United States and India make "excellent" progress

The United States and India are making "excellent" progress in talks on economic cooperation, Treasury Secretary John Snow said Wednesday as he pressed India to further open its banking and insurance industry to foreign investment. Snow arrived Sunday on a five-day visit to review progress on economic cooperation since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush met in Washington in July.

On Wednesday, Snow held talks with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the government's main policy arm, the Planning Commission, and the co-chairman of the India-US Economic Dialogue launched in 2001.

Snow told reporters the dialogue was making "excellent" progress, but declined to elaborate.

The slow-moving talks on economic cooperation, which got a new impetus from the Bush-Singh meeting in July, have five components: finance and investment, commercial exchanges, trade policy, energy and environmental issues.

Officials from both sides say they expect to thrash out some deals by the time Bush visits India early next year.

Ahluwalia said his talks with Snow focused on India's banking and insurance industry, funding for infrastructure projects and development of capital markets, but no commitments were made by either side.

"We just reviewed where things stood. These are not negotiating meetings," he said.

The United States has been pushing India to further open its financial sector, and Snow said India should increase the existing ceiling on foreign investment in insurance ventures from 26 percent to 49 percent.

Snow said a big increase in investments in power plants, roads and ports was crucial to sustaining India's economic growth, which has been expanding at a 6 percent rate the past decade. Easing rules on investment in financial sector could help attract foreign funds, he said.

But the plan to allow more foreign investment in insurance has been blocked by Indian communist parties, whose support is crucial to a parliamentary majority for India's coalition government.

Ahluwalia said the government has told the Americans that "there are reservations on the government proposal to take 26 up to 49 percent. "

"The government hasn't changed its mind on the desirability of doing that but it can't be done unless one gets a consensus in parliament," he said. "I think they appreciate that," reports the AP. I.L.

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