MALIN/NEW DELHI  - US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced optimism Thursday about working with India’s new right-wing government as he paid a first visit aimed at reviving a relationship clouded by mistrust.
The United States and India have described each other as natural allies with common concerns about a rising China and Islamic extremism, but the world’s largest democracies have weathered an unusually large number of disputes in the past year.
Kerry, who met senior Indian leaders in New Delhi, said that he wanted to ‘see things move in a very positive way’ after Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power in May elections. ‘We want a new relationship. We want to see things move in a very positive way,’ Kerry told India’s NDTV television.
‘We are excited about Prime Minister Modi’s direction and wanting to provide jobs,’ Kerry said. ‘The things he wants to do for electricity, for the people. We think there’s a lot that the United States and India can work on together,’ he said shortly after meeting Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, a key player in the new government.
Kerry will on Friday meet Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was shunned by Washington until his election campaign over allegations of complicity in anti-Muslim riots as leader of Gujarat state in 2002. In a dramatic turnaround since his election, Western powers have raced to court Modi who will visit Washington in September to meet President Barack Obama. ‘We will welcome Prime Minister Modi. Of course he will get a visa, no questions whatsoever and we look forward to a terrific meeting with President Obama,’ said Kerry.
Modi has shown no outward sign of holding a grudge over Washington’s past cold shoulder. But he took office amid a slew of fresh disputes between the two countries. Indian perceptions that the United States is insensitive to its concerns broke into the open in December, when US authorities arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant. Allegations that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had been the target of surveillance operations by the US National Security Agency while it was in opposition have added to the sense of grievance on the Indian side.
More recently, India threatened to block a global pact to streamline customs procedures before Thursday’s ratification deadline unless the World Trade Organisation (WTO) approves its stockpiling of food for the poor. Rich nations say the policy distorts global trade. Kerry said the United States was ‘very sensitive’ to India’s concerns about stockpiling food and the Bali agreement ensured that ‘food security for India would be protected’. ‘The key is don’t lose the opportunity. Right now India has a four-year window where it’s given a safe harbour and nothing happens,’ he said.
‘If they don’t sign up and be part of the agreement, they will lose that and then be out of line or out or compliance with the WTO.’ Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said the US wanted to strengthen energy ties, including nuclear and was hopeful of resolving a key stumbling block of liability in the event of a nuclear accident on Indian soil. ‘There’s certainly a desire by American businesses to work not just with the Indian government but Indian businesses to see that there’s a greater energy capacity here in India,’ she said, speaking alongside Kerry.
Moreover, rescue workers dug through deep mud and debris on Thursday in search of victims of a major landslide in western India that buried homes, with the death toll expected to reach 150. Following monsoon downpours in the Pune district of Maharashtra state, a hillside gave way early on Wednesday, sending a mass of muddy earth and trees tumbling onto a remote village while residents were sleeping. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said 23 bodies and eight survivors had so far been pulled from the site, but heavy rain was preventing rescuers from working quickly to find more survivors.
‘Miracles do happen, we will keep looking, but under current conditions it is very, very bleak,’ said Alok Avasthy, a NDRF regional commandant at the scene. He said around 160 people were thought to have been trapped in the landslide, which damaged half of the village’s 70 homes. ‘The mud slide must have been massive and very quick considering it has covered an area roughly the size of a football field with nearly 10-15 feet (3-4.5 metres) of debris,’ Avasthy told AFP.
H.H. Chavan, Pune district’s deputy director of health, said late Wednesday that they expected to pull about another 140 bodies from the scene. Television footage showed a chunk of hillside dramatically giving way and a cascade of mud, rocks and trees, sending up clouds of dust below.
At the site where village homes earlier stood, twisted metal utensils and shreds of clothes were among the debris on Thursday morning. The ongoing heavy downpours and howling wind nearly masked the sound of heavy rescue machinery as it strained to move the slush. ‘The issue is that as we remove the mud, more is flowing in since the rains have been incessant,’ said Pravin Sadhale, with the Maharashtra Emergency Medical Services.
The NDRF said it had mobilised nine teams with a strength of 378 trained personnel to help with the rescue effort, although its vehicles had difficulty accessing the site along narrow, damaged roads. Its dog squad remained locked up in a village health centre on Thursday because the animals were unable to sniff scents in the incessant rains, while workers faced the risk of further landslides.
‘The hills are soft due to rains and deforestation,’ said Avasthy. The alarm was first sounded when a state bus driver failed to see the usual hamlet dwellings as he drove past the area, according the Press Trust of India news agency, citing a local official. PTI said the victims of the landslide were members of a tribal community that survived by paddy farming on hill slopes in the once densely-forested region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the loss of life as ‘saddening’ on Twitter. Heavy rains have lashed Maharashtra and other parts of India as a result of the annual monsoon. While the rains are a lifeline for the Indian economy, with nearly three-quarters of the 1.2 billion-strong population dependent on rural incomes, flooding and building collapses are frequent during monsoon season.
Reports on Thursday said a cloudburst had killed three in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, while recent landslips have blocked roads to popular Hindu pilgrimage sites. The state was hit by a landslide and flooding disaster last year that is thought to have killed nearly 6,000 pilgrims, tourists and others. An apartment tower under construction came crashing down in the southern city of Chennai late June following heavy rains, killing 61, mostly labourers.