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Relations with US will not sour over Iraq: Fernandes

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KOLKATA, April 12

DESPITE the strong protest against the US-led war in Iraq, India's diplomatic relationship with the US will not deteriorate, according to the Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes.

He was in the city to participate in the 102nd annual general meeting of the Merchants' Chamber of Commerce. While addressing members of the chamber, the Minister severely criticised the attack on Iraq and the subsequent suffering of the Iraqi people.

However, talking to presspersons later, he said there was no possibility of India's relationship with the US souring on the issue. In order to substantiate this argument, he said that joint military exercises between the US and India were continuing.

As part of the exercise, Indian and American military personnel had already conducted a joint exercise some time back. Similar exercises would be conducted between the naval and air forces of the two countries soon.

Mr Sunil Kanoria, chamber president, urged the Minister to work out a strategy so that Indian industry can participate in Iraq's reconstruction activities. Responding to it, the Minister curtly said: "Those who destructed Iraq will do the restructuring business. However, we would send humanitarian aid for the Iraqis."

He also spoke on issues like corruption, trade union rights and lack of work culture among the Indians. Regarding private participation in defence production he urged the private players to participate more in different projects.

Mr Kanoria felt that the Government should draw up separate Five-year Plans specifically for the defence sector, instead of the current annual plans. He mentioned that of the total defence production, 30 per cent is indigenous and the rest imported.

Mr Fernandes refused to accept such an argument and said that India can build equipment, but that might not save the nation from enemies. "One should not look into this issue in terms of percentage," he said.

In this context, he said that in the indigenously developed LCAs (light combat aircraft), more than 100 small and medium-scale players supplied different components.

Mr Tapan Sikdar, Minister of State for Small-Scale Sector and north-eastern region, elaborated on the achievements of the small and medium-scale sector and the steps taken by the present Government for the development of the North-Eastern region.

Mr Kanoria requested Mr Sikdar to create an `equity fund' similar to the existing infrastructure fund only for the development of small and medium-scale sector for providing long-term capital fund to "deserving entrepreneurs."

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