Kerry addresses issues of climate change, Afghan polls during first visit to India

NEW DELHI (AFP) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday urged the world to ramp up action on climate change, saying in India that changing weather patterns posed major costs to the planet.

"Here in India, the home of so much of the history of science, we must recognise that today the science of climate change is screaming at us for action," he said in a speech in New Delhi.

US campaigners have urged Mr Kerry to work with India on climate change, saying cooperation on issues such as solar power and energy efficiency will help limit carbon emissions as India continues its rapid urbanisaton.

Mr Kerry arrived in New Delhi on Sunday for his first visit to India as the top US diplomat, looking to deliver on a pledge to realise "the full potential" in stuttering bilateral ties.

His arrival was overshadowed by news that former intelligence operative Edward Snowden, who faces a US arrest warrant over his leaking of a massive surveillance programme, had flown out of Hong Kong. Officials travelling with Mr Kerry declined comment.

Mr Kerry, who flew in from Qatar, also called for a "central role" for India in Afghanistan's 2014 elections, as he warned of potential difficulties in the war-torn nation as US forces withdraw.

"The world's largest democracy can play a central role in helping the government of Afghanistan improve its electoral system and create a credible and independent framework for resolving disputes," he said.

Mr Kerry is scheduled to hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday as well as Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid.

In a video message ahead of his visit, Mr Kerry said US President Barack Obama's administration held a "firm belief that a strong India is in America's national interests".

"The United States not only welcomes India as a rising power, we fervently support it," Mr Kerry said.

"This is the time for both the United States and India to challenge ourselves in order to reach higher, in order to strengthen the bonds that we share, and to realize the full potential of our partnership."

Indian officials have voiced their concerns to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan next year and negotiate with the Taleban, who are sworn enemies of India.

Mr Vikram Doraiswami, a senior official in the Indian Foreign Ministry who has responsibility for relations with the US, said last week that Afghanistan would definitely feature high on the agenda.

"Afghanistan is of course part of our region so we would be interested to listen to the US... to compare notes with them on what we understand of what is happening. Definitely it is on our agenda."

In an editorial published ahead of his arrival, The Hindu newspaper said that Mr Kerry would have to battle a feeling in New Delhi that he was too "sympathetic" to the Pakistani military establishment.

"Indian nightmares about a possible return of the Taleban and its allies as the rulers of the country, will doubtless figure high in the talks," it said.

"New Delhi will be looking to Mr. Kerry... for reassurances."

Afghanistan is one of the irritants in ties between the two countries, which saw an upturn during the presidency of George W. Bush but analysts say are now in the doldrums.

US business leaders have voiced frustration over what they charge are unfair trading practices in India. Drug companies in particular have been angered by India's championing of generic drugs - which advocates say save lives in poor nations.

India in turn has been alarmed by proposals in the US Congress to curb visas to high-tech workers.

The visit comes less than a year before India goes to the polls, with controversial Gujarat state minister Narendra Modi leading the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign.

The US has refused to issue a visa to Mr Modi as he was in power in Gujarat in 2002 during deadly anti-Muslim riots.

Mr Kerry is not due to meet Modi, according to US officials.