Just 16% water in Marathwada dams

With Maharashtra battling a severe drought, water levels in the dams have plunged to 45% of capacity — 19% lower compared to last year, when it was 64%.

In Marathwada, which is worst affected by the drought, water levels fallen by 41% compared to last year. The water level in Marathwada’s dams which was at 57% last year has fallen to 16% now. The water level in north Maharashtra's dams is down by 27% compared to last year, while it’s down by 21% in western Maharashtra.

Indeed, several dams in Marathwada have run dry. This includes the Majalgaon and Manjara dams in Beed district and the Siddheshwar dam in Hingoli besides the Sina Kolegaon dam in Osmanabad.

The state has deployed 1,379 water tankers. This is ten times the number of tankers deployed at the beginning of the year. As many as 793 of them — almost 58% — are in Marathwada region. The Aurangabad district received 497 tankers, the highest for a single district.

Water experts say the severe drought has exposed the government’s claims that its flagship water conservation scheme, Jalyukta Shivar, would protect the state from drought.

The state had reported a rain deficit with 77% of normal rain between June and September. The state has declared a drought in 151 of its 368 talukas and 268 revenue circles. In 112 talukas, it has reported a severe drought. As many as 82 lakh farmers have been affected. The state has asked the Centre for drought relief worth Rs.7,962 crore.

Mrinal Sen (May 14, 1923-December 30, 2018)

The legendary Mrinal Sen passed away at his South Kolkata residence following cardiac arrest. The 95-year-old filmmaker is survived by his son, Kunal. His actress-wife, Gita Sen, passed away in January last year.

As the third pillar of the triumvirate that included Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Sen narrated contemporary realities of life through his films and was one of the pioneers of the Indian new wave cinema.

Winner of innumerable national and international awards, Sen won the highest film honour, Dadasaheb Phalke award, in 2005. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 1983.

Sen won five National Awards, for Akaler Sandhane, Chorus, Parashuram, Kharij and Khandahar, and one National Award for his Telegu film, Oka Oori Katha (1977).

The auteur made his first film Raat Bhore in 1955, with Uttam Kumar, and gained international recognition in 1960, with Baishey Shravan. Mrigaya (1976), which portrayed the plight of tribals in rural India, marked the debut of Mithun Chakrabarty. His 1986 directorial Genesis, featuring Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, also told a story of slavery and freedom. His last directorial was Amar Bhuvan in 2002.

Born in Bangladesh’s (erstwhile Bengal) Faridpur in 1923 on May 14, Sen had arrived in Kolkata to study Physics at Scottish Church College and Calcutta University. After completing his education, he was forced to take up a job as a medical representative but he eventually returned to Kolkata to work as an audio technician at a city film studio.

Petrol falls to lowest price in 2018

Providing much cheer to citizens, the price of petrol fell below the Rs.75-mark in Mumbai over the weekend. At Rs.74.67 a litre, it is now at its lowest level in 2018. The price of diesel too fell from Rs.66.57 a litre on Friday to Rs.66.25 on Saturday, and Rs.66.01 on Sunday. Prices are likely to dip further, with international crude oil prices dropping significantly, sources in the oil industry said.


FSI for Mumbai seafront now same as rest of city

The new development norms approved by the Centre for coastal zones have erased the distinction between construction rules for Mumbai’s waterfront and inland areas.

The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2018 has done away with restrictions on the FSI — ratio of developed space to area of plot — for the stretches that are considered part of the coastal regulation zone. From 1.33 in the island city and 1 in the suburbs, it has been brought on a par with the FSI for the rest of the city— that is, up to 3 in the island city and 2.5 in the suburbs. Most of Mumbai’s CRZ area falls under CRZ-II.

The relaxation is expected to impact redevelopment which hinges on the sale component (surplus housing units after accounting for those meant for owners or tenants) for its viability. Besides buildings along the seafront, slum rehabilitation projects as well as gaothans and fishermen’s koliwadas may prove to be lucrative hunting grounds for developers.

But projects would still have to be cleared by the state’s coastal zone management authority, which will consider their impact on the existing infrastructure and ecology.

The move has been cheered by the construction sector.

Other experts on CRZ, though, said one needs to wait for the final notification.


India’s $40bn FDI pips China’s $33bn: 2018

For the first time in years, annual FDI into India has been more than that in China in 2018.

Riding on mega deals by Walmart’s buyout of homegrown online retail market place Flipkart, along with acquisitions by Unilever and Schneider Electric, the year that will end soon has recorded inbound M&A deals worth $39.5 billion in India, compared to $33 billion in China, data from Dealogic showed. Interestingly, in 2017, China’s inbound M&A deals aggregated at $32.5 billion, which was almost 80% more than India’s $18.6 billion.

For India, relatively stable economic fundamentals with low inflation rate, strict management of fiscal deficits and introduction of a bankruptcy code boosted the country as an investment destination among global investors. On the other hand, for China, the ensuing trade war with the US is keeping foreign investors on the back foot, market players said.

Going into 2019, foreign investors feel India will still remain an attractive investment destination. Foreign broking major Credit Suisse said its analysts preferred investments as a theme over consumption.

Pocso amendments

The Union Cabinet okayed amendments to add teeth to the 2012 Pocso Act and included death penalty for aggravated sexual assault on children. The Act defines child as any person below the age of 18 years Aggravated penetrative sexual assaults as of now invite a punishment of not less than 10 years that may extend to life along with fine. The enhanced punishment will also apply to any police officer who commits penetrative sexual assault on a child in police station premises, in the course of his duty or otherwise.

According to the law, members of the armed forces, security forces, public servants, and management and staff of jails, remand homes and protection homes guilty of such crimes will be up for the enhanced punishment.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the amendments are required to “deter the rising trend of child sex abuse in the country”.

On why natural calamity situations have been included, the government has argued that children are often the worst affected by disasters.To check sexual exploitation, administration of hormones to a child to induce sexual maturity to enable sexual activity has been included in the separate “aggravated sexual assault category” which will invite a jail term of up to three years and fine. Possession and circulation of pornographic material involving a child for commericial purpose will invite not less than three years in jail, that may extend to five and can go up to seven years if convicted the second time.

Centre approves new norms for development in coastal zones

The Centre has approved new norms to regulate development activities in coastal zones along India’s over 7,500-km of coastline, decentralising Coastal Regulation Zone clearance procedures, de-freezing ‘floor area ratio’ for construction projects and allowing temporary tourism infrastructure for basic amenities in beaches and in rural coastal areas.

Besides, a ‘No Development Zone’of 20 metres from High Tide Line is earmarked for all islands close to the main land coast and for all backwater islands in the main land under the new norms — the CRZ Notification, 2018 — which got Cabinet’s approval on Thursday.

Under new norms, coastal zones along rural areas will be bifurcated, based on population density, to regulate development activities. These changes will promote eco-tourism activities in identified stretches subject to permissions, and address livelihood concerns of fishing and certain other local communities in rural coastal zones.

“It won’t only result in significant employment generation but also lead to better life and add value to the economy. The new notification is expected to rejuvenate the coastal areas while reducing their vulnerabilities,” said environment ministry on Friday.

Permitted tourism infrastructure include temporary constructions such as shacks, toilet blocks, change rooms and drinking water among others on beaches and even in NDZ of the CRZ-III (rural) areas. However, a minimum distance of 10 metres from HTL will have to be maintained for setting up such facilities.

The ministry said, “The new notification will boost tourism in terms of more activities, more infrastructure and more opportunities and will certainly go a long way in creating job opportunities in tourism. This will also give boost to people, desirous of seeing and enjoying the beauty of the mighty seas.”

Though the Centre claimed the move will lead to enhanced activities in the coastal regions thereby creating “additional opportunities for affordable housing” and promoting economic growth while also respecting the conservation principles of coastal regions, environmentalists said that the new CRZ norms will just open up fragile inter-tidal areas to real estate agents.

“The coastline is already vulnerable due to erosion, fresh water crisis and loss of livelihoods. The new changes will only increase this vulnerability and promote commercialisation of the coast,” said Kanchi Kohli, environment campaigner and researcher with the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

However, the relaxations under the CRZ Notification, 2018, will come into force only after the states revise or update their respective Coastal Zone Management Programmes under the new norms. Currently, activities in coastal zones are regulated by the CRZ notification of 2011.


Giving a boost to India’s maiden human spaceflight programme, the Union cabinet has approved Rs.10,000 crore for the Gaganyaan project. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had fixed a 2022 deadline for the project during his Independence Day speech, earlier this year. “We will send a three-member crew to space for seven days. It will be in collaboration with industry, academia, scientific agencies, labs and stakeholders, along with Isro. We will try to launch the first test flight demonstration within 40 months after the budget approval,” law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

The manned mission will help India become the fourth nation after Russia, US and China to send humans to space. “Isro has taken up the challenge and we will meet the PM’s 2022 deadline,” Isro chairman K Sivan said.

We have been (informally) working on the project for the past four months. I have set up a team to work on the design for the mission. This work will be over by January,” the Isro chairman said.

Giving the schedule for test flights before the final mission, the Isro chairman said, “We will launch two unmanned missions before the final mission. The first unmanned test flight will be in December 2020. The second unmanned test will be conducted in July 2021 and finally, the human spaceflight programme will be launched in December 2021.”

On training of astronauts, Sivan said, “With the budget cleared for the mission, we will now work seriously on training schedule of the crew, including foreign training, if needed.”

On crew selection, the chairman had recently said, “The spacesuit is ready. The crew members will be jointly selected by the IAF and Isro after which they will be trained for two-three years. We will send them to a training facility in Bengaluru. We are also consulting Rakesh Sharma (first Indian cosmonaut to go to space in 1984) for the mission.”

Till date, Isro has spent Rs.173 crore in developing critical technologies for the human spaceflight programme. Critical technologies needed for HSP include a crew module, crew escape system and environmental control and life support system. An advanced version of the GSLV-MkIII is designated as the launch vehicle for the mission. On July 5, Isro had carried out a crucial pad abort test when a 12.5-ton crew module was tested to make sure the crew could be rescued safely in case of an accident on the launchpad.

Recently, Sivan, accompanied by minister of state for atomic energy and space Jitendra Singh, had made an elaborate presentation in Delhi on the mission.


Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar metro set for March launch

The Metro-Express Link for Gandhinagar Ahmedabad authorities have confirmed that people would be able to ride the metro by March 2019. Also, according to sources, on January 17, the trial run of the metro rail is going to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The three train coaches have been shipped from South Korea and will arrive at Mundra Port by December 29, 2018.

The other train will be in by January end or the first week of February. After the three coaches reach Ahmedabad, they will be put on different trials for two and a half months.

MEGA has constructed a special track for the trials. 

NIA Cracks Down on ISIS-inspired Module

In a crackdown on an ISIS-inspired module, called Harkat-ul-Harb-e-Islam, the National Investigation Agency arrested ten persons and claimed to have foiled attempts to carry out a series of blasts in and around the national capital.

NIA Inspector General of Police Alok Mittal told media persons that Mufti Mohammad Suhail, who was working as a ‘mufti’ in a madrasa on Hakim Mahtab Uddin Hashmi Road of Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, was the mastermind of the module. Of the ten rounded up, Saqib Iftekar had helped Suhail procure weapons, said Mittal. Iftekar, a resident of Simbhaoli in Hapur district of UP, was ‘imam’ at the Jama Masjid in Baksar, UP.

Suhail and his associates had mobilised funds and procured weapons, ammunition and explosive material to prepare improvised explosive devices and bombs, according to the agency.

Their plan was to carry out explosions and fidayeen attacks at places of importance and ones that are crowded in and around Delhi, the NIA alleged.

The agency said that the module was at an advanced stage of bomb making as sleuths during raids at 17 places – six at Jaffrabad in Seelampur of East Delhi and rest in Lucknow, Amroha, Hapur and Meerut districts of UP – seized 25 kg of explosives, a country-made rocket launcher, 12 pistols and 112 clocks to work as timers.

Other than that, 150 rounds of live ammunition, mobile phone circuits, batteries, 51 pipes, remote control car triggering switch, wireless digital doorbell for remote switch, steel containers, electric wires, 91 mobile phones, 134 SIM cards, three laptops, knife, sword, ISIS-related literature and cash of about ₹7.5 lakh were recovered.

Two members of the module, Anas Yunus and Zubair Malik, are college students while two more and their brothers were arrested for allegedly aiding and abetting terrorism, according to the NIA.

The agency said that two brothers, Saeed Ahmad and Raees Ahmad, had procured about 25 kg of explosive material/gunpowder for preparing IEDs and pipe bombs and were instrumental in fabricating a rocket launcher to carry out terrorist attacks. The second pair of brothers – Zaid Malik and Zubair Malik – were allegedly part of the terror conspiracy and instrumental in procuring batteries, connectors and SIM cards on fake documents, it said.

The NIA had carried out searches after registering a case against Suhail and others under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, Explosive Substances Act and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Changes in FDI e-comm policy

In a major jolt to Walmart’s $16-billion acquisition of Flipkart and Amazon’s $5-billion bet on India, the government announced changes to the foreign direct investment policy for the e-commerce sector that could trigger a shakeup in the way leading platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart conduct business in the country. The move should mollify brick-and-mortar retailers, which have had a longstanding grievance against e-commerce sites for offering discounts to win over customers.

A new rule inserted in the policy bars any entity related to e-commerce platforms from selling on that site and imposes a limit on how much one vendor can sell on a particular portal. The policy also prohibits e-commerce platforms from giving any preferential treatment to any supplier.

Cashbacks, exclusive sales, brand launches, preferential services or programmes such as Amazon Prime and Flipkart Plus could run into difficulties under the new dispensation that seeks to ensure that these platforms are truly impartial marketplaces. Entities such as Cloudtail, in which Amazon has a stake, will likely not be able to sell on the platform. Flipkart’s new owner Walmart may itself not be able to sell on the website.

The new framework will come into force on February 1, 2019, said the Press Note issued by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion detailing the changes on Wednesday. The government is also working on a separate e-commerce policy for which inter-ministerial consultations have started.

Brick-and-mortar businesses are set to be big gainers from the changes.

Traders have complained that e-commerce entities were distorting the market by sourcing and selling goods on their own platforms, violating the policy that disallows foreign direct investment in business-to-consumer e-commerce. It allows 100% FDI in business-to-business e-commerce.

“An entity having equity participation by e-commerce marketplace entity or its group companies, or having control on its inventory by e-commerce marketplace entity or its group companies, will not be permitted to sell its products on the platform run by such marketplace entity,” said one of the new clauses. This effectively prohibits any entity related directly or indirectly from selling on a platform.

“With the new norms, Cloudtail can’t sell on Amazon. It can’t be given favourable terms for warehousing or logistics,” said an expert on investment issues, requesting anonymity. Amazon India’s largest seller, Cloudtail, is a JV between NR Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures and Amazon. Another addition to the policy tightens inventory-based provisions. “Inventory of a vendor will be deemed to be controlled by e-commerce marketplace entity if more than 25% of purchases of such vendor are from the marketplace entity or its group companies,” it said.

This will prevent any brand or supplier aligning exclusively with one marketplace, as is usually the case with mobiles or white goods.

The third major change in the policy said that e-commerce marketplaces or entities in which they have direct or indirect equity participation or shared control have to provide services to vendors on the platform at arm’s length and in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. This could put to an end selective promotional schemes such as cashbacks or faster delivery, which will be deemed unfair and discriminatory under the new policy.

“Such services will include but not (be) limited to fulfilment, logistics, warehousing, advertisement/marketing, payments, financing, etc. Cashback provided by group companies of marketplace entity to buyers shall be fair and non-discriminatory,” it said.

“If there is a logistics company within the parent company, it cannot operate free of cost,” said an expert. “It will have to be treated in the same way as others.”

Snapdeal CEO Kunal Bahl welcomed the move. “The update to the FDI policy on e-commerce will ensure balanced growth of India’s e-commerce industry, creating lasting gains for both sellers and buyers. FDI in marketplaces is meant to enable growth of India’s MSMEs and these changes will help create a level playing field for all sellers.”

Train 18

Train 18, an indigenously developed semi-high speed train, has officially became the first train in India to cruise at a sustained speed of 180 km per hour making it the fastest train in the country, railway minister Piyush Goyal announced through a tweet.

The chief commissioner of railway safety has given the go ahead for the train to run at a maximum speed of 160 kmph with certain conditions paving the way for its commercial operation. The conditions include providing “sturdy fencing” all along the track to avoid any mishap.

The CCRS in its communication to the railway board has said, “Railway shall ensure provision of sturdy fencing at vulnerable location on need basis for operation up to 130 kmph. For speed beyond 130 kph and upto 160 kmph, provision of sturdy fencing all along the track shall be ensured.” It has laid down 21 conditions that the railways must comply with to run at maximum speed of up to 160 kmph.

The clearance from CCRS is a pre-requisite for any train with new technology to start service. Railway ministry sources said the train speed can also go up where the track codition is superior. Tweeting a video clip of the train, Goyal said, “Need for Speed: Train 18 seen cruising at a sustained 180Km/h, officially becoming the fastest train in India.”

The first such train manufactured in India at a cost of approximately Rs.100 crore is scheduled to ply between Delhi and Varanasi via Allahabad. PM Narendra Modi will flag off the train and the date of starting the service has not yet been decided.

The CCRS has put the conditions while giving go ahead for the train operation after it recently carried out inspection of the new 16-coach train during speed trial between Safdarjung railway station and Agra. The train is fully air-conditioned and has modern amenities to make the travel comfortable and safe. The train can accommodate 1,128 passengers.

It has new features such as automatic doors with sliding footsteps, fully sealed gangways and disabled-friendly toilets and spaces.


India's top selling cars

Indian car buyers are upgrading, and Maruti’s Alto — the country’s largest selling hatchback — is no more the Number 1 seller. Bigger sibling Dzire has emerged as the top-seller in April-November 2018, riding on growing aspirations of Indians for a car-with-the boot and a new design.

While Alto sold 1.69 lakh units in first eight months of the current financial year, Dzire surged ahead with 1.82 lakh units. For Alto, numbers declined by 4%, but higher-priced Dzire saw volumes go up by 19%.

The change indicates desire of Indians for a better status symbol, say market watchers. It also shows growing fatigue that has set in for Alto, one of the most-prominent cars after (now phased out) Maruti 800. While Dzire has been upgraded, a fresh version of Alto is in the works and may see a new life only next year.

More features in relatively bigger vehicles, and their growing affordability, are attracting a lot of buyers.

Maruti will not be very worried at the outcome as its models command a major share in the top-selling passenger vehicle segment in the country. Other models to break into the fat-volume brigade are from Hyundai (not in the top 5), though the gap between rivals is large.

Hyundai’s premium hatchback Elite i20 sold 92,817 units in April-November to be the seventh best-selling passenger vehicle model. It was in the eighth position in the year-ago period, clocking 89,988 units.

WagonR, yet another model from Maruti, is in the sixth position with 1.07 lakh units, down from fifth last year when it registered sales of 1.14 lakh units.

Hyundai’s compact car Grand i10 is at the eight position this year, posting sales of 88,016 units, down from sixth position in the same period last year when it clocked 1.03 lakh units. Hyundai’s SUV Creta sold 84,701 units, retaining the ninth spot. It had sold 71,808 units in the year-ago period.

Completing the top-10 best-selling passenger vehicle model is Maruti’s compact car Celerio with 70,079 units. It was at the same rank in the year-ago period with 66,682 units.

Somewhere in Assam....

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the country’s longest rail-cum-road bridge in Bogibeel over the Brahmaputra river in Assam. The PM arrived at the Mohanbari Airport near Dibruharh and headed to Bogibeel in a helicopter.

Inaugurating the bridge that connects Dhemaji and Dibrugarh, Modi and his cavalcade took a ride, stopping in the middle and waving at thousands of people waiting on both sides. Terming the bridge as a lifeline for the people of Assam and northeast India, the PM said, “The dedication of the historic Bogibeel rail-cum-road bridge is a symbol of good governance.” The bridge will reduce the distance between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.


Bollywood 2018

Ram Sethu on railway map

The government has approved laying a new broad gauge railway line connecting Rameshwaram with Dhanushkodi, which is believed to be the starting point of Ram Sethu and a major pilgrim destination. The 17-km line will cost around Rs.208 crore and it has been included in the umbrella work for new lines in the current financial year.

Dhanushkodi railway station was destroyed and abandoned after the 1964 Rameshwaram cyclone and it remains unattended. The station’s destruction had left the popular tourist destination as a ghost town. The new railway line will be a boon to pilgrims visiting the place. Hindu pilgrimage at Rameshwaram gets completed only after taking a dip in Dhanushkodi. The railway line may also push the plan for restoration of a rail-cum-sea route to Sri Lanka, sources said. They added that lawmakers had been demanding early restoration of rail connectivity.

The railways has also approved building a new bridge on Pamban channel, which will replace the 104-year-old structure over the sea. The vertical-lift bridge, to be built alongside the existing bridge at Rs.249 crore, will have the first vertical lift span in India. The old bridge was closed for traffic earlier this month.

A vertical-lift bridge or lift bridge is a type of movable bridge in which a span rises vertically while remaining parallel with the deck. So when there is high tide or a ship has to pass through, the span will be lifted up and this will be an automatic electric operated one.

FM says 12% & 18% GST rates will be merged

Finance minister Arun Jaitley said the Centre and states were close to completing the first stage of GST rationalisation by removing most items from the 28% slab with a convergence of the 12% and 18% brackets being the next step in the process.

He said the next priority was to lower the levy on cement from 28% to 18% and added that “the sun is setting on the 28% slab”. Although the minister, who heads the GST Council, did not elaborate on what the converged “standard rate” would be, he said it could be some mid-point between the two.

For long, tax practitioners and economists have suggested a 15% rate but it may still be months away with Jaitley saying it would take a reasonable time “when taxes rise significantly”.

A committee under former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian had suggested a revenue neutral rate of 15-15.5% but then went on to recommend that there should be two standard rates of 17-18% for most goods and services and 12% for items consumed by the poor. The GST Council went by this recommendation while deciding the slabs.

Once a decision is taken, officers will have to make a tough choice of finalising the rate as there will be a lot of heartburn for goods and services where the levy will be increased from the current 12%.

But it will result in three rates of zero, 5% and a standard rate with the top slab covering luxury and sin products. Several luxury and sin goods, such as tobacco products, pan masala, soft drinks, cars and SUVs also face a compensation cess, resulting in a higher levy.

The statement of intent came in a blog amid the opposition’s demand for an overhaul of the 18-month-old indirect tax mechanism amid accusations of a “flawed” GST regime. Jaitley hit back at “illinformed and motivated criticism” from the opposition, led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. “Those who oppressed India with a 31% indirect tax and consistently belittled GST must seriously introspect. Irresponsible politics and irresponsible economics is only a race to the bottom,” he said.

Jaitley also pointed out how the GST Council had been a successful experiment where the Centre and states came together. “The political noise outside is inconsistent with the harmony inside the council,” the minister said.

While listing out the gains that included lower rates, convergence of 17 levies and multiple taxes and cesses into one and an end to border checkposts, Jaitley said, “Lower rate of taxes, increased tax base, higher collections, easy for trade and least interface in assessments with a significant part of the tax rationalisation over, the growth percentage in the years to come will increase. The transformation has been done over a period of 18 months. Any abrupt transformation could have been either detrimental to revenue or to trade,” the finance minister said.

The minister said that despite the stiff ask of an annual 14% increase in collections, which was guaranteed by the Centre, six states had achieved the target, while another seven were within striking distance of achieving it. “The requirement of compensation cess in the second year is expected to be much lower than the first year. This increase in the tax collection has to be factored keeping in mind the significant rate reduction which has taken place in the GST,” he said, adding that the revenue forgone was to the tune of Rs.80,000 crore through GST rate cuts.


N-capable Agni-IV missile successfully test fired

India test fired the nuclear capable Agni-IV ballistic missile, with a strike range of 4,000 km, as part of a “user trial in operational configuration” by the Strategic Forces Command.

The test comes soon after the country’s most ambitious missile, the over 5,000-km range Agni-V, underwent its second preinduction trial in a canisterised version on December 10. The first pre-induction trial of this intercontinental ballistic missile, which brings the whole of China as well as parts of Europe and Africa under its strike range, took place in January after four developmental trials since April 2012.

The Agni-IV, which has suffered some glitches in the past, was tested for the seventh time on Sunday. The tri-Service SFC already has Prithvi-II (350 km), Agni-I (700 km), Agni-II (2,000 km) and Agni-III (3,000 km) missile units. DRDO officials described the surface-to-surface Agni-IV missile test as “a complete success, which met all mission objectives”. All radars, tracking systems and range stations tracked and monitored the flight performance of the missile, which was launched with support of a mobile launcher.


GST rate slashed on 23 items

Cinema tickets, third party motor insurance, smaller TV sets, power banks, flights for Haj and Mansarovar yatra and branded frozen vegetables will get cheaper with the GST council slashing rates on 23 items. There are indications that rates will be pared for more items — including under-construction flats when the panel comprising Union and state finance ministers meets in January.

With the latest round of cuts, effective January 1, the government has reduced rates on nearly 360 items since GST was introduced almost 18 months ago.

There are indications that in the next meeting a simpler set of rules will be put in place for small-scale and medium-scale industries and small service providers.


Somewhere in Jalgaon....

If you thought saffron can be grown only in Kashmir, think again. A few farmers in Jalgaon are trying their hand at cultivating saffron to reap profit amid growing agrarian distress.

The variety they are cultivating is known as the American Saffron or Red Gold, which grows in slightly warmer climates than the popular version grown in Kashmir.

Under the guidance of agriculture experts, a few farmers from Jalgaon first tried their hand at cultivating saffron in January this year. With the winter chill now setting in, they are gearing up for their second season of saffron cultivation.

Jayesh Chopade, who is a mechanical engineer, worked with a team of experts to help his uncle Prakash cultivate saffron in the dry climate of Jalgaon last year. They spent Rs.30,000 on the seeds, while Rs.20,000 were spent on purchasing mulching paper. “The crop required 10-12 litres of water every alternate day. It turned out to be quite economical as compared to the other crops we grow such as cotton and banana,” said Jayesh.

They sowed saffron over a 10 guntha land in January last year. Planted with a spacing of 1.75 feet, 950 plants were grown. Each plant yielded 5 to 10 gram of saffron. At the end of the four-month season, they had around 4.75 kilograms of the expensive spice in their hands.

Priced at a princely sum of Rs.100 for each gram, Chopade went to the bank with Rs.4.5 lakh in his kitty from the saffron sales. “It was good profit, much better than the other crops. Plus, the technique needed to cultivate the crop is not very difficult,” he said.

Amar Pathak, technical director of a private firm that is helping the farmers, feels that innovation in farming and use of affordable technology is the need of the hour. “The key is to maintain temperature between 25 and 28 degrees celsius for the saffron crop to grow. In addition, the moisture content of the soil must be between 30% and 40% and the pH value of the soil should be from 4.5 to 6,” Pathak said.

In order to maintain the temperature and moisture, it is suggested that garden sprinklers be installed from top to bottom like on a grape crop. “Either a technical instrument or the regular clinical thermometer can be used to monitor the temperature,” Pathak said.

For measuring moisture content, there are specific instruments but in its absence, the ground can be dug 15 cm deep and he wetness can be felt to ensure that required moisture is maintained. The soil’s pH level is maintained through the use of particular types of fertilizer.

Along with Chopade, Paresh Patil from Muktainagar village in Jalgaon, also cultivated saffron on his land. “We got good results, but since the food value of American Saffron is not defined, we faced problems in marketing the produce. We have requested the government to give the saffron certificate so that it can get good market value,” Patil said.

Such certification can help the farmers get a even higher price for the saffron they grow.

Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop snippets

In the next six months, the blueprint of a futuristic transportation system known as ‘Hyperloop’ between Mumbai and Pune will be ready in the form of a detailed project report only after which its accurate travel fare and daily ridership will be ascertained, however, the test run for hyperloop will start only after the project construction is awarded to any one particular company, said Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority officials who are handling the project.

The PMRDA is working with Virgin Hyperloop One that has prepared a pre-feasibility report for hyperloop connectivity between Mumbai and Pune. Hyperloop is said to be a futuristic mode of mass transit system wherein a tube-like pod is expected to allow one travel between Mumbai and Pune in 25 minutes. The route of hyperloop is proposed to start from Pune via Expressway, and will come all the way till BKC via proposed Navi Mumbai Airport near Panvel where government plans it to connect with Colaba-Seepz Metro-3 underground corridor and the DN Nagar- Mankhurd Metro-2B corridor, and also the bullet train terminal, if possible.

MHA order sparks row

An order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs authorising 10 security agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt data contained in any computer system triggered a major controversy with the opposition voicing fears that the country is being turned into a “surveillance state” and the Narendra Modi government claiming that the rule has been in place since UPA era.

As per the order, the cyber and information security division of the MHA under Rajiv Gauba has empowered 10 agencies — Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, the Central Board of Direct Taxes, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency, Cabinet Secretariat (R&AW), Directorate of Signal Intelligence (in service areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast and Assam) and Delhi Police — to intercept and analyse data locked in computers under the Information Technology Act.

The notification raised the hackles of the opposition, which created an uproar in the Parliament, saying that it was a brazen assault on the citizens’ fundamental right to privacy and an attempt to create an Orwellian state.

The Rajya Sabha was adjourned because of protests by the opposition leaders even as the MHA came out with a clarification that it had only re-released the existing order to make it clear that the 10 named agencies can alone access computer data while “no new powers have been conferred to any of the security or law enforcement agencies”.

It is to be noted that the MHA order is reminiscent of the social media monitoring exercise that was proposed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting a few months ago. The project was recently shelved by the government following similar protests from the Opposition and the intervention of the Supreme Court.


PM to open Bogibeel bridge

In a bid to enhance connectivity in the North Eastern region, key to the National Democratic Alliance government’s Act East policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Bogibeel rail-and road bridge over the Brahmaputra river in Assam on 25 December.

The 4.94 km bridge is touted as the longest rail-and-road bridge in India and is situated 17 km downstream of Dibrugarh. It will provide connectivity between the rail network of the North and South banks of river Brahmaputra after the Saraighat rail-cumroad bridge at Guwahati.

“The bridge will accelerate socio-economic development of upper Assam and the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh. It has been constructed for a double line broad gauge track and a three lane road; this bridge is aimed at being the lifeline of the North Eastern part of the country and will facilitate connectivity between the North and South banks of Brahmaputra in the Eastern region of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh,” a spokesperson for the Northeast Frontier Railway said.

The bridge will also help in the decongestion of traffic in Guwahati. It will also cut the train travel time from Guwahati to Delhi by around three hours.

The construction of the bridge also assumes strategic importance as it will facilitate the rapid movement of troops along India’s nearly 4,000 km border with China.

The Government of India has given utmost importance to this bridge project by declaring it a national project in 2007, thereby assuring availability of funds for speedy construction.

The Bogibeel bridge project was part of the Assam accord in 1985 and included in the union budget in 1997-98. The foundation stone of the project was laid by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 at Dibrugarh. The estimated sanctioned cost of the project is Rs.5,920 crore and it was to be completed by December.

Underlining his government’s effort to develop the region, union minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari on Thursday inaugurated several road projects worth Rs.9,533 crore in Arunachal Pradesh.

Gadkari laid the foundation for national highway projects at separate events in Roing and Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. He was accompanied by the state chief minister Pema Khandu and union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju.

In Roing, Gadkari also inaugurated bridges across Dibang and Lohit river system, with a total length 30.95 km and cost of Rs.1,508.30 crore — a move that will reduce the distance between Roing and Pasighat by 300 km and six hours.


Niti Aayog Sets Target of 8% Growth over Next Five Years

Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank, has pitched for an average 8% growth over the next five years to lift India to a $4-trillion economy in its 75th year of independence, proposing a strategy for a New India by 2022.

A document unveiled by finance minister Arun Jaitley and Niti Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar detailed 41 key areas, recognising progress made and identifying constraints on the path to achieve these goals. It broke down the 41 sectors into four broad categories: drivers, infrastructure, inclusion and governance.

The strategy for New India @75 envisages gross fixed capital formation, or the investment rate, rising to 36% of GDP by 2022 from the present 29%.

The section on drivers focuses on economic performance and discusses growth and employment, doubling farmers’ incomes, upgrading science, technology and innovation ecosystem and promoting sunrise sectors such as fintech and tourism.

The strategy document comes several months after the Aayog released its three-year action plan and is expected to be followed by a 15-year vision document before general elections next year.

The document called for a shift in agriculture to convert farmers into ‘agripreneurs’ by expanding e-National Agriculture Markets and replacing the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act with Agricultural Produce & Livestock Marketing Act. A unified national market, a freer export regime and abolition of the Essential Commodities Act are essential to boost agricultural growth, it said.

“The strategy document’s focus is to further improve the policy environment in which private investors and other stakeholders can contribute their fullest towards achieving goals set out for New India 2022,” the Aayog said. The document attempts to bring innovation, technology, enterprise and efficient management together at the core of policy formulation and implementation. “It will encourage discussion and debate and invite feedback for further refining our policy approach,” it said.

Niti Aayog consulted over 800 government stakeholders – central, state and district levels – and about 550 external experts over the year before finalising the document last month.

“A strong push would be given to ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ techniques that reduce costs, improve land quality and increase farmers’ incomes,” the document said, outlining what needs to be done in the sector.

These techniques are a tested method for putting environment carbon back into the land and would allow India to significantly contribute to reducing the global carbon footprint.

“To ensure maximum employment creation, complete codification of labour laws is needed and a massive effort must be made to upscale and expand apprenticeships,” it said.

To enhance the competitiveness of Indian business and ensure ease of living for all, it called for the creation of physical infrastructure including expediting the establishment of the Rail Development Authority, doubling the share of freight transported by coastal shipping and inland waterways and eliminating the digital divide.

Under the inclusion category, Niti Aayog urged the government invest in healthcare, education and mainstreaming of traditionally marginalised sections of the population.

On governance, it detailed streamlining structures and optimising processes to get better developmental outcomes.

Some of the key recommendations include the implementation of the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission as a prelude to appointing a successor for designing reforms in the changing context of emerging technologies and growing complexity of the economy.

President’s rule comes into effect in J&K

After completion of six months of governor’s rule in Jammu & Kashmir on Wednesday, the state will come under President’s rule from midnight paving way for the Union Cabinet to take all policy decisions related to the militancy-hit state.

President Ram Nath Kovind signed the proclamation for imposition of central rule in the state, which plunged into a political crisis in June after the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition government was reduced to minority following withdrawal of support by the 25-member BJP in the state.

The gazette notification issued on Wednesday said the President has received a report from governor Satya Pal Malik and after considering it and other information, he was “satisfied” that President’s rule in the state was needed.


With the launch of communication satellite Gsat-7A from Sriharikota, Indian Space Research Organisation has not only provided the Indian Air Force with its own ‘eye in the sky’ but achieved a milestone by launching three satellites in just 35 days.

The two other satellites launched in just over a month were communication satellite Gsat-29 (November 14) and hyperspectral imaging satellite HysiS (November 29).

If India’s heaviest communication satellite Gsat-11 launched from the European spaceport is also taken into account, then the number of satellites launched in just 35 days comes to four, a big achievement for the space agency.

Soon after GSLV-F11 rocket injected Gsat-7A into the geo transfer orbit, Isro chairman K Sivan said, “With today’s launch, we have achieved several milestones. We are successful in launching three missions in just 35 days. Gsat-7A is the third communication satellite to be launched in 35 days. Gsat-7A is also the heaviest satellite lifted off by an indigenously developed cryogenic stage. An advanced Gregorian antenna has been used this time that will improve the performance of the satellite. This launch (7th mission) was the last Isro mission of 2018.”

Gsat-7A will work as a force multiplier for the IAF as it will interlink all its assets like fighter aircraft, AWACS aircraft, drones and ground radar stations and airbases, building a centralised network.

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa said Gsat-7A will enhance the networking and communication capabilities of the force.


IDFC Bank, Capital First Merger is Done

IDFC Bank and Capital First announced the completion of their merger following all requisite approvals to form a combined entity called IDFC First Bank with a loan book of ₹1.02 lakh crore.

The merged entity will serve 7.2 million customers through its 203 bank branches, 129 ATMs and 454 rural business correspondent centres across urban and rural geographies. IDFC First Bank will now offer retail and wholesale banking products to a greater number of customer segments.

V Vaidyanathan, founder and chairman of Capital First, will head the bank as managing director and chief executive officer. Rajiv Lall, founder MD & CEO of IDFC Bank, has been appointed part-time non-executive chairman of IDFC First Bank.

The merger was announced on January 13, 2018, and as per the terms of the merger agreement, shareholders will receive 139 shares of IDFC Bank for every 10 shares held of Capital First. IDFC, which started banking operation on October 1, 2015, had been focusing on increasing its retail portfolio. IDFC Bank shares rose 4.71% to ₹41 while Capital First jumped 5.13% on the Bombay Stock Exchange.

On a combined basis, IDFC First Bank has on-book loan assets of ₹1,02,683 crore, as per the last reported financial results for the quarter ended September 30, 2018. The retail loan book will now contribute 32.46% to the overall loan book.

Merged bank will now offer retail and wholesale banking products to a greater number of customer segments

Gujarat: 3 Asiatic lions crushed to death under goods train

Danger seems to be perennially lurking for the endangered Asiatic lions in Gujarat’s Gir (east). Three lions were crushed to death under a goods train near Savarkundla town of Amreli district post Monday midnight.

Forest department officials said there was a pride of six lions moving on the track, out of which two males aged around two years and a one-and-a-half-year lioness were killed. The goods train was going to Pipavav Port from Botad town.

In a statement, the forest department said, “An inquiry is being conducted about the train speed and the negligence of trackers and forest staff. Action will be taken on whosoever is found guilty.” Several lions have been killed on the railway track going to Pipavav, which sees movement of nearly 28-30 trains daily. On Sunday, a nilgai (blue bull) was also run over by a train at the same spot near Borala village. It is suspected that the lions had come to feed on the carcass of this animal.

In January this year, a four-month-old lion cub was crushed by a passenger train, nine km from Borala. Mashuque Ahmed, divisional commercial manager, Bhavnagar division, said the goods train was moving at normal speed.


Pune-Nashik rail work to start in February 2019

The proposal of laying a high speed railway track between Pune and Nashik is finally moving ahead. The Maharashtra Railway Infrastructure Development Limited is all set to start work by February 2019, according to Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil, Member of Parliament, Shirur.

Addressing a press conference, Patil said,“MRIDL is working on the project on priority basis.The laying of railway track is likely to start by February 2019.This high speed railway will save travel time by two hours. It will not only be used by passengers, but also for transporting agricultural and industrial goods.”

The new line with a length of 231 km will connect the two fastest growing cities in the state. The Central Railway has sanctioned the project with an estimated cost of ₹7,500 crore and the project is expected to be completed in 2022.

Sharing details about the project, Patil said, “In September 2018, the railway ministry and the state government formed MRIDL as a special purpose vehicle to expedite the delayed proposal in the state.
“For the project, ₹1,500 crore will be raised by both the state and central governments and the remaining amount will be raised by borrowing money from the banking industry. High speed railway will run with a speed of 220 km per hour.”

The new railway lane requires at least 1,300 hectares of land located in Pune, Ahmednagar and Nashik districts. As per the proposal, the 231-km track will have 21 stations.

Maharashtra plans Biz Districts along Mumbai-Pune Expressway

Maharashtra is planning to develop a business district with IT parks, recreational zones and affordable housing along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The state said the revenue from the business district will be ploughed back to develop 71 villages on the route. But planning experts questioned the use of mainly agricultural land for the plan. Planned by Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation — as part of its development plan after it was appointed special planning authority for the 71 villages in 2016 — the new central business district will have financial and technological centres, animation, visual effects and gaming centres, and a comic park. The DP covers villages in the Panvel and Khalapur taluka — a total area of 186.72 sqkm, and is effective between 2016 and 2041. This is the MSRDC’s first development plan for the 71 villages.

According to the plan, 82.99% of this area has been underdeveloped, while 35% of the land-use is agriculture. MSRDC plans to implement the DP in four phases, including creating affordable housing on a 30-hectare land parcel. It estimates generating a revenue of ₹14,027.77 crore through the development of these 71 villages. The revenue will be earned through development charges, sale of MSRDC land and plots under its town-planning scheme and a premium on land and floor space index.

However, urban planning experts questioned the need to develop agriculture land. MSRDC estimates spending ₹12,099 crore to implement the DP with 138 reservations.

The plan states, “In order to attract younger wealth creators, apart from commercial uses permitted, the business zone shall host smart Fintech centres as per the Maharashtra FinTech Policy 2018.” The policy also aims to establish a Global Fintech Hub in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, and make the state one of the top five fintech centres in the world in the next five years.

Planned 27 km from the Navi Mumbai International Airport, and another 13 km from the proposed multi-modal corridor, the business district will also be easy to access.

The CBD zone is proposed to be 130.45 hectares with a FSI of 4. Vijay Waghmare, joint managing director, MSRDC, said, “The CBD is one of the highlights of the plan. Apart from this, we have also proposed an international convention centre across 62 acres of land.”

According to an observation from the Confederation of India Industry, the move is good for industries, but power tariff needs to be “decent” for industries to set-up offices along the corridor.

Officials said the development plan is open to suggestions and objections from citizens till January 14, 2019.

Baghel sworn in as Chhattisgarh CM amid heavy rain

Against a backdrop of unity and camaraderie, Chhattisgarh Governor Anandiben Patel administered the oath of office and secrecy to Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel.

State Congress leaders TS Singh Deo and Tamradhwaj Sahu were also sworn-in as ministers at the ceremony which was scaled down in size due to intermittent rains in state capital Raipur.

The swearing-in ceremony was scheduled to be held at the Science College Grounds before continuing showers forced the administration to shift the venue.

A bevy of leaders including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot, Puducherry CM V Narayanasamy attended the ceremony held at the Balbir Singh indoor stadium.

Gandhi also extended his greetings to former chief minister and BJP stalwart Raman Singh who was present on the occasion.

Baghel, third chief minister of the tribal-dominated state, now heads the first elected Congress government in Chhattisgarh since it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000.

While Ajit Jogi had helmed the first Congress government in the state, formed by virtue of larger numerical strength in the bifurcated house, Singh had led the BJP to three consecutive victories in 2003, 2008 and 2013.

Credited with engineering a Congress revival, Baghel and Singh Deo led the party to victory in the recently concluded elections for the 90 member Assembly; thus bringing to an end a 15-year BJP rule in the state.

The Congress on Sunday named Baghel to head the state Congress Legislature Party. Baghel, who took charge as Congress state president Congress after 2013 assembly polls, was credited for the massive victory of the party in the recent Assembly polls where Congress won 68 seats in the 90-member House.

Cyclone Phethai batters coastal Andhra

Cyclone ‘Phethai’ left a trail of damage in coastal Andhra Pradesh, affecting crops and bringing in heavy rainfall. Incidents of uprooting of trees and electric poles were also reported from the affected areas. One person was reported dead in a landslide in Vijaywada. The government declared two-day holiday in educational institutions.

The cyclone struck East Godavari district around 12.30 pm, resulting in heavy rainfall, coupled with winds with speed of up to 80 km per hour. Standing crops were damaged on more than one lakh hectares in coastal districts of East and West Godavari, Krishna, Prakasam, Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam.

Phethai had weakened before hitting Katrenikona coast in East Godavari. It is now moving in northeast direction towards Odisha. It is likely to develop into a deep depression. Krishna district collector B Lakshmi Kantham announced an immediate relief of Rs.50,000 to the family of the man who was killed in landslide. Meanwhile, two men and a woman reportedly died due to cold weather in Prakasam district. Phethai is the third cyclone to hit Andhra Pradesh in four months, after Gaza and Titli. The Real Time Governance Society issued instructions to the districts to be on alert till Tuesday evening. RTGS CEO Babu Rao said a total of 25,000 people were shifted to relief camps.

About 750 passengers were stranded as 14 flights from Visakhapatnam airport were affected. The South Central Railway cancelled 47 passenger trains. APSRTC also cancelled bus services in affected districts.

India & Maldives to Deepen Ties

India and the Maldives agreed to deepen cooperation to maintain peace and security in the Indian Ocean Region as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced financial assistance of up to $1.4 billion to the archipelago nation amid China’s increasing inroads in the region.

The financial assistance will be in the form of budgetary support, currency swap and concessional lines of credit for socio-economic projects in the Maldives to reduce the country’s dependence on China.

The announcement was made in Delhi following PM Modi’s summit meeting with the new President of Maldives, Ibu Solih, who was on his maiden state visit after his election.

India and the Maldives agreed to strengthen cooperation to enhance maritime security in the region through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange of information and capacity building.

“The two leaders reaffirmed their unwavering commitment and support for increased cooperation in combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations both within the region and elsewhere,” said the joint statement issued following the summit.

Jointly addressing the media with Solih, the PM said after the summit: “President Solih and I agree that to maintain peace and security in the Indian Ocean region, we need to deepen our cooperation. Both India and the Maldives share equal interest and stake in the development and stability of our region.” Modi said: “We will not allow the use of our countries to harm each other.”

HC convicts Sajjan for Sikh riots

Terming the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide” and a “crime against humanity”, the Delhi high court convicted 73-year old Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in a riot case and sentenced him to jail “for the remainder of his natural life”.

A bench of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel asked Kumar — the most high profile among six accused — to surrender before December 31 and not leave Delhi after taking note of the testimonies of three survivors who had named the ex-MP for leading and instigating a mob in November 1984, exhorting it to kill Sikhs, hours after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Kumar was convicted of conspiracy to murder, promoting enmity and acts against communal harmony. The CBI had reopened the case on the recommendation of the Nanavati Commission in 2005. Kumar’s lawyers said they would appeal against the order.

The HC said there was “a familiar pattern of mass killings since the Partition, including Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013”. The common feature was the “targeting of minorities” with attacks being “spearheaded by the dominant political actors, facilitated by law enforcement agencies”.


Mumbai Coastal Road foundation stone laid by Sena chief Uddhav

The differences between the ruling BJP and the Sena in the state again came to the fore when the BJP boycotted the bhoomi pujan, or ground-breaking ceremony, of the Rs.12,721-crore coastal road between Princess Street and Worli.

The BJP decided to boycott the function because Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis wasn’t invited. The foundation stone of the project, which will be constructed by the BMC, was laid by Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray.

It was reliably learnt that the BMC had invited local BJP MLA Mangalprabhat Lodha to attend the function, but Lodha gave it a miss on the instructions of the party high command.

Thackeray laid the foundation stone at Amarsons Garden, Breach Candy, and was accompanied by his wife Rashmi, son and Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray, city mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, south Mumbai MP Arvind Sawant, Mumbai city’s guardian minister Subhash Desai, and BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, among others.

Sources said the Sena had decided not to invite Fadnavis in retaliation for Thackeray not being sent a formal invitation for the Kalyan-Bhiwandi-Thane Metro’s foundation-stone-laying ceremony. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to lay the foundation stone of the Metro line on Tuesday.

However, Thackeray tried to play down the differences between the parties on the issue, and thanked both the central and state governments for giving speedy clearances to the project.

He also assured Mumbaikars that there would be no toll, nor would any other tax be imposed for using the Princess Street-to-Worli arm — a 9.98-km stretch expected to be completed within four years — of the 35.2-km long road along the city’s western coast, connecting south Mumbai to the northern suburb of Kandivali.

Bandra and Worli are already connected by sea link, and the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation will construct another sea link connecting Bandra to Versova at a cost of Rs.11,000 crore. However, no decision has been taken yet on which agency will construct the Versova-Kandivali stretch.


Valley on the edge

Seven civilians were killed and many more injured when security forces opened fire on residents trying to disrupt a joint operation launched by the army and the police in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district in which three militants and a soldier died.

The killing of civilians in the village of Sirnoo triggered several protests in Pulwama , where people blocked roads at several places. The Internet was suspended in Central and South Kashmir amid concerns that protests could spill into other areas.

The slain militants included Zahoor Ahmed Thokar, a former soldier who later joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Residents of Sirnoo said the army and the Special Operation Group of Jammu and Kashmir police launched an operation against suspected militants on Saturday morning in the village, around two kilometres from Pulwama town, and killed three militants in a gunfight. One soldier was also killed in the operation and another injured.

The militants were holed up inside an orchard when the security forces launched the operation. As the operation was underway, locals headed towards the site of the shootout and threw stones on the security personnel. Army soldiers and the police retaliated with gunfire, killing one civilian on the spot.

Chief medical officer, Pulwama, Abdul Rashid Para said 32 people with injuries were brought to hospital. “Six succumbed to their injuries in hospital and 14 were referred to Srinagar,” he said. Locals blamed the army and the police for what a survivor described as avoidable gunfire.

Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik ordered a probe into the deaths of the civilians. He appealed to people to stay away from encounter sites while directing divisional commissioner, Kashmir, to inquire into Saturday’s incident, an official spokesperson said. A police spokesman said the operation was launched on the basis of credible information that some militants were hiding in the orchard in Sirnoo. The militants in hiding opened fire on the security force engaged in the operation, triggering the shootout, the spokesman said.

Bodies of all the civilians were handed over to their families and buried in their villages amid protests. 


KCR is back as Telangana CM

Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K Chandrasekhar Rao took oath as the chief minister of Telangana for the second time during a time chosen for its auspiciousness or “muhurtam”.

KCR, as he is popularly known, was sworn in as the chief minister exactly at 1.25 pm, as per the muhurtam fixed by the Vedic pandits from Lord Lakshminarasimha Swamy temple at Yadagiri in Bhongir district, a famous pilgrim centre in Telangana. He is known for his beliefs in religious customs, traditions and rituals.

A priest called the time of KCR’s swearing-in as “Baahubali Muhurtam.”

Governor ESL Narasimhan, who is also an ardent believer in Hindu rituals, administered the oath of office and secrecy to KCR and also another cabinet minister Mohd Mahmud Ali, who served as deputy chief minister in the previous term.

While KCR,64, took oath in Telugu, Ali did it in Urdu. The Cabinet will likely be expanded on December 18.

The head priest of the Yadadri temple Lakshmi Narasimhacharya said the auspicious time for the TRS president to take oath as the chief minister would start at 1.24 pm on Thursday, which happens to be Margasira Shashti as per Hindu almanac.

“The auspicious period will continue for another one-and-a-half hour. That is why we suggested this muhurtam for him,” he said.

The priest said it would give a “Raja Yoga” for KCR, who would get immense power to rule the state without any obstacles. “During this period, all the “grahas” (planets) are in a high position for him and bring him good luck in whatever he does,” Narasimhacharya said.

The TRS won a second straight term in India’s youngest state after scoring a landslide victory in the assembly elections. It had 88 seats in its kitty in the 119-member assembly.

The Maha Kootami – the grand alliance of the Congress, Telugu Desam Party, Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi – managed to win just 21 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party ended up with one seat.

The All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, headed by Asaduddin Owaisi, has retained seven seats, while independent candidates won the remaining three seats.

Trade snippets

Growth in India’s merchandise exports slumped to 0.8% in November from 17.86% in October, the result of an unfavourable base effect, as the trade deficit narrowed benefitting from a sharp fall in crude oil prices.

Imports grew at 4.3% while the trade deficit fell to $16.7 billion in November.

A double-digit contraction in exports of gems and jewellery and engineering goods in November weighed upon the performance of non-oil exports.

A contraction in imports of gold and precious and semi-precious stones, transport equipment and pulses offset a portion of the rise in the crude oil import bill.

Growth in exports slumped to 0.8% in November from 17.86% in October, while that of imports fell to 4.3% from 17.62% in the previous month.

With oil prices falling by over 30% since October, India’s external outlook is expected to improve.
However, a decision last week by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec)
and some non-Opec producers, including Russia, to cut supply by 1.2 million barrels per day has supported prices this week.

That said, with an impending global slowdown and higher oil production in the US, the upside to oil price rise seems to have been capped.

Most economists have now narrowed down their current account deficit projections for 2018-19 after the current account deficit touched a four-year high at 2.9% of GDP in the September quarter.

While ratings agency Icra Ltd now estimates the CAD at 2.6% of GDP, Bank of Baroda has projected the figure at 2.5%. The International Monetary Fund, or IMF, has said that India’s CAD is expected to widen to 2.6% of GDP in 2018-19.

However, at current levels it is much narrower than the near 5% of GDP seen during the taper tantrum of 2013.

Data released by the Reserve Bank of India showed an 18.8% expansion in services exports in October, which partly benefited from a weaker rupee, contributing to a robust 23% rise in the services surplus.

In a report on India’s exports published as part of an economic strategy for the next government, economists Gita Gopinath and Amartya Lahiri said constraints to growth in exports appear to be generalised due to low scale of production, low productivity and institutional frictions.

They said the ongoing reset of the China-US trade relations may be an opportunity.

In the 25 years since 1992 when India began liberalizing its trade regime, India’s share of world goods exports has risen from 0.5% in 1992 to 1.7% in 2017.

The corresponding export share of the much-celebrated Indian service sector rose from 0.5% to 3.4% during this period.

To put these numbers in context, over the same period the Chinese share of world merchandise exports rose from 1.8% to 12.8%.

Closer home, Bangladesh more than doubled its share of world merchandise exports in just the last ten years, going from 0.09% in 2007 to 0.2% in 2017.

Kamal Nath is Madhya Pradesh CM

After daylong deliberations, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter late on Thursday evening and tweeted a picture with Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia — the two contenders for the chief minister’s post in MP — and quoted Leo Tolstoy. “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

The indication was loud and clear: Scindia will have to show “patience” while it is Nath’s “time” to take charge.

Moments later, Scindia, who spent a good part of the day at Rahul’s 12, Tughlaq Lane residence, tweeted the same picture with the caption: “It is not a race, it is not about kursi, we are here to serve the people of Madhya Pradesh. I am leaving for Bhopal and you will get to know the decision today.”

He flew out of Delhi along with Nath to meet the elected party MLAs and workers waiting at the Bhopal party office. Posters and banners were already out in Bhopal, hailing Nath as the chief minister. In Bhopal a meeting of the Congress legislature party is slated around 10 pm, where the announcement will be made.

All throughout the day, state observers and in-charges of MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh kept shuttling in and out of Rahul’s residence. Former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also arrived at his residence and weighed in on the decisions.

While the discontent among the contenders who lost out in the race will come up as a big hurdle ahead of 2019, the immediate challenge at hand is to contain the unrest in the state units. Supporters of Scindia kept egging him on to fight for the top job and continued building pressure on the party high command by incessant sloganeering in his favour.

MMRDA takes over operations of Mumbai monorail

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority terminated its contract with L&T-Scomi Engineering consortium to operate city’s first monorail between Wadala and Chembur as the joint venture could not meet contractual obligations. The authority also announced to encash bank guarantee worth Rs.200 crore of the joint venture.

The MMRDA’s Metropolitan Commissioner RA Rajeev, however, absolved L&T of any wrongdoing, and blamed Malaysian engineering giant Scomi for its failure to meet contractual obligations. He said, “The L&T was supposed to create infrastructure for the monorail, which it did, but Scomi failed to supply and maintain the rakes as per the agreement.”

As per agreement, Scomi was supposed to supply 15 rakes, but it supplied only 10, of which only six are operational. The remaining four are non-functional due to lack of spare parts and proper maintenance, according to MMRDA.

The project was ill-fated since inception. The project’s foundation stone was laid in 2009 and its first phase was to be operational in 2011, but due to delays in land acquisition, environmental clearance and other issues, it was thrown open to public only in February 2014. The second phase of the project between Wadala and Jacob Circle is yet to become operational. It has missed at least 10 deadlines to start the project. The cost of the project has also escalated from Rs.1,100 crore to nearly Rs.2,500 crore.

The authority had slapped a showcause notice on the operator on December 7. The consortium filed an interim reply on December 13 and asked for more time to give a detailed reply, he said. Rajeev said the consortium was given a long rope to enable them to recover from cash crunch, but they failed to supply the rolling stocks and operate and maintain the 8.9-km corridor.

The 198 employees of the company will be absorbed through third party, said Rajeev.

The authority had first proposed the monorail in November 2005. The work for 18.5 km corridor between Jacob Circle, Wadala and Mahul via Chembur was awarded to L&T, along with the Malaysian partner Scomi Engineering in 2008.

The state had also planned to construct nine other monorail corridors. However, with the failure of the pilot project, it abandoned the plan to build a 190 km monorail network across the Mumbai metropolitan region.

Replying to a question, the MMRDA chief said, “The second phase of the monorail project will be commissioned in the next three months.”

“We will be issuing global tenders not only for spare parts and tyres for replacement, but also for additional 10 rakes. We hope in the next three months, we will be able to commission the second phase depending on when we get the rakes,’’ he said.

Dharavi Redevelopment Project update

The project to redevelop one of the largest slums of Asia, Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai has generated considerable interest among realty developers and major contractors as around 20 entities and their joint venture partners attended the pre-bid meeting, said two persons with direct knowledge of the development.

The pre-bid meeting was conducted by Dharavi Redevelopment Project that falls under the purview of the Slum Rehabilitation Authority. The project will be awarded to the entity that bids above the base price of ₹3,150 crore.

The selected lead partner is expected to form a special purpose vehicle with its own contribution of 80% equity worth ₹400 crore, while the government of Maharashtra will infuse ₹100 crore to hold 20% equity in this venture.

After nearly 15 years of deliberations and three attempts to redevelop Dharavi, the government of Maharashtra has invited global tenders last month to kick-start the process. The tenders for bidding will be available between November 28 and December 28, which is also the last date for submission of the bids.

The interest shown during the pre-bid meeting is contrary to the experts’ concern that the current liquidity crisis may hold back realty developers from coming forward to take up this large-scale and complex project spread across 593 acres.

Apart from equity worth ₹400 crore, any further investment needed for the project will be brought in by the lead partner in the form of compulsorily convertible instruments, including debentures and preference shares.

This SPV will be responsible for constructing free housing for eligible slum dwellers and occupants including amenities and infrastructure as per the terms stipulated by the state government.

In lieu of this, the SPV will be entitled to construct the free sale area to sell in the open market. The project will get FSI, or permissible development rights, of four times.

The Maharashtra government has notified the entire Dharavi as a notified area and appointed the Slum Rehabilitation Authority as a special planning body.

The earlier plan was to divide Dharavi into five sectors. As per the old plan, MHADA was to redevelop one of the sectors and four others were to be redeveloped through private participation. However, the plan did not make much headway.

Gehlot is Rajasthan's CM

Congress president Rahul Gandhi chose Ashok Gehlot as chief minister of Rajasthan after two days of hectic indoor parleys and outdoor drama. State Congress president Sachin Pilot, who had made a strong bid for the top post, was persuaded to settle for the role of deputy chief minister. This will be the third term as chief minister for the 67-year old Gehlot after having served in the post in 1998-2003 and 2008-13. Pilot, 47, was a minister of state in the UPA regime.

Both left for Jaipur soon after the decision was reached to hold the Congress Legislature Party meeting to confirm the decision. A party delegation thereafter met the state governor with Gehlot staking his claim to form the government.

Gandhi took the decision after taking into account the views of newly elected Congress legislators and after due deliberations with many party leaders, AICC observer KC Venugopal said at a briefing, where he was accompanied by Gehlot and Pilot.

“The Congress government will fulfil the election promises such as farmers’ loan waiver, job generation and will also build many infrastructure projects for the state,” Gehlot said. The new CM is also expected to roll out a slew of welfare schemes, something he has done in his previous tenure.

Pilot appeared to have overcome the rancour that had broken out between the two factions, with his supporters allegedly resorting to violence on Thursday. “Me and Gehlotji have worked our magic on the people of Rajasthan,” Pilot said. “We will meet the governor today and decide on the details of the oath-taking ceremony.”

Both leaders profusely thanked Gandhi, other party leaders, elected MLAs and party workers and vowed to rise to their expectations. The infighting had delayed the Congress party’s selection of chief ministers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, after wresting the three states from the Bharatiya Janata Party in recent elections. Kamal Nath was chosen as Madhya Pradesh chief minister on Thursday.

As per the strength of the Rajasthan assembly, the Gehlot ministry can have a maximum of 30 ministers. Taking into account the caste equations of the state, the chief minister may give proportional representation to the Jat, Brahmin, Meena, Rajput, Dalit, Gujjar and Bania communities. Tentatively, the oath-taking ceremony is slated for December 17. Given the preponderance of Gehlot loyalists among the elected MLAs, his camp is bound to get the larger share of ministerial berths with Pilot reportedly keen to keep either the finance or home portfolio for himself besides ensuring ministerial berths for seven-eight of his backers. The All India Congress Committee announcement triggered celebrations among party members, with the supporters of Pilot also seemingly happy with the power-sharing arrangement.

Consensus reached after Pilot loyalists were assured of at least 7-8 ministerial berths

SC Rejects Petition for Probe into Rafale Deal

The Supreme Court refused to order an investigation of the Rafale deal, citing the inherent limitations of its power to undertake a judicial review of “sensitive” defence contracts and its lack of expertise in scrutinising pricing or technical feasibility. The move was welcomed by the government and condemned by its critics.

The bench led by chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi dismissed pleas to order a probe into corruption allegations by former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie among others.

“We are satisfied that there is no occasion to really doubt the process, and even if minor deviations have occurred that would not result in either setting aside the contract or requiring a detailed scrutiny by the court,” the bench said. “We find no reason for any intervention on the sensitive issue of purchase of 36 defence aircraft…. Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this court, especially in such matters.”

The petitioners alleged that the government had pulled a 2001 deal to buy 126 jets at a lower price only to conclude a fresh deal in 2015 to buy 36 jets at a higher price. The government disputed this claim, saying the cost escalation was on account of add-ons in terms of avionics and armaments.

The petitioners alleged a conspiracy at the highest level to defraud the exchequer and favour the Anil Ambani group chosen as offset partner by French aviation company Dassault, which makes the Rafale. Congress president Rahul Gandhi had made the Rafale deal his main point of attack related to corruption against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP ahead of the recent assembly polls, which saw the Congress beating its rival in three states.

Sinha, Shourie and the other petitioners said they were disappointed that the court had taken a “conservative view of judicial review” in cases alleging corruption in defence deals involving high functionaries.