India's central bank unveils $24 bn windfall for government

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NEW DELHI — India's central bank has announced a $24-billion windfall for the cash-strapped government, giving a much-needed boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he seeks to kickstart growth in Asia's third-biggest economy.

But the payout will likely stoke fresh concerns about the Reserve Bank of India's independence following a standoff that has seen top officials quit amid accusations of government interference.

Modi has come under increasing pressure to fire up the economy, which has slowed in each of the past three quarters  losing its status as the world's fastest-growing  with unemployment at its highest since the 1970s.

The auto sector has been particularly badly hit, with car sales plunging in July for the ninth month running, while weak consumer spending and high taxes have hit demand for everything from biscuits to hair oil.

The RBI said it had approved a transfer of 1.76 trillion rupees ($24.4 billion) to government coffers, including a dividend of 1.23 trillion rupees and 526 billion rupees in excess reserves following the adoption of a new methodology for assessing market risk.

Monday's announcement came days after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a slew of measures to help the economy, including bringing forward a $10-billion liquidity lifeline for credit-shy banks and rolling back an extra levy on equity sales that had spooked foreign investors.

Sujan Hajra, an economist at Anand Rathi Securities, said that the latest announcement is a "positive move" for the economy and for public finances.

"As the RBI said, despite this fund transfer, India will still have one of the best capitalisations of the central banks globally and it does not reflect poorly on either the government or the central bank," Hajra told AFP.

Ashutosh Datar, an independent economist from Mumbai, agreed, telling AFP: "The amount looks huge but it is not and there is no raid on RBI reserves."

However, the bank's independence has already been called into question after it cut interest rates four times this year to a nine-year low, reportedly under government pressure.

Governor Urjit Patel resigned in December following a public spat with the Modi government  which was re-elected earlier this year  accusing it of trying to undermine it.

He was followed in June by deputy governor Viral Acharaya citing the same reasons, although the bank insisted this was unrelated and he had left for personal reasons.

The government is "clueless about how to solve their self created economic disaster", tweeted Rahul Gandhi, the outgoing head of the opposition Congress party.

"Stealing from RBI won't work - it's like stealing a Band-Aid from the dispensary & sticking it on a gunshot wound. #RBILooted".

Indian stocks rose on Tuesday, with the Sensex up half a percent, adding to a 2.2-percent rise on Monday on the back of Friday's stimulus measures, traders said.

— Agence France-Presse

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