousands of children are going to schools.

Government Poly Technical Institute and vocational training centres have also been constructed under UAE PAP in Swat, Dir and Mingora which provided an opportunity to men and women for enhancement of skills and enabled them to maintain a degree of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.”

Other projects that have come on board are a 40-bed agency hospital in South Waziristan, a 90-bed Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak model hospital and a 80-bed hospital in Khar.

All these projects, said Maj Gen Bajwa, have facilitated the process of economic development and ensured greater economic and social stabilisation in the region. “The support of our brothers from UAE has been commendable,” he emphasised.


2.5 lakh millionaires in India in 2014, says report

July 11, 2015 | Sharad Raghavan | Source: The Hindu

The number of dollar millionaires in India in 2014 rose to 2.5 lakh from 1.96 lakh in 2013, an increase of 27 per cent, according to a recent report.

The report also predicted that India will have 4.37 lakh millionaires by 2018, and potentially double that number by 2023.

High entrepreneurship

Terming the next 10 years as ‘India’s decade’, the report by Wealth X released on Wednesday said that “the nation also has a young, well-educated population with high levels of entrepreneurship and business ownership, underpinned by a well-developed legal system that in turn would help in wealth creation.”

The report attributed this rise in millionaires and conspicuous consumption to “renewed economic optimism and performance, further propelled by the election of a new, reformist government.”

Ultra net worth individuals put India in sixth place

Emerging markets such as India and South Africa would see their millionaire populations swell in the coming decade, the Wealth X report said. India had the 14th largest millionaire population in the world in 2013-14, with the U.S., Japan, China and the U.K. leading the pack. However, other reports show that India does far better when it comes to ultra high net worth (UHNW) individuals — those with a net worth of more than $30 million.

A Wealth X and UBS report shows that India had 8,595 UHNW individuals in 2014, with wealth amounting to $1.01 trillion. This places India 6th in the global rankings. Significantly, the number of UNHW individuals in India grew by 9.5 per cent in 2014, and their wealth grew by 8.3 per cent. This is higher than the global growth rates of 6 per cent and 7 per cent in the number and wealth of UHNW individuals, respectively.

An analysis by The Hindu of the number of billionaires per country shows that the number of billionaires in India is not commensurate with its relatively smaller GDP compared to countries like the U.S. and China. In 2014, India had 53.3 billionaires per trillion dollars of GDP, more than 2.5 times the figure in 2009. This number was 30.3 for the U.S. and 15.3 for China in 2014.

Stark inequality

Apart from highlighting the growing affluence of the ultra-rich in India, these numbers, when combined with data on per capita income and the findings of the recently-released Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in India, underscore the stark inequality prevalent in India. The World Bank’s most recent data show that India’s gross national income per person rose to $1,610 (around Rs. 1 lakh) a year during 2014 from $1,560 the previous year. This was likely driven by the increase in wealth of a few individuals rather than an overall increase in income levels.

While the number of millionaires increased steadily, the SECC found that most of rural India still languished in poverty — the highest paid member of 74.5 per cent of rural households in India earned less than Rs. 5,000 (around $79) per month.


Afghanistan says U.S. strikes destroy ISIS branch

July 11, 2015 | Associated Press | Source: CBS News

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Officials in Afghanistan said Saturday that recent U.S. airstrikes it assisted destroyed the top leadership of a fledgling local affiliate of theIslamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), potentially striking a major blow to an insurgent group already targeted by local Taliban fighters.

While U.S. officials declined to confirm it, Afghan authorities said an American airstrike Friday killed ISIS affiliate leader Hafeez Sayeed and more than 30 other militants.

That comes after Afghan officials earlier said another U.S. airstrike killed the affiliate's second-highest official, Gul Zaman, and six others, including a former Pakistani Taliban spokesman named Shahidullah Shahid who earlier had joined the group.

"With the killings of Hafiz Sayeed, Gul Zaman and Shahidullah Shahid, who were the high-profile figures of Daesh in Afghanistan, we have destroyed the base of ISIS," said Abdul Hassib Sediqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, using two alternate names for the militant group.

Sediqi offered no photographs or other evidence to show the strikes killed the Islamic State affiliate's top leaders, though he said Afghan authorities verified a corpse from Friday's strike was Sayeed. Militants with the group have not discussed the strikes online.

NATO officials declined to immediately comment on the claim, saying they would issue a statement later Saturday. U.S. Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, confirmed Americans carried out an airstrike Friday in Nangarhar's Achin District, but declined to comment further.

NATO and U.S. officials have not commented on the strike that Afghan officials said killed Zaman and Shahid, which they said took place Monday in the same district as Friday's strike.

ISIS, which holds a self-declared "caliphate" across roughly third of Syria and neighboring Iraq, has inspired militants across the greater Middle East and Africa to declare allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The militants include those in Egypt who purportedly claimed a car bombing early Saturday at the Italian Consulate in Cairo that killed one person.

They also include militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the target of a U.S.-led invasion after the 2001 al-Qaida terror attacks on America.

Disenchanted extremists from the Taliban and other organizations, impressed by ISIS's territorial gains and slick online propaganda, began raising its black flag in extremist-dominated areas of both countries in recent months.

Analysts and officials say the number of Islamic State supporters in the Afghan-Pakistan region remains small and that the group faces resistance from militants with strong tribal links. However, the rise of even a small Islamic State affiliate could further destabilize the region and complicate U.S. and NATO efforts to end the 13-year Afghan war.

In April, a motorcycle-riding suicide bomber attacked a line of people waiting outside a bank in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 35 and wounding 125 in an assault the country's president blamed on ISIS.

Other violence has been blamed on the ISIS affiliate, including gun battles between its followers and the Taliban, who warned the Islamic State group to stay out of the country. Afghan officials have suggested the group had a presence in three of its provinces, including Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan and frequently sees militants cross its borders.

Sediqi, the National Directorate of Security spokesman, said Afghan officials had created a special intelligence unit to target the ISIS affiliate and its work directly aided the U.S. airstrikes.

"Daesh activities have been totally disturbed here and it is not easy for them to replace all these high-ranking figures any time soon," he said.

Meanwhile Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said army airstrikes killed at least 28 people in the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, including 19 civilians. The Local Coordination Committees group said the barrel bombings killed 29 people.

Al-Bab is a frequent target of Syrian army strikes that often kill civilians. On May 31, Syrian army airstrikes that hit a packed market in al-Bab killed around 70 people, most of them civilians.


Analysts: India's LCA Will Miss Another Deadline

July 11, 2015 | Vivek Raghuvanshi | Source: Defense News

NEW DELHI — Delayed by more than 15 years, India's homegrown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1 is ready for critical test flights necessary for its final operational clearance (FOC) at the end of the year, but analysts and Indian Air Force (IAF) officials say that clearance will slip again, to next year.

Though he did not provide a date for the test flights, a Defence Ministry official said they will include firings of a variety of weapons, including air-to-air missiles and Israeli-made Derby beyond-visual-range missiles. The Russian-made close-combat missile R-73 has already been integrated on the aircraft,

Weapon testing would involve integration checks, carriage safety and missile firing, followed up with user evaluation of radar integration with mission computer and weapon firing trials on the available aircraft and subsequent inductions over the next three to five years, said defense analyst Kapil Kak, a retired Indian Air Force air vice marshal.

"FOC would most probably slip to sometime in 2016," Kak said. "But given the track record, these kind of slippages have over the years been accepted as par for the course."

The Air Force ordered 20 of the Mark-1s after the aircraft's initial operational clearance in December 2013, and is set to order an additional 20 following FOC. State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) will produce all 40 aircraft under limited series production and says it has the capacity to produce eight LCA Mark-1s a year once the full order is placed.

But so far the Air Force has received only one aircraft to use for weapon integration and testing, not the four it wanted to have at this stage.

"Weapons integration has been on for quite some time and the LCA has fired the R73 missile and laser-guided bombs during [the Air Force's] firepower demonstration in February 2014," said Daljit Singh, retired Air Force air marshal. "However, more weapons are required to be integrated. In addition to weapons integration, test flights are also required to integrate and test other avionics and systems.

"If the FOC fructifies as per stated specifications, it [the LCA Mark-1] would definitely be a better aircraft than the MiG-21," Singh said. "This would include air-to-air refuelling, navigation, compatibility, more capable missiles and better weapons carrying capability, integrated self-protection suite, much longer operational range , much better avionics, active flight control technology and communication systems."

Meanwhile, the Air Force is banking on the LCA Mark-2, still in development and proposed to be powered by a higher-thrust engine. Analysts and Air Force officials, however, say while the LCA is superior to India's Russian-built MiG-21 fighter aircraft, its 2021 induction into service is uncertain.

The preliminary design has been completed, said a senior scientist with the Scientists of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADE), part of the government's Defense Research and Development Organization, which is developing the LCA Mark-2 – but the challenge would be to accommodate a heavier, more powerful GE 414 engine into the LCA Mark-1 fuselage, currently powered by the GE 404 engine. Nevertheless, the scientist said, the LCA Mark-2 prototype will make its first flight by 2018.

Kak, however, is skeptical.

"Unless one is a Don Quixote or delusional or part of the new crop of academics-journalists masquerading as air-power and force-structure experts of the [Indian Air Force], the envisaged 10 squadrons of LCA are unlikely to be fully operational before 2030 or so," he said. "This makes for the need of medium multirole combat aircraft or the equivalent even more critical."

Nirdosh Tyagi, retired Indian Air Force air marshal and former deputy service chief, agreed that the Mark-2's first flight is "nowhere close to realization."


Azim Premji aside, why are India’s ultra rich so tight-fisted when it comes to philanthropy?

Shoaib Daniyal | July 11, 2015 | Source: Scroll India

Western Indian Vegetable Products is an odd name for an $8 billion information technology consulting firm. But when Azim Premji, the founder's son took over the manufacturer of cooking oil, he transformed the scale and direction of the company, which had now abbreviated its name to Wipro.

More incongruity was to follow: Azim Premji has, till date, donated almost half his shareholdings in his very successful company towards philanthropy. On Wednesday, Premji gave away an additional 18% of his stake in Wipro, thus donating shares worth a total of Rs 53,000 crore towards charity. To put that in perspective, Rs 53,000 crore could finance the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for 18 months.

This sort of benevolence is rare in India and Premji is a lone wolf when it comes to big-ticket philanthropy in the country. It is a very rare occurrence for high net worth individuals to donate away their billions in India.

India’s Scrooges

Even as about 300 million Indians live in extreme poverty, the country does very well in giving rise to the ultra rich. India is the country with the third-largest number of billionaires in the world, lagging only China and the US. Moreover, not only is the number of billionaires high, the amount of wealth they control is rather obscene. The World Bank, for example, calls India’s billionaire wealth “exceptionally large”. The ratio of billionaire wealth to gross domestic product in India stood at 12% in 2012. In Vietnam, it was under 2%. This number has grown: it was only 1% in the mid-1990s, before the effects of liberalisation could take root.

India, in fact, has wealth inequality that compares to highly developed nations such as the UK and Canada and is substantially more than China.

At the other end of the spectrum, India does significantly worse when it comes to human development. In preventing malnourishment of its children, for example, it lags behind sub-Saharan Africa. A baby born in India has a far greater chance of dying before its 5th birthday than if it had been born across the border in Bangladesh. India comes in at a lowly 135th on the Human Development Index rankings.

With such dismal amounts of poverty and large concentrations of wealth, India's ultra rich should have been on a philanthropic overdrive.

But they aren't.

According to consulting firm Bain and Company, philanthropy by Indians accounts for only 0.6% of GDP, far behind the 2.2% of the US. Leaving out topper Premji, everyone else in India performs abysmally. The country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, gave away only 0.4% of his wealth for philanthropic causes in 2014; only three Indians gave away more than Rs 1,000 crore.

US moneybags Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (worth over $150 billion combined), have announced that most of their wealth will be donated to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The two have even started a campaign to encourage the super rich to donate at least half of their wealth.

Even assuming these two to be outliers, your average billionaire in the West donates far more than Indian tycoons do. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated 2.2% of his net worth in 2012 and George Soros donated 3.2%.

Indian POV

Is this a cultural thing? Is the worldview of a rich Indian somehow different from the worldview of a rich American?

In some ways, yes. Indians, for example, are major donators to religious causes, which would classically not be counted as “philanthropy” in the West. Data generated in 2014 by the consulting firm Bain, for example, shows that high net worth individuals in India give more to religious causes than education. And this involves some big bucks. If the famous Venkateswara temple at Tirupati, for example, donated its annual earnings, it would become the country’s second largest philanthropists.

However, is a comparison even justified, even taking into account the massive wealth of India’s billionaires?

Deval Sanghavi, cofounder of Dasra, a Mumbai-based strategic philanthropy foundation thinks that we “can’t compare India to the US since it is developed country. There was a very long timeframe for those individuals to become philanthropists.”

He added: “Wealth was created in India post-liberalisation and the concept of philanthropy in India is slowly taking root."

Getting better

Bain’s report on philanthropy in India backs this up. The proportion of Indians donating money went up from 14% in 2009 to 28% in 2013 (although this figure also includes religious donations).

Another more abrupt change has been mandated by the law: from 2014 onwards, every company with a net worth of Rs 500 crore or more or a turnover of at least R.1,000 crore or a net profit of Rs 5 crore in a year should spend 2% of their profit of the last three years on corporate social responsibility programmes.

Like most top down initiatives, however, this seems destined to fail. Aneel Karnani, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, points out that since corporate social responsibility has been defined very loosely, firms will simply reclassify many of their profit-making activities as CSR with no real social welfare impact.

Actual impact, though, must be driven by broad-based changes in how India ultra rich look at giving back to the society that they made their wealth in (rather than, say, parking it in real estate, where it contributes nothing).


BJP advices Shiv Sena to change their perception of Pakistan

July 11, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: The Times of India

MUMBAI: Hitting back at its ally in Maharashtra, BJP on Saturday advised Shiv Sena to change its perception of Pakistan and spare a thought about local civic problems while commenting on national issues. 

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had on Friday expressed reservations about the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"Uddhav Thackeray should have first sought information on Modi's meeting with Sharif. The meeting between the two Prime Ministers was of national importance. Since the trial of 26/11 Mumbai attacks is going on in a Pakistani court, Modi coaxed Pakistan into completing it faster. Several Indian fishermen are lodged in Pakistani jails. The meeting also focused on their release," Mumbai BJP chief Ashish Shelar said here. 

"Everybody has the right to speak about India-Pakistan relations and what is happening in Jammu & Kashmir. But what is needed is a change of perception so that you can see the changed conditions," he said. 

Thackeray had on Friday termed Modi's meeting with Sharif as "unfortunate" and said "the neighbouring country needs to be taught a lesson in a manner it understands" as there was no change in the conditions on the border.

Shelar also took a swipe at Sena, which controls the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, over recent flooding in the city and the choked nullahs which are said to have to caused it. 

"While the Sena speaks about issues of national importance, why doesn't it take action against MCGM contractors who are doing substandard work of cleaning the drainage system? It (also) needs to focus on the increasing number of leptospirosis cases in Mumbai," he said.


IKEA buys land in Hyderabad for first India store

July 11, 2015 | Indo-Asian News Service | Source: The Times of India

HYDERABAD: IKEA Group, the leading Swedish home furnishings company, on Friday announced that it has purchased land in Hyderabad to build its first retail store in India. 

The strategically-located, 13 acre site is close to HITEC City, the IT hub, is within easy access to public transport and next to an upcoming metro line, the company said in a statement. 

It signed land purchase agreement with Telangana government. The size of the deal and other details of the agreement were not released. 

The company is in parallel evaluating suitable sites in the cities of Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Delhi NCR to open 25 stores in the long term. 

IKEA had last year signed an MoU with the Telangana government for opening the store. 

According to a statement then released by the government, IKEA retail outlets have a standard design and each location entails an investment of $100 million (Rs 500-600 crore). Headquartered in Sweden, IKEA is one of the world's largest and recognizable international furniture, household goods and textiles retail company. It has been sourcing from India for the last 28 years and it plans to double its sourcing volumes in the country by 2020. 

Around 45,000 people work directly for 50 IKEA suppliers in India and about 4,00,000 in the extended supply chain. IKEA has recently organized three "Make more in India" campaigns, including one in Telangana, to look for new suppliers, said the statement on Friday. 

Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao said IKEA will bring best business practices, great employment opportunities and contribute to the overall development of the city. He assured all necessary support to IKEA for its future expansion plans in the state. 

IKEA India CEO Juvencio Maeztu said, India was a very promising market for IKEA as it offers them the opportunity to source, retail, conduct CSR initiatives through IKEA Foundation and empower social entrepreneurs through next generation projects. 

"Our focus now is to bring all of it together in Hyderabad as we have bought our first land to build an IKEA store. We will bring a unique shopping experience through our inspiring stores offering affordable home furnishing products," he said.


India happy with assistance given to Sri Lanka

July 11, 2015 | Source: Colombo Gazette

India has noted that it has been assisting Sri Lanka in various sectors through development assistance programmes.

The High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka Y. K. Sinha and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraweera jointly inaugurated a Language Lab in Akuressa on at a function held at Nilwala National College of Education, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said today.

Consul General of India-Hambantota, Raj Kumar, Director, Tamil Schools Development of Ministry of Education of Sri Lanka, Muralidharan and other senior officials were also present during the occasion.

Speaking on the occasion, the Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that English is the medium that opens a window of opportunities for Sri Lankan youth, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. He thanked Government of India for the project, which will act as a platform for skill development of youth of Sri Lanka.

The High Commissioner indicated that Government of India has been assisting Sri Lanka in various sectors through development assistance programmes. He expressed his happiness that Government of India has been a partner of Sri Lanka’s tri-lingual initiative. 

This Language Lab is one of the nine labs that the Government of India has set up in each of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka. Four language labs in Gampaha (Western Province), Kandy (Central Province), Bingiriya (North Western Province) and Adalaichenai (Eastern Province) have already been inaugurated. Other locations where Language Labs have been set up are Jaffna (Northern Province), Polonnaruwa (North Central Province),  Ratnapura (Sabaragamuwa Province), and Badulla (Uva Province).

The project has been implemented as part of an MoU signed between India and Sri Lanka in 2011 for “Setting up of a Three-Tier English Language Training System in Sri Lanka”. The total cost of the project is SLR 84 million, implemented under full grant assistance of the Government of India. As part of the project, Government of India has provided 31 computer units and other related equipment, software and latest sophisticated teaching aids to each Centre, and has also trained five master trainers for each Centre.

The objective of the project is to help enhance English Language training infrastructure in Sri Lanka; impart training to English language teachers from schools, colleges and universities in Sri Lanka; upgrade their skills; and raise the general level of proficiency in English language of various sections of society.


India's population crosses 127 crore mark, Health Ministry raises concerns over population related problems 

July 11, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: IBN Live

New Delhi: India on Saturday recorded a population of 127,42,39,769, which is growing at a rate of 1.6 per cent a year, and could make the country the most populous in the world by 2050.

At 5 PM on Saturday, the World Population Day, the number of Indians hit 127,42,39,769, and is 17.25 per cent of the global population, as per Jansankhya Sthirata Kosh or National Population Stabilisation Fund (NPSF), an autonomous body under the Union Health Ministry which has raised concerns about over-population related problems, if the rate persists.

Health Minister JP Nadda stressed on the involvement of development partners and NGOs in assisting government to achieve population stabilisation goals.

Health Minister JP Nadda stressed on the involvement of development partners and NGOs in assisting government to achieve population stabilisation goals.

Health Minister JP Nadda stressed on the involvement of development partners and NGOs in assisting government to achieve population stabilisation goals.

Noting that India's population was growing at a faster rate than China, which is now the world's most populous country at around 1.39 billion, an official of the Fund said that the country could become the most populated one by 2050.

"If current growth rates continue, India will have 1.63 billion people by 2050 and will surpass China," the official said.

At a function on Saturday, Health Minister JP Nadda stressed on the involvement of development partners and NGOs in assisting government to achieve population stabilisation goals.

According to data from NPSF, the total fertility rate (TFR) in India has seen a decline and stood at 2.3 in 2013 although the decline is not consistent.

"Age at marriage has a significant influence on TFR, particularly in countries where childbearing occurs within marriage. A country where age at marriage is high, fertility is generally observed to be low because of the reduced number of women at risk of childbearing," the official said.

The data suggests that a high percentage of female (21-26 per cent) are married below 18 years of age in states like Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar.

The population of India, at 1.21 billion as per the 2011 Census, is almost equal to the combined population of USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan put together.

Also, the population of several states match, and in some cases, exceed that of several large countries. For example, the population of Uttar Pradesh is almost that of Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world.


India to include Japan in its Malabar naval exercise with the US

July 11, 2015 | TNN News | Source: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: Cocking a snook at China, India will now include Japan for its forthcoming Malabar naval exercise with the US in the Bay of Bengal in October. But India will host a separate bilateral naval exercise with Australia, which too was keen on joining the Malabar, in September.

The Indian defence establishment had kept Japan out of the initial planning for the 19th Indo-US Malabar naval combat exercise, leaving it to the PMO to take a decision on the matter, as was reported by TOI.

With the Modi government now giving the go-ahead for Japan's participation, the trilateral planning conference for the Malabar exercise is to be held at Yokosuka towards end-July. "The formal invite to Japan is being sent," said a source on Friday.

Just before the Malabar, India and Australia will also hold their first-ever bilateral naval exercise off Vizag in the Bay of Bengal from September 11 to 21. The exercise will see Australia participate with frigate HMAS Arunta, tanker HMAS Sirius, submarine HMAS Sheehan, with India fielding a destroyer, a frigate and a tanker, apart from aircraft and helicopters.

China had lodged a strong protest against the 2007 Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal when they were expanded to include the Japanese, Australian and Singaporean navies as well. China had viewed the multi-lateral exercise as a step towards building a security axis to "contain" it in the Asia-Pacific.

The previous UPA regime had then restricted Malabar to a bilateral exercise when it was held off India. Japan was inducted into the exercise only when it was held in the north-western Pacific in 2009 and 2014.

With the NDA government assuming power last year, the Modi-Obama summits in September and January had agreed "to upgrade" the annual war games in the backdrop of both Japan and Australia being keen to join them on a regular basis.

India, the US and Japan are all wary about China's growing military capabilities and increasing assertive behavior in the crucial Asia Pacific region. But while New Delhi has been muted about it, both Washington and Tokyo have been quite vocal against China's aggressive behavior especially in the East and South China Seas.


India to join Russia, China in security group

July 11, 2015 | Source: Business Standard

India and Pakistan began accession to a regional security group led by China and Russia on Friday after two days of summits which President Vladimir Putin held up as evidence Moscow is not isolated in the world.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, meeting in the Russian city of Ufa a day after the BRICS emerging economies held a summit there, said the invitation to the two Asian nations showed a "multi-polar" world was now emerging.

Those words will have pleased Putin, who says the United States has an outdated vision of a "uni-polar" world dominated by Washington and wants to show Russia has not been weakened by Western sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

"The evolution of the SCO is taking place at a complicated stage in the development of international relations and amidst the emergence of a multi-polar world," the group said in a declaration after the meeting. "These processes are accompanied by increasing security challenges and threats, increasing uncertainty and instability in various regions of the world."

The SCO, which also includes the Central Asian former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, is widely seen as a platform for Moscow and Beijing to project influence in the region.

Until now it has not been a big force and relations between China and Russia have not developed as quickly as Moscow would like, despite agreement on a major gas supply deal last year.


India, Turkmenistan ink 7 pacts; agree to combat terrorism together

July 11, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: The Indian Express

Batting for early implementation of the USD 10 billion TAPI pipeline project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday evinced India’s interest in long-term investment in the energy sector in Turkmenistan as the two countries inked seven pacts and vowed to jointly combat terrorism in the region.

During comprehensive talks between Modi and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov both sides decided to intensify efforts in dealing with threats of terrorism, organised crime and illegal drug-trafficking. The Prime Minister identified terrorism as a major threat facing the region and said, “We have shared interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and Central Asia. We have also common purpose in combating terrorism and extremism in our region.”

After talks between the two sides, a total of seven pacts were signed including an agreement on cooperation in the field of defence and another on tourism. Calling TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) project as a significant initiative in relationship between the two countries, Modi said possibility of land-sea route through Iran for the pipeline should be explored. The project was envisaged to take gas from Turkmenistan, which holds the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, to India and Pakistan through Afghanistan.

A joint statement termed the TAPI project a “key pillar” of economic engagement between India and Turkmenistan and said both the leaders recognised that its implementation would have a transformational impact on trade. It said they decided to take measures for early implementation of this important regional project.

The leaders reaffirmed their strong commitment towards timely implementation of this strategic project and noted that the selection of its Consortium Leader, to be finalised by September 1 this year, would mark a crucial step, it said. Modi said also expressed India’s readiness for long-term investment in the energy sector in Turkmenistan.

“I convey our interest in long-term investment in the energy sector in Turkmenistan,” the Prime Minister said. Modi also emphasised the need for enhancing connectivity, calling it a key aspect of the relationship. He also proposed that Turkmenistan becomes part of International North South Transport Corridor.

The Prime Minister arrived here last evening after his three-day visit to Ufa in Russia where he attended the BRICS and SCO Summits besides holding bilateral talks with leaders of Pakistan, Russia and China. Modi has already visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and is going to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of his eight-day visit to Central Asia.

The Prime Minister said he had a “positive discussion” with Berdymukhammedov on India’s interest in investment in downstream industries, including petrochemicals and fertilizer. An MoU signed for cooperation in the fertilizer sector will enable long term arrangements for supply of fertilizers from Turkmenistan to India, he said.

The pact on defence would provide a framework for intensifying bilateral defence and security cooperation through exchanges of high and mid-level visits, training and dialogue between the Ministries of Defence and other relevant organisations. It would also enable capacity-building and technical cooperation, thus imparting a new momentum to the bilateral partnership in the defence sector.

The Prime Minister also congratulated Berdymukhammedov on the 20th anniversary of policy of Permanent Neutrality, an important one for peace and stability in the wider region. Underlining the need for greater cooperation in the energy sector, Modi welcomed the decision by ONGC Videsh Limited to open an office in Ashgabat. “We had a very positive discussion on India’s interest in investment in downstream industries, including petrochemicals and fertilizer,” he said, adding the MoU in the fertilizer sector will enable long-term arrangements for supply of fertilizers from here to India.

Laying emphasis on connectivity, Modi thanked Turkmenistan for support to India joining the Ashgabat Agreement on trade and transit. “If we use the Iran route, Ashgabat is the first capital we would reach in Central Asia.” “Together with the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link, and India’s proposed investment in Chahbahar Port in Iran, these initiatives will strengthen connectivity between our countries,” the Prime Minister said, noting “As India deepens its relations with Central Asia, Turkmenistan will play a crucial role in it.”

Modi said that the recently inaugurated three-nation railway line could be a linked corridor of the International North South Transport Corridor to streamline movement of goods and commodities between India and Turkmenistan and beyond, a joint statement issued after the talks said. The two leaders welcomed the Indian proposal to set up a urea production facility in Turkmenistan.

The statement said the two leaders also identified communications, information and technology, textile industry, chemical and pharmaceutical industry, construction and agro-processing as potential areas for cooperation. On the TAPI project, Berdymukhamedov said the project was entering the “final stage” and its practical implementation will start soon. “We are standing on the threshold of a remarkable event,” the Turkmen leader said, adding it would create 12,000 new jobs in Afghanistan. “Apart from the economic rationale for all the participants in the project, TAPI is aimed at making a large contribution to strengthening stability in the region,” he said.

Modi presented President of Turkmenistan a specially handcrafted horse saddle. President Berdimuhamedov is a keen horse rider and known for his passion for horse breeding, racing and equestrian. The leaders welcomed the enhanced bilateral cooperation in the field of chemicals and petrochemicals as well as the opening of “ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL)” representative office in Turkmenistan.

Modi also thanked Berdimuhamedov for his support in declaring June 21 as International Day of Yoga (IDY) at the United Nations and for the “extensive celebrations” of the first IDY in Ashgabat. The Prime Minister also congratulated Berdimuhamedov and the Government of Turkmenistan on the 20th anniversary of adoption of Permanent Neutrality at the United Nations and noted that this policy had contributed to peace, development and stability in Turkmenistan and the region at large.

The joint statement said the two leaders acknowledged the urgent need for reform of the UN Security Council in the context of strengthening and expanding the role of the United Nations in addressing the pressing contemporary challenges. The MoUs signed between the two countries included one on cooperation in yoga and traditional medicine and another on sports.


Nepal's Leader Prachanda Raises Objection to Sino-Indian Trade Pact

July 11, 2015 | All India | Press Trust of India | Source: NDTV

KATHMANDU:  Nepal's main opposition Unified CPN-Maoist party leader Prachanda has objected to a Sino-Indian deal to use as a trade route a disputed territory located in far-western Nepal near the tri-country border.

Mr Prachanda has raised the matter in protest letters to Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sushil Koirala of Nepal, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The letter urged India and China to "rectify" the May 25 bilateral pact between New Delhi and Beijing on Lipulekh, a disputed land situated in the far-west Nepal, according to party sources.

In the letter Mr Prachanda said the agreement between India and China to use Lipulekh as a bilateral trade route goes against the provisions of the historic Sugauali Treaty signed by Nepal and India during the British rule in 1816.

Mr Prachanda said Lipulekh was closely linked with Nepal's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and urged both India and China to honour it.

As per the letter, the Sugauali Treaty clearly states that the territories east of Kali river belong to Nepal.

"We believe that paragraph 28 of the joint statement between India and China incorporating Lipulekh as a bilateral trade route between the two countries runs against the provisions of the Treaty Sugauli, 1816, between Nepal and India," writes Mr Prachanda.

The letters have been sent to both the governments of India and China through their embassies in Kathmandu.

A copy of the statement was also handed over to Prime Minister Koirala.

Receiving the letter from a Maoist delegation, Koirala said that he will "take up the matter with the respective governments through diplomatic channels".

He urged India and China to take necessary diplomatic initiative to address "this genuine concern of the Nepalese people by making appropriate correction in the agreement"


Riding on Make in India wave Tata Motors wants to build battle tanks

July 11, 2015 | Swaraj Baggonkar | Source: Business Standard

The defence division of Tata Motors, the country's largest automobile maker, is eyeing Rs 60,000 crore of contracts to build combat vehicles. There is a silent race between companies to have the largest piece of the $100-billion worth of defence acquisitions laid out by the government over the next decade from local companies.   

The company has bagged a Rs 914-crore contract to supply 1,239 indigenously developed high mobility multi-axle vehicles, the single largest order awarded by the army to an Indian private original equipment manufacturer in land systems under the Defence Procurement Policy.

Vernon Noronha, vice-president, defence and government business, Tata Motors, said: "In the past two years of the previous government, there were almost no orders. One year after the present government came to power, all our stuck files started moving and there was quick acceleration of orders. This has enthused not only Tata Motors but the entire industry."

The order book is Rs 1,500 crore, to be executed over the next two years. The division clocked revenue of Rs 1,200 crore last year and aims to double it in two years, Noronha added. In the past three years, the division generated revenue of Rs 2,000 crore or about three per cent of Tata Motors' total.

Indian companies are quickly building capabilities to grab a piece of the defence pie.

In two weeks, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) forged alliances with two European companies to supply underwater warfare equipment and military helicopters. The Anil Ambani-led Reliance Group entered the sector with the acquisition of Pipavav Defence.

"Earlier, RFPs (Request for Proposals) were issued at a snail's pace. Today, the Indian Army and ministry of defence are chasing companies, asking us to put our vehicles for trials as fast as possible," said Noronha.

The Rs 60,000-crore contract to build a Future Infantry Combat Vehicle is one of the biggest defence contracts of recent times.  The previous government had floated an Expression of Interest (EoI) in 2008, after which eight private Indian companies responded. These had included Bharat Forge, Titagarh Wagons, M&M and Tata Motors. The Modi government scrapped the previous EoI and a revised one is expected in the next couple of months.

Beside, orders worth Rs 1,053 crore for the light armoured multipurpose vehicle, Rs 1,000 crore for armoured personnel carriers and Rs 3,000 crore for general service vehicles are being targeted by companies. A wheeled infantry combat vehicle is being built by Tata Motors in association with the Defence Research and Developent Organisation, of which the army is looking to procure 100 units.

"Eventually, we would like to become a manufacturer of light tanks and then the main battle tank. That is how we would like the progression to happen. The army released a request for information to develop the Future Ready Combat Vehicle, which will be the main battle tank. We have put in a response," added Noronha. 


US general says America still has three key interests in Pakistan

July 11, 2015 | Asia News International | Source: The Financial Express

United States Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford Jr has said that his country still has three key interests in Pakistan that include promotion of regional stability, preventing Al Qaeda’s reemergence and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

According to the Dawn, General Dunford, who heads the US Marine Corps, said that Pakistan’s cooperation was also important to ensure a “peaceful outcome in Afghanistan.”

The lawmakers at the three-hour long hearing at the US Senate Armed Service Committee, showed keen interest in the future of US-Pakistan relations.

General Dunford also said that the US-led coalition and Afghan government were closely watching the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) attempt to expand its territory to Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Did former Maldives leader receive a fair trial?

July 10, 2015 | Toby Cadman | Source: Al Jazeera

On March 13, the former president of the Republic of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was convicted of terrorism. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for ordering the army to arrest and detain the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdullah Mohamed. It was alleged that Abdullah was abducted by the army without any lawful order, held incommunicado for 72 hours, and then detained for a further 21 days in a military establishment. 101 East - Coup on the Coral Islands?

There was national and international outcry at such an unprecedented attack on the judiciary, including statements from the United Nations terming the detention of the judge as arbitrary and in breach of international law.

It has been argued that Nasheed's actions don't qualify as terrorist acts. However, if similar actions had been conducted in the United Kingdom, the former president could have been charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment - an offence which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Political turmoil

Regardless of whether or not he was at one point a head of state, all persons - irrespective of political office or other affiliation - should be brought to justice where there is credible evidence to demonstrate that a criminal offence has been committed.

Mohamed Nasheed was elected as president in 2008. While in office, political turmoil erupted. It is believed that he ordered the locking-up of the Supreme Court and ordered Judge Abdullah to be placed under arrest by the army.

Nasheed resigned live on national television, but less than 24 hours later, alleged that he had resigned under duress. An independent inquiry carried out by the Commonwealth, and observed by the UN, concluded that he had resigned voluntarily and that the transfer of power was lawful and constitutional. Therefore, his fall from power cannot be characterised as a coup. It is essential that what is reported is accurate and balanced as the stakes are extremely high.

During the former president's trial, it was alleged that he had ordered the the abduction of a senior judge to prevent him from carrying out his judicial function.

In a BBC Hardtalk interview after his resignation, Nasheed stated in very clear terms that the judge had to be removed and that as president, in the absence of anyone else acting, he had to do it. The judge, in the former president's words, was becoming a nuisance.

The targeting of the judiciary in such a way by the Executive cannot be accepted in any democracy and such an attack can only be construed as an attack on the constitution.

Allegations of flaws in trial

It has been argued by the former president and his legal team that there were significant flaws during his terrorism trial and that, as a result, his detention is arbitrary and in breach of international law.

However, rather than appeal the verdict, his legal team filed a communication with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The government has been given until July 11 to respond to the allegations and a decision is expected in September.

The former president is arguing that arrest was unlawful, his trial rushed, and the composition of the panel of judges lacked the requisite independence and impartiality. There have also been allegations that the conditions of his detention breach his human rights.

Ordinarily, many of these matters would be subject to legal challenge through the national courts. However, the former president has elected not to appeal. Contrary to statements issued to date, it is the government's position that the former president has not been prevented from appealing - he has chosen not to do so.

It is clear that in a politically charged case such as this, the media reporting can take a sensationalist and selective approach. It is essential that what is reported is accurate and balanced as the stakes are extremely high.

Prevention of an appeal

Much has been made of the fact that Maldivian legislation was amended so as to reduce the time period for the lodging of an appeal from 90 to 10 days, thus alleging that Nasheed has been prevented from appealing.

He has not. The Maldivian authorities have repeatedly maintained that the former president is still able to submit an application for appeal and that it will be for the courts to consider. It is also important to note that the deadline for submitting an appeal within 10 days relates to a notice of appeal, not the full appeal.

It has been further alleged that the former president has been prevented from appealing through the court's wilfully withholding of documents which are necessary for filing an appeal notice. However, the court records will clearly demonstrate that the judgement of the court and the trial record was provided to the former president and his legal team.

He refused to sign the court record. Notwithstanding this refusal and the expiration of the 10-day deadline, there is a provision in the law for a defendant to submit a late appeal if the delay has been caused by the authorities. Furthermore, there is a provision in the law for the courts to accept a late appeal "in the interests of justice".

The conditions the former president was purportedly being forced to endure have been called into question. Again, these accusations of unfair or unlawful treatment are wholly false.

Underlying risk

He was held, up until his recent release on house arrest, away from the general population. However, he is not and has never been in solitary confinement, and was detained in a facility that would not only meet international standards of practise, but arguably far exceed any acceptable level. As a former president, he is entitled to VIP treatment in custody, which he received up until his release under house arrest.

There is an underlying risk underlining this entire court process - the potential of a trial by media. As with all cases, there are two sides to any argument, but the government's position has not been given any attention and the offence for which the former president was convicted has been unnecessarily trivialised.

There is a clear obligation on all, be it members of the media, or members of the international community, to acknowledge both positions in relation to any case, and not seek to favour one when the issue is yet to be fully considered and determined by the appropriate tribunal.


Five UK satellites go into orbit on Indian rocket

July 10, 2015 | Jonathan Amos | Source: BBC News

An Indian rocket has put five UK satellites in orbit.

It is thought to be the largest number of wholly British-built spacecraft to go up on a single launch.

The quintet includes three satellites to image the Earth and support disaster monitoring and relief, and two to test technologies that could be used on future spacecraft.

The Indian space agency's PSLV rocket lifted off from Sriharikota at 21:58 local time (17:28 BST).

It was the vehicle's heaviest commercial load to date - a total of 1,440kg.

The trio of imaging spacecraft - known as DMC-3 - were built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in Guildford and will be in the sole operational control of its subsidiary, DMCii.

Each platform weighs 447kg and sees the Earth in a range of visible and infrared wavelengths.

The resolution achieved by the optics surpasses that on any of Surrey Satellite's previous spacecraft, tracking features down to just a metre across.

The capacity on the DMC-3 satellites has been leased to a company from China - 21st Century Aerospace Technology Ltd (21AT) - to help them survey the fast-growing Asian nation.

This is a different business model to the one SSTL and DMCii have traditionally used.

In the past, imaging data has been sold by the square kilometre. Merely leasing spacecraft time is something that is done in the telecoms sector.

"Most folk don't buy a whole telecommunications satellite; they buy transponder time by the hour," explained SSTL chairman Sir Martin Sweeting.

"That's what the BBC does, for example, for some of their live broadcasts: they just use the telecoms satellite for a couple of hours and then walk away.

"And we thought: why don't we apply that to Earth observation.

"We will launch the satellites and run the service, and then customers can come in, lease the imaging capacity and do all the value-added they want on top of that."

It turns out, however, that 21AT has such a high demand for pictures over China and internationally that it is taking all of the capacity on the three spacecraft. A commitment that is good for the next seven years.

Based in Beijing, the commercial geo-information company uses satellite images for urban planning, working out crop yields, pollution monitoring and doing biodiversity assessments, among many other applications.

"We've worked with them for 16 years, even building and launching a satellite for them in 2005 called Beijing-1," said Sir Martin.

That satellite did infrastructure planning ahead of the 2008 Olympics, but also delivered vital disaster-relief maps in the aftermath of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in the same year.

"You can do all sorts of things with these satellites," Sir Martin added.

"21AT has just been looking at where people have been dumping rubbish in China's cities to make sure it is cleaned up."

The British government was instrumental in facilitating the £110m deal that led to the construction of the satellites. That contract was signed during the Chinese premier's visit to the UK in 2011.

The two other spacecraft on Friday's rocket were much smaller.

An 80kg platform known as CBNT-1 was also built by SSTL and will test technologies, such as avionics, that might be used on future satellites.

There was also a 3kg cubesat on the rocket that was developed at the Surrey Space Centre, which is part of the University of Surrey.

This cubesat will deploy a large membrane to demonstrate how redundant spacecraft can be dragged out of orbit much faster than would ordinarily be the case and thus reduce the risk of generating space debris.


India's Narendra Modi accepts Pakistan visit invite

July 10, 2015 | Source: BBC News

This was the first meeting between the two leaders since Mr Sharif attended Mr Modi's oath taking ceremony in May 2014

This was the first meeting between the two leaders since Mr Sharif attended Mr Modi's oath taking ceremony in May 2014

Indian PM Narendra Modi has accepted an invitation from his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to attend a regional summit in Islamabad next year.

This will be Mr Modi's first visit to Pakistan after he took power last year.

A meeting between the two leaders on Friday came after increased border hostilities and India cancelled secretary-level talks last year.

They also agreed to help expedite the 2008 Mumbai terror attack trial, blamed on Pakistan based militants.

The suspected mastermind of the attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, was released on bail from a Pakistani jail in April, a development that India described as "unfortunate and disappointing".

He still faces trial - along with six other suspects - over the attacks, which left 166 people dead and damaged peace efforts between the two countries.

In a separate development, Mr Modi accepted Mr Sharif's invitation to visit Pakistan.

"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated his invitation to Prime Minister Modi to visit Pakistan for the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit in 2016. Prime Minister Modi accepted that invitation," a joint statement from the two governments said.

Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar told reporters that the two sides had also agreed to hold a meeting of their top security advisers to discuss terrorism.

Friday's meeting was the first between the two leaders since Mr Sharif attended Mr Modi's oath taking ceremony in May 2014.

But relations between the nuclear-armed rivals deteriorated soon after and in August India cancelled talks with Pakistan after accusing it of interfering in its internal affairs.

India's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted about Friday's talks:

On the eve of the talks, India accused Pakistan of killing a border guard in a firing incident along the de facto border that divides the disputed region of Kashmir.

The rivals have fought three wars since Independence, two of them over Kashmir.

Kashmir, claimed by both countries in its entirety, has been a flashpoint for more than 60 years.

A ceasefire agreed in 2003 remains in place, but the neighbours often accuse each other of violating it.

Last September, in his first speech at the UN, Mr Modi said he wanted peace talks with Pakistan but insisted it must create an "appropriate atmosphere".

In 2013 months of clashes left more than 20 Indian and Pakistani soldiers dead. Nearly as many civilians, most of them on the Pakistani side, were also killed.


India, Pakistan Take Steps to Ease Tensions

July 10, 2015 | Niharika Mandhana and Qasim Nauman | Source: The Wall Street Journal

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the Russian city of Ufa. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the Russian city of Ufa. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

India and Pakistan agreed Friday that their national security advisers would meet “to discuss all issues connected to terror,” the countries’ foreign ministries said, signaling a thaw in relations between the estranged neighbors.

The announcement followed a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the Russian city of Ufa.

The two sides also said they would discuss ways to expedite the trial in Pakistan of men charged in connection with a devastating terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people. New Delhi has blamed the assault on a militant group it says is backed by Pakistan’s intelligence service. Islamabad denies allegations of official involvement, but acknowledged in 2009 that the attack was partly planned in Pakistan.

Friday’s agreements, while relatively small steps, are likely to be welcomed by U.S. policy makers, who are worried that escalating tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals could further destabilize a region in turmoil as American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

On Thursday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said it was in nobody’s interest “for the tensions in the region to become less stable in many ways than they already are.”

Still, analysts in India and Pakistan were cautious about whether the steps would result in any significant improvement.

“It’s been a very zigzag kind of path this past year, so it’s hard to say exactly what this amounts to and what is driving these moves,” saidRadha Kumar, director general of the Delhi Policy Group think tank.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and foreign-affairs analyst, said, “In an India-Pakistan context, things move incrementally and expectations should never be too high,” adding: “That would be unrealistic.”

In Pakistan, some politicians complained that the announcements on Friday addressed the Mumbai attack trial, but didn’t include any of Islamabad’s concerns.

Ties between India and Pakistan, never warm, have become increasingly strained over the past year. Tit-for-tat cross-border exchanges of fire—the fiercest in years—last autumn killed civilians and border guards on both sides.

A decision by a Pakistani court in April to release on bail Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attack, sent relations into a deeper downward spiral. Mr. Lakhvi has pleaded not guilty to charges that he, along with others, planned, executed and financed the Mumbai attack.

India blames Pakistan for not pursuing Mr. Lakhvi’s prosecution properly, while Islamabad has accused India of not providing sufficient evidence and assistance to Pakistan.

India has also grown increasingly wary of Pakistan’s strengthening alliance with its longtime partner, China. In April, Beijing unveiled a$46 billion deal for an economic corridor through Pakistan that would cross disputed territory in Kashmir that is claimed by India and held by Pakistan. Both countries accuse the other of wrongfully occupying the part of Kashmir they possess.

South Asia’s strategic and security challenges are closely linked to relations between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in June said he had spoken to Pakistan’s Mr. Sharif about public hostility between New Delhi and Islamabad.

“It’s very, very important that there be no misinterpretation or miscalculation with respect to any of the back-and-forth and the empowerment some entities might feel as a result of that,” Mr. Kerry said.

India and the U.S. Defense Department say Pakistan supports groups hostile to India and allows them to use its territory to launch attacks on India and Indians. Pakistan denies these allegations, saying that as a victim of terrorism itself, it doesn't help such groups. Islamabad accuses India of supporting insurgents in Pakistan, including separatists in its western province of Balochistan, a charge India denies.

Mr. Modi, whose pro-active foreign policy in his first year in office has attracted global attention, has been less clear on his approach toward Pakistan. He invited Mr. Sharif to his swearing-in last May, raising hopes of a breakthrough in ties.

But soon after, his government called off planned talks in August after the Pakistani ambassador in New Delhi met with separatists from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Belligerent comments by Mr. Modi and his ministers in recent months have irked Pakistani officials and allegations by Pakistan that India interferes in its domestic politics have made matters worse.

Mr. Modi sent India’s foreign secretary to Pakistan as part of a tour of South Asian nations in March and he has periodically spoken to Mr. Sharif on the phone about matters ranging from cricket tournaments to Ramadan. But the release of Mr. Lakhvi in April soured ties again.


India to develop a nationwide emergency phone system

July 10, 2015 | Tharadjyne Orisma | Source: UPI News

Road traffic in New Dehli, India. Car Jams and fractured roads cause thousands of accidents each year. File photo by zeber/Shutterstock.com

Road traffic in New Dehli, India. Car Jams and fractured roads cause thousands of accidents each year. File photo by zeber/Shutterstock.com

NEW DELHI, July 10 (UPI) -- India has set in motion plans to create a united emergency hotline that will stem throughout the states in hopes of minimizing confusion and extreme wait times in the midst of crisis.

This came after India parliament member, Hema Malini, was involved in a tragic car wreck, that left a 2-year-old girl dead.

Though Malini was rushed to the hospital by a nearby doctor in his private vehicle, the young girl was left to wait 20-25 minutes for help.

The girl's uncle told Indian television network NDTV that had he been taken to the hospital along with Malini, she would have been saved.

Prolonged wait time for emergency aid is not uncommon in these regions where roads are fractured and are dangerous for many.

"It's surprising that help even came that quickly," said Harman Singh Sidhu, president of ArriveSAFE, an Indian road safety advocacy group.

"These services claim they can arrive in 10-15 minutes, but most take up to 45 minutes," he added.

Another issue is the country's numerous emergency lines dedicated to each state to ensure aids are working under their jurisdiction. Some states have up to 10 phone numbers, CNN reports.

"Drivers never expect an accident to happen to them, so they hardly take the necessary precautions to remember all the relevant emergency numbers when traveling across states" Sidhu said.

Indian telecommunications official Sanjiv Banzal said that the new nationwide hotline (112), which is being implemented in a five-year plan by the Ministry of Home Affairs, will "integrate India's emergency call numbers for police (100), fire (102), ambulance (103) and Emergency Disaster Management (108)."

In five years officials will be set to take up to 1 million phone calls and accommodate 13 different languages while using Internet and phone messaging systems along with incorporating a 'panic button' in public transport.

With the country currently having more that 22 different languages, the new system may not be able to hold up.

Moreover,issues such as transportation accommodations are still a major problem.

"When I had a spinal injury I was unable to lie flat in the ambulance because it was too small for a 6-foot man," Sidhu recounted.

"Just the other day, I read about a case where the ambulance had to stop for gas on the way to the hospital -- it shows you the state of how poor our services are."

Still, Sidhu believes the new system will be an improvement compared to where the country currently stands.

"A national emergency service will certainly reduce response time for emergency situations and help save lives, but only to a degree," he said


India, US sign agreement to share info on tax evasion

July 10, 2015 | TNN News | Source: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: India and the US on Thursday signed a tax information sharing agreement under a new US law, Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), that will bolster efforts towards automatic exchange of financial information between the two nations about tax evaders. The agreement will cover automatic sharing of information on bank accounts as well as financial products like equities, mutual funds and insurance and is aimed at fighting the menace of black money stashed abroad. Coming within months of India becoming a signatory to the OECD pact on automatic information sharing, the government's efforts at getting names of those with illicit wealth stashed abroad will get a leg up.

With the agreement in palace, from September 30, banks, mutual funds, insurance, pension and stock-broking firms will report their Indian client details to the United States which will be shared with authorities here. It was delayed due to observations made by the Supreme Court earlier as in absence of the pact, all remittances to India would have faced a 30% withholding tax, impacting inflows to exporters as well as households.

"We as a country see it as a great breakthrough and significant development in India-US cooperation in handling offshore tax evasion which also impacts money laundering and other aspects which we call in India the problem of black money," revenue secretary Shaktikanta Das said. US has so far signed pacts with 110 tax jurisdictions to implement FATCA.

FATCA, along with the Automatic Exchange of Information (AEOI) agreement, which will come into play from 2017, "will ensure that all the tax related information, all the financial information are available with us from 2017," he said.

Tax experts said that the agreements may result in more burden on financial entities and may result in some modifications to the KYC requirements. "FATCA creates a new compliance burden on the Indian financial institutions. With FATCA and common reporting standards (under OECD pact), they will be required to be geared up to exchange tax information of more than 60 countries. This calls for changes to customer on-boarding documents, systems, processes and reporting compliances. Fresh Capital Flows into equity and debt markets, with most countries now sharing information and subject to other commercial factors, may depend upon the tax exemptions given in source country and the total tax outflow for the investor," said Bahroze Kamdin, partner at consulting firm Deloitte Haskins & Sells.

"We are expecting detailed guidelines to be issued soon by the finance ministry... it will have an impact on KYC requirements for financial institutions and also require them to provide additional reports," added Basant Shroff, partner at EY India.


Sri Lanka lowers growth rate

July 10, 2015 | T. Ramakrishnan | Source: The Hindu

Weeks ahead of the Parliamentary polls, Sri Lanka has lowered the economic growth rate of 2014 to 4.5 per cent from the earlier 7.4 per cent.

This follows the change in the base year and the methodology of calculation, according to a release issued by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS). Hitherto, the base year was 2002. From now onwards, it is 2010.

Keeping in mind 2010 as the base year, the value of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at constant price was about Rs. 64,13,668 million (Sri Lankan currency) that year. In 2013, it went up to Rs. 78,46,202 million and last year, 81,95,979 million. The pace of growth, which was 8.4 per cent in 2011 and 9.1 per cent in 2012, slowed down subsequently with the rate being 3.4 per cent in 2013 and 4.5 per cent the next year.

The reduction assumes significance politically in the wake of regime change that took place in January this year. The year in question pertained to the period when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President.

However, the Department has asserted that no comparison could be made between the data compiled under the earlier base year (2002) and those of the present base year (2010) due to differences of coverage, estimation method and classifications used in the process.

The United Nation’s manual, “System of National Accounts,” revised in 2008, has been used to the extent possible. A senior official in the DCS also says the revision in the base year should have been done once in five years. But, this target could not be met due to a number of issues including administrative matters. Hereafter, the attempt will be made to stick to the deadline.

Under the latest system, the activities under the informal sector have also been included, Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs, Harsha de Silva, has stated in his Facebook post.


Crucial Political Talks In Maldives Scheduled For Sunday

July 9, 2015 | Minivan News | Source: Focus News

The president’s office has rescheduled a third meeting in ongoing talks with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for Sunday, July 12.

The talks between the government and MDP are due to begin after the opposition party agreed to enter negotiations without former President Mohamed Nasheed as a representative.

A meeting was set for Wednesday night, but cancelled at the last minute as some government representatives are out of the country.

The government is due to propose mechanisms to release jailed opposition politicians and withdraw charges against some 1,400 opposition supporters. The long-awaited talks has raised hope of an end to a six-month long crisis triggered by the arrest and imprisonment of former president Mohamed Nasheed.

The opposition leader was transferred to house arrest in late June.

President Abdulla Yameen had proposed three teams of ministers to sit separately with the three allied opposition parties. The Jumhooree Party and the government held two meetings in June, but there had been no progress with the MDP or the Adhaalath Party as the government vetoed some of the proposed representatives.

The MDP had proposed Nasheed and Adhaalath had proposed Sheikh Imran Abdulla, who is in police custody awaiting trial on a terrorism charge.

With Nasheed’s transfer to house arrest, the MDP agreed to begin talks without the opposition leader. Talks are yet to begin with the Adhaalath.

At a second meeting on Sunday, the government conceded to an MDP demand to commence all-party talks at a later stage when constitutional and legal reform are on the table.

The MDP and the government are currently discussing the opposition’s six demands for political reconciliation. In addition to freeing jailed politicians and withdrawing charges against supporters, the party has also called for an independent inquiry into the disappearance of Minivan News journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali.

The MDP has also proposed that talks conclude within a two-week period.


India is one step closer to getting an all-in-one health app

July 9, 2015 | Malavika Velayanikal | Source: Tech In Asia

Doctor finder Practo started out in Bangalore with a street-by-street mapping of doctors. Today it lists more than 150,000 doctors in India and Singapore, where it launched in March this year.

Apart from geographical expansion, Practo is growing through new linkages. In April, it got into the preventive healthcare space with theacquisition of FitHo, which offers advice on nutrition and exercise. This week it launched a product to help its users find the nearest diagnostic center for any test they need to get done.

Practo already lists 4,000 diagnostic labs in eight cities, and plans to expand to 35 cities and enable users to get their test reports online instead of having to visit the lab to pick them up.

The idea behind these moves is to make Practo a comprehensive health app, and not just a doctor discovery platform, explains Shashank ND, founder and CEO of Practo.

The Genii in a bottle of medicine

Today that expansion got another boost with the acqui-hiring of Genii, an outsourcing firm that has been helping ecommerce, financial, and media firms build up their online portals. Genii will help Practo expand faster into the enterprise space with products linking it to hospitals, diagnostic centers, and other healthcare related enterprises.

Practo already lists 8,000 hospitals and plans to expand that to 20,000 by year-end.

Shashank ND says:

 This is the second of several acquisitions we are exploring. It is the next step in our mission to make Practo your health app. 

The founders of Genii, Varun Vohra and Aditya Anand, along with the 11-member team, will join Practo and move to Bangalore.

“We look forward to accelerating Practo’s entry into enterprise with products for diagnostics, hospitals, and other segments globally,” says Varun Vohra.


A 'New Chapter' for India and Central Asia?

July 8, 2015 | Catherine Putz | Source: The Diplomat 

In Tashkent Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the relationship between Central Asia and India has “ancient roots” and “now occupies a significant place in India’s future.” In Astana Tuesday, Modi declared his intention to “write a new chapter in an ancient relationship.” Modi’s mission in Central Asia points to significant interests in energy, economics, and counterterrorism. Still, engagement between Central Asia and India leans heavily on history.

The Uzbek government called upon the shared historical figure Babur, a descendant of the Mongals and Timur and the eventual founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur was born in Andijan, ruling over the Fergana (and then losing it and seeking his fortunes elsewhere) long before there was an Uzbekistan:

Much of the history, literature, music, art and architecture of the Uzbek and Indian people, their mutual enrichment is associated with the name of our great ancestor Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur.

In Uzbekistan, Modi met with President Islam Karimov–who has visited India five times since coming into power in 1991–as well as with Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has served in that position since 2003. Modi tweeted that his discussions with Karimov were “very productive.”

In a joint press statement, Karimov said India was one of Uzbekistan’s top foreign policy priorities. Modi, for his part, categorized the relationship as a strategic partnership and one of the key pillars in India’s overall engagement with Central Asia. Throughout the various statements, India and Uzbekistan noted global threats and challenges–whether financial instability or extremism. The situation in Afghanistan is of particular concern to both sides. Interestingly, one of the first points in the joint statement was a reaffirmation that their engagement is based on “mutual respect for the developmental model chosen by each country in accordance with its domestic conditions and based on their national interests.”

The two sides signed three agreements which cover cooperation in cultural and tourism sectors, as well as cooperation between foreign ministries. The joint statement goes on to note that despite growth, the economic relationship is not as strong as it could be–commenting that “the current volume of trade did not correspond to the potential and opportunities that exist in both countries.”

According to the Uzbek government, trade turnover between the two amounted to $315.9 million last year. While this pales in comparison to trade between Uzbekistan and Russia or China, India remains an important partner. Statements from both sides mention a range of industries–from education to textiles, from pharmaceuticals to tourism.

Moving onto Kazakhstan, Modi’s focus on economics came into sharper focus. Kazakhstan, as the region’s most economically powerful state, is a critical draw for India. In Astana, Modi inaugurated a supercomputer from India and had plans to “launch the drilling of the first oil well with Indian investments in Kazakhstan.”

Speaking at Nazarbayev University, Modi commented–as he did in Uzbekistan–that trade and engagement is modest between the regions, but has huge potential for growth:

Yet, we will be the first to say that the engagement between India and Central Asia falls short of its promise and potential.

We have a special place in our hearts for each other. But, we have not paid as much attention to each other as we should.

This will change.

While Central Asia does not, geographically, factor into Modi’s famed “Act East” policy it seems he is nonetheless intent on giving the region a little more attention. Without mentioning China’s One Belt, One Road strategy by name, Modi referenced the “surge of interest in reconnecting Asia with itself and beyond” and placed India firmly at the crossroads. He closed his remarks at Nazarbayev university will a few moving lines from from Abduraheim Otkur, a Uighur poet:

Our tracks remain, our dreams remain, everything remains, far away, yet
Even if the wind blows, or the sand shift, they will never be covered, our tracks,
And the caravan will never stop along the way, though our horses are very thin;
One way or another, these tracks will be found someday, by our grandchildren;
Or our great grandchildren.” 


Bangladesh police identify 7 suspects in blogger Avijit Roy's murder

July 8, 2015 | Agence France-Presse/Press Trust of India | Source: Business Standard

Bangladesh police said today seven people belonging to a home-grown Islamist militant group took part in the brutalmurder of a Bangladeshi-born US atheist blogger in Dhaka in February.

All seven followed Avijit Roy on the night of February 26 and then brutally hacked him to death in a busy road on the Dhaka University campus when Roy and his wife were returning from a book fair.

"In primary investigation police detectives have identified seven of those who took part in the killing," Dhaka police spokesman Muntasirul Islam told AFP, adding none of them have been arrested.

"What our investigation has found is that all seven are members of the banned Islamist militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT)," he said, referring to the little known group whose activists were charged with the murder of another atheist blogger.

The government banned ABT in May this year for its alleged involvement in the murders of atheist bloggers. Police earlier said the group is manned by top university graduates and members number less than 100.

Islam said the alleged killers are "mostly private university students and one of them is a young doctor".

"We are hoping to arrest the big fishes who operate behind the scene once we manage to catch the seven people," he said.

Bangladesh police sent the photos of the seven to Roy's widow Rafida Ahmed, who lost a finger during the attack, in the United States for further identification through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bengali daily Samakal said.

And she has identified two of the killers from the seven, it added.

Police earlier charged ABT members with the 2013 murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider.

Immediately after Roy's murder, the ABT claimed responsibility for the killing via a Twitter account. Police, however, said they were not sure whether the account was genuine.

In May Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also claimed responsibility for Roy's murder.

The Bangladesh-born writer, who emigrated to the southern US state of Georgia some 15 years ago, was well known in his native land for his Mukto-Mona (Free-mind) blog where he railed against all forms of organised religion.

He was also the author of a series of books, including best-seller "The Virus of Faith", which was hugely contentious in Bangladesh, an officially secular state where around 90% of people are Muslim.


Kazakhstan agrees to supply uranium to India

July 8, 2015 | Source: World Nuclear News

Kazakh uranium mining company KazAtomProm has signed a contract with India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to supply 5000 tonnes of uranium over the next four years.

The contract was signed by KazAtomProm CEO Askar Zhumagaliyev and DAE head Anil Shrivastava during a meeting between Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in Astana yesterday.

In a statement, KazAtomProm said the contract will be valid until the end of 2019, by which time it will deliver 5000 tonnes of natural uranium to India. It added, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, the value of the uranium will "depend on market mechanisms".

The governments of India and Kazakhstan signed an agreement on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy in April 2011. The agreement followed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the two countries in 2009. That MOU provided for Kazakhstan to supply uranium to India and also expressed Kazakh interest in possible nuclear power projects based on Indian pressurized heavy water reactor designs.

According to KazAtomProm, between 2011 and 2014, it worked with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) on a uranium supply contract. That contract was completed in December 2014.

India has 21 operating nuclear units with six more, including a fast breeder, under construction. More than 35 further reactors are planned or firmly proposed. However, the country has only modest indigenous uranium resources.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has 15% of the world's uranium resources and became the leading uranium producing country in 2009. The country was home to the BN-350 fast reactor at Aktau, which was built under Russian supervision and operated for 27 years, closing in 1999.


The Digital India Push for Education

July 8, 2015 | Ashish Dhawan and Namita Dalmia | Source: The Financial Express

Digital India is a promising opportunity to use technology to revitalise our education system and address the huge learning crisis that our country faces. Although technology, on its own, is not a silver bullet solution to India’s education challenges, evidence from international examples points to the possibility of a positive impact. Innovative technologies today are creating new forms of adaptive and peer learning, increasing access to trainers and mentors, and providing useful data in real-time. Digital India, implemented with vision and commitment, can catalyse such initiatives by creating an enabling environment across the country.

According to the World Bank, in 2010-14, only 15% Indians had access to internet. Under the ICT@Schools scheme, the government has spent a total of R2,585 crore since 2004 to install infrastructure in schools. Yet, by 2013-14, only 60% secondary schools were equipped with computers. Programmes such as this have failed, often due to the lack of a comprehensive vision that links the use of technology for improving student learning, building teacher capacity or providing better governance.

For Digital India to succeed in impacting education, it needs a coordinated and targeted approach to integrate technology into our vast and complex school system. A comprehensive vision to achieve integrated use of technology in education must be built on the following pillars.

Instructional tools for individualised student learning: We see significant investment in the production of e-content such as digitised textbooks, animations and videos. But much of this is merely duplicating rote-learning methods and lacks strong pedagogical principles. Technology can create individual learning paths for children, make learning interactive and fun through gamification and can provide them numerous practice opportunities.

Personalised digital learning platforms such as Khan Academy allow students to learn and master skills at their own pace. Using these products can help students to receive instant feedback as their performance data are captured continuously. Khan Academy already receives the third-highest number of users in the world from India, indicating latent demand for such content. In India, platforms such as Mindspark are providing digital learning tools for children.

We need to build learning tools to address the diversity of languages and state curricula. Such content could either be developed locally or high quality global content could be localised. The government launched the National Repository of Open Educational Resources in 2013 to build a repository of high quality content in local languages. But greater efforts are needed to make such resources available across platforms, adopt a nationwide, open licensing policy for content creation, and train teachers to use them. Central Square Foundation is working with Khan Academy to develop the Khan Academy-Hindi platform, which will have maths video tutorials and practice exercises, mapped to NCERT curriculum, in Hindi for students in classes 5 to 8.

Tech-integrated programmes for competency-linked teacher training: We face a huge challenge of teachers lacking adequate training. While those in government schools have access to professional development and academic support, only 31.5% of them actually received in-service training in 2013-14. Teachers in private schools, who now educate 43% of our students, lack access to training, with training for teachers in low-fee schools being minimal.

Technology allows for reinventing models of teacher education by creating competency-linked training programmes, and enables teachers to connect with peers, and receive coaching from experts remotely.

Although teachers receive minimal training in the use of technology in BEd and DEd, there are signs of technology adoption. Government teachers in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttarakhand are using WhatsApp groups to exchange knowledge and ideas with each other. The Karnataka Open Educational Resources platform is enabling teachers to create digital content. There are two specific models by which professional development capacity can increase.

l Blended courses where teachers learn on an online program in addition to working offline with a coach. Content on the online program includes reading, videos and formative assessments. For example, QUEST, an NGO in rural Thane, Maharashtra, hosts an online course for mathematics teaching that includes instructional videos, online coaching and peer support.

l Platform for accessing repository of digital resources such as videos demonstrating best practices in pedagogy. Such platforms powered by facilitated discussion forums enable teachers to learn from each other.

Data collection and analytics for strong governance: Despite the significant quantity of school-related data collected by the state and central governments, it is largely inaccessible to the end-user since it is disaggregated, not yet digitised, and only available after a considerable time lag. With the help of robust Management Information Systems, schools can record, maintain, track and analyse student-level performance data and use it for school-wide goals as well as teacher- or classroom-specific goals. Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha have taken steps to implement such solutions.

As we design specific schemes, we must ensure that the education ecosystem is supportive of these initiatives. Beginning with the design phase through implementation support and monitoring, there must be adequate investment to ensure the success of these programmes.

In the design phase, educators and edtech solution providers should be consulted and their feedback must inform how technology can effectively be integrated into education.

In implementation phase, we must ensure high-speed internet access in schools, and appropriate technology hardware and content for children. Smartphone usage in India grew 55% in 2014, and as its adoption continues to rise, there is an opportunity to create low-cost models that can provide learning opportunities outside the classroom. In addition, we have to invest in training for teachers and school leaders in the effective use of technology.

The government can establish an autonomous agency, similar to the National Skill Development Corporation, to encourage innovation and develop the ecosystem for digital learning solutions. This autonomous agency can be staffed with talent from the private sector and must fund and leverage private operators to create these platforms.

Finally, as education technology is a nascent area, we need to track it closely to understand its efficacy. We have to measure the success of ICT in schools and facilitate the scaling up of innovations that have a demonstrated impact on student learning.

Digital India is a huge opportunity for us as the government pushes for the use of technology. Let us not duplicate the mistakes of the past by assuming that providing hardware and connectivity to schools will result in the uptake of technology. Instead, let us approach the opportunity with a vision and commitment to adopting a comprehensive approach to using technology to improve the education of our children.


Pakistan losing out on South Asian integration: experts

July 8, 2015 | Source: The Express Tribune

LAHORE: Opening up a perpetual topic of debate, ‘The Pros and Cons of trade relations with India’ seminar revisited the popular discussion on the risks and benefits of opening trade with India. 

The crux of the session focused on whether policymakers should consider an incremental approach and distinguish among normal trade, and opening of land and transit routes. Another question was that whether Pakistan’s current trade policy results in loss of prosperity, as the country is left out from plans towards South Asian integration.

The seminar was jointly organised by the Institute of Policy Reforms (IPR) and the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industries (LCCI) on Tuesday.

Former finance minister and IPR Chairman Humayun Akhter Khan said that normal trade with India has been under discussion for many years. Rigorous assessment of cost and benefits is the only way to take a decision and to move this matter to closure.

He said that this approach would also bring all stakeholders on common ground.

“On one hand, Pakistan does not have normal trade relations with India and on the other hand, Pakistan and India are members of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA),” he said. “This apparent incongruity reflects the reality of our bilateral relations. Decision on trade with India, therefore, must harmonise among security, economic, and trade interests.”

Speaking at the occasion, former Pakistani ambassador and permanent representative to World Trade Organisation, Dr Manzoor Ahmad listed the specific risks and benefits of trade with India. He said that developing economies, that are globally integrated, experience sustained growth.

“Over 60% of global trade takes place via the supply chains of multinational corporations who make their buying decisions in all parts of the world,” he said.

According to Ahmad, Pakistan’s trade policy results in losses. “The country risks further growth loss if it was left out from recent moves towards South Asian integration,” said Ahmad.  “We must find a way to build on South Asia’s dynamism.”

He added that past research on Pakistan and India trade overwhelmingly showed significant economic benefits for our economy. He questioned why Pakistan delayed normal trade relations as GOP’s negative list of tariff lines, since 2012, meant that substantial trade is open to begin with.

Among those items still restricted and likely to face stiff competition from India, such as pharmaceuticals and auto parts, sufficient legal remedies are available to protect them. He said that some agriculture products face unfair competition from India, but those tariff lines are already open for import.

LCCI’s Pakistan India Trade Committee Head Aftab Vohra relied on extensive personal experience of trading on Pakistan’s border with India.

He said that Pakistan businesses would benefit greatly by opening the trade route.


Vyapam: India's deadly medical school exam scandal

July 8, 2015 | Source: BBC News

A medical school admission examinations scandal in India has turned into a veritable whodunit with thousands of arrests, mysterious deaths and the suspected involvement of top politicians and bureaucrats. Soutik Biswas travelled to Madhya Pradesh to investigate.

The call came late in the afternoon when he was taking some foreign journalists to meet victims of clinical trials near the central city of Indore.

It was 13 July 2013, six days after the local police had caught half a dozen students from a city hotel who they suspected were plotting to rig medical school exams.

Dr Anand Rai, a medical officer himself, has the reputation of being a feisty - if sometimes, reckless - whistle-blower, so he was helping the police with intelligence about how medical school exams were being rigged in Madhya Pradesh.

"There was a man on the line threatening to kill me. He said don't do this job any more," says Dr Rai, 38. The man rang off.

Two minutes later, the man called again. "Don't you give this number to the police. You will pay for it, if you do," he said, before hanging up.

Highest bidder

Dr Rai promptly handed over the number to the police, who tracked the call to Mumbai. A local police team went to Mumbai and arrested the caller.

The man, an assistant professor in a private medical college, turned out to be the mastermind of what has now turned out to be one of India's biggest scandals, involving the rigging of mainly medical school admissions. He told investigators that Vyapam officials were complicit in the scandal. Vyapam is the Hindi acronym for anoffice that conducts more than 50 examinations for government jobs and medical school admissions in Madhya Pradesh.

How examinations were rigged:

  • Candidates hire impersonators - medical students from neighbouring states - who write their exam. Impersonators even appear for physical education tests.
  • Candidates pay 'scorers' - again medical students themselves - who sit close to them during the examination and help them cheat.
  • Question papers are leaked and sold to candidates.
  • Answer sheets are rigged and higher marks given to the candidate.
  • Unfinished answer sheets are filled up later by teachers involved in the scam.

The scale of the scandal boggles the mind. Some 2,530 people have been accused since 2012. Around 1,980 people have been arrested; and 550 people are still sought by police. Twenty courts in Madhya Pradesh are looking into 55 cases registered in connection with the scandal.

By one estimate, some 140,000 men and women have sat exams conducted by Vyapam since 2007. The government says more than 1,000 "illegal appointments" have been made through Vyapam, although whistle-blowers like Dr Rai say the figure is much higher.

Question papers were leaked, answer sheets rigged, impersonators - themselves bright, young students - were hired to sit for candidates, and seats sold to the highest bidder. Anything between 1m rupees ($15,764; £10,168) and 7m rupees was paid for a seat.

Investigators have examined nearly 10,000 photographs of students, many of which were forged by impersonators. They have gleaned electronic information from at least five hard drives, innumerable pen drives and laptops.

That is not all. In a mysterious twist, some 33 people - mostly accused in connection with the scam have died in the past two years - raising suspicions and all kinds of conspiracy theories. Ten of them have died in road accidents, something, which one investigator says, needs further investigation to dispel doubts of foul play.

'Deeply frightening'

It is difficult to link all these deaths to a scandal, but they have, ironically, stirred India's notoriously Delhi-centric English-language media to wake up and begin covering a story that has been brewing for two years. The deaths, according to commentator Mukul Kesavan "are both strange and deeply frightening".

The roll call of those accused in the scandal is a staggering list of who's who in Madhya Pradesh: a former ruling BJP minister, the personal assistant of a high ranking official of the RSS (India's biggest Hindu nationalist organisation), a top private medical school owner, aides of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and state governor Ram Naresh Yadav, the brother of a senior police official, top bureaucrats, policemen and a mining magnate. No wonder, then, that the scandal has scarred the ruling BJP government most.

"This is bigger than Ali Baba and Forty Thieves," admits Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Babulal Gaur. "The scandal has given a bad name to the state. Our doctors are suffering. If you are a doctor from Madhya Pradesh, people will ask 'are you real or fake'."

He is right.

India's medical education system is one of the largest in the world. There are 381 medical schools - both government-run and private - associated with universities. More than 70,000 students turn out for undergraduate and post-graduate exams every year. India produces some 30,000 doctors a year. Rigged medical school examinations taint the image of Indian doctors. Last month, India's Supreme Courtordered more than 600,000 students to retake the main medical school examsafter they found that the question paper had been leaked.

As Dr Rai tells the story, rigging medical school exams has been going on for a while in the state. Successive governments have turned a blind eye, although the ruling three-term BJP government is looking more tainted than the others.

He talks about 32 cases of cheating and impersonation in medical schools that were filed by the police before the Vyapam scam exploded in 2013. "It is a criminal nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, police officers, students, teachers, agents, brokers - everyone is involved."

He says he first realised that something was wrong when he took his medical school exam in 1994 and the paper was leaked. The exam was cancelled and held anew. A medical college professor was accused of the leak. A year later, somebody pumped 40 bullets into him and killed him.

'Fishy'

When Dr Rai appeared for the post-graduate exam in 2005, he says he found a strange pattern in the list of top 10 ranking candidates. "All the top 10 were sons and daughters and relatives of successful officials and police officers. It was all very fishy. Then I found that the top rankers even lived in the same medical school hostel. We protested and demanded an investigation but nothing happened."

Four years later, Dr Rai, who works as a medical officer in a rusty government office and has armed protection, received the first death threat on the phone.

He says he had informed the police of a medical school exam question paper being leaked. Some 40 parents and children were arrested. He says people from within Vyapam leaked the paper, and changed it when the leak was discovered.

"Vyapam is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. This is happening all over the country," says Chandresh Bhushan, a retired judge who heads a three-member "special investigative team" set up to monitor the investigation by the local police.

"This is the most audacious and high-tech scandal I have come across. One man, who was caught, was alone responsible for 300 bogus recruitments. Can you believe that?"


Afghan delegation travels to Pakistan for first known talks with Taliban

July 7, 2015 | Source: The Guardian

Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president. He has been severely criticised at home for enlisting Pakistani help to bring the Taliban to the negotiations. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president. He has been severely criticised at home for enlisting Pakistani help to bring the Taliban to the negotiations. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Pakistan’s capital city has become the venue for direct talks between the Talibanand a senior member of the Afghan government, raising hopes of a political breakthrough even as Kabul was hit by two separate suicide attacks.

Few details were made public about the first known talks between the two sides, held in the hugely symbolic location of Islamabad. A tweet from the office of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said that members of the officially sanctioned high peace council had gone for “negotiations with the Taliban” on Tuesday. Pakistan’s foreign office spokesman said he knew nothing about the talks.

Intelligence officials said the two sides would break the ice over iftar, the sunset meal that for Muslims marks the end of a day’s fast during the month of Ramadan. Formal talks would then take place on Wednesday at an unnamed location, with Chinese diplomats invited to attend as observers, one official said.

China is increasingly worried about instability and Islamist insurgency on its south-west flank and has been playing a growing role in efforts to broker a settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. A meeting between Afghan and Taliban officials took place under Chinese auspices in the western city of Urumqi in May.

The Pakistani intelligence official said there was a chance that US officials would also attend some of the Islamabad meetings. The official said there were three men on the Taliban team, but refused to reveal their names. A Taliban spokesman said he had no information about the talks and was unable to comment.

Although the high peace council is meant to operate independently of the government, the four-man Afghan team included the deputy foreign minister, Hekmat Karzai, a nephew of the former president Hamid Karzai, who has been afierce critic of Ghani’s efforts to improve relations with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said the talks were “a major breakthrough”. During a visit to Norway, he said: “I hope there will be a positive outcome, which will certainly be very helpful for peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

In Kabul, a suicide car bomber targeted a Nato vehicle, injuring three people. Later, a guard was killed at an office of the Afghan spy agency when three insurgents attempted to storm the building.

Most observers agree that only a political settlement can significantly reduce the violence, but Ghani has been severely criticised at home for his attempts to enlist the help of Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the peace table.

Many Afghans hold Pakistan responsible for backing the Taliban in the first place and say Ghani’s concessions have failed to win results. Ghani’s government was particularly criticised for signing an intelligence-sharing agreement with Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), which is widely hated in Afghanistan.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a veteran Pakistani security analyst, said the fact the discussions were being held in Islamabad would help Ghani deal with his furious domestic critics.

“Ghani is under a lot of pressure from the Afghan parliament and the Afghan bureaucracy who are all against Pakistan,” he said. “The fact talks are being held in Islamabad will enable him to say the Pakistanis are trying to help.”

Afghan officials have met members of the Taliban in the past but the movement has never acknowledged them as anything more than informal contacts. After Pakistan’s national security adviser revealed details of the Urumqi talks, the Taliban’s spokesman insisted no one involved had been authorised to speak on behalf of the movement.

In recent weeks Pakistan has warned of the limits of any negotiation, given that the Taliban is increasingly split, with field commanders unwilling to accept orders from a leadership based outside Afghanistan.

Further complicating any potential peace process is the rise of an offshoot of Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has succeeded in attracting the support of disillusioned Taliban fighters.

Recent media reports have suggested that even the Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran of campaigns against Soviet troops in the 1980s and the more recent Nato intervention, has renounced the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, in favour of Islamic State.

Rizvi said the pressure from rival militant groups could help push the Taliban towards a deal. “Already the Taliban is divided between fighting and talking. Those who believe in fighting will defect, which may force some groups to talk and go for an accommodation,” he said.


Afghan envoys, Taliban in Pakistan for peace talks, officials say

July 7, 2015 | Ali M. Latifi and Shashank Bengali | Source: Los Angeles Times

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack that targeted a NATO convoy in Kabul on July 7, one of a series of recent attacks that came despite moves toward peace talks between the two sides. (Rahmat Gul / Associated Press)

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack that targeted a NATO convoy in Kabul on July 7, one of a series of recent attacks that came despite moves toward peace talks between the two sides.
(Rahmat Gul / Associated Press)

Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were in Pakistan for their first face-to-face talks, Afghan officials said Tuesday, signaling the possible start of negotiations to end nearly 14 years of conflict.

President Ashraf Ghani said on his official Twitter account that members of the government's High Peace Council had traveled to Pakistan for the meeting. A Pakistani official confirmed that the talks would take place near Islamabad but did not offer details.

The announcement marks a victory for Ghani, who has staked much of his young presidency on a high-stakes bid to engage Taliban insurgents and neighboring Pakistan in an elusive peace process.

It comes amid a wave of violence in Afghanistan, much of it blamed on the Taliban. The militants have mounted one of their fiercest offensives in recent months and inflicted heavy casualties on government forces as they attempt to take control of districts in northern and southern Afghanistan.

The impact of the talks on the violence was not immediately clear, but Pakistan's participation was seen as significant because the Taliban's leadership is based in that country and it has long been viewed in Afghanistan as an obstacle to peace.

Sources in Ghani's office described the meeting as crucial because it showed the Taliban were ready to negotiate directly with the government they have been battling since they were ousted from power by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The Taliban have sent intermediaries, including former insurgents, to meet with Afghan officials over the last year in secret talks in Qatar and China. However, the location, public acknowledgment and face-to-face contact would be firsts for these talks.

Taliban officials did not immediately confirm their participation, but they have disavowed past meetings. The group has long said it would not negotiate directly with a government it views as a U.S.-backed puppet, but behind the scenes some Taliban leaders are believed to be seeking a truce that grants them a role in Afghan public life and a softening of U.S. and Western sanctions against them.

U.S. and Chinese officials would be present at the meetings in Pakistan to serve as "monitors," said an official in Ghani's office, who could not be quoted by name due to the sensitivity of the talks. Ghani was due to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to discuss the peace initiative this week at a regional summit in Russia, the official said


Afghan Officials and Taliban Meet in Possible Step Toward Peace Talks

July 7, 2015 | Joseph Goldstein and Mujib Mashal | Source: The New York Times

Afghan security forces after an attack by Taliban insurgents on a compound used by Afghanistan's intelligence agency in Kabul on Tuesday.

Afghan security forces after an attack by Taliban insurgents on a compound used by Afghanistan's intelligence agency in Kabul on Tuesday.

KABUL, Afghanistan — An Afghan government delegation met with Taliban officials in the Pakistani capital for the first time on Tuesday, in a significant effort to open formal peace negotiations, according to Afghan, Pakistani and Western officials.

The Islamabad meeting, brokered by Pakistani officials after months of intense effort by President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to get them more centrally involved in the peace process, was the most promising contact between the two warring sides in years. And it followed a series of less formal encountersbetween various Afghan officials and Talibanrepresentatives in other countries in recent months.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the participants had agreed to continue the talks, with another meeting to be held after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A peace process that would lead to the Taliban ending their insurgency has long been seen as a crucial part of the American strategy to stabilizeAfghanistan after a costly 14-year war. But previous promising moments in that effort, including the formal opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar in 2013, either fizzled or backfired.

That may be the case now, as well: No sooner had the talks begun than it became apparent that the Taliban were divided about whether to engage in a process facilitated by Pakistan.

In an email exchange with a New York Times reporter early Wednesday morning, a representative of the Taliban’s official political office in Qatar said that the delegates to the Islamabad meeting were “not authorized” to attend such meetings, and suggested they had been “hijacked” by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service to appear.

“We see it as the wrong direction toward peace, and the Pakistani-led process may cause more problems instead of solutions,” the official wrote. Later, the official added: “We will continue our political efforts for peaceful solution of the Afghan conflict.”

Afghan and Western officials did not identify the Taliban representatives who attended the meeting on Tuesday. They described the delegates as significant, including some Taliban officials who had gone to the previous, less-formal talks.

One senior Western official familiar with the meeting in Islamabad said that “we know there are senior leaders” involved. The official compared the apparent dispute between the Taliban representatives in Islamabad and the insurgent officials in Qatar to bureaucratic infighting seen in any large organization, and said that Western officials did not consider it a sign of fractiousness within the insurgency.

But, the official added, “I’m not saying that somewhere down the line we might not see some of that, but I don’t think this is it.”

There was no statement from the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, about the meeting or who attended. Some Taliban officials had denied or played down the significance of the previous meetings as well, despite confirmation from other officials present at those discussions.

Officials from the United States and China were at the meeting as observers on Tuesday, Western officials said, and were expected to attend a follow-up session on Wednesday. China has played a growing role in trying to broker peace talks in recent months.

On the Afghan side, officials said the delegation was led by Hekmat Karzai, the deputy foreign minister and a prominent cousin of the previous Afghan president. The delegation also included a member of the government’s high peace council, and several important regional representatives, officials said.

Though the officials characterized the meeting as a promising potential step toward peace talks, they were cautious about the prospects. Afghan officials said the talks were mainly to set up a framework for further discussions, including setting up confidence-building measures both sides should take, and listing possible issues for negotiation.

The Taliban are aggressively trying to seize territory in many parts of Afghanistan and have made some gains in pockets of several provinces

The Taliban are aggressively trying to seize territory in many parts of Afghanistan and have made some gains in pockets of several provinces

In the past, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have been wary of using Pakistan as a go-between for discussions. For its part, the Afghan government has long feared that the Pakistani military would scuttle any peace talks in hopes of using the Afghan Taliban, its traditional ally, as a proxy force to maintain its influence over Afghan affairs.

Mr. Ghani’s all-out effort to court Pakistani officials and get them involved in talks has cost him substantial political capital at home, where Pakistan is widely viewed with suspicion. His political opponents, including members of former President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, have vehemently criticized Mr. Ghani as having misplaced his trust in the Pakistanis, and selling out Afghanistan in the process.

For their part, elements of the Afghan Taliban, even as they have found shelter in Pakistan, have chafed at their vulnerability to the country’s military and intelligence forces. That, in part, is why the group opened a political office in Qatar and insisted that official diplomatic communications go through there.

Despite the Taliban’s skepticism about Pakistani pressure, it is clear that the insurgents have been more willing to talk than ever before. In a year where the Taliban are making some of their biggest gains on the battlefieldever, they have simultaneously intensified their publicity efforts casting them as a legitimate political force. And the patter of informal meetings with Afghan officials abroad this year has been taken by some officials as a sign that the insurgents will eventually be more willing to negotiate once the fighting season is over.

In a June email exchange with the Taliban official in Qatar, he wrote that the new willingness to talk was a natural outgrowth of the insurgents’ stronger military position.

“Political progress is connected to military progress,” said the Taliban official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. “The more the military achievements increase, the more the political efforts and activities increase.”

Still, for the past decade, the Taliban have mostly expressed a desire to discuss a possible settlement to the war not with Afghanistan, but with the United States, which it considers the real power behind the Kabul government. Even there, intermittent efforts to establish such talks have largely faltered.

The one deal American officials struck with the Taliban through their Qatar delegation — the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held in captivity, in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — proved to be a one-time deal, despite anticipation that it might lead to more sustained negotiations.

Even if serious talks with the Afghans were to begin, one concern among some Western and Afghan officials is that lower-level Taliban commanders might bridle or even split away from the group’s senior leadership in frustration, especially given their recent battlefield gains.

In recent months, too, the Taliban have faced an unanticipated threat that could intensify their risk of splintering: the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. That group, though not yet thought to pose a significant military threat in Afghanistan, has quickly managed to attract a wide array of disaffected Taliban leaders and other insurgents who doubt that the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is even alive. The Islamic State has managed to push the Taliban out of at least one district in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and skirmishes between the two groups have broken out in several provinces.

The Islamic State’s appearance in Afghanistan could persuade the Taliban to seek a political settlement to the war if the Taliban leadership believes fighters will continue to defect to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “The Taliban strategy of patiently fighting may no longer work, withISIS here,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They’re very alarmed by this.”

On the other hand, the diplomat said, the Islamic State’s growing relevance could reduce the possibility of peace talks. Under that scenario, any move to negotiate peace would have the effect of speeding up defections to the rival group. “The question, of course, is whether these Taliban leaders can carry the fighters with them, or whether the leaders immediately lose their followers the moment they talk about peace,” the diplomat said.


As Heroin Use Grows in U.S., Poppy Crops Thrive in Afghanistan

July 7, 2015 | Elizabeth Chuck | Source: NBC News

In Afghanistan, opium production is growing like a weed — and nothing, not even billions of dollars of U.S. money, has been able to quell it.

According to the United Nations, the war-torn nation provides 90 percent of the world's supply of opium poppy, the bright, flowery crop that transforms into one of the most addictive drugs in existence.

And as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounds the alarm about a worsening heroin epidemic here in the U.S., opium production in Afghanistan shows no signs of slowing down.

"Afghanistan has roughly 500,000 acres, or about 780 square miles, devoted to growing opium poppy. That's equivalent to more than 400,000 U.S. football fields — including the end zones," John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in a speech in May.

The U.S. has spent $8.4 billion in counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan. But opium output keeps rising: Fifteen years ago, Afghanistan accounted for just 70 percent of global illicit opium production.

The problem, experts say, stems from the country's rampant corruption and the impoverished farmers who feel they have no choice but to contribute to the drug supply chain.

"It's much easier if you're a farmer to grow opium than to grow saffron or to grow grapes or something like that," said Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist and Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C. "Opium is a much more profitable crop. It requires a lot less infrastructure. You can grow opium practically anywhere, and it doesn't need to be refrigerated, it doesn't need complex transportation networks."

What seals the deal for many farmers is taxes: In Taliban-controlled areas — or even areas the Taliban doesn't technically control, but still has enough influence that they can intimidate local farmers and officials — the Taliban collects taxes.

"They demand taxes not on what you're growing, but on what your land could produce if you were growing opium. So if you decide you don't want to grow opium, the Taliban's response is, 'Fine, pay me the equivalent amount and you can grow whatever you want,'" Blank said.

Nasir Shansab, author of "Silent Trees: Power and Passion in War-Torn Afghanistan," said opium production has "become part of the economy."

"It brings money and imported material and consumer goods into Afghanistan," he said. "Afghanistan is poverty-stricken and farmers have difficulty getting proper returns for their normal products. They're almost forced to do that to survive," he said.

Neither of the U.S. antinarcotics approaches have yielded success. From 2001 to 2009, the U.S. tried an eradication strategy, giving the Afghan government resources to wipe out poppy crops. This only eliminated a tiny percentage of suppliers, and led to more local corruption: Meaning governing warlords got richer as individual farmers got poorer.

"The whole system is criminalized. It runs through the police, the courts, through the whole government system," Shansab said. "When we talk about corruption in Afghanistan, which is rampant, now this is part of it."

The current approach offers farmers the chance to substitute their opium crops with legal crops, thanks to billions of dollars in U.S.-funded agricultural development.

But while that helped Laos and Thailand, two former heavyweights in the global opium production trade, get off the list of major suppliers in the 1990s, it appears to only be making Afghanistan's problem worse by not giving farmers all the tools they need to grow.

"The bottom line — record opium cultivation and production — clearly shows we are not winning the war on drugs in Afghanistan," Sopko, the special inspector general, said.

Opium hasn't always blossomed this freely in Afghanistan. Before being ousted by the U.S., the Taliban banned opium in 2000, arguing that growing drugs was anti-Islamic. Opium dropped dramatically in the coming year, stunning the international community — but Blank, the Afghanistan expert, has doubts about their motive.

"The theory that makes the most sense to me is that there was such a glut of opium on the market that the Taliban basically allowed its favorite suppliers to store opium for the next year to drive the prices up, expecting that they would around for many years to come, and that they could sort of be the OPEC of opium," he said.

After the Taliban was deposed, the ban was eliminated. But with so much to fix in Afghanistan, the U.S. was unable to keep crops from popping back up.

"The biggest problem from a U.S. security perspective is not opium. It's what opium leads to," Blank said. "You can't fight counterinsurgency and counternarcotics at the same time. Essentially, you're pulling in two different directions. Which is more important? From a security standpoint, I think counterinsurgency is more important."

The answer, he said, is to bolster Afghanistan's government.

"Corruption and government efficiency are the first things that really need to be looked at. There's so much money to be made from narcotics that if corruption isn't coming from drugs, it will be coming from something else." 


Deliberation underway on constitution draft

July 7, 2015 | Source: eKantipur.com

KATHMANDU, JUL 07 - Deliberations on the proposal seeking permission to publish the first integrated ‘Draft of Nepal’s Constitution 2072 BS’ in Nepal gazette for people's feedback is underway at the Constituent Assembly ( CA ) meeting.

Speaking in the CA meeting on Tuesday, the lawmakers said that the preliminary draft of the constitution coming as a historical draft with assurance of constitution promulgation through the CA was a positive step.

However, they said that some contents and terminologies in the draft should be amended.

On the occasion, Nepali Congress lawmaker Mahesh Acharya said that the draft is not the final one and many provisions are left for its correction.

Likewise, Nepali Congress lawmaker Sujata Koirala praised the draft for being very good, adding that the constitution should not be only for a handful of people.

She suggested ensuring the provision of providing citizenship under the name of both mother and father.

Lawmaker Narayan Prasad Saud said that respect for law and supremacy of the judiciary was a welcome step.

Similarly, CPN-UML lawmaker Bishnu Prasad Poudel said that constitution should be promulgated by this July, adding that the draft of constitution has brought about political stability. Expressing confidence that consensus should be forged regarding federalism, Poudel said the draft of constitution has also made the CA a success.

Lawmaker Gangalal Tuladhar of the CPN-UML suggested that provision of complete press freedom should be kept in the constitution.

Also speaking in the CA meeting, UCPN (Maoist) lawmaker Haribol Gajurel said that bringing the draft against the political consensus was unfortunate and added that this draft has not incorporated the issues of the agreements made by the erstwhile CA .

Janardan Sharma of the UCPN (Maoist) expressed his opinion for the directly-elected presidential system as the form of governance and asked to include the provision in the draft.

Likewise, Ram Kumar Subba of Rastriya Prajatantra Party asked to correct the provision of religious freedom stated in the draft.

Lawmaker Dulari Harijan said some provisions of the draft should be amended to make the constitution friendly for women, Dalit, physically-challenged and Janajati.

Lawmaker Bhishmanath Adhikari suggested establishing a commission for the restructuring of the local bodies.

Similarly, lawmaker Saroj Sharma said that the feedbacks of the people should be incorporated in constitution after receiving the public opinions.

Lawmaker Sushil Kumar Shrestha, however, demanded to sort out the issues of federalism and secularism through referendum. RSS


Drone Strikes In Eastern Afghanistan Kill Militants Loyal To IS

July 7, 2015 | Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

Two drone strikes targeted militants loyal to Islamic State in Afghanistan on July 7 -- killing between 25 and 49 insurgents, according to differing estimates by Afghan and foreign officials.

An increasing number of militants are pledging allegiance to Islamic State in Afghanistan, making them a target of deadly strikes there by the U.S. unmanned aircraft.

Many are Central Asian extremists who’ve fled a Pakistani military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region.

Those militants also have found themselves at odds with rival factions of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for the Nangarhar Province governor, said 49 militants were killed by drone attacks in the village of Mamd Dara in the Achin district.

But a foreign official, who asked not to be named, said the number of dead was closer to 25.


For Investors, India's Solar Push Could Signal A Gold Rush

July 7, 2015 | Saritha Rai | Source: Forbes

India’s government has set a mammoth new goal to build a solar power capacity of 100 GW in an energy-starved-but-hungry country, permitting 100% foreign investment and offering a series of tax breaks for the fledgling sector. The audacious new target quintuples the previous goal of 20 GW and is about 30 times the country’s installed capacity (less than 3.7 GW). The flurry of investors is making solar energy sector seem like the new Gold Rush.

“If the government removes bottlenecks and gets regional administrations to offer incentives, solar could be a long-term play for investors,” said Amol Kotwal, director, energy practice, at consultancy firm, Frost & Sullivan. “It could turn out to be a Gold Rush.”

Strategic, innovative players could build a very exciting business as the market potential is huge with room for established companies as well as entrepreneurs, said Tobias Engelmeier, director & founder, Bridge To India, a renewable energy consultancy. India has the potential to become the world’s leading solar markets as its location near the equator and low solar park construction costs coupled with plunging costs of solar energy in recent times (now only marginally higher than cost of producing conventional energy) are all aligning with India’s ambitions. “Our estimate is that, in the next 15 years, solar in India could be a 1,000 GW opportunity,” said Engelmeier.

The government’s unprecedented push has already attracted a pack of investors. Japanese telecom multinational SoftBank, India’s biggest wireless telecom provider Bharti Enterprises and Taiwan’s technology manufacturer Foxconn Technology have together announced a $20 billion joint venture, SBG Cleantech, to bid for contracts to develop solar energy plants across the country. SunEdison, the Missouri, U.S.-based renewable energy firm said it intends to invest $15 billion by 2022. It also announced that it would put $2 billion into a joint venture with billionaire Gautam Adani’s Adani Group to manufacture photo voltaic modules. China’s Trina Solar has unveiled plans to invest $500 million in a plant to make panels in a joint venture with India’s Welspun Energy.

“From what we see happening in the past few weeks, the government’s target does not seem like an empty goal. It is plausible that India may meet at least 50% of its ambitious target in the next seven years,” said Narasimhan Santhanam, cofounder and director of alterantive energy consultancy firm, Energy Alternatives India.

India is among the world’s top five largest energy consumers and is projected to become the third-biggest, after China and the United States, in the next decade-and-a-half. But the country faces an acute scarcity – thousands of villages are still unlit, supply is rationed in towns and blackouts are common even in the biggest cities. In fact, the 100 GW additional solar capacity that India is building will meet less than 5-6% of its overall energy needs by 2022, experts said. The hope is that solar energy output can serve the country’s remote regions where even two hours of power supply can change lives.

Foreign investors and their money are critical for the government to meet its grand solar target. A 100 GW of solar capacity will require upwards of $100 billion (at an estimated $1 billion per GW) in investment. Given the cost of money in India and Indian banks’ over exposure to the infrastructure sector, foreign capital will help greatly.

However, investors will face stiff challenges. Solar energy is land intensive – an estimated 4-5 acres are required to produce 1 MW of solar power – and the government’s attempts to pass a land acquisition bill have got caught up in a political deadlock. Even if large tracts of land are made available to investors to produce solar power, the lack of grid infrastructure is a hindrance. The government will have to focus on building up the grid to support the level of solar capacity addition that is being planned.

At the other end, power utilities (distribution companies or Discoms) operate in a highly-regulated market. Utilities in 20+ of India’s 29 states are in a bleeding financial mess as they sell power far below cost. Populist pressure keeps energy prices low and affordable to millions of poorer Indians.

Yet, India’s solar energy market represents a robust opportunity for foreign investors, given that China’s market has proved impenetrable. China adds 14-15 GW a year, and this capacity is mostly built by domestic firms and joint ventures. “With the aggressive capacity addition that the government has outlined, India is the next destination for global players,” said Kotwal of Frost & Sullivan.


India and Pakistan Are Set to Join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So What?

July 7, 2015 | Ankit Panda | Source: The Diplomat

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are headed to Ufa, Russia later this week where they will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. Both India and Pakistan are set to join the organization as full members after years of holding observer status. Their accession is expected to conclude in 2016, according to statements by a Russian official. The SCO was founded in 1996 and is largely a forum for limited consultation and cooperation on political, economic, and military matters.

According to the Press Trust of India, the two prime ministers will meet on the sidelines of the summit on July 10. Modi’s talks with Sharif will be an important litmus test for the state of India-Pakistan relations, which have declined in recent months due to a range of factors, including skirmishes across the Line of Control in Kashmir and Pakistan’s treatment of anti-India terrorists.

As my colleague Catherine Putz recently detailed in our Central Asia pages, Modi is on a eight-day, six-nation tour of Central Asia and Russia, with plans to attend the combined BRICS/SCO summit in Ufa from July 8 to 10. Modi’s meeting with Sharif at the SCO summit was expected for some time but was only recently confirmed. Modi and Sharif spoke most recently at the commencement of Ramadan when the Indian prime minister called his Pakistani counterpart. Before then, Sharif and Modi last met in Kathmandu for the 18th SAARC Summit–though they didn’t hold an official bilateral meeting. Last May, shortly after Modi’s inauguration as India’s prime minister, it appeared that the two leaders would establish a positive personal rapport after a series of photo ops and candid personal exchanges but, as in the past, trouble along the border and other issues reverted India and Pakistan to their normal state of mutual suspicion and rivalry.

The Implications of Indian and Pakistani Accession

The inclusion of India and Pakistan into the Russia and China-led SCO will expand the organization’s scope, leading it to encompass an additional 1.5 billion people. Current members include China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. India and Pakistan, along with Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia, have been observers of the SCO. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, will travel to Ufa to attend the summit at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told reporters that ”India and Pakistan’s admission to the SCO will play an important role in the SCO’s development. It will play a constructive role in pushing for the improvement of their bilateral relations.” Cheng is perhaps overly optimistic about the SCO’s ability to bridge the differences that persist between India and Pakistan. The organization itself is a fairly uneventful forum in Asia these days, though it was originally seen as a manifestation of China’s ambitions for regional leadership and security coordination.

Geopolitically, SCO membership could highlight avenues for greater cooperation between India and China in areas such as terrorism and Afghan reconstruction. Pakistan’s membership, if anything, will help it interface better with the organization’s Central Asian members and Russia; Pakistan and China already enjoy a close strategic partnership. For China, incorporating India and Pakistan is a testament to the organization’s openness–something Beijing has stressed in the past with little to show for it.

China will be hoping that India’s inclusion will stave off some of the criticism of the organization as a grouping of states with little affection for the Western world order; having a state that in addition to being the world’s largest democracy has a range of disagreements with China on board may indeed do so. Incorporating India as a full member also mitigates fears that the SCO will shape up to be a China-led NATO–an unfounded, but persistent perception of the organization. This perception has been exacerbated by full-scale military cooperation between SCO members; it remains unclear how India and Pakistan will figure into the SCO’s existing arrangements for counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing.

With India and Pakistan’s accession, the SCO will probably head toward becoming more a symbolically important Asian talk-shop rather than a substantive forum for cooperation. Unfortunately, it’s hard to image how the inclusion of Pakistan and India will allow the organization to somehow suddenly become more dynamic and cooperative forum. In essence, the SCO is going from being more like-minded to less so, especially with India’s inclusion.

Certainly, this won’t be antithetical to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s conception of the organization. Xi noted that “SCO members have created a new model of international relations — partnership instead of alliance.” With Xi’s burgeoning “One Belt, One Road” vision for increased connectivity through continental and maritime Asia, an expansion of the SCO will be a welcome development.


India: Land in Demand

July 7, 2015 | Amy Kazmin | Source: Financial Times

Ashok Yadav was optimistic when Uttar Pradesh authorities took 589 hectares of land from his village, Patwari — including his fields — for new factories. Officials paid Rs850 per square yard, and promised jobs would soon follow. “They said ‘give us your land for industrial purposes and your family — your children — will get jobs’,” recalls Mr Yadav, whose extended family received compensation of Rs17m — at the time worth $400,000 — for its holdings in the area, 42km from central Delhi.

“We thought our lives would take a different turn,” he adds.

But instead of the promised factories, apartment blocks rose on the fields. Farmers discovered their land — taken using powers of eminent domain laid out in India’s colonial-era land acquisition law — had been sold to private developers to build housing for New Delhi’s expanding middle class. The builders paid Rs10,000 per square metre for the land — more than 14 times what the farmers received.

Furious, the Patwari farmers went to court to challenge the 2008 acquisition, arguing that authorities had abused their powers in order to benefit private businesses. “We were cheated,” says Mr Yadav. “They told us one thing then did something else.”

In May, India’s Supreme Court agreed. It ruled that the state’s acquisition of the fields was illegal. Judges criticised the government’s invocation of an emergency clause in the land acquisition act that had prevented the farmers from contesting the seizure beforehand. But the judges said the property could not be returned, as thousands of families had already paid for flats in the partially completed buildings. Instead, the court ordered a 64 per cent increase in compensation payments.

Akhilesh Tomar, a 38-year-old engineer, is an unwitting casualty. He put down a deposit for a two-bedroom flat in 2010, hoping to move in within three years. But with construction delayed by the litigation, he has spent five years paying a mortgage on the unfinished apartment and rent for accommodation. The price he will have to pay for his flat, originally Rs1.8m, is rising too, as builders try to pass on cost increases, including the extra compensation. Still facing a long wait, Mr Tomar bears no malice to the farmers. “As we are the sufferers, they are also the sufferers,” he says. “We are both being harassed by the system. We blame the system.”

Urban planning

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to accelerate India’s transformation from a predominately rural, agrarian society to an industrialised, urbanised economy with smart cities and industrial corridors, the question of how to manage competing demands for land, and ensure a fair, efficient and transparent conversion of farmland to non-agricultural uses is one of his most vexed political challenges.

India’s corporate sector has grown accustomed to the government using its powers of eminent domain to provide it with inexpensive land for a wide range of commercial projects and insists this is necessary to enable large-scale, job-generating investments. But in a litigious democracy with a long tradition of private property rights, state land acquisition has often triggered fierce battles — from the edge of big cities to remote villages — stalling the very projects the state wanted to facilitate.

While many of India’s estimated 90m farming families are struggling, few among them have the education or skills to secure stable employment, making them highly resistant to perceived threats to their way of life and only tangible income.

“There is a real tension between the model of economic growth India is pursuing and the weight of farmers in [terms of] India’s electoral democracy,” says Michael Levien, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, who has studied land acquisition in India. “The rural population are looking for jobs but they are not finding ones that pay enough or are of high enough quality to make them want to leave agriculture for good.”

India’s political and business elites are feverishly debating how the state can give companies access to land in a politically palatable manner.

Analysts are sceptical that India’s increasingly assertive — even combative — public will accept widespread compulsory land acquisition any more. Instead, they argue, India must make its opaque property markets work more smoothly to allow companies to buy land from willing sellers.

“Eminent domain is not something one uses for essentially commercial, profitmaking activities,” says Nitin Desai, an economist and former UN official. “The minute you take land from somebody against that person’s wishes — or on terms he doesn’t consider appropriate, he will go to court. If it’s a free transaction, at least that doesn’t arise. Industry basically has to go to market and buy the land that it needs.”

At independence in 1947, India inherited the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, which allowed the state to take private land for “public purposes” if owners were fairly compensated.

With its then-socialist bent, India used these powers to commandeer land for roads, dams, steel mills, power plants, industrial townships, military bases and other projects deemed critical for national development. Resistance was muted or ineffective. In 1984, the law was broadened to permit the state to acquire land on behalf of private companies too.

But as controls on private capital were relaxed in the 1990s, state governments began amassing vast landholdings to sell to private companies — a process that accelerated as property values soared in the past decade. While some land went to infrastructure projects such as power plants, states also provided it for commercial endeavours with only tenuous claims to a public purpose: shoe factories, carmakers, luxury housing, even resorts and swimming pools. Companies handpicked their desired sites and took far bigger tracts than their projects strictly required. Meanwhile, farmers received compensation far below the legally-mandated “market rates”.

“Every state government has become like a property dealer,” says Ajay Jakhar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, or Indian Farmer’s Forum. “They acquire land from the farmers then they rezone it into urban land and sell it at 10 times the value to urban dwellers. It has entered into the farmers’ minds that they have been exploited.”

As perceptions of large-scale, corporate land grabs grew over the past decade, farmers mobilised to resist, aided by social and political activists, resulting in protracted, sometimes violent, stand-offs on the ground — and long battles in court. When judgments were finally issued, courts routinely ordered significant rises in compensation — often as much as six times the original payout.

Ram Singh, a Delhi School of Economics professor, says the process has become a drag on industrialisation and urbanisation. “It is not efficient at all . . .  is not in the interests of India’s industrialisation,” he argues. “It is inviting popular resistance and protests.”

Doing business

In 2013, the then Congress-led government pushed through legislation designed to strike a balance between property-owners’ interests and the need to make land available for industry and urban expansion. It laid out a complex process for states to take land for private companies — even for public-private partnerships in infrastructure, which it said would prevent conflicts and protect farmers from abuse of state power.

At the heart of the law was the requirement that authorities obtain the consent of 70 to 80 per cent of “project affected families”, including both property owners and those, such as farmhands, losing their livelihood, before taking any land. It also mandated detailed social impact assessments evaluating the costs and benefits of diverting land from agriculture to the designated project. Compensation rates were raised to four times the market price for rural land, twice the market price for urban land. It also laid out generous resettlement and rehabilitation packages for the displaced.

Dismayed companies complained that the law’s onerous bureaucratic requirements would make it virtually impossible for the state to acquire land.

“It’s completely and absolutely impossible to implement,” says Rajiv Lall, managing director of the Mumbai-based Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation. “You are not living in a university, debating. We are running a country which is complex to administer. You have to balance what is morally and ethically correct and fair, with what is feasible and doable.”

The law also imposed new obligations on companies trying to buy large tracts of land through the market, requiring them to resettle anyone affected — not just landowners but also their workers — by the purchase. Businesses warned it would have a crippling affect.

“It’s almost as if someone has written this bill not for social justice but more to stall India from growing,” says Ajit Gulabchand, chairman and managing director of Hindustan Construction Company. “It would take 58 months — if everything went right — for the process to be followed. Add to it the usual bureaucratic delay it will easily double that. When are you going to acquire land?”

Determined to kick-start India’s stalled investment cycle, Mr Modi is trying to amend the two-year-old law so authorities can again take land without farmers’ consent or social impact evaluations — though the enhanced compensation will remain. But the proposed changes have met fierce resistance from the opposition Congress party and other political groups with strong agrarian constituencies. Mr Modi’s government hopes to push the changes through during the upcoming monsoon session of parliament — at the end of this month — but meanwhile, land transactions have basically frozen. His political reputation and business sentiment both stand to suffer if the government cannot push through the changes.

“The government did not expect the intensity with which this was opposed — not just in parliament but outside of parliament,” says Jahangir Aziz, chief Asia economist at JP Morgan. “For most non-urban people, the most well-understood, widely accepted fear of living is that the outsider will come and ‘take away my land’. These proposals feed into that traditional fear.”

Role of the state

Some farmers and economists think the state should get out of the land market altogether and leave private companies to deal directly with farmers — except for narrowly defined public projects.

“Industry wants the free market for everything, but when it comes to farmers land it wants regulation,” says activist Mr Jakhar. “The government should get out of it. It should only get into acquisition for line projects — like railway lines and canals.”

But many businessmen argue India’s land market is too dysfunctional for them to make purchases, which means government intervention is required for the foreseeable future.

“It’s not easy for people who are not specialists in the very murky business to acquire land by themselves,” says Mr Lall. “There are all kinds of problems that emanate from our very poor land records, and the infirmity of land titles.”

Even if Mr Modi’s proposals are pushed through parliament, debates — and conflicts — over land will not end, especially if state governments resume snapping up large land tracts for new ‘smart cities’ or industrial zones.

“The existential question India faces is: what is a public purpose that justifies a democratic government forcibly taking land from farmers? Is it a factory? Is it real-estate development? Is it a Formula One race track?” says Mr Levien. “That is a political question. There is nothing inevitable about it. The question is: what is the meaning of development? Who gets the benefit and who pays the cost?


India, Pakistan Set for Full Membership in Shanghai Group

July 7, 2015 | Anjana Pasricha | Source: Voice of America

Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization pose for a photo during the group's summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Sept. 12, 2014.

Leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization pose for a photo during the group's summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Sept. 12, 2014.

India and Pakistan are set to become full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a regional security group that comprises Russia, China and four Central Asian republics. Analysts say that the group’s expansion to include South Asia does not come without implications.

The process of the regional rivals joining the SCO is expected to begin in the remote Russian city of Ufa later this week, when both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, attend the group’s 15th meeting.

India applied to become a full member of the SCO last year, while Pakistan’s request has been pending for years. Both countries are currently observers.

Besides Russia and China, SCO’s members are the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Analysts say expanding membership of SCO to India and Pakistan will recast the group as a more significant regional group by taking the spotlight away from it as an organization led by Russia and China.

Adding balance

Manoj Joshi, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, notes the peculiarity of India’s inclusion.

“Actually, in a peculiar way, the Indian membership will actually balance the group. If China and Russia are seen as kind of anti-American, India has got good ties with the United States. In that sense India’s presence will add clout [to the SCO and] will balance out any kind of anti-Americanism that may be there in the SCO,” says Joshi.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Cheng Guoping, says the admission of India and Pakistan will play an important role in SCO’s development.

While some analysts like Joshi view the SCO as a talking shop, others say the ambitious China-led group wants to be a regional counterweight to Western alliances.

India’s quest for SCO’s membership is driven by its aim to increase engagement with the resource- and energy-rich Central Asian republics, where China already has a huge presence.

To emphasize its desire for more trade and investment with Central Asia, Prime Minister Modi is stopping in all its five Central republics - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan(a non-SCO member), Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, during the current tour that will take him to Ufa.  

India’s quest for access

India wants access to Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, and Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium. But this has been hampered by its lack of connectivity to the landlocked region, which is just a three and a half flight hours away, but where getting cargo container service is a huge logistical hurdle.

For example, a plan to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India, through Afghanistan and neighbor Pakistan, has been pending for a long time.

Phunchok Stobdan, a former diplomat and senior fellow at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, says India has a long road ahead.  

“India has the intention to be there, but the capabilities are not there. You can't now match with the Chinese in any case, both in terms of connectivity or direct access or in terms of the commitment, in terms of money. China is talking about spending $15-$30 billion on Silk Road project, and we don’t have any idea, we don’t have any concept of what we want to do in Central Asia,” says Stopdan.

Some analysts, such as Zakir Hussain at the New Delhi-based think tank Indian Council of World Affairs, hope India can overcome the disadvantages it faces in Central Asia when it becomes a member of SCO.

“It will have a rightful place in the region and it can sit and talk and discuss the common policies affecting all the countries in terms of benefits, in terms of losses. So India will automatically get a preference in the region. Getting membership of SCO will strengthen our regional grip, regional say in the region,” says Hussain.

Odd couple

This will be the first time that nuclear-armed Pakistan and India could be members of the same security bloc.  Including both countries is seen as a balancing act – New Delhi is closer to Moscow while Islamabad is closer to Beijing.

Some analysts are not sure how the India-Pakistan membership will play out at the SCO. They point out that their bitter rivalry has long stalled progress of another regional group - the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

But Pakistani political scientist Hassan Askari Rizvi says that may not happen at the SCO, where, he says, neither country has engaged in confrontation.

“In the past we have seen that even as observers when there representatives would speak, they have avoided a direct or blistering criticism of each other at the Shanghai Cooperation Council. Hopefully they maintain that kind of posture and they use this forum to come closer to each other rather than engaging in a kind of polemics which will not serve the purpose of either the organization or of the two countries,” says Rizvi.

Rizvi says both countries have a stake in Central Asia, but they can be more constructive in the region only if their bilateral relations improve.

The gathering in Ufa may yield a tiny step in that direction. Reports say there could be a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO forum between the Indian and Pakistani leaders. The first interaction between them last year soon after Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration offered some hope, but relations have since plummeted.

The Chinese Vice Foreign minister, Cheng Guoping, hopes the SCO can play a constructive role in pushing for improvement in India-Pakistan ties.


Mixed results for India in MDG achievements

July 7, 2015 | Source: The Financial Express

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by United Nations reach their December 2015 deadline (started in 2000), India has made notable progress towards reaching the goals, but achievement varies across categories. In a report released on Tuesday, the UN said India has already achieved the target for reducing poverty by half and is set to achieve reducing hunger by half.

It has already achieved gender parity in primary school enrolment (Goal 3) and is likely to reach parity in secondary and tertiary education also by 2015. India is set to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters and controlled the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. It has increased forest cover and has halved the proportion of population without access to clean drinking water.

But India is lagging behind in meeting goals like universal primary school enrolment and completion, and universal youth literacy. In empowering women through wage employment and political participation also, it has a long way to go. So is the case with the plan to reduce child and infant mortality and improving access to adequate sanitation to eliminate open defecation.

A new set of transformative and universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted by world leaders as a part of the Post–2015 Development Agenda at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015.


Role Reversal: India's Tech Titans Grab Talent From Silicon Valley

July 7, 2015 | George Anders | Source: Forbes

In May, Indian e-commerce executive Rohit Bansal boarded a plane in his native Delhi and headed for Silicon Valley. Traditionally, such a journey would mark the loss of another Indian tech star in favor of greater opportunities in the United States. This time, however, the human-capital migration is starting to flow in the opposite direction.

The 31-year-0ld Bansal has struck it rich in India, where he and cofounder Kunal Bahl run Snapdeal, one of Asia’s leading online retailers. With closely held Snapdeal valued at perhaps$5 billion or more, Bansal hardly needs a U.S.job. Instead, he prefers to hunt for California-based technical talent that he can lure back to India.

“We need a few really good designers,” Bansal explained in an interview this past spring. “Not too many products get built for the first time in India. That expertise is far more evident in the U.S.” In return, he says, Snapdeal offers ambitious U.S.-based designers, engineers and product specialists a chance to aim their efforts at India’s market of 1.2 billion people — nearly quadruple the U.S.’s population.

Much of Bansal’s U.S. recruiting has been aimed at Indian-born techies who came to Silicon Valley seven to ten years ago — and now are open to the idea that their next big career move should involve moving back to their homeland. “They’ve had a pretty good time, professionally, in the U.S.,” Bansal says, “but they realize that the best opportunities to make an impact may be in India.

India’s Economic Times newspaper recently declared that the country’s longstanding “brain drain” of technical talent moving abroad was now turning into a “brain gain,” as expatriates began flocking home.

One case in point: Punit Son, a former mobile-technology executive at Google and Motorola in the United States. He’s now returned to India as chief product officer for Flipkart, a top e-commerce company. Another illustration: Namita Gupta’s decision to join Zomato, Indian-based online rater of retail establishments, after having previously worked for Facebook and Microsoft.

A decade ago, Indian tech specialists who returned home to comparable jobs after a U.S. stint might have needed to endure a pay cut of 50% or more in nominal terms. Not any more. Bansal says leading Indian tech companies are able to put together pay packages that come close to matching U.S. salaries, for the right executives. That’s at the official exchange rate — and in practical terms, everyday living expenses such as housing, private-school tuition and personal services are substantially cheaper in India.

What’s more, Bansal says, India’s fast-growing economy means plenty of chances for returning Indian executives to enjoy stock options that might soar in value. There are always a few U.S. tech companies with soaring market valuations. Many others, however, have plateaued. In India, he contends, growth is just beginning.


Spate of mysterious deaths reignites India corruption scandal

July 7, 2015 | Victor Mallet | Source: Financial Times

Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister

Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister

A decade-old corruption scandal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has erupted on to the national political stage following the sudden death of a number of witnesses and an investigative journalist, prompting calls for senior members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party to resign.

The deaths of a 38-year-old reporter and the dean of a medical college in the past three days bring to at least 26 the number of people connected with the so-called Vyapam scam who have died in mysterious circumstances in the past five years and have reignited interest in the case.

The scandal — named after the Hindi acronym for the state’s Professional Examination Board — centres on the widescale bribery of state officials in exchange for access to lucrative public sector jobs or coveted college places. Some 2,000 people are being held in jail, with more than 100 so far charged, in connection with the affair and the state government acknowledges at least 1,000 bogus appointments were made as a result of the scam.

Suspicion that the deaths may be part of a cover-up have prompted calls for the resignation of Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister and a senior member of Narendra Modi’s governing BJP, which has long held power in the state.

India’s opposition Congress party — which was ousted by Mr Modi and the BJP in the 2014 general election in part because of public disgust with years of corruption during its 10-year rule — has described Vyapam as “the biggest and most dangerous corruption scandal in modern India”.

In a front-page editorial on Tuesday, Mint, the Indian business newspaper, called for an impartial investigation by authorities from outside Madhya Pradesh. “Even by India’s weak standards of law and order, a murderous rampage is on,” it said.

Methods used in the scam included paying imposters to take exams for candidates seeking to join institutions such as medical colleges, the civil service and the police. The strategy is said to be in use across India and has even been depicted in a Bollywood movie.

But the scale and centralised organisation of the scam in Madhya Pradesh was unprecedented, implicating senior officials as well as candidates and the students who impersonated them.

Politicians and commentators say the scandal tarnishes the anti-corruption reputation hitherto enjoyed by Mr Modi and the government among their younger supporters.

However, it could paradoxically strengthen the prime minister’s hand within the BJP, given that many of those implicated in this scandal and a concurrent one involving the Indian Premier League cricket tournament are party rivals or opponents.

The corruption “reinforces the image that these [BJP] people are no different from the others”, said one senior party member who asked to remain anonymous.

If the mysterious deaths — said by some to number more than 40 and by one Congress politician to exceed 150 — do turn out to be murder, “it would be a new low” in the way India deals with its corruption scandals, the BJP member said. “Even if five or 10 of those 24 or 42 deaths have taken place in unnatural circumstances, it’s definitely too many.”

Mr Chauhan announced on Tuesday that he was yielding to demands that he request a probe by the India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. “I do not want to leave anybody in doubt over our intention to clean the system and punish the guilty,” he said on Twitter.

Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the founding editors of online news portal The Wire, said such a scandal affecting young job seekers would be “much more viscerally felt by people” than the cricket scandal. “For this cohort, which was a major contributor to Mr Modi’s victory, I think for them this is a very big eye-opener.

“The system of recruiting people for government jobs and administering exams is clearly something that provides rich pickings, and it’s not surprising that politicians would be involved in that,” he added.

The BJP’s Uma Bharti, India’s water minister and a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, said that there was panic in the state over the deaths and that she was traumatised that her name had been mentioned in a statement to police by one of the accused. Denying involvement, she said: “It’s a very deep conspiracy. The biggest example of the deep conspiracy is that my name is in it


Years in the making, Israel-India détente picks up steam

July 7, 2015 | Raphael Ahren | Source: The Times of Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narenda Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Narenda Modi in New York City on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

The rapid rapprochement between Israel and India received a major boost Tuesday when a senior Foreign Ministry delegation visited Jerusalem, just days after New Delhi dramatically changed its traditional voting pattern at the United Nations in Israel’s favor.

Headed by Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa, who holds the top bureaucratic position in the ministry, the group of Indian diplomats is in Israel for a “strategical dialogue” on various issues.

The trip is the newest sign of flowering ties between the countries in both defense and diplomacy, which will soon culminate in the first ever visit by an sitting Indian head of state to Israel.

“This dialogue expresses the special relationship that developed” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week. “At the heart of the dialogue stand a number of bilateral topics, with an emphasis on diplomatic, economic and development issues.”

Wadhwa and Dore Gold, who heads Israel’s Foreign Ministry, were set to discuss ways to remove “economic barriers” and improve tourism, and the establishment of a “Center of Excellence in Agriculture,” among other subjects, according to the statement.

During the meeting, Gold was expected to thank India for its recent pro-Israel moves in international forums.

On Friday, India had abstained in a vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution that backed a report critical of Israel’s behavior during last summer’s Gaza war.

The Palestinians were not amused at India’s move. “We were shocked,” said the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaija. “The Palestinian people and leaders were very happy with the UN resolution, but the voting of India has broken our happiness.”

Although New Delhi emphasized that its vote did not signal any change in its policy of support for the Palestinian cause, India’s abstention was celebrated in Israel as a remarkable diplomatic achievement.

India was one of five countries that abstained, while 41 countries — including staunch allies of Israel such as Germany, Britain and the Netherlands — voted in favor of the resolution. Only the United States opposed.

As a longstanding member of the Non-Aligned movement, which always votes with the Palestinians and against Israel, India’s abstention last Friday, which followed a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Modi, indeed signaled a historic change.

However, it was not the first time that New Delhi abstained in a UN vote that touched on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

On June 1, India also abstained in a vote on whether to grant the Palestinian Return Center “consultative status” at the UN Economic and Social Council’s NGO committee. (Israel, claiming PRC was linked to Hamas, objected, as did the US and Uruguay.)

“The Israeli-India relationship has been growing steadily for many years now. Since the coming into power of the government headed by Narenda Modi there is a visible turn for the better, a moving from improvement to an upgrade,” said Mark Sofer, a deputy director-general at Israel’s foreign ministry and a former ambassador to India. “But there’s so much more that the two countries can and will do together for the benefit of the Israeli and Indian peoples.”

Modi, who is expected in Israel later this year in what would be a historic first visit of an Indian prime minister, has accelerated the rapprochement with Jerusalem. While strong defense and business ties existed before he came to power in April 2014, he made the relationship much more visible.

Foreign Minister Shrimati Sushma Swaraj is also due to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan later this year. In February, Moshe Ya’alon became the first sitting Israeli defense minister to visit India.

“Much credit for this process belongs to the two prime ministers and our embassy in India,” an Israeli official said. “We’re indeed witnessing a dramatic change. It shows how India starts seeing itself in a different light — as a world power in the making, which is becoming stronger economically but also deals with the threat of global terrorism. It also shows how they’re distancing themselves from the Non-Aligned Movement and its automatic support for the Palestinian cause. They’re currently in a process of reassessment.”

When Netanyahu was reelected in April, Modi congratulated him with two tweets — in English and Hebrew — and was one of the few world leaders to call the Israeli leader “my friend Bibi.”

Netanyahu takes great pride in what he calls a “longstanding friendship.” During a recent speech in Herzliya, the prime minister said that he called Modi to thank him for cooperating on rescue missions for Israelis after the earthquake in Nepal. “[Modi] said, ‘No, I want to thank you. The partnership between Israel and India is a model for brotherhood among the nations,’” Netanyahu said.

But despite the relatively rapid pace, the normalization of ties does not come without opposition in India — a country home to more than 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population.

India’s main opposition party JD(U) slammed the government for Friday’s abstention at the Human Rights Council, arguing that it could hurt New Delhi’s relations with the Arab world.

“The decision is against the established policy of our nation and if India continues to follow the same track, no west Asian nation will stand with us in future,” party leader K. C. Tyagi said in a statement. “If 40-41 countries can support Palestine stand against Israel, the party does not understand why the central government chose to go against its tradition,” he continued, adding that hundreds of innocents lost their lives due to the “war crime perpetrated by Israel.”

In response, the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi asserted that there is “no change in India’s longstanding position on support to the Palestinian cause.” Rather, the country abstained because the resolution on the Gaza war made reference to the International Criminal Court, of which India is not a member, ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

“In the past also, whenever there has been a Human Rights Council resolution which referred directly to the ICC, as had happened in the cases of Syria and North Korea, our general approach had been to abstain,” Swarup declared. “It was in keeping with this principle that India decided to abstain on this particular resolution.”

However, it has been pointed out that India actually did support several UN resolutions that mention the court in The Hague.

“The ICC excuse is pretty weak,” a senior Israeli official with intimate knowledge of India said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But they have to make such statements. They can’t just jump toward major changes like this without taking into consideration that India has a significant Muslim population, even if it’s not particularly hostile to Israel.”

Indeed, ties between Israel and India seem set to continue to grow and even become more public, but the political establishment in New Delhi is still going to some lengths to stress its rapprochement with Jerusalem doesn’t come at the expense of the country’s support for the Palestinians.

“To say that we are tilted towards Israel or we are making any changes in our policy is wrong,” Foreign Minister Swaraj said a few weeks ago. India’s foreign policy has “not undergone any change” regarding Palestine, she asserted in a media briefing marking one year since the government took power. “Israel is our ally country but we have never let down the Palestinian cause. We support the Palestinian cause and will continue.”


The rapid rapprochement between Israel and India received a major boost Tuesday when a senior Foreign Ministry delegation visited Jerusalem, just days after New Delhi dramatically changed its traditional voting pattern at the United Nations in Israel’s favor.

Headed by Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa, who holds the top bureaucratic position in the ministry, the group of Indian diplomats is in Israel for a “strategical dialogue” on various issues.

The trip is the newest sign of flowering ties between the countries in both defense and diplomacy, which will soon culminate in the first ever visit by an sitting Indian head of state to Israel.

“This dialogue expresses the special relationship that developed” between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week. “At the heart of the dialogue stand a number of bilateral topics, with an emphasis on diplomatic, economic and development issues.”

Wadhwa and Dore Gold, who heads Israel’s Foreign Ministry, were set to discuss ways to remove “economic barriers” and improve tourism, and the establishment of a “Center of Excellence in Agriculture,” among other subjects, according to the statement.

During the meeting, Gold was expected to thank India for its recent pro-Israel moves in international forums.

On Friday, India had abstained in a vote on a UN Human Rights Council resolution that backed a report critical of Israel’s behavior during last summer’s Gaza war.

The Palestinians were not amused at India’s move. “We were shocked,” said the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaija. “The Palestinian people and leaders were very happy with the UN resolution, but the voting of India has broken our happiness.”

Although New Delhi emphasized that its vote did not signal any change in its policy of support for the Palestinian cause, India’s abstention was celebrated in Israel as a remarkable diplomatic achievement.

India was one of five countries that abstained, while 41 countries — including staunch allies of Israel such as Germany, Britain and the Netherlands — voted in favor of the resolution. Only the United States opposed.

As a longstanding member of the Non-Aligned movement, which always votes with the Palestinians and against Israel, India’s abstention last Friday, which followed a telephone conversation between Netanyahu and Modi, indeed signaled a historic change.

However, it was not the first time that New Delhi abstained in a UN vote that touched on the Israeli-Palestinian question.

On June 1, India also abstained in a vote on whether to grant the Palestinian Return Center “consultative status” at the UN Economic and Social Council’s NGO committee. (Israel, claiming PRC was linked to Hamas, objected, as did the US and Uruguay.)

“The Israeli-India relationship has been growing steadily for many years now. Since the coming into power of the government headed by Narenda Modi there is a visible turn for the better, a moving from improvement to an upgrade,” said Mark Sofer, a deputy director-general at Israel’s foreign ministry and a former ambassador to India. “But there’s so much more that the two countries can and will do together for the benefit of the Israeli and Indian peoples.”

Modi, who is expected in Israel later this year in what would be a historic first visit of an Indian prime minister, has accelerated the rapprochement with Jerusalem. While strong defense and business ties existed before he came to power in April 2014, he made the relationship much more visible.

Foreign Minister Shrimati Sushma Swaraj is also due to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan later this year. In February, Moshe Ya’alon became the first sitting Israeli defense minister to visit India.

“Much credit for this process belongs to the two prime ministers and our embassy in India,” an Israeli official said. “We’re indeed witnessing a dramatic change. It shows how India starts seeing itself in a different light — as a world power in the making, which is becoming stronger economically but also deals with the threat of global terrorism. It also shows how they’re distancing themselves from the Non-Aligned Movement and its automatic support for the Palestinian cause. They’re currently in a process of reassessment.”

When Netanyahu was reelected in April, Modi congratulated him with two tweets — in English and Hebrew — and was one of the few world leaders to call the Israeli leader “my friend Bibi.”

Netanyahu takes great pride in what he calls a “longstanding friendship.” During a recent speech in Herzliya, the prime minister said that he called Modi to thank him for cooperating on rescue missions for Israelis after the earthquake in Nepal. “[Modi] said, ‘No, I want to thank you. The partnership between Israel and India is a model for brotherhood among the nations,’” Netanyahu said.

But despite the relatively rapid pace, the normalization of ties does not come without opposition in India — a country home to more than 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population.

India’s main opposition party JD(U) slammed the government for Friday’s abstention at the Human Rights Council, arguing that it could hurt New Delhi’s relations with the Arab world.

“The decision is against the established policy of our nation and if India continues to follow the same track, no west Asian nation will stand with us in future,” party leader K. C. Tyagi said in a statement. “If 40-41 countries can support Palestine stand against Israel, the party does not understand why the central government chose to go against its tradition,” he continued, adding that hundreds of innocents lost their lives due to the “war crime perpetrated by Israel.”

In response, the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi asserted that there is “no change in India’s longstanding position on support to the Palestinian cause.” Rather, the country abstained because the resolution on the Gaza war made reference to the International Criminal Court, of which India is not a member, ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

“In the past also, whenever there has been a Human Rights Council resolution which referred directly to the ICC, as had happened in the cases of Syria and North Korea, our general approach had been to abstain,” Swarup declared. “It was in keeping with this principle that India decided to abstain on this particular resolution.”

However, it has been pointed out that India actually did support several UN resolutions that mention the court in The Hague.

“The ICC excuse is pretty weak,” a senior Israeli official with intimate knowledge of India said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But they have to make such statements. They can’t just jump toward major changes like this without taking into consideration that India has a significant Muslim population, even if it’s not particularly hostile to Israel.”

Indeed, ties between Israel and India seem set to continue to grow and even become more public, but the political establishment in New Delhi is still going to some lengths to stress its rapprochement with Jerusalem doesn’t come at the expense of the country’s support for the Palestinians.

“To say that we are tilted towards Israel or we are making any changes in our policy is wrong,” Foreign Minister Swaraj said a few weeks ago. India’s foreign policy has “not undergone any change” regarding Palestine, she asserted in a media briefing marking one year since the government took power. “Israel is our ally country but we have never let down the Palestinian cause. We support the Palestinian cause and will continue.”


India landmark ruling says unwed mother can be guardian

July 6, 2015 | Source: BBC News

India's Supreme Court has in a landmark ruling said an unwed mother does not have to reveal the name of her child's father to claim guardianship.

The judges said the consent of the father was not required if the mother did not wish to disclose his identity.

Monday's ruling overturned earlier court orders which said a woman needed the father's consent if she wanted to be a legal guardian of her child.

Women's rights activists have welcomed the ruling and called it "progressive".

The case was filed by a Delhi mother who had asked the court's permission to become her child's "legal guardian" without informing the father who, she said, did not know about the child's existence.

A trial court and the Delhi high court had earlier ruled that she needed to disclose the father's name and get his consent for the purpose.

But on Monday, Justices Vikramjit Sen and Abhay Manohar Sapre said there was "no need to insist on the father's name" and that in the case of an unwed mother, her "name is sufficient".

The judgement has been praised by lawyers and activists:


India's Position on Israel and Palestine: Change or No Change?

July 6, 2015 | Ankit Panda | Source: The Diplomat

India was one of five countries–the others being Kenya, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Macedonia–to abstain on a UN Human Rights Council (HRC) vote on July 3 adopting the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict. The report largely condemns Israel’s actions during last year’s Operation Protective Edge, a seven-week-ling military operation by Israel into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Indian vote is being seen as emblematic of the ongoing rapprochement between the governments of India and Israel. India’s new government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is partly recalibrating New Delhi’s approach toward Israel, development that will no doubt be welcome by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 41 HRC members voted in favor of the resolution and the sole vote against came from the United States, Israel’s traditional ally and supporter at the United Nations.

As I’ve written in The Diplomat before, Israel has climbed its way up New Delhi’s diplomatic agenda since Narendra Modi came to office in May 2014. Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992. An Indian “rapprochement” with Israel, however, traces its origins to before Modi’s ascendance. As Nicolas Blarel also recalled in The Diplomat, India’s previous BJP-led government, which was in power from 1999 to 2004, was similarly seen to have initiated a recalibration of New Delhi’s policy toward Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s landmark visit to Delhi in 2003 appeared to represent a sharp turn in New Delhi, but that momentum was short lived. Afterward, India’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government maintained close ties with Israel–certainly as an important defense partner–without considerably showing support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli policy.

Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, wanted to make sure that this vote wouldn’t be over analyzed in the context of Modi’s upcoming trip to Israel and other developments. To this end, he noted that ”There is no change in India’s long standing position on support to the Palestinian cause.” He claimed that the Indian abstention was spurred by the resolution’s reference to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the international court of arbitration that was established by the 1998 Rome Statute. India is a non-state party and non-signatory. Swarup noted that India had similarly pursued a “general approach” of abstaining in the past when HRC resolutions referenced in the ICC on resolutions involved Syria and North Korea. “We have followed the same principle in our voting on today’s Resolution,” he added.

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian legislator with the opposition Congress Party, confirmed Swarup’s statement to India’s NDTV:

My understanding of the MEA position is that it is our normal practice to abstain when a resolution invokes the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that in this case too, that was done. In other words, MEA says the abstention had nothing to do with the merits of the resolution and does not reflect a changed stand on the Israel-Palestine question. Personally I will take MEA’s word for it while stressing that India’s consistent and moral position on the substantive issue must not be diluted. There is a national consensus on Palestine which I would urge the government to continue to respect.

Analysis in the Indian and Israeli press, however, were unconvinced that this vote was unrelated to the broader diplomatic situation between the two countries. Many noted that even if the MEA stood by its normal stance on resolutions calling for a referral to the ICC, it was the first time India refused to vote against Israel at the United Nations in some time. Generally, India’s HRC vote is being described as a significant turning point in New Delhi’s policies toward Israel. Itamar Eichner, writing in Israel’s Ynet News, notes:

So what happened to the Indians? The answer is pretty simple; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who assumed office in April 2014, has led a strengthening of ties with Israel. Diplomatic officials in Israel say that India’s change in stance, which came to fruition in the UN vote, mirrors a warming of relations between the prime ministers and represents a change in position on counter-terrorism, within the rising super power.

Indian sources, meanwhile, reported that Netanyahu had personally reached out to Modi before the HRC vote and implored India to abstain from voting on the resolution (reportedly, he also did this for leaders in Kenya, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Macedonia). Neither the Indian foreign ministry nor the prime minister’s office verified reports that Netanyahu had called Modi. If, as Swarup notes, India voted as per its standard policy regarding the ICC, then a call from Netanyahu asking India to abide by its own diplomatic principles would have been redundant. Modi and Netanyahu are known to have a close personal rapport since they met for the first time on the sidelines of the 2014 United Nations General Assembly in New York. After the vote, Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, thanked India for the abstention: “We appreciate votes by members of @UN_HRC ,including #India, who did not support yet another anti Israel bashing resolution.We thank them,” he noted on Twitter.

With Modi’s impending visit to Israel and a positive bilateral outlook across a range of areas of cooperation, including on defense and trade, it’s unmistakable that India’s relationship with Israel is growing in importance. India’s recent HRC vote, however, shouldn’t be read as the start of a long-term trend on how India views the Arab-Israeli conflict. What most analysis in both Israel and India has failed to adequately highlight in the wake of this HRC vote is the extent to which India needs to concomitantly manage its relationship with Israel and Arab states. For reasons of energy security and other strategic considerations, India cannot afford to deepen its ties with Israel at the expense of its position in the Middle East. We’ll know more about where India stands after Modi’s visit later this year.


India's Position on Israel and Palestine: Change or No Change?

July 6, 2015 | Ankit Panda | Source: The Diplomat

India was one of five countries–the others being Kenya, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Macedonia–to abstain on a UN Human Rights Council (HRC) vote on July 3 adopting the Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict. The report largely condemns Israel’s actions during last year’s Operation Protective Edge, a seven-week-ling military operation by Israel into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Indian vote is being seen as emblematic of the ongoing rapprochement between the governments of India and Israel. India’s new government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is partly recalibrating New Delhi’s approach toward Israel, development that will no doubt be welcome by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 41 HRC members voted in favor of the resolution and the sole vote against came from the United States, Israel’s traditional ally and supporter at the United Nations.

As I’ve written in The Diplomat before, Israel has climbed its way up New Delhi’s diplomatic agenda since Narendra Modi came to office in May 2014. Modi will become the first Indian prime minister to travel to Israel since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1992. An Indian “rapprochement” with Israel, however, traces its origins to before Modi’s ascendance. As Nicolas Blarel also recalled in The Diplomat, India’s previous BJP-led government, which was in power from 1999 to 2004, was similarly seen to have initiated a recalibration of New Delhi’s policy toward Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s landmark visit to Delhi in 2003 appeared to represent a sharp turn in New Delhi, but that momentum was short lived. Afterward, India’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government maintained close ties with Israel–certainly as an important defense partner–without considerably showing support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli policy.

Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, wanted to make sure that this vote wouldn’t be over analyzed in the context of Modi’s upcoming trip to Israel and other developments. To this end, he noted that ”There is no change in India’s long standing position on support to the Palestinian cause.” He claimed that the Indian abstention was spurred by the resolution’s reference to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the international court of arbitration that was established by the 1998 Rome Statute. India is a non-state party and non-signatory. Swarup noted that India had similarly pursued a “general approach” of abstaining in the past when HRC resolutions referenced in the ICC on resolutions involved Syria and North Korea. “We have followed the same principle in our voting on today’s Resolution,” he added.

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian legislator with the opposition Congress Party, confirmed Swarup’s statement to India’s NDTV:

My understanding of the MEA position is that it is our normal practice to abstain when a resolution invokes the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that in this case too, that was done. In other words, MEA says the abstention had nothing to do with the merits of the resolution and does not reflect a changed stand on the Israel-Palestine question. Personally I will take MEA’s word for it while stressing that India’s consistent and moral position on the substantive issue must not be diluted. There is a national consensus on Palestine which I would urge the government to continue to respect.

Analysis in the Indian and Israeli press, however, were unconvinced that this vote was unrelated to the broader diplomatic situation between the two countries. Many noted that even if the MEA stood by its normal stance on resolutions calling for a referral to the ICC, it was the first time India refused to vote against Israel at the United Nations in some time. Generally, India’s HRC vote is being described as a significant turning point in New Delhi’s policies toward Israel. Itamar Eichner, writing in Israel’s Ynet News, notes:

So what happened to the Indians? The answer is pretty simple; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who assumed office in April 2014, has led a strengthening of ties with Israel. Diplomatic officials in Israel say that India’s change in stance, which came to fruition in the UN vote, mirrors a warming of relations between the prime ministers and represents a change in position on counter-terrorism, within the rising super power.

Indian sources, meanwhile, reported that Netanyahu had personally reached out to Modi before the HRC vote and implored India to abstain from voting on the resolution (reportedly, he also did this for leaders in Kenya, Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Macedonia). Neither the Indian foreign ministry nor the prime minister’s office verified reports that Netanyahu had called Modi. If, as Swarup notes, India voted as per its standard policy regarding the ICC, then a call from Netanyahu asking India to abide by its own diplomatic principles would have been redundant. Modi and Netanyahu are known to have a close personal rapport since they met for the first time on the sidelines of the 2014 United Nations General Assembly in New York. After the vote, Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, thanked India for the abstention: “We appreciate votes by members of @UN_HRC ,including #India, who did not support yet another anti Israel bashing resolution.We thank them,” he noted on Twitter.

With Modi’s impending visit to Israel and a positive bilateral outlook across a range of areas of cooperation, including on defense and trade, it’s unmistakable that India’s relationship with Israel is growing in importance. India’s recent HRC vote, however, shouldn’t be read as the start of a long-term trend on how India views the Arab-Israeli conflict. What most analysis in both Israel and India has failed to adequately highlight in the wake of this HRC vote is the extent to which India needs to concomitantly manage its relationship with Israel and Arab states. For reasons of energy security and other strategic considerations, India cannot afford to deepen its ties with Israel at the expense of its position in the Middle East. We’ll know more about where India stands after Modi’s visit later this year.


Sri Lanka polls timed ahead of U.N. war crimes report to foil Rajapaksa comeback

July 6, 2015 | Shihar Aneez | Source: Reuters

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks to his supporters at his residence in Medamulana July 1, 2015. REUTERS/DINUKA LIYANAWATTE

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks to his supporters at his residence in Medamulana July 1, 2015. REUTERS/DINUKA LIYANAWATTE

Rajapaksa's crushing of a 26-year Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009 won him support among the country's Sinhalese majority and he still has a very strong following.

Thousands rallied to hear him announce his comeback campaign on a Buddhist holiday in his Hambantota district on July 1.

"He is popular and a strong campaigner among Sinhala masses with the war victory," said Kusal Perera, director of the Center for Social Democracy, a Colombo-based think tank.

A U.N. report on the last days of the war is due for release in September but an aide to President Maithripala Sirisena said diplomatic sources had warned it may be leaked in late August.

The possibility of an early release prompted Sirisena to call elections for Aug. 17 to give his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe an edge and hopefully deny Rajapaksa any chance of a political resurgence, said sources close to Sirisena.

"Even if is not said openly, the U.N. report was considered when deciding the date," Champika Ranawaka, power and energy minister and one of Sirisena’s close allies, told Reuters.

Foreign diplomatic sources said some Western countries also worried the U.N. report could help Rajapaksa and urged Sirisena not to delay elections.

Dissolving parliament for August elections has also saved Wickremesinghe from a scheduled no-confidence motion over alleged mismanagement of the economy.

 

INDIA, CHINA TIES AT STAKE

The outcome of the elections will also determine whether Sri Lanka under Sirisena continues to repair relations with India, or opts for greater ties with China under Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa built close ties with China, helping Beijing establish a strategic foothold in theIndian Ocean to the chagrin of traditional ally India.

China built ports, airports, highways, and power plants under Rajapaksa with more than $5 billion in loans, and sent a submarine and warship to visit Colombo, irking India.

But Rajapaksa's decade-long rule was marred by allegations of corruption and rights violations. Rajapaksa, some former ministers and family members now face multiple investigations. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Sirisena has been trying to reverse some of the steps Rajapaksa took to consolidate power, by depoliticising state institutions such as the police, judiciary and public services.

He has re-established ties with India, making India his first foreign visit, and questioned deals with China, including a $1.4 billion luxury property and port project.

"China has been trying to strengthen its relationship with the new government," a top government official told Reuters.

Dullas Alahapperuma, a minister under Rajapaksa, said if Rajapaksa forms the next government the former president would resume all projects stopped by Sirisena.

 

RISK OF POLITICAL GRIDLOCK

Sirisena is a former minister in Rajapaksa's administration who defected last year to become president, promising fresh elections in 2015.

But since taking office he has failed to pass electoral reforms due to opposition from his main ruling coalition partner, the United National Party, and members of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who remain loyal to Rajapaksa. 

The rivalry between Sirisena and Rajapaksa at the upcoming elections may further splinter the SLFP, which has seen around 75 members join the opposition since January.

Sirisena has said he will not support Rajapaksa as the SLFP prime ministerial candidate, but he is under pressure due to Rajapaksa's popularity to allow him to contest the elections under an SLFP-led opposition coalition.

"People have the confidence that if Mahinda Rajapaksa comes to power, national security would be his top priority ... He is still the leader who won the war and brought the development to villages," said Sehan Semage, a young parliamentarian.

SLFP divisions may splinter the vote and result in a hung parliament and further instability, say political analysts.

Last week, Rajapaksa expected some 80 SLFP legislators to show up in support when he announced plans for his comeback, according to senior party leader Alahapperuma.

Only about 30 showed up.


Significant economic progress within Pak’s reach: IMF 

July 4, 2015 | Dawn | Source: The Statesman

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that significant further economic progress in Pakistan is within reach.

Real GDP is expected to grow by more than 4 per cent during this and next fiscal year.

The fiscal deficit will further decline to 4.3 per cent of GDP in 2015-16.

Macroeconomic stabilisation in the country is well under way and the threat of a crisis has significantly receded.

The IMF report, released on Thursday, notes that Pakistan plans to undertake adequate further fiscal consolidation while structural reform efforts are continuing.

Possible potholes

The report on the seventh review under the extended arrangement and modification of performance criteria, however, also points out possible potholes that can derail the progress.

“Much remains to be done to achieve a sustainable economic transformation,” it warns.

According to the report, Pakistan still lags behind other emerging market countries in key macroeconomic and business climate indicators.

Economic growth remains below the 5-7 per cent annual rate needed to absorb new entrants into the labour market and achieve improvements in living standards for wide segments of society.

Public debt is still high and the tax-to-GDP ratio remains among the lowest in the world.

Significant reforms are needed to boost private investment, broaden the tax base, improve tax administration, ease growth bottlenecks, and enhance the economy’s productivity and competitiveness.

Private investment, including FDI and exports are still much below desired outcomes.

Electricity outages continue to be an important restraining factor for competitiveness and growth.

In addition, the appreciation of the rupee in real effective terms has been eroding Pakistan’s competitiveness.

Prudent monetary policy

The overall assessment, however, remains positive, noting that headline inflation has continued to decline, and advises Pakistan to maintain a prudent monetary policy stance to keep inflation expectations well anchored.

Pakistani authorities have made significant progress in addressing fiscal and balance-of-payments imbalances.

Foreign exchange reserves are recovering fast, helped by decisive foreign exchange purchases in the context of tailwinds from lower oil prices.

Fiscal consolidation is on track, the government has reduced borrowing from the SBP, and efforts continue to diversify financing sources and lengthen debt maturities.

“The authorities should be commended for attaining all performance criteria and structural benchmarks under the programme for the seventh review, despite significant political and security challenges,” says the report.

Tax collection to rise

Tax revenues are slated to increase by an additional 1 per cent of GDP and energy subsidies will be further reduced, while continuing to protect the poor through lifeline tariffs.

Public investment spending will grow in line with projected nominal GDP growth, and social protection through the Benazir Income Support Programme will be further expanded.

Pakistan has also adopted a new comprehensive strategy to fix the still ailing power sector.

Other important structural reforms are underway in tax administration, central bank operations, the trade regime, and the transformation and privatisation of public sector enterprises (PSEs).

Reform priorities for the remainder of the programme include reinforcing the gains in economic stabilisation and addressing long-standing barriers to sustainable, strong, and inclusive growth.

Cheap oil to help energy sector

The report notes that low international oil prices have created an opportunity for Pakistan to address energy sector problems and boost reserves buffers.

“Despite some negative tax implications, the positive shock to energy prices can also be used to accelerate the reduction in electricity subsidies and to tackle the persistent problem of payments arrears in the sector,” it says.

The IMF also welcomes Pakistan’s decision to accelerate the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, and says that continuing on this track will be important to further strengthen Pakistan’s financial resilience.

The Fund also welcomes Pakistan’s new plan to fix the power sector.

It points out that further reducing untargeted subsidies that disproportionately benefit wealthy segments of society will free resources for priority spending.

Forcefully addressing arrears in the power sector will unlock existing idle generation capacity and reduce the potential drain on public resources.

The IMF advises Pakistan to continue implementing these reforms to achieve a successful outcome.

“With ongoing legal challenges to power surcharges posing potential risks to the budget and efforts to fix the power sector, the authorities’ contingency plans are welcome as they mitigate these risks,” the report says.

The report notes that maintaining the momentum of other structural reforms will also be critical.

The IMF urges Pakistan to continue multi-year efforts to strengthen the tax administration and improve revenue collection.

It reminds Pakistan’s planners that strong systems for the evaluation, prioritisation, and implementation of public investment projects will be important.

Passage of the proposed legal amendments to strengthen the State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) independence will already address some important shortcomings, but further changes will be needed to bolster the SBP’s governance structure and autonomy.

Privatise, privatise

Privatisation should continue, building on recent successes, and the authorities’ commitment to improve or privatise ailing PSEs is particularly important.

The report also emphasises the need to continue efforts to reform the gas sector, and urges the government to focus on price rationalisation and improvements in domestic production.

On the basis of Pakistan’s performance under the extended arrangement, the IMF staff supports the authorities’ request for modifications of the end-June net international reserves and performance criteria.

Pakistan has requested the end-June 2014 calculation of the fourth review to exclude the proceeds of the $2 billion eurobond transaction.

It also proposed that the end-June performance criteria be raised by $550 million and the end-September performance criteria be set at $1billion above the revised June target.


Airbus, Mahindra join hands to make helicopters in India

July 3, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: The Hindu

Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra with Chief Executive, Mahindra Defence Systems, Brigadier Khutub Hai(right). File Photo: S. Subramaniu

Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra with Chief Executive, Mahindra Defence Systems, Brigadier Khutub Hai(right). File Photo: S. Subramaniu

European major Airbus teamed up with diversified Mahindra Group, to establish a joint venture for manufacturing helicopters for the Indian Armed Forces.

The joint venture between Airbus Helicopters and Mahindra Defence aims to become the first private Indian helicopter manufacturer under the ‘Make in India’ initiative, the companies said.

To be set up in the coming months, the venture would produce helicopters to meet the country’s military requirements.

“Both companies will get into discussions to finalise the formation of the joint venture, which will act as the prime contractor for India’s military helicopter tenders, including the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter, the Naval Utility Helicopter and the Naval Multirole Helicopter procurement programmes,” the firms said in a statement.

According to the statement, the venture would create hundreds of high-tech jobs locally and lead to a flow of cutting edge technologies to India, should it be selected in the governmental helicopter tenders.

“The strengths of both the companies will ensure a strong partnership to present the best rotorcraft solutions for India’s needs and strengthen indigenous industrial capabilities,” it added.

Guillaume Faury, Airbus Helicopters President & CEO, said the joint venture would be dedicated to supply the Indian Armed Forces with Made-in-India, state of the art helicopters of high reliability, quality and safety standard based on combat-proven platforms

“We are convinced that with Mahindra, we will not only have a mutually rewarding association but one which will offer immense benefits to India,” Mr. Faury noted.

S.P. Shukla, Mahindra’s Group President (Aerospace and Defence Sector) and Chairman, Mahindra Defence Systems, said the joint venture would produce India’s next generation helicopters that will not only answer the country’s defence needs, but will also have the potential for exports in the future.

Mahindra Defence is a Mahindra Group subsidiary and Airbus Helicopters is a division of Airbus Group.


Cabinet approves India's first national policy for skills development and entrepreneurship

July 3, 2015 | Source: Firstpost India

The government on Thursday said it has approved the first integrated national policy for developing skills and promoting entrepreneurship at a large scale with speed and quality.

"The policy aims to align supply with demand, bridging existing skill gaps, promoting industry engagement, operationalise a quality assurance framework, leveraging technology and promoting apprenticeship to tackle the identified issues," Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told reporters here.

The government has also approved common norms for Skill Development Schemes being implemented by the Centre as well as an institutional framework for the National Skill Development Mission.

The National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship 2015 acknowledges the need for an effective roadmap for promotion of entrepreneurship as the key to a successful skills strategy.

The vision of the policy is to create an ecosystem of empowerment by skilling on a large scale at speed with high standards and to promote a culture of innovation-based entrepreneurship which can generate wealth and employment so as to ensure sustainable livelihoods for all citizens.

The policy has four thrust areas, an official statement said, adding that it addresses key obstacles to skilling, including low aspirational value, lack of integration with formal education, lack of focus on outcomes, low quality of training infrastructure and trainers.

Further, it said the policy seeks to align supply and demand for skills by bridging existing skill gaps, promoting industry engagement, operationalising a quality assurance framework, leverage technology and promoting greater opportunities for apprenticeship training.

"Equity is also a focus of the Policy, which targets skilling opportunities for socially/ geographically marginalised and disadvantaged groups.

"Skill development and entrepreneurship programmes for women are a specific focus of the Policy," it added.

In the entrepreneurship domain, the policy seeks to educate and equip potential entrepreneurs, both within and outside the formal education system.

It also seeks to connect entrepreneurs to mentors, incubators and credit markets, foster innovation and entrepreneurial culture, improve ease of doing business and promote a focus on social entrepreneurship.

Jaitely said last week the prime minister launched programme on smart cities, Digital India on Wednesday and the government has also similar plans for 'Skilling India'.

The Union Cabinet approved the institutional framework for the National Skill Development Mission in keeping with the commitment made in the Budget 2015-16.

The Mission will have a three-tiered, high powered decision making structure.

"At its apex, the Mission's Governing Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, will provide overall guidance and policy direction. The Steering Committee, chaired by Minister in Charge of Skill Development, will review the Mission's activities in line with the direction set by the Governing Council," the official statement said.

The Mission Directorate, with Secretary, Skill Development as Mission Director, will ensure implementation, coordination and convergence of skilling activities across Central Ministries/ Departments and state governments. It will also run select sub-missions in high priority areas.

Further, the National Skill Development Agency, the National Skill Development Corporation and the Directorate of Training will function under the overall guidance of the Mission.

The statement said the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship provides a natural home for the Mission, organically linking all three decision making levels and facilitating linkages to all Central Ministries/ Departments and State Governments.

Further, it said that currently over 70-odd Skill Development Programmes (SDPs) are being implemented by the government, each with its own norms for eligibility criteria, duration of training, cost of training, outcomes, monitoring and tracking mechanism.

"This multiplicity of norms and parameters has created a diffusive effect of SDPs, which need to be streamlined in order to achieve the final outcomes envisaged," it added.

It said the common norms seek to rationalise the whole spectrum of skill development processes and systems including inputs, outputs, funding/ cost norms, third-party certification and assessment, monitoring/ tracking mechanisms, and empanelment of training providers.

"Common Norms define the activities constituting 'Skill Development' in the country, skill development courses and their alignment with the National Skills Qualification Framework, broad input standards for training programmes and the outcomes expected from these programmes," it said.

The outcomes of skill training programmes have been defined in terms of placement achieved in wage and self-employment, both for fresh trainees as well as existing workers who have undergone Recognition of Prior Learning.

Since the common norms are aimed at being outcome focused, the cost norms and fund flow mechanism for skill development programmes have also been linked to specific outcomes achieved.

The statement said the cost norms include support for components like mobilisation of candidates, trainers' training, placement expenses, post-placement tracking/ monitoring and infrastructure costs.

The proposal envisages the creation of a Common Norms Committee under the Chairmanship of Secretary, Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to bring about uniformity and standardisation among the skill development schemes of the Central Government.

The Committee will also consist of eight other representatives from relevant Central Ministries/Departments, State Governments, National Skill Development Agency and National Skill Development Corporation, with a provision for inviting experts and other significant stakeholders who may be necessary in the decision making process.

It will be empowered to revise/amend the common norms, schedules of the notification, training costs and funding norms for skill development programmes.

"While the common norms would be applicable to the skill development schemes of the Government of India being implemented through various Ministries/Departments, the State Governments are also expected to align their skill development schemes with the common norms so as to bring in uniformity and standardisation," it added.


Fridges, Cellphones and Divorce Rates: Independent India’s First Socio Economic and Caste Census

July 3, 2015 | Source: The Wall Street Journal

India on Friday released the results of a census that gives the first large-scale picture of India’s caste and socio-economic makeup since 1932.

The numbers from the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011reveal where Indians live, what work they do and what kind of products they own. They are separate from the Census of India that is carried out every 10 years, and highlight major gaps in education and job opportunities.

Here are 10 key numbers, all relating to houses in rural areas, from the census.

TAX

4.58%

The percentage of households where someone pays income tax.

Less than 10% of households get their income from a salaried job. Of these, around 5% are employed in government jobs, just over 1% in the public sector and 3.5% in private entities.

In only 8% of households, the highest earning member makes Rs. 10,000 ($157) or more a month. It is hardly a surprise then, that fewer than 5% pay income tax.

REFRIGERATORS

11.04%

The percentage of households with a refrigerator. Whether they have the electricity to run it is another question.

Goa has the highest percentage of households in rural areas with a fridge–at 69%. By contrast, in Bihar, only 2.61% of households in the countryside have a fridge.

NO PHONES

50 million

Households that don’t own a landline or a mobile phone. Roughly 70% of the 179 million rural households in India own cellphones.

But 27% have neither a cellphone nor a landline. The eastern states of Chhattisgarh and Orissa, home to some of India’s largest indigenous populations, have the lowest access to telecommunications.

DIVORCEES

1,052,210

Divorced people living in rural areas. That’s just 0.12% of the population. Divorce is very rare in India.

FAMILY SIZE

4.93

Average household size in rural areas. Though in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state with 200 million people, the average number of people in a rural household is 6.26.

WOMEN HEADS

12.83%

The percentage of households headed by a woman.

MANUAL SCAVENGERS

180,657

The number of people who carry out manual scavenging, a practice of collecting human waste from primitive dry latrines by hand, which is outlawed but persists.  Manual scavengers are usually from the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste system (Indian Muslim communities have similar low-status members who perform this job) and women, according to U.S. human-rights group Human Rights Watch.

MECHANIZATION

4%

Of households own mechanized equipment with three or four wheels for carrying out manual labor through which they earn a living.

Nearly 40% of households don’t own land and earn wages through casual, manual labor. Agriculture is tough work, with 40% of rural land still lacking irrigation facilities.

LEARNING

35%

More than 35% of rural Indians are illiterate, with the highest numbers of those who can’t read or write coming from the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

MAKESHIFT HOUSING

45%

Nearly half of rural households still live in what are called “kuccha” houses, which include structures made of materials such as thatch, mud, plastic and wood.

India is now a $2-trillion economy

July 3, 2015 | Source: The Hindu

India’s GDP crossed the $2-trillion mark in 2014, according to data released by the World Bank in Washington late on Wednesday. After taking 60 years to reach the $1-trillion mark, India added the next trillion in just seven years.

The World Bank data also show that India’s gross national income per person rose to $1,610 (around Rs. 1 lakh) a year during 2014 from $1,560 the previous year. An analysis by The Hindu found that it would take India a little more than a decade to rise from its current ‘lower middle income’ category to the ‘upper middle income’ level.

India’s growth rate, at 7.4 per cent in 2014, makes it the fastest growing major economy along with China’s, which is a whopping $10.4 trillion in size. The Indian economy, at $2.06 trillion, has almost doubled in size since the financial crisis hit the country in 2008, and has more than quadrupled from the start of this millennium.

Despite its increase in per capita gross national income (GNI), India has remained in the ‘lower middle income’ category ($1,046-$4,125). Using the World Bank’s data, The Hindu extrapolated from India’s average annual growth rate in per capita GNI over the last decade — of 8.9 per cent — and found that it would become an ‘upper middle income’ country ($4,126-$12,735) in 2026, a little more than a decade from now. This will put it in the category China occupies now.

China, however, with a per capita GNI of $7,380 and an average annual growth in this parameter of 15.6 per cent, will leave the ‘upper middle income’ category by 2018 to become a ‘high income’ country like the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Japan. It will take India till 2039 to reach that level, at the assumed growth rate.

The World Bank’s data on gross national income per capita — the total value added by all producers within the country, plus income received from citizens working abroad, divided by the population of the country — show Bangladesh, Kenya, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Paraguay, Argentina, Hungary, the Seychelles and Venezuela have shifted their income categories for the better. For example, Bangladesh, Kenya, Myanmar, and Tajikistan are now ‘middle income’ countries from being ‘low income’ nations.

Gross national income measures the total value added by all citizens of a country, whether in India or abroad. Gross domestic product (GDP), on the other hand, is the total value of a country’s production and services within its boundary, whether by its nationals or foreigners.

“While we need to measure development progress in different ways, income-based measures, such as GNI, remain the central yardstick for assessing economic performance,” said Kaushik Basu, World Bank Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President.

“Our latest data show that in terms of this indicator, the world’s economic geography has changed a lot. In 1994, 56.1 per cent of the world’s population — 3.1 billion people — lived in the 64 low-income countries. In 2014, this was down to 8.5 per cent, or 613 million people living in 31 countries. Over the last one year itself, four nations crossed over to the lower-middle income category,” he said.


Lucknow Shias mediate between Saudi Arabia and Israel

July 3, 2015 | Indrani Bagchi | Source: The Times of India

NEW DELHI: In May, Lucknow played host to an unusual meeting — a high level track-2 interaction between Israel and Saudi Arabia attended by prominent Shia intellectuals in India. 

The Raja of Mahmudabad, well-known Shia intellectual in Lucknow and erstwhile royalty and his sons were part of a meeting between an Israeli think tank, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a Saudi delegation from the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, in Jeddah. 

Interestingly, the Israeli team was led by Dore Gold, who has just been named Israel's new foreign secretary. The Saudi delegation was led by Maj Gen(retd) Dr Anwar Majed Eshki, according to Shimon Shapira, one of the members of the Israeli delegation who wrote a blog on the meeting, calling it "extraordinary". 

"Our hosts were the leaders of the Shiite community in Lucknow, the Raja of Mahmudabad Amir Khan, his son Ali Khan, intellectuals, and teachers of the local madrassa. It was an extraordinary meeting of Jews from Jerusalem, Saudi Sunnis from Mecca and Medina, and Indian Shiites from Lucknow," Shapira wrote, describing the meeting as a "delicate dialogue with restrained tension." 

However, Ali Khan Mahmudabad who was at the meeting denied that they had "hosted" the meeting. In his own blog on Huffington Post, Ali Khan said it was organized by a New Delhi think tank, and it was not until they actually met that he realized it was a meeting between Israelis and Saudis. "Initially, those of us invited to this half-day discussion were not informed of the composition of the delegations except that the visitors were interested in finding out more about the 'syncretic culture' of the region. Amongst those invited from Lucknow were a university professor, a representative of a prominent cleric, some businessmen, my father, brother and I. When we gathered, it quickly transpired that the visitors were high-ranking ex-military officials." 

Even more interesting, this meeting was reportedly one of five bilateral meetings held by Israeli and Saudi representatives, which a diplomat confirmed to TOI was with the full blessing of the governments. The other meetings were reported to have been held in Italy and Czech Republic, covering almost an entire year. The last one was literally "out of the closet" when Gold and Eshki did a joint event at a US think tank, Council for Foreign Relations, where both countries said they believed Iran should be stopped. 

Saudis and Israelis have made common cause against Iran. There was no official recognition of the Israel-Saudi meeting in Lucknow, but the government would certainly have been aware of it. India and Israel will be getting into a counter-terrorism and political dialogue at the official level next week. 

In his blog Ali Khan observes, "With the potential of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States in June 2015, it was becoming increasingly clear that the delegation was visiting India in order to find out about public opinion amongst Shias for Iran and perhaps gauge what reaction there maybe amongst Indian Shias if something happened vis-a-vis Iran." 

Israel and Saudis have been at daggers drawn for decades, with Saudi Arabia leading the regional political and diplomatic boycott of the Jewish state. But in recent years, the evolution of Iran as a regional power, complete with nuclear capability has affected both nations equally, which is about to intensify after a deal is struck between Iran and the world. There have been off-radar outreach between Riyadh and Jerusalem, as both sides make common cause in their opposition to Iran. Wikileaks, exposing 5 lakh Saudi documents reveals that students from the Arab nation actually visited the Israeli embassy in Washington DC and received a "diplomatic briefing" and got photographed with Israeli diplomats. 

Summarizing the meeting, Shapira quotes the Raja as saying "all religious extremism in Islam in this era began with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Saudi Arabian kingdom. He contended that the Saudis supported Islamic movements that became extremist and violent over the years." To which Shapira says Dr Eshki, the chief Saudi guest, respectfully countered that as a devoted Muslim, he saw great importance in bridging the Islamic sects. 

Later Shapira also goes on to describe one morning when the Sunnis and Shias put aside their religious differences to pray together.


Motor Vehicles Agreement will connect South Asia’s overland dots

July 3, 2015 | Sudha Ramachandran | Source: Asia Times

Overland connectivity between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal is poised to get a significant boost with the four countries signing a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, a fortnight ago. The agreement, which provides for “seamless movement of people and goods across borders,” is expected to improve connectivity, reduce transport costs, boost travel and trade, and facilitate people-to-people contact among the four countries.

India has bilateral MVAs with Nepal and Bangladesh. A multilateral MVA will enhance benefits exponentially.  With roads expected to become economic corridors, intra-regional trade is expected to increase by 60% and that with the rest of the world by 30%, the joint statement issued after the signing of the MVA said.

An MVA involving all members of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was expected to be signed during the Kathmandu Summit in November last year. However, that ambitious plan did not materialize as Pakistan refused to sign the agreement.

Frustrated with Pakistan’s repeated blocking of initiatives envisaging greater economic integration of the region, India appears to have decided to go ahead whether or not Islamabad comes on board. It pursued the MVA agreement with other interested countries.

The SAARC Declaration, which encouraged member-states to explore sub-regional connectivity arrangements, opened space for interested countries to pursue the plan. The outcome of these efforts culminated in the four-nation MVA.

Afghanistan is keen to sign on to an MVA. During his visit to Delhi in April, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed overland trade and the signing of an MVA. Since Pakistan does not allow Indian goods overland access to Afghanistan and as it remains opposed to an MVA with India, an India-Afghanistan MVA will not take off unless Pakistan too gets on board.

Pakistan’s obstructionism hasn’t dimmed connectivity ambitions in other countries. Recently, India’s Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, announced that India was examining the feasibility of road connectivity between India and Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait. The plan involves a sea corridor and an under-sea tunnel.  Should this plan materialize, Sri Lanka will be able to access other South Asian countries overland via India.

Indeed, South Asia is eyeing seamless travel and cargo movement with Southeast Asia. India is reported to have finalized an MVA with Myanmar and Thailand, which is expected to provide Indian goods easy access to Southeast Asian markets.

With the signing of the MVA, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal have taken only the first step towards greater regional connectivity. The road ahead is not smooth. Road infrastructure is abysmal in the four countries and they will need to make major investment to overhaul this. Besides, the four countries will have to improve other infrastructure too such as power grids, railways, etc to be able to tap the full potential of the MVA. Can they overcome bureaucratic red tape to make travel and transport truly seamless?

Much work remains to be done. The MVA throws little light on route maps, location of permitted rest or recreation stops, tolls and check-posts. These need to be clarified. Importantly, it is silent on issues like fees, service charges and administrative costs. These have been left to be resolved bilaterally.

Rumbles of discontent are audible already in Bangladesh, where the question of according India transit rights is a controversial subject. There are sections in Bangladesh which fear that India is using the MVA to acquire transit rights. Should such anxieties snowball into angry protests, the MVA will hit a major roadblock


Tata Trust, Google India team up to bring rural women online

July 3, 2015 | Shruti Venkatesh and Douglas Wallack | Source: Forbes India

Google India, in partnership with Tata Trust—a “non-sectarian philanthropic organisation” of the Tata Group—today announced the launch of an initiative named ‘Internet Saathi’. The programme aims to impart Internet literacy to women in rural India and help them use the technology in their daily lives.


Elaborating on the need for such an initiative, Ratan Tata, chairman, Tata Trusts, said: “Today, there is an urge among Indians to be a part of the world that is today, not a world that was yesterday. Google has digitised the world and it’s a privilege to work with them to bring more women online.” 

Rajan Anandan, VP and MD of Google Southeast Asia and India, said, “India has 300 million (Internet) users, the second largest in the world, and 6-7 million users are being added each month. While around half of the women in urban India can use the Internet, only 12% of rural women have knowledge of the Internet.” With this joint venture, Anandan hopes to provide easy access and digital education to women in rural India.

The programme will employ 1,000 specially designed ‘Internet cycle carts’, installed with a waterproof box and a portable charger for the digital devices. The cycle carts will travel from village to village, providing training on Internet usage. “The cycles will stay in the villages for a few weeks, until the women there become self-sufficient (in using the Internet),” said Sandeep Menon, chief marketing officer, Google India. He added the idea is to teach the basic aspects of the Internet, and stimulate interest and demand, after which the women will find their own ways to log on to the World Wide Web.  

Debjani Ghosh, vice-president SMG, MD-South Asia, Intel said: “Digitising cannot happen through Powerpoint presentations, but only through such on-ground initiatives. We will be glad if more companies start such initiatives or join us.”

Despite the ingenuity of the programme, concerns over its limitations abound. First, the initiative does not focus on illiterates, severely curtailing the participation of a large part of rural India. There are also questions on whether the women will be able to continue accessing the Internet after being initiated into it by the programme. 

However, Google’s Menon assures, “Without doubt, once [these women] take their first steps they will continue to use the Internet.”  R Venkataramanan, executive trustee of Tata Trusts suggested that various government and community services would be able to provide them with Internet access. Menon said that Internet -enabled phones available for Rs 3,000 with monthly service charges of Rs 200 for full data would make Internet access affordable for “millions and millions”. 

The Internet Saathi initiative comes amid the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India campaign and will kick off from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Jharkhand before being gradually rolled out across India. The aim is to reach 4,500 villages and 5,00,000 women by the end of 2016.


Sabotage suspected as Pakistan troop train plunges into canal, killing 12

July 2, 2015 | Mubasher Bukhari and Mehreen Zahra-Malik | Source: Reuters

A train carrying hundreds of Pakistan military personnel and their families plunged into a canal on Thursday, killing 12 soldiers, when a bridge collapsed in what the army suspects was sabotage, officials said.

The military's media wing confirmed that four carriages fell into the canal. It said the commander of one unit was among the casualties.

The military is fighting a Taliban insurgency in several regions of the country's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in the northwest.

The crash in Pakistan's Gujranwala district, in the northeast, happened as an army unit was being transported from southern Sindh province to northern Pakistan.

"There were around 300 passengers on board," Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafiq told Reuters. "It is too early to say about the reason for the mishap. Rescue work is under way.”

More than 50 people were rescued, a military official said.

Television images of the scene showed several carriages partly submerged in the canal.

The army's media wing said eight bodies had been pulled out of the water.

Rafiq told Geo TV that six people were missing and the cause of the crash was unknown. But a senior military official said the army suspected sabotage.

"We suspect that this was an act of sabotage... The planks on the rail were tampered with," the official said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The collapse also raises concerns about the safety of infrastructure. Several TV channels reported that the bridge had been marked as "extremely dangerous".

In May, a Pakistan military helicopter carrying diplomats to inspect a tourist project crashed, killing seven people, including the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines.


India to renew hunt for assault rifles after scrapping 4-yr-old tender

July 2, 2015 | Source: Times of India

NEW DELHI: India will now re-launch the hunt for new-generation assault rifles for its 1.18-million strong Army, following the scrapping its four-year-old tender for the guns worth around Rs 4,850 crore. 

TOI on May 20 had reported that the proposed mega project for the assault rifles, with interchangeable barrels for conventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations, was on the verge of being scrapped since it had run into major problems. 

Now, the armament firms that had participated in the extensive trials -- Colt (US), Beretta (Italy), Ceska (Czech) and Israel Weapon Industries (IWI) - have been told that the proposed contract was being retracted. 

This is a serious blow to the long-standing demand for new rifles to replace the 5.56mm indigenous INSAS (Indian small arms system) guns, which have suffered from technical bugs since their induction in 1994-95. 

As per the now-cancelled project, 65,000 rifles were to be directly acquired from the selected foreign vendor to equip the 120 infantry battalions deployed on the western and eastern fronts. The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) was to then subsequently manufacture over 1,13,000 such rifles after getting transfer of technology from the foreign company. 

But the proposal for the new rifles -- with a 5.56x45mm primary barrel for conventional warfare and a 7.62x39mm secondary one for counter-terror operations - was found to be "impractical" both in terms of high costs and technical requirements, said sources. 

The plan now is to either get a foreign arms company to shift some of its manufacturing facilities to India or task the OFB to manufacture the new assault rifles with foreign collaboration. 

Weighing around 3.5-kg, the new rifle will need to have a 1-km range, advanced night-vision devices, holographic reflex sights, laser designators, detachable under-barrel grenade launchers and the like. 

The INSAS rifles, with an effective range of just 450-metre and weighing over 4.25-kg, had replaced the even more cumbersome 7.62mm self-loading rifles. The Army also uses over one lakh AK-47s, known the world over for their sheer ruggedness and fail-safe nature, for counter-insurgency operations in J&K and northeast.


India wants friendly ties with all neighbours, including Pakistan: Rajnath

July 2, 2015 | Press Trust of India | Source: Firstpost India

Srinagar: The government on Thursday said it sincerely wants to have friendly relations with all its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, but Islamabad will also have to think about its approach.

"We made our intention clear on the day of oath ceremony (of Prime Minister Narendra Modi). If it were not ourintention to improve our relations with Pakistan, perhaps our Prime Minister would not have invited the Pakistan PM to the oath ceremony," Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Srinagar.

He was talking to reporters after paying obeisance at the Amarnath cave shrine in south Kashmir Himalayas.

Singh said it was a sincere effort on part of India to have friendly relations with all its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan.

"I want to say from the depth of my heart that Pakistan is our neighbouring country (and) we want not only good but friendly relations with all our neighbouring countries, including Pakistan.

"(Former Prime Minister) Atalji (Behari Vajpayee) used to say time and again that we can change friends but not neighbours. We also believe in that...

"There will be not let up in our efforts but Pakistan will have to think about it (too)," he added.


Pakistan heatwave death toll rises to 1250 as public urged to abstain from Ramadan fast

July 2, 2015 | Adam Withnall | Source: The Independent

 

The death toll from the devastating heatwave that began in Pakistan almost two weeks ago has risen to 1,250, according to government officials.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif travelled to assess the situation on Wednesday in Karachi, the Sindh provincial capital, which has suffered the worst of the ill effects.

The death toll was issued in a government statement handed to Sharif during the high-level meeting.

While temperatures have started to subside in Pakistan, according to local media reports the mercury hit 122F (50C) at its peak.

The latest government statement also revealed that a total of 65,000 patients were treated for heatstroke at hospitals in Karachi online over the past two weeks.

Pakistan’s heatwave began on 19 June, and has coincided with the holy month of Ramadan for a country where around 95 per cent of the population is Muslim.

The severity of the weather has lead faith leaders to urge followers to hold off from fasting if they are at any risk of sunstroke.

Speaking to Australia’s ABC News, prominent cleric Tahir Ashrafi said: “We [religious scholars] have highlighted on various television channels that those who are at risk, especially in Karachi where there is a very serious situation, should abstain from fasting.

“Islam has drawn conditions for fasting, it is even mentioned in the holy Koran that patients and travellers who are not able to bear fasting can delay it and people who are weak or old and are at risk of falling sick or even dying because of fasting should abstain.”

Nonetheless, there have been reports of some shops continuing to refuse to sell water and eating and drinking in public remain illegal under the country’s laws for “respecting Ramadan”.