India’s top court to review fighter jet deal

India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to review its earlier decision on a controversial fighter jet deal. (Shutterstock)
Updated 10 April 2019
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India’s top court to review fighter jet deal

  • Opposition accused government of graft
  • Congress leader Rahul Gandhi welcomed the decision

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to review its earlier decision on a controversial fighter jet deal, dealing a blow to the government on the eve of a general election. 

The opposition Congress Party has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration of graft following a deal to buy 36 Rafale planes and the decision to pick Reliance Defense, owned by billionaire Anil Ambani, as a domestic partner. Reliance has no aeronautical expertise and was chosen ahead of state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., which does, triggering allegations of a scam.

The court said in December there was no evidence of commercial favoritism and that there was no need for intervention.

But it has now accepted a petition to review its earlier judgment on the basis of documents published by the media over the past four months.

It also dismissed objections from the government, which said the documents were stolen and could not be valid evidence.

“We deem it proper to dismiss the preliminary objections to hold and affirm that the review petitions will be adjudicated on their merits on the basis of the relevance of the three documents whose admissibility was questioned by the respondents (the government),” Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi welcomed the decision. “The Supreme Court has done justice today. The Supreme Court has accepted that there was corruption in Rafale and if the PM debates the issue with me, he will not be able to see eye-to-eye with the people of the country,” he said.

The Hindu newspaper reported that the deal signed by Modi in 2016 for 36 Rafael jets was $276 million, and more expensive than the estimated cost of the 126 aircraft deal originally negotiated for by the previous government.

It also reported that the prime minister’s office and Defense Ministry were conducting parallel negotiations, and that Modi’s government gave unprecedented waivers in the offset agreement to the French company.

India’s political parties have been gunning for Modi over the purchase of the Rafale planes from Dassault Aviation, saying he overpaid for them and had not been transparent.

Sitaram Yechury, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that Modi and his government had compromised national security for “corruption and cronyism” in an important defense deal.

But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denied any wrongdoing.

“There is nothing to hide. It is only an effort to create confusion in the minds of the people,” said BJP general secretary Ram Madhav as he dismissed the political repercussions. “You see, people trust Modi more than anybody else.”

Analyst Satish Misra, from the Observer Research Foundation, said the ruling would have an impact on people’s perceptions.

“So far, the perception has been managed well by Modi. This is the first time there is a problem confronting the prime minister,” he told Arab News. “It all depends on how the opposition exploits it. Until today the Rafale issue was only being raised by Congress. If all the parties raise this issue, this will resonate in the elections. Right now, the national security issue is dominating the election. Will this ruling overtake the prevailing narrative? It remains to be seen.”

Another analyst said the Supreme Court move was a blow to the ruling party.

“The very fact that the Supreme Court is willing to accept the media reports as evidence is a big setback for the government,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told Arab News. “The opposition has a stick to beat the government with. Whether the issue can resonate in the election depends upon how it (the opposition) uses it in the campaign.”


Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

Updated 22 July 2019
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Firefighters battle wildfire in Portugal, 32 people hurt

COLOS, Portugal: More than 1,000 firefighters battled a major wildfire Monday amid scorching temperatures in Portugal, where forest blazes wreak destruction every summer.
About 90% of the fire area in the Castelo Branco district, 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) northeast of the capital Lisbon, was brought under control during cooler overnight temperatures, according to local Civil Protection Agency commander Pedro Nunes.
But authorities said they expected heat in and winds to increase again in the afternoon, so all firefighting assets remained in place. Forests in the region are tinder-dry after weeks with little rain.
The Portuguese Civil Protection Agency said 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze, which has raced through thick woodlands.
Nunes told reporters that the fire, in its third day, has injured 32 people, one seriously.
Police said they were investigating what caused the fire amid suspicions it may have been started deliberately.
Temperatures were forecast to reach almost 40 C (104 F) Monday — prolonging a spell of blistering weather that is due to hit northern Europe late this week.
Recent weeks have also seen major wildfires in Spain, Greece and Germany. European Union authorities have warned that wildfires are “a growing menace” across the continent.
In May, forest fires also plagued Mexico and Russia.
Huge wildfires have long been a summer fixture in Portugal.
Residents of villages and hamlets in central Portugal have grown accustomed to the summer blazes, which destroy fruit trees, olive trees and crops in the fields.
In the hamlet of Colos, 50-year-old beekeeper Antonio Pires said he had lost half of his beehives in the current wildfire. Pires sells to mainly Portuguese and German clients, but also to Brazil and China.
“(I lost) 100 out of 230 (hives), so almost half,” Pires said. “A lot of damage.”
The country’s deadliest fire season came in 2017, when at least 106 people were killed.
The average annual area charred by wildfires in Portugal between 2010 and 2016 was just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres). That was more than in Spain, France, Italy or Greece — countries which are significantly bigger than Portugal.
Almost 11,500 firefighters are on standby this year, most of them volunteers. Volunteers are not uncommon in fire brigades in Europe, especially in Germany where more than 90% are volunteers.
Experts and authorities have identified several factors that make Portugal so particularly vulnerable to forest blazes. Addressing some of them is a long-term challenge.
The population of the Portuguese countryside has thinned as people have moved to cities in search of a better life. That means woodland has become neglected, especially as many of those left behind are elderly, and the forest debris is fuel for wildfires.
Large areas of central and northern Portugal are covered in dense, unbroken stretches of forest on hilly terrain. A lot of forest is pine and eucalyptus trees, both of which burn fiercely.
Environmentalists have urged the government to limit the area of eucalyptus, which burns like a torch. But it is a very valuable crop for Portugal’s important paper pulp industry, which last year posted sales worth 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion). The government says it is introducing restrictions gradually.
Experts say Portugal needs to develop a diversified patchwork of different tree species, some of them more fire-resistant and offering damper, shaded.
Climate change has become another challenge, bringing hotter, drier and longer summers. The peak fire season used to run from July 1 to Sept. 30. Now, it starts in June and ends in October.
After the 2017 deaths, the government introduced a raft of measures. They included using goats and bulldozers to clear woodland 10 meters (33 feet) either side of country roads. Property owners also have to clear a 50-meter (164-feet) radius around an isolated house, and 100 meters (328 feet) around a hamlet.
Emergency shelters and evacuation routes have been established at villages and hamlets. Their church bells aim to toll when a wildfire is approaching.
With 98% of blazes caused by human hand, either by accident or on purpose, officials have also been teaching people how to safely burn stubble and forest waste. Police, army and forest service patrols are also increased during the summer.