Saturday, July 07, 2007

Indian stocks jump to record high

Traders in Mumbai
India's economic performance has been a driver of demand for shares
India's main stock index, the Sensex, has burst through the 15,000 mark, surging to a record on optimism about economic growth and corporate profits.

Bombay's Sensex closed 102.23 points, or 0.7%, higher at 14,964.12. It rose as high as 15,007.22 on Friday, taking gains for the week to more than 2%.

Official data on Friday showed that inflation had eased, making it less likely that interest rates will rise.

Gains may continue thanks to the strong economic environment, analysts said.

Better figures

"We expect Indian corporates to show sound earnings data, which could keep the markets buoyant," said Naresh Garg of Sahara Mutual Fund.

Andrew Holland of DSP Merrill Lynch said: "We expect the markets to remain strong over the short term, probably ending the year higher than they are now."

The Sensex has gained almost 9% this year, extending last year's near 50% surge.

Underpinning the stock market has been foreign demand for Indian shares, as investors try to tap into one of the world's best-performing economy.

At the same time, domestic demand has also remained steady.

"Investors have been positively surprised by the stronger-than-expected appetite for issuance over the past month and also by favourable inflation data," said Rajeev Malik, an economist at JP Morgan Chase Bank.

Software services companies Tata, Infosys and Wipro led gains on Friday, closing 4.4%, 2.9% and 3% higher respectively.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Calcutta battered by monsoon rain

Flooded streets have turned into swimming pools

Officials in the Indian city of Calcutta say the city has received around 20% of the monsoon rain it normally gets over the last three days.

At least 16 people in the city have died in floods caused by the rain.

Storms have affected large parts of South Asia, with at least 140 people killed this week elsewhere in India.

The international Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal to help hundreds of thousands of flood victims in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It says that it wants to raise $9m to assist 98,000 people left in dire conditions in flood-stricken areas of Pakistan, and $685,000 dollars for relief efforts to help 133,000 in Bangladesh who require food, clothing, health care and shelter for the next six months.

Flood victims in Balochistan

Anger of Pakistan flood victims

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says that large parts of the province of Balochistan remain submerged following the impact of Cyclone Yemyin last Tuesday coupled with heavy monsoon rains over the weekend.

"When you walk through areas of Baluchistan, the air smells of rotting goat carcasses and the heat is so stifling that many people are covering themselves in mud just to keep cool," Asar ul Haq, the IFRC's head of disaster management in Pakistan said in a statement.

"We're expecting more rain in the coming days, which will heighten the risk of malaria, while we're also seeing new cases of diarrhoea," he said.

More rain predicted

The Calcutta weather office said the city has received more than 300mm of rain since late on Monday night.

"Calcutta gets between 1600 to 1700mm of rain every monsoon and now he have got so much rain in just three days," G Debnath, chief of the local weather office said.

Few taxis and buses could be seen on roads. The hand-pulled rickshaws are ferrying stranded residents.

Schools and colleges have been shut due to the heavy rains. Attendance in offices was low, officials said.

The weather office predicts more rain until Friday.

Officials say the army has been deployed in boats to help hundreds of thousands of people marooned because of the flooding.

Flood victim in Gujarat

Transport infrastructure has been hit in Gujarat

The authorities fear more flooding, and have used loudspeakers to ask residents to keep adequate food stocks at home, or leave their residences for dry land. Many grocery shops were closed.

Hospitals and universities have been flooded, while train services were disrupted.

The city's IT hub, which has the offices of many multi-national companies, was also hit.

In Gujarat at least 80 people died. Transport infrastructure throughout the state has been badly hit.

Highways have disappeared under flood waters and many dams have been overflowing with some touching the danger mark.

Many factories were forced to close in the highly industrialised state.

'Sharp drop' in India Aids levels

An HIV positive woman in India
The lower estimate could be attributed to more accurate data
The number of people living with HIV/Aids in India is around half of previous official estimates, at between 2-3.1 million people, new figures say.

The UN-backed government estimates are sharply lower than earlier figures, the health minister announced on Friday.

Previous estimates from the National Aids Control Organisation (Naco) put the number of HIV cases at 5.2m, while UNAids in 2006 estimated 5.7m cases.

Officials say the lower estimate could be attributed to more accurate data.

'Still large'

"Today we have a far more reliable estimate of the burden of HIV in India," Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss told a news conference in the Indian capital.

"The results show that there are an estimated two million to 3.1 million people affected with HIV-Aids.

Anti-Aids campaigners in India
India's HIV prevalence rate is now estimated to be 0.36 percent
Around 80,000 HIV-positive people receive free drugs
The government plans 250 Aids treatment centres by 2009
It hopes to carry out HIV tests on 42 million people by 2012
Around 40% of women have not heard of Aids
Figures compiled by UNAids and Reuters

"In terms of human lives affected, the number is still large, in fact very large. This is very worrying for us."

The minister said that India had always been accused of underestimating the number of Aids cases.

"That was a disturbing allegation, and today, we have a far more reliable estimate," he said.

The latest estimates were calculated with the help of international agencies, including the UN and US Agency for International Development.

Correspondents say that India was thought to have the world's biggest HIV-positive caseload, but the new estimate means that South Africa and Nigeria are more severely affected.

India is about to embark on a new and expanded phase of its Aids control programme, with increased funding from the government and from international donors.

Mr Ramadoss said that the prevalence level of the infection was now estimated to be around 0.36 percent of the population of more than a billion people - compared to an earlier estimate of 0.9 percent.

Correspondents say that a reason why the latest Aids estimates are so much lower is because previously the UN reached the 5.7m figure by using hundreds of surveillance centres to test the blood of pregnant women and high-risk groups such as drug users and prostitutes over four months each year.

'Crumbling' system

But more recently a new population-based survey that took the blood samples of 102,000 people among the general public - rather than specific groups - indicated for the first time India's HIV caseload was highly overestimated.

UNAids says such that such surveys are more accurate, as they are "more representative" and generate "more accurate information" for rural areas and the male population.

Candlelit Aids vigil in Delhi, May 21, 2007
Campaigners warn there should be no cause for complacency

But voluntary groups running anti-HIV/Aids campaigns say the lower numbers should not allow people to become complacent, as there is still a strong need to curb the spread of the virus in a country with a crumbling government healthcare system.

The head of Naco, Sujatha Rao, said there was no reason to fear that money to fight the Aids virus will be reduced.

She said that huge funding was still needed to test people and prevent HIV infection, in addition to providing treatment for people suffering from the illness.

"There is no question of reducing even a dollar towards the fight against Aids," she said.

Last month, health officials said they were especially alarmed by the growing numbers of pregnant women infected with HIV/Aids in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar.

They are among India's most backward, with huge populations but poor literacy and health services.

Officials say workers who migrate to cities in search of work bring the infection back to the states with them.

They said that unless the state governments got serious about tackling the disease, there could still be an Aids epidemic.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Buddha Visits China On Rainbow… Stays an Hour

A human-shaped shadow in the middle of a rainbow halo appears on Zushan Mountain after a heavy rainfall in Qinhuangdao, North China’s Heibei Province, July 1, 2007.

The vision, which many tourists believed to be the Buddha, stayed for more than an hour.

'Goddess' sacked for visiting US

Kumari Sajani Shakya
Kumari Sajani Shakya was promoting a documentary abroad
A 10-year-old girl who is worshipped as a living goddess in Nepal has been stripped of her title for defying tradition and visiting the US.

Sajani Shakya was one of the three most-revered Kumaris, who are honoured by Hindus and Buddhists alike.

Chosen after undergoing tests at the age of two, she had been expected to bless devotees and attend festivals until she reached puberty.

But she provoked the ire of temple elders by travelling to the US.

Attributes needed

Sajani is a Kumari in the town of Bhaktapur, next to the capital, Kathmandu.

Bhaktapur Kumari

In pictures: Child goddess

She recently went to promote a documentary film in the US.

Elders said the visit had tainted her purity, adding that they would now begin the search for a successor.

Sajani was one of several Kumaris in Nepal, and among the top three who are forbidden from leaving Nepal.

A Kumari is chosen between the ages of two and four, always from the same Buddhist clan. Tradition holds that she must hold 32 attributes, including thighs like those of a deer and a neck like a conch shell.

She lives a confined life, only coming out of her palace three or four times a year until she reaches puberty when another Kumari must be found.

This main outing coincides with a festival of thanks to the local rain god and as always, her feet must never touch the ground unless there is a red carpet beneath them.

Last November Nepal's Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into whether the Kumari tradition has led to the exploitation of girls.

World Bank loan for India farmers

Indian cotton farmer and his sons at Yavatmal outside Nagpur
Many Indian farmers have been hit hard by debt
The World Bank has approved a $600m (£300m) loan aimed at helping millions of poor farmers across India.

Better access to finance for India's rural poor was "absolutely critical", the bank said in a statement.

The money would boost a programme to make thousands of rural co-operative banks responsive to the needs of poor Indian farmers seeking loans, it said.

Thousands of the farmers have committed suicide in recent years, saddled by debts they could not repay.

'Extortionate lenders'

Last year, India's government approved measures worth more than $3bn to refinance the country's ailing co-operative banks so that they could offer cheaper loans to farmers.


The World Bank said its offer of loan and credit was aimed at transforming farmers' access to financial services.

It said estimates suggested that 87% of marginal farmers and 70% of small farmers in India had no access to credit from a formal financial body, often relying instead on "extortionate money lenders".

"By providing small farmers with improved financial services, such as credit, savings, remittances and insurance, this project will play a significant role in helping India's rural poor benefit from growth opportunities," the bank's country director for India, Isabel Guerrero, said.

Although agriculture makes up just a fifth of India's economy, two-thirds of the population make a living from the land.

The worst-hit states for farmer suicides are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra.

Estimates for the overall number of deaths among farmers in the four states since 2001 range from 3,600 to 18,000.