India's richest corner 73 percent of wealth: Oxfam

Bottom half of population saw just one percent increase in their wealth last year, says report by anti-poverty charity.

    New Delhi, India – Up to 670 million Indians, who comprise the poorest half of the population, saw just one percent increase in their wealth while the richest one percent cornered 73 percent of the national income generated in the country last year, according to anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

    “The wealth of the elite 1 percent increased by 20913 billion rupees [$327bn], equivalent to the total budget of the Indian government last financial year,” Oxfam said in its report published on Monday.

    Indian billionaires’ wealth increased by $76.5bn (₹4891bn) – from $247bn (₹15,778bn) to over $324bn (20,676bn) – making the country one of the most unequal in the world, the report said.

    “It is one percent versus the rest. This is nothing short of loot. That’s why you are seeing starvation deaths in India,” Nikhil Dey, rights-activist and founder of a workers group, MKSS, told Al Jazeera.

    “At best, those in power are saying one thing and doing another. At worst, their only deliberate concern is about the generation and pocketing of wealth for people in power.

    “The rich are being subsidised in India in every which way … . The poor are not being allowed to function. Land is being taken over, employment does not exist, schools are being privatised. You can’t have 73 percent of wealth in the hands of one percent.”

    The report was released as Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, flew to Switzerland to woo global investors at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

    Modi, who is being accompanied by the finance and commerce ministers, was scheduled to host a dinner for global industry bosses from 18 countries on Monday night, according to the Indian Express newspaper.

    Worsening inequality

    Overall global inequality figures further worsened according to the Oxfam report, with the richest one percent cornering 82 percent of the wealth created last year.

    Activists and development economists are worried at the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the rich in India. Last year, 58 percent of national income went to India’s richest one percent.

    “It is a direct result of these neo-liberal policies whose modus operandi is to pamper the rich in the name of achieving higher growth,” Prabhat Patnaik, professor emeritus at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Jazeera.

    “But the growth that occurs is accompanied by the absolute impoverishment of large numbers. Such inequalities undermine the foundations of modern India and its survival as a secular democratic republic.”

    Oxfam said the figures suggest that “approximately two-thirds of billionaire wealth is the product of inheritance, monopoly and cronyism”.

    The report, Reward Work Not Wealth, blames the race to the bottom between countries on tax and on wages as a top contributor to deepening inequality, along with the crushing of workers’ rights.

    “It would take around 17.5 days for the best-paid executive at a top Indian garment company to earn what a minimum wage worker in rural India will earn in their lifetime (presuming 50 years at work),” Oxfam said.

    Falling short

    Since taking office in 2014, the Modi government has announced schemes to increase spending on infrastructure, including ports and roads, to boost economic growth.

    But it has fared poorly in combating poverty, say critics.

    “The Indian government’s efforts at reducing inequality and combating poverty faster are woefully inadequate. It needs to stop the super-rich and the corporates from continuing to rob India of its wealth,” Nisha Agrawal, CEO of Oxfam India, told Al Jazeera.

    The government needs to “invest more in agriculture; and implementing fully the social protection schemes (such as rural job scheme and the Food Security Act) that already exist.”

    India’s wealth inequality also contributes to lack of access to quality medical care for the poor.

    Those living on $2 a day have a mortality rate three times the global average, according to the Oxfam report.

    “Healthcare spending during accidents or emergencies for low-income households often means a reduction in the consumption of food or other basic needs that can push people below the extreme poverty line,” the report warns.

    India’s health budget is at 1.15 percent of the country’s GDP, one of the lowest proportions in the world.

    Oxfam India on Monday urged Modi to tax the super-rich and ensure that the Indian economy “works for everyone and not just the fortunate few”.

    In an online survey conducted by Oxfam, 73 percent Indians said they wanted “the gap between the rich and poor to be addressed very urgently”.

    Global wealth databook

    In the survey with a sample size of 11,000 Indians, a majority of respondents said CEOs should accept pay cuts up to 60 percent.

    Oxfam said it used calculations to compare returns to shareholders and CEO compensation with returns to ordinary workers for its analysis.

    It used data from Credit Suisse’s annual Global Wealth Databook and the Forbes billionaires list.

    India lifted 120 million people from extreme poverty between 1990 and 2013, according to the World Bank. However, one out of two Indians remain vulnerable to falling back into poverty, it says.

    India’s march to reducing poverty has been significantly slower compared to neighbouring China. Over the same 1990-2013 period, China reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from 756 million to 25 million.

    “The message in the Oxfam report is not new. The main question is: Is the government willing to acknowledge the message?” Reetika Khera, Development Economist at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

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    Supreme Court judges lash out at chief justice

    Four most senior judges issue stark warning over democracy as they complain about poor administration of top court.

      New Delhi, India – Four senior judges of India’s Supreme Court have lashed out at the workings of the country’s top court, directing blame at Chief Justice Dipak Misra.

      In a press conference on Friday in New Delhi, the first of its kind, they alleged poor administration at the powerful institution and warned that democracy may not survive.

      “Sometimes, the administration of the Supreme Court is not in order. There are many things less than desirable that have happened in the last few months,” said Justice Jasti Chelameswar. “The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country.”

      The four judges, including Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph, said in a letter addressed to the chief justice that certain judicial orders have adversely affected the overall functioning of the justice delivery system”.

      The letter criticised how the “roster” – the member or bench assigned to hear a particular case – was assigned “without any rational basis for such assignment”.

      “Such departures have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent,” the letter said.

      The chief justice is responsible for the roster.

      The four judges said they would not resign and would be back to work on Monday.

      “This unprecedented press conference by the four most senior judges stemmed from the manner in which the chief justice was continuing to abuse his power as master of roster,” Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan told Al Jazeera. 

      The chief justice was known to assign “politically sensitive cases, which would have far-reaching impact on the republic, to hand-picked judges in order to achieve a particular outcome”, Bhushan alleged.

      On Friday, Justice Gogoi told journalists that the unprecedented press conference was prompted by the death of trial court Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya.

      A petition seeking an independent probe into the mysterious death of the lower court judge is before the top court.

      Loya had been hearing a case against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah when he died in 2014.

      Loya’s family have raised questions about the circumstances of the judge’s death, according to India’s Caravan magazine.

      “If he (the chief justice) doesn’t resign, then I believe there will be an impeachment,” Bhushan said.

      The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in India.

      Chief Justice Misra has not yet commented.

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      India Republic celebrations: A 'black day' in Kashmir

      India’s 69th Republic Day marked by the suspension of internet services and soldier patrols in disputed region.

        Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations have been marked by a security clampdown in Indian-administered Kashmir, as authorities suspended internet services and thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets.

        The main celebratory event was held amid tight security at a sports stadium in the region’s main city, Srinagar, and was attended by politicians and top officers of the security apparatus.

        Residents, however, boycotted the ceremony.

        The day is meant to remember when the Constitution of India came into effect on January 26, 1950.

        Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani said: “India has no right to celebrate Republic Day as it has occupied Jammu Kashmir with its military might.”

        Geelani leads the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an amalgam of separatist leaderships in Kashmir. Separatists fight for independence or merging the region with Pakistan.

        APHC said the day should be observed as a “black day” and called for a boycott of all celebrations.

        “India claims to be world’s largest democracy but virtually stands exposed in Jammu Kashmir as it is trampling all basic and fundamental rights of people since past seven decades,” an APHC statement said.

        The Indian flag was hoisted during the ceremony in the divided territory.

        Authorities blocked internet and phone networks until Friday afternoon, as they do for Indian Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations as well.

        Barricades were set up on all major roads of the city, as police carried out stop and search operations.

        “For Indians, it might be a big day, but for us, we dread it. We don’t feel any belonging to it. This day brings a lot of harassment for common people,” said 35-year-old Fayaz Ahmad, a Srinagar resident.

        “Yesterday I had a medical emergency, and I had to go to a hospital at night, we were stopped and frisked at dozen places. It does not happen with Indians,” he told Al Jazeera.

        The region saw fresh bouts of violence last week, with casualties on both sides. 

        On the Indian controlled side, 12 people, including six civilians, were killed, increasing the hostilities between the two nuclear neighbours.

        The start of the year has seen an uptick in violence.

        On Thursday, in the southern village of Shopian, three people, including two rebels and a 17-year-old boy, were killed in a gun battle. Two girls were also critically wounded. 

        ‘Not a day passes without someone killed’

        Separatist leaders have asked residents to protest against the recent civilian killings after Friday prayers

        “We were sold to India, and they celebrate their existence on the day. Ask common people about the sufferings under Indian rule; not a single day passes without somebody being killed. This day only reminds us of zulum (oppression),” 62-year-old Abdul Majeed told Al Jazeera.

        Anti-India sentiment runs deep among Kashmir’s mostly Muslim population, and most support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule, despite a decades-long military crackdown to fight dissent.

        Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for the Indian-administered portion to become independent or merge with Pakistan.

        Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown. India maintains roughly 500,000 soldiers in the territory.

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        Kashmir: Funerals held for policemen killed in IED blast

        Funerals have been held for four policemen killed in a bomb attack in the town of Sopore, about 50km northwest of Srinagar city, in the northern part of Indian administered Kashmir.

          Funerals have been held for four policemen killed in a bomb attack in the town of Sopore, about 50km northwest of Srinagar city, in the northern part of Indian administered Kashmir.

          Security sources say rebels opposed to Indian rule triggered an improvised explosive device targeting a police patrol.

          It’s the latest in a series of bombings by rebels who want to end Indian control of the region – which is disputed with Pakistan.

          Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall reports.

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          Exclusive: Modi's party wants expansionary economic policy ahead of India election

          NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party is in favor of an expansionary economic policy and does not consider the government’s plan to keep the fiscal deficit to 3.3 percent of GDP as “sacrosanct”, a party spokesman told Reuters.

          Ahead of a general election that must be held by May and after a string of losses in recent state polls, the government run by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced several stimulus measures for the countryside where millions of farmers are grappling with low crop prices. Other fiscal moves have been aimed at helping small businesses.

          The measures are likely to be a drain on finances in Asia’s third-biggest economy, though the Modi administration is expected to get the Reserve Bank of India to agree to transfer an interim dividend of 300-400 billion rupees ($4.32 billion-$5.8 billion) to the government by March, Reuters reported last week quoting sources.

          Weak consumer spending and the fragile farm sector have already been a drag on economic growth, creating a headache for Modi as he struggles to meet ambitious job creation targets.

          India lost 11 million jobs last year, with around 83 percent in rural areas, according to independent think-tank the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, as operational costs surged for small businesses. Those costs were boosted by the launch of a national sales tax in 2017 and the economic impact of an earlier ban on high value currency notes.

          “There’s a demand, there’s a debate – all my colleagues are saying what’s the need of keeping the fiscal deficit in check when there is a distress in a particular sector,” said Gopal Krishna Agarwal, the economic affairs spokesman for the Hindu nationalist BJP, referring to the farm sector.

          “Even think-tanks associated with us are talking in this sense. Very few people domestically are talking about fiscal prudence. Only foreign think-tanks are talking fiscal prudence, fiscal prudence. I strongly believe an expansionary policy can benefit the party,” he said in an interview on Tuesday night.

          India’s 10-year benchmark bond yield rose 4 basis points to 7.53 percent after the news, its highest since Jan. 8 on worries about the fiscal deficit. The rupee also weakened to 71.23 to the dollar from its previous close of 71.03.

          Agarwal, a chartered accountant who is a director at state-run Bank of Baroda and a member of a government committee on small and medium-sized businesses, said Modi was aware of his party colleagues’ thinking but that no final decision had been taken.

          D.S. Malik, a spokesman for the Ministry of Finance, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is in the United States for a medical check-up, said in a Facebook post on Tuesday that India’s “fiscal discipline during the past five years has been amongst the best as compared to any preceding period”.

          NEED TO REACH LANDLESS

          Agarwal said the government understands that farmers are in distress and that directly transferring money to their bank accounts was an option to help them out. He said the government was, however, trying to figure out how to distribute funds to landless tillers to make sure any such transfer program was effective and didn’t just benefit those with land.

          The government is studying a program launched by the eastern state of Odisha under which farmers with landholdings of up to 5 acres would get cash assistance to buy seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and pay for labor. Sharecroppers, who cultivate rented land will also get the benefits, which include life insurance coverage.

          Agarwal said Modi and many financial institutions were not in favor of waiving farm loans, as done by states recently won by the main opposition Congress party, because doing so mainly helps banks and not so much farmers in duress.

          “There’s definitely a suggestion to give interest-free loans to farmers. Banks won’t have to pay, it has to be incorporated into the budget,” he said.

          “And what’s the so sacrosanct issue about keeping the fiscal deficit at less than 3.5 percent? If you don’t adopt an expansionary economic policy, then the government alone can’t create demand by just spending on infrastructure. It has to come from both public and the private sector. The economy will grow only when demand will be created.”

          He said increasing the income tax exemption limit for individuals was also being considered for the interim budget to be presented on Feb. 1 by Jaitley.

          William Foster, vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, said that it expects the country’s fiscal deficit to slip to 3.4 of GDP this fiscal year ending March 31 due to revenue shortfalls from goods and services tax, lower excise duty and below-target receipts from sale of government assets.

          “Increased expenditure on income transfers, farm loan waivers or other forms of subsidies would weigh further on government finances,” Foster told Reuters.

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          Woman who defied India temple ban ‘beaten’

          One of the two Indian women who defied a historic ban to enter a Hindu temple is recovering in hospital after her mother-in-law allegedly attacked her.

          Kanaka Durga, 39, had been in hiding since 2 January, when her entry into the Sabarimala temple sparked protests.

          She told police her mother-in-law beat her when she returned home on Tuesday.

          The shrine was closed to women of “menstruating age” – defined as between 10 and 50 – until India’s top court overturned the ban in September.

          But despite the ruling, protesters blocked any women who tried to enter.

          Kanaka Durga and Bindu Ammini, 40, made history after they entered Sabarimala in the middle of the night escorted by policemen. But as news of their entry spread, violent protests broke out across the southern state of Kerala, where the temple is located.

          The two women were forced into hiding and kept moving locations under police protection.

          Kanaka Durga “was hit on her head by her mother-in-law when she returned home on Tuesday morning”, Ms Ammini told BBC Hindi.

          Friends say her family did not support her decision to enter the temple and felt she had insulted their beliefs by doing so.

          “They did not want her to return home because they believed she had tarnished their name. Her community too was opposed to women entering the temple,” said Prasad Amore.

          A police official told AFP news agency that Kanaka Durga has registered a case against her mother-in-law, who she alleges beat her with a wooden stick, including on her head.

          The severity of her injuries remains unclear.

          Bindu Ammini said that although Kanaka Durga’s husband initially opposed her decision to enter the temple, he later changed his mind.

          Why are women of a certain age not allowed to enter Sabarimala?

          Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and bars them from participating in religious rituals.

          While most Hindu temples allow women to enter as long as they are not menstruating, the Sabarimala temple is unusual in that it was one of the few that did not allow women in a broad age group to enter at all.

          According to the temple’s mythology, Lord Ayyappa is an avowed bachelor who has taken an oath of celibacy. Devotees say the ban on women of “menstruating age” was in keeping with the wish of the deity who is believed to have laid down clear rules about the pilgrimage to seek his blessings.

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          India temple trailblazers braving threats and family anger

          KERALA (AFP) – Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga are living on the run since infuriating Hindu traditionalists by entering one of India’s holiest temples that for generations banned nearly all women.

          In black robes and under cover of darkness, the two women evaded a blockade to enter the remote hilltop Sabarimala temple early on Jan 2, setting off violent protests across southern Kerala state.

          Physical threats have since forced the temple trailblazers into hiding, and they have moved to more than 10 different safe houses.

          But they told AFP in an interview at a secret location that they hope to escape their clandestine existence in the coming days to take more action on Sabarimala, as well as face the ire of their families.

          Both were unrepentant over their defiant gesture, which turned them into heroes for women’s groups, but hate figures for Hindu hardliners.

          “I wanted to exercise my right as a devotee, that’s all,” said Kanakadurga, a 39-year-old government worker who like many people in southern India uses just one name.

          “This was another step forward to reinforce gender equality.”

          Getting access to the women meant going through a string of intermediaries, switching cars and turning off phones before being taken to a villa where the pair were waiting.

          They said they would leave their latest bolthole for an 11th safe house the next morning.

          SOCIAL FLASHPOINT

          Sabarimala has become a new flashpoint for Indian women in their battle for social change.

          The country saw massive protests after the brutal gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus in 2012 and last year female actors, journalists and academics detailed cases of sexual aggression.

          Bindu and Kanakadurga said they believed only extremists wanted to harm them, adding that most worshippers did not harass them when they went to Sabarimala, where up to five million people trek each year.


          Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga being escorted by police after they attempted to enter the Sabarimala temple, on Dec 24. PHOTO: REUTERS

          “The real devotees caused us absolutely no problems. We stopped for refreshments on the way and all behaved as though we were just another pilgrim,” said Bindu, a 40-year-old law professor.

          “It is only a select few who are politically motivated who always cause trouble for us.” After India’s Supreme Court ruled on September 28 that all women should be allowed into the temple, the pair linked up on social media. They were among scores of women who tried to reach Sabarimala soon after, but were blocked by thousands of opponents.

          Kanakadurga said the authorities did not know in advance that they would enter the temple on Jan 2 and police there “did for us what they would have done for any other devotee”.

          MOTHER’S ANGER

          “Police made sure we got out safely from the temple. But after that we did not want them involved, so now we are on our own,” she said.

          “But we both hope we can come out of hiding in the next week to resume our normal lives.” Their actions have also angered family members.

          “I have my family’s complete support except for my mother, who genuinely believes I should not have broken tradition,” said Bindu.

          “But I know that she is concerned for me, I respect her right to a different opinion.” Kanakadurga did not tell her family in advance that she was going to Sabarimala.

          “Had I told them, they would surely have done everything to block me. So because I kept them in the dark, there is friction between us, but I think it will only be temporary.

          “Most people are with me and that gives me courage.” Hours after the women walked into Sabarimala, violent protests erupted across Kerala and more than 1,000 people were arrested.

          The temple priest ordered purification rites because women of menstruating age had entered the shrine.

          Bindu is from the Dalit community, a downtrodden caste considered “untouchable” until this was declared illegal under the 1950 constitution.

          She said she would go to the Supreme Court to seek action against the priest for breaching India’s caste laws.

          “By holding purification rituals after my visit to the temple, what the priest did was practise untouchability,” said Bindu.

          “It is an offence, so Kanaka and I have made up our minds to go to the Supreme Court against the priest.”

          POLITICAL FUSE

          Their entry into the temple has lit a political fuse as India prepares for general elections in the coming months.

          The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sided with devotees who accuse the Supreme Court of rejecting their beliefs by letting women in.

          Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi meanwhile said on Sunday there was “validity” in both sides of the argument.

          Sabarimala is dedicated to the celibate deity Ayyappa, and followers believe letting in women goes against his wishes.

          A longstanding ban on women was made legal in 1991 by the Kerala High Court, but the Supreme Court overruled this as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

          Some BJP leaders have called Bindu and Kanakadurga anarchists and anti-Hindu, but the women dismissed the claims.

          “We were not the first ones to try to enter Sabarimala. Scores of women went in the past, but failed,” said Kanakadurga.

          “I am a believer who always wanted to worship Ayyappa at the Sabarimala temple.”

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          India slaps cases against critics of plan to grant citizenship to non-Muslims

          GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) – Indian police on Friday said they are investigating an academic, a journalist and a peasant leader for possible sedition for publicly opposing a proposal to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighboring Muslim-majority countries.

          Critics have called the proposal blatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of a general election due by May.

          The cases have been filed amid a wave of protests in the BJP-governed northeastern state of Assam. A small regional party in India quit the ruling coalition on Monday in protest against the plan.

          The Modi government is facing growing criticism for stifling criticism, including in the media. A television journalist in the region was jailed last month for criticizing the government on social media.

          “We have registered a case against a few people based on certain statements that they made at a public rally in Guwahati,” Deepak Kumar, a police official from Guwahati in Assam, told Reuters.

          The three have not been charged.

          Many people fear such a move could change the demographic profile of Assam, where residents have for years complained that immigrants from Bangladesh have put a big strain on resources.

          Hiren Gohain, an 80-year-old academic, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta have been accused of criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage a war against the government, Kumar said.

          The bill, which seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been passed by the lower house of the parliament.

          The bill will be tabled for approval in the upper house in the next session, where it is expected to face resistance from the opposition Congress party. The BJP does not have a majority in the upper house of the parliament.

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          India slaps cases against critics of plan to grant citizenship to non-Muslims

          GUWAHATI, India (REUTERS) – Indian police on Friday (Jan 11) said they are investigating an academic, a journalist and a peasant leader for possible sedition for publicly opposing a proposal to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries.

          Critics have called the proposal blatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of a general election due by May.

          The cases have been filed amid a wave of protests in the BJP-governed north-eastern state of Assam. A small regional party in India quit the ruling coalition on Monday in protest against the plan.

          The Modi government is facing growing criticism for stifling criticism, including in the media. A television journalist in the region was jailed last month for criticising the government on social media.

          “We have registered a case against a few people based on certain statements that they made at a public rally in Guwahati,” Deepak Kumar, a police official from Guwahati in Assam, told Reuters.

          The three have not been charged.

          Many people fear such a move could change the demographic profile of Assam, where residents have for years complained that immigrants from Bangladesh have put a big strain on resources.

          Hiren Gohain, an 80-year-old academic, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta have been accused of criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage a war against the government, Kumar said.

          The Bill, which seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been passed by the Lower House of the Parliament.

          The Bill will be tabled for approval in the Upper House in the next session, where it is expected to face resistance from the opposition Congress party. The BJP does not have a majority in the upper house of the Parliament.

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          After Monsanto patent ruling, Indian farmers hope for next-gen GM seeds

          MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – A court ruling in India this week that upheld a Monsanto patent on genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds has raised hopes among farmers that the company would now launch its next-generation seeds, the application for which it pulled two years ago.

          India approved Monsanto’s GM cotton seed trait in 2002 and an upgraded variety in 2006, helping transform the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fiber. But newer traits have not been available since the company withdrew an application in 2016 seeking approval for the latest variety due to a royalty dispute with the government and worries over patent claims. (reut.rs/2jbDq80)

          Nevertheless, the new herbicide-tolerant variety seeped into Indian farms and many cotton growers openly sowed them last year, prompting a government investigation that is ongoing. Monsanto has said local seed companies have illegally attempted to “incorporate unauthorized and unapproved herbicide-tolerant technologies into their seeds”.

          “We don’t understand legal issues but we want new technologies,” Shrikant Kale, a cotton grower in Yavatmal district in the western state of Maharashtra, said by phone. “If the court verdict helps seed companies in bringing new technology, then it would be good for us as well.”

          Nearly a dozen other farmers in three Maharashtra districts said they planted the illegal cotton variety in June after buying seeds from the gray market, and that they would be happy to use it legally if Monsanto launched it.

          “Illegal sales mean that there’s always a risk of buying spurious seeds and we buy such smuggled seeds as there is no alternative,” said Vijay Niwal, another cotton farmer in Maharashtra.

          “We don’t mind paying a few hundred rupees more for seeds if they help us in saving thousands of rupees on managing weeds.”

          Monsanto owner Bayer (BAYGn.DE) welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it “prima facie validates our patent” and that it was confident of “defending any challenge to our patent by presenting solid scientific evidence”.

          Monsanto did not immediately comment on future plans, including any launch of its new seeds.

          But two industry sources aware of the company’s plans said that a dispute over royalties paid by local companies that license its technology remained a hurdle to seeking fresh approval to sell a new variety of cotton seeds. India’s agriculture ministry has twice slashed royalties in the past two years, apart from cutting cotton seed prices.

          “The government could step in again to decide the rate of royalty, which could be really miniscule in comparison with the cost of developing a really good product,” said one of the sources, declining to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

          “Biotechnology research is very expensive and if the government arbitrarily fixes the rate for expensive, cutting-edge technologies then that becomes a major hurdle in launching new products.”

          The agriculture ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

          “SELF-RELIANCE” GROUP

          The court ruling has been criticized by a nationalist group that has links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and favors non-GM technologies and “India first” economic policies. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which loosely translates to National Forum for Self-Reliance, said the government needs to amend the country’s patent law to negate the court verdict.

          Industry executives say several foreign agrichemical companies had to scale down projects, fire scientists, or pull applications to sell products in India because of government-mandated cuts in royalties and a lower court’s order in April that rejected Monsanto’s patent claim.

          They said the Supreme Court verdict overturning the lower court order could set a precedent for any future patent dispute and encourage fresh investments in one of the world’s biggest farm markets, whose seed industry is worth around $3 billion a year.

          “The entire biotechnology space has been liberated,” said Ram Kaundinya, director general of the Federation of Seed Industry of India that represents foreign and local seed companies including Monsanto and Syngenta (SYENF.PK).

          “There was uncertainty in this area for the last three to four years, which led to a reduction in investments. There are still some issues regarding price control but those are not as big as validity of patents.”

          Many biotechnology companies working on corn and other GM crops will now push hard to get government approvals for their seeds, he said, declining to name the companies.

          DowDuPont (DWDP.N), which in August last year told the Indian government it was putting off trials needed for approval to sell a GM corn variety, did not respond to a call seeking comment.

          A public relations firm for Syngenta directed Reuters to Kaundinya for comment.

          But permitting GM food crops is a big call for India, which so far only allows genetically modified cotton seeds.

          The country spends tens of billions of dollars in importing food, as dated technologies, poor yields, shrinking farms and unreliable weather patterns afflict the country of 1.3 billion people. But opponents of GM crops say they threaten the country’s biodiversity and are too expensive for Indian farmers.

          Annual sales of GM cotton seeds is estimated at $500 million, and Monsanto-developed seeds now control 90 percent of India’s cotton acreage.

          ($1 = 70.58 rupees)

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