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Renowned journalist Vinod Mehta passes away

Renowned journalist Vinod Mehta, who was the founder-editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here on Sunday morning after a prolonged illness.

Vinod Mehta
Vinod Mehta
Renowned journalist Vinod Mehta, who was the founder-editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here this morning after a prolonged illness.
 
He was 72.
 
"Outlook Group announces with deep sadness the demise of its founder Editor-in-Chief and editorial chairman, Vinod Mehta, in New Delhi, today," the magazine said on micro-blogging site Twitter.
 
AIIMS spokesperson Amit Gupta said Mr Mehta had been transferred to the hospital a week ago from Fortis Hospital for treatment of acute chest infection.
 
He had developed septicemia and was on a ventilator at AIIMS for the past week. He died of multiple organ failure this morning, Dr Gupta said.
 
Mr Mehta began his journalistic career as the editor of Debonair magazine and later edited other publications such as the Sunday Observer, Indian Post, The Independent and The Pioneer before joining Outlook. He was editor-in-chief of Outlook until February 2012 after which he served as the Editorial Chairman of the magazine.
 
He has also written several books such as his memoirs Lucknow Boy and biographies of film actress Meena Kumari and Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay Gandhi.
 
Born on May 31, 1942 in Rawalpindi in West Punjab of undivided India, his family moved to India when he was three. He grew up in the syncretic culture of Lucknow, having attended La Martinere school and the university there. 
 
He tried his hand at a variety of jobs before taking up an offer to edit Debonair magazine in 1974. Over the years, he became one of India's most influential and respected editors. He was till recently a regular on many television debates.
 
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BBC film: Govt. says will take all necessary steps against broadcast

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Thursday the Government would take all necessary steps in the matter of the BBC's decision to air last night a documentary film featuring an interview with one of the convicts in the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape case of December 16, 2012 despite a court order restraining its telecast.

 
Rajnath says will act against airing of Nirbhaya documentary
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh today said the Government would take all necessary steps in the matter of the BBC's decision to air last night a documentary film featuring an interview with one of the convicts in the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape case of December 16, 2012 despite a court order restraining its telecast.
 
Though the Government had, on Tuesday, obtained a restraining order from a local court against the dissemination of the contents of the documentary, BBC went ahead and aired it late last night in the United Kingdom. It was also available on video sharing website YouTube.
 
Talking to reporters here today, Mr Singh said the Government had informed all television channels in the country not to telecast the interview.
 
"But the BBC told us that they were an independent organisation and had decided to go ahead with its telecast," he said. The BBC, in fact, advanced the screening of the film to last night from the original date of March 8, International Women's Day.
 
Mr Singh said the Government would take all necessary steps in this regard, including to prevent the further dissemination of the contents of the film.
 
"Whatever action we have to take, the Home Ministry will go ahead and take it," he said, adding that there had been no laxity on the part of the Government in this regard.
 
Asked about the possible steps the Government could take, he said that he would not like to make any further comment at this stage. "All I can say is that whatever is required, will be done. If conditions have been violated, there will be appropriate action," he said.
 
The Home Ministry is understood to be in touch with the Ministries of External Affairs, Information & Broadcasting and Communications & Information Technology in this regard.
 
While there was no official word from the Government on the steps it had taken in the matter, various sources said it had asked YouTube to remove the film.
 
BBC is learnt to have conveyed to the Government that it did not plan to telecast the film in India in compliance with the directive.
 
Delhi Police Commissioner B S Bassi told journalists that suitable action would be taken under the law, especially with regard to portions in the film which transgressed the law.
 
"We will take steps to ensure there is no further dissemination o the film, especially on (internet) portals," he said. "We are going to take action under the law," he said.
 
Yesterday, Mr Singh had told the Rajya Sabha that the makers of the film had violated the conditions under which permission had been given by the authorities to shoot the documentary and conduct interviews in Tihar Jail here with convicts in cases related to atrocities against women.
 
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Mr Singh said a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to shoot the documentary and conduct interviews in Tihar jail of cases was given by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 24 July, 2013 and thereafter the permissions were given by the jail authorities to shoot the documentary to Ms. Leslee Udwin and Ms. Anjali Bhushan.
 
He said the permission was given, subject to the following conditions:
 
(i)         Prior approval of jail authorities is to be taken for publishing the research paper or for releasing the documentary film, which is being made for purely social purposes without any commercial interest as conveyed.
(ii)        To interview only such convicted prisoners who give written consent.
(iii)       The complete unedited footage of shoot in the Tihar Jail premises will be shown to the jail authorities to ensure there is no breach of Prison security.
 
The documentary features an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the four convicts in the Nirbhaya case who are now facing the death sentence.
 
Certain remarks during the interview by Mukesh Singh, who was the driver of the bus in which a 23-year-old student of physiotherapy was gang-raped by six men on that fateful night, have caused outrage across the country as well in both houses of Parliament.
 
The media calls the victim Nirbhaya because she cannot be identified under the country's laws.
 
The film's makers have said that they had all the required permissions to shoot inside Tihar Jail and interview the convicts.
 
While many people have been outraged by the reported remarks of Mukesh Singh and have sought a ban on the documentary, there are others who feel such a move would be a violation of the freedom of expression.
 
Ms Udwin told the BBC that the decision to ban the film was ill-advised. "I went out there not to point a finger at India - the opposite, to put it on a pedestal, to say not in my life have I seen another country go out with that fortitude and courage the way the Indian nation did," she said.
 
"Unfortunately what this ill-advised decision to ban the film is now going to do is have the whole world point fingers at India," she said.
 
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Govt. gets court order restraining broadcast of interview with Nirbhaya case convict

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Wednesday the Government had taken legal action and obtained a restraining order from a court against dissemination of the contents of a documentary by BBC Four featuring an interview with one of the convicts in the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape case of December 16, 2012.

Court restrains telecast of interview of Nirbhaya case convict
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh today said the Government had taken legal action and obtained a restraining order from a court against dissemination of the contents of a documentary by BBC Four featuring an interview with one of the convicts in the horrific Nirbhaya gang-rape case of December 16, 2012.
 
He told the Rajya Sabha in a statement that the makers of the film had violated the conditions under which permission had been given by the authorities to shoot the documentary and conduct interviews in Tihar Jail here with convicts in cases related to atrocities against women.
 
Mr Singh said a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to shoot the documentary and conduct interviews in Tihar jail of cases was given by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 24 July, 2013 and thereafter the permissions were given by the jail authorities to shoot the documentary to Ms. Leslee Udwin and Ms. Anjali Bhushan.
 
He said the permission was given, subject to the following conditions:
 
(i)         Prior approval of jail authorities is to be taken for publishing the research paper or for releasing the documentary film, which is being made for purely social purposes without any commercial interest as conveyed.
(ii)        To interview only such convicted prisoners who give written consent.
(iii)       The complete unedited footage of shoot in the Tihar Jail premises will be shown to the jail authorities to ensure there is no breach of Prison security.
 
Mr Singh said the documentary, inter alia, featured an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the four convicts in the Nirbhaya case who are facing the death sentence.
 
Certain remarks during the interview by Mukesh Singh, who was the driver of the bus in which a 23-year-old student of physiotherapy was gang-raped by six men on the fateful night, have caused outrage across the country as well in both houses of Parliament.
 
The media calls the victim Nirbhaya because she cannot be identified under the country's laws.
 
The film's makers have said that they had all the required permissions to shoot inside Tihar Jail and interview the convicts.
 
"It came to the notice of the jail authorities that the permission conditions have been violated and hence a legal notice was issued to them on 7th April, 2014 to return the unedited footage within 15 days and also not to show the film as it violates the permission conditions," he said.
 
"Subsequently, the documentary film was shown to the jail authorities where it was noticed that the documentary film depicts the comments of the convict which are highly derogatory and are an affront to the dignity of women.  It was also noticed that the film shown was the edited version and not the unedited as per permission conditions.  Hence, they were requested to provide full copy of the unedited film shootout for further review by the authorities and that they were asked not to release/screen the documentary till it is approved by the authorities," he said.
 
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He said it had come to the notice of the Government that BBC Four was going to telecast the documentary on March 8.
 
"The Government has taken necessary legal action and obtained a restraining order from the court disseminating the contents of the film," he said.
 
"Our Government condemns the incident of 16th December, 2012 in the strongest possible terms and will not allow any attempt by any individual, group or organization to leverage such unfortunate incidents for commercial benefit.  The respect and dignity of women constitute a core value of our culture and tradition.  Our Government remains fully committed to ensuring safety and dignity of women," he added.
 
While many people have been outraged by the reported remarks of Mukesh Singh and have sought a ban on the documentary, there are other groups who feel such a move would be a violation of the freedom of expression.
 
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Govt., RBI sign agreement on Monetary Policy Framework in shift to inflation targeting

The Central Government and the Reserve Bank of India have signed a landmark agreement on Monetary Policy Framework under which the RBI will aim to bring inflation below 6 per cent by January 2016.

The Central Government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) have signed a landmark agreement on Monetary Policy Framework under which the RBI will aim to bring inflation below 6 per cent by January 2016.
 
The target for financial year 2016-17 and all subsequent years shall be 4 per cent, with a band of +/- 2 per cent.
 
The agreeent, signed on February 20 and made public yesterday, is a shift towards inflation targeting that RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan has been advocating for some time.
 
Signed by Dr Rajan and Finance Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, the agreement stressed it was essential to have a monetary police framework to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex economy.
 
"The objective of monetary policy is to primarily maintain price stability, while keeping in mind the objective of growth," it said.
 
The agreement said the monetary policy framework shall be operated by the RBI. The Governor, and in his absence the Deputy Governor in charge of monetary policy, shall determine the Policy Rate, as well as any other monetary measures, to achieve the target.
 
The Reserve Bank shall publish the operating target(s) and establish an Operating Procedure of Monetary Policy through which the Operating Target will be achieved. Any change in the operating target(s) and the operating procedure  in response to evolving macro-financial conditions shall also be published.
 
Once every six months, the Reserve Bank shall publish a document explaining the souces of inflation and forecasts of inflation for the period between six to 18 months from the date of the  publication of the document.
 
According to the agreement, the RBI shall be seen to have failed to meet the target if inflation is more than 6 per cent for three consecutive quarters for the financial 2015-16 and all subsequent years or less than 2 per cent for three consecutive quarters in 2016-17 and all subsequent years.
 
If the Reserve Bank fails to meet the target it shall set out in a report to the Central Government the reasons for its failure to achieve the target, the remedial actions proposed to be taken by it, and an estimate of the time period within which the target would be achieved pursuant to timely implementation of proposed remedial actions.
 
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Personal tax rates unchanged, wealth tax abolished, corporate tax to come down to 25%

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley kept personal income tax rates unchanged while offering individual tax payers several concessions, proposed to reduce corporate tax from 30% to 25% over the next four years and abolished wealth tax in his General Budget for 2015-16 presented to the Lok Sabha on Saturday.

Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley arriving at Parliament House to present the General Budget 2015-16, in New Delhi on February 28, 2015.
Union Minister for Finance Arun Jaitley arriving at Parliament House to present the General Budget 2015-16, in New Delhi on February 28, 2015.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley kept personal income tax rates unchanged while offering individual tax payers several concessions, proposed to reduce corporate tax from 30% to 25% over the next four years beginning next year and abolished wealth tax in his General Budget for 2015-16 presented to the Lok Sabha today.
 
Mr Jaitley also proposed several measures aimed at fostering "cooperative federalism", empowering the States and meeting five major challenges faced by the economy: agricultural income under stress, weak private sector investment in infrastructure, decline in manufacturing, resource crunch in view of higher devolution in taxes to states and maintaining fiscal discipline.
 
He declared that the fight against the scourge of black money would continue and announced that a new law would be put in place to tackle the evil. 
 
He also said taxation was an instrument of social and economic engineering and listed steps aimed at fostering a stable taxation policy and non-adversarial tax administration.
 
Mr Jaitley said the Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced in the last session of Parliament would play a transformative role in the way the economy functioned and felt this transformative piece of legislation in indirect taxation needed to be matched with transformative measures in direct taxation.  
 
In this regard, he proposed the reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% over the next four years and said this would lead to higher level of investment, higher growth and more jobs. 
 
He said the broad principles adopted in finalizing the tax proposals included measures to curb black money; job creation through revival of growth and investment and promotion of domestic manufacturing and ‘Make in India’; minimum government and maximum governance to improve the ease of doing business; benefits to middle class taxpayers; improving the quality of life and public health through Swachch Bharat initiatives; and stand alone proposals to maximize benefits to the economy.
 
He said the proposed new law on black money would specifically deal with illegal wealth stashed abroad and that the Bill in this regard would be introduced in the current session of Parliament.
 
The key features of the Bill will include punishment of rigorous imprisonment upto ten years for concealment of income and assets and evasion of tax in relation to foreign assets.  This offence will be made non-compoundable and offenders will not be permitted to approach the Settlement Commission.  Penalty for such concealment of income and assets at the rate of 300 per cent of tax shall be levied.  Non-filing of return or filing of return with inadequate disclosure of foreign assets will be punishable with rigorous imprisonment up to seven years, he said.
 
Mr Jaitley said that, to curb domestic black money, a new and more comprehensive Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill would be introduced in the current session of Parliament.  He said this law would enable confiscation of benami property and provide for prosecution, thus, blocking a major avenue for generation and holding of black money in the form of benami property, especially in real estate.  
 
Quoting of PAN will be made mandatory for any purchase or sale exceeding the value of Rs.1 lakh.  To improve enforcement, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) and the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) would leverage technology and have access to information in each other’s data-base, he said.
 
He said job creation would be encouraged through revival of growth and investment and promotion of domestic manufacturing and "Make in India".
 
The tax "pass through" is proposed to be allowed to both Category-1 and Category-2 alternative investment fund so that tax is levied on the investors in these funds and not on the funds per se. 
 
To rationalize the capital gain regime for the sponsors  exiting at the time of listing of the units of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and Infrastructure Investment Trusts (InvITs) subject to payment of Securities Transaction Tax (STT) is proposed, he said. 
 
He said the Permanent Establishment (PE) norm will be modified to encourage fund managers to relocate to India. 
 
He said the General Anti Avoidance Rule (GAAR) would be deferred by two years. It will apply to investments made on or after 01-04-2017, when implemented.  
 
 
Corporate tax to be cut to 25% in four years:Budget
In order to facilitate young entrepreneurs, the rate of income tax on royalty and fees for technical services will be reduced from 25 per cent to 10 per cent. To generate greater employment opportunities the benefit of deduction for employment of new regular workman to all business entities will be extended. The eligibility threshold of minimum 100 regular workmen will be reduced to 50.
 
Recognizing the importance of indirect taxes in the context of promotion of domestic manufacturing and Make in India, the Finance Minister said basic custom duty on certain inputs, raw materials, intermediates and components in 22 items was proposed to be reduced to minimize the impact of duty evasion. All goods, except populated printed circuit boards for use in manufacture of ITA bound items are proposed to be exempted from SAD.  Subject to actual user condition, SAD will be reduced on import of certain other imports and raw materials. 
 
Mr Jaitley the wealth tax would be replaced with an additional surcharge of 2 per cent on the "super rich" with taxable income of more than Rs 1 crore. This is expected to yield Rs 9000 crore against the Rs 1008 crore generated currently by wealth tax.
 
To eliminate the scope for discretionary exercise of power and provide a hassle-free structure to the tax payers, he proposed to increase the threshold limit for domestic transfer pricing from Rs.5 crore to Rs. 20 crore.
 
In order to rationalize the minimum advance tax (MAT) provisions for foreign institutional investors (FIIs), profits corresponding to their income from capital gains on transactions in securities which are liable to tax at a lower rate, shall not be subject to MAT, he said.
 
The education cess and the secondary and higher education cess is proposed to be subsumed in central excise duty.  The general rate of central excise duty of 12.36 per cent, including the cesses will be rounded off to 12.5 per cent.  
 
The ad-valorem rates of excise duty lower than 12 per cent and those higher than 12 per cent with a few exceptions are not proposed to be increased. Excise duty on footwears with leather uppers and having retail price of more than Rs.1,000 per pair is proposed to be reduced to 6 per cent.  
 
Mr Jaitley said online central excise and service tax registration will be done in two working days.  As a measure of business facilitation, the time limit for CENVAT credit on inputs and input services will be increased from 6 months to one year.  Service tax plus education cess is proposed to be increased from 12.36 per cent to 14 per cent to facilitate transaction to GST. 
 
He proposed 100 percent deduction for contributions made, other than by way of corporate social responsibility (CSR) contributions, to the Swachh Bharat Kosh. Similar tax treatment has been proposed for the Clean Ganga Fund.
 
He proposed an increase in clean energy cess from Rs.100 to Rs.200 per metric tonne of coal, etc. to finance clean environment initiatives.   
 
He said excise duty on sacks and bags of polymers of ethylene other than for industrial use is proposed to be increased from 12 per cent to 15 per cent.  He also mentioned an enabling provision to levy Swachh Bharat Cess at the rate of 2 per cent or less on all or certain services, if the need arises. 
 
Mr Jaitley said that services by common effluent treatment plant will be exempt from service tax.  He also proposed the extension of concessions on customs and excise duty available to electrically operated vehicles and hybrid vehicles upto 31-03-2016.
 
He proposed no change in the rate of personal income tax and rate of tax for companies in respect of income earned in the finance year 2015-16, assessable in Assessment Year 2016-17. 
 
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Mr Jaitley proposed to levy a surcharge @ 12 per cent on individuals, HUFs, AOPs, BOIs, artificial juridical persons, firms, cooperative societies and local authorities having income exceeding Rs.1 crore.  
 
Surcharge in the case of domestic companies having income exceeding Rs.1 crore and up to Rs.10 Crore is proposed to be levied @ 7 per cent and surcharge @ 12 per cent is proposed to be levied on domestic companies having income exceeding Rs.10 crore.
 
He  proposed that in the case of foreign companies the surcharge will continue to be levied @ 2 per cent if the income exceeds Rs.1 crore and is up to Rs. 10 Crore, and @ 5 per cent if the income exceeds Rs.10 crore.
 
He also proposed to levy a surcharge @ 12 per cent as against current rate of 10 per cent on additional income tax payable by companies on distribution of dividends and buyback of shares, or by mutual funds and securitization trusts on distribution of income.
 
The education cess on income tax @ 2 per cent for fulfilment of the commitment of the Government to provide and finance universalized quality based education and 1 per cent of additional surcharge called ‘Secondary and Higher Education Cess’ on tax and surcharge is proposed to be continued for the financial year 2015-16 for all taxpayers, he said.
 
Describing the extension of benefits to middle class tax payers as the priority of the government, Mr Jaitley proposed the following concessions for them:
 
A.     Increase in the limit of deduction in respect of health insurance premium from Rs.15,000 to Rs.25,000.
(1)   For senior citizens the limit will stand increased to Rs.30,000 from the existing Rs.20,000.
(2)   For very senior citizens of the age of 80 years or more, who are not covered by health insurance, deduction of Rs.30,000 towards expenditure incurred on the treatment will allowed.
 
B.     The deduction limit of Rs.60,000 towards expenditure on account of specified diseases of serious nature is proposed to be enhanced to Rs.80,000 in case of very senior citizens.
 
C.     Additional deduction of Rs.25,000 will be allowed for differently abled persons under Section 80DD and Section 80U of the Income Tax Act.
 
D.     The limit on deduction on account of contribution to a pension fund and the New Pension Scheme is proposed to be increased from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.1.5 lakh.
 
E.      To provide social safety net and the facility of pension to individuals and additional deduction of Rs. 50,000 is proposed to be provided for contribution to the New Pension Scheme under Section 80 CCD.  This will enable India to become a pensioned society instead of a pensionless society.
 
F.      Investments in Sukanya Samriddhi Scheme are already eligible for deduction under Section 80C.  All payments to the beneficiaries including interest payment on deposit will also be fully exempt.
 
G.     Transport allowance exemption is being increased from Rs. 800 to Rs. 1,600 per month.
 
H.     For the benefit of senior citizens, service tax exemption will be provided on Varishta Bima Yojana.
 
Mr Jaitley said these concessions had been given to individual taxpayers despite inadequae fiscal space.
 
"After taking into account the tax concession given to middle class tax payers in my last Budget and this Budget, today an individual tax payer will get tax benefit of Rs 4,44,200. As and when my fiscal capacity improves, individual taxpayers will have a lot to look forward to," he said.
 
Other taxation proposals include conversion of existing excise duty on petrol and diesel to the extent of Rs 4 per litre into Road Cess to fund investment in roads and other infrastructure.  An additional sum of Rs 40,000 crore will be made available through this measure for these sectors. 
 
In service tax, exemption is being extended to certain pre- cold storage services in relation to fruits and vegetables so as to incentivise value addition in this crucial sector.  The Negative List under service tax is being slightly pruned and certain other exemptions are being withdrawn to widen the tax base. 
 
Yoga wil be included within the ambit of charitable purpose under Section 2(15) of the Income-tax Act.  
 
Further, to mitigate the problem being faced by many genuine charitable institutions, the Budget proposed to modify the ceiling on receipts from activities in the nature of trade, commerce or business to 20% of the total receipts from the existing ceiling of Rs25 lakh.  A national database of non profit organisations is also being developed, he said.
 
Mr Jaitley said most of the provisions of the proposed Direct Taxes Code (DTC) had already been included in the Income-tax Act.  Among the very few aspects of DTC which were left out, some issues had been addressed in today's Budget.
 
"Further, the jurisprudence under the Income-tax Act is well evolved. Considering all these aspects, there is no great merit in going ahead with the Direct Tax Code as it exists today," he said.
 
Mr Jaitley said his direct tax proposals would result in revenue loss of Rs 8,315 crore, whereas the proposals in indirect taxes are expected to yield Rs 23,383 crore.  Thus, the net impact of all tax proposals would be a revenue gain of Rs15,068 crore, he said.
 
Mr Jaitley began his Budget Speech by saying that the economy had turned aorund dramatically in the last nine months, since the Narendra Modi took over on May 26, 2014, with the real gross domestic product (GDP) growth expected to accelerate to 7.4 per cent, making India the fastest growing large economy in the world.
 
He said macro-economic stability had been restored and conditions had been created for sustainable poverty elimination, job creation and durable double digit economic growth.
 
He listed the Jan Dhan Yojana, which brought over 12.5 crore families into the financial mainstream in just 100 days, transparent coal block auctions to augment resources of the States and ‘Swachh Bharat’, the cleanliness mission, as the key achievements of the government.
 
He said India had now embarked on two more game-changing reforms -- the GST and the JAM Trinity - Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile -- to implement direct transfer of benefits. 
 
He said GST would put in place a state-of-the art indirect tax system by 1st April 2016 while the JAM Trinity would allow transfer benefits in a leakage-proof, targetted and cashless manner.
 
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Mr Jaitley said the declining inflation rate was one of the major achievements of the Government and said this represented a structural shift. He said consumer price index (CPI) inflation was expected to remain at close to 5% by the end of the year, which would allow further easing of monetary policy. 
 
He said a Monetary Policy Framework Agreement had been concluded with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to keep inflation below 6%.
 
He said that, based on the new series, the estimated GDP growth for 2014-15 is 7.4%, which is expected to go up to between 8 and 8.5 per cent in the next financial year, making double-digit growth seem feasible very soon.
 
He mentioned the Government's plan for Housing for All by 2022, and said this would require the construction of two crore houses in urban areas and four crore in rural areas. He said the vision included power supply for each house and means of livelihood for at least one member of each family, substantial reduction in poverty, electrification of the remaining 20,000 villages, including off-grid solar power by 2020, connecting each of the 1,78,000 unconnected habitation, providing medical services in each village and city, and ensuring a Senior Secondary School within 5 km of every child.
 
He said this also involved strengthening rural economy, increasing irrigated area, ensuring communication connectivity to all villages, to make India, the manufacturing hub of the world through Skill India and the Make in India Programmes, encouraging and growing the spirit of entrepreneurship and development of Eastern and North Eastern regions on par with the rest of the country.
 
Mr Jaitley assured the House that the country would meet the challenging fiscal deficit target of 4.1% of GDP set by the previous government. He said the Government was firm on achieving a fiscal deficit target of 3% within three years.
 
He stressed the need for a well targeted system of subsidy delivery and reduction in leakages. He said the Government was committed to the rationalization of subsidies. He said the direct transfer of benefits (DBT), started mostly in scholarship schemes, would be further expanded to increase the number of beneficiaries from the present 1 crore to 10.3 crore.
 
He proposed to fully support the Agriculture Ministry’s organic farming scheme – “Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana”. He also proposed an allocation of Rs 5,300 crore for the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sinchai Yojana, an irrigation scheme.
 
In order to support the agriculture sector with the help of effective agriculture credit and focus on small and marginal farmers, he proposed to allocate Rs. 25,000 crore to the corpus of the Rural Infrastructure Development fund (RIDF) set up in NABARD, Rs. 15,000 crore for Long Term Rural Credit Fund; Rs. 45,000 crore for Short Term Cooperative Rural Credit Refinance Fund; and Rs. 15,000 crore for Short Term RRB Refinance Fund. 
 
He said that the Government had set an ambitious target of Rs. 8.5 lakh crore of agricultural credit. Stating the Government’s commitment to supporting employment through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), he proposed an initial allocation of Rs. 34,699 crore for the programme.
 
Mr Jaitley proposed to create a Micro Units Development Refinance Agency (MUDRA) Bank, with a corpus of Rs. 20,000 crore, and credit guarantee corpus of 3,000 crore, which will refinance Micro-Finance Institutions through a Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana,. He added that priority would be given to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) enterprises in lending.
 
Expressing concern over the large proportion of India’s population that is without any kind of insurance, he said that the soon-to-be- launched Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana would cover accidental death risk of Rs. 2 lakh for a premium of just Rs. 12 per year. 
 
Similarly, the Government will launch the Atal Pension Yojana, which will provide a defined pension, depending on the contribution, and its period. To encourage people to join this scheme, the Government will contribute 50% of the beneficiaries’ premium limited to Rs. 1,000 each year, for five years, in the new accounts opened before 31st December, 2015. 
 
He also announced the Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana which covers both natural and accidental death risk of Rs. 2 lakhs. The premium will be Rs. 330 per year, or less than one rupee per day, for the age group 18-50, he said.
 
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Referring to the unclaimed deposits of about Rs. 3,000 crore in the Public Provident Fund (PPF) and approximately Rs. 6,000 crore in the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) corpus, the Minister said that the amounts would be appropriated to a corpus, which will be used to subsidize the premia on these social security schemes through creation of a Senior Citizen Welfare fund in the Finance Bill. 
 
He reiterated the Government’s commitment to the ongoing schemes for the welfare of SCs, STs and women.
 
Underlining the need to increase public investment in infrastructure, Mr Jaitley proposed increased outlays for roads and the gross budgetary support to the railways, by Rs. 14,031 crore and Rs. 10,050 crore, respectively. 
 
He said the capital expenditure of the public sector undertakings (PSUs) was expected to be Rs. 3,17,889 crore, an increase of approximately Rs. 80,844 crore over the Revised Estimates (RE) 2014-15. 
 
He also proposed to establish a National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) with an annual flow of Rs. 20,000 crore.  
 
He said that he also intended to permit tax free infrastructure bonds for the projects in the rail, road and irrigation sector. He said the public private partnership (PPP) mode of infrastructure development had to be revisited and revitalized.
 
Mr Jaitley proposed to establish the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) in the NITI Aayog, which will provide an Innovation Promotion Platform involving academiciansand draw upon national and international experiences. A sum of Rs. 150 crore is proposed to be earmarked for the mission.
 
He said the Government establishing a mechanism, to be known as SETU (Self-Employment and Talent Utilisation), which will support all aspects of start-up businesses, and other self-employment activities, particularly in technology-driven areas. An amount of Rs. 1,000 crore has been initially earmarked in NITI Aayog, the body which has replaced the Planning Commission, for the purpose.
 
Mr Jaitley said the Government also proposed to set up five new Ultra Mega Power Projects (UMPPs), each of 4000 MW, in the plug-and-play mode.
 
To promote investment in the country, he proposed to set up a Public Debt Management Agency (PDMA) which will bring both India’s external borrowings and domestic debt under one roof. 
 
He also proposed to merge the Forwards Markets Commission with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to strengthen regulation of commodity forward markets and reduce wild speculation. He said enabling legislation, amending the Government Securities Act and the RBI Act was proposed in the Finance Bill, 2015.
 
Regarding the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), the Minister said the employees need to be provided two options, EPF or the New Pension Scheme (NPS). He said, for employees below a certain threshold of monthly income, contribution to EPF should be optional, without affecting or reducing the employer’s contribution.
 
Noting that India is one of the largest consumers of gold in the world, Mr Jaitley proposed to introduce a Gold Monetisation Scheme, which will replace both the present Gold Deposit and Gold Metal Loan Schemes. The new scheme will allow the depositors of gold to earn interest in their metal accounts and the jewelers to obtain loans in their metal account.  Banks/other dealers would also be able to monetize this gold. He also proposed a Sovereign Gold Bond, as an alternative to purchasing metal gold. 
 
He also announced commencement of work on developing Indian Gold Coin, which will carry the Ashok Chakra on its face.
 
Highlighting need for increasing investments from all sources, the Finance Minister proposed to allow foreign investments in Alternate Investment Funds. He said that, in order to catalyze investments from the Indian private sector  in South East Asia, a Project Development Company will set up manufacturing hubs  in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.
 
In order to support programmes for women's security, advocacy and awareness, the Minister proposed to provide another Rs. 1,000 crore to the Nirbhaya Fund.
 
He said resources would be provided to start work on landscape restoration, signage and interpretation centres, parking, access for the differently abled, visitors’ amenities, including security and toilets, illumination and plans for benefiting communities around them at various heritage sites in the country.
 
Expressing concern over environmental degradation, Mr Jaitley said that the target of renewable energy capacity had been revised to 1,75,000 MW till 2022. He said the Government was also launching a scheme for Faster Adoption and manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME) with an initial outlay of Rs. 75 crore.
 
He said the Government would soon launch a National Skills Mission which will consolidate skill initiatives spread across several Ministries. He said Rs. 1,500 crore has been set apart for the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gramin Kaushal Yojana, a skills programme for rural youth.
 
He proposed to set up a fully IT based Student Financial Aid Authority to administer and monitor scholarships and educational loan schemes, through the Pradhan Mantri Vidya Lakshmi Karyakram.
 
Mr Jaitley said a new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) would be set up in Karnataka and the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad would be upgraded into a full-fledged IIT.
 
New All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) will be set up in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Assam. Another AIIMS-like institution will be set up in Bihar.
 
A Post-Graduate Institute of Horticulture Research & Education will be set up in Amritsar, Punjab, three new National Institutes of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPERs) will be set up in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh and one Institute of Science and Education Research will be set up in Nagaland and Odisha each. 
 
Two Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) will be set up in J&K and Andhra Pradesh, he said.
 
Mr Jaitley said the National Optical Fibre Network Programme (NOFNP) of 7.5 lakh kms networking 2.5 lakh villages would be  further speeded up by allowing willing States to undertake its execution.
 
He said that, inspite of the large increase in the devolution to states, adequate provision was being made for the schemes for the poor with allocation of Rs. 68,968 crore to the education sector including mid-day meals, Rs. 33,152 crore to the health sector and Rs. 79,526 crore for rural development activities including MGNREGA, Rs. 22,407 crore for housing and urban development, Rs. 10,351 crore for women and child development, and Rs. 4,173 crore for Water Resources and Namami Gange. 
 
The Minister said that adequate funds had been provided for the needs of the armed forces. As against likely expenditure in this year of Rs. 2,22,370 crore, the budget allocation for 2015-16 is Rs. 2,46,727 crore, he said.
 
He said the Non-Plan expenditure for 2015-16 was estimated at Rs  13,12,220 crore. Plan expenditure is estimated to be Rs. 4,65,277 crore, which is very near to the R.E. of 2014-15. 
 
The total expenditure has accordingly been estimated at Rs. 17,77,477 crore. Gross tax receipts are estimated to be Rs. 14,49,490 crore. Devolution to the States is estimated to at Rs. 5,23,958 crore. Share of Central Government will be Rs. 9,19,842 crore. 
 
Non-tax revenues for the next fiscal are estimated to be Rs. 2,21,733 crore. 
 
He said that, with these estimates, the fiscal deficit would be 3.9 percent of GDP and the revenue deficit would be 2.8 percent of GDP.
 
Mr Jaitley said the Government was committed to change, growth, jobs and genuine effective upliftment of the poor and the under-privileged. He also reaffirmed its commitment to the Constitutional principles of equality and justice for all without concern for caste, creed or religion.
 
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Economic Survey predicts 8.1-8.5% growth in 2015-16, says double digit trajectory possible

The Economic Survey 2014-15 presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to the Lok Sabha on Friday, a day ahead of his Budget for the coming fiscal year, said that the economy was poised for a growth of 8.1 to 8.5 percent at market prices in 2015-16.

 
The Economic Survey 2014-15 presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to the Lok Sabha today, a day ahead of his Budget for the coming fiscal year, said that the economy was poised for a growth of 8.1 to 8.5 percent at market prices in 2015-16.
 
Asserting that the economy was looking up, with brighter prospects amongst the world's major economies today, the survey said that the clear political mandate for reform and a benign external environment now was expected to propel India onto a double digit trajectory.
 
It said that the economy appeared to have now gone past the economic slowdown, persistent inflation, elevated fiscal deficit, slackening domestic demand, external account imbalances and oscillating value of the rupee.
 
The survey took into consideration of the recent change of base year  by the Central Statistics Office of the National Accounts series from 2004-05 to 2011-12 while projecting its growth estimate for 2015-16.
 
It said the growth rate in GDP at constant (2011-12) market prices in 2012-13 was 5.1 per cent, which increased to 6.9 percent in 2013-14 and it is expected to further increase to 7.4 per cent in 2014-15 (according to advanced estimates). 
 
The change in methodology by the Central Statistics Office has also introduced the concept of Gross Value Added (GVA) at the aggregate and various sectoral levels, it noted.
 
According to the survey, the expectation for such a growth rate is also due to a number of reforms that have already been undertaken and more that are being planned for.  
 
It mentioned some of these reform measures such as deregulation of diesel price, taxing energy products, replacing cooking gas subsidy by direct transfer on national scale, issuance of an ordinance to reform the coal sector via auctions and increasing the foreign direct investment (FDI) caps in defence.
 
The document also commended the far-reaching changes brought about on the issue of sharing of revenues between the Centre and States as recommended by the 14th Finance Commission.
 
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The report said the decline in inflation by over 6 percentage points since late 2013 and the reduction of the current account deficit (CAD) from a peak of 6.7 per cent of GDP in the third quarter of 2012-13 to about one per cent in the coming fiscal year had made India an attractive investment destination well above most other countries.
 
The expected high growth rate in the coming year in the favourable economic environment has created a historic moment of opportunity to propel India onto a double-digit growth trajectory to attain the fundamental objective of  “wiping every tear from every eye” of the vulnerable and  poor people of the country, it said.
 
The survey said this also provided an opportunity to the increasingly young, middle-class and aspirational India to realize its full potential. As the new Government is to present its first full year budget, the Economic Survey said that it appeared that India had reached a "sweet spot" and that there was a scope for "big bang reforms" now.
 
The report said the growth estimates of over 8 per cent for the coming year was based on expectations that the monsoon would be favourable,  as it was forecast to be normal, compared to last year. 
 
However the growth rate in Gross Value Added (GVA) at basic prices in agriculture is projected to decline from 3.7 per cent in 2013-14, an exceptionally good previous year from the point of view of rainfall, to 1.1 per cent in 2014-15, the current year with not-so-favourable monsoon.   
 
The survey drew attention to certain other "stagnating or declining elements" of the economy in the recent past.
 
It said that the growth in 2014-15 was largely driven by domestic demand. "There is hardly any external support to growth in 2014-15, as the growth in exports is projected to be only 0.9 per cent and the growth rate of imports, around (-) 0.5 per cent. The deceleration in imports owe substantially to the sharp decline in international oil prices in the current year that compressed the oil import bill," it said.
 
The survey also said that there had been a decline in the rate of gross domestic saving, from 33.9 per cent of the GDP in 2011-12 to 31.8 per cent in 2012-13 and further to 30.6 per cent in 2013-14, caused majorly by the sharp decline in the rate of household physical savings.
 
It said that the investment rate over the past years, as measured by gross capital formation (GCF) as a percentage of GDP, declined from 38.2 per cent in 2011-12 to 36.6 per cent in 2012-13 and further to 32.3 per cent in 2013-14.
 
On investments, the document said that, while private investment must remain the primary engine of long-run growth, the public investment, especially in the railways, would have to play an important role, at least in the interim, to revive growth and to deepen physical connectivity.
 
The report prescribed what it called a golden rule of fiscal policy, saying that governments are expected to borrow over the cycle only to finance investment and not to fund current expenditures. It urged the government to aim at bringing down the centre’s fiscal deficit down to 3 per cent of GDP.
 
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The survey said price subsidies did not appear to have had a transformative effect on the living standards of the poor, though they have helped poor households to weather inflation and price volatility.   
 
It said that a close look at price subsidies, which are estimated to be about Rs 3,78,000 crore, about 4.24 per cent of GDP, revealed that they may not be the government’s best weapon for fighting poverty.  
 
Dwelling upon various subsidies to the poor, the survey stated that price subsidies were often regressive. It said an analysis of the current subsidy scheme indicated that rich households benefit more from the subsidy than poor households. 
 
Among various examples, it said that the subsidy on electricity, for example, could only benefit the relatively rich.
 
At the same time, it said that eliminating or phasing out subsidies was neither feasible nor desirable.
 
It said that adoption of the "JAM Number Trinity" -- Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile numbers --- would allow the State to deliver the subsidies to the poor in a targeted and less distorted manner.
 
The document expressed serious concern that several projects had been stalled and that this tendency had increased over the past years. It, however, expressed happiness that such stalling of projects seemed to have plateaued.  It suggested revitalizing public private partnership model of investment.
 
On the manufacturing vs services debate, the survey said both were equally important for the growth of the economy in the Indian context.
 
Similarly, “Skilling India” is no less important and deserved an equal attention as the other important goal of “Make in India “, it said
 
In a chapter on a Common National Market for Agricultural Commodities, the survey, without drawing any conclusions, suggested that there may be a Constitutional provision used to regulate trading in specified agricultural commodities to create a National Common Market.
 
In an exclusive chapter on the Fourteenth Finance Commission (FFC), the survey quoted both Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the country and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said that adoption of the recommendations of the FFC and the creation of Niti Aayog earlier would further take forward the Government’s vision of cooperative and competitive federalism.
 
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Modi writes to CMs, says Govt. has accepted recommendations of 14th Finance Commission

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has written to Chief Ministers of all States, informing them of the Government`s decision to wholeheartedly accept the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission (FC), although it would put a tremendous strain on the Centre's finances.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has written to Chief Ministers of all States, informing them of the Government`s decision to wholeheartedly accept the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission (FC), although it would put a tremendous strain on the Centre's finances.
 
The 14th FC has recommended a record increase of 10% in the devolution of the divisible pool of resources to states. This compares with the marginal increases made by previous Finance Commissions, he said.
 
"The total devolution to states in 2015-16 will be significantly higher than in 2014-15. This naturally leaves far less money with the Central Government. However, we have taken the recommendations of the 14th FC in a positive spirit as they strengthen your hand in designing and implementing schemes as per your priorities and needs," he said.
 
Mr Modi said that, in making its recommendations, the 14th FC had made a fundamental shift in the pattern of financing revenue expenditures. It has assumed all central assistance to State Plan Revenue expenditure to be part of the states’s revenue burden and determined devolution on this basis. 
 
"Para 7.43 of its report explains this. The dominant view of states too has been that a majority of the resources should flow as tax devolution and the number of CSS should be reduced as the 14th FC states in Paras 8.6 & 8.7," he said.
 
"Therefore, there is a shift from scheme and grant based support from the Central Government to a devolution based support. Hence, the devolution of 42% of divisible resources," he said.
 
Mr Modi said that, therefore, as per the 14th FC, all State Plan Revenue expenditure had to be met from the resources being devolved to states. In spite of this large devolution, the Centre had decided to continue with some support to topmost areas of national priority such as poverty elimination, MNREGA, education, health, rural development, agriculture and a few other areas. 
 
"You will appreciate that, following the acceptance of the 14th FC recommendations, we are moving away from rigid centralised planning, forcing a ‘One size fits all’ approach on states. States have always been voicing their opposition to this philosophy for years. Accepting these long standing concerns and long-felt lacunae in the country’s planning process, our Government has decided to devolve maximum money to states and allow them the required freedom to plan the course of states’ development. The additional 10% of resources being devolved will give you this freedom," he said.
 
"In this overall context when you are flush with resources, I would like you to have a fresh look at some of the erstwhile schemes and programmes supported by the centre. States are free to continue or change these schemes and programmes as per their discretion and requirement. In all these, the Union Government, particularly the NITI Aayog, will support states in developing a strategy and in its execution through ideas, knowledge and technology," he said.
 
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Mr Modi said this was all towards the fulfilment of his promise of co-operative federalism. 
 
"As you have already seen, we have decided to involve states in discussing and planning national priorities. This is being done so as to maximise the outcome from every rupee spent either at the centre or the state. It was with this spirit of Team India that all Chief Ministers have been made equal partners in the Governing Council of NITI Aayog. This is our strategy to take the country to a faster and yet inclusive growth trajectory through co-operative federalism which is real and true federalism," he said.
 
"We are happy with our decision and that resources are going to the right place. Resources are going to states to ensure that poverty is eliminated, jobs are created; houses, drinking water, roads, schools, hospitals and electricity are provided. This has never happened in this country before," he said.
 
Mr Modi said that, in addition, the Government had recently revised the rates of royalty on minerals which benefits many states. The ongoing transparent auction of coal and other minerals will result in flow of over Rs 1 lakh crore of additional funds to mineral and coal bearing states. 
 
"Eastern India, which is less developed in spite of having immense mineral resources, is an important gainer and this is an opportunity for this part to catch up with the rest of the country," he said.
 
"Resources, thus, are not and will not be a problem. The issue is the direction and intent of our policies and our capacity to implement. You will agree that money, either at the central or the state level, should be spent to address the key challenges before the Nation. The focus should be the poor, farmers and common men and women, the youth and children. The challenge is to address the factors which inhibit the realisation of their full potential," he said.
 
Mr Modi pointed that, ever since his Government came into office, he had been working to strengthen the country's federal polity and promote cooperative federalism. 
 
"The people of the country have high expectations from their governments and do not want to wait. Therefore, since the very beginning, we have been committed to a rapid and inclusive process of growth. Looking to the diversity of the country, we understand that real and functional Federal Governance is the only vehicle to achieve this objective quickly and holistically," he said.
 
"I sincerely believe that strong states are the foundation of a strong India. Even as Chief Minister, I had been saying that the progress of the country depends on the progress of states. This Government is, therefore, committed to the idea of empowering states in all possible ways. We also believe that states should be allowed to chalk out their programmes and schemes with greater financial strength and autonomy, while observing financial prudence and discipline. We are clear that without this, local development needs cannot be met and marginalised communities and backward regions cannot be brought into the mainstream. 
 
"With this in mind, we have replaced the Planning Commission with the NITI Aayog with the explicit intent of ensuring that this becomes a common forum for forging a national vision on development. Such a vision and the concrete steps that all of us take will help in realising the development aspirations of our people," he said.
 
The Prime Minister said this was a golden opportunity in the nation’s economic development process. He said his recent visits across the world had shown that there was a lot of optimism about India and interest in investing in this country. "Everyone wants to partner with India in its growth story. This is not an opportunity for the central government, but an opportunity for India as a whole," he said.
 
"Let us aim at a quantum leap in the process of our nation’s development. I am writing this to you in order to seek your co-operation and involvement in defining key challenges facing your state and the country and to devote the time, energy and resources to address these. I expect that every state will come up with a plan for its key priorities and deploy resources for this purpose. We should also adopt a rigorous system of evaluation of schemes and projects. I will work with you in this effort. Together, we have to establish benchmarks in terms of quality of works and their speedy execution. 
 
"Let us work together in this direction. I will be available for any consultation in this regard at any time," he added.
 
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Arrested former journalist Santanu Saikia says papers leak case is Rs 10,000 crore scam

Former journalist Santanu Saikia, who was arrested by the Delhi Police on Friday in connection with the alleged leak of confidential documents from the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas to private oil companies, created a sensation on Saturday by claiming that it was a Rs 10,000 crore scam and that he was just covering it.

 
It's 10000 crore scam: Saikia
Former journalist Santanu Saikia, who was arrested by the Delhi Police yesterday in connection with the alleged leak of confidential documents from the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas (MoPNG) to private oil companies, today created a sensation by claiming that it was a Rs 10,000 crore scam and that he was just covering it.
 
"It is a 10,000 crore scam, you know. I was trying to do a cover up. I was doing a cover up operation. It is a 10,000 crore scam," he told reporters as he was led away by policemen into the Delhi Police Crime Branch office.
 
The claim came even as the Delhi Police late yesterday arrested five executives of major private energy companies as part of its investigations into the corporate espionage case.
 
Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan ruled out any suggestion that the authorities were covering up matters, and said Saikia was only trying to save his own skin.
 
Union Home Miniser Rajnath Singh said no one found guilty in the case would be spared and that strict action would be taken against them.
 
"We should be appreciated for unearthing this. We found out that this was happening. Those responsible will be punished," he told reporters, adding that the scandal would not have come to light if the government had not been vigilant.
 
The five executives arrested in the case have been identified as Shailesh Saxena of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), Vinay Kumar of Essar, K K Naik of Cairns India, Subhash Chandra of Jubilant Energy and Rishi Anand of Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG).
 
Delhi Police Commissioner B S Bassi told journalists that the police would produce the five in a local court and seek their custody for interrogation.
 
The police had earlier arrested seven persons, including Saikia, in connection with the case. While five people, including two employees of the MoPNG, were arrested on February 17, the former journalist and Prayas Jain, an energy consultant, were arrested early yesterday.
 
Mr Bassi siad the police had questioned the recipients of the documents stolen and leaked by the five men arrested in the first instance. "The documents that have been stolen were further sold and the recipients of the stolen property have been taken in control and were being questioned by us," he said.
 
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Saikia, who used to work for a business newspaper in the capital earlier, now runs a portal on energy. Jain's firm is based in Delhi and Melbourne.
 
Saikia, Jain and two others arrested earlier have been sent to police custody till February 23. The remaining three are in judicial custody for 14 days.
 
Official sources said the stolen documents incuded inputs for the General Budget for 2015-16, due to be presented on February 28 by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, a letter from the Prime Minister's Office and documents related to the power and coal ministries.
 
According to the police, the men in the first group of arrested persons usd to enter the MoPNG offices in Shastri Bhavan with the help of forged identity cards and entry passes and open rooms of senior officias and copy papers they found there. The papers were sold to the consultants, who would pass it on for a price to energy companies, they said.
 
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Nitish Kumar to return as Bihar CM after Manjhi quits ahead of trust vote

Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar will be sworn in as Chief Minister of Bihar for a fourth time on Sunday evening after his loyalist-turned-political foe Jitan Ram Manjhi resigned from the position hours before a trust vote in the state legislative assembly in Patna on Friday.

 
I accept my mistake and apologize to the people of Bihar: Nitish
Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar will be sworn in as Chief Minister of Bihar for a fourth time on Sunday evening after his loyalist-turned-political foe Jitan Ram Manjhi resigned from the position hours before a trust vote in the state legislative assembly here today.
 
Mr Kumar, 63, who has the necessary numbers on his side, called on Bihar Governor Kesari Nath Tripathi, shortly after Mr Manjhi met him and handed in his papers, and staked his claim to form the next government.
 
Mr Tripathi invited him to form the new government and will administer the oaths of office and secrecy to him and his ministers at 5 pm on Sunday. He has been asked to prove his majority on the floor of the assembly within three weeks.
 
Mr Manjhi drove to Raj Bhavan to meet the Governor at about 10.15 am and submitted his resignation, shortly before he was supposed to seek a vote of confidence from the House.
 
The outgoing Chief Minister clearly seemed to have realised that he did not have the  numbers to win the trust motion in the 243-member assembly, despite the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had thrown its weight behind him.
 
Mr Kumar has been claiming that he had the support of 130 MLAs in the House, including 99 of his own party, 24 from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and five of the Congress.
 
Ahead of his meeting with the Governor, Mr Kumar, a former Union Minister, promised to provide good governance if given another chance to serve the people of Bihar and apologised to them for his decision to resign on May 17 last year after his party's poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections in the state.
 
Mr Kumar's party had ended up with just two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its erstwhile partner in the state, won as many as 22.
 
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, an ally of the BJP, got five seats. The Congress won two seats, the NCP one, the 
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) four and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party won three.
 
On June 16, 2013, the JD (U) had formally withdrawn from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and ended its 17-year-old partnership with the BJP in Bihar after it became increasingly clear at that stage that Mr Narendra Modi would be the Prime Ministerial candidate of the party.
 
Mr Manjhi, who was the Minister for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Backward and Economically Backward Classes Welfare, was handpicked by Mr Kumar to succeed him on May 19 last year.
 
"I assure the people of Bihar that if I get an opportunity again I will serve them in the same spirit I did for eight and a half years earlier. Good governance was and will remain my priority," Mr Kumar told journalists.
 
"I also apologise for my decision to quit. I will never take an emotional decision again. Now I am ready to lead from the front," he said.
 
The JD (U) has 115 members in the assembly, and most of them back Mr Kumar. The BJP has 88 members and the support of three independents.
 
Mr Kumar had staked claim to form the next government ten days ago after the JD (U) removed Mr Manjhi as the leader of its legislature party and elected him to the position to enable him to return as Chief Minister. Mr Manjhi refused to oblige and was expelled from the party. He then decided to seek a trust vote, banking on the support of the BJP.
 
Mr Kumar said Mr Manjhi had decided to quit after all the efforts made by the BJP to wean away MLAs from the JD (U) had failed.
 
Mr Manjhi, however, told journalists that he had decided to quit to protect MLAs supporting him, saying they had received death threats in the past few days. 
 
Mr Kumar has a degree in electrical engineering from the Bihar College of Engineering, Patna, now the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Patna. He joined politics after a brief stint in the Bihar State Electricity Board.
 
At the Centre, Mr Kumar has handled the portfolios of Railways and Agriculture.
 
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Kejriwal meets Modi, raises issue of statehood for Delhi

Delhi Chief Minister-designate Arvind Kejriwal met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence in New Delhi on Thursday morning and raised, among other issues, the question of granting full statehood to Delhi.

Delhi Chief Minister-designate and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on February 12, 2015. Senior AAP leader Manish Sisodia is also seen.
Delhi Chief Minister-designate and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on February 12, 2015. Senior AAP leader Manish Sisodia is also seen.
Delhi Chief Minister-designate Arvind Kejriwal met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence here this morning and raised, among other issues, the question of granting full statehood to Delhi.
 
Mr Kejriwal was accompanied to the meeting by his close aide and senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Manish Sisodia, who is tipped to be the Deputy Chief Minister in the new Delhi government.
 
Mr Kejriwal invited Mr Modi for the swearing-in ceremony to be held at the historic Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on February 14, but the Prime Minister has regretted his inability to attend the event in view of prior engagements outside Delhi.
 
Earlier, Mr Modi, who had been involved in a bitter war of words with Mr Kejriwal during the campaigning for the February 7 elections to the Delhi Legislative Assembly, welcomed the AAP leader with a bouquet of flowers and congratulated him on his stunning victory.
 
Incidentally, Mr Kejriwal had also fought against Mr Modi in the Lok Sabha elections from the Varanasi constituency of Uttar Pradesh, though he ended up losing by a big margin.
 
AAP swept the polls, winning an astounding 67 of the 70 seats in the assembly, leaving just three for Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and blanking out all the other parties, including the Congress, which had ruled Delhi for 15 consecutive years before the last Assembly elections in December 2013.
 
Mr Kejriwal was unanimously elected as the leader of the AAP legislative party on Tuesday, following which he had met Lt Governor Najeeb Jung to inform him of the party's decision and formally stake claim to forming the next government in Delhi.
 
 
Modi not to attend Kejriwal's swearing-in ceremony: Sisodia
Mr Sisodia said Mr Modi had assured Mr Kejriwal that he would look into AAP's demand for full statehood for Delhi. Mr Sisodia said the fact that there was a government with absolute majority at the Centre and there will be a government with a strong mandate in Delhi provided a "golden opportunity" for them to push through various measures to make the national capital a world class city.
 
Mr Kejriwal had met Delhi Chief Secretary Deepak Mohan Spolia and asked him to get all departments to make presentations to him on the status of projects and programmes on February 19.
 
The Chief Secretary has also been asked to draw up an action plan to cope with any shortage of power, water, vegetables and other essential supplies during the summer months.
 
Mr Kejriwal also issued an audio message today, inviting people of Delhi to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
 
Yesterday, Mr Kejriwal and Mr Sisodia had called on President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan. They had also met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.
 
Mr Mukherjee congratulated Mr Kejriwal on his resounding victory and gifted him a copy of the Constitution of India and one of his own book, Thoughts and Reflections.
 
Mr Sisodia said it was a courtesy call and there was "no special agenda" for the meeting. He said they thanked Mr Mukherjee for his guidance and blessings.
 
He said that they had invited Mr Singh to the swearing-in ceremony and also called for "constructive cooperation" between the Centre and the Delhi Government.
 
 
 
He said Mr Kejriwal had also sought the cooperation of the Centre in granting full statehood for Delhi, a demand that AAP has been making for a long time and had been espoused by the BJP, too, in the past.
 
Mr Kejriwal also invited Mr Naidu to the swearing-in ceremony and discussed development plans for Delhi with him.
 
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Kejriwal calls on Mukherjee, who gifts him a copy of the Constitution

A day after scoring a stunning win in the elections to the Delhi Legislative Assembly, Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal called on President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal meeting President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on February 11, 2015
Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal meeting President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on February 11, 2015
A day after scoring a stunning win in the elections to the Delhi Legislative Assembly, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal called on President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan here today.
 
Mr Kejriwal, accompanied by senior AAP leader Manish Sisodia, also met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu earlier in the day.
 
Mr Kejriwal will be sworn in as Chief Minister at the historic Ramlila Garden on February 14, exactly a year after he had quit from that position after just 49 days in office.
 
AAP won 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly, with the other three seats going to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress and other parties drew a complete blank. Mr Kejriwal was unanimously elected as the leader of the AAP legislative party yesterday, following which he had met Lt Governor Najeeb Jung.
 
Mr Mukherjee congratulated Mr Kejriwal on his astounding victory and gifted him a copy of the Constitution of India and his own book, Thoughts and Reflections.
 
Mr Sisodia said it was a courtesy call and there was "no special agenda" for the meeting. He said they thanked Mr Mukherjee for his guidance and blessings.
 
Kejriwal pays courtesy call on Pranab MUkherjee
 
He said that they had invited Mr Singh to the swearing-in ceremony and also called for "constructive cooperation" between the Centre and the Delhi Government.
 
He said Mr Kejriwal had also sought the cooperation of the Centre in granting full statehood for Delhi, a demand that AAP has been making for a long time and had been espoused by the BJP, too, in the past.
 
Mr Kejriwal also invited Mr Naidu to the swearing-in ceremony and discussed development plans for Delhi with him.
 
"Met Venkaiah Naidu ji n Rajnath ji -the 2 most imp ministries for del govt. Invited them to oath ceremony," Mr Kejriwal said on micro-blogging site Twitter after the meetings.
 
"Explained to both of them that full statehood for Delhi was necessary to meet people's expectations.
 
"We want constructive n healthy relationship wid centre," he added.
 
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Black money: Govt. initiates concealment penalty proceedings in 128 cases

The Government said on Monday it had initiated concealment penalty proceedings, under section 271 (1) (c) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, in almost all 128 cases in which it had completed assessments as part of its investigations into illegal foreign bank accounts held by Indians.

 
Need evidence to take action against black money account holders: Jaitley
The Government today said it had initiated concealment penalty proceedings, under section 271 (1) (c) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, in almost all 128 cases in which it had completed assessments as part of its investigations into illegal foreign bank accounts held by Indians.
 
In a statement here, the Ministry of Finance said that information about accounts in HSBC Bank was received from the French authorities in respect of 628 Indian persons/entities.
 
Out of these 628 cases, 200 were either non-residents or non-traceable, leaving 428 cases of residents which were found actionable, it said.
 
For these 428 actionable cases the net amount of peak balance was about Rs.4500 crore, it said.
 
"The Government of India has taken expeditious action in these cases as per law. Upto 31st December 2014, assessments were completed in 128 cases, involving more than 350 assessments. In the remaining cases, assessment proceedings are at advance stage.  Undisclosed income of about Rs.3150 crore was brought to tax on account of deposits made in unreported foreign bank accounts," the statement said.
 
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According to it, about 60 prosecutions have so far been launched for wilful attempt to evade taxes [S/276C(1)] and failure to furnish accounts and documents etc [S/276D]. Show Cause Notices before launching prosecutions have been issued in a large number of other cases wherein further action is underway, it said.
 
Referring to media reports which today spoke about foreign bank accounts held by 1195 Indians, of which the top 100 names were published by a newspaper, the statement said some of these names already figured in the earlier list availabe with the government. 
 
"Necessary investigation as per the provisions of law will be taken up in all the new cases, expeditiously," it said.
 
"Income Tax Department is already in touch with the whistle blower who apparently brought out the names of persons holding undisclosed bank accounts in HSBC, Switzerland.  He has been requested to share information available with him in regard to undisclosed bank accounts of Indians in HSBC, Switzerland and other destinations.  His response is awaited," it said.
 
The Government said that, during the last six months, it had taken vigorous and pro-active measures to expedite investigations in the cases of Indians holding undisclosed foreign accounts/assets abroad. 
 
"Useful contacts have been established with foreign governments who might have some further information in this regard.  Based upon credible information of undisclosed foreign bank accounts, fresh references for obtaining further information in more than 600 cases have been made to foreign jurisdictions, under available treaties/agreements. The same are being pursued," it added.
 
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Home Secretary Anil Goswami sacked for interference in Saradha case, L C Goyal replaces him

Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami was on Wednesday evening removed from his position after he allegedly tried to stall the arrest of former Union Minister Matang Singh by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the multi-crore Saradha deposits scam a few days ago.

Anil Goswami
Anil Goswami
Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami was today removed from his position after he allegedly tried to stall the arrest of former Union Minister Matang Sinh by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the multi-crore Saradha deposits scam a few days ago.
 
Mr Goswami put in his papers after meetings with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and in the Prime Minister's Office, at which he was told in unequivocal terms that his position had become untenable, official sources said.
 
Rural Development Secretary L C Goyal, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1979 batch (Kerala cadre), has been appointed as the new Home Secretary. 
 
A notification from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) said late tonight that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) had approved the acceptance of the request of Mr Goswami, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1978 batch (Jammu & Kashmir cadre), for voluntarily retiring from service with immediate effect by waiving the notice period.
 
It said that, consequently, the term of Mr Goswami as Home Secretary stood curtailed with immediate effect.
 
The ACC also approved the appointment of Mr Goyal as the new Home Secretary for a period of two years from the date he assumes charge of his new assignment, the notification added.
 
Mr Goswami was appointed as Home Secretary by the previous government on April 26, 2013 and took over the position on June 30 that year after the retirement of Mr R K Singh. In between, he served as Officer on Special Duty in the Home Ministry from April 27, 2013 onwards.
 
Before that, he was Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment He had also served as Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs. In the normal course, his tenure would have ended on June 30 this year.
 
The allegation against Mr Goswami is that he had called up some officials in the CBI on Saturday in an effort to stall the arrest of Mr Sinh after receiving a call for help from him. The former Congress Minister, who was a Minister of State in the P V Narasimha Rao government, was arrested by the CBI in Kolkata last Saturday on charges of criminal conspiracy, cheating and misappropriation of funds.
 
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Obama says India will succeed only if it is not splintered along religious lines

United States President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that India would succeed so long as it was not splintered along the lines of religious faith, or any other lines, and was unified as one nation.

 
Obama talks about religious freedom, racism, intolerance
United States President Barack Obama today said India would succeed so long as it was not splintered along the lines of religious faith, or any other lines, and was unified as one nation.
 
"The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts.  And it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe, and rejoice in the beauty of every soul," he told students and others at a town hall-style meeting at Siri Fort Auditorium here today.
 
It was Mr Obama's last engagement during a three-day visit to India before he and First Lady Michelle Obama left for Saudi Arabia on their way back home.
 
"And nowhere is that more important than India.  Nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld," he said.
 
"And it’s when all Indians, whatever your faith, go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan.  And when you celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh or Mary Kom.  And every Indian can take pride in the courage of a humanitarian who liberates boys and girls from forced labor and exploitation -- who is here today -- Kailash Satyarthi.  Our most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace," he said.
 
"So that's what unifies us:  Do we act with compassion and empathy.  Are we measured by our efforts -- by what Dr. (Martin Luther) King called 'the content of our character' rather than the colour of our skin or the manner in which we worship our God. 
 
"In both our countries, in India and in America, our diversity is our strength.  And we have to guard against any efforts to divide ourselves along sectarian lines or any other lines.  And if we do that well, if America shows itself as an example of its diversity and yet the capacity to live together and work together in common effort, in common purpose; if India, as massive as it is, with so much diversity, so many differences is able to continually affirm its democracy, that is an example for every other country on Earth.  That's what makes us world leaders -- not just the size of our economy or the number of weapons we have, but our ability to show the way in how we work together, and how much respect we show each other," he said.
 
Mr Obama reiterated that the relationship between India and the US could be one of the defining partnerships of this century.
 
He recalled that when he had addressed the Indian Parliament on his last visit he had laid out his vision for how the two nations could built that partnership.
 
"And today, I want to speak directly to you -- the people of India -- about what I believe we can achieve together, and how we can do it," he said.
 
He spoke about Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., whose guiding light was Mahatma Gandhi. "And those two great souls are why we can gather here together today, Indians and Americans, equal and free," he said. He also spoke about Swami Vivekananda's visit more than a century ago to Chicago, his home town, where he spoke of his faith and the divinity in every soul, and the purity of love.
 
"My confidence in what our nations can achieve together is rooted in the values we share.  For we may have our different histories and speak different languages, but when we look at each other, we see a reflection of ourselves," he said.
 
"Having thrown off colonialism, we created constitutions that began with the same three words -- 'we the people'.  As societies that celebrate knowledge and innovation, we transformed ourselves into high-tech hubs of the global economy.  Together, we unlock new discoveries -- from the particles of creation to outer space -- two nations to have gone to both the Moon and to Mars.  And here in India, this dynamism has resulted in a stunning achievement.  You’ve lifted countless millions from poverty and built one of the world’s largest middle classes," he said.
 
He said nobody embodied this progress and this sense of possibility more than the young people of both countries, empowered by technology, connecting and collaborating like never before.
 
"And chances are, you’re talking to someone in America -- your friends, your cousins.  The United States has the largest Indian diaspora in the world, including some three million proud Indian-Americans.  And they make America stronger, and they tie us together -- bonds of family and friendship that allow us to share in each other’s success," he said.
 
"For all these reasons, India and the United States are not just natural partners.  I believe America can be India’s best partner.  I believe that," he said.
 
Mr Obama stressed that only Indians could decide their country's role in the world. "But I’m here because I’m absolutely convinced that both our peoples will have more jobs and opportunity, and our nations will be more secure, and the world will be a safer and a more just place when our two democracies -- the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy -- stand together," he said.
 
"So here in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi and I have begun this work anew.  And here’s what I think we can do together.  America wants to be your partner as you lift up the lives of the Indian people and provide greater opportunity.  So working together, we’re giving farmers new techniques and data -- from our satellites to their cell phones -- to increase yields and boost incomes.  We’re joining you in your effort to empower every Indian with a bank account," he said.
 
"And with the breakthroughs we achieved on this visit, we can finally move toward fully implementing our civil nuclear agreement, which will mean more reliable electricity for Indians and cleaner, non-carbon energy that helps fight climate change.   And I don’t have to describe for you what more electricity means.  Students being able to study at night; businesses being able to stay open longer and hire more workers; farmers being able to use mechanized tools that increase their productivity; whole communities seeing more prosperity.  In recent years, India has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country.  And now we have a historic opportunity with India leading the way to end the injustice of extreme poverty all around the world," he said.
 
Mr Obama said the US wanted to be India's partner as it protectd the health of its people and the beauty of this land, "from the backwaters of Kerala to the banks of Ganges".
 
"As we deliver more energy, more electricity, let’s do it with clean, renewable energy, like solar and wind.  And let’s put cleaner vehicles on the road and more filtration systems on farms and villages.  Because every child should be able to drink clean water, and every child should be able to breathe clean air.  We need our young people healthy for their futures.  And we can do it.  We have the technology to do it," he said.
 
"America wants to be your partner in igniting the next wave of Indian growth.  As India pursues more trade and investment, we want to be first in line.  We’re ready to join you in building new infrastructure -- the roads and the airports, the ports, the bullet trains to propel India into the future.  We’re ready to help design 'smart cities' that serve citizens better, and we want to develop more advanced technologies with India, as we do with our closest allies," he said.
 
Mr Obama said he believed the two countries could be even closer partners in ensuring their mutual security. "And both our nations have known the anguish of terrorism, and we stand united in the defense of our people.  And now we’re deepening our defense cooperation against new challenges.  The United States welcomes a greater role for India in the Asia Pacific, where the freedom of navigation must be upheld and disputes must be resolved peacefully.  And even as we acknowledge the world as it is, we must never stop working for the world as it should be -- a world without nuclear weapons.  That should be a goal for all of us," he said.
 
Mr Obama said that if the two countries were going to be true global partners, then they must do more around the world together. "So to ensure international security and peace, multilateral institutions created in the 20th century have to be updated for the 21st.  And that’s why I support a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member," he said.
 
He said that with power came responsibility and pointed out that India could play a positive role in the region in helping countries forge a better future, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka.
 
"With your experience in elections, you can help other countries with theirs.  With your expertise in science and medicine, India can do more around the world to fight disease and develop new vaccines, and help us end the moral outrage of even a single child dying from a preventable disease.  Together, we can stand up against human trafficking and work to end the scourge of modern day slavery," he said.
 
Mr Obama said that being global partners meant confronting the urgent global challenge of climate change. 
 
"With rising seas, melting Himalayan glaciers, more unpredictable monsoons, cyclones getting stronger -- few countries will be more affected by a warmer planet than India.  And the United States recognizes our part in creating this problem, so we’re leading the global effort to combat it.  And today, I can say that America’s carbon pollution is near its lowest level in almost two decades," he said.
 
"I know the argument made by some that it’s unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century.  But here’s the truth:  Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly like India -- with soaring energy needs -- don't also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change," he said.
 
Mr Obama said the US welcomed India's ambitious targets for generating more clean energy and would continue to help it deal with the impacts of climate change, because it should not have to bear that burden alone.
 
"As we keep working for a strong global agreement on climate change, it's young people like you who have to speak up, so we can protect this planet for your generation.  I'll be gone when the worst effects happen.  It's your generation and your children that are going to be impacted.  That's why it's urgent that we begin this work right now," he told the young people in the audience.
 
"Development that lifts up the lives and health of our people.  Trade and economic partnerships that reduce poverty and create opportunity.  Leadership in the world that defends our security, and advances human dignity, and protects our planet -- that’s what I believe India and America can do together.  So with the rest of my time, I want to discuss how we can do it.  Because in big and diverse societies like ours, progress ultimately depends on something more basic, and that is how we see each other.  And we know from experience what makes nations strong," he said.
 
Mr Obama said countries and people were the strongest when they saw the inherent dignity in every human being.
 
"Look at our countries -- the incredible diversity even here in this hall.  India is defined by countless languages and dialects, and every color and caste and creed, gender and orientations.  And likewise, in America, we’re black and white, and Latino and Asian, and Indian-American, and Native American.  Your constitution begins with the pledge to uphold 'the dignity of the individual'. And our Declaration of Independence proclaims that 'all men are created equal', he said.
 
Mr Obama said his grandfather was a cook for the British army in Kenya and that the distant branches of his wife Michelle Obama's family tree included both slaves and slave owners.
 
"When we were born, people who looked like us still couldn’t vote in some parts of the country.  Even as America has blessed us with extraordinary opportunities, there were moments in my life where I’ve been treated differently because of the color of my skin. 
 
"Many countries, including the United States, grapple with questions of identity and inequality, and how we treat each other, people who are different than us, how we deal with diversity of beliefs and of faiths.  Right now, in crowded neighborhoods not far from here, a man is driving an auto-rickshaw, or washing somebody else’s clothes, or doing the hard work no one else will do.  And a woman is cleaning somebody else’s house.  And a young man is on a bicycle delivering lunch. A little girl is hauling a heavy bucket of water.  And I believe their dreams, their hopes, are just as important, just as beautiful, just as worthy as ours.  And so even as we live in a world of terrible inequality, we’re also proud to live in countries where even the grandson of a cook can become President, or even a Dalit can help write a constitution, and even a tea seller can become Prime Minister," he said.
 
"The point is, is that the aim of our work must be not to just have a few do well, but to have everybody have a chance, everybody who is willing to work for it have the ability to dream big and then reach those dreams. 
 
"Our nations are strongest when we uphold the equality of all our people -- and that includes our women," he said.
 
"In the United States, we’re still working to make sure that women and girls have all the opportunities they deserve, and that they’re treated equally," he said.
 
"And here in India, it’s the wives and the mothers who so often hold families and communities together.  Indian women have shown that they can succeed in every field -- including government, where many of your leaders are women.  And the young women who are here today are part of a new generation that is making your voice heard, and standing up and determined to play your part in India’s progress," he said.
 
"We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful.  When girls go to school -- this is one of the most direct measures of whether a nation is going to develop effectively is how it treats its women.  When a girl goes to school, it doesn’t just open up her young mind, it benefits all of us -- because maybe someday she’ll start her own business, or invent a new technology, or cure a disease.  And when women are able to work, families are healthier, and communities are wealthier, and entire countries are more prosperous.  And when young women are educated, then their children are going to be well educated and have more opportunity. 
 
"So if nations really want to succeed in today’s global economy, they can’t simply ignore the talents of half their people.  And as husbands and fathers and brothers, we have to step up -- because every girl’s life matters.  Every daughter deserves the same chance as our sons.  Every woman should be able to go about her day -- to walk the streets or ride the bus -- and be safe, and be treated with respect and dignity. She deserves that," he said.
 
"And one of the favorite things about this trip for me has been to see all these incredible Indian women in the armed forces, including the person who commanded the Guard that greeted me when I arrived. It's remarkable, and it's a sign of great strength and great progress.
 
"Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children -- all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love.  Across our two great countries we have Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, and Jews and Buddhists and Jains and so many faiths.  And we remember the wisdom of Gandhiji, who said, 'for me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree'," he said.
 
"Our freedom of religion is written into our founding documents.  It’s part of America’s very first amendment.  Your Article 25 says that all people are 'equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion'.  In both our countries -- in all countries
-- upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it's also the responsibility of every person," he said.
 
Mr Obama spoke about his Christian faith and the times when his faith had been questioned, who said, among other things, that he adhered to a different religion, "as if that were somehow a bad thing".
 
"Around the world, we’ve seen intolerance and violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to be standing up for their faith, but, in fact, are betraying it.  No society is immune from the darkest impulses of man.  And too often religion has been used to tap into those darker impulses as opposed to the light of God.  Three years ago in our state of Wisconsin, back in the United States, a man went to a Sikh temple and, in a terrible act of violence, killed six innocent people -- Americans and Indians.  And in that moment of shared grief, our two countries reaffirmed a basic truth, as we must again today -- that every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination," he said.
 
Mr Obama went on to speak about the need to empower the youth becaue, utlimately, they were the ones who had to break down these old stereotypes, barriers and ways of thinking.
 
"Prejudices and stereotypes and assumptions -- those are what happens to old minds like mine.  I'm getting gray hair now.  I was more youthful when I first started this office.  And that’s why young people are so important in these efforts," he said.
 
"Sisters and brothers of India, we are not perfect countries. And we’ve known tragedy and we've known triumph.  We’re home to glittering skyscrapers, but also terrible poverty; and new wealth, but also rising inequality.  We have many challenges in front of us.  But the reason I stand here today, and am so optimistic about our future together, is that, despite our imperfections, our two nations possess the keys to progress in the century ahead.  We vote in free elections.  We work and we build and we innovate.  We lift up the least among us.  We reach for heights previous generations could not even imagine.  We respect human rights and human dignity, and it is recorded in our constitutions.   And we keep striving to live up to those ideals put to paper all those years ago.
 
"And we do these things because they make our lives better and safer and more prosperous.  But we also do them because our moral imaginations extend beyond the limits of our own lives.  And we believe that the circumstances of our birth need not dictate the arc of our lives.  We believe in the father working far from home sending money back so his family might have a better life.  We believe in the mother who goes without so that her children might have something more.  We believe in the laborer earning his daily wage, and the student pursuing her degree.  And we believe in a young boy who knows that if he just keeps studying, if he’s just given the chance, his hopes might be realized, too.
 
"We are all 'beautiful flowers from the same garden…branches of the same majestic tree'.  And I'm the first American President to come to your country twice, but I predict I will not be the last. Because, as Americans, we believe in the promise of India.  We believe in the people of India.  We are proud to be your friend.  We are proud to be your partner as you build the country of your dreams," he added.
 
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India, US decide to move towards commercial cooperation in civil nuclear energy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday that, six years after they signed their bilateral civil nuclear agreement, India and the United States were moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with Indian law, its international legal obligations and technical and commercial viability.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama at a joint media interaction after their talks in New Delhi on January 25, 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama at a joint media interaction after their talks in New Delhi on January 25, 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi today said that, six years after they signed their bilateral civil nuclear agreement, India and the United States were moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with Indian law, its international legal obligations and technical and commercial viability.
 
At a joint media interaction with US President Barack Obama here after they held bilateral talks, both in the restricted format and at the delegation level, he said they had decided to give their critical partnership a new thrust and sustained attention.
 
For this, Mr Obama and Mr Modi agreed that India and the US must have regular summits at greater frequency. They also decided to establish hotlines between the Prime Minister of India and the US President as well as between their National Security Advisers.
 
"The civil nuclear agreement was the centrepiece of our transformed relationship, which demonstrated new trust. It also created new economic opportunities and expanded our option for clean energy," Mr Modi said.
 
"In the course of the past four months, we have worked with a sense of purpose to move it forward," he said.
 
Mr Modi said Mr Obama had also assured him of strong US efforts in support of India's full membership of the four international export control regimes at the earliest. 
 
He also said that the two countries had today decided to take their growing defence cooperation to a new level.
 
"We have agreed, in principle, to pursue co-development and co-production of specific advanced defence projects. These will help upgrade our domestic defence industry; and expand the manufacturing sector in India. We will also explore cooperation in other areas of advanced defence technologies. 
 
"We have renewed our Defence Framework Agreement. We will deepen our cooperation on maritime security," he said.
 
Noting that terrorism remained a principal global threat and was taking on a new character, even as existing challenges persisted, Mr Modi said he and Mr Obama had agreed that there was need for a comprehensive global strategy and approach to combat the evil.
 
"There should be no distinction between terrorist groups. Every country must fulfil its commitments to eliminate terrorist safe havens and bring terrorists to justice," he said.
 
Mr Modi said India and the United States would deepen their bilateral security cooperation against terrorist groups and further enhance their counter-terrorism capabilities, including in the area of technology. 
 
The two leaders agreed that a strong and growing economic relationship between the two countries was vital for the success of their strategic partnership.
 
"Economic growth in our two countries is becoming stronger. Our business climate is improving. This gives me great optimism about our economic ties. In addition, we have established a number of effective bilateral mechanisms to identify opportunities and also help our businesses trade and invest more," he said.
 
The Prime Minister said the two sides would also resume their dialogue on a  Bilateral Investment Treaty. They will also restart discussions on a Social Security Agreement that is important for the hundreds of thousands of Indian professionals working in the United States. 
 
Modi, Obama have "Chai pe Charcha" at Hyderabad House
 
"For President Obama and me, clean and renewable energy is a personal and national priority. We discussed our ambitious national efforts and goals to increase the use of clean and renewable energy. We also agreed to further enhance our excellent and innovative partnership in this area. I asked him to lead international efforts in making renewable energy more accessible and affordable to the world. President and I expressed hope for a successful Paris Conference on climate change this year," he said.
 
Mr Modi said India was honoured that Mr Obama had accepted its invitation to be the Chief Guest at its Republic Day celebratons tomorrow. "It is special because on this day we celebrate the values shared by the world's two largest democracies," he said.
 
He also noted that Mr Obama was the first US President to visit India twice in office and this reflected the transformation in the bilateral relationship as well as showed his deep personal commitment to the partnership.
 
"It tells us that our two nations are prepared to step forward firmly to accept the responsibility of this global partnership – for our two countries and for shaping the character of this century. The promise and potential of this relationship has never been in doubt. This is a natural global partnership. It has become even more relevant in the digital age. It is needed even more in our world of far-reaching changes and widespread turmoil," he said.
 
Mr Modi said the success of the partnership was important for their progress and for advancing peace, stability and prosperity around the world. 
 
"From the turn of this century, we have begun transforming our relationship. But, we have to convert a good start into lasting progress. This requires translating our vision into sustained action and concrete achievements," he said.
 
"In the last few months, I see new excitement and confidence in this relationship. I see renewed energy in our engagement. I thank you for your leadership and for setting the tone last September, when I visited White House," he said.
 
Mr Modi said the two countries would continue to deepen their collaboration in science, technology, innovation, agriculture, health, education and skills. These are central to the future of the two countries; and also give them an opportunity to help others around the world, he said.
 
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"Indeed, our strategic partnership will only be complete if we assume our responsibility to work together to promote development and connectivity in our vast region. President Obama and I agreed to pursue this goal with a sense of priority," he said.
 
Mr Modi said Mr Obama and he had an "excellent discussion" on global and regional issues. In particular, they renewed their commitment to deepen their coopeation to advance peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which is critical for the future of their two countres and the destiny of the world. They also agreed to work closely to help Afghanistan through its transition.
 
"Our relationship stands at a new level today. We have outlined a broad vision for our friendship and cooperation that reflects the opportunities and challenges of this century," he added.
 
 
Mr Obama said Mr Modi's election and strong personal commitment to the India-US relationship gave them an opportunity to further energize the efforts to enhance ties between the two countries.
 
He said the two sides had made substantive progress and that they had signed a new Declaration of Friendship that elevates and formalizes their partnership.
 
"And not only is it grounded in the values we share, but it commits us to more regular meetings at the leaders level, and sets up frequent consultations across our government," he said.
 
He said they had agreed that bilateral trade and economic partnerships must focus on improving the daily lives of their people.  
 
"Prime Minister Modi described for me his ambitious efforts to empower rural Indians with bank accounts, and to ensure clean water and clean air for the Indian people.  And we want to be partners in this effort," he said.
 
Mr Modi said that, in the last few years, bilateral trade had increased by some 60 per cent toward a record $ 100 billion. "We want to trade even more.  So we welcome the reforms that the Prime Minister is pursuing to make it easier to do business here in India," he said.
 
"Today, we achieved a breakthrough understanding on two issues that were holding up our ability to advance our civil nuclear cooperation, and we’re committed to moving towards full implementation.  And this is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship.  We also, as the Prime Minister noted, agreed to resume discussions about a possible bilateral investment treaty.  And we will continue to pursue export reforms so that we can advance more high-tech collaborations with India," he said.
 
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He said the two sides had agreed to a number of important steps to promote clean energy and to confront climate change.  "We very much support India’s ambitious goal for solar energy, and stand ready to speed this expansion with additional financing.  We’re also launching new joint projects to improve air quality in Indian cities.  The United States will share more data and develop tools to help India assess and adapt to the impact of climate change and to help vulnerable communities become more resilient," he said.
 
"And going forward, we’ve agreed to work together to make concrete progress this year towards phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, under the Montreal Protocol, and the Prime Minister and I made a personal commitment to work together to pursue a strong global climate agreement in Paris.  As I indicated to him, I think India’s voice is very important on this issue.  Perhaps no country could potentially be more affected by the impacts of climate change, and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India.  So we appreciate his leadership," he said.
 
Mr Obama said the two countries had agreed to deepen their defence and security cooperation. "We’ve renewed the framework that guides our defense cooperation for another 10 years.  And in a major step forward for our relationship, our Defense Technology and Trade Initiative will allow us to jointly develop and produce new defense technologies. We’ve also agreed to a new vision for the Asia Pacific so that we’re doing more together to advance our shared security and prosperity in this critical region," he said.
 
Mr Obama reiterated to the Indian people that the US supported a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member. "At the same time, we see India playing a greater role in ensuring international security and peace and meeting shared challenges.  As a leading contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions for many years, India can help the world do even more to protect citizens in conflict zones.  We welcome India’s leadership in combatting diseases and promoting global health that advances the rights and dignity of citizens around the world," he said.
 
"This new partnership will not happen overnight.  It’s going to take time to build and some patience.  But it’s clear from this visit that we have a new and perhaps unprecedented opportunity, and deepening our ties with India is going to remain a top foreign policy priority for my administration," he said.
 
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Obama embarks on India visit, to focus on climate change, trade, investment, security

United States President Barack Obama has embarked on a landmark three-day visit to India during which he wil be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations on Monday and hold talks with the Indian leadership on strengthening bilateral ties across the full breadth of the strategic partnership.

 
US President Barack Obama leaves for India
United States President Barack Obama has embarked on a landmark three-day visit to India during which he will be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations on Monday and hold talks with the Indian leadership on strengthening bilateral ties across the full breadth of the strategic partnership.
 
Mr Obama, accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, left by Air Force One, the presidential aircraft from the Andrews Air Force Base and is due to arrive in Delhi on Sunday morning after a refuelling halt at Ramstein in Germany.
 
Mr Obama's talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi are expected to focus on climate change, trade, investment, security and issues related to counterterrorism, Afghanistan, Iran and the Asia Pacific.
 
Briefing newspersons earlier this week about the visit, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said it was the culmination of a "qualitative invigoration" of bilteral ties following the meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Obama at the White House in Washington in September last year.
 
Soon after landing here, Mr Obama will be accorded a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan, following which he will visit Rajghat to pay homage to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.
 
He will hold discussions with Mr Modi, both in the restricted format and at the delegation level, at Hyderabad House. Mr Modi will also host a lunch for Mr Obama and his delegation.
 
Mr Obama will meet President Pranab Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan in the evening. Mr Mukherjee will host a banquet for Mr Obama.
 
After attending the Republic Day Parade on Rajpath on January 26, Mr Obama will attend the "At Home" hosted by Mr Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhavan later in the day.
 
Mr Obama and Mr Modi will also address business events during the afternoon of that day.
 
On January 27, Mr Obama will address a select gathering before leaving for Saudi Arabia, having cancelled his plans to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. He will now fly to Riyadh to offer his condolences on the passing away of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died on Friday at the age of 90, and to meet King Salman.
 
Mr Obama will be the first US President to visit India twice in his tenure and also the first US President to be the Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations.
 
Mr Akbaruddin said that, since the September 2014 meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Modi, the two sides had "acted with alacrity, collaborated in common pursuits, and have traversed a transformative path".
 
He said they had had nine Indo-US dialogue meetings since then and eight meetings relating to defence and security, covering areas such as cyber security, border management, counter IEDs, defence technology, trade initiatives, and global entry programme. 
 
Also, on the economic and commercial fronts, there have been three meetings on matters such as smart cities, financial regulations and so on. In the science and technology sphere there have been three meetings on subjects including vaccination programme and scientific research collaboration on monsoon, he said.
 
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He said that the two countries had, since September, sgned 10 MoUs in areas such as space, renewable energy, skill development and urban development.
 
"Looking ahead, India sees vast potential for growth in our relations. From our perspective, the United States is a key partner for capital, technology, knowledge, and skills in our development path. It is also a potentially important source of clean energy technology and hydrocarbons. It is an important partner in areas like defence technology and counterterrorism. It is an important factor in our space security and cyber security programmes," he said.
 
"The United States is India’s key interlocutor in adjustments to the global security and economic architecture including reforms of the United Nations Security Council. It is a partner in our quest for a rule-based, open international trading and economic order. And it is a partner in our efforts to seek peace and stability in our extended neighbourhood and globally. All these issues that I listed just now for you are likely to be the basis of our discussions during the bilateral meeting," he said.
 
"We see the visit of President Obama to India as strengthening our ties across the full breadth of our full spectrum relationship, ties between our governments, ties between our people, and ties between our institutions," he said.
 
On civil nuclear energy cooperation, Mr Akbaruddin said that negotiators from both sides were currently meeting in London to sort out various issues. This is the third meeting of the contact group set up by Mr Modi and Mr Obama in September, having met earlier in New Delhi and Vienna.
 
"As far as India is concerned, nuclear is an important component of our energy mix. It is a low carbon form of energy and, therefore, we see it as an extremely important ingredient in our energy mix. Therefore, we are engaged with the United States on discussing on this issue. I think all of you need to understand what are the issues that are being discussed. Nuclear issue is a rubric. Under that rubric what is being discussed in specific terms is administrative arrangements. You will understand that following the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement we also have to have administrative arrangements which will basically be the rules of the road of how we can work with each other administratively. So, what is being discussed, number one, are administrative arrangements. Number two, also you are aware that India and the United States have previously also agreed that the United States will support India’s quest for membership of the NSG. We are in discussions on that, how to actualise that," he said.
 
"And of course, there are issues relating to clarifications and understanding of our nuclear liability regime. Let me explain to you that what is being discussed is how within the four walls of our legal framework, our legislation, we can provide assurances to our partners in the United States of any concerns that they may have either through their vendors or their lawyers. That is the discussion that is right now taking place in London," he said.
 
"The talks are under way. There has been progress since we started. This is the third round of talks. So what we can say is that the talks are under way; there has been progress in the past; nuclear is an important component of our energy mix and we look forward to utilising the full potential of our nuclear establishment in using civil nuclear energy for our energy mix," he said.
 
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Earlier this week, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, in a preview of the visit, told journalists via telephone from Washington that Mr Obama had, from the time he took office, made increasing US engagement with India a top foreign policy priority.
 
"I think that’s rooted in the belief we have that U.S. cooperation with India can significantly advance our interests in terms of promoting economic ties and increased exports to a growing market.  That’s based on our belief that our Asia Pacific policy benefits from closer ties with India, and it’s also based on our cooperation on broad ranges of global issues, which we can discuss in a bit here," he said.
 
Mr Rhodes said the trip was coming at a time when the US has a growing agendra with India. "And a lot of what the President wants to get done over the course of the next two years will benefit greatly from closer cooperation with India," he said.
 
Lising some of the areas where there is room for bilateral enhancements, he mentioned climate change and clean energy, trade and investment, security cooperation, defence and counterterrroism. He said there would be discussion on range of regional and gobal issues, including Afghanistan, Iran and the Asia Pacific, and civil nuclear cooperation.
 
So over the course of the three days, we believe this can be part of a continued transformation of the U.S.-India relationship, both in bringing about substantive outcomes that can advance our top foreign policy priorities, but also realizing the potential of the relationship that will do a lot to define the 21st century. 
 
Mr Phil Reiner, Senior Director for South Asia, National Security Council, said the visit was a "seminal moment" in the bilateral relationship and underlined that Mr Modi's invitation to Mr Obama for the Republic Day celebrations had set a different tone for the reinvigorated partnership.
 
Mr Rhodes said the US had always encouraged India and Pakistan to pursue a dialogue to resolve their bilateral issues and had been very suppportive of that process.
 
"I think terrorism is an issue that can unite people who have faced traditional divides, and we saw that in the aftermath of the horrific attack in Peshawar, where India was very quick to issue a statement of condolence and condemnation, and to reach out the Pakistani people," he said.
 
"But at the same time, we have a counterterrorism policy, as the President said, that extends from South Asia all the way to the Sahel.  And in the South Asian context, there’s really no other area where we’ve been more active from a counterterrorism standpoint since the day the President took office.  That was where the al Qaeda core was rooted, and we have made I think more progress against al Qaeda core than against any other terrorist organization since the President took office in removing a significant number of al Qaeda leaders from the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden," he said.
 
"We have a robust security cooperation in place with Pakistan, and we’ve seen the Pakistanis take some steps in recent months to go on the offensive against some of the militant groups that have threatened the Pakistani people and Pakistani government, including the Pakistani Taliban.  And again, these are groups that have a nexus to many different organizations that have threatened India, the United States and, again, importantly, the Pakistani people as well.
 
"So when you look at the network of extremist groups that operate in that part of the world, from al Qaeda to the Pakistani Taliban, to the Haqqani Network to LeT, we have significant counterterrorism cooperation with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that has been a priority of this administration from day one," he said.
 
While in Delhi, Mr Obama will join Mr Modi on the fourth edition of his radio programme Mann Ki Baat to be broadcast on All India Radio on January 27.
 
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Delhi Assembly elections: Kejriwal calls for debate, Bedi sidesteps, Maken ready

AAP)leader Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday challenged BJP) chief ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi to a debate on the main issues in the February 7 election to the Delhi Legislative Assembly but the former IPS officer sidestepped the dare while Congress leader Ajay Maken said he was prepared for a structured discussion.

 
Kejriwal dares Bedi to debate with him
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal today challenged Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi to a debate on the main issues in the February 7 election to the Delhi Legislative Assembly but the former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer sidestepped the dare while Congress leader Ajay Maken said he was prepared for a structured discussion.
 
Ms Bedi told reporters that she was prepared for a debate with Mr Kejriwal, but on the floor of the Assembly if he is elected to the house. 
 
"I accept the challenge but I will do it only in the Delhi assembly. Right now, I am focusing on delivery, while debate is all he has been doing," she said.
 
Mr Kejriwal, a former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, threw the challenge while congratulating Ms Bedi this morning after she was named last last night as the party's chief ministerial candidate for Delhi by BJP President Amit Shah.
 
"I appeal to her...it will be a very good initiative for democracy if there is a debate between the two of us," he said. He said people often voted on the basis of religion and caste and had little understanding of the issues involved in an election.
 
"Such a debate would help people make an informed choice from amongst the candidates," Mr Kejriwal, who became Chief Minister after the December 4, 2013 elections and resigned after just 49 days in office, said.
 
"Ajay Maken, Kiran Bedi and I, all three should have a debate so that people can make an informed choice about selecting their chief minister," he said.
 
Mr Maken, who is leading the Congress campaign in the elections, said he was prepared for a structured debate on a mutually acceptable platform and with a mutually acceptable moderator. In fact, he said, there could be two or three such debates in the run-up to the elections.
 
Meanwhile, Mr Kejriwal organised a road show today on his way to the district magistrate's office to file his nomination papers, but the filing of papers had to be postponed because the show began late and the huge crowds and the resultant traffic jam meant that he missed the deadline.
 
Mr Kejriwal is now expected to file his nominations tomorrow, as are Ms Bedi and Mr Maken.
 
The BJP had won 31 seats in the 70-member Assembly in the 2013 elections. AAP won 28 seats and was able to form the government after it received suport from the outside from the Congress, which ended up with just eight seats after ruling Delhi for the previous 15 years.
 
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Elections to Delhi Legislative Assembly to be held on February 7

The Election Commission announced on Monday that elections would be held on February 7 to elect a new legislative assembly in Delhi, which has been under President's rule since February 14 last year after Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal resigned as Chief Minister after just 49 days in office.

 
Delhi Assembly polls on February 7
The Election Commission today announced that elections would be held on February 7 to elect a new legislative assembly in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, which has been under President's rule since February 14 last year after Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal resigned as Chief Minister after just 49 days in office.
 
Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath told a prss conference here today that the notification for the elections would be issued on January 14 and the last date for making nominations will be January 21.
 
Scrutiny of nominations will be done on January 22 and the last date for withdrawal of nominations is January 24. Counting of votes will be taken up on February 10 and all the results are expected by that evening.
 
AAP had won 28 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly in the last elections held on December 4, 2013. It was invited to form the new government after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had emerged as the single largest party with 31 seats, declined to do so.
 
Both parties were short of the 36 seats needed for a simple majority in the Assembly, but the Congress, which was reduced to just eight seats after ruling Delhi for 15 years, decided to support the AAP government from outside.
 
Mr Kejriwal, with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections which were then a few weeks away, decided to quit after he failed in his efforts to introduce the Jan Lokpal Bill for an anti-corruption ombudsman – his party’s main election promise -- in the Legislative Assembly.
 
In the Lok Sabha elections held on April 10 in Delhi, the BJP won all seven seats in the national capital.
 
Lt Governor Najeeb Jung made yet another effort to find out if a stable government could be formed in November last year but, with all the parties making it clear that they were in no position to do so and that they favoured fresh elections, the Assembly was finally dissolved on November 4, 2014.
 
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There are 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly, including 12 reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs).
 
The electoral rolls of all the constituencies have been revised with reference to 1.1.2015 as the qualifying date and published on January 5. The total number of electorals in Delhi is 13085251.
 
Mr Sampath said as many as 11,763 polling stations would be set up to facilitate the smooth conduct of polls.
 
The Commission also announced that bye-elections would be held on February 13 to fill one casual vacancy in the Lok Sabha from Bangaon (SC) constituency in West Bengal and six vacancies in state legislative assemblies: Arunachal Pradesh - Liromoba (ST); Goa - Panaji; Tamil Nadu - Srirangam; West Benga l-Krishnaganj (SC); Maharashtra - Mukhed and Andhra Pradesh - Tirupati.
 
The notifications for the bye-elections will be issued on January 19 and the last date for making nominations will be January 27. Counting of votes will be taken up on February 16.
 
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Delhi Police sets up SIT to probe Sunanda Pushkar death

The Delhi Police said on Wednesday it had set up a Special Investigating Team to probe the death of then Union Minister Shashi Tharoor's wife Sunanda Pushkar, who was found dead in their suite in a five-star hotel in South Delhi on January 17, 2014.

 
Delhi Police sets up SIT to probe Sunanda Pushkar death
The Delhi Police today said it had set up a Special Investigating Team (SIT) to probe the death of then Union Minister Shashi Tharoor's wife Sunanda Pushkar, who was found dead in their suite in a five-star hotel in South Delhi on January 17, 2014.
 
Close to a year after she was found dead, the Delhi Police had yesterday said that they were treating it as a case of murder following the receipt of a final report from the medical board set up by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which held that she had died of poisoning.
 
Nobody has been named as a suspect in the case, which has been filed against unknown persons at the Sarojini Nagar Police Station here.
 
Delhi Police Commissioner B. S. Bassi told journalists today that the SIT had been set up to ensure a thorough probe into the death and said that progress in the investigations would be closely monitored by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) (South).
 
The SIT comprises the Additional DCP (South), an Assistant Commissioner of Police, an inspector and the station house officer (SHO) of the Sarojini Nagar Police Station.
 
Asked if Mr Tharoor would be questioned by the SIT, Mr Bassi said, "As far as questioning is concerned, whatever was necessary has been done, and whatever is necessary will be done."
 
Ms Pushkar, 52, was found dead, lying on a bed in room 345 of the Hotel Leela Palace in the Chanakyapuri area of the capital around 2030 hours of January 17 last year.
 
Mr Bassi said the the filing of the case, under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) would facilitate further investigation into her death. He said the quantum of poison administered had not been ascertained yet and samples of her viscera would have to be sent to laboratories abroad for this. The substance has also not been identified yet.
 
Reacting to the developments, Mr Tharoor had said yesterday he was stunned to hear the Delhi Police had filed a case of murder against unknown persons in the demise of his wife.
 
"Needless to say I am anxious to see this case is investigated thoroughly and continue to assure the police of my full co-operation. Although we never thought of any foul play in the death of my wife, we all want that a comprehensive investigation be conducted and that the unvarnished truth should come out.
 
"In the meantime I join all members of Sunanda's family in asking for full information about the basis on which the police have come to this conclusion. We have not been provided with copies of the postmortem report and other reports of the inquiry like the CFSL report till date. We repeat our request for a copy of these reports to be provided to us immediately," he added.
 
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Ms Pushkar's death came just a day after a very unseemly and public controversy on micro-blogging site Twitter that involved her and her husband and a Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar.
 
The controversy arose out of Ms Pushkar's suspicion that Mr Tharoor was involved in an affair with Ms Tarar, an allegation that that the Pakistani journalist denied.
 
Mr Tharoor and Ms Pushkar had at that time put out a joint statement asserting that they were "happily married" and intended to "remain that way".
 
"We are distressed by the unseemly controversy that has arisen about some unauthorised tweets from our Twitter accounts," they had said.
 
"Various distorted accounts of comments allegedly made by Sunanda have appeared in the press. It appears that some personal and private comments responding to these unauthorised tweets -- comments that were not intended for publication -- have been misrepresented and led to some erroneous conclusions.
 
"We wish to stress that we are happily married and intend to remain that way. Sunanda has been ill and hospitalised this week and is seeking to rest. We would be grateful if the media respects our privacy," the statement, posted on Mr Tharoor's Facebook page on the day before her death, had said.
 
Mr Tharoor's aide told journalists outside the hotel on the night the body had been discovered that he had returned to the suite that evening, after attending the day-long All India Congress Committee (AICC) session at Talkatora Stadium and another event, when he discovered that his wife had died.
 
According to the aide, Mr Tharoor initially thought his wife was resting, but he realised something was amiss a little later and then his staff informed the police, which rushed a team immediately.
 
The aide said that Ms Pushkar, who was unwell, and Mr Tharoor had checked into the hotel the previous morning because of some repairs and renovation work being carried out in their house.
 
Since the couple had been married for less than seven years, a sub-divisional magistrate had inquired into the death under Section 176 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). Police procedures had begun after that.
 
Ms Pushkar used to work as a sales director in a Dubai firm before she got married to Mr Tharoor. 
 
Born on January 1, 1962, Ms Pushkar was divorced from her first husband, Sanjay Raina. Her second husband Sujith Menon died in a road accident in  1997. She had a son, Shiv Menon, from that marriage. It was Mr Tharoor's third marriage, too.
 
Mr Tharoor, 58, is currently a member of the Lok Sabha, representing the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala.
 
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SC grants bail to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa

The Supreme Court on Friday granted bail to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who was convicted by a special court in Bangalore on September 27 in an 18-year-old corruption case and sentenced to four years in prison and asked to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore.

File photo of J. Jayalalithaa.
File photo of J. Jayalalithaa.
The Supreme Court today granted bail to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who were convicted by a special court in Bangalore on September 27 in an 18-year-old corruption case and sentenced to four years in prison and asked to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore.
 
Along with Ms Jayalalithaa, 66, the apex court also granted bail to her close aide Sasikala Natarajan, Sasikala's nephew and Jayalalithaa's disowned foster son Sudhakaran and Sasikala's close relative Ilavarasi, who were also convicted in the case and sentenced to four years in prison and fined Rs 10 crore each.
 
The Karnataka High Court had, on October 7, rejected Ms Jayalalithaa's bail application. While doing so, Judge A V Chandrashekhara recalled that the Supreme Court had made it clear in the past that corruption cases should be put on the fast track. He pointed out that the apex court had taken a tough stand in such cases and had described corruption as a "violation of human rights".
 
Ms Jayalalithaa and the three co-accused persons were accused by the prosecution of amassing assets valued at Rs 66.65 crore disproportionate to their known sources of income from 1991-96 during her first term in office.
 
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo had moved the Supreme Court for bail on October 9.
 

 
Jayalalithaa granted interim bail by SC in DA case
The apex court today suspended her sentence and granted her bail after imposing some conditions, including that she would have to submit her paprs for the appeal against her conviction within two months, that is by December 18, and that she would not seek any adjournment of the hearings. 
 
As soon as news of the court's decision to grant her bail came, hundreds of supporters of Ms Jayalalithaa in Chennai and elsewhere broke out into rapturous celebrations.
 
Ms Jayalalithaa, who has been held in prison in Bangalore since September 27, is expected to be released on bail later today or tomorrow. She will remain confined to home in Chennai while she is on bail.
 
The court fixed December 18 as the date to satisfy itself if she had complied with its order.
 
Her counsel Fali Nariman assured the court on her behalf that there would be no act of lawlessness by her party's workers in Tamil Nadu. She had sought bail on the grounds that she was suffering from various ailments and that she was a senior citizen and a woman.
 
Ms Jayalalithaa stood disqualified as a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly after her conviction and sentence and had to resign as Chief Minister. She is also barred from contesting elections for six years after she completes her four-year sentence.
 
The case was filed in 1997 by the Tamil Nadu government's Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) during the tenure of Jayalalithaa's rival and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M Karunanidhi as Chief Minister.
 
The Supreme Court ordered the case to be transferred to a special court in Bangalore in 2003 on a petition filed by DMK leader K Anbazhagan, who had expressed doubts about a fair trial in Tamil Nadu after Jayalalithaa returned as Chief Minister.
 
The prosecution had alleged that Ms Jayalalithaa had just Rs 3 crore when she took over as Chief Minister for the first time in 1991 and had taken a token salary of just Re 1, but her wealth and that of her three co-accused had grown to Rs 66.6 crore during her five years in office, vastly disproportionate to her known sources of income.
 
The alleged wealth included 2000 acres of land, 30 kg of gold and thousands of sarees. She was also accused of spending more than Rs 5 crore on her foster son's wedding in 1996, though she had claimed that the expenditure was borne by the bride's family.
 
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The court held that the prosecution had been able to prove that she possessed disproportionate assets of about Rs 53 crore. 
 
Ms Jayalalithaa had all along maintained that the case was an act of political vendetta by the DMK. Among other things, she had agued that her previous assets were undervalued, her property was overvalued and her income from various sources were not taken into account.
 
In the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year, the AIADMK had made a near clean sweep in Tamil Nadu, winning 37 of the 39 seats from the state and emerging as the third largest party in the House.
 
Elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly are due in 2016 and unless her conviction is overturned by a higher court, Ms Jayalalithaa cannot contest them.
 
After Ms Jayalalithaa stepped down, senior AIADMK leader O. Panneerselvam was sworn in as the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on September 29.
 
Mr Panneerselvam, 63, had earlier served as Chief Minister for a brief period from September 21, 2001 to March 1, 2002 after the Supreme Court had declared null and void the action of then Governor Fatima Beevi appointing Ms Jayalalithaa to the position as she had been sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment in another corruption case.
 
Ms Jayalalithaa was later cleared of all charges in 2002 and had returned as Chief Minister.
 
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Kerala Governor Sheila Dikshit resigns, may return to Delhi politics

Kerala Governor Sheila Dikshit said on Tuesday she had resigned from her position, amid reports that the Narendra Modi government at the Centre was planning to shift her to the North-East and indications that she might return to active politics in Delhi.

 
Kerala Governor Sheila Dikshit resigns
Kerala Governor Sheila Dikshit today said she had resigned from her position, amid reports that the Narendra Modi government at the Centre was planning to shift her to the North-East and indications that she might return to active politics in Delhi.
 
Ms Dikshit, 76, who was Chief Minister of Delhi for 15 years over three consecutive terms, had taken over for a five-year term as the 22nd Governor of Kerala only on March 11 this year after she and her Congress party suffered a humiliating defeat in the December 4, 2013 elections to the Delhi Legislative Assembly.
 
She had lost in her own constituency of Gole Market by a huge margin to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal, who went on to serve as Chief Minister of Delhi for 49 days before he resigned. The Congress had managed to win only eight seats in the 70-member house.
 
Ms Dikshit was among the Governors appointed by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre who had refused to heed clear signals from the new Modi government, which assumed office on May 26, that they should hand in their papers.
 
There were also reports in the media suggesting that she might be shifted to a North-Eastern state if she refused to quit.
 
Ms Dikshit met President Mukherjee and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh here yesterday. 
 
"I have only one thing to say. The news flashing on television channels is correct. I have submitted my resignation yesterday," she told newspersons.
"This is what I wanted to say, and I wanted to say it myself."
 
"I don't have anything more to say right now. After my resignation is accepted, I'll say whatever I have to say," she said.
 
To repeated queries about her views on the way the Modi government had handled Governors and about her future plans, Ms Dikshit said that she would not like to say anything further.
 
"Let my resignation be accepted, after that I promise you that I will talk to you," she added.
 
Asked if she had been under pressure from the Modi government to resign, Ms Dikshit said, "I have nothing to do with all that. I did what my heart told me to do."
 
She is now expected to plunge back into active politics in Delhi, where Assembly elections may be held in the next few months if it is not possible to form a viable government within the present Assembly in which no party has a clear majoirty.
 
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With this, eight of the Governors appointed by the previous government have resigned so far, while two were sacked.
 
Soon after the new government started nudging them, five Governors -- B L Joshi in Uttar Pradesh, M K Narayanan in West Bengal, Ashwani Kumar of Nagaland, Shekhar Dutt of Chhattisgarh and Bharat Vir Wanchoo of Goa, all of whom are former police officers -- resigned.
 
Mr Vakkom Purushothaman, a senior Congress leader from Kerala, who was shifted from Mizoram to Nagaland after then Gujarat Governor Kamala Beniwal was moved to Mizoram, resigned in protest against the manner in which he was transferred without consulting him.
 
Ms Beniwal, who had a few run-ins with then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is now the Prime Minister, was sacked on August 6. Earlier, on July 11, Mr Virendra Kataria had been removed as Lt Governor of Puducherry.
 
On Sunday, another senior Congress leader from Kerala, Mr K Sankaranarayanan, resigned after he was transferred as the Governor of Mizoram from Maharashtra.
 
The Governor of Uttarakhand, Mr Aziz Qureshi, has meanwhile filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that he had received calls from the Union Home Secretary suggesting that he resign. He contended that only the President could remove him.
 
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Modi calls for political solution in Sri Lanka that addresses aspirations of Tamils

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday stressed the need for a political solution that addresses the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, dignity, justice and self respect within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance of Sri Lanka, in New Delhi on August 23, 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance of Sri Lanka, in New Delhi on August 23, 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi today stressed the need for a political solution that addresses the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, dignity, justice and self respect within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. 
 
At a meeting with a six-member delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) from Sri Lanka here, Mr Modi, in this context, urged all stakeholders in the island nation to engage constructively, in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation, towards finding a political solution that builds upon the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution. 
 
The TNA delegation, which is on a visit to India, briefed Mr Modi on the situation in Sri Lanka and their assessment and expectations regarding devolution and national reconciliation. 
 
The visit is part of India's continuing engagement with the Government and political parties in Sri Lanka.
 
Mr Modi assured the TNA delegation of India’s continuing support for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction works in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka particularly in projects relating to housing, livelihood generation, capacity building, education, hospitals and infrastructure. 
 
The TNA delegation is led by Mr. R. Sampanthan, MP, and comprises Mr. Mavai S. Senathirajah, MP; Mr. K. (Suresh) Premachandran MP; Mr. P. Selvarajah MP; Mr. Selvam Adaikkalanathan MP and Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran MP. 
 
This is the first delegation of the TNA to visit India after the Narendra Modi government assumed office on May 26.
 
Mr Nripendra Misra, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh were present at the meeting.
 
Yesterday, the delegation had met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and made a detailed presentation to her about their perception of the current situation in Sri Lanka.
 
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told reporters that there was also a discussion about Indian development projects in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, which include a housing project and hospitals.
 
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India calls off Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan

India on Monday called off its Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan after the High Commissioner of that country held a meeting with a separatist leader from Kashmir here during the day in the first of a series of such interactions planned over the next three days.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
India today called off its Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan after the High Commissioner of that country held a meeting with a separatist leader from Kashmir here during the day in the first of a series of such interactions planned over the next three days.
 
Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was due to meet her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry in Islamabad on August 25 as part of the efforts by both sides to resume their stalled dialogue process.
 
The meeting was scheduled to take place nearly three months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif here, a day after assuming office, when the two leaders had agreed that their Foreign Secretaries would remain in touch to explore how the two neighbours could move forward in various areas.
 
The decision to call off the meeting also came against the background of several incidents of alleged violations of ceasefire from across the border in recent weeks.
 
"At a time when serious initiatives were being undertaken by the Government of India to move bilateral ties forward, including towards the resumption of a regular dialogue process, the invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan’s High Commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs continue unabated," Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told newspersons.
 
He said Singh had conveyed to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit today, in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan's continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable. 
 
"It was underlined that the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meetings with these so-called leaders of the Hurriyat undermine the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office.
 
"The only path available to Pakistan is to resolve outstanding issues through a peaceful bilateral dialogue within the framework and principles of the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.
 
"Therefore, under the present circumstances, it is felt that no useful purpose will be served by the Indian Foreign Secretary going to Islamabad next week. Foreign Secretary's visit to Islamabad for talks on 25 August stands cancelled," Mr Akbaruddin added.
 
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India's decision to call off the talks is being seen as a strong message that it would not accept the Pakistan's envoy's meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders and any sort of interference in its internal affairs.
 
Mr Basit had met separatist leader Shabbir Shah here on Monday in the first of a series of such meetings planned over the next three days.
 
Mr Sharif was among the SAARC leaders who attended Modi's swearing-in ceremony on May 26 evening. Mr Modi’s invitation to SAARC leaders to attend the event was seen as a diplomatic masterstroke at that time and Mr Sharif’s decision to travel to Delhi was seen as an equally important gesture of goodwill.
 
At a bilateral meeting the next morning, Mr Modi had conveyed to Mr Sharif India's deep concerns relating to terrorism and made it clear to him that Islamabad must abide by its commitment to prevent its territory and areas under its control from being used for terrorist acts against India.
 
He had also said India expected Pakistan to take the necessary steps to expedite the trial in the cases relating to the November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to ensure that those guilty are punished.
 
Mr Modi told Mr Sharif that the two countries could move immediately on full trade normalisation on the basis of the September 2012 roadmap drawn up by them. 
 
On July 24, Mr Singh had a telephonic discussion with Mr Chaudhry, including on how the two sides should move forward on various issues.
 
During that conversation, they had agreed that they should meet to take the process forward as directed by the two Prime Ministers and decided to meet in Islamabad on August 25.
 
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Obama formally invites Modi to Washington, reiterates wish to work closely with him

United States President Barack Obama on Friday formally invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Washington in September and reiterated his desire to work closely with him to make India-US relations a defining partnership of the 21st century.

 
Obama looking forward to meeting Modi: Burns
United States President Barack Obama today formally invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit Washington in September and reiterated his desire to work closely with him to make India-US relations a defining partnership of the 21st century.
 
Mr Obama's invitation was contained in a letter from him handed over by US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, who called on Mr Modi here today on the second day of a two-day visit to Delhi.
 
Mr Modi conveyed his thanks to Mr Obama for the invitation and said he looked forward to a result-oriented visit to Washington with concrete outcomes which would impart new momentum and energy to the India-US strategic partnership.
 
He said re-energizing the partnership between the two countries would send an important message to the region and beyond.
 
Articulating his vision for India-US relations, he stated that the relationship between the world's oldest and largest democracies should not only be for the benefit of the two countries, but should emerge as a powerful force of good for peace, stability and prosperity in the world. 
 
Mr. Burns conveyed Mr Obama's desire to strengthen economic relations, including in next-generation technologies and manufacturing sector; cooperate in enhancing energy security; deepen security cooperation, including in maritime security, counter-terrorism and intelligence exchange; expand consultation and coordination on Afghanistan; and, work more broadly for security and prosperity in Asia. 
 
Mr Modi reiterated his desire to strengthen relations with all of India's neighbours. 
 
He recalled Mr Obama's telephone call soon to him soon after his election victory and expressed his appreciation for his detailed and thoughtful letter.
 
He said he saw immense opportunities for deepening cooperation across the full spectrum of the relationship and laid special emphasis on involving youth in creating new avenues of promoting cooperation between the two countries. 
 
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, US Charge d'Affaires Kathleen Stephens, and US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal were also present at the meeting. 
 
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46 Indian nurses in Iraq freed by militants, India sends plane to bring them home

The Government on Friday confirmed that all 46 Indian nurses, most of them from Kerala, who were stranded in the war-torn city of Tikrit in Iraq for the past many days, were freed by militants who handed them over to Indian officials in Erbil earlier in the day after moving them to Mosul on Thursday.

 
Indian nurses returning from Iraq: Chandy
The Government today confirmed that all 46 Indian nurses, most of them from Kerala, who were stranded in the war-torn city of Tikrit in Iraq for the past many days, were freed by militants who handed them over to Indian officials in Erbil earlier in the day after moving them to Mosul yesterday.
 
An Air India aircraft was sent by the government from here this afternoon to Erbil to pick up the nurses as well as 70 other Indians who want to return from Kirkuk in Iraq.
 
Senior officials of the Kerala government and of the Ministry of External Affairs, including a joint secretary, as also officials of other departments have gone on the flight to Erbil to facilitate the return of the nurses.
 
The flight will land at Kochi in Kerala tomorrow morning and later fly to Delhi with those who wish to travel to the national capital, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said at his daily briefing here.
 
The first indications that the nurses had been freed came from senior Kerala government officials who confirmed the development to NetIndian.
 
They said the nurses had been transported by the militants by bus from Mosul to Erbil, about 80 km away, where they were handed over to officials of the Indian Embassy in Baghdad, who were pre-positioned there by the Indian government.
 
A little later, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who had met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj here yesterday to push for steps to ensure the safe return of the nurses, also confirmed to reporters that they had been freed.
 
"The nurses are being taken to the Erbil airport; they are set to return to India," he said.
 
"The nurses will board the flight at Erbil and the plane will reach Kochi at 7am tomorrow," he said.
 
The plight of the nurses, who were stranded at their hospital in Tikrit, even as fighting was going on around them, and running low on money and provisions, as well as the safety of 39 Indian workers held captive by militants in Mosul have posed a major foreign policy challenge for the Narendra Modi government soon after it assumed office on May 26.
 
The 39 workers, mainly from Punjab and other parts of north India, continue to remain in captivity, though they are said to be safe and unharmed, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.
 
Mr Akbaruddin said the government would now focus and redouble its efforts to secure the return of the workers soon. 
 
Hundreds of Indians who are working in the non-conflict parts of Iraq, including in places such as Basra, Najaf and Karbala, are scheduled to return by regular commercial flights from those cities to India in the coming days on the advice of the Indian government. Several have already returned home in the past many days.
 
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Saying that it had been a day of dramatic developments, Akbaruddin said, "I can confirm to you that those Indian nurses who were yesterday moved from Tikrit against their will are now free."
 
He said Indian officials, who had been sent to Erbil from Baghdad in anticipation of such a development, were in continuous contact with the nurses
.
"The process is underway for their return. This has not happened just like, it has happened because of enormous efforts put in at various levels," he said, without going into the details.
 
Mr Akbaruddin once again urged the media to be restrained in its coverage of the developments, saying they should not do anything to jeopardise the lives of those in captivity in Mosul and Indians working in other parts of Iraq.
 
"It is the time to turn to each other, not on each other," he said, pleading for understanding on the part of the media and urging it to have faith that the government was doing its best in the circumstances to extricate the Indians in "an extremely difficult situation".
 
He stressed that these were situations in which the conventional norms of diplomacy did not work and unconventional methods were called for.
 
Mr Akbaruddin said Ms Swaraj herself was leading the diplomatic effort and had been in touch with several of her counterparts in the region, including the Gulf states.
 
He said the government could not share details of the efforts being put in on the ground. "We will leave no stone unturned to bring home all the Indians who want to return from Iraq," he said.
 
Mr Akbaruddin, in particular, urged the media not to carry unconfirmed reports on the situation and took exception to some newspapers which headlined a quote from one of the nurses in distress. "This is not the best way to help our nationals," he said.
 
Pressed for details, Mr Akbaruddin said the nurses had been freed after a "multiplicity of contacts" established by India and who helped it in this endeavour.
 
"India has friends not just in Iraq, but also outside Iraq. The support that we are getting is very substantial," he said. He said India had knocked on several doors as part of this effort and one of them opened to enable the safe return of the nurses.
 
To another question, Akbaruddin said Indian officials had remained in continuous contact with the nurses throughout the exercise, using not only telephones but other "tools" which are "normally available to governments".
 
"We were always in contact, we were in touch with what was happening. All our national assets are being used," he said.
 
Asked about the condition of the nurses, he said, "Our understanding is that they are safe, unharmed and unhurt" but they had clearly gone through a traumatic experience.
 
He said Indian officials had made all possible arrangements for their comfort in Erbil. "Before soon they will with their loved ones, with their families and friends, and that it the best antidote for all their travails," he said.
 
Despite repeated queries, he declined to provide details about who had moved the nurses from Tikrit to Mosul and then Erbil or the group which was holding the 39 Indian workers captive in Mosul, saying that such information could not be divulged when an operation was still under way. "That will be a story for another day," he added.
 
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