x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

India bolsters its French connection

Defence and nuclear contracts will top the agenda during French president's first visit to India. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi

Activists from the Konkan Bachao Samiti, a local non-government organisation, demonstrate against a proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Mumbai.
Activists from the Konkan Bachao Samiti, a local non-government organisation, demonstrate against a proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Mumbai.

NEW DELHI // The French president, Francois Hollande, will arrive in India today for a visit dominated by a lucrative defence contract and discussions over nuclear technology.

The agenda for his trip, his first state visit outside of Europe and French-speaking Africa, will also include talks on trade, education and public transport.

A French official said Mr Hollande hoped to strengthen the "strategic Indo-French partnership launched 15 years ago" during the tour.

The €8.9 billion (Dh44bn) agreement for France to supply 126 Rafale fighter jets to India this year will not be signed during the visit, but a French official said "things are moving very fast and we hope that a contract will be finalised as soon as possible".

India will buy 18 of the jets from their French manufacturer Dassault Aviation SA, while the others will be manufactured under licence at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited facility in Bangalore.

Eric Trappier, the chief executive of Dassault, has confirmed that Indian negotiators had detailed their needs for an additional 63 planes in addition to the initial 126.

Mr Hollande was due to arrive this morning in New Delhi, where he will meet Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, and other leading politicians. He will be accompanied by five of his cabinet ministers and a delegation of 40-50 French corporate executives.

Tomorrow, he is expected to speak at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, where he will present Amartya Sen, the Indian Nobel-winning economist, with the French Legion of Honour, the country's highest public award.

Mr Hollande will then fly to Mumbai for a business conference, before leaving the country.

During a speech in New Delhi on Monday, Francois Richier, the French ambassador to India, said that his country held a "very strong perception that India will be one of the greatest powers in the world in the decades to come".

Delegations from the two countries will also discuss the French company Areva's €6.9bn contract to supply pressurised reactors for a nuclear power plant in the town of Jaitapur, Maharashtra.

Areva was commissioned in 2010, to provide two 1,650-megawatt reactors, with the option of a further four. But the project has been mired in controversy, with environmentalists and activists protesting against the construction of the nuclear plant.

Vaishali Patil, one of the Maharashtra-based activists opposed to the plant, that the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, following an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, held lessons for Jaitapur.

As many as 93 earthquakes occurred within a few kilometres of Jaitapur between 1996 and 2011, Ms Patil noted. She also said the Areva reactors were "untested".

"The people here are aware of what happened in Chernobyl," she added, referring to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine. "They are aware of the nuclear-waste problem. They are saying: Why not hydroelectric, which the Konkan coast is supposed to be good for?"

But R Rajaraman, a physicist and co-chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Material, dismissed the earthquake concerns.

He said Jaitapur's seismic activity placed it in a zone-3 classification, which, while higher than the lowest zone-2 level, was two ranks below the highest zone-5 category.

In his speech, Mr Richier admitted that the protests had delayed the Jaitapur project considerably, although he insisted that the reactors were "totally safe".

In another contract, a metro rail project in the city of Hyderabad has hired the French firm Thales SA to set up communications, train control and signalling systems.

The two countries will also seek to formalise France's offer of assistance to the new Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur.

Although the university was established in 2008, and some French universities have already begun to work with it, no broader framework of French assistance has been established.

France is the ninth-largest foreign investor in India, having spent nearly €2.2bn (Dh11bn) between April 2000 and June last year.

Bilateral trade between India and France stood at €8bn last year - significantly below the €12bn-mark that the countries had targeted. Mr Richier attributed the shortfall to the global economic slowdown.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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