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March 1, 2007

Focus on social sectors, agriculture as Finance Minister presents inclusive budget

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on February 28 presented a Rs. 6,805.210 billion ($148 billion) general budget for 2007-08 that focuses on social sectors and agriculture with only moderate cuts in taxes and import duties.

"Agriculture must top the agenda for policy makers and hold the first charge on resources," the Finance Minister said in his 100-minute speech in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, setting the tone for his sixth national budget and the fourth for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

"The declared objective is faster and more inclusive growth," Chidambaram said he enhanced budgetary allocations for education, agriculture, water, child development, urban renewal, the employment guarantee scheme and social security.

"Industry and services have done well. Attention is, therefore, being diverted to agriculture. A plant needs nursing and not a firm oak tree," he later told a press conference explaining the main premise of his budget.

Rising prices, he said, was a concern and projected an inflation rate of 5.2 percent for the current fiscal, against 4.4 percent for the previous year. "We are confident that we can moderate the present inflationary trend," he asserted.

In a bid to bring down overall inflation and help curb the rise in the prices of some food items, he said excise duty on crude oil would be reduced to 6 percent from 8 percent and futures trading banned immediately in wheat and rice.

The Finance Minister said he was also giving a new thrust to agriculture, on which two-third of the 1.17 billion population still depends, the small taxpayer and the small service provider. "Faster economic growth has given us, once again, the opportunity to unfurl the sails and catch the wind."

His proposals invited praise from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. "This budget focuses on fiscal consolidation," Manmohan Singh said, adding that an attempt was made to address the concerns and aspirations of a larger section of society, especially the common man.

Even though Chidambaram drew comfort from an impressive 27.8 percent increase in the gross tax revenue during the current fiscal, he, nevertheless, proposed a 1 percent cess on all taxes to finance secondary and higher education schemes, over and above the 2 percent cess on basic education.

A similar populist measure was a substantial increase in the allocations for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and an extension of its coverage to 330 districts from the present 200.

With the armed forces set to modernise operations and induct new equipment in the coming years, the Finance Minister also enhanced the defence budget by 7.8 percent to Rs. 960 billion.

Chidambaram's relief to individual tax payers came in the form of a token Rs.10,000 hike in the threshold limit of exemption, to result in a saving of Rs. 1,000, and an increase in the base limit for women and senior citizens.

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Mayor Livingstone joins Bhavan's R-Day celebrations

Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, visited Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington as Chief Guest at its Republic Day celebration on February 26. Also present were High Commissioner Kamalesh Sharma, Lord Dholakia and the Deputy Mayor of Hammersmith and Fulham, Councillor Andrew Johnson.

The Bhavan's Chairman, Maneck Dalal OBE, welcomed the Mayor and said the name of Ken Livingstone was synonymous with the great city of London. Dalal said the Bhavan was a centre of excellence as far as Indian culture was concerned and that the organisation was keen to join the mainstream of British cultural life.

Councillor Johnson welcomed the Mayor of London on behalf of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

In his address, High Commissioner Sharma said that there was a special relationship between India and London. Many thousands of Indian companies did business in London and India was the second-largest investor in the city.

» Continued on page 2

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The new face of Puma

A promising British Indian teenage golfer has signed a sponsorship deal with famous sports brand Puma. Kiran Matharu, among a select breed of successful Asian golfers in Britain, "will potentially be the face of the sports apparel brand in the U.K., depending on her performance at tournaments", Kiran's father said.

The 17-year-old Yorkshire born golfer has also signed a six-figure sponsorship deal with a Dubai-based sports company, according to AIM magazine.

In 2003, Matharu became, at the age of 14, the youngest person ever to play for England in the Girls Home Internationals winning all of their five matches. She was then selected to represent England in the European Young Masters Under 16s.

She has since been selected to represent England in the European Under 21 Team Championships in Holland. She will also represent Great Britain and Ireland at the Curtis Cup against the U.S. She will be the youngest player on both teams.

Help for NRI marriage victims

In a bid to combat fraudulent NRI marriages, the government has announced financial aid for such women to seek legal and counselling services through its foreign missions. Under the new scheme, to be initially introduced in the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, the government will provide $1,000 to women who have either been deserted or divorced by their overseas Indian spouses within two years of marriage. "The assistance will be provided to Indian women who are victims of fraudulent marriages and deserted by their overseas Indian husbands or are facing divorce proceedings in a foreign country," Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vyalar Ravi said.

"The concerned Indian missions will involve credible Indian women's organisations and NGOs working in these countries and give them financial assistance to the tune of $1,000 per case," the Ministry said in a statement.

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India tops reforms list on S. Asia

India is now the leading reformer in South Asia, having replaced Pakistan in the list of eight nations. That's the verdict of the World Bank's 'Doing Business in South Asia' report, which compares business regulations across countries in the region.

Significantly, the bank places India among the top 20 reformers worldwide, and identifies key reforms taken up by India over the last year that have reduced the time, cost and hassles faced by businesses in complying with requirements.

The report ranks countries on the basis of a range indicators that include dealing with licences, employing workers, registering property, getting credit, paying taxes and trading across borders.

Most significant of the outcomes was the drastic reduction in the time taken to start a business-from 71 days to 35 days.

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