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Today's Hot Stories-July 2, 2009

10 Headlines for Today

(1) Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan to meet on July 14
(2) Chidambaram inaugurates Chennai's NSG hub
(3) The newly installed government in Honduras rejects international calls to reinstate deposed President Manuel Zelaya
(4) Koutons Retail posts net profit of Rs 35.82 crore for Q4
(5) Shiv Nadar's daughter takes charge at HCL Corporation
(6) Nagarjuna Construction bags four orders worth Rs 797 crore
(7) Roger Federer reaches in the semi-finals of Wimbledon
(8) Toyota Motor plans to pull out of hosting the 2010 Japanese GP
(9) Bhupathi-Knowles out of Wimbledon doubles
(10) 3 persons test positive for swine flu, total cases at 116

5 Stories for Today

(1) 'Missile woman' to handle ambitious Agni-V project
(2) United States army has launched a major offensive against the Taliban
(3) Graphite India reported net profit of Rs 193.57 crore
(4) GE agrees for a long-term deal with Ratnagiri Gas
(5) Exports down by 29.2%; imports contracted by 39.2% in May

(1) 'Missile woman' to handle ambitious Agni-V project

It's indeed rocket science. And Tessy Thomas is going great guns at unravelling all its complexities. Though women and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles usually don't go together, Thomas is systematically breaking all glass ceilings in the avowedly male bastion of `strategic weapons'.

Thomas has now been appointed the Project Director (mission) of India's most ambitious missile, Agni-V, with a strike range of 5,000-km, which is slated to be tested for the first time next year.

Thomas, 46, was made the Project Director of the new advanced version of the 2500-km Agni-II missile last year after she played a crucial role in the successful firing of the 3500-km range Agni-III missile as an Associate Project Director, as reported by news agency earlier.

Now, she has added another feather to her cap by being assigned to Agni-V, the test-firing of which will propel India towards having potent ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capabilities, largely the preserve of the Big-5 countries till now.

Thomas, contacted by news agency on Tuesday, was reluctant to talk till she `had clearance from the top'. Overall Agni programme Director, Avinash Chander, however, was full of praise for her. "She is one of the key members of the entire Agni programme,'' he said.

"The designer for the missile guidance systems, among other things, she is one of the most dedicated scientists in our team. She finds solutions to problems,'' he added.

A B.Tech from Thrissur Engineering College, Calicut, and M.Tech from Pune-based Defence Institute of Advanced Technologies, Thomas is an expert on `solid system propellants' which fuel the Agni missiles.

Based at the Advanced Systems Laboratory in Hyderabad, Thomas has been associated with the Agni programme for around two decades now. Her fascination for `rockets' began with the Apollo moon missions when she was in school at Alappuzha in Kerala.

The dream turned to reality when this `missile woman' was assigned to the Agni programme soon after joining DRDO in 1988 by the original `missile man', former President APJ Abdul Kalam. There are around 20 other women scientists working on the Agni programme but Thomas is the first to become a Project Director of an Agni system.

The work on the solid-fuelled Agni-V basically revolves around incorporating a third composite stage in the two-stage Agni-III, along with some advanced technologies like ring laser gyroscope and accelerator for navigation and guidance.

The endeavour is to ensure that Agni-V, for which the government has sanctioned around Rs 2,500 crore, is also a canister-launch missile system to ensure it has the requisite operational flexibility to be fired from any part of the country. It will be slightly short of true ICBMs, which have ranges in excess of 5,500 km, but enough to take care of existing `threat perceptions'.

(2) United States army has launched a major offensive against the Taliban

The United States army says it has launched a major offensive against the Taliban in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The US military says about 4,000 marines as well as 650 Afghan troops are involved, supported by NATO planes.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said the operation was different from previous ones because of the "massive size of the force" and its speed. Officers on the ground said it was the largest marine offensive since Vietnam.

It is the first such operation under President Barack Obama's presidency. The operation began when units moved into the Helmand river valley in the early hours of Thursday.

Helicopters and heavy transport vehicles carried out the advance, with NATO planes providing air cover.

"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," said Brig Gen Nicholson in a statement.

At a briefing at the US military's Camp Leatherneck last week, he told personnel and embedded reporters: "One of the most critical things is to tell people why we're there, and we are going to have a limited opportunity to gain their trust."

The operation would have an initial highly aggressive stage lasting 36 hours, a news agency reported. It aims to improve security ahead of presidential elections on 20 August, allowing voter registration where before there was none, Gen Nicholson said.

A US military spokesman, Captain William Pelletier, told the news agency there had been "no enemy contact" in the first hours of the operation, but one marine was slightly injured when an improvised explosive device detonated.

He said the US military was prepared for casualties, but stressed that "it is absolutely essential that no civilians be harmed".

Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal predicted the operation would be "very effective". "The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace."

As of June 2009, NATO's International Security Assistance Force had 61,130 personnel from 42 countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

The US is the largest contributor, providing 28,850 soldiers.

It also has troops under Operation Enduring Freedom - mostly in the east of Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan - that are not under Isaf's command.

In December 2008 they numbered 17,100. President Obama has pledged to send an additional 21,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, many of them redeployed from operations in Iraq, to help with training Afghan security forces and to tackle the insurgency.

UK troops are also operating in Helmand, but there has been criticism that British forces have been overstretched and under-resourced.

Last week the commander of UK troops in Afghanistan, General Jim Dutton, denied that the battle against the Taliban was "a losing campaign". Gen Dutton welcomed the planned increase in US troop numbers. "I am convinced that the addition of those (US) troops is going to improve the security situation," he said.

(3) Graphite India reported net profit of Rs 193.57 crore

Graphite India reported a 44.83% growth in net profit at Rs 193.57 crore for the year ended March 31, 2009, compared to an Rs 133.65 crore net in the previous year. The company’s profitability follows a 2.32% rise in Graphite India’s April-March gross sales revenue at Rs 1182.73 crore (Rs 1155.87 crore).

The KK Bangur group flagship with interests in graphite electrodes, a Graphite India statement said that the performance of the company’s electrode division during the year was subdued due to global recession which hit the steel industry quite severely.

"Our sector’s performance is linked to the performance of the steel industry as graphite electrodes are required in the EAF route of steel production. The first quarter of 2009 has further witnessed quarter on quarter decline in world steel production of 23% with planned production cuts and closure of steel plants by global steel majors. This, in turn, adversely impacted the demand for graphite electrodes. We are, however, expecting an increased consumer demand from the housing, infrastructure, white goods & automobile sectors after countries announced an economic stimulus package. With demand for steel expected to revive, the demand for graphite electrodes is also expected to improve during the second half of 2009-10," the release stated. The company’s board has recommended a dividend of Rs 3 per equity share of Rs 2 each.

Segment-wise details of the annual results indicate profit before tax and interest from the company’s graphite and carbon division rose to Rs 237.25 crore (Rs 191.80 crore) while that from power dipped to Rs 17.09 crore (Rs 28.01 crore).

While net sales for the year under review was up by 2.44 % to Rs 1125.88 crore (Rs 1099.05 crore), interest outgo dipped to Rs 25.94 crore (Rs 35.70 crore). Depreciation costs remained more or less constant at Rs 34.35 crore (Rs 33.50 crore).

Generation of power at the company’s hydel plant at Karnataka was still not satisfactory due to poor water flow in the river. Performance of impervious graphite equipment division and glass reinforced plastic pipes/tanks division improved during the year, the company release said.

Graphite India produces 60,000 tonnes of graphite electrodes in India and another 18,000 tonnes in Germany. It exports nearly 60 % of its graphite electrode production.

(4) GE agrees for a long-term deal with Ratnagiri Gas

General Electric has agreed to sign a long-term comprehensive agreement with Ratnagiri Gas and Power without any advance payment, a move which could provide interim relief for the financially-starved gas-fired power project, earlier known as Dabhol Power.

Ratnagiri Gas has been beset by a host of problems, including a restriction on its ability to hike tariffs and difficulty in raising funds from banks due to a recent strict RBI guideline, which had severely impacted its liquidity.

US-based GE, which is also one of the world’s largest equipment makers, had earlier asked for an advance payment of Rs 150 crore for rehabilitating crucial machines and equipment at the power plant.

“GE has been convinced to take the payment later due to the ongoing issues (tight liquidity) with the company,” Ratnagiri Gas MD AK Ahuja told news agency. “We will sign the agreement on July 7, tentatively, in the presence of state energy minister Sunil Tatkare.” State-owned utility NTPC and oil and gas explorer Gail are the majority stakeholders in Ratnagiri Gas.

The agreement between GE and Ratnagiri Gas was already pending for a long, on various issues, including the objection by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission on tariff hike proposal. “But, now at least the rehabilitation of the project will not be halted. Going ahead, the company would have to arrange funds,” Mr Ahuja said.

GE had asked for an advance amount before signing the agreement and the rest was to be paid in installments. The US equipment supplier will sign a 16-year contract worth around $135 million (Rs 655 crore as per current exchange rates) that includes rehabilitation ($75 million) and supply of spare parts ($60 million).

The two will also have a separate agreement on maintenance of machines for which cost would vary depending on the material used.

(5) Exports down by 29.2%; imports contracted by 39.2% in May

Merchandise exports contracted for the eighth consecutive month as continued economic recession in developed economies affected overseas demand for Indian goods. While exports are expected to pick up in the later part of the quarter ending by September this year, imports could swing into the positive territory, if the domestic demand revives and crude oil prices increase.

Data released by the commerce ministry today revealed that merchandise exports dipped 29.2 per cent in May 2009 and stood at $11 billion, as against $15.5 billion in the year-ago period.

Imports also dipped for the sixth month in the running, pointing towards weak appetite for goods in the domestic economy. It contracted by 39.2 per cent to $ 16.21 billion in May.

The trade deficit — difference between exports and imports value — shrunk by 53.3 per cent in the month under consideration and stood at $5.2 billion. With oil imports contracting due to weak international prices, the trade deficit has been dipping in the last five months. Weakening trade deficit and stronger foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows led to the India’s current account become surplus for the first time in two years in the three months ended March 2008.

According to sources, the finance ministry has recognised that the three stimulus packages have not led to desired results in the exports and the manufacturing sector. The commerce ministry had recommended slashing of fringe benefit tax for exporters as well as enhancing the level of interest subsidy for export-related loans, among others, in its Budget wish list. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to present the Union Budget for 2009-10 on July 6.

The latest data are broadly in line with expectations of experts. “The need of the hour is to improve the current account position by boosting exports. On the other hand, the policy makers should build the robust foreign investment pipeline which would strengthen the capital account balance,” said Soumendra K Dash, Chief Economist, CARE Ratings.

The fall in imports has been attributed to the decline in the crude oil Bill of the country. In the month under consideration, India’s oil imports stood at $4.13 billion, a dip of 60 per cent over $10.5 billion in May 2008.

Non-oil imports which comprise capital goods as well as raw material used by India Inc. also contracted by almost a fourth and stood at $12 billion, as against $16.18 billion in the year-ago month. This shows the weak domestic demand in the Indian economy, in the backdrop of the global economic recession.

Exporters maintain that if quick steps to boost exports are not taken, there could be job losses. “If the government provides necessary support, export may show positive growth from October this year, though double-digit growth could only be seen in 2010,” said a statement released by A Sakthivel, President, Federation of Indian Export Organisations.

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