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Military cooperation, eastern Ladakh on US defence secy’s agenda in talks with India


India and the USA may also discuss measures to encourage American companies to set up local manufacturing facilities for defence equipment, including possibilities of joint ventures with Indian partners.

The situation in the IndoPacific region, China’s aggressive behaviour against its neighbours and a strong India-US defence and strategic partnership are likely to figure prominently during US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s talks with Indian leaders, sources said today.

Mr Austin arrived here this evening on a three-day visit, becoming the first top American leader to visit India since the inauguration of the Joe Biden administration in January.

Mr Austin will hold talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tomorrow and also call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


 
Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar, Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat and the three services chiefs are likely to be part of the Indian delegation at the talks.

Mr Austin was scheduled to meet National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval late in the evening.

Mr Austin is the first US Secretary of Defence to include India on his maiden foreign trip, reflecting the importance the new administration in Washington gives to ties with New Delhi.

The visit comes days after the virtual summit of four ‘Quad’ countries attended by Prime Minister Modi, President Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The leaders decided to work towards an “open and rule-based” Indo-Pacific region in the backdrop of the aggressive posturing by China on maritime and territorial issues. Sources said China’s aggression in Eastern Ladakh is also likely to come up during the talks since Mr Austin is arriving in New Delhi after visits to Japan and South Korea, two of Washington’s key allies which have their own disputes with Beijing.

India and the USA may also discuss measures to encourage American companies to set up local manufacturing facilities for defence equipment, including possibilities of joint ventures with Indian partners.

India’s decision to purchase S-400 Triumf air defence systems from Russia may also come up. However, India is yet again expected to convey to the US administration its decision to continue diversifying its defence imports keeping in mind the country’s security needs in a volatile region.




Narendra Modi meets US Defence Secretary; stresses commitment to partnership


It is particularly highlighted in the Indo-Pacific region and the US is responding by working closely with allies and partners.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and stressed the commitment to the strategic partnership between the two countries amid rising tensions in the region and around the world with China.

Modi tweeted after their meeting on Friday, “Pleasure to meet U.S. @SecDef Lloyd Austin today. Conveyed my best wishes to @POTUS @JoeBiden. India and US are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good.”

Austin also met with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, according to the US embassy.

Soon after his arrival, Austin tweeted that his discussions in India would centre on cooperating to face “most pressing challenges” in the Indo-Pacific region where China’s aggressive actions, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea are on the rise.

He is scheduled to meet Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the delegations from the two countries are to hold discussions during his visit.

The first visit by a member of US President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to India came as leaders of the US and China clashed at a meeting in Alaska symbolising the growing aggressiveness of China.

It is particularly highlighted in the Indo-Pacific region and the US is responding by working closely with allies and partners.

Austin tweeted, “Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defense partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region.”

Outlining Austin’s agenda in India, Acting Assistant Defence Secretary for Indo-Pacific, David F. Helvey, said that he will “discuss operationalising the major defence partnership that we have with India, including through enhanced information sharing, regional security cooperation, defence trade, and cooperation in new domains.”

The Indian Defence Ministry said that Singh and Austin “are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges and common interests in maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”

It added, “Discussions regarding defence cooperation would also focus on how both countries could consolidate military-to-military cooperation and defence trade and industry cooperation.”

The US designated India as a major defence partner by the US in 2016 allowing it access to some defence hi-tech that would normally be available only to allies.

The visit reflects President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region to meet the Chinese challenge.

Last week Biden held a virtual summit with other leaders of the Quad nations, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan, at which they discussed security issues in the face of Chinese aggressive actions.

While on his way to India, Austin spoke to Australia’s Foreign Minister Maria Payne, who also holds the defence portfolio.

Helvey said that Austin spoke to her about the “Quadrilateral process” of the four nations.

Before coming to India, Austin had visited two US treaty allies, Japan and Korea, on the frontlines of Chinese aggressiveness at sea in the region, and the military headquarters of the Indo-Pacific headquarters in Hawaii.

He and Secretary of State Antony Blinken held 2+2 ministerial meetings with their counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo.

The meeting of Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan with senior Chinese officials, State Councilor Wang Yi and Communist Party Foreign Affairs Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi, opened yesterday in Anchorage, Alaska, with open hostility.

Blinken said: “We will always stand up for our principles for our people, and for our friends.”

Yi retorted that the US was trying to “obstruct normal trade exchanges, and incite some countries to attack China” — a veiled reference to India, which hs defended itself against a by Beijing’s army along the Line of Actual Control.




BJP issues whip to Lok Sabha MPs for March 22


In this case, all the Lok Sabha MPs of the party are requested to vote in favour of the government by compulsorily appearing in the House throughout the day on March 22.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party has issued a whip for its Lok Sabha MPs for March 22. Sources say that the government may bring the Bill related to the creation of new banks for infrastructure funding on this day. Apart from this, there are preparations to bring two other Bills.

A three-line whip issued by Chief Whip Rakesh Singh stated, “On March 22, some very important legislative functions will be brought to the Lok Sabha for discussion and passage.

In this case, all the Lok Sabha MPs of the party are requested to vote in favour of the government by compulsorily appearing in the House throughout the day on March 22.”




Maharashtra ATS may seek Sachin Vaze’s custody in businessman’s death case


After a brief hearing this afternoon, the Thane court has now posted the matter for further hearing on March 30.

The Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), which is probing the death of Thane businessman Mankukh Hiran, is likely to seek custody of arrested-suspended Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Vaze from the Special NIA Court, official sources said here on Friday.

Official sources said that the ATS has collected sufficient evidences in the case for which Vaze’s custody may be required and for this, it will approach the Special NIA Court.

Earlier on Friday, the ATS opposed the anticipatory bail plea of Vaze – currently in the NIA custody till March 25 – at a hearing before the Thane Sessions Court.

The anticipatory bail plea – which was filed by Vaze before his arrest and subsequent suspension – had come up for hearing on March 12 when the court declined any relief, but served notice to the state government and posted it for hearing on March 19.

After a brief hearing this afternoon, the Thane court has now posted the matter for further hearing on March 30.

The NIA is probing the SUV case involving the abandoned Scorpio found near industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s home on February 25 along with 20 gelatin sticks and a threat note, while the ATS is handling the Hiran death case.

Both the cases triggered a huge political uproar culminating in the shunting of the former Mumbai Commissioner of Police Param Bir Singh who was replaced by Hemant Nagrale, with speculation of more action expected in the next few days.




SUV case fallout: Pawar-Anil Deshmukh meet in New Delhi


“The NIA and ATS are investigating the matter in depth. The state government is fully cooperating with the NIA… Both their probes are proceeding in the right direction,” informed Deshmukh.

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh called on Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar along with state NCP chief Jayant Patil and others in New Delhi on Friday.

Emerging from the meeting after nearly two hours, Deshmukh said that they discussed the fallout in the Antilia bomb scare case in which an explosive-laden SUV was left outside Mukesh Ambani’s residence, and the Assistant Police Inspector (API) Sachin Vaze matter besides the ongoing probes by National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) into them.

“The NIA and ATS are investigating the matter in depth. The state government is fully cooperating with the NIA… Both their probes are proceeding in the right direction,” informed Deshmukh.

He said that after the probe agencies’ reports are received, the state government will take appropriate action against the culprits.

However, he declined to answer a query whether the recent developments have resulted in a demoralization of the Mumbai and state police forces which witnessed a major shakeup on Wednesday following the arrest of the Crime Branch API Vaze, and others under the scanner of NIA.

Pawar is expected to return to Mumbai later this evening and may meet Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, amid speculation that there may be some changes in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) cabinet pertaining to NCP ministers.

The case of the SUV parked near the Ambani residence was followed by the death of Thane businessman Mansukh Hiren erupted into a huge political row, Pawar has been closely monitoring the situation with senior leaders of the ruling Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress.

Upping the ante against the MVA, the opposition BJP has demanded that Thackeray should accept moral responsibility in the matter and resign as Chief Minister.




Fresh Covid cases at new high: Nearly 40K reported


Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab are recording the highest daily cases.

India has logged 39,726 coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, highest since November last year, taking the total tally to 1,15,14,331.

A single-day spike of 41,810 new infections were recorded on November 28. The country has registered an increase in the cases for the ninth consecutive day.

Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab are recording the highest daily cases.

With the death of 154 people in the last 24 hours, the fatality toll has reached 1,59,370 in India. The active caseload has mounted to 2,71,282.

With the discharge of 20,654 patients in a day, a total of 1,10,83,679 have been discharged so far. A total of 10,57,383 tests were done on Thursday.

So far, 3.9 crore doses of corona vaccine have been administered in the country since the drive began on January 16 after approval for ‘Covishield’ and ‘Covaxin’.

More than 17.83 lakh doses were administered on a single day on Thursday.




RS passes Bill to raise FDI in insurance


The Bill will raise the foreign investment limit in the insurance sector to 74 per cent. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said while control may go to foreign companies, the majority of directors and key management persons will be resident Indians who will be covered by the law of the land

The Insurance (Amendment) Bill, 2021 which seeks to raise the limit of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the insurance sector from 49 per cent to 74 per cent, was today passed by the Rajya Sabha after a walk-out by the Opposition.

Demanding the Bill’s reference to a Standing Committee or a Select Committee for a deeper scrutiny, and enlisting of views of all stakeholders, the Opposition led by the Congress forced several adjournments before the Bill was discussed.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, replying to the discussion, allayed members’ fears and said FDI was needed as the sector suffered from liquidity stress and its growth was restrained.

She said FDI was meant to supplement the country’s financial resources, and would provide the funds needed by the companies to grow and provide better penetration of services across the country. The laws of the land were mature enough to control all operations, she said.

She assured the House that citizens interests would be fully protected under the new FDI regime, and 50 per cent of the companies’ directors would be independent directors, and a specified percentage of the profits would stay in India as reserves.

The Modi government was committed to social justice and the reservation policy would continue. She said the government was only taking the reforms process forward.

Ms Sitharaman said the law itself had provided safeguards under which the FDI limit was being relaxed. She said funds of the insured persons would not be taken out of the country.

Rejecting the charge of not consulting the stakeholders, the minister said 60 insurers, besides several industry leaders, were consulted. She said insurance was a highly regulated sector, and there should not be any worries about it.

Ms Sitharaman said ever since the opening of the sector to private sector, the number of private companies had grown whereas the number of public sector companies had remained virtually stagnant. Since 2015, FDI totalling Rs 26,000 crores had come to India. The number of re-insurance companies too was going up in the private sector.

The government life and non-life insurance companies had 1.65 lakh employees and 15.45 lakh agents. The private companies on the other hand had 2.67 lakh employees and their agents were more than 21 lakh. Those engaged in the private sector were also Indians, she said.




Toll booths to go, says Gadkari; unveils vehicle scrapping policy


Mr Gadkari, speaking in the Lower House during Question Hour, said 93 per cent of vehicles pay toll using FASTag, but the remaining 7 per cent have still not adopted it despite paying a double toll. “I want to assure the House that within one year all physical toll booths in the country will be removed. It means that toll collection will happen via GPS.

India will do away with toll booths and implement GPS based toll collection within one year, said road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari in the Lok Sabha today.

The minister also unveiled the government’s vehicle scrapping policy, proposed in the Union Budget, in a suo moto statement made in both Houses of Parliament, under which about 5 per cent rebate on new cars would be offered to buyers on scrapping of old vehicles.

Mr Gadkari, speaking in the Lower House during Question Hour, said 93 per cent of vehicles pay toll using FASTag, but the remaining 7 per cent have still not adopted it despite paying a double toll. “I want to assure the House that within one year all physical toll booths in the country will be removed. It means that toll collection will happen via GPS.

The money will be collected based on GPS imaging (on vehicles),” he said. Explaining further, the minister said he has instructed police inquiry for those vehicles which do not pay toll using FASTag. “There are cases of toll theft and GST evasion cases if FASTag are not fitted in vehicles,” he said.

FASTag, which facilitates electronic payment of fee at toll plazas, was introduced in 2016. From 16 February, vehicles without FASTag are required to pay double toll fees at electronic toll plazas across the country.

“Making the tags compulsory would also help in ensuring that vehicles pass seamlessly through the toll plazas, as the fee payment would be done electronically,” said Mr Gadkari.

Briefing the House about the vehicle scrapping policy, he said it provides for fitness test after 20 years for personal vehicles while commercial ones would require it after the completion of 15 years. If found unfit or in case of a failure to renew registration certificates, such vehicles would be de-registered.

“The scheme shall provide strong incentives to owners of old vehicles to scrap old and unfit vehicles through registered scrapping centres, which shall provide the owners with a scrapping certificate,” Mr Gadkari said.

The incentives provided under the scheme say a scrap value to be given for the old vehicle will be four to six per cent of the ex-showroom price of a new vehicle. The state governments may be advised to offer road-tax rebate of up to 25 per cent for personal vehicles and up to 15 per cent for commercial vehicles.

Vehicle manufacturers will be advised for providing a discount of five per cent on purchase of new vehicle against the scrapping certificate. In addition, the registration fees may also be waived for purchase of new vehicle against the scrapping certificate.

As a disincentive measure, increased fees for fitness certificate and fitness test may be applicable for vehicles 15 years onward from the date of initial registration.

India has 51 lakh Light Motor Vehicles which are older than 20 years and 34 lakh Light Motor Vehicles which are older than 15 years. Older vehicles pollute the environment 10 to 12 times more than fit vehicles and pose a risk to road safety, the minister said.

The objectives of the policy are to reduce of old and defective vehicles, achieve reduction in vehicular air pollutants to fulfil India’s climate commitments, improve road and vehicular safety.

The ecosystem is expected to attract additional investments of around Rs. 10,000 crore and 35,000 job opportunities. The Ministry shall in the next few weeks publish draft notifications for comments.

The Ministry will promote setting up of Registered Vehicle Scrapping Facility (RVSF) across India. In the Rajya Sabha, several MPs complained the Vehicle Scrapping Policy offered meagre concessions to vehicle owners, and urged the minister to keep the interests of the middle classes in mind.




Make Covid vaccination open for all above 18: Kejri to Centre


Delhi govt to increase the daily count of corona shots from 30-40K to 1.25L, CM says; notes an uptick in virus cases in the city but says it is ‘not a cause for worry’ as his govt is tackling it

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal today appealed to the Centre to bring relaxations in the Covid-19 vaccination guidelines and make this vaccination open for all aged above 18 years.

If the Centre does it then the entire population of Delhi could be immunised against Covid in three months, Kejriwal asserted.

The CM also asserted that the Delhi government will increase the count of the Covid vaccine jabs from the existing 30,000-40,000 per day to 1.25 lakh per day along with doubling the vaccination centres from 500 to 1000 in the next few days. The timings for administering the vaccine a day from 9 am to 5 pm are also being extended to 9 am-9 pm.

Noting that coronavirus cases in Delhi have been rising in the last few days, Kejriwal, at a virtual press conference, said it was not a matter to be worried about.

He said that on one hand India has taken a lead in making a Covid vaccine, but on the other, a rise in coronavirus cases is being again reported in the country. This is “difficult to digest”, he said.

“Thus, I would appeal to the Central government to bring some relaxations in the vaccination guidelines, in terms of eligibility of age groups. The current guidelines are very strict and rigid, and also has co-morbidity rider for an age group.

“Our country is now doing good in terms of the production of the vaccine. Therefore, rather than creating criteria on the eligibility, age groups with comorbidities etc, we should create a category of ineligible people, for instance, people below 18 and other age groups,” Kejriwal reportedly said.

The CM suggested that the Covid vaccination process be made open and a walk-in facility should be included as a regular immunisation procedure.

“If the Centre relaxes those criteria and allows vaccination largely for all, and if we get a sufficient supply of the vaccine, then we have formulated a plan today to administer the vaccine to the entire population of Delhi in three months,” he said.

Kejriwal also appealed to the Centre to decentralise the vaccination system so that it exercises less control and allows the state governments to carry out the job “on a war footing”.

“I also want to appeal to the Central government to provide some relaxation in the guidelines for the expansion of vaccination centres. We will be writing to the Centre to relax a few parameters. We assure them that we will be careful, and take all precautions.

“This relaxation will help us in opening new centres. Also, many of the existing centres are functioning 24 hours a day. We will have more centres functioning round-the-clock,” the CM said.

Kejriwal acknowledged an uptick in Covid cases in Delhi in recent days and said his government has directed officials for stricter tracking, tracing and isolation of cases.

It was a “negligible” rise and “not a cause for worry”. It was still much lower compared to several thousands of daily cases reported in the city in June, September and November, he pointed out.

Earlier in the day, Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain asked people to be cautious, observe all Covid safety norms and not get complacent about the pandemic situation in the city.

Jain said that Delhi’s positivity rate was 0.6 per cent, which was the lowest compared to states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Punjab, MP and Haryana. Delhi’s coronavirus testing capacity is five times that of the national average, he said.

Delhi had yesterday recorded 536 coronavirus cases, the highest in about two-and-a-half months, while there more persons died from this infection that took its Covid toll to 10,948.Kejriwal conceded that due to a decrease in Covid cases a few weeks ago, laxity had crept into the system but now direction has been issued for stricter surveillance and stricter enforcement of safety norms like masks and social distancing.

The Delhi government was consulting its own experts and those of the central government and was taking all possible measures to check the fresh rise in the number of coronavirus cases. “We are closely monitoring the situation and taking adequate measures to address the situation,” the CM added.




Congress, Govt spar in Lok Sabha over sedition cases


During the Question Hour, Congress member from Telangana Anumula Revanth Reddy sought the number of cases registered under the offence of sedition across the country during the last 10 years, the conviction rate and the steps taken for their speedy trial.

The Congress and the government engaged in a war of words in Lok Sabha on Tuesday over sedition cases with the opposition party alleging the stringent law is being misused, drawing a sharp retort from Union minister G Kishan Reddy who asked it not to lecture others on democracy.

During the Question Hour, Congress member from Telangana Anumula Revanth Reddy sought the number of cases registered under the offence of sedition across the country during the last 10 years, the conviction rate and the steps taken for their speedy trial.

The focus of his question was on climate activist Disha Ravi who was arrested in the farmer protest toolkit case earlier this year and later granted bail, and cases registered against farmer union leaders after the 26 January violence in the national capital.

Reddy, the minister of state in the home ministry, tabled a written response to the question in the House.

The minister said 47 cases of sedition were registered in 2014; 30 in 2015; 35 in 2016; 51 in 2017; 70 in 2018 and 93 in 2019. “There is no direct involvement of the Centre in sedition cases,” the minister said.

However, Anumula was not satisfied with the response. He said he had sought details for 10 years but the information was provided only from 2014- 2019.

Anumala said, “Giving half information is taking the house towards a wrong direction.”

He added that after 2014, anyone who criticises the government’s policy, the person is charged with sedition.

“In 2019, the conviction rate (for sedition) was 3.3 per cent. This means these are politically motivated cases. If a youth leader is booked for sedition and the cases drags for 4-5 year, he/she is not in a position, they won’t get a job, passport, visa. Activists like Disha Ravi are charged, but they are not able to prove anything in the court,” Anumala said.

He also asked whether there is a proposal to drop the “false charges” against farmer union leaders protesting against the Centre’s three farm laws.

In response, the minister said the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data is based on the information received from all the states.

Attacking the Congress, the minister said, “The member (Anumala) asked as to why the information was not provided before 2014. In case of sedition cases, when the Congress was in power it did not maintain any separate data on this. They clubbed it with all the IPC crimes,” he said.

The minister added that after the Modi government took charge, it started presenting a separate data on the sedition charges.

~With inputs from PTI~





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