Somewhere in Rajasthan....

Talking on the mobile phone while driving in Rajasthan will now cost you your licence. The Jodhpur bench of Rajasthan high court has directed the traffic police to obtain photographs of such violators and forward their credentials to the regional transport office for cancellation of driving licence.

The court passed the order after the additional commissioner of police (traffic) told the court that a large number of drivers used mobile phones while driving, which was not permissible.

The court ordered the traffic police to “ensure that no driver shall use mobile phone while driving vehicles and if found using them, then after obtaining their photographs and other credentials the same may be forwarded to the concerned RTO for cancellation of driving licence”.

According to the World Health Organisation, those using mobile phones while driving face four times higher risk of crash. The number of accidents and deaths due to this growing menace has shot up across the world.

Using mobile phone while driving claimed at least 2,138 lives in 2016 across the country, which experts said was hugely under-reported.

The recent incident of 13 school children dying in a busrail collision in Uttar Pradesh has brought the rampant use of phone while driving to the limelight. The driver was on phone while driving, some students claimed. Using mobile phone is the biggest cause of distraction while driving.

A Historic Day

Manipur’s Leisang village became the last non-electrified inhabited village to join India’s mainline supply network at 5.30 pm on Saturday, a key milestone in the country’s journey towards universal electricity access.

This means that all 597,464 inhabited villages in the country now have access to power, fulfilling a promise the Prime Minister had made on August 15, 2015, when he announced that all unelectrified villages would get power over the next 1,000 days.

The last inhabited village to be powered through the offgrid system was Pakol, also in Manipur.

While basic infrastructure such as distribution transformer and lines need to be set up in inhabited localities, including Dalit hamlets, a village is considered electrified if 10% of its homes and public places like school and panchayat office have access to electricity.

Having fulfilled that promise, PM Modi took to Twitter in a big way. “28th April 2018 will be remembered as a historic day in the development journey of India. Yesterday, we fulfilled a commitment due to which the lives of several Indians will be transformed forever. I am delighted that every single village of India now has access to electricity,” he said in a series of tweets. While villages have the power infrastructure, it is now up to households to seek a connection and for state governments to ensure supply.

At the time of Modi’s announcement in August 2015, data showed 18,452 villages without power. When work on village electrification started, another 1,275 villages were found to be without access to electricity. Some 1,200 villages are uninhabited and 35 were notified as grazing reserves.

The real challenge now is to feed power to each household, a task being undertaken through the Saubhagya scheme. The seeds of 100% village electrification were sowed with Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gram Jyoti Yojana with a projected outlay of Rs.76,000 crore that Modi had launched on July 25, 2015. This scheme drew from Modi’s successful experiment as Gujarat chief minister to separate farm and household feeders in rural areas to ensure 24x7 power to households and assured supply to farmers.

One of the key objectives of the DDUGJUY was to achieve 100% village electrification. It also envisaged separating feeders, strengthening distribution network, metering at all levels and setting up micro grid and off-grid distribution networks.


Somewhere in Wuhan....

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have decided to issue “strategic guidance” to their militaries to strengthen communications to build trust and understanding, India’s top diplomat said, a move aimed at avoiding Doklam-like situation in future.

Modi said his talks with Xi focussed on diverse areas of India-China cooperation. “We discussed ways to give impetus to our economic ties as well as people-to-people relations. Other areas we spoke about include agriculture, technology, energy and tourism,” he said. At the end of the two-day informal summit, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said they underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility in all areas of the India-China border region in the larger interest of the overall development of bilateral relations.

The two sides have held 20 rounds of talks to resolve the boundary dispute and worked out mechanisms to keep peace along the 3,488-km long Line of Actual Control. 

A ferry from Thane to Mumbai?

The daily rigorous commute between Thane and Mumbai, and Thane and Panvel could soon turn into a pleasant breezy ride. The Union ministry of surface transport and inland waterways has given a green signal to a multi-corridor waterway transport network along the two routes.

At a meeting held last week to discuss measures to alleviate transport issues plaguing metros, Union minister road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari, in the presence of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, instructed the Thane municipal corporation to prepare a detailed project report for the two routes. This is the second phase of waterway routes being proposed for the metropolitan region as an alternative to de-congest rail and road networks. The first phase will see a waterway route from Kalyan to Thane to Vasai.

Officials said that the TMC will soon start DPR work. The routes will be between Saket (Thane) and Gateway of India via Trombay, Elephanta and Ferry Wharf; and between Thane and Panvel, JNPT.

As per a pre-feasibility survey, the Thane-Mumbai waterway services will tentatively halt at Kalwa, Vitawa, Airoli, Vashi, Trombay, Elephanta and Ferry Wharf before culminating at Gateway of India. The Thane-Navi Mumbai route will connect Saket, Vashi, Nerul, Belapur and Taloja while a parallel route from Belapur will connect Panvel via Juinagar and Uran via Nerul.

A pre-feasibility study was done and presented before Gadkari and Fadnavis, who gave a go-ahead to start work on the DPR. The tendering process to appoint a consultant for preparing a project report will be done soon, said an official.

Once the reports are ready, the government will have to seek approvals from various agencies for the project and then appoint a contractor.

Officials claim stating the waterway route could be a great relief from the dense road and railway corridor and will also save on commute time. Nearly 20-25% percent vehicular traffic will be reduced on the route once this route is made operational. The time to travel to and from Mumbai will also be cut down to barely an hour from the around 90 minutes it presently takes, said an official.


Aditya Ghosh to step down as IndiGo boss

In a development that has surprised the Indian aviation sector, IndiGo announced that Aditya Ghosh will step down as the group president and is likely to be replaced by one of its former executives, Gregory Taylor. The airline said Rahul Bhatia, promoter of the company, has been appointed as the interim CEO.

The development comes amid the airline embarking on ambitious expansion plans and its aircraft facing technical issues with engines. Ghosh has stepped down as whole-time director of InterGlobe Aviation, the parent of IndiGo, effective April 26 while his resignation as president comes into effect from July 31. The resignation was accepted during the board meeting on Friday.

InterGlobe Aviation said Taylor, a former executive at the airline, has been appointed as a senior advisor and will report directly to Rahul Bhatia. “In the coming months, the board will consider the appointment of Greg as president and CEO of the company, subject to receiving the necessary regulatory approvals and paperwork,” InterGlobe said in a statement.

Ghosh, who has been with the airline for ten years, said it has been a most satisfying task building IndiGo. “It is now time for me to step off the treadmill and sometime in the near future embark on my next adventure. I wish all my colleagues at IndiGo the very best as they move on to the next phase of growth,” he said.

During 2016 and 2017, Taylor was the executive vicepresident of Revenue Management and Network Planning at IndiGo. Prior to that, he had served in various senior management roles at United Airlines and US Airways in the areas of corporate planning, strategy, network planning, fleet planning, finance, cost management and airline express operations, the statement said.

IndiGo, which has a fleet of 160 aircraft, is the country’s largest airline with a market share of nearly 40%. It operates around 1,000 flights daily.

UP Finalises 3 More Expressways

Uttar Pradesh is readying to expand its network of highways by another 500 km by 2021 to nearly 1,432 km, the longest in the country, following the decision of the Yogi Adityanath government to finalise the alignment of three new expressways to Bundelkhand, Gorakhpur and Allahabad.

The new expressways, according to details given in a state government document, will help form a web of fast roads across the country’s most populous state where road connectivity has been a bane, especially in the central and eastern regions. Western UP already has a 165-km long expressway from Noida to Agra and a 302-km long expressway from Agra to Lucknow. Construction of Purvanchal Expressway from Lucknow to Ghazipur, the country’s longest expressway at 341 km, will begin next month.

UP has now finalised alignments of a 293-km long Bundelkhand Expressway from Jhansi to Etawah, a 150-km long Prayag Expressway from Lucknow to Allahabad and an 89-km long Gorakhpur Link Expressway from Azamgarh to Adityanath’s hometown of Gorakhpur. A 96-km long Delhi-Meerut expressway is under construction too, which means UP may have a network of almost 1,432 km of expressways by 2021. The Bundelkhand Expressway will be a four-lane project starting from Jhansi and ending at Etawah, where it will join the existing Agra-Lucknow expressway which passes through Etawah. The Bundelkhand project will be the first expressway passing through UP’s most impoverished districts of Chitrakoot, Banda, Hamirpur, Jalaun and Auriya. The Prayag Expressway and the Gorakhpur Link Expressway, both four-lane projects as well, will branch out of the upcoming Purvanchal Expressway, creating a web of roads in eastern UP in districts such as Azamgarh, Allahabad, Ambedkar Nagar, Pratapgarh, Amethi, Rae Bareli and Barabanki.

“These expressways will provide direct high-speed connectivity of eastern and central UP with the entire state as well as NCR of Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal. They will reduce travel time considerably and bring savings in fuel and total transportation cost,” the state government said in the document.

Fitch retains India’s rating at BBB-

Fitch has kept India’s rating unchanged with a stable outlook, saying the rating balances a strong medium term growth outlook and favourable external balances with weak fiscal finances and some lagging structural factors, including governance standards and a still-difficult, but improving, business environment.

The agency affirmed India’s rating at BBB-, which is at the junk bond or lowest investment grade with a stable outlook. Last year Moody’s Investors Service had upgraded India’s sovereign rating after a gap of nearly 14 years, while Standard & Poor’s retained its BBB- rating with a stable outlook. A rating upgrade changes the profile of the country and makes it attractive to investors.

The stable outlook reflects Fitch’s assessment that upside and downside risks to ratings are broadly balanced. The main factors that, individually or collectively, could trigger positive rating action are: A reduction in general government debt over the medium term to a level closer to that of rated peers and higher sustained investment and growth rates, without the creation of macro imbalances, such as from successful structural reform implementation.

The government had pitched for a rating upgrade, citing its reform record as well as rebound in economic growth but the agency has preferred to remain cautious.

Fitch said a favourable economic growth outlook continues to support India’s credit profile and forecast growth to rebound to 7.3% in FY19 and 7.5% in FY20, as a temporary drag will fade from the withdrawal of large-denomination bank notes in November 2016 and the introduction of GST in July last year.

“The GST is likely to support growth in medium term once teething issues dissipate. India’s five-year average real GDP growth of 7.1% is the highest in APAC region and among ‘BBB’ range peers. Growth has the potential to remain high for a substantial period of time, as convergence with more developed economies can be expected,” the agency said.


India's press freedom ranking slips to 138

India's ranking in the Press Freedom Index has fallen two places to 138, Reporters Without Borders said in an annual report, blaming "physical violence" against journalists like Gauri Lankesh as the key reason behind the low ranking. Norway topped the list, with the world's freest press, for a second year in a row, while North Korea remained the most repressive in a ranking of 180 countries. The report warned that hate crime is another issue plaguing India. China's ranking remained unchanged at 175 for a second year. Press freedom around the world was under threat from a triple whammy of US President Donald Trump, Russia and China's bid to crush all dissent, RSF said. It warned that a "climate of hatred and animosity" towards journalists combined with growing attempts to control the media posed a "threat to democracies". Hostility towards the media was "no longer confined to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt", but was poisoning the political atmosphere in some of the great democracies, it added.

Mumbai DP 2034 announced

Incentives for redevelopment of private buildings and doubling the buildable area for commercial space are among the key features of Mumbai's new Development Plan, which will replace the 1991 DP.

Jointly addressing a press conference at Mantralaya, urban development secretary Nitin Kareer, municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta and housing secretary Sanjay Kumar said the objective underlying the DP is to create eight million jobs in the new knowledge economy and 10 lakh affordable homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana in a metropolis struggling to cope with the demands of population growth.

Builders constructing commercial offices anywhere in the city will now get a floor space index of 5 compared to existing 2.5. FSI is the ratio of builtup area to the size of the plot.

With barely any vacant land left for construction, planners are also banking on redevelopment to do the trick. In the island city, floor space index of 3 will now be allowed for private residential societies and not just for redevelopment of old and dilapidated cessed buildings. Residential FSI in suburbs will however remain at 2.5. This comes in the wake of long years of discussion among planners on ways to “repopulate” the island city where census 2011 showed a 7-8% drop in population.

Beneficiaries of the enhanced FSI regime will include builders controlling vacant mill plots in central Mumbai. FSI for such plots is currently a little over 2.

For redevelopment of housing societies, DP offers 15% additional FSI free of cost. This, according to Kareer, will translate into “one extra room for each flat owner”.

Officials said they are hopeful that the new DP will be implemented to a large extent given the construction incentives. The rising population of the city and the low index of per capita housing—Mumbai has an average of 30,900 people per square km, making it the second most over-crowded city after Dhaka—are among reasons cited for promoting redevelopment and providing higher FSI.

Reintroducing the Transit Oriented Development, the government plans to offer higher FSI near Metro interchanges, metro/railway stations and other transport hubs. Builders redeveloping Mhada properties like old and dilapidated buildings in the island city will now require consent of only 51% of tenants instead of 70% at present. This will be applicable to cluster redevelopment projects too. Special provisions will be framed for redevelopment of Gaothans, Koliwadas and Adivasi padas too. Similarly, new rules will be framed to enable redevelopment of buildings in the airport funnel zone.


Naidu Rejects Plea to Impeach CJI

Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu rejected the impeachment notice signed by 71 opposition MPs of the Upper House, seven of whom retired last month, against Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, citing absence of any “proved misbehaviour” or “incapacity” on the part of the senior judge. He ruled in a 10-page order that the grounds were insufficient to admit the petition.

Naidu, who cut short his visit to Andhra Pradesh, decided to give an early order after petitioners went public demanding that Justice Misra recuse himself from the court. A petition seeking his recusal from administrative duties was also lined up. But the vice-president, in his capacity as Rajya Sabha chairperson, put out his order Monday morning before the apex court could commence its work for the day.

As a result, the efforts by the opposition parties, including Congress, SP, BSP and the Left parties, targeting the CJI turned infructuous.

The Congress cried foul, saying the RS chairperson is not supposed to act in a “quasi-judicial capacity” and that it would approach the Supreme Court against Naidu’s order. Congress president Rahul Gandhi used the moment to announce a ‘Save the Constitution’ campaign.

Naidu held consultations with Constitutional experts, legal luminaries and senior Parliament officials before taking a decision. Sources said those consulted include former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap, attorney-general KK Venugopal, former Supreme Court judge B Sudershan Reddy, former A-G and till recently Rajya Sabha member K Parasaran and former Rajya Sabha solicitorgeneral VK Agnihotri.

As per Article 124(4) of the Constitution, a Supreme Court judge can be impeached only if there is a case of “proved misbehaviour” or “incapacity” on his part. The notice submitted by the opposition MPs mentions five cases and also levels the charge that the CJI acted arbitrarily in allocating cases to brother judges as “master of roster”.

The vice-president noted in his order that the opposition MPs are “unsure of their own case”.

In the Prasad Education Trust case, the MPs said Justice Misra “may have been involved in a conspiracy of paying illegal gratification” and that the CJI “too was likely” to fall within the scope of investigation. The notice further says the CJI “appears to have anti-dated an administrative order”.

The phrases used by the MPs, Naidu notes, “themselves indicate a mere suspicion, a conjecture or an assumption” and this does not “constitute proof without reasonable doubt” against the CJI as required by the Constitution for admitting an impeachment motion.

The order also states that on the issue of CJI being the master of roster, he is first among equals and has the prerogative to constitute benches. It also says that a two-judge or three-judge bench cannot allocate cases to themselves or constitute benches.

“The allegations emerging from the present case have a serious tendency of undermining the independence of judiciary which is the basic tenet of the Constitution of India. Considering the totality of facts, I am of the firm opinion that it is neither legal nor desirable or proper to admit the Notice of Motion on any one of these grounds,” Naidu said.

In the order, the vice-president has justified his swift action while underlining that the MPs have disregarded the established Parliamentary customs and conventions. Citing the Handbook for members of Rajya Sabha, he said it prohibits publicity of any notice submitted to the Chair before it is admitted. The opposition members had held a press conference and shared the statements.

“This act of members of discussing the conduct of the CJI in the press is against propriety and parliamentary decorum as it denigrates the institution of CJI. I am also aware that there have been a spate of statements in the press that seem to vitiate the atmosphere. I thought I should, therefore, expedite my decision and end needless speculation,” Naidu said.

TCS: $100-Billion Cap

Tata Consultancy Services became only the second Indian firm after RIL in 2007 to cross $100 bn (around ₹6,60,000 cr) in market capitalisation, in the process accounting for 4.5% of India’s total m-cap of $2.2 tn. TCS’ m-cap hit $103 bn intra-day before ending the day at $98.2 bn. The Mumbai-based company, which listed in 2004, has given annualised returns of 21.2% compared with Accenture’s 13.4%. During the same period, Apple gained 35.5% annually. Investors who bought the TCS scrip during its IPO would have earned a 16-fold return till date compared with a 7.5 times gain in the Sensex. 

Rupee's reversal

The Indian rupee has been the second worst performer this year, losing 4% value since January. This is in contrast to 2017 when the currency was among the biggest gainers.

AFSPA goes from Meghalaya

With insurgencyrelated incidents in the northeast region down by 85% from the levels recorded at the peak of militancy two decades ago, the Centre has withdrawn the Armed Forces Special Powers Act totally from Meghalaya as well as from eight police stations of Arunachal Pradesh with effect from March 31, 2018.

AFSPA, which gives special powers and immunity to the armed forces deployed in areas declared as ‘disturbed’ under the Act, had been in force in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh for almost 27 years. A home ministry official said that areas of the two states bordering Assam were declared as ‘disturbed’ in 1991 to avoid a spillover effect of insurgency by Assam-based outfits like Ulfa.

Earlier in 2015, the Tripura government had lifted AFSPA from the state after 18 years. Until September 30, 2017, all areas falling within a 20 km-belt in Meghalaya bordering Assam were notified as ‘disturbed’ areas.

Effective from October 1, 2017, this was reduced to a 10 km belt. However, on March 31, 2018, it was decided that given the improved situation, AFSPA need no longer be in force even in this 10 km stretch.

Following the total or partial rollback of AFSPA in some north-eastern states, the Act is now in force in the whole of Assam and Nagaland, all of Manipur except Imphal municipal area as well as in three districts and eight police stations of Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland has been under AFSPA for almost six decades.

Other than the northeast region, AFSPA is applicable in J-K. Sources said the review of ‘disturbed’ areas list under AFSPA is part of a larger process to curtail the area of enforcement of the law — seen by many as ‘draconian’ — in the northeast, given the improved security situation. With insurgency levels in Assam too at a record low, the state government is expected to decide soon on withdrawal of AFSPA from some districts.

The review of ‘disturbed’ areas list is undertaken every six months or earlier by either the Centre or state government, in consultation with each other, the Army and other security agencies. Human rights activists in the northeast have been agitating for withdrawal of AFSPA and even scrapping of the law.

While the review for Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland is still handled by the Centre, Assam and Manipur governments have been notifying ‘disturbed’ areas on their own since last year.

SC moved to quash Sec 377

Well-known hotelier Keshav Suri, who runs the Lalit Group of hotels, approached the Supreme Court for decriminalising gay sex and to quash Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that makes carnal intercourse a crime punishable with imprisonment of up to ten years. The court agreed to hear his plea and issued notice to the Centre.

Armed with recent verdicts of the apex court upholding the right of choice and right to privacy of citizens, the 33-year-old businessman, who claims to be in a committed relationship with a man, said the penal provision is discriminatory and there was no logic for declaring intercourse between two individuals of same sex as against the order of the nature.

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Suri, contended that a person’s right to choice of sexual orientation was part of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Rohatgi argued that Section 377 should not be invoked in case of any intercourse between two consenting adults of same sex. “Persons from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community are ridiculed in various spheres of life,” the petition said. “Equal work opportunities and pay is not given to individuals who have chosen their sexual orientation which is called ‘different’. The petitioner himself has suffered mentally and been stigmatised on account of his sexual orientation at personal and professional fronts. He had to deal with non-acceptance of his fundamental and intrinsic choice that is his homosexuality with his family and thereafter even professionally questions were raised about his sexuality, which does not normally happen with heterosexual individuals,” the petition said.

“In addition, the petitioner is constantly living under the fear of a false prosecution with Section 377 being on the statute book and the petitioner is unable to express his relationship and his right to choose his sexual partner without being worried. This is by no yardstick a life of dignity and respect,” it said. Agreeing to hear his plea, a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud sought response from the Centre within a week.


ISRO to launch a slew of military satellites soon

Amid preparations for its high-profile Rs.800 crore Chandrayaan-2 mission scheduled for an October launch, Indian Space Research Organisation is also gearing up to launch a slew of important satellites in the coming months. Some of these satellites are significant for strategic reasons as they will help the military keep an eye on our hostile neighbours and safeguard land and sea borders.

Isro will launch a dedicated satellite, Gsat-7A, for the Indian Air Force in September and an advanced remote sensing satellite, Risat-2A, for surveillance purpose by the end of the year. Gsat-7A, which will be lifted by a GSLV Mk II rocket, will enable the IAF to interlink different ground radar stations, airbases and AWACS aircraft. It will also boost the IAF’s network-centric warfare capabilities and enhance its global operations.

The satellite will be similar to Gsat-7 or Rukmini, which was launched on September 29, 2013, exclusively for the Navy. Rukmini has helped the Navy monitor the Indian Ocean Region as the satellite has a nearly 2,000 nautical mile ‘footprint’ and provides real-time inputs to Indian warships, submarines and maritime aircraft and also boosts the force’s networking capabilities on the high seas. Rukmini, considered the Navy’s ‘eye in the sky’, is also being used to keep tabs on Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean.

Risat-2A, which will be launched by the end of this year by a PSLV rocket, is an advanced remote sensing satellite that will boost the country’s surveillance capabilities.

The satellite, which will carry a sophisticated synthetic aperture radar that operates at 5.35 GHz in C band, will help in earth observation irrespective of the light and weather conditions of the area. Risat-2A, which can be used for civilian purpose, will primarily be used for land mapping but will also be significant for analysis of the ocean surface.

After the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, Risat-2 satellite took priority over Risat-1 and was launched in April 2009 as the former carried an Israel-built X-band radar, which boosted surveillance capabilities of the security forces. Cartosat-2 series satellite, launched on January 12, is also a remote sensing satellite and significant for the military too as its panchromatic camera can produce images less than 1 metre in resolution.

Besides the military satellites, Isro will also launch its “heaviest satellite ever” Gsat-11 weighing 5.7 tonnes from French Guiana by June. The high-throughput satellite, which will carry 40 transponders in the Ku-band and Ka-band frequencies, is capable of “providing high bandwidth connectivity” with up to 14 gigabit per second data transfer speed.

Gsat-29, which too is a communication satellite, will be the launched by the second developmental flight of Isro’s heaviest rocket GSLV Mk III in June. It will carry multi-beam and optical communication payloads. 

Mumbai-Kolhapur flights resume after six years

The operations of Kolhapur airport resumed after a gap of six years with Air Deccan launching its first flight from the city to Mumbai.

The flight, which has a capacity of 18 seats, took off at 3.05 pm from Kolhapur Airport. All the 18 seats were booked before the launch of the flight. Some seats of the next few flights have also been booked indicating the interest of people from Kolhapur to travel by air. The flight reached Kolhapur from Mumbai on time and departed for Mumbai in accordance with the schedule. “We have started the air service from Kolhapur to Mumbai. We have received a good response as all the seats of the first flight were booked. Booking for flights is now full till April end. Within a few days, the bookings for May will also be full,” said an official attached with the Air Deccan.

The Kolhapur to Mumbai flight has been scheduled at at 3.05 pm. The Mumbai-Kolhapur flight is scheduled at 1.15 pm thrice a week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday.

16 Naxals killed in Gadchiroli

In the biggest-ever blow to Naxals in Maharashtra, security forces gunned down at least 16 Red cadres in the Rela-Kasnasur forest in Gadchiroli district. While officially 16 casualties have been confirmed, the toll could go up to 25, sources said.

The joint operation by C-60 commandoes of Gadchiroli police and CRPF personnel started at 10 am near Tadgaon village in Bhamragarh tehsil, some 350 km from Nagpur near the Maharashtra-Chhattishgarh border. The encounter went on for 90 minutes and the combing operation is yet to be called off. “We are in the process of calculating the exact losses inflicted upon the Maoists as the scale of the operation and outcome are big. Many simultaneous searches are under way,” said Ankush Shinde, DIG, Naxal range. He added that the action was based on a specific intelligence input. The operation was launched from Pranhita headquarters at Aheri.

Divisional committee members Shrikant Rawthu alias Shrinu (51) and Dolesh Atram alias Sainath (36) were among those killed. While Shrinu had 82 offences registered against him during his 15-year association, Sainath had been controlling the Naxal movement in south Gadchiroli and had 75 offences against him.

Naxal cadres of four groups—Perimili dalam, Aheri dalam, Company 10 and Platoon 14—had gathered for a meeting when the security forces took them on, sources said. The cadres had been moving around in the locality in different formations, holding meetings at tribal hamlets. They were caught off-guard when firing opened on all sides.

They were not expecting an attack as the location of the meeting was deep in the forest, sources said. Two C-60 squads, under commander Vasudev Madavi and Madhukar Netam, supported by CRPF, are learnt to have surrounded the rebels, taking vantage positions that didn’t allow Naxals to escape. As they realised the strength of rebels, forces called for more reinforcements using satellite phones, sources said. After firing from rebels’ side ceased, the forces went in and began pulling out bodies, weapons and other material. The bodies were being transported to Gadchiroli district headquarters for post-mortem late in the evening.

Sources said a large cache of arms, including AK rifles, ammunition, explosives, communication gadgets, electronic material, pen drives, laptops, rucksacks and Maoist literature were recovered from the encounter site. Sources claimed many injured cadres may have dragged themselves to nearby tribal hamlets in the adjoining areas and the forces were trying to trace them. Police sources claimed the forces were already engaged in collecting inputs regarding the cadres. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds the home portfolio, has briefed Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh about the operation.

Modi, Xi to meet

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold their first major “informal summit” in the picturesque Wuhan city of central China on April 27 and 28, marking a breakthrough in ties that were hit by a tense 73-day standoff between Indian and Chinese militaries at Doklam.

The announcement of the meeting, though speculated upon in the last few weeks, is concrete evidence that the two leaders could be looking to impart some momentum to the relationship. The decision was made public after talks between visiting foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, and can lead to more purposeful discussion on the bilateral relationship.

Wang described the forthcoming Modi-Xi meeting as a “new starting point” in the relationship. He also referred to the importance of supporting the World Trade Organization mechanism, a hint at US President Donald Trump’s trade actions which China regards as a violation. This could possibly have aided the thaw with India.

The scheduled meeting, a culmination of a series of high-level exchanges between the two countries in the past few weeks, was described by officials on both sides as a milestone in the relationship which has been beset with difficulties in the recent past on a host of issues like Beijing’s determination to block India’s NSG membership bid and diplomatic, military and economic support to Pakistan.

The successful resolution of the Doklam standoff, despite bellicose statements from Chinese commentators and regrouping of PLA forces to the north, seems to have helped set the tone for a more result-oriented deliberation.

Interestingly, the possible reset of ties follows a successful visit to India by the new Nepal PM K P Sharma Oli, where the China factor played a role.

This will be the first major meeting between Modi and Xi after the faceoff in Doklam—disputed between China and Bhutan—where China sought to alter the status quo and build a road that could have given it a strategic advantage over the ‘chicken’s neck’ that connects India’s north-east to the rest of the country. The engagement will also mean back-to-back visits for Modi to China as he is scheduled to travel to the country again in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. Most events planned are one-on-one even though, as a source put it, the core delegation comprising officials in the MEA who handle China will travel with Modi. Speaking at a joint press conference with Wang, Swaraj indicated that the Modi-Xi meeting will cover border issues, among other things.

“While making efforts to progress our relations in diverse areas, we underlined that maintaining peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas is an essential pre-requisite for the smooth development of bilateral ties,” Swaraj said.

China has also agreed to resume sharing of hydrological data of Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers, Swaraj said. Beijing had stopped the practice following the Doklam standoff. The sharing of hydrological data is crucial to predict floods in India’s north-east region, prone to natural calamities.

China has been worried that India would make heavy weather of the issue of Pakistan-based terrorism at the SCO meeting, which will also be attended by Pakistani leaders after Modi recently described it as an “exporter of terrorism”.


Somewhere in Gujarat....

Cabinet clears stringent ordinance

The Union Cabinet cleared a stringent ordinance providing for lengthy jail terms and even the death penalty for sex offenders convicted of raping girls below the age of 12 years while the punishment for the gang rape of a victim below 16 will be imprisonment for life.

The ordinance sets out life sentences for the entire natural life of a convict and rules out anticipatory bail for rape or gang rape of a girl less than 16 years while also providing a two-month time frame for investigation and the same for trial. The ordinance also outlines plans for specialised forensic labs and rape investigation kits for police stations to ensure evidence is gathered and analysed speedily.

The Cabinet met within hours of PM Modi’s return from a tour of Sweden and the UK and after he reviewed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018, intended to provide “effective deterrence” against the offence of rape and to instill a feeling of security among women and girls.

Official sources said the government took serious note of the incidents of rape in various parts of the country and framed a comprehensive response that includes tough sentences and timebound trials. The PM returned to Delhi around 8.30 am and the Cabinet met at 11.30 am to deliberate on the ordinance in the backdrop of nationwide outrage over the Kathua rape-murder of a minor.

The ordinance is the second occasion in recent years when laws on crimes against women have been scrutinised and sentences made tougher, after the rape-murder of a young physiotherapy student in Delhi in 2012. The ‘Nirbhaya case’ had led to the inclusion of specific offences and a review of sentencing.

The urgent meeting seems to have been prompted by criticism that crimes against women are rising and, in Kathua case, the perception that BJP was slow to dissociate itself from protests in support of the accused and that the case had been given a communal turn. The ordinance follows Modi’s comments that there should be no politics over rape.

The ordinance states that the minimum punishment for the rape of a girl below 16 years will be increased from 10 to 20 years, extendable to imprisonment till the end of a convict’s ‘natural life’. Punishment for gang rape of a girl below 16 years will mandatorily be imprisonment for rest of convict/s life.

The minimum punishment in case of rape of women has been increased from rigorous imprisonment of seven years to 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment. After Nirbhaya case, death sentence was included in cases of sexual assault where the victim dies or is reduced to a vegetative state.

The ordinance prescribes a six-month time limit for the disposal of appeals in rape cases and also puts restrictions on bail for the accused.

New fast-track courts will be set up and special forensic kits for rape cases provided to police stations and hospitals, according to the ordinance. New posts of public prosecutors are to be created and special forensic labs are also planned.

The IPC, Evidence Act, CrPC and POCSO Act will stand amended once the ordinance is promulgated after President Kovind’s approval.


Opposition pushes for CJI Misra’s impeachment

Seven Opposition parties, led by Congress, made an unprecedented move and submitted to Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu a notice to seek Chief Justice of India  Dipak Misra’s impeachment over a host of charges.  The notice will become a motion only when Naidu takes it up. An impeachment motion has never been moved against the CJI. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hit back and said the move was a serious threat to judicial independence and an attempt to intimidate a judge.

In all, 71 Rajya Sabha MPs have signed the notice, but seven of them have retired. However, for any such motion to be moved in the Rajya Sabha, only 50 such signatures are needed. Such a motion can be moved even when Parliament is not in session.

At a press conference, Congress leaders said the parties had to move the notice with a “very heavy heart” because CJI Misra has not “asserted the independence of judiciary in the face of interference by the executive”.

“We wish this day had never come,” said Congress leader Kapil Sibal, referring to the office of the CJI as an “exalted position” that needs to be tested by the “highest standards of integrity” and must be above “suspicion”.

“As representatives of the people, we are entitled to hold the Chief Justice accountable just as we are accountable to the people. The majesty of the law is more important than the majesty of any office,” Sibal reasoned, acknowledging that choice was not easy, because either way, the repercussions are serious.

Jaitley said in blog post that the Opposition’s move is a serious threat to judicial independence. “It is a revenge petition after the falsehood of Congress in the Judge Loya case was established. It is an attempt to intimidate a Judge, and is a message to other judges that 50 MPs are enough for a revenge action,” he said.

The seed for the move was sown by the Left parties in January, a few days after four top most judges of the Supreme Court went public with the allegation that the Chief Justice was abusing his position as the “master of the roster”, allocating sensitive cases to junior judges.

It fructified a day after when a three-judge bench led by CJI Misra summarily dismissed pleas seeking a probe into the death of CBI judge BH Loya, who was dealing with the high-profile Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case in which current BJP president Amit Shah was an accused and was later cleared.


SC rejects plea to probe Loya death

The Supreme Court of India dismissed a bunch of petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into the death of Judge Loya. The case involved the encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, where Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah had been made an accused. The court in its verdict today made scathing comments on the conduct of the lawyers who had argued the case for the petitioners, calling the PIL a frontal attack aimed at scandalising the judiciary. A political slugfest broke out soon after, with the BJP wanting Congress to apologise and Congress saying that the nation knows the truth about Shah.

India is world’s sixth largest economy: IMF

India’s Gross Domestic Product, the worth of the economy, clocked in at $2.6 trillion for 2017, according to the database of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook for April 2018. That is well over the $2.5 trillion milestone that supposedly separates big economies from pretenders.

India is now the world’s sixth largest economy, displacing France. The five economies ahead are the US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK.

“This is a landmark development for India,” said an official in the finance ministry in New Delhi, and insisted that though it might look symbolic, implications were more far-reaching than immediately apparent.

“These horse races and their numbers matter and work to shape opinion, and more importantly we hope, influence investment decisions,” the official added. The ongoing spring meetings of the World Bank-IMF group have brought a steady stream of good news for India, with, it must be acknowledged, the necessary and repetitive caveats, admonitions and prescriptions, such as the dire need for reforms in labour laws (read allow easy exit for failing enterprises, a key trigger for innovation) and land acquisition.

Both the World Bank and IMF have said in their respective reports and projections that India has finally overcome the adverse impact of the predictably but needed measures to demonetise the economy and introduce a unified system of taxation for goods and services, no matter how disruptive they were.

Fuel prices at a 55-month high

Fuel prices across the country rose to the highest level in 55 months as global benchmark Brent crude climbed to $74.74 a barrel, the highest since November 27, 2014—the day when Opec started a price war and sent oil prices tumbling to $30 a year later.

In Mumbai, which has one of the highest state taxes on fuels, petrol price rose to Rs.81.92 a litre, the highest since September 14, 2013, when it was being sold for Rs.83.62. Diesel price rose to Rs.69.50 a litre, the highest since August 31, 2014, when it cost Rs.67.27 per litre.

In Delhi, considered the benchmark sample market, diesel price rose to all-time high of Rs.65.27 a litre. Petrol price shot up to Rs.74.07 a litre, the highest since Rs.73.93 on April 14. Petrol had crossed the Rs.70-mark for the first time in the capital on July 1, 2013, when the price was raised to Rs.73.60 a litre from Rs.71.56.

Since June 16, state-run fuel retailers began revising fuel prices daily, dumping the old practice of doing so every fortnight. In the old system, the impact of rise in global prices was delayed and momentary spikes often evened out under the law of averages. But in the present system, the impact is felt immediately. But price movement is uneven across the country due to different rates at which state governments tax petrol and diesel. The increase, however, in nearly all states marks a new high in more than a year.

The government had cumulatively hiked excise on petrol by Rs.11.77 per litre and on diesel by Rs.13.47 a litre between November 2014 and January 2016 to soak up part of the benefit of tumbling global oil prices. So, if oil prices continue to rise, consumers will want more tax cuts.

Consumers have been steadily paying more since August 2017 as global oil prices began hardening.

Till October 3, 2017, when growing public anger against high taxes forced the government to cut excise duty on fuels by Rs.2 a litre, petrol price had jumped by Rs.7.80 per litre and diesel by Rs.5.70 to hit an all-time high at that point in Delhi.

With global oil prices expected to rise further in the coming days, clamour for excise cut is going to get louder. How long the Centre can maintain its poise amid rising public anger, especially ahead of the Karnataka polls, is anybody’s guess.


Indians are flying like never before

March 2018 saw 1.2 crore people flying within the country, the highest ever monthly figure for domestic air travel, that is 28% more than the over 90 lakh travellers, who did so in the same month in the previous year. Each month of the January-March quarter this year has seen over a crore of domestic flyers with so far almost 3.4 crore people travelling within India by air.

March is the sixth month in a row which has recorded crore-plus domestic traffic. January had witnessed nearly 1.2 crore domestic flyers, which is now the second-highest monthly figure. These records could have been shattered by a long margin but for a severe airport infrastructure crunch in the country’s big airports like Delhi and Mumbai, which are struggling to accommodate even one additional flight as they operate at full capacity.

The highest-ever number of March 2018 led to airlines recording very high aircraft occupancy on domestic flights, which ranged from SpiceJet’s 95% to AirAsia India’s 82% (among big airlines). While these big airlines are doing well, a cause for concern in the DGCA’s domestic air travel data released for March 2018 on Wednesday is the over 70% flight cancellation rate of Air Deccan and Air Odisha — which started regional flights recently. Not surprisingly, the maximum passengers complaints (percentage wise) according to the regulatory data was against these two airlines.

IndiGo had a 39.5% domestic market share in March, 2018, followed by Jet at 16.6%, AI at 13.4%, Spice-Jet at 12.7%, GoAir at 9%, Tata JV airlines at 8.3% and others at 0.5%.


98 kmph squall batters Kolkata

A storm, with peak speed reaching about 100 kmph, roared through Kolkata for about 45 minutes on Tuesday evening, leaving in its wake a trail of unprecedented death and destruction. At least eight people were killed in Kolkata and Howrah and several more were injured as the storm—which would rank as the second-fastest to hit Kolkata since Cyclone Aila in 2009—uprooted more than 120 trees, tripped power in several areas, stopped traffic in its tracks, disrupted flights and rail movement and kept one Metro rake filled with passengers stranded near Dum Dum for over 90 minutes.

The double squall—the first hit with a speed of 84 kmph at 7.42 pm and the second battered the city 16 minutes later with a speed of 98 kmph—and the accompanying rain caught Kolkata entirely unawares as, till about an hour before they hit, the only weather update was about a storm that would hit West Midnapore and probably lash the city with its tail.

But what hit Kolkata was enough to pulverise it and keep those who were outside terror-struck for about 45 minutes, with the geographical spread of the deaths indicating the storm’s massive footprint.

An autorickshaw driver and a woman, who boarded a Park Circus-bound three-wheeler at Chandni Chowk a little after 8 pm, died when a tree fell on it near Jyoti cinema on Lenin Sarani. Three other passengers are being treated at the Medical College Hospital and are critical.

Around the same time, Tangra resident Md Sahid Khan, who had taken shelter under the balcony of a four-storey building in Anandapur, was killed when the secondfloor terrace crashed on him. The person he was speaking to, Md Arju, is battling for life.

Behala Parnasree resident Nirush Minz, who had taken his pet dog for vaccination to the vet’s near Asoka cinema on Diamond Harbour Road, died around the same time when a tree fell on him; the 65-year-old had come out of the doctor’s chamber because it was too crowded.

Howrah resident Amit Shukla, 28, had come to Posta for work. He was killed when a chunk of concrete from a ground-plus-five-storey building fell on him as he was walking along a pavement on Kalakar Street.

There were reports of another death from Panchannagram, off E M Bypass, after a portion of a wall collapsed on a middle-aged man but police could not confirm this. Three electrocution deaths were reported from Howrah, two in Belur and another in Dumurjola. Thousands of people were stranded at Esplanade, Howrah and Sealdah stations till late into the night.

The weather office admitted it had not expected the storm to lash Kolkata with such force. “Convective thunderclouds were floating towards Kolkata from the neighbouring districts of Burdwan, Howrah and Nadia. But, unlike on previous occasions, the clouds got concentrated over Kolkata and struck the city with tremendous speed,” Regional Meteorological Centre director G K Das said.

Ayushman Bharat

The government is planning to rope in domain experts from within and outside the country to ensure a smooth rollout and monitoring of ‘Ayushman Bharat’, its ambitious health insurance scheme for the poor.

Niti Aayog, the government’s premier think tank, will come out with guidelines for setting up the project monitoring unit for Ayushman Bharat, also known as National Health Protection Scheme.

According to the official, the government does not have the wherewithal to recruit the right talent for a programme of such scale. “Hence, the need for a PMU, which could hire both national and international experts to oversee the programme’s rollout,” the official said.

Ayushman Bharat, popularly known as ‘Modicare’, is billed as the world’s largest government-funded healthcare scheme. Under it, the government aims to cover over 100 million poor and vulnerable families (about 500 million beneficiaries) with up to .₹5 lakh per family per year for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation.

The government will also set up 150,000 health and wellness centres across the country by 2022 to provide primary health care.

The PMU is likely to be responsible for programme management, IEC and media, information technology and monitoring and evaluation of the programme.

The government is of the view that a dedicated unit with persons having right skill sets will ensure success of the programme. General elections are due in the country next year, and the BJP-led NDA government is hoping to woo voters with welfare initiatives such as Ayushman Bharat.

NHPS will be an entitlement based scheme with the entitlement decided on the basis of deprivation criteria in the SECC (socioeconomic and caste census) database. The beneficiaries can avail of the benefits in both public and empanelled private facilities.

As per an initial estimate, the programme will cost about .₹10,000 crore, with the share of the central government being about .₹4,000-5,000 crore and the rest being borne by the states at an estimated premium of .₹1,000-1,200.

The benefits under the scheme are portable across the country and a beneficiary will be allowed to take cashless treatment from all public/private empanelled hospitals across the country.

The scheme has already been approved by the Cabinet and the government wants to roll it out as early as possible.

In a first step, it launched a health and wellness centre under Ayushman Bharat in Bijapur, Chattisgarh last week.

First India-Nordic Summit

India and Sweden co-hosted the first India-Nordic Summit, ‘Shared Values, Mutual Prosperity’, where six prime ministers pledged to deepen cooperation while focusing their discussions on global security, economic growth, innovation and climate change.

Prime Ministers Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, Juha Sipila of Finland, Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland and Erna Solberg of Norway attended the summit co-hosted by their Swedish counterpart Stefan Lofven and PM Narendra Modi.

The leaders acknowledged that innovation and digital transformation drive growth in an interconnected world, which underpin a growing engagement between India and the Nordic countries. India has substantial economic ties with Nordic countries. Annual India-Nordic trade is about $5.3 b. The cumulative Nordic FDI into India has been $2.5 billion.

Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland are champions of free trade and protectionist trends are detrimental to their growth. Adhering to the rules-based international order besides other ongoing global challenges were on the agenda of the first summit.

Key members of Europe have also expressed apprehensions over challenges to rules-based global order and protectionist tendencies. PM Modi also held separate bilateral meetings with leaders of each of four other Nordic countries.

Record transmission in Maharashtra

The Maharashtra government said it had achieved historic capacity of power generation and transmission. A total 23,100 MW was generated and transmitted across the state on Tuesday, which is 100% of the demand raised, said energy minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule.

Bawankule said this makes Maharashtra the highest generator and transmitter of power in the country. “So far, the highest we have gone is 23,000 MW. Even with 23,100 MW, our infrastructure was not over burdened. No tripping or overheating of transformers was reported,” said Bawankule at a press conference.

This spells good news for citizens as it means the state is prepared to meet peak consumption demand during the summer. “The benefit to consumers will be zero or minimal outage in these extremely hot conditions,” said a senior official from Mahavitran, which distributes power to more than two crore consumers across Maharashtra.

The record transmission will also benefit 30 lakh consumers of Reliance, nearly seven lakh of Tata Power and 10.5 lakh electricity users of BEST in Mumbai, sources said.

The city requires 2,500 MW to 3,000 MW of power which peaks to 3,400 MW during summer. Officials from power discoms in the city said they were geared up to procure power from other sources, including purchasing electricity from outside Mumbai or from renewable energy sources.


Train mows down 4 elephants in Odisha

Four elephants, including two calves, were mowed down by a train in Odisha’s Jharsuguda district at 3.30 am on Monday.

The 12810 Howrah-Mumbai Mail (via Nagpur) hit a herd of elephants searching for food in Bagdihi forest range. The accident took place between Bamra and Bagdihi stations under Chakradharpur railway division of the South Eastern Railway. The impact flung one of the calves away from the tracks, while the adults lay on the line, affecting rail traffic for four hours. Earth movers were used to clear the tracks. Around 20 trains, including the Alappuzha-Dhanbad Express, the Howrah-Ahmedabad SF Express and the Howrah-Mumbai Gitanjali Express, were stranded along the route.

The SER has ordered a divisional railway manager-level probe, while the Odisha government will also inquire the causes of the accident.

The accident has triggered a blame game between the forest and railway officials. 

New Gurgaon-Mumbai Expressway to be ready in 3 years: Gadkari

The government will build a new expressway connecting Gurgaon with Mumbai and passing though the country’s two most backward districts —Mewat in Haryana and Dahod in Gujarat —in the next three years, highways minister Nitin Gadkari said. The project would cost about Rs.60,000 crore.

The expressway will reduce the existing distance of 1,450 km by road to about 1,250 km and will bring down the travel time to about 12 hours. Currently, it takes at least 24 hours to cover the stretch between Delhi and Mumbai through NH-8.

Gadkari said work on this stretch would start by December and be completed in three years. The expressway will begin from Gurgaon’s Rajiv Chowk. “It will be built on the existing alignment up to the Sohna bypass and from there it will be greenfield (new) alignment till Vadodara,” said a highway ministry official. Gadkari said the work for the Vadodara-Surat stretch of the expressway has been awarded and the tenders for the Surat-Mumbai stretch will be out soon. “This expressway will bring development to the undeveloped regions and hinterland in Rajasthan, Haryana and MP to spur growth and some backward areas will also shine. Industrial and commercial development will generate jobs. We are now looking at building highways on new alignment rather than just expanding the existing stretches to de-centralise development,” he said.

Gadkari said the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway will provide connectivity to the proposed Chambal Expressway and a dozen more cities, including Jaipur, Kota, Sawai Madhopur, Ujjain, Godhra and Ahmedabad. There is also a proposal to have the provision for a highspeed rail corridor along the Gurgaon-Vadodara stretch.

The minister said work will start at 40 locations simultaneously so that the new expressway becomes operational. Since the expressway will pass through unexplored regions and backward areas, the expenses for land acquisition will be less. The land acquisition expenses for the Gurgaon-Vadodara stretch is likely to be in the range of Rs.5,000 crore to Rs.6,000 crore, which is almost one-third of what NHAI would have spent for getting land for building the Delhi-Jaipur Expressway. Sources said the highways ministry recently reworked its plan to extend the earlier proposed Delhi-Jaipur Expressway up to Vadodara. “Since we have already started work on the Vadodara-Mumbai stretch, building the Gurgaon-Vadodara corridor will make the travel smooth from Delhi up to Mumbai,” said a ministry official.

Rains Likely To Be In Normal Range

Bearing good news for the farm sector, the India Meteorological Department predicted a ‘normal’ monsoon this year and said there is a “very less possibility” of a deficient monsoon.

Though the IMD pegged the season’s rainfall in the lower end of the normal range, at 97% of the long period average, its prediction matches private forecaster Skymet weather’s forecast, raising hopes of a normal monsoon.

The prediction for a normal monsoon will spell relief for the government ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the Centre having been under pressure to respond to farm distress that has sparked agitations in several states. A poor monsoon would create stress in the economy recovering from demonetisation and rollout of GST. The farm sector is not only crucial to overall growth, it is a key constituency the government has targeted in the current year’s budget.

This is the third consecutive year that the country’s national weather forecaster has predicted a ‘normal’ monsoon, although rains ended below normal last year. Rainfall between 96% and 104% of LPA during the June-September monsoon period is considered normal. IMD’s forecast comes with an error margin of +/-5%.

IMD will update its forecast, along with predictions for different regions and months, in June as the monsoon reaches mainland India.

The forecast comes days after a similar prediction of ‘normal’ rainfall by Skymet Weather, which had on April 4 said that the monsoon was likely to remain normal at 100% (with an error margin of +/-5%) of the LPA. Along with the 42% probability of a normal monsoon, IMD said there was a 30% chance of below-normal rains and a 12% possibility of abovenormal rainfall. What will need closer observation is the likely variation in rainfall with some areas suffering from a problem of plenty and others going drier.

The monsoon is likely to hit the country’s mainland in Kerala in last week of May or the first week of June. The IMD will, however, release its forecast of monsoon’s onset in mid-May. Though neutral conditions are expected in the Pacific, the one factor that could go against good rains is the possibility of conditions in the Indian Ocean turning slightly adverse — a weak negative Indian Ocean Dipole — during the second half of the monsoon season.

Gagan Shakti snippets

After the “surge” in air combat operations on the western front with Pakistan, which saw a staggering 5,000 sorties by fighters alone in just three days last week, the IAF has now switched its forces to the northern borders with China from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.

No, the worst-case scenario of a two-front war has not suddenly hit India. The IAF’s entire war-machinery has been activated for the pan-India exercise ‘Gagan Shakti’. It’s the biggest such exercise in terms of scale since Operation Brasstacks in 1986-1987, or Operation Parakram in 2001-2002.

Despite having just 31 fighter squadrons, when 42 are required to tackle the Pakistan-China threat, the IAF has pulled out all stops to hone its warfighting skills by testing offensive and defensive capabilities on the two fronts.

As many as 1,150 fighters, aircraft, helicopters and drones as well as hundreds of air defence missile, radar, surveillance and other units have been deployed for the high-voltage exercise, which is taking place with active participation from Army and Navy for integrated land-air-sea combat operations. The IAF has systematically worked towards achieving 83% serviceability (operational availability of the number of aircraft at any given time) for the exercise, in conjunction with defence PSUs like Hindustan Aeronautics and base repair depots, from the usual 55%- 60% in peacetime.

If the focus in the western theatre was to generate maximum possible sorties with same number of fighters to overwhelm the enemy, the intent in the eastern one is to operate from dispersed locations to avoid adversary’s rocket forces while undertaking deep strikes with Sukhoi-30MKI fighters being refueled in mid-air by IL-78 aircraft.

The combat manoeuvres along the northern borders will see intensive high altitude operations as also inter-valley troop transfers and logistics sustenance to make up for the lack of roads. Gagan Shakti, in short, reiterates the primacy and flexibility of air power in modern-day battles.


900 year drought wiped out Indus civilization

The Indus Valley civilization was wiped out 4,350 years ago by a 900 year-long drought, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur have found. Evidence gathered during their study also put to rest the widely accepted theory that the said drought lasted only for about 200 years.

The study will be published in the prestigious Quaternary International Journal by Elsevier this month.

Researchers from the geology and geophysics department have been studying the monsoon’s variability for the past 5,000 years and have found that the rains played truant in the North-West Himalayas for 900 long years, drying up the source of water that fed the rivers along with the civilization thrived.

This eventually drove the otherwise-hardy inhabitants towards the east and south, where rain conditions were better. The IIT-Kgp team mapped a 5,000-year monsoon variability in the Tso Moriri Lake in Leh-Ladakh — which too was fed by the same glacial source — and identified periods that had continuous spells of good monsoon as well as phases when the monsoon was weak or nil.


Somewhere in Bengal....

The killing of the Lalgarh tiger has brought the role of foresters — who had been tracking the tiger for over a month but failed to capture it — under the scanner.

While there are allegations that the big cat became a victim of the hunting festival in the region, the foresters cited shortage of manpower on being asked why the tiger remained elusive for more than a month even after being clicked in a camera on March 2.

“It’s a tragedy that an endangered animal like tiger had to die like this. And, it’s incomprehensible that the big cat has died at a time when there was so much focus on it,” said Wildlife Protection Society of India executive director Belinda Wright.

The PM breaks his silence

Over 72 hours after the Kathua and Unnao gang rape cases became national issues and sparked widespread outrage and protests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence on the dastardly crimes, saying that those who commit crimes against women will not be spared.

Speaking out during the inauguration of Dr Ambedkar National Memorial at Alipur Road in Delhi on Friday evening, the Prime Minister said, ““Incidents being discussed since the past two days cannot be part of a civilised society. As a country, as a society, we all are ashamed of it. I want to assure the country that no culprit will be spared, complete justice will be done. Our daughters will definitely get justice.”

He added that people of the country need to work together to rid the society of the evil of rape and sexual violence. For this, Modi added, change should begin with the family by inculcating social values in the children.

Although two Jammu and Kashmir ministers — Lal Singh Choudhary and Chandar Prakash Ganga, who had attended rallies reportedly held in support of the Kathua accused handed in their resignations — soon after Modi read the riot act, the PM’s reaction to the twin horrors has come a tad too late.

BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi also wanted to know why the nation was selectively outraged over the Kathua incident, but not the rape of a 12-year-old in Assam by a Muslim man. “There too, the girl was burnt to death.”

The Congress, on its part, has decided to follow up its midnight candle-light protest at India Gate with country-wide protests in support of Kathua and Unnao rape victims.

The 65th National Film Awards

Former BJP MP and actor Vinod Khanna was honoured with Dada Saheb Phalke award, the highest cinema honour in the country while Sridevi was awarded the best actress prize for Mom at the 65th National Film Awards

Assamese and Malayalam movies bagged a high number of awards. Amit Masurkar’s Newton, which was India’s pick for the Oscars this year, won the Best Hindi Film honour. Actor Pankaj Tripathi, who was part of the film, also won a Special Mention for his performance

1.BEST DIRECTOR: Jayaraj (Bhayanakam)

2. BEST BOOK ON CINEMA: Matmagi Manipur.

This is the first time that a book on Manipuri films has got an award

3. BEST FILM CRITIC: Giridhar Jha

4.SPECIAL MENTION: Marathi Film: Mhorkya; Odia film: Hello Arsi; Malayalam: Take Off; Pankaj Tripathi for Newton


6. BEST MARATHI FILM: Kaccha Limbu

7. BEST MALAYAM FILM: Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum


9. BEST BENGALI FILM: Mayurakshi






15. BEST CHOREOGRAPHY: Gori Tu Latth Maar from Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (choreographer, Ganesh Acharya)


17. SPECIAL JURY AWARD: Nagarkirtan (Bengali)

18. BEST LYRICS FOR SONG: Muthu Ratna, for Kannada film March 22

19. BEST MUSIC DIRECTION: AR Rahman for Kaatru Veliyidai

20. BACKGROUND SCORE: AR Rahman for Mom

21. BEST MAKE-UP ARTISTE: Ram Razak for Nagarkirtan


23. BEST EDITING: Rima Das (Village Rockstars)

24. BEST SCREENPLAY ORIGINAL: Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum


26. BEST FEMALE PLAYBACK SINGER: Shasha Tirupati ( Vaan Varuvaan song)


28. BEST CHILD ARTIST: Bhanita Das (Village Rockstars)



Exports expand 9.8% in FY18

India’s exports rose 9.8% during 2017-18, the highest growth rate in six years, while imports went up nearly 20% as commodity prices pushed up the value of shipments in and out of the country along with a pick-up in global trade.

But, exports dipped 0.7% in March to $29.1 billion, led by a decline in shipments of gems and jewellery and petroleum products from the country. This was the first decline in four months as oil exports dropped 13%, while gems and jewellery exports fell nearly 17%. During March, import growth too slowed down, rising 7% to $42.8 billion, leaving a trade deficit of $13.7 billion.

In 2017-18, trade deficit was estimated to have widened to $157 billion, compared to $109 billion in 2016-17.

While exporters’ lobby group Fieo said that the overall number was positive, it warned about the adverse impact of protectionism and geo-political uncertainty.


ISRO launches navigation satellite

India successfully launched into space a navigation satellite for a constellation of spacecraft dubbed as its homemade Global Positioning System that can serve both military and civilian needs.

The Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, also called NavIC -- Navigation with Indian Constellation -- is considered on par with US-based GPS, Russia’s Glonass and Galileo developed by Europe. It will broadcast highly-accurate timing signals that a receiver can use to triangulate its location.

In a pre-dawn launch, the IRNSS-1I navigation satellite, which is essentially a replacement satellite, was injected into the designated orbit by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

It is the eighth navigation satellite launched by the ISRO.

The PSLV-C41/IRNSS-1I Mission blasted off at 4.04 am from the first launchpad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, ISRO officials said, adding it was a normal lift-off.

The PSLV injected the satellite into orbit 19 minutes after its lift-off.

It was the 41st successful mission for the PSLV, officials said.

The 1,425-kg satellite made by Bengaluru-headquartered Alpha Design Technologies, in collaboration with ISRO, is the second satellite to be actively built by the private industry. The first, IRNSS-1H, could not be put into space because of its failure in August last year.

Built for a ten-year job in space, IRNSS-1I is expected to be ready for work in about a month after routine orbit manoeuvres and tests.

Industrial output is steady

Retail inflation eased to a five-month low in March on the back of cooling food prices, while industrial output growth remained robust in February, signalling a recovery. Inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, rose an annual 4.3% in March, which was slower than previous month’s 4.4%. Inflation in the rural areas was 4.4%, while in urban areas it was 4.1%.

The food price index slowed to 2.8% in March from February’s 3.3% as vegetable prices cooled. Prices of pulses contracted 13.4% during the month as well as sugar and confectionary by 1.6%.

Industrial output growth remained steady in February, led by strong performances by the manufacturing and capital goods sectors. The index of industrial production rose an annual 7.1%, marginally slower than the previous month’s 7.4%


ADB Expects India to Clock 7.3% GDP Growth

India is expected to be the fastest growing economy in Asia and will reverse two years of declining growth to clock 7.3% rise in GDP in the current fiscal and further accelerate to 7.6% in FY20, the Asian Development Bank said in its forecast for the region.

The dip in growth to 6.6% in FY17 was in part due to the lingering effects of demonetisation that impacted the informal sector in the first half of FY17 and teething issues related to implementation of the GST, the ADB said in the latest Asian Development Outlook 2018 report. It expects various reforms measures to lift growth.

According to India’s official estimates, the economy picked up pace to 7.2% in October-December 2017 quarter from 6.5% in July-September quarter and 5.7% in April-June quarter. For the entire FY18, the economy is expected to grow 6.6%.

The Reserve Bank of India expects 7.4% growth in FY19.

China is forecast to slow down from 6.9% in 2017 to 6.6% this year and further 6.4% in 2019.

"India would remain the fastest growing country across Asia," ADB India country director Kenichi Yokoyama said but flagged rising NPAs and crude prices spiking to over $70 a barrel as risks.

India’s growth will get support from measures to bolster farmers’ purchasing power through higher procurement prices, agriculture market reforms and investments in irrigation and logistics, the Manila-based bank said. “Investment revival is expected to continue, albeit at a modest rate, as firms and banks strive to improve their balance sheets, and capacity utilization levels pick up,” it said in a statement.

Inflation is forecast to rise to 4.6% in FY18 and 5% in FY19 due to firmer global commodity prices and stronger domestic demand.

“The uptick in inflation along with deferment of fiscal consolidation and expected hikes in the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate has reduced the room for policy rate cuts to stimulate growth,” it said.

A pick-up in growth in advanced economies will likely help exports grow at a healthy rate, but the ADB added that though protectionist trade measures by the United States are yet to impact trade, they pose a risk.

Mhalunge model in Manjri-Khurd next

The outskirts of Pune are set for a makeover with the PMRDA willing to lay out 15 more town planning schemes within the next 18 months along the first 32 km stretch of the proposed 128 km Ring Road.

Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority commissioner Kiran Gitte said following the approval to the Mhalunge town planning scheme, a meeting was held with villagers in Manjri Budruk villagers. “Two townships will come up in the area — one in Budruk and another in Manjri Khurd. Talks will be started with other villages for similar townships along the Satara road-Nagar road stretch,” he said.

“PMRDA will come up with 15 TP schemes be spread over 250 hectares. We have the manpower, but have to generate funds for the infrastructure through land monetisation,” Gitte said. The authority would have taken five more villages, but some of them have been included in the Pune Municipal Corporation’s jurisdiction.

The project would be based on the Ahmedabad model that saw development of 78 townships in 10 years. Gitte said the entire ring road would see nearly 50 such townships during the same period.

Among the villages considered for the townships in the first phase are Manjri Khurd, Wadachi Wadi, Avatalewadi, Holkarwadi, Wadki, Manjri Khurd and Manjri Budruk, Phursungi , Urali Devachi, Yevalewadi, Pissoli and Handewadi. Some of these villages will have two townships.

Gitte hoped that the township model here could be put on the fast track, as the real estate sector in Pune was better than the one in Ahmedabad. The township model will help these villages get a complete new look with land owners standing to get 50% of the plots in the same areas.

However, the roll-out of the project has its challenges as well. The biggest of the challenges is communication within the villages. To tide over this, PMRDA will have to raise funds through municipal bonds, loans and land monetisation for readying the infrastructure.

The schemes have been proposed to make the 128-km Ring Road project self-sustainable with planned development along it. The new schemes will be built 500m from the proposed road.

The town planning and the Ring Road projects will be developed simultaneously and they are a part of the same scheme.