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India: Bidders reluctant in tainted 2G spectrum auction

Hoping for $3.3 billion, India gets no bids for 800 Mhz band
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Former telecom minister A. Raja arrives at Parliament in New Delhi on May 16, 2012. A day after he walked out of Tihar Jail after securing bail in the 2G spectrum scam, A Raja went to Parliament. The former telecom minister was in jail for over 15 months after being arrested in February last year for his role in the 2G scam. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

India's ballyhooed auction of 2G telecom spectrum -- designed to undo the theoretical damage of a decision to allot licenses on a first-come, first served basis -- appears to be turning out a major disappointment for the government.

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India: What recovery? Data says industrial output down, trade deficit up

India's factory output fell 0.4 percent in September, against expectations, while the trade deficit rose to $21 billion
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Indian labourers work at a steel factory in the outskirts of Agartala, India's northeastern state of Tripura, on November 1, 2012. India's prime minister on November 1 urged his re-shuffled administration to focus all its efforts on reviving the flagging economy, and said pushing through infrastructure projects would be prioritized. (STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

India's factory output shrank 0.4 percent in Septemer compared with a year earlier, frustrating hopes for an increase of 2 percent or more, while the trade deficit rose to $21 billion in October from $18 billion a month earlier, according to the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

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India likely to be drawn further into Afghan conflict: Former CIA officer

India may be drawn deeper into Afghan conflict during Obama's second term, warns former CIA officer Bruce Riedel
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Indian Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi (L) talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi on November 11,2012. The Afgan President is on a five day state visit to India till November 13. (SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

India is likely to be drawn further into the Afghan conflict during President Barack Obama's second term, career CIA officer Bruce Riedel warns.

"Obama's re-election ensures that fighting terrorism will remain the top priority of American foreign policy," Riedel writes for India Today. "Obama will continue the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen, and perhaps take on new battlefields in North Africa. Pakistan will remain the most difficult bilateral relationship Obama must manage; he will probably move more toward containment. US-India relations will become closer with greater cooperation on Afghanistan."

Meanwhile, the evolving US-Pakistan relationship and the transition from NATO to Afghan leadership in 2014 could have big implications for India.

"If Pakistan encourages the Taliban to step up the pressure on the Kabul government and they recover territory hard won by NATO forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, it will be a sign that Pakistan is determined to push America out of South Asia," Riedel argues. And that will sour US-Pakistan relations even further.

In any case, "India is likely to be drawn deeper into the Afghan conflict," Riedel argues.

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India: Endangered vulture population increases for first time in 20 years

Nearly driven to extinction by a drug used for sick cattle, India's endangered vulture population may finally be making a comeback.
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Founder of the Asha Foundation animal shelter and hospital Harmesh Bhatt plays with Maya, an Indian vulture, at Hathijan village, some 20 kms from Ahmedabad, on January 16, 2010. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

India's endangered vulture population has increased for the first time in 20 years, following the death of 99 percent of the scavengers over the years. The decline had prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to put India's vultures on its list of critically endangered species.

A research paper by scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS) shows that the number of vultures, once found across the country, increased marginally between 2011 and 2012, the Times of India reports.

Vital to the ecosystem and beloved by India's small community of Parsis -- who rely on the carrion eaters to dispose of their dead -- India's vulture population was nearly wiped out before researchers discovered what was killing them: a drug called diclofenac that farmers use widely to treat cattle for various ailments. A palliative for cattle (and humans), diclofenac causes kidney failure in vultures when they eat the carcasses of cows that have been treated with the drug, scientists eventually discovered.

According to the TOI, a ban on the use of diclofenac across South Asia in 2006 led to a drop-off, between 2007 and 2011, in the numbers of birds being killed. Ornithologists said the vulture population had stabilized by 2011, when the numbers remained roughly the same as the previous year.

"Between 2011 and 2012, there has been a slight increase in the population," the paper quoted Vibhu Prakash, deputy director of Bombay Natural History Society and lead researcher of a recent study on the subject, as saying.

Prakash said population estimates are difficult, but the numbers are slightly higher than in 2011, when there were only 1,000 slender-billed vultures (Gyps tenuirostris), 11,000 white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) and 44,000 Long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus) remaining in the country, according to the paper.

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India: Tainted 2G spectrum auction begins today

Alleged irregularities in the allotment of 2G telecom spectrum started India's anti-corruption movement
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Former telecom minister A. Raja arrives at Parliament in New Delhi on May 16, 2012. A day after he walked out of Tihar Jail after securing bail in the 2G spectrum scam, A Raja went to Parliament. The former telecom minister was in jail for over 15 months after being arrested in February last year for his role in the 2G scam. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

India's reboot auction of 2G telecom spectrum licenses begins today, in an effort to undo some of the damage from the scandal that started an ongoing anti-corruption drive that has hammered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party and raise some $7.5 billion to shore up the budget deficit.

The government will auction the 2G spectrum freed from cancellation of 122 telecom licences by the Supreme Court in February starting 9 am on Monday, India Today reports.

A total of 11 blocks of airwave frequencies in each telecom circle, barring Delhi and Mumbai, where there are only eight blocks, will be up for bidding, the magazine said. At the end of the auction, telecom companies will have the option to pay full amount of 33 percent of final price by December 25.

The final price will then determine the amount that government will get from a one-time levy on spectrum held by existing operators beyond 4.4 MHz.

As GlobalPost reported (many times), the so-called "2G telecom spectrum scam" started a massive backlash against Singh's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2011, when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) alleged that then-Telecom Minister A. Raja had cost the treasury as much as $33 billion by allotting licenses on a first-come, first-served basis instead of through a transparent auction.

In a case that has gone through several iterations since then, Raja has been accused of receiving kickbacks through a Byzantine web of shell companies and middlemen in exchange for doling out spectrum to favored companies.

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Britain's Diageo bails out Mallya, buys 53% stake in Kingfisher's United Spirits

Owner of Johnnie Walker pays $2 billion for red carpet into India's huge whiskey market
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In this photograph taken on October 20, 2012, an Indian customer service representative stands inside the closed window of a Kingfisher Airlines booking counter at the International airport in New Delhi. India's troubled Kingfisher Airlines, which has been grounded since October, posted a record second-quarter loss on November 8, 2012, as revenues crashed, intensifying concerns about the carrier's future. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Staff at near-bankrupt Kingfisher Airlines have something to smile about, finally, as the UK's Diageo pulled the trigger to buy a 53 percent stake in Vijay Mallya's flagship United Spirits unit on Friday, providing the flambuoyant tycoon a much-needed $2 billion with which he'll seek to keep his airline from crashing. (And, hopefully, issue some salary checks).

As GlobalPost reported last month, Mallya -- known for apeing Richard Branson, gold chains and shirts unbuttoned to his navel -- has been pilloried as "India's worst businessman" since the high profile failure of his airline. His employees have taken him to court to try to squeeze some cash out of him. And there was a pretty decent chance that shareholders might have made an attempt to force him to cede control of the family business built by his father in the heyday of the Bangalore booze boom.

Mallya, who said Friday that he has not sold the family jewels, though there is every appearance he has put them in hock, now looks to have averted the worst.

Diageo will acquire a 27.4 percent stake in United Spirits at 1440 rupees ($26.32) a share, or 660 million pounds ($1.05 billion), and make a tender offer for another 26 percent, the Associated Press reported. 

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Nepal's Prachanda wants India in on development of Buddha's birthplace

"Nepal, China and India should come together and form a strategic partnership" through $3 billion tourism initiative, says Maoist leader.
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Boudhanath, one of the world's largest stupas, is shown illuminated on the occasion of the 2547th Buddha Jayanti, or Buddha's birthday, May 16 in Lumbini, Nepal. Stupas are dome-shaped structures that serve as a Buddhist shrines. The village of Lumpini is known to the world's Buddhists as the Buddha's birthplace. (Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images)

Days after reviving a controversial project to develop Buddha's birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, with the aid of a China-backed non-profit organization, the former leader of Nepal's Maoist rebellion has invited India, too, to join in creating what some have derided as "Disneyland for Buddhists."

"Nepal, China and India should come together and form a strategic partnership through this Lumbini project for peace, stability and development in the region and Asia," said Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, according to India's Saturday Hindustan Times.

He also mentioned discussions with top Chinese and Indian leaders on the project but didn't give any information on how Indian government or companies could get involved, the paper reported.

As GlobalPost reported earlier this week, Prachanda, who is now the chairman of Nepal's Unified Communist Party, has reportedly inked a deal with the China-backed Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation that will bring in $3 billion to develop Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini into a "world-class city attracting tourists and pilgrims from across the world."

According to the Indian Express, the agreement was signed by Linus Xiao Wunan, executive vice chairman of the APEC Foundation and Prachanda in his capacity as chairman of Nepal's steering committee. But members of Nepal's other political parties challenged his right to sign the deal unilaterally.

“The issue was not discussed in the committee, and it has not authorised Prachanda to sign it in the manner he did,” the Express quoted Minendra Rizal, former Minister for Culture and a Nepali Congress leader, as saying.

“This project has enormous potential and will benefit Nepal, India and China and I have spoken to Indian authorities and they are positive about the project,” Prachanda said during the signing ceremony, according to the report. He did not disclose the details of the project, its total cost, or the time needed to complete it, however.

As GlobalPost reported in January, some see China's enthusiasm for Lumbini as part of a larger "battle for Buddha," pitting Beijing versus New Delhi in the quest to expand "soft power," or cultural influence, within the region.

In this struggle, India seeks to use its common cultural heritage to overcome China's ethnic ties to the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and China seeks to limit the damage from its repression of religious freedom in Tibet and its incessant sparring with the Dalai Lama.

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India: Anti-corruption activist outs Swiss bank holders

Anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal claimed to have details on 700 Indians with Swiss bank accounts, including Reliance Industries' Mukesh Ambani
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India Against Corruption (IAC) activist Arvind Kejriwal delivers a speech at Jantar Mantar after he was released from Bawana Jail in New Delhi. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

In case you're laboring under the misconception that India's corruption problem has been solved, due to my waning interest in the topic, here's an update:

Anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal alleged Friday that he has information on some 700 prominent Indians who hold Swiss bank accounts, suggesting that the accounts are used for so-called "black money," laundering, round-tripping investments and other illegal activities that plague India's economy.

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India, Afghanistan to sign mining, other business pacts during Karzai visit

Karzai expected to ink pacts involving mining leases and explore a greater role for India in training of Afghan troops during visit that begins Friday
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38 year old Prabhat Sinha, from Assam, carries a load of coal weighing 60kg's, supported by a head-strap, as he ascends the staircase of a coal mine on April 16, 2011 near the village of Khliehriat, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to sign four pacts involving mining leases and other business cooperations during a visit to India that begins in Mumbai on Friday.

The Afghan leader is also expected to discuss a possible larger role for India in the training of Afghan security forces, according to the Press Trust of India.

In general, India's role in security operations in Afghanistan has been limited, due to opposition by Pakistan. But New Delhi is keen to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a fiefdom of its oldest adversary--which it accuses of fostering terrorist groups to wage a "proxy war." And Karzai has increasingly been seen as attempting to hedge his bets when it comes to reliance on Islamabad.

Karzai, who will begin his tour from Mumbai, will interact with the business community there and seek greater investment in his country in various sectors, Zee reported. Briefing the reporters on the Presidential visit, Afghan Ambassador Shaida Mohammad Abdali said that Karzai was coming to India at "a critical time" as international combat troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, the news agency said.

Four MoUs will be signed between the two countries in areas of mines, youth affairs, small development projects and fertilizers, PTI reported Abdali as saying. 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Karzai will also discuss the regional security situation and safety of Indian nationals and Indian projects on November 12 in New Delhi.

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Nepal's Prachanda inks Lumbini deal with Chinese NGO: Report

Maoist leader Prachanda signs $3 billion deal to develop Buddha's birthplace with China's Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation
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Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (R), also known as 'Prachanda' pays respects to controversial politician Ramraja Prasad Singh in Kathmandu on September 12, 2012. (Prakash MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the former military commander of rebel Maoist forces in Nepal and now the chairman of the Unified Communist Party, has reportedly inked a deal with the China-backed Asia Pacific Exchange Cooperation Foundation that will bring in $3 billion to develop Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini into a "world-class city attracting tourists and pilgrims from across the world."

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