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Today's Hot Stories - April 06, 2010

10 Headlines for Today

(1) J&K govt invokes ESMA as employees continue strike
(2) Journalism can play a leading role in agenda-building process: N. Ram
(3) 7 dead, 20 missing in US mine blast
(4) Airtel Talkies’ to offer movie content on phone
(5) Kerala IT company listed as top innovator of 2009
(6) U.S. oil majors keen to invest in India
(7) Sachin's approach towards the game has changed: Kapil
(8) Rajasthan Royals beat Deccan Chargers by two runs
(9) Tiger Woods begins the long climb back on and off the course
(10) Behind China's India policy, a growing debate

5 Stories for Today

(1) Congress left isolated on women's quota
(2) Pak Taliban attack US consulate in Peshawar
(3) No change in FDI norms for banks: Sharma
(4) Renault, Nissan and Daimler to seal alliance: Report
(5) Food Bill final draft after BPL estimates

(1) Congress left isolated on women's quota

The women's bill seems to be going nowhere. On Monday, BJP offered to consider the option of letting political parties implement the 33% quota while Congress's own allies Trinamool Congress, NCP and National Conference urged that the objections of Yadav leaders should not be brushed aside. Hemmed in from all sides, the government doesn't seem to be in a position to move on the controversial bill. If the BJP's positioning was a surprise, CPM too said it could look at the sub-quota argument though it seemed constitutionally unfeasible. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, while reiterating the party's support for the quota bill, told an all-party meeting that if unanimity could be built on political parties implementing the quota by way of ticket distribution, with the process being overseen by the Election Commission, the BJP was prepared to consider such an option.

This was in sync with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's views who along with RJD chief Lalu Prasad and BSP reiterated the demand for a "quota within quota" for minority and backward caste women. BJP's unexpected shift weakened the support the bill has had by way of backing offered by the saffron party along with Congress and Left.

If the BJP positioning - perhaps a reflection of deep discontent among its Lok Sabha MPs -- was a surprise, Congress's allies like Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee batted strongly for the Yadavs, urging that interests of the "weaker sections" not be overlooked. With NCP and National Conference also chipping in, government does not seem to be in a position to bring the bill to Lok Sabha.

Almost all parties also made it clear that they would not support the use of marshals as was the case in the Rajya Sabha. On its part, the government saw the meeting as a listening exercise as it clearly views its financial business as priority in the remainder of the budget session.

The Left also sprung a surprise when CPM's Basudev Acharya said the party was ready to discuss the subquota alternative even though it did not seem constitutionally tenable.

All this may force Congress to revisit the bill and in the immediate future put in cold storage, now that options of reduced quantum, subquotas and quotas in tickets are being freely aired.

By the time the meeting wound up, the Centre indicated it would not rush into any adventure and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee told leaders he would discuss the suggestions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A statement simply noted that "further discussion will continue".

The Yadav chieftains and the BSP stuck to their guns for subquota, a rare occasion when Mulayam and Mayawati were on the same side of the political divide. Mayawati confidant Dara Singh Chouhan said his party would hold statewide demonstrations to protest the move which hurts the interests of women of weaker sections.

BJP's intervention came after SP, BSP, JD(U) and RJD had expressed concern that 33% quota would hurt the interests of weaker sections and Muslims. Mukherjee disagreed with Swaraj that there had been a consensus on the proposal earlier as she claimed, but the leader said she was referring to a meeting called by PM with NDA and allies in UPA-1's tenure.

The BJP's shift seems dictated by a virtual vertical split in the saffron outfit against the quota legislation. But it strikes a chord with male MPs across party lines like Congress who may not speak in the open. It also aligned the party with Shiv Sena which made a similar plea.

Mulayam on Monday was his usual self, saying forcing the bill in the thick of national problems could lead to chaos. He recently stated his unwillingness to back down on the controversy by saying "it will bring to Parliament elite women who will be whistled at".

However, the divergence of opinion on how the women's quota should be governed has also triggered ideological battles. The loud advocacy of subquota principle has BJP concerned that it will bring in "communal quota". Swaraj said BJP will not accept a subquota for OBCs and Muslims as the Constitution only permitted political reservation for SCs and STs.

(2) Pak Taliban attack US consulate in Peshawar

Within hours of a deadly explosion that killed 43 people in a political rally near Peshawar, heavily armed terrorists in two vehicles hurled bombs and fired at securitymen near the tightly-guarded American consulate in Pakistan's northwestern city, killing four people. In all, 53 people were killed and nearly 100 wounded, including the six Taliban attackers who were shot dead in the protracted gunfire that rattled Peshawar on Monday. Police said the security forces held off terrorists and prevented them from storming the consulate. No one was wounded inside the US complex but three of its Pakistani guards were killed. It was a well-planned suicide attack." The blasts kicked up a thick plume of smoke into the sky, as the soldiers cordoned off the scene of explosion and helicopters hovered overhead. The assault was the first on a US mission in four years since the American consulate in Karachi was targeted in 2006. Pakistan Taliban, who have frequently attacked Peshawar and it tribal areas, claimed responsibility and warned of more such assaults.

The three explosions in Peshawar went off within a span of 15 minutes in the cantonment area, quite close to the American consulate. After the triple blasts, a gun battle between the security forces and the attackers erupted on Khyber road. This stretch has witnessed several terror attacks in the last few months, including a deadly one on the provincial headquarters of the ISI last November. "The attackers came in two vehicles. They were well-armed and it was a well-organised attack," said Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior minister in the NWFP government. His house faces the US consulate. US missions and staff have been targeted several times since Pakistan became a frontline state in the US campaign against terrorism after 9/11. The embassy said the attack was coordinated and the terrorists tried to enter the building using grenades and sheer fire-power. "The attacks reflect their desperation as they have been rejected by people throughout Pakistan," the US embassy said in a statement. A police officer said the terrorists damaged barracks that formed part of the consulate's outer security layer. "All six militants, with suicide vests, were gunned down in the battle," he said. "A civilian and a paramilitary guard were also killed. The vehicles carrying the terrorists were blown to bits." The assault on the consulate came within hours of a bomb explosion in a gathering of Awami National Party at Lower Dir, about 80km from Peshawar. ANP leader Hashim Khan Babar said the attacks appeared to be in response to a major anti-Taliban operation launched in the Orakzai tribal region near Peshawar last week. The bomber tried to enter the venue where the ANP was holding a meeting. He blew himself when he was stopped. The secular ANP, founded by 'Frontier Gandhi' Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, rules NWFP, and is also part of Pakistan's federal coalition. The meeting was called to celebrate the renaming of NWFP under constitutional amendments expected to be approved in parliament this week.

(3) No change in FDI norms for banks: Sharma

Union Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma on Monday ruled out making any changes in the foreign direct investment (FDI) norms for private banks, asserting that the present rules were doing well.

Mr. Sharma said the new FDI policy ‘is doing very well,' indicating that private sector banks like ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank would be treated as foreign entities as majority of their ownership lies with overseas investors.

“As of now, the policy, which is there, is doing very well,'' he said.

While the control in as many as seven private banks is with the Indians, their foreign ownership is above 50 per cent, thus making them ineligible for being termed as domestic entities. “Yes there are some banks and the talks have been there between the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry and the Commerce and Industry Ministry. But as of now, the policy which is there is doing very well,'' Mr. Sharma said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sharma said further negotiations would be held soon between India and ASEAN for opening trade in services, an area of immense interest to Indian professionals. Officials from India and ASEAN would resume their talks to widen of the scope of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the 10-nation trading bloc to cover services and investment.

“The second round of negotiations is soon going to begin,'' Mr. Sharma said. The two sides are hoping to conclude the negotiations by August.

The country is looking at expanding trade with ASEAN in several services, including banking, insurance, health, accountancy, architecture and engineering.

The two sides aim to increase their $44 billion trade to $50 billion by the end of 2010.

(4) Renault, Nissan and Daimler to seal alliance: Report

French carmakers Renault are set to approve a deal to seal a strategic alliance with Germany's premium carmaker Daimler, at a special board meeting Tuesday, Le Figaro newspaper reported on its website.

The board meeting, scheduled for 8:30 am (0630 GMT) at Renault's headquarters on the outskirts of Paris, will also discuss cross-shareholding between the two groups.

Japanese motor company Nissan, of which Renault has a 44-percent share, would also feature in the financial deal, with an official announcement expected Wednesday night latest.

Renault chairman Carlos Ghosn, who is also Nissan's president, himself spoke of talks with various partners, including Daimler on questions of joint investment, scale and the sharing of technology.

Daimler meanwhile has said it has no objection in principle to such a deal.

German industry experts think that Daimler, by cooperating with Renault, could make savings of 600 million euros (800 million dollars) in its development sector.

(5) Food Bill final draft after BPL estimates

The Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on Food on Monday asked the Planning Commission to come up with poverty estimates (below poverty line population) which lie at the core of the formulation of the National Food Security Bill. The draft Bill, prepared by the Food Ministry and vetted by the Law Ministry, was discussed at the 90-minute meeting here.

The EGoM has sought additional information from the Food Ministry on known models of guaranteeing food security to the poor by law. There are about 22 countries that have enacted a similar law.

Emerging from the meeting, Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said: “The issue of BPL list was discussed at length. The Planning Commission needs to give an opinion on BPL estimates. Taking that figure, the final draft of the Bill will be prepared.”

He said: “There is some additional information that the EGoM has sought and the Ministry will come up with it in three weeks. The EGoM will meet again after three weeks.”

The Group wanted to know how such a law was implemented in other countries.

Asked whether Congress president Sonia Gandhi had recently written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the Bill and if the communication was referred to the Ministry, Mr. Pawar said: “No. I am not aware of any such letter.”

To a question whether the EGoM wanted the minimum entitlement of 25 kg per family revised, he said, “President Pratibha Patil, in her address to Parliament, had talked about providing 25 kg wheat or rice at Rs. 3 a kg to every BPL household per month.”

Mr. Pawar said it was up to the Planning Commission to firm up the BPL list. “It is up to them whether they base it on the Tendulkar Committee report or the earlier N.C. Saxena panel or the Wadhwa committee.”

Sources indicated that issues of food grains production and procurement were also discussed. “The government is guaranteeing 25 kg to all BPL families. That does not prevent it from giving more if it so wishes,” the sources said.

The EGoM, headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, has as members Mr. Pawar, A.K. Antony, C.P. Joshi and Anand Sharma among others.

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