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Today's Hot Stories - February 23, 2011

10 Headlines for Today

(1) Maoists free Collector, engineer
(2) 31 convicted, 63 acquitted in Godhra train fire case
(3) Opposition trying to wrest control of Tripoli
(4) SX4 sedan diesel from Maruti Suzuki
(5) New pension plan from IDBI Federal Life
(6) S Korea seeks govt support for proposed SAIL—POSCO JV
(7) Sprint king engages in scuffle in Games Village
(8) Tamil Nadu women keep crown
(9) England holds nerve to win a thriller
(10) Earth's inner core rotating slower than previously believed

5 Stories for Today

(1) Manmohan announces JPC on 2G scam
(2) 75 dead, 300 missing after New Zealand quake
(3) FICCI against roll backof stimulus package
(4) Amway aims at Rs 2,500-cr sales
(5) Twin challenges in agriculture

(1) Manmohan announces JPC on 2G scam

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday announced the government's decision to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to look into the 2G spectrum allocation scam.

Making the announcement in both the Houses of Parliament, Dr. Singh said that the country could “ill afford'' disruption of the crucial budget session.

The winter session was washed out with the Opposition demanding the setting up of a JPC to probe the spectrum allocation which, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), had caused a “presumptive” loss of Rs.1.76-lakh crore to the exchequer. Dr. Singh made a statement in the Lok Sabha as soon as it met for the first working day of the session. A formal motion for the constitution of a JPC would be moved soon, he said.

“We could not succeed in spite of our sincere efforts'' to persuade the Opposition not to insist on a JPC probe, Dr. Singh said, while adding that his government was committed to rooting out corruption. The Prime Minister said “all effective steps” were taken to convince the Opposition in this regard.

“We can ill afford a situation, where Parliament is not allowed to function during the crucial Budget session. It is in these special circumstances that our government agrees to the setting up of a JPC,'' he said.

Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj thanked the Prime Minister for the decision. “We should not see this as a victory or defeat. This is a victory of democracy. We should all work together putting aside any talk of victory or defeat,” she said, appealing to the NDA MPs to let the House function in an orderly manner.

(2) 75 dead, 300 missing after New Zealand quake

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Wednesday declared a national state of emergency confirming the death toll at 75, following the devastating earthquake that led to massive buildings and property damage around the country’s second-largest city of Christchurch.

Around 55 bodies had been identified and there were a further 20 unidentified bodies, media reports said.

Another 300 people were listed as missing, though not all of them would be trapped in buildings that were being searched for survivors.

Rescuers have had to amputate limbs to free survivors from collapsed buildings after the quake, police said.

Superintendent Russell Gibson said that bodies still littered the streets. “There is incredible carnage right throughout the city,” Mr. Gibson was quoted by media reports here. “There are bodies littering the streets, they are trapped in cars and crushed under rubble, where they are clearly deceased. Our focus has turned on the living.”

Mr. Gibson said that the number of trapped “could be another 100, it could easily be more than that”, adding the toll would rise. “It will be significantly higher than that,” he said.

More than 500 rescuers, including police and military personnel, pulled between 20 and 30 people from the debris overnight, toiling through the darkness, he added. Overall, 120 people have been pulled alive from the rubble.

“It’s quite amazing, we have some people whom we’ve pulled out and they haven’t got so much as a scratch on them. We’ve had other people where we’ve had to amputate limbs to get them out,” Mr. Gibson said.

Rescue efforts focused on the CTV building in Madras Street and the Pyne Gould Guinness Building in Cambridge Terrace, both of which collapsed.

(3) FICCI against roll backof stimulus package

Contradicting the claims of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) on the health of the economy, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on Tuesday warned against any roll back of the stimulus package in the Budget for 2011-12.

According to FICCI, its Business Confidence Survey revealed a slowing down of industrial growth during the next six months, stressing that the food inflation threatened to spill over into the manufacturing sector.

The PMEAC had forecast a 9 per cent rate of growth of the economy and suggested rolling back of stimulus package and raising excise duty in the budget proposals.

The chamber said that on account of food inflation, companies were facing demand for higher wages and salaries, complicating their cost structure further. Rising raw material prices were also compressing profits.

While the current demand situation appeared satisfactory, FICCI said that the near term order book position was showing signs of some moderation. Industry's performance had been impacted also by the successive hikes in key monetary variables by the Reserve Bank of India.

(4) Amway aims at Rs 2,500-cr sales

Amway India, direct-selling FMCG company, is aiming at a business of Rs 2,500 crore by 2012.

The business has been growing by around 25 per cent over the last eight months of the current year and the company is confident of achieving the target, according to Mr Pankaj Vassal, Vice President – South.

He said here that the turnover of two products in the nutrition and wellness category, Nutrilite Protein Powder and Nutrilite Daily, was Rs 100 crore each.

He said that the focus on improving the customer access and awareness over the last two or three years had resulted in the business growing from Rs 1,128 crore to Rs. 1,407 crore between 2008 and 2009. The facility for placing orders on the Web had led to higher productivity from the distributors and the TV advertisement campaign had enhanced the Amway brand. Mr William S. Pinckney, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, said in a message that globally, Amway had posted revenues of $8.4 billion in 2009, as against $7.9 billion in the previous year.

He said that Amway would continue concentrating on business excellence, consumer experience, distributor experience and products and brands. The company would launch new products in the health category and also embark on a Nutrilite-focussed advertising campaign shortly.

Almost 97 per cent of the products of Amway India are manufactured within the country through seven third-party contract manufacturers and the company currently offers 115 products in five categories of personal care, home care, nutrition and wellness, cosmetics and gift catalogue.

The company has recently tripled the production capacity at its leading vendor facility at Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, by commissioning four new production lines at an investment of Rs 55 crore.

(5) Twin challenges in agriculture

The major challenge in the agriculture and food sector is to increase production and productivity (yield per hectare) so as to provide all citizens with food security and to contain domestic food inflation that has remained high for an entire year till November-December last when it peaked.

It is expected that the outlay for food and public distribution will reflect enhanced food subsidy to meet the requirements under the proposed National Food Security Bill if only to display the government's intent of giving citizens food security.The food subsidy now stands at about Rs. 82,000 crore, including the Rs.12,000 crore “carried forward” from the previous year. This is expected to go up substantially, if wheat and rice are to be made available to Public Distribution System beneficiaries at Rs. 2 and Rs. 3 a kg. There is no official word yet on the number of beneficiaries, but the government will have to make a much higher food subsidy allocation. In fact, the allocation might have a clue to the government's intentions.That the government has been unable to rein in price rise is obvious from the increase in onion prices in December. Responses to such situations have mostly been ad hoc: when onion prices zoomed to Rs.80 a kg, there was a hasty announcement on the setting up of vegetable clusters around cities. Again when food grains were damaged because they were kept in open-air cap-and-plinth storage, the government declared that storage and warehousing capacity would be enhanced, but there was no adequate financial support. For that, the government wants the private sector to come forward.

Therefore, in this year's budget, the Finance Minister is expected to allocate adequate funds for enhancing storage capacity. As per one assessment, about Rs.4,000 crore is required for creating the storage capacity needed to store grain under the food security bill.

At the same time, money would have to be set aside for the proposed vegetable clusters. This will be in addition to the demand for farmers' markets that sell perishables directly to consumers without the licensee or the ‘cartelized system' of artiyas in mandis set up under the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act.

The onion crisis exposed the role of the middlemen as never before. Even when prices have fallen to Rs.4 to Rs.8 a kg at the traditional growing centres in Nashik in Maharashtra, the consumers are still paying up to Rs.25 a kg.

As the number of farmers who committed suicide increased last year, making farming remunerative also needs attention. There is no solution yet to the high input costs, pressure on land and water and farmers' borrowings from the informal sector. There is a pressing demand to lower the interest on farm credit to four per cent.

In this final year of the 11th Plan, the government is expected work towards consolidation of the Agriculture Ministry's flagship programmes for enhancing farm growth. The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna, the National Food Security Mission, the National Horticulture Mission, the Integrated Scheme of Pulses, Oilseeds and Maize and the Technology Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture in North-East and Himalayan States have started showing results: the farm growth expected to increase from 0.2 per cent last year to 5.6 per cent this year. However, much of it is projected to come from the dairy, fishery and horticulture sector rather than from food grains.

With 60 per cent farming centred in rain-fed areas that dependent on monsoon, it is imperative that higher investment be made to bring more areas under irrigation. Linked to this is the crop insurance scheme, which, even after several years, remains at the experimental stage in a few districts and covering a few crops. This needs to be strengthened to adequately compensate rain-fed farmers for losses from the vagaries of weather.

There should be higher investment in improved assessment of weather and crop conditions for timely action and management of markets. At the same time, the allocation for agriculture research and development has to be enhanced to increase grain productivity and tackle the challenges of climate change.

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