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Virus scare keeps envoys out of China

New Delhi, April 12: The foreign ministry appears to be facing difficulties in posting diplomats to China, the origin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that has claimed over 100 lives and infected more than 3,000 people worldwide.

The ministry of external affairs board, which met on Thursday to decide postings of over 80 officials — the largest number covered in recent times — could find only two candidates for the four posts in the Indian embassy in China where replacements are due.

This is despite China’s importance till recently as a destination for career diplomats where a posting was regarded as a major break.

Vinay Kwatra, director in the Afghanistan-Iran division, is one of the two candidates chosen, though he is a non-Chinese speaker. The other is Pradeep Rawat, currently posted in the Indian embassy in Mauritius. But most diplomats have decided to stay away from the two other posts.

There is no particular reason for this sudden apathy for China. The only plausible explanation seems to be the spread of the SARS virus in the country, the worst affected by the disease.

South Block insiders, however, maintained that suitable candidates for the two posts were not found. This was the reason, they said, why the ministry felt that they be covered in the next board — due to be held later in the year — with Chinese speakers among the officials.

But most of those covered in this board are middle ranking and junior officials.

Later this year, 16 senior diplomats are due to retire and the ministry is already on the lookout for suitable candidates to fill up these posts in the missions in some of the most important countries.

Among the significant postings that were decided after this week’s board meeting was that of Monica Mohta, currently director in the external publicity division of the ministry. She is scheduled to go to Paris to the Indian permanent delegation of Unesco, probably in place of Vinod Fonia, who is likely to return to the headquarters.

India’s political counsellor in the high commission in Islamabad Vikram Sikri’s posting to Washington is another important development. Sikri was the charge d’affaires of the mission when the deputy high commissioner’s post was lying vacant in the wake of the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats earlier this year.

The expelled deputy high commissioner, Sudhir Vyas, will go to the United Arab Emirates as ambassador. He will replace K.C. Singh, who is scheduled to go to Iran to head the mission there. T.C.A. Raghavan has replaced Vyas as charge d’affaires in India’s high commission in Pakistan.

Ruchi Ghanshyam, director in the Pakistan division, is being posted to India’s permanent mission in New York.

Her husband, A.R. Ghanshyam, who is currently the director looking after Nepal and Bhutan, is scheduled to go to the Indian consulate in New York.

After a tough tenure in Kabul, Indramani Pande is being rewarded with a posting in Geneva, while Venkat Rao is being posted from the Indian mission in Nepal to the embassy in Washington.

Two women officials, Kheya Bhattacharya (director, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka) and Nagma Malik (Kathmandu) are headed for the high commission in Sri Lanka.

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