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Jharkhand coal mine death toll rises to 16, some still trapped | Reuters

BHUBANESWAR, India The death toll in a coal mine collapse in Jharkhand rose to 16 on Saturday and could rise further, officials said, as some people are still feared trapped at a coalfield run by state-owned Coal India Limited.The accident occurred on Thursday evening at the Lalmatia mine, one of the country’s largest, which is owned by Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL).”At night (on Friday), the rescue operation was slow due to fog,” R.R. Amitabh, a senior officer at ECL, told Reuters, adding that about 30 percent of the collapsed mine waste had been removed.Coal India has a poor safety record, with 135 accidents reported last year, killing 37 people and injuring 141, the company said in a report.

Operations at the mine in Godda district, about 280 km (175 miles) from the state capital, Ranchi, have since been stopped, Amitabh said.The state police spokesman R.K. Mullick said the number of people still trapped may be less than the nearly two dozen assumed earlier, based on the number of families who were searching for their kin.

The mine has an annual capacity of 17 million tonnes and accounts for about half of ECL’s coal production. Last month, ECL accounted for about 9 percent of Coal India’s total production of 50 million tonnes.

The federal coal ministry has ordered an investigation and announced some cash compensation to the families of miners who died in the accident. (Reporting by Jatindra Dash; Writing by Malini Menon; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 31, 2016 18:12 IST

Apple to cut iPhone production in first quarter of 2017: report | Reuters

Apple to cut iPhone production in first quarter of 2017: report | Reuters

Dec 30, 2016 23:43 IST

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Apple Inc (AAPL.O) will trim production of iPhones by about 10 percent in the January-March quarter of 2017, the Nikkei financial daily reported on Thursday, citing calculations based on data from suppliers.The company had slashed output by 30 percent in January-March this year due to accumulated inventory, the paper said. Apple’s shares were down 0.84 percent in midday trading, in line with the Nasdaq stock index.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

(Reporting by Aishwarya Venugopal in Bengaluru and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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First Published On : Dec 30, 2016 23:43 IST

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Israel issues severe travel warning for India, citing immediate threat of attacks | Reuters

Israel issues severe travel warning for India, citing immediate threat of attacks | Reuters

Dec 30, 2016 23:02 IST

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JERUSALEM Israel’s anti-terrorism directorate on Friday issued a travel warning for India, citing an immediate threat of attack to Western and tourist targets, particularly in the south-west of the country.”A particular emphasis should be put on events in the coming days in connection with beach and club parties celebrating the New Year where a concentration of tourists will be high,” part of the warning said.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Jason Neely)

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First Published On : Dec 30, 2016 23:02 IST

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LIVE Australia Vs Pakistan Live Score

AUS vs PAK | Dec 26th, 2016

PAK 163 10 53.2

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LIVE South Africa Vs Sri Lanka Live Score

SA vs SL | Dec 26th, 2016

SL 281 10 96.3

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Taiwan announces U.S. itinerary for president, upsetting China | Reuters

By J.R. Wu
| TAIPEI

TAIPEI Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will transit through Houston and San Francisco during a January visit to allies in Latin America, her office said Friday, prompting China to repeat a call for the United States to block any such stopover. Tsai’s office declined to comment on whether she would be meeting members of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s team, but the U.S. mission in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), said the visit would be “private and unofficial”.Trump angered China when he spoke to Tsai this month in a break with decades of precedent and cast doubt on his incoming administration’s commitment to Beijing’s “one China” policy.An adviser to Trump’s transition team said he thought “further high-level engagement for the foreseeable future is unlikely” when asked if any meetings were planned. The adviser did not want to be identified by name.China is deeply suspicious of Tsai, who it thinks wants to push for the formal independence of Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing regards as a renegade province, ineligible for state-to-state relations.China’s Foreign Ministry repeated a previous call for the United States not to allow the transit and not send any “wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces”.

“We think everyone is very clear on her real intentions,” the ministry said, without explaining.The United States, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, has acknowledged the Chinese position that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is part of it.Tsai is transiting through the United States on her way to and from visiting Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. She will leave Taiwan on Jan. 7 and return on Jan. 15.Tsai will arrive in Houston on Jan. 7 and leave the following day. On her return, she will arrive in San Francisco on Jan. 13, Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang told a regular news briefing.

The AIT said the transit did not contradict the “one China” policy.”President Tsai’s transit through the United States is based on long-standing U.S. practice and is consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan,” Alys Spensley, acting AIT spokeswoman, told Reuters.”There is no change to the U.S. ‘one China’ policy,” she added.

Spensley said Tsai’s transits would be “private and unofficial”. The U.S. State Department said AIT chairman Ambassador James Moriarty would greet Tsai in Houston and San Francisco.China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communist forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island.Speaking to members of China’s largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said next year China would make “unremitting efforts” at unification and developing peaceful relations across the Taiwan Strait, state news agency Xinhua said.Taiwan had as many as 30 diplomatic allies in the mid-1990s, but now has formal relations with 21, mostly smaller and poorer nations in Latin America and the Pacific and also including the Vatican. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and James Dalgleish)

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First Published On : Dec 30, 2016 22:41 IST

British police say George Michael autopsy inconclusive, more tests needed | Reuters

British police say George Michael autopsy inconclusive, more tests needed | Reuters

Dec 30, 2016 21:32 IST

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LONDON The cause of singer George Michael’s death this week is unclear after an initial autopsy and more tests are needed, British police said on Friday.British singer Michael, who became one of the pop idols of the 1980s with Wham! and then forged a career as a successful solo artist, died at his home in southern England on Sunday. He was 53.”A post mortem examination was carried out yesterday as part of the investigation into the death of George Michael,” Thames Valley police said.

“The cause of death is inconclusive and further tests will now be carried out. The results of these tests are unlikely to be known for several weeks,” they added in a statement.British police had said that Michael’s death was “unexplained but not suspicious”. Michael’s manager, Michael Lippman, said he had died of heart failure.

In the mid-1980s, “Wham! were one of the most successful pop duos with singles such as “”Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “”Careless Whisper”, ““Last Christmas” and ““The Edge of Heaven”.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Stephen Addison and Alison Williams)

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First Published On : Dec 30, 2016 21:32 IST

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Researcher found security holes at smartphone-only bank N26 | Reuters

By Eric Auchard
| HAMBURG

HAMBURG German fintech company N26, which made its name mocking traditional banks, has found itself on the receiving end of criticism after a security researcher proved its smartphone apps exposed users to potential account hijacking.N26, previously known as Number26, has expanded rapidly since it launched in early 2015 as a smartphone-only bank with no local branches, with the backing of major global investors including Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel.     Vincent Haupert, a research fellow and PhD student in the computer science department of the University of Erlangen-Nuernberg, told the Chaos Communications Congress in Hamburg how he and two colleagues found N26 security defences riddled with holes that could have been used to defraud thousands of users.     “They say you can open a bank account in just eight minutes,” Haupert said. “As it turns out, you can lose it even faster.”    In a statement, N26 thanked Haupert for alerting the company to “a theoretical security vulnerability” and advising it on fixes, which N26 said it completed this month.    N26 offers a range of online banking and other financial services to 200,000 customers in 17 European countries through a banking licence granted earlier this year by German financial regulator Bafin.    N26 executives have been the most outspoken among new fintech players in arguing traditional banks are failing to serve customers more directly by relying on antiquated local branch relationships instead of modern, phone-based services.

    “I don’t see banks at all as my competitors. They just can’t move fast enough,” N26 Chief Executive Valentin Stalf told Reuters last year.    Haupert told the Chaos conference, Europe’s biggest annual gathering of hackers, how his team had found numerous ways to attack N26 banking apps to hijack individual customer accounts.    “With such a strategy, fintechs squander the trust that banks established over years,” he said.For example, Haupert said he compared data from a leak of 68 million account credentials from online file sharing company Dropbox with information on N26 users he was able to request from the company’s own software feed to identify 33,000 N26 user credentials – without being thwarted by N26 anti-fraud systems.

From there, he said it would have been simple to send a phishing email to these N26 customers that could potentially have allowed him to break into their accounts.     “Don’t worry, we didn’t do this,” Haupert said. “My professor had legal concerns.”    Instead, Haupert disclosed his research findings to N26 on Sept. 25.

    In response, N26 said in a statement it had made customer accounts more secure by reducing and encrypting data transfers, by blocking brute-force attacks in which hackers can quickly guess user credentials, and fixing voice-recognition security weaknesses in its app for the newest Apple mobile devices.     “At no time during these scenarios was personal data of our customers available to third parties,” the statement said. “No N26 customer was impacted by the demonstrated vulnerabilities.”    It added: “We have fully addressed and closed all vulnerabilities promptly and completely” and quoted Haupert as saying earlier this month that all vulnerabilities he had uncovered appeared to have been fixed.  Still, Haupert said regulators needed to take a closer look at the security of banks. “It was Bafin that granted a banking license to N26 only six months ago,” he said, adding that security weaknesses at that time were rampant.A spokesman for the financial regulator declined to comment.  (Reporting by Eric Auchard; Editing by Mark Potter)

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First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 23:34 IST

Ratan Tata makes surprise visit to RSS headquarters in Nagpur, meets Mohan Bhagwat

Nagpur: Locked in a bitter boardroom battle with ousted Tata group chairman Cyrus Mistry, industrialist Ratan Tata made a surprise visit, his first, to the RSS headquarters here on Wednesday.

Ratan Tata. ReutersRatan Tata. Reuters

Ratan Tata. Reuters

Accompanied by BJP spokesperson Shaina NC, the septugenarian corporate leader visited RSS headquarters Hedgewar Bhavan at Reshimbaug in the afternoon.

Earlier, he was received by RSS functionaries on his arrival at the airport.

Tata, currently the interim chairman of Tata Sons, the country’s biggest conglomerate, had a 20-minute-long meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, a senior Sangh functionary told PTI.

What transpired at the meeting was, however, not known.

Before proceeding for the RSS headquarters for talks with Bhagwat, 79-year-old Tata paid his tributes to its founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar at a memorial to him in the city.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 22:41 IST

Pakistan: Chinese-assisted 340 MW nuclear power plant inaugurated in Punjab province

Islamabad: Power-starved Pakistan on Wednesday received a major boost as a China-backed 340 MW nuclear power plant in its Punjab province was inaugurated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who termed it as an “important milestone” in the government’s efforts to end the menace of load shedding.

The fourth nuclear plant Chashma-3 is located about 250 kilometres southwest of capital Islamabad at Chashma in Mianwali district where another plant Chashma-IV is also being built.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Sharif described the completion of C-3 as “another important milestone in the journey to eliminate the menace of load shedding from the country,” Radio Pakistan reported. He said the project is reflective of closer cooperation between Pakistan and China in science and technology.

“This cooperation is also beginning of a new era of development in the region,” he said. Sharif expressed confidence that Chashma-IV nuclear power plant would also become operational before its deadline of mid next year.

Chashma two and three power plants are the most efficient plants in the country, providing more than 600 MW of electricity to the national grid. Pakistan’s first nuclear plant was supplied by Canada in 1972.

Sharif appreciated Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) for its efforts for self reliance in fuel fabrication and said his government would extend every possible assistance to the Commission to help overcome the shortage of electricity in the country.

Referring to the generation target of 8,800 MW of nuclear energy by 2030, Sharif urged the Commission to accept the challenge of producing more than the target and play its full role in the development of the country.

Noting that there has been a marked reduction in load shedding during the last three years, Sharif pledged that the menace of load shedding would be over in 2018. Sharif said generation of additional 2200 MW of electricity through K-II and K-III would contribute towards this effort.

Pakistan has been grappling with power shortage and the unusually long hours of power outages has been haunting its people for about a decade. Sharif urged PAEC to take all possible measures to strengthen safety of existing and future power plants as per international standards.

Sharif thanked China for extending cooperation in nuclear field and said the two countries are actively cooperating in many other areas, including construction of roads, motorways, airports and upgradation of Pakistan Railways.

He said many projects were initiated under CPEC and their impact was now visible.

These projects are being implemented speedily and this would result in overcoming challenges of unemployment, poverty, backwardness and accelerating the pace of socio economic development, besides bringing all regions of the country more closer, he said.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 20:27 IST

Election Commission notifies five poll-bound states to prepare for schedule announcement

New Delhi: In an indication that assembly elections to five states could be announced anytime now, the Election Commission has asked the Centre and the state governments to implement the model code of conduct as soon as the schedule is out.

In a letter sent to the cabinet secretary and chief secretaries of the poll-bound states of Uttar Pradesh,
Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and Punjab, the Commission has compiled a set of instructions issued in the past to drive home the point that model code should be implemented effectively with the announcement of poll schedule.

Poll time. ReutersPoll time. Reuters

Poll time. Reuters

The list of dos and don’ts issued by the Commission includes prevention of misuse of public place, avoiding use of official vehicles for campaigning, removing pictures of political functionaries from state government websites and bar on use of public money for advertisements to help the ruling party.

The poll panel has also reminded political parties to approach the Media Certification and Monitoring Committees at district and state level, for pre-certification of their political advertisements proposed to be issued in the
electronic media.

Sources in the Commission said assembly polls could be announced by 4 January to the five states.

Except Uttar Pradesh, which may go for a seven-phased election, the other states could have elections on a single day.

While the term of the Uttar Pradesh assembly expires on 27 May next, the terms of four state assemblies end in March next.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 17:09 IST

Demonetisation ordinance passed: Holding old notes a criminal offence post 31 March

The Cabinet today cleared promulgation of an ordinance to penalise persons holding demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes after 31 March, when the deadline to deposit these notes at the RBI window ends.

As per the ordinance named the Specified Bank Notes Cessation of Liabilities Ordinance, holding these notes after 31 March deadline would be a criminal offence.

According to government sources cited by CNBC-TV18, those who hold old notes after 31 March is likely to face 4-year jail term and also those who transact in old notes is likely to face a penalty of Rs 5,000.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The ordinance will extinguish the liability of the government and RBI towards the promise to pay the bearer of these notes their value because of a statutory requirement.

In 1978 a similar ordinance was issued to end the government’s liability after Rs 1,000, Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 notes were demonetised by the Janata Party government under Morarji Desai.

A PTI report citing sources in the government said the ordinance is being brought as it was found to be necessary to prevent future litigations against the government for junking Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

Seeking to prevent harassment and any ambiguity, a proviso would be added to ensure that certain category of people can still deposit the old notes in RBI branches between 31 December and 31 March next, said the report.

The government had, while announcing the demonetisation of the old currency on 8 November, allowed holders to either exchange them or deposit in bank and post office accounts.

While the facility to exchange the old notes has since been withdrawn, depositors have time till Friday to deposit the holding in their accounts.

With PTI

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 13:04 IST

Serial testers and cursory checks – India’s flawed generic drug trials business | Reuters

By Zeba Siddiqui
| HYDERABAD

HYDERABAD Vasudeva Prakash left his job as a mechanic in Hyderabad three years ago for what he calls a more lucrative career: taking part in clinical trials on generic drugs.For two years, Prakash participated in trials of drugs being tested to treat HIV/AIDS and other diseases for contract research organizations (CROs) hired by global pharmaceutical companies. The drugs tested at Indian CROs have been key in getting several hundred medicines approved for sale around the world.Yet, Prakash did not follow international guidelines for testing – and the CROs that hired him didn’t require him to. He says that to earn more money he would participate in back-to-back trials on different drugs with gaps of only a few weeks or even a few days, instead of waiting the 90 days that the World Health Organization recommends.Half of more than a dozen volunteers interviewed by Reuters across four cities – Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and New Delhi – also said they waited much less than 90 days between trials. In the past three-to-four years, they said they spent several months at a time in different cities so that they could participate in as many studies as possible.Prakash provided documentation proving he underwent trials with short gaps at Apotex Research Pvt Ltd, owned by Canadian drugmaker Apotex Inc; Lotus Labs, owned by U.S. generics giant Actavis; Ethics Bio Lab, owned since last year by U.S. drugmaker Par Pharmaceutical Inc; and India’s Semler Research Center Pvt Ltd, among others. Ethics Bio and Apotex did not respond to requests for comment. Lotus Labs and Semler said they had systems in place to check for cross-participation by trial volunteers.The guidelines of the WHO, which decides on approvals for drugs sold in several countries dependent on United Nations programs for basic medicines, are not legally-binding for the CROs. While India has guidelines on clinical trials, they don’t specify the length of time participants should take between trials.Still, the serial testing of some volunteers is raising new questions about the level of oversight of India’s generic drug trials industry, after some CROs came under recent international regulatory scrutiny. Last year, the European Medicines Agency banned about 700 medicines across Europe after an investigation revealed data tampering in some trials of generic drugs in India.International medical experts said that undergoing back-to-back trials endangers the health of patients participating. It can also compromise clinical data gathered through these trials, on the basis of which drugmakers seek approval to sell generic medicines around the world.“The time gap between participation in two different trials should be 90 days minimum,” said Stephanie Croft, a lead inspector at the WHO. “When [data] is incomplete or incorrect it could pose a serious risk to patients.”Gyanendra Nath Singh, head of India’s national drug watchdog, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), said that it has been trying to inspect more CROs in the past two years. The watchdog is also considering the introduction of a track-and-trace system through which patients can be tracked across CROs, he told Reuters.“We are emphasizing on good regulatory practices … some reports have shown that the CROs have deviated from (the) system,” said Singh.India’s Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

GLOBAL REACH
Several large international drugmakers, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd and Mylan NV, rely on CROs in India to carry out tests on cheaper versions of branded drugs. The aim of these so-called “bioequivalence” studies is to gauge whether non-branded drugs are equally safe and effective. The faster the trials are undertaken, the faster the drugs can come to market.In some major markets, such as the United States, being the first to launch a generic guarantees market exclusivity for a period of time, which can reap millions more in sales.International and local regulators have struggled to keep its oversight in line with the growth of an industry that expanded rapidly in the 2000s, as drugmakers shipped clinical trial work to India to save money. The market is estimated to have crossed $1 billion in 2016, according to consultants Frost and Sullivan.Over the past two years, international regulators have suspended or banned medicines tested by four major Indian CROs after finding manipulation of clinical trial data and other violations.Issues found at Indian CROs are “a big problem that is gaining more and more attention from all sorts of agencies,” said Anders Fuglsang, a consultant and former regulator long involved in audits and inspections of CROs around the world on behalf of international regulatory agencies and companies.Last year, the European Union banned about 700 medicines that had been approved based on clinical trial data provided by GVK Biosciences, then India’s largest CRO. European regulators said they found GVK had manipulated data concerning the heart readings of patients taking part in the study. GVK denied any violation, but several large drugmakers that had won drug approvals based on GVK’s data were asked to re-apply for approval with fresh evidence.

Such re-testing is a headache for drugmakers, as it is expensive, and delays lead to a loss in sales, said Nilesh Gupta, managing director of India’s Lupin Ltd, which was one of the companies to be affected by a U.S. ban on trials by Semler earlier this year.GVK, part of the Indian conglomerate GVK Group, has since limited its business interests in the generic drugs testing business, said Shankar Chelluri, a spokesman for the company. Overall, sentiment toward the generic drug trials business is weak, Chelluri said.Another CRO, Quest Life Sciences, was found last year to have manipulated clinical data on certain trials, according to inspection reports from the WHO and the UK’s medicines authority. The Spanish and German regulators had also found problems with Quest’s trials, and the WHO said it found Quest had falsified data on drugs including the antibiotic doxycycline hyclate and HIV/AIDS drugs lamivudine, zidovudine and nevirapine.Quest managing director T.S. Jaishankar said his CRO, which has conducted dozens of generic drug trials for companies including India’s top drugmaker Sun Pharmaceutical Industries, has since invested heavily in improving its systems and been cleared by all international regulators. In a response to Reuters, a spokeswoman for the European Medicines Agency said they were “closely monitoring” the involvement of Quest in the drug approval applications they receive.India, like other countries, has ethics committees – groups of independent experts – meant to approve the design and conduct of clinical trials. Their stamp of approval is required by foreign regulators considering allowing a generic drug to be sold. However, these committees depend on the CROs for reimbursement in exchange for reviewing trials. Three members of different committees Reuters spoke to said national guidelines did not clearly define their roles and responsibilities.In the wake of trial data manipulation scandals at CROs in the past three years, many large drugmakers including Swiss firm Novartis, have been shifting more critical trials back to the United States and Europe, according to consultants and industry executives.

Novartis is also ramping up its own checks of Indian CROs, said Bodo Lutz, a data integrity officer at the Swiss firm. Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Hyderabad in July, he said: “We can’t rely on the regulators … we’re increasing our own audits.”VOLUNTEERING “LIKE AN ADDICTION”
Prakash, the former mechanic, said he was never asked by CROs, and their ‘agents’ who approached him for studies, about whether he had recently taken part in another trial.”Everybody does it. Once you start getting the money, it’s very hard to quit. It’s like an addiction,” said Prakash.He said after the first study, he began to regularly receive messages on his phone and Facebook, often from agents working on behalf of CROs, informing him about ongoing clinical trials where volunteers were required. Such messages included three key things: the city where the trial was being conducted, the total pay offered, and the “blood loss”, or the amount of blood the volunteer will need to provide.Venkatesh, from the southern city of Tirupathi, described travelling from Chennai to Hyderabad and then to Bangalore and Mangaluru for different trials.”I know of several people who participate in three or four trials in the same month,” said Venkatesh, who stopped volunteering two months ago and has since married. He did not want to be referred to by his full name.Prakash said he was paid 10,000-30,000 rupees ($147-$441) per trial, depending on the duration and type. He stopped participating after his health began to deteriorate last year at age 25.He now works at a call centre earning 20,000 rupees a month, but, despite knowing the risks, entered two more trials recently to raise cash.”I needed some money desperately so I did it, but I won’t do it again,” he said. (Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Editing by Martin Howell)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 28, 2016 04:47 IST

Scarlett Johansson is 2016 top-grossing movie star | Reuters

Scarlett Johansson is 2016 top-grossing movie star | Reuters

Dec 27, 2016 23:05 IST

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NEW YORK Scarlett Johansson was named the top-grossing actor of 2016 on Tuesday thanks to her roles in superhero movie “Captain America: Civil War” and Hollywood satire “Hail Caesar.”Forbes said Johansson just edged out her “Captain America” co-stars Chris Evans and Robert Downey with box-office earnings of her second 2016 movie, “Hail Caesar.”Johansson’s movies grossed a leading $1.2 billion at the worldwide box office this year, compared with $1.15 billion for “Captain America: Civil War.”Released in May and featuring a conflict between Marvel comic book heroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow and Ant Man, Walt Disney Co’s “Captain America” was the biggest earner worldwide in 2016, according to data from Boxofficemojo.com.Australian actress Margot Robbie, who enjoyed a break-out year, placed fourth with $1.1 billion thanks to roles in two Warner Bros movies “Suicide Squad” and “The Legend of Tarzan.”

The Forbes list was dominated by superhero and comic book movies, including “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Deadpool.”

Britain’s Felicity Jones entered the Forbes list for the first time, with roles in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” thriller “Inferno” and magical children’s story “A Monster Calls.” Jones came in ninth place with $805 million.Forbes made its calculations based on global ticket sales from the films of top Hollywood actors, but it did not count animated movies such as Disney’s “Finding Dory,” the second biggest release of 2016 with $1.02 billion.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Richard Chang)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 27, 2016 23:05 IST

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LIVE Australia Vs Pakistan Live Score

AUS vs PAK | Dec 26th, 2016

PAK 310 6 101.2

RUNS

WKTS

OVERS

LIVE South Africa Vs Sri Lanka Live Score

SA vs SL | Dec 26th, 2016

SL 181 7 57.0

RUNS

WKTS

OVERS

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George Michael had his own cultural revolution in China | Reuters

By Cate Cadell
| BEIJING

BEIJING It was strangely muted when George Michael, as part of the British pop duo Wham!, took the stage at the Workers Gymnasium in Beijing in April 1985, recalled one of those who attended that now legendary first Western pop act in Communist China.Around 15,000 concert-goers watched Michael and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley sing hits such as “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” – as police grimly stared at them.”I’d never seen so many police in my life,” Mao Danqing, a now well-known Chinese writer who attended the concert, told Reuters on Monday.     The security presence was so intimidating people were too timid to make any noise during the songs, Mao said.    “When you see that many police you feel terrified. Everyone sat in separate sections and each section had police lined up in front, facing the crowd,” Mao said.Michael, who became one of the pop idols of the 1980s with Wham! and then forged a career as a successful solo artist with sometimes sexually provocative lyrics, died at his home in England on Sunday. He was 53.CHINA OPENING UP

    China maintained strict controls on Western music and film in the 1980s, just a few years after adopting historic economic reforms in 1978 following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The music of Wham! and their contemporaries remained banned and authorities tightly controlled reports of the concert.The group’s manager at the time, Simon Napier-Bell, said it took 18 months to negotiate the two performances on Wham!’s two-week tour – the other concert was in Guangzhou. Napier-Bell said in a book published on the 20th anniversary of the tour, “I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch”, that he undermined Queen’s candidacy for the tour by presenting Michael as a more “wholesome” alternative to Queen’s frontman, Freddie Mercury. The book’s title was a reference to Napier-Bell’s relentless wooing of Chinese authorities with lunch meetings.A film documenting the tour called “Foreign Skies: Wham! in China” is available on YouTube. It shows Michael and Ridgeley getting chased by photographers along the Great Wall, chatting about cricket at a British Embassy cocktail reception, touring a traditional market and playing an impromptu game of soccer.    Mao, the Chinese writer, received his concert ticket from his university – one of several that were given allocations of tickets for students studying literature.

  “We were like blank pages back then. I’d never seen anything like this before in my life,” said Mao, who said he was seated behind students from North Korea.”In front of me, the foreign students jumped up to dance, the police quickly came and told them to sit down,” Mao said.’HE CHANGED CHINA’

    Despite the tense atmosphere, the Beijing concert has since become legendary among China’s rock royalty.    “They certainly had an impact on China,” said Kaiser Kuo, the front man of a popular Chinese metal band in the 1980s called the Tang Dynasty. “Everyone knew Wham! songs, even people who would go on to play music that diverged starkly from pop.”    Chinese took to social media on Monday to mourn Michael, whose 1984 hit “Careless Whisper” was particularly popular in China.     “That performance marked the beginning of China’s opening up its gate (to Western music),” said one user. “He changed China!”Michael said in music video for the release of Wham!’s single “Freedom” in 1985 that “nobody had any idea what to expect from Chinese audiences”.”I did feel that although we were very privileged to actually be put in the position, that we were acting as ambassadors of a sort.” (Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)

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First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 21:11 IST

Tributes flow for soulful British pop idol George Michael, dead at 53 | Reuters

By Edward Baran
| LONDON

LONDON Madonna, Elton John and Paul McCartney paid tribute on Monday to British pop idol George Michael, who has died age 53 after a career of soulful ballads and dance songs that provided a soundtrack to much of the 1980s and 1990s.Michael burst to stardom with “Wham!, one of the most successful pop duos ever, with singles like “”Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “”Careless Whisper”, before reinventing himself as a solo artist with sexually daring lyrics and multimillion-selling albums like “Faith” and “Listen Without Prejudice”.He passed away peacefully over Christmas, according to a statement from his publicist. British police said his death was “unexplained but not suspicious”. His manager, Michael Lippman, said the singer had died of heart failure, according to the BBC.”Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog (nickname). Me, his loved ones, his friends, the world of music, the world at large. 4ever loved,” said former Wham! partner and school friend Andrew Ridgeley on Twitter. “Cleft with grief.” “Farewell My Friend. Another Great Artist leaves us,” Madonna tweeted.”George Michael’s sweet soul music will live on even after his sudden death,” said McCartney. “Having worked with him on a number of occasions his great talent always shone through and his self-deprecating sense of humour made the experience even more pleasurable.”

Michael was highly regarded by fellow musicians as a singer and songwriter – in addition to pop phenomenon – and was a 2017 nominee for the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but he was troubled for years by substance abuse and a topsy turvy private life.With flowing blond hair and handsome smile, Michael won legions of fans as a teenage pin-up in the early 1980s before going solo with “Faith” in 1987, among the more than 100 million albums he sold with Wham! and under his own name.While still in Wham!, Michael became the first Western pop act to perform in communist China, in 1985.

He was publicly outed as a homosexual when he was arrested in 1998 for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public restroom in Beverly Hills, California. But he parlayed that tabloid tale into a successful revamp of his career with the hit single “Outside,” accompanied by a video featuring LA police officers which showcased his sense of humour.On Monday, fans laid flowers and candles at his homes in London and Oxfordshire. “I have grown up with him – he was a songbook to the good times, the bad times. And he’s brought me here today just to say thank you, George, for the music,” said Kavita, a fan outside his home in London’s affluent Highgate district.

Michael’s friend and fellow musician Elton John, with whom he collaborated, said: “I have lost a beloved friend – the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans.” Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963 in London to a Greek Cypriot family in a flat above a north London launderette. He played music on the London underground train system before finding global fame with Wham!.Michael’s death comes at the end of a year that has seen the passing of several popular music giants, including David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen. Rick Parfitt, the guitarist of British rock group Status Quo, died on Saturday at 68. (Writing by Elisabeth O’Leary; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 21:11 IST

Demonetisation: Farmers to get 60 additional days for repayment of crop loans, says RBI

Mumbai: The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Monday said that in view of demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, farmers, whose short term crop loan repayment date falls between 1 November and 31 December, will get an additional 60-day grace period.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“In view of the constraints faced by farmers for timely repayment of loan dues on account of withdrawal of legal tender status of Specified Bank Notes (SBNs), it has been decided by the government to provide an additional grace period of 60 days for prompt repayment incentive of 3 percent to those farmers whose crop loan dues are falling due between 1 November and 31 December,” RBI said in a notification.

Currently, according to the existing crop loan interest rebate scheme for 2016-17, apart from the two percent annual rebate, an additional interest rebate of 3 percent is also provided if the farmer repays the loan up to the actual date of repayment or the date fixed by banks for repayment, whichever is earlier.

This benefit does not accrue to those farmers who repay after one year of availing such loans.

If the farmers, whose crop loan repayment date falls between 1 November and 31 December, repay the crop loan within 60 days from their loan repayment date, the additional three percent interest rebate will continue to apply, it said.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 20:56 IST

Myanmar says Muslim with links to government murdered in troubled Rakhine | Reuters

By Shwe Yee Saw Myint
| YANGON

YANGON A man has been found dead with stab wounds in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, in what the government said on Monday was the second murder in under a week of a Rohingya who cooperated with authorities as they crack down on suspected insurgents.Coordinated attacks on October 9 killed nine police officers and sparked a military operation in northern Rakhine. The government of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar blamed Muslim Rohingyas supported by foreign militants. State media has reported at least 86 deaths and the United Nations says 34,000 people have fled to Bangladesh.The violence poses a challenge to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and has renewed international criticism that the Nobel laureate has done too little to help the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.Residents and rights groups say soldiers have raped Rohingya women, burnt homes and killed civilians during the operation near the frontier with Bangladesh.The government denies the accusations, and has launched a social media campaign in an effort to demonstrate that security forces are acting properly in Rakhine.

An administrator in Yae Twin Kyun village, named as Rawphi, was found dead with knife wounds on Sunday, Lieutenant Colonel Aung San Win of the local border guard police told Reuters.He said the killing of the 28-year-old Muslim might be “related to terrorism”. Myanmar’s state counsellor’s office said on Monday evening on its Facebook page that the victim had been “cooperating with members of security forces in administration duties.”

The case is the second murder in Rakhine where authorities have highlighted the victim’s cooperation with the government, appearing to point the finger at Rohingya insurgents.On Friday, the state counsellor’s office said a Muslim man was decapitated after he had denied stories of Myanmar military abuse when speaking to reporters.”He told media that there was no case of arson by the military and police forces, no rape and no unjust arrests,” said a Facebook post accompanied by a picture of a headless body with English text that read: “truth teller beheaded”.

Neither the police nor the state counsellor’s office have said who was responsible for the decapitation.A Rohingya community leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told Reuters many Muslims were sceptical about the government’s account of the beheading.A report by the International Crisis Group said insurgents calling themselves Harakah al-Yaqin were responsible for the attacks on October 9 that sparked the crackdown. The group also have killed Rohingyas who threatened to inform on them to authorities, the ICG said.Reuters could not independently verify the government accounts as access for independent journalists to northern Rakhine has been prohibited since security forces locked down the area. (Reporting By Shwe Yee Saw Myint and Simon Lewis; Writing by Yimou Lee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 19:49 IST

US woman gang-rape case: Delhi police arrests four, including driver and cleaner

New Delhi: Four persons have been arrested in connection with the alleged gangrape of a US national in a five-star hotel in Delhi earlier this year.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The four accused arrested include the tour guide, driver, cleaner and a hotel staff, said a senior police officer. The officer, however, refused to reveal the names of the arrested persons as police will be conduct an test identification parade.

The US national arrived in Delhi a few days ago to join the probe and recorded her statement in front of a judicial magistrate where she reiterated the charges she had made in her complaint.

Earlier, she had said that she was not “satisfied” with the probe and was ready to come to India to identify the accused. On 8 December , the tourist guide, accused of raping the woman, along with his accomplices, was questioned by police after his arrival from Nepal.

Police had identified the man and had contacted him while he was in Nepal. The tour guide had denied his “involvement” in the matter and told police that the victim had given him a “positive feedback” in the forms.

The woman had alleged that she was raped by the men for two days. They also threatened her with dire consequences if she reported the matter to anybody.

She had also stated that the accused had made a video of the act and had threatened to make it public if she reported the matter to                                                                                                                        anyone.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 18:48 IST

Manipur violence: Centre rushes 4,000 additional paramilitary personnel

New Delhi: The Centre has rushed additional 4,000 paramilitary personnel to Manipur in its efforts to reopen a national highway which has been blocked for nearly two months by a Naga group.

With this, the total number of central security personnel deployed in the sensitive northeastern state for assisting the local administration for maintaining law and order has gone up to 17,500.

“Our top priority is now to reopen the National Highway-2 connecting Manipur (to Nagaland). While the other highway (NH-37) is reopened, we want to reopen the NH-2 too as early as possible,” a senior home ministry official said.

The security personnel were sent to the northeastern state keeping in view the security situation in the wake of violence following the economic blockade imposed by the Union Naga Council (UNC) on the National Highways since 1 November.

File photo. Reuters

File photo. Reuters

The UNC has imposed the economic blockade on NH-2 (Imphal-Dimapur) and NH 37 (Imphal-Jiribam) that serve as lifelines for the landlocked Manipur.

Curfew has been clamped in Imphal East district for the last fortnight after a mob torched and vandalised 22 passenger vehicles on the Imphal-Ukhrul road, while curfew in Imphal West district was imposed from evening to dawn.

In a stern message, the Centre had on Friday told the Manipur government that it can’t escape responsibility for the “humanitarian crisis” arising out of the 52-day economic blockade by a Naga group and must work to end it, while making it clear that nobody will be allowed to take political advantage out of it.

Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who was on a day-long visit to Congress-ruled Manipur as a central emissary, said it is completely unacceptable to have such kinds of blockades in which thousands are suffering and both the central and Manipur governments will work together to end it.

“The state government has not been able to end the blockade. It must end as soon as possible as law and order is the responsibility of the state government. Nobody will be allowed to take political advantage out of a humanitarian crisis where common people are suffering,” he had said.

First Published On : Dec 26, 2016 18:11 IST

Egypt confirms Al Jazeera producer’s arrest for provoking sedition | Reuters

Egypt confirms Al Jazeera producer’s arrest for provoking sedition | Reuters

Dec 25, 2016 18:39 IST

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CAIRO Egypt confirmed on Sunday that it had arrested an Al Jazeera news producer, accusing him of “provoking sedition” on behalf of the Qatar-based broadcaster that it considers a mouthpiece of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Judicial sources said Mahmoud Hussain, who was detained on Friday, was being held on charges of disturbing public security and spreading false news.The Interior Ministry said in a statement that Al Jazeera officials “had ordered some individuals collaborating with the channel inside the country to continue implementing its media plan of provoking sedition, incitement against the state, and spreading chaos through broadcasting false news.” It identified Hussain as a person implementing that plan for the channel which is not allowed to operate inside Egypt.

Al Jazeera was not immediately available for comment.Egypt has arrested several Al Jazeera reporters over the past two years, raising concerns over media freedoms in the country.

In May, a Cairo court recommended the death penalty against two of them, charged in absentia with endangering national security by leaking state secrets to Qatar.The Brotherhood is a Qatar-backed movement that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cracked down on since an army takeover in 2013 stripped former president Mohammed Mursi – a prominent member of the group – of power following mass protests against his rule.

Thousands of Brotherhood supporters including Mursi are in jail and Egypt has designated the group, which says it is non-violent, a terrorist organisation. (Reporting by Haitham Ahmed and Ahmed Mohammed Hassan; Writing by Asma Alsharif; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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First Published On : Dec 25, 2016 18:39 IST

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Anger in Afghanistan at female pilot’s U.S. asylum bid | Reuters

KABUL There was an angry reaction in Afghanistan to news that the first female fixed-wing pilot in the country’s air force was requesting asylum in the United States after completing an 18-month training course.The Afghan defence ministry confirmed on Sunday that Captain Niloofar Rahmani, 25, had sought asylum after the Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying that she feared her life would be in danger if she returned home.A recipient of the U.S. State Department’s “Women of Courage” award in 2015, Capt. Rahmani had been a symbol of efforts to improve the situation of women in her country, more than a decade after the fall of the Taliban regime.Mohammad Radmanish, a defence ministry spokesman, said the government hoped that her request would be denied by U.S. authorities who have spent billions trying to build up Afghan security forces.”When an officer complains of insecurity and is afraid of security threats, then what should ordinary people do?” he said. “She has made an excuse for herself, but we have hundreds of educated women and female civil right activists who work and it is safe for them.”

Capt. Rahmani, who graduated from flight school in 2012 and qualified to fly C-208 military cargo aircraft, had been in the United States on a training course and had been due to return home on Saturday.In a conservative country notorious for the restrictions placed on women, Rahmani’s story stood out as a rare example of a woman breaking through in areas normally reserved for men.

Her success came at a price, however. The citation for the “Women of Courage” award said she and her family had received direct threats not just from the Taliban but also from some relatives, forcing her family to move house several times.However, there was little sympathy on Afghanistan’s active social media networks, which were replete with comments criticizing Rahmani, accusing her of wasting government money spent on expensive training and avoiding her responsibilities.

“Niloofar Rahmani took a million dollars from the pockets of the people of Afghanistan to pay human traffickers to get to America to seek asylum,” one Facebook user wrote in comments typical of others.Dozens of Afghan troops receiving training in the United States have gone missing over the past two years, and at least one has been detained while trying to cross the border to Canada. (Reporting by Mirwais Harooni, writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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First Published On : Dec 25, 2016 18:11 IST

Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt dies aged 68 | Reuters

Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt dies aged 68 | Reuters

Dec 24, 2016 17:32 IST

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LONDON Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt died in hospital on Saturday in Spain aged 68 after suffering from a severe infection, his manager said.”We are truly devastated to have to announce that Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt has passed away,” his family and Status Quo Manager Simon Porter said in a joint statement.

“He died in hospital in Marbella, Spain as a result of a severe infection, having been admitted to hospital on Thursday evening following complications to a shoulder injury incurred by a previous fall,” his family said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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First Published On : Dec 24, 2016 17:32 IST

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U.N. Security Council denounces Israeli settlements, U.S. abstains | Reuters

By Michelle Nichols
| UNITED NATIONS

UNITED NATIONS The United States on Friday allowed the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements, defying pressure from President-elect Donald Trump, Israel and some U.S. lawmakers who urged Washington to wield its veto.An abstention by the United States paved the way for the 15-member international body to approve the resolution, with 14 votes in favour, prompting applause in the council chamber.”Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. and will not abide by its terms,” the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has encouraged the expansion of Jewish settlements in land captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbours, said in a statement.The Obama administration’s action broke with the long-standing American approach of shielding Israel, Washington’s long-time ally that receives more than $3 billion in annual U.S. military aid, from such action. The United States, along with Russia, France, Britain and China, has veto power on the council.The resolution, put forward by New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela and Senegal a day after Egypt withdrew it under pressure from Israel and Trump, was the first adopted by the council on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years.U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the resolution and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called on Israel to “respect international law.”The U.S. abstention was seen as a parting shot by outgoing President Barack Obama, who has had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu and whose efforts to forge a peace agreement based on a “two-state” solution of creating a Palestinian state existing peacefully alongside Israel have proven futile. His administration has argued that continued Israeli settlement building has undermined chances of a peace deal.Israel and Trump had called on the Obama administration to veto the measure. Trump wrote on Twitter after the vote, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” referring to the day he succeeds Obama.Israel for decades has pursued a policy of constructing Jewish settlements on territory captured by Israel in a 1967 war with its Arab neighbours including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Most countries view Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees.The Obama administration has deemed settlement expansion “illegitimate.” Successive administrations of both parties have criticized settlement activity but have done little to slow their growth.

INDEPENDENT STATE
The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The resolution demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem” and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”After the vote, the White House defended the U.S. abstention, saying that in the absence of any meaningful peace process, Obama took the decision to abstain. Criticizing Israel’s settlement policy, it said it had repeatedly warned Israel privately and publicly that settlement activity was increasing Israel’s international isolation.Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, dismissed Trump’s criticism, noting that Obama remains president until Jan. 20.

“We could not in good conscience veto a resolution that expressed concerns about the very trends that are eroding the foundation for a two-state solution,” Rhodes told a conference call.Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, said the United States did not raise a veto because the resolution “reflects the facts on the ground and is consistent with U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administrations.”MORE THAN SYMBOLIC
The passage of the resolution changes nothing on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians and likely will be all but ignored by the incoming Trump administration.

But it was more than merely symbolic. It formally enshrined the international community’s disapproval of Israeli settlement building and could spur further Palestinian moves against Israel in international forums.The U.N. action was “a big blow to Israeli policy, a unanimous international condemnation of settlements and a strong support for the two-state solution,” a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa.Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, called the resolution disgraceful, adding he had no doubt the incoming Trump administration and Ban’s successor as U.N. chief, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, “will usher in a new era in terms of the U.N.’s relationship with Israel”Israel has said the final status of the Jewish settlements should be determined in talks on Palestinian statehood. The last round of U.S.-led peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014.Trump, who called for a veto along with Netanyahu, is likely to be a more staunch supporter of Netanyahu’s right-wing policies. He named a hardline pro-Israel ambassador and vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.Some U.S. lawmakers of both parties condemned the Obama administration’s abstention. Republican Senator John McCain said the abstention “marks a troubling departure from our nation’s long, bipartisan history of defending our ally Israel in the United Nations.”U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees American U.N. funding, threatened to pull financial support for the international body.The council last adopted a resolution on settlements in 1979, with the United States abstaining. Then it approved a resolution saying Israeli settlements had “no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” (Writing by Will Dunham and Yara Bayoumy; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Lesley Wroughton and Susan Heavey in Washington, Matt Spetalnick in New York and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)

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First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 21:18 IST

Amazon starts flexing muscle in new space: air cargo | Reuters

By Jeffrey Dastin
| ALLENTOWN, Pa.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. A cargo plane emblazoned with “Prime Air” descended from an empty sky at Lehigh Valley International Airport on Tuesday, ninety minutes from the bustle of New York City, loaded with crates of goods during the peak holiday shopping season.It’s one of 40 jets leased by Amazon.com Inc for a new cargo service to meet delivery demand from the retail giant’s customers. Exclusive payload data reviewed by Reuters and interviews with airport officials around the country show that Prime Air planes are flying nearly full, but with lightweight loads, taking away valued business from FedEx Corp and United Parcel Service Inc.Expanding into transportation, from trucks to planes, is one of Amazon’s most important endeavors as it strives to lure new customers with fast shipping while keeping costs under control. The world’s largest online retailer is sending more packages, more often, and later in the day to serve its estimated 35 million to more than 50 million U.S. members of Amazon Prime, a service that promises two-day shipping for $99 per year. Bulky boxes with goods once purchased in stores, like toilet paper, are a revenue driver at UPS and FedEx. That’s in part because they now are charging customers increasingly by boxes’ volume rather than weight. Shipping its own big, light packages is helping Amazon dodge those rising fees.To date, Amazon has only said it leased the planes to speed up shipping and to backstop cargo partners during the holiday season. FedEx and UPS have delivered items late for Christmas in recent years.”Our own delivery efforts are needed to supplement that capacity rather than replace it,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman told Reuters. She declined to comment on eluding cargo airline fees.Amazon’s planes fly to at least 10 airports across the United States, supplying its warehouses nearby. Officials at four airports said Amazon’s flights are operating near capacity but landing with lower-than-average weight — meaning it is placing low-density shipments inside the jets. [For graphic-click tmsnrt.rs/2hZ8uZp]Amazon aircraft on a monthly basis handled only between 37 percent and 52 percent of their maximum loads by weight, according to an analysis of cargo, capacity and landing data from the four airports, with supplementary information from tracking website FlightAware.com. By contrast, FedEx and UPS were at 53 percent and 56 percent capacity, respectively, according to U.S. Transportation Department data for the year ended September 2016, excluding weight carried for free.”You’re dealing with cargo that’s big in dimensions, but in pure weight it’s light,” said an airport ramp manager in California.

Airports in Tampa and Charlotte reported similar payload data for the carriers contracted by Amazon, but they did not specify whether the flights were full by volume or whether they were operated on Amazon’s behalf. A seventh airport outside Chicago said the planes were not full, though daily flights only started in October 2016, and Amazon likely is learning the market, transport experts said.The remaining airports did not comment.FedEx declined to comment. Steve Gaut, vice president of public relations at UPS, declined to comment on Amazon’s airline but said customers commonly handle parts of their logistics in-house.Reuters could not determine the extent to which, if any, Prime Air had an effect on the bottom lines of FedEx or UPS to date. Reuters could also not determine how much Amazon has spent on aircraft leases so far, key to whether the fleet has cut its costs overall.The payload figures Reuters reviewed do not include November or December, when contractor ABX Air, a unit of Air Transport Services Group Inc, paused flights for Amazon after a pilot strike.

FLYING LATER
Flight data shows another way that Amazon is departing from cargo companies’ road map in an attempt of its top goal: rapid delivery.Using FlightAware.com and similar websites, Reuters tracked the schedules of Amazon contractors and verified with airports which flights were on behalf of the retailer.

Many of the company’s eastbound flights leave the states of Washington and California unusually late at night: its flight from Stockton to Wilmington, Ohio departs close to 2:00 AM Pacific Time (10:00 GMT), for instance. FedEx instead schedules most eastbound service no later than 9:00 PM (5:00 GMT) to ensure arrival at its Memphis, Tennessee hub in time for sorting packages overnight.The difference is that cargo airlines stop at airport hubs so they can fill up planes easily with boxes from many origins. Amazon does this much less.But flying without a stopover is faster, helping Amazon cut shipping times from Prime’s two-day standard, to a day or even hours. Scheduling later departures has an advantage, too.”Most people have a tendency to order packages when they’re home” from work, said Brian Clancy, managing director of advisory firm Logistics Capital & Strategy LLC. Amazon is “waiting for the orders.”Amazon also saves time by flying to remote locations like Lehigh Valley, which are near cities and its warehouses but have little traffic. Expectations are for Amazon to stretch well beyond Lehigh Valley and the existing airports Prime Air serves. “We’re just seeing the beginning of this,” said Marc Wulfraat, president of logistics consultancy MWPVL International Inc. “We could see Toronto. We could see Denver.”They’re going to need a lot more planes,” he said. (Editing by Peter Henderson and Edward Tobin)

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First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 20:44 IST

Wall Street dips as retailers lag | Reuters

Wall Street dips as retailers lag | Reuters

Dec 23, 2016 00:49 IST

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NEW YORK U.S. stocks fell on Thursday, weighed down by a dip in retailers, as investors stepped back from a recent rally fuelled by optimism that President-elect Donald Trump will invigorate economic growth. The Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI fell 22.95 points, or 0.12 percent, to 19,919.01, the S&P 500 .SPX lost 4.22 points, or 0.19 percent, to 2,260.96 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 24.01 points, or 0.44 percent, to 5,447.42.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 00:49 IST

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Modi govt lobbied hard for ratings upgrade from Moody’s, but US agency didn’t budge

New Delhi: India criticised Moody’s ratings methods and pushed aggressively for an upgrade, documents reviewed by Reuters show, but the US-based agency declined to budge citing concerns over the country’s debt levels and fragile banks.Winning a better credit rating on India’s sovereign debt would have been a much-needed endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s economic stewardship, helping to attract foreign investment and accelerate growth.

Since storming to power in 2014, Modi has unveiled measures to boost investment, cool inflation and narrow the fiscal and current account deficits, but his policies have not been rewarded with a ratings upgrade from any of the “big three” global ratings agencies, who say more is needed.

Previously unpublished correspondence between India’s finance ministry and Moody’s shows New Delhi failed to assuage the ratings agency’s concerns about the cost of its debt burden and a banking sector weighed down by $136 billion in bad loans.In letters and emails written in October, the finance ministry questioned Moody’s methodology, saying it was not accounting for a steady decline in the India’s debt burden in recent years.

ReutersReuters

Reuters

It said the agency ignored countries’ levels of development when assessing their fiscal strength.Rejecting those arguments, Moody’s said India’s debt situation was not as rosy as the government maintained and its banks were a cause for concern, the correspondence seen by Reuters showed.Moody’s and one of its lead sovereign analysts, Marie Diron, declined to comment on the correspondence, saying ratings deliberations were confidential. India’s finance ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Arvind Mayaram, a former chief finance ministry official, called the government’s approach “completely unusual”. “There was no way pressure could be put on rating agencies,” Mayaram told Reuters. “It’s not done.”

Debt burden, bad loans

India has been the world’s fastest growing major economy over the past two years, but that rapid expansion has done little to broaden the government’s revenue base. At nearly 21 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), India’s revenues are lower than the 27.1 percent median for Baa-rated countries. India is rated at Baa3 by Moody’s, the agency’s lowest notch for debt considered investment grade. A higher rating would signify to bond investors that India was more creditworthy and help to lower its borrowing costs.

While India’s debt-to-GDP ratio has dropped to 66.7 percent from 79.5 percent in 2004-05, interest payments absorb more than a fifth of government revenues. Moody’s representatives, including Diron, visited North Block, the colonial sandstone building in the Indian capital that houses the finance ministry, on 21 September for a discussion on a ratings review. The atmosphere at the meeting with Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das, one of the ministry’s most senior officials, and his team was tense, according to an Indian official present, after Diron had told local media the previous day that a ratings upgrade for India was some years away.

On 30 September, Moody’s explained its methodology to Indian officials in a teleconference.

Lobbying for an upgrade

Four days later, the finance ministry sent an email to Diron questioning Moody’s metrics on fiscal strength. The government cited the examples of Japan and Portugal, which enjoy better ratings despite debts around twice the size of their economies. “Given that countries are on different stages of economic and social development, should countries be benchmarked against a median or mean number (as is done by Moody’s)” the email asked.

In India’s case, “while the debt burden lowered significantly post 2004, this did not get reflected in the ratings”, the ministry argued. New Delhi urged Diron to look at improvements in the factors – better forex reserves and economic growth – that Moody’s had considered when handing India its last ratings upgrade in 2004. In a reply the next day, Diron said that, not only was India’s debt burden high relative to other countries with the same credit rating, but its debt affordability was also low. She added that a resolution to the banking sector’s bad loan problems was “unlikely” in the near-term.

In a last-ditch effort on 27 October, Economic Affairs Secretary Das sent a six-page letter to Singapore-based Diron, addressed to Moody’s New York headquarters. Reiterating points on India’s fiscal strength, Das asked Moody’s for a “better appreciation of the factual position”. Das dismissed Moody’s concerns on India’s public finances as “unwarranted” and told the agency that there was “scope for further lowering” the political risk perception to “very low”.

“In the light of stable external debt parameters and the slew of reforms introduced in the realm of foreign direct investment, you may like to reconsider your assessment on ‘external vulnerability risk’,” he wrote. Moody’s on 16 November affirmed its Baa3 issuer rating for India, while maintaining a positive outlook, saying the government’s efforts had not yet achieved conditions that would support an upgrade.

First Published On : Dec 23, 2016 00:45 IST

Retailers weigh on Wall Street, Dow 20,000 slips away | Reuters

By Noel Randewich

U.S. stocks fell on Thursday, weighed down by weakness in retailers, as investors stepped back from a recent rally fuelled by optimism that President-elect Donald Trump will invigorate economic growth.The decline pulled the Dow Jones industrial average further away from the 20,000 mark after it nearly breached that level this week for the first time.Retail stocks fell after CNN reported Trump’s transition team is considering a tariff of as much as 10 percent on imports. The S&P 500 consumer discretionary index .SPLRCD lost 1.01 percent, its biggest one-day decline since October. Home Depot (HD.N) fell 1.02 percent and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT.N) lost 2.32 percent, both weighing more than any other stocks on the Dow.Following a sharp rally since the Nov. 8 U.S. election, the Dow is up about 14 percent for the year and the S&P 500 is 11 higher on bets that the economy will benefit from Trump’s plans for deregulation and infrastructure spending.Some investors believe that recent gains may have made stocks too expensive, and that Congress may water down or prevent major infrastructure spending or tax cuts proposed by Trump.

“There are issues hanging over the market,” said Donald Selkin, chief market strategist at Newbridge Securities in New York. “You need to digest these gains, and once he becomes president, we’ll see what is actually going to get passed.” Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, tapped by Trump on Wednesday as a special adviser for regulatory issues, said in an interview on CNBC he was concerned about the stock market in the short term following its recent surge.A report earlier showed that the U.S. economy grew faster than initially thought in the third quarter, notching its best performance in two years. Gross domestic product increased at a 3.5 percent annual rate instead of the previously reported 3.2 percent pace, the Commerce Department said.Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rose 0.2 percent in November, below the estimated 0.3 percent gain.

The Dow finished 0.12 percent lower at 19,918.88 and the S&P 500 .SPX lost 0.19 percent to end at 2,260.96. The Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 0.44 percent to 5,447.42.Apple (AAPL.O) fell 0.66 percent after Nokia (NOKIA.HE) said it had sued the iPhone maker for patent infringement. The stock was the biggest drag on the S&P 500 and Nasdaq.ConAgra (CAG.N) rose 3.39 percent after the packaged foods maker’s quarterly profit beat estimates.

Red Hat (RHT.N) slumped 13.89 percent after the Linux software distributor’s quarterly revenue missed estimates.Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.26-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.55-to-1 ratio favored decliners.The S&P 500 posted 11 new 52-week highs and three new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 100 new highs and 43 new lows. With many investors already away for the end-of-year holidays, volume was very low. About 5.5 billion shares changed hands in U.S. exchanges, well below the 7.3 billion daily average over the last 20 sessions. (Additional reporting by Tanya Agrawal in Bengaluru; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and James Dalgleish)

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First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 21:04 IST

Scale of child slavery shocking in India’s spinning mills – research | Reuters

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Various forms of slavery, including child labour, are present in more than 90 percent of south India’s spinning mills which produce yarn for Western brands, researchers said, calling for mapping of supply chains and tougher audits.The India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN), a human rights organisation, spoke to workers from almost half the mills in Tamil Nadu, the largest producer of cotton yarn in the country.Most female workers employed in the 734 mills involved in the research were aged between 14 and 18, it said, and up to 20 percent of the workers were younger than 14.It said employees were forced to work long hours by employers who often withheld their pay or locked them up in company-controlled hostels. Many also faced sexual harassment.”We have raised the issue for five years now, but even to us the scale of this problem came as a shock,” ICN Director Gerard Oonk said in a statement.K. Venkatachalam, chief advisor of the Tamil Nadu Spinning Mills Association, said he was not aware of the research.He said the state government had recently filed a report to the Madras High Court “clearly stating that these issues are no longer prevalent in the industry”.”The matter has been closed,” Venkatachalam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“TORTURE”
India is one of the world’s largest textile and garment manufacturers. The southern state of Tamil Nadu is home to some 1,600 mills, employing between 200,000 and 400,000 workers.Traditionally the dyeing units, spinning mills and apparel factories have drawn on cheap labour from villages across Tamil Nadu to turn cotton into yarn, fabric and clothes, most of it for Western high street shops.Most workers are young women from poor, illiterate and low-caste or “Dalit” communities, who often face intimidation, sexually offensive remarks and harassment.

ICN said in more than half of the mills it researched, workers were not allowed to leave company-controlled hostels after working hours.Only 39 mills paid the minimum wage and in half the mills, a standard working week involved 60 hours or more of work. “Supervisors torture girls to extract work beyond their capacity,” ICN quoted an 18-year-old former worker as saying.Another teenage girl, Kalaichelvi, who earned around 8,000 rupees ($118) a month, told researchers she was forced to work for 12 hours straight with no breaks for lunch or to use the bathroom.

She said she suffered from burning eyes, rashes, fever, aching legs and stomach problems due to the working conditions. About a third of the yarn produced by workers like Kalaichelvi is used in export factories in Tamil Nadu that produce garments for many global brands.Citing poor enforcement of labour laws and “superficial audits” by buying brands, the ICN called on the industry and government to map supply chains and publish sourcing details.It also called for factories that upheld standards to be rewarded.($1=67.8650 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 19:34 IST

Hundreds resist eviction from Delhi slum as new housing falls short | Reuters

By Rina Chandran

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of residents in a New Delhi slum are resisting eviction by city officials and police in the third such protest this month in India’s capital city, as anger mounts over a shortfall in housing for the urban poor, campaigners said.Evictions began this week in Kathputli Colony, home to 3,500 families of street performers and puppeteers, after authorities marked it for development as part of a plan to upgrade the city.City officials say residents were notified of the plan which involves moving them to a temporary location while a private builder constructs modest high-rise homes for a nominal sum.They say more than 500 families have already moved to temporary accommodation.”Residents were given sufficient notice. The police are on hand to maintain law and order,” said J.P. Agrawal, a principal commissioner with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).But some residents said they were not given the option of relocation, and that they received no notice of the eviction.

“No one told us it would be this week. Suddenly one morning we woke up and found hundreds of policemen in the colony,” said Dilip Bhatt, head of an artistes’ cooperative in the settlement.”We are surrounded by the police like we are criminals, and they have cut off water and power,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.Television images showed police in riot gear, holding assault rifles and shields as residents gathered around them.

About a third of India’s 1.25 billion population lives in cities, with numbers rising every year as tens of thousands of people leave villages to seek better prospects. Many end up in overcrowded urban slums.A government plan to provide housing for all by 2022 is meant to create 20 million new urban housing units and 30 million rural homes.But the slow pace of implementation is leaving thousands homeless, according to advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN).

More than 33,000 families living in urban areas across India were forcefully evicted since January 2015 to make way for redevelopment projects, HLRN said on Thursday. In rural areas, more than 75,000 people were displaced.Only 2,776 houses were built in urban areas under the housing plan from June 2015 to August 2016, HLRN said.In several evictions, violence and arbitrary detentions have been reported, and there has been little or no consultation, advance notice, consent or compensation, HLRN said.”It is a sad irony that despite claims of providing ‘housing for all’, the government has destroyed many more homes than it has built over the last two years,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of HLRN. (Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 18:50 IST

ED raids Axis Bank’s Ahmedabad branch, detects Rs 89 cr worth illegal transactions

There seems to be no end in sight to the woes of private sector Axis Bank. According to a report in India Today, the bank’s Ahmedabad branch has now been raided and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has put transactions worth Rs 89 crore under scanner.

The raid was conducted at Mayamnagar branch of the bank and the ED scrutinised 19 accounts, the report said.

Axis Bank logo. ReutersAxis Bank logo. Reuters

Axis Bank logo. Reuters

According to I-T officials quoted in the report, these accounts, which allegedly have lax KYC compliance, saw Rs 89 crore worth of investment after the demonetisation announcement, and the amount was later transferred to beneficiary accounts. Four bank officials are also under the scanner, said the report.

The bank had been in the news in the last few days after authorities found certain branches had opened fake accounts to help tax cheats to launder their ill-gotten wealth.

The ED has already registered a money laundering case in the alleged forging of a customer’s identity to conduct huge illegal transactions in the branch of Noida for conversion of black money into white post demonetisation.

The individual, identified as N Paswan, in his complaint filed with the police has claimed that his identity has been forged and a current and a savings account was opened in his name in the said branch which was allegedly used to launder crores of rupees post demonetisation.

The bank branch, in sector 51 of Noida, is also under scanner of the income tax department owing to alleged dubious transactions using shell companies.

In the Noida case, the ED probe involves a laundering of Rs 60 crore. The officials of the agency had told PTI that they are probing more than two dozen accounts in the bank there which could have been used to perpetrate the crime of money laundering.

The bank, according to a PTI report, had suspended 24 employees and 50 accounts after the I-T raids unearthed such illegal activities.

“We are embarrassed that this has happened, but these are isolated incidents given that we have more than 3,000 branches and 50,000 employees.We have had many of our customers writing to us that the bank has done a great job and, therefore, it is disappointing that a handful of people have let us down,” MD and CEO Shikha Sharma had told The Economic Times in an earlier interview.

First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 14:02 IST

Nokia sues Apple for infringing technology patents | Reuters

Nokia sues Apple for infringing technology patents | Reuters

Dec 22, 2016 00:16 IST

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Finland’s Nokia Corp (NOKIA.HE) said on Wednesday it had sued Apple Inc (AAPL.O), accusing the iPhone maker of violating 32 technology patents.Apple sued Acacia Research Corp (ACTG.O) and Conversant Intellectual Property Management Inc [GEGGIM.UL] on Tuesday, accusing them of colluding with Nokia to extract and extort exorbitant revenues unfairly and anticompetitively from Apple.Nokia’s lawsuits, filed in courts in Dusseldorf, Mannheim and Munich, Germany and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, cover patents for displays, user interfaces, software, antennas, chipsets and video coding.

“Since agreeing a license covering some patents from the Nokia Technologies portfolio in 2011, Apple has declined subsequent offers made by Nokia to license other of its patented inventions which are used by many of Apple’s products,” Nokia said in a statement.

Apple and Acacia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Ted Kerr)

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First Published On : Dec 22, 2016 00:16 IST

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India’s crackdown on cash imperils pivotal national tax reform | Reuters

By Rajesh Kumar Singh
| NEW DELHI

NEW DELHI Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s crackdown on the cash economy has shattered the consensus needed for a new national sales tax, plunging his boldest reform into limbo and threatening to entrench an economic slowdown.Modi’s government already had its work cut out to finalise a deal with India’s 29 federal states to launch a Goods and Services Tax (GST) on April 1 that would transform Asia’s third largest economy into a single market for the first time.But his decision to scrap 86 percent of the cash in circulation, in a bid to purge the economy of illicit “black money”, has caused huge disruption. A slump in business activity stemming from the cash crunch has caused the revenue of state governments, which collect value-added tax on goods and other duties, to slump by 25-40 percent.The states won’t risk another setback by rushing the sales tax into force.”The investment and economic environment in the country is in bad shape,” said West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra, who earlier head a panel tasked with building a consensus on the GST. “How is the country going to absorb the dual shock of GST and demonetisation?”The GST is India’s biggest tax overhaul since independence in 1947. It would replace a plethora of federal and state levies with one tax, easing compliance, broadening the revenue base and boosting productivity.It took Modi more than two years to forge a political compromise on the tax in August. Now, demonetisation “has created a trust deficit,” said Kerala Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac. “After this, I am not going to sit and compromise. They don’t deserve it.”LEFT IN THE LURCH

Failure to break the deadlock could tip India into a fiscal crisis: The GST would need to come into effect by mid-September, when the old system of indirect taxation is due to lapse.The lingering uncertainty is worrying companies needing to understand financial implications of the new tax. “With so many vital details still missing, they are feeling left in the lurch,” said Saloni Roy, a senior director at Deloitte.Modi’s shock move last month to scrap 500 and 1,000 rupee notes was aimed at India’s shadow economy. But the ensuing cash crunch has caused job losses, disrupted supply chains and slowed construction activity.With cash shortages showing no signs of abating, some economists are calling for emergency stimulus to cushion the economy against the impact of demonetisation.

Ambit Capital, a Mumbai brokerage, forecasts growth this fiscal year will be only half of the roughly 7 percent level many expect. The Reserve Bank of India has shaved its growth outlook by half a percentage point to 7.1 percent.To make up for their losses, states are seeking compensation and will press their case at a meeting in New Delhi on Thursday and Friday with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.He has already agreed to cover states’ revenue losses for five years after the GST’s launch, but further concessions would narrow his room for manoeuvre in his annual budget presented in February.One top finance ministry official dismissed demands for compensation for demonetisation as unreasonable. But states are adamant. “They have brought it upon us,” V. Narayanasamy, chief minister of Puducherry, told Reuters. “Now they must pay for our loss.”

COUNTING COSTS
The quibble is not just over lost revenue. Some states worry about the social and political costs of demonetisation.Take Kerala, where credit cooperatives that farmers and retired government workers rely on cannot swap old bills or issue fresh notes. The state alleges this has encouraged commercial banks to scout for their deposits, sparking a “run” on them.Odhisa’s chief minister has written to Modi, saying curbs imposed on primary agriculture societies were making it difficult for farmers to access crop loans and procurement payments.With the states smarting, they have hardened their stance on how to collect the new GST, which will have federal and state elements.They want sole control over businesses with annual turnover of 15 million rupees ($220,000) and so-called “dual control” over bigger firms. Jaitley opposes this, fearing tax collectors could end up at cross purposes.”We reached this far because states were willing to compromise,” said Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, told Reuters. “If they want the GST, they will have to now concede to the states.” (Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar in New Delhi, Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar and Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Richard Borsuk)

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First Published On : Dec 21, 2016 23:13 IST

Mexico fireworks market blast kills at least 27, hurts scores | Reuters

Mexico fireworks market blast kills at least 27, hurts scores | Reuters

Dec 21, 2016 05:26 IST

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MEXICO CITY At least 27 people died in an explosion at a fireworks market outside the Mexican capital on Tuesday, according to a local emergency services official.The blast at the San Pablito fireworks market in Tultepec, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Mexico City, also injured at least 70 others, according to a tweet from federal police.Isidro Sanchez, the head of Tultepec emergency services, said the death toll was preliminary as rescue workers scoured the site.

Local television showed a flurry of multi-colored fireworks exploding in all directions as a massive plume of smoke rose above the market while people frantically fled.Aerial footage showed charred stalls and destroyed buildings.

A blast struck the popular market in September 2005 just before independence day celebrations, injuring many people.

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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First Published On : Dec 21, 2016 05:26 IST

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Govt will impose limits on tax exemption for political parties, says Arun Jaitley

New Delhi: The central government plans to set a threshold criteria for political parties to enjoy tax exemptions to check money laundering by outfits that do not contest elections, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file imageFinance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file image

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file image

Jaitley said the revenue secretary has been asked to look into the issue in the wake of Election Commission’s recommendations
in this regard. Jaitley’s remarks at a Times Now event assume significance in the context of the Election Commission’s recommendations to the government to amend laws to bar tax exemption to parties that do not contest elections and win seats in Lok Sabha and Assembly polls and to ban anonymous donations above Rs 2,000 to political parties.

“I can point out one is invisible donation which Election Commission says is anonymous and the second is when political parties got exemptions. There are about 40/50/60 political parties which effectively contest elections in Centre and the states, (but) you have a large number of political parties which got registered not for contesting election but for availing tax exemption,” he said.

“Now this part is easier to tackle. I have already asked the revenue secretary to look into this and therefore we will have to put a threshold criteria so that we are able to eliminate those which are not real political parties but only for money conversion which have come in,” Jaitley said.

He said many political parties do not contest elections but only accept donations and convert money. “I have already told the Revenue Department to look at them and therefore some threshold criteria could be fixed and number of these could be eliminated,” Jaitley added.

First Published On : Dec 20, 2016 22:25 IST

Demonetistion: Sudden spurt in queues at bank branches as new deposit rules kick in

New Delhi – Unnerved by new set of guidelines announced by the RBI, people rushed to bank branches to deposit the now defunct Rs 500/1,000 notes in their accounts.

Many branches witnessed sudden surge of customers for deposits on Monday, a day before the new rules kick in.

The Reserve Bank on Monday imposed stiff restrictions on depositing more than Rs 5,000 in the scrapped Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, mandating that it can be deposited only once per account till December 30, that too after explaining to bank officials the reasons for not having done that so far.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Stipulating that restrictive conditions will also apply on the cumulative deposit of such notes in a single account when it exceeds Rs 5,000, RBI said that defunct currency up to any amount can be deposited under the new black money amnesty scheme PMGKY.

Under PMGKY, black money holders can deposit unaccounted cash in account which will be subject to 50 per cent tax and 4-year interest free lock-in for the remaining 25 per cent of the amount.

The RBI said old notes in excess of Rs 5,000 into a bank account will be received for credit only once during the remaining period till December 30, 2016.

Even after 39 days after the demonetisation of old Rs 500/1,000 notes, banks are still struggling to manage long queues as cash starved customers throng branches to get valid currency notes.

To meet the demand, branches are resorting to cash rationing as they are getting less than their requirement from currency chests.

However, the situation seems slightly better at many ATMs with increased cash availability.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said everyday RBI is injecting a large amount of currency into the banking system as part of its remonetisation exercise.

“Significant amounts are going to be injected in next three weeks which are gradually bringing the pressure down. As more and more new currency comes into circulation, the recirculation itself in the banking system and ATMs will make more currency available,” Jaitley had said.

First Published On : Dec 20, 2016 08:49 IST

Five men sentenced to death for 2013 Hyderabad bombings | Reuters

Five men sentenced to death for 2013 Hyderabad bombings | Reuters

Dec 19, 2016 20:48 IST

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NEW DELHI Five men were sentenced to death by a court on Monday for their role in two deadly bombings in 2013 in the city of Hyderabad, including the co-founder of an outlawed Islamist group accused of involvement in a series of attacks.The convictions last week of Yasin Bhatkal, founder of Indian Mujahideen, and the others marked the first time members of the group had been found guilty, the National Investigation Agency, India’s chief counterterrorism organisation, said after the sentences were handed down.Two bombs ripped through a busy market in Hyderabad, a major information technology centre in southern India, in February 2013, killing at least 17 people.

The man police accuse of masterminding the blasts remains on the run.The trial took place in a special court run by the NIA and the five convicted are expected to appeal against the judgment.

India sentences dozens of people to death each year but had been reluctant to carry out executions. An undeclared moratorium on capital punishment ended in 2012 when India executed a militant convicted for an attack in 2008 in Mumbai.

(Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Alison Williams)

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First Published On : Dec 19, 2016 20:48 IST

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ENG 12 0 5.0

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Demonetisation: RBI curbs deposits; 6 points to note if you have more than Rs 5,000 old notes

The government and the Reserve Bank of India have today come out with new rules to curb money laundering at bank counters. As per the new rules, if a customer is making deposit above Rs 5,000, he or she will face questions from the bank officials on why the deposits were not made earlier.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Stipulating that restrictive conditions will also apply on the cumulative deposit of such notes in a single account when it exceeds Rs 5,000, RBI said that defunct currency up to any amount can be deposited under the new black money amnesty PMGKY scheme.

Here’s the full text of the RBI’s rules in today’s notification:

i) Tenders of SBNs (specified bank notes) in excess of Rs 5,000 into a bank account will be received for credit only once during the remaining period till 30 December, 2016. The credit in such cases shall be afforded only after questioning tenderer, on record, in the presence of at least two officials of the bank, as to why this could not be deposited earlier and receiving a satisfactory explanation. The explanation should be kept on record to facilitate an audit trail at a later stage. An appropriate flag also should be raised in CBS to that effect so that no more tenders are allowed.

ii) Tenders of SBNs up to Rs 5,000 in value received across the counter will allowed to be credited to bank accounts in the normal course until 30 December, 2016. Even when tenders smaller than Rs 5,000 are made in an account and such tenders taken together on cumulative basis exceed Rs 5,000 they may be subject to the procedure to be followed in case of tenders above Rs 5000, with no more tenders being allowed thereafter until 30 December, 2016.

iii) It may also be ensured that full value of tenders of SBNs in excess of Rs 5,000 shall be credited to only KYC compliant accounts and if the accounts are not KYC compliant credits may be restricted up to Rs 50,000 subject to the conditions governing the conduct of such accounts.

iv) The above restrictions shall not apply to tenders of SBNs for the purpose of deposits under the Taxation and Investment Regime for the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, 2016.

v) The equivalent value of specified bank notes tendered may be credited to an account maintained by the tenderer at any bank in accordance with standard banking procedure and on production of valid proof of Identity.

vi) The equivalent value of specified bank notes tendered may be credited to a third party account, provided specific authorisation therefor accorded by the third party is presented to the bank, following standard banking procedure and on production of valid proof of identity of the person actually tendering, as indicated in Annex-5 of our circular cited above.

First Published On : Dec 19, 2016 16:29 IST

Real survive scare to win club cup with Ronaldo hat-trick | Reuters

Real survive scare to win club cup with Ronaldo hat-trick | Reuters

Dec 18, 2016 21:43 IST

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By Chris Gallagher
| TOKYO

TOKYO Real Madrid suffered an almighty fright before a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick hauled them back from 2-1 down and gave them a 4-2 win over rank outsiders Kashima Antlers in the Club World Cup final on Sunday.Two goals from Gaku Shibasaki stunned the European champions as the Japanese hosts took a 2-1 lead early in the second half before a Ronaldo penalty brought Real level on the hour.The 11-times European champions then survived several more scares and a possible sending-off for captain Sergio Ramos before Ronaldo scored twice more in the first period of extra-time.Real, who won the tournament for the second time in three years and were crowned champions for a fifth time overall, appeared set for an easy victory when Karim Benzema gave them a ninth-minute lead but Shibasaki changed the story by levelling one minute before halftime.Kashima were the first Asian team to reach the final although they qualified for the tournament as champions of host nation Japan. Asian champions Jeonbuk Motors had lost in the quarter-finals.”We knew it was not going to be an easy one. They were very aggressive,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane told reporters. Real went ahead when Luka Modric’s volley was parried by Hitoshi Sogahata and Benzema tapped in the rebound.

Kashima refused to be overawed, continued playing their neat football and snatched a shock equaliser just before the break.Shoma Doi’s cross found Shibasaki, whose first touch was poor but he was gifted a second attempt when Raphael Varane failed to clear and he smashed the ball into the net.Shibasaki struck again six minutes after the break when he collected a poor Real clearance, got away from three opponents and fired a low shot past Keylor Navas from 25 metres.Real were facing their first defeat since they lost to VfL Wolfsburg in April, a run of 36 competitive games, until Lucas Vazquez was bundled over by Shuto Yamamoto and Ronaldo converted the resulting penalty on the hour.

Kashima continued to give as good as they got and had three good chances in the final minutes of normal time.Fabricio’s goalbound drive was tipped over by Navas and the Costa Rican goalkeeper came to the rescue again one minute later by blocking Mu Kanazaki’s shot after he got free of the Real defence.Yasushi Endo could have won it with the last kick but fired wide at the far post while Sergio Ramos was lucky to escape a second yellow card for a push on an opponent, a decision which Kashima coach Masatada Ishii said “lacked courage”.Ronaldo ended Kashima’s dream when he collected Benzema’s sliderule pass and fired past Sogahata eight minutes into extra-time, then settled the match six minutes later with an emphatic finish into the roof of the net.

“We gave Real Madrid problems,” said Ishii. “That’s what we were able to do. But we made small mistakes in positioning and judgment so it’s frustrating.” (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis)

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First Published On : Dec 18, 2016 21:43 IST

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Axis Bank MD says embarrassed over conduct of few employees, orders forensic audit for more safeguards

New Delhi: “Embarrassed and upset” over the conduct of a handful of employees bringing the organisation into disrepute, Axis Bank MD and CEO Shikha Sharma on Sunday said the bank has hired KPMG to conduct a forensic audit for enhanced due diligence and building more safeguards.

Assuring that the fundamentals of the bank is on a “solid footing’, Sharma said in a letter to Axis Bank customers that the bank is tracking sudden surge in account activity and have ‘proactively identified potentially suspicious accounts”.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“The recent media reports around the conduct of a few of our employees have left me embarrassed and upset. We have fallen short of your expectations because a handful of people did not follow our fully compliant and robust processes. We have taken the toughest action against such employees and we will do so in every case of divergence from our Code of Conduct.

“I regret that the misdeeds of a few people have eroded the hard work of 55,000+ employees, who have been at the front end beyond working hours, displaying extraordinary patience and commitment to their responsibilities,” she said in the letter.

The Income Tax Department had last week conducted a raid at an Axis Bank branch in Noida and unearthed Rs 60 crore from the accounts of 20 shell companies.

Sharma said the bank has proactively identified suspicious accounts and has given inputs to regulatory authorities for further investigation.

“I would like to reassure you that the bank has always been committed to the highest standards of operational control and continues to fully cooperate with the authorities. We have been tracking sudden surges in account activity and have proactively identified potentially suspicious accounts.

“This proactive identification has been one of the inputs in investigation by the regulatory authorities, who are visiting some of our branches to seek out information. Further, we have hired KPMG to conduct a forensic audit for enhanced due diligence and building more safeguards,” she said.

Thanking customers for the support and understanding since the demonetisation initiative, Sharma said it has been a challenging time and the bank has tried its “level best” to make it easier for customers.

“We have made every effort to ease the transition by making special arrangements for senior citizens and differently abled people at our branches, using micro-ATMs to deliver cash to BSF personnel, ensuring salary disbursement to government and corporate employees across the length and breadth of our country,” Sharma wrote.

“I assure you that the fundamentals of the bank, built painstakingly over the last 22 years, focused on serving its retail and corporate customers are on a solid footing… We will always safeguard your interests because your trust matters the most. I look forward to your continued confidence in making us a safe, strong bank that is always focused on you,” she said in the letter.

First Published On : Dec 18, 2016 15:32 IST

Demonetisation: ED registers case against Noida Axis Bank branch for forging customer identity

New Delhi: The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has registered a money laundering case in the alleged forging of a customer’s identity to conduct huge illegal transactions in an Axis Bank branch in Noida for conversion of black funds into white post demonetisation.

The individual, identified as N Paswan, in his complaint filed with the police has claimed that his identity has been forged and a current and a savings account were opened in his name in the said branch which were allegedly used to launder crores of rupees post demonetisation.

Officials said the ED registered a criminal complaint under the provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) taking cognisance of the police FIR on a complaint filed by Paswan, a resident of Delhi’s Pitampura area.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

They said while the bank branch, in sector 51 of Noida, is already under scanner by the Income Tax department owing to alleged dubious transactions using shell companies, the ED has come into picture to probe proceeds of crime which were generated through use of various fake accounts which also have “fake or weak” KYC (Know your customer) details.

They said the amount under scanner of the central probe agency is over Rs 60 crore.

Officials added that the agency is probing more than two dozen accounts in the bank here which could have been used to perpetrate the crime of money laundering, in the wake of the scrapping of Rs 1,000/500 notes.

Meanwhile, the ED also conducted searches on the premises of four bullion traders in Mumbai on Friday in a similar probe.

The agency has also sought freezing of few bank accounts of these traders as part of its probe, they said.

First Published On : Dec 17, 2016 19:10 IST

Dance of the Dragon: Why India is in urgent need of a new China policy

Between the heat and dust of demonetisation and the pounding of mortar shells across the Line of Control, the twin prongs occupying all headlines and mind space, a fast-evolving development demands our equal and undivided attention for the deep import it holds for the future. India is in dire need of a new China policy.

The delicate equilibrium that defined a major part of the three decades following 1962 Sino-Indian war coalesced into a more stable relationship with the signing of the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993.

As former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who played no small part in the signing of the contract during the PV Narasimha Rao government, writes in his book — Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy (176 Pages, Brookings Institution Press, 18 October, 2016), the agreement kept quiet one of the longest-running border disputes in the world across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as both India and China got down to developing their economies and deepening their mutual engagement in other fields.

The deal formalised the status quo and ensured peace despite disagreements over the delineation of international boundary in no less than 16 places. This, writes Menon, has been possible because both countries saw merit in de-linking bilateral trade and normal state-to-state relationship from the “restrictions and inhibitions of the war”.

The strategy has served India well for at least a quarter of a century, a surprisingly long time considering the dynamic nature of foreign policy, but not anymore. There are increasing signs now that the balance of power between India and China has changed. There is now less equilibrium between both nations who may not yet be on a path of direct confrontation but find themselves frequently locking horns on several issues on their divergent paths towards emerging as new 21st century powers.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Not just clashing of mutual interest, a reevaluation of Sino-Indian relationship has also become imperative due to a shift in the balance of international order. As US seeks to look more inward, signaling an end to the post-Cold War era equilibrium where it was the sole superpower, the wane of American hegemony has coincided with the rise of China as a mercantile power rooted in a revisionist culture under President Xi Jinping.

Since the turn of the millennium, as Menon points out in his book, Beijing has clearly abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character-strategy — “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

Under a nationalist president, China now sees no merit in hiding its capacities and maintaining a low profile. It is bent on reclaiming the leadership mantle from a retreating US. By adopting a muscular and aggressive foreign policy, seeking a greater say in the global geopolitical order and recalibrating its strategic and maritime relationship with neighbours, Beijing no longer believes in biding its time.

In the recent years, it has invested considerable resources in increasing its land influence over Asia and Eurasia. It is building a formidable network of ports and other related infrastructure throughout the Indian Ocean and Western pacific littorals that may serve as the initial platform for its eventual global ambitions. This has obviously resulted in a heightening of tensions with India, the other regional power and US, the incumbent global superpower.

Even a cursory look at recent developments reflect a new exceptionalism in China’s beliefs — the mark of a nation confident about its rise. It bends rules when it comes to own strategic and military interests (like disregarding the Hague Tribunal Ruling on South China Sea) but when it comes to honoring strategic interests of other nations, it throws the rulebook. Consider the way it has unilaterally stalled India’s inclusion in the NSG Club by citing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Beijing is furious with Donald Trump receiving a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and says the US President-elect is undermining One China policy, yet does not blink twice before siding with Pakistan on Kashmir, showing a scant regard to New Delhi’s One India policy.

China’s wielding of influence hasn’t been restricted to its geopolitical hypocrisy.

As Reuters reported, China has recently installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea in blatant violation of international rules on a disputed area. It even went to the extent of seizing on Thursday an underwater drone deployed by a US oceanographic vessel in South China Sea, triggering a formal diplomatic protest and a demand from Pentagon for its return. US Senator Ben Cardin told Reuters on Friday that the seizure was “a remarkably brazen violation of international law.”

This is to point out that if China is not afraid of cocking a snook at the US, it will barely bat an eyelid while doing so against India.

As The Telegraph reported, China on Friday read the riot act and threatened India with a downgrading of bilateral ties because President Pranab Mukherjee had on 11 December played host to the Dalai Lama at Rashtrapati Bhavan during the opening ceremony of a children’s summit.

India has dismissed its concerns, saying that the Tibetan spiritual leader was attending a non-political event, but this building of pressure is consistent with China’s posturing. It had recently issued a similar threat against India over its $1 billion aid to Mongolia — another country that became subject to Chinese bullying by hosting the Dalai Lama.

It had even warned India of “endless trouble” in Sino-Indian ties if, as PTI had reported, India raises objections to China’s cargo service with Nepal, calling India’s aid to Mongolia “a bribe” to counter Beijing influence. India has so far acted with reticence but New Delhi can afford to ignore the provocations only at its peril.

This is not to say that India should wade headlong into a war with China. The Dragon uses provocations as a strategic tool to send across a message. It’s message to India is clear and unequivocal — that it is a bigger political and military power and New Delhi should take that into account while formulating its strategic interests.

From India’s point of view, the time is ripe for a re-engagement based on mutually agreeable interests. Peace with a China is imperative if India is to pursue its own trajectory to greatness.

First Published On : Dec 17, 2016 16:30 IST

Obama says told Putin to ‘cut it out’ over cyber attacks | Reuters

Obama says told Putin to ‘cut it out’ over cyber attacks | Reuters

Dec 16, 2016 21:21 IST

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WASHINGTON U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday said he warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in September to stop meddling in American political campaigns after hacks of Democratic Party emails in the lead-up to the Nov. 8 elections.In a pre-Christmas holiday press conference, Obama said he told Putin to “cut it out” during a face-to-face encounter in China where a G20 meeting was being held.Obama added that after warning Putin, there was no further evidence of Russian tampering. Russia has denied U.S. accusations of cyber attacks against U.S. political figures and institutions ahead of the presidential and congressional elections.Two senior government officials told Reuters that the FBI backs the CIA’s view that Russia intervened to help Republican Donald Trump win the presidential election.

Obama left open the door to U.S. retaliation against Russia to discourage it and other nations from further computer hacking.The president also said that he hoped that Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, should be similarly concerned about Russia’s actions and that the investigation should not become “a political football” between Republicans and Democrats.

Trump has maintained that he won the election fairly and has bristled at suggestions that Moscow influenced the outcome.But Democrats have repeatedly noted that Trump during his campaign has spoken glowingly about Putin and since winning the election has picked top aides in the incoming administration with ties to Russia.

At one point during the heated presidential campaign, Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s emails. (Reporting By Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason and Julia Harte; Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Alistair Bell)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 16, 2016 21:21 IST

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India’s cash crackdown linked to drop in child trafficking | Reuters

By Roli Srivastava and Nita Bhalla

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Business has been slow at the Thakkar Bappa Colony shoe manufacturing hub in eastern Mumbai since the Indian government withdrew high-value bank notes last month in an attempt to curb tax evasion and counterfeit currency.Orders to the numerous shoemakers lining the slum’s narrow streets have almost dried up due to a dearth of bank notes in circulation, say the businesses which mainly rely on cash transactions.Yet while factory owners complain of a slump in profits and a dip in productivity, child rights activists say “demonetisation” drive has a silver-lining: it has stemmed the steady stream of children trafficked here to stitch shoes. “Children came from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan to work here,” said Sugandha Patade from the charity Pratham which rescues and rehabilitates child workers in the area.”In the last month, no new child workers have come and those who were working here have been sent back to their villages as there are no orders for them to work on.”Police agree the cash crunch could be hitting traffickers who buy and sell children for labour, but say more detailed analysis is required before they can make a direct link.India has almost 6 million child workers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), but activists say this is a gross underestimate. More than half are employed in agriculture and more than a quarter in manufacturing – embroidering clothes, weaving carpets or making match sticks. Children also work in restaurants, shops and hotels and as domestic workers.

The children – mostly from poor rural areas – are taken to cities by gangs who sell them into bonded labour, force them into sex work or hire them out to unscrupulous employers. In many cases, they are unpaid.ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE
The shock currency move, announced on November 8 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aims to bring billions of dollars worth of unaccounted wealth which people are hoarding, or “black money”, into the mainstream economy and curb corruption.

High denomination 500- and 1,000-rupee bank notes have ceased to be legal tender for transactions and can only be exchanged at banks for smaller notes or the newly introduced 2,000-rupee note.Banks are meant to alert the Reserve Bank of India and tax authorities of any unusually large sums being exchanged which may be the product of illicit activities.There is no study on the impact of banning high denomination notes on child labour, but some children’s groups say they have anecdotal evidence of its repercussions in areas such as Mumbai, Delhi and other urban centres.Child rights activist and Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who has welcomed the demonetisation policy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that human trafficking and child labour were among the largest sources of black money.

His own charity – Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), or Save the Childhood Movement – has reported fewer children in areas where there are small-scale factories and ‘placement-agencies’ which often traffick girls and women for domestic work. “These days, they don’t frequently see transportation of children by traffickers in these areas and they are not able to operate so easily because they cannot use the black money which funded their illicit businesses before,” said Satyarthi.BBA has for example found no cases of girls being trafficked at three popular railway stations in the northeast state of Assam over the last two months, compared to a monthly average of six before the demonetisation policy.In Uttar Pradesh, the charity Safe Society says five children were rescued in the last month from the town of Gorakhpur, against a monthly average of 15 to 20.But Satyarthi warned that child labour would persist unless human trafficking is addressed in the impoverished areas where the children are taken from.”This means punishing offenders, providing protection on the ground such as introducing social welfare programmes for the poor, raising awareness on trafficking and child labour, and providing good quality education,” he said. (Reporting by Roli Srivastava and Nita Bhalla; Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 16, 2016 19:32 IST

Demonetisation to less cash: Economists can do without moral compass, not politicians

One has to be cruel to ignore this.

In Delhi, a newspaper report says the cash-starved poor have been living on charity and doles, and students have been going to langars because they have no money to pay for food in hotels. All cash-dependent economic activity has come to a standstill in the weeks after demonetisation. Factories and smaller business establishments cannot pay cash to labourers, so they are headed back home with nothing in hand. People still waste productive hours standing in long queues at banks. The grim scenario looks grimmer if you consider that around 90 people have reportedly died while waiting to get their own money.

The misery of people is visible to the naked eye. One has to be morally blind to argue that everything is fine. The contention that the present suffering of the masses would give way to a bright future is specious too. As the apologists of the government, especially a section of the economists, keep arguing in favour of demonetisation despite the apparent social and economic dislocation it has caused around, one wonders whether that feeling called compassion is dead now.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Economists in ivory towers can do without the moral compass, not politicians. They can suggest ideas that are cynical to the core, even criminal, but politicians cannot be that callous. The core value of their vocation is supposed to be built around empathy. What we notice post-demonetisation is callous disregard for it. A good gesture from the government after the first two weeks of demonetisation would have been the frank admission: “Yes, we botched up. We could have planned better. Sorry for the inconvenience.” But no, what we have is adamant defence of the move, backed vociferously by the fervent drum-beaters of the ruling dispensation.

Was less cash transaction part of the original deal? When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced trashing of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, the buzz was black money. People were ready to undergo some pain so that tainted money could get purged from the system. There was more appreciation than anger for the prime minister in the long queues outside banks. Now that the talk has suddenly shifted to electronic transactions, the ordinary people have reason to feel that they have been conned.

The questions come thick and fast: What was the need to go for demonetisation if the aim was to promote less cash transactions? What’s the logic behind clubbing one with the other? A good idea it might be but shouldn’t less cash be a gradual process? What right does the government have to force people to shun cash habit this way? Was the real intent behind demonetisation something else? The poor are obviously suffering but who’s having a good time at their cost?

These are not questions that would have been raised had the government stuck to what it claimed while announcing demonetisation. Now people have the right to ask: Was it necessary to go for it? Which economic common sense drove you to go for it? How come you failed to anticipate it was going to be this messy?

It is being alleged by the political opposition that the government has shifted the goal post. It indeed has, perhaps as a face-saver, because it grossly misunderstood the dynamics of black money and sought to take the populist route, as in every other matter, including diplomacy, to fight it. A couple of weeks into demonetisation, it was clear to all concerned that things were not going right. The government had the option of admitting to people that it went wrong but it decided to be clever.

It could be either arrogance or fool-hardiness. The strong advocacy of less cash is certainly not doing the government any good. Worse is the claim that everything alright and the poor are happy.

It is cruel. Someone out there ought to start thinking with some compassion.

First Published On : Dec 15, 2016 21:13 IST

Demonetisation: NITI Aayog announces reward schemes, to spend Rs 340 cr to boost cashless

Aimed at promoting digital transactions, the government think tank Niti Aayog has announced two schemes – Lucky Grahak Yojana and Digi Dhan Vyapari Yojana – involving a rewards programme based on lucky draws, entailing a spending of Rs 340 crore.

“Our objective is to make the digital payment mode a mass movement,” announcing the scheme NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said.

The Lucky Grahak Yojna is targetted at consumers and the Digi Dhan Vyapari Yojna at encouraging merchants to transition to digital payments.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

As part of Lucky Grahak Yojna, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) will announce 15,000 winners of Rs 1,000 each for 100 days starting 25 December.

There will be 7,000 weekly awards, with a maximum award of Rs 50,000 each for merchants, under Digi Dhan Vyapari Yojna.

Digital payments Mega awards2Digital payments Mega awards2

According to Kant, the intention of the schemes is to make all people across India move towards digital payments.

Kant also said there has been a spurt in digital payments since demonetisation but much more can be done.

Digital payments Mega awardsDigital payments Mega awards

In the wake of scrapping of old Rs 500/1,000 banknotes, Niti Aayog had asked NPCI to frame a new scheme to incentivise digital payments.

All modes of digital payments – USSD, AEPS, UPI and RuPay Cards – will be eligible under the scheme. For merchants, transactions made on the POS machines installed at their locations would be considered.

Digital payments Mega awards1Digital payments Mega awards1

NPCI is a not for profit company which is charged with a responsibility of guiding India towards being a cashless society.

Earlier, on 8 December the government had announced a slew of measures to incentivise cashless payments. As part of the measures, petrol, railway tickets and insurance policies of PSU companies will cost less if bought through debit/credit cards or other digital modes.

It also waived service tax for payments up to Rs 2,000 made through cards and decided to do away with transaction fee for payment to central government departments and PSUs.

With PTI

First Published On : Dec 15, 2016 15:59 IST

US Federal Reserve lifts rates, sees faster pace of hikes in Donald Trump’s first year

Washington – The U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter point on Wednesday and signalled a faster pace of increases in 2017 as the Trump administration takes over with promises to boost growth through tax cuts, spending and deregulation.

The rate increase, regarded as a virtual certainty by financial markets in the wake of a string of generally strong economic reports, raised the target federal funds rate 25 basis points to between 0.50 percent and 0.75 percent.

U.S. bond yields moved higher and the dollar rose against a basket of currencies after the Fed’s unanimous policy decision. U.S. stocks were trading marginally lower, but selling picked up speed during Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s subsequent news conference.

The Federal Reserve building in Washington. ReutersThe Federal Reserve building in Washington. Reuters

The Federal Reserve building in Washington. Reuters

Yellen indicated the central bank was, at the margins, adapting to Trump as “some of the participants” on the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee began shifting fiscal policy assumptions.

“We are operating under a cloud of uncertainty … All the FOMC participants recognise that there is considerable uncertainty about how economic policy may change and what effect they may have on the economy.”

Partly as a result of the anticipated changes, the Fed sees three rate hikes in 2017 instead of the two foreseen in September. Yellen called that a “very modest adjustment” driven by strong job gains, evidence of faster inflation, and the expected impact of Trump’s policies.

But she also said Wednesday’s rate increase should be “understood as a reflection of the confidence we have in the progress the economy has made.

In addition to its policy statement, the Fed issued fresh economic forecasts that indicated the current once-a-year pace of rate increases will accelerate next year. Markets and the Fed appeared to be close on their rate outlooks, with Fed futures markets pricing in at least two and possibly three hikes in 2017, up from one to two prior to this week’s meeting.

With President-elect Donald Trump planning a simultaneous round of tax cuts and increased spending on infrastructure, central bank policymakers shifted their outlook to one of slightly faster growth, lower unemployment and inflation just under the Fed’s 2 percent target.

The Fed’s projected three rate increases next year would be followed by another three increases in both 2018 and 2019 before the rate levels off at a long-run “normal” 3.0 percent.

That is slightly higher than three months ago, a sign the Fed feels the economy is still gaining traction.

“They didn’t mention the fiscal stimulus but typically their aggressiveness does indicate that there’s a little more confidence that they can get away with three hikes next year,” said Aaron Kohli, interest rate strategist at BMO Capital Markets.

The Fed continued to describe that pace as “gradual,” keeping policy still slightly loose and supporting some further improvement in the job market.

It sees unemployment falling to 4.5 percent next year and remaining at that level, which is considered to be close to full employment. The economy is projected to grow 2.1 percent in 2017, up from a previous forecast of 2.0 percent.

TRUMP IMPACT

US bond yields had already begun moving higher following the Trump’s 8 Nov victory and as expectations of the Fed rate increase solidified. By the start of this week, trading in fed funds futures assigned a greater than 95 percent likelihood to a rate hike, according to data compiled by the CME Group.

All 120 economists in a recent Reuters poll had expected a rate hike on Wednesday. In the weeks following the election, Fed policymakers have said Trump’s proposals could push the economy into a higher gear in the short run.

Even though the details of the Republican businessman’s plans remain uncertain, Wednesday’s statement marked a rare case in the post-crisis era in which the Fed moved its interest rate outlook higher.

Risks to the outlook remain “roughly balanced” between factors that could slow or accelerate the economy beyond what the central bank anticipates, the Fed said, no change from its assessment last month.

The rate increase was the first since last December and only the second since the 2007-2009 financial crisis, when the Fed cut rates to near zero and deployed other tools such as massive bond purchases to stabilise the economy.

First Published On : Dec 15, 2016 07:40 IST

Delhi HC rules compensation to be given to children born out of rape

New Delhi: A child born out of rape is entitled to compensation, independent of any such relief granted to the mother, the Delhi High Court has ruled.

The verdict to this effect, in which a man has been sent to jail for his entire “natural life” for raping his minor step-daughter, was delivered after the court noted that there was no such provision under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act or under the Delhi government’s victim compensation scheme.

Ironically, the high court, which had earlier laid down a law in this regard, reduced the amount of compensation to the rape victim from Rs 15 lakh awarded by the trial court to Rs 7.5 lakh, saying the higher amount went against the 2011 compensation scheme formulated by the Delhi government.

It also faulted the trial court by giving a go-by to the guidelines for maintaining confidentiality of the rape victim.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

However, a bench of Justices Gita Mittal and RK Gauba said a child born out of rape, either of a minor or a woman who is an adult, “is clearly a victim of the act of the offender and entitled to compensation independent of the amount of compensation paid to his/her mother.”

This “vacuum” in the law came to the court’s attention when it was hearing the appeal of a man convicted and awarded life term for raping his minor step-daughter who, as a result of the crime, gave birth at the tender age of 14 years.

Noting the “sordid scenario” in the instant case, where “the trust and confidence reposed in the man by his wife and step-daughter, was abused by him to bring about, out of sheer lust, untold miseries on the body, mind and psyche of the prosecutrix child leaving scars which would not ever heal”, the court upheld his conviction and sentence.

It also clarified that the man shall remain behind bars for the remainder of his natural life, saying “we see no scope for any ruth (pity) in the matter of punishment.”

While upholding the sentence, the bench also expressed displeasure over the manner in which the trial court “gave a go-by” to the precaution mandated under POCSO to keep the minor victim’s identity confidential.

The high court also reiterated its earlier direction to all trial courts not to disclose the identity of minor victims in POCSO cases.

Apart from the lack of provisions under the POCSO Rules and the Delhi Victims Compensation Scheme 2011 for children born out of rape, the court noted the absence of any provision in the scheme for child victims of sexual offences.

It also observed that no victim compensation fund has been set up under the 2011 scheme despite directions in this regard by the high court in a PIL.

The high court noted this while examining how the trial court awarded a compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the victim.

The bench said under the existing scheme, the maximum compensation that can be paid was Rs three lakh and under the proposed new scheme of 2015, it would be enhanced to Rs 7.5 lakh.

Setting aside the compensation awarded by the trial court, the bench awarded a total amount of Rs 7.5 lakh to the victim, saying “given the nature of loss, pain and suffering which she undoubtedly would have undergone, we find this to be a fit case where the state must pay compensation for the minimum sum of Rs 7.5 lakh (which would be the compensation awardable under the proposed scheme of 2015, as and when brought in force).”

First Published On : Dec 14, 2016 11:13 IST

TCS EGM: Cyrus Mistry claims moral victory even as shareholders vote to oust him

Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) shareholders voted to remove Cyrus Mistry, the ousted chairman of Tata Sons, as a director, according to the results of an extraordinary general meeting on Tuesday.

About 93 percent of TCS shareholders, who cast their vote, were in favour of removing Mistry, TCS said in a regulatory filing.

Cyrus Mistry. ReutersCyrus Mistry. Reuters

Cyrus Mistry. Reuters

His ouster comes as no surprise given Tata Sons majority stake in the company, about 73 percent as of September end, according to Thomson Reuters data.

TCS, India’s biggest technology services firm by sales, contributes the bulk of the group’s revenue and profit.

About 43 percent of TCS’s institutional holders who voted were against the removal of Mistry, according to the filing. Interestingly, 78 percent of voting shareholders who were not promoters or institutional holders were against Mistry’s ouster.

The divisions within the minority shareholders on the contentious issue were out in the open with a few minority shareholders voicing support for Mistry. As many as 38 shareholders spoke at the 150-minute long EGM. Even though a bulk of them voiced support for Tata, those handful who affirmed their support to Mistry were applauded.

Mistry’s office, meanwhile, issued a statement late in the night, claiming moral victory.

“Almost 20 percent of shareholders of TCS that accounts for more than 70 percent of non promoter shareholders supported Cyrus by voting against the resolution or abstained (expressing their disapproval of the promoter actions),” said the statement.

In a bitter boardroom coup in October, Mistry was ousted as the chairman of Tata Sons, the holding firm for the $100 billion steel-to-software conglomerate, and group patriarch Ratan Tata returned to the helm temporarily.

A public power struggle has since ensued between the two sides. Mistry, however, still sits on the boards of several group companies. Tata Sons has called shareholder meetings at these companies over the next few days to vote on his removal.

Indian Hotels Co Ltd, Tata Steel and Tata Motors will hold their shareholder meetings next week.

“The fight is a matter of principle rather than facing the foregone outcome (of this meeting),” Mistry said ahead of the TCS shareholder meet in an indication that he had expected to be ousted given Tata Sons’ majority shareholding in TCS.

“The very future of TCS hinges on good governance and ethical practices. In the past several weeks, we have seen good governance being thrown to the wind in every sense of the term, replaced by whims, fancies and personal agenda,” he said.

Since his ouster from Tata Sons, Mistry has attacked the group’s corporate governance standards several times, saying that his efforts to establish stronger guidelines contributed to his removal.

“Whatever be the decibel level of the voice that would drown your vote, I call on you to vote with your conscience and send a signal that catalyses a larger discussion on governance reforms,” Mistry said.

Independent director Aman Mehta, who officiated the meeting after interim chairman Ishaat Hussain recused himself, said Mistry had lost “the trust and confidence” of the promoter group (Tata Sons and Tata Trusts) which had nominated him and it was in best interest of TCS that he leave now.

Asserting that the core issue goes far beyond the “performance or competence”, Mehta said, “It seems to me that the real issue here is one of trust and confidence of the promoter group in its nominated chairman.”

“Independent directors of TCS have met separately and have reviewed the whole issue in some details. It is clear to all of us that the current issue can have some materially negative effect on the functioning of the company,” he said.

With Reuters and PTI

First Published On : Dec 14, 2016 07:45 IST

Cyrus Mistry claims moral victory even as TCS shareholders vote to oust him

Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) shareholders voted to remove Cyrus Mistry, the ousted chairman of Tata Sons, as a director, according to the results of an extraordinary general meeting on Tuesday.

About 93 percent of TCS shareholders, who cast their vote, were in favour of removing Mistry, TCS said in a regulatory filing.

Cyrus Mistry. ReutersCyrus Mistry. Reuters

Cyrus Mistry. Reuters

His ouster comes as no surprise given Tata Sons majority stake in the company, about 73 percent as of September end, according to Thomson Reuters data.

TCS, India’s biggest technology services firm by sales, contributes the bulk of the group’s revenue and profit.

About 43 percent of TCS’s institutional holders who voted were against the removal of Mistry, according to the filing. Interestingly, 78 percent of voting shareholders who were not promoters or institutional holders were against Mistry’s ouster.

The divisions within the minority shareholders on the contentious issue were out in the open with a few minority shareholders voicing support for Mistry. As many as 38 shareholders spoke at the 150-minute long EGM. Even though a bulk of them voiced support for Tata, those handful who affirmed their support to Mistry were applauded.

Mistry’s office, meanwhile, issued a statement late in the night, claiming moral victory.

“Almost 20 percent of shareholders of TCS that accounts for more than 70 percent of non promoter shareholders supported Cyrus by voting against the resolution or abstained (expressing their disapproval of the promoter actions),” said the statement.

In a bitter boardroom coup in October, Mistry was ousted as the chairman of Tata Sons, the holding firm for the $100 billion steel-to-software conglomerate, and group patriarch Ratan Tata returned to the helm temporarily.

A public power struggle has since ensued between the two sides. Mistry, however, still sits on the boards of several group companies. Tata Sons has called shareholder meetings at these companies over the next few days to vote on his removal.

Indian Hotels Co Ltd, Tata Steel and Tata Motors will hold their shareholder meetings next week.

“The fight is a matter of principle rather than facing the foregone outcome (of this meeting),” Mistry said ahead of the TCS shareholder meet in an indication that he had expected to be ousted given Tata Sons’ majority shareholding in TCS.

“The very future of TCS hinges on good governance and ethical practices. In the past several weeks, we have seen good governance being thrown to the wind in every sense of the term, replaced by whims, fancies and personal agenda,” he said.

Since his ouster from Tata Sons, Mistry has attacked the group’s corporate governance standards several times, saying that his efforts to establish stronger guidelines contributed to his removal.

“Whatever be the decibel level of the voice that would drown your vote, I call on you to vote with your conscience and send a signal that catalyses a larger discussion on governance reforms,” Mistry said.

Independent director Aman Mehta, who officiated the meeting after interim chairman Ishaat Hussain recused himself, said Mistry had lost “the trust and confidence” of the promoter group (Tata Sons and Tata Trusts) which had nominated him and it was in best interest of TCS that he leave now.

Asserting that the core issue goes far beyond the “performance or competence”, Mehta said, “It seems to me that the real issue here is one of trust and confidence of the promoter group in its nominated chairman.”

“Independent directors of TCS have met separately and have reviewed the whole issue in some details. It is clear to all of us that the current issue can have some materially negative effect on the functioning of the company,” he said.

With Reuters and PTI

First Published On : Dec 14, 2016 07:45 IST

Demonetisation: RBI says banks get Rs 12.44 lakh crore in old notes till 10 December

Mumbai: RBI today said banks have garnered Rs 12.44 trillion (Rs 12.44 lakh crore) in banned notes till 10 December, while they have issued Rs 4.61 trillion to them since the demonetisation drive began 35 days ago.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“The old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, which have been returned to the Reserve Bank and the currency chest, amounted Rs to 12.44 trillion as of December 10,” RBI Deputy Governor R Gandhi told reporters here.

The money that various banks have issued through their counters and ATMs since 10 November and up to 10 December stood at Rs 4.61 trillion, he added.

In volume terms the number stood at 21.8 billion pieces of notes of various denominations, of which 20.1 billion pieces were of Rs 10, Rs 20, Rs 50 and Rs 100. The number of higher denomination of new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes stood at 1.7 billion, he said.

Hence, while the notes surrendered have risen by almost Rs 1 trillion, cash disbursal has risen only a little since 7 December, when RBI had said that banks had issued Rs 4.27 trillion of new notes post demonetisation through ATMs and bank counters, the banned notes collected stood at Rs 11.55 trillion.

“The entire system is continuously gearing up for supporting the circulation of notes in the hands of the public. Daily, we are issuing more and more notes, getting it printed and issuing it and this will be a continuous affair. The public are requested to freely use the notes that they have in their hands rather than hoard it,” Gandhi said.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 18:18 IST

Preserve CCTV footages to spot currency hoarders: RBI to banks

Mumbai: RBI has asked banks to preserve CCTV recordings of operations at bank branches and currency chests to help law enforcement agencies in identifying people engaged in hoarding of new notes post demonetisation.

The Reserve Bank, in a notification issued today, said banks should “preserve CCTV recordings of operations at bank branches and currency chests for the period from 8 November to 30 December, 2016, until further instructions”.

The central bank said the move will “facilitate coordinated and effective action by the enforcement agencies in dealing with matters relating to illegal accumulation of new currency notes”.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Earlier in October, the RBI had asked banks to cover the banking hall/area and counters under CCTV surveillance and recording and preserve the recording to help identify people abetting circulation of counterfeit notes.

After demonetisation, there have been reports of hoarding of new currency notes by unscrupulous elements at various bank branches across the country.

The Income-Tax Department is carrying out raids across the country on a regular basis since demonetisation to nab new currency hoarders and several people, both individuals as well as bank officials, have been booked so far for carrying out such illegal activities.

The government has said abolishment of these high denomination banknotes is intended to bring back unaccounted money into the system, curb fake currency circulation as well as to deter terror financing.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 17:38 IST

Cyrus Mistry alleges Tata group director Vijay Singh linked to chopper scam, he denies

Mumbai/New Delhi: Ousted Tata Group chairman Cyrus Mistry created a stir in his battle with the Tatas when he linked one of its directors Vijay Singh to the VVIP chopper scam, a charge vehemently denied by the latter.

Mistry, who is locked in a boardroom tussle with the Tatas, alleged Singh had a role in the AgustaWestland chopper scam as it happened when he was the Defence Secretary in 2010.

Cyrus Mistry. ReutersCyrus Mistry. Reuters

Cyrus Mistry. Reuters

“As Defence Secretary, Singh was a key official involved in award of Rs 3600 crore VVIP helicopter contract to AugustaWestland in 2010,” Mistry’s office said in a statement in Mumbai.

Singh, however, rejected the charge, saying the deal was approved by the Union Cabinet well after he had retired from government service.

“I was defence secretary from 2007-2009 and the present cases being prosecuted by CBI pertain to 2004-2005. The AugustaWestland acquisition was approved by the Cabinet well after my retirement,” Singh said in an emailed statement.

“To connect me with this matter is slanderous and malicious,” Singh, an independent director on Tata Sons board,
said.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 13:38 IST

Ronaldo wins fourth Ballon d’Or award | Reuters

Ronaldo wins fourth Ballon d’Or award | Reuters

Dec 13, 2016 00:58 IST

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PARIS Portugal and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or award for the fourth time on Monday after claiming the European Championship and Champions League titles in 2016.Ronaldo is now one short of his La Liga rival Lionel Messi‘s record tally of five.”For me it’s a great honour to receive my fourth golden ball. The emotion is like for the first one, it’s a dream come true again. I never thought in my mind to win four times. I’m so happy,” said Ronaldo, who won the award in 2008, 2013 and 2014.

“I take the opportunity to thank all my team mates, from the national team and for Real Madrid. I feel so proud and happy.”

The Ballon d’Or, which merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award from 2010-15 to create the FIFA Ballon d’Or, returned to France Football magazine this year, with only journalists voting and not national team coaches and captains.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 13, 2016 00:58 IST

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Cairo church bombing kills 25, raises fears among Christians | Reuters

By Ahmed Mohammed Hassan and Ali Abdelaty
| CAIRO

CAIRO A bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending Sunday mass, in the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in years.The attack comes as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi fights battles on several fronts. His economic reforms have angered the poor, a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen thousands jailed, whilst an insurgency rages in Northern Sinai, led by the Egyptian branch of Islamic State. The militant group has also carried out deadly attacks in Cairo and has urged its supporters to launch attacks around the world in recent weeks as it goes on the defensive in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds.There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but exiled Brotherhood officials and home-grown militant groups condemned the attack. Islamic State supporters celebrated on social media. “God bless the person who did this blessed act,” wrote one supporter on Telegram.The explosion took place in chapel, which adjoins St Mark’s, Cairo’s main cathedral and the seat of Coptic Pope Tawadros II, where security is normally tight.At the Vatican, Pope Francis condemned what he called the latest in a series of “brutal terrorist attacks” and said he was praying for the dead and wounded.The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and sticky patches of blood. “As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” Emad Shoukry, who was inside when the blast took place, told Reuters.”The explosion shook the place… The dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything… I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”

Security sources told Reuters at least six children were among the dead, with the blast detonating on the side of the church normally used by women. They said the explosion was caused by a device containing at least 12 kg (26 pounds) of TNT. Police and armoured vehicles rushed to the area, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the compound demanding revenge for the attack that took place on a Muslim holiday marking the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and weeks before Christmas. Scuffles broke out with police. A woman sitting near the cathedral in traditional long robes shouted “kill them, kill the terrorists, what are you waiting for?…. Why are you leaving them to bomb our homes?”

“EGYPTIAN BLOOD IS CHEAP”
Though Egypt’s Coptic Christians have traditionally been supporters of the government, angry crowds turned their ire against Sisi, saying his government had failed to protect them.”As long as Egyptian blood is cheap, down, down with any president…” they chanted. Others chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the 2011 uprising that helped end Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.Sisi’s office condemned what it described as a terrorist attack, declaring three days of mourning and promising justice. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic centre of learning, also denounced the attacks. Orthodox Copts, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people, are the Middle East’s biggest Christian community.

Copts face regular attack by Muslim neighbours, who burn their homes and churches in poor rural areas, usually in anger over an inter-faith romance or the construction of church. The last major attack on a church took place as worshippers left a new year’s service in Alexandria weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising. At least 21 people were killed.Egypt’s Christian community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014, ruthlessly targeting religious minorities. In 2015, 21 Egyptian Christians working in Libya were killed by Islamic State.The attack came two days after six police were killed in two bomb attacks, one of them claimed by Hasm, a recently-emerged group the government says is linked to the Brotherhood, which has been banned under Sisi as a terrorist organisation.The Brotherhood says it is peaceful. Several exiled Brotherhood officials condemned the bombing, as did Hasm and Liwaa’ al-Thawra, another local militant group. Coptic Pope Tawadros II cut short a visit to Greece after learning of the attack. Church officials said they would not allow the bombing to create sectarian differences. But Christians, convinced attacks on them are not seriously investigated, say this time they want justice. “Where was the security? There were five or six security cars stationed outside so where were they 12 kg of TNT was carried inside?” said Mena Samir, 25, standing at the church’s metal gate. “They keep telling us national unity, the crescent with the cross… This time we will not shut up.” (Additional reporting by Arwa Gaballa, Amr Abdallah, Mohamed Abdel Ghany and Amina Ismail, and Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Amina Ismail and Lin Noueihed; Editing by Ros Russell and Raissa Kasolowsky)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 11, 2016 23:02 IST

Non-OPEC to cut oil output by 562,000 bpd as part of global deal | Reuters

Non-OPEC to cut oil output by 562,000 bpd as part of global deal | Reuters

VIENNA Non-OPEC oil producers agreed on Saturday to reduce their output by a combined 562,000 barrels per day as part of a global deal with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, two OPEC sources told Reuters.

(Reporting by Alex Lawler and Rania El Gamal; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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First Published On : Dec 10, 2016 20:20 IST

Who knew? Narendra Modi’s black money move kept a closely guarded secret

<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>Prime Minister Narendra Modi handpicked a trusted bureaucrat, little known outside India’s financial circles, to spearhead a radical move to abolish 86% of the country’s cash overnight and take aim at the huge shadow economy.Hasmukh Adhia, the bureaucrat, and five others privy to the plan were sworn to utmost secrecy, say sources with knowledge of the matter. They were supported by a young team of researchers working in two rooms at Modi’s New Delhi residence, as he plotted his boldest reform since coming to power in 2014.When announced, the abolition of high-value banknotes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 rupees came as a bolt from the blue. The secrecy was aimed at outflanking those who might profit from prior knowledge, by pouring cash into gold, property and other assets and hide illicit wealth.Previously unreported details of Modi’s handling of the so-called “demonetization” open a window onto the hands-on role he played in implementing a key policy, and how he was willing to act quickly even when the risks were high. While some advocates say the scrapping of the banknotes will bring more money into the banking system and raise tax revenues, millions of Indians are furious at having to queue for hours outside banks to exchange or deposit their old money.Labourers have also been unpaid and produce has rotted in markets as cash stopped changing hands. Not enough replacement notes were printed in preparation for the upheaval, and it could take months for things to return to normal. With India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, holding an election in early 2017 that could decide Modi’s chances of a second term in office, there is little time for the hoped-for benefits of his cash swap to outweigh short-term pain.Modi has staked his reputation and popularity on the move. “I have done all the research and, if it fails, then I am to blame,” Modi told a cabinet meeting on November 8 shortly before the move was announced, according to three ministers who attended.
DIRECT LINE TO MODI Overseeing the campaign, with support from the backroom team camped out at Modi’s sprawling bungalow in the capital, was Adhia, a top finance ministry official. The 58-year-old served as principal secretary to Modi from 2003-06 when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, establishing a relationship of trust with his boss and introducing him to yoga.Colleagues interviewed by Reuters said he had a reputation for integrity and discretion. Adhia was named revenue secretary in Sept. 2015, reporting formally to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. In reality, he had a direct line to Modi and they would speak in their native Gujarati when they met to discuss issues in depth.In the world’s largest democracy the demonetisation was revolutionary: it called into question the state’s promise to “pay the bearer” the face value on every banknote. At a stroke, Modi scrapped money worth 15.4 trillion rupees ($220 billion), equal to 86% of cash in Asia’s third-largest economy.The idea is backed by some economists, although the speed of its implementation is widely seen as radical.”One is never ready for this kind of disruption – but it is a constructive disruption,” said Narendra Jadhav, a 31-year veteran and former chief economist of India’s central bank who now represents Modi’s party in the upper house of parliament. Modi, in his TV address to the nation, cautioned that people could face temporary hardship as replacement 500 and 2,000 rupee notes were introduced. Calling for an act of collective sacrifice, he promised steps to soften the blow for the nine in 10 Indians who live in the cash economy.
“BIGGEST, BOLDEST STEP” Immediately after the address, Adhia sent a tweet: “This is the biggest and the boldest step by the Government for containing black money.The boast harked back to Modi’s election vow to recover black money from abroad that had resonated with voters fed up with the corruption scandals that plagued the last Congress government. Yet in office, he struggled to keep his promise.Over more than a year, Modi commissioned research from officials at the finance ministry, the central bank and think-tanks on how to advance his fight against black money, a close aide said. He demanded answers to questions such as: How quickly India could print new banknotes; how to distribute them; would state banks benefit if they received a rush of new deposits; and who would gain from demonetisation?The topics were broken up to prevent anyone from joining the dots and concluding that a cash swap was in the offing. “We didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag,” said a senior official directly involved. “Had people got a whiff of the decision, the whole exercise would have been meaningless.”Under Adhia’s oversight, the team of researchers assembled and modeled the findings in what was, for it, a theoretical exercise. It was made up of young experts in data and financial analysis; some ran Modi’s social media accounts and a smartphone app that he used to solicit public feedback.Yet for all the planning, Modi and Adhia knew they could not foresee every eventuality, and were willing to move swiftly. The announcement caused chaos, with huge queues forming at banks when they reopened after a short holiday. New 2,000 rupee notes were hard to come by and barely any new 500 rupee notes had been printed. India’s 200,000 cash dispensers could not handle the new, smaller, notes and it would take weeks to reconfigure them.Filling ATMs with the 8 trillion rupees ($117 billion) in new banknotes that the finance ministry reckons are needed to restore liquidity to the economy is even trickier. In a best-case scenario, in which India’s four banknote presses churned out new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes designed to replace the abolished ones, it would take at least three months to hit that target.SECRECY PARAMOUNTSecrecy was paramount, but clues had been left. Back in April, analysts at State Bank of India said that demonetisation of large-denomination notes was possible. The Reserve Bank of India, the central bank, also disclosed in May that it was making preparations for a new series of banknotes that were confirmed in August when it announced it had approved a design for a new 2,000 rupee note.The printing presses had only just started turning when the media finally started to run with the story in late October. “The plan was to introduce it around Nov. 18, but there was a clear sign that it could get leaked,” said one person with direct knowledge who, like others interviewed by Reuters, asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.Some officials in the finance ministry had expressed doubts about scrapping high-value notes when the idea came up for discussion. They now feel resentment at the secrecy in which Adhia rammed through the plan on Modi’s orders. They also say the plan was flawed because of a failure to ramp up printing of new notes ahead of time.Other critics say the Adhia team fell prey to a form of “group think” that ignored outside advice. In the words of one former top official who has worked at the finance ministry and central bank: “They don’t know what’s happening in the real world.”

Demonetisation day 30: Modi govt’s 10 biggest cashless announcements

On the occasion of a completion of a month of the demonetisation process of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Thursday sought to woo citizens towards digital transactions by announcing a slew of steps from cheaper fuel to travel insurance on railway tickets bought online.

“We need to slowly cut out cash transactions and implement cashless economy, Dealing in cash has economic costs, so the government is promoting payment by credit, debit cards and e-wallets,” Jaitley said at a press conference in New Delhi.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file photoFinance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file photo

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Reuters file photo

Here are the 10 key points of Jaitley’s digital push announcements:

• Announces 0.75 percent discount for people buying petrol, diesel via digital payment platforms. A total of 4.5 crore consumers buy petrol and diesel worth Rs 1,800 crore daily. In one month, digital payments have doubled to 40 percent. He said that the government expects fuel transactions worth Rs 2 lakh crore being carried out via digital mode.

• Effective 1 January 2017, 0.5 percent discount would be available for people buying monthly seasonal tickets in the suburban railway networks through digital payment mode, starting from the Mumbai suburban railways.

• Insurance cover worth Rs 10 lakh for travellers who book railway tickets through digital mode

• A discount of 5 percent for transactions on digital payment mode for railway facilities like catering, retiring rooms has also been announced by the Union finance minister.

• Buying general, life insurance policies from the websites of public sector insurance firms and using the same for paying premium would attract discounts of 10 percent and 8 percent respectively

• NABARD will give Rupay card to people who possess Kisan Credit Card

• Seeking to expedite the digital switchover, the government has decided to provide two point-of-sales machines each to villages with and over 10,000 population. A total of one lakh villages will be selected for the purpose across the country.

• A 10 percent discount on digital payments for RFID or fastags for highway toll has also been made.

• In order to ensure government departments and public sector enterprises go on a cashless path, the Merchant Discount Rate will not be borne by customers for public dealings

• Public sector banks are advised that merchant should not be required to pay more than Rs 100 per month as monthly rental for PoS terminals/Micro ATMs/mobile POS from the merchants to bring small merchant on board the digital payment ecosystem.

First Published On : Dec 8, 2016 18:37 IST

Mourners shave heads for India’s Jayalalitha

Indians shave their heads as a mark of respect to late charismatic politician J Jayalalitha.

Mumbai physiotherapist raped and murdered, police yet to catch accused

In a yet another case of crimes against women, a 25-year-old physiotherapist was found raped and murdered at her residence in Vile Parle, Mumbai early on Tuesday. Two people have been arrested in connection to the case, reports Mumbai Mirror.

The Indian Express report says that the Vile Parle police registered a case under sections 302, 376, 377 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code. The police says that victim was strangulated by a pair of jeans and that the place had been set on fire.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The Mumbai Mirror report stated that the police reached the spot at 4.30 am after neighbours alerted the victim’s parents of the smoke emanating from her room, which was the first floor of the building. The victim’s parents lived on the ground floor.

The post-mortem report by Cooper Hospital came out at 9 am on Tuesday. “She was sexually assaulted, hit on the head, and then strangled. The murderers tried to set her body on fire,” Mumbai Mirror quoted one of the doctors on the condition of anonymity.

According to a Mid Day report, the victim had gone out for a birthday party at a restaurant close to her home at around 8 pm on Monday, and reached home at around at midnight. The murder might have taken place before 3.30 am on early Tuesday, states a Hindustan Times report quoting the cops.

The police are now looking for CCTV footage to get a breakthrough in the case. The police are suspecting the hand of her friends in the incident and are currently questioning them, the Mid Day report added. The victim was also robbed of some cash and gold.

First Published On : Dec 7, 2016 13:31 IST

Wounded Kashmiris blocked from medical help during clashes – rights group | Reuters

By Nita Bhalla

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indian security forces in Kashmir blocked medical care for injured protesters by firing on ambulances, holding up emergency vehicles and preying on hospital patients during clashes in the restive region this year, a health rights group said on Tuesday.At least 80 civilians were killed and more than 10,000 wounded in almost five months of clashes between protesters and security forces, sparked by the killing of a leading separatist militant in a joint army and police operation on July 8.Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said not only did police and paramilitary forces use excessive force during the unrest, they also delayed wounded people seeking medical attention, increasing the likelihood of permanent injuries and deaths.”Such delays in care are violations of the longstanding protections afforded to medical workers and facilities in times of conflict and civil unrest,” said Widney Brown, director of programs for PHR, a New York-headquartered advocacy group.”What’s more, the doctors we interviewed said police were present in their hospitals, intimidating patients and monitoring those being admitted.”The report also said security forces harassed medical workers attempting to treat protesters and prevented doctors from reaching the hospitals where they work.

Police in Kashmir said they would respond to the allegations once they had studied the PHR report. Kashmir is at the centre of a decades-old rivalry between India and Pakistan, which rules a northwestern section of the divided region, and backed an insurgency in the late 1980s and 1990s that Indian security forces largely crushed.The unrest, sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani, a popular separatist militant leader, is the worst in the Muslim-majority Himalayan region for six years, and critics accuse Indian security forces of heavy-handedness in quelling the protests.

Many of those killed in the clashes died from shotgun pellets or rifle bullets fired by police and paramilitary troops. Hundreds of bystanders were blinded by the pellet rounds, the report said.While Indian authorities say the use of such weapons was meant to reduce the potential for injuries or fatalities, PHR found that their use actually caused serious injury and death.Police in Kashmir say pellet guns are non-lethal weapons but they have been fired from short distances in “unavoidable circumstances” when protesters target security forces.

PHR’s report – based on hospital records and interviews with doctors, witnesses and victims – found police used 12-gauge shotguns loaded with metal pellets that directly caused an estimated 5,200 injuries and at least a dozen deaths. “Injuries inflicted by ‘less than lethal’ weapons like pellets, rubber bullets, and shot guns require early medical intervention to avoid permanent or debilitating injury, including loss of life,” said the report.”In Kashmir, delays in accessing medical care for hundreds of injured protesters increased the risk of permanent damage, including for those with eye injuries.” (Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar. Editing by Katie Nguyen.homson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

First Published On : Dec 6, 2016 18:14 IST

Special Report: 500 migrants drowned at sea. No one investigated | Reuters

By Stephen Grey and Amina Ismail
| ALEXANDRIA, Egypt

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt At around 2 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, a large blue fishing boat carrying hundreds of African migrants and their children capsized just off the coast of Egypt.Some drowned quickly. Others thrashed in the water, yelling for help in Arabic, Somali or Afan Oromo. The few with lifejackets blew whistles that pierced through the shrieks.A solitary electric torch probed the moonless darkness. It came from a smaller boat that was circling, tantalisingly close. The men on that boat, the people-smugglers who had brought their human cargo to this point, were searching only for their comrades. They ignored the screams of the migrants and beat some back into the water.Just 10 migrants managed to scramble up into the smaller boat to join the smugglers and 27 other migrants already aboard.Around 500 adults and children died on the voyage, according to survivor and official estimates, the largest loss of life in the Mediterranean in 2016.Among the dead were an estimated 190 Somalis, around 150 Ethiopians, 80 Egyptians, and some 85 people from Sudan, Syria and other countries. Thirty-seven migrants survived.Awale Sandhool, a 23-year-old who worked at a radio station in Mogadishu and had fled death threats at home, was among the few who swam to safety. Amid the chaos of the sinking, he said, his childhood friend Bilal Milyare had shouted to him from the water before drowning: “Could we not have been saved?”Until now, no one has tried to answer that question.A Reuters investigation in collaboration with BBC Newsnight has found that in the seven months since the mass drowning, no official body, national or multinational, has held anyone to account for the deaths or even opened an inquiry into the shipwreck.When the news emerged via social media eight days after the sinking, European politicians showed brief interest. Italian President Sergio Mattarella suggested that the world should reflect on “yet another tragedy in the Mediterranean.”But Italy, where the ship was headed, has not investigated the sinking. Nor has Greece, where the survivors landed, or Egypt, from where the migrants and smugglers set sail. There has been no investigation by any United Nations body, the European Union’s frontier agency, the EU police agency, any maritime agency, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the EU naval task force in the Mediterranean.The only significant official action taken so far has been a fraud case against some of the smugglers in Egypt, sparked by complaints to police by a handful of grieving parents. No one has been apprehended in that case.Reuters has identified the owners of the doomed ship and the ringleaders of the voyage, as well as the people-brokers who assembled the migrants in Cairo and Alexandria and took their money.The investigation demonstrates the gaps in international law enforcement that make it easy for human smugglers to pursue their deadly trade in the Mediterranean. But it also shows what could be done if authorities chose to make a priority of investigating migrant deaths.The official indifference to the disaster contrasts with how nations mobilised after EgyptAir Flight MS804 crashed in the Mediterranean on May 19, killing 66 people. Within hours of the crash, Egypt dispatched warships and air force planes to search for wreckage and survivors. France, Britain and the United States sent their own ships and aircraft. An investigation into what caused the crash and who was responsible continues in both Egypt and France.Rob Wainwright, director of the European police agency, Europol, said that in hindsight his agency should have investigated the April sinking. Reuters inquiries might have exposed a “gap here in the collective response by Europe” to such cases, he said in an interview.He said the news agency’s inquiries had “triggered our minds about how we can improve.” In late November he said that Europol would study evidence collected by Reuters with BBC Newsnight – and would consider opening an inquiry into the case, together with Greece or another member state. “If we can find a way of expediting it and making it operational then we will try to do that.”In Egypt, Judge Khaled al-Nashar, assistant to Egypt’s Minister of Justice for Parliamentary and Media Affairs, said he could not confirm what inquiries had taken place into the April sinking but further action was not ruled out. “If the occurrence of such a crime is proven, Egypt certainly will not hesitate to conduct the necessary investigations to uncover it and arrest the perpetrators and bring them to justice.” Egypt’s special ambassador for migration, Naela Jabr, said security agencies were “doing their utmost” to fight illegal migration, arresting 5,076 people who tried to migrate illegally in the first six months of the year. Jabr said a people-smuggling law passed by parliament in October and ratified in November would help in the crackdown.Some Egyptian lawyers said the government already had the power to impose justice in the case. They said that smugglers responsible for the voyage could be prosecuted for first-degree homicide, abetting illegal migration, and maritime safety breaches. “I consider putting 500 people on this boat to be murder. There is no other way to describe it,” said Sabry Tolba, an Egyptian lawyer hired by the families of some of those who died.The November 2000 Palermo Convention against organised crime, signed by all of the nations involved in the tragedy, also requires countries to pass laws, take effective measures and “cooperate to the fullest extent possible” to prevent and suppress the smuggling of migrants by sea.This account is based on interviews with people involved in all aspects of the voyage: survivors, relatives of the victims, smugglers, fishermen, coastal residents in Egypt, security and maritime officials, agents who acted as the middlemen between passengers and traffickers, and money changers who handled the cash. Reuters also analysed social media networks to track the links between smugglers and their human cargo.Among the obstacles that had to be overcome: Survivors, fearing repatriation to Egypt and retaliation from the smuggler gangs, initially lied about key details of the trip. Those lies, widely repeated by the media and by UN agencies, have helped delay bringing the perpetrators to account.THE PEOPLE MARKET
In the spring of this year, crowds began gathering every day on Mekka el Mokrama Street in Cairo, where the Egypt headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is located. They were migrants, most of them from Somalia and Ethiopia, queuing to register with UNHCR so they could temporarily but legally live in Egypt.On the street, brokers circled.”Italy, Italy, Italy,” they shouted, as they hawked places on boats headed across the Mediterranean.Over the winter, few boats had made that trip. But now the weather was clearing and the people-smuggling business was picking up. By August, more than 11,379 migrants would make it to Italy from Egypt, more than in all of 2015. The Mediterranean would prove deadlier than ever. According to the UNHCR, more than 4,663 people have died trying to cross the sea to Europe this year, a record.One broker touting passage was Hamza Abdirashid, a slim and well-dressed man whose Facebook profile says he comes from the city of Hargeisa in the breakaway part of Somalia known as Somaliland.Sandhool, the young Somali from Mogadishu, met him in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, where Somali migrants often congregate. “He came around in a car and asked me if I wanted to go to Europe,” Sandhool said.The price was $1,800, Sandhool said. But “Hamza was saying if you take five people along, you will get two for free.” Sandhool said he later negotiated a $500 discount for himself with one of Abdirashid’s deputies, another Somali in Cairo.Brokers charged passengers a fee of between $1,300 and $2,500, based on the traveller’s ability to pay, according to more than a dozen survivors interviewed. People involved in the business said the broker typically kept $200 of that, passing on the rest to the smugglers.Several other migrants identified Abdirashid as the main broker for Somalis on the April voyage. Other brokers handled other nationalities. The middlemen usually come from the same ethnic group as the migrants. The brokers used messaging on apps like Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber to negotiate with migrants. Records of those interactions could help law enforcement identify the brokers. An analysis of the Facebook friends of Abdirashid, the broker, shows he was connected to at least 10 of those Somalis on board the ship: six victims and four survivors. Contacted on social media, Abdirashid declined to comment about his role as a broker, saying that the issue of illegal migration was sensitive.”I’m a student, I don’t want to face problems,” he wrote in a WhatsApp conversation with a reporter.GOING DOWN
In the evening of Thursday, April 7, a fleet of minibuses moved through the suburbs of Cairo, picking up Somalis and Ethiopians from lay-bys and street corners.The buses were tourist vehicles, hired from a Giza-based company called Honest Tours, said one broker. Emad Monir, transport director of the company, said he was unaware of this trip or any other involving illegal migrants. “It is like stopping a taxi on the street, the driver doesn’t ask the client why is he going to the place.”The buses carried the migrants for three hours to the port city of Alexandria.Sandhool and his fellow travellers were handed to another group of Egyptian smugglers who would earn around $220 a head. For that, the smugglers put migrants temporarily in takhzeen, or storage – apartment buildings in Alexandria or isolated compounds close to the shore. They also took care of el Nazla, or going down, shifting the migrants into waiting boats.It was at this stage that the first known deaths occurred.At dawn on Friday, April 8, after a night waiting in isolated car parks with curtains drawn, a group of Somalis and Ethiopians were offloaded from buses on Alexandria’s Miami Beach. The beach is a tourist destination and is typically thronged with pleasure-seekers.

It is also fenced off and usually protected by guards. But no guard was visible that day and nobody intervened when smugglers armed with pistols assembled the migrants into groups of 20 or 30 and loaded them onto hasakas, the small wooden boats with engines that ply this part of the coast.”Everyone was being grabbed and thrown on. People were sitting on top of me and I felt a lot of pressure,” said Sandhool. “Then the boat started moving.”Within sight of the beach, and well inside Egyptian territorial waters, the hasakas pulled up alongside a small wooden fishing boat with a cover shading its deck. So close to shore, the swell was treacherous. As people struggled out, Sandhool’s hasaka began to tip. AbdiAziz Shiyo, a 23-year-from Hargeisa who had played soccer with Sandhool in Cairo, spotted the danger.”Keep the balance!” he shouted.It was too late. The hasaka overturned and tossed everyone in the water. Shiyo drowned, as did Asad Elmi, a pregnant woman in her twenties, and an unrelated six-month-old child. Others, including Sandhool, managed to scramble onto the fishing boat.Osman Asad Mohamed, a migrant from southern Somalia, also witnessed the deaths. He said smugglers had a spare wooden boat ready to take away the bodies and collect any abandoned luggage.Abdelaziz Yusuf, a criminal lawyer in Cairo, said Egyptian maritime law required all vessels to carry communication equipment and to call for help in an emergency. If anyone died, Yusuf said, the sailors could be prosecuted either under maritime law, for failure to perform their duties, or under civilian law for deliberate failure to act to save a life when they were able. The latter could be deemed premeditated first-degree murder under Article 230 of the Egyptian penal code, which carries a death penalty.By now, the wind was picking up and the swell building. Nevertheless, the fishing boat – about 15 metres (50 feet) long, painted white with a blue and gold stripe along its hull – set off with nearly 200 people aboard.Local sailors identified the boat as one that operated from the small, military-controlled port of Abu Qir further along the coast from Miami Beach. Local fishermen and security officials said smuggling from that port was controlled by Ismail al-Bougy, a powerful 41-year-old who got his start hawking seafood on the street. Bougy’s real name, according to the security officials and a police report seen by Reuters, is Ismail Ali.The wooden fishing boat – or “middle boat,” as it became known – was to ferry the migrants to a much larger ship. Survivors would later refer to the main vessel as the “big boat.”That big boat was a deep-sea fishing trawler. It was painted blue and measured around 22 metres (72 feet). According to survivors, it had three decks: a top deck exposed to the weather, a main working deck, and a refrigerated fish-hold accessed via a narrow hatch and ladder.By Friday night, the trawler was stationary offshore, rolling and pitching in growing waves. Instead of fish, the trawler’s hold was loaded with more than 300 passengers who had been brought out from other beaches over the previous two days. The smugglers planned to cram another 150 to 200 people into the load.SHIPS AND SMUGGLERS
Egypt’s Mediterranean coast is tightly controlled by the nation’s coast guard and military. Large sea-going vessels can only depart from a handful of creeks or Nile branches – all watched by coast guard towers. For this reason, the identities of ships and crew that run smuggling missions become well-known among fishermen and local coast guard officers.Egypt’s coast guard service did not respond to a request to comment. Local fishermen and other smugglers say the “big boat” that sank in April was built in a shipyard and registered at the port of Rashid, the modern name for ancient Rosetta, about 50 km (30 miles) northeast of Alexandria.One of Egypt’s top people-smugglers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified the sunken trawler as the Abu Nawal, registered in Rashid as RSH-123. The smuggler, who is wanted in Italy for allegedly organising other illegal voyages, supplied a set of photographs of the vessel and said he knew about this trip because he was asked to recruit passengers for it but declined.He said fishing boats were made in Rashid specifically for trafficking. “Nowadays we make boats to work in this business, not to fish. It is a million times more profitable.” With fishing, the net was often empty. But on a smuggling trip, “you can make $400,000.”The Abu Nawal departed Rashid on March 9 to go fishing and has not returned, according to an April 16 coast guard report received by the fisheries ministry and seen by Reuters.The ship’s original owner, Hassan Yehia, is from Burg Mighizel, a village that lies a kilometre across the Nile from Rashid. The village is reputed to be the smuggling capital of the Nile Delta. Yehia says the Abu Nawal was named after his daughter and mother. He gave conflicting accounts of his connection to the ship. He first said he sold the Abu Nawal in March to a Libyan merchant, but later he said he still half-owned the vessel, which was now in Libya.But the people-smuggler said Yehia sold the ship in March to two men he identified as the ringleaders of the April voyage: Bougy, the smuggler from Alexandria, and his partner, Ahmed Obeid, 51. Obeid is known locally as Dr Obeid, or simply “The Doctor.”Security officials and fishermen described Obeid as the leading smuggler in Burg Mighizel. Both Obeid and Bougy were detained in prison between 2005 and 2008 as a threat to security under Egypt’s three-decades-long state of emergency that was lifted in 2012, according to a senior Egyptian security official. The official said the pair remained pivotal in the smuggling business.

A broker directly involved in recruiting passengers for the April voyage independently identified Obeid and Bougy as organisers of the fated trip. So did two relatives of Egyptian victims on the voyage, who separately learned of their relatives’ fates by questioning the brokers.Yehia, the ship’s original owner, said he knew Obeid, who was from the same village. “You probably already know how dangerous this man could be,” he said. “Dangerous to an extent that would make me and others not talk about him.”Police say both Obeid and Bougy have been sentenced in absentia several times by Egyptian courts for offences connected to illegal migration. The latest conviction in absentia, for a misdemeanour over the trafficking of several children who went missing in April, came after a complaint from parents. Both were sentenced to a year in jail, but remain at large.Lawyers said police and prosecutors have not examined any connection with the April sinking. Lawyers also said those convicted of fraud would likely appeal their sentence if they were ever apprehended.Obeid did not respond to messages left at his home in Burg Mighezel. His son Ibrahim said he acknowledged his father had arranged migrant trips but said there was no evidence tying him to the deadly voyage.”If he arranges a trip, he does it in a way that pleases God,” Ibrahim said, laughing. “You’ll never find any smuggler using his real name, so there isn’t real proof that it’s my father.”Bougy could not be reached for comment.THE DROWNING
It was about 2 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, when the middle boat reached the trawler. It was pitch dark and well beyond sight of the Egyptian coast. According to one fisherman with a close connection to smuggling gangs, the two vessels met a couple of hours’ sailing off the port of el-Saloum, near the Libyan border.In a rough sea and high winds, the middle boat was roped to the trawler. The smaller vessel’s passengers, between 150 and 200 people, were forced to clamber across.As the trawler, or “big boat,” rocked about, its growing load suddenly shifted to one side. It listed, and then began to keel over.In panic, the crew on the middle boat cut the tethering lines and pushed their craft, which still had 27 migrants aboard, clear of the trawler.Sandhool was now on the trawler’s top deck. He began to pray. “People on the boat all started screaming and crying together,” he said. Hundreds were still crammed in the hold.Sandhool was thrown into the water. “Myself and a couple of young guys started to swim away to try and save ourselves.” Sandhool and a few others had brought along lifejackets; most had not. Muaz Mahmud, an Ethiopian, was also thrown overboard with his wife and two-month-old infant. He survived. His family did not. “I was trying to save them,” he said later, tears sweeping down his cheeks. “But I couldn’t save them. They slipped away. Everybody was climbing over and hanging on me but I couldn’t even hold on myself. So I took off all my clothes, left everything in the sea and tried to swim. I swam towards the light.”That light was the single torch on the middle boat. For the next half-hour, the vessel moved through the water searching for the trawler’s crew and its captain, whose name was Salem. The sailors on that boat ignored the pleas of the migrants in the water and brandished knives, threatening survivors like Muaz. Nevertheless, he made it aboard. But when he grabbed someone else’s hand to pull him from the sea, he said a crewman punched him until he let go. The same crewman cut loose a rope that survivors were using to clamber up.Gamachis Abdullah, another Ethiopian student, watched helpless from the middle boat as his mother and two brothers drowned. His eldest brother, Ramadan, nearly made it. “He was shouting up to me but the crew forcibly made us leave everyone and go,” Abdullah said.The smugglers rescued Salem and two of the trawler’s crew, but within minutes Salem died of an apparent heart attack and his body was dumped overboard. Then the smugglers sailed away, leaving behind, according to Muaz, at least 100 people still alive in the water. Yusuf, the Cairo lawyer, said the overloading of the trawler amounted to premeditated murder. Accepting such a massive load, he said, ensured the vessel had little chance of arriving safely. And just as with the drownings near the shore, he said, while there was no specific Egyptian law about sea disasters, the crew’s failure to rescue “when it was in their hands to save people” could be interpreted by courts as murder under Egypt’s penal code.Nashar, the senior official in the justice ministry, said a murder charge would require proof of a “special intent to destroy a soul.” In smuggling cases, he said, “the purpose is to transport individuals and smuggle them in exchange for profit.” But smugglers could be charged with manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail. Laws against human trafficking, immigration and maritime laws, and laws protecting women and child rights could also have been violated.The middle boat was equipped with radios, cell phones and a satellite phone, but none of its crew attempted to alert authorities, according to survivors. Instead, they said, the crew discussed whether to kill those left alive.Osman Asad Mohamed, who understood Arabic from living in Yemen, said the proposal came from a tall, thin, pale-coloured smuggler, the one who had cut the ropes between the two ships. “I remember his words clearly: ‘Let’s kill all of them and bring our boat back. Most of them are dead; they are of no value to us now.'”

Some survivors were so petrified by those words they hid in the middle boat’s hold, clutching makeshift weapons for defence. But the smugglers never carried out the threat, said Mohamed, because they decided they were outnumbered by migrants.The crew’s failure to call for help was costly, say maritime safety professionals, because many of those in life jackets could have survived for hours. A senior Greek coast guard officer said the sea lanes off Egypt and Libya are busy with traffic exiting the Suez Canal. Those ships could have assisted had the survivors called, he said.Mohamed recalled that just before the trawler sank, he noticed the lights of big ships in the distance.RESCUE AND INACTION
At about 12.30 p.m. on April 16, a week after the disaster, the headquarters of the Italian coast guard in Rome received its first word of the sinking: a distress call from a satellite phone. The call came from one of the survivors aboard the middle boat.By 2.19 p.m., the Italian coast guard had determined the boat was lying in international waters, within Greece‘s “rescue coordination zone.” By treaty, maritime nations have divided the sea up into zones. Each country takes responsibility for rescue operations in its zone, even if it asserts no legal jurisdiction outside territorial waters, typically 12 nautical miles off the coast.Just under two hours later, Greek coast guard officers in the port of Piraeus instructed a Dutch-operated bulk carrier, the 550-foot Eastern Confidence, to change course and find the boat full of survivors.Obliged by maritime law to assist with the rescue, but not to collect evidence, the crew of the Confidence did not check the boat for identification marks or serial numbers that could have shown where the smugglers came from. The Confidence’s operators, Orient Shipping Rotterdam, told Reuters the basic details of the rescue but declined further comment.The Confidence ferried the survivors to the Greek port of Kalamata. It was here that they began to tell their story to the Greek coast guard, to the media, to agencies such as UNHCR, and, via phone, to families and friends. The survivors said that up to 500 people had drowned.But while Greek authorities helped in the rescue and aided the survivors, they decided not to investigate the sinking. A source with knowledge of the case said that Greece’s coast guard did not refer the case to a criminal prosecutor because there was no indication any crime had been committed on Greek territory.Both the coast guard service and Nikos Paraskevopoulos, the justice minister, declined to comment.If Greek authorities had questioned survivors more closely, they might have learned that some of their accounts were untrue – notably, the initial claim that the migrants had left from Tobruk in western Libya.Based on interviews with survivors in Greece, the UNHCR repeated this erroneous account in an April 20 press statement.In fact, nobody had left from Tobruk.All the migrants set sail from Egypt, according to brokers involved, relatives who spoke to victims just before they embarked, and Egyptian security officials.Sandhool, the young Somali, originally said he had boarded in Tobruk. But he later revised his story. “I am really sorry I told you a lie,” he said, explaining that survivors had agreed on the false story because they were worried they might be deported from Europe to Somalia or Egypt.Survivors also failed to disclose that four of the Egyptians on the middle boat were sailors employed in the smuggling gang. Mahmud, the Ethiopian survivor, said the four had urged survivors to lie. “The Egyptian smugglers were with us, and they told us that the Greece authority would return us … if we tell them that we are from Egypt. This is the only reason why we told we are from Tobruk.”Other survivors said they were grateful to these crewmen for keeping them alive and taking them to Greece.NO MANDATE
Like Greece, Frontex, the EU border agency, did not investigate. Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman, said it had no mandate because launching investigations into potential crimes was a “power reserved for national authorities.”The European Union runs a naval mission off the Libyan coast – Operation Sophia – to identify and capture smugglers’ vessels. In practice, it also operates as a rescue service, picking up more than 16,000 migrants from the sea from January through August 2016.Captain Antonello de Renzis Sonnino, the operation’s chief spokesman, said the force operated in an area “just outside the Libyan territorial waters” and has so far successfully identified 89 smugglers and traffickers that Italian authorities could prosecute. But asked about the April sinking, he said that based on “the information we have, the disaster occurred far away from where we had our military vessels.”NATO, which runs a separate naval mission in the Aegean to monitor illegal migration, began operations against people-smuggling in the Mediterranean last month. A spokeswoman said: “No ships under NATO command were mandated to engage directly in counter-human trafficking activities in the Mediterranean in April.”UNHCR, which assisted the survivors when they reached Athens, said it was not its job to investigate. “UNHCR is there to help the survivors and warn travellers tempted to take the journey. We do not have the investigative mandate to go after organised crime,” said chief spokesperson Melissa Fleming.One entity does acknowledge it could investigate: Europol. Wainwright, the Europol chief, said his agency exists to help support such investigations, although it was required to get the cooperation of a member state.Wainwright said he was willing to take the case on and would raise it at senior levels in Greece. But, he said, the country was short of resources and already burdened by a huge influx of migrants. Any response, he said, should “be a European Union response.”Law enforcement in Europe was increasingly overwhelmed by the scale of challenges posed by illegal migration, he said, whether it was drownings or child migrants who go missing. In contrast, if a single local child went missing in England, France or Germany, it attracted huge resources for police. “It’s almost a parallel world we are living in,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”Somalia’s Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer said that the government asked Somali embassies to talk to officials and private organisations, such as those working with migrants, in Italy, Greece, and Egypt.He declined to detail what help Somalia received, but urged a more compassionate response. “If you can deploy a flotilla of ships … to stop piracy off the coast of Somalia, why can one not deploy a flotilla of ships that saves lives in the Mediterranean? These are our children. And when I say our children, it is not just the Somali children, it is all our children, it is humanity.”THE TRAIL TO CAIRO
Egypt also chose not to investigate. Local police in Alexandria mounted a partial inquiry into the disappearance of nine Egyptian teenage boys who left for Italy in April, but have not linked the boys’ disappearance to the sinking. One father, Abdo Abdul Hamid of Alexandria, gave a statement to police. That led to a prosecutor’s report, reviewed by Reuters, which named some of the smuggling ringleaders. Six of them, including Bougy and Obeid, were convicted in absentia by a court in Alexandria of defrauding the boys’ families. All remain at large.”These people have to get punished,” Abdul Hamid said. “I will stay after them until they all go to prison.”No Egyptian body has looked into the shipwreck itself, two senior security officials confirmed. Law enforcement officials said an ineffective legal system discourages action, and also blamed the pressure of other work. One senior security source said that illegal immigration was nothing new, and “the priority is security and drugs at the moment.”Under international law, if any of the ships involved in the disaster were flagged or registered in Egypt, as large fishing trawlers like the Abu Nawal are, then Cairo had a clear mandate and possibly even an obligation to investigate the disaster, according to Niels Frenzen, clinical professor of law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.Nashar, the senior official in Egypt’s justice ministry, said that investigations into illegal migration were difficult because they often required collecting evidence and chasing criminals across borders, and because migrants were often reluctant to give evidence.But, he said, “I can confirm it is not in the interests of the investigating agencies, whether the general prosecutor or any relevant law enforcement authority, to cover up on such crimes.”Nashar said that after another sinking in September, Egypt had rushed through the new law “to combat the crime of  illegal migration.”In May, the six Egyptians who’d been rescued and taken to Greece – two teenage migrants and four crew – agreed to be sent home to Egypt. According to Cairo airport police records, the six told authorities they had left from an Egyptian beach. That gave Egypt another reason to investigate. Instead of probing further, though, the police charged the six with crossing a frontier illegally. The two teenage survivors and four smugglers were fined and paid 100 Egyptian pounds apiece, or $11. So far, this is the only punishment meted out in the sinking of the Abu Nawal. (Stephen Grey reported from Athens, Cairo and Alexandria; Amina Ismail from Cairo, Alexandria and Kafr-el-Sheikh; Additional reporting by Sameh Ellaboody in Cairo, Alexandria, Kafr-el-Sheikh and Damietta; Karolina Tagaris in Athens; Crispian Balmer and Steve Scherer in Rome; Edmund Blair in Nairobi; Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; and Hussein Ali Noor in Hargeisa; Edited by Simon Robinson)

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First Published On : Dec 6, 2016 17:56 IST

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