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Today's Hot Stories - January 29, 2013

10 Headlines for Today

(1) Anti-Dalit remarks: Jaipur Police summon Ashis Nandy
(2) Sinha pitches for Modi as BJP’s PM candidate, irks JD(U)
(3) Several Australian towns flooded, 4 dead
(4) Home loans to get cheaper as RBI cuts repo rate, CRR
(5) Won't go by KFA's 'empty promises': AAI
(6) Toyota is world's top automaker
(7) Murray run ragged by relentless Novak
(8) Ghana shine to reach Africa Cup in last eight
(9) Tiger Woods wins Torrey Pines title
(10) Ulfa rebels seek spiritual solace at Sangam

5 Stories for Today

(1) Mahakumbh of the mind ends on a dramatic high
(2) Short skirts, high heels risk rape: UK lawmaker
(3) Finance ministry bats for 10% reduction in fuel prices
(4) Myanmar unveils major debt relief deal
(5) RBI says sustained fiscal consolidation needed for monetary easing

(1) Mahakumbh of the mind ends on a dramatic high

It featured high controversy and deep content, emotional commemoration and vibrant celebration. The 2013 chapter of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), often called the Maha Kumbh of the mind, officially pulled down the curtain on Monday after five days of energetic events attended by enormous crowds.

Notable events included a tribute to the late Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay, a triumphant discourse of defiance by iconic Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi, colourful debates on religions, empires and Bollywood alongside in-depth discussions on writing fiction, reporting facts and discerning change within societies. All together with the now familiar political protests that the event has almost made a habit to attract.

The choice of events within the JLF was dazzling—in one location, cultural theorists Gayatri Spivak discussed the art of criticism with others while at another investment expert Ruchir Sharma outlined methods of economic pragmatism. At another, writers from Ian Buruma to Swapan Dasgupta discussed the sun setting on the empire while Upamanyu Chatterjee and Amit Choudhari read from their books, describing a strange, sublime and eccentric post-colonial India.

Travel writers from Pico Iyer to Samanth Subramanian described the art of falling off maps, as it were, while Madeline Miller, Lawrence Norfolk and Linda Grant discussed writing historical fiction from the odd standpoint of both knowing and not knowing how your plot could proceed. All along, Buddhist chants preceded in-depth discussions on diverse facets of Buddhist literature while strands of feminist writing as well as vernacular and diasporic writing was celebrated.

In the middle of it all came the now famous session 'The Republic of Ideas' featuring academic Ashis Nandy on a panel that debated corruption, red tape and the freedom of speech as building blocks or loose bolts in a nation's architecture. Confronted with dazzling diversity, the crowds seemed to lap the sessions. The Bollywood discussions were predictably swamped by huge numbers, eager to know more about beloved classics as well as the winds of change sweeping through a much-adored cinema. Similarly, a cricket book session featuring sports icon Rahul Dravid was flooded by fans. However, the less-predictable sessions—a crackling discussion on the ethics of reading, translation and the post-colonial between Spivak and Amit Chadhuri, for instance—were similarly inundated.

The audience was as colourful as the sessions, featuring young students clued into texts, appreciative fiction lovers, fans of history and travel narratives, seekers of spiritual solace, Jaipur's beau monde, all glittering with elaborate hair-clips and gleaming jewellery, as well as a few gentle souls who simply wanted to doze in the sun. The sleepy air was shaken when protests broke out over comments of Nandy on January 26 with the protestors filing a police complaint and demanding arrests. Audience at the JLF was left wondering not only at the finest writing, the best authors and their most polished works but also about the freedom to think aloud, to provoke, to protest and to debate. In the best traditions of literature, the JLF 2013 presented answers and questions for readers and writers alike.

(2) Short skirts, high heels risk rape: UK lawmaker

A British lawmaker's suggestion that young women who wear high heels and short skirts put themselves at greater risk of rape has drawn widespread condemnation.

"If you are blind drunk and wearing those clothes how able are you to get away?" Conservative Party lawmaker Richard Graham, of Gloucester, was quoted as saying by his local newspaper, The Citizen.

Anti-rape activists said Graham's comments smacked of blaming rape victims for having been assaulted. But Graham said in a blog post on Saturday that his interview "in no way intimates ANY excuse for predatory behaviour".

In further comments to The Citizen, Graham said, "Risk management is a million miles from saying anything like 'she was asking for it'."

(3) Finance ministry bats for 10% reduction in fuel prices

In a major policy shift that would bring relief to fuel consumers and the economy but shake up the domestic oil retail market, the finance ministry has asked petroleum ministry to price motor and kitchen fuels at export parity.

The directive, if accepted by the petroleum ministry, could reduce fuel prices by some 10% or more and bring down the government's oil subsidy by Rs 18,000 crore.

Motor and kitchen fuels are now priced at trade parity, or an average of import and export prices in the ratio of 80:20, respectively. Import price gets a heavier weightage directly in proportion to India's oil imports, which stands at over 80% of its needs.

While consumers and the government would benefit from export-parity pricing, refineries, particularly in the state sector built several years ago in the hinterland and the northeast, would be hit badly.

But the finance ministry has little option. An estimated Rs 160,000 crore fuel subsidy bill this fiscal and a widening fiscal deficit as well as the spectre of a ratings downgrade has pushed its back to the wall.

Export-parity pricing would automatically prune the fuel subsidy bill. This is how it would work: export parity would reduce the price at which refineries sell fuels to the marketing wings of fuel retailers. This would narrow the gap with pump prices and reduce the amount of loss that the government has to compensate to the oil retailers in cash.

At present, state retailers sell diesel at a price that is Rs 10.81 a litre less than what they pay their refining units. Similarly, their retail price for cooking gas is Rs 490.50 a cylinder less than the cost of purchase. For kerosene, the gap stands at Rs 32.17 a litre. The government pays cash to the retailers to bridge this gap.

Petrol, which is officially deregulated, is being sold at nearly market price and the government does not pay any compensation if the retailers suffer any loss by selling at below-market price, even if it is under verbal diktat from the oil ministry.

Export-parity would bring down the retail price of all fuels. This is one of the components of the finance ministry's big picture. Fuel prices are one of the major factors contributing to high inflation that leads to higher interest rates that stifle economic growth. Lower fuel prices would help cool inflation and create ground for the Reserve Bank of India to cut rates.

Together with a lower subsidy bill, the scenario would come as a breather for the government to stave off a possible ratings downgrade.

(4) Myanmar unveils major debt relief deal

Myanmar on Monday announced a deal with international lenders to cancel nearly $6 billion of its debt, another milestone in the rapid transformation of the former junta-ruled nation.

The former pariah state also cleared its arrears to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) with the help of a bridge loan from Japan, removing another key hurdle for the resumption of international aid.

Myanmar said the Paris Club of creditor nations had agreed at a meeting on January 25 to write off half of its debts to the group in two phases, with the remaining amounts to be rescheduled over 15 years.

There was no immediate comment from the Paris Club, an informal grouping of industrialised nations formed in 1956.

According to Myanmar, Japan has committed to cancel arrears worth more than $3 billion while Norway is writing off $534 million. It said other bilateral donors were expected to follow suit.

Myanmar finance minister Win Shein said the agreement heralded the beginning of "an era of new relationships in which Myanmar is committed to fully cooperate with all the members of the Paris Club", according to a government statement.

He said Myanmar would use the resources made available by the debt relief for development and poverty reduction programmes.

Japan had already announced plans to cancel some of Myanmar's debt, saying last April it would forgive 300 billion yen ($3.3 billion) of the 500 billion yen it was owed.

The moves follow a string of dramatic political reforms in Myanmar, which is seeking development assistance and foreign investment to boost its ailing economy as it emerges from decades of military rule.

In another landmark, Myanmar restructured more than $900 million of debts to the World Bank and the ADB, enabling the two development lenders to resume assistance to the country after a decades-long absence.

"Myanmar has come a long way in its economic transformation, undertaking unprecedented reforms to improve people's lives, especially the poor and vulnerable," said the World Bank's Myanmar director Annette Dixon.

"Much work remains to be done. We are committed to helping the government accelerate poverty reduction and build shared prosperity," she added.

The World Bank in November pledged $245 million of aid to support Myanmar's economic development.

The Washington-based institution closed its Yangon office in 1987 and ceased new lending after the then-ruling junta stopped making payments on debts worth hundreds of millions of dollars left from previous programmes.

The Manila-based ADB said Monday that it planned "major investments" in road, energy, irrigation and education projects, hailing its return to Myanmar as a "historic tipping point".

President Thein Sein has overseen a series of dramatic reforms since taking office in 2011, including the release of political prisoners and the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.

In response, the West has begun rolling back sanctions and foreign firms are lining up to invest in the country, eyeing its huge natural resources, large population and strategic location between China and India.

(5) RBI says sustained fiscal consolidation needed for monetary easing

The Reserve Bank of India has said that a sustained commitment to contain fiscal and current account deficits was needed to create room for monetary easing, a day before it is widely expected to cut interest rates for the first time since April.

RBI said, "Growth remains below potential for the fifth successive quarter. Policy initiatives of the government are yet to show up fully or definitively in data. Revival may take some more time."

While the near-term risks to a bloating fiscal deficit have waned following the government's recent policies to stick to its fiscal deficit target of 5.3 per cent of GDP, sustainable fiscal consolidation would require cuts in subsidies.

"As reforms get executed, monetary policy could increasingly focus on growth revival," the Reserve Bank of India said in its quarterly report on macroeconomic and monetary developments on Monday.

The Reserve Bank of India added that even if inflation recedes further, the wide current account deficit may slow the pace of monetary policy easing. The current account gap had touched a record high of 5.4 per cent in July-September and is likely to rise further in the December quarter, it said.

The RBI also said its survey of professional forecasters had lowered the growth forecast for the 2012/13 fiscal year ending March to 5.5 per cent from 5.7 per cent previously. In October, the central bank lowered its own forecast for 2012/13 growth to 5.8 per cent from 6.5 per cent.

The survey also revised down the average wholesale price index inflation forecast to 7.5 per cent from 7.7 per cent. In October, the RBI had forecast that inflation would be running at 7.5 per cent by March, though December's rate of 7.18 per cent was the lowest in three years and better than the bank had expected.

The RBI is expected to reduce the policy repo rate by 25 basis points to 7.75 per cent in a policy review on Tuesday, making its first cut in nine months, economists polled by Reuters said earlier this month.

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