After 28 years, Bangladesh revives case to drop Islam as state religion

March 8, 2016 | Reuters

Legal action to drop Islam as Bangladesh's state religion has been revived after 28 years, and the High Court has agreed to hear the case later this month. Bangladesh's 1971 constitution originally declared all religions were equal in the eyes of the state. However, military ruler Hussain Mohammad Ershad amended it in 1988 to make Islam the state religion.

Ershad's action led a group of 12 citizens to file a writ with the High Court to overturn the amendment. But Shahriar Kabir, who convened the group, said the members soon decided not to go ahead with the case.

"After filing the case, we realised that the bench would not be favourable for us, so we did not move further," Shahriar told Reuters on Monday.

Then the current government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, again amended the constitution. The new amendment reinstated the principle of secularism but also reaffirmed Islam as the state religion.

The court action brought by Shahriar's group essentially seeks to resolve that contradiction. The High Court will hear the case on March 27.

"It will take long time to get any decision," said Rana Dasgupta, a government prosecutor. "The nature of the case is time-consuming. The High Court will continue to hear from both parties and then will deliver its verdict."

The move to reaffirm Bangladesh as a secular nation comes amid a wave of militant violence in recent months, including a series of bomb attacks against mosques and Hindu temples

Some of the attacks, including the killing of a Hindu priest, have been claimed by ISIS. The militant group has also said it was behind the killings of a Japanese citizen, an Italian aid worker and a policeman.

The government denies that ISIS has a presence in the Muslim-majority country of 160 million people.

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U.S. 'disappointed' by India's visa refusal for religious rights panel

March 8, 2016 | Reuters

The U.S. State Department was "disappointed" India had refused visas to members of a U.S. commission that examines violations of religious freedom around the world, a spokesman said on Monday.The commission, made up mainly of professors and leaders of non-profit groups appointed by the president and members of Congress, had planned to travel to India last week but New Delhi failed to issue them visas.

The Indian Embassy said in a statement on its web site that "a foreign entity" like the U.S. commission had no standing to pass judgment on the state of India's constitutionally protected rights.

Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton who chairs the commission, said last week it was unfortunate that a secular democracy like India had refused a visit from the panel, which has been permitted in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China, which restrict religious freedoms.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was "disappointed by this news."

"We're supportive of the commission and the important role they play in reviewing facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom around the world," Kirby said.

He declined to say whether the State Department had discussed the issue with counterparts in New Delhi. But he did say the United States remained engaged "in a number of discussions" with the government on the issue.

The commission said in its 2015 report on religious freedom that incidents of religiously motivated and communal violence had reportedly increased for three consecutive years.

It said that despite India's status as a pluralistic, secular democracy, New Delhi had long struggled to protect minority religious communities or provide justice when crimes occurred, creating a climate of impunity.

Non-governmental organizations and religious leaders, including from the Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities, attributed the initial increase in violence to religiously divisive campaigning in the 2014 general election by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which won the vote.

Since the election, religious minorities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked the BJP and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups.

Despite a much-heralded fresh start in U.S.-India relations under Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, the United States has run into problems arranging visits by other American officials, including the head of its office to combat human trafficking and its special envoy for gay rights.

(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Grant McCool)

Bangladesh bank says hackers stole $100M from its New York Fed account

March 7, 2016 | Kevin Dugan and Jamie Schram | New York Post

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York was hacked — and $100 million was swiped from the Bangladeshi government’s account, Bangladesh’s central bank charged Monday. The Central Bank of Bangladesh said the cyberthieves laundered at least some of the funds through casinos in the Philippines.

And the Bangladeshi Embassy said investigators were working with Filipino officials to find the funds.

“It has been possible to recover a portion of the amount ‘hacked’ from Bangladesh Bank’s reserve account in the United States,’’ it said in a statement.

“Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit is engaged with the Philippines’ anti-money laundering authority to trace the destination of the remaining amount and recover the same.

“In the meantime, the Philippines’ anti-money-laundering authority filed case in that country and obtained court order to freeze the concerned bank accounts.”

The New York Fed, headed by William Dudley, denied it had been hacked.

“To date, there is no evidence of any attempt to penetrate Federal Reserve systems in connection with the payments in question, and there is no evidence that any Fed systems were compromised,” said spokeswoman Andrea Priest.

Some 250 central banks, governments and other institutions have foreign accounts at the New York Fed. They hold mostly US Treasuries and agency debt.

The New York Fed has been hacked before. A British citizen was accused in 2014 of breaching its servers and posting private data.

The Central Bank of Bangladesh, which has $28 billion in currency reserves, said hackers looted its account Feb. 5 and moved money to the Philippines and Sri Lanka, Agence France-Press reported.

The funds were “brought into the Philippines’ banking system, sold to a black-market foreign-exchange broker, transferred to at least three large local casinos, sold back to the money broker and moved out to overseas accounts — all in a matter of days,” the Philippines’ Daily Inquirer said.

Bangladesh upholds death sentence for Islamist party leader

March 7, 2016 | The Seattle Times

Bangladesh’s highest court upheld a death sentence Tuesday for a senior member of the country’s largest Islamist party who was convicted of committing crimes against humanity during the 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

The decision is expected to aggravate the divide between moderates and extremists in Bangladesh, a Sunni-majority nation that has seen a wave of deadly assaults in the past year targeting members of the Shiite community, foreigners and secular writers.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the war crimes trials, carried out by special tribunals, represent a long-overdue effort to obtain justice more than four decades after Bangladesh split from Pakistan. On Tuesday, a five-judge Supreme Court panel led by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha upheld the 2014 conviction and sentence for Mir Quasem Ali on eight war crimes charges, including the abduction and murder of a young man in a torture cell.

The 63-year-old Ali had argued that the witnesses who testified against him were “fake.”

Ali is on the Jamaat-e-Islami party’s highest policy-making body and is considered one of its top financiers. During the nine-month independence war, he was known as one of the organizers of a militia group associated with the Pakistani military that was blamed for kidnapping and killing its opponents. Bangladesh accuses Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators of killing 3 million people during the war.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, defense counselor Khandaker Mahbub Hossain said he would ask Ali’s family members whether they want to seek clemency or a review of the court’s verdict.

Meanwhile, Jamaat-e-Islami called for a nationwide general strike on Wednesday to protest the ruling. Strike calls by the party in recent months went largely unheeded by the public.

Hasina, a secular and reformist leader, has consolidated her position while angering Islamists by executing the war criminals, an act previously thought almost impossible because of the complicated nature of crimes committed more than 44 years ago. The demand for trying suspected war criminals is popular domestically, despite international concern over the trial process.

Since they were set up in 2010, the two special tribunals reviewing war crimes cases have issued 22 verdicts against mostly senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, which had openly campaigned against independence but denied committing atrocities.

India's big move into solar is already paying off

March 7, 2016 | Huizhong Wu | CNN

India's massive bet on solar power is paying off far earlier than anticipated.

The price of solar power has plummeted in recent months to levels rivaling that of coal, positioning the renewable source as a viable mainstream option in a country where 300 million people live without electricity.

Solar prices are now within 15% of coal, according to KPMG. If current trends hold, the consultancy predicts electricity from solar will actually be 10% cheaper than domestic coal by 2020.

And that could turn out to be a conservative forecast. At a recent government auction, the winning bidder offered to sell electricity generated by a project in sunny Rajasthan for 4.34 rupees (6 cents) per kilowatt hour, roughly the same price as some recent coal projects.

"Solar is very competitive," said Vinay Rustagi of renewable energy consultancy Bridge to India. "It's a huge relief for countries like India which want to get more and more solar power."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made access to electricity a top priority, and has set the goal of making 24-hour power available to all 1.3 billion Indians. Currently, even India's biggest cities suffer from frequent power outages.

To improve the power supply, Modi has set the goal of bringing 100 gigawatts of solar-based power online by 2022, a twenty-fold increase from current levels. Infrastructure must also be improved and the 280 gigawatt electric grid needs to be expanded and modernized.

"The industry in general is fairly bullish," said Anshu Bharadwaj, executive director at Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy. "I don't think they can ask for a better scenario."

There are reasons to push solar beyond its low price -- it's a much healthier option in a country that is home to 13 of the world's 20 most polluted cities.

The environmental benefits of solar will be even more pronounced if its rise comes at the expense of coal, which currently makes up 60% of India's energy production. India's coal has a high ash content, and it releases toxins and metals into the air when burned.

"In the very long term ... [solar investments] can help reduce air pollution," said Aruna Kumarankandath, a program officer at the Centre for Science and Environment.

But Modi has so far taken a different approach. In order to expand electricity access as quickly as possible, he wants to double double coal production by 2020.

"It's important to emphasize that coal is going to remain a crucial part of India's future," said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, an associate at Eurasia Group.

India Muzaffarnagar riots blamed on police and intelligence failure

March 7, 2016 | BBC

An inquiry panel into the 2013 Hindu-Muslim riots in north India's Uttar Pradesh state has blamed intelligence and police failure for the violence.

The 700-page report also blames the press for "exaggerated reports that fuelled violence" in Muzaffarnagar. However, it absolves the state government and other politicians for the riots which left 62 people dead.

The clashes began when three men were killed for protesting against the alleged harassment of a local woman.

Later, the circulation of a fake video showing two men being lynched led to more violence, which spread to neighbouring villages in the district.

Indian army soldiers were deployed to contain violence and curfew was imposed in several villages.

Thousands of people fled their homes and took shelter in relief camps after riots that were described as the worst in India in a decade.

The one-man inquiry panel - Justice Vishnu Sahai Commission - tabled the inquiry report in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly on Sunday.

The report also absolved some politicians who were accused of making provocative speeches during the clashes

Opposition party rejects Maldives government's offer for "exclusive meeting"

March 7, 2016 | T. Ramakrishnan | The Hindu

"The government has to create conducive climate for negotiations on political reforms. This means that it should release political leaders, who have been arrested on ‘politically motivated charges,’" said Ali Niyaz. The principal Opposition party, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), on Monday evening announced that it would not participate in the Tuesday’s “exclusive meeting” proposed by the government.

Earlier in the day, the government invited the MDP for “separate discussions” on Tuesday afternoon to explore “possible avenues” for “leniency” in the judgment of the Criminal Court on former President Mohamed Nasheed, the founder of the MDP. This was to “facilitate the participation” of the Opposition party in the all-party talks.

[In March last year, the Criminal Court found Mr. Nasheed “guilty of terrorism” and sentenced him to 13 years’ imprisonment. In January this year, Mr. Nasheed was allowed to go to the United Kingdom for medical treatment on a “temporary leave.”]

“The government has to create conducive climate for negotiations on political reforms. This means that the government should release political leaders, who have been arrested on ‘politically motivated charges,’” Ali Niyaz, deputy chairperson of the MDP, told THE HINDU over the phone from Male.

Besides, the MDP was now in an alliance with the Adhaalath Party, whose leader Imran Abdulla, had been sentenced to 12 year-long imprisonment. “Under such circumstances, there is no point in taking part in the talks,” he said.

On March 2 and 3, the talks took place in which representatives of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); Maldives Development Alliance (MDA); Jumhooree Party (JP) and the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) were present, according to Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, international spokesperson at the office of President.

Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, another MDP leader, recalled that in June 2015, his party’s participation in the talks with the government was not fruitful. Now, international community should be there in the talks as a “referee.” Mr. Ghafoor called upon the international community to impress upon the Maldives government the need for implementing recommendations of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

Next door Nepal: Two PMs, and a standstill

March 7, 2016 | Yubaraj Ghimire | The Indian Express

Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli, quite often repeated during his five-day stay in New Delhi, and upon his return to Nepal, that his single visit to the “South” has brought bilateral relations back to normal, and that it was a remarkable gain both for Nepal and India. He also insisted the state honour accorded him was not given to an individual but to the elected PM of a sovereign state. Thus, this amounted to India shedding its reservations, recognising Nepal’s constitution.

Yet, towards the end, there were clear indicators that, along with the “traditional warmth”, curtness and coldness marred the visit — that all is not well in bilateral ties. The two sides failed to come out with a joint statement. There are no official reasons given, but Nepal wasn’t happy about India’s refusal to commend the constitution unconditionally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that while the new constitution was a major achievement, more was needed to accommodate all aspirations.

At the same time, Oli found President Pranab Mukherjee closer to his point of view. Mukherjee, who was foreign minister in the UPA government overseeing Nepal’s radical shift in 2005, was full of praise for the end of the transition. According to a high-level Nepali delegate, Mukherjee was of the opinion that “Nepal’s constitution is its internal document, something that India has no reason to disagree or be dissatisfied with”.

But Oli was perhaps the only PM from Nepal to declare in advance that he wasn’t visiting Delhi with a “shopping list”. He thus gave no occasion to calculate the gap between demand and supply, a major yardstick normally applied to measure the success or failure of a prime ministerial visit. Yet, his visit and the end of the long blockade on its eve, initially gave the impression that his rigid pre-conditions had been accepted by Delhi. The blockade had ruined the economy of half a dozen Indian towns along the border along with that of Nepal. It generated hostility towards India in Nepal’s younger generation.

Despite Oli’s claim that he went to Delhi with no list and came back having totally repaired the relationship, the trip is being scrutinised within the governing coalition and by the opposition, with usual suspicions of “secret deals” in the air. Soon after his return, Oli was grilled by members of the high-level political machinery of the coalition.

What transpired in the 40-minute meeting between the two PMs is still secret. But there’s speculation that the growing anti-India sentiment in Nepal and Kathmandu’s perceived tilt towards China, as well as India’s keenness to contribute “massively” to post-earthquake reconstruction, dominated the talks. India’s concern about China’s growing presence in Nepal was visible as BJP leader Subramanian Swamy cautioned Oli about the consequences of such a “shift”. Swamy’s visit to Kathmandu, just before Oli set out for Delhi, was seen as a message from Modi.

Meanwhile, as the Nepali Congress, the largest party and main opposition, prepares for its general convention, its powerful central committee member Shashank Koirala has raised a political storm by demanding that the party review three issues — federalism, secularism and its status as a republic — if Nepal is to survive. It implies reverting to constitutional monarchy and a “Hindu Nepal”.

While Oli told the high-level machinery that no suggestion of a “Hindu Nepal” came from Modi, he failed to convince that his visit had removed all misunderstandings. It was hoped that, apart from finalising a police academy, some concrete measures for the time-bound execution of the major hydel projects would be announced.

India was also keen to construct an international airport. But, reportedly, there was no agreement.

Within days of his return, Oli decided to visit Beijing for a week, beginning March 20, although he has said he will not play the China card against India. China, however, has already sent the draft of the new extradition treaty, asserting that Nepal is being used by foreign powers and international NGOs to fuel the free-Tibet movement that has direct implications on its security.

How will India go forward in Nepal now? How comfortable will Oli’s coalition be?

His Delhi visit will be judged on these crucial points.

Sri Lanka to get $1.5 billion IMF loan to avert balance of payments woes

March 7, 2016 | Shihar Aneez | Reuters | The Fiscal Times

Sri Lanka will receive a loan of $1.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to boost foreign exchange reserves and avert a balance of payments problem, a government minister said on Monday.

Sri Lanka's finances are under scrutiny after ratings agency Fitch last week downgraded its sovereign rating by a notch, to "B+", spurred by a ballooning fiscal deficit, rising foreign debt and sluggish growth prospects.

The government was originally looking for a loan of $2 billion from the global lender, said junior finance minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena.

"But now we will get about $1.5 billion in a number of disbursements," Abeywardena told Reuters. "This is to boost foreign exchange reserves."

The loan conditions, such as revising taxes to increase the government revenue, have yet to be finalised, however, he added.

Talks with the IMF are due to begin this month, but could drag on, as both sides have to agree on the conditions tied to the assistance programme.

"We continue to believe that negotiations will be slowed by the government’s unwillingness to accept unpopular IMF conditionalities," Sasha Riser-Kositsky, Eurasia Group's South Asia analyst, said in a note.

There would be no flexibility on reducing the fiscal deficit, said a source at the global lender who has knowledge of Sri Lanka's loan discussions, but who declined to be identified in the absence of authorisation to speak to the media.

Sri Lanka's reserves have fallen by a third, to $6.3 billion by January, from their October 2014 peak, mainly because of outflows of $1.3 billion in government bonds since January 2015.

Last week, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said an IMF programme by which the government commits itself to taking steps to fix its finances would help lure back investors.

"What we are trying to do is to get minimum cover from the IMF," he said. "It is important for investor confidence."

The IMF gave Sri Lanka a $2.6-billion bailout package in 2009, when it faced a balance-of-payments crisis soon after the end of a 26-year war.

The IMF has long urged the government to cut the fiscal deficit, estimated to have shot up to 7.2 percent of GDP last year, as well as add tax payers and spruce up the tax system.

Central bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran told Reuters last week an IMF loan could help drive down the cost of borrowing for the government to between 6 percent and 7 percent from 8.5 percent, as investors would interpret it as a vote of confidence in the $79-billion economy.

The island nation's total outstanding debt rose 12 percent to 8.27 trillion rupees in the first nine months of 2015, while foreign debt increased around 5 percent to 3.27 trillion.

The government has promised farmers tax cuts and subsidies, to help consolidate its position since taking office last year.

($1=144.2600 Sri Lankan rupees)

(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez)

At least 17 killed, including 2 children, in Pakistan suicide attack

March 7, 2016 | Zahir Shah and Sophia Saifi | CNN

At least 17 people, including two police officers and two children, were killed in a suicide attack Monday in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, police said. At least 31 other people were injured in the attack in Charsadda district, said district police Chief Sohail Khalid, adding that five women, four children and five police officials are among the injured.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the execution of Mumtaz Qadri on February 29.

Qadri was convicted of killing the governor of Punjab province in 2011.

The bombing incident began about noon local time, when the attacker opened fire outside the gates of the Charsadda court, Khalid said. When security officers tried to stop him from getting inside, the gunman detonated explosives that were strapped to his body.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a statement condemning the attack.

"The nation is united in its commitment to wipe out this menace from our soil," the statement read. "Those who embraced martyrdom in the line of duty sacrificed their today to safeguard a peaceful tomorrow for our future generations, and they deserve gratitude and recognition of the highest degree."

CNN's Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report.

Sri Lanka brings back war-time measures to fight gangs

March 6, 2016  | Agence France-Presse | The Guardian

Sri Lanka’s police have re-introduced war-time road blocks and random checks on vehicles following a surge in gang-related shootings in the capital. More than 100 police stations in Colombo and its suburbs have been asked to erect snap blocks, a common practice during the island’s separatist war that ended nearly seven years ago, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said. “The objective is to prevent serious crime and drug smuggling as well as to catch those committing serious crime,” he said.

Gunasekera said there was a surge in drug smuggling and shootings that prompted the authorities to take extraordinary measures.

At least three people were shot dead and many more wounded in Colombo in the past week in what police said was gang-related violence.

Unidentified gunmen had opened fire on a prison bus and wounded a suspect who was being taken back to jail after a court hearing in the capital last week.

Another suspect on bail was shot dead at home while a woman was shot and wounded outside the main prison in Colombo Saturday after she visited her jailed husband.

Gunasekera said 10 special units were also established to crack down on gang activity that had increased in recent weeks.

Sri Lankan authorities had dismantled road blocks and stopped vehicle checks after the end of the decades-long Tamil separatist war in May 2009.

Even the permanent check points at key entry points to the city had been removed several years ago.

The new government which came to power in January last year removed the last remaining check point at the entrance to the former war zone as a sign of normality.

However, the new police measure brought back memories of war-time Colombo when freedom of movement was curtailed due to frequent stops for security checks.

At least 100,000 people were killed in the 37-year separatist war which ended after a major offensive by the military.

Indian priest held hostage in Yemen

March 6, 2016 | Times of India

Indian Catholic priest missing since a suspected Islamic State (IS) attack last Friday on a care home in Aden, Yemen, is reportedly being held captive by the assailants. An Indian nun was among 16 people killed in the strike on the Missionaries of Charityrun establishment, while another is reportedly missing.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj announced on Saturday that Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a native of Kottayam who lived at the home, had been abducted. He had arrived there from an unsafe place in Yemen for refuge.

"Our camp office in (Yemen's neighbour) Djibouti is trying to ascertain the whereabouts of Father Tom Uzhunnalil so that we can secure his release," Swaraj added in a Twitter post. India shut down its mission in Yemen after evacuating most of its citizens last year.

According to local reports, the 56-year-old priest was handcuffed before being driven away to an undisclosed destination. Kerala CM Oommen Chandy said there were no clues about Uzhunnalil's whereabouts. "She (Swaraj) expressed doubts about the efficacy of the government there, but has assured that the Centre will do its best," he added. Chandy was also quoted as saying that Swaraj had mentioned an Indian nurse being missing since the attack.

Yemeni authorities have blamed IS for the attack. "We are aware that no group has claimed the attack... but information points to... Daesh (an Arabic acronym for IS)," said a security official.

US Senator asks colleagues to oppose F-16 deal with Pak

March 5, 2016 | CNN

Top Republican Senator has asked his colleagues in the Senate to join him in opposing the sale of eight nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, saying it was "past time" to demand accountability from the country whose "coziness" with terrorists has harmed the US military.

"Selling military hardware to Pakistan -- with a generous subsidy from American taxpayers -- is no way to convince them to become responsible players in the international community and assist in the fight against terrorism," Rand Paul said.

"It is past time to stand up and demand greater accountability from Pakistan -- that it fully severs its ties with terrorist organizations, and that it respect the rights of its own people," Paul said in an official correspondence to other members of the US Senate.

In the letter, Paul urged Senators to join him in blocking the sale of F-16s to Pakistan in an over $ 600 million deal.

"I request that you support the resolution of disapproval when it comes up for consideration."

Last week, he introduced a resolution in the Senate in this regard. The Senate Joint Resolution 31, if passed by the Senate, would prohibit the sale of F-16s and additional major and non-major defence equipment to Pakistan.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, the joint resolution is privileged. Paul said he would seek vote on the sale of F-16s.

"Why should the US consider selling major defence items to Pakistan whose allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network is well-known," Paul said.

He said just last week Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized secretary of state John Kerry for advocating a deal that would cost the US taxpayer millions.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, has also voiced concerns over the sale.

House foreign affairs subcommittee on Asia and the pacific chairman Matt Salmon said the sale was "extremely problematic in light of the Pakistani military's widely alleged complicity in terrorist violence..."

Representatives Ted Poe and Tulsi Gabbard sent a letter to Kerry on February 16 citing Pakistan's duplicitous nature.

Paul said Pakistan's "coziness with terrorists has harmed our military" and a recent Congressional report authored by the Pentagon cites how Pakistan's support for terrorists allows for IED components to make their way across the border into Afghanistan, targeting US and Afghanistan forces.

General John F Campbell, who till recently was Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, testified this year before Congress that "Haqqani Network remains the most capable threat to US and coalition forces, planning and executing the most violent high profile attacks in Kabul."

Paul also said Pakistan's human rights record is abysmal.

"Pakistan fails to provide protection for religious minorities such as Shia Muslims, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Hindus," Paul added.

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99% demands of Madhesis fulfilled in Nepal's amended Constitution: BJP leader

March 5, 2016 | Asmita Sarkar | The Business Times

At least 99 percent of the demands made by Nepal's Madhesis have been met in the amendments to the country's Constitution, former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Bhagat Singh Koshiyari said Saturday. The Madhesis had protested for long, demanding representation in the country's constitutional bodies when the new Constitution was adopted in September 2015. They had blocked the Indo-Nepal border, which stopped movement of goods to the landlocked country.

Nepal, which was recovering after a massive earthquake last year, suffered losses due to the trade block, which was lifted in February this year.  

"India wants to see that peace and political stability is maintained in Nepal and the country moves forward on the path of economic prosperity," Koshiyari, who is visiting Kathmandu, was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.

"Through the constitution amendments, 99 per cent of the demands of the Madhesi people were fulfilled and the remaining 1 percent will also be fulfilled through dialogue and negotiations," he added.

"Everything will be all right, I am confident that the remaining problems will also be resolved soon."

India also confirmed recently that normal trade had resumed between the two neighbouring countries.

External Affairs Ministry Spokesman Vikas Swarup, in a recent press briefing, had said that trade between the two countries was restored to its former level.

Recently, Nepal's Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli visited India after the blockade was lifted.The visit is believed to have helped in re-building bilateral ties.  

"Having to rebuild the ruined foundation is a tall order. But we will do it in a fine way. We will extend a hand of true friendship towards India, and will expect the same from the other side," the Indian Express quoted Oli as saying, before his India visit.

 

Taliban says rejects 'futile' Afghanistan peace talks

March 5, 2016 | Reuters

The Taliban said on Saturday it would not take part in peace talks brokered by representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, casting doubt on efforts to revive negotiations. The Taliban, ousted from power in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been waging a violent insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan's Western-backed government and re-establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

Following a meeting of the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of representatives of the four countries in Kabul in February, officials said they expected direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin in early March.

But the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, denied it would be participating in any upcoming talks in Islamabad.

"We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting," the group said in a statement.

"(Islamic Emirate) once again reiterates that unless the occupation of Afghanistan is ended, black lists eliminated and innocent prisoners freed, such futile misleading negotiations will not bear any results," it added.

The rejection follows efforts to revive talks that broke down last year following the announcement of the death of the Taliban's founder and long-time leader Mullah Mohammed Omar some two years earlier.

The U.S. State Department called on the Islamist movement to come to the negotiating table, saying Afghanistan's allies would continue to back the Kabul government as it fights the insurgency.

"The Taliban have a choice: to join good-faith negotiations for peace, or continue to fight a war in which they are killing their fellow Afghans and destroying their country," it said in a statement.

"If they choose the latter course, they will continue to face the combined efforts of the Afghan security forces and their international partners," it said.

New leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has laid down preconditions for taking part in any talks as he struggles to overcome factional infighting, with some breakaway groups opposing any negotiations whatsoever.

Heavy fighting has continued over the winter from Helmand in the south to Jowzjan province in the north, while a series of suicide attacks have been launched in the capital, underlining the difficulty of restarting the peace process.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Mushtaq Yusufzai; Editing by Jane Merriman and Helen Popper)

Pakistan religious leaders slam women's protection act

March 4, 2016 | Al Jazeera

A law giving women protection from violence and abuse in Pakistan has been criticised by a religious body for being incompatible with Islam. The Women's Protection Act, passed by Pakistan's largest province of Punjab last week, gives legal protection to women from domestic, psychological and sexual violence.

The law also calls for the creation of a free abuse-reporting hotline and the establishment of women's shelters.

Since its passage in the Punjab assembly, some conservative religious leaders have denounced the new law as being in conflict with the Quran, as well as Pakistan's constitution.

Fazlur Rehman, the leader of one of Pakistan's largest religious parties, the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, said the law was in conflict with both Islam and the country's constitution.

"This law makes a man insecure," Reuters quoted him as saying. "This law is an attempt to make Pakistan a Western colony again."

"The whole law is wrong,"  Muhammad Khan Sherani , the head of the Council of Islamic Ideology, said at a news conference, in which he claimed the law was "un-Islamic".

The new law establishes district-level panels to investigate reports of abuse, and mandates the use of GPS bracelets to keep track of offenders.

It also sets punishments of up to a year in jail for people who violate court orders related to domestic violence, with that period rising to two years for repeat offenders.

In 2013, more than 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported in Punjab alone, the province where Wednesday's law was passed, according to the Aurat Foundation, a women's rights support group.

Those cases represented 74 percent of the national total that year, the latest for which data is available.

India imports 1,542 MW power from Bhutan

March 3, 2016 | Economic Times

India imports 1,542 MW power from Bhutan under bilateral agreement between the two countries, Power Minister Piyush Goyal said today."Majority of power imported from Bhutan is under bilateral agreement between government of Bhutan and Government of India. The tariff is negotiated by the government to ensure supply of cheap imported power to consumers," he said in Lok Sabha during Question Hour.

Presently, India imports around 1,542 MW power from hydro stations located in Bhutan -- from Tala (1,020 MW), Chukha (336 MW), Kurichhu (60 MW) and Dagachu (126 MW).

Two companies -- Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC), a Royal government of Bhutan undertaking owning hydro power stations at Tala, Chukha and Kurichhu, and Dagachu Hydro Power Corporation (DHPC), a joint venture of DGPC and Tata power company Ltd, supply power to India.

Afghanistan police officer kills 4 of his colleagues; 11 missing

March 1, 2016 | Chicago Tribune

An Afghan police officer shot dead four of his colleagues at a checkpoint on a remote stretch of a major southern highway, an official said Tuesday.

Another 11 officers who were manning the checkpoint when the shooting happened Monday night were still missing, said Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Roghlewanai, police chief of Uruzgan province.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident in an email to media.

Roghlewanai said it was still unclear what happened at the checkpoint, which is on the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces.

Afghanistan has seen a series of insider attacks in recent years, in which Afghan soldiers or police attack their colleagues or allied NATO forces.

The Afghan police fight insurgents on the front lines, but have fewer resources than the army.

On remote checkpoints they are vulnerable to Taliban attacks. Authorities want to consolidate the checkpoints into larger bases but have faced resistance from locals, who see them as a barrier against insurgents.

Women are regularly being sexually abused under the pretence of 'virginity tests' carried out on girls accused of pre-marital sex in Afghanistan, say Human Rights Watch

March 1, 2016 | Daily Mail

Women are regularly being sexually abused under the pretence of 'virginity tests' carried out on girls accused of pre-marital sex in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch has claimed.

Many are facing growing levels of violence and harassment in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the Islamist Taliban regime was toppled from power by a 2001 US-led invasion.

Of 53 women and girls as young as 13 accused of pre-marital sex - punishable by up to 15 years in jail - 48 were subjected to virginity exams, Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission found in a recent study.

Nearly half of them were examined more than once, often in the presence of multiple people, according to the study which was highlighted in a new HRW report on Monday.

'These so-called virginity exams are not just demeaning –- they constitute sexual assault and are often used as evidence against women in court for the 'crime' of zina, or sex outside of marriage,' said HRW researcher Heather Barr.

'The continued use of degrading and unscientific virginity exams by the Afghan government is part of a broader pattern of abuses in which women and girls are jailed on spurious 'moral crimes' accusations, often in situations where they are fleeing forced marriage or domestic violence.'

Virginity testing is a widely discredited practice in several conservative Islamic nations.

In 2014 the World Health Organization issued guidelines that the test had 'no scientific validity'.

'The Afghan government should end arrests (for moral crimes) entirely and reform the law that permits them. Banning all 'virginity exams' could be an important first step toward reform,' Barr said.

Afghanistan has witnessed a sea change in women's rights since the ousting of the Taliban regime, with female lawmakers and even pilots now commonplace.

But gender equality remains a distant dream amid endemic violence against women and strong patriarchal attitudes.

Bangladesh-U.S. trade rises 8.5 percent to $7 bln in 2015

March 1, 2016 | Reuters

Trade between Bangladesh and the United States rose 8.5 percent to almost $7 billion in 2015, a U.S. embassy official said on Tuesday.

Exports from Bangladesh accounted for $6 billion of the total, and 90 percent of that was clothing, said Andrea Brouillette-Rodriguez, counselor at the embassy, told a news conference ahead of a trade show beginning on Thursday. She said the United States accounted for a quarter of all Bangladesh's exports.

U.S. investment in Bangladesh rose to about $2 billion in 2015 from $1.5 billion the year before, including an investment of more than $1 billion by the energy firm Chevron, a Bangladeshi official said.

Bangladesh's exports include textile and clothing products, shrimps, tea and golf club shafts, while it imports raw cotton, chemicals, machinery and equipment and pharmaceuticals.

Designated as a "Least Developed Country", Bangladesh received trade benefits under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences, but the facility has been suspended since June 2013, following the death of more than 1,100 garment workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building in Dhaka. (Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Maldives halts oil exploration licencing over global price drop

March 1, 2016 | Ahmed Adhshan and Ali Naafiz | Haveeru Online

Government announced Monday its decision to put on hold the licencing of oil exploration in Maldives citing the ongoing crash in global prices and cost cutting measures taken by oil giants across the world.

Government was set to sign the licencing agreement late last year.

Fisheries minister Mohamed Shainee, who is leading the government’s oil exploration efforts, said the government wanted to make sure that the licenced company is the most capable party for the project. He cited environmental concerns associated with the project as one of the reasons for the extra reviews.

“We’re ready to sign the agreement. But oil prices are very low in the global market,” Shainee said, on DhiTV’s prime time political talk show Monday evening.

According to the minister, it will take about five to 10 years to yield results. The government, he said, has to make sure that the licenced company can carry out the project for such a long period since there is also a possibility of a power transfer in between.

“We’ve to accept the fact that it won’t be that easy to kick start such a massive project like this,” Shainee said.

“In retrospect, oil giants are implementing various measures to cut cost.”

A German vessel, RV Sonne, had conducted seismic surveys at two of the three locations that are most likely to have oil wells during its last tour before retiring from scientific use in late August 2014.

When it reached the government in last October, results of the survey’s first assessment showed that the locations had particular source rocks unique to areas covering oil wells. Final results of the geological survey conducted by German University of Chamber Scientists had found cold water corals in the Maldives, a strong sign of oil and gas presence.

Finding oil and natural gas is a key electoral pledge of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Thus to achieve this, the government had divided the locations into blocs and had a number of parties conduct separate research. The government said that it had, in addition to asking for assistance from China, reached out to “corporations in a country far from this region”.

The government had then opened opportunity for regional researchers after the Indian government extended its support to search.

Meanwhile, UK-based Zebra Data Services Ltd has expressed interest for oil exploration in the Maldives and shared their proposal with the economic council.

Budget 2016: Days after Oli visit, 40% cut in aid to Nepal

March 1, 2016 | The Indian Express

India reduced its financial aid to Nepal by 40 per cent Monday. The cut that came days after Nepal PM K P Sharma Oli’s visit to mend ties and “clear misunderstandings” was expected to raise eyebrows in Kathmandu.

In the Union Budget presented Monday, the Centre allocated Rs 300 crore for aid to Nepal for 2016-17, a massive decline from last year’s allocation of Rs 420 crore. However, government sources told The Indian Express that the cut was not an indicator of New Delhi’s confidence in the Oli government. “The issue in Nepal is that of absorption capacity, and they have been quite poor in utilising the aid being given to them…Look at the earthquake reconstruction programme…they have just set up the reconstruction authority in Nepal. The aid last year could not be utilised, which led to revision of budget estimates,” an official said.

Overall, the Ministry of External Affairs was allocated Rs 14,662 crore, a cut of Rs 378 crore compared to last year, even as the focus of the outlay remained on development projects implemented by India in neighbouring countries including Bhutan and Afghanistan.

While financial aid to majority of countries — Bangladesh (down from Rs 250 cr to Rs 150 cr), Bhutan (down from Rs 6,160.20 cr to Rs 5,490 cr), Sri Lanka ( cut from Rs 500 cr to Rs 230 cr) — was reduced, two countries witnessed a hike in assistance: Myanmar (up from Rs 250 cr to 400 cr) and Maldives (up from Rs 25 cr to Rs 40 cr).

Officials attributed the hike to new projects coming up in these two countries. Out of the total allocation to the MEA, Rs 4,720 crore was given to the ministry under plan outlay, while Rs 9,942.66 crore was set aside as non-plan expenditure.

While Rs 15,041.08 crore was given to the ministry in 2015-16 as per revised estimate, the total allocation made for next fiscal is 2.5 per cent less than last year. Out of total international assistance, Rs 4510 crore will be plan expenditure and Rs 3,060.62 crore non-plan expenditure.

Nepal to sign petro deal with China during PM Oli’s visit

March 1, 2016 | Hindustan Times

Nepal and China are expected to ink a long-term deal on the supply of petroleum products from the northern neighbour, ending India’s monopoly, during Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to Beijing this month.

“An official agreement on import of petroleum products from China, as discussed during Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa’s visit in December, is likely during Oliji’s visit,” Gopal Khanal, the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, told Hindustan Times.

After his six-day state visit to India last month, Oli is expected to travel to China later this month. The visit, likely to begin on March 20, was cleared by the cabinet on Monday.

Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), the state-run organisation that deals with procuring and distribution of petroleum products, had signed a framework agreement with Petro China last October for importing one-third of Nepal’s fuel requirements.

The country currently imports all its petroleum products from India under an agreement between NOC and Indian Oil Corporation.

During Thapa’s visit to China, both sides signed an eight-point deal for the long-term supply of petroleum products, improving connectivity and increasing bilateral trade.

Both NOC and Petro China were directed to work out details on pricing, taxation, transportation and other issues before a formal deal is sealed. But the deal got stuck because Nepal sought the waiver of certain taxes.

A four-member team of senior bureaucrats and NOC officials left for China on Tuesday and it is expected to resolve all these issues before Oli’s visit.

Nepal imported 287,473 kilolitres of petrol, 921,714 kilolitres of diesel, 19,653 kilolitres of kerosene, 141,404 kilolitres of aviation fuel and 258,299 metric tons of LPG from India during the last financial year.

But a severe shortage of petroleum products, caused by a blockade imposed by Madhesi parties opposed to the country’s new Constitution, forced Kathmandu to look for other suppliers to diversify and reduce its reliance on New Delhi for energy supplies.

The 135-day blockade was lifted last month and supplies from India are entering the country smoothly, though there is still paucity of fuel and LPG cylinders.

In August last year, Nepal and India signed a deal to construct a 41-km pipeline connecting Raxaul in Bihar to Amlekhganj in Nepal at a cost of Rs 275 crores to ensure the smooth supply of petroleum products.

During his visit to China, Oli is also expected to take part in the Boao Forum for Asia conference in Hainan province. The three-day annual conference will begin on March 22.

Nepal and China are also likely to sign a Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (BIPPA) and transit treaties.

Pakistan Salman Taseer murder: Thousands mourn at Mumtaz Qadri funeral

March 1, 2016 | BBC

Thousands of Pakistanis have turned out for the funeral of a former bodyguard executed for killing Punjab's governor over his opposition to blasphemy laws.

Security was tight as a crowd of about 30,000 gathered to pay their last respects to Mumtaz Qadri in Rawalpindi.

Qadri was hailed as a hero by Islamists for the 2011 killing of Salman Taseer, who wanted to reform the strict laws.

Thousands of police were deployed along the route of the funeral procession and in the nearby capital, Islamabad.

Qadri supporters threw rose petals on his coffin, Reuters reports from Liaquat Bagh park where the funeral was held.

"He lives! Qadri lives!" mourners chanted, the news agency reported. "From your blood, the revolution will come!"

Security forces kept their distance and stick-wielding activists of the hardline Sunni Tehreek movement, which organised the funeral prayers, controlled the crowd.

The coffin was then taken in its flower-strewn ambulance some 20km (12.5 miles) north to Qadri's ancestral village on the eastern outskirts of Islamabad.

His execution on Monday prompted protesters to take to the streets in cities in Pakistan.

But the rallies in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were mostly peaceful. Demonstrators burned tyres and chanted slogans, as well as blocking some roads into Islamabad.

When news of Mumtaz Qadri's execution broke, Pakistanis were glued to their television sets in anticipation of riots on the streets by his supporters.

But what protests there were were sporadic and not well attended - and the mood of the mourners at Tuesday's funeral was equally restrained.

More importantly, news anchors of dozens of Pakistani television channels, who would normally be hysterical at such a development, seemed not to notice. So why the media silence when there was a golden chance to boost ratings?

"Obviously, they have been sent a piece of advice by an authority they can't ignore, and that authority is definitely not the political government," says Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence and political analyst.

Qadri was executed at 04:30 local time (23:30 GMT) at Adiala jail in Rawalpindi on Monday.

He had trained as an elite police commando and was assigned to Salman Taseer as his bodyguard. Qadri shot the politician 28 times at an Islamabad market in January 2011 and was sentenced to death later that year.

He claimed it was his religious duty to kill the minister, who was an outspoken critic of Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws and supported liberal reforms.

Pakistan has seen Islamist groups grow in influence in recent years and several high-profile blasphemy cases.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan and critics argue that blasphemy laws are often misused to settle personal scores and unfairly target minorities.

Two US employees killed in Pakistan drug-busting operation

March 1, 2016 | The Guardian

Two Pakistanis working on a US government counter-narcotics programme in the restless border region near Afghanistan have been killed by roadside bomb, John Kerry announced on Tuesday.

Speaking to an audience in Washington, the US secretary of state also said “a few” of the Pakistani soldiers accompanying the men on an “effort to eradicate poppy fields” were also killed, although an army spokesman was not available to confirm the claim.

The unidentified men were local employees at the US consulate in the westerncity of Peshawar and were working on a programme that attempts to persuade opium farmers to grow alternative crops.

Naveed Khan, a Pakistani official, told the Associated Press that one of the men killed was an inspector working on the project and the other was employed as a driver.

Pakistan’s opium production is dwarfed by neighbouring Afghanistan, which cultivated 183,000 hectares in 2015, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

By contrast, Pakistan produces an estimated 1,000 hectares, mostly concentrated in a tribal region where the state’s authority has been severely challenged by militant groups.

However, the country is a major centre for the processing of raw Afghan opium, with the UNODC estimating Pakistan is the destination and transit country for approximately 40% of opiates from its neighbour.

Pakistan Says Troops in Tribal Region Kill 19 'Terrorists'

March 1, 2016 | ABC

Pakistan's military says security forces have killed 19 "terrorists" during a ground operation in a northwestern tribal region near the Afghan border.

It says four troops were killed in Saturday's fighting in the Shawal area of North Waziristan. It says "several" militants were wounded during the final phase of the operation, which was launched earlier this week.

Pakistan has been waging a military offensive against militants in North Waziristan since June 2014. The army says it has killed around 3,500 insurgents since then.

The rugged region has long been a stronghold for the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militants, who launch attacks on both sides of the porous border.

US calls on Sri Lanka to join Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor

March 1, 2016 | Lanka Business Online

United States called Sri Lanka to strengthen cooperation on issues of regional importance through multilateral organizations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

“The United States encouraged Sri Lankan participation in its Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiative to increase economic connectivity among South Asian countries and with Southeast Asia, which is congruent with Sri Lanka’s participation in BIMSTEC and other forums,” a recent statement from Sri Lanka’s foreign office said.

The statement was issued following the inaugural US – Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue convened in Washington in February.

Economic discussions highlighted Sri Lanka’s economic priorities and joint cooperation to expand trade flows, increase foreign direct investment, and improve the overall business environment in Sri Lanka, such as fair and transparent competition practices.

Sri Lanka’s delegation appreciated the lifting of the U.S. legislative mandate against supporting Sri Lankan projects at international financial institutions and the U.S. vote in favor of a recent project at the Asian Development Bank, which will deliver 100 million US dollars to Small and Medium Enterprises.

The next Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council meeting to be held this year should initiate deepened engagement through development of the U.S. –Sri Lanka Joint Action Plan to increase external trade and investment, the statement said.

“This Action Plan, a road map for future work under TIFA, reinforces Sri Lanka’s development strategies and fosters an increased role for foreign direct investment and external trade in Sri Lanka,”

“It also seeks to improve the competitiveness of key industries; promote new industries through innovation; and fully leverage Sri Lanka’s location and skilled workforce.”

The two sides also intend to explore during the TIFA meeting opportunities for exchanging customs information to facilitate the free flow of goods.

Both sides recognize their shared interest in clean energy development and energy security and reiterated their commitment to deepen cooperation to develop and access affordable, clean renewable energy sources.

The United States also agreed to explore ways to support and assist Sri Lanka in the implementation of Sri Lanka’s Climate Action Plan, including adaptation projects.

Officials from the Millennium Challenge Corporation said they would visit Sri Lanka in March to begin discussions on Sri Lanka’s threshold program.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States looks forward to enhanced engagement with Sri Lanka and its private sector, particularly in the area of infrastructure investment, the statement added.

Narendra Modi Struggles to Fulfill His Plan to Rejuvenate India

February 29, 2016 | The New York Times

A flash fire sent the star-studded audience at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” convention fleeing into Mumbai’s streets last month. But that was minor compared with the political firestorm caused by his government’s arrest that same weekend of a student leader accused of participating in a university rally in support of a man put to death for a terrorist attack in India years ago.

The arrest, and the government’s ensuing campaign against people deemed unpatriotic, dominated the headlines, once again distracting attention from the promise of economic rejuvenation that lay at the core of the electrifying campaign that won Mr. Modi overwhelming support in elections nearly two years ago.

That has largely been the story of Mr. Modi’s administration. His promise to shake things up and create jobs for the one million people who enter India’s work force each month has become subsumed in political turmoil, often stirred up by radicals in his party pushing a Hindu fundamentalist agenda.

And so, as his administration on Monday presented a $287 billion spending plan for the coming year, it did so amid growing disappointment with Mr. Modi and with Asia’s third-largest economy.

“He came to power with high expectations that have not been met,” said Harsh V. Pant, who teaches international relations at King’s College London.

China’s weakness and a sluggish global economy have given India a rare opportunity to draw foreign investment, but “when you don’t use it, you lose it,” Mr. Pant said.

He and other experts say India missed the boat because Mr. Modi’s third budget, like his first two, did not call for major structural reforms. They blame the prime minister’s reluctance to wage those battles on political struggles at home as well as on his party’s losses in local elections last year.

“Unless he reins in the Tea Party elements of his party, he’s not going to be able to take India where it has the potential to go,” said Surjit Bhalla, a New Delhi-based columnist and macroeconomic adviser on India to the Observatory Group, a consultancy in New York.

India’s economy is performing well, with 7.6 percent growth and the lowest inflation in decades, but even by the government’s own admission, growth is below the 8 to 10 percent needed to provide jobs to India’s rapidly growing population of young people.

India faces huge hurdles to growth, including widespread corruption, a suffocating bureaucracy, enormous social spending, a stifling business environment and woeful infrastructure. But Mr. Modi’s spending plan focused mainly on rural India, which has been suffering from two years of drought. The plan called for a raft of new policies, including crop insurance and credit programs for farmers, even as Mr. Modi put $5.6 billion into a program started under the previous government guaranteeing 100 days of work to every rural household.

The budget stuck with the government’s plan to lower the fiscal deficit to 3.5 percent of India’s gross domestic product in the next year, as urged by Raghuram Rajan, the widely respected governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank.

The austerity measures, combined with increased social spending, were accomplished by allocating far less money than needed to recapitalize government banks, which are struggling with bad loans and are less able to lend to India’s cash-starved corporate sector. Infrastructure spending was higher in the proposed budget but fell far short of the infusion needed to spur growth, experts said.

Mr. Modi came to power in May 2014 on the promise of bringing more growth and jobs, with his government pledging to make the economic changes needed to lure private investment.

He tried to change the investment climate, raising foreign investment caps for military contractors and insurance companies to 49 percent, from 26 percent. But the refusal to allow outsiders to gain majority stakes remains a disincentive for foreign investors.

Mr. Modi ran into political trouble when he tried to ease India’s strict land-use laws to make it easier for the government and private companies to build industrial plants and infrastructure. Opposition parties used a Hindi phrase to cast him as running a “suit and boot” government, working only in the interests of the rich, and Mr. Modi pulled back.

He also proposed a constitutional amendment aimed at creating a more business-friendly environment by putting in a simplified nationwide tax system, but that stalled in Parliament last year.

And Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a crushing blow in a November election in Bihar, one of India’s largest states. His party had already lost a local election in New Delhi last year to a new anticorruption party.

Adding to Mr. Modi’s woes, he has found himself on the defensive as the radical right wing of his party and offshoots have adopted an aggressive agenda that has sometimes spilled over into violence.

An offshoot group began a “ghar wapsi,” or “homecoming,” campaign, holding ceremonies to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. Members of Mr. Modi’s party pushed for bans on eating beef, which many Hindus do not eat. Late last year a Hindu mob killed a Muslim man in a village near the capital, saying — mistakenly, as it turned out — that he had killed a cow. Some members of a local group that initiated the attack were affiliated with the youth wing of Mr. Modi’s party.

There was also a series of attacks on Christian schools and churches.

So outraged were some of India’s top writers that, starting in September, they protested what they called an atmosphere of intolerance by returning awards the government had given them.

Mr. Modi has made some conciliatory steps, including giving a speech at a church in Delhi early last year, saying he would not “accept violence against any religion, on any pretext,” but many have said his efforts fell short.

“The people who supported the B.J.P. were voting for Mr. Modi, overlooking the radical right wing of his party, because he promised to focus on jobs and growth,” Mr. Bhalla said. “It’s a mystery as to why he hasn’t acted more strongly to rein in the Neanderthals.”

The latest political frenzy surrounds the government’s arrest of a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi on Feb. 12. The student is said to have participated in a rally in support of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted and hanged for his role in a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.

Despite widespread criticism, the Modi government has gone on the offensive, with the education minister denouncing the student last week. Parliament was adjourned in the ensuing mayhem.

Tarun Das, a former director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said that Mr. Modi had worked behind the scenes to stop the radical right-wingers in his party, and that the prime minister would do so again.

“He will take action, just give him some time,” Mr. Das said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Modi’s popularity has diminished as observers question his desire or ability to implement economic changes.

“The economic and the political cannot be separated,” Mr. Bhalla said. “The prime minister needs public opinion on his side to get bills through Parliament. How can he have public opinion on his side if he’s arresting students?”

“It will make economic progress impossible,” he added.

India Budget 2016: Winners and Losers

February 29, 2016 | Natalie Obiko Pearson | Bloomberg

India’s annual budget is one of the nation’s most closely watched events -- not just for the numbers, but for the political message during a speech that runs for about 90 minutes.

This year rural villagers came away as undisputed winners, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announcing plans to "transform India for the benefit of the farmers, the poor and the vulnerable." That was expected: Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost a key state election in November, and faces as many as nine more contests next year. Here are the winners and losers.

WINNERS:

  • Farmers -- pledges to double income of farmers by 2020, allocates 360 billion ($5.3 billion) to agriculture and farmers’ welfare; steps to ensure a greater share of retail food prices reach producers; announces 200-billion-rupee irrigation fund and record 9 trillion in credit for farmers. Affected companies include Shakti Pumps India Ltd., Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd.

  • Poor families -- 100 percent of households to have cooking gas within three years; 100 percent of villages to have electricity by May 1, 2018.

  • State-run banks -- 250 billion rupees to recapitalize government-controlled banks. "If additional capital is required by these banks, we will find the resources for doing so," Jaitley said. “We stand solidly behind these banks." Shares of State Bank of India Ltd. and Bank of Baroda could be affected.

  • India’s biggest commodities exchange -- MCX Ltd. headed for a three-week high on the budget’s proposal to expand foreign direct investment in the exchanges.

  • Housing developers -- 100% deduction in profits for affordable housing projects approved by March 2019. Projects must be built within three years. Shares of DLF Ltd., Unitech Ltd. could benefit.

  • Tax litigants -- one-time dispute resolution scheme for those involved in retrospective tax disputes to pay only arrears; interest, penalty to be waived. Vodafone Group Plc, Cairn India Ltd. could gain.

  • Infrastructure projects -- allocates 2.21 trillion rupees in total outlay for roads, railways and ports. Larsen & Toubro Ltd., India’s biggest engineering company, could see a boost.

  • Energy industry -- "calibrated" market-based pricing to incentivize deep sea hydrocarbon exploration; 30 billion rupees a year to boost nuclear power investment. Reliance Industries Ltd., Oil & Natural Gas Corp., Oil India Ltd. could benefit.

  • Startup Investors -- Profits made after two years of holding exempt from capital gains tax, compared with three years earlier. Move to benefit angel investors, seed funds and other early backers of startups.

LOSERS:

  • The High Rollers -- 1 percent cess on luxury cars valued at 1 million rupees or more; surcharge on income tax raised to 15 percent from 12 percent on those earning 10 million rupees or more a year; additional 10 percent tax on those earning 1 million rupees or more in dividend income.

  • Coal producers -- tax on coal production to double to 400 rupees per ton. Companies affected include NTPC Ltd., Tata Power Co., Adani Power Ltd.

  • Smokers -- taxes on cigarettes to be hiked as much as 15 percent. Affected stocks include ITC Ltd., India’s biggest cigarette maker, and Godfrey Phillips India Ltd.

  • Carmakers -- an infrastructure cess ranging from 1 percent to 4 percent on vehicles to help combat pollution. Shares of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. fell to a 16-month low.

  • Jewelry makers -- Excise duty on jewelry and higher threshold for exempt purchases. Companies affected include Titan Co.

Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan Kill at Least 26

February 27, 2016 | Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar | The New York Times

Two separate suicide bombings in Afghanistan on Saturday left at least 26 people dead and nearly 50 injured, officials said, days ahead of expected talks between the government and the Taliban.

The first attack, in Asadabad near the governor’s compound in the eastern province of Kunar, killed at least 14 people and wounded 41 others, said Wahidullah Kalimzai, the province’s governor.

Hours later, a suicide bomber in Kabul set off his explosives at the entrance of the Defense Ministry’s headquarters as soldiers and officials were leaving their offices, killing at least 12 people and wounding eight, a statement from the ministry said.

The Taliban were responsible for the Kabul attack, said a spokesman for the insurgents, Zabihullah Mujahid. No one claimed responsibility yet for the blast in Kunar.

Violence has not abated across Afghanistan this winter, unlike in previous years, and it is expected to intensify in the spring, customarily the start of the insurgent fighting season.

The government of President Ashraf Ghani has been trying to engage the Taliban in negotiations, in the hope of reaching a political resolution to the long war. Officials from Afghanistan, the United States, China and Pakistan, where the insurgency’s leadership is based, recently invited the Taliban to face-to-face talks in Islamabad in March.

But the Taliban have yet to publicly declare whether they will attend, and Afghan officials have been playing down any expectations that the talks would lead to a quick reduction in violence even if the insurgents participate.

The target of the attack in Asadabad appeared to have been a tribal elder named Hajji Khan Jan, who had orchestrated a local uprising against the Taliban in his home district, Dangam. Mr. Jan was among the dead, Mr. Kalimzai, the governor, said.

India Business Card: It’s conditions apply for Pakistan

February 27, 2016 | The Indian Express

Clearing the decks for the launch of the India Business Card’ for free movement of businessmen from SAARC countries, including Pakistan, the Home Ministry has decided to impose certain conditions that Pakistani business persons will have to fulfill to receive the card. Intelligence agencies had earlier raised concerns about Pakistani businessmen availing the special card.

Home ministry officials said that the cards would be rolled out in April, and that around 4,000 to 5,000 cards could be issued to entrepreneurs from all SAARC countries. “Printing of the ‘India Business Card’ has been ordered in the India Security Press in Nashik. We are planning to launch it by April 1,” a senior Home Ministry official said.

Business travellers from SAARC countries will be able to enter India for business using the special card that will be given with the visa and will enjoy a validity period of three or five years, giving them multiple entries into the country.

According to sources, for Pakistani businessmen to be eligible for the card, they should run an enterprise worth at least one crore Indian rupees, and must have an annual income of at least 10 lakh Pakistani rupees. They are also required to be a member of any Chamber of Commerce in Pakistan that is recognised by India.

Pakistani businessmen given the special card will be able to travel to 15 cities for a period of three years, source said.

India Nears Completion Of Nuclear Triad With Armed Submarine

February 26, 2016 | NDTV

India is close to becoming the world's sixth country to put a nuclear-armed submarine into operation, a move that would give it a leg up on neighboring Pakistan and intensify a race for more underwater weapons in Asia.

The 6,000-ton Arihant, developed over the past three decades under a secret government program, is completing its final trials in the Bay of Bengal, according to a senior navy officer who declined to be identified because he's not authorized to speak about the program. The vessel will be operated by the navy yet remain under the direct control of India's Nuclear Command Authority headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The deployment would complete India's nuclear triad, allowing it to deliver atomic weapons from land, sea and air. Only the United States and Russia are considered full-fledged nuclear triad powers now, with China and India's capabilities still largely untested.

India's move may prod China to bolster its undersea arsenal and assist nuclear-armed allies Pakistan and North Korea in developing similar technologies. That risks potentially more dangerous altercations in Asia's waters, where territorial disputes have contributed to a region-wide naval buildup.

"You will probably see more friction in maritime sub-regions such as the South China Sea or the Bay of Bengal, which China and India increasingly view as their future bastions" for nuclear ballistic-missile submarines, said Iskander Rehman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution's foreign policy program. "Tensions will no doubt arise from subsurface encounters in such areas, particularly as both conventional and nuclear submarines continue to proliferate throughout the Indo-Pacific region."

On Nov. 25, the Arihant reportedly test-fired a training missile, the Indo-Asian News Service reported, citing officials it didn't identify. Defense spokesman Nitin Wakankar didn't respond to questions seeking comment on the submarine's deployment or the test.

Both India and China espouse a no-first-use policy on nuclear arms. Their efforts to arm submarines with atomic weapons are theoretically aimed at preventing the outbreak of war by discouraging enemies from attacking. Ballistic-missile submarines are considered to have played such a deterrent role in the Cold War.

The U.S., U.K., France, Russia and most recently China now have nuclear-armed submarines in operation. The 110-meter long Arihant would be harder to detect than India's nuclear weapons on land and air, giving it a "second-strike" capability to retaliate powerfully against an enemy who managed to destroy the rest of the arsenal.

China began combat patrols of an armed nuclear-powered submarine last year, the Washington Times reported in December, citing the U.S. Strategic Command and Defense Intelligence Agency. While China hasn't made a formal announcement, and U.S. officials haven't confirmed that nuclear-tipped JL-2 missiles were on board the submarines conducting patrols, they have no evidence that the vessels weren't armed.

"Given China's known capabilities and their efforts to develop a sea-based deterrent, in absence of indicators to the contrary, it is prudent to assume that patrols are occurring," Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for the Strategic Command, told the Washington Times.

Even so, neither India nor China has quite reached the technical prowess to give them a credible nuclear deterrent. Their submarines are loud and easily detected, making them an unlikely second-strike asset, the Lowy Institute for International Policy said in a September report.

Potentially more worrisome is that neither Pakistan nor North Korea subscribe to a no-first-use policy, and there are signs that both nations are pursuing cruder methods of deploying nukes at sea.

Last year, Pakistan finalized a deal to buy eight Chinese conventional submarines, raising concerns that they could be equipped with riskier nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. North Korea also claimed to have tested a submarine-launched missile and said that it had developed technology to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.

"There will likely be a long phase of initial instability as China and India start deploying nuclear missiles on submarines," the Lowy report said. "Chinese and Indian nuclear-armed submarines -- along with possible Pakistani and North Korean units -- may remain detectable by adversaries, making their activities unpredictable in times of crisis. Moreover, these supposedly stabilizing new forces may worsen wider maritime tensions."

China boasts at least 62 submarines, including four capable of firing nuclear ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon. China's construction of artificial islands, radar facilities and runways in the South China Sea may be aimed at using the territory as a base for its nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet, the Lowy report said.

The Arihant will be India's first nuclear-powered and armed vessel that has been designed and built at home. The country is believed to have begun work on it in the 1980s with help from the Soviet Union, particularly on the vessel's miniaturized reactors. In 2012, India also leased a nuclear-powered submarine from Russia under a 10-year, $1 billion contract. The two countries are negotiating a deal to lease another one, the Pioneer reported this month, citing Alexander M. Kadakin, Russia's ambassador in New Delhi.

Despite numerous setbacks, India is making progress on developing the weapons to arm the undersea vessels. In 2013, India test-fired an underwater ballistic missile with a range of 750 kilometers, the Hindu reported, citing an unidentified scientific adviser to the defense minister. Last September, India's Defense Research and Development Organization publicly acknowledged having readied a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a 3,500-kilometer range at an awards event for military scientists attended by Modi.

India needs to show the world it can capably and effectively operate the nuclear-armed submarine, said Jon Grevatt, Asia-Pacific defense-industry analyst for IHS Jane's. The "important milestone" is part of a bigger strategy to ensure its security, he said.

"The Arihant is a stepping stone for India," he said. "I don't think it will alter the balance of power in the region unless India has a fleet of four or five such submarines."

© 2016 Bloomberg L.P.

To make India “skilled”, Modi needs to first set primary schools right

February 26, 2016 | Sarojitha Arockiaraj | Quartz

“If we have to promote the development of our country, then our mission has to be skill development and skilled India,” said prime minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech in 2014.

“Millions and millions of Indian youth should acquire the skills… which could contribute towards making India a modern country.”

The optimism reflected in the prime minister’s words is encouraging, but is it actually doable? After all, India’s education sector is a mammoth apparatus plagued by multiple maladies, from inadequate budget to implementation challenges.

India is one of the youngest nations in the world, with more than half of its population below 25 years of age. By 2020, India’s average age is estimated to be 29 years, compared to 46 years in Europe.

The numbers are stacked in India’s favour even on a longer horizon. In the next 20 years, for instance, the world’s labour force is expected to decline by 4%. But in India, the size of the labour force will expand(pdf) by 32%. This demands an urgent and significant improvement in the skill and knowledge levels of the country’s workforce.

So far, the government has launched four key initiatives:

  • The National Skill Development Mission (pdf), developed to create convergence across sectors and states in terms of skill-training activities.

  • The National Policy for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to empower (pdf) the individual through a process of lifelong learning via instruments such as credible certifications, credit accumulation and transfer, etc.

  • Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, a scheme which will provide financial rewards to candidates who successfully complete approved skill-training programmes.

  • Skill Loan Scheme, which makes available loans ranging from Rs5,000-Rs1.5 lakh to 3.4 million youth of India, seeking to attend skill development programmes.

However, the problem is the source of skilled manpower in India.

The need for skilled manpower by 2020 is estimated to be 109.73 million. But data from the National Sample Survey 68th Round (pdf)(published in September 2015) suggests that only 2.4% of persons aged 15 years and above have technical degrees or diplomas or certificates, despite 46.1% of literates having secondary and above levels of education.

Moreover, more than 40% of people aged 5-29 years were not currently attending classes at any educational institution. So where do employers in India go to hire skilled workforce?

The hard truth is that no country’s workforce simply becomes skilled one fine morning. To meet global challenges and maximise opportunities, the focus must be on the children taking their first steps in learning at India’s 1.3 million anganwadis—where 36.5 million of them get their pre-school education—and the 858,916 primary schools across the country.

The transition from elementary to secondary school is also critical if India wants to skill its massive workforce. Of all children enrolled in class 5, about half cannot read at class 2 level and more than 80% cannot read sentences, according to the 2014 ASER report.

Close to half of all the children finishing eight years of schooling still do not have basic arithmetic skills. Children are not actually learning the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—in school. Some 17.8 million Indian children are out of school, according to 2014 UNICEF estimates (pdf).

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (pdf) gives every child the right to full-time elementary education. This legislation, which guarantees completion of schooling, however, is replete with gaps when it comes to implementation. While the Act, through Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, has helped improve access to education, the learning outcomes are far from satisfactory. Poor infrastructure, a shortage of trained teachers, socio-economic biases, and feeble budgetary allocations are also significant challenges.

Funding for education is the key for any transformation. India’s spending on education has remained at less than 3.5% of GDP, while the required minimum is 6% as recommended by the Kothari Commission (1964-66) (pdf). It is time the government invested more in education. Without good school education, a truly skilled India could remain a pipe dream.

Sri Lanka could accept international actors in war crimes probe

February 25, 2016 | Reuters

Sri Lanka's foreign minister said on Thursday he is willing to consider international participation in investigating possible war crimes during the 26-year Tamil insurgency.

"I think it is only fair that the victims of the war would want some form of guarantee that the new courts will deliver justice and accountability in a fair manner, and for that we are willing to consider the participation of international actors," Mangala Samaraweera, the minister, said at a Washington think tank.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has previously said that foreign participation was not needed for an impartial inquiry.

The foreign minister's comments come after the United Nations said earlier this month that it would not force Sri Lanka to accept a role for international judges, but any process must be impartial and independent.

The United Nations says the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tiger rebels were both likely to have committed war crimes during the war, which ended with a military victory in 2009.

A U.N. resolution calls for all alleged war crimes to be investigated and tried in special courts by international judges.

"They could be judges, they could be forensic experts, investigators, prosecutors, all these options are being looked at," Samaraweera said.

Many Sri Lankans oppose foreign involvement, and supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa believe the U.N. resolution aims to punish the military unfairly.

Samaraweera said the "contours and the architecture" of the court would be worked on in the next five or six months, after consulting with parties including the Tamil National Alliance.

He said that while the judiciary was on the right track, it had been politicized over the years.

Samaraweera met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday and is expected to take part in a strategic dialogue between the two countries later this week.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Leslie Adler)

ADB offers USD 2 bn for Sri Lanka's recovery

February 23, 2016 | The Business Standard

The Asian Development Bank today announced over USD 2.0 billion in loans and equity to Sri Lanka, which is in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

ADB president Takehiko Nakao said the money would be used to finance expressways, railways, power generation and education.

It covers 2016 through 2018 and compares with USD 1.5 billion allocated in the preceeding three years.

"The ADB is re-orienting its operations to meet the evolving needs of Sri Lanka as it moves to become an upper-middle-income country in the next few years," he said after talks with President Maithripala Sirisena and other leaders.

Nakao praised the government which came to power last year promising an end to corruption under the former regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. But he urged better tax collection and prudent spending.

"Both tax revenue enhancement and effective management of public expenditure are urgent tasks for the government," he said.

The new government has gone on a spending spree to deliver on election promises of higher wages and lower prices, increasing the budget deficit and causing concern over the balance of payments.

On Friday the central bank raised benchmark interest rates for the first time in nearly four years, by 50 basis points to 8.0 per cent.

The rate rise came as Sri Lanka made a formal request for an IMF bailout package to aid its struggling economy after a sharp slowdown in growth. Details of any bailout have yet to be finalised.

The IMF, which sent a mission to review Sri Lanka's economy earlier this month, said it had warned the authorities they should make a "stronger effort" immediately to reduce the deficit.

Sri Lanka received USD 2.6 billion from the IMF in 2009 to boost its financial reserves, which had dropped below USD 1 billion at the height of fighting between Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces.

US notes partnerships with Sri Lanka can improve lives of people

February 23, 2016 | Colombo Gazette

The United States says partnerships with Sri Lanka can improve the lives of people in Sri Lanka.

Representatives from the Embassy of the United States of America and senior Sri Lankan officials presided at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which will help dairy farmers in Polonnaruwa to increase their milk sales.

The Minister of Rural Economic Affairs P Harrison joined USAID Acting Mission Director Reed Aeschliman at the ceremony, where farmers also received equipment from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to help increase milk production, the US Embassy in Colombo said today.

“This is one more example of how U.S.-Sri Lankan partnerships improve the lives of people in this country,” said U.S. Ambassador Atul Keshap. “By establishing a reliable source for milk in Polonnaruwa and providing outlets for its sale, both these farmers and dairy companies benefit.”

USAID will help train the farmers in the latest dairy management practices and create village-based chilling systems to collect milk twice daily from those who meet quality standards. The MoU ensures CIC Dairies and Milk Industries of Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd. will purchase the increased production of milk from the dairy farmers for at least two years.

“We thank USAID for its commitment to improve the dairy industry in Sri Lanka,” said Minister Harrison. “We really admire the work it has done in this region and in the North.”

USAID is helping farmers throughout the North, East, and North Central Provinces to improve farming practices, ensure food security, and increase incomes of 3,000 families under the Supporting Opportunities in Livelihoods Development (SOLID) project. The initiative collaborates with the Government of Sri Lanka, local governments, and the private sector. Special care is taken to prioritize assistance to female-headed households, war widows, and resettled families.

U.S. representatives also visited several other USAID projects to promote recovery and resettlement of formerly displaced people. Aeschliman met with grape and mushroom farmers in the North Central Province, and distributed equipment to passion fruit farmers and agricultural water pumps for returnees in the Northern Province.

Pathankot attack: Several arrested in raids in Pakistan's Punjab province

February 23, 2016 | PTI | The Deccan Chronicle

Pakistani authorities have conducted raids in some cities of Punjab province and arrested several suspects in connection with the attack on an Indian air base in Pathankot last month, a media report said.

"The raids were conducted in Sialkot, Gujranwala, Jhelum and Dina cities in Punjab province during the last two days, and some suspects were arrested," an unnamed Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying by the BBC Urdu. They have been shifted to an undisclosed location for interrogation, the official added.

Pakistan has also started investigations regarding the telephone numbers provided by India and used in planning the attacks on the Pathankot airbase. The authorities are looking for those involved directly in the attacks or the facilitators of the attackers, the BBC said. Special teams comprising police and other law-enforcers are conducting raids across the country, especially in central Punjab cities.

"It is suspected that the arrested people have been in contact with the alleged extremists in the near past," the official said, adding that these people went underground when news stories were run by the media after the attacks.

He said these suspects had stopped the use of their mobile numbers (SIMs) and because of this locating them had become very difficult. He, however, said those points are being searched for the suspects where they had last used the said mobile numbers.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the mobile numbers provided by India in the Pathankot case were also included in the case registered by the Pakistani authorities.

He said during the investigation, several people have been detained for questioning. He, however, did not provide the details of those arrested. Pakistani authorities had lodged an FIR in connection with the Pathankot attack on February 18.

The FIR was filed against "unknown persons" after weeks of probe into the terror assault that had led to the postponement of Foreign Secretary-level talks. Seven security personnel were killed when suspected terrorists of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) stormed the Pathankot airbase on January 2.

India has blamed JeM for the attack and identified Masood Azhar as the mastermind of the attack. It has also blamed his brother Rauf and five others for carrying out the attack. Meanwhile, the Dawn said the registration of the FIR appears to have paved the way for a series of next steps.

"The first of those steps is likely to be a trip by Pakistani investigators to India to gather evidence on the basis of which collaborators and architects of the Pathankot air base attack may be formally charged," the paper said.

"The Pathankot attack is an early and serious test of the intentions of both the Pakistani and Indian establishments." The paper said there has been no attempt in Pakistan to downplay the Jaish-e-Mohammed role in the Pathankot attack.

Insisting on resumption of dialogue, it said, "For reasons of both security and prosperity, the governments of India and Pakistan owe it to their publics to restart and sustain a bilateral dialogue."

Train service between India-Pakistan to resume on Thursday

February 23, 2016 | Hindustan Times

The operation of Samjhauta Express -- a train service between Inida and Pakistan -- which has been suspended due to the protests in Haryana, will be resumed from Thursday, the Pakistan Railways said.

The train and bus services between the two countries were suspended following widespread protests by the Jat community in Haryana that have cut off road and rail links to Delhi.

However, officials at the Lahore office of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation on Monday said the Dosti Bus service would resume its operation after clearance from Indian authorities, Dawn online reported.

“Indian rail authorities have informed us that they operated a special train on the Uttar Pradesh route to transport more than 1,000 passengers to Delhi from Chandigarh,” said an official involved in the operation of the train that runs between Wagah and Attari on Mondays and Thursdays.

Some 200 passengers have got their seats reserved for Monday’s Samjhauta Express.

“Tickets issued to passengers for Monday would be valid for the next immediate journey,” said the officer, adding that the train can occupy up to 500 passengers.

Pakistan to host crucial Afghan peace talks by March

February 23, 2016 | The Express Tribune

Pakistan will host direct talks between the government in Kabul and Afghan Taliban, including other insurgent groups, by the first week of March, said a joint statement issued at the conclusion of the fourth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) in Kabul on Tuesday.

“The QCG member states invite Taliban and other groups to participate through their authorised representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government,” added the statement available with The Express Tribune.

The communique said, “Pakistan has graciously offered to host this round of talks in Islamabad.”

The delegations were led by Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Chinese Ambassador Yao Jing and US Charge d’Affaires David Lindwall.

“The QCG members welcomed the statement by Ashraf Ghani on February 15 which underlined the Afghan government’s commitment for peace and reconciliation with Taliban groups and Hezb-e-Islami,” the statement read.

The member states also appreciated the decision by Afghanistan and Pakistan to constitute a bilateral joint working group to work with the honourable ulemas of Afghanistan and Pakistan for their support to the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process.

At a meeting in Islamabad last month, officials from the four countries had said face-to-face talks between the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban should begin by the end of February.

Ex-Maldives leader asks for more prison leave

February 23, 2016 | Channel News Asia

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed has requested two more months' leave from prison after travelling to London for urgent medical treatment, the honeymoon island nation's government said Tuesday.

Nasheed, whose conviction and jailing last year on terror-related charges has been widely criticised, was allowed to fly to Britain for 30 days to receive spinal surgery.

His leave expired on Monday, but the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo said he had been granted more time to complete his application for a two-month extension.

"Nasheed has been given more time to complete his application for medical leave," the High Commission said in a statement, without giving more details.

The 48-year-old was accorded a red carpet welcome and received by Prime Minister David Cameron after arriving in Britain in January.

Nasheed's legal team includes the high-profile human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

He told reporters at the time that he had not yet decided whether to return to the Maldives to resume his 13-year jail sentence.

Nasheed's party confirmed that he had applied for an extension and was prepared to submit any documents the government required.

Aishath Azima Shakoor, Maldives' minister for legal affairs in the president's office, told reporters in Colombo last month that an extension request would be viewed favourably.

The Maldives government originally granted him leave in a deal brokered by Sri Lanka, India and former colonial power Britain.

The Maldives, a popular upmarket tourist destination, has been gripped by political turmoil and faced international criticism for an alleged crackdown on dissent.

The island atoll last week jailed the leader of its main Islamist party for 12 years on a terror charge, sparking fresh outrage from Western nations.

Sheikh Imran Abdullam, a Nasheed supporter, was charged with inciting unrest during an anti-government rally.

Nasheed became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives in 2008 and served for four years before he was toppled in what he called a coup backed by the military and police.

He was jailed on terrorism charges relating to the arrest of an allegedly corrupt judge in 2012, when he was still in power.

India set to seal major power deal in Bangladesh, beating China

February 23, 2016 | The Times of India

State-run Indian firm Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL) is poised to seal a contract to build a $1.6 billion power plant in Bangladesh, beating out a Chinese competitor in the latest commercial tussle between the region's two dominant powers.

After China's recent success in pushing development projects in Sri Lanka, a breakthrough in Bangladesh would be welcome news for Indian officials who have long fretted over Beijing's encroachment on to territory it considers its own back yard.

India believes Bangladesh is a part of a "String of Pearls" China is building across the Indian Ocean that stretches from Gwadar port in Pakistan to Djibouti on the African coast where it is building a naval base.

After years of negotiations, BHEL will sign a contract to build a 1,320-megawatt (MW) thermal power station in Khulna in southern Bangladesh on February 28, officials in New Delhi and Dhaka said.

China's Harbin Electric International Company Ltd, which has power projects in Iran, Turkey and Indonesia among others, lost the bid on technical grounds, said a Bangladesh official, speaking on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to talk to journalists.

But Anwarul Azim, a spokesman for the Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company Limited, a joint venture set up to build the coal-fired plant, said BHEL was the lowest bidder.

The Indian government's external lending arm, the Exim Bank, has backed up BHEL's offer with nearly 70 percent funding of the project's costs at a soft interest rate of around 1 percent above Libor, the leading global benchmark for pricing transactions, an Indian government official said.

He declined to be named, saying the two sides were about to seal the contract.

On Friday, Libor stood at 1.13 percent for a dollar loan for a year.

"Exim is very positive about it, very bullish about it and looking to taking this forward," David Rasquinha, the bank's deputy managing director, told Reuters of the Khulna project.

It would be the biggest foreign project by an Indian power firm, eclipsing a plant already built in Rwanda and a planned one in Sri Lanka.

Officials at China's Harbin who dealt with the bid were not immediately available for comment.

But an employee in the after-sale service department said: "The company has been involved in many such tenders, it is very normal - either we win or lose the bids."

Second setback

India and China have stepped up bids for infrastructure projects in the region in recent years, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushing for a greater engagement with smaller neighbours after years of neglect.

The loss of the power project is the second setback for China, after Japan muscled into Bangladesh's port sector last year, offering 80 percent financing on easy terms for a seaport, barely 25 km from a $8 billion deep water port that Beijing was negotiating to construct.

The proposed power plant will have two units of 660 MW that will generate power for local consumption. Nearly two-fifths of Bangladesh's 160 million people do not have access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

The project, though, has raised environmental concerns, with activists warning that the movement of coal posed a threat to the nearby Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forests.

They said the government had acquired the land and pressed on with the power station even before the environmental assessment was completed.

"This will have a devastating and irreversible impact on the Sundarbans, its ecology and biodiversity," said Anu Mohammad, secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Power, Port and Mineral Resources.

"We need power but not at the cost of Sundarbans."

Bangladesh finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, however, told reporters recently that the necessary steps had been taken to reduce the impact on the environment.

 

Caste protests spotlight India's contentious quota system

February 23, 2016 | Srinivas Mazumdaru | DW

Protesters belonging to the Jat community recently went on a rampage in the northern Indian state of Haryana, torching buildings, blockading traffic on the main highway connecting the state with the national capital New Delhi, and cutting off water supply to the city by seizing a crucial waterway.

The Jats, currently listed as upper caste, are demanding that they be given quotas in jobs and education similar to those enjoyed by the country's lower castes. And they only called off their protests late on February 22 after the state government accepted their demands, pledging to introduce a bill on quotas for their community in the next assembly session.

But to fully understand the Jats' demand, one needs to take a look at the quota policy - known in India as the "reservation system" - which the Indian government has implemented since the country's independence.

India's post-independence constitution, adopted in 1950, mandates "positive discrimination" for the uplift of those who were traditionally oppressed and neglected as a result of the caste system - a religion-sanctioned, segregation system that divides people into different social groups based on their birth or, in some cases, their occupation.

The SC, ST and OBC

While India currently has thousands of castes, they are all categorized into four different groups. Three of these four - namely the scheduled castes (SC), the scheduled tribes (ST) and other backward castes (OBC) - are the beneficiaries of the country's affirmative action programs, while those with no claim to the quotas are grouped under one category.

The SCs were historically among the most repressed communities, and shunned by the upper castes as "untouchables." For centuries, they constituted the lowest segment of India's caste-based hierarchical society.

The ST groups, on the other hand, were tribal communities living in remote forests with little contact to outside world. The SCs and STs have been granted quotas of 15 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in all government jobs and higher education institutions - meaning that those jobs and college seats are filled by members of those castes.

Although the reservation system was originally envisaged for the SCs and STs, in the early 1990s the Indian government extended it to the OBCs following a recommendation by a government-appointed committee. This quota currently stands at 27 percent.

In addition to the slots reserved for these communities, the SC, ST and OBC groups can also compete for non-reserved government jobs and higher education seats.

Pros and cons

But since its conception, the reservation policy has been a controversial subject in India, with both supporters and opponents arguing passionately about the benefits and costs of the system.

Proponents say quotas reduce inequalities and expand job and education opportunities to the previously deprived groups.

For instance, Gauri Khandekar, an India expert and deputy director of the Brussels-based think tank Global Relations Forum, says that despite the system's drawbacks, the caste-based affirmative action policy has proven to be quite potent in the case of India's severely marginalized communities. "If not for positive discrimination measures, these opportunities wouldn't be available at all for quite a few people," she told DW.

Even though there is a lack of extensive research on the impact of the quota policies in improving the lot of the lower castes, data show the share of these communities in government jobs has seen a significant rise.

Critics, however, contend that the policy perpetuates and reinforces caste-based identities. "The system of quotas has produced a number of rather perverse and unforeseen consequences," said Sumit Ganguly, an India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington. He told DW that in today's India, a far better and fairer system would involve reservations based upon income and resources rather than caste.

Opponents also claim that the quotas only benefit a minority of privileged people among the lower castes, and not really those who lack the ability and resources to compete with well-off sections of society.

Another unintended side effect has been the strengthening of "identity politics" between the different groups, said Christian Wagner, an India expert and senior fellow at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Politicization and polarization

While reservation systems may be a useful instrument to overcome socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities, such quotas always lead to polarization, especially in a heterogeneous society like India, Wagner noted, adding that caste is nowadays regarded as an important instrument to mobilize a group's interests.

Observers like N. Sathiya Moorthy, director of the Chennai Chapter of the India-based Observer Research Foundation, believe the move to grant quotas beyond the constitutionally-mandated reservations for "untouchables" and hill tribes in the 1990s led to a huge politicization of the issue, with many political factions seeking to create caste-based allegiances among the electorate.

Compounding the problem is the dominant role caste plays in today's India. Although it may not be an important factor for many Indians living in the country's big cities, caste-based discrimination still persists across the country, with caste continuing to heavily influence people's identities in rural communities. And over two-thirds of India's population still lives in the countryside.

In light of this, there has been growing resentment among the upper castes, given that the quota policy effectively lowers the requirements lower caste candidates need to be admitted into highly competitive colleges and government jobs.

The Jats want quotas in jobs and education similar to those enjoyed by India's lower castes

Fewer opportunities

The latest caste-related unrest by the Jats occurred against this backdrop, and it followed similar protests by other upper caste communities such as the Patels in the western state of Gujarat.

Given that less than 10 percent of India's workforce is employed in the organized sector, said analyst Wagner, it is not surprising that even middle and higher castes are seeking reservations for themselves in order to benefit from the quotas and secure stable jobs.

Analysts also criticize that Indian governments have laid more emphasis on expanding the scope of reservations, than on providing quality education to all by improving the standard of government-run schools.

Many statistics show that large segments of Indian society still have fewer education, health and employment opportunities, said Wagner. The expert believes that the quota system could only be scrapped if there were an enormous expansion of the education system coupled with a massive increase in employment opportunities for the poor. "But this is not very likely," he noted.

Impact on development

Experts such as Moorthy say the latest protests are also bound to distract the Indian government's developmental efforts in the short and medium term, with issues such as the acquisition of land for setting up industry potentially acquiring a caste-related dimension.

To prevent such a development, analysts call for increased efforts to boost economic growth in the states impacted by the caste-related riots. Analyst Khandekar, for instance, points out that both PM Narendra Modi's "Make in India" campaign - designed to promote the country as a manufacturing hub - and the plans to build smart cities are just taking off, with the worst-affected northern Indian states featuring strongly in them.

She also added that economic expansion in India will eventually lead to changes in the social attitudes in the country. However, analyst Ganguly warned that if protests like the recent ones continue apace, Modi's grand hopes of promoting rapid economic growth are "likely to go up in wisps of smoke."

Bhutan holds tourism roadshow in Gujarat

February 23, 2016 | The Times of India

In a bid to attract tourists from Gujarat, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) held a first-ever tourism roadshow in Gujarat in a hotel in Ahmedabad on Monday . More than 100 tour operators and travel agents of Ahmedabad participated in the event along with around 10 travel operators of Bhutan.

"India continues to be our number one source market for tourism. With the latest regional arrivals touching 1,09,052, it demonstrates an impressive growth of 57% percent over last year. For us, India remains the biggest market for both regional and overall arrivals," said Tashi Tenzin, head, services, TCB.

As part of its India agenda, TCB has focused on Gujarat as a key source market to enhance its Indian footprint in the year 2016, through a road show targeted at key travel agents in Ahmedabad. "This would be the first of many initiatives to tap the Gujarat market. The western region of India accounts for 20% of tourists' traffic from India to Bhutan," added Tenzin. 

He further said that we are focusing on travellers on honeymoon and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events) tourism from Gujarat to Bhutan. Unlike visitors from other countries, Indian visitors don't require visa to visit Bhutan. TCB will soon launch an online permit system for the Indian travellers, wherein if they come through a Bhutanese tour operator or hotelier, they can process the permits online in advance. A group of 300 people is likely to travel from Ahmedabad to Bhutan by chartered flight for a conference next month.

BNP leader Salahuddin reluctant to return to Bangladesh immediately, claims public prosecutor

February 23, 2016 | bdnews24

BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed is apparently trying to prolong his case in India in a bid to extend his stay in the country, alleges IC Jha, the public prosecutor (PP) in the case.

A former Bangladesh minister, Ahmed was arrested under Section 14 of India’s Foreigners Act in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong on May 11 last year on charges of illegally entering India.

At present he is out on bail, but he has been barred from moving out of the jurisdiction of the Shillong court.

Jha said the hearing of witnesses and submission of evidence would be over by March.

At the last hearing on Feb 18, Stephen Sailo, head of the Department of Urology, North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, Shillong, deposed in the presence of P Lamare, the investigating officer.

To date, as many as five witnesses have been examined and cross-examined. The investigation officer will be the last witness to be examined.

“Ahmed has already admitted before the court that he is a Bangladesh national and has entered Indian territory without any valid documents. So it’s an open-and-shut case,” Jha said.

“But from the arguments of Ahmed’s lawyers in court it appears that he simply wants to kill some time here,” Jha added.

The BNP leader has rented a sprawling bungalow on the outskirts of Shillong.

A senior Meghalaya police official too claimed that from Ahmed’s demeanour it was very clear that he was not keen to return to Bangladesh immediately.

Jha and the police official cited the current “political situation” in Bangladesh as a reason for Ahmed’s reluctance to return to his country at this juncture.

Several BNP leaders were allegedly being killed and incarcerated in Bangladesh.

Recently, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal had said that BNP leader Salahuddin Ahmed would be brought back to Bangladesh once his trial in India had been completed.

US condemns attack on Hindu priest, lauds Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism efforts

February 23, 2016 | bdnews24

The United States has condemned in the “strongest possible terms” the attack on a Hindu priest in a northern Bangladesh district.

Ambassador Marcia Bernicat in a statement says Washington supports the government’s “efforts to identify the perpetrators of this and all extremist attacks”.

She said those were “cowardly acts” and that the assailants targeted “members of a community with historic roots in Bangladesh and that strikes at Bangladesh’s traditions of diversity and harmony”.

Priest Jagneshwar Roy was murdered on Sunday in a Panchagarh village. Gopal Chandra Roy also came under attack while trying to save the priest.

Radical outfit Islamic State is said to have claimed responsibility for the murder on Sunday. Police said they had arrested three people over the killing.

The ambassador said the Bangladesh government’s commitment to rooting out militancy was demonstrated by the recent arrest of suspects involved in these incidents.

She said the commitment was also showed by the counter-terrorism raid in Dhaka, which led to the seizure of bombs and bomb-making materials.

Nepal ends fuel rationing after supply from India improves

February 22, 2016 | Reuters

Nepal ended months-long fuel rationing after supply from India improved, following the end of a border blockade by ethnic protesters against a new constitution, an official said on Tuesday.

Relief came as Prime Minister K.P. Oli visited India, where he met Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and cleared up differences over Nepal's adoption of its first post-monarchy constitution last September.

Nepal adopted the charter in hope of bringing stability after years of civil war, but it upset the minority Madhesi community in the south who blocked key border crossings with India causing severe shortage of oil and cooking gas.

Protesters called off the blockade this month and allowed supply trucks stranded for more than four months to roll into the landlocked country after the government changed the constitution to provide greater political voice to the Madhesis and vowed to resolve other grievances through talks.

"We are now getting 70 percent of our normal fuel supply from India," Nepal Oil Corporation official Dipak Baral told Reuters. "With this there is no need to restrict distribution of fuel to the public."

India is Nepal's sole supplier of fuel. Rationing had led to black marketeering and caused lines of motorists outside petrol stations to stretch for several kilometres.

Nepal blamed India for supporting the protesters who share close family and cultural ties with it and causing the shortage that strained ties between the South Asian neighbours.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Michael Perry)

Threats to Academic Freedom in Afghanistan Today, Personal Experience

February 22, 2016 | Sayed Hassan Akhlaq | Huffington Post

I am writing to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in terms of the less-mentioned points. I am saying less-mentioned points, because firstly I graduated from philosophy, which may offer you a new perspective. Second, I want to share my own experiences, rather than official reports which are available easily.

Afghanistan is a country which still has few reliable demographics. Only a recent report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) pointed out that Afghan Ministry of Education officials had repeatedly been profiting off of aids for the schools that actually didn't exist in the country.The report stated that the donors had been provided with fraudulent data and statistics of schools. So the United States might have paid aid money for schools that did not exist.

Since this is related to public education which cares for little boys and girls, how can we trust in statistics related to critical issues like academic freedom? So let's take a look at Afghanistan in general to know the background. And then we will take a closer look at academic freedom.

Rich Background

Afghanistan, culturally and politically, is considered as a part of the Middle East. The great Pakistani poet and intellectual, Muhammad Iqbal, called it "the heart of Asia." It is bordered by Pakistan in the south and east; Iran in the west; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the north; and China in the far northeast. This geographical spot tells us that what we can expect to hear from Afghanistan is associated with international policy on one hand and the Middle Eastern societies on the other hand.

Its thousands of years of history made Afghanistan a cradle of ancient civilization. Through history Afghanistan has been target for numerous military campaigns including Alexander the Great, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, British, Soviet Union, and currently the Western powers led by the US after 9/11.

Over 99% of its population is Muslim with majority of Sunni-Islam. During the Islamic period, Afghanistan has produced many world-famous figures of Islam including: Abu Hanifah, the founder of the largest school of Shariah within Islam, al-Farabi and Avicenna the great Muslim philosophers, al-Afghani the father of Contemporary political Islam, and Rumi, the favored Sufi poet.

Alongside Iran and Turkey, it is among the first countries in the region which began modernization, establishing constitution, sending girls abroad for education and the like in 1923, around a century ago.

Over the last decades, this process of modernization through many evolutions and revolutions leads to the current Afghanistan which illustrates a deep crisis in both the national and religious identity.

Academic freedom in Afghanistan.

I am so sorry in expressing the negative points, but I think I have to talk about them because by ignoring the tragic events we cannot overcome them.

Currently more than one hundred universities and high education institutes, public, private, and non-profit organizations, are running in Afghanistan. Kabul University, the first modern institute of higher education in Afghanistan was established in 1932, 84 years ago. Although the numbers and popularity of academic institutes is growing up, especially in the last decade, academic freedom is not growing. I would like to mention merely three reasons for that:

First, religious authority. In Afghanistan, like many other Islamic countries, modern schools are known in contrast to traditional schools or seminaries (Madrasa). This indeed reflects the opposition between modern and traditional schools, and thus, Mullahs and intellectuals. Unfortunately, many religious issues are considered taboo like the necessity of the Islamic state, the real meaning of Jihad and so on.

Also the three decades civil war has resulted in people being far from education and more religiously fundamentalist.  New Madrassas are growing up, particularly by Saudi Arabia's funding which promotes a very restricted and literal meaning of Islam. This limitation implies that academics do not touch the fundamental concepts of current situations.

Second, political powers. For many reasons including the political process of modernization, extension of Marxism, Jihadist Islam, tribe tensions, failure of national identity, and most importantly loss of previous order, there are many local powers in Afghanistan who cannot tolerate to be criticized in academia.

Ironically, you can openly criticize the central government, due to its dependence on international funds, but not the local and regional power, for example the governor of Balkh or Nangarhar, or tribe leaders. If you are not supported or at least connected to another local power, it is impossible that you can exercise your academic freedom in classes.

The problem is that if you are connected to another regional power, the deal among local powers means you have to play in terms of their relationships. Another problem is that criticizing a political leader can be interpreted easily not only as insulting a political leader but as a symbol of a tribe.

For example, criticizing Shah Masoud, Hikmatyar, Mazari, and Dustom can be understood respectively as insulting Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, the large races in Afghanistan.

This complicated situation threats academic freedom so much. I'll give two personal examples -- one from an everyday city and the second about the capital. When I was heading a university in Farah, I asked my colleagues to not criticize the Taliban's fundamental concepts in the university because that region was influenced by the Taliban.

The second is more interesting. Once I wanted to give a lecture in the philosophy department of Kabul Education University. They told me that they will provide for me the chance to give a free public speech if I accept to discuss an issue that nobody understands anything of at all. The colleague justified his position saying if you talk decisively, you have to take a side in the discussion and it will harm my position because I invited you and the opposite side will become angry with me!

Third, the academic against academic freedom. High educational centers in current Afghanistan consist of public and private owners. The public centers are suffering from corrupt administration; in recent years Afghanistan was among the most corrupt societies alongside Somalia and North Korea. With regards to academic freedom, firing, hiring, and promotion in the public institutions happen if an individual only keeps the academic activities far from others' sensitivity which is as vast as your imagination.

Let's give you a personal example. I was advised to control my expression in teaching the History of Islamic Philosophy in the National Academy of Sciences in Afghanistan, the only public research authority in the country while I was working as its adviser. It occurred because some colleagues thought this history insulted their religious beliefs. Of course, if I wanted to promote in the Academy, I had to sensor my research so much, even in the history of Islam. The private institutions threaten the academic because of financial or racial interests.

Although there are some religious institutions that are restricted in terms of religious teachings and research, most centers are built to serve a financial agenda. Thus investors do not want to waste their money with giving the opportunity to the teachers to touch sensitive issues. Many have no interest in academic achievements so few private centers have an active press or research center. The poor teachers have to keep themselves silent within academic circles to not lose their jobs.

Powers meeting in on Afghanistan see Taliban talks by March

February 23, 2016 | Mirwais Harooni | Reuters

Afghan government and Taliban representatives are expected to meet in Islamabad by the first week of March for their first direct talks since a previous round of the peace process broke down last year, officials said on Tuesday.

Following a meeting in Kabul, the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China, "expressed strong support for the upcoming direct talks between the Government of Afghanistan and authorized representatives of the Taliban and other groups."

In a joint statement released by the Afghan foreign ministry, they said the first round of direct peace talks is expected to take place by the first week of March in the Pakistani capital.

On Monday, the powerful chief of the Pakistan army, Gen. Raheel Sharif met officials from Qatar, where the Taliban maintains a political office, to prepare the way for Tuesday's meeting, the fourth in a series of quadrilateral encounters aimed at laying the ground for full peace talks.

However the Taliban has been riven by factional infighting since last year's announcement of the death of the movement's founder Mullah Mohammad Omar some two years earlier. The Taliban has not yet clearly indicated whether it will take part in any talks with the Western-backed government in Kabul.

New leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour has laid down preconditions for taking part in any talks, including the withdrawal of all foreign forces, while a breakaway faction that opposes him has rejected any negotiations.

But officials in Kabul have expressed hopes that at least some parts of the movement and other insurgent groups affiliated with it can be persuaded to join.

"I think there's a lot of Taliban that want to come," the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell said earlier this month. "That's what's going to be hard, to get all the right people to the table."

Tuesday's four-way talks in Kabul came against a backdrop of continuing violence and increasing military pressure from the Taliban, which has stepped up its insurgency since the withdrawal of most international troops from combat in 2014.

Over the weekend, Afghan officials confirmed that troops had pulled out of two key districts in Helmand, leaving the entire northern half of the volatile province in the hands of the insurgents.

Insurgents have also kept up their suicide bombing campaign, with 14 people killed in an attack on a clinic in Parwan province north of Kabul on Monday.

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Michael Perry and Katharine Houreld)

How IS has been making enemies in Afghanistan

February 21, 2016 | BBC

You have probably heard about the rise of so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan. The militant group claims to be building a new province of what it calls "the Caliphate" in the mountains in the east of the country. But it has made some serious tactical errors, says BBC Afghan Service reporter, Sayed Abdullah Nizami.

I am from Kunar, one of the provinces where so-called Islamic State is strongest. I went to the local school and lots of my friends ended up as jihadi fighters, some have even joined IS.

I suppose lots of people reading this would be surprised and maybe even frightened by that. But joining a jihadi group isn't unusual around here, in fact it is a kind of career choice. There isn't much work so young men look for other things to do and the jihadi groups have money and guns.

I was lucky. My family is not rich but I managed to get a job as a reporter and that allowed me to watch as IS emerged and grew.

No Afghan will be surprised that Kunar was one of the first places where IS - or Da'esh as we call it - appeared. The region has always had a reputation for being difficult to control.

There are lots of different tribal groups but they all tend to ignore the government in Kabul, whoever is in charge. Neither the Americans or the Taliban ever really held sway.

We pride ourselves on our warrior traditions. My own father was a jihadi, who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and I'm proud my dad fought for his country. One of the things that persuaded him to do this was religion - he hated the fact that foreign atheists had taken over our country.

He wasn't the only one - lots of the leaders of Afghanistan's government are also former mujahideen. But our religious traditions in Kunar are a bit different from those in the rest of the country.

Most Afghans follow the Hanifi tradition of Islam but around here many of us grew up in the Wahhabi tradition - a very orthodox, hardline form of Islam, which teaches that people should try to live as the first Muslims did.

The founder of Wahhabism in Afghanistan, Sheikh Jamil, was from a town in Kunar. He got a lot of money from the Saudis to build madrassahs and also used it to support insurgent groups.

The extremist ideologies he promoted were popular when I was growing up but actually most of my friends were not really that religious. What they were interested in was the opportunity to fight.

The headmaster was a big influence. He used to encourage boys to join the jihadis. Back then it was more about groups like Hizb Islami than the Taliban, which has always been a Hanifi movement.

But when foreign troops invaded in 2001 there was a surge of support for the Taliban. My headmaster joined them, and he is now the commander of an important Taliban unit up on the border with Pakistan.

I first heard talk of Da'esh early in 2014. To be honest, at first I didn't think it was anything special, just another international jihadi movement. There have been a few of those around here, including al-Qaeda.

But soon it became clear that Da'esh was different.

Da'esh was built up by a small group of fighters, maybe 60 or 70 in total. Most of them came from over the border in Pakistan and it was obvious that they were being funded from abroad.

Right from the start Da'esh had lots of money and weapons. It was also very well organised, better organised than the Taliban ever was.

They did not try to "tax" local people, something the Taliban and other jihadis do. That made them popular.

In July 2014 I met one of the organisers of Da'esh in Afghanistan. He called me up out of the blue and asked if I would like to interview him. He knew I was a journalist and it was clear he wanted publicity.

The man told me he was printing Da'esh magazines and propaganda in Pashto, the local language. He said the movement was really gaining ground in Kunar and two neighbouring provinces, and showed me a video of group of people pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Da'esh.

I could tell he was right because shortly after I met him two big local jihadi groups signed up with Da'esh, and when the war in Syria intensified, lots of the local people who had been associated with al-Qaeda switched over to it.

It was clear the group had really ambitious plans in my region.

Early last year one of the local commanders told me his plan was to make Kunar a second IS stronghold, like the one they have established in Syria and Iraq. The whole of this region would be part of a new province of the Caliphate known as Khorasan, the historic name for the region covering much of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

He said the plan was they would keep a low profile, quietly building strength and support locally. An FM radio station was set up to broadcast propaganda in the region.

But then the tactical errors began.

The main problem was the commanders just couldn't keep control of their own men. In July last year they got into conflict with the local Taliban and one of their top leaders. Then another commander started attacking government forces in the neighbouring province.

It has been a disaster for Da'esh. Instead of gradually planting deep roots they came out into the open and now they are being attacked from all sides.

The US has made Da'esh an official target in Afghanistan, and has launched a series of special forces operations and drone strikes against it in the last couple of weeks.

They are under assault from Afghan government forces and the Taliban, as well as local militias - everyone seems to be against them.

What is more they have lost the support of local people because they have brutally tortured and murdered innocent villagers.

The people I know who got involved with Da'esh are now keeping a very low profile. Lots of them were once Taliban fighters but it is very hard for them to go back.

Da'esh are much, much weaker now than they were even just a few weeks ago.

But I don't think we have seen the last of Islamic State in my region. Now the ideology and fighters are here it will very hard to get rid of them completely.

Kashmir conflict: India says stand-off over with militants killed

February 22, 2016 | BBC

A three-day stand-off between soldiers and militants in Indian-administered Kashmir has ended with all three attackers killed, police said.

The militants killed five soldiers and a civilian in the gun battle near Srinagar.

Clashes began when the gunmen ambushed a military convoy before taking refuge in a training institute on Saturday.

A new exchange of gunfire began on Sunday morning as soldiers repeatedly tried to dislodge them.

Part of the building was on fire as security forces came under prolonged gunfire.

Two army captains were among those killed, military officials said.

"The encounter is over. All three militants have been killed," Reuters quoted Deputy Inspector General of Police Ghulam Hassan Bhat as saying on Monday.

About 100 students and staff were evacuated from the building on Saturday as it was encircled by troops.

Earlier on Monday, the security forces said they were preparing for a final assault on the institute and were reported to be using reconnaissance drones in preparation.

Police have described the militants as "suspected anti-India rebels".

The gunmen took refuge in the government-run Entrepreneurship Development Institute after attacking paramilitary forces in a convoy on the main road linking Srinagar to Jammu.

Witnesses say the gunmen told civilians in the complex to "save themselves" and move to a nearby hostel on the campus as they broke into the premises.

Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan in its entirety, has been a flashpoint for more than 60 years.

The two South Asian rivals have fought two wars over the region in the Himalayas.

British MPs praise Maldives' democracy after Indian Ocean country funds fact-finding visit

February 21, 2016 | Philip Sherwell | The Telegraph

Three British MPs on an all-expenses trip funded by the Maldives have extolled their hosts’ democratic values at a time when the country is buffeted by international condemnation for its human rights record.

The MPs lauded the country’s long-time ex-dictator as a champion of democracy and described the jail cell of former President Mohamed Nasheed as “quite luxurious”.

David Amess, the Conservative who led the delegation, criticised foreign politicians “who do not understand the history of your great country” and dismissed calls for financial sanctions and even a tourist boycott.

The economy of the Maldives is heavily dependent on upmarket resort tourism and pressure for sanctions and a boycott from the likes of Sir Richard Branson has rattled the government.

Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) accused the MPs of “manipulating facts” and failing to address concerns raised with them by opposition representatives about democracy and human rights.

But the MPs’ opinions were predictably hailed by a government that has been heavily criticised for its treatment of political opponents such as Mr Nasheed.

Dunya Maumoon, the Foreign Minister whose department paid for the trip, appeared to take a veiled swipe at Amal Clooney, the British human rights lawyer who has called for financial sanctions as legal counsel for Mr Nasheed,

“For too long the Maldives have been smeared by those who – for reasons of personal ambition – have sought to paint the country in a poor light and distort the facts,” Ms Maumoon said.

“This has put strain on Maldives-UK relations when it did not need to be the case. We are very pleased therefore that visiting members of the UK Parliament have seen for themselves that the situation on the ground is very different.”

Mr Amess was particularly fulsome in his praise for Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Ms Dunya’s father and the half-brother of the current president, Abdulla Yameen.

Mr Gayoom ruled the Maldives for 30 years with an iron grip. But he was persuaded to hold the country’s first free elections in 2008 when he was surprised to be beaten by Mr Nasheed, a former journalist and activistwhom he frequently jailed.

“If he was corrupt and a dictator it seems rather extraordinary, that he lost the election,” said Mr Amess, MP for Southend West.

Sir David, who is chairman of the All-Party British-Maldives Parliamentary Group, was joined on the business-class flights by Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party MP and Mark Menzies, a fellow Conservative.

The three acknowledged that their trip had been funded by the Maldives, but they rejected any suggestion that had coloured their judgment and noted that they had tried and failed to persuade the British government to pay for the visit. “It does not indicate in any way that we are in their pocket,” said Mr Paisley.

They made no mention of a massive corruption scandal embroiling the government or of the latest controversy about the fees paid to Cherie Blair’s law firm for working for the state.

Lamenting that the Maldives “has been portrayed in a rather unfair fashion”, Mr Amess praised the president for recently proposing a relaunching of multiparty talks about the country’s woes.

But analysts have noted that any such talks will be hampered by the fact that the leaders of the two main opposition parties have been jailed on controversial terrorism charges in the last year.

Mr Nasheed, who is currently on medical leave in Britain, was sentenced to 13 years for his alleged role in the removal and detention of a judge during anti-government protests when he was president.

And Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the largest Islamic party, was just last week jailed for 12 years for allegedly inciting violence during a speech to an opposition rally calling for the release of Mr Nasheed.

The delegation dismissed the opposition’s claim that there were 1,800 political prisoners in Maldives as a “bizarre fabrication”, noting that the prison population of Maldives is less than the number.

Sir David said the MPs had been shown Mr Nasheed’s prison cell. “Where he’s being held was quite luxurious, really,” he said, noting the presence of a garden swing, a television and a “fairly comfortable” bed.

He also hailed the country’s freedom of the press a day after Mr Yameen caused media outrage by announcing plans to make defamation a criminal offence as allegations of rampant corruption swirl around his administration.

The MPs highlighted their meetings with representatives the opposition during the trip. But the MDP made clear that it was not impressed by their conclusions.

“The MDP is worried over deliberate omission of these concerns,” the party said a statement read. “The party has come to understand that the government of Maldives sponsored the whole visit, and is, therefore, worried that the [delegation] may find it difficult to state anything detrimental to their sponsors.”

The MPs said they would present their findings to the British government, which has been one of the strongest critics of the Maldives for its treatment of opponents and has frequently called for the release of all political prisoners.

Ms Dunya voiced the government’s pleasure with the result of the trip, however. “They have drawn their own, positive, conclusions on the state of affairs in our country,” she said, noting their access to all parties and locations.

“We thank them for their forthright comments that a call for boycotts and sanctions wrong and against the interests of the people of the Maldives, as well as their acknowledgement that certain individuals have made false claims – from prison conditions and numbers to even the state of democracy in our country – for their own ends.

“The Maldives has always sought positive, constructive engagement with the parliament, Government and people of the United Kingdom. We see this visit therefore as important start of an improvement in relations and the re-fostering of the partnership between two nations that share so much common history and who should not be pushed apart”.

Just hours after the MPs left the country, protesters gathered to chant “Cherie Blair, give us our money back” after it was revealed that her law firm Omnia Strategy was paid £420,000 to provide communications advice to the Maldives. Omnia also had a second contract for legal and governance advice.

Omnia has said that it is investigating allegations that £210,000 was paid on behalf of a fugitive Maldivian businessman accused of involvement in the country’s biggest corruption scandal.

Asked about the role of the former Labour leader’s wife at a talk at the Chatham House think-tank in London, Mr Nasheed said: “I'm very saddened that Cherie Blair decided to do this and I hope she will apologise to the people of the Maldives.”

Russia Pulls Back From Cooperating With U.S. on Afghanistan

Feb 20, 2016 | Mujib Mashal and Andrew E. Kramer | The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — For all the conflicts in the world in which Washington is at odds with Moscow, the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has been one area where the Obama administration’s interests and Russia’s concerns coincide.

Disputes over the wars in Ukraine and Syria had not stopped the governments from cooperating on counternarcotics and securing military supply lines. But after initial success on those fronts, Russia now seems to be disengaging with both the United States and the American-backed Afghan government.

On an old Cold War battlefield where Russia fought a nearly decade-long war against United States-supplied fighters, Moscow has a new strategy: the cold shoulder.

“We won’t join the useless events, and we’ve already told the Americans,” President Vladimir V. Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir N. Kabulov, told Russian state news media this month. Russia, he said, would sit out any talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul, backed by the United States, Pakistan and China.

“Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts,” Mr. Kabulov said. The Kremlin, he added, “has no desire to participate in what the Americans organize ‘on the fly’ just for their own pre-election interests and where they give us the role of extras on the set.”

The government of Mr. Putin has instead decided to address on its own what it sees as the immediate security threat from the chaos in Afghanistan and the emergence there of militants other than the Taliban, especially those from the Islamic State.

Russia has reinforced its largest foreign military base in Tajikistan, along the border with Afghanistan, and the Russian military has held regular exercises with Tajik soldiers. The Kremlin has committed $1.2 billion to train and equip the Tajik Army, forming a new bulwark in Central Asia north of Afghanistan.

Mr. Kabulov also recently disclosed that Russia had opened direct channels to the Taliban to exchange information about militants in northern Afghanistan allied with the Islamic State. (The Taliban have denied being in touch with Moscow.)

Afghan officials worry that a breakdown of consensus among the international powers with an interest in Afghanistan, and the establishment of direct contacts with those governments and the insurgent Taliban, would undermine the government in Kabul.

They are also concerned that the Russian government’s recent moves are motivated by forces outside their control, such as a lack of a clear American strategy and Mr. Putin’s tense relationship with the United States.

“Bilaterally, we have struggled to convince the Russians on certain issues because they increasingly see us only as part of this larger game with the United States,” said one senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear his comments would further stoke the mistrust in Moscow.

The Kremlin’s recent moves are seen as a shift from the role Russia played during 14 years of NATO presence in Afghanistan — one of guarded cooperation marked by frequent contradictions.

Even as Moscow was alarmed by the presence of nearly 140,000 Western troops in its backyard, often deriding the mission as a failure, Mr. Putin’s government was happy to let the American-led coalition contain the common threats posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and by drugs, of which Afghanistan produced plenty that are trafficked and consumed in Russia.

In a little more than a year since the end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, the fighting here has intensified, shifting to the north along the 1,250-mile border with three Central Asian states Russia still considers as its underbelly. The Taliban briefly overran the city of Kunduz last fall.

The top American general here offered contradictory statements about the insurgent group. In a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee this month, the commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, said, “Our country has made a decision that we are not at war with the Taliban.” Just days later in Kabul, he said the Taliban were the enemy.

The Russian government does not fear a direct threat from the Taliban as much as it is worried about Central Asian fighters who could use Afghanistan as a staging ground to penetrate Russia’s borders. One group of particular concern is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, some factions of which have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Afghan officials have also reported the presence of militants from Tajikistan, Chechnya and Chinese Uighurs, many who relocated to Afghanistan from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Fighting drug trafficking rings that partially fund the Afghan insurgency had been an area of common interest for the Russians and the Americans, said Yuri V. Krupnov, an adviser to the head of Russia’s antidrug agency, Viktor P. Ivanov. But that stopped when the United States Treasury Department in 2014 imposed sanctions on Mr. Ivanov, a close associate of Mr. Putin’s.

“Washington had no dialogue with us, and just asserted its interests and sovereignty, and was uninterested in the views of Russia or anybody else,” Mr. Krupnov said, adding, “The Obama administration buried this promising line of cooperation. All room for cooperation is exhausted.”

The alliance between the foreign militants in Afghanistan may not be as threatening as Russia fears. In Badakhshan Province, the number of foreign fighters is estimated to be about 500, some traveling with their families, Taliban commanders there say. The largest group is Tajik fighters, followed by Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Chechens and Uighurs have a smaller presence.

The militants from Central Asia have been problematic to their Afghan Taliban guests, the local commanders say, because they use harsher methods, and, somewhat scandalously, are more relaxed in how they observe Islam. On top of all of that, the local Taliban have grown furious that some of their guests have recently warmed toward the Islamic State, which they see as intruding on their turf.

“The Quetta Shura insisted that we treat them nicely, that they need our cooperation, but they have a lot of shortcomings,” said Malawi Amanuddin, the Taliban’s shadow governor in Badakhshan. “They say they are waging jihad, but their women here walk around not covering themselves according to Islamic hijab.”

It is these internal rifts, perhaps, that have encouraged Russian officials to explore their channels directly with the Taliban and drive a wedge deeper between the militants who threaten Russia and their Afghan hosts.

“The official position, and this is from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is that Russia is risking a lot and has nothing to gain” from cooperating with the United States, Aleksei V. Malashenko, a researcher at the Carnegie center in Moscow, said in a telephone interview. “We couldn’t agree on Georgia, on Ukraine and on Syria; why get involved in another conflict where we cannot agree?” he said, describing the Russian position as “let the Americans boil.”

'Attempt to crush independent media' in Bangladesh

February 18, 2016 | Justin Rowlatt | BBC

It can seem a bit self-righteous when journalists write about the importance of freedom of the press, a bit like a chef celebrating the virtues of a fancy meal or a hairdresser extolling the importance of a new haircut.

But the public's right to know what is really going on in their country really is the cornerstone of a free society.

Without free access to information, backed up by journalists who are willing to dig down and get to the truth, all the other liberties celebrated in democracies are endangered.

That's why the world should be worried by the concerted attacks on one of the leading newspaper editors in South Asia, Mahfuz Anam of Bangladesh's Daily Star.

The Daily Star is the most popular English-language newspaper in Bangladesh.

It was launched as Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy a quarter of a century ago, and has always had a reputation for journalistic integrity and liberal and progressive views - a kind of Bangladeshi New York Times.

That's why it is so shocking that Mr Anam now stands accused of treason, no less.

Sajeeb Wajed, the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has described him as "completely unethical" and a liar, and has demanded he be thrown in jail.

Mr Wajed is at the head of a queue of dozens of politicians, student agitators and others who have launched criminal defamation charges against the eminent editor.

I will go into the details of the allegations against Mr Anam in a moment, but first it is important that the claims are set in context, because it is hard not to see this as the latest line of attack in a concerted effort to gag one of the last independent media organisations in the country.

Forging Every Link in the Afghan Opium Chain, Taliban Become a Cartel

February 16, 2016 | Azam Ahmed | The New York Times

ZARANJ, Afghanistan — Shortly after sunrise, an Afghan special operations helicopter descended on two vehicles racing through the empty deserts of southern Afghanistan, traversing what has become a superhighway for smugglers and insurgents.

Intelligence showed that the men were transporting a huge cache of drugs and weapons from Helmand Province to Nimruz Province, a hub for all things illegal and a way station on the global opium trail. Hovering above, the troops fired tracer rounds into the sandy earth beside the vehicles, which skidded to a stop.

It was an impressive take for the Afghan forces that day, July 12, 2014. They seized nearly a metric ton of opium in various phases of processing, three AK-47 assault rifles, an automatic handgun, a PKM machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, four two-way radios and two satellite phones.

But the biggest coup was neither the drugs nor the weapons. It was a passenger who gave his name as Muhammad Eshaq, a 40-year-old carpet seller from Nimruz. After a later inquiry by international officials, the police discovered that Mr. Eshaq was actually Mullah Abdul Rashid Baluch, the Taliban shadow governor of Nimruz Province: a man with blood on his hands and with direct links to the top Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

In many respects, Mullah Rashid embodies the evolution of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. As a hardened insurgent, most notorious for planning a mass suicide attack in Nimruz during the holy month of Ramadan, he had become among the most powerful drug smugglers in all of southern Afghanistan.

That he was picked up during a drug raid, not a counterterrorism operation, was a fitting end. He was, in the eyes of many, more of a criminal than an insurgent ideologue. Prosecutors brought him to the country’s elite drug court, and within four months, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Mullah Rashid is just one of dozens of senior Taliban leaders who are so enmeshed in the drug trade that it has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel. While the Taliban have long profited from the taxation and protection of the drug trade in Afghanistan, insurgents are taking more direct roles and claiming spots higher up in the opium chain, according to interviews with dozens of Afghan and Western officials, as well as smugglers and members of the communities where they reside.

This includes high-level commanders, like Mullah Rashid, personally escorting large shipments. And it goes straight to the top: The new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, is at the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribal Ishaqzai drug traffickers and has amassed an immense personal fortune, according to United Nations monitors. That drug money changed the entire shape of the Taliban: With it, Mullah Mansour bought off influential dissenters when he claimed the supreme leadership over the summer, according to senior Taliban commanders.

In some areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban have provided seeds for farmers to grow opium on the insurgents’ behalf, or paid middlemen to purchase opium for them to store while they wait for prices to increase.

In its most recent monitoring report, the United Nations warned that the Taliban’s deeper drift into the drug business was bad news for the prospect of peace. “This trend has real consequences for peace and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government,” the authors wrote.

Some of the change in the nature of the Taliban movement can be attributed to the devastating military campaign to take out its leaders, leaving younger, more radical commanders on the battlefield. With competing conflicts diminishing some of the money from traditional donors in the Persian Gulf, the Taliban have been forced into greater self-reliance, cobbling money together from a variety of sources. Those sources include gem and lumber smuggling, but drug trafficking has become, by far, the Taliban’s most important and steady revenue source.

Mullah Rashid is one of the highest-ranking Taliban members to be directly implicated in drug smuggling in recent years. He owned homes in the notorious smuggling haven of Baramcha and controlled narcotics traffic through the open deserts in southern Helmand Province that connect Nimruz, Pakistan and Iran.

“He started as an idealist but became a professional smuggler,” said one top intelligence official in Nimruz Province, who has tracked Mullah Rashid for five years. “When he became the shadow governor, the trade became so lucrative, he could not give it up.”

According to government officials, Mullah Rashid was appointed to the governorship of Nimruz more than four years ago, after his predecessor was killed. He was a strategic pick for the Taliban, which hoped to benefit from his ethnicity as well as his experience. He is of Baluch descent, which made it easier for him to operate and recruit in the borderlands, where his tribesmen are prominent.

As an insurgent commander, his highest-profile acts were a series of suicide attacks in Zaranj in August 2012, which claimed the lives of nearly 30 people during Ramadan, officials familiar with his tenure said. He was also a key figure in coordinating contacts between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, setting up high-level meetings in Pakistan between the two groups.

But soon, his main focus became the drug business. Mullah Rashid consolidated his power in the smuggling zones of southern Afghanistan, a vast expanse of desert used for decades by smugglers hoping to evade detection. Knowledge of the routes and landscape, which has no formal maps or roadways, is the difference between life and death. The police, for the most part, are unable to patrol or secure this area outside of a few highly selective special operations missions.

Government and law enforcement officials familiar with Mullah Rashid said he had monitored and overseen a majority of drug smuggling through his area of influence. On July 12, 2014, he took a particularly active hand, personally joining a convoy transporting nearly a ton of opium, most of it in the cooked-down form that precedes heroin processing.

In the lead vehicle, a pickup truck, two men transported the drugs, along with some of the weaponry. One man involved, Noor Ahmad, was driving the shipment to pay off a $4,000 debt. Another was hoping to earn the $2,000 promised for such journeys, the authorities said.

In the tail car, a Toyota Corolla, four others traveled: a mixed bag of men, including a businessman, a farmer and another mullah in addition to Mullah Rashid, all trailing the main convoy by about 500 feet and carrying most of the weapons that were seized, according to court records. During questioning after their arrests, the men claimed that the weapons had been planted on them and that they had not been a part of any convoy.

Around 6:30 a.m., as the convoy was traveling through the Garmsir district, helicopters piloted by coalition forces appeared on the horizon. Special forces units from the Afghan police’s 444 division emerged and fired warning shots at the vehicles. The passengers in the last car fled but were quickly caught.

It was not until weeks later that the Afghan government came to find out, almost accidentally, that the man who had identified himself as Muhammad Eshaq was really Mullah Rashid.

According to the chief prosecutor of the criminal justice task force, Yar Mohammad Husseinkhel, British officials asked to speak with Mr. Eshaq, who was imprisoned at the time in Kabul.

Two Czech women had been kidnapped in the deserts of Baluchistan Province, Pakistan, and Western officials hoped that Mr. Eshaq might help. They knew at the time what the Afghan government in Kabul did not: that Mr. Eshaq was in fact the shadow governor of Nimruz, Mullah Rashid, an ethnic Baluch who they hoped might be able to share information or broker the women’s release.

Mr. Husseinkhel declined to say whether Mullah Rashid had provided information or helped in any way. But in the spring of 2015, more than two years after their abduction and about 10 months after officials sought Mullah Rashid’s help, the women were finally released. Mullah Rashid remains in the custody of Afghan officials.

After the women’s release, the United States Treasury Department designated Mullah Rashid a global terrorist — a year after his arrest.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

India and China key partners in keeping Afghanistan stable

February 15, 2016 | Raffaello Pantucci | Reuters blog

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

No Good News: Afghan Civilian Casualties Still Increasing

February 16, 2016 | Catherine Putz | The Diplomat

The annual United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, which breaks down the data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the previous year, chronicles a changing–though no less dangerous–war.

This year’s report notes a 4.22 percent decrease in civilian deaths (from 3,701 to 3,545), but a 9.13 percent increase in injuries (from 6,833 to 7,457)–or an overall increase in casualties of 4.44 percent (10,534 in 2014 to 11,002 in 2015). More than in previous years, women and children are increasingly caught between militants and government forces. According to the UNAMA, in 2015 there was a 37 percent increase in women and casualties, and a 14 percent increase in child casualties.

In the report’s press release, Nicolas Haysom, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UNAMA, says “This report records yet another rise in the number of civilians hurt or killed. The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable.”

Anti-government elements–a term which the UN uses for all militant groups involved in armed conflict with the government, including Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, groups which identify with ISIS, and many others–were responsible for over 60 percent of civilian casualties in 2015. Meanwhile, 17 percent of civilian casualties in 2015 were attributed to Pro-Government Forces–mostly Afghan national security forces (14 percent). That said, casualties attributed to anti-government elements decreased by 10 percent in 2015 and those attributed to pro-government forces increased by 28 percent.

More and more, Afghan civilians are being caught in the crossfire between militants and government forces. Casualties caused by ground engagements are on the rise while those due to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have decreased, though IEDs remain the second leading cause of civilian casualties. The rise in casualties overall, however, “mainly stemmed from increases in complex and suicide attacks and targeted and deliberate killings by Anti-Government Elements, increasing civilian casualties caused by pro-government forces during ground engagements and aerial operations, and rising numbers of civilians caught in crossfire between the parties to the conflict, most notably in Kunduz province.”

After declining between 2012 and 2014, the number of casualties caused by air operations leaped by 83 percent. The report noted that the reversal was largely due to a single incident: the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz in early October 2015 which resulted in more than 80 casualties (42 deaths and 43 injured).

As Kate Clark for the Afghan Analysts Network points out, “The single biggest factor affecting the Afghan conflict in 2015 was the almost complete absence of international forces on the battlefield.” She writes that in 2015, “it was the Taleban driving the conflict, with the ANSF largely trying to defend territory.” The UNAMA notes that in response to this shift, Afghan security forces have “often relied on heavy or explosive weapons defensively or as weapons of first resort.” To be clear, Afghan security forces have themselves experienced massive casualties (deaths, injuries, but also desertions) but in response have made tactical decisions that have led to an increase in civilian casualties.

A further troubling development has been Kabul’s decision to arm pro-government local groups (separate from Afghan Local Police units) in an effort to spark “national uprising movements” in areas where government forces have less of a presence. These groups however exists outside of Afghan laws and outside the chain of command of Afghan security forces, they capitalize on personal connections to the government and lack training not just in weapons but in Afghanistan’s laws–all of which are recipes for abuse and mistakes.

The UNAMA’s 99-page report offers greater details, but data alone cannot explain or fully describe the horrors of war for Afghan civilians. In the report’s opening pages, Haysom is quoted as saying “As parties to the conflict seek continued political and military gains, they must not forget that Afghanistan is not territory alone, but the place so many people call home. Claims of advances on the battlefield, heard over and over again from parties to the conflict mean little if parties fail to protect the population they wish to govern – the women, children and men of Afghanistan.”

 

Forging Every Link in the Afghan Opium Chain, Taliban Become a Cartel

February 16, 2016 | Azam Ahmed | The New York Times

ZARANJ, Afghanistan — Shortly after sunrise, an Afghan special operations helicopter descended on two vehicles racing through the empty deserts of southern Afghanistan, traversing what has become a superhighway for smugglers and insurgents.

Intelligence showed that the men were transporting a huge cache of drugs and weapons from Helmand Province to Nimruz Province, a hub for all things illegal and a way station on the global opium trail. Hovering above, the troops fired tracer rounds into the sandy earth beside the vehicles, which skidded to a stop.

It was an impressive take for the Afghan forces that day, July 12, 2014. They seized nearly a metric ton of opium in various phases of processing, three AK-47 assault rifles, an automatic handgun, a PKM machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, four two-way radios and two satellite phones.

But the biggest coup was neither the drugs nor the weapons. It was a passenger who gave his name as Muhammad Eshaq, a 40-year-old carpet seller from Nimruz. After a later inquiry by international officials, the police discovered that Mr. Eshaq was actually Mullah Abdul Rashid Baluch, the Taliban shadow governor of Nimruz Province: a man with blood on his hands and with direct links to the top Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

In many respects, Mullah Rashid embodies the evolution of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. As a hardened insurgent, most notorious for planning a mass suicide attack in Nimruz during the holy month of Ramadan, he had become among the most powerful drug smugglers in all of southern Afghanistan.

That he was picked up during a drug raid, not a counterterrorism operation, was a fitting end. He was, in the eyes of many, more of a criminal than an insurgent ideologue. Prosecutors brought him to the country’s elite drug court, and within four months, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Mullah Rashid is just one of dozens of senior Taliban leaders who are so enmeshed in the drug trade that it has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel. While the Taliban have long profited from the taxation and protection of the drug trade in Afghanistan, insurgents are taking more direct roles and claiming spots higher up in the opium chain, according to interviews with dozens of Afghan and Western officials, as well as smugglers and members of the communities where they reside.

This includes high-level commanders, like Mullah Rashid, personally escorting large shipments. And it goes straight to the top: The new Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, is at the pinnacle of a pyramid of tribal Ishaqzai drug traffickers and has amassed an immense personal fortune, according to United Nations monitors. That drug money changed the entire shape of the Taliban: With it, Mullah Mansour bought off influential dissenters when he claimed the supreme leadership over the summer, according to senior Taliban commanders.

In some areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban have provided seeds for farmers to grow opium on the insurgents’ behalf, or paid middlemen to purchase opium for them to store while they wait for prices to increase.

In its most recent monitoring report, the United Nations warned that the Taliban’s deeper drift into the drug business was bad news for the prospect of peace. “This trend has real consequences for peace and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government,” the authors wrote.

Some of the change in the nature of the Taliban movement can be attributed to the devastating military campaign to take out its leaders, leaving younger, more radical commanders on the battlefield. With competing conflicts diminishing some of the money from traditional donors in the Persian Gulf, the Taliban have been forced into greater self-reliance, cobbling money together from a variety of sources. Those sources include gem and lumber smuggling, but drug trafficking has become, by far, the Taliban’s most important and steady revenue source.

Mullah Rashid is one of the highest-ranking Taliban members to be directly implicated in drug smuggling in recent years. He owned homes in the notorious smuggling haven of Baramcha and controlled narcotics traffic through the open deserts in southern Helmand Province that connect Nimruz, Pakistan and Iran.

“He started as an idealist but became a professional smuggler,” said one top intelligence official in Nimruz Province, who has tracked Mullah Rashid for five years. “When he became the shadow governor, the trade became so lucrative, he could not give it up.”

According to government officials, Mullah Rashid was appointed to the governorship of Nimruz more than four years ago, after his predecessor was killed. He was a strategic pick for the Taliban, which hoped to benefit from his ethnicity as well as his experience. He is of Baluch descent, which made it easier for him to operate and recruit in the borderlands, where his tribesmen are prominent.

As an insurgent commander, his highest-profile acts were a series of suicide attacks in Zaranj in August 2012, which claimed the lives of nearly 30 people during Ramadan, officials familiar with his tenure said. He was also a key figure in coordinating contacts between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, setting up high-level meetings in Pakistan between the two groups.

But soon, his main focus became the drug business. Mullah Rashid consolidated his power in the smuggling zones of southern Afghanistan, a vast expanse of desert used for decades by smugglers hoping to evade detection. Knowledge of the routes and landscape, which has no formal maps or roadways, is the difference between life and death. The police, for the most part, are unable to patrol or secure this area outside of a few highly selective special operations missions.

Government and law enforcement officials familiar with Mullah Rashid said he had monitored and overseen a majority of drug smuggling through his area of influence. On July 12, 2014, he took a particularly active hand, personally joining a convoy transporting nearly a ton of opium, most of it in the cooked-down form that precedes heroin processing.

In the lead vehicle, a pickup truck, two men transported the drugs, along with some of the weaponry. One man involved, Noor Ahmad, was driving the shipment to pay off a $4,000 debt. Another was hoping to earn the $2,000 promised for such journeys, the authorities said.

In the tail car, a Toyota Corolla, four others traveled: a mixed bag of men, including a businessman, a farmer and another mullah in addition to Mullah Rashid, all trailing the main convoy by about 500 feet and carrying most of the weapons that were seized, according to court records. During questioning after their arrests, the men claimed that the weapons had been planted on them and that they had not been a part of any convoy.

Around 6:30 a.m., as the convoy was traveling through the Garmsir district, helicopters piloted by coalition forces appeared on the horizon. Special forces units from the Afghan police’s 444 division emerged and fired warning shots at the vehicles. The passengers in the last car fled but were quickly caught.

It was not until weeks later that the Afghan government came to find out, almost accidentally, that the man who had identified himself as Muhammad Eshaq was really Mullah Rashid.

According to the chief prosecutor of the criminal justice task force, Yar Mohammad Husseinkhel, British officials asked to speak with Mr. Eshaq, who was imprisoned at the time in Kabul.

Two Czech women had been kidnapped in the deserts of Baluchistan Province, Pakistan, and Western officials hoped that Mr. Eshaq might help. They knew at the time what the Afghan government in Kabul did not: that Mr. Eshaq was in fact the shadow governor of Nimruz, Mullah Rashid, an ethnic Baluch who they hoped might be able to share information or broker the women’s release.

Mr. Husseinkhel declined to say whether Mullah Rashid had provided information or helped in any way. But in the spring of 2015, more than two years after their abduction and about 10 months after officials sought Mullah Rashid’s help, the women were finally released. Mullah Rashid remains in the custody of Afghan officials.

After the women’s release, the United States Treasury Department designated Mullah Rashid a global terrorist — a year after his arrest.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

 

India and China key partners in keeping Afghanistan stable

February 15, 2016 | Raffaello Pantucci | Reuters blog

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

3 in Bangladesh remanded over book on Islam

February 16, 2016 | The Hindu

A publisher, a printer and a marketing executive were remanded in Bangladesh in police custody on Tuesday over the publication of a book, which alleged to have contained elements that may hurt religious sentiments.

The police arrested the three for publishing the book Islam Bitorko – debate on Islam. The arrested persons are “Badwip Prokashon” Publisher Shamsuzzoha Manik, its marketing division chief Shamsul Alam and Taslimuddin Kajal, proprietor of the book’s printing house Shabdakoli Printers.

The police earlier in the day produced the three before the court of Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate with a plea for a seven-day remand to interrogate them.

The Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate granted five days remand for Manik, two days for Kajal and one day for Alam. Police had earlier closed the “Badwip Prokashon” stall in the ongoing Ekushe February book fair in the Bangla Academy premises.

Maldives Opposition leader jailed for 12 years for terrorism

February 16, 2016 | Fox News

A court in the Maldives has convicted an opposition leader of terrorism and sentenced him to 12 years in jail. Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the conservative Islamic Adhaalath or Justice Party was found guilty on Tuesday of inciting violence during an anti-government protest last year.

Abdulla is the third high-profile politician to be jailed for terrorism in a year under President Yameen Abdul Gayoom's administration. Gayoom faces local and international criticism for allegedly using the judiciary to punish political opponents.

Former Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim and former President Mohamed Nasheed have also been given lengthy prison terms for terrorism.

Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, south-southwest of India, is known for its luxury island resorts. The country became a multiparty democracy in 2008 after decades of autocratic rule.

Nepal PM says Constitution can be amended

Februray 16, 2016 | Simran Sodhi | The Tribune News Service

Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli today said Nepal’s national interest would be the top priority during his upcoming India visit.

Oli’s visit to India, which begins on Friday, comes in the backdrop of a severe strain in the India-Nepal bilateral relationship. Oli acknowledged as much today when he said that his India visit “aimed at removing the recent differences between the two countries and strengthening the historical bilateral ties”.

India-Nepal relations have suffered of late on two major counts. One: the six-month blockade, which ended just a short while ago, crippled Nepal to the point of a humanitarian crisis. Nepal suffered from a severe shortage of fuel and medicines as a result of the blockade on major points between the India-Nepal border. Two: India publicly expressed its unhappiness with the new Nepalese Constitution, which it felt was not “inclusive” enough and failed to protect the rights of the Madhesis in the Terai region.

Nepal, on more than one occasion, accused India of being behind the blockade and the statements on its Constitution were deemed as interference in its internal affairs.

Oli’s visit here will see both sides working hard to put these uncomfortable facts behind them and to reach some sort of an amicable understanding. Oli’s announcement today, that a high-level political committee will be formed before his India visit to study the remaining contentious issues, including the redoing of provincial boundaries, will be welcome news to India. “The new Constitution can be amended. There is no problem among us,” he said. India has been pushing Nepal to amend its Constitution to address the demands of the Madhesis who are ethnically and culturally closer to India.

Bangladesh 63rd in global ranking

February 16, 2016 | The Daily Star

Bangladesh ranked 63rd among 197 countries in terms of providing court access to children to protect their rights, according to the first ever global ranking by the London-based Child Rights International Network (CRIN).

Among Bangladesh's South Asian neighbours, only India fared better securing the 43rd position. Nepal was ranked 78th, Bhutan 85th, Pakistan 119th, Sri Lanka 123rd, Afghanistan 149th and Maldives 189th.

Belgium, Portugal and Spain were the top three countries of the list, while Kenya was the only country outside Europe to make the top ten. Relegated to the bottom of the pile were Palestine, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea.

“The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) does not take precedence over national law [Bangladesh], but national law is interpreted in a manner consistent with the CRC and other human rights obligations,” said the CRIN report yesterday.

The CRC has not as yet been directly incorporated into national law, but some provisions have been incorporated in response to directions of the Supreme Court, added the report.

“Bangladeshi courts have regularly referenced the CRC and other international human rights conventions where relevant to a matter at hand.”

The Children Act guarantees children's right to participate in all stages of court proceedings, said the report titled “Rights, Remedies and Representation”.

Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association, said the country has a good legal infrastructure as well as partnerships between government and non-government organisations in providing legal aid to protect child rights.

However, lack of victim protection law, slow progress of investigations of cases, lack of strong monitoring and sometimes involvement of law enforcers and political elites impede the due legal procedures, she told The Daily Star.

CRIN Director Veronica Yates said: “When we think of children and justice, the first image that comes to mind is usually one of children breaking the law. Rarely do we consider children and their right to use the legal system to protect their human rights or to seek redress when their rights have been violated.”

The research took into account whether children can bring lawsuits when their rights are violated, the legal resources available to them, the practical considerations for taking legal action, and whether judges apply international law on children's rights in their rulings, said the rights body in a press release.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj holds talks with Bhutan prime minister

February 16, 2016 | PTI | The Times of India

NEW DELHI: India and Bhutan held talks on Tuesday on key bilateral and regional issues including implementation of India-assisted development projects in hydro power and other sectors in the Buddhist nation.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj hosted a dinner for Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay over which both the leaders deliberated on issues of mutual interest besides reviewing implementation of India sponsored projects in Bhutan.

Tobgay, who was here on way to Canada, said friendship between India and Bhutan is a "model" which other neighbouring countries may draw inspiration from.

"They held very cordial conversation," External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

He said the Bhutanese Prime Minister conveyed to Swaraj that 498 small development projects have been approved. A total of 3,000 projects are being implemented in Bhutan with assistance from India.

The two leaders also reviewed implementation of three major hydro-power projects including the 720MW capacity Mangdechu plant. Two other power projects with combined capacity of 2220MW are also being implemented with India's support.

Tobgay also extended an invitation to Swaraj to visit Bhutan. She had visited Bhutan in June 2014 along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Bhutan Should Come Clean on Hydropower Megaplan

February 16, 2016 | Vishal Arora and Chencho Dema | The Diplomat

The tiny nation of Bhutan might enjoy world renown for its environmental record, but it is overlooking concerns being raised by environmentalists over the country’s plans to construct large hydropower plants to generate 10,000 megawatts of surplus electricity for export to India.

Climate Action Tracker, an independent group, rated Bhutan’s pledged contribution to the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris as “sufficient,” a rating accorded to just five countries. Soon thereafter, the carbon comparator tool of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit praised Bhutan for being an unparalleled carbon sink, absorbing three times more carbon dioxide emissions than it produces.

A nation of about 750,000 people perched between India and China, Bhutan deserves the accolades. It measures national progress in terms of Gross National Happiness, a policy that seeks to balance economic growth and environmental conservation, and not Gross Domestic Product. Bhutan’s constitution mandates that its territory be at least 60 percent covered by forest.

The world’s only Mahayana Buddhist country, Bhutan also has huge tourism potential, but it restricts the number of tourist arrivals by imposing a mandatory tariff of $200 per person per day, a measure to protect its rich culture.

Meanwhile, Bhutan aspires to become a world leader in the use of electric vehicles and thereby reduce fossil fuel imports by 70 percent, as well as to make its agricultural system 100 percent organic by 2020.

However, 2020 is also the deadline for Bhutan to increase the generation of electricity from its current installed capacity of 1,400 MW to more than 10,000 MW. According to a 2009 protocol to a 2006 Bhutan-India agreement, New Delhi will provide grants and soft loans to Thimphu to produce 10,000 MW by 2020 and import all the surplus electricity.

Bhutan, a landlocked country with rugged mountainous terrain that is heavily dependent on India’s financial assistance, views its hydropower potential as the backbone of its economy. With its four major river systems, Bhutan has hydropower potential of about 30,000 MW, of which 24,000 MW is techno-economically feasible. Hydropower exports and infrastructure construction already constitute about 50 percent of Bhutan’s GDP, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Bhutan claims that all its hydropower plants are clean.

All projects in Bhutan are run-of-river and “good for [the] environment,” Economic Affairs Minister Norbu Wangchuk said. Bhutan’s export of electricity to India will make a “big contribution” towards mitigating global warming, he said, suggesting that India would otherwise have to burn fossil fuels.

“Presently, Bhutan offsets 4.4 million tons of CO2e through exports of hydroelectricity. In addition, Bhutan can offset up to 22.4 million tons of CO2e per year by 2025 in the region through the export of electricity from our clean hydropower projects,” said Bhutan in its pledge to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Our rivers are in deep valleys, where minimal human settlements are found. Our hydropower projects are subject to stringent environmental standards,” Wangchuk said, claiming that the social and environmental cost of hydropower projects will be low.

The construction of a project involves temporary damage, Wangchuk argued, comparing it with “an eyesore.” He claimed “the nature returns to a status better than the original” after the construction, as the projects look after the sites on a regular basis. He called hydropower “the flagship project that balances ecology and economy.”

Environmentalists disagree.

“Hydropower projects certainly harm the environment … both during and post construction,” Yeshey Dorji, an environmentalist and wildlife photographer in Bhutan, said.

Shripad Dharmadhikari, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology and formerly a full-time environment activist, agreed with Dorji. “Calling hydropower ‘clean’ is a misnomer,” he said. “We need to evaluate its entire impact on the ecosystem and communities.”

“Hydropower has huge impacts on the riverine ecology, both upstream and downstream, and on local communities,” added Dharmadhikari, who is a coordinator of India-based non-profit group Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, citing the Punatsangchhu project site in Bhutan as an example.

The site for two Punatsangchhu projects in Bhutan was one of the habitats of the endangered White Bellied Heron. Only about 200 birds remain globally, Dharmadhikari noted in a recent article. “The construction of the Punatsangchhu projects has further destroyed the habitat of the Heron, and pushed it – and its predators – into a much smaller area, endangering it further.”

If there are several hydropower projects in a cascade on a river, they can cause lasting damage to the river ecology and communities, he said, pointing out that excessive releases from the Kurichhu project severely impacted the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, downstream in India in 2004.

And hydropower is not clean, Dharmadhikari added, explaining that several studies have shown that hydropower can emit greenhouse gases, mainly in the form of methane, which is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide, from decaying organic matter. It is also important to recognize the impact of climate change and melting glaciers on hydropower projects, and the safety risks created due to events like glacial lake outburst floods, particularly in the Himalayan region, he said.

Even so-called run-of-river projects generate power using dams and tunnels, which divert the flow of the river and impact the biodiversity of the river downstream, Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), said.

International financial institutions now accept hydropower as “clean” as a result of efforts being made by the hydropower lobby, added Thakkar.

The Indian government is also considering categorizing hydropower as renewable energy. In fact, the recent Paris Agreement seems to have accepted all sources of energy that do not require burning or fossil fuels as “clean,” overlooking safety concerns.

Hydropower can be a viable option, but only if certain conditions are met, activists say. And that’s a big “if.”

According to Thakkar, governments and industry players need to take decisions concerning hydropower in a democratic fashion with the involvement of local inhabitants, in terms of discussing compensations for displacement and other impacts. Transparency is equally important so that projects’ compliance with environmental and safety norms remain verifiable, he added.

But norms are generally not followed, Dharmadhikari said, pointing out that only one of the existing projects in Bhutan – the Kurichhu plant in Mongar – has a fish ladder, which allows migratory fish to travel to their breeding grounds. Reports of the ladder in operation are also not encouraging.

Local populations in Bhutan have already raised concerns, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi admitted in a speech in February 2015 in the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. “I know the people of Arunachal Pradesh have certain reservations about some hydel projects. There were similar issues in Bhutan and Nepal, which have as much water resources. We negotiated with them. We are trying to set up power companies there. Through electricity alone, Nepal and Bhutan’s economic condition will improve,” Modi was quoted as saying.

Bhutan’s media has also reported that the planned 540 MW Amochhu Reservoir Hydro Electric Project would displace the oldest indigenous community of Lhop or Doya people.

In Bhutan, “hydropower projects are implemented in complete secrecy and with the greatest of opacity,” Dorji said. “If there is nothing to hide, there is no need for such clandestine conduct. There are no proper EIA (environmental impact assessments) done, there are no environment management plans drawn up, there are no basin studies carried out to determine the carrying capacity of the basins and there are no cumulative impact assessments carried out,” he added. “In fact, people believe that even environmental clearances are not obtained for the projects.”

The parliament of Bhutan, which became a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008, is yet to approve a right to information bill, and journalists complain they can’t investigate government’s claims about hydropower. While Bhutan is known to be among the least corrupt nations in South Asia, the reason for secrecy, some suspect, could be due to the involvement of India and Indian companies in the hydropower projects.

Officials in Bhutan do not dare upset their counterparts in India, Bhutan’s largest trading partner. About 98 percent of Bhutan’s exports and 90 percent of its imports are with India. New Delhi reportedly insists that EIAs be done by WAPCOS, a consulting company under India’s Ministry of Water Resources, which has been accused of shoddy work and overcharging Bhutan, according to SANDRP.

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, agreed that “there should have been better rationalization in terms of numbers (of hydropower projects) so that an acceptable compromise could be reached between economic needs and environmental concerns.” He called hydropower “a necessary evil” for a “resource-strapped country like Bhutan” to attain self-reliance.

However, Bhutan’s hydropower projects do not make much sense even economically, as they lead to heavy debt due to the loans that Thimphu needs to take out for their construction. Moreover, they result in mere quantitative growth without producing substantial number of jobs for Bhutanese people. Furthermore, since the electricity is sold exclusively to India, the resultant economic “self-reliance” wouldn’t mean much in terms of Bhutan’s sense of sovereignty. India’s dominance will remain, if not increase.

It would perhaps be better for Bhutan to continue developing its soft power by remaining a beacon in efforts to check global warming and in responsible business practices, and instead explore diversification as a way to boost its economy. If Thimphu does choose to go ahead with its hydropower plans, it should do so in a transparent manner, or risk its green reputation.

Student revolt: Inside India's volatile JNU campus

February 16, 2016 | BBC

The BBC's Vikas Pandey spends a day inside India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi amidst the highly charged debate over the arrest of a student leader on sedition charges.

The area near the main administrative block of JNU is filled with passionate students.

They cheer loudly as a speaker climbs on to a stage.

Slogans like "free Kanhaiya Kumar" and "long live revolution" fill the air as hundreds of visibly agitated students pour into the area.

Those gathered here believe that Mr Kumar, the leader of the university's student union, is innocent of the sedition charges levelled against him, and are shocked by the fact that police entered the university to arrest him on Saturday.

Police have alleged he organised an event commemorating the hanging of 2001 Parliament attacks convict Afzal Guru, where "anti-India slogans" were raised.

The students here passionately defend Mr Kumar when I ask them what actually happened at the event.

"We are not terrorists. We are just students and we also condemn anti-India slogans. Our president had nothing to do with those slogans at the event," a student tells me.

But she refuses to speak on camera.

"I don't want to be seen on camera. I am worried about my safety," she says.

Student activist Shreya Ghosh speaks of the fear prevailing inside the university.

"We have been sleeping in different rooms every night to avoid arrest," she says.

Another student activist Deepshita claims that ideological politics lies at the heart of Mr Kumar's arrest.

"Right-wing students want to increase their foothold in the university and that is why they got him [Mr Kumar] arrested. They feel bolstered because the right-wing BJP party is in power at the centre," she says.

Professor Rajarshi Dasgupta agrees.

Professor Rajarshi Dasgupta said: "It appears to me that the the BJP government is trying to impose its ideology in India's top universities."

It's 3pm and speakers are becoming more ferocious in their attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party.

Among the speakers is Prof Ajith Kanna.

"If Kanhaiya is anti-national, then I am also anti-national," he tells the cheering crowd.

But he pleads with his students to remain peaceful and not pay attention to rumours.

And rumours are not in short supply, flying across the tension filled campus. Among them are that more than 100 armed right-wing activists have entered the campus.

I meet right-wing student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) member Saurabh Kumar a few blocks away from the protest site.

"The law will decide whether he [Kanhaiya Kumar] is guilty or not but we won't tolerate anti-India activities inside this campus," he says.

But not everyone is protesting.

At one of the student housing facilities, I meet PhD students Bibas Sewa and Bijay Thapa.

The two condemn the arrest of Mr Kumar, but agree that the protests have disrupted their studies.

Even at a time when politics has gripped JNU, there are some students who just want to get on with their work.

Maldives court jails opposition figure Sheikh Imran Abdulla for 12 years

February 16, 2016 | The Guardian

A court in the Maldives has sentenced the leader of the country’s main Islamist party to 12 years in jail after convicting him on a terrorism charge. Sheikh Imran Abdulla of the opposition Adhaalath party (AP) was charged under a tough 1990 anti-terrorism law with inciting unrest during an anti-government rally in May 2015 on the capital island, Male.

Tight security was on hand at the criminal court as a judge read out the sentence during a night time sitting on Tuesday. Abdulla’s lawyers said they would appeal to a higher court.

Imran’s party joined the main opposition Maldivian Democratic party in May 2015 to stage a mass rally to protest against the jailing of dissidents by the government of President Abdulla Yameen.

Following the demonstration about 175 people, including Sheikh Imran, were arrested by the police.

Imran’s imprisonment came 11 months after the highly controversial jailing of the country’s main opposition leader, Mohamed Nasheed, who in January obtained prison leave to have urgent surgery in London.

Yameen is under intense international pressure to free Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president.

The authorities have also arrested Yameen’s former deputy Ahmed Adeeb on “treason” charges after he was implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate the president in September by setting off an explosive device aboard his speedboat.

Almost all of the president’s key rivals are either in jail or living in exile.

The nation of 340,000 Sunni Muslims has been gripped by political turmoil damaging its reputation as a luxury holiday destination since Nasheed was toppled four years ago in what he claimed was a coup led by mutinous police and troops.

Yameen has refused to accept a UN panel ruling that Nasheed’s jailing was illegal. He has invited opposition parties for talks to resolve their differences but no dates have been set. Similar negotiations in 2015 ended in failure with the opposition demanding that their leaders first be released before any discussions commence.

 

India and China key partners in keeping Afghanistan stable

February 15, 2016 | Raffaello Pantucci | Reuters blog

Landlocked in the heart of Eurasia, Afghanistan sits in between superpowers. Previously this was Russia and the United Kingdom, using its territory as a chessboard across which they would plot intrigue against each other.

During more recent history, it became a covert battlefield between Russia and the United States as the wider ideological struggle between communism and capitalism was played out. Nowadays, however, a new momentum is building behind cooperation between two superpowers whose domestic security is linked to Afghanistan’s stability.

Beijing and Delhi’s ability to cooperate in Afghanistan is likely to be a key axis through which long-term Afghan stability will come.

Both China and India are already active players in Afghanistan. In November last year, Vice Premier Li Yuanchao visited Kabul and offered a package of $79 million for housing construction in the city. Just over a month later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the city to inaugurate the Indian built Parliament building.

China has taken an increasingly prominent role in helping broker peace talks between the warring factions in Afghanistan, while both countries have offered differing levels of support for Afghanistan’s security forces. China has provided the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) with non-lethal support while India has instead provided attack helicopters and discussed the idea of reviving arms factories with Russian support.

Both are major aid providers to Afghanistan and have played important roles in the so-called ‘Heart of Asia Process’, and while current commodity prices (and the current uncertain political and security situation) have made it less attractive at the moment, both are hosts to large state-owned extractives firms who have the capacity, scale and appetite to try to mine Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

Both have similar interests in Afghanistan — an eagerness for the country to have a stable heart of its region — and both have enunciated a desire for any peace process in the nation to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. Whilst they might share extremely different relationships with key outside player Pakistan, they share a surprisingly concurrent view on some of the security problems within that country.

Cooperation between them at a more strategic level has long been moving in a positive direction – President Xi Jinping has made reaching out to India a priority, while Prime Minister Modi has reciprocated through a targeted effort to connect with China. Beyond rhetoric, joint counter-terrorism training exercises, positive border dispute discussions and cooperation on the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) all show how this relationship is one that goes beyond geopolitical rhetoric.

Yet notwithstanding these similarities, cooperation and collaboration on Afghanistan has remained remarkably limited. There have been some discussions, but little action. Both have continued to undertake their efforts in parallel while they have laid out much larger visions for a broader pattern of regional engagement — China under Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ vision while India through the Connect Central Asia strategy. But neither has particularly addressed the question of where Afghanistan fits into this, and have in fact enunciated visions that can go around Afghanistan.

For Beijing, the ‘Belt and Road’ can flow cleanly through Central Asia, across Russia or the Caspian to Europe, or go straight from Kashgar to Gwadar, turning Pakistan in a ‘corridor’ for Chinese goods. For Delhi, the investment into the Iranian port Chabahar can be read as an attempt to create a route for Indian interests and investments to get out of Central Asia bypassing Afghanistan. In other words, both are developing regional visions that can go around Afghanistan.

But at the same time, both realize that notwithstanding their ability to develop routes around the country, an unstable Afghanistan is going to be something that could destabilize the larger visions. And this is where greater cooperation is important. Focusing on playing a complementary role in supporting Afghanistan’s security forces through providing funding and undertaking niche training rather than solely the equipment provision they are currently undertaking would address a gap that the West is eventually going to want to stop providing.

And this points to a larger question which China and India both seem to recognize bilaterally, but have not engaged with enough together. Both see that the West’s appetite and attention in Afghanistan is waning, and while this may irritate them and only serve to reinforce a belief in the fickle nature of Western foreign policy, it fails to resolve the fact that Afghanistan sits in their neighbourhood.

The age of competitive geopolitical games is by no means over, but in Afghanistan there are the outlines of a future cooperative relationship between two of Asia’s great emergent superpowers. Both have a key interest in Afghanistan and have a different set of relations with Kabul that if handled correctly could be complementary. Beijing and Delhi are already re-shaping the world through their sheer size and growing clout in international affairs — in their immediate neighbourhood they could direct this weight to help Afghanistan find some stability at the heart of Eurasia.

 

Modi urged to make reality match 'Make in India' hype

February 15, 2016 | Promit Mukherjee and Rafael Nam | Reuters

Thousands of people and lion mascots swarmed the weekend opening of a "Make in India" drive to attract foreign direct investment, pitched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as "the biggest brand that India has ever created".

The week-long event, the boldest since Modi launched the initiative to emulate China's export miracle back in 2014, got off to an inauspicious start when a huge fire engulfed the stage at a cultural event on Sunday. Nobody was hurt.

Even as the Make in India hype scales new heights, some bosses questioned Modi's delivery on promises to make it easier to do business, while marketing experts cautioned against creating unrealistic expectations.

"When you over-communicate and you under-deliver, the biggest risk is that you begin to lose trust," said Chandramouli Nilakantan, CEO of Blue Lotus Communications, a branding and public relations consultancy.

On buzz alone, the effort got off to a great start, with the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland attending Saturday's gala opening hosted by Modi.

On Sunday, delegates thronged the 10 pavilions erected for the event in Mumbai, India's financial capital. Around 2,500 foreign and 8,000 domestic companies were expected to attend, organisers said.

Yet on the ground, the experience of businesses is more prosaic. Twenty months after Modi swept to power with a promise of growth and jobs for India's 1.3 billion people, executives say more needs to be done, including improving infrastructure.

More pressingly, key legislation such as a goods and services tax and land acquisition bill are stuck in parliament, just as global competitors such as Vietnam step up their own reform efforts.

"Make in India is a great initiative and has created a lot of positive sentiments," Vikas Agarwal, general manager of mobile phone maker OnePlus in India, told Reuters.

"Now the government needs to follow up with policies. That includes providing custom duty and export incentives, tax rationalisation and removal of ambiguous land acquisition policies."

MAJOR WINS

Make In India has scored major wins, including a pledge by Taiwan's Foxconn to invest $5 billion in a new electronics manufacturing facility.

That has helped foreign direct investment to nearly double to $59 billion last year, the seventh highest level in the world, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Yet in critical aspects, India remains far behind its goals.

The proportion of manufacturing to gross domestic product has been stuck at around 17 percent for five years, below the government's goal to ramp it up to 25 percent, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

India has only created 4 million manufacturing jobs since 2010, according to Boston Consulting. At the current rate, India may only create 8 million jobs by 2022, well below the government's goal of 100 million.

Professor Ravi Aron, a U.S.-based expert in manufacturing, said India was ill-suited for a Chinese-style export boom, because it lacked the infrastructure and the skills for its exports to compete internationally.

"It should not be called 'Make in India' but 'Make In Spite of India'," said Aron, of Johns Hopkins University, advising the Indian government to scale back its ambitions and focus on its growing domestic market.

($1 = 68.2750 rupees)

(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Tom Heneghan)

Finland Supports India's Bid For Permanent UN Security Council Seat

February 13, 2016 | NDTV

Finland today expressed its support for India's bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

"The prime minister of Finland reiterated the support of Finland to India to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council," a joint statement issued following a bilateral meeting in Mumbai between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Finnish counterpart Juha Sipila said.

"The two countries called for forward movement in the intergovernmental negotiations on United Nations Security Council reform, and expressed their commitment to initiate text-based negotiations within the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly," it stated.

Mr Sipila is in Mumbai to attend the 'Make in India Week' that got underway in Mumbai today.

He along, with PM Modi, jointly digitally inaugurated Finnish firm Trivitron's Labsystems Diagnostics IVD (in-vitro diagnostics) factory in Chennai.

According to the statement, in their joint effort to strengthen global non-proliferation objectives and the multilateral export control regimes, Mr Sipila took a positive view on India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

"Both prime ministers acknowledged that there is wide convergence in views on the international political and economic situation," it said.

Both the leaders also "condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and reiterated zero tolerance for this menace which seriously undermines international peace and security, growth and development".

"They emphasised the importance of ratification and implementation of all UN legal instruments to counter terrorism and encouraged enhanced efforts towards making progress on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism," the statement said.

The two prime ministers agreed on the need to tap the full potential of the European Union (EU)-India strategic partnership and welcomed the prospect of resumption of talks on the India-EU Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA).

There are over 100 Finnish companies in India and some 25 Indian companies in Finland.

"Many of the Finnish companies in India have manufacturing plants in the country and are truly Make in India companies," the statement said.

Several Finnish companies are engaged in the renewable energy and clean-tech segments while a Finnish energy firm already owns two solar power plants in India and has won a bid to build a third one.

A Finnish mobile phone network manufacturer has a research and development centre in India that employs 6,000 people and their equipment serve 280 million mobile phone subscribers, according to the statement.

The Indian companies in Finland are operating in diverse sectors including information technology, health and tourism and have promising prospects for enlarging their investments and involvement in Finland.

Mr Sipila welcomed the efforts of the Indian government and Prime Minister Modi himself in outreach to the business sector and linking with it in a meaningful manner, the statement said.

PM Modi mentioned that several initiatives, including ease of doing business have been taken to bring in consistency, clarity and predictability in policies.

Mr Sipila also highlighted Finland's capacities in the civil nuclear energy field. Finland has four reactors in operation and new ones are being built and planned.

"Both prime ministers agreed that there would be a lot to gain to increase cooperation in innovation and transforming ideas into internationally marketable product," the statement said.

"They agreed that the cooperation between universities and institutes of higher learning is an important part of this cooperation."

According to the statement, around 20,000 Finnish tourists visit India every year and the facility of eTourist visa to Finnish nationals as also recent Indian investment in Finland in this sector is going to further facilitate people-to-people exchanges.

The two sides also appreciated the recent conclusion of memorandum of understanding (MoU) between civil aviation authorities on code shares, intermodal services, routing flexibility, open sky on cargo and on domestic code-sharing.

They also appreciated the decision to move forward with a bio-refinery project for production of fuel grade ethanol, acetic acid, furfural and bio-coal from bamboo in Assam, the statement said.

For Indian aviation, falling crude leads to clearer skies

February 9, 2016 | Quartz India

For years now, much of India’s aviation sector has been stuck in a rut.

Except IndiGo, India’s biggest airline by market share, and Mumbai-based Go Air, almost every other carrier in Asia’s third-largest economy had been bleeding. Over the past six years, at least two airlines—Kingfisher and Paramount—went bust, and SpiceJet almost shut shop.

Since 2011, none of the two publicly traded airlines—SpiceJet and Jet Airways—had made annual profits. Air India, the government-owned airline, is also in deep losses.

But 2016 could see a turnaround.

Since the start of the current financial year, three of India’s biggest airlines—SpiceJet, IndiGo and Jet Airways—have posted profits quarter-after-quarter. These three airlines control more than 70% of the country’s civil aviation market. In addition, Air India has about 17% market share, followed by others, including Air Asia, Vistara, and Air Costa.

“In a way, this is a sort of turnaround that we are seeing in the civil aviation sector after a few years of pain,” Mahantesh Sabarad, deputy vice-president at brokerage SBICAP Securities, told Quartz. “Some of the airlines have been making profits for the past few quarters, so it is certainly a turnaround.”

Although much of the improvement has to do with plummeting crude oil prices and, in turn, operating costs, the change in atmosphere could bring back moment, which had long been missing in the world’s ninth-largest aviation market.

Crude oil accounts for about 50% of the operational cost of airlines in India. In 2015, price of the benchmark Brent crude oil fell by 35%. This followed a 48.3% slide in 2014. The timing of this fall provides a massive opportunity for airlines to penetrate a market where only about 2% of the populationtakes to flying.

“India’s penetration of 0.08 annual domestic seats per capita is low relative to other developing markets like Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and China, where penetration rates are between 0.35 and 0.65 annual seats per capita,” a report by ICICI Direct said last month. “Hence, we expect strong growth in penetration of air travel over the next decade, which will be mainly driven by sustained growth of per capita income, increased affordability accorded by healthy competition and potential upgrading by the vast user base of Indian Railways.”

The number of airline passengers in India grew at a compounded annual rate of 9% between 2010 and 2015, from 45.4 million passengers to nearly 70 million in 2015. Airbus, the world’s second-biggest aircraft maker, predicts that India will be one of the fastest growing airline markets between 2011 and 2031, with an annual growth rate of 9.5%.

The Indian government has also thrown its weight behind the sector and plans to bring in some much-needed reforms. In October, last year, the government proposed a set of measures aimed at lowering the cost of flying within India, besides an easier rule for airlines wanting to fly to global destinations.

American's testimony comes at an awkward time for India-Pakistan relations

February 9, 2016 | Shashank Bengali and Parth M.N | LA Times

As rivals India and Pakistan try to get oft-derailed negotiations on track, a familiar obstacle reappeared this week in the electronic form of David Coleman Headley.

The American-born militant of Pakistani origin has dominated the Indian media for two days with court testimony via videoconference from an undisclosed location in the U.S., where he is serving a 35-year sentence for involvement in the 2008 terrorist attacks in this commercial hub.

Granted a pardon in India in exchange for testifying against another alleged plotter, Headley on Tuesday repeated his assertions that Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, helped Pakistani militants carry out the attacks that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai.

Headley said he was working for the ISI as well as the Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, that India blames for the attacks. He said he scouted the luxury Taj Mahal Palace hotel – which was one of the targets – and passed video and photos to a Lashkar leader as well as an ISI contact he called “Maj. Iqbal.”

Much of Headley’s testimony repeated statements he made at his federal terrorism trial and in interviews he gave to Indian investigators in the U.S. But his reemergence comes at an awkward time, as India and Pakistan – nuclear-armed rivals that have fought four wars against each other in the last 70 years – struggle to revive wide-ranging security, economic and political talks.

Pakistan denies involvement with terrorism and has cast doubt on Headley’s credibility, frequently pointing out that he was a double agent. When he moved from the United States to Pakistan in 2002 to train with Lashkar, Headley was also working as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

India has long sought to have Headley testify to raise pressure on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, whom Headley said was Lashkar’s operations commander, is free on bail in Pakistan where he awaits a long-delayed trial.

Hafiz Saeed, Lashkar’s spiritual leader whose speeches Headley said inspired him, has a $10-million U.S. bounty on his head but lives freely in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

On top of this, Pakistani officials this week said they had found no evidence to support India’s claims that Jaish-e-Mohammad, a domestic militant group, was behind a deadly attack last month on an air base in northern India. The raid deflated hopes of better relations after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in December.

The developments this week “reinforce the lack of seriousness in Pakistan to deal with this problem,” said Alyssa Ayres, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As New Delhi and Islamabad attempt to restart dialogue, it’s the “opposite of a confidence-builder,” Ayres said.

Still, Sharif, the Pakistani leader, said last week that he hoped talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries, which were postponed in January and have not been rescheduled, would still go forward.

In the long-running drama between the two nations, Headley has proven an unusual and enigmatic figure. Born Dawood Gilani to a Pakistani father and American mother, Headley was convicted on drug charges before making a deal with the DEA to become a federal informant and travel to Pakistan to investigate heroin trafficking in 2002.

Under questioning for several hours this week by Indian public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, Headley described himself as a “true follower” of Lashkar who was “influenced and motivated” by Saeed, the group’s founder and spiritual leader. He also juggled relationships with multiple women and stood out for having eyes of two different colors, a condition known as heterochromia.

Headley conducted reconnaissance of the Taj hotel while staying there with his wife, posing as a honeymooning couple, he said. He also surveyed naval and air bases, the state police headquarters and the crowded Siddhivinayak temple in northern Mumbai on behalf of Lashkar, he said.

Since most of what Headley said in court was already known, analysts said efforts to restart high-level talks would continue.

“Back-channel talks are on” between the countries, said Jatin Desai, general secretary for the Pakistan India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, an independent group that advocates for better bilaterial ties. “It should eventually lead to the official talks.”

Others said that getting Headley to testify was a public-relations victory for India, which has expressed frustration that U.S. authorities did not inform them about Headley despite tracking him before the 2008 attacks.

“His statement will definitely help India building its case and will put more pressure on Pakistan,” said Amir Rana, an independent security expert based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Aoun Sahi contributed to this report from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Making of a jihadi: How Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh became Indian face of Islamic State

February 9, 2016 | The Economic Times

'Musab' in Arabic means 'bull'. This was the nom-deguerre for Islamic State (IS) chief in India, 33-year-old Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh who was better known as 'Abu Musab'. He was given this name by his Syria-based handler Shafi Armar alias 'Yousuf' who is four-year younger to him and is described as an ally of Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi, the dreaded IS chief.

Mudabbir was arrested along with 13 others by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) last month that also marked the arrival of IS in India. The Economic Times accesses interrogation details of Mudabbir and those he recruited to piece together the spread of IS in India. The first part traces the journey of Mudabbir, India's IS chief, from a student in early 2000 at Nalasopara to being the emir of Janood-ul-Khalid-al-Hind, the IS inspired radical outfit.

EARLY DAYS

Born on October 13, 1982 at communally sensitive Bheendi Bazar, Mudabbir graduated from Akbar Peerbhoy College in Nagpada in Mumbai in 2003. He also did a course in web programming from St. Angelo institute in Nalasopara. Mudabbir got married in 2010-11 and has two daughters aged 5 years and 5 months respectively. He was staying with his wife Uzma and two daughters at a rented flat in Mumbra from where the NIA arrested him.

THE YEAR 9/11 HAPPENED

Mudabbir's parents stay at Nalasopara with his younger sister. Before his marriage, Mudabbir did his class X from Z B Zakariya English high school at Nalasopra. He then did his XII from M H Saboo Siddiq College at Nagpada where his vocational subject was electrical. It was around this time that Osama Bin Laden led al-Qaeda carried out the attacks on US soon after which US invaded Afghanistan.

"I was disturbed after the 2001 attack as everyone labelled Muslims as terrorists. I went under depression," Mudabbir is believed to have told his interrogators. The development seems to have left a deep scar on his mind as Mudabbir started reading about the "atrocities being committed with Muslims all over the world." By 2003, Mudabbir did his graduation as well as web designing course and started teaching computer at a private institute to support the family. Till 2005, he worked as computer teacher but left the job after he got a job as web designer with Computree Infotech Limited at Goregaon. The job, however, didn't last for more than six months. "Thereafter, I worked as flash developer in Image online company at Vikroli at Mumbai till 2007," says his interrogation details. Then 25, Mudabbir got a decent break when he got a job as new product development manager in Sportz Interactive, Goregaon where he worked for nearly 5 years before being shunted due to his poor performance in December 2012.  

Mudabbir also dabbled into properties and construction business but the venture could not take off.

INDOCTRINATION OF IS

After losing his job, Mudabbir started working from home and used to freelance for different companies. Around this time, he started reading about Islamic State of Syria and Levant (ISIL), floated by Baghdadi. "While searching on the internet regarding Caliphate, I came across the profile of Yousuf and we became friends on facebook," says Mudabbir. Yousuf-al-Hindi, according to intelligence agencies is none other than Shafi Armar, who hails from Bhatkal and was part of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) under Riyaz Bhatkal.

Shafi along with his elder brother Sultan fled to Pakistan in 2008 after a crackdown on IM. They later migrated to Afghanistan to fight NATO forces and floated Ansar-ul-Tawhid (AuT) that pledged its allegiance to Islamic State. While Sultan was killed during the fight with security forces last year, Shafi is believed to have shifted to Syria and taken over the role of talent hunter for IS in India. Indian agencies, however, also suspect that Shafi is being used by Pakistan's ISI to recruit in the name of Islamic State and then carry out terror attacks in India, a charge that is yet to be established.

Mudabbir, according to sleuths knows Hindi, Urdu, English and Marathi and has so far motivated close to two dozen young men to join the IS inspired pan India outfit, Janood-e-Khalifa-al-Hind. Described of "sound" economic background, the agency found nearly Rs 10 lakhs deposited in his various bank accounts. He had bank accounts in his name at SBI, The South Indian Bank, Canara bank and Vasai Janata Sahakari bank. At the time of his arrests, NIA seized Rs 1.95 lakh that was part of the Rs 6.50 lakh given to him through hawala by his Syria-based handler, Armar.

Mudabbir, according to his interrogation details received the first consignment of Rs 4.80 lakhs at Zaveri Bazar and second consignment of Rs 1 lakhs at JJ Marg through a hawala operator. He also told his interrogators that he had distributed the money among his associates at Mumbai, Lucknow and Aurangabad on the instructions of Yousuf.

TERROR MEETINGS

The self-styled chief of IS in India, Mudabbir met one Rizwan alias Khalid, a juvenile, who hails from Kushinagar in UP in January 2015. The two were brought together by Yousuf and the meeting took place at Panvel in Mumbai. The duo then left for Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and stayed at Deoband Masjid. The first meeting of the newly formed outfit is said to have taken place at Saharanpur with an aim to exploit the atmosphere created soon after the communal riots in the town. Five others who were identified by Mudabbir attended the meeting. While two have come from Lucknow, one person identified as Zarar (22) came from Hyderabad and two others from Mumbai. All of them were radicalized by Yousuf after online scouting. According to Mudabbir, "the meeting was held to delegate the responsibilities of each person of the group but nothing could materialise as Yousuf told them that they will decide about it later." "The ideology of the group seems to be fighting against the atrocities committed by US, Britain and France. For them, Indian government was target because it is an ally of west. The group wanted to establish the rule of Shariah in India," an official explained.

PREPARATION OF BOMBS

The first assignment of Janood-e-Khalifa-al-Hind was to cause bomb blasts at important places, reveals the questioning of Mudabbir. "As per the plan, I purchased match boxes, a soldering machine and mobile with intention to carry bombs blasts," Mudabbir said during his interrogation.

Investigators also found that Mudabbir used to communicate with other members of the group using 'Trillian' and 'Surespot' messenger applications which according to him had an additional layer of encryption thus making it difficult for security agencies to track. After his arrest, NIA seized 7 mobile phones, 3 pamphlets related to Jamiat-Ulema-e-Maharashtra, 4 DVDs, 1 wire cutter, 19 Match box and soldering machine.

The aim, according to Mudabbir for establishing IS in India was to fight in India like IS is fighting in Syria and Iraq. While describing the structure of Janood-ul-khalifa- al-Hind, Mudabbir said that there were three senior positions where he was the 'emir', Rizwan alias Khalid as 'naib emir' and Najmal Huda from Bengaluru as 'emir askary' (battalion commander). The group also had plans to set up a media wing with units in Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat, Bihar, West Bengal, Allahabad, Uttrakhand and Azamgarh.

Pakistan Has Chance to Boost Economy, World Bank President Says

February 9, 2016 | The World Bank

Pakistan has a great opportunity to become more ambitious in reforming its economy so that more people are lifted out of poverty more quickly and prosperity is more widely shared among its people, said World Bank Group (WBG) President Jim Yong Kim.

Noting that the government had stabilized the economy over three tough years, Kim said he had discussed in meetings with the prime minister and finance minister about the importance of pressing forward with reforms that would unlock the country’s potential. As part of the World Bank’s continued support to the country, there was discussion of a Development Policy Credit to promote economic reforms.

“Now is the moment for Pakistan to step up to a higher level of growth and opportunity for all its people,” said Kim. “In my meetings with the prime minister and finance minister, we discussed going to a higher level of ambition for reforms for the economy. These could include strengthening the role of the private sector for job creation, accelerating energy reforms, making improvements at the community level for health and education, and ensuring that anti-poverty measures are effective at reaching poor people.”

Kim made his comments on the first day of his two-day visit to Pakistan after meetings in Islamabad with the government leadership, including economic ministers and secretaries from provincial and federal governments.

Kim participated in a State Bank of Pakistan launch event for WBG support to Pakistan’s financial inclusion reform agenda, “Pakistan’s Path towards Universal Financial Access.”“The National Financial Inclusion Strategy has come at a particularly opportune moment as new technology and the rapid expansion of branchless banking offer unprecedented opportunities to transform financial inclusion in Pakistan. Pakistan is now leading the way in South Asia when it comes to digital finance and branchless banking”, said Kim.

The UN Secretary General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar also participated in the event.

Kim also participated in a panel discussion on “Managing Displaced Populations” and learnt how the country managed a large Afghan refugee population.  The event was co-organized by the World Bank, the Economic Affairs Division and UNHCR, in the context of the continuing global refugee crisis.

“There is much the world can learn from Pakistan, which has for decades hosted refugees from other countries or had to cope with temporarily displaced people within its own borders,” saidKim. “We are committed to support the Government of Pakistan in repatriating the crisis affected displaced people through the newly effective cash transfer project.”

Later in the day, he met with the provincial leadership of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab and learned about province-level reform efforts and development projects under implementation and preparation with World Bank Group support.  He underlined the importance of the role of the provincial governments in the effective implementation of reforms.

Kim later plans to meet private sector representatives, students, and the provincial leadership of Sindh.

The World Bank Group in Pakistan:

The World Bank’s program in Pakistan is governed by its Country Partnership Strategy (CPS) agreed with the government. The World Bank Pakistan portfolio has 26 investment lending projects under implementation with a total net commitment of $4.99 billion. To date, we have committed over $5.6 billion in Pakistan, including $1.2 billion during the 2015 fiscal year. IFC’s advisory services program in Pakistan is one of its largest in the region, with 13 active projects and a funding commitment of over $20 million

In 5 years, US FDA rejected 13,000 Indian products

February 9, 2016 | Chethan Kumar | The Times of India

According to the ministry of commerce and industry, the rejected products include patent medicines, generic medicines, snacks, bakery products, spices (ground, mixed) and seasonings, bath soaps and detergents. And, the reasons include problems in packaging, misbranding, contamination, high residue levels and labelling.

In January 2016, India saw 228 rejections — China saw 314 — pointing to another year of huge rejections at a time when the Centre has been advancing the 'Make-in-India' campaign. On January 5, 2016, three drugs from Intas Pharmaceutical Limited and Sanofi India Limited, were rejected as they were unapproved drugs under sections "505(a), 801(a)(3)" of the US regulator's guidelines.

When asked to comment about the rejections, Biocon CMD Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw said: "I cannot comment on specific cases. But, there is a problem, ranging from data integrity issues where some of our firms have been caught fudging data red-handed, to issues with clean environments — there was a case where a sterile area had a leaky roof — which is unacceptable and so on." Shaw added: "Just look at the warning letters issued to our firms, I won't name... but they are in detail. And not arbitrary."

On January 6, two items exported by Andhra Pradesh's RDR Export were rejected by the US FDA citing adulteration. "The article appears to bear or contain a food additive, namely nitrofurans, that is unsafe," the FDA says regarding one of the items.

Experts say there have been several issues over the years and that it is not new to see such high rejection rates from the United States. However, the number of rejections was consistent, although not with huge differences, decreasing from 2012 to 2014. That changed in 2015, when 2,311 Indian products were rejected — slightly less than China's 2,461.

Speaking to TOI from Delhi, Ajay Sahai, director general & CEO of the Federation of Indian Export Organisation (Fieo), said: "Until a year ago, the Indian industry's focus was not on standard and quality. There may be a lot of reasons for this, but if one has to compete in the global market, this has to be adhered to."

He said there is a need for standardisation of quality in the country and that the Centre must take this up on a warfooting. "The ministry of commerce has some initiatives and several 'standard conclaves' have been conducted. But that is not enough. We are late to start, so we need to do a little more," he said.

India-Nepal military exercise begins in Pithoragarh

February 9, 2016 | The Tribune

A 14-day India-Nepal combined military exercise, named Surya Kiran IX, commenced at Pithoragarh today. The exercise will culminate on February 21.

The Nepal army is being represented by officers and troops of the elite Shree RudraDhoj battalion while an infantry battalion is participating on behalf of the Indian Army. The combined battalion-level exercise is being conducted under the aegis of the Panchshul Brigade of the Central Command.

This is the 9th India-Nepal combined exercise. During the combined training, emphasis will be laid on upgrade of tactical and practical skills by sharing each other’s experiences and also on enhancing inter-operability in jungle warfare and counter terrorism operations in mountain terrain. The role and importance of Armed Forces in disaster management in both the countries has assumed increasing significance in the recent years. Therefore, focus will also be laid on humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations, including medical and aviation aspects.

Brig Sanjay Sharma, officiating Major General, Staff, Central Command, was present during the opening ceremony and interacted with soldiers of both the contingents.

He emphasised that both the armies had a lot to learn from each other, especially in their approach towards handling the modern day challenges of terrorism and in disaster management, as it had been one of the most important challenges for both the countries after some recent calamities. Senior Nepalese Army officials were also likely to attend the combined exercise along with their Indian counterparts during the validation phase of the exercise.

Peace with India is top priority for Pakistan

February 9, 2016 | Deccan Chronicle

Peace with India is the top priority of the incumbent Pakistan government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, an internal Foreign Office document revealed.

“Implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement of 2003 will also receive priority to ensure tranquillity on the LoC and the Working Boundary”, said the document circulated among the officials dealing with India.

It said during the current year, Pakistan would like to engage with India in a sustained, dialogue not only to evolve additional CBMs but also to focus on resolving longstanding disputes like Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek.

As for challenges in the Middle East, Pakistan will continue to pursue a balanced and principles-based approach in its relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, GCC and other countries in the Middle East, it said.

Pakistan probe: no evidence links militant group to Pathankot air base attack - officials

February 8, 2016 | Reuters

A special investigation team set up in Pakistan to probe a deadly assault on Pathankot air base last month found no evidence implicating the leader of the group India blamed for the attack, Pakistani security officials said on Monday.

The officials said the team interrogated Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar and his associates and found no evidence linking him with the Jan. 2 attack on the air base in northern India that killed seven Indian military personnel.

"We searched their homes, seminaries, hideouts and also examined their call records for past three months and found nothing dubious," a security official with links to the investigating team said.

The raid on the air base stalled efforts to revive bilateral talks between the nuclear-armed neighbours after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unscheduled visit to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in December.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since becoming separate countries in 1947, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

India has long accused Pakistan of using Kashmir-based militants like Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Army of Mohammad, as a proxy to mount attacks on Indian soil.

A 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, which India also blamed on Jaish-e-Mohammad, nearly led to a war between the nations.

Pakistan denies giving any aid to Kashmir-based militants these days, although it admits doing so in the past.

Indian government officials say Jaish-e-Mohammad was also behind the Pathankot attack and say they provided evidence to the Pakistani government to prove it.

A spokesman for India's foreign ministry declined to comment on reports of the special investigation team's findings.

In January, Pakistani authorities detained Azhar and several members of Jaish-e-Mohammad, sealed offices belonging to the outfit, and shut down several religious schools run by the group.

The security officials said on Monday that Azhar remained in custody, but did not say whether authorities were considering his release.

The investigating team has not ruled out the possibility that other members of Azhar's group may have been involved, the officials said.

It also continued to look into groups affiliated with the United Jihad Council, an alliance of pro-Pakistan militant groups based in the Pakistani-administered part of the divided Kashmir region that claimed responsibility for the assault in Pathankot.

Jaish-e-Mohammad did not claim responsibility for the attack, but praised it in a statement released a few days afterward.

Headley deposes before Mumbai court; says he visited India 7 times before attack

February 8, 2016 | Economic Times

In the first case of deposition via video link from foreign land, Pakistani-American terrorist David Coleman Headley today told a court here about how Lashkar-e-Taiba had planned and executed the 26/11 attacks and the role played by ISI officials, involving him too.

Headley, an LeT operative who is currently serving 35-year prison sentence in the US for his role in the Mumbai attacks, detailed the sequence of events leading up to the November 26, 2008 assault as he deposed beforeSpecial Judge GA Sanap for nearly five-and-a-half-hours.

He spoke about his training by LeT in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Abbottabad near Islamabad under the guidance of LeT founder "Hafiz Saeed sahab", whose picture he identified in the court, as also its commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, and how he got in touch with three officers of Pakistan's ISI -- Major Ali and Major Iqbal and Major Abdul Rehman Pasha.

Headley told the court that he had changed his name from the original Dawood Gilani after instructions from the LeT commanders, including Lakhvi, and ISI officials to carry out recce in India for an attack, an "adventurous" task for him.

He also revealed that the 10 terrorists, who struck at various places in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 killing 166 people, had planned to carry out the attack twice earlier -- in September and October -- but they attempts failed. Once their boat hit a rock in the seas, because of which they lost all the arms and ammunition and had to go back to Pakistan.

"I used to treat India as my enemy. Hafiz Saeed and LeT operative Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi also saw India as their enemy," Headley told the Special Judge during his first deposition in an Indian court which began at 7 AM.

He also admitted during his examination in chief by special prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam that he joined the ranks of LeT after getting "influenced and motivated" by the speeches of "Hafiz Saeed Sahab".

Headley, who described himself as a "true follower of LeT, said he took his first "course" with them in 2002 at Muzaffarabad and had also attended a 'leadership course' which was led by Saeed and Lakhvi.

He said he underwent 5-6 training courses in LeT camps for about two years. 'Daura-e-Ribat' training, an intelligence course in which setting up of safe houses and reconnaissance are taught. The center where it is taught is in Mansera, 40 miles from Abbottabad, a place in Pakistan where former Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed by the US.

Headley said though he wanted go to Kashmir and fight Indian troops but he was told that he was "too old" for that. "Lakhvi told me that they would use me for some other purpose," he said, adding it was to be more "adventurous" than Kashmir.

Talking about his travel to India, the LeT operative said, "Before the first visit, (his LeT handler) Sajid Mir (also an accused in the case) gave me instructions to make a general video of Mumbai."

He said he visited Mumbai seven times before the 2008 terror attack and Delhi once after the attack in March 2009.

To enter India, he said he changed his name from Dawood Gilani to David Headley in 2006 so that he could travel here with an American identity and set up some business.

"I applied for change in name on February 5, 2006 in Philadelphia. I changed my name to David Headley to get a new passport under that name. I wanted a new passport so that I could enter India with an American identity.

"After I got a new passport, I disclosed it to my colleagues in LeT of which one of them was Sajid Mir, the person with whom I was dealing with. The objective for coming to India was to set up an office/business so that I can live in India," he said.

Headley said he had applied for business multiple-entry visa with the Indian embassy so that he does not have to apply for Indian visa repeatedly.

"My office was established in Mumbai so that I could take cover in India," Headley told the court, adding he wanted the cover so that his real identity would not be known.

He said while applying for the Indian visa, he cooked up a story that he was an immigration consultant and had furnished all wrong information to protect his cover.

"I had discussed it (cover story) with Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal of ISI, and they were very happy to see my Indian visa," Headley told the court.

He said he knew Major Iqbal of ISI and had met him in Lahore after one Major Ali (also from ISI) introduced him to the former.

Nikam, who examined Headley and will do so again tomorrow, said, "I am absolutely satisfied with what Headley had revealed in today's deposition. Headley has given certain sensational revelations during his deposition. He confirmed that he met Hafiz Saeed and he identified his picture as well."

The special prosecutor said, "He (Headley) revealed a lot about Major Iqbal and Major Ali, both of them were there in ISI. It was Major Iqbal who trained him and he also unravelled names of few LeT trainers before the court."

Nikam said Headley had "joined a leadership course where both Sayeed and Lakhvi used to come and give speeches against India. He completed his education from Hasan Abdal Cadet College in Pakistan but left for America at the age of 17."

Headley's lawyer's Mahesh Jethmalini said he has confessed that he had joined LeT after being influenced by Hafiz Saeed.

Headley told the court that he was once arrested in Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan and Major Abdul Rehman Pasha of ISI was with him at that time.

"I and Pasha were to meet a drug smuggler Zheb Shah as I suggested that this man (Shah) could help us smuggle weapons to India," Headley said.

"I was arrested in Landikotal next to the Afghan border, in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) Pakistan, and he (Major Ali) came to interrogate me. I was arrested as I looked like a foreigner and was carrying some literature on India," the Pakistani-American national said.

However, Headley was not charged as he showed his Pakistani identity card, the court was told.

"Major Ali (working for ISI at Landikotal) introduced me to Major Iqbal because he (Ali) thought that I could be of use of assistance in intelligence work," Headley said.

He also told the court that Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a former Pakistan military physician convicted for providing support to LeT for plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper, had helped him get a five-year visa to India.

"Rana knows something about the 26/11 attacks. I told him not to come to India," Headley told the court. "Rana knew the purpose of my visit to India."

He also said that Pakistani terrorists attempted to attack Mumbai twice before the 26/11 strikes that killed 166 people but both the times, the attempts failed.

"LeT operative Sajid Mir (whom he admitted to be his main contact man in LeT) told me that two earlier attempts to attack Mumbai had failed," Headley said.

He said the first attempt was made in September 2008 but it failed as the boat hit some rocks.

"The boat, which started from outside Karachi, disintegrated and people on it had their life jackets on and they came to the shore, while the second attempt was made a month later (in October)," Headley told the court.

The same 10 terrorists of LeT were successful in attacking Mumbai the third time, said Headley, an approver in the case.

Headley reportedly visited India many times between 2006 and 2008, drew maps, took video footage and scouted several targets for the attacks including the Taj Hotel, Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House. His recce provided vital information for the 10 LeT attackers and their handlers in the attack.

The deposition of Headley, assumes significance as it may unravel the conspiracy behind the brazen terror strike, which left 166 dead and 309 injured.

The court had on December 10, 2015, made Headley an approver in the case and directed him to depose before the court on February 8 (today).

He had then told Special Judge GA Sanap that he was "ready to depose" if granted pardon.

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Apple may be close to opening stores in India

February 8, 2016 | Lance Whitney | CNET

The Indian government is reportedly ready to push through Apple's application to set up retail shops in the country, one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world.

Apple appears close to getting the regulatory green light to open its first retail stores in India.

The company is expected to win approval from the Indian government to launch the stores, the Bloomberg news service reported Sunday, citing "a person with knowledge of the matter."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Bloomberg story.

Normally, India requires that any foreign business selling a single brand in the country buy all its components from local manufacturers, something that would be an obstacle for Apple, which gets most of its parts from Chinese vendors. That requirement has reportedly been waved since Apple has been classified as a "provider of cutting-edge technology," the source told Bloomberg.

Apple already sells the iPhone, iPad and other products in India both online and through resellers. But its market share there is only about 2 percent. Retail stores could boost sales by giving customers in India a chance to put their hands on the company's devices and to speak in person with customer service employees.

Opening retail outlets in India represents both an opportunity and challenge for Apple. Hit by weaker iPhone sales growth in established markets, Apple needs to push the phone in other regions. India is one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets in the world. But it's also a market that likes budget-friendly phones, including those made by top vendor Samsung. Apple's iPhone is a premium-priced product.

So how might Apple lure customers to buy the iPhone at its new stores? Deep discounts, one analyst told Bloomberg. The company will likely continue to offer heavy discounts on older models, such as the iPhone 5S, Tarun Pathak, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Technology Market Research, said in the report.

Appealing to new users will also be key to growing Apple's market share in India, which is only around 2 percent.

"Most of the growth in India will come from new users coming into the Apple ecosystem, unlike in the West where growth is mainly from existing users upgrading," Pathak said. "You can expect the stores to focus mostly on iPhones."

The Wall Street Journal reported in January that Apple had requested approval from the Indian government to open retail stores in the country.

During a call with analysts in late January to discuss last quarter's earnings, CEO Tim Cook highlightedIndia as a rapidly expanding country and the third-largest smartphone market in the world, behind China and the United States. Cook cited India as a growth market due to its young population, great demographics for a consumer brand and good business environment. He added that Apple has "been putting increasingly more energy in India."

Apple Stores have been an important factor in the company's success. The company now has 463 retail stores across 16 countries. Apple Stores had the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the US, Fortune reported last year.

Battling doctor shortage, Indian hospitals offer intensive care from afar

February 8, 2016  | Aditya Kalra | Reuters

A doctor at a hospital in India's capital, New Delhi, was recently tracking a wall of monitors displaying the vital signs of intensive care patients admitted hundreds of miles away when red-and-yellow alerts rang out.

The oxygen flow to a 67-year-old patient had stopped when no critical care doctors were present in a hospital in the northern city of Amritsar.

But the doctor in the New Delhi centre run by Fortis Healthcare quickly issued a set of instructions and stopped the patient from suffering brain damage or death, the Indian hospital chain said in an account of the episode.

India's top private hospitals, seizing on a shortage of critical-care doctors, are expanding into the remote management of intensive care units around the country and, starting this month, in neighbouring Bangladesh too.

India has seven doctors for every 10,000 people, half the global average, according to the World Health Organization. Data from the Indian Medical Association shows the country needs more than 50,000 critical care specialists, but has just 8,350.

Such a shortage of doctors means small facilities in India's $55 billion private hospital market are ill equipped to provide critical care even as numbers seeking private healthcare rise because the public health system is in even worse shape.

India's largest healthcare chain, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise, and Fortis will this year expand their network of electronic intensive care units (eICUs), scaling up operations thanks to advances in communications technology.

"We want to leverage (doctors) using technology," said K. Hari Prasad, head of hospitals business at Apollo that employs more than 700 critical care doctors.

Apollo, which monitors 200 patients in six states from its only eICU in Hyderabad city, will open three new centres to track 1,000 more patients. Prasad said he is also in talks to extend the service to government hospitals.

Fortis will start remote monitoring of intensive care patients in the Bangladeshi city of Khulna this week, its first such cross-border operation. The hospital chain tracks 350 patients from its New Delhi centre but will start two more eICUs by mid-2017.

Jayant Singh, director of healthcare at Frost & Sullivan India, a consultancy, estimates that eICUs are boosting industry revenues by $220 million a year by giving smaller hospitals the ability to treat critical patients at the hands of top flight intensive-care specialists, even if they are in another city.

India's eICU beds will expand by 15-20 percent each year from about 3,000 now, Singh said.

SAVING LIVES

With multiple computer screens inside these high-tech eICUs, doctors suggest treatment procedures after assessing medical history and real-time heart rate charts of patients fighting for their lives in distant facilities.

Doctors recently saved a 30-year-old pregnant woman in a hospital in the southern city of Warangal after her heart stopped beating, assisting a resident doctor not specialised in intensive care to carry out chest compressions through a video link.

"We save about 25 lives a month," said Shamit Gupta, medical director at Fortis' eICU unit.

Hospitals charge between $10 and $30 a day to virtually monitor a patient from their eICUs, with revenues shared between hospitals and companies such as General Electric and Philips that have developed the tracking software.

That comes on top of standard critical care costs of about $200 a day in a small city hospital.

At that price, eICUs do little to address concerns of millions of India's poor patients who often share beds or wait for days to gain admission to a public hospital.

"This technology basically is not bridging the gap between the poor and the rich, but increasing access to specialized healthcare for those who can afford it," Frost & Sullivan's Singh said.

UAE Warns India: 'You're Not Immune To ISIS'

February 8, 2016 | Nidhi Razdan | NDTV

India is not immune to the threat from ISIS, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, has warned in exclusive interview to NDTV in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has been in forefront of the fight against ISIS, also known as Daesh.

Ahead of the visit to India this week of Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Dr Gargash told NDTV: "This is a long-term threat we need to cooperate, need to have zero tolerance. There are no grey areas, we need to tackle this threat and nobody is immune. If you think you are immune, you are going to be negligent and you are going to be hit. Everybody... whether India or the UAE."

India and the UAE have started a new strategic partnership after a landmark visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Abu Dhabi in August, which includes unprecedented cooperation on counter terrorism, especially significant given that the UAE has traditionally been a close ally of Pakistan.

Over the past year, about a dozen Indians with links to the ISIS have been deported from the UAE.

To a question on whether Pakistan was doing enough to crack down on terror groups after the Pathankot terror attack, Dr Gargash said: "The UAE doesn't see a grey area in our rejection of terrorism, whether by a non-government group or whether sponsored by governments, we put all that in the same pile, terrorism is terrorism." He added that "there are no good terrorists and bad terrorists", and that states cannot distinguish between different groups.

The Minister also described the global fight against ISIS as "frustratingly slow". He said: "We need greater cooperation. Like in Iraq, we want to see a more comprehensive approach. We can't geographically identify areas and say, this area suffers from terrorism. I can't come and say, if something happens in Mumbai, that it is out of vision or sight. It is something that is related. Anti-ISIS needs a ground component, not troops. UAE has always said we want to be a part of this ground component... to train to lead. This is where is has been frustratingly slow."

PM Modi visited UAE in August, becoming the first prime minister to do so in three decades. During the visit, the oil-rich Gulf nation announced it would invest $75 billion in Foreign Direct Investment in infrastructure projects in India, but that seems to be taking time.

The minister said: "India is already an attractive investment destination but we need to work together to cut some of the red tape, make things smoother. India is a continent, not a country, if you read India's political history, you know how complicated and intricate it is so while you have to be patient, time is not on our side. I want to see clearer laws, smoother implementation, greater foreign investment," he said.

Power, healthcare, road India’s priorities for investment in Nepal

February 8, 2016 | The Himalayan Times

Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said India’s priorities for investment in Nepal are power, healthcare and roads.

In a meeting with visiting Nepali Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel in New Delhi today, Jaitley expressed his hope that Indian investors in the public and private sector would show interest across all sectors in Nepal with priorities on the three sectors.

On the occasion, Paudel stressed the long history of shared economic cooperation between the two countries and thanked India for the tremendous assistance extended to Nepal in its hour of need, the Indian Ministry of Finance said in a statement after the meeting.

“Paudel informed that Nepal is planning to establish a special infrastructure development bank and sought India’s help in this regard.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Minister encouraged Nepal to finalise its reconstruction programmes at the earliest to better utilise the USD 1 billion Government of India pledge, the statement said.

Paudel is currently in the southern neighbour’s capital to lay groundwork for Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s visit to India, expected to be held within February.

“The meeting ended with both the Finance Ministers expressing hope that the cooperation between the two countries will be further strengthened during the upcoming state visit of the Prime Minister of Nepal.”

Madhesis call off protest, end India-Nepal border blockade

February 8, 2016 | The Times of India

Nepal's agitating Madhesis on Monday called off their nearly five-month long blockade at the India-Nepal border, bringing relief to the country suffering severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other supplies due to the protests against a new constitution.

"Considering the current crisis facing the nation and the public necessity and aspirations, the ongoing protest programmes of general strike, border blockade, government office shutdown have been called off for now," said a statement issued after the meeting of United Democratic Madhesi Front leaders.

"The agitation will continue till our demands are addressed," the statement added.

The announcement to end the border blockade comes ahead of Prime Minister KP Oli's trip to India on February 19, the first overseas visit of the new Nepalese premier.

The UDMF has announced only three protest programmes including a torch rally, a lathi rally and a people's vote collection campaign in district headquarters.

Nepal's Madhesi community, largely of Indian origin, are opposed to the new constitution that divides their ancestral homeland under the seven-province structure and have led an ongoing blockade of key border trade points with India.

The agitating community that shares strong cultural and family bonds with India is demanding demarcation of provinces, fixing of electoral constituencies on the basis of population and proportional representation, and have launched a protest for months that has claimed at least 55 lives.

The agitation by Madhesis in Terai region bordering India paralyzed services in Nepal and triggered huge shortage of essential supplies, including fuel and medicines, as the protesters blocked all border trade points between the two countries.

Except the Raxaul-Birgunj border point, trade has resumed at all other posts. The Raxaul-Birgunj point was opened briefly a couple of days ago, but it was closed again.

The blockade led to strain in the bilateral ties, with Kathmandu accusing New Delhi of imposing an "unofficial blockade".

However, India maintains that it has imposed no such blockade, and the restrictions are a result of security concerns as Madhesis are protesting the new Constitution in the Terai region of Nepal bordering India.

The UDMF leaders also noted that the comments made by Sadbhawana Party Chairman Rajendra Mahato, a key leader of the agitating alliance, have dealt a blow to the Madhesi agitation.

"As the latest activities and comments of Sadbhawana Party Chairman Mahato have damaged the Madhes agitation, the Madhesi Morcha directs him not to be involved in such activities in the coming days," the statement said.

As US lifts sanctions, Iran wants India to pay oil dues in euros

February 7, 2016 | The Indian Express

Iran has asked Indian refiners such as Essar Oil and Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL) to clear its past oil dues amounting to over $6 billion in euros within six months.

With US lifting sanctions, Iran has told Indian authorities that the three-year old mechanism, paying 45 per cent of oil import bill in rupees and keeping the remaining 55 per cent pending for payment channels to clear, has come to an end.

The pending payments now total to over $6 billion which Iran has agreed to receive in installments over the next six months, sources privy to the development said.

Central Bank of Iran’s vice governor Gholamali Kamyab has conveyed to Indian authorities that crude oil proceeds from now on would be in euro as Iran would not be able to undertake US dollar settlement through the US financial system.

Iran will be opening or re-activating euro accounts with Indian banks and would like to have the money transferred from refiners into these accounts.

The Persian Gulf nation is talking to State Bank of India (SBI) for the purpose and has also opened an account with IDBI.

Also, it wants settlement with India through the Asian Currency Union (ACU) and has written to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in this respect, they said.

Kamyab stated that National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) would ask buyers of crude in India to open Letters of Credit (Lcs) in favour of Central Bank of Iran with SBI as was the case in past, sources said adding settlement could be done through the ACU and IDBI would be used for the purpose.

Since February 2013, Indian refiners like Essar Oil and MRPL have been paying 45 per cent of their import bill in rupees to UCO Bank account of Iranian oil company. The remaining has been accumulating, pending finalisation of a payment mechanism.

With the lifting of sanctions, the payment channels will reopen and Iran is seeking the pending $6 billion in euros. The payments would be done in installments to prevent a run on the rupee with MRPL likely to be asked to clear its outstanding of close to $3 billion first.

Indian Oil Corp (IOC), which owes over $400 million toIran, may be the second in the queue followed by smaller payments by HPCL-Mittal Energy Ltd (HMEL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corp.

Essar Oil may be the last to clear its about $3 billion dues.

Sources said Iran has not yet decided on utilisation of the $3 billion which has accumulated in the rupee account with UCO Bank.

It could use the money to make payments for imports of steel and other commodities from India.

The Indian Express.jpeg

India's biotech moment: A made-in-India Zika virus vaccine

February 7, 2016 | The Economic Times

The irony is complete, India has no reported cases of the dreaded Zika virus infection, but is the first country in the world to have ready for testing not one but two vaccines against the virus that is causing nightmares in The Americas.

Whether the Zika breakthrough from India becomes a full- fledged vaccine or not will be known later, but for the first time an Indian company has been nimble, fast and foresighted to beat the western pharma giants on their own game. One will have to wait and watch to see how the patent battle is fought, on this occasion the dice is already loaded in India's favour.

This huge globally significant 'Zika biotech moment for India' could not have come at a more opportune time, the country is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) which started in 1986, under the leadership of the tech savvy late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Zika biotech moment for India' could not have come at a more opportune time, the country is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) which started in 1986, under the leadership of the tech savvy late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The then land of snake charmers, elephants, and the 'Hindu rate of growth' has now transformed into innovation hub with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi another tech-savvy, science loving leader who has given the big challenge of 'Make in India' and 'Start-up India'.

The Zika virus vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech International Limited, Hyderabad goes well beyond the prime minister's catchy slogans as it is truly a 'made in India' by Indians moment and the patent on the product is also Indian.

The unbelievable story of the Zika virus vaccine breakthrough actually begins in 1996 with the remarkable tale of a middle class Tamilian farmer's son who trained to be a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in USA deciding to come back to India. Krishna Ella, now the chairman-cum-managing director of Bharat Biotech was then egged by his mother to return to his motherland from USA.

Ella recalls his mother saying, "Son, you only have a 9-inch stomach and how much ever money you make, you can't eat more than that. You come back and do whenever you want, I will see to it that you get food! As long as I am alive, you will not starve."

Then 'start-ups' were not sexy, yet Ella took the risks and today he commands a USD 100 million company that specialises in vaccine production.

Having mastered the making of the world's cheapest hepatitis-B vaccine and the bulk supply of the oral polio vaccine of which Ella says he has supplied 3.5 billion doses among several other vaccines. Ella's company also partnered with Indian government to make the first-ever Indian-made vaccine called 'Rotavac', a vaccine against an infectious diarrhoea disease caused by Rota virus that afflicts children.

Ella being a scientist himself invests a lot in research and development and that is probably what led him start work developing vaccines against Japanese Encephalitis (JE) and Chikungunya both viral diseases that are mosquito borne.

Ella says Chikungunya - the bone-breaking fever first entered India in 2006 possibly from Africa and his company was the first to have isolated and characterised the virus. Since then he said he worried about dreaded infections jumping the depths of the Indian Ocean, and says he feared about the Zika virus - originally isolated from Uganda in 1947 - making the leap since the mosquito that transmits the virus is the same that carries in its lethal bite the Chikungunya, JE and dengue viruses.

Ella says about 18 months ago his research group headed by Dr Sumathy initiated a gentle paced work on making a vaccine against the infectious Zika virus. India had no live specimens of the virus so importing it through official channels his research team got cracking. Ella says his dream was to make a 'vaccine for travellers' that in a single dose would give people immunity against Chikungunya, JE and Zika.

In July 2015, his team has a Eureka moment on Zika and were able to make two vaccine candidates. Hurriedly patents were filed. By then Zika had not exploded as a troublemaker on the global horizon.

Bharat Biotech's vaccines now christened 'Zikavac' are ready for pre-clinical trials, this makes these two vaccines head and shoulders ahead of the other international efforts which are still literally efforts on the drawing board. The world is searching for an answer and the World Health Organisation (WHO) says "we have just been informed about the Zika vaccine candidate that Bharat Biotech has. We will examine it from the scientific point of view and see the feasibility of taking it forward."< ..

Developing the necessary molecules that make up the vaccine is what this 1,000-personnel organisation based in the 'Genome Valley' of Hyderabad could do on their own. Here onwards the road is uphill. Ella says the struggle begins now as the Indian technocracy and the drugs regulatory system takes its own sweet time for approvals.

However, Ella's first hurdle is to convince an expert committee set up by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that the product and patent he is flaunting is scientifically worth pursuing since vaccine trials are not only very expensive but also need a lot of stamina to go through and failures are typical.

Interestingly, the government wing that should be most chuffed by this Zikavac development, the Department of Biotechnology has not even reacted and naysayers are already under cutting the Zika breakthrough.

Interestingly, India was the first country in the world that set up a separate Department of Biotechnology to nurture this sector three decades ago. Then the department had a modest budget of Rs 5 crore, compared to this fiscal's allocation of about Rs 1600 crore that amounts to a 320 times jump in 30 years.

Yet many believe the DBT has not lived up to its expectation in recent times since the most urgently-needed National Biotech Regulatory Authority India Bill has been pending with the Parliament almost shackling the sector to a huge slow down. The one big success from the DBT was the piloting of the introduction of the genetically-modified variety of cotton called Bt Cotton more than a decade ago, the first and only GM plant India has embraced.

The country then dithered when it debated the introduction of Bt Brinjal but then taking a moral high ground placed a 'moratorium' on its introduction. Today the government technocracy of the biotech sector is unable to take a decision whether Indian farmers should be given an opportunity to grow GM Mustard, even as the country spends scarce foreign exchange importing edible oils.

The Indian biotech sector is today worth about USD 7 billion and according to the National Biotechnology Development Strategy unveiled a few weeks ago, the target is to make it into a USD 100 billion industry by 2025.

However, for that to happen relevant legislations need to be passed post haste. In addition, what needs to be ensured is that executive powers come back to rest with the executive. India may be the only country in the whole world where the Supreme Court has been deliberating for several years on whether genetically modified crops are good or bad for the country.

It is for governments to decide on such important national policies, not judges of the apex court howsoever learned they may be. Ultimately, trust has to be rested with experts by putting in place an impartial and transparent regulatory system.

The real test of the government on whether it truly supports the Indian biotech sector would become tangible if it understands the huge first mover advantage that Bharat Biotech has given to India through its foresight and disease forecasting ability to position a Zika virus vaccine well ahead of others.

As Union Science Minister Harsh Vardhan is fond of saying 'IT' meant 'India Today' and on the same lines 'BT' means 'Bharat Tomorrow' and for that to happen the ball is really in Prime Minister Modi's court who can use his good offices to push for early assessment of the Indian Zikavac vaccines.

Ella requests that Modi himself intervene by supporting a project which embodies all of what Modi stands for 'Make in India; Start-up India; healthy India', he believes the visionary prime minister that Modi is, could use the first mover advantage that Bharat Biotech has given to India for what he describes 'vaccine diplomacy'.

Ella suggests that if Modi, who is known for his out-of-box foreign policy initiatives, can now win lots of diplomatic Brownie points by transferring the technology to a friendly country like Brazil which is reeling under the impact of the Zika epidemic.

Since as they say 'a friend in need is friend indeed' and today both South and North America could hugely benefit by India's large hearted magnanimity to mitigate a global health care emergency.

India cancer survivor brings joy to destitute children

February 7, 2016 | Shilpa Kannan and Premanand Boominathan | BBC

Mark Rego is a popular pub quiz master in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

Glass in hand - and indeed sometimes an entire bottle - he is the life of the party, dancing and joking with patrons as he takes them through his questions.But he is more than an energetic quiz master.

Mr Rego was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, an incident that, according to him, changed his entire outlook on life. "I made a bargain with God," he told the BBC. Wanting to make a difference in people's lives, he now helps raise funds for a number of charities that work with underprivileged children, orphans and cancer patients.

According to Mr Rego, "giving away your spare money" is not really charity.

He spends a lot of time at the Jeevarathni Foundation - a home for destitute children in Hosur, near the border between the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

As we drive into the lovely old colonial farmhouse where the foundation is located, the children come running out to the playground.They are mostly from poor backgrounds, some are orphans and others have parents who are unable to take care of them. A few were rescued from the streets where their parents had left them to beg.

As soon as they see Mr Rego, the children demand an impromptu music session, and he is quick to oblige. Meena Prochanska, who runs the charity, told the BBC that Mr Rego was a big influence on the children.

"Many of them want to grow up to be like him; especially all the little boys want his outlandish hairdo," she said.

Mr Rego, who enjoys an excellent rapport with the children, promises the boys that he will make sure that they get the spiked, bleached hairdo like his, but only if they do well in their upcoming examinations. As they gather around singing songs about animals and nature, it's hard to miss his energy - and the happy faces of the children as they dance to his tunes.

Ramp Up Taxes, Piketty Exhorts India as Modi Prepares Budget

February 7, 2016 | Sandrine Rastello | Bloomberg

Want to become a developed economy? Spend more on health and education, finance it with taxes and publish as much data as possible.

French economist Thomas Piketty doled out that unsolicited advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a recent string of appearances throughout India that triggered both push-back and praise in Asia’s third-largest economy. India’s tax receipts as a share of its economy need to double to about 20 percent in the next decade, he said.

There’s no question that India needs to raise revenue: It now takes in less cash than other major emerging markets as a percentage of gross domestic product, leading to one of Asia’s biggest budget deficits. Yet ramping that ratio up quickly would require Modi to make tough political choices in the Feb. 29 budget, such as removing an income tax exemption for farmers -- an unlikely prospect ahead of key state elections.

“There is no silver bullet which they can announce in the budget,” Anubhuti Sahay, an economist with Standard Chartered Plc in Mumbai, said when asked about expanding the tax base. Steps like taxing well-off farmers “would become a very politically sensitive subject to touch, especially at this particular moment when rural distress is so high.”

Piketty, who gained global fame for his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on wealth and income inequalities in Europe and the U.S., joins the International Monetary Fund and other prominent Indian economists in calling on the nation to raise tax revenues.

While the World Bank put India’s tax receipts as a percentage of GDP at about 11 percentin 2012 -- similar to rates in the U.S. and China -- incomes taxes are a particular concern.

About 3.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population pays income taxes, compared with 46 percent in the U.S. and 75 percent in New Zealand, according to a 2014 Finance Ministryreport that recommended doubling the ratio. Only 42,800 people declared a taxable income of more than 10 million rupees ($147,451) -- roughly the number of millionaires present in New York City alone -- lawmakers were told in 2013.

“The Indian elites have to accept at some point that they have to pay more tax to finance a more inclusive and sustainable development model,” Piketty said during a literature festival in the city of Jaipur last month. He also urged India to release income tax statistics that it stopped publishing 15 years ago, joining the ranks of less democratic nations such as China.

Arvind Subramanian, the Finance Ministry’s chief economic adviser who sparred with Piketty on stage in Jaipur and subsequently on TV, pledged to release the missing data within a year. Still, he called parts of Piketty’s book “mildly irritating.”

“There’s no question that Thomas’s book gives weight to what I would call the redistribution agenda over the growth agenda,” Subramanian said in Jaipur. “I’m not sure I’m willing to buy into that at this point of time.”

Modi’s government has sought to shift spending to infrastructure from subsidies in previous budgets. The increases for health in the current budget fell short of the inflation rate while the amount earmarked for education fell.

While Modi has made progress in narrowing India’s fiscal gap, he’s deviated from the previous government’s reduction roadmap. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect him to shoot for a deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP in the year through March 2017, compared with the current target of 3.5 percent.

The rupee, sovereign bonds and stocks posted their steepest January losses since 2011 as concern mounts about fiscal slippage. A proposed $15 billion pay raise for civil servants and a commitment to keep spending on roads, ports and bridges will make it difficult to cut expenditure in the upcoming budget.

“If you compare India with other emerging markets, the reason why we have a higher deficit is not because we spend more but because we collect less revenue,” said Sonal Varma, an economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Mumbai. “So the revenue side is actually very, very crucial for a sustainable reduction in the deficit because there is only so much spending cut you will be able to do.”

The government mostly relies on one-off measures to plug budget holes now, such as asset sales, dividend windfalls, or spectrum auctions. Options to raise revenue include increasing the services tax rate, eliminating exemptions and implementing a long-delayed goods-and-services tax designed to increase compliance across India’s 29 states.

Beyond that, a widespread underground economy and byzantine regulations are keeping scores of companies and individuals out of the tax net, limiting India’s policy choices at a time when it’s trying strengthen an uneven growth. Indians illegally stashed the most money abroad in 2011 after China and Russia, according to a report by Global Financial Integrity.

There’s little sign of progress on the tax front. The government’s efforts to go after so-called “black money” have brought in a pittance. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said he’s “a great supporter of the informal sector” -- because it creates jobs -- in dismissing moves to expand the income-tax net to include farmers.

Critics of Piketty say he conveniently excluded India’s states in the tax-to-GDP ratio he cites, and that stepping up public spending on health and education doesn’t necessarily yield desired outcomes. Subramanian says Piketty’s conclusion -- that the economy needs to grow faster than the return on capital to curb inequality -- doesn’t apply to fast-expanding India.

Indian readers will get to decide for themselves. The Hindi version of Piketty’s book was released last month, joining copies in more than 30 global languages.

India Said to Tap $12 Billion of State Firms' Cash With Buyback

February 8, 2016 | Vrishti Beniwal and Siddhartha Singh| Bloomberg

India’s government has asked state-run companies to buy back shares, people with knowledge of the matter said, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to narrow Asia’s widest budget deficit without cutting stimulus spending.

The boards of Coal India Ltd., MOIL Ltd., NMDC Ltd., National Aluminium Co. Ltd., India Renewable Energy Development Agency Ltd. are among those that will have to decide on valuations, the people said, asking not to be identified as the talks are private. These companies had about 784.5 billion rupees ($11.6 billion) in cash and marketable securities last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, more than double Modi’s social welfare budget.

A revenue boost is crucial as back-to-back years of weak rainfall compel Modi to spur demand in rural areas even as pressure mounts to avoid runaway spending. The rupee, sovereign bonds and stocks had their worst January since 2011, weighed down by the global slowdown and as concerns about fiscal slippage mount.

While weak global demand denies companies adequate returns on their investment, falling share prices offer them a good chance to consolidate ownership, the people said. About 50 listed state-run companies had a total 2 trillion rupees in cash and marketable securities in 2015.

“The Finance Ministry has written to us about a 25 percent share buyback by Nalco,” Mines Secretary Balvinder Kumar said last week, referring to National Aluminium. While the department was expecting 13 billion rupees from a 10 percent stake, it can’t say for sure how much it will receive, he added.

IREDA Chairman KS Popli said the government’s decision is a "good move" that will improve companies’ valuations and earnings per share.

Coal India Chairman Sutirtha Bhattacharya and NMDC spokesman Rafique Ahmed didn’t immediately answer multiple calls seeking comment. An e-mail to Neeraj Dutt Pandey, MOIL’s company secretary wasn’t immediately answered. Finance Ministry spokesman D.S. Malik said he couldn’t immediately comment.

India had earlier asked state companies to invest their surplus cash or pay dividends of at least 30 percent on net profits. While India will probably meet its deficit goal of 3.9 percent of gross domestic product for the year through March, investors including Standard Chartered Plc and Morgan Stanley predict it will deviate from its 3.5 percent aim next year when it presents its budget on Feb. 29.

Missing fiscal targets could push up bond yields and erode the government’s credibility, central bank Governor Raghuram Rajan said last month.

IMF asks Sri Lanka to reduce budget deficit, improve funds

February 6, 2016 | Business Standard | Press Trust of India

Sri Lankan shares edged down in thin trade to a one-week low on Monday as global economic woes dented sentiment and investors looked for macroeconomic cues after the International Monetary Fund said the country's 2016 fiscal deficit could widen further.

The IMF on Friday urged Sri Lanka to take steps to reduce its fiscal deficit and raise tax revenues to help improve its balance of payments.

The statement raises concerns over possible hikes in interest rates and taxes which might dent market sentiment further, analysts said, adding an IMF loan would help instil confidence among foreign investors in the long run.

The main stock index ended 0.05 percent weaker at 6,401.66, its lowest close since Feb. 1.

"Market is struggling with lack of buying pressure," said Dimantha Mathew, research manager at First Capital Equities (Pvt) Ltd. "People are not investing, mainly because of the economic concerns, and interest rates are also on the rise."

Turnover was 389.4 million rupees ($2.72 million), less than half this year's daily average of 810.2 million rupees.

The index has fallen 7.1 percent this year through Monday as foreign investors, unnerved by global concerns over China's economy, cut their exposure.

Concerns over sluggish economic growth in China, likely interest rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve and falling oil prices have forced some investors to sell risky assets.

Foreign investors sold a net 18.3 million rupees worth of shares on Monday, extending the year-to-date net foreign outflow to 277.6 million rupees.

Rise in local interest rates has been a concern and local stocks could come under further pressure, analysts said.

Yields on treasury bills rose between 7 and 23 basis points at a weekly auction last Tuesday with yields on 182-day and 364-day T-bills rising to more-than-two-year highs, signalling a further rise in market interest rates, which move in tandem with the yields.

Shares of Cargills (Ceylon) Plc fell 2.91 percent while Hemas Holdings Plc fell 2.30 percent. ($1 = 143.2000 Sri Lankan rupees) (Reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Biju Dwarakanath)

U.S., India in talks to settle solar power trade dispute

February 6, 2016 | David Lawder | Reuters

The United States and India are in talks that could settle a long-running solar power trade dispute, delaying the announcement of a ruling by the World Trade Organization, an Obama administration official said on Friday.

Washington filed the WTO challenge three years ago, claiming that India's national solar power programme illegally discriminated against imported solar panels and related products though its domestic content requirements.

The WTO in recent weeks has twice delayed the public announcement of a ruling in the case, rescheduling it for next Wednesday. Indian media reported last August that a WTO dispute settlement panel had confidentially notified Washington and New Delhi that it would rule against India in the case.

U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Andrew Bates declined to confirm any details of the WTO's intentions, but said the talks were aimed at reaching an out-of-court resolution before any public announcement by the Geneva-based trade body.

"The United States initiated this dispute for the purpose of advancing the rapid deployment of clean, affordable energy in India and around the world," Bates said. "India has now asked to speak with the United States regarding the issue, and in light of ongoing discussions, release of the WTO panel's report ruling has been temporarily delayed."

The U.S. complaint in 2013 alleged that the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission subsidies were available only if developers used equipment produced in India, violating a key global trade rule. The programme is aimed at easing chronic energy shortages in India, Asia's third-largest economy.

The Obama administration argued that the rules are a barrier to solar products made in America and elsewhere but also effectively raised the cost of generating solar power in India and were extending the country's dependence on fossil fuels.

Green groups, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and Friends of the Earth urged the USTR last year to drop the challenge, saying it would hurt efforts to combat climate change by undercutting India's development of a domestic solar industry.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by James Dalgleish)

India’s GDP numbers are so dodgy that even the central bank has doubts about them

February 5, 2016 | Devjyot Ghoshal | Quartz

The skepticism arrived soon after India’s Central Statistical Office (CSO) put out revised GDP numbers last January.

India’s chief economic advisor, Arvind Subramanian, said he waspuzzled and mystified by the revised estimates based on a new methodology, which instantly raised the country’s GDP growth from 4.7% to 6.9% for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets and global macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, called it a “bad joke.” And Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), said he didn’t want to talk about ituntil he understood the numbers better.

A whole year later, institutions like the RBI are so befuddled—and seemingly unconvinced—by India’s revised GDP numbers that they are looking at a range of other indicators to understand the true state of Asia’s third-largest economy.

“Like other economists, the RBI is now turning to hybrid models that mix elements of the old and new GDP methods to get a better feel for the underlying health of the economy,” Reuters reported on Feb. 5.

In particular, India’s central bank is tracking two-wheeler sales, car sales, rail freight, and consumer goods sales in rural areas “to get a better understanding of the ground realities,” an RBI official told Reuters. Quartz has emailed the RBI for comment, and will update if the bank replies.

The key contradiction is that even as prime minister Narendra Modi makes public declarations of India’s newfound status as the world’s fastest-growing major economy, key sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture are still stuck in a rut.

“The economy is recovering but it’s hard to be very definitive about the strength and breadth of the recovery for two reasons—economy is sending mixed signal and second there is some uncertainty how to interpret GDP data,” Subramanian explained late last year.

The CSO, however, is convinced of the fitness of its data. A former head of the organization argues that it’s actually economists who are looking at the wrong indicators. “You have to understand that the new GDP data essentially captures efficiency,” Ashish Kumar told Reuters. “Comparing it with volume-based indicators would be a mistake.”

Nonetheless, the persisting confusion will be of little comfort to finance minister Arun Jaitley, who will present his third budget on Feb. 29. To believe, or not to believe, that is the question.

A new Shenzhen? Poor Pakistan fishing town's horror at Chinese plans

February 3, 2016 | Jon Boone and Kiyya Baloch | The Guardian

Gwadar is poor. When a house was recently burgled in the fishing settlement on Pakistan’s desert coast, the only items stolen were cans of fresh water – a staple that has soared in value since reservoirs dried up. It lies in Balochistan, a province in the grip of a long-running separatist insurgency and Pakistan’s most neglected.

Yet local officials dream of a future where Gwadar becomes a second Shenzhen, the Chinese trade hub bordering Hong Kong. Visitors are told that with Chinese investment the small settlement will become a major node of world commerce boasting car factories, Pakistan’s biggest airport and a string of five-star resort hotels along Gwadar’s sparkling seafront.

But residents are aghast, and not just because the fishing community, long settled on the neck of the peninsula, will be moved to new harbours up to 40km away.

“This is all being done for China, not the people,” said Elahi Bakhsh, a fisherman bewildered by the plans to turn Gwadar into China’s deepwater access point to the Arabian Sea.

Like others he complains of chronic underdevelopment in a district judged food insecure by the UN in 2009 and a town with only rudimentary health and education services. Bakhsh had not had enough water to wash his clothes in weeks. He and five of his colleagues turned down an offer of tea – the mandatory accompaniment to any meeting in Pakistan – in favour of bottles of mineral water.

“The whole area has been captured by the government with local people pushed aside,” he said.

If all goes to plan, the existing 80,000 population will be joined by another 2 million people over the next 20 years, including 20,000 Chinese residents, according to an official at the Gwadar Development Authority.

It was Dubai, not Shenzhen, that was being touted as the model for Gwadar’s future 10 years ago. But that initiative only succeeded in ruining countless property speculators. Officials say things are different this time because of the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC), a project announced last year with pledges from Beijing of $46bn (£32bn) in investment loans.

It will help pay for the expansion of Gwadar’s currently unused deepwater port and the construction of a road network the exact route of which is subject to hot inter-provincial controversy that will connect the port to the Chinese border 1,800km to the north amid Himalayan peaks.

Pakistan hopes the corridor will turn the country into a critical land route for the world’s second-biggest economy. In theory exporters in Xinjiang will have a much shorter journey to the Arabian Sea and international markets than via China’s eastern ports.

In practice sceptics wonder whether trucking goods over one of the world’s highest mountain ranges will ever be cheaper than existing sea routes. They suspect China is more interested in Gwadar as a potential naval base near the oil supplies of the Gulf.

Ensuring security on long stretches of road in a province wracked by a persistent, low-level insurgency is the biggest challenge to CPEC. Fear of being outnumbered by outsiders from the rest of Pakistan is fuelling a violent rebellion in Balochistan.

The Pakistan-China economic corridor is a particular target because separatists see it as a demographic threat to the native Baloch, who are thought to make up just over half of the 8 million people living in the province.

“The corridor passes through what is currently the heart of the insurgency,” says Kaiser Bengali, an economic adviser to Balochistan’s chief minister. He said the notion that the two special brigades formed by the army will be enough to protect road traffic was “laughable”.

“If every convoy of trucks has to be accompanied by half a dozen tanks, armoured carriers and helicopters the cost is going to be exorbitant,” he said.

All five rebellions that have hit the province since 1947 were underpinned by Baloch claims that Islamabad exploits the province’s extensive gas and mineral riches for the benefit of the country’s ruling establishment in Punjab.

Pakistan says arch-enemy India also stirs up trouble. “Foreign adversaries have been more than eager to exploit any opportunity to destabilise Pakistan by harbouring, training and funding dissidents and militants”, said army chief General Raheel Sharif, who joined the prime minister in Balochistan on

Wednesday for the inauguration of a section of CPEC highway.

The current rebellion was triggered by the rape of a female doctor by a military officer in 2005. The year before a car bomb killed three Chinese engineers in Gwadar.

Chinese visitors say they remain worried about security despite the elaborate efforts to keep them safe. Investors and officials from Beijing only move about Gwadar accompanied by military vehicles and only after all the roads have been cleared of traffic. The road is picketed with policemen at 50-metre intervals.

“For the locals it’s like being a prisoner in your own town,” said Shamshad Ahmed a retired army officer who has been coming to the town for years as part of his work at the Pearl Continental, Gwadar’s only five-star hotel that recently reopened after being mothballed for years. “Of course they are not happy about their freedom being taken away,” he said.

The sense of containment will only increase with plans to build a security fence that will completely surround the town as the port is developed. “Everyone coming in will have to show a residency pass so we can keep a record of who lives in Gwadar,” police inspector Chakar Khan explained.

Officials in Gwadar say the main town is safe, even if trouble remains in outlying areas. On 9 January two Pakistan coast guard officials were killed and three injured by a roadside bomb in the district.

Strenuous efforts have been made to secure the thinly populated but vast province, roughly the size of Germany. The military campaign to weaken a scrappy and deeply divided insurgency has had some success and in 2015 separatist violence fell 36% to 194 attacks, according to a tally of press reports by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.

But critics say the army has disastrously mishandled the situation with improved security won at the cost of deepening alienation among the Baloch. Former moderates have been driven into the hands of increasingly intransigent separatists, detractors say.

Road users complain of routine humiliations at checkpoints where busloads of passengers can be detained for hours.

It is the issue of “missing persons” that has caused most anger. Intelligence agents, often accompanied by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, are accused ofsnatching suspected militants who “disappear” into secret detention sites. Many turn up dead in deserted areas, their dumped bodies often showing signs of torture.

Last year the provincial government revealed the bodies of 800 people linked to the insurgency were recovered between 2011 and 2014. It also estimated 950 people are still missing, although some claims go as high as 14,000 according to a 2013 report by a UN fact-finding team.

Where previous rebellions were led by tribal chieftains in northern Balochistan, who were amenable to cutting deals with the state, the current uprising is dominated by the non-tribal middle-class in Makran, the belt stretching some 200km inland from Gwadar.

And unlike in the past, rebels have targeted non-Baloch civilians. Human rights groups say more than 1,000 such “settlers” have been killed since 2006, including a teacher at a school where pupils were forced to sing the Pakistani national anthem.

Civilians from Makran complain of being caught between the insurgents and the Frontier Corps, who are fighting where the infrastructure for the China-Pakistan corridor is to be built.

“Fighting erupted when work started on the road and we had to flee our homes,” said Shahab Baloch, a shopkeeper from Hoshab who like many others was forced to find safety in a larger town. “People are living in miserable conditions but are too afraid to go back.”

In a sign of the rebels’ enduring local influence just 4% of voters turned out for a provincial assembly by-election in Makran on 31 December after insurgents warned people to stay away from the polls. A brother of one candidate was kidnapped while another had his house burned down.

Those who remain engaged in electoral politics have hardened their positions. Akthar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National party (BNP) and a former chief minister of the province, said Pakistan’s leaders “look at us worse than slaves”.

“In their mind we are not a province of this country, we are a colony,” he said. “In the name of development they want to turn us into a minority in our own land.”

Efforts by the provincial government to negotiate a political solution with separatist leaders, some of whom are living in self-exile in Europe, are under way. But civilian politicians say they are powerless to restrain the military’s counter-insurgency operations.

Moderate Baloch leaders meanwhile say any deal with the insurgents must include constitutional protections for indigenous people, particularly in Gwadar where many residents feel more attachment to Oman, which owned the peninsula until 1958. Aziz Baloch, a BNP party official in Gwadar, said a system of work and residency permits should be established so outsiders would be barred from voting in elections.

Some hope the jobs and economic activity created by CPEC will weaken support for the separatists. Many locals are sceptical however, pointing out that people from Balochistan, with its tiny share of the national population, are entitled to only 6% of government jobs and are rarely qualified for the best ones.

A newspaper advert for jobs last March in Gwadar’s fisheries department offered senior, technical positions to Pakistanis from Punjab and only menial roles such as cleaners and guards to locals.

“The suspicion is that all the Baloch will get from CPEC is the right to repair punctures on Chinese tires,” said Bengali, the economic adviser.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, struck a conciliatory tone in December at a ceremony to inaugurate a section of CPEC. He said Balochistan must have “the first right over all resources which have been explored in the province”.

But he also announced an upgrade for an existing highway running along the sparsely populated desert coast.
It would allow Chinese trucks to head east towards Karachi before going northwards on secure roads in other provinces, bypassing much of troublesome Balochistan entirely.


Airstrikes Destroy IS Radio Station in Afghanistan

February 2, 2016 | Lynne O’Donnell | ABC News

U.S. airstrikes have destroyed an Islamic State-operated radio station in a remote part of eastern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.

"Voice of the Caliphate" radio was destroyed by two U.S. airstrikes, according to a U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media on the subject.

Army Col. Mike Lawhorn, spokesman for the U.S.-NATO mission in Afghanistan, said U.S. forces conducted two "counter-terrorism airstrikes" late Monday in Achin district, in the eastern Nangarhar province, without elaborating.

An IS affiliate has emerged in Afghanistan over the past year, with a military presence in districts near the border with Pakistan. The radio station was broadcasting illegally across Nangarhar, calling on fighters to join the group and threatening journalists in the provincial capital, Jalalabad.

Afghan officials had said they believed the broadcasts were coming from mobile facilities that could be moved easily back and forth across the mountainous border.

The spokesman for the Nangarhar governor, Attaullah Khogyani, said the strikes had also killed 21 IS supporters, including five who were working for the radio station.

The station was set up in late 2015, following months of fierce fighting between IS group militants and the Taliban, who also maintain a significant presence in the region. Although IS and the Taliban both want to impose a harsh version of Islamic rule, they are bitterly divided over leadership and strategy, with the Taliban narrowly focused on Afghanistan and IS bent on establishing a worldwide caliphate.

Radio is a powerful medium in Afghanistan, where most people do not have televisions and only 10 percent of the population has access to the Internet. Nearly everyone has access to radio, with around 175 stations operating across the country.

The U.S. State Department recently added the IS Afghan affiliate to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Elsewhere in the country, three Afghan army officers died when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb late Monday in the Gereshk district of southern Helmand province, according to the district's administration chief, Mohammad Sharif. He said the dead included Gen. Atta Mir, a brigade commander in Gereshk.

In the northern city of Kunduz, a secretary for the provincial governor's office was shot dead near his home on Monday evening, the governor's spokesman, Abdul Wasi Basel, said.

He said that no one had claimed responsibility for the killing of Mohammad Zarif.

The Taliban seized Kunduz for three days last year, and only fully withdrew after a two-week counteroffensive that devastated much of the city.

Afghanistan attack: Kabul suicide bomber kills 20

February 1, 2016 | BBC

A suicide bomber has killed 20 people at a police headquarters in the Afghan capital Kabul, officials say.

At least 29 others were wounded in the blast in the west of the city, the interior ministry said.

Some reports suggest most of those killed and injured were police officers. Earlier reports said most of the dead were civilians.

The Taliban said they carried out the bombing - one of a string of attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in recent months.

Monday's attack happened at the entrance of the headquarters of the National Civil Order Police, a unit that has a counterinsurgency role against the Taliban.

Officials initially blamed a suicide car bomber, but later said the attacker had joined people queuing to get into the police station before he detonated his explosives.

"I saw three dead bodies on the ground and a number of other people wounded, then ambulances arrived and took all the victims away from the attack site," one man told Reuters news agency.

A spokesman for Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, Brig Gen Wilson Shoffner, said: "This attack on the Afghan police shows the contempt the Taliban have for the rule of law in Afghanistan and for those who commit themselves daily to defending the Afghan people.

"The Taliban have no plan for the development of Afghanistan. Targeting those who defend their fellow Afghans does not advance the cause of peace."

The bombing follows a spate of attacks in January, one of which killed seven staff from the Tolo media group in Kabul. Several other attacks were near foreign diplomatic missions.

There has been speculation that the attacks may be aimed at destabilising attempts to revive peace talks with the Taliban.

Others have suggested that the Taliban's winter offensive may be an attempt by their new leader to strengthen his hand in any talks.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned that if negotiations did not start by April the conflict would intensify, with consequences across the region.

"Time is not a friend," he told the BBC. "We all understand that February and March are crucial."

U.S. Broadens Fight Against ISIS With Attacks in Afghanistan

January 31, 2016 | Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt | The New York Times

The United States has carried out at least a dozen operations — including commando raids and airstrikes — in the past three weeks against militants in Afghanistan aligned with the Islamic State, expanding the Obama administration’s military campaign against the terrorist group beyond Iraq and Syria.

The operations followed President Obama’s decision last month to broaden the authority of American commanders to attack the Islamic State’s new branch in Afghanistan. The administration — which has been accused by Republicans of not having a strategy to defeat the group — is revamping plans for how it fights the terrorist organization in regions where it has developed affiliates.

Many of these recent raids and strikes in Afghanistan have been in the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar Province — an inhospitable, mountainous area in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Pakistan. It was in Tora Bora that Osama bin Laden and other senior Qaeda militants took refuge during the American-led invasion in 2001, and eventually evaded capture by slipping into Pakistan.

American commanders in Afghanistan said they believed that between 90 and 100 Islamic State militants had been killed in the recent operations. Intelligence officials estimate that there are roughly 1,000 Islamic State fighters in Nangarhar Province, and perhaps several thousand more elsewhere in the country. But even the generals leading the missions acknowledge that a resilient militant organization can recruit new fighters to replace those killed in American attacks.

“The new authority gives us the ability to take the gloves off to hold them in check, and we have been targeting them heavily and it has had quite an effect,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the military’s deputy chief of staff for operations in Afghanistan. “But just because you take a bunch of guys off the battlefield doesn’t mean you will stop this organization.”

Although Mr. Obama had declared an end to combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the operations are part of a continuing and potentially expanding American military footprint in south-central Asia, the Middle East and Africa for the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISISor ISIL.

In Iraq, the United States has about 3,700 troops, including trainers, advisers and commandos. There are several dozen Special Operations forces deployed in Syria. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has said the United States and its allies are looking to do more, and has asked other countries — including several Arab ones — to contribute more to the military campaign as it moves to reclaim Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the two major cities controlled by the Islamic State.

Administration officials are weighing a new campaign plan for Libya that would deepen the United States’ military and diplomatic involvement on yet another front against the Islamic State. The United States and its allies are increasing reconnaissance flights and intelligence collecting there — and even preparing for possible airstrikes and raids, according to senior American officials. Special Operations forces have met with various Libyan groups over the past months to vet them for possible action against the Islamic State.

In Afghanistan, American and other allied commanders fear that the combination of fighters loyal to the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Islamic State is proving too formidable for the still struggling Afghan security forces to combat on their own.

The United States has 9,800 combat troops in Afghanistan. Although that figure is scheduled to decline to 5,500 by the time Mr. Obama leaves office next January, administration and military officials are privately hinting that the president may again slow the troop withdrawal later this year.

At a hearing last week, Mr. Obama’s nominee to be the next commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., was asked by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, if he believed that the overall security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, rather than improving.

“Sir, I agree with your assessment,” said General Nicholson, a veteran of several deployments to Afghanistan. He said that the Taliban had fought against Afghan security forces “more intensely than perhaps we anticipated” and that the emergence of the Islamic State there had been unexpected.

General Nicholson said that, if confirmed by the Senate, he would take his first 90 days to review the two primary missions in Afghanistan — counterterrorism and advising and assisting Afghan forces — before offering his recommendations on American troop levels in the country. The departing commander, Gen. John F. Campbell, is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, and he is expected to likewise underscore the rising threat from the Islamic State.

Under newly relaxed rules the White House sent to the Pentagon last month, the military now needs to show only that a proposed target is related to Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. Before, such a target could be struck only if it had significant ties to Al Qaeda.

The military had been able to strike Islamic State targets in self-defense, but the new rules lower the standard for such offensive operations against the group.

“Suffice to say we had built up a sufficient amount of intel to be able to go after them in a robust way once we were able to take the gloves off,” General Buchanan said.

He added: “We continue to conduct operations against Al Qaeda throughout, but have been more focused on” ISIS in recent weeks.

There are significant differences between the Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan and those in Iraq and Syria.

In Afghanistan, a majority of the militants were previously part of the local Taliban or Haqqani network, and many of them have now “rebranded” themselves as members of the Islamic State. While the leaders of the group in Iraq and Syria are mostly from those countries, many of their fighters come from other Middle Eastern countries and from Europe.

The Islamic State militants in Afghanistan receive some money from leaders in Iraq and Syria, but there is little evidence that they receive much direction about when and where to launch attacks, according to military officials. There have been few examples of the Islamic State members in Afghanistan being able to effectively communicate with each other to carry out complex attacks, like the ones often carried out in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the group has claimed responsibility for several deadly bombings in Afghanistan in recent months.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has thanked American officials for their recent efforts against the Islamic State, which he fears is gaining strength, according to senior American officials.

As the Islamic State has expanded in Afghanistan, it has also fought the Taliban as the two groups compete for influence and money.

“They are trying to assume control at the local level over checkpoints, over the drug trade, over flows of illicit goods,” Brig. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, a spokesman for the American military in Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview on Sunday.

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Two war criminals get death in Bangladesh

February 2, 2016 | The Hindu

Two members of the notorious Razakar Bahini, an auxiliary force of the Pakistani Army, were on Tuesday sentenced to death by a Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal for crimes committed, mainly against Hindus, during the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.

Obaidul Haq Taher (66) and Ataur Rahman Noni (62) are members of the Razakar force, an auxiliary force of the Pakistan Army. They face six charges, including murder and genocide. They had pleaded not guilty, Dhaka Tribune reported.

They were given death penalties on two charges and imprisonment till death in two other charges by the country’s International Crimes Tribunal. The court acquitted them in two other charges.

The court said the government can execute them either by handing them by the neck or by shooting them.

Taher and Noni were involved in the abductions and killings of at least 30 people and looting of 400-450 shops and setting fire to those on fire in 1971.

The tribunal on March 2 last year framed six charges against the two. Twenty-three prosecution witnesses testified against them.

Taher and Noni joined the local Razakar Bahini and were notorious for the atrocities committed in various parts of Netrokona including the Sadar upazila and Barhatta, mainly against the local Hindus. Taher was the commander of the local Razakar unit, the report said.

With Tuesday’s verdict, 18 of the 26 accused in 22 war crimes cases so far have been handed down the capital punishment.

Bangladesh so far executed four war crimes convicts since the belated trial process of the top Bengali perpetrators of 1971 atrocities started in line with the electoral commitment of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2008.

Bangladesh says three million people were killed during the nine-month liberation war against Pakistan in 1971.

Bangladesh economy to grow by 6.3 per cent in current fiscal year: IMF

February 1, 2016 | The Economic Times

The Bangladesh economy will grow by 6.3 per cent in the current financial year to end-June, the International Monetary Fund said on Monday, lower than the government target of 7 per cent.

IMF said Bangladesh's growth is projected to accelerate gradually to 7 per cent over the medium term, as public investment is further ramped up and constraints on investment ease, with private investment also supporting a recovery in private-sector credit.

"Provided calm prevails, prudent policies remain in place, and structural reforms are implemented as envisaged, the medium-term economic outlook should be positive and marked by continued stability and high growth," IMF said after a midterm review.

Inflation is forecast to remain broadly stable in the current financial year and edge up slightly next fiscal year, due to temporary effects from higher public sector wages and the introduction of new VAT.

"Growth has been robust, external reserves have risen, inflation has abated, and social indicators have improved," it said.

With inflation risks tilted to the upside, IMF recommended continued vigilance and prudent adjustment of the reserve money growth.

It also encouraged the Bangladesh authorities to continue sterilized foreign exchange intervention and consider adopting a basket of trading partners' currencies to guide foreign exchange intervention policy going forward.

Bhutan National Council Speaker Jigme Zangpo visits President Hamid

February 2, 2016 | BDNews24

Bhutan’s National Council Speaker Jigme Zangpo has visited Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid.

The president’s Press Secretary Joynal Abedin told bdnews24.com that during the meeting, Abdul Hamid “expressed hopes for joint business in tourism and other matters of development at this stage.”

The president said both countries would benefit if excess electricity in Bhutan could be supplied to Bangladesh.

He also observed that Bhutan could develop business and investment by using the Mongla Port of Bangladesh.

Jigme Zangpo briefed the president about Bhutan's parliamentary structure and programme.

The Bhutan speaker praised the steps taken by Bangladesh for socio-economic development, political stability, and food self-sufficiency.

After the visiting speaker, the newly appointed Armed Forces Division Principal Staff Officer (PSO) Lieutenant General Md Mahfuzur Rahman met President Hamid, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.

The president expressed hope that the new PSO would work sincerely for the development of the armed forces

India Supreme Court reopens case on decriminalising gay sex

February 2, 2016 | BBC

India's Supreme Court has agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld a law criminalising gay sex. Three senior judges said the 2013 ruling would be re-examined by a larger bench of judges, in a move that has been welcomed by activists. The judges said that the issue was a "matter of constitutional importance".

According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 155-year-old colonial-era law, a same-sex relationship is an "unnatural offence".

In deeply conservative India, homosexuality is a taboo and many people still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate.

There has been a very vocal campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in India.

On Tuesday, the court heard a "curative petition" - meant to "cure" an earlier court order perceived as a "miscarriage of justice".

The court said the five-judge bench would be headed by the chief justice of India.

No date has been announced for the next hearing into the matter.

Members of the LGBT community, standing outside the court, broke into cheers and impromptu celebrations when the decision was announced, the BBC's Soutik Biswas said.

Activists say police and authorities often misuse the law to harass homosexuals. Under this law, a same-sex relationship is punishable by a 10-year jail term.

In its 2009 ruling, the Delhi High Court had described Section 377 as discriminatory and said gay sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime.

The ruling was widely and visibly welcomed by India's gay community, which said the judgement would help protect them from harassment and persecution.

However, several political, social and religious groups petitioned the Supreme Court to have the law reinstated, and in 2013 the top court upheld the law, saying it was up to parliament to legislate on Section 377.

However, an Indian MP's bid to introduce a private member's bill in the parliament to decriminalise gay sex failed.

Shashi Tharoor who also started a petition on Change.org over the issue, which has more than 40,000 signatories, said "it is time to bring the Indian Penal Code into the 21st Century".

India Is Putting Part of Its Nuclear-Missile Maker Up For Sale

February 1, 2016 | Bloomberg Business

India wants to embrace more shareholder scrutiny for the sake of national security.

The country is seeking to divest 20 percent of each state-owned defense company -- including nuclear-missile maker Bharat Dynamics Ltd. -- to boost their efficiency, Defence Production Secretary A. K. Gupta said. India also plans to cut its 75 percent shareholding in Bharat Electronics Ltd., he said.

"We’re going ahead with the disinvestment so that we can have more transparency and accountability," Gupta, one of the defense ministry’s top bureaucrats, said in an interview in New Delhi. He was referring to Bharat Dynamics and didn’t give any timelines.

India’s goal is an ambitious $150 billion modernization of its sometimes poorly equipped armed forces, including more local production to curb a flood of costly imports. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challenges is to improve state defense companies, which account for the bulk of domestic weapons output but are strained and lack the most modern technology.

Bharat Dynamics, based in the southern city of Hyderabad, is over four decades old and manufactures India’s strategic missiles such as the nuclear-capable Agni and Prithvi series. Its net income climbed 21 percent to 4.2 billion rupees ($62 million) in the 12 months ended March 2015 from a year earlier.

The government is also moving ahead with a long-pending proposal to sell a 10 percent stake in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., India’s biggest defense contractor, Gupta said.

The other government-controlled defense enterprises in Asia’s No. 3 economy are BEML Ltd., Mazagon Dock Ltd., Goa Shipyard Ltd., Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers Ltd., Mishra Dhatu Nigam Ltd. and Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. The state controls about 54 percent of BEML, while the other companies are government owned.

Investor Interest

Modi’s policy changes to encourage domestic output include fewer curbs on foreign investment in defense, looser export controls and less red tape. His government has set a goal of boosting arms exports 20-fold in a decade to $3 billion. India is currently one of the world’s top importers.

The changes have stirred investor interest. Bharat Electronics, whose products include naval systems, has surged 135 percent since the premier took office in May 2014. The benchmark S&P BSE Sensex index rose 1.3 percent over the same period. BEML, which makes everything from missile launchers to armored vehicles, advanced 81 percent.

Zen Technologies Ltd., which sells training simulators to the armed forces, surged 764 percent. Astra Microwave Products Ltd., a maker of communications products, advanced 33 percent.

"Divestment will provide capital for growth and enough transparency to drive efficiencies, though structural changes will be required for the state-run defense companies to be more attractive for investors," said Anurag Garg, a director of defense at Strategy&, a consulting group of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

Inefficiency

Globally, defense and aerospace companies have about twice as many orders as revenue, Garg said. That can stretch to 10 times revenue at Indian state-run defense businesses, an indication of lagging performance that has affected the armed forces, he said.

Government-managed defense contractors will face greater private-sector competition in the future, the defense ministry’s Gupta said.

They thus "need to ensure optimal utilization of their resources in view of the fast obsolescence of their products, in order to remain financially viable," he said.

India exports first batch of 'Made in India' metro coaches to Australia

February 1, 2016 | India Today

Creating a history in country's manufacturing sector, a consignment of six metro coaches made in Baroda, India, was shipped to Australia from Mumbai Port on January 29, 2016.

"The maiden consignment of six metro coaches built in Baroda for export to the Australian government were shipped from Mumbai Port," a statement from Ministry of Shipping said.

With an aim to turn the country into a global manufacturing destination, a total of 450 metro coaches are to be made in India to be exported to Australia over a period of two-and-a-half year.

Measuring 75 feet long and weighing 46 tonnes each, the metro coaches are the first of its kind, India has ever exported.

"The entire stevedoring operation (loading into ship) of these prestigious over-sized metro coaches has been done in-house by Mumbai Port Trust unlike any other port in India where private operators carry out such operations," the statement said.  

Ever since the launch of 'Make in India' campaign, the metro coaches have also become the first of its kind export that India is doing.

India will also be exporting 521 bogie frames to Brazil for Sao Paulo monorail.

Three new Metro coach manufacturing units were established in India in 2015. Also, as per the reports, there will be a demand of 2000 metro trains in India in the coming 5 years, which will prove to be a boon for India's manufacturing sector.

Maldives, UN ink first pact in $2 mln social development aid project

February 1, 2016 | Asima Nizar and Ali Naafiz | HaveeruOnline

Government signed an agreement Monday with the United Nations for assistance in developing children and youth related sectors, in a major joint initiative that would total USD 2 million (MVR 30 million) in aid.

At a ceremony held at the education ministry Monday morning, education minister Dr Aishath Shiham and UN’s permanent representative in the Maldives Alice Akunga signed the agreement.

The agreement is the first in a series of pacts to be signed between the government and the UN to carry out the joint United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) project. Three more agreements would be signed with the youth ministry, gender ministry, health ministry and the home ministry under the initiative, which would go on till 2020.

The UN would provide USD 2 million (MVR 30 million) to the Maldives over the course of the next two years.

The assistance is to be used for gender equality efforts, children and youth programmes, environment protection initiatives and policy enhancements.

Maldives' former president Mohamed Nasheed calls for sanctions under alleged terrorism threat

January 27, 2016 | James Bennett | ABC News

The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has called for sanctions against Maldivian Government figures as his lawyers warned a militant attack on tourists was highly likely.

As its first democratically-elected leader, Mr Nasheed was ousted as president of the Maldives in 2012 and jailed on what his lawyer Amal Clooney said were "trumped up" terrorism charges after a rapid trial that drew international condemnation.

Under international pressure, the Government has allowed Mr Nasheed out of prison and granted permission for him leave the Indian Ocean island for 30 days to travel to London for medical treatment.

In his first comments since being released, he indicated he would not return before that deadline, and called on the international community to impose sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses in the Maldives.

Mr Nasheed and his legal team warned the Maldives could be under threat from within.

"The case for sanctions remains urgent, even though [former] president Nasheed is here today, we cannot forget that he has not been pardoned," Ms Clooney said.

"He was also not the only political prisoner behind bars in the country. You have at the moment two former defence ministers, one former vice-president, one former deputy parliamentary speaker, and leaders of every opposition party in prison in the Maldives.

"Sanctions can work, especially these kind of targeted or smart sanctions."

The former leader says incumbent President Abdullah Yameen is too preoccupied with targeting his enemies.

"Sanctions imposed can easily be rolled back. But unless they are imposed, President Yameen will have no incentive to take further action," Mr Nasheed said.

Terrorist attack 'only a question of time'

Free to speak his mind in London, Mr Nasheed sharply criticised the current Government for failing to curb rising religious extremism.

It is only a question of time before the Maldives witnesses an incident comparable to the tragedy that occurred on the beaches of Tunisia last year.

Laywer for Mr Nasheed, Ben Emmerson

He said the nation's traditional liberal values were under threat from religious extremism imported from abroad.

"Per capita, the Maldives sends more people to join the so-called Islamic State than any other country in the world," he said.

"Two hundred Maldivians have so far gone to Iraq and Syria. That's the equivalent of 36,000 Brits."

Another member of his legal team, Ben Emmerson, believes an attack on tourists is inevitable.

"It is only a question of time before the Maldives witnesses an incident comparable to the tragedy that occurred on the beaches of Tunisia last year," he said, referring to an attack on a beach hotel last July claimed by the Islamic State group in which 38 tourists, mainly British, were killed.

It is now clear his primary goal was to court publicity in the United Kingdom. This is not medical leave, but media leave.

Maldives' Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon

Maldives Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said Mr Nasheed had exploited his release and had been "disingenuous at best, and misleading at worst" about his medical condition.

"It is now clear his primary goal was to court publicity in the United Kingdom. This is not medical leave, but media leave," he said in a statement.

Mr Nasheed said his medical condition was serious and he had suffered from a chronic back problem since being tortured when in his 20s.

But the former president said he was in no hurry to return, and if exiled, he said he would likely try and exert influence either from neighbouring Sri Lanka or India.

The Australian Government has urged travellers to exercise "a high degree of caution" in the capital Male, citing the threat of terror, but recommended "normal precautions" elsewhere in the Indian ocean archipelago.

Nepal

Nepali diaspora urges British PM Cameron to visit Nepal

February 2, 2016 | The Kathmandu Post

A delegation of United Kingdom based Nepali diaspora has submitted a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron inviting him to visit Nepal.

The delegation comprising representatives of various Nepali organistaions went to official residence of British Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street on Monday and submitted the invitation letter. Cameron's first secreary received the letter citing his busy schedule.

Noting that it is a sad fact that no British PM has ever visited Nepal though it's been 200 years since Nepal-UK diplomatic ties were established, the non-resident Nepalis urged PM Cameron to visit Nepal through the letter.   

Chairman of Nepal Affairs all-party parliamentary group, Birendra Sharma, Non Resident Nepali Association ICC member Yogendra Bahadur Chhetri, Yeti Nepaljit Association UK Chairman Umesh Raj Moktan, former chairman of Tamudhi, Suwasing Gurung, Nepalese Women Association UK Chairperson Arati Shrestha, ex president of Nepali Journalists' Association UK Nabin Pokhare, and entrepreneurs Rajaram Giri were in the delegation. Giri led the initiatives to invite British PM to visit Nepal.

Various people and entrepreneurs of Nepali origin have signed the invitation letter.


Nepal PM may visit China ahead of India if blockade remains: official


January 30, 2016 | Shirish B. Pradhan | Live Mint

Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli may head to China ahead of India if the trade “blockade” is not lifted, a top official of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) said on Saturday, making the normalisation of situation at the Indo-Nepal border a pre-condition for the premier’s maiden trip to Delhi.

Surya Thapa, deputy chief of the publicity committee of the CPN-UML, said that Oli is waiting for India to lift its “unofficial blockade”, mainly at the Raxaul-Birgunj border check point, which accounts for about 70% of the bilateral trade.

“If the embargo is not lifted, the Prime Minister may visit China first, instead of India,” Thapa told PTI. The usual practice of the new prime ministers of Nepal is to travel to India on maiden foreign trip. Only Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ had rubbed India the wrong way when he chose China as the first destination of his foreign visit after taking over as Nepal’s prime minister in 2008.

Thapa said though the Prime Minister has high regards for Indo-Nepal ties, if India does not show any gesture Oli’s trip to China as the first foreign destination was inevitable. Preparations for Oli’s China visit have been made at the same time as his India visit, likely in the third week of February, Thapa said. Shortly after Oli took charge about four months ago, he had a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who invited him to visit India. That same day, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Wu Chuntai also called on Oli and invited him to visit Beijing, Thapa said.

There is pressure on Oli from party leadership not to visit India first, if the situation at the border does not return to normalcy, Thapa said, adding that the situation of Nepal-India relations was “unexpected and beyond imagination.” “They are pressing the Prime Minister to visit China first, in case the situation doesn’t improve,” he said.

Recently, Oli told a select group of journalists that “it would not be appropriate for him to visit India before lifting of the border blockade.” Except the Raxaul-Birgunj border point, trade has resumed at all other posts. The Raxaul-Birgunj point was opened briefly a couple of days ago, but it was closed again.

Nepal was facing acute shortages of petroleum products, medicines and other essential goods due to the five-month-long blockade of key border trade points with India due to protests by Madhesis, who share cultural and family links with Indians.



Pakistan



Karachi protest: Pakistan clashes at airport 'kill two'

February 2, 2016 | BBC

Pakistani security forces and protesters have clashed at Karachi airport, leaving at least two people dead, officials say.

Staff at the national carrier Pakistan International Airlines were protesting against privatisation plans.

Officers responded with tear gas, water cannon and batons. At least three other people were injured.

Police denied having opened fire on protesters, who broke through the cargo gate.

The two who died were workers of the company, hospital officials have said.

The violence came as hundreds of airline employees held the latest in a series of protests against the proposals to complete a partial sale of the airliner by July.

A large contingent of police and paramilitary soldiers tried to keep the crowd from approaching the city's Jinnah International Airport before shots were fired. The source of the gunfire was not immediately clear.

Senior police officer Kamran Fazal told reporters at the scene that officials had been collecting empty shells to determine where the gunfire had come from.

Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has invoked a law barring the airlines' employees from union activity for six months.

The airliner was once a source of pride for Pakistan but in recent years its reputation has been hit by losses, mismanagement and cancelled flights.

Despite the strike, no major disruption on flight schedules has been reported.

Bangladesh, Pakistan briefly detain each other's embassy staff

February 2, 2016 | The Economic Times

DHAKA: In a tit-for-tat, Bangladesh and Pakistan have reportedly detained each other's diplomatic staff amid a spat between them over the 1971 war crimes trial.


Bangladesh foreign ministry officials said the personal officer of a Bangladeshi diplomat in Islamabad went missing yesterday and returned home "unhurt" early this morning.



"Our High Commissioner in Islamabad briefly talked to Jahangir Hossain (who went missing) as he returned. We are trying to know the details what actually happened to him," a foreign ministry spokesman told PTI.



He said Hossain had left the office yesterday to pick his daughter before going home but went missing as he went out of the High Commission and his cell phone too remained switched off.  


"Our High Commission immediately informed the matter to the Pakistan foreign ministry and law enforcement agencies there and conveyed the incident to the foreign office in Dhaka," the spokesman said.


The incident came hours after police in Dhaka detained Abrar Ahmed Khan, an official of Pakistan High Commission here for his "suspicious movement".  


A spokesman of Dhaka Metropolitan Police earlier said the detectives detained Abrar Khan for questioning following his suspicious movement and was handed over to officials of the Pakistan High Commission after taking undertaking from him.


But the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka in a statement said it noticed "a disturbing pattern of harassment of its officers and officials, followed by a mud-slinging campaign and media trial".


It said Bangladesh Police and security agencies were accusing the Pakistani mission staffers of having ties to militants.


Diplomatic sources here said the incident of Hossain's missing seemed to be a counter action on what happened in Dhaka the same day.



The developments came a month after Islamabad withdrew a female diplomat posted in Dhaka amid an uproar over her suspected links to Islamist terrorists nearly 12 months after Bangladesh expelled another Pakistani on identical charges.



Fareena Arshad, a second secretary in the Pakistan high commission, had left Dhaka two days after Bangladesh sought her withdrawal as police said a detained operative of outlawed Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh reported that she maintained links with the outfit.  


Dhaka-Islamabad ties have witnessed tension over Pakistan's sharp reactions following executions of two major 1971 war crimes convicts Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, who were found guilty of carrying out atrocities during the liberation war against Pakistan.


Pakistan's MQM party leader released from bail in UK


February 1, 2016 | The Guardian

The leader of an influential Pakistani political party who was arrested in Londonon suspicion of money laundering has been released from bail.

Altaf Hussain, leader and founder of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was arrested on 3 June 2014 after officers searched a residential address in the north-west of the British capital.

The 61-year-old, who has lived in and led the party from the UK since 1991, said he was “relieved” that the Metropolitan police had advised him his bail had been cancelled.

He added: “I continue to deny any involvement in money laundering and would like to thank my millions of members and followers around the world for their ongoing support.”

Five other men arrested in connection with the same money-laundering investigation also received the same news.

A Met spokesman said: “Releasing of these six people from bail does not mean that no further action will be taken against them. No decision has yet been made, but it does mean that they will no longer be required to return to a police station on a date imposed by the investigators.”

He added that police had retained cash seized as part of the investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, pending further inquiries.

MQM, which controls Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, mainly represents the Urdu-speaking Muhajir community, descendants of immigrants from other parts of south Asia who settled in Pakistan following independence in 1947.

It has had a block of about 20 members in the country’s national assembly for years.

In September 2010, a prominent MQM member, Imran Farooq, was stabbed to death outside his home in Edgware, north London, when he was ambushed on his way home from work.




Pathankot attack: Pakistan wants more leads from India, probe hits dead end




February 1, 2016 | PTI | The Indian Express

Pakistan’s investigation into the Pathankot terror attack has made “no headway” and it will seek more evidence from India to move forward, a source privy to the developments said today, days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised to make the probe’s findings public soon.

“No headway has been made in the investigation of (the) Pathankot attack so far. The ball is back in India’s court again as we need more evidence to move forward in the probe,” the source told PTI.

The six-member Pakistan government’s team investigating the Pathankot airbase attack has written to the foreign ministry to seek more “leads” from India.

“The team has almost completed its investigation into the five cellphone numbers (allegedly used for making calls from Pakistan to India) provided by the Indian government. No further leads were found from these numbers because they were unregistered and had fake identities,” the source said, adding that the probe is not heading further.

“The team needs more evidence. We have written to the government to speak to India and apprise it of the situation and demand more evidence to move forward in the investigation here,” he said.

India had given “specific and actionable information” to Pakistan soon after the January 2 attack.

Asked about the fate of the terror attack suspects, including banned Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar, the source said, “let first more evidence come from India”.

Prime Minister Sharif had formed the six-member investigation team headed by Additional Inspector General of Punjab’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) Rai Tahir in the second week of January to probe the Indian government’s assertion that JeM was behind the Pathankot attack. The team has so far held two meetings.

Sharif told reporters here on Saturday that “the investigation into the Pathankot incident is underway and we will make its findings public soon.”

“Whatever facts come out, we will bring them forth before everyone,” he had said.

Law-enforcement agencies have so far not produced any of the “suspects” arrested in connection with the Pathankot attack before a court.

The government has not disclosed the number of suspects detained. However, reports said 31 JeM suspects have been taken into custody.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah had said last month that Azhar had been taken into “protective custody” along with some of his “accomplices”.



Sri Lanka



UN Human Rights chief to visit Sri Lanka this week

February 2, 2016 | PTI | Business Standard

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein will visit Sri Lanka this week amid an uncertainty over foreign judges' involvement to probe the alleged atrocities committed during civil war with the LTTE.


Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva today said the UN rights chief will be in Sri Lanka for four days from February 6. He will hold talks with leaders from the government and the opposition, and would also meet civil society members.



The visit comes as a sequel to the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka adopted in October last year, that had prescribed an investigating mechanism with the participation of international judges, prosecutors and investigators.



The visit assumes significance as an uncertainty prevails over the inclusion of foreign judges, after Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in an interview to BBC Sinhala last week ruled out the participation of foreign judges in the inquiry.



However, days later Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the government did not rule out international involvement in the domestic judicial process to fix accountability of those who committed rights abuses and war crimes during the last phase of the brutal 30-year civil war that ended in 2009.



Civil Society members have expressed concern over the contradiction and demanded a government policy statement on the UNHRC resolution, which was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka.



Hussein in his report has advocated an international hybrid court to probe the alleged abuses. Sri Lanka has opted for a domestic mechanism with international experts assisting in the investigation.



The UN rights chief has also cited historical attempts to cover-up investigations through domestic mechanisms, rather than genuine processes to seek the truth.



Hussein is expected to raise the issues when he meets Sirisena, Wickremesinghe, leaders of main Tamil party -- the Tamil National Alliance.



The unity government of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe is facing domestic pressure from Sinhala majority nationalists to not allow foreign judges to try army soldiers.



Nationalists view the military as war heroes for ending the separatist campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 during which about 100,000 people were killed.



Authorities Arrest Son of Ex-Leader in Sri Lanka


January 30, 2016 | Dharisha Bastian and Geeta Anand | The New York Times

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan authorities arrested a son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on money-laundering charges on Saturday, the government’s latest attempt to prosecute members of the previous administration, many of whom have been under investigation since Mr. Rajapaksa’s election defeat last year.

The police said Mr. Rajapaksa’s 27-year-old son, Yoshitha, a lieutenant in the Sri Lanka Navy, had been questioned for six hours by investigators from the Financial Crimes Investigations Division about allegations of misappropriation of funds at a television channel that is widely believed to be owned by the Rajapaksa family. The family has denied that it owns the channel.

The police said they had questioned Yoshitha Rajapaksa and four directors of the Carlton Sports Network, including its chairman, Rohan Welivita, who currently serves as the former president’s spokesman.

Last week, a government minister told lawmakers that a navy investigation had revealed that Lieutenant Rajapaksa had been inappropriately promoted and allowed to attend training programs in Britain and Ukraine, at the government’s expense.

Lieutenant Rajapaksa is the second member of his family to be arrested since the current government took over in January 2015. Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of the former president and a former economic development minister, was arrested last April on charges of misappropriating public funds, which he denies.

The former president’s eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, and his youngest brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who served as the country’s defense secretary from 2005 to 2015, are also the subjects of corruption investigations.

But despite the many investigations of members of the former government, few people have been formally charged with crimes, leading critics to accuse the current government of dragging its feet. Saturday’s arrest could be a sign that the investigations are being wrapped up.

In addition to the money-laundering accusation, the police say that Lieutenant Rajapaksa and two other relatives are under investigation in connection with the death of a star Sri Lankan rugby player, Wasim Thajudeen. Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly asserted that his son is innocent, and on Saturday he was defiant.

“Arrest my sons, my wife, my brothers,” Mr. Rajapaksa said at a political meeting in Matale, several hours’ drive from Colombo, the capital. “I will not be moved. All these things will only strengthen the Rajapaksa brand.”

Later, after his son was transferred to a Colombo prison, Mr. Rajapaksa accused the government of conducting a witch hunt against his family. Teary-eyed, he said the charges filed against his son were “flimsy.”

“These are all acts of revenge against me,” he said.

The law on money-laundering, under which his son was accused, was introduced to track terrorists’ funds, Mr. Rajapaksa said. “I defeated the terrorists,” he said. “Today they are using the same laws to arrest my son.”

In 2009, Mr. Rajapaksa’s government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel group that was fighting to create a separate state in the island’s north and east. But his administration stands accused of committing war crimes during a brutal final military campaign against the rebels and engaging in corruption to benefit his extended family.

Mr. Rajapaksa was defeated a year ago by Maithripala Sirisena, a defector from Mr. Rajapaksa’s party who promised to clean up the government and investigate allegations of war crimes.

The former president appears eager to return to power, threatening to break from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is now led by Mr. Sirisena.

Mr. Rajapaksa currently serves as a lawmaker in Sri Lanka’s national legislature and is believed to be behind a group that opposes Mr. Sirisena’s decision to lead the Freedom Party in a national coalition with the opposition United National Party.


Afghan suicide bomber targets Jalalabad elders, killing 13

January 17, 2016 | BBC

A suicide bomber has killed at least 13 people at the Jalalabad home of a prominent local politician who backs President Ashraf Ghani's peace talks.Tribal elders had gathered at the home of Obaiduallah Shinwari to celebrate his brother's release from months of captivity by the Taliban.

The released brother and his father are among 14 people injured in the attack.It comes ahead of a second round of efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban. They have denied the attack.Jalalabad is the capital of Nangarhar province, where two districts are controlled, or at least influenced, by the Islamic State group - a rival of Taliban.

The Afghan government has been locked in a bloody conflict with Taliban militants for more than a decade.Key Afghan, Pakistani, Chinese and US officials met last week for talks aimed at establishing a roadmap for peace between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban.

However, the Taliban, who are divided by factional infighting, did not attend that session.Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban collapsed last year, after news emerged that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died in 2013.His deputy Mullah Mansour was declared leader in July - but a number of senior Taliban commanders refused to pledge allegiance to him and a faction opposed to him was set up under Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

The Taliban has launched several high-profile attacks in recent months.In December, the militant group launched an attack on the strategic district of Sangin. It later seized and blew up the police headquarters and governor's compound.And in September, the Taliban briefly overran the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, in one of their biggest victories since 2001.

Afghanistan to hold delayed parliamentary elections in October

January 18, 2016 | Reuters

Afghanistan will hold postponed parliamentary elections in October, the top election official said on Monday, after last June's deadline to choose a new assembly was missed because of political squabbling.Parliament's five-year term expired last June, but elections were postponed because of security fears and disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after a bitterly disputed presidential election in 2014.President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree last year extending parliament's mandate until a vote could be held, a decision criticized by Afghans, who questioned whether the extension was legal.If the elections go ahead as planned, they are likely to be held against a backdrop of sharply worsening security, with the Taliban trying to build on their campaign last year that included the brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz.The elections will be held on Oct. 15, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the head of the election commission, told a press conference in Kabul.Nuristani said the elections would only be held on time if the government provided the necessary budget and security for candidates, election personnel and ballot boxes. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah both claimed victory in the last presidential vote marred by accusations of fraud. It took months for them to agree to a U.S.-brokered deal to form a unity government. Ghani and Abdullah agreed on electoral reform as a condition for any future elections but little progress has been made since rivals in the unity government have long disagreed over who should lead the reform commission.

Frustrated international donors decided to cut short a multi-million-dollar project to fund electoral bodies last year because of the delays setting a date for the vote.

(Reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing By Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

Australian PM announces Afghanistan troop increase on Kabul visit

January 17, 2016 | Matt Siegel | Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on Monday a small increase in the Australian troop commitment to the NATO-led force supporting the Afghan central government during a surprise visit to Kabul. Australia, which lost 41 soldiers in Afghanistan during its more than 12-year involvement in the conflict following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, will commit 20 more personnel to the mission, bringing its total to 270.

Turnbull, speaking at the Australian Embassy in Kabul, defended the decision despite rejecting a request last week from U.S. President Barack Obama to commit more Australian forces to the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

"The truth is that in 2016, nowhere is a long way from anywhere. The world is so connected, more than it has ever been before. It is absolutely critical that we recognize that security is a global issue," Turnbull said.

Turnbull, who deposed Tony Abbott as leader in a party coup last year, has been a less vocal critic of the danger posed by Islamist militants than his predecessor, who continues to advocate a more forceful foreign policy.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States are set to hold talks on Monday aimed at laying the ground for a negotiated end to almost 15 years of war between U.S.-supported government forces and Taliban insurgents.

Taliban forces have stepped up their campaign in the past year to topple the Kabul government, which has struggled since most foreign troops left at the end of 2014. High-profile suicide attacks and Taliban territorial gains in Helmand province have underlined how far Afghanistan remains from peace.

The Taliban, which now control or contest more territory than at any time since they were ousted from power, will not attend the talks.

Turnbull is set to visit Washington on Monday and Tuesday for a meeting with Obama, where national security in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions are set to be agenda-topping items.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Five Bangladesh militants jailed for 10 years for bombings

January 18, 2016 | News Channel Asia | Ruma Paul and Clarence Fernandez

A court in Bangladesh on Monday jailed five militants of a banned militant group for 10 years over bombings in 2005 that formed part of a series of blasts across the Muslim-majority nation.

The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen group set off nearly 500 bombs almost simultaneously on a single day in 2005, including the capital Dhaka. Subsequent suicide attacks on courthouses by its militants killed 25 people and injured hundreds.

Five members of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen group were convicted and sentenced for the explosions in the southeastern district of Rangamati, court inspector Mominul Islam said.

"Six militants were charged with the bombings," he told Reuters by telephone. "And five of them were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail, while one was acquitted."

The group, thought to have been lying low since six of its top leaders were hanged in 2007, is blamed for a spate of recent attacks, including the bombings of a Shi'ite shrine and the shooting of three foreigners, two of whom died.

Last year, four bloggers and a publisher were killed in Bangladesh, amid a rise in militant violence in which liberal activists, members of minority sects and other religious groups have been targeted.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but the government has denied that the militant group has a presence in Bangladesh.

At least five militants of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen have been killed in shootouts since November, as security forces stepped up a crackdown on militants seeking to make the moderate Muslim nation of 160 million a sharia-based state.

To curb militancy, trafficking, Bangladesh to set up ten new border outposts

January 18, 2016 | FirstPost

Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) have agreed to beef up security and construct at least 10 new border outposts (BOPs) on the India-Bangladesh border to check militancy, crime and trafficking, a BSF official said on Monday.

Officials of the Border Security Force (BSF) and BGB met for five days at the BSF's Tripura frontier headquarters at Shalbagan, 15 km north of here, and discussed matters related to the international border.

The five-member BGB delegation was led by Colonel Sajjad Hossain while the BSF team comprised Deputy Inspector General of Panisagar sector D.K. Sharma and Teliamura Sector DIG Rajeev Sinha and senior officers.

"The BGB officials informed us on the construction of new BOPs facing Tripura and Mizoram," BSF's Tripura frontier Deputy Inspector General and chief spokesman D.S. Bhati told IANS.

He said the BGB will also further tighten security along Tripura and Mizoram frontiers.

"The proposed BOPs in the mountainous Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) will help contain terrorism in the north-eastern states since most camps of Indian insurgent groups, including Tripura militants, are located in south-east Bangladesh's CHT," Bhati said.

"Both sides agreed to increase vigil along the border to foil attempt by militants and other anti-national elements to disrupt internal peace. Besides, emphasis was also given to curb trans-border smuggling," the BSF officer said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Premier Sheikh Hasina discussed the border issues, including curbing of border crimes and terror activities, during Modi's visit to Dhaka on 6-7 June last year.

Four north-eastern states of Tripura (856 km), Meghalaya (443 km), Mizoram (318 km) and Assam (263 km) share an 1,880-km border with Bangladesh.

Bhutan Telecom introducing WiFi hotspots

January 19, 2016 | Gyalsten K Dorji | Kuensel

As part of its effort to decongest its 3G network, Bhutan Telecom (BT) is re-introducing public WiFi hotspots in the Thimphu core area. The telecom company was the target of much public criticism last year given poor connectivity issues faced by its customers.

Five WiFi hotspots have been established at the referral hospital, Bhutan Post, city cinema, Norzin Lam, and youth village.

When a 3G users of BT enters the WiFi hotspot, the user is automatically “handed over” to the WiFi network which according to the company, frees up 3G capacity for others outside these hotspots. When the 3G user exits the WiFi hotspot, the user is again automatically handed back to the 3G network.

“It may however be noted that the WiFi hotspots by design are for stationary users and will not support mobility,” a spokesperson for the telecom company said.

The telecom company also attempted the same move in 2012. Five WiFi hotspots were introduced that year in Thimphu city. Druknet broadband subscribers could use their personal accounts to access the WiFi network. But with low usage, the plan failed and was largely discontinued by 2013.

The company is not expecting a repeat. “What BT is putting in place in the form of WiFi hotspots this time is of carrier grade with better control on the quality of service and we are confident that as compared to the past, this time the performance of the WiFi hotspots will be better,” the spokesperson said.

It was also pointed out that the WiFi hotspots will also cater to non-3G users, described as walk-in customers and existing BT fixed line broadband users.

Network upgraded

BT completed its upgrade of its core networks in September last year.

“With the upgrades, we have capacity for 77,000 simultaneous 3G users out which 90 percent are data users,” the company’s spokesperson said. “In 2G we have capacity for about 23,000 simultaneous users out of which 90 percent are voice users.”

As of June last year, BT had almost 255,000 3G subscribers.

The increase in simultaneous users is almost double of what was available mid-last year.

“Our experience tells that data user behaviour is unpredictable and therefore it has not been possible for us to forecast and dimension our system appropriately,” said the company’s spokesperson on complaints that poor network connectivity persists in the core city areas.

He said that given expenses in upgrading the system, over dimensioning the capacity at one go is also not an advisable option.

“One of the main factors why there are so much of data consumption is that our data tariffs are among the cheapest in the region,” the spokesperson said.

However, there are regular complaints on the BT Facebook page about their rates, especially when compared to India.

It was pointed out that BT customers consume 20TB (terabytes) of data daily, of which 5TB is mobile data traffic.

Asked if any more improvements to the network are being planned, the BT spokesperson said that performance of the network is monitored on a regular basis.

“Whenever and wherever abnormalities and performance not within defined international standards are observed, optimisation efforts are put in, some of which include capacity enhancements on the existing resources and addition of new cell sites,” the spokesperson said.

“Given the kind of terrain we have, inter cell interferences of signals have been one of the major challenges due to which quality of service degrades.”

Use of over-the-top (OTT) apps, like WeChat and Viber has caused a drop in the usage of voice and SMS services of BT and therefore affected their revenue. However, the company has no plans to attempt regulating the usage of such mobile apps.

“We rather feel we should embrace OTT technology and take advantage of the flexibility that is inherent in it.”

To fight China’s Andaman and Nicobar forays, India deploys submarine hunters

January 19, 2016 | Rajat Pandit | Times of India

With Chinese nuclear and conventional submarines regularly popping up in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India has now begun to deploy its latest long-range maritime patrol aircraft as well as spy drones at its forward military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Defence ministry sources on Monday said two of the country's most potent submarine hunters/killers, the naval Poseidon-8I aircraft, are just about to complete their first-ever two-week deployment to the strategically-located Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. "Navy and IAF are also deploying their (Israeli) Searcher-II unmanned aerial vehicles to the islands on a temporary basis," said a source.

India has inducted eight P-8I aircraft, acquired under a $2.1 billion deal inked in January 2009 with US aviation major Boeing, at its INS Rajali naval air station in Arakkonam (Tamil Nadu). With an operating range of over 1,200 nautical miles and a maximum speed of 907kmph, the radar-packed P-8Is are especially geared to gather intelligence and detect threats in the IOR as "intelligent hawk-eyes".

Armed as they are with deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, the P-8Is can neutralize enemy submarines and warships if required. "AThe case for acquisition of another four P-8Is is in the final stages. P-8Is can operate from Port Blair (naval air station INS Utkrosh) to keep tabs on the entire region," said the source.

But while this is a much-needed operational requirement, India's first and only theatre command in the shape of Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) continues to suffer from relative neglect despite the Modi government making it a top priority. Much more needs to be done at a faster pace to ensure ANC, with requisite military force-levels and infrastructure, can effectively act as a pivot to counter China's strategic moves in IOR as well as ensure security of sea lanes converging towards the Malacca Strait.

Sources said "not much progress" has been made in the overall plan to have enough infrastructure and maintenance support with more airstrips and jetties in the 572-island cluster, extending over 720km, to eventually deploy a division-level force (around 15,000 troops), a fighter squadron and some major warships there. As of now, amid turf wars among Army, Navy and IAF as well as fund crunches and environmental concerns, ANC has just over an infantry brigade (3,000 soldiers), 20 small warships and patrol vessels, and a few Mi-8 helicopters and Dornier-228 patrol aircraft.

While the existing runways at Campbell Bay in the south, where naval air station INS Baaz is located, and Shibpur in North Andaman are yet to be extended, the airfields at Port Blair and Car Nicobar also need some serious upgrade work. "Similarly, only one of the four proposed operational turn-around bases for warships is so far in place," said a source.

Iran sanctions end: Cheaper oil, more trade opportunities for India

January 18, 2016 | Sharad Raghavan | The Hindu

We can sign commercial deals with Iran since payment is no longer an issue”. The lifting of the sanctions on Iran will benefit India with lower oil prices and more opportunities for trade, according to experts. It should also bring the proposed India-Iran gas pipeline closer to reality.

“There will be a further softening of global crude prices. Iran will gradually ramp up production by 0.5 million barrels per day over the next six months. This will add to the overall supply glut,” K. Ravichandran, senior vice-president and co-head, corporate sector rating at ICRA told The Hindu.

The lifting of sanctions also removes an important hurdle — U.S. pressure to hold off on the deal — in the proposed India-Iran gas pipeline, said Rajiv Kumar, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. He said that an added benefit would be for construction companies in India.

“It will be much easier to export to Iran. We have been importing oil from them despite the sanctions through a rupee payment agreement. We can also start taking up construction projects there. Our project companies can go back to doing that. Iran will also be looking for our technical skills,” Mr. Kumar said.

The sanctions on Iran were lifted on Saturday following the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency deeming that Iran has completed the necessary steps in a deal to restrict its nuclear programme.

Apart from Iranian oil, India will also benefit from the removal of restrictions on payments to Iranian companies that the sanctions had imposed. “With the removal of sanctions, we won’t have difficulties in reaching our payment dues. As a result, we can go ahead and sign commercial deals with Iran since payment is no longer an issue. The lifting of sanctions means we can invest in Iran, which we could not do earlier,” PR Kumaraswamy, Professor on the Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University said.

India reportedly owes Iran $6.5 billion for crude oil purchases, the payment of which has so far been held up due to the sanctions.

One of the major construction projects in Iran that India has taken an interest in is the development of the Chabahar Port. Now Indian companies will be able to get contracts for this project.

“One area of interest is construction, and there the Chabahar Port becomes important. But even then, that port will be more important for Iran than for India. India’s total trade with all these (Central Asian) countries is less than $1billion. The real benefit will be that we were able to build a port in a foreign country in the face of international competition,” Prof. Kumaraswamy said, adding that this would be the first time India would be attempting this.

'Laser fences' for India-Pakistan border

January 18, 2016 | BBC

India will put up laser fences at more than 40 "vulnerable" stretches along the border with Pakistan, reports say. A home ministry official said riverine stretches of the border would be laser fenced to prevent Pakistan-based infiltrators from entering India.

The reported move follows a deadly attack on an Indian air force base in Punjab earlier this month, which was blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

A laser fence detects objects and sets off a loud siren in case of a breach.

The laser fences are being developed by India's Border Security Force who guard the country's border with Pakistan along with the army, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Indian security forces took four days to put down an attack on the Pathankot air force base near the border with Pakistan in India's Punjab state.

Six militants and seven Indian soldiers were killed the fighting.

India accused Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad of carrying out the assault. Pakistan said it had arrested several members of the group.

 

Officials in India and Pakistan have re-scheduled diplomatic talks which were postponed after the attack.

 

 

 

Pathankot attacks: Pakistan, India reschedule peace talks

 

 

January 14, 2016 | BBC

Officials in India and Pakistan have agreed to re-schedule diplomatic talks which were postponed after a militant attack on an Indian air base. India accused Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad of carrying out the assault in which seven Indian troops and six militants were killed.

On Wednesday, Pakistan said it had arrested several members of the group.

On Thursday, India said arrangements were being made for a meeting between foreign secretaries of both countries.

Hopes for Delhi-Islamabad detente were raised in late December after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an unexpected visit to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his way back from Afghanistan, and the two sides announced plans to resume peace talks. The attack has set back the peace initiative.

But on Thursday, officials from both sides said the talks remained on the agenda.

Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Qazi Khalilullah said talks would not be held on Friday and that a new date was being considered.

His Indian counterpart Vikas Swarup said "both foreign secretaries [have] agreed to meet in the very near future".

The assault on the Pathankot air force base in Punjab, close to the Pakistan border, started on 2 January, when a group of gunmen - wearing Indian army uniforms - entered residential quarters on the air base.

The United Jihad Council - a coalition of more than a dozen militant groups fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir - claimed the attack.

The claim was met with scepticism - the UJC's core members are not known to have mounted attacks outside Indian-administered Kashmir.

Indian security officials instead blamed Jaish-e-Mohammed, an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan.

Started by Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammed has been blamed for attacks on Indian soil in the past, including one in 2001 on parliament in Delhi which took the nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war.

India, Maldives to deepen defence, security ties

January 19, 2016 | Economic Times

India and the Maldives today decided to deepen bilateral ties, especially in the critical sector of defence and security. Visiting Maldivian Defence and National Security Minister Adam Shareef met his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar here this evening and held delegation-level talks during which it was decided that the two nations should deepen and broaden their defence cooperation, official sources said.

The development comes at a time when the Chinese are increasing their footprint in the archipelago nation.

China is funding several infrastructure projects across the Maldives. The government's electoral pledges, like building a bridge between capital Male and the airport island of Hulhule and development of its main international airport, also hinges on soft loans being considered by Beijing.

Chinese businesses, mostly state-owned corporations, have recently forayed into the Maldives with investments in areas such as the upmarket luxury tourism industry.

The Maldives also held its second investment forum in the Chinese capital last November.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her visit to Maldives in October 2015, had said that India will always be the net security provider to the Indian Ocean archipelago.

She, however, had stressed that it was important to insulate both nations from trends towards radicalisation and terrorism.

Maldives Ex-President Heads to London After Amal Clooney Sanctions Push

January 18, 2016 | Cynthia McFadden, Jake Whitman and Tracy Connor | NBC News

The jailed ex-president of the Maldives, whose conviction and 13-year sentence have drawn international condemnation, was flown out of the island nation Monday to undergo back surgery in the United Kingdom.

The trip comes days after one of Mohamed Nasheed's lawyers — human rights attorney Amal Clooney, wife of activist actor-director George Clooney — gave NBC News' Cynthia McFadden an exclusive interview about his situation and lobbied Washington lawmakers for sanctions.

Negotiations to allow Nasheed to travel hit a last-minute snag over the weekend when his lawyers said the government was insisting a relative stay behind and sign a document that would subject the relative to criminal prosecution if Nasheed did not return.

In the end, Nasheed's brother was allowed to serve as a "guarantor" but also travel to London with him. Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said the brother would not face any criminal charges if Nasheed refused to come back.

His legal team said Nasheed spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone at the airport, and also spoke with Clooney.

"I was delighted to speak to President Nasheed for the first time in months today, and to see him board a flight out of the Maldives," said Clooney in a statement. "I am very relieved that he will now be able to obtain the medical treatment that he so urgently needs in the U.K. I thank all the members of the international community who have helped to bring about this result."

Asked whether she expected Nasheed to return, the Maldives foreign minister was noncommital.

"It's difficult to predict," said Maumoon, who is the daughter of the politician who ruled the Maldives for 30 years until Nasheed was elected in 2008. "We have to see how events unfold."

"He is a convicted criminal and he is serving a sentence for terrorism," Maumoon added. "He is not being released. This is a specific clearance for a particular period of time."

She said that Nasheed is expected to fly back in 30 days if he does not have surgery, and 45 days if he has an operation. He can request an extension for medical reasons, she says.

If he refuses, the Maldives can request his extradition, but the British Secretary of State would have to sign off on it. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently described Nasheed to the Guardian as his "new best friend."

Mamoun said the biggest reason for Nasheed to return to a country that has branded him a terrorist for having a judge arrested while he was president is to try to get the conviction overturned by the courts and re-enter politics.

But another Nasheed lawyer, Freedom Now founder Jared Genser, says the judiciary cannot be trusted.

Nasheed, 48, served as president of the Maldives for three years before leaving office in what he claims was a gunpoint coup. The current government says he left office voluntarily. A United Nations expert blasted his subsequent trial as a "mockery" and a U.N. panel has called for his release.

During her trip to Washington last week, Clooney told NBC News that she believes "democracy is dead" is the Maldives and that political repression, abuse of women and jihadism are on the rise. A U.N. report found that Maldives has the highest per capita rate of foreign recruits for ISIS.

She pushed for the Obama administration to impose travel bans and asset freezes on regime leaders who refused to release Nasheed.

Maumoon said the criticism was "entirely untrue" and that sanctions would harm the small country of 345,000 and its tourist-dependent economy.

"With all these actions and all the media hype, the image of the Maldives is being tainted," she said.

Nepal constitution talks fail to end protests

January 19, 2016 | Channel News Asia

Talks between the Nepali government and minority groups to resolve a dispute over a new constitution have fallen apart, opposition leaders said on Tuesday, dashing hopes that protests that have led to crippling fuel shortages will end soon.Talks between the Nepali government and minority groups to resolve a dispute over a new constitution have fallen apart, opposition leaders said on Tuesday, dashing hopes that protests that have led to crippling fuel shortages will end soon.

More than 50 people have been killed since August in anti-government protests in the Tarai region, a narrow strip of plains that runs along Nepal's southern border with India.

A resulting slowdown in cross-border truck traffic has plunged the landlocked nation into a fuel crisis that has hampered aid to survivors of last year's deadly earthquakes and spawned a lucrative black market.

The ethnic Madhesi groups who live in the Tarai say Nepal's new constitution, its first since the nation abolished its centuries-old monarchy, alienates their members, granting them low representation in parliament and government bodies.

After talks fell apart on Monday night, dozens of Madhesi activists burned tyres on the road in the southern business town of Birgunj, police said, in continuing protest against the charter's carving the lowland region into federal states dominated by mountain communities.

Nepal blames India, its largest trading partner, for siding with the protesters near its border and invoking an unofficial blockade on trucks crossing from India into Nepal, a charge that India has repeatedly denied.

In the eastern border town of Kakarvitta, a long row of motorcycles and scooters stood in the middle of a bridge marking the border with India, as their owners poured smuggled fuel into their tanks.

"It's been good business," said a woman named Devi, who came from the Indian border town of Raniganj to sell petrol to Nepalese in plastic tubs and bottles.

The United Madhesi Front, which wants state boundaries to be redrawn to give their communities more power, said talks with government negotiators that started two weeks ago had become "meaningless".

Defence Minister Bhim Rawal said the boundary issue would be settled by a political committee in three months, but Madhesi party leaders were not convinced.

"We can't trust the government," Laxman Lal Karna, another Madhesi leader, told Reuters. "We have been betrayed in the past on similar assurances."

(Additional reporting by Ross Adkin in Kakarvitta; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Motorcycle Suicide Attack Hits Major Pakistan Highway, Killing 10

January 19, 2016 | Mushtaq Yusufzai | NBC News

A suicide bomber driving a motorcycle hit a roadside checkpoint on a major highway in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, killing 10 people and injuring 42 others, according to local officials. A child was among those who died when the attacker riding "an explosives-laden motorcycle" struck the checkpoint on the Torkham-Jalalabad Highway linking Pakistan to Afghanistan, said Saiful Islam, a senior official in the semi-autonomous tribal government of the region.

Islam said a local security official, Nawab Shah, who was passing through the area some three miles from the provincial capital city of Peshawar, appeared to have been the target. The highway was closed after the 9 a.m. (11 p.m. ET Monday) bombing, blocking trucks carrying supplies to NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

A prominent local journalist, Mehboob Shah Afridi, was among those killed, according to Islam. Several vehicles and nearby shops were also damaged in the blast, Islam added.

"We received eight bodies, including that of a child and 42 injured. Some of the injured are in critical condition and the death toll may rise," said Tauheed Begam, a spokeswoman for Peshawar's Hayatabad Medical Complex.

In a call to media, a spokesman for a splinter group of Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA), claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pakistan offers to host Saudi-Iran reconciliation talks

January 19, 2016 | Associated Press

Pakistan’s prime minister offered Tuesday to host talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia aimed at resolving disputes between the Middle Eastern rivals.

Nawaz Sharif met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, a day after meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh. After his meeting with Rouhani, Sharif told reporters that Iran had expressed an interest in improving relations with Saudi Arabia and would appoint a focal person for future talks.

Sharif said he would speak to Saudi Arabia to encourage the appointment of a focal person, and described reconciling the two countries as Pakistan’s “prime duty and sacred mission.”

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says that Islamabad is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Sunni and Shiite powerhouses have been rivals for years but the current tensions worsened after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric who was an outspoken opposition figure on Jan. 2. Angry crowds in Iran stormed the Saudi embassy, and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran in protest.

Pakistan lifts YouTube ban with launch of local version

January 19, 2016 | Juliet Perry | CNN

Pakistan has this week lifted a three-year ban on YouTube, days after customized versions of the video streaming site were launched across the region.

The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom said, in a statement to Reuters, that under the new version of YouTube the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority will be able to ask for offending material to be blocked.

The Pakistan government first implemented a ban on the site in 2012 after the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" was uploaded, triggering demonstrations and outcry across the Muslim world.

More than a dozen people died in protests in Pakistan.

'Very secretive'

The news has been received with cautious optimism by free speech activists, who feel that the details of the agreement should be made public.

"We want to know what arrangements YouTube has made to protect our right to freedom of expression while launching their localized services," Bytes for All, a group that fights for digital rights in Pakistan, told CNN.

"Both parties have been very secretive."

According to YouTube, the changes don't necessarily mean all government requests for takedowns will automatically be met.

"We have clear community guidelines, and when videos violate those rules, we remove them," said a YouTube spokeswoman.

"Where we have launched YouTube locally and we are notified that a video is illegal in that country, we may restrict access to it after a thorough review," she said.

"And we will continue to track all and any government takedown requests in our Transparency Report, as we have done globally."

The Google-owned video streaming site has also launched localized services in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Sri Lanka Frees 29 Indian Fishermen, More to be Released Soon

January 19, 2016 | The Indian Express

29 Indian fishermen have been freed by Sri Lanka and the process to release the remaining continues in various magistrates’ courts in underway. According to reports, 29 fishermen were freed by Trincomalee magistrate, and the process to issue release orders of 14 more is underway in Jaffna court.

Earlier, 55 fishermen were freed by local courts of the country. Sri Lanka government had decided earlier this week to free 106 Indian fishermen as a goodwill gesture on the festive occasion of Pongal.

The fishermen will be send back home later this week after all of them are released, however, the courts have not released their captured vessels. The fishermen were caught by Sri Lankan Navy on charges of violating the maritime boundary and poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

Sri Lanka to use social media in new constitution making process

January 17, 2016 | The Economic Times

Sri Lanka today said it will use social media for formulating its new Constitution aimed at achieving reconciliation with the minority Tamil community and preventing another ethnic war, becoming the first country to allow its citizens to contribute ideas in the process.

"We want to accommodate everybody in the process. We will welcome ideas through social media. We will be the first country to formulate a constitution through ideas to be made through social media," prime minister Wickremsinghe said.

The Lankan government on January 9, moved a resolution in a special session of the Parliament to convert the whole Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly.

However the opposition parties have pointed out technical issues opposing the move.

"They are free to make amendments. We will consider all opinion. This is only the mechanism to make the constitution," Wickremesinghe said.

He said his party would not propose any, but all other political parties big or small are free to make proposals.

"We do not know what it will be," Wickremesinghe said adding that the government would not allow the separation of the country.

"We have all taken oath under the sixth amendment to oppose separation of the country. So we will not do anything against it," he said.

The new Constitution will replace the current executive president headed constitution adopted in 1978.

Sirisena, who was elected last year after his stunning electoral victory over Mahinda Rajapaka, wants to abolish the present executive presidential system which for long has faced accusations of being authoritarian. Sri Lankan troops in 2009 defeated the LTTE which was fighting for an independent state for minority ethnic Tamils.

At least 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in just the final months of the civil war, according to a UN report. The Sri Lankan government has promised that it will investigate alleged war crime allegations against government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels. 

Pakistan hosts four-way Afghanistan peace talks

January 11, 2016 | BBC

Key Afghan, Pakistani, Chinese and US officials have met for talks aimed at establishing a roadmap for peace between Afghanistan and the Taliban. The Afghan government has been locked in a bloody conflict with Taliban militants for more than a decade.Delegates hope the talks, hosted by Pakistan, will help pave the way for negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.However, the Taliban, who are divided by factional infighting, did not attend Monday's talks. A statement issued at the end of the meeting said that "all four countries underscored the importance of bringing an end to the conflict in Afghanistan".

"The participants emphasised the immediate need for direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and representatives of Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," it added.

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban last year collapsed, after news emerged that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact died in 2013.

His deputy Mullah Mansour was declared leader in July - but a number of senior Taliban commanders refused to pledge allegiance to him and a faction opposed to him was set up under Mullah Mohammad Rasool.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of these talks is the participation of the US and China, which can to an extent dilute Kabul's scepticism about Pakistani motives.

But the complexity of links between Pakistan and the Taliban are likely to make the reconciliation process trickier, and protracted.

The question of whether the Taliban could end up being happy with what Kabul can offer may be closely linked to the extent to which Pakistan is satisfied with the direction of the talks. This is because Pakistan is widely understood to be housing the Taliban leadership on its soil and has influence over them, though it denies this.

Pakistan would like the participants to reduce the impact of anti-Pakistan elements in Kabul, and persuade the Afghan government to be less enthusiastic about its relations with India, Pakistan's rival.

The rift within the Taliban may also figure as a hurdle in successful reconciliation - but many say this could be just a political ploy because the breakaway Taliban faction is too weak and without a safe sanctuary and resources.

The Taliban has launched several high-profile attacks in recent months.

In December, the militant group launched an attack on the strategic district of Sangin. It later seized and blew up the police headquarters and governor's compound.

And in September, the Taliban briefly overran the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, in one of their biggest victories since 2001.

"Ghost" troops slowing down Afghanistan's military

January 10, 2016 | AP | CBS News

Afghan forces are struggling to man the front lines against a resurgent Taliban, in part because of untold numbers of "ghost" troops who are paid salaries but only exist on paper. The nationwide problem has been particularly severe in the southern Helmand province, where the Taliban have seized vast tracts of territory in the 12 months since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission and switched to training and support.

"At checkpoints where 20 soldiers should be present, there are only eight or 10," said Karim Atal, head of Helmand's provincial council. "It's because some people are getting paid a salary but not doing the job because they are related to someone important, like a local warlord."

In some cases, the "ghost" designation is more literal -- dead soldiers and police remain on the books, with senior police or army officials pocketing their salaries without replacing them, Atal said.

He estimates that some 40 percent of registered forces don't exist, and says the lack of manpower has helped the Taliban seize 65 percent of the province -- Afghanistan's largest -- and threaten the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. Those men who do serve face even greater danger because of the no-shows. In the last three months alone, some 700 police have been killed and 500 wounded, he said.

The province's former deputy police chief, Pacha Gul Bakhtiar, said Helmand has 31,000 police on the registers, "but in reality it is nowhere near that."

Nearly 15 years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, and despite billions of dollars in military and other aid, corruption remains rife in Afghanistan and local security forces have struggled to hold off insurgent advances across the country. Last year the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz for three days, marking their biggest foray into a major urban area since 2001.

Pakistan will host four-nation talks Monday with Afghanistan, China and the United States aimed at reviving peace talks with the Taliban, but even if those efforts succeed the insurgents are expected to stay on the offensive in order to gain land and leverage.

The Defense Ministry declined to comment on ghost security forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi acknowledged the problem and said an investigation has been launched, without providing further details.

Iraq has also struggled with the ghost soldier phenomenon, a factor in the Islamic State group's rapid conquest of much of the country's north and west in the summer of 2014. In December of that year, Iraqi officials said the payment of tens of millions of dollars in salaries to nonexistent forces had been halted.

But Afghan lawmaker Ghulam Hussain Nasiri, who has been researching the problem for more than a year, said his government is ignoring it.

"When we say we have 100 soldiers on the battlefield, in reality it is just 30 or 40. And this creates the potential for huge catastrophes when the enemy attacks," he said.

"It is an indication of massive corruption - the reason Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt nations in the world," he added. Afghanistan consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in indices released by global watchdog Transparency International.

Nasiri said the government "doesn't seem to want to know about it," and that he received death threats after revealing the names of parliamentarians who are allegedly in on the racket. He said he handed a list of 31 names of corrupt parliamentarians to the Interior Ministry but has so far received no response.

Cash-strapped Afghanistan's security forces are entirely funded by the international community, at a cost of some $5 billion a year, most of which comes from the United States. The U.S. government's auditor of spending in Afghanistan, John Sopko, told a congressional hearing last year that Afghan government figures on security personnel and pay could not be regarded as accurate.

"No one knows the exact numbers of the Afghan National Defense Forces," an Afghan official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media on the topic. He said the best internal estimates put the number at around 120,000, less than a third of what's needed to secure the country.

The heaviest cost of the ghost soldier phenomenon is being exacted on the battlefield. Neither the government nor NATO publicizes casualty figures for local security forces, but an internal NATO tally seen by The Associated Press shows casualties are up 28 percent from 2014, when some 5,000 Afghan forces were killed.

Last month, an army base in Helmand's Sangin district was besieged by insurgents for almost a week before reinforcements were rushed in backed by U.S. airstrikes and British military advisers.

In the northern Helmand district of Kajaki, soldier Mohammad Islam said many of his comrades deserted their posts because they didn't believe their bodies would be sent back to their families if they died. In the absence of a body, the family would not be eligible for compensation payments.

"Everyone knows that we are facing this fight alongside 'ghost' soldiers, and that's the reason we don't have enough men," he said. "The Taliban know it, too. When they attack us, and we're unable to protect ourselves, the big men then ask why."

American Charged in Bombing Attack on US Base in Afghanistan

January 6, 2016 | Tom Hays | ABC News

A U.S. citizen already accused of going to Pakistan to train with al-Qaida was charged Wednesday with helping build explosives for a 2009 suicide attack on an American military base in Afghanistan. A revised indictment charges Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh with conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other crimes. He is to appear Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn; there was no immediate comment by his lawyer.

The charges stem from an attack on Jan. 19, 2009, involving two vehicles driven by unidentified suicide bombers that were rigged with explosives, the new indictment says. Only one of the bombs detonated. Al Farekh's fingerprints were later found on packing tape used on the second explosive, the indictment says.

The court papers didn't identify the base or detail the damage. News accounts from the same 2009 date cited in court papers described a dual-car bomb attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost City, near the border with Pakistan, which killed one Afghan and wounded several others, but harmed no Americans.

The 30-year-old Al Farekh, who was born in Texas, "allegedly turned his back on our country and tried to kill U.S. soldiers in the course of executing their sworn duty to keep us safe," Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said in a statement.

Al Farekh was brought from Pakistan to the United States in April to face initial charges of providing material support to terrorists. Federal authorities alleged he and two other students at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, started watching al-Qaida propaganda and hatching a plan to become martyrs abroad.

The three flew to Karachi, Pakistan, on round-trip tickets in March 2007 after selling their belongings, disconnecting their phones and buying mountain boots commonly worn by al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, authorities said.

Prosecutors said one of Al Farekh's co-conspirators trained three men on how to use AK-47s and other weapons at an al-Qaida training camp in 2008, the complaint says. The three — Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin — were later convicted of plotting to bomb New York City's subway system and are cooperating with federal authorities.

Strike starts in public universities across Bangladesh

January 11, 2016 | bdnews24.com

Teachers at Bangladesh's public universities have started their 'cease work' campaign. "No classes or examinations are taking place in any public university anywhere in the country," said Prof Fariduddin Ahmed, spokesperson for Dhaka University Teachers’ Association and Federation of Bangladesh University Teachers’ Associations (FBUTA).

He said the teachers are also not carrying out any administrative duties assigned to them.

Reports from Jahangirnagar and Sylhet's SUST indicated that classes and examinations were not taking place there.

"The bureaucrats have driven us to this agitation. For nine months, they have behaved like upper caste and declined to give us what we deserve," Fariduddin said.

The teachers have been upset with the 'discrepancies' in the Eighth National Pay Scale.

They started their movement about nine months ago when the draft of the new pay scale was proposed. They argue that it had lowered their status, and that the time-scale and selection grade had been abolished to do that.

The Cabinet then approved the pay scale in September last year and it was gazetted in December last year.

Amid waves of widening protests, the government had formed a committee, headed by Finance Minister AMA Muhith, to look into the demands of the teachers.

After sitting with the teachers on Dec 6 last year, Muhith had promised to fulfil three of their demands.

But the teachers alleged that the pay scale’s gazette, published 10 days after the meeting, did not reflect his pledge in any way.

With no end to the deadlock in sight, the FBUTA on Jan 2 announced that they would go on the indefinite strike from Jan 11 if their demands went unheeded.

The teachers at all the public universities also wore black badges on Jan 3 and observed a two-hour strike on Jan 7.

Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid only two days ago said they were working on a solution to the crisis even though the finance minister had dismissed the demands recently.

“A secretary-level taskforce is working on the teachers’ demands. We hope a solution acceptable to all will be found very soon,” Nahid said on Friday.

But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday came down hard on the teachers saying they were ‘lowering themselves by comparing themselves with others’.

She urged everyone to follow the rules of their organisations. "There has to be discipline in everything."

"People are satisfied with little in times of hunger. When hunger is gone and they get affluent, things like prestige, justice, honour and deputation come to their mind. I think we have raised the salaries a little too much. That's why there’s now a tug-of-war for prestige,” she said about the protest, which the pro-Awami League teachers are leading.

After her remarks, the FBUTA in a media statement on Sunday said they would press ahead with the indefinite work abstention until their demands are met.

But, the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association said they would administer the final examinations during the strike considering the students’ request.

“But other tests and academic activities including midterms will remain suspended,” it said in a statement.

Jahangirnagar University Teachers’ Association General Secretary Prof Mafruhi Sattar confirmed bdnews24.com that they will abstain from all activities until a solution is reached.

The protesting teachers are saying Finance Minister Muhith had promised to meet their demands to restore selection grade and time scale in the Eighth National Pay Scale, promote a section of selection-grade professors to ‘super grade’ created for senior secretaries and implement the starting salary proposal.

The FBUTA General Secretary ASM Maksud Kamal said only the demand over starting salary has been met.

“Now the finance minister is issuing statements to say he did not make any promise. Then why did he issue the gazette without discussing the matter in the committee on removing salary discrimination and without its clearance?” he asked.

Two new warships join Bangladesh Navy’s fleet

January 10, 2016 | bdnews24.com

Two new frigates, built in China, have joined the Bangladesh Navy. BNS ‘Shadhinota’ and BNS ‘Prottoy’ reached Chittagong Naval Jetty on Sunday morning. Commodore AKM Faruk Hasan, director of the ships’ construction project, told reporters that China built this new type of frigate for the Bangladesh Navy.

They have a displacement of 1,300 tons and maximum speed of 25 knots, are both 90 meters long and 11 meters across the beam. It can accommodate 80 crew members, Hasan said.

It will be the most advanced frigate in the Bangladesh Navy, which will be a boost to its coastal defence capability, Rear Admiral Syed Abu Mansur Arshadul Abedin, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff had said at the launching ceremony at China's Wuhan two years ago.

Both frigates have their own helipads.

The frigate can detect, identify and destroy surface and aerial targets and can also carry out maritime monitoring and patrols, and search and rescue missions, said Cai Libin, deputy general manager of the Wuchang Shipbuilding Industry Group Co Ltd, which had build the frigate.

It is equipped with 76 mm and 30 mm naval guns as well as ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles, Libin told Xinhua.

Bangladesh government signed an agreement for the two ships with China Ship Building Company in 2012.

The construction of the warships started at Wuchang Shipyard in China on Jan 7, 2013.

The ships started for Chittagong from China’s Qidong port on Dec 26 last year.

William and Kate to visit Bhutan in spring, Palace says

January 8, 2016 | BBC

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will make an official visit to Bhutan this spring, Kensington Palace has announced. It will be the royal couple's first visit to the Himalayan kingdom.While visiting the country, William and Catherine will meet Bhutan's king and queen, who married in 2011.

The trip, at the request of the UK government, will coincide with their previously announced official tour of India.

It was also announced that Prince Harry will visit Nepal this spring, the BBC's royal correspondent Peter Hunt said.

Bhutan, located between India and China, has a population of about 750,000 people.

Tourists were first allowed into the country in the 1970s, while it is known for its "Gross National Happiness" index - an alternative to GDP - which measures personal happiness as opposed to economic growth.

The capital Thimphu does not have traffic lights and television was only introduced in the late 1990s.

In March 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy and the king relinquished his absolute powers.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk - who became king in 2006 - and Queen Jetsun Pema married in a lavish ceremony in 2011 at a monastic fortress in the Himalayan nation.

They are expecting their first child early this year.

The Oxford-educated king and his wife, who also studied at a British university, visited London a few weeks after their wedding and met the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall at their London home, Clarence House.

Previous royal visits to Bhutan include a visit by the Duke of York in 2010, and a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1998.

Although Prince Harry's Nepal trip will be his first visit to the country, the prince said he had long wanted to visit the nation due to his admiration and respect for the Gurkha troops he served with in Afghanistan.

While the trip was also arranged at the request of the government, Prince Harry said he was keen to see progress with the country's rebuilding effort following the earthquake in April last year.

The last visit by a member of the Royal Family to Nepal was by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess Royal in 2000.

35 of US ship crew arrested for illegally carrying arms into India, get 5 years jail

January 11, 2016 | PTI | The Indian Express

The crew was arrested after the Coast Guard personnel found the ship carrying arms illegally in Indian waters off Tuticorin, a charge denied by the vessel authorities.A Tuticorin court on Monday sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment all the 35 crew members of US company-owned ship Seaman Guard Ohio which was held for illegally entering Indian territory with arms.

Judge Rajasekhar also imposed a fine of Rs 3,000 each on the crew members comprising 12 Indians, three Ukrainians, six British and 14 Estonian nationals.

The crew, arrested on October 18, 2013, after 35 their ship was intercepted by Indian Coast Guard off Tuticorin port, had been granted conditional bail by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in March 2014.

The crew was arrested after the Coast Guard personnel found the ship carrying arms illegally in Indian waters off Tuticorin, a charge denied by the vessel authorities.

They faced charges under the Arms Act and Essential Commodities Act, which was invoked as the ship had allegedly bought diesel from a local agent in violation of the law.

US firm AdvanFort International, which owns the ship, had been maintaining that the vessel was involved in anti-piracy operations and had not strayed into Indian waters.

India may not send troops to Syria

January 11, 2016 | Suhasini Haidar and Kallol Bhattacherjee | The Hindu

Ahead of Syrian Foreign Minister’s visit, India considers options. India is likely to say it has “no interest” in sending troops to Syria to fight in any of the anti-IS coalitions, but could indicate it is open for a bigger role in the Syrian regional reconciliation in West Asia, officials have told The Hindu. The issue is expected to be discussed when Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al Moualem meets both National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during a three-day visit to New Delhi that begins on Monday.

Diplomatic sources said the visit is significant as it comes just ahead of a series of trips by the Modi government focused on West Asia. Later this week Ms. Swaraj will travel to Israel and Palestine ahead of expected visits by leaders of both countries to India. Prime Minister Modi is likely to visit Saudi Arabia “shortly”, and could visit to Iran later in the year, sources confirmed.

A Syrian official said Mr. Moualem could ask India to play a “conciliatory” role in reconciling the positions of all the major players in the region, given India’s standing with them.

While officials said India “is open” to discussing the larger role of assisting the peace process, the government has taken a considered position against joining any of the coalitions fighting the IS in Syria and Iraq. The Hindu has learnt that the Prime Minister’s Office listened to a series of briefings in the last few weeks on India’s options in the Syrian civil war . Apart from presentations on the spread of IS terrorism to Afghanistan, and the possibility of radicalisation in India, the briefings from top security agencies included a look at the three different coalitions now engaged in the fight against the radical terror group — the U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 countries that are conducting strikes on IS locations and supporting anti-Assad rebel groups, the Russian forces sent in to support President Assad’s Syrian military forces against IS and other groups, and the newly announced Saudi Arabia-led coalition of 34 Muslim nations, which claims it will attack IS as well.

The considered opinion of military and intelligence officials was that it would be inadvisable to offer any operational support beyond the current intelligence that has led to several IS-bound Indians to be apprehended. A senior official who was privy to the briefings told The Hindu, “We will also not do anything that could lead to the spread of IS terror inside India.”

Officials also rejected the possibility of joining a “ceasefire-monitoring mechanism” outside of the UN mandate, given pressure from the U.S. to join its coalition. Speculation over Indian support has been growing since Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar spoke on the issue on his return from a visit to U.S. naval facilities and meetings in Washington. “We have made it clear that if there is a UN resolution and if there is UN flag and a UN mission, then as per India’s policy to operate under UN flag, we will participate,” Mr. Parrikar had said.

“India is not interested to send troops as of now. If Syrians seek support, India can provide them indirect support," a senior official said, referring to humanitarian aid, agricultural support and financial aid to develop its energy interests. "Syrians have offered oil fields to India. India is interested but the security situation is difficult. But India would prefer to purchase oil fields from Syria now and keep them frozen for future use," the official confirmed ahead of Mr. Moualem’s visit.

Mr. Moualem who is accompanied Syria’s Vice-Foreign Minister, leads the most senior Syrian delegation to visit India since the civil war began in 2011. He will be followed closely by another key figure of the Assad regime, advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, a regular visitor. According to diplomatic sources, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been grateful of India’s position on Syria, opposing the U.S. and allies demands for regime change, while also refusing to criticise Russia’s military support to the Syrian military campaign.

While there was some pressure on India to do both, as well as a request from the Obama government to join the anti-ISIS coalition, India has resisted all three requests so far.

India has defied the emerging market slump. Can it last?

January 10, 2016 | Dawn Kissi | CNBC

You know a country has it good when the worst news to emerge in the last year is a warning that economic growth could slow — to 7 percent. Such is the situation in India, which is enjoying a remarkable combination of good luck and fundamental strengths that include a popular prime minister in the form of recently elected Narendra Modi, a growing consumer market and its emerging market cohorts in Brazil, Russia and China (BRICs) faltering in a way that has unsettled investors around the globe.

India's successes have led to the country's becoming what political scientist and geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer recently referred to as "the last BRIC standing."

Around the world, Brazil is mired in political scandal and battling both recession and surging inflation, China's economic struggles have roiled markets worldwide, and Russia's economy is struggling to shake off the effects of economic sanctions and plunging crude prices, which this week touched 12-year lows.

Not so for India, the world's largest democracy, which is home to more than a billion people and is currently a darling of investors.

"In contrast to other major developing countries, growth in India remained robust [last year], buoyed by strong investor sentiment and the positive effect on real incomes of the recent fall in oil prices," the World Bank said last week. Highlighting the country's relative outperformance to other BRIC economies, the organization cut its global growth estimates but forecast a 7.8 percent growth rate in India for 2016.

With its $2 trillion economy, India looks well situated to weather higher U.S. interest rates in 2016, a factor many market watchers and analysts point to as a fulcrum for emerging market fortunes. And unlike China or South Africa (another formerly high-flying developing economy lumped in with the BRICs), India's growth does not seem to be too much of a concern.

"Indian economic growth is holding up," said William Adams, senior international economist with PNC Financial Group, whose growth forecasts for India are slightly less rosy that the World Bank's.

"The Reserve Bank of India's inflation targeting regime is increasing the credibility of Indian economic policy," he said, pointing out that inflation last year fell to its lowest level in more than a decade. With the so-called "commodities super-cycle" giving way to a bear market, low global commodity prices should keep inflation low and growth strong in India.

"As a net commodity importer and consumer, low prices of coal, oil, iron ore and other basic materials should contain India's inflation, shrink its trade deficit, boost consumer spending power, support corporate profit margins, and raise headline real GDP growth," Adams added. It should also help keep India's currency, the rupee, stable against other currencies, Adams said.

Still, there are some clouds on the horizon. The MNI India Business Sentiment, a monthly poll of Indian business executives at companies listed on the BSE (formerly known as the Bombay Stock Exchange), showed last month that Indian business sentiment eased for the second consecutive month in December amidst a "weak demand backdrop." Meanwhile, China is now India's largest trading partner, and a prolonged slump in the world's second-largest economy would have serious implications for a bilateral trade relationship worth at least $70 billion.

Yet India's balance sheet has improved since the "taper tantrum" of 2014 — fears of a less activist Federal Reserve — sent shockwaves across developing economies. According to Rachel Ziemba, managing director of emerging market research at Roubini Global Economics, India is more resilient to external shocks like changes in U.S. monetary policy.

The country "has sharply reduced debt service costs and short-term external financing needs and continued to attract capital," Ziemba said. "We tend to think India is moving in the right direction slowly. There are some modest fiscal and investment reforms but the risk is just that — things are moving too slowly."

Ziemba added that the government led by Modi has struggled to use its political capital, which may depreciate as Modi's honeymoon gradually wears off.

The country's lack of reliance on commodities has also left it in a better spot. India's economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel imports, and ranks as the fourth-largest energy consumer in the world, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The sharp drop in crude and natural gas prices has helped curb India's estimated $120 billion annual energy bill, keep inflation in check and assisted the government in targeting its spending, Roubini's Ziemba said.

Maldives pres briefs India diplomat on politics, secures support

January 11, 2016 | Ali Naafiz | Haveeru Online

President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom briefed Monday a top diplomat from India on the political developments in the Maldives and secured the regional superpower's backing in domestic and international affairs. Indian foreign secretary Jaishankar arrived in Maldives Monday afternoon on a one-day official visit as a special envoy of the Indian prime minister. He was greeted on arrival at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport by his Maldivian counterpart Ali Naseer Mohamed.

In a statement, the President’s Office said the president briefed the Indian foreign secretary on the latest developments in local politics. He sought India’s assistance in several areas, including domestic and international affairs, it added.

According to the President’s Office, the president and the Indian foreign secretary discussed ways on improving cooperation in fields such as economy, health and regional anti-terrorism efforts.

“The president gave his assurance that his government will continuously work to further improve the close bilateral relations between the Maldives and India,” the statement in local Dhivehi language read.

“The Indian foreign secretary assured the president that India will always give its fullest cooperation to the Maldives.”

The visiting Indian foreign secretary also met with foreign minister Dhunya Maumoon Monday afternoon.

In a previous statement, the Maldivian foreign ministry said during Jaishankar’s visit, particular attention would be given to further enhance bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, economic and defence.In a previous statement, the Maldivian foreign ministry said during Jaishankar’s visit, particular attention would be given to further enhance bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, economic and defence.

“Discussions will also be held on the implementation of the agreed areas of cooperation during the Fifth Session of the Maldives-India Joint Commission that was held in October 2015,” the statement read.

“Had an excellent discussion on bilateral cooperation,” a tweet by the Indian high commission in Male read.

The joint commission meetings resumed in October after a 15-year hiatus.

Jaishankar had visited the Maldives in August as well.

In Male, Jaishankar reportedly handed President Yameen a letter by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Maldives foreign secretary Ali Naseer, meanwhile, met with India's top diplomat Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi and handed over President Yameen's response.

Content of the letters exchanged by the two leaders has not been officially released, but several Indian media reports have pointed to President Yameen's assurance to Modi that there would be no militarisation in the Indian Ocean.

The assertion by the Maldives came in the wake of an amendment to the Maldives’ constitution allowing foreign investors land ownership. The rushed passing of the amendment by the parliament with ruling party majority has further fuelled India’s claims of China seeking a military foothold in the Indian Ocean through the Maldives.

In his letter, Modi had reportedly been diplomatic, focusing on bilateral relations in positive terms, referring to the long-standing ties with defence and security cooperation being a vital component.  The prime minister also noted in his letter that India has always assisted Maldives in the latter's time of need, Indian media had claimed.

The second visit by the Indian foreign secretary follows intensified efforts by both the Maldives and India to improve relations. In the latest such development, the Maldivian president had on December 8 hailed the foreign policy of its closest neighbour and ally.

In his message on this year’s SAARC Charter Day, the president said foreign policies of SAARC member states should prioritise improving relations with its neighbours. Such an approach, according to the president, is important for a peaceful region, which he said is integral to ensuring peaceful nations.

“In this regard, the Maldives welcomes [Indian] Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy, and encourages other member states to adopt similar stances,” the message read.

The president’s comments came in light of recent efforts by the Maldives to bolster its ties, especially in investment and trade, with India as well as rival China.

China is funding several infrastructure projects across the Maldives. Delivery of the government’s vital electoral pledges, including the building of a bridge between capital Male and the airport island of Hulhule and the development of the country’s main international airport, also hinges on soft loans being considered by Beijing.

Chinese businesses, mostly state owned corporations, have recently forayed into the Maldives with investments in areas such as the Maldives’ upmarket luxury tourism industry.

The Maldives also held its second investment forum in the Chinese capital in October.

The close relations between the Maldives and China have come at the expense of its ties with neighbours, especially India, which worries that China was flexing its arms in its traditional clout of control.

Despite the recent attempts at improving ties with rival China, the Maldives has embarked on a mission to ramp up its long standing relationship with its closes neighbour, India. The recent thaw saw the visit of India’s top diploma Sushma Swaraj to the Maldives and the restarting of a joint commission after a 15-year hiatus earlier this month.

In Male, Swaraj was told by President Yameen that the Maldives has a policy of "India First”.

Ties between the Maldives and India are on the mend after reaching its lowest point following the premature termination in 2013 of the agreement with Indian infrastructure giant GMR, which had been managing the country’s main international airport since 2011.

In light of the abrupt termination of the GMR agreement, New Delhi took extraordinary measures including the tightening of visa for Maldivian medical tourists and banning the sale of construction aggregate to Maldivian vendors.

The Maldives does not give a rosy outlook for Indian companies that have faced several bureaucratic and political hurdles. Most of the Indian companies doing business in the Maldives had been forced out of the country over the past five years.

The most high-profile such case relates to the subsequent eviction of GMR, which in 2010 won an international bid to manage the Maldives main international airport, by the Maldives government in 2012.

Other Indian companies including Tatva, which had won a contract in 2010 to manage the waste of capital Male, and real estate giant Tata Housing have faced many obstacles, with some leaving the Maldives entirely.

However, the Maldives now appears eager to court back Indian investors.

At talks held during Swaraj’s recent visit to the Maldives, the Maldivian side reiterated its interest in engaging with private investors in India for iHavan and Hulhulmale Youth City projects. Sectors such as tourism, fisheries, education, IT, infrastructure development, energy cooperation including renewable energy, and traditional medicine were also identified for future cooperation.

The visit by India's top diplomat came as the two neighbours prepared to mark 50 years of diplomatic relations.

On November 1, 1965, India established diplomatic relations with the Maldives, becoming the first country to do so following the latter’s independence from Britain in July.

As the two countries officially marked the golden jubilee of relations, a series of year-long activities was organised by the high commission since last November. The activities included a culinary festival, which saw cooking workshops held by visiting top Indian chefs and a master-chef style cooking competition, a Bollywood movie festival, health awareness programmes and a yoga festival.

A cultural evening was also held in September.

In August, the Maldives and India wrapped up the sixth round of a joint annual military training exercise. India also announced the completion of the first phase of a coastal radar system in the Maldives.

However, Modi’s scheduled visit to the Maldives in March was called off due to the increasing political strife in the Maldives at the time.

India, meanwhile, had reassigned its top representative in the Maldives to Denmark.

The Indian external affairs ministry made the surprise announcement in August, but did not give any details. A brief statement only said that Shahare would take up his new post "shortly".

Shahare took office in April 2013 at a time when bilateral relations between the Maldives and India had been severely strained due to the abrupt termination of the contract with GMR.

New Delhi had announced Shahare's replacement.

In a statement, the Indian external affairs ministry said that Akilesh Mishra, who currently serves as the Consul General of India in Toronto had been assigned as the new high commissioner to the Maldives.

India, meanwhile, has publicly sided with the Maldives government over the continued imprisonment of the country’s former president Mohamed Nasheed, an issue central to the Maldives’ relationship with its international partners.

Nasheed’s lawyers are pushing for targeted sanctions on top Maldivian officials.

India, however, opposes such action.



Nepal’s Protesting Minorities Are Close to a Deal With the Government, Leaders Say

January 11, 2016 | Rishi Iyengar | Times

The impasse has created a crisis situation in the landlocked Himalayan country. Representatives of the agitating ethnic minority in Nepal, whose protests on the South Asian nation’s border with India have cut off key supplies for months, said Sunday that a deal with the Nepali government may be “within reach” following a three-week dialogue that seems headed in a “positive direction.”

A joint task force comprising members of the Madhesi community on one side and the country’s three leading political parties on the other have discussed the 11-point agenda put forth by the former over the past week, reports the Nepali Times newspaper.

“We are closer to an agreement,” Deputy Prime Minister Bhim Rawal told the Times.

The government acceded in late December to constitutional amendments that would grant the minority group the right to retain electoral constituencies in their region. In the ensuing weeks, however, the Madhesi leadership launched fresh protests after claiming the government is insincere about the talks.

The Madhesis, who have been protesting for proportional representation while alleging that Nepal’s recently ratified constitution is biased against them, have blocked large parts of the border with India for more than three months. Their protests have resulted in over 50 deaths and led to a shortage of fuel, medicinesand other key supplies, bringing the landlocked Himalayan nation to a virtual standstill as it recovers from last year’s devastating earthquake and grapples with its customarily brutal winter. Further clashes at the border have led to several more injuries in the past week.

Nepal accuses its more powerful neighbor of tacitly supporting and even engineering the border blockade, a claim India has consistently denied.

[Nepali Times]

Nepal, Saudi Arabia to sign labour pact soon

January 11, 2016 | Rastriya Samachar Samiti | The Himalayan Times

Nepal is going to hold consultations with Saudi Arabia, one of the top labour destinations for Nepali migrant workers, for a Labour Agreement. A three-member technical team headed by Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE), Ram Kumar Acharya, arrived in the Saudi Arabian Capital Riyadh on Sunday night for the task.

The team is here upon an invitation of the Saudi government.

Ramesh Prasad Khanal, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Govinda Mani Bhurtel, Joint-Secretary of the MoLE are also in the Nepali team which is set to hold discussions with a secretarial team of the Gulf nation’s Ministry of Labour, according to Acting Nepali Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ananda Prasad Sharma.

Issues including the proposed Labor Agreement between Nepal and Saudi Arabia and entry of ordinary labourers and domestic workers among others are likely to be discussed during the consultations.

The technical team comprising representatives of the both countries is also expected to prepare a final draft of the Labour Agreement and determine the day when the agreement will be signed.

Many Nepali migrant workers in Saudi were reported facing various sorts of inconvenience and forms of exploitation including overtime works without due payment, different jobs from those mentioned in their contract papers among others in absence of labourer-friendly laws and the lack of a proper Labour Agreement between the two nations.

Nepal-India ties to touch new heights, says Nepali envoy

January 8, 2016 | Himalayan News Service | The Himalayan Times

Ambassador of Nepal to India Deep Kumar Upadhayay today said Nepal-India relationship will now enter a new phase of ‘correction’ as India had begun to change its view on its relationship with Nepal.

“They have been talking about taking the bilateral relationship to the height it was during Indian Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal,” the Ambassador said at Reporter’s Club.

Refraining from blaming India for the ongoing border blockade, he urged the agitating Madhesi parties to withdraw border-centric protests and seek a solution to their problems through dialogue.

When the parties lift obstructions at border checkpoints, India can double its supplies to Nepal to ease the situation here, said Upadhayay. He also informed that Prime Minister KP Oli would visit India during the second week of February.

“Preparations are being made for the Prime Minister’s formal visit to India during the second week of February,” he said. “We are working on some new plans and issues for the visit.”

 

Pakistan Is Caught in the Middle of the Conflict Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

January 11, 2016 | Omar Waraich | Times

It has large Sunni and Shi‘ite populations and needs the cooperation of both Riyadh and Tehran. After severing ties with Iran — following the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by protesters angered by the execution of a dissident Shi‘ite Saudi cleric — Saudi Arabia is courting Pakistan’s support in its widening dispute with its long-standing regional rival.

In their first foreign trips this year, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and Defense Minister, traveled to Islamabad last week, within days of each other, meeting civilian leadership but also, crucially, Pakistan’s powerful generals.

Since announcing a 34-country “Islamic military alliance” last November, Saudi Arabia has been seeking the inclusion of the Muslim world’s second most populous country and sole nuclear power. The Pakistanis said they were initially surprised to learn of the coalition, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman reluctantly acknowledged Islamabad’s membership.

A senior Pakistani official also told TIME, “We are part of the coalition, but we will only be acting in our national interest.”

Following meetings with Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday, the Pakistan army issued a statement asserting “that any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity would evoke a strong response from Pakistan.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif struck a more conciliatory tone, suggesting that Islamabad was willing to play the role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pakistan, which is thought to be home to both the world’s second largest Sunni and Shi‘ite populations, fears inviting the Middle East’s sectarianism to South Asia.

Last month, a terrorist cell of Iraq-trained ISIS members was discovered in the major industrial town of Sialkot. Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been recruiting Pakistani Shi‘ites to join its fight against ISIS in Syria.

Following the Jan. 2 execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the dissident Saudi Shi‘ite cleric, one of the largest Shi‘ite demonstrations anywhere took place in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.

These developments add to a plethora of security troubles Pakistan already has to deal with, including a domestic sectarian insurgency that has taken the lives of thousands of Pakistani Shi‘ites across all four of the country’s provinces over recent years.

Following outrage at the December 2014 massacre of over 100 children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan has intensified its fight against militants at home, though human-rights groups criticize it for too eagerly favoring military courts, extrajudicial assassinations and executions, including those of prisoners who were convicted as juveniles.

The renewed campaign against militants has yielded results, however, with 2015 seeing a 48% fall in the number of terrorist attacks, year on year, according to the respected Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. The same report, however, noted that there had been a 7% rise in the number of sectarian attacks.

For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan holds obvious appeal. It is a Sunni-majority country that can act as a nuclear-armed counterweight immediately to Iran’s east. Pakistan has a long history of dispatching its soldiers to protect the desert kingdom, garrisoning thousands of troops there in the 1980s and during the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War.

The two countries also collaborated closely during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia has fitfully bailed out Pakistan’s constantly troubled economy. In 2013, it proffered a “gift” of $1.5 billion to ease Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis, a gesture the Saudis hoped would be repaid down the line. Saudi Arabia is also a vital source of remittances, with 1.5 million Pakistanis working in the kingdom.

But last April, Pakistan’s Parliament unanimously voted to decline a Saudi request to participate in its coalition fighting in Yemen against the allegedly Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. At the time, the Pakistanis said they were overstretched at home and unwilling to pick sides between a “brotherly” Saudi Arabia and a “neighborly” Iran.

That rebuff strained relations for the first time between the two countries. The Saudis’ anxieties about Iran’s nuclear ambitions had been partially offset by the knowledge that Pakistan, hitherto a close ally, boasted a growing stockpile of its own nuclear weapons.

Last November, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, traveled to Saudi Arabia to soothe frayed nerves. He left with an agreement that Pakistan would remain committed to protecting the “two holy cities of Mecca and Medina” and “the territorial integrity” of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Pakistan hopes to limit its commitment to those narrowly defined terms.

Pakistan’s relations with Iran have been fraught since the 1979 Islamic revolution swept Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and Tehran drifted closer to New Delhi. In recent years, however, Pakistan has been trying to relieve its regional isolation by improving ties with Iran, looking to import 3,000MW of electricity across the border the two countries share to ease Pakistan’s crippling energy crisis. Last April, the Chinese government agreed to fund a gas pipeline between the two countries.

At the moment, with oil prices at a low, Iran is more important to Pakistan’s energy needs than Saudi Arabia. And when it comes to ending the war in Afghanistan, where Pakistan hopes to use its contacts with the Afghan Taliban to broker a political settlement, it wants the cooperation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Walking the tightrope between the Middle East’s two big rivals will prove a difficult balancing act.

Pakistan reiterates support to India on Pathankot incident

January 9, 2016 | Dawn

A high-level meeting on Friday, presided over by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attended by General Raheel Sharif, reviewed the regional situation and reiterated Pakistan's commitment to cooperate with India on Pathankot incident. The country’s top civil and military leadership re-affirmed Pakistan’s strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, Radio Pakistan reported.

It reviewed the progress made on the information provided by India. Furthermore, it was decided to remain in touch with the Indian government in this regard.

During the meeting, it was reaffirmed that Pakistan is committed to eradicate the menace of terrorism from the region.

The participants of the meeting made it clear that the people of Pakistan have evolved a political consensus for action against all terrorists and terrorist organisations without any distinction.

“They have resolved that no terrorist would be allowed to use Pakistan’s soil for committing terrorism anywhere in the world,” said a statement issued by PM House.

The meeting expressed the confidence that building on the goodwill generated by the recent high level contacts, the two countries would remain committed to a sustained, meaningful and comprehensive dialogue process.

India on Thursday said it is awaiting Pakistan’s response on the information provided related to the Pathankot incident, following which it will decide on the resumption of bilateral peace talks scheduled for later this month.

India's foreign ministry said Islamabad has been given actionable intelligence that those who planned the assault came from Pakistan.

Seven Indian security men and four suspected gunmen were killed during an assault, on Indian air base near the Pakistan border, which threatened to undermine the two countries' fragile peace process.

Revealed: Why Sri Lanka Backed Off the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder

January 11, 2106 | Ankit Panda | The Diplomat

As Benjamin Baker wrote last week in The Diplomat, the JF-17 Thunder, a low-cost multi-role fighter built collaboratively by China and Pakistan, has run into some problems on the global fighter market. Recently, every time it appears to have locked down a buyer, problem crop up. Malaysia became the latest supposed buyer of the JF-17 to come out publicly and say that there was no finalized deal. Despite being competitively priced, the JF-17 has proved to be a tough sell for Pakistan Aeronautical Complex and China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, the joint manufacturers of the fighter.

The case of Sri Lanka is the latest curious case of a prospective JF-17 buyer backing down. As Franz-Stefan Gady reported recently, Colombo was expected to sign a multi-million dollar deal to purchas 8 to 12 units of the JF-17 during Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s state visit there last week. Despite a range of announced deals, a JF-17 purchase was not announced during Sharif’s time in Colombo.

Shortly after Sharif’s visit, Sri Lanka’s minister of defense, Karunasena Hettiarachchi, denied that the JF-17 was even discussed. “The matter did not even come up for discussion during the talks [with the Pakistani government],” he said, according to The Colombo Gazette. He added that “if there arises a requirement for Sri Lanka to procure aircraft of this nature, in keeping with the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka to maintain transparency, expressions of interest will be called for, from all concerned.”

However, mere days after the deal was reported, sources claimed that the deal had been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation of the deal is revealing of current diplomatic dynamics in South Asia. According to TheIndian Express, the Sri Lankan government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, canceled its plans to purchase the JF-17s after a “diplomatic missive” from New Delhi suggesting that Colombo should refrain from adding these aircraft to its fleet.

The report adds that New Delhi included a negative technical assessment of the JF-17 and “pointed out that [Sri Lanka's] defense requirements did not need fighters.” According to the report, the Indian government delivered a “non-paper”–described as a “white sheet of paper without a letterhead of signature”–to the Sri Lankan government weeks ahead of Sharif’s planned visit.

If true, Sri Lanka’s decision to hold back on the purchase of JF-17 fighters demonstrates that the Sirisena-led government in Colombo is far more deferential to Indian interests than its predecessor was. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former Sri Lankan president, the country tilted considerably toward China. After his surprise election victory last January, Sirisena signaled an intent to balance  Sri Lanka’s foreign policy by visiting New Delhi before Beijing.

It doesn’t appear that India is planning on offering Sri Lanka a substitute for the JF-17. New Delhi’s suggestion that Sri Lanka does not require multi-role fighters for its defense needs suggests that it does not plan to do so in the future. (The closest Indian analog, in terms of cost-per-unit, is the HAL Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, but its feature-set is very different from what the JF-17 offers.)

Sri Lanka’s historic opportunity

January 11, 2016 | The Hindu

It is a moment of great hope and some fear in Sri Lanka. As it takes the first step towards drafting a new Constitution, there is renewed hope that the island nation will be able to reinvent itself as a modern state, one that brings economic prosperity and national unity. At the same time, it is also difficult to ignore the fear that yet another opportunity presented by history may fail owing to political opposition, ethnic extremism and an entrenched, if not systemic, resistance to change. President Maithripala Sirisena’s address to Parliament on the occasion of the tabling of a motion to create a Constitutional Assembly was bold in its invocation of past failures. His candid reference to the failure to implement past agreements as the origin of the protracted civil war showed deep understanding of his country’s situation. Laced with justified apprehensions about the likely impediments, Mr. Sirisena has warned his countrymen against attempts to raise the bogey of external pressure and an alleged threat to the special status of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He is aware of the presence of extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide. He has asserted that a constitutional solution will be indigenous. The process of constituting the entire membership of the current Parliament as a Constitutional Assembly has begun. A steering committee will be tasked with drafting a new Constitution while inputs from outside the parliamentary structure will be in the form of a ‘Public Representation Commission’.

For those familiar with the peace and reform processes of the last quarter century, it may appear that all talk of national unity and a non-discriminatory system is not new. It is a measure of how much the events of the recent years had turned the clock back on the discourse to resolve the national question that each time an incumbent President or Prime Minister spells out a new vision, it is accompanied by new hopes and fears. The broad contours of an alternative constitutional framework are known. To many, it lies in abolishing the executive presidency and reforming the electoral system. In recent years, promoting good governance by strengthening democratic institutions, a comprehensive rights regime and substantive power-sharing arrangements involving all ethnic minorities have been understood to be necessary elements. The path is clear, and the pitfalls are known. The process may be long and the effort to secure a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, followed by a similar special majority in Parliament and approval in a referendum, will require political will and hard work. The emergence of a new order since 2015 under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe provides a setting conducive for positive change, after the first few years in the post-conflict phase were lost in triumphalist and nationalistic rhetoric. It is a historic opportunity for all stake-holders, including Tamils, Muslims and plantation Tamils, to participate in the process. It is time all sides left their nationalist rhetoric of the past behind.