Day: April 8, 2017

India Extends $4.5 Billion Line of Credit to Bangladesh

India and Bangladesh signed a slew of agreements on Saturday, including a $4.5 billion concessionary line of credit from India for development projects in Bangladesh, as the South Asian neighbors try to deepen their ties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladeshi counterpart, Sheikh Hasina, held wide-ranging talks in New Delhi, exchanging views on defense, regional security and cooperation in combating international terrorism.

Officials from the two sides signed 22 agreements, including a framework deal for defense cooperation over the next five years and an additional $500 million for Bangladesh to buy military equipment from India.

The two sides also signed an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation under which India will help Bangladesh develop its civilian nuclear program.

Modi said Hasina’s visit marked the “golden era” of India-Bangladesh relations and described India as “a long-standing and trusted development partner of Bangladesh.”

India and Bangladesh share a nearly 4,100-kilometer (2,545-mile) border. The two countries have had a close relationship since 1971, when Bangladesh, aided by India, gained independence from Pakistan following a bloody nine-month war.


India Gives $4.5B Credit Line to Bangladesh, Signs Defense Pact

India and Bangladesh signaled deepening ties Saturday as New Delhi committed a $4.5 billion line of credit to Dhaka for development projects, and the two countries signed their first-ever pact on defense cooperation. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an additional $500 million in credit for Bangladesh to buy military equipment from India during the visit to New Delhi by Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Calling India a “long standing and trusted development partner,” Modi said that the new credit lines “bring our resources allocation to Bangladesh to more than $8 billion over the past six years.” 

Both leaders reaffirmed their close ties during the Bangladeshi prime minister’s first visit to India in seven years, with Modi speaking of a “golden era” in their friendship and Hasina saying their friendly ties would benefit South Asia.

The two countries signed 22 agreements, including one on civil nuclear cooperation that aims to help Bangladesh develop its civilian nuclear program.

Many in New Delhi see the deal for defense cooperation over the next five years as the key breakthrough that will help reduce Bangladesh’s reliance on China for its military needs.

Worried by the growing Chinese influence in its neighborhood, New Delhi has made a concerted push in recent years to grow strategic ties with neighboring countries. Bangladesh’s purchase of two submarines from China last year deepened those concerns in India.

Calling the defense pact a feather in India’s cap, Sukh Deo Muni, a South Asia expert at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, said,“India does not want China to consolidate defense ties just next to its belly, that is true.”

Although the political opposition in Bangladesh has denounced the pact, independent analysts in Dhaka was optimistic that it will help achieve balance.

“Approximately 80 percent dependency at this moment you see on China, so it should be brought down. That actually reduces our vulnerability,” said Abdur Rashid, Executive Director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka. “If one is interrupted we can depend on the other.”

 A new rail link between the Indian city of Kolkata and Khulna in Bangladesh, and a bus link between Kolkata and Dhaka also were inaugurated, while another old rail link was restored to coincide with Hasina’s visit. The Bangladeshi leader said the greater connectivity is vital for the region’s development.

A key water-sharing agreement that Dhaka has long pushed for, however, eluded Hasina.

Although New Delhi favors such an arrangement, opposition from West Bengal state in India, through which the Teesta River flows into Bangladesh, has prevented the two countries from clinching a deal.

As Modi assured her of his commitment to conclude a deal, the Bangladeshi leader sounded a note of optimism. “I believe we shall be able to get India’s support in resolving these issues expeditiously,” said Hasina.

The two countries have had a close relationship since 1971, when India helped Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan following a bloody nine-month war.




US Rail Industry Focused on US-China Trade Relationship

March was a disappointing month for job seekers, with the U.S. Labor Department reporting that the private sector added only 98,000 jobs last month. But one industry is looking beyond the job numbers and toward distant shores as President Donald Trump meets for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about trade. Mil Arcega reports.


Lack of Iodized Salt Causes ‘Serious Public Health Problem’ in Cambodia 

When Arnaud Laillou, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF, led a salt iodization study in 2014, he wanted to be sure that salt producers were not adding too much iodine.

Just four years earlier, UNICEF had stopped providing iodine to salt producers at the end of a decade-long, largely successful government-run iodization program.

Laillou was stunned to find that 90 percent of coarse salt and 40-50 percent of fine salt was now not iodized. And all of it was labeled as iodized.

“It was a real shock for us,” says Laillou of the findings of the paper that was published last year in the online journal Nutrients.

Serious public health problem

That paper said iodine deficiency in Cambodia had become “a serious public health problem” just years after the issue had largely been dealt with, and warned that poorer families and rural families were worst affected.

That was at odds with a study carried out three years earlier that showed salt producers were adding iodine, and that authorities were enforcing a 2003 subdecree that mandated iodization.

Iodine is essential to brain development and hormonal functions. If a pregnant woman is iodine-deficient, for example, her baby’s brain will not develop properly. The mineral is vital for brain development in children, too, and for proper hormone functioning in all ages. Iodine is so important that the World Health Organization has described iodine-deficiency as “the [world’s] single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation.”

Iodizing salt is widely regarded as one of the cheapest and most effective public health measures: it costs 2 cents per kilogram of salt.

Children hurt most

Iodine-deficiency, Laillou said, is particularly damaging for children.

“For example, Cambodia is investing a lot of money at the level of the Ministry of Education to improve the education of their children,” he said. “But having a lack of iodine in the brain, it decreases [their] IQ by 13 points.”

That, he points out, compares with the loss of three IQ points for a child who is not breastfed for the first six months of life.

Wholesale failure

In theory, adding iodine to Cambodia’s annual output of 80-100,000 tons of salt should be simple: close to 100 percent is produced by the SPCKK cooperative in the southern province of Kampot. SPCKK produces coarse salt, which it sells in bulk to middlemen who operate boilers that refine that into fine salt.

By law, SPCKK must iodize all of its salt output. But over the years several of the iodizing machines it was given have broken down, and SPCKK has not sourced spare parts. Now it has four working machines and that’s not enough.

And so, as SPCKK’s technical chief, Bun Narin told VOA, its workers often spray iodine by hand, a method that is at best imprecise.

“Large companies [outside Cambodia] use machines to monitor, whereas we are still using labor and so it’s not always accurate,” he said.

That is putting it mildly, given that Laillou’s research found 90 percent of the country’s coarse salt lacks any iodine. Despite that, SPCKK’s output is labeled as containing the mandated amount of iodine.

If boilers don’t test for the concentration of iodine in the coarse salt that they buy, and if, further along the production line, salt repackagers, like 57-year-old Koy Rithiya, don’t test for the concentration in the fine salt that they buy from the boilers and then add iodine where needed, the result is noniodized salt.

Which is exactly what has happened.

Routine testing

When Rithiya set up his business in Phnom Penh 15 years ago, he didn’t know he needed to add iodine; he started doing that a decade ago after being advised by UNICEF.

These days he uses an electronic monitor to test the concentration of iodine in the 500 kilograms of fine salt that he repackages each day, and adds iodine where needed to meet the mandated standard of 30-60 parts per million.

He doesn’t yet use the monitor to test his daily output of 400 kilograms of coarse salt; instead he relies on a test that merely shows whether iodine is present or not. That test, however, does not measure the concentration.

Rithiya reckons the problem of iodine-deficiency has emerged in part because some producers use expired iodine, “but also because some producers combine salt with iodine without correctly balancing it.”

“And some don’t bother to use it correctly,” he said.

A lack of enforcement

The report makes clear where the problem lies: on the production side is SPCKK, as well as some boilers and salt repackagers; on the enforcement side are the authorities for failing to ensure that producers follow the law.

The irony is that by 2010, the government’s program meant the health problems associated with iodine deficiency in Cambodia were largely a thing of the past. A decade earlier, nearly 1 in 5 primary school children had goiters, a condition where the thyroid in the neck swells up. Many adults did, too. By 2010, that was no longer the case.

But when iodine prices tripled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, many salt producers in Cambodia stopped buying the additive, and the authorities failed to make sure they were iodizing. The result: a re-emergent public health issue that has, to date, remained largely invisible.

The situation, though bad, should start to improve. UNICEF is working with a government subcommittee to devise a certification standard for all producers, although that could take two years to implement.

Ven Keahak, who heads the subcommittee on salt iodization, says the new licensing system will mean producers “have to have a machine, iodine powder [in stock], a brand name, and salt with proper quality in order to get a license.”

“It’s a legal enforcement that the ministry has to conduct,” he said.

A lack of enforcement has been part of the problem, but Keahak would not comment on the failure of government agencies to apply the current law. He did confirm that no one has been prosecuted for failing to add iodine or for failing to monitor the system.

The difficulty for concerned Cambodians is that every bag of salt carries the logo stating that it is iodized. To deal with that, the Ministry of Planning will now test all salt brands and will place advertisements in newspapers to tell people which brands they can trust.

Until then, the failure to police the country’s salt output will keep damaging lives in what experts say was an entirely avoidable public health issue.


3-D-Printed Microscope Turns Smartphone into DNA Sequencer

With the right attachment, a smartphone can be used as a diagnostic tool for infectious diseases like tuberculosis. Faith Lapidus reports.


Scientists Get Closer to Building Artificial Life

Despite ethical and safety concerns, researchers are getting closer to building life from scratch. In fact, scientists are hoping to synthesize a human genome in the next 10 years. Investors are putting huge amounts of money into research that may deliver novel drugs, materials and chemicals. Some of the projects were highlighted at a synthetic biology conference in London April 4-6. VOA’s Deborah Block has a report.


Greece’s Dark Age: How Austerity Turned Off the Lights

Kostas Argyros’s unpaid electricity bills are piling up, among a mountain of debt owed to Greece’s biggest power utility.

His family owe 850 euros to the Public Power Corporation (PPC), a tiny fraction of the state-controlled firm’s 2.6 billion euros ($2.8 billion) in unpaid bills.​

Argyros picks up only occasional work as an odd-job man.

“When you only work once a week, what will you pay first?” said the 35-year-old, who lives in a tiny apartment in an Athens suburb with his unemployed wife and four small children.

The Argyros family are emblematic of deepening poverty in Greece following seven years of austerity demanded by the country’s international creditors. They burn wood to heat their home in winter, food is cooked on a small gas stove, and hot water is scarce.

The only evening light is the blue glare of a TV screen, for fear of racking up more debt.

Five-watt lightbulbs provide a dim glow and Argyros worries about the effect on their eyesight. More than 40 percent of Greeks are behind on their utility bills, higher than anywhere else in Europe.

People in poor neighborhoods are also increasingly turning to energy fraud, meaning that the problem for PPC is much higher than the mountain of unpaid bills suggests.

Power theft is costing PPC around 500-600 million euros a year in lost income, an industry official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to divulge the numbers.

PPC declined to comment on the figure. Public disclosures by the Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator HEDNO, which checks meters, show that verified cases of theft climbed to 10,600 last year, up from 8,880 in 2013 and 4,470 in 2012.

Authorities believe theft is far higher than the cases verified by HEDNO, another official said, declining to be named.

Households in the country are equipped with analog meters, which are easy to hack. One of the most common tricks is using magnets, which slow down the rotating coils to show less consumption than the real amount, a HEDNO official said.

Some websites even offer consumers tips and tricks on power fraud.

Burden of Arrears

For households who have had their electricity cut off, a group of activists calling themselves the “I Won’t Pay” movement have taken it upon themselves to reconnect the supply. The group says it has done hundreds this year.

PPC, which has a 90 percent share of the retail market and 60 percent of the wholesale market, is supposed to reduce this dominance to less than 50 percent by 2020 under Greece’s third, 86 billion euro bailout deal.

The lenders also want PPC to sell some of its assets, but the company is toiling under the debt of unpaid bills, a problem opposition lawmakers say will force a fire-sale.

In little over a year from June 2015, overdue bills to the 51-percent state-owned firm grew by nearly a billion euros to 2.6 billion, Chief Executive Manolis Panagiotakis told lawmakers in March.

Analysts estimate PPC’s cash reserves have shrunk to about  00 million euros, forcing it to secure a 200 million euro bank loan to repay a bond due in May.

The tangle has left it with little leeway for new investments or to fund a switch to cleaner forms of energy from coal to improve environmental standards.

“It is often said that PPC is undergoing the most critical phase of its history,” Panagiotakis told lawmakers. “I will not argue with that.” He declined a Reuters request for an interview.

The burden of arrears for PPC is now “so big that some worry it will not be able to lift it for much longer”, said energy expert Constantinos Filis.

The apartment building where the Argyros family live is a testament to that. Many tenants struggle even to pay the 25 euro annual fee to light communal areas such as staircases.

Ground Zero

PPC has tried to recoup unpaid bills with phased repayment plan. A total of 625,000 customers owing a total of 1.3 billion euros had signed up to the plan by January.

The Argyros family have also entered the plan with the help of Theofilos, a local charity, which also contributes towards their monthly bills.

Meanwhile, PPC’s provisions for bad debt remain high. The plans drove the figure down to 453 million euros in the nine months to September last year from 690 million a year earlier.

Analysts expect PPC to swing back to a profit of between 63-109 million euros in 2016, with provisions of below 600 million euros.

Filis, the energy expert, said the more things stayed the same, the closer PPC was to “ground zero” and he drew comparisons with the Greek state’s brushes with near bankruptcy during the debt crisis.

“It’s reasonable to say that PPC is too big to allow it to collapse, particularly regarding energy security,” he said. “On the other hand, a few years ago some argued that no country could fail either.”


Chile’s Wine Industry Sees Little Impact From Fires, Heatwave

A torrid summer and devastating fires across central Chile’s wine belt have forced an earlier harvest this year, but there are no signs that volume or flavor will be affected, local industry experts said on Thursday.

High temperatures can lead to excessive sugar and alcohol in the grapes and the harvest needed to take place as soon as the right level was reached, they said.

Climate change is contributing to record droughts, heat and wildfires in Chile, the world’s No. 4 exporter of wine by volume and the biggest among New World producers, threatening crops and spurring growers to move south to cooler climes.

In December, temperatures in central Chile hit their highest level in a century. The hot, dry conditions sparked the biggest wildfires in the country’s modern history, burning homes and forests and blanketing the entire region in thick smoke.

Most vines had escaped the flames and the bigger worry was the effect of the smoke on the flavor of the grapes, said Angelica Valenzuela, commercial director of industry body Wines of Chile.

“The number of vines burnt was low. But there could be an effect from the smoke which we will see when the harvest is done,” she said in an interview at the Undurraga vineyard near Talagante, 22 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of the capital of Santiago. “For now, the first results are not showing signs of any problems.”

Close to where some of the worst fires raged, Undurraga produces around 2 million cases a year, some 70 percent of which is exported.

The hot conditions in the southern hemisphere summer had forced growers like Undurraga to bring forward the harvest by about a month, with the first varieties picked as early as January, company spokesman Fernando Anania said.

That earlier-than-usual harvest was a challenge to Chile’s winegrowers in logistics terms, but should not have a major effect on volumes or taste, said Anania in an interview.

Exports of Chilean wine grew 0.9 percent in 2016 by volume and 3.5 percent by value, according to Wines of Chile. Last year, for the first time, China overtook the United States to become the industry’s top export destination.


Balkans Skeptical of EU Plan for a Market

Serbian President-elect Aleksandar Vucic likes to use the past to explain the future.

In 1947, as Josip Broz Tito was consolidating Yugoslavia, he built a railway through Bosnia that linked Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, friend and foe after World War II.

“Tito wasn’t stupid,” Vucic told Reuters. “People had to work together, build together, then travel together, live together. That’s what we need — connecting.”

Together again

Yugoslavia broke up in war 26 years ago, spawning seven states. Now, the European Union has taken up a project put forward by Vucic that would see five of them — plus Albania — joined once more, this time in a common market.

It would abolish all remaining tariff barriers, lift obstacles to the free movement of people, commodities and services and introduce standard regulations across the region.

The EU wants an outline agreed to in July, seizing on the idea as a way to re-engage with Balkan states unnerved by the bloc’s evaporating enthusiasm for further enlargement and exposed to the growing influence of Russia.

But it has received a mixed reception.

Some apprehensions

Kosovo, for one, fears being roped back into a Serbian-dominated union of the kind it fought to leave; others worry it will only slow their accession to the EU, or worse still replace it.

The EU has delegated development of the plan to the Regional Cooperation Council. Its head, Goran Svilanovic, told Reuters Balkan leaders were “increasingly realistic” about the reduced appetite in Brussels for EU enlargement.

“They see what’s up in the EU,” he said.

But they will work together on the Balkan market plan and with the EU “when it comes to something they see is … bringing change to their daily lives.”

Market of 20 million

For years, the prospect of EU accession has stabilized relations and driven reform in a turbulent and impoverished region. But since Croatia followed ex-Yugoslav Slovenia in joining in 2013, the EU has been beset by problems of migration, Brexit and right-wing populism.

A year later, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ruled out any further expansion until at least 2020.

Stability and democracy in the Balkans have suffered.

Juncker was stating a fact, a senior EU official told Reuters, but in hindsight he had made “a huge mistake.”

“A lot of things that were in progress just stopped,” the official said. Another EU diplomat said Brussels had “dropped the ball” and was trying to re-engage.

Start with market, trade

One of the results is the Western Balkans Common Market, which would build on the Central European Free Trade Area, CEFTA. All six countries are members of CEFTA, but the pact has struggled to stimulate trade within the region and some barriers remain.

Backers of the plan say a single economic space with a market of 20 million people would be more attractive to investors than six small states each with their own red tape.

“Investors would be banging down our doors,” said Vucic, Serbia’s prime minister who was elected president Sunday.

The EU says it would mark a step toward membership, not an alternative.

But it did not go unnoticed that enlargement had no place in a March document by Juncker that set out the options for the EU after Britain leaves in 2019.

“Create your own common market [because you are not joining ours],” was the headline of an opinion piece last month by Kosovo analyst Besa Shahini on the Pristina Insight website.

Kosovo threw off Belgrade’s repressive rule in a 1998-99 war, and is wary of Serbia as the biggest country in the region and a friend of Russia.

“We don’t want to see a Serbia that behaves in the style of Russia, trying to politically dominate the region,” Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj said of the initiative Tuesday.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa took to Facebook: “We share different experiences of the past,” he wrote. “We do not want that past to return, repackaged.”

Sokol Havolli, an adviser to Mustafa, told Reuters the project risked slowing the region’s EU integration.

Alternative narratives

Asked if a common market may become a substitute for EU enlargement, Vucic said that “should not and must not” happen but said he had heard, unofficially, of such fears in Montenegro.

The office of Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told Reuters Podgorica had yet to receive a detailed proposal, but that it supported greater regional cooperation.

An Albanian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tirana was “skeptical.”

Kristof Bender, deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a Brussels-based research group, said he would be surprised if creating a club of poor economies would do much to address the region’s woes.

Nor could it be a “credible alternative” to the narrative of prosperity and stability inside the EU.

“If this narrative evaporates, Balkan politicians will need to look for other narratives,” Bender told Reuters. “Given recent history, this is dangerous.”

Railroad holds lessons

Today, the railway Tito built speaks less of the future than the folly of the past: as trains cross between Bosnia’s two ethnically-based regions, different crews take over, reflecting how power was divided up in order to end the 1992-95 war. Part of the line is no longer used.

Vucic said critics of his idea argued they simply wanted to leave the Balkans behind and join the EU.

So does Serbia, he said. “But does that mean we should lose the next three, four, five years when we know we’re not going to become a member?”