Saturday, July 26, 2008

US redeploys anti-terrorist aid for upgrading planes

For the last several years, there has been an ongoing political discussion about whether the United States is following the correct policies with regard to getting rid of terrorism emanating from the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, rated by many as the most likely place to generate the next big terrorist attack in the Western World. Part of that discussion is whether the United States has relied too much on Pakistan, and not pushed it hard enough to get rid of the entire support structure for terrorism in the tribal border regions. Implicit in this discussion is that Pakistan is not really doing all it can to get rid of terrorism in the region, to take on the vast support for the Taleban and terrorist elements in the wild ungoverned regions. Now, Pakistan has always claimed that this was a difficult task, that these regions have historically had a reputation for resisting any attempts to enforce a central governance; and that periodic pushes by the Army and border guards have only met fierce resistance and let to further embittering of the population in these regions, thus leading to a further support for the so-called resistance fighters.
At some point it is difficult to blame only Pakistan for this. The US has had a huge amount of analysis that claims that there is a lack of governance, civil reconstruction, and enough boots on the ground in Afghanistan. What was required that there be a push to strengthen the regional paramilitary forces, combined with an active and huge construction program in these regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is when the affected population see only a military push, and the same old bad conditions with no scope for improvement that they tend to move further towards the extremist position. And in Pakistan, the Bush Administration seems to have had a blinkered vision with taking the actions of President Musharraf at face value, not applying the pressure that might have made things much better. For example, there has never been much pressure to improve the condition and training of the regional paramilitary force that might be able to help turn the tide.
All this came to my mind when I read this news report:

The United States plans to shift about $230 million in aid to Pakistan from counterterrorism programs to upgrading the nation's aging F-16 fighter jets. The new government is facing "a terrible financial crisis with food and fuel problems," the official said, and the Pakistani government "would rather tell its public they are spending their money on food and fuel," so it asked the United States to pay for the F-16 upgrades from the U.S. aid fund. Last year, Congress mandated that $300 million in aid to Pakistan go toward fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban, partly by beefing up law enforcement and developing tribal areas of the country that are hostile to the United States.
Skeptical lawmakers worry that the F-16 upgrades will divert funding from crucial counterterrorism programs and could be more about helping Pakistan competing with its rival, India, than fighting terror. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of a House subcommittee on foreign operations, said the request from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reprogram the funding "raises serious concerns." Lowey is asking for more information before signing off on the change. "Congress provided these funds specifically for counterterrorism and law enforcement activities," Lowey said in a written statement.

This is about as short-sighted as can be. It is of critical importance that funds be spent on improving the lot of the tribal areas and improve the force that works over there. Instead, if these funds are used for improving F-16's, machines that are hardly of much use in anti-terrorism except when a force needs the support in a head-on fight with the terrorist, not something that is typically seen in the border regions.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 12:10 PM    

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

BJP strikes back against its defiant MP's

The BJP suffered massively in the vote of confidence for the Congress Government over the nuclear deal. In the event of a loss for the Opposition, even though the Left would lose its position from a commanding influence on policy over the past 4 years, somehow, the Left is not a party that you associate the notion of loss with. If they lose influence, they will go back to being an ineffective opposition with their 50+ MP's, with people not really caring about their position on issues; or that they at one time had a major influence on the policy of the Government of India.
On the other hand, the BJP had much more to lose. It is the main opposition party in waiting, and seemed to be ready to strike at the time when the Government was weak because of the withdrawal of the support by the Left party. The party seemed to commit a lot of effort, but was soon overtaken by Mayawati; the same story, most parties that could be with the BJP were already with it, while Mayawati, after her embrace by the UNPA and the Left, was an attractive upcoming secular power. All this having happened, the BJP had to suffer actual disaster during the election; unable to keep all its MP's with it:

Meanwhile, acting tough, the BJP on Wednesday expelled all eight party MPs who cross-voted or abstained during the confidence motion in Lok Sabha. The party also decided to launch a nationwide agitation against UPA on "corruption and degradation" of democratic values of the country. BJP said the party cannot brook indiscipline in its ranks and decided to take extreme action against those MPs who violated the whip issued by the party to vote against the UPA government in the confidence motion.
Main opposition BJP was the worst sufferer with six of its MPs voting in favour of the motion moved by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Sombhai Patel, Babubhai Katara and Brijbhushan Sharan Singh were among the BJP MPs who voted in favour of the government, while Haribhau Rathod was among the party MPs who abstained.

The BJP is not unaware of the attractions and inducements during periods in which individual MP's and MLA's count, and it is the political and organizational ability of a party to keep all its voting members with it, something in which it seems to have failed.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:25 AM    

CPM finally expels Somanth Chaterjee

This was about one of the most anticipated news in recent times on an individual politician level. The Speaker, Somnath Chaterjee has been a member of the CPM for a long long time, having been a Member of Parliament from the party for 10 times now. For all appearances, he has been an articulate and devoted member for the party. At the same time, as the party drew up its leadership over a period of time, it was clear that Somnath Chaterjee was not going to be a candidate in the succession chain, and given that he is 79 years, not likely to happen in the future also.
There was a lot of buzz that he wanted to the President, but the CPM did not agree to this (leading to some disappointment with the party politburo). At the same time, even though the BJP keeps on accusing him of acting in a biased manner, he seems to have given the office of the Speaker his all. It was a familiar sight of the Speaker trying his best to bring an unruly house to control (and mostly failing). So, there must have been the feeling that he enjoyed a constitutional post, with the prestige associated with it, and above the dictates of any party.
Even then, it was a matter of surprise that he refused to obey the diktat of the CPM that he quit the office of the Speaker and became defiant in his attitude. This must have been very unsettling for the party; a Communist party likes to believe that once the Politburo has spoken, then there is no cause for dissent; even if it is the holder of a constitutional post. So, the party backed down a bit, keeping his name off the whip, but the action was predicted. It was the timing that was to be considered, and it was fast:

Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee was on Wednesday expelled by CPM climaxing a fortnight-long defiance of the veteran parliamentarian to quit at the call of the party with which he was associated for four decades. The party invoked Article 19 (13) of its constitution to expel him under summary procedures without any notice on the charge of "seriously compromising" the party position.
The 79-year old barrister and ten-time MP, Chatterjee rejected both subtle and explicit hints from the party leadership, which asked him to quit the post to which he was elected unanimously after the 2004 elections, saying he was above party politics given the post he held.

Somehow, this action also gives a hint of the anger that is bubbling within the CPM over the vote loss and consequent loss of influence, that it took a fast and quick action against a leader who has been with the party for long.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 9:06 AM    

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The UPA confidence vote and Mayawati

For the past several days, ever since the UPA Government announced that a trust vote will happen on the 22nd, there has been an incredible amount of horse-trading ongoing to secure support. Everybody knows how Amar Singh ran circles around Shri Karat of the going-into-decline Left and left it in a position whereby it now has no influence and no leverage over the policies of the Government. So, one can assume that Amar Singh did what he could to win over rival MP's, while Mulayam Singh led the effort to ensure that the MP's of the Samajwadi Party did not bolt (seeing the final result where the Congress won it fairly comfortably, one can assume that all the efforts were successful). Who is left with egg on their faces ? Both the BJP that staked a lot of its political power on this no-confidence motion, and the Left, which went from a position where it was guiding the hands of power (a remote-control if you may) to a position where it does not count for anything more for the moment.
Given the low profile that Uttar Pradesh has played in the past few years in terms of a Government at the center, it was surprising that politicians from the state played such a key role. Mayawati was like the magnet, drawing in the likes of defectors from the SP, from the Congress, pulling in Ajit Singh (will the Government now rename the Chaudhury Charan Singh Airport back to another name now that Ajit Singh did not support the Congress ?).
There were a number of people who played up to her ego, calling her a future Prime Minister. Maybe it was a combination of this ego-massaging, a feeling that she is the future, as well as a call to the Dalit community all over the country to support her that she made comments such as these:

Undeterred by the outcome of the trust vote, BSP chief Mayawati on Tuesday alleged the UPA and as well as the NDA of "conspiring" to prevent her from becoming the country's prime minister. Talking to media soon after the UPA won the trust vote in the Lok Sabha, the Uttar Pradesh CM said, "UPA's victory is not due to their policies but a well thought-out political conspiracy by both the NDA and the UPA to check the BSP and prevent the daughter of a Dalit from becoming the prime minister of the country."
Mayawati claimed that in the last week, her party has emerged as the fulcrum of national politics. "The Left also sees merit and finds that when BSP has given such good governance in the largest state of the country, it can be tried at the national level," she added. "What BSP hoped to achieve in the next 6-7 years, it has managed to do in 6-7 days," she said, referring to the UNPA and her new positioning in national politics.

These are the kind of politics that are abhorrent, that drive wedges in an already divided country. So far the BSP, for all the money-making practices of its leader, has been accepted as a platform that shows oppressed Dalits that they can also lead and have power; however, when somebody starts indulging in such negative politics, it has a major effect on their credibility.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:27 AM    

Monday, July 21, 2008

BJP really stuck in this nuclear deal debate

For some time now, many supporters and those slightly leaning towards the BJP are very troubled by the stand that the BJP has been taking towards the nuclear deal. In the beginning, there was a lot of waffling towards the deal, with Advani once urging the party to review the deal. In addition, Brajesh Mishra, seen as close to the former Prime Minister and tall leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, has come out in open support to the deal (even though the rest of the party is shocked by his stand). For most of the middle class supporters of the deal (especially for those who care about this topic), the deal is making the best of a bad situation, and it enables closeness towards the US, something that is seen as natural to India (left leaning people will disagree, but if you leave aside the blinkers of a non-aligned world, would you rather be more friendly with the US than with say states such as Iran / Venezuela / Russia / China).
The BJP / NDA must be seeing the current separation between the Left and the Congress as a chance to bring the Government down, and then do what ? Even now, I believe that the BJP is no closer to getting to power. It will win in the states where it won the state elections, but there are vast stretches of the country where it will come a cropper, such as Uttar Pradesh where Mayawati is reigning supreme, in states such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the same level of development has not happened as in Gujrat. And in the current horse-trading for getting votes in Parliament, Mayawati seems to be getting all the publicity. She is the one to whom many undecided MP's are going towards. Read this:

Sources said the saffron party is in a fix and fears of a backlash in either situation of the government winning or losing the trust vote. "NDA is nowhere in the picture. If the government loses, the credit goes to Mayawati and the Third front. If it wins then Mulayam would emerge as a winner and strategist," a leader of one of the NDA constituents said.
In the BJP camp, leaders fear that UPA losing the vote would certainly be a booster for Mayawati camp but if the government wins the trust vote, BJP would be accused by parties like BSP of conniving with the Congress to bail them out, sources added.

The BJP currently is not any closer to getting more allies to support it. What it really should do is to let the Government survive, lurch from one problem to another as it deals with having to pay back all the political debt it took onto win this vote, and let voter disenchantment with high inflation keep on getting stoked. Further, it really needs to get more time to set its house in order in the northern states, and re-activate the fames Sangh network in Uttar Pradesh. Such time would also some fissures to appear in Mayawati's support base among the forward castes.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 10:14 AM    

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Former allies turning on each other - Lalu vs. Bardhan

If you consider the pedigree of these 2 gentlemen, RJD chief Lalu Prasad (who is a self-claimed socialist having risen up through the support of the people), and CPI leader AB Bardhan (and of course the Communists always consider themselves to be the representatives of the people, even if the ungrateful people do not elect them to the national level government); then you would realize that they should be natural allies. Both are opposed to the Congress (or were opposed earlier), both have come up through the support of the poor and the repressed sections of society; and of course both are violently and vehemently opposed to the BJP (after all, both these parties are pure secular parties). So, having said all this, why do the following statements not seem out of place and seem completely normal since these are political people after all:

Launching a scathing attack on CPI leader AB Bardhan for his remarks that UPA was buying MPs for Rs 25 crore each, RJD chief Lalu Prasad on Friday said the CPI leader should prove his 'nasty' allegations or 'apologise'. "Bardhan has harmed the reputation of all parties with his comments. He has said a very nasty thing," Prasad told reporters after chairing a meeting of the RJD Parliamentary Party at his residence here.
The CPI leader has "defamed" MPs of all parties and "assassinated their character", Prasad said adding, "he should either prove his allegations or apologise". Spewing more venom on the CPI general secretary, he said, "The country will never forgive Bardhan. He has defamed Parliamentary democracy. His allegations are a conspiracy to destroy the very foundations of democracy."

Of course, if the situation so requires, then the same Lalu could go off the next day to meet Bardhan and expound to the press about what a great leader Bardhan actually is; and no one will consider this to be abnormal. Is it then any issue that most Indian consider politicians to not have any morals, and be downright power-hungry ?

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 2:09 PM    

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Speaker turns against the Left, does not want to quit

The Left has always modeled itself on its adherence to political probity, and to good norms (in the process considering itself the party with the highest morals); of course it is another matter that people who cannot stand the policies of the Left (and its pandering to an out-dated economic model and to its adherence to a blind model of secularism (you just have to remember their threatening the Samajwadi Party with the loss of the Muslim vote if it supported the Congress) consider it the most morally bankrupt party. And of course, its dictatorial and violent ways in Bengal shows up its true nature. But this particular example takes the cake.
In the Indian system of parliamentary democracy, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is seen to be an impartial judge, and even though a lot of politics go into the election of the Speaker, once in, the speaker is seen as the most unbiased political person, and specially not supporting the policies of the party from which he was elected. Many speakers in the past have tried to adhere to this policy (and some have succeeded to some degree). The current speaker, Somnath Chaterjee, has always claimed that he is now not a Left party member, but the speaker, the person who no longer will profess any political beliefs.
So, how come such a situation has come to pass that the speaker is being told by Comrade Karat that he is now a Left party member and should withdraw from the post of the speaker. This is crass bad political behavior, trying to force a person to resign who is supposed to be now above political beliefs:

Despite the pressure mounted on him by the CPM leadership to resign his post immediately, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee remains defiant as he questioned their very decision to go along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). An angry Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) general secretary Prakash Karat, according to party sources, has asked Politburo member Sitaram Yechury to convince Chatterjee about quitting the Speaker's post, which was the result of an understanding that the Left had with the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when it decided to prop it up in 2004.
However, Chatterjee, who has had meetings with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Petroleum Minister Murli Deora during the last two days, is insisting he would give up his Lok Sabha membership also if he had to quit the Speaker's post. The Speaker is believed to have told the CPM leadership that he would not be in a position to vote against the UPA in the Lok Sabha. Chatterjee, who will be 79 on July 25, is also arguing that such a move would cast a shadow on the Speaker's office as it is supposed to be above party politics.

Somehow, in this case, one does not think that it is the loss of the chair that is worrying Chaterjee as much as the fact that suddenly he is being forced to resign to support a cause for which he was not consulted.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:36 AM    

Monday, July 07, 2008

Another case of police turning to be fiends

The Indian police works under manuals and guides written during British times where the main aim was to protect the rulers from the ruled. Further, in urban and rural areas both, the police is also used as an extension of the power of the local political leaders; a side effect of these factors is that there is no accountability or responsibility built into the bodywork of the police force. Hence, despite having some dedicated men committed to the welfare of the country, we also have men in khakhi who pretend that the law does not apply to them. And when the Supreme Court tries to change the rules to reform the police force and apply more accountability, states believe that their freedom will be lost and oppose such measures.
It is this enhanced sense of power and no accountability that makes the police believe that it can act like these policemen did in Ahmedabad:

AHMEDABAD: Three drunk cops beat up a youth in the wee hours of Sunday because he failed to comply to the extortion demands of the policemen. Bipin Thakor, 27, a resident of Thakorvaas, Shahibaug, was whipped with the police's belt and thrashed with batons. Bipin is now in the Civil Hospital. Medicos said he has got 375 stitches in his left hand that had severe, multiple injuries in the flesh and skin. He had also suffered multiple injuries in his hand, chest, ear and neck.
When Bipin said he did not have any money, the cops body searched him and found Rs 9,200. This enraged the drunk cops. They first called him a liar and then started beating him up on the main road. The constables beaten him up with lathis and the belt that accompanies their police uniform. After a while, they left Bipin on the main road unconscious. He was later sent to the Civil Hospital by a local tea vendor.

And apparently the local police post cannot detect who these policemen were; but that is understandable; why would the police force support a citizen when it comes to one of their own. And why should policemen feel that they are entitled to extort money from citizens ? It is these kind of atrocities that will eventually force much greater accountability on the police force.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:14 AM    

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Symbolic gesture for river cleaning in Lucknow

Indian rivers are extremely polluted, and have been so for a long time now. It is all the more horrible since we consider many of these rivers as holy and worship them; the waters of the river Ganga find a very holy spot in Hindu culture. And yet, the waters of most of these rivers look hideous (unable to support marine life, unfit for human consumption, and so on). Various Governments claim to spend a lot of time and effort to clean up these rivers and have drawn up plans over the past 2 decades with big sounding names (all ending with the words of 'Action Plan') and the rivers remain dirty.
Over a period of time, even the courts of India have been unable to push the Governments to make an effective plan that is also executed well. All you get in the end is a lot of discussion about which method is the best for river cleaning (for those familiar with the discussions, the endless discussion in Delhi around where the sewage treatment plants should be, and how to stop the big drains from throwing their filth directly into the river would be funny if it was not so critical to public health). Otherwise, you would not get cases whereby drinking water to a city became critical when the filth content of the water available for drinking became too high.
What is required is for Governments to set up dedicated action plans that will ensure proper treatment of sewage (whether industrial or residential) so that no untreated sewage flows into the various water bodies that we have. Industries that violate this dictum need to be severely fined and punished (and that means that corruption levels in the environmental inspection area need to come down). Else we will end up with more cases such as the one in Punjab where millions of fish in a canal suddenly died due to release of untreated industrial waste. What we don't really need is for this kind of publicity generating measures such as this one:

With the state police coming to the fore to free the Gomti of pollution, now those caught red handed throwing garbage in the river will be severely dealt with. This announcement was made on Saturday by the director general of police (DGP) Vikram Singh, even as along with other senior officials of the department he took it upon himself to clean the city's lifeline.
In the morning the officials arrived at the banks of the Gomti for the cleanliness drive that is on to clean the river for the past few days. During the drive, the DGP made an official announcement that one company of river police will be deployed on all the banks of the river.

How will they prevent people from throwing trash into the river ? And will it stop if they patrol a few kilometers ? Would it not be more effective to have a proper education drive along with ensuring that people get a proper garbage collection facility ? Or am I hoping for an ideal world ?

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:21 AM    

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The progress on the nuclear deal

Who would have believed that something like this could happen even a month back ? When last year the Prime Minister had declared that his (actually, the Congress party of Sonia Gandhi) was not a one-issue Government, it was taken for granted that with the Left putting a veto on the nuclear deal, and with the allies unwilling to sacrifice the Government for a nuclear deal, the nuclear deal was as good as dead. And even recently, when the Government again raised the issue, it seemed like with the Left unwilling to back down, the deal would not happen, and the entire issue would be political posturing.
And then, suddenly, like a Jack in the Box suddenly popping out, the Congress and the Prime Minister appear to have outsmarted the Left. With the Left even otherwise not leaving a chance to criticize the Government over many issues, the Government must have been chafing at the tone used by the Left (the Congress, even in a coalition Government is never really tolerant of the people providing support). And the political movement by the Congress and the Samajwadi Party must have surprised the CPM and their other left brothers the maximum. They have been so used to being able to turn the heat on the Government that even the slightest hint of alternate support from the SP will be enough to make the Congress stand up and look the left in the eye.
And this is what precisely seems to have happened. The Congress will appreciate the support provided by the 39 MP's of the SP (vs. the 59 MP's of the Left); at the same time, the SP is in a bad state in its home state of Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati's political stars look to be continually on the rise, and the SP really needs an alliance to prevent the split of its votes. And one has to admire its political cunning - in order to avoid the charge of being anti-Muslim and get a reason for changing its stand to a nuclear-deal supporter, it used a meeting with APJ Kalam to showcase as a reason for changing its stand. He is a former President and a missile man, so his support is important to justify a change in stand, and he is a middle class and educated Muslim icon, so this will help mollify its Muslim base.
Where does this leave the Left ? It has an alltime high of 59 MP's, but Kerala is famous for changing its political mind quickly, and the Left suffered some major reversals in West Bengal local elections, thus ensuring that early next elections could see a much reduced Left MP count. Even now, it could almost seem like that they are no longer relevant.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 11:31 AM    

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Official losing salary for being tardy

Can you really believe this ? That Government officials would actually lose salary for being late to office. Most citizens of this country, who run after officials, and have to put up with babus who are not be found in their seats, or have not yet reached office even many hours after the scheduled time, would welcome this news from Nagpur:

NAGPUR: On Tuesday, Mayor Maya Iwnate showed she means business. Taking serious cognisance of complaints by citizens about senior officials in the Civil Lines office of Nagpur Municipal Corporation arriving late for work, she directed deduction of one day's salary and issuance of show-cause notices to these staffers.

Given our cynical nature, how easy is it for us to believe that this is a one-off thing, or this was actually a stunt, not to be repeated. Unfortunately, such is the reputation of the bureaucracy in this country that very few people will actually believe in such news.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:24 AM    

SPA's officer penalized under the RTI Act

I normally celebrate every use of RTI, and write about it as much as I can; in the hope that all these articles can make a difference and encourage more people to use this tool to get the information that they desire rather than wait behind the dark wall of babudom. Waiting to get information before the world of RTI was a very very slow and painful process; the successes that I have seen and read about with the use of RTI makes it a very powerful and fairly successful tool (what this means is that if you have seen individual benefits of RTI, please write about it).
One of the essential parts of the RTI Act is about penalizing delays or refusal to provide information. The fines may not seem very significant, but they aren't negligible either (going upto a maximum of Rs. 25,000 per case). Consider the following case where a fine was employed:

NEW DELHI: The Central Information Commission (CIC) has slapped a penalty of Rs 25,000 on the School of Planning and Architecture's public information officer for inaction on a Right to Information appeal for over three months.
In his order, information commissioner O P Kejriwal has directed the PIO, D R Bains, to pay Rs 25,000 for causing a delay of "more than 100 days in providing the required information to the appellant". The appellant had asked for information relating to the action taken against his daughter who was not permitted to sit for an exam due to shortage of attendance.

If you however read the article in more detail, you will still see that there are delays; it needs to be ensured that the enforcing of the penalty clause of the RTI Act should not go the way of normal cases in the judicial system that suffer inordinate delays. Only the prospect of a swift penalty will cause more compliance with the law.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 8:13 AM