France's Hollande heads to India for Republic Day visit

22nd January 2016, Comments 0 comments

More than 60 years after it was designed by one of the world's best-known modern architects, the city where President Francois Hollande begins his India visit Sunday remains an oasis of calm in a country better known for urban chaos.

Chandigarh is the only city outside France designed by Le Corbusier, the architect whose functional designs informed his home country's postwar urban planning policy for three decades.

Hollande was invited to India to be the guest of honour at this year's Republic Day parade on Tuesday, the final day of a visit that is expected to focus on trade and security.

Before he heads to India's polluted, congested capital, the French president, on his second official visit to the country, will spend a day enjoying Chandigarh's wide boulevards and serene gardens.

Although the city's population has more than doubled since it was built in 1953 at the request of India's first prime minister, residents say its Franco-Swiss creator's vision has stood the test of time.

"It's very green, it's clean, people are kind and civilised as compared to other places in India," said 28-year-old Navjot Kaur, who works with children.

"It is one of the best-designed cities in India."

The city, which lies 250 kilometres (150 miles) north of New Delhi, is divided into 55 low-rise residential sectors whose structures appear to melt into plentiful greenery.

Even traffic flows relatively freely, in sharp contrast to the gridlock of major cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, thanks to a complex system of lanes that separate different categories of vehicle.

Hollande will visit Chandigarh's modernist heart before meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its famous rock garden -- a 20-acre (eight-hectare) space filled with sculptures made from the rubble of its construction.

- Fighter jets -

When the leaders sit down to talk business, India is expected to finally conclude a multi-billion-dollar deal to buy 36 French Rafale jets that was first announced back in 2012.

A sticking point has been Delhi's standard requirement that arms makers invest a percentage of the value of any major deal in India, known as the offset clause.

Hollande's delegation will include his defence, finance and foreign affairs ministers, as well as leaders from around 40 companies.

"This visit will be an opportunity for political exchange, protocol but also to further deepen our bilateral exchanges on economic and strategic matters," the French presidency told reporters in Paris.

On Monday the pair will lay a foundation stone at the new headquarters of the International Solar Alliance, a 121-nation group launched by Modi at the Paris COP21 conference in November, to expand affordable solar power.

Modi and Hollande will discuss India's ambitious plan to create 100 "smart cities" after Paris offered financial assistance of two billion euros to develop Chandigarh and two other cities with links to France.

Chandigarh, built for just half a million people, is now facing overpopulation with 1.1 million inhabitants, a figure that is expected to rise by 50 percent over the next 15 years.

The city centre has been well preserved, but authorities have struggled to control the expansion of slums around the periphery.

"It is a challenge to maintain a balance between heritage and development," the city's chief architect Kapil Setia said.

- Dogs, floats and snipers -

On Republic Day, Hollande will witness a pomp-filled spectacle that combines the Soviet-style showcasing of military hardware with carnivalesque floats featuring dancers and traditional music.

Columns of uniformed troops will march down New Delhi's central avenue of Rajpath to the sound of military bagpipes as helicopters shower thousands of spectators with petals.

A highlight this year will be the Indian Army's contingent of labradors and German shepherd dogs, who will march down Rajpath with their handlers.

The 35th Infantry Regiment of the French Army will also participate in the parade, the French presidency said.

France has said security will be high on the agenda after deadly Islamist attacks in Paris in November that evoked memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and a recent militant strike on India's Pathankot air base.

Snipers will be posted on rooftops along the parade route as helicopters and drones monitor from above, while 15,000 paramilitary guards will guard the venue area, expected to be declared a no-fly zone.

The grand finale usually exhibits daring motorcycle stunts by the Border Security Force, followed by a spectacular fly-past by the Indian Air Force leaving the crowds with a vapour-trail of the saffron, white and green national flag.


© 2016 AFP

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