Gist of The Hindu: July 2014

Gist of The Hindu: July 2014

Britain considering ban on Muslim Brotherhood : report

Britain’s government is considering banning the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood over concerns the group is behind terrorist attacks in Egypt. Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy was ousted as Egypt’s first democratically elected President last year by the military and the group has since been blamed by Cairo for a wave of attacks. The Brotherhood insists it is a peaceful organization with no links to violence. Egyptian authorities have launched a crackdown on Islamists since July, during which hundreds were killed and thousands injured.

A court in southern Egypt handed down death sentences to 529 alleged backers of Morsy over rioting and killing a police officer in August, drawing strong condemnations from human rights organizations. Since being banned in Egypt, the Brotherhood has moved some of its operations to Britain. The British review is being handled by the country’s top diplomat in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, historically hostile to organized political Islamic movements, this year declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization and the monarchy has supported Egypt’s military rulers.

Meanwhile, al—Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the networks’s Yemen—based branch — released a new video in which they mocked the Saudi government as being a pawn of the United States.

AQAP condemned the ban on the Brotherhood and said it was a sign the Saudi government would never tolerate Islamist groups.

AQAP has hundreds of Saudi and other foreign fighters in its ranks and is considered one of the most dangerous branches of al—Qaeda.

No sign of troop pullback : NATO

Even as NATO saw no sign of tangible Russian force pullback from the Ukrainian border, Russia has hiked the price of natural gas for Ukraine. The Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has withdrawn the 30 per cent discount, thereby increasing the price of gas for Ukraine from $268.5 to $385.5 per 1,000 cubic metres. The discount was part of a financial bailout package Russia’s President Vladimir Putin extended to Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych in December following his refusal to sign a free trade pact with the European Union. At the same time Russia has not acted on its threat to cancel another gas price discount Ukraine received in 2010 under an agreement to extend the Russian lease of a naval base in Crimea. Had it done so, the price would have soared to $480 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas. The International Monetary Fund has agreed a $14-18 billion standby credit for Ukraine, in exchange for painful economic reforms that are expected to be launched after the presidential elections scheduled for May 25. In Ukraine, the authorities have moved to crack down on far right militants who helped them topple the Yanukovych government.

The Ukrainian Parliament directed the security services to disarm the illegal self-defence groups that sprang up during the protests against the previous government. The move came a day after a shooting in the capital Kiev involving activists of the extreme nationalist Right Sector group in which three people were wounded, including a deputy Mayor of Kiev.

Russia has accused Ukrainian nationalists of intimidating ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Russian immigration authorities said on Monday that hundreds of Russians have fled Ukraine for Russia in recent weeks.

Japan allows evacuees back to no-go zone around Fukushima plant

For the first time since Japan’s nuclear disaster three years ago, authorities are allowing residents to return to live in their homes within a tiny part of a 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone around the Fukushima plant. The decision, which took effect, applies to 357 people in 117 households from a corner of Tamura city after the government determined that radiation levels are low enough for habitation. But many of those evacuees are still undecided about going back because of fears about radiation, especially its effect on children. Visits inside the zone had previously been allowed, and about 90 people already live in the area with special permission, according to Tamura city hall.

The March 11, 2011 nuclear disaster, when a huge earthquake and ensuing tsunami led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, displaced more than 100,000 people. Many of them are still living in temporary housing or with relatives, and some have moved away to start life over elsewhere. Areas within the evacuation zone have become ghost towns, overgrown with weeds. Evacuees now receive government compensation of about 100,000 yen ($1,000) each a month. Those who move back get a one-time 900,000 yen ($9,000) as an incentive. The monthly compensation will end within a year for residents from areas where the government decides it is safe enough to go back and live. New stores and public schools are planned to accommodate those who move back.

The radioactive plume from the Fukushima plant did not spread evenly in a circle and so some areas outside the 20-kilometre zone are still too unsafe to live. Decontamination on an unprecedented scale is ongoing in Fukushima. Some places may not be safe to live for decades.

India poses barriers to American trade : USTR

Indian policies pose barriers to American trade and the US will keep pressing India to remove obstacles to smoothen business relation, says a USTR report. Noting that it is holding talks with India both at bilateral and the World Trade Organisation level, the 2014 report of the UN Trade Representative (USTR) on “Technical Barriers to Trade” listed out some of the issues obstructing trade relations.

Indian policies on wholesale foods labelling, security regulations on telecom equipment, safety testing requirements for electronics and IT equipment and proposed amendment to the hazardous waste act as trade barriers, the report said. US electronics and IT goods manufacturers have raised concerns about the Indian Department of Electronics and Information Technology’s (DEITY) September 2012 order that mandates compulsory registration for 15 categories of imported electronic and IT goods, it said. The policy, originally set to take effect from April 2013, mandates exporters to register their products with laboratories affiliated or certified by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

“Although US industry would ultimately like to see the entire policy repealed, an important first step is to seek an exemption for Highly Specialised Equipment (HSE), including servers, storage, printing machines, and IT products that are installed, operated, and maintained by professionals who are trained to manage the product’s inherent safety risks,” the report said. USTR said the United States will continue to seek clarification on the scope and application of the revised Preferential Market Access (PMA) policy for domestically manufactured telecommunications equipment and closely monitor its implementation in 2014.

The United States, it said, has detailed concerns about ‘onerous’ India-specific labelling issues in previous TBT Reports since the FSSR were published in India’s Gazette in 2011. India’s responses have failed to provide additional or reliable information with regard to how the elements of this measure advances safety or efficacy or quality of the products in question or meets the specific needs of India, the report said.

UN asks Sri Lanka to cooperate with UNHRC

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has asked Sri Lanka to engage “constructively” and cooperate with its human rights body to implement a resolution calling for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during the final stages of the country’s civil war. Mr. Ban has “consistently underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Sri Lanka,” the UN Secretary General’s Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters. The Council had on March 27 voted to open an international inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the final stages of a decades-long conflict that ended in 2009.

India had abstained from voting on the resolution which was adopted by a vote of 23 in favour to 12 against. The Geneva-based Council requested the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to undertake a “comprehensive investigation” into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties, and to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations “with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability.”

Mr. Haq said Mr. Ban recalled the commitments made to him on accountability by the President of Sri Lanka in their joint statement of 2009. The United Nations will remain engaged with Sri Lanka to support Sri Lanka’s efforts to make progress in accountability, reconciliation and a lasting political solution,” Mr. Haq added. The resolution had also called on the Sri Lankan government to release publicly the results of its investigations into alleged violations by security forces, including the attack on unarmed protesters in Weliweriya in August 2013, and the report of 2013, by the court of inquiry of the Sri Lanka Army. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had stressed the need to ensure justice and accountability, including through the establishment of an independent and credible investigation, saying: “This is essential to advance the right to truth for all in Sri Lanka and create further opportunities for justice, accountability and redress.”

RBI adopts new CPI as key measure of inflation

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor, Raghuram Rajan said that the central bank had adopted the new Consumer Price Index (CPI) (combined) as the key measure of inflation. Earlier, RBI had given more weightage to Wholesale Price Index (WPI) than CPI as the key measure of inflation for all policy purposes. “Some recommendations of Urjit R. Patel Committee report have been implemented, including adoption of the new CPI (combined) as the key measure of inflation,” said Dr. Rajan, while addressing a press conference here to announce the first bi-monthly monetary policy for 2014-15. This also includes explicit recognition of the glide path for disinflation, transition to a bi-monthly monetary policy cycle, progressive reduction in access to overnight liquidity at the fixed repo rate, and a corresponding increase in access to liquidity through term repos, and introduction of longer-tenor term repos as well as, going forward, term reverse repos.

Following on the recommendations of the high-level advisory committee chaired by Bimal Jalan, and after consulting the Election Commission, the RBI will announce in-principle approval for new bank licences. In order to expand the market for corporate bonds, banks would be allowed to offer partial credit enhancements to them. He also said that the feasibility of limited re-repo/re-hypothecation of “repoed” government securities was being explored.

The RBI, he said, would continue to work to ease entry costs for foreign investors. It would also strive to reduce risk for investors and the volatility of flows. Towards this end, the RBI Governor said that modalities for allowing foreign portfolio investors (FPIs) to hedge their currency risks through exchange-traded currency futures were being worked out in consultation with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Further, he said that FPIs would be allowed to hedge their coupon receipts falling due during the next 12 months. To encourage longer-term flows and reduce volatility, FPI investments in G-Secs would, henceforth, be permitted only in dated securities of maturity of one-year and above, and existing investment in T-bills would be allowed to taper off on maturity/sale. Any investment limits vacated at the shorter end would be available at longer maturities, “so that overall FPI limits will not be diminished.”

The RBI Governor further said that banks should not levy penal charges for non-maintenance of minimum balance in ordinary savings bank account and inoperative accounts, “but instead curtail the services accorded to those accounts until the balance is restored.”

India needs multi-pronged approach to eradicate poverty: Report

A multi-pronged approach with focus on inclusive economic growth would help eradicate poverty, which is increasingly getting concentrated in a few geographical areas, says a research report. The observations are part of the India Public Policy Report (IPPR) 2014 jointly published by O P Jindal Global University and Oxford University Press. “Overcoming poverty requires a context specific multi-pronged strategy that includes: a basic needs approach, a human rights entitlement approach, a natural resource management approach and a focus on inclusive economic growth,” the report released said. Poverty in India is getting increasingly concentrated in a few geographical areas, among specific social groups and is increasing in urban areas, it said. It also noted that access to a diverse food basket alone may not help in effectively overcoming malnutrition.

The report’s Policy Effectiveness Index (PEI) showed that at all India level there is a gradual, but only a marginal, improvement in the policy effectiveness index over the three decades - period from 1981 to 2011. The index is based on four factors - livelihood opportunity, social opportunity, rule of law and physical infrastructure development.

Russia for federalism in Ukraine

Russia’s Foreign Minister has called on reluctant Western nations to push Ukraine towards a “genuine, not cosmetic” constitutional reform to grant autonomy to its Russian-speaking regions. “It is necessary to pursue genuine, rather than cosmetic constitutional reform and to stop meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs,” said Sergei Lavrov. “Otherwise it looks like the West has taken up the role of arbiter of Ukraine’s fate, while its current authorities lack any significant independence.” Mr. Lavrov stated that the Ukrainian new leadership shows no intention of transforming the country’s unitary state into a federation. Kiev has arrested activists in the Russian-speaking regions who demanded local referendums on greater autonomy from the centre. The Russian Parliament accused the Ukrainian authorities of committing “political reprisals” and resorting to “physical violence” against “hundreds” of detained pro-autonomy activists.

The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier this week denounced Ukraine’s reported plans to hire foreign private militaries to suppress protest movements in eastern and southern regions. It cited reports that Kiev planned to recruit the notorious Greystone Ltd to police Russian-speaking regions. Some reports said Greystone mercenaries had been deployed in Donetsk to control pro-Russian demonstrators last month. Greystone Ltd were contracted by the Pentagon for security duties in Iraq and were accused of committing atrocities.

IRNSS-1B orbit raised

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully boosted the apogee and the perigee of its navigation satellite, the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS-1B), by firing the propulsion system on board the satellite for seven minutes and a half. Mission controllers at the ISRO’s Master Control Facility (MCF) in Hassan, Karnataka, gave the command for the propulsion system, called the Liquid Apogee Motor (LAM), aboard the IRNSS-1B to kick-start it. At the end of 450 seconds of firing, the satellite’s apogee was boosted from 20,630 km to 24,760 km and the perigee went up from 283 km to 299 km, said M. Nageswara Rao, Project Director, IRNSS. The IRNSS-1B is India’s second navigation satellite and it was put into its initial orbit of 20,630 km x 283 km by the ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C24) on April 4 evening. A PSLV had put the first navigation satellite called the IRNSS-1A into orbit on July 1, 2013. A total of seven satellites will form the IRNSS constellation. The ISRO will put into orbit two more IRNSS satellites before the end of 2014 and another three by the end of 2015, thus completing the constellation.

ISRO scientists said India had become a member of the club of the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and China by building these satellites. While the U.S’ GPS, the Russian GLONASS and the European Galileo are global navigation satellites which can be used by anybody anywhere in the world with the help of a receiver, the IRNSS-1B forms part of the regional navigation system which will provide positional information to users only in India and the region extending 1,500 km from its borders. In aerial navigation, aircraft will use the IRNSS satellites when they are cruising, approaching an airport to land or during landing. During these phases, the aircraft will know their position and flight direction accurately. The satellites will help the aircraft land on runway with an accuracy of 20 metres. The IRNSS constellation will help ships navigate towards their destination through safe and short routes and in guiding them to enter harbours. In land navigation, drivers of cars and trucks, with a receiver in their mobile phone, can reach their destination through the shortest route In defence, the IRNSS will help missiles in accurately reaching their targets — be it a town or installation. They help missiles in “way-pointing” towards their target. If there are hills on a missile’s flight path, it will help the missiles circumvent the hills with the information received from the IRNSS. Air-launched missiles will use these satellites to know where they are and head towards their targets.

Long-billed vultures sighted in the Nilgiris

Wildlife officials and volunteers of Arulagam, a Coimbatore-based NGO involved in vulture conservation, sighted five long-billed vultures in the north-eastern slopes of the Nilgiris. Sharing the experience, S. Bharathidasan of Arulagam said his team received specific information about the presence of long-billed vultures in the area. It took more than two hours for the team to reach a cliff from where, using a binocular, it recorded the presence of the vultures on another cliff. Long-billed vultures are found only in the north-eastern slopes of the Nilgiris. White-backed, King and Egyptian vultures are the other three species found in the Nilgiris and the Moyar valley, its adjoining area, Mr. Bharathidasan said. Huge cattle population is found in the Nilgiris and its surrounding areas. This could be one of the reasons the vultures thrive here. Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used for both animals and humans, poses a major threat to the survival of vultures. Diclofenac-based drugs should be banned in the region, Mr. Bharathidasan said.

Iran, six powers push for nuclear deal by July

Senior envoys from Iran and six world powers met for a new round of negotiations, in an effort to reach a broad agreement on scaling back Iran’s nuclear programme and lifting sanctions by July. Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani is under pressure to see the crippling sanctions against his country lifted, while US Republicans gearing up for Congressional mid—term elections in November are pushing President Barack Obama to take a tough stance on the issue. Adding more urgency is the expected end—of—year departure of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the chief negotiator for Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany. However, Iran and the six powers have yet to agree on the limits that Tehran will have to accept on its enrichment programme, and on the future of the plutonium—producing Arak reactor, Iranian and Western diplomats have said.

The six powers are concerned that Iran could use enriched uranium or plutonium to make nuclear weapons. Iranian leaders insist they are only interested in nuclear energy and scientific applications. Western officials have said one option would be to convert Arak into a type of reactor that does not produce plutonium as a side product. Iranian officials have proposed instead that countries such as Germany, France, Japan, Brazil or Argentina join the Arak research reactor project, to guarantee that it serves peaceful purposes. Iran and the six powers have been implementing a preliminary agreement since January, under which Tehran has slowed down its drive to enrich uranium and halted construction at Arak, while some Western sanctions have been suspended.

A significant capability

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) mared its 25th consecutive successful mission by lofting he second spacecraft required for the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS). The IRNSS will function much like America’s widely-used Global Positioning System (GPS), albeit on a regional scale. The GPS is based on a constellation of 24 satellites that transmit signals, which suitably equipped receivers pick up and utilise to establish their position with a great level of accuracy. Originally intended for the U.S. armed forces, the use of unencrypted GPS signals have spawned a wide range of civilian applications. Vehicles, aircraft and ships increasingly rely on equipment with satellite navigation capability. Smartphones and other mobile devices providing map and location-based services too take the aid of GPS signals. Russia has a similar satellite system in place, called GLONASS. Europe is in the process of establishing a navigation satellite system of its own, named Galileo. China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System began offering regional services in December 2012 and is expected to achieve global coverage by around 2020. Japan wants to create a satellite system to improve GPS coverage over that country.

The IRNSS, being wholly under Indian control, serves an important security requirement — making sure that so critical a service is available at all times. Military operations have come to rely on satellite navigation and there is no guarantee that another country’s system will be accessible during a crisis situation. To keep costs down, the Indian Space Research Organisation has opted for a constellation of just seven satellites to provide accurate navigation signals over India and up to 1,500 km from its borders. The first of those satellites, IRNSS-1A, was launched in July last year. The performance of that satellite has been extensively analysed and found to be very satisfactory. The second satellite, IRNSS-1B, has now been put into orbit, and two more will follow later this year. Once the four IRNSS satellites are up and functioning, it will be possible to ascertain whether the system’s signals provide the required positional accuracy. The remaining three satellites are to be launched by the middle of next year. The option exists to extend the coverage area by adding four more satellites. ISRO is working with industry so that receivers that utilise the IRNSS signals become available. Some of these receivers will be capable of taking signals from other navigation satellite systems as well, like the GPS. The use of IRNSS must extend well beyond India’s security services, and ISRO will need to take the lead in promoting the widespread utilisation of the system.

Developing countries concerned about U.S.-EU economic treaty

Even as a fourth round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and European Union was concluded recently, experts from developing countries as well as within the U.S. have underscored concerns emerging from the powerful trade bloc that this new treaty would represent, if successful.

Speaking at a roundtable event here organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Just Jobs Network, Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center and Pradeep Mehta, Secretary-General, CUTS International, India, said the TTIP was “creating a model of ‘mega-trade agreements’ [and] would encompass approximately a third of all international trade flows and establish new benchmarks for global trade regulations.” Mr. Stokes argued that the US may use trade as a means of national security objectives, and in this context the TTIP “could be seen as a counter measure against increasing growth in Asia… a measure against China, [or, as] Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, remarked recently [about] NATO, [it could be seen] as a strategic initiative, especially in light of the crisis in Ukraine. Mr. Stokes added that in terms of the U.S. public’s attitude toward the TTIP, the majority expressed support for it, even if they however have less understanding on the specifics of the agreement. “Americans are more in favor of common standards promoted in the TTIP than Europeans,” he said, noting that although EU standards were typically higher than in the U.S., it is uncertain how common standards will impact business and labour for the negotiating parties. Commenting on the viewpoint of developing countries Mr. Mehta said preliminary research showed that in aggregate, a third of India’s exports go to the TTIP-Trans-Pacific Partnership region and a fourth of India’s imports come from there. “TTIP is likely to have a higher negative impact on India’s trade than TPP,” he cautioned.

The forward momentum on the TTIP comes even as India and the U.S. find themselves enmeshed in an ever-deepening cycle of trade disputes, on everything from solar panel manufacturing to compulsory licensing in pharmaceuticals and telecommunications sectors.

Japan’s new energy policy supports nuclear use

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government approved a new energy policy that sees nuclear power as an important source of electricity, and reversing the previous administration’s plan to phase out nuclear power. The Basic Energy Plan describes nuclear power as an “important base-load power source” that is cheap in terms of operation costs and can generate electricity continuously through the day. The move comes as Mr. Abe has moved to reactivate idled reactors. All of the nation’s 48 reactors have been suspended amid public fears about nuclear power following the 2011 atomic accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Japan’s new energy policy nullifies a nuclear phase-out plan approved by the previous government following the disaster at Fukushima, which was caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Environmentalists criticised the reassertion of the role of nuclear energy in Japan’s power mix.

Triumph for the Afghan public

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held on April 5 with over 350,000 security personnel on duty, marks the country’s first potential democratic transfer of power. The Independent Election Commission put the turnout at about 60 per cent of a 12-million electorate. Three million more people voted than did in 2009, which shows public confidence in the electoral process itself; the previous election was deeply flawed. This time, although the Electoral Complaints Commission has received over 1,200 allegations of malpractice, the poll was better run than the previous one. Afghans of all ethnic groups turned out, and women made a strong showing; the figure was estimated at 35 per cent of the turnout. One candidate, Daoud Sultanzoy, voted along with his wife, the first time an Afghan politician appeared in public with a spouse. Over 86 per cent of the 20,000 polling stations opened; most of those which stayed closed were in the southern and southeastern provinces, where the army said it could not provide security. According to defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimy, the Taliban made about 700 attacks in various areas, but none was serious enough to disrupt the election, which was also the first in recent times to take place without foreign help. The counting process is being managed better than it was in 2009, with duplicated teams so as to limit fraud. Every polling station is required to post its results for the public to read or photograph.

The overall result is to be announced in a fortnight’s time, but uncertainties remain. The Taliban, who will lose most by the consolidation of democracy, have not succeeded in derailing the election, but their ranks number as many as 30,000 and they may be waiting for other chances to wreck the political process. A second issue has to do with the candidates’ own attitudes; none of them is likely to obtain the 50 per cent plus one vote needed for outright victory, and of the eight who contested, only three stand a realistic chance of going into the May 28 runoff. These are former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, has completed the two five-year terms the Constitution allows). Mr. Rassoul trails the others, as his largely educated supporters are based around Kabul and other cities, and the two front-runners are claiming victory. Squabbling, or delays in the runoff, could let the Taliban to exploit the vacuum. The politicians owe it to the Afghan public, who have shown courage and commitment to the ballot box, to ensure a prompt and smooth handover of power.

Two new banks on the horizon

A day after reviewing the credit policy statement on April 1, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced its decision to award ‘in-principle’ approval to two applicants, IDFC Limited and Bandhan Financial Services Private Ltd., to set up banks. These two successful applicants will now proceed to set up full-fledged banks under guidelines issued by the RBI on February 22, 2013. They have 18 months to comply with the requirements under the guidelines and any other stipulations that RBI might prescribe. Senior officials from both the institutions have been keenly aware of the tasks on hand. They have very different profiles at present. In their march to full banking status, they would naturally leverage on their existing strengths — infrastructure in the case of IDFC and micro finance for Bandhan. The tasks look daunting but achievable within the given timeframe. The last private bank licences were awarded ten years ago in 2004. Kotak Mahindra Bank and Yes Bank came into being. At the start of the reform era, several licences were given to private players to set up “new generation private banks”. These were expected to be very different from the already existing private banks, in terms of technology, capitalisation and so on. However, in the reform context, it is easy to see that these new banks were licensed specifically to be a model for the public sector banks, which continue to be the dominant force till date.

It is difficult to generalise but the performance of the new private banks as a class did not match the expectations of them. More significantly, only a few of them have survived, the others being gobbled up by stronger private banks. One high-flier, Global Trust Bank, had to be rescued by the government-owned Oriental Bank of Commerce. And the CRB fiasco, when a totally undeserving non-banking finance company was given an in-principle clearance to start a bank, is still fresh in our minds. One message from the more successful ones is that their model has not been inclusive. Using technology and starting with a clean slate they have created a new paradigm essentially for the well heeled. How far their success in niche areas is relevant to bank licensing today —with its emphasis on financial inclusion — is to be seen. Interestingly, the more successful banks set up in the 1990s and thereafter are those with good pedigree. All the above provide an explanation as to why the process of issuing private bank licences has taken so long. The RBI has, for very valid reasons, been conservative. Bank licensing is a sensitive subject always. More so when private players, including corporates, were to be considered. In fact, the suggestion to include corporates among those who can bid has been the most controversial. The RBI itself was opposed to it and most of the responses to the discussion papers were not in favour.

Those who oppose granting bank licences to corporates are on a sound wicket. Recent economic history is on their side. Banks were nationalised in two phases beginning 1969 to end the corporate owners’ stranglehold over major banks. Whatever else might have been the pitfalls of nationalisation, it ended the cosy relationship between bank managements and corporates. It was in 2010 that the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, first mooted the proposal to issue a few private bank licences in his budget speech. The RBI circulated discussion papers and elicited responses from a wide range of people. Guidelines were framed after that. After two of them withdrew, 25 were considered. The first round of scrutiny was done at RBI. To further vet the applicants who meet the eligibility criteria and also to avoid any bias, the RBI appointed a High Level Advisory Committee (HLAC) headed by former RBI Governor Bimal Jalan. It is on the basis of this committee’s recommendations that the first two licences were awarded. The RBI has done everything right. The two successful applicants are non-controversial. As to the criticism that the RBI could have waited until after a new government is formed, the Governor had said that the entire process might have had to be revisited in that case. Considerable ground had been covered and the whole procedure has been above board. Despite some big names among the corporate applicants, the RBI has played it safe by giving in principle clearances to entirely non-controversial non-banking finance companies.

UN Security Council meets on Ukraine crisis

The U.N. Security Council met in emergency session amid growing violence in eastern Ukraine, with Western powers and Russia blaming each other for the deepening crisis. Russia called the meeting hours after Ukrainian special forces exchanged gunfire with a pro-Russia militia in an eastern city, and at least one security officer was killed and five others wounded. Ukraine’s president accused its powerful neighbour of fomenting unrest, and announced that it would deploy armed forces to quash an increasingly bold pro-Russian insurgency.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied Western and Ukrainian claims that Moscow was behind the violence, and told U.N. diplomats that Ukraine has been using radical neo-Nazi forces to destabilize its eastern region.U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the protesters in eastern Ukraine were well-organised and had military equipment, and accused Russia of spreading fiction. Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed along Ukraine’s eastern border, and there are fears that Moscow might use the violence in the mainly Russian-speaking region as a pretext for an invasion, in a repeat of events in Crimea earlier this year.

Global trade to rise by 4.7 % in 2014: WTO

Global trade is expected to increase by 4.7 per cent in 2014, better than the average of 2.2 per cent in the past two years, on the back of projected improvements in the developed economies, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) said. The world trade growth is projected to accelerate to 5.3 per cent in 2015 said WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo.

Although the 2014 forecast of 4.7 per cent is more than double the 2.1 per cent increase of last year, it remains below the 20-year average of 5.3 per cent. For the past two years, growth has averaged only 2.2 per cent. The sluggish pace of trade growth in 2013 was due to a combination of flat import demand in developed economies (0.2 per cent) and moderate import growth in developing economies (4.4 per cent). On the export side, both developed and developing economies only managed to record small, positive increases (1.5 per cent for developed economies and 3.3 per cent for developing economies). In 2013, the dollar value of world merchandise exports rose 2.1 per cent to $18.8 trillion, while the value of world commercial services exports rose 5.5 per cent to $4.6 trillion. The trade forecast for 2014 is premised on an assumption of 3 percent growth in world GDP growth at market exchange rates, while the forecast for 2015 assumes output growth of 3.1 percent. “Risks to the trade forecast are still mostly on the downside, but there is some upside potential, particularly since trade in developed economies is starting from a low base,” the WTO said. However, volatility is likely to be a defining feature of 2014 as monetary policy in developed economies becomes less accommodative, it said.

Kiev launches armed offensive

Ukraine has launched a military operation to crush anti-government protests in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, deploying thousands of troops, armour and aircraft to Donetsk region where protesters seized government buildings in a dozen cities and towns. The military, in armoured personnel carriers backed by aircraft, on Tuesday afternoon stormed a small airfield near Kramatorsk. Unconfirmed reports said between four and 11 protesters had been killed in the attack. Following the attack, hundreds of unarmed Kramatorsk residents drove to the airfield to protest against the killing of civilians. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told the Ukrainian Parliament that an “anti-terrorist operation” in the east had begun during the night. In Kiev, two presidential candidates representing eastern Ukraine were attacked by armed far right radicals. Oleg Tsarev, an independent, was severely beaten after appearing in a TV show called “Freedom of Speech.” The mob demanded that he and the other candidate, Mikhail Dobkin, withdraw from the elections scheduled for May 25.

Ukrainian authorities confirmed that a battalion of newly formed “National Guard” made up of “Maidan activists” had been deployed for action against pro-Russian protesters in the east.

Supreme Court recognises transgenders as third gender

A Bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and A.K. Sikri, in separate but concurrent judgments, said “eunuchs, apart from the binary gender, be treated as a “third gender” for the purpose of safeguarding their rights under our Constitution and the laws made by Parliament and the State Legislature.” The ruling came on a petition filed by the National Legal Services Authority. The Bench directed the Centre and States to take steps to treat them as socially and educationally backward classes and extend reservation for admission in educational institutions and for public appointments. The Bench said “recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue. Transgenders are also citizens of India. The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender.” By virtue of this verdict, all identity documents, including a birth certificate, passport, ration card and driving licence would recognise the third gender. The Bench said gender identification is essential. It is only with this recognition that many rights such as the right to vote, own property and marry will be meaningful.

Reining in cancer

Grim statistics present the deadly reality of the spread of cancer in India: one million new cases of different cancers are diagnosed every year in the country; an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people were killed in 2012. The fact that tobacco was singularly responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all cancers is also painfully underlined again. A few papers published recently in the journal Lancet Oncology point out that men were the most affected by tobacco, with the commonest cancers being those of the lung and of the lip and oral cavity. Tobacco companies continue to have a stranglehold over nearly 275 million tobacco-users in India — 35 per cent of the adult population and about 14 per cent of children in the age range 13 to 15. All this reflects the miserable failure of the government in implementing tough and effective measures to counter the tobacco companies’ devious ways of attracting and trapping young minds. Though it would take 10 to 20 years for the benefits to show, half the battle against cancer would be won if only tobacco consumption can be reined in. In the case of women, breast cancer is the most common, followed by cervical cancer. Changed lifestyle is one of the reasons for the increase in breast cancer incidence — the incidence of this cancer type in rural areas is one-third of the total in urban areas, and the big metros have higher numbers than non-metro cities. India’s cancer burden is projected to increase to 1.7 million by 2035. Mortality will double to 1.2 million a year by 2035.

There is a need to take remedial steps, and quickly too. More cancer registries are needed to cover a greater percentage of the population. Those in place today cover less than 10 per cent of India’s population. However, each registry has good incidence data as it has its own methods of capturing them. But cancer mortality data are at best sketchy and not quite reliable. The three pillars of reducing the mortality are prevention, early detection and more effective treatment. Concerted efforts with respect to the first two have been found wanting, and there are several challenges even in providing effective treatment. With only one cancer specialist for every 5,000 new cases, the total number of oncologists in India is frighteningly low in proportion to the increasing population of cancer victims. The availability of doctors and facilities is skewed — the urban areas are better served than rural areas. There is also an imbalance in the distribution of cancer facilities and doctors: the south and the west of the country have about 60 per cent of the facilities.

Boko Haram abducts 100 school girls in Nigeria

At least 100 school girls were abducted by suspected members of Islamist extremist sect Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. The insurgents arrived in the early morning with a large truck at the girls’ school, located in the village of Chibok, and forced the pupils inside, according to local police spokesman Gideon Jibrin, who noted that some were able to escape. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful”, has been active in the Muslim north of the West African country, carrying out attacks against government institutions and civilians.

Earlier, a major bomb blast, allegedly orchestrated by Boko Haram, killed scores of people in the capital, Abuja, while last week, more than 100 people were killed during Boko Haram attacks in Maiduguri. Since 2009, more than 6,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Iran has cut stock closest to nuke-arms grade: IAEA

Iran has converted most of a nuclear stockpile that it could have turned quickly into weapons—grade uranium into less volatile forms as part of a deal with six world powers, the U.N. atomic agency.
The development leaves Iran with substantially less of the 20—per cent enriched uranium that it would need for a nuclear warhead. Iran denies any interest in atomic arms. But it agreed to some nuclear concessions in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions crippling its economy under the deal, which took effect in January. Uranium at 20 per cent is only a technical step away from weapons—grade material. By the time the agreement was reached late last year, Iran had amassed nearly 200 kg. With further enrichment, that would have yielded almost enough weapons—grade uranium for one atomic bomb.

Under its agreement, Iran agreed to stop enriching to grades beyond 5 per cent, the level most commonly used to power reactors. It also committed to neutralizing all its 20—per cent stockpile half by diluting to a grade that is less proliferation—prone and the rest by conversion to oxide used for reactor fuel Iran has until July to fulfill all of its commitments under the deal. But it has to show progress in exchange for sanctions relief, and it is eager to get its hand on the next tranche of some $4.2 billion of oil revenue funds frozen under international sanctions meant to force it into nuclear compromise.

The November agreement between Iran and the six the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany is meant to lead to a comprehensive deal placing long—term caps on Iran’s enrichment program and other atomic activities in exchange for full sanctions relief. The two sides hope to reach agreement by July but can extend negotiations if both agree to do so. Beyond its commitments to neutralize its 20—per cent uranium stock, the IAEA report said that Iran also was complying with other obligations under the six—month interim plan, which restricts Tehran from expanding any activities that could be turned toward making a nuclear weapon.

Haunted by inflation

Price rise is one of the key issues in this election, and the latest data on inflation spell bad news for the incumbent UPA government; the monster is rearing its head again after lying low over the last three months. Retail inflation, specifically food price inflation, has rebounded in March on the back of rising prices of vegetables and fruits. Wholesale food prices rose 9.9 per cent with rice shooting up 12.6 per cent and vegetable prices showing an inflation of 8.6 per cent in March. As a whole, retail inflation was higher at 8.31 per cent compared to 8.1 per cent in February, while wholesale price inflation hit 5.7 per cent in March compared with 4.68 per cent in the previous month. After a period of soft prices for vegetables and fruits, courtesy the winter season, prices have started moving up again. Given that we are still in early summer, food prices are bound to shoot further upwards, as they always do during the season. With unseasonal rains and hailstorm in parts of the country during spring, it is feared that the rabi crop may have suffered damage. This means that foodgrain prices will join the inflation party, cutting deep into people’s pockets. The rebound in inflation only serves to underline the problem of rising prices half-way through the election season, and it spells trouble at the hustings for the UPA government.

The current dispensation will be handing over a troubled legacy to the new government in the form of inflation caused largely by structural problems, especially in agriculture. Food prices have been rising inexorably in the last few years, save brief and intermittent spells of softness due to seasonal factors. It is clear that there are serious issues on the supply side when it comes to food commodities, which the government has failed to address. Tackling these issues will obviously be a priority for the new government. The inflation in respect of manufactured products is a matter of concern indeed, coming as it does on the back of a persisting weakness in industrial output. The latest data have obvious implications for monetary policy, and the Reserve Bank of India, which has now shifted to the consumer price inflation as its benchmark, will be watching closely indeed. It is logical to expect that rates will be on hold until the underlying trend manifests itself clearly. The coming monsoon will be critical in determining near-term inflationary trends, but there are worries there as well with experts talking about the El Nino effect this year. In the past, El Nino has resulted in sub-optimal monsoons in India and policymakers must be hoping that the predictions are wrong. What all this means is that the new government will not have much time to settle down in managing the economy and will need to hit the ground running.

Improving western economies to drive Indian IT

Things are certainly looking up for the information technology (IT) sector in 2014 and this was evident last week when industry heavyweights like TCS, Wipro, HCL Technologies and Infosys announced their fourth quarter and full year earnings. Fourth quarter sales growth over the year-ago period ranged from 31 per cent for TCS to 21.3 per cent for Wipro. Net profit growth ranged from 59 per cent for HCL Technologies to 25 per cent for Infosys, although analysts felt the quarter was muted compared to the preceding quarter. “The prospects though, are good and improving. The revival in the US, UK and European economies is promising,” Dipen Shah, Head – Private Client Group Research, Kotak Securities said.

IT firms are well-equipped to cater to the increased demand and are venturing deeper into markets in Asia Pacific and Latin America. They are all present in the fast-growing social mobility, analytics and cloud (SMAC) space and have developed good competencies in it. Importantly, according to Mr. Shah, the companies have recognized very early the huge opportunity that digital presents. TCS indicated that going forward, increasing discretionary spend towards digital presents a $3-5 billion opportunity over the next few years. “Globally, consumer-oriented companies are being forced to accept going digital with several of them having to reconfigure their entire organization,” said Mr. Shah adding, “this could be the next big wave and demand is picking up fast.” The last few years were challenging due to poor demand and low expenditure. But now with companies increasingly going digital, it could well be a growth driver for IT companies, Daljit Singh Kohli, Head-Research, IndiaNivesh Securities told this correspondent. The IT sector is expected to surpass the guidance given by National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) of a 13 per cent growth rate in FY’15. Wipro and Infosys as per their own guidance may not find it so easy to surpass the NASSCOM guidance, the industry is poised to surpass that figure, Mr. Kohli said, adding that prospects in terms of India business “continue to hinge on the poll prospects, as government spending has been slack but a clear mandate will shore up IT spend.”

China’s ‘maritime Silk Road’ to focus on infrastructure

China has for the first time released details of its recently announced “maritime Silk Road” plan, announcing that the Indian Ocean-focused initiative will prioritise building ports and improving infrastructure in littoral countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.China is also planning to establish free trade zones in Indian Ocean countries as part of the plan — a move that will reinforce China’s deepening economic presence in the Indian Ocean Region and in India’s neighbourhood. The maritime Silk Road plan was unveiled in October last year when President Xi Jinping travelled to Southeast Asia. Since then, Chinese officials have highlighted the initiative as a key diplomatic priority for Mr. Xi’s government.

Nations from Malaysia and Singapore to India, Sri Lanka and the Gulf countries have all been sounded out about the plan. It had, however, remained unclear what the plan would actually entail.

In the first official details of the plan, a report in the China Securities Journal said a “priority” of the initiative was “port construction” and free trade zones. China hopes to “coordinate customs, quality supervision, e-commerce and other agencies to facilitate the scheme”, as well as set up free trade zones, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the report. China’s southern provinces of Yunnan — which borders Myanmar and is at the centre of another economic plan to build a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor — and Guangxi Zhuang may be tasked with pushing the plan. The initiative was first proposed by Mr. Xi when he visited Southeast Asia in October last year. The plan was reinforced by Premier Li Keqiang, who also visited Asean countries last year and announced the setting up of a 3 billion Yuan (around $500 million) maritime cooperation fund.

The initiative, which will deepen Chinese economic and maritime links with both Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, is being seen by some analysts as to assuage regional anxieties about China’s growing military and naval presence amid a number of disputes.

Zhou Bo, a strategic scholar at the Academy of Military Science, said in a recent article the “maritime Silk Road” may be a response to the “string of pearls” theory — a suggestion that China intended to build military bases in littoral countries, from Sri Lanka to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Pakistan tests Ghaznavi missile

Pakistan conducted a successful training launch of the short range surface-to-surface ballistic missile Hatf III (Ghaznavi), which can carry nuclear and conventional warheads to a range of 290 km. The successful launch concluded the field training exercise of the strategic missile group of the Army Strategic Forces Command, a statement from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.

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