Unlocking In 3 Phases

In keeping with the increasing easing of the lockdown, the Centre set out a three-phase "unlock" plan that will restrict curbs to containment zones and permit reopening of malls, hotels and restaurants, inter-state travel and religious places in keeping with rules to be issued by the health ministry.

The MHA sought to underline the shrinking footprint of the lockdown, calling the latest guidelines "unlock 1" and saying "...they will have an economic focus. The new guidelines have been issued based on extensive consultations with states and UTs." The night curfew has been retained, with a shortened period of 9 pm-5 am instead of the previous 7 pm-7 am routine where movement for non-essential reasons is banned.

As Lockdown 4.0 ends, the limiting of curbs to containment zones where only essential services will be allowed, even though the daily count of cases is growing, reflects the Centre's assessment that the Covid curve is not assuming runaway proportions and can be managed with a focus on hotspots. It is also felt that so far the increase in number of cases due to the return of migrants to the hinterland is not unmanageable and can be monitored.

While shopping malls and eateries can open after June 8, no date has been specified for reopening of international travel, metro rail, gyms, swimming pools, bars, theatres and places of public assembly. Religious, social and political congregations are also banned. Decisions on these activities will await a more detailed assessment of the health situation and the trends regarding the prevalence of the disease in Indian and abroad.

A call will be taken in July, based on consultations with the states, and also discussions the states themselves will conduct, with regard to schools, colleges, coaching and training institutions. Stakeholders such as parents are also to be consulted. Rules will be drawn up by the health ministry and the NCERT is also working to guidelines that aim to ensure social distancing and hygiene in educational institutions. As far as containment zones are concerned, the lockdown stands extended until June 30.

However, the individual states and UTs, based on their own assessment, will be free to prohibit certain activities outside containment zones or impose curbs as they feel necessary. Even where it comes to inter-state travel, states can, for reasons of public health, impose restrictions as is now the case for travel between Ghaziabad-Delhi and Gurgaon-Delhi.

Night curfew, though reduced, has been retained, as the Centre felt reducing movement from late evening to dawn will be useful in keeping people indoors. Though the 9 pm-5am period does not see a large number of people on the move, it will be a disincentive to non-essential movement.

In areas outside containment zones, all activities will be allowed from June 1 except a few that will be opened phase wise, subject to standard operating procedures. “Phase III activities (international travel, metro, gyms, religious and political congregations) can resume anytime as per assessment of the situation,” an senior government official said but added that it was difficult to immediately specify at what intervals such assessments may be taken.

There will be no restrictions on inter-state and intra-state movement of persons and goods in non-containment zones, and no separate permission or e-permit will be required except for specified reasons.

Movement of passenger trains, Shramik Specials, domestic air travel, Vande Bharat flights/ships will continue as per laid-down SOPs. .

Containment zones will be demarcated by district authorities based on health ministry parameters. Only essential activities will be allowed in these areas. States/UTs may also identify buffer zones outside containment zones, where new cases are more likely to occur, and the district authorities may impose restrictions there as necessary.

Fisc deficit zooms to 7-yr high of 4.6%

The Centre’s fiscal deficit ballooned to 4.6% of the GDP during the last financial year, mainly on account of a near 10% shortfall in the scaled down revenue target, while spending was scaled down marginally as several ministries could not spend their revised allocation.

The fiscal deficit numbers released by the Controller General of Accounts were higher than the revised estimate of 3.8% of GDP released by the government when the Budget was presented on February 1 and is the highest since the 4.9% recorded in 2012-13.

While the lockdown in March resulted in a slowdown in economic activity and tax revenue, the government’s decision to extend the tax payment deadline also contributed to muted inflows into the treasury.

But if March was bad, the situation was worse in April where the Centre’s tax revenue when collections were estimated at Rs 67,557 crore, over 44% lower than a year ago.

Maharashtra: Doctors from southern states start flying in

Two Kerala doctors arrived in Mumbai on Friday, a week after Maharashtra requested the southern state to send in specialists to bolster its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the next few days, around 50 specialists and 100 nurses from four other southern states—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana—too will arrive in batches to help the overwhelmed city hospitals.

On Friday, Dr Santosh Kumar, vicepresident of Doctors Without Borders, and anaesthetist Dr Sajeesh Gopalan arrived from Kerala and took a tour of SevenHills Hospital in Marol, where they will start work from Saturday.

The state had requested Kerala for doctors and nurses to work at the jumbo facility coming up at Mahalaxmi Race Course. A decision, though, has now been taken to post these doctors at Seven-Hills Hospital, where the BMC plans to multiply ICU beds from 68 to 300. Dr Kumar said several private doctors from these states have agreed to come to Mumbai, currently the country’s worst-hit city. “We hope by Wednesday all should be here. People are still finalizing their travel logistics,” said Dr Kumar, who will be handholding the medicos. They will get a closer look at the workings of Seven-Hills—the city’s largest Covid facility.

Dr T P Lahane, head of the Directorate of Medical Education and Research, in his letter to Kerala health minister K K Shailaja, had stated that specialists will be paid Rs.2 lakh, MBBS doctors Rs.80,000 and nurses Rs.30,000. The remuneration of these doctors will be borne by the BMC, he said. The doctors are likely to be in Mumbai for at least two months.

The 830-bed SevenHills, said Dr Balkrishna Adsul, in-charge of the centre, currently has 163 doctors, of whom 125 work in the wards and the rest in ICUs and high dependency units. “We have a grave need for doctors and nurses. We need more than double of what we have. Besides the group of doctors coming from the south, we have also advertised online and are interviewing candidates every day,” he said. The hospital that has 780 patients is running the show with 429 nurses, 125 of whom are nursing students.

Covid squeezes core sector in April

Output of eight core sector industries plunged 38.1% in April — probably the steepest ever — led by an over 80% slump in cement and steel production due to the nationwide lockdown.

The numbers indicated that overall industrial production is headed for a high double-digit decline as the Covid-19-induced lockdown has taken a toll on economic activity. The core sector industries have an over 40% weight in the IIP (index of industrial production).

Prominent sectors such as automobiles saw zero sales and production during April. Trade data released earlier in the month showed that exports and imports had both declined by nearly 60% each as factories were forced to shut down to avoid spread of the virus.

Other indicators, such as energy consumption and transportation of goods, too, point to a massive slump. For instance, the core sector data released on Friday showed that coal production dropped by 15.5%, while natural gas output was almost 20% lower. Similarly, electricity generation was down nearly 23% and refinery output fell over 24%.

Although none of the eight core sectors managed to see a higher production in April, the decline was led by an 86% fall in cement output, followed by an 84% decrease in steel. Crude oil (-6.4%) and fertliser (-4.5%) were the only two sectors that witnessed single-digit drop.

Economists and market players expect the core sector numbers to impact the overall GDP in the first quarter.

Agencies such as Goldman Sachs predicted a 45% contraction in the GDP during the April-June quarter. On Friday, Motilal Oswal said it expected real GDP to decline by around 21% during the current quarter. Last week, the RBI said the Indian economy is headed for its first decline in GDP in four decades but refused to give an estimate. The government, however, refrained from giving any projection, arguing that full impact is not clear at the moment.

During May, factories have taken baby steps towards resumption but a majority are working at only a fraction of their capacity, with several parts of the country still closed for business. Data available with the commerce department points to an improvement almost on a weekly basis. For instance, exports, which were down around 40% a couple of weeks ago are now 35% lower on a year-on-year basis.

Somewhere in Pune....

At a time when the city is battling a pandemic, which calls for scrupulous maintenance of hygiene and grappling with the lockdown that has strained its manpower availability, Pune Municipal Corporation has found a magic potion to declog its public toilets. A Baner-based biotechnology firm has started supplying sachets of sewage sludge-eating bacteria that rids the toilets of any clogging and foul odour, without deploying much water.

The 50-gm sachets consisting of water-soluble paper filled with billions of such bacteria have been distributed in slum pockets such as Patil Estate and Janata Vasahat in Shivajinagar. This has addressed a rising sanitation problem afflicting the thickly populated slums, where choked sewage lines, overloaded septic tanks and overflow of pathogen-laden untreated water is commonplace.

The sachets produced by Amalgam Biotech have armed the civic body to ensure hygiene in these trying times, preventing water-borne diseases in slums. Explaining the technology, Anil Joshi, the technical executive from Amalgam Biotech said, “The entire sachet is simply emptied into the toilet bowl and it instantly dissolves in the water, releasing billions of bacteria that eat away human excreta making the toilet odour free. This usage eliminates the need for sewage vacuum suction tankers and pipeline cleaning. Similarly, for the urinal we provide Bacta Swachh — a spray that carries liquid bacteria culture, which also declogs and rids the toilet of bad smells.”

Confirming the efficacy of the product, Dnyaneshwar Molak, who helms PMC’s solid waste management department said, “We’ve tested the product, distributing it in the slum dwellings. Our officials accompanied the staff of Amalgam Biotech, when they demonstrated the use of the product in the slums. This will be a valuable input given the poor quality of our infrastructure and paucity of water.”

People who have used the sachets are impressed. “It worked wonders. The toilet cleaned out immediately. Many times, we have toilet that remain clogged for long, reeking terribly and posing health hazards. If such products are supplied to us from time to time, it will be a blessing,” cheered Asha Dhage, a resident of Patil Estate.

Ashutosh Vadanagekar, who owns Amalgam Biotech, is very gung ho about his product. “We are already in talks with NGOs and corporates working in the space of health and sanitation. We are going by the much-touted mantra of ‘Make in India’ and ‘Vocal for Local’ for an open defecation-free India.

We hope to reach areas ignored or left unattended so far,” he further emphasised.


China LAC: No let-up in border tension

There are no signs of any de-escalation in the almost month-long confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh, even as the Army brass took stock of the ‘ground situation’ with fresh inputs from the military operations and intelligence directorates on Thursday.

The Indian Army has enough “acclimatised” troops now deployed in the high-altitude areas in eastern Ladakh to take care of any contingency, while battalions in other sectors like Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh along the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control have also further cranked up their operational readiness, sources said.

The ongoing Army commanders’ conference, being chaired by General M M Naravane and attended by the senior lieutenant generals heading the six operational and one training commands, also discussed the “management of ammunition stocks and operational logistics” while reviewing the situation along the LAC on Thursday.

Sources said there was no doubt that the “well-coordinated” operation by the People’s Liberation Army for simultaneous intrusions at multiple points across the LAC into eastern Ladakh had the full backing of the top Chinese politico-military leadership. “Local commanders cannot take such far-reaching decisions,” a source said.

PLA commanders at the Chushul and Daulat Beg Oldie border personnel meeting points in eastern Ladakh, meanwhile, continue to be aggressive in their demand for India to stop its road and bridge construction activities, which were taking “well within our” territory. “But our commanders are standing firm and instead asking them to withdraw to restore the status quo,” the source said.

Consequently, Indian and Chinese soldiers remain entrenched for the long haul in their face-off positions at three places in larger Galwan Valley region and one each on the northern bank of Pangong Tso and Demchok, which are broadly around 1-3 km inside what India considers its territory.

There is a growing concern that the five bilateral agreements and protocols, ranging from the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in 1993 to the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013, have largely failed to deliver the goods on the ground.

FDI inflows surge 18% in 2019-20 to record $74bn

India’s FDI inflows, including reinvested earnings, rose 18% to a record $73.5 billion during 2019-20, buoyed by a spurt in inflows into computer hardware & software, telecom, and hotel & tourism, while services, the traditional mainstay, witnessed a decline.

Excluding reinvested earnings, inflows were 14% higher at just a shade under $50 billion, which is also an all-time high. In fact, the large flows acted as a counterweight to low FII inflows during the year, which were estimated at $247 million (on a net basis) during the last financial year.

The data naturally led to some celebration in government, given the overall gloomy economic situation and weak domestic investment. “In another strong vote of confidence in Make in India, total FDI into India grew 18% in 2019-20 to reach $73 billion. Total FDI has doubled from 13-14 when it was only $36 billion. This long-term investment will spur job creation,” commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal tweeted.

The year saw several large deals, involving overseas, with large inflows expected during the current year as well, with Reliance Jio alone announcing several transactions so far. Besides, some of the earlier announcements such as Saudi Aramco’s stake acquisition in Reliance Industries and Brookfield’s proposed investment in the tower arm are pending.

While Maharashtra remained the top destination for overseas investors, Karnataka came second, although data for the October-March period was released by the department for promotion of industry and internal trade.

In terms of the countries, Singapore remained the top source for the second straight year, although inflows from the island nation dropped almost 10% to $14.7 billion. Mauritius was a distant second with investments of $8.2 billion routed via India’s close ally, with a sharp spike seen from the Netherlands, with inflows rising 1.7 times to $6.5 billion.

SC asks States to Pay Migrants’ Train Fare; Ensure Food, Shelter to Those on the Move

The Supreme Court ordered states to ensure free food and shelter to migrant labourers and pay for the train fare of those returning home, in an interim order aimed at easing the plight of migrants stranded due to the lockdown.

The home and host states of the migrants must share the train fares, and the railways provide them food and water on the trains, the court ordered. It asked states to provide them food and shelter wherever they were, register them and indicate a waiting time to transport them home so that they do not start walking back to their homes.

The court pointed out several lapses in the government response to the migrants’ problem, even as solicitor general Tushar Mehta said the central and state governments were “working tirelessly” to deal with those and accused a few “prophets of doom” of highlighting a few “isolated unfortunate” instances.

The bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MR Shah had issued notices to the central government last week, after initially refusing to take up the issue. There were public criticism of the institution’s failure to address the plight of the migrants.

Solicitor general Mehta said though the “isolated unfortunate instances are painful, the central and state governments are doing their best to ensure that such instances do not recur”.

“A microscopic section of our great nation is not only repeatedly highlighting such unfortunate instances”, but also ignoring the government’s efforts to tackle the pandemic and the migration, he said in his written submissions. “… such targeted display of isolated instances should not be permitted to guide the jurisdiction of this court,” he said.

He claimed that though there was a “system in place which was being used by 97-98% of the migrants to register themselves and go back home, some migrant workers, either due to lack of proper information or due to anxiety, or in many cases due to local instigation to leave the urban areas, started walking on the road”.

The top court didn’t accept his prayer, and issued the interim directions while it awaited complete responses from the central and state governments on the steps taken to resolve the problems of the migrants.

Pulwama-like IED attack averted in J&K

Security forces averted a major tragedy as they foiled a terror plot to attack a CRPF convoy in Jammu and Kashmir, much like the 2019 Pulwama tragedy that killed over 40 personnel. Nearly 400 jawans of Central Reserve Police Force were the target of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen, suspect senior security officials. The CRPF convoy of nearly 20 vehicles was supposed to start from Srinagar on Thursday morning and reach Jammu when security forces seized and destroyed an IED-laden car on the convoy’s route in Pulwama. The plan was eerily similar to the 2019 Pulwama attack, which left more than 40 CRPF personnel killed as a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car into their convoy. Inspector-General of Police Kashmir, Vijay Kumar said, “We had been receiving inputs for a week that HM and JeM militants were planning to launch a big suicidal strike against security forces using a car bomb. When the input matured on Wednesday, we developed it and check points were placed in Pulwama,” Kumar told reporters. He said, in the evening when the suspected car reached a naka, the security forces fired some warning shots and the militant turned the car away and fled. “At another naka, the forces again fired some warning shots and the militant fled from the spot, taking advantage of darkness, and left the car behind. The forces used lights to check the vehicle from a distance after finding something suspicious. We tightened the cordon and waited for the first light of the day. “This morning, a bomb disposal squad reached the spot and saw the vehicle was laden with explosives. The IED was diffused,” he said.


Mumbai: IIT alumni plan to set up world’s largest test lab

The IIT alumni council announced its plan to set up the world’s largest Covid-19 test laboratory in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region within the next 100 days. The laboratory will have the capacity to test one crore people a month.

IIT alumni council chairperson Ravi Sharma said the location for the facility was yet to be finalised.

The council comprises members from all 23 Indian Institutes of Technology in the country. On May 1, IITBombay donated a bus to facilitate the collection of swab samples for testing in Mumbai.

The initiative also includes the participation of IIT faculty as well as final year students. “While we are working on this project, we feel India must do more for healthcare infrastructure particularly for testing and finding cures,” said Sharma. “We thought of establishing a mega lab in Mumbai to tackle not just Covid-19, but many other infectious diseases as well.”

Sharma said the aim to develop the best and cheapest testing technology possible. “Once set up, Mumbaikars would be able to get tested once a month,” he said. “The idea is to develop an open space platform. It should be the best technologically and the cheapest. We have to disrupt the pricing structure and only then will it work. The current price of a testing kit is Rs.1,250. The price has to be cheaper.”

The council said it decided to set up the testing facility after consulting global experts in the areas of virology, RT - PCR machine manufacture, test kits, pooling algorithms, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and microfluidics. A dedicated team has already started work on designing MegaLab Mumbai, which will have a capacity of 10 million RT-PCR tests.

The IIT Alumni Council had formed a C19 task force with Dr K VijayRaghavan as its chairperson and twenty IIT directors as members along with distinguished IIT alumni within 24 hours of the lockdown announcement on March 25. The task force has various working groups involving over a 1,000 alumni across the globe collaborating to find solutions to fight Covid-19.

The IIT team is developing equipment that is contact-free and excludes the role of a technician. Aadhaar cards or passports will be used as identification documents to register for the test.

The testing infrastructure involves automated sample collection stations mounted on cars and C19 test buses. The MegaLab itself will comprise contactless sample transport from the vehicles to the testing line which will be followed by high speed RNA extraction using magnetic bead technology, the council said.

The MegaLab teams will have access to supercomputers at four remote IIT campuses, which will provide continuous data mining and machine learning based support, the team said.

Monsoon onset date over Kerala uncertain

A low pressure system brewing over the western central Arabian Sea has put a question mark over the actual date of the monsoon onset over Kerala during the next few days.

The India Meteorological Department had earlier forecast June 5 as the date for the onset over Kerala as against the normal June 1. But the low pressure system over the Arabian Sea could either delay or expedite the onset.

IMD scientists on Wednesday said the advance of the monsoon over Kerala would depend on the intensity (whether it converts into a cyclonic storm or not) and movement of the low pressure system over the Arabian Sea.

The Arabian Sea usually witnesses one cyclone per year. But in 2019, the sea contributed five out of the eight cyclonic storms formed over Indian seas.

The scientists said they were still monitoring the system and it could take a few days to draw conclusions over the actual monsoon onset date. Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General of Meteorology, IMD, said, “The long range forecast on the monsoon onset had indicated onset over Kerala on June 5, with a model error of plus or minus four days.”

“The effect of super cyclone Amphan has fizzled out and we expect a low pressure system over the Arabian Sea. Though it is expected to strengthen the monsoon, its advancement will depend on the direction and movement of that low pressure system over the Arabian Sea. If the system forms very close to coast and moves northward, it will help the monsoon. But if it forms away from the coast and moves northwestward towards Oman or Yemen, it may not help,” said Mohapatra.

Anupam Kashyapi, head of weather, IMD, Pune, said the low pressure system was likely to form over the west central and adjoining southwest Arabian Sea around May 29. “It is likely to concentrate into a depression during the next 48 hours, while numerical weather prediction models are indicating that it may move northward over the Arabian Sea. Another cyclonic circulation is over southwest Bay of Bengal off Sri Lanka coast,” he said.

“The progress of the two systems is likely to determine the fate of monsoon progress and the onset over Kerala. As on Wednesday, the expected date of monsoon advance over Kerala will be determined by both the systems. Only the progress of these systems will govern monsoon after the fulfilling of monsoon onset criteria over the coastal state,” he said.

India crosses 1.5 lakh Covid cases

India crossed the grim milestone of 1.5 lakh Covid-19 cases by registering 6,366 fresh cases on Wednesday, taking the country’s total caseload to 1,54,141. While it took 109 days to breach the mark of one lakh cases, it took just nine days to cross the level of the next 50,000 cases, indicating a huge spurt in fresh cases.

Maharashtra continues to contribute a major chunk of these, adding 2,190 fresh patients, or more than one-third of the nation’s cases on Wednesday. With total 56,948 cases, it alone accounts for nearly 37% of India’s caseload. With 105 casualties, Maharashtra also became the first in India to register triple digit deaths in a single day, taking the state’s cumulative toll to 1,897 and the nation’s to 4,525. Nearly 57% of India’s 185 casualties recorded on Wednesday came from Maharashtra. India’s casualties on Wednesday are the second highest after the record 199 registered on May 5.

In another positive development, 67,597 or nearly 44% of the patients have recovered across the country.

After Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu reported the highest caseload, 817, while both Delhi and Gujarat crossed the 15,000-mark on Wednesday. With a record 792 new cases in a day, Delhi’s total cases stood at 15,257 while with 376 fresh patients, Gujarat’s cumulative cases stood at 15,205.

After Maharashtra, Gujarat saw maximum deaths at 23, taking the state’s toll to 938. Key sources in the state government said a fifth lockdown for 2-3 weeks is very likely.

Delhi saw 15 deaths, MP eight and TN, Bengal and Telangana six each. UP crossed the 7,000-mark after recording 269 cases, taking its caseload to 7026. The state reported five deaths, taking the toll to 177.

With 134 fresh cases, Andhra Pradesh registered the highest single-day surge in either of the two Telugu states, taking the coastal state’s caseload to 3,117.

Ola Electric Buys E-bike Maker Etergo

Ola Electric has acquired Amsterdam’s electric scooter manufacturer Etergo as it looks to launch its own two-wheelers globally next year. These scooters will be made in India. While Ola did not disclose the deal value, Etergo has raised about $21.3 million to date. “The future of mobility is electric, and the post-Covid-19 world presents an opportunity for us to accelerate the adoption of electric mobility globally,” Bhavish Aggarwal, founder of Ola Electric, said. “With electric, digitally connected capabilities, two-wheelers will further emerge as the most preferred urban mobility paradigm.” Ola Electric will now own intellectual property, design and engineering capabilities of Etergo.


GDP forecast to contract for 1st time in 41 years

The Indian economy is expected to contract for the first time in nearly 41 years, while the outlook for inflation remains uncertain, Reserve Bank of India’s assessment of the economic situation showed on Friday.

“...GDP growth in 2020-21 is estimated to remain in negative territory, with some pick-up in growth impulses from H2: 2020-21 onward,” said RBI governor Shaktikanta Das.

If the contraction as forecast by RBI and also by other economists is realised, it will be the first contraction for Asia’s third-largest economy since 1979-80, when GDP growth shrank 5.2%. Several investment banks, brokerages and economists have predicted the economic growth to remain flat or contract in the range of 1.5% to 6.8%. IMF’s April estimate, however, showed that India and China will be the only countries to display growth, while the rest will contract

Rs.1,500 cr for Amphan relief

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday flew down to Kolkata to take stock of the situation in West Bengal which has been decimated by cyclone Amphan. He has announced an advance assistance of Rs.1,000 crore for restoration work, as the death toll due to the natural calamity mounted to 80.

Modi along with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar conducted an aerial survey of the cyclone-ravaged areas earlier in the day and held a review meeting.

Prior to the meeting, Banerjee demanded that Amphan be declared a national disaster. She said the state had suffered losses to the tune of Rs.1 lakh crore in the fiercest cyclone to hit the state in over 100 years.

“The prime minister has announced Rs.1,000 crore emergency fund... what is the package I do not know. I have told him that we will give him the details. It will take some time to assess the overall situation, but the damage is worth more than Rs 1 lakh crore,” she said.

Banerjee said she reminded the PM about Rs.53,000 crore the central government owed to the state for various social security schemes.

The PM also announced an ex gratia of Rs.2 lakh each for families of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured.

Appreciating Banerjee’s efforts in galvanising the state administration to deal with the natural disaster amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi said the whole country stands with West Bengal.

Meanwhile, eight more bodies were recovered from different parts of the state since Thursday evening, raising the death toll to 80. They were found floating in water, and were recovered by disaster management teams and sent for post-mortem.

The number of fatalities is likely to go up as many places are still inaccessible due to the devastation unleashed by the cyclone.

Large-scale damage to infrastructure, public and private property was reported from North and South 24 Parganas, East and West Midnapore, Kolkata, Howrah and Hooghly districts.

North 24 Parganas District Magistrate Chaitali Chakrabarty said nearly 50 lakh people have been affected and communication networks destroyed.

West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh said the central government should directly transfer the money into the accounts of the beneficiaries to avoid any “irregularities”.

Dissatisfied with the assistance amount, Leader of the Congress party in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said Rs 1,000 crore is “nothing compared to the damage that the state has suffered”.

Lakhs of people were rendered homeless as the cyclone cut a swathe through half-a-dozen districts of West Bengal on Wednesday night, blowing away shanties, uprooting thousands of trees and swamping low-lying areas. In some parts, survivors were left with houses reduced to debris and water-filled farmlands.

Although electricity and mobile services were restored in some parts of Kolkata and North and South 24 Parganas --the two worst-hit districts -- large areas of the city continued to remain without power as electric poles and communication lines had been blown away by super strong winds.

Meanwhile, several protests demanding restoration of electricity and drinking water supply took place in parts of the state, including the state capital. Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim assured that normalcy would be restored within a week. Over 5,000 trees, beside a few hundred electric posts, traffic signals and police kiosks have been uprooted in and around Kolkata.


Community transmission denial can hit Covid-19 control steps: Experts

Public health experts and epidemiologists have said community transmission of Covid-19 in certain pockets in Mumbai and Pune, and in some places across the country, cannot be denied.

The average cases per million is 84 nationally, but parts of Maharashtra and Delhi have 4 to 7 times the national average which indicates such transmission, they said.

The Centre must define at what level an area can be called as community transmission hit, a leading epidemiologist working with the central health ministry, said.

“A synonym for community transmission is also fine, but it must be declared because actions in these areas should be prioritised to prevent deaths and spread of Covid-19 to other areas,” he added Technical advisor to the state government and independent epidemiologist Subhash Salunkhe, with 40 years in the public health sector, said the central government should accept that community transmission has taken place in certain pockets and plan to address it.

Salunkhe was at the helm during the swine flu spread in 2009. “Community transmission is not across the country. It is in certain pockets, especially in Mumbai and Pune, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Indore,” he said. “Denial would only increase the trouble in addressing the problem and delay the tracing and treatment. We are at the end of May and the incubation period of the disease,” he said.

The push must be on early diagnosis of high-risk cases, contact tracing, testing, isolation and treatment, he added.

The health expert was concerned about large-scale migration from red zone areas to rural areas where the health infrastructure will take up a huge burden in the coming months “Pune and Mumbai have increased hospital beds with oxygen facility, but rural areas and UP and Bihar will have to brace for cases,” he said.

Cyclone Amphan: Two WB districts ‘completely devastated’

Cyclone Amphan weakened on Thursday, a day after tearing through West Bengal where 72 people were killed, and two districts were “completely devastated”. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said thousands of people have been left homeless, the gusty winds even washed away bridges and the heavy rain left several low-lying areas in waist-deep water.

The fiercest cyclone to hit West Bengal in 100 years, Amphan destroyed mud houses and crops, and uprooted trees and electric poles. It also wreaked havoc in Odisha damaging power and telecom infrastructure in several coastal districts. Odisha government officials estimated that the cyclone has affected around 44.8 lakh people in the state.

“So far as per the reports we have received, 72 people have died in the state due to Cyclone Amphan. Two districts -- North and South 24 Pargana -- are completely devastated. We have to rebuild those districts from scratch. I would urge the Central government to extend all help to the state,” Banerjee told reporters after conducting a review meeting with officials.

“I have never witnessed such a fierce cyclone and destruction in my life,” she said as she requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit affected areas. He will undertake an aerial survey today, the PMO said without giving any further details.

The chief minister also announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh to Rs.2.5 lakh for the family members of each of the deceased.

Besides North and South 24 Parganas and Kolkata, the districts of East Midnapore and Howrah were the worst hit.

The death toll included 17 from North 24 Parganas, 15 from Kolkata, 10 from Basirhat and four from the South 24 Parganas-Sunderban region.

In Kolkata, hundreds of cars were overturned in the strong winds with speed up to 125 kmph that also felled trees and electricity poles blocking key arterial roads and intersections. Large parts of Kolkata and other affected districts went without power.

Mobile and internet services were also disrupted as the fierce cyclone had damaged several communication towers.

Residents recalled “living through hell” for six hours as the winds howled incessantly.

Windows buckled from the pressure of the storm, cars floated on water logged roads, bumping against each other. Parts of air conditioners were flying around like missiles.

At Kolkata central avenue, a small concrete temple situated at the base of a banyan tree was uprooted. According to officials, more than 1,000 mobile towers across the state and city have been completely destroyed. Streets and homes in low lying areas of Kolkata were swamped with rainwater.

“The worst was the wind. The six hours went very slowly yesterday,” said Mithu Chatterjee who lives on the fifth floor of a 30-storey building whose lift was shut.

Modi said no stone will be left unturned in helping those affected by the cyclone. In this challenging hour, the entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal, he tweeted.

The Indian Meteorological Departmnt said the cyclone has weakened significantly and moved to Bangladesh where 10 people have been killed.

In several shelter homes in the affected districts, people were seen jostling for food and shelter ignoring the social distancing norms amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim said more than 14 lakh people in the city are living without electricity since Wednesday night.

Packing heavy rain and winds with speeds of up to 190 kmph, the cyclone barrelled through coastal districts of North and South 24 Parganas of Bengal and Odisha on Wednesday unleashing copious rain and windstorm.

The National Crisis Management Committee reviewed the rescue and relief operations in West Bengal and Odisha at a meeting in Delhi and was told that minimal loss of lives was reported due to accurate forecast by the IMD and timely deployment of NDRF troops.

The NDRF is moving additional teams to West Bengal to speed up restoration work, especially in Kolkata.

The Railways, which suffered major damages to its infrastructure, is in the process of restarting its operations at the earliest, the statement said.

RBI cuts repo rate by 40 bps to 4%

In a new set of measures to trim the impact of coronavirus on the economy, the Reserve Bank of India on Friday decided to cut the policy rate by 40 basis points from 4.4 per cent to 4 per cent. The reverse repo rate has been reduced to 3.35 per cent. It has also extended the moratorium on loan repayments by three more months.

In a video conference, RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das said the central bank's Monetary Policy Committee had voted to maintain its "accommodative" stance and members voted 5-1 on the quantum of the rate reduction. "The MPC voted unanimously for a reduction in policy repo rate and for maintaining the accommodative stance of monetary policy as long as it is necessary to revive growth and to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring that inflation remains within the target," Das said.

Das said that the GDP growth in India in 2020-21 is estimated to remain in the negative territory.

"India is seeing a collapse of demand. Private consumption has seen the biggest blow due to the Covid-19 outbreak, investment demand has halted. The government revenues have been impacted severely due to slowdown in economic activity," said the governor.

However, he said that the combination of fiscal, monetary, and administrative actions will create conditions for the revival of the economy in the second half of FY21.

India's benchmark 10-year bond yield dropped as much as 18 basis points to 5.85% immediately after the rate cut was announced.

The RBI extended the moratorium on payment of loans by another three months till August to provide much-needed relief to borrowers whose income has been hit due to the coronavirus crisis.

In March, the central bank had allowed a three-month moratorium on payment of all term loans due between March 1, 2020, and May 31, 2020. Accordingly, the repayment schedule and all subsequent due dates, as also the tenor for such loans, were shifted across the board by three months.

As a result of this moratorium, individuals' EMI repayments of loans taken were not deducted from their bank accounts, providing much-needed liquidity. The EMI payments will restart only once the moratorium time period expires on August 31.

The moratorium on interest on working capital was also extended by three months. Interest accumulated for the six-month moratorium period can be converted into a term loan, Das said. Further, bank exposure to corporates has been raised to 30 per cent of the group's net worth from the current limit of 25 per cent, a move that will allow lenders to give larger loans to companies.

GDP growth in 2020-21 likely to in negative

India's gross domestic product (GDP) growth will be in negative territory in 2020-21 as the outbreak of coronavirus has disrupted economic activities. Das said the combined impact of demand compression and supply disruption will depress economic activity in the first half of the current fiscal.

"Assuming that economic activity gets restored in a phased manner in the second half of this year and taking in consideration favourable base effect, it is expected that combined fiscal, monetary and administrative measures currently undertaken by both the government and RBI create conditions for gradual revival of activities in the second half of 2020-21.

"GDP growth in 2020-21 is estimated to remain in the negative territory with some pick up in growth impulses in the second half of 2020-21 onwards," he said.

Inflation outlook highly uncertain

Das said the inflation outlook is highly uncertain due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and expressed concern over elevated prices of pulses. He also said there is a need to review import duties to moderate prices.

Headline inflation may remain firm in the first half of the year and may ease in second half. Inflation may fall below 4 per cent in the third or fourth quarter of the current fiscal, according to the Governor. Further, Das said government revenues have been impacted severely due to the slowdown in economic activity amid the pandemic.

Other key takeaways:

RBI to roll over Rs.15,000-crore refinance facility for SIDBI for 90 days
RBI increases export credit period to 15 months from 1 year
RBI to extend Rs.15,000-cr line of credit to EXIM Banker
Inflation forecasting has become complicated due to (poor) data collection
Industrial production shrank by close to 17 per cent in March with manufacturing activity down by 21 per cent
Output of core industries contracted by 6.5 per cent

Jio's 5th big deal in a month

Reliance Industries Limited announced that KKR will invest Rs.11,367 crore in Jio Platforms.

This transaction values Jio Platforms at an equity value of Rs.4.91 trillion and an enterprise value of Rs 5.16 trillion.

This is KKR’s largest investment in Asia and will translate into a 2.32 per cent equity stake in Jio Platforms on a fully diluted basis.

Over the last month, leading technology investors, such as, Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic and KKR have announced aggregate investments of Rs.78,562 crore into Jio Platforms.

Jio Platforms is a wholly owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries Limited.

KKR is making the investment from its Asia private equity and growth technology funds.

Founded in 1976, KKR has a long history of building leading global enterprises and successfully investing in businesses in the technology sector, including BMC Software, ByteDance and GoJek through its private equity and technology growth funds. Since inception, the firm has invested over $30 billion (total enterprise value) in tech companies, and today the firm’s technology portfolio has more than 20 companies across the Technology, Media and Telecom sectors.

In addition, India has been a key strategic market for KKR with a history of investing in the country since 2006," said the release.

The transaction is subject to regulatory and other customary approvals.


Rs.78,562 crore: The combined value of the five deals signed by Reliance Jio Platforms since April 22.

16.95%: The five deals announced by the telecom business of the Mukesh Ambani-promoted Reliance Industries group involves sale of nearly 17% stake to foreign investors

Rs.11,5367 crore: Value of the fifth deal, to sell 2.32% stake to KKR

Rs.43,574 crore: The biggest of its five deals, with Mark Zuckerberg-led Facebook, involves the sale of 9.99% stake for Rs 43,574 crore

3 others: The other three deals are with Silver Lake Partners (Rs.5,656 crore for a 1% stake), Vista Equity Partners (Rs.11,367 crore for a 2.3% stake), and General Atlantic (Rs.6,598 crore for a 1.34% stake)

17.6%: Since the announcement of the first deal on April 22, the stock of Reliance Industries Ltd  has risen by Rs 215.12, or 17.6%, on a net basis. It rose from Rs.1,224.93 on April 21 to a closing peak of Rs.1,562.56 on May 11, before shedding some value to close at Rs.1,440.05 on May 21

16.5%: RIL’s market capitalisation has risen by Rs.1.29 trillion, or over 16.5%, during this period

Now, students can pursue 2 degrees simultaneously

A student of mathematics in Delhi University can now choose to simultaneously pursue any other degree course, say English literature from Ignou or any other institution. In a move to improve their career prospects, the University Grants Commission has approved a proposal to allow students to pursue two degree programmes at the same time.

One of the degrees has to be in the regular mode and the other either in open and distance learning or online. A student can pursue two degrees in different streams as well as from different institutions. S/he may also opt for the same institution, provided it offers multiple mode of learning. Detailed guidelines are to be notified soon.

A committee under UGC vice-chairperson Bhushan Patwardhan worked on the proposal based on feedback from the public. As per the committee, since there is a minimum attendance criteria attached to regular degree programmes, the second degree has to be through distance or online mode. The committee feels this will offer better career opportunities to students.

UGC secretary Rajnish Jain said: “The commission has approved the proposal and guidelines on the same would be notified.”

One of the degrees has to be in the regular mode and the other either in open and distance learning or online


Cyclone Amphan leaves behind trail of destruction in India, Bangladesh

Cyclone Amphan, which barrelled through Odisha and West Bengal on Wednesday, has killed 24 people.

The storm began its landfall at 2:30 pm on Wednesday, with sustained wind speeds of 155-165 kmph spiralling up to 185 kmph. The storm weakened as it moved ahead and is currently centred over Bangladesh.

While 12 people have been killed in West Bengal, news agency Associated Press reported 10 deaths in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Among those dead in Bangladesh are a five-year-old boy and a 75-year-old man, both hit by falling trees, and a cyclone emergency volunteer who drowned.

Two other fatalities were reported in Odisha, including an infant crushed when the mud wall of the family’s hut collapsed in heavy rain.

“The super cyclonic storm ‘Amphan’ moved north northeastwards with a speed of 27 kmph during past 6 hours, further weakened into a cyclonic storm and lay centred today at 5.30 am over Bangladesh near Lat. 24.7°N and Long. 89.5°E about 270 km north-northeast of Kolkata, 150 km south of Dhubri and 110 km south-southeast of Rangpur (Bangladesh),” the Indian Meteorological Department said in its bulletin on Thursday morning.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on Wednesday night that the damage was difficult to assess immediately, pointing out that entire islands had been cut off from the mainland and many areas were left without electricity or phone connectivity.

“We are facing three crises: the coronavirus, the thousands of migrants who are returning home and now the cyclone,” said Banerjee.

In Bangladesh, at least a million people are without electricity, according to the Ministry of Power.

Amphan is the strongest cyclone to have originated from the Bay of Bengal in decades. High winds and torrid rains triggered by the cyclone’s movement pounded villages and cities in coatal Odisha and West Bengal, bringing down power lines, uprooting trees and inundating homes.

Amphan is a Thai name that means sky.

Domestic flights to resume from May 25

In a major relief to stranded passengers, the Civil Aviation Ministry has announced that domestic passenger flight services will resume in a calibrated manner from May 25, exactly two months after the nation-wide lockdown started.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who had earlier hinted at resumption of commercial flight services before June 1, announced it from his Twitter account. “All airports and air carriers are being informed to be ready for operations from 25th May. (The) SOPs (standard operating procedures) for passenger movement are also being separately issued by the Ministry of Civil Aviation,” he said in the tweet, creating a flutter in the aviation circles.

Sources in the aviation ministry indicated that at least one-third of flights on each route are likely to be allowed to resume for each airline, and flights could start services to all airports. The restriction of keeping middle seats empty may not be brought in. The ministry officials were busy finalising the schedules and logistics before Puri addresses a media conference on Thursday afternoon.

Though the ministry sources said the airlines could be asked to open bookings from Thursday, which would give them just four days before the flights operate, the airlines said they could not open the bookings till it was clear which cities they can operate to, and whether they have to operate only in green zones or other zones as well.

Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director, SpiceJet, welcomed the decision. “This resumption will go a long way in lifting the overall economic sentiment in the country. While the SOPs for resumption of operations and details of flights to be operated are still awaited, we are sure that this much-awaited move will help a large number of passengers by providing them access to the safest and quickest means of transport,” he said.

Low-cost carrier IndiGo, which holds the highest 49 per cent of the domestic market share, said, “We welcome the decision and are excited to be back in operations, connecting our customers to people and places they love.”

Mumbai: Local trains start for essential railway staff

The Central Railway on Tuesday started local trains only for railway workers engaged in essential services. These trains – CSMT-Panvel, CSMT-Karjat and CSMT-Kasara – will make a total of eight trips (both up and down) every day.

Divisional Chairman of CR Mazdoor Sangh, Vivek Shishodiya said until now only a few coaches of long-distance trains were being used to ferry railway workers. “The number of longdistances coaches was inadequate and used to get very congested,” he said.

The Tuesday’s local was the first one since the lockdown was enforced on March 23. Motorman Shiv Arora said he received a call at 3 pm on Tuesday and was asked to drive the special train. It departed from CSMT at 5.15 pm and reached Kalyan at 6.45 pm.

Meanwhile, the railway authorities have directed people to not rush towards suburban stations when they see the trains functioning. A separate announcement will be made by the state government about local trains for citizens.


German shoe company sets foot in Agra

The Uttar Pradesh government’s efforts to attract foreign investments, especially those which are looking for an alternative to China in the aftermath of Covid-19, bore fruit with a Germany based footwear brand shifting its entire production to Agra.

Von Wellx, owned by Casa Everz Gmbh, has announced the shifting of its entire shoe production business in China, with a capacity of over three million pairs annually, to Uttar Pradesh with an initial investment of Rs.110 crore.

An official said a new manufacturing unit of a similar capacity will be set up in Agra under a collaboration between Von Wellx and Iatric Industries Pvt Ltd.

Of ‘5-star garbage-free’ cities

Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, Rajkot and Surat in Gujarat, Mysuru in Karnataka, Indore in MP and Navi Mumbai have been ranked as top six garbage-free cities out of 1,435 municipalities which participated in first such national-level ranking exercise by the housing and urban affairs ministry.

Municipal areas from Maharashtra had the giant’s share in the rankings under four categories — one, three, five and seven star. Out of 141 cities which qualified for ranking, 79 were from Maharashtra. No municipal area could qualify for the seven-star rating.

New Delhi Municipal Council found place in the 3-star category and Delhi Cantonment, Noida, Ghaziabad and Karnal got one-star ranking. Declaring the results, Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri said next year’s rankings will cover all 4,372 statutory urban areas.

The municipal areas have been ranked on the parameters of managing their solid waste which includes collection, segregation and processing. “We want our urban areas to get that seven-star ranking. But we are happy if more and more cities get the one-star and three-star ranking. That will show that a beginning has been made,” Puri said.

Union urban affairs secretary Durga Shankar Mishra said while 1,435 municipal areas had participated in the ranking, only 141 were ranked after carrying out assessments, including spot visits.

Overall, 65 cities have bagged three-star rating and 70 have got one-star among the total of 1435 cities that applied. The areas which got three-star rankings included Tirupati, Vijayawada, Chandigarh, Bhilai Nagar, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar .

The star rating protocol was launched by the ministry under Swachh Bharat Mission in 2018 to institutionalise a mechanism for cities to achieve garbage-free status. The protocol included cleanliness of drains and water bodies, plastic waste management and managing construction and demolition waste. Officials said while the key thrust of this protocol is on solid waste management, it also takes care of ensuring certain minimum standards of sanitation.

Lockdown 4.0: Uddhav plays it safe

Maharashtra has simplified the classification of various regions, based on their coronavirus case load, into red and non-red zones. The decision comes in the wake of the Centre’s move to delegate powers of delineation to the states.

All municipal corporation areas within the Mumbai Metropolitian Region fall in the red zone apart from municipal corporations of Pune, Solapur, Aurangabad, Malegaon, Nashik, Dhule, Jalgaon, Akola and Amaravati. Yavatmal, Satara, Nagpur which were in red zone, have been moved out though Nagpur district officials are likely to write to the state asking it to keep Nagpur city in the red zone category.

Health Minister Rajesh Tope said, “We are maintaining status quo in red zones as cases from these areas are still very high. In the remaining areas, we have given maximum relaxation. Industries have already opened in nonred zones and now more relaxations have been given to nonred zones to normalise life to a certain extent," said Tope.

Officials said chief minister Uddhav Thackeray balked at allowing more activities to resume in red zones despite requests from various sections. Under the new rules which come into effect from May 22, essential shops will remain open in red zones and only those non-essential shops, which have been already allowed by the respective municipal corporation, will function. For example, as BMC has permitted electronics and hardware shops to open shutters, those can continue to stay open. Liquor shops, wherever permitted, will operate, through home delivery or otherwise.

"The BMC had asked liquor shops in Mumbai to shut shop after two days of them re-opening due to huge crowds. A decision on whether to allow them to re-open for home delivery will have to be taken," said an official. Online sale of liquor may be soon allowed in Mumbai, said officials.

While the Centre has allowed private offices to open in red zones at 33% staff capacity, Maharashtra has skirted it. But it has allowed e-commerce deliveries of non-essential items across the state, including in red-zones. Shops, malls, industries though not allowed to function in red zone will be permitted to raise their shutters from 9 am to 5pm only for upkeep and maintenance and for premonsoon protection activities of property and goods. Other commercial or production activities are barred.

Nepal to release new map with disputed areas

India and Nepal seemed headed for a diplomatic showdown with Nepalese PM K P Oli saying in Parliament Tuesday the Kalapani area under India’s administrative control in Pithoragarh district belonged “indisputably” to Nepal and his government would wrest control of it with political and diplomatic initiatives.

This followed Oli’s cabinet’s endorsement of a new political map of Nepal which showed Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as Nepal’s territory. He said the map would be released as early as Wednesday and that there would be celebrations across Nepal once it was endorsed by Parliament.

While a formal response was awaited from the MEA, official sources here said India’s own political map released last year depicted its sovereign territory accurately and it had not revised the boundary with Nepal.

India had earlier assured Nepal that, as desired by the latter, the foreign secretaries will meet to take forward the border delineation exercise under the existing mechanism, once the threat from Covid-19 dissipates.

Nepal says the Kalapani boundary issue has been on the bilateral agenda for decades. It’s only in the recent past though that it has emerged as a thorny issue with potential to imperil bilateral relations, with Kathmandu repeatedly protesting India’s new map which, it says, shows the disputed areas as Indian territory.

These are our territories. We will retrieve our land. It is after India occupied these territories without any grounds that they were made to look like disputed territories,” Oli said, adding that Nepal was in control of these areas until 1962 when the Indian Army was deployed there.

According to Nepal, the disputed areas are located on the eastern side of Kali river which, according to the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, acts as Nepal’s western boundary with India with its source, as claimed by Kathmandu, at Limpiyadhura. India has disputed the claim by saying that the contested part is located on the western side of the river and, as per the Sugauli Treaty, is part of India.

According to Oli, the decision to include the territories in Nepal’s map was made after India inaugurated a road link through “Nepali territory”. Indian officials again refuted this and said the road to the strategic Lipulekh Pass was built on Indian territory and followed a pre-existing route used by Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims.

While India has been taken aback by the intensity of Nepal’s protests, with Indian Army chief General M M Naravane even hinting that Kathmandu was probably acting at China’s behest, Nepal says the issue was always on the bilateral agenda. Kathmandu has cited a 1997 India-Nepal joint statement which called for the two sides to examine relevant facts related to the demarcation of the boundary alignment in the western sector, including in the Kalapani area.

Iconic Mysuru hotel falls prey to Covid

Southern Star, an iconic hotel which hosted Bollywood greats, industry leaders and literary giants for more than three decades besides being a landmark in Mysuru, on Tuesday announced it was suspending its operations “indefinitely” citing losses arising out of the novel coronavirus crisis.

Sources said the hotel has terminated the services of its 160 employees. The development comes as some of the prominent hoteliers in Mysuru are looking to sell their properties as they have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The iconic facility was started 33 years ago and has played host to superstars Rajinikanth, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai, among others, when they visited Mysuru.

Naresh Kumar, general manager of the hotel, said that business has become unviable since there’s no relief from governments for the ailing hotel and tourism industry in the recently announced Rs 20 lakh crore package. “We used to have 100% occupancy of 200 days in a year. The lockdown has left the business dry,” he added.

C Narayana Gowda, president, Mysuru Hotel Owners’ Association, said, “I fear 35% hotels in Mysuru may down shutters as the industry forecast is bleak.”

Government’s eco package only 1% of GDP: Analysts

The government has announced a five-part package and has provided details of how it adds up to Rs.20.97 lakh crore and accounts for nearly 10% of the gross domestic product.

FM Nirmala Sitharaman has said that the package includes the liquidity measures announced by the RBI and the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, which the finance ministry unveiled as soon as the national lockdown was ordered.

But over a dozen banks, brokerages and ratings agencies have said the package falls short of 10% of GDP and works out to around 1% and may not be enough to address the large-scale devastation inflicted by the pandemic across crucial sectors of the economy. “The Indian government’s Covid-19 package will not have a major fiscal and economic impact, despite the government’s claim of it’s ‘10% of GDP’ size,” said a report from Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research (a unit of Fitch Group). “India’s package includes previously announced measures and also monetary stimulus, making the actual fiscal impact of the additional stimulus only about 1% of GDP, according to our estimates,” the report said.

Similarly, Moody’s Investors Service said the measures announced by the government for financial institutions as part of the Rs.20-lakh-crore economic package will help ease their asset risk, but will not fully offset the negative impact from the Covid-19 outbreak.

SBI’s research wing said the package does not do much to boost consumption in the shortterm and that could act as a drag on growth. “The final tranche of Rs 20-lakh-crore package was announced (on Sunday), of which measures amounting to 4% of GDP have been undertaken by the RBI. The direct fiscal impact of the reforms, however, comes to around Rs 2 lakh crore (1% of GDP),” Soumya Kanti Ghosh, group chief economic adviser at SBI, said.

Finance ministry officials have defended the inclusion of liquidity measures announced by the RBI in its package, saying it is in line with global practices and several countries, which have announced large stimuli, have also included the measures taken by their respective central banks.

“We calculate that of the final economic package of Rs 20.97 lakh crore, only 8.4% or Rs 1.77 lakh crore, to hit the FY21 fiscal deficit, that is, only 0.8% of GDP. Notably, new announcements over the past five days make up 42% of this hit or 0.34% of GDP, and the remaining 58% comes from old measures which were known from before,” CLSA said.

“However, looking at the breakdown, the liquidity support and credit guarantee measures accounted for nearly three-fourths of the economic support package, followed by monetary measures at 15% and fiscal support at only 10%. The upfront direct fiscal cost this year from the Covid-19 support package announced so far is quite limited (1.2% of GDP),” Tanvee Gupta Jain, economist at UBS Securities India said in a report.

No consent required from destination states to run trains

The railways said the consent of the destination states is not required to operate Shramik Special trains. The statement follows a clash between the Centre and several states over the movement of migrant workers on such trains. The authorities are yet to release revised guidelines explaining the changes in protocol.

The statement came hours after the Central government issued a standard operating procedure which said that for running the Shramik Special trains permission will be given by the Ministry of Railways in consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs. States and Union territories should designate nodal authorities and make necessary arrangements for receiving and sending stranded people, reads the SOP.

However, the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Railways on May 2 read that “the consent of the receiving state shall be obtained by the originating state, and a copy provided to Railways before departure of the train”. Railway spokesperson Rajesh Dutt Bajpai on Tuesday said, “The consent of the terminating state is not necessary to run Shramik specials.”

Over the last few weeks, the Centre has alleged that some states, including West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, which have a significant migrant population in other states, were not giving permission to let the trains come in. This, it said, resulted in lakhs of them walking hundreds of kilometres towards their homes. While the states have denied the allegations, data has shown otherwise.

According to officials, while the railways has the capacity to run around 300 trains per day, it is operating half of that number because destination states are not sending an adequate number of approvals. The fare payment for such journeys is yet to be finalised. While the railways in its guidelines has said that the onus of payment is on the originating states, the cost is sometimes being shared between states


Central govt withdraws order on compulsory wage payment

The central government has withdrawn its earlier order mandating businesses to pay wages to their workers even during the lockdown period, triggering criticism from trade unions.

On March 29, the Union Home Ministry had issued an order stating that all commercial and industrial establishments will have to pay wages or salaries to its workers even with their establishments remaining shut during the lockdown period.

The latest order issued by Home Secretary, Ajay Bhalla, on Sunday lists all guidelines which were issued earlier and that will continue to be in existence during Lockdown 4.0. However, it doesn’t mention payment of salaries.

“Whereas, save as otherwise provided in the guidelines annexed to this order (dated May 18), all orders issued by NEC (National Executive Committee headed by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla) under Section10(2)(I) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, shall cease to have effect from 18.05.2020,” the order said. This order has listed various instructions issued earlier, but not the March 29 order on wages.

Many business organisations had moved the Supreme Court challenging the order. On Friday, the apex court asked the government not to resort to any coercive action against private companies which have not paid their workers full wages during the lockdown in accordance with Union Home Ministry’s order.

Virjesh Upadhyay, general secretary of Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, said that the new order amounts to complete injustice to workers. The BMS is an affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

He said, “Ensuring livelihood and wages is the duty of government and during our agitation on May 20, we will add this issue to our agenda.”

Severe cyclonic storm Amphan will make landfall tomorrow

The extremely severe cyclonic storm ‘Amphan’ turned into a super cyclonic storm, only the second over the Bay of Bengal in two decades, and is spiralling towards Indian shores, prompting West Bengal and Odisha governments to start evacuating people from vulnerable areas.

The National Disaster Response Force has deployed 37 teams in the coastal areas of the two states, its chief S N Pradhan said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the situation with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and top government officials in New Delhi.

However, the India Meteorological Department has predicted that the storm will lose some of its intensity on the way and slam West Bengal as a very severe cyclonic storm during the landfall between Digha in the state and Hatiya islands in Bangladesh on Wednesday evening.

It will still have a maximum sustained windspeed of 165 to 175 kmph gusting up to 185 kmph.

Thousands were evacuated from coastal areas of Odisha where Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore were likely to experience heavy rainfall accompanied by high-velocity winds, particularly on May 19 and 20.

The meteorological department, which has issued an “orange message” for West Bengal, warned of extensive damage in Kolkata, Hooghly, Howrah, South and North 24 Parganas and East Midnapore districts.

Around 40,000 people have already been evacuated from South 24 Parganas district.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured all possible central assistance to the states likely to be hit by the cyclone.

Amphan is only the second super cyclone over the Bay of Bengal after the one that savaged Odisha in 1999, claiming nearly 10,000 lives.

J&K notifies major changes in domicile rules

The J&K government issued a notification specifying the conditions for obtaining domicile certificates necessary for applying for government jobs and other privileges in the union territory, with some amendments in the Jammu & Kashmir Civil Services (Decentralisation and Recruitment) Act, 2010. As a result of the new rules, West Pakistan refugees, children of women married outside J&K and ‘safai karamcharis’ will now be eligible for domicile certificate.

Addressing a press conference on Sunday, government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said, according to the new rules all those holding permanent resident certificates of the erstwhile J&K state will be eligible to get domicile certificates from the designated authority. “Permanent residents of the erstwhile state of J&K in whose favour permanent resident certificates have been issued by the competent authority before 31.10.2019 shall be eligible for receiving their domicile certificates on the basis of PRCs alone and no other document shall be required for such residents,” Kansal said.

He added, “There may be bonafide migrants and bonafide displaced persons who have migrated but have not registered with the relief department. In order to facilitate such persons, the relief department shall be making a special limited provision to apply for registration for issuance of a domicile certificate only, with any one of the many documents such as 1951/1988 electoral roll, proof of employment, ownership of property.”


Government ups ante with big corporate reforms

The economic package to tide over the coronavirus pandemic has also come out with some major reforms and market-freeing announcements, and Sunday was no different with Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman laying down a number of reforms for the corporate sector ranging from decriminalisation of the Companies Act to permitting direct listing of Indian public companies in other countries.

Announcing the fifth and final tranche of the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package here, Sitharaman said that minor technical and procedural defaults under the Companies Act will be decriminalised.

The decriminalised violations include shortcomings in CSR reporting, inadequacies in board reports, filing defaults, and delay in holding of annual general meetings. Further, the government will drop seven compoundable offences and five offences will be dealt with under an alternative framework.

In yet another move towards fuller capital account convertibility, the government has thrown open the doors for Indian public companies to directly list their shares abroad and access a larger pool of capital. It has also allowed private companies that list NCDs on stock exchanges not to be regarded as listed companies. Sitharaman said that direct listing of securities by Indian public companies would be allowed in permissible jurisdictions. Necessary regulations allowing direct overseas listing by the Indian entity is expected soon after amendments to the Company Act and FEMA regulations are passed.

Furthering the agenda of ease of doing business in the country, the minister announced a slew of relaxation measures including lower penalties for all defaults for small companies, one-person companies, producer companies and start-ups.

The government will also take steps towards creating additional and specialised benches of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal. This has been under consideration for some time now.

Further, heeding the call from the industry, MSMEs and several experts, the government has also decided to set up a special insolvency framework for MSMEs under Section 240A of the Insolvency of Bankruptcy Code. This has been a long pending demand of the industry and economists.

The threshold for insolvency will also be raised to Rs 1 crore from the current Rs 1 lakh which will be supportive for the MSME sector.

Also, no fresh insolvency case will be admitted for the next one year under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code in view of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures have been acknowledged by the industry and experts. Assocham president Niranjan Hiranandani said that the industry is elated with the fifth and final tranche of measures involving relief to the business community by removing several impediments like the exclusion of debts under IBC related to COVID and decriminalising of Companies Act violations involving minor technical and procedural defaults.

Hiranandani said that the industry had been demanding these reforms to prevent unnecessary stress and pressure facing by the MSME due to costly litigation and fear of criminal proceedings.

Additional Rs.40,000 cr allocation for MGNREGS to provide employment boost

Suspension of fresh initiation of insolvency proceedings up to 1 year

Threshold to initiate insolvency proceedings raised to Rs 1 crore from Rs 1 lakh

Most of compoundable offences sections to be shifted to internal adjudication mechanism

Allowed direct listing of securities by Indian firms in permissible foreign markets

Govt opens all sectors to private companies, while public sector enterprises to play role in defined areas

At least one enterprise in strategic sectors but private sector to be allowed

State borrowing limit raised to 5 per cent from 3 per cent for FY’21; to unleash Rs 4.28 lakh crore

Severe cyclonic storm to hit Bengal, Odisha on May 20

NDRF personnel were deployed to West Bengal and Odisha on Sunday ahead of Cyclone Amphan’s landfall on May 20 officials said.

. The cyclone, according to an IMD report early Sunday, is developing into a severe cyclonic storm over the Bay of Bengal and can potentially become a very severe cyclonic storm in the next 24 hours, NDRF chief SN Pradhan said in New Delhi.

It is likely to cross West Bengal-Bangladesh coasts between Sagar Islands in West Bengal and Hatiya islands in Bangladesh between afternoon and evening of May 20 as a very severe cyclonic storm, Regional MeT Director in Kolkata G K Das said.

Odisha has made arrangements to shift 11 lakh people from vulnerable areas, Special Relief Commissioner P K Jena said. Twelve coastal districts are on high alert. 

Lockdown 4.0 begins

The fourth phase of the natiowide lockdown begins from Monday. The Centre issued a notification in this regard on Sunday, extending the curbs for two more weeks, will May 31. But, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in his address to the nation, lockdown 4.0 is going to be different from the previous three phases.

The home ministry accordingly issued guidelines for the fourth phase of the nationwide lockdown, giving power to states and union territories to delineate red, green and orange zones as per the Covid-19 situation taking into consideration the parametres shared by the union health ministry.

In fresh guidelines, the home ministry also allowed the resumption of app-based cab services; gave permission to the functioning of all shops, markets and commercial establishments except those in malls; and eased curbs on private offices that were previously allowed to function with 33% staff strength.

• All metro rail services, schools, colleges, hotels, restaurants will continue to remain shut.

• Marketplaces can open but cinema halls, shopping malls, gymnasiums, swimming pools will remain closed. But sport complexes and stadiums will be permitted to open. Spectators will not be allowed.

• Inter-state movement of passenger vehicles and buses with mutual consent of states and union territories involved.

• Intra-state movement of passenger vehicles and buses as decided by the states and union territories.

• The zones - red, green, orange - containment zones and buffer zones will be decided by the states on the basis of parametres of ministry of health.

• In containment zones, only essential activities shall be allowed.

• All other activities will be permitted in green, orange and red zones except those specifically prohibited.

• E-commerce activities for non-essential goods are now permitted even in red zones.

• Clause for private companies to make it mandatory for employees to use ‘Aarogya Setu’ app has been removed

• Large gatherings including religious, cultural, sports, political, will not be permitted.

• All religious places/places of worship will remain closed to the public. Religious congregations are strictly prohibited.

• People over 65 years of age, people with co-morbidity, pregnant women and children below 10 years of age to stay at home, except for essential and health purposes.

All the activities that were permitted during the third phase of lockdown will continue to be allowed in the fourth phase as well, however, states have been given a lot of freedom to add restrictions in any area. It is important to note that above activities will not be allowed in containment zones. In containment zones, the central government guidelines only permit essential services.

Here’s the list of guidelines to follow this phase of lockdown:

• Wearing face cover is mandatory in all public places.

• Spitting in public and work places will be punishable with fine as per the rules and regulations of local authorities, states or union territories.

• Social distancing in public places including markets, workplaces, public transport and ceremonies like marriages etc.

• Not more than 50 guests allowed for marriage functions.

• Funerals and last rites shall not be attended by more than 20 people.

• Consumption of liquor, gutka, pan masala, tobacco not allowed in public places.

• Shops to ensure minimum 6 feet distance among customers and not allow more than 5 people at a time inside the shop.

• Provision for thermal scanning, hand wash and sanitisers to be made at all entry and exit points and common areas.

• Making or circulating a false alarm or warning to as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment up to one year or with fine.

• Obstruction to any officer or employee of the central government or the state government or any authorised personnel is punishable.

FM announces reforms

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unveiled a slew of steps to spur investments, including relaxation of foreign direct investment limit in defence, privatisation of six more airports, and fully opening up coal mining to the private sector, in the fourth instalment of an expansive economic stimulus package to offset the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.

FDI limit in defence production through automatic route (meaning specific approvals are not needed) has been increased to 74% from 49%, while private sector participation has been allowed in space exploration as part of structural reforms that were announced for a variety of sectors including mineral mining, civil aviation and atomic energy.

A fast-track mechanism — empowered group of secretaries — for expeditious clearance of investment proposals has been set up, and each ministry will have a project development cell to prepare investible projects, minister said. The Centre would carry out a significant uplift of industrial infrastructure in states after ranking all 3,376 industrial parks and special economic zones with 5 lakh hectares or more of land.

The government will come out with incentive schemes for promotion of sectors such as solar PV manufacturing and advanced cell battery storage.

About ₹50,000 crore will be spent by the government for creating evacuation infrastructure, including ₹18,000 crore on rail infrastructure, for transporting mined coal to pit heads. The government will provide ₹8,100 crore as viability gap funding for creation of social infrastructure, including hospitals.

The first three instalments of the stimulus programme announced earlier this week comprised schemes worth a total of ₹9.9 lakh crore.

Together with Saturday’s ₹58,000 crore worth of measures, the ₹1.7 lakh crore package announced by the government in April and ₹5.24 lakh crore support by the Reserve Bank of India, the measures add up to a total ₹17.42 lakh crore, leaving a balance of ₹2.58 lakh crore.

The aviation package includes measures for better airspace management across the country and those aimed at making India a maintenance, repair and overhaul hub, and privatisation of government airports. “Today, only 60% of the airspace is available for commercial flights and discussions will happen to ensure that more airspace is made available to commercial flights, which will not just reduce travel time between two destinations but also reduce cost of operations for the airlines,” Sitharaman said. The government will also privatise six more airports.

Responding to a question about whether there will be a separate package for private airlines, Sitharaman said it will be announced at a later stage, if at all.

The aviation industry was disappointed as it was expecting some sort of financial support. “(We were expecting) government-backed credit lines or loans to get back on our feet and sustain losses while demand recovers and waiver of all statutory dues for six months to allow airlines to rebuild their balance sheet,” said an airline industry official. “Now we can almost certainly say two or three airlines will not survive.”

There will not be any distinction between captive and non-captive mineral mines to allow transfer of mining leases and sale of surplus unused minerals. About 500 mineral mines will be auctioned, FM said.

She said the privatisation of discoms in Union territories will provide a model for emulation by other utilities across the country. “It will lead to better services to consumers and improvement in operational and financial efficiency in distribution,” Sitharaman said.


No Loudspeakers for Azan: Allahabad HC

The Allahabad High Court, on Friday, held that azan or the call for prayer is an integral part of Islam and directed the UP government not to hinder its rendition as it does not violate the lockdown guidelines. The HC, however, said that using loudspeakers for azan is “inessential” and no sound amplifying devices can be used between 10 pm and 6 am.

“Azan can be recited by the Muezzin from minarets of mosques by human voice without using any amplifying device and such recitation cannot be hindered with under the pretext of violation of the guidelines issued by the state, to contain the pandemic Covid-19,” the HC said in its order. It said the use of loudspeakers is not necessary to make azan effective. It also infringes on the fundamental rights of citizens under Article 19 (1)(a) –– “No one has got the right to make other persons captive listeners,” it said. The HC was listening to a public interest litigation filed by Afzal Ansari, the BSP MP from Ghazipur. Ansari had pleaded that on the eve of Ramzan –– the local administration in Ghazipur restrained all mosques in the district from azan rendition. He wrote to the chief justice for protection of the fundamental right to religion of the people of Ghazipur where the Muezzin should be allowed to recite azan from the mosque. Former Union minister for law and justice Salman Khushid had also approached the court with a similar plea for Muslims in Farrukhabad, Hathras and Ghazipur.

April 2020: Exports fall more than 60%

Coronavirus has battered Indian exports — which fell over 60% in April, the worst in almost 30 years — with the monthly value of outbound shipments at $10.4 billion being the lowest in 14 years. The lockdown, which halted almost all economic activity in the country, also resulted in a 59% slump in imports to $17.1 billion, the lowest monthly value since February 2009.

The pace of decline in exports was the worst since 1991 as data prior to that period was unavailable. The problem was so acute that 28 of the 30 major sectors saw a fall in exports, with drugs, pharma and iron ore being the sole exceptions. In case of imports, none of the 30 major sectors saw higher value of shipments, resulting in trade deficit narrowing to $6.8 billion in April, lowest in four years.

Although some economic activity has begun, exporters from key sectors such as garments, engineering goods and gems/jewellery said May is unlikely to be better than the previous month.

The sector was the worst performer, with exports falling almost 99%. It also showed in imports, with gold, precious and semi-precious stone shipments almost wiped out at $2 million each, while silver imports crashed 59% to $104 million.

Engineering Export Promotion Council chief Ravi Sehgal said exports haven’t yet started as companies have been busy seeking permissions and grappling with manpower and logistics-related issues, despite the government allowing limited operations.

Apparel Export Promotion Council chairman A Shakthivel complained of a massive cancellation of orders.