Pune: New airport land acquisition process to start from March

District collector Naval Kishore Ram said the land acquisition process for the proposed international airport from seven villages in Purandar would start next month after adequate parleys with the villagers and the due consent of the affected people.

He said the usual process of land acquisition should take a year, but the authorities were keen to complete the entire process within six months with the cooperation of farmers and the project-affected.

“We have a go-ahead from the chief minister and the deputy chief minister to start the process. Just direction from the Maharashtra Airport Development Company on the process of land acquisition is awaited,” the collector said.

A total of 2,376 hectares of land would be acquired for the proposed airport from the seven villages — Pargaon, Kumbharvalan, Ekhatpur, Munjwadi, Khanvadi, Vanpuri and Udachiwadi. The collector, Ram, said initially 2,000 hectares would be acquired. The rest of the land would be acquired later, he said.

The project-affected would be compensated through the “direct purchase” method. The collector said the “direct purchase” method entailed paying the compensation amount in cash. The landless people would be given land in return after discussions, he said. The direct purchase method would hasten the land acquisition process, the collector said.

On the delay in commencing the land acquisition process, Ram said the MADC was working on all the modalities and it should be ready in a week or two. Subsequently, the collectorate officials would initiate talks with the villagers.

He said the land acquisition process would require about four deputy land acquisition officers. Earlier, seven officers were assigned for the task.

Ram said the land acquisition process would require a little over Rs.3,000 crore. Initially, there would be about 30% of the total funds allotted for it.

A GR had stated that the state had approved Rs.3,513 crore for acquiring about 2,376 hectares of land in Purandar. The amount would be given to MADC — the Special Planning Authority for the project.

The Pune collector said the selected area was the best site for the proposed airport because it had clearances from the defence and the Airports Authority of India.

Ram said for every land acquisition there was bound to be protests. It was up to the administration to reach out to the project-hit people and convince them, he said.

SC bar body censures judge for praising PM

The Supreme Court Bar Association condemned Justice Arun Mishra’s praise for PM Narendra Modi at a recent conference and called on apex court judges to maintain judicial independence by refraining from making such statements or show close proximity to the political executive.

Mishra, who retires on September 2, had described Modi as an “internationally acclaimed visionary” and a “versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally”.

Saying it “expresses its strong reservations of the statement and condemns it strongly,” the SCBA resolution added, “SCBA believes any such statement reflects poorly on independence of judiciary and so calls upon the judges not to make statements in future nor show proximity or closeness to the executive, including higher functionaries. SCBA believes such proximity and familiarity may impact decision-making process by judges and may give rise to justifiable doubts in minds of litigants about the outcome.

The resolution was passed by circulation and not through debate in the executive committee. It was signed by president Dushyant Dave, vice-president Kailash Vasdev, joint secretary Rohit Pandey and treasurer Meenesh Dubey.

Though the resolution was agreed to by 14 of the 21 members, secretary Ashok Arora stuck a discordant note saying such an important issue should have been debated in the executive committee meeting and not adopted through circulation.

By another resolution, the SCBA expressed concern over the law and order situation in Delhi. Taking note of the “failure” of the law and order machinery, SCBA resolved to take “appropriate proceedings in this regard before the court to get suitable orders to bring immediate normalcy in Delhi and hold authorities responsible for the failure accountable”.

Indians consume average of 11 GB data per month

Video consumption using 4G mobile technology drove data traffic in India last year, with an average 70 minutes a day spent on over-the-top platforms on phones. Monthly data usage also grew to 11.7 GB a month from 10 GB in 2018.

The Mobile Broadband India Traffic Report from Nokia said that 2019 saw a 47% year-on-year increase in data traffic, 96% of which was constituted by 4G, up from 92% in 2018. Most telecom operators have switched off their 3G networks in big cities and the consequential impact saw 3G connections witnessing the highest-ever decline of 30% during 2019. In 2018, a mere 1% subscribers surrendered 3G connections.

Total data traffic grew by 44 times in 4 years and 2019 saw overall data subscribers grow to 600 million, the report added. The 4G device base grew in parallel by 1.5x, driven by the launch of a variety of models by brands’ aggressive pricing. Despite the growth registered, broadband penetration in India is at around 47%, which is significantly lower compared to China at 95%, and other European nations at 95-115%.


India - US : $3bn defence deal done

Even as India and the US inked helicopter deals worth $3 billion, the two countries also agreed to work for early conclusion of the fourth and final bilateral foundational military pact called the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation.

The BECA, which will enable the US to share advanced satellite and topographical data for long-range navigation and missile-targeting with India, will come after India inked the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2002, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016 and the Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement in 2018. "BECA should be inked by next year," an official said.

India and the US also inked deals for 24 MH-60 ‘Romeo’ helicopters for Rs.15,157 crore ($2.12 billion) and the six additional Apache attack choppers for Rs.5,691 crore ($796 million) on Tuesday, taking the total value of lucrative Indian defence deals bagged by Washington to over $21 billion in the last 13 years.

The first six MH-60 ‘Romeo’ multi-mission helicopters will be delivered to India in a year, with the rest 18 thereafter coming over the next four years, to plug the Navy’s critical operational gap in detecting, tracking and destroying enemy submarines. The six AH-64E Apache attack choppers, in turn, will be delivered from 2023 onwards.

With the chopper deals done, the US will aim to seal the other proposed deals in the pipeline worth around $7 billion over the next couple of years. These include six more P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft ($1.8 billion), the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II for the missile shield over Delhi ($1.8 billion), 30 Sea Guardian armed drones (over $2.5 billion) and 13 big MK-45 naval gun systems for warships ($1.02 billion).

Polluted Cities: 21 Indian cities in top 30

New Delhi topped the list of most polluted capital cities in the world in 2019, according to a new report, which also revealed that 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities were in India. Ghaziabad, meanwhile, had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world.

According to the World Air Quality Report 2019, compiled by IQAir AirVisual, Ghaziabad was followed by Hotan in China, and then Gujranwala and Faisalabad in Pakistan. Delhi took the fifth place.

The 21 Indian cities named in the list in the order of their ranking were Ghaziabad, Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Greater Noida, Bandhwari, Lucknow, Bulandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Jind, Faridabad, Coraut, Bhiwadi, Patna, Palwal, Muzaffarpur, Hisar, Kutail, Jodhpur and Moradabad.

As per the country-wise data, India ranked fifth in the world’s most polluted countries with Bangladesh taking the top spot, followed by Pakistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

The report, however, also mentions that Indian cities have shown improvement compared with last year. “Whilst cities in India, on average, exceed the World Health Organisation target for annual PM2.5 exposure by 500%, national air pollution decreased by 20% from 2018 to 2019 with 98% of the cities experiencing improvement,” the report stated.

Frank Hammes, IQAir CEO said, “While coronavirus is dominating international headlines, a silent killer is contributing to nearly seven million more deaths per year that is air pollution. The gap in air quality data in large parts of the world poses a serious problem, as what is not measured cannot be managed.”


Bihar first NDA state to adopt resolution against new NPR, NRC

Bihar became the first state with an NDA government to unanimously adopt a resolution to stick to the old National Population Register pro forma, adopting only the transgender column from the new format recommended by the Union home ministry.

The resolution, virtually a copy of chief minister Nitish Kumar’s response to the Centre’s letter seeking feedback on NPR, also states that “the National Register of Citizens is not needed in Bihar”.

None of the BJP members present in the state assembly—the party has 54 MLAs —opposed the resolution when the Speaker, Vijay Kumar Choudhary, sought to know if it had the consent of the ruling and opposition benches.

“For the smooth functioning of the House, it was essential for this resolution to be unanimously adopted,” Choudhary said.


Spectacle @ Motera

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi gripped US president Donal Trump in a tight hug welcoming him and US First Lady Melania at Ahmedabad airport, the optics were clear: it was pageantry over policy. On day 1 of his two day whirlwind visit, Trump basked in the great Indian show featuring a mega-rally with cheering crowds, a mutual admiration match with his counterpart and a sunset tour of the iconic Taj Mahal.

Trump, Melania, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kusher enjoyed public adulation and even took selfies with visitors in the VIP section.

Trump delivered a populist but commendably researched speech, akin to an English version of what Modi would generally speak or would love to hear. Besides changing into a yellow tie signifying friendship, Trump lavished generous praise on his Indian counterpart.

Modi’s home-state Gujarat known for its hyper nationalism and devotion towards to him, waited for almost five hours in the scorching sun as the cavalcade made its way slowly to Sabarmati ashram.

Motera, the largest cricket stadium in the world was packed to capacity with over 1.10 lakh people. Though Trump was expecting 10 million on the roads of Ahmedabad (he had claimed this in Colorado and tweeted about it), he was happy that the thousands-strong crowd endured blazing temperatures for over five hours to see and hear him.

The Namaste Trump rally in Motera had both Trump and Modi praising each other indulgently. Trump appeared enthused with possibly the largest crowd he had ever drawn in his political career. Mounting praise on Modi, Trump called him a “true friend” and an “exceptional leader” whose rise to leadership as the son of a tea seller was an example of the country’s “limitless potential”.

The whole event took on the atmosphere of one of Trump’s political rallies, complete with an Elton John playlist. And that, aides say, is what Trump was looking for when he agreed to travel 8,000 miles for a night in India: an uproarious reception and the biggest crowd he’s ever drawn.

President Trump drew the loudest applause when he spoke on every country’s right to secure their borders in order to prevent and control radical Islamic terrorism. The crowd when crazy Trump mentioned India’s rival and neighbour, Pakistan, saying that he was working with that country “to crack down on the terrorist organizations” that operate along its border with India, and which New Delhi sees as a mortal threat. “Every nation has the right to secure and controlled borders. The United States and India are committed to working together to stop terrorists and to fight their ideology,” Trump said.

The second biggest cheer came when Trump talked of Bollywood, how it produced over 2,000 films a year and invoked DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge) and Sholay – films that still ruled American hearts. He also spoke of cricket legends Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli.

America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people, Trump continued.

Trump said that he and Modi would eventually be making “very, very major” trade deals, but added that they are in the “early stages of discussion.” Modi was “a very tough negotiator,” he joked. But that was the only criticism, if it could be counted as that.

Regarding the religious freedom issue that he promised to discuss with PM Modi, the only thing he said was: “Your nation has always been admired around the earth as the place where millions upon millions of Hindus, and Muslims, Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews worship side by side in harmony.”

Before the Motera event, the Trumps toured Mahatma Gandhi’s home at Sabarmati Ashram, removing their shoes before entering as all visitors do. Trump also sat on the floor and tried spinning cotton on a charkha, the wheel Gandhi promoted as a tool of self-reliance.

Trump also raised eyebrows as he did not mention Gandhi in the visitors’ book he signed, only thanking his friend Modi for the visit.

While folk singers from Gujarat and Kailash Kher performed for the spectators, the blazing sun made things tough for the crowd. Interestingly, all Indian music was stopped before Trump arrived, replaced by American songs and an Elton John playlist.

Trump and Modi repeatedly hugged and Trump said he had travelled 8,000 miles to deliver the message that “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.” However, his mention of having good relations with Pakistan was heard cautiously by everyone who could understand English in the crowd. However, since over 90 per cent of the crowd could not understand what Donald Trump was talking and were following the Hindi transcription, they unknowingly clapped when Trump spoke of good relations with Pakistan.

When PM Modi and Trump entered Motera, there was non-stop applause and continuous chants of ‘Modi Modi’. Later, PM Modi requested the crowd to repeat ‘Long Live, Long Live’ after he said ‘India-US friendship’.

Delhi - Dehradun Expressway snippets

An elevated expressway that will shrink the distance between Delhi and Dehradun from 250km to 180 km got an in-principle approval from the Centre.

A communique from the office of Uttarakhand CM Trivendra Singh Rawat confirmed this after National Highways Authority of India chairman S S Sandhu met him in Dehradun. “With the completion of the elevated road, the distance can be covered in as little as two and a half hours,” the CM said.

It now takes five-six hours to drive from Delhi to Dehradun. While the existing road between the two cities passes through Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Roorkee, the new one will touch Baghpat and Saharanpur.

Terming the project as a major initiative for boosting connectivity to the Himalayan state, Rawat said, “The elevated road will give a major fillip to tourism and prove to be a big factor in the the state’s economic development.”

NHAI officials gave a presentation to Uttarakhand chief secretary Utpal Kumar Singh about the elevated expressway project, which will be executed in three phases.

The first phase, as per information made available by the chief secretary’s office, will be 31.2 km long, connecting Akshardham in Delhi and eastern peripheral expressway, which will include a 18 km stretch of elevated road. The total estimated cost of the first phase has been pegged at Rs.3,250 crore.

The second phase, which is the biggest among all the phases, will connect eastern peripheral expressway and Saharanpur. The 118-kmstretch will be constructed at a cost of Rs.4,830 crore.

The last phase of 20.7 km will connect Ganeshpur to Dehradun. This phase will include construction of a 1.8 km-long tunnel, an additional tunnel of 400 metres near Dehradun's Daat Kali temple and an elevated road of 6.8 km.

As part of the mega project, a new tunnel at Mohand has also been proposed, NHAI chairman S S Sandhu informed Rawat. Sandhu said some part of the proposed elevated expressway passes through neighbouring UP and he requested the UP government to expedite the forest and wildlife clearances so that the construction work of the expressway can start soon.

Uttar Pradesh: ‘Remains of 3,500-yr-old human settlement’ found

A team of archaeologists from BHU’s department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, have claimed to have found remains of a 3,500-year-old human settlement of sculptors on the city outskirts at Babhaniyav village situated along the holy Panchkoshi route.

“During the field survey of the area, we found several evidences, including a pillar with inscription in Brahmi script and a number of stole sculptures and idols of deities of Kushan and post-Gupta periods,” said project director and head of the department professor Onkar Nath Singh.

“Discovery of idols and Shivlingas, both complete and incomplete forms, suggests that there might be a settlement of sculptors. After these findings, we sent a proposal to the Archaeological Survey of India for excavation, which was accepted,” he added.

“We are going to begin the excavation from February 26 at the village,” said professor AK Dubey, a team member. “As the antiquity of the surface evidences belong to the period of around 1500 BC, it could be safely said that it is contemporary to Harappan civilization,” he said.

Former additional director general of ASI, BR Mani, too, endorsed the observation of BHU archaeologists. “I visited the site in Babhaniyav village which could be at least 3,500 years old,” Mani said..

The antiquity of Babhaniyav village came to notice during the survey of holy Panchkroshi route for documentation under a UGC project, said Singh. “After we found ancient stone sculptures all around in the village, we decided to go into depth to unearth something meaningful,” he said.

Delhi: Riots erupt

A day after riots were reported over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in north east Delhi, violence and arson intensified across the area, prompting Delhi police to impose section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in 10 locations.

After a period of brief calm on Sunday night, pro- and anti-CAA protestors took part in the unrest yet again on Monday afternoon as police deployment watched passively. Amid apprehensions in the government that the incident of violence would “tarnish” the image of the country before US President Donald Trump as he flew into the city on Monday evening, several contingents of paramilitary forces were deployed to clamp down on rioters.

A head constable of Delhi police, Ratan Lal, succumbed to injuries due to stone pelting in Gokulpuri, while three civilians died in Jaffrabad. As per initial reports, the civilians died of gunshots. Deputy commissioner of police of Shahdara, Amit Sharma, sustained injuries, along with close to three dozen paramilitary personnel and other protestors. As violence on ground spiralled, Delhi commissioner of police Amulya Patnaik reached the control room to monitor the situation, while Union home minister Amit Shah stepped in to oversee arrangements and bring the situation under control. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal dialled lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, who issued a statement saying that the situation was being monitored and called for peace and restraint. Aam Aadmi Party Cabinet ministers also issued separate appeals for calm.

“I want to warn that we will not tolerate violence and those who go against the Constitution. Strict action will be taken. Our government has given instructions to Delhi police that those responsible for the death of our head constable and for damage to property will be dealt with strictly. A full inquiry will be conducted. Additional forces have been brought in. Law and order is our top priority,” said G Kishan Reddy, minister of state, home affairs. Blaming the Opposition for loss of face before Trump, he added, “Rahul Gandhi, Congress and anti-CAA protestors should explain who is responsible for tarnishing the image of India in front of the world.”

On Sunday, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Kapil Mishra had raised a call for all CAA supporters to gather at Maujpur-Baburpur Metro station for a demonstration backing the legislation. In an address to the crowd in the presence of police personnel, Mishra said, “We are holding back till Trump’s visit but after that if you still do not clear the road, we will not be able to do anything.”

Later on Sunday, the crowd turned unruly and started moving towards Jaffrabad where anti-CAA protestors had blocked a main road protesting against the law. The groups pelted stones at each other, injuring 15 persons, including media personnel and policemen.

Though the situation was under control through Sunday night, fresh violence erupted on Monday afternoon as rioters set at least two cars, motorcycles, trucks and shops ablaze. It is not clear which side indulged in rioting and arson first, but locals pointed out that the clashes could have been averted had the police taken adequate precautions.

In view of the violence on Sunday, anti-CAA protestors had used a rope to barricade the road leading to their protest site. But locals alleged that Delhi police — instead of keeping both sides apart — watched passively as they menacingly walked towards each other. Locals said CAA supporters raised ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans and provocative chants as they walked towards the anti-CAA protest site in Jaffrabad. Petrol bombs were hurled amid incessant stone pelting. Even as the police fired tear gas shells, rioters continued to set shops and vehicles on fire. A man opened eight rounds of fire in the air standing close to an unarmed policeman. No arrests have been made yet.

Some of the videos shared by eyewitnesses show police personnel also pelting stones, while images shared by locals claimed to show saffron flags strung up at houses of Hindu residents, pointing to alleged premeditation of the riots.

“Some incidents of violence and arson have been reported in the areas of north east district, particularly in Maujpur, Kardampuri, Chand Bagh and Dayalpur. It is appealed to the people of Delhi and particularly to the north east district to maintain peace and harmony. People should not believe in false rumors,” Delhi police said in an official statement. Asking media not to circulate any disturbing pictures that could further aggravate the situation, police said CrPC section 144 was imposed in the district’s affected areas. Entry and exit gates of Jaffrabad, Maujpur-Babarpur, Gokulpuri, Johri Enclave and Shiv Vihar were shut down and trains were made to terminate at Welcome Metro Station.


US President Donald Trump arrives today

US President Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and the top brass of his administration, will kickstart an eagerly awaited tour of India on Monday, a visit expected to significantly ramp up bilateral defence and strategic ties but unlikely to produce tangible outcome in resolving thorny issues like trade tariffs.

The nearly 36-hour-long visit by Trump is also set to send across a clear message of growing congruence of interests on major geopolitical developments in the region and beyond, particularly when China has been expanding its military and economic clout.

In their talks on Tuesday, Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are likely to focus on a wide variety of bilateral and regional issues including trade and investment, defence and security, counter-terrorism, energy security, religious freedom, proposed peace deal with Taliban in Afghanistan and situation in the Indo-Pacific, according to Indian and US officials.

The US President’s visit to India comes at a time when the country has been witnessing wide-spread protests against an amended citizenship law, and a strain in Delhi’s ties with Islamabad over Kashmir.

“President Trump will talk about our shared tradition of democracy and religious freedom both in his public remarks and then certainly in private. He will raise these issues, particularly the religious freedom issue, which is extremely important to this administration,” said a senior official at the US White House.

On February 20, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar had said around five pacts providing for cooperation in areas of intellectual property rights, trade facilitation and homeland security are expected to be finalised during the visit.

A major highlight will be the likely signing of a deal to procure 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters by India from the US at a cost of $2.6 billion. Another contract to acquire six AH-64E Apache helicopters for $800 million from the US is also on the table.

US becomes top trading partner

The US has surpassed China to become India’s top trading partner, showing greater economic ties between the two countries.

The bilateral trade between the US and India stood at $87.95 billion in 2018-19. During this period, India’s two-way commerce with China aggregated at $87.07 billion.

The previous year, bilateral trade between the US and India stood at $68 billion. It stood at $64.96 billion with China in the same period.

Trade experts believe that the trend will continue in the coming years as Delhi and Washington are engaged in further deepening the economic ties.

An expert said that if the countries will finalise a free trade agreement, then the bilateral trade would reach at different levels. “The FTA with the US will be very beneficial for India as the US is the biggest market for domestic goods and services,” said Ajay Sahai, director general of the Federation of Indian Export Organisations.

Pro, anti-CAA protesters clash in Delhi

Sporadic incidents of stone pelting on Sunday between anti and pro-CAA groups at Maujpur in east Delhi broke a relative lull in tension over the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The police fired teargas shells amid reports of two people being injured. The tension erupted after a pro-CAA rally in the area was allegedly stoned by a group of anti-CAA protesters. Following stone pelting by both groups, the police stepped in to disperse the two groups.

Teargas shells were fired and two people have been reported injured following the outbreak of violence.

Maujpur is near Jaffrabad, where anti-CAA protesters had barricaded the road since Saturday night in support of the bandh call given by Chandrasekhar Azad of Bhim Army against CAA.

Metro rail stations that have been shut down include the Maujpur-Babarpur and the Seelampur metro station, adding to the overall congestion and chaos prevailing in the area.

More security forces are being directed to the spot from other areas, including nearby Jaffrabad. Police personnel were deployed outside Jaffrabad metro station during the ongoing protest against CAA and NRC on Sunday. An anti-CAA protest by around 500 people, mostly women, near the Jaffrabad metro station in northeast Delhi continued on Sunday, prompting the Delhi Metro authorities to close the entry and exit gates of the station.


The largest ancient burial site in India is 3,800 yrs old

Carbon dating tests have confirmed that India’s largest known necropolis in UP’s Sanauli — where 126 burials have been discovered until now — is 3,800 years old. The elaborate burials, which included underground chambers, decorated legged coffins and rice in pots buried with the bodies, belong to an indigenous warrior tribe which inhabited the region, according to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Excavations in Sanauli, 68 km from Delhi in UP’s Baghpat district, first started in 2005 and resumed in 2018, paving the way for discovery of horse-drawn chariots, burials, four-legged wooden coffins, pottery, a copper antenna sword, war shields.

ASI joint director S K Manjul, who led the excavations at Sanauli, said that carbon dating has now confirmed that the burials date back to 1900 BC. “Between 2005 and 2006, 116 burials were found while 10 more were discovered in the last two years, making it India’s largest known necropolis.” The burial pits had legged coffins along with systematically arranged vases, bowls and pots. One of the coffins was decorated with eight anthropomorphic figures.

A recent report submitted by the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences in Lucknow to the ASI had stated that there are two C-14 (carbon dating) dates — 3815 and 3500, with a margin of error of 130 years — for the Sanauli site. It added, “Carbon dating marks this site as an earliest history of a warrior tribe in the Indian subcontinent.”

While the Deccan College in Pune and a lab in Hyderabad conducted DNA tests of the human remains, samples were also sent to the Lucknow institute. Scientific techniques such as photogrammetry and ground penetrating radar survey were used while drones and magnetometers were also deployed.

The burials bear similarity to Vedic rituals, said officials. “What is startling is the impressions of cloth found on bodies that suggests purification of bodies similar to what we practice in Hindu religion,” said Manjul.

He added that three chariots found at the site “have a fixed axle linked by a long pole to the small yoke” and were run by a pair of animals. “The size and shape of the chariots indicate they were pulled by horses. The axle, chassis and wheels show similarities to contemporary chariots,” he said.

Upinder Kaur, who teaches history at Ashoka University, said that the discovery of elaborate burials and remains of chariots was “dramatic and unique”. She said, “Just how this evidence fits into the cultural jigsaw puzzle of the 2nd millennium BC drawn from texts and archaeology is something that has to be carefully examined. I am looking forward to reading the detailed report of the Sanauli excavations.”

Historian B R Mani, who oversaw excavations in Sanauli in 2005, said the site should be looked at “as an interaction of a period of practices of Ganga Yamuna Doab and Indus Valley cultures.

J&K, India Inc sign MoUs worth ₹2,100cr

The administration of the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir, formed after the reading down of Article 370 last year, signed MoUs worth over Rs.2,100 crore with India Inc at an investment summit in Mumbai.

The UT has sought Rs.50,000 crore in investment from business houses in 14 sectors. According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, 55% of it has been sought in tourism & hospitality, renewable energy, agri-horticulture and food processing, and the remaining in textiles, manufacturing, healthcare, entertainment and education.

To facilitate investment, the MoU offers land parcels of 250-300 acres in each district of the UT. It also proposes to revive cinema halls shut for decades, and create multiplexes and other entertainment zones.

“We want to maximize industrial growth and employment opportunities in J&K. For this we are engaging in six city roadshows. We have already (covered) Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai,” J&K’s principal secretary (planning, development and monitoring) Rohit Kansal told journalists at the CII-organized event. “The (remaining) roadshows will (be in) Hyderabad, Chennai and Ahmedabad.” Kansal said the UT has signed around Rs.2,000 crore worth of non-binding MoUs in Kolkata, Rs.850 crore in Bengaluru and over Rs.2,100 crore in Mumbai.

The UT’s lieutenant governor, Girish Chandra Murmu, led its delegation, which included chief secretary BVR Subrahmanyam, while prominent corporates present included the Taj Hotels, Carnival Cinemas, Volkswagen, Hinduja Group, Ambuja Cements, Club Mahindra, and Kotak Mahindra Bank.

Around 40 business-to-government roundtables were held in sector-specific sessions, in which 150 delegates took part. The MoUs signed in Mumbai include a Rs.1,000 crore proposal to set up business townships and similar infrastructure, a Rs.300-crore plan for poultry, agriculture and food processing, and a Rs.150-crore financial services proposal.

The UT will soon hold a global investors’ summit in Srinagar and Jammu, officials said. Kewal Sharma, advisor to the lieutenant governor, said, “We are in final stages of designing an ambitious industrial promotion policy, which will have elements like SGST reimbursement in full, an attractive land policy, stamp duty exemption, support for green industrialization, along with other benefits.”

Manoj Kumar Dwivedi, commissioner-secretary (industries & commerce), said the UT has a great inherent potential with an appropriate climate for agriculture, a vibrant tourism ecosystem and a huge land bank.

Forex Kitty Rises to Record $476 b

The country’s foreign exchange reserves swelled by $3.091 billion to a lifetime high of $476.092 billion in the week to February 14, mainly due to a rise in foreign currency assets, according to the RBI data.

In the previous week, the foreign exchange reserves had increased by $1.701 billion to $473 billion.

Foreign currency assets, a major component of the overall reserves, rose by $2.763 billion to $441.949 billion in the reporting week.

Expressed in dollar terms, the foreign currency assets include the effect of appreciation or depreciation of non-US units like the euro, pound and yen held in the foreign exchange reserves. Gold reserves rose by $344 million to $29.123 billion.

The special drawing rights with the International Monetary Fund were down by $6 million to $1.430 billion.

The country’s reserve position with the IMF also declined by $9 million to $3.590 billion, the data showed.


Rupee Ranks among Top 5 EM Currencies

Even though the rupee lost 0.37% against the dollar in 2020, it still ranks among the top five best performing emerging market currencies. The Mexican peso has taken the top slot, gaining 1.2% against the greenback, while the Brazilian real lost more than 8% being the worst performing unit. The rupee’s relative outperformance is likely to have given the RBI good opportunity to shore up record dollar reserves especially when Mint Street has been witnessing a bout of overseas inflows since the beginning of the year.

China objects to Shah Arunachal trip

After China objected to home minister Amit Shah’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, India hit back and said Beijing’s objection to government functionaries visiting the state did not “stand to reason and understanding of the Indian people’’.

India’s position on Arunachal Pradesh had been clear and consistent that it was an integral and inalienable part of the country, foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said. “Indian leaders routinely travel to the state of Arunachal Pradesh as they do to any other state of India,’’ he added.

China, which claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of south Tibet, objected to Shah’s visit to the state, saying it violated Beijing’s “territorial sovereignty”.

“China’s position on the eastern sector of the China-India boundary, or the southern part of China's Tibet region, is consistent and clear," China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.

“The Chinese government has never recognised the so called Arunachal Pradesh’ and is firmly opposed to the Indian politician’s visit to the southern part of China’s Tibet region as it violated China’s territorial sovereignty, undermined stability of the border area, sabotaged political mutual trust, and violated relevant bilateral agreement,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.

Shah was in Arunachal Pradesh to attend the 34th Statehood Day function and launched a number of development projects.

Addressing a rally at Indira Gandhi Park in Itanagar, Shah said, “Misinformation was spread after abrogation of Article 370 that Article 371 will also be scrapped. It will never happen and nobody can do it.” He added that the NDA government was committed to preserve and protect the unique culture and tradition of the north-east. Article 371 has special provisions to preserve the cultural heritage and customary laws of north-eastern states.

The home minister said, “Previously, the region got importance on political lines. But PM Narendra Modi initiated efforts to unite the NE with the rest of the country.” Shah said central ministers visited the region more than 200 times in the past five years and the PM visited 30 times.

He added that the northeast enjoyed a special place in the country for its unique culture and tradition and unless the region was developed, cultural integration could not take place.

France’s Groupe ADP to Buy 49% in GMR Airports

The GMR Group struck a deal to sell a large minority stake in its airports business to France’s Groupe ADP, while saying that it has called off a stake-sale agreement signed last year with a Tata Group-led consortium.

In a late night announcement, GMR Group said it will sell 49% in its airports business for ₹10,780 crore to Groupe ADP, which runs the three airports in Paris. A spokesperson for GMR said it had received a better valuation from the French company, and that a deal with a global airport operator would offer better synergies.

The combined entity would be the world’s biggest airport operator in terms of passengers handled, GMR said in a statement. As per 2019 data, GMR Airports and Groupe ADP had handled a total of 336.5 million passengers.

The spokesperson added that GMR had parted ways with the Tata-led consortium “amicably”.

A statement from Groupe ADP said the two-step deal will see the French company initially buying 24.99% in GMR Airports, and later topping it up by purchasing 24.01% more. GMR Infra will be left with 51%.

The GMR Group will raise ₹9,780 crore through a secondary sale of shares while Groupe ADP will infuse an additional ₹1,000 crore of equity. “The first tranche of ₹5,248 crore will be received by the GMR Group immediately. This money will help deleverage the group further and result in improved cash flows and profitability,” GMR said in a statement.

The French company said it will get equal board representation and the right to appoint key executives. “Groupe ADP will be granted extended rights, including the presence of board members at GMR Airports’ board equal to that of GMR Infrastructure board members. Groupe ADP will also have the right to appoint predetermined key executives within GMR Airports.”

Last year, the GMR Group had signed an agreement with a consortium led by Tata-owned TRIL Urban Transport, and comprising an affiliate of Singapore’s GIC as well as Hong Kong’s SSG Capital Management to sell 44.44% stake in its airports business for ₹8,500 crore. But the deal hit a hurdle over the rule that an entity owning a stake in an Indian airline can’t own more than 10% in a local airport.

Tata Sons owns close to half of Vistara and AirAsia India, and the earlier proposed 20% stake in GMR’s airports business would give it 12.8% holding in the Delhi airport. The deal never received government approval. The new deal values GMR’s airports business at ₹22,000 crore, 22% more than what it was valued at by the Tata Group-led consortium.

GMR operates India’s busiest airport in Delhi and the fourth-busiest in Hyderabad. It is building a new airport in Goa and has won the contract to manage the airport at Nagpur. It operates the Mactan-Cebu International Airport in the Philippines and is building a new airport in Crete Island, Greece.

Groupe ADP operates three airports in Paris — Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Le Bourget — besides 26 other airports internationally.

Sunni board says 5-acre mosque land accepted

UP Sunni Central Waqf Board has said that it had already accepted the five acre alternative land given by the UP government for the construction of a mosque in Ayodhya as per Supreme Court’s order. Board chairperson Zufar Faruqi clarified that “it never had the liberty to reject it” once it had said that it would abide by the apex court’s verdict.

“The question of accepting or rejecting the land was never raised by us. Those who had not been given the land by SC were making all the noise about not accepting it. We had decided to follow the apex court’s decision,” Faruqi said.

As per the SC order, the UP government had identified a plot of land under Raunahi police station in Sohawal tehsil of Ayodhya district.

The Sunni board has been mum about its future course of action after the Ayodhya verdict. Now, it has clarified that it will decide the next step in its meeting on February 24. On allotment of land by the UP government, Faruqi said, “The November 9, 2019 apex court order was very clear that the state government will allot us a plot and we had liberty to build a mosque and associated amenities on it. We did not have the liberty of not accepting the land as that would have been contempt of court.”

When asked what would be decided in the February 24 meeting, Faruqi said board members will decide “zameen pe kya karna hai aur kaise karna hai (what is to be done on the land and how to go about it)”. While the board has received the government’s letter, it is yet to send a reply. It will do so after February 24. Besides Faruqi, the board has seven members.

“We have received several proposals from the public suggesting using the land for charitable causes. A proposal to build an Islamic cultural centre along with a mosque has also come up,” Faruqi said. He added that the five-acre land is big enough to have a mosque as well as other amenities. “Babri Masjid was built on just one-third of an acre. Even if we replicate the same mosque, which is locally not even required, there will still be space left,” he said. Faruqi said the Babri Masjid will cease to exist in the board’s records.


Grain output to hit record high in 2019-20 crop year

Backed by above normal monsoon rainfall last year, India’s total foodgrain production is estimated at an all-time record high of nearly 292 million tonnes in 2019-20 crop year, which is over 2.3% higher than the foodgrain production previous year. Among all crops, output of wheat too is estimated at an all-time record level of 106 MT whereas the production of other crops is estimated to be higher than their normal production.

Agriculture ministry released its second advanced estimates for the current year, showing it as the fourth consecutive yearon-year of higher output of foodgrains since 2016-17 crop year (July-June).

The ministry’s figures show that the estimated output of foodgrain this year has even crossed its target (291 MT) which it had set before the beginning of the 2019-20 sowing season. Though this estimate may be revised after harvest of rabi (winter sown) crops, officials said the final output figures may not be less than what is estimated now.

The ministry releases four advance estimates followed by final estimates of production of major agricultural crops every crop year. The fourth advance estimates are considered as good as final estimates. India’s foodgrain basket comprises of rice, wheat, coarse cereals (millets and maize) and pulses.

“The cumulative rainfall in the country during the monsoon season (June-September, 2019) had been 10% higher than the Long Period Average. Accordingly, the production of most of the crops for the agricultural year 2019-20 has been estimated higher than their normal production,” the report said.

It added that these estimates are subject to revision on account of more precise information flowing over time. As per estimates, total foodgrain production is pegged at a record 291.95 MT for 2019-20 crop year, higher by 6.74 MT than the total production of 285.21 MT in 2018-19. Of the total production, foodgrain output is estimated to be 142.36 MT from the kharif (summer) season and 149.60 MT from the rabi season of current year.

Among non-foodgrain crops, outputs of oilseeds, sugarcane and cotton are estimated to be higher this year compared to their production in 2018-19. Output of oilseeds at 34.19 MT is, however, less than what the ministry had targeted (36 MT) and much less than what the country needs to meet its demand (45 MT). As a result, oilseeds output continues to be a concern. The country’s edible oil import bill currently exceeds Rs.60,000 crore per year.

64% Indians Will be Online by 2023

India will have over 907 million internet users by 2023, accounting for 64% of the population, according to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report. The report says devices and connections are growing faster (7% CAGR) than the population (1% CAGR) in India, boosting the growth in the average number of devices and connections per household and per capita. There would be 2.1 billion networked devices by 2023 and M2M (machine to machine) modules would account for 25% (524.3 million) of all networked devices.

India to switch over to world’s cleanest petrol and diesel

India will switch to the world's cleanest petrol and diesel from April 1 as it leapfrogs straight to Euro-VI emission compliant fuels from Euro-IV grades now - a feat achieved in just three years and not seen in any of the large economies around the globe.

India joins a select league of nations using petrol and diesel containing just 10 parts per million of sulphur as it looks to cut vehicular emissions that are said to be one of the reasons for the choking pollution in major cities.

Sanjiv Singh, Chairman of Indian Oil Corp - the firm that controls roughly half of the country's fuel market, said almost all refineries began producing ultra-low sulphur BS-VI (equivalent to Euro-VI grade) petrol and diesel by the end of 2019 and oil companies have now undertaken the tedious task of replacing every drop of fuel in the country with the new one.

Every drop of old, higher-sulphur content fuel has to be flushed out in depots, pipelines and tanks before being replaced by BS-VI.

India adopted Euro-III equivalent (or Bharat Stage-III) fuel with a sulphur content of 350 ppm in 2010 and then took seven years to move to BS-IV that had a sulphur content of 50 ppm. From BS-IV to BS-VI it took just three years.

Singh said sulphur reduction will reduce Particulate Matter emissions even in the in-use older generation diesel vehicles. 


Google to shut down free Wi-Fi at railway stations

Tech giant Google said it has decided to wind down its Station programme globally through 2020, including in India, given that going online has become much easier and cheaper over the last five years. The US-based company said it is working with its partners to transition existing sites so they can remain useful resources for the community.

Google had launched Station in India in 2015 in partnership with Indian Railways and Railtel to bring fast, free public Wi-Fi to over 400 railway stations in the country by mid-2020.

“But we crossed that number by June 2018 and implemented Station in thousands of other locations around the country in partnership with telecommunications companies, ISPs and local authorities. Over time, partners in other countries asked for Station too and we responded accordingly,” Google vice president (payments and next billion users) Caesar Sengupta said in a blog post.

He added that since then, getting online has become much simpler and cheaper and that mobile data plans have become more affordable and mobile connectivity is improving globally.

Apart from India, Station is available in Nigeria, Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa.

Sengupta cited the example of India, where mobile data per GB is among the cheapest in the world. He cited reports that state mobile data prices have reduced by 95 per cent in the last 5 years and Indian users consume close to 10 GB of data each month, on an average.

“And similar to what the Indian government did, several governments and local entities have kicked off their own initiatives to provide easier, cost-effective access to the internet for everyone.

In addition to this changed context, the challenge of varying technical requirements and infrastructure among our partners across countries has also made it difficult for Station to scale and be sustainable, especially for our partners, Sengupta noted.

He added that the company sees greater need and bigger opportunities in making products and features tailored to work better for the next billion user markets.

“Our commitment to supporting the next billion users remains stronger than ever, from continuing our efforts to make the internet work for more people...,” Sengupta said.

SC bats for equality

Fourteen years after eleven women officers decided to fight the gender bias prevalent in the Indian Army, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment, struck down ‘stereotypes’ and gave the Centre three months to make women eligible for full tenures and command posting. A two-member bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi termed the government’s argument of physiological limitations and social norms for denying women officers command posts as ‘disturbing and discriminatory’.

For the 11 women officers, all aged between 47 and 48 years, who were selected in the Army as Short Service Commission officers from 1995- 96, though the judgement came ten years too late, they hoped other women personnel will benefit from their fight. With a retirement age of 54 years, the petitioners have roughly six to seven years of service pending, but career wise stand way behind their male counterparts who have risen substantially in rank and position.

Women were inducted in the Army from February15,1992, in stipulated branches and cadres with a tenure of five years, this was extended to ten years later in 1996. On November 19, 2005, the Defence Ministry further extended it up to fourteen years. In February 2003, however, Babita Puniya, an advocate approached the Delhi High Court for the grant of Permanent Commission to women SSC officers in the Army. Three years later, the 11 women officers, who had by then completed ten years of service, joined the petition seeking permanent commission.

In a strongly worded order, the apex court on Monday said, “Seventy years after the birth of a post-colonial independent state, there is still a need for change in attitudes and mindsets to recognize the commitment to the values of the Constitution…. The submissions advanced…are based on sex stereotypes premised on assumptions about socially ascribed roles of gender which discriminate against women. Underlying the statement that it is a ‘greater challenge’ for women officers to meet the hazards of service ‘owing to their prolonged absence during pregnancy, motherhood and domestic obligations towards their children and families’ is a strong stereotype which assumes that domestic obligations rest solely on women.”

The court observed that the Centre’s submission of ‘minimal facilities for habitat and hygiene’ as a ground for suggesting that women officers in the services must not be deployed in conflict zones did not stand as the petitioners have placed on record that 30 per cent of the total women officers are in fact deputed to conflict areas.

Public roads cannot be blocked indefinitely: SC

The Supreme Court appointed senior lawyers Sanjay Hegde, Sadhna Ramachandran and former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah to go and talk to protesters at Shaheen Bagh area to convince them to hold the agitation at an alternative site.

The apex court has fixed the matter for further hearing on February 24.

During the hearing, Justice KM Joseph observed, “Right to protest is a fundamental right, across the countries. We have expressed our opinion and we are hopeful of a solution, if nothing is done, we will leave it to the concerned authorities,” he said.

Advocate Deo Sudhi, appearing for one of the petitioners Nand Kishor Garg said that the protesters have not taken any kind of due permission from the concerned authorities and police.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta also apprised that court, “We had a meeting with welfare societies that it's not fair to bring the entire city to hostage under the garb of protest... There are continuous efforts of negotiations going on.”

On, February 10, a two-judge bench of the apex court, headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and also comprising Justice KM Joseph issued notices to the Centre, the Delhi government and the police over the protest.

The Shaheen Bagh area of Delhi had lately gained nationwide attention due to a continued anti-CAA sit-in by people, especially Muslim women against the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Population Register and National Register of Citizens.

HAL to supply IAF with 83 Tejas jets

The biggest deal in the indigenous military aviation sector has been finalised, with the overall cost of the IAF acquiring 83 single engine Tejas fighters and their support package from defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited being slashed from the earlier around Rs.56,500 crore to Rs.39,000 crore.

The over Rs.17,000-crore reduction in overall cost has come after hard-nosed negotiations spread over a year. The defence ministry and IAF were initially shocked at the “exorbitant price” being demanded by HAL to produce the 83 Tejas Mark-1A jets along with the maintenance and infrastructure package.

It was in November 2016 that the Defence Acquisitions Council had first approved the procurement of 83 Tejas jets at a cost of Rs.49,797 crore. But HAL had responded with a quote of around Rs.56,500 crore, which led to protracted cost negotiations.

Down to just 30 fighter squadrons (each has 18 jets) when at least 42 are required for the requisite deterrence against Pakistan and China, the IAF is banking upon the long-delayed light combat aircraft Tejas to make up for the free fall in numbers.

The first four Rafale fighters will touch down at Ambala airbase in May, with the remaining 32 following in batches by April 2022 under the Rs.59,000 crore deal inked with France in September 2016. But the slow production rate of the home-grown Tejas jets by HAL, much like its protracted development saga, remains a major concern for the IAF.

The IAF’s ‘Flying Daggers’ squadron at Sulur has till now inducted only 16 of the original 40 Tejas Mark-1 fighters, which were all slated for delivery by December 2016 under two contracts worth Rs.8,802 crore inked earlier.

The 83 Tejas Mark-1A fighters are slated to have 43 “improvements” over the Mark-1 jets to improve maintainability, AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar to replace existing mechanically-steered radar, air-to-air refuelling, long range BVR (beyond visual range) missiles and advanced electronic warfare to jam enemy radars and missiles.

“The flight testing for Tejas Mark-1A will hopefully be completed by 2022. After these 123 fighters, the IAF is also looking to induct 170 Tejas Mark-2 or the MWF (medium weight fighters) with more powerful engines and advanced avionics,” another source said. But the Tejas Mark-2 and the indigenous stealth fifth-generation fighter aircraft called the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) will take several years to fructify. For now, IAF is keeping its fingers crossed the Tejas Mark-1A does not get delayed any further.

Moody’s cuts India growth projection to 5.4% for 2020

Moody’s Investors Service slashed India’s growth forecast to 5.4% for 2020 from 6.6% projected earlier on slower than expected economic recovery.

In its update on Global Macro Outlook, Moody’s said India’s economy has decelerated rapidly over the last two years and expects economic recovery to begin in the current quarter.

The growth projections are based on calendar year and according to its estimates, India has clocked a GDP growth of 5% in 2019. With a weak economy and depressed credit growth reinforcing each other, Moody’s said it is difficult to envision a quick turnaround of either, even if economic deceleration may have troughed. On the fiscal front, it said, the Union Budget 2020 did not contain a significant stimulus to address the demand slump. As similar policies in other countries have shown, tax cuts are unlikely to translate into higher consumer and business spending when risk aversion is high, it said.

Moody’s said it expects additional easing by the RBI. If the recent rise in CPI inflation, mainly as a result of higher food prices, is seen to have second-round effects, this would make it more challenging for the central bank to cut interest rates further, it added. With regard to global growth, Moody’s said the corona virus outbreak has diminished optimism about prospects of an incipient stabilisation of global growth this year.

Global GDP growth forecast too has been revised down, and Moody’s now expect G-20 economies to collectively grow 2.4% in 2020, a softer rate than last year, followed by a pickup to 2.8% in 2021.

154 eminent citizens write to Prez

A group of 154 eminent citizens — comprising former high court judges, ex-bureaucrats, armed forces veterans and academicians — wrote to the President of India expressing their concern at the “vicious” campaign and “fear-mongering” by “vested groups” against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, upcoming National Population Register exercise and the idea of a National Register of Citizens.

In the letter — signed by 11 former judges of different high courts, 24 retired IAS officers, 11 ex-IFS officers, 16 former IPS officers and 18 former Lieutenant Generals — the citizens urged the government to look into the ongoing protests against CAA/NRC “with all seriousness” and safeguard the democratic institutions by taking stern action against the vested interests behind them. They even alleged that the protests were designed to destroy the fabric of the country and harm the nation’s unity and integrity.

The citizens — which include former Chief Justice of Sikkim high court Justice Permod Kohli, former defence secretary Yogendra Narain, former RAW chief Sanjeev Kumar Tripathi, former Kerala chief secretary C V Anand Bose, former Kerala DGP R Padmanabhan and Puducherry University vice chancellor Gurmeet Singh — said the campaign based on a “false and nefarious narrative” about CAA, NPR and NRC was being run in a “coordinated manner” leading to violent protests in which public and private property was destroyed.

They defended CAA saying that it was a law passed by Parliament and did not apply to Indian citizens at all, while also claiming that the Act was not in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution. On NPR, they said it was a legal obligation. As for NRC, the citizens stressed that it was an absolute necessity for a country to maintain such a register for its security safety and well being.

“Such registers are being maintained the world over and are also being maintained by both Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is also to be noted that NRC is religion, caste, creed, colour, language and region neutral,” they argued.

The NPR will be carried out along with the house listing phase of the census exercise from April 1 to September 30.


Somewhere in Mumbai....

Mumbai's first Ropax or Ro-Ro ferry has arrived. Within a month, commuters will be able to reach Mandwa with their vehicles in an hour instead of the five hours they spend travelling by road to Alibaug. The vessel has been acquired from Greece and has the capability of carrying 500 passengers, and up to 150 vehicles per trip. Commuters will be charged Rs.235 per person and Rs.800 per car for the journey.

Exports fall for 6th month in a row

India’s exports fell 1.7% in January, the sixth straight monthly decline, while imports dropped for the 10th month in a row, pushing up trade deficit to a seven-month high of $15.2 billion.

Data released by the commerce department estimated exports at $26.4 billion in January, while imports were pegged at $41.5 billion.

Data showed this was the first time in nearly six months that the pace of import contraction was slower than pace of decline in exports. The decline in exports was visible across a majority of the sectors, with 18 of the 30 major segments seeing a contraction in the value of their shipments during the month. Leading the fall was oil meals (down 43%), rice (18%) and cashew (13%), while iron ore (114% jump) and electronics (40%), led by mobile phones, providing support.

A large part of the fall in imports is attributed to lower economic activity.

Economists warned of adverse impact of the corona virus on trade in the coming months.


Delhi Elections: AAP sweeps

Following a highly polarized poll battle, the Aam Aadmi Party repeated a historic win in Delhi, bagging 62 seats in the 70-member assembly. The opposition BJP, which was confident of victory, managed to increase its tally from three to eight seats and recorded a marginal increase in its vote-share from 32.1 per cent in 2015 to 38.52 per cent this time.

The Congress, which had ruled Delhi from 1998 to 2013, drew a blank for the second time in a row. In the absence of a strong leader to helm the party’s campaign and state unit, the Congress’s overall vote-share dipped from 9.8 per cent in 2015 to 4.36 per cent on Tuesday. The AAP’s vote-share showed a slight dip to 53.65 per cent from the 54.31 per cent last time, factoring in the loss of five seats from its previous tally in 2015.

After losing every election except one bypoll in Delhi in the past four years, AAP made a comeback that most party leaders attributed to a conscious change in strategy since mid-2019. Sources said that when Kejriwal reached out informally to poll strategist Prashant Kishore last June-July, the two men took a hard look at where the party had been going wrong. “We had to go back to the basics. Calling Narendra Modi a psychopath did not really work for the party, not because people love Modi but because the Delhi voter did not elect Kejriwal to play the role of the main Opposition. He was elected to serve as the CM of Delhi. So he went back to doing what he was in his domain,” said a top party leader.

At the same time Kejriwal made conscious efforts at changing his image from a ‘romanticised anarchist’ and the ‘angry erudite leader’ to an ‘affable leader, the bada beta or bhai of the family.’ The posters and advertisement campaigns changed around this branding and the CM made appeals to the people such as not to celebrate Diwali with crackers or for women to take a stand on their safety. On Tuesday too Kejriwal wooed a swarming crowd of party workers and supporters at the AAP headquarters and thanked Delhi for the victory adding, “Dilliwalon, I love you.” Flanked by top party leaders and his wife Sunita, Kejriwal remained informal, “Today is my wife’s birthday. I have already had my cake…ab aapko khilaunga”. The cake that he referred to was good governance in the next five years.

Through the Delhi poll campaign he refrained from talking about Ram Mandir, Citizenship Amendment Act and Shaheen Bagh, refusing to engage with the BJP on issues that were beyond his ‘job description.’

In Kejriwal’s third term as chief minister, he is set to widen his ambit and move beyond education and health. Senior party leaders said that infrastructure will be a top priority and in its assessment during the elections, the party had learnt of grievances against poor transport and infrastructure.

In his second term, AAP had stalled the Phase 4 of Delhi Metro over a stand-off with the Centre on free metro rides for women. The Delhi government had phased out several buses and failed to bring in new buses. Women’s safety, an issue for which AAP blamed the Centre as Delhi Police reports to the Home Ministry, will also be a priority.

AAP leader Ajoy Kumar, a former IPS officer known for his valour as the superintendent of police in Bihar and Jharkhand, has been asked to ensure women’s safety.

Raghav Chadha and Atishi may hold key portfolios like finance, education and social welfare. In the previous government, Marlena had worked closely with education minister Manish Sisodia to revamp the state education system until she had to be dropped owing to objections from the Centre. Chadha has served as AAP treasurer, and as per an insider, ‘he could be the one reading the next budget’ of the AAP government.

Jasmine Shah, who headed the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the government, and supervised the Chief Minister’s Office in the last few months, may play a larger role.

The BJP had deployed close to 200 MPs and party functionaries, including Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and central ministers Smriti Irani and Anurag Thakur, who went door-to-door, addressed 10,000 nukkad sabhas (corner meetings) and rallies and pulled all-nighters at houses of locals.

As BJP chief JP Nadda had taken over the reins of the party just a couple of weeks before the polls, Shah, who is called the modern Chanakya for his poll strategies, had orchestrated the campaign from behind the scenes. In a bid to overcome factionalism, the party did not name a CM candidate. But none of these strategies worked.

India Out of US’ Developing Nations List for Trade Benefits

Ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit on February 24-25, the US has removed India from its list of developing countries that are exempt from investigations into whether they harm American industry with unfairly subsidised exports.

The United States Trade Representative eliminated a host of countries including Brazil, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Africa and Argentina from getting special preferences under the methodology for countervailing duty investigations, stating that the previous guidance that dated back to 1998 “is now obsolete”. The US removed India from the list on account of it being a G-20 member and having a share of 0.5% or more of world trade. The move has cast a shadow on India being able to restore preferential benefits under the Generalised System of Preference as part of its trade talks with the US, as only developing countries are eligible for it.

“For purposes of US CVD law, the USTR therefore considers countries with a share of 0.5% or more of world trade to be developed countries,” the USTR said in a federal notice. India’s share in global exports was 1.67% in 2018. In global imports, it was 2.57%.

In July last year, Trump directed his administration to change rules to prevent “self-declared developing countries from availing themselves of flexibilities” in global trade, saying that nearly two-thirds of World Trade Organization members had been able to avail themselves of special treatment and take on weaker commitments by designating themselves as developing countries.

“Thus, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are ineligible for the 2% de minimis standard, notwithstanding that, based on the most recent World Bank data, each country has a per capita GNI below $12,375,” the USTR said in the notice. Developing countries are permitted up to 2% of export or production subsidies.

The US had in January last year proposed withdrawal of special rights and exemptions for emerging economies such as India and China, which are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, G20, classified as “high income” by the World Bank or account for more than 0.5% of global merchandise trade.

The move has jeopardised India’s ability to restore GSP benefits under the trade deal that the two countries are negotiating, experts said. “According to this notice, India is no longer a developing country and its hopes of getting GSP may not materialise as it doesn’t qualify to get the benefits,” said a Delhi-based expert on trade issues.

In 2018, India exported goods worth $6.3 billion (as per USTR figures) to the US under the GSP, accounting for around 12.1% of India’s total export to that country.

The average duty concession accruing on account of GSP was almost $240 million in 2018.

The two sides are likely to announce a trade deal during Trump’s visit.

As per a White House statement, President Trump would visit India on February 24-25. “The trip will further strengthen the United States-India strategic partnership and highlight the strong and enduring bonds between the American and Indian people,” it said. The Trump administration has yet to announce the dates for the visit of USTR Robert Lighthizer, who was expected to travel to India to finalise the trade deal.

While India wants restoration of benefits under the GSP and more access for its products in the US, Washington has sought doing away with duty on American information and communication technology goods along with market access for its dairy products and duty cuts on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The US is also keen to sell more almonds to India.


US OKs sale of $1.86bn air defence system to India

India has got one step closer to deploying a new missile shield over New Delhi, with the US state department notifying its Congress of the impending sale of an integrated air defence system sale to New Delhi for $1.86 billion.

It was earlier reported that India was moving ahead swiftly to acquire the IADWS or the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-II (Nasams-II) from the US, which will be used along with indigenous, Russian and Israeli systems to erect an ambitious multi-layered missile shield over the National Capital Territory of Delhi against aerial threats ranging from drones to ballistic missiles.

India and the US have already held several rounds of negotiations, including selection of sites for deployment of the missile batteries around Delhi, for the proposed sale under the US’ foreign military sales programme.

Once the deal is inked, the Nasams-II deliveries will take place in two to four years, say sources. Though US was also mounting pressure on India to also consider its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Patriot Advanced Capability missile defence systems, New Delhi went ahead to ink the $5.43 billion (almost Rs.40,000 crore) deal with Russia for five squadrons of the advanced S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems in October 2018.

As per the proposed overall air defence plan for Delhi, the innermost layer of protection will be through the Nasams. It will be a combination of different weapons like Stinger surface-to-air missiles, gun systems and AIM-120C-7 AMRAAMs (advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles), backed by 3D Sentinel radars, fire-distribution centers and command-and-control units. “The networked system, capable of even shooting around buildings, will take care of 9/11-like and other close-in threats,” said the source.

The outermost layer of Delhi’s missile shield, in turn, will be provided by the indigenous two-tier ballistic missile defence system being developed by DRDO. This system’s AAD (advanced air defence) and PAD interceptor missiles are currently geared to intercept enemy missiles, in the 2,000-km class, at altitudes from 15-25 km to 80-100 km.

The second layer will be through the highly automated and mobile S-400 systems, which will have missiles with interception ranges of 120, 200, 250 and 380 kms, backed by their associated battle-management system of command posts and launchers, long range acquisition and engagement radars.

Then will come the Barak-8 medium-range surface-to-air missile systems, jointly developed by Israeli Aerospace Industries and DRDO, which have a 70-100 km interception range. The indigenous Akash area defence missile systems, with a 25-km range, in turn, will form the layer over the NASAMs.

January 2020: Car sales fall 8%

Car sales started the new year on a tough note as numbers fell by 8% in January with consumer demand remaining weak and companies clearing stocks ahead of the BS6 transition in April.

However, buoyed by new models and entry of fresh brands, SUV sales managed to register a small growth, moving up 3%, though analysts find the positive traction slower than what is generally due.

According to numbers released by industry body Siam, cars sales stood at 1.6 lakh units as against 1.8 lakh units in January last year. Siam registers wholesale numbers, and the weak volumes are also a reflection of the efforts of the companies to not build up large inventory levels at dealerships.

With BS6 getting implemented from April, companies are in the process of clearing existing BS4 models, which will not be allowed for sale from 2020-21. “The wholesale numbers are lower as companies are not flooding dealerships with heavy inventory. Most of them have managed to reduce the stock level over the past few months through heavy discounts and clearance schemes,” an industry analyst said. The auto industry has registered its worst fall in over two decades last year as the slowdown in GDP, difficult financing, job losses, and general consumer pessimism over economic growth saw buyers stay away from new purchases.

Companies such as Maruti, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota have said sales in 2020 will not be easy, though single-digit growth can be expected due to positive movements in demand around the year end. Companies have so far been cautious in committing fresh investments towards expansion, or hiring of new staff.

A majority of launches slated for this year are in the SUV category, and those looking to drive in new off-roaders include Kia, MG Motor, Hyundai, Tata Motors, and Mahindra & Mahindra.

The situation is equally challenging on the two wheeler front where wholesale deliveries have been lean too. Sales of scooters are down by 16%, and motorcycles are also lagging by a similar degree. And, economic slump has also kept the demand for commercial vehicles weak. January numbers were down 14%.


Bareilly finally gets its ‘jhumka’

Bareilly finally got its much-awaited ‘jhumka’ when Union Minister and local MP Santosh Gangwar unveiled a 14-foot high replica at the zero point on national highway 24. The jhumka that weighs over 200 kilograms was installed in the Parsakhera area. It is embedded with colourful stones and decorated by the city’s famous ‘zari’ embroidery. Bareilly’s jhumka – though there is no connection between the city and the piece of jewellery – became a national obsession with the 1966 chartbuster ‘Jhumka gira re Bareilly ke bazaar mein ’ song. The song from the 1966 film ‘Mera Sayaa’continues to be remembered even 54 years later

India among top 20 nations at risk of importing coronavirus: German study

Of the countries most at risk of importing coronavirus cases, India ranks 17th, researchers have found on the basis of a mathematical model for the expected global spread of the virus that originated in China’s Wuhan area in December 2019.

So far India has reported three coronavirus positive cases — all from Kerala. Among the airports in India, the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi is most at risk, followed by airports in Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kochi, according to the model.

The new model for predicting global novel coronavirus cases has been developed by researchers from Humboldt University and Robert Koch Institute in Germany.

“The spread of the virus on an international scale is dominated by air travel,” said the study. “Wuhan was the relevant major domestic air transportation hub with many connecting international flights before the city was effectively quarantined on January 23, 2020, and the Wuhan airport was closed. By then the virus had already spread to other Chinese provinces as well as other countries,” it added.

The researchers said it is possible to estimate how likely it is that the virus spreads to other areas by looking at air travel passenger numbers.

“The busier a flight route, the more probable it is that an infected passenger travels this route. We also take into account connecting flights and travel routes that involve multiple destinations,” said the study.

The top 10 countries and regions at risk of importing coronavirus are: Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, USA, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia.

While Thailand’s national import risk is 2.1%, it is 0.2% for India, found the research.

The foundation of the model is the worldwide air transporation network that connects approximately 4,000 airports with more than 25,000 direct connections.

The model accounts for both, the current distribution of confirmed cases in mainland China as well as airport closures that were implemented as a mitigation strategy. This model is based on the concept of effective distance and is an extension of a model introduced in the 2013 paper “The Hidden Geometry of Complex, Network-Driven Contagion Phenomena” published in the journal ‘Science’.


RBI: Inflation outlook remains uncertain

The RBI said that, overall, the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain and cautioned that the trajectory excluding food and fuel needs to be carefully monitored. The monetary policy committee noted that inflation has surged above the upper tolerance band around the target in December 2019, primarily on the back of the unusual spike in onion prices. Over the coming weeks and months, onion prices are likely to ebb as supply conditions improve.

“The salutary effects on headline inflation are, however, likely to be tempered by hardening of prices of other food items, notably those of pulses and proteins. Meanwhile, adjustments to telecom charges are imparting cost-push pressures to CPI inflation, excluding food and fuel,” the MPC said in its statement.

Retail inflation has surged to a five-year high of 7.4% in December, largely led by a spike in food prices, triggering worries over the building up of inflationary pressures.

“Going forward, the trajectory of inflation, excluding food and fuel, needs to be carefully monitored as the passthrough of remaining revisions in mobile phone charges, the increase in prices of drugs and pharmaceuticals and the impact of new emission norms play out and feed into inflation formation,” according to the statement.

“The MPC anticipates that the combination of these factors may keep headline inflation elevated in the short run, at least through H1 of 2020-21. Accordingly, MPC will remain vigilant about the potential generalisation of inflationary pressures as several of the underlying factors cited earlier appear to be operating in concert.”

The MPC raised the CPI inflation projection to 6.5% for Q4, 2019-20; 5.4-5.% for H1, 2020-21; and 3.2% for Q3, 2020-21, with risks broadly balanced. The panel also forecast growth for 2020-21 at 6% as monetary transmission in terms of a reduction in lending rates and financial flows to the commercial sector have progressed visa-vis the last policy, and this could spur both consumption and investment demand. It said the rationalisation of personal income tax rates in the Budget should support domestic demand, along with measures to boost rural and infrastructure spending. MPC observed that the economy continues to be weak and the output gap remained negative.

Railways: Mumbai to Delhi in 12 hours

With major upgradation plans to increase train speeds, travel time between Mumbai and New Delhi is likely to come down to 12 hours, saving commuters over three hours. The Indian Railways has drawn up a plan to boost infrastructure, which includes providing fencing and strengthening bridges along the entire 1,384-km corridor so the trains can run at 160 kmph, instead of the current 130 kmph.

The upgradation work is pegged at Rs.11,188 crore, including Rs.4,011 crore on Western Railway.

To achieve this, the Railways will have to undertake upgradation of tracks, bridges, signalling and over head equipment installations, besides removal of some permanent speed restrictions. The Mumbai-New Delhi passes through seven states and four zonal railways – Northern Railway, North Central Railway, West Central Railway and Western Railway. Of the 1,384-km route, around 694 km is through WR territory, between Mumbai Central and Nagda.

Fencing (RCC walls or wire fencing) will have to be provided throughout the route to prevent trespassing and cattle from being run over. The cost of boundary wall/fencing in WR’s jurisdiction from Mumbai Central to Nagda alone is Rs.600 crore.

All 186 manned level crossing gates will have to be eliminated and ROBs or subways built to ensure a speed of 160 kmph. Also, permanent speed restrictions will have to removed so that trains can achieve the desired speed. Besides, bridges on the route will have to be strengthened.

The cost of rehabilitation of bridges will cost around Rs.550 crore in the Western Railway jurisdiction up to Nagda. New OHE mast as well more substations and improvement in signalling system will also have to be undertaken.

New retail loans set to get cheaper as RBI tweaks CRR

Loans for housing, auto and small businesses are likely to get cheaper even without the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy committee reducing interest rates. RBI governor Shaktikanta Das took some unconventional steps to bring down borrowing costs.

In his last monetary policy for the current fiscal, Das said RBI would provide cheap long-term financing to banks for up to Rs. lakh crore through long-term (one-year to three-year) repos. He also said cash reserve requirements would be waived on deposits that are used to provide retail loans between January 21, 2020 and July 31, 2020. This will make housing, auto and SME loans cheaper as 4% of deposits impounded in cash reserves will be freed.

The third measure announced to bring down cost of loans was benchmarking loans to medium-sized enterprises to RBI’s repo rate (the rate at which RBI lends to banks).

Bankers said the measures were clearly aimed at bringing down the cost of borrowing even though the six-member MPC voted to retain RBI’s repo rate at a 10-year low of 5.15%. Bankers said while the economic situation called for a boost to lending, RBI’s hands were tied because of the recent spike in inflation. The governor also highlighted risks to the economy arising out of the outbreak of the Corona virus. 

Leopard population down by 75-90%

The leopard population has declined 75-90 per cent in India, according to a study which has suggested that this carnivore demands conservation attention similar to tigers in the country. The research was conducted by scientists of Centre for Wildlife Studies and Wildlife Institute of India. They used genetic data from leopards sampled across the Indian subcontinent to investigate population structures and patterns of demographic decline, a press release said.

They investigated the demographic history of each identified sub-populations and compared genetic decline analyses with countrywide local extinction probabilities. The study was conducted by Supriya Bhatt, Suvankar Biswas, Dr Bivash Pandav, Dr Samrat Mondol (all from Wildlife Institute of India) and Dr Krithi K Karanth (Centre for Wildlife Studies).

They collected faecal samples and identified 56 unique individuals using a panel of 13 microsatellite markers, and merged this data with already available 143 leopard individuals.

“Coalescent simulations with microsatellite loci revealed, across India, a possibly human-induced 75-90 per cent population decline between approximately 120-200 years ago,” it said. The population-specific estimates of genetic decline are in concordance with ecological estimates of local extinction probabilities in these sub-populations, it was stated.

“Our results are both interesting and alarming — using two different methodological approaches we have established that even one most adaptable big cats in India has experienced decline in population structure and distribution,” Karanth, chief conservation scientist at Bengaluru-based CWS, said.