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Sri Lanka wants to undo deal to lease port to China for 99 years

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Sri Lanka’s new government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to undo the previous regime’s move to lease the southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese venture, citing national interest.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2017 changed the terms, saying it would be difficult to pay the loans taken to build the project. He agreed to lease the port for 99 years to a venture led by China Merchants Port Holdings Co. in return for $1.1 billion. That helped ease the Chinese part of the debt burden raised to build the port, Wickremesinghe said in an interview in 2018.

“We would like them to give it back,” Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a former central bank governor and an economic adviser to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, said in an interview at his home in a Colombo suburb. “The ideal situation would be to go back to status quo. We pay back the loan in due course in the way that we had originally agreed without any disturbance at all.”

The port is emblematic of the controversy dogging Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative from Kenya to Myanmar, including accusations that the world’s second-largest economy is luring poor countries into debt traps. In Sri Lanka, where the transaction to lease the port was opposed by Rajapaksa’s party, Mahinda took Chinese loans during his 10-year rule as president to build the project in his home district.

“This is a sovereign agreement” and it’s unlikely that it will be scrapped or altered in a big way, said Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “The Chinese may reconsider some clause, if it is considered crucial for the Rajapaksa regime.”

An attempt to rework the transaction will help the new Sri Lankan government, led by Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda, showcase their drive to change contracts seen as hurting national security, a key campaign platform for Gotabaya, a former defense secretary.

“China-Sri Lanka cooperation, including the Hambantota port project, are built on the basis of equality and consultation,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement from its spokesperson’s office. “China looks forward to working with Sri Lanka to make Hambantota a new shipping hub in the Indian Ocean and developing the local economy.”

China’s infrastructure-building in Sri Lanka became part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, prompting concern in India about its geopolitical rival using a port close to its southern coastline for future military or strategic uses. Gotabaya is in India on Friday for his first state visit overseas.

China has dismissed worries over any military dimension to its investment in the Hambantota port, which lies on the main shipping routes between Asia and Europe, and said it was mutually beneficial that would aid Sri Lanka’s economy.

“Sri Lanka will have to offer it something equally, if not more, attractive in financial terms for Beijing to agree to the cancellation of the lease agreement,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “With the Rajapaksa family back in power, China hopes to expand its footprint in Sri Lanka.”

A similar port deal under the Belt and Road program in Myanmar was drastically scaled to $1.3 billion from $7.5 billion, while in Malaysia the government canceled $3 billion worth of pipelines and renegotiated a rail project in 2019, cutting that one’s cost by a third to $11 billion.

“Bilateral agreements once you’ve signed those, are serious agreements,” Cabraal said in his house adorned with pictures of local and foreign leaders. “At the same time, we’ve got to look after the national interests. And if one government had bartered it away, there is a necessity for the new government to find ways and means by which it can be done amicably.”

For its part, China Merchants, whose $93 billion of revenue dwarfs Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product, has been able to use its experience stretching from China to Europe to help kick start the Hambantota port, which once hardly attracted any ships.

China Merchants’ Hambantota joint venture also last month said it had entered into an agreement with Japanese shipping conglomerate Nippon Yusen KK, for vehicle transshipment through the port.

New Ports Minister Johnston Fernando wasn’t immediately available for comment.

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Subhash Chandra to lose control of Zee Entertainment after stake sale to repay loans

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The Subhash Chandra-led Essel group on Wednesday said that it is planning to sell 16.5 per cent stake in Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL) to financial investors in order to repay loan obligations to certain lenders of the group.

After this transaction, the promoter stake in Zee Entertainment will be reduced to 5 per cent, which means that media baron Subhash Chandra will lose control of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd.

Zee, considered to be the pioneer of television entertainment industry in India, was launched by Subhash Chandra in 1992. Ever since the launch year, the company expanded operations to enter packaging, infrastructure, education, precious metals, finance and technology sectors.

“The Group seeks to sell up to 16.5% stake in ZEEL to financial investors in order to repay loan obligations to certain lenders of the Group for whose benefit such shares are currently encumbered (and who have consented to such share sale by the Group),” the Essel Group said.

Earlier this year, Essel Group sold up to 11 per cent in Zee Entertainment to Invesco Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund for Rs 4,224 crore.

“Out of the aforesaid, the Group seeks to sell 2.3 per cent stake in ZEEL to OFI Global China Fund, LLC and/or its affiliates. Pursuant to the aforementioned transactions, the post-transaction overall holdings of the Group in ZEEL will be 5%, out of which encumbered holdings of the Group will reduce to 1.1% of ZEEL,” it added.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group companies held 22.37 per cent promoter stake in Zee. Of this, 21.48 per cent was pledged as collateral against finances availed by Essel Group firms.

Post the completion of the transaction announced on Wednesday by the company, Oppenheimer Developing Markets Fund and OFI Global China will together hold 18.74 per cent.

ZEEL closed higher by 7.89 per cent at Rs 307.15 apiece on the BSE on Wednesday.

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Tata Steel plans to axe 3,000 jobs across Europe as crisis bites

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Tata Steel Ltd. plans to axe about 3,000 jobs across its European operations to cut costs in the latest blow to the region’s industry.

About two-thirds of the estimated reduction in staff would be office-based, or white-collar, positions, according to a statement. The company didn’t give a detailed breakdown of where the job losses would take place

“Stagnant EU steel demand and global overcapacity have been compounded by trade conflicts, which have turned the European market into a dumping ground for the world’s excess steel capacity,” Tata Steel said.

The European steel industry has faced growing headwinds this year amid declining demand, slowing growth and the consistent threat from supplies from overseas, including exports from Turkey, Russia and China. British Steel Ltd., the U.K.’s No. 2 steelmaker was put into liquidation in May, and has been taken over China’s Jingye Group Co. Apparent steel demand in the European Union will contract 3.1% this year, lobby group Eurofer warned last month.

The steelmaker’s European operations are facing “unprecedented severe market conditions,” Henrik Adam, chief executive officer of Tata Steel in Europe, said in the statement. Other steps to pare costs included boosting sales of higher-value steels, increasing efficiency and cutting procurement costs.

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India has potential for very rapid economic growth, says Bill Gates

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India has the potential for “very rapid” economic growth over the next decade which will lift people out of poverty and allow the government to invest in health and education priorities in an “exciting way”, billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said.

In an exclusive interview to PTI, Gates, the world’s richest person, specifically complimented India’s Aadhaar identity system and the country’s performance in the financial services and pharma sectors.

The positive outlook by Gates for the Indian economy, Asia’s third largest, comes at a time when it is reeling under major slowdown amid apprehensions that the cycle may last for a longer period.

“I don’t have any knowledge about the near term, but I’d say over the next decade, there’s potential for very rapid growth, which will lift people out of poverty and allow the government to invest in health and education priorities in a really exciting way,” he said.

On Friday, 64-year-old Gates, with a net worth of USD 110 billion, regained the position of the world’s richest person surpassing the Amazon Inc’s Jeff Bezos. The Microsoft co-founder has so far donated over USD 35 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for poverty reduction and social development programmes in various countries.

“… Everybody hopes that there’s really good growth because the potential is certainly there for India to have high growth,” he said.

Gates is currently on a three-day visit to India to review the work of his foundation in the country.

India’s economic growth slumped to an over six-year low of 5 per cent in the first quarter ending June this fiscal due to slower consumer demand and private investment.

The slump in growth has prompted many global agencies to cut India’s GDP growth by various degrees for 2019-20.

Gates also hailed India’s Aadhaar identification system as well as adoption of the UPI system.

“Well, in all of our areas, India’s been a key place where we find innovators and financial services. It’s fantastic the way that the Aadhaar identity system and the overall UPI system is gaining adoption, and there’s some great lessons out of that work,” he said. “We partner with people like Nandan Nilekani to think, okay, how do the lessons from India apply to other countries for things like digital identity or financial services,” he said.

Gates also complimented India’s pioneering work in vaccine manufacturing, saying the country has made impactful contribution in improving peoples’ lives.

“When people think of India, they think of the IT services and the great work done there. Less visible but certainly very impactful for improving the human condition is the great work done by the vaccine manufacturers, whether it’s Serum, who’s the largest, but a dozen others – Bharat Biotech, Bio-E, a number of companies,” he said.

In the last one decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been working in areas of health-care, sanitation, agriculture and financial services for the underprivileged people in India.

The foundation’s partnerships with Indian manufacturers have led to development of affordable efficacious vaccines which has enabled different countries to introduce these vaccines, said an official of the foundation.

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