NHAI to acquire land next to E-ways for bullet train

The National Highways Authority of India would acquire additional land for the laying of railway lines for high speed trains along the greenfield expressways for integrated development of transport networks. Following a recent meeting under Nitin Gadkari, both the road and railway ministries have set up a task force to work out the modalities for acquiring land and sharing the cost.

Meanwhile, the railway board has written a letter to NHAI giving details of seven High Speed Rail Corridors for running bullet trains. The identified seven high speed rail corridors are Delhi to Varanasi via Noida, Agra and Lucknow; Varanasi to Howrah via Patna; Delhi to Ahmedabad via Jaipur and Udaipur; Delhi to Amritsar via Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Jalandhar; Mumbai to Nagpur via Nasik; Mumbai to Hyderabad via Pune and Chennai to Mysore via Bangalore.

5 Rafales land in Ambala

India received its first batch of new combat-proven fighter aircraft in two decades with the arrival of five Rafale jets, giving the country’s air power a strategic edge in the midst of a bitter border row with China in Ladakh and frayed ties with Pakistan.

The aircraft, having an undisputed track record and considered one of the most potent combat jets globally, landed at the Ambala Air Force base at around 3:10 pm after covering a distance of 7,000 km from the Merignac airbase in French port city of Bordeaux.

Each jet was given a special water cannon salute at the strategically-located air base in the presence of top brass of the Indian Air Force including Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria who had played a key role as lead negotiator in their procurement.

Welcoming the arrival of the jets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a tweet in Sanskrit, said there is no virtue like protecting the nation and there is no vow like defence of the nation.

“The Birds have landed safely in Ambala,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted as soon as the aircraft touched down here.

At the same time, he used the occasion to send a veiled message to China.

“I would like to add, if it is anyone who should be worried about or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity,” the defence minister said.

The Rafales were escorted by two Sukhoi 30 MKIs after they entered the Indian air space.

However, their actual journey started almost a decade ago in Bengaluru, when the aircraft along with five other contenders of the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft deal touched down at the tarmac of the HAL airport in 2009.

The NDA government then inked a Rs.59,000-crore deal on September 23, 2016 to procure 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation after a nearly seven-year exercise to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft for the Indian Air Force did not fructify during the UPA regime.

The fleet, comprising three single seater and two twin seater aircraft, are being inducted into the IAF as part of its Ambala-based No 17 Squadron, also known as the ‘Golden Arrows’.

The Rafale jets, known for air-superiority and precision strikes, are India’s first major acquisition of fighter planes in 23 years after the Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia.

New National Education Policy gets Cabinet nod

The Union cabinet gave its nod to a new National Education Policy 2020, thereby renaming the Ministry of Human Resource Development as the Education Ministry and bringing about ‘large-scale, transformational reforms’ in school and higher education sectors. The new policy replaces the 34-year-old NEP, which was implemented in 1986 and introduces structural, qualitative and quantitative changes in the overall education system in a bid to make learning more experiential instead of the existing stress on rote learning.

“Built on the foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability and accountability, this policy is aligned to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and aims to transform India into a vibrant knowledge based society and global knowledge superpower by making both school and college education more holistic, flexible, multidisciplinary, suited to the 21st-century needs and aimed at bringing out the unique capabilities of each student,” Union minister Prakash Javadekar said at a press briefing post the cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

The new policy is based on recommendations made by a panel headed by former Indian Space Research Organisation chief K Kasturirangan, who had submitted the draft of the new policy to Union MHRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank when he took charge in May last year. Suggestions and objections were invited to the draft policy, following which two lakh responses were received by the ministry.

The existing 10+2 structure of school curricula will be replaced by a 5+3+3+4 curricular structure corresponding to ages 3-8, 8-11, 11-14 and 14-18 years, respectively. The age group of 3-6 years, which has been recognised globally as the crucial stage for development of mental faculties of a child, will be compulsorily brought under school curriculum. The new system will have 12 years of schooling with three years of Anganwadi/pre-schooling.

The new policy emphasises mother tongue/local language/regional language as the medium of instruction at least till Class V but preferably till Class VIII and beyond. “Sanskrit to be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an option for students, including in the three-language formula. Other classical languages and literatures of India also to be available as options. No language will be imposed on any student. Students to participate in a fun project/ activity on ‘The Languages of India’, sometime in Classes VI-VII, such as, under the Ek Bharat Shrestha Bharat initiative. Several foreign languages will also be offered at the secondary level. Indian sign language will be standardised across the country, and national and state curriculum materials developed, for use by students with hearing impairment,” read the official statement.

The policy aims to increase the gross enrolment ratio in higher education, including vocational education from 26.3 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2035 and add 3.5 crore new seats to higher education institutions.

Unlock 3.0: No night curfew, gyms to open

The nationwide Unlock 3 guidelines were issued by the government, opening up more activities outside the containment zones, but schools, colleges, metro rail service, cinema halls along with bars will continue to remain shut till August 31 and political and religious gatherings will also remain prohibited.

For the first time since the coronavirus lockdown came into force on March 25, the government has allowed opening of yoga institutes and gymnasiums from August 5 for which separate Standard Operating Procedure will be issued by the Health Ministry.

After extensive consultation with states and union territories, it has been decided that schools, colleges and coaching institutions will remain closed till August 31, the Union Home Ministry said on a statement.

However, restrictions on movement of individuals during night (night curfew) have been removed, according to the ministry.

The Unlock 3 guidelines will come into force from August 1 and strict enforcement of lockdown in containment zones will continue till August 31.

Among the prohibited activities are Metro rail services, cinema halls, swimming pools, entertainment parks, theatres, bars, auditoriums, assembly halls and similar places. Social, political, sports, entertainment, academic, cultural, religious functions and other large congregations will also continue to be prohibited till August 31.

All activities, except these, shall be permitted outside the containment zones. Dates for opening of these will be decided separately, based on the assessment of the situation.

"Shops will need to maintain adequate physical distancing among customers. MHA will monitor the effective implementation of national directives. Vulnerable persons, i.e., persons above 65 years of age, persons with co-morbidities, pregnant women, and children below the age of 10 years, are advised to stay at home, except for meeting essential requirements and for health purposes," the ministry also said.

There shall be no restriction on interstate and intra-state movement of persons and goods and no "separate permission/ approval/ e-permit" will be required for such movements.

The ministry said that the use of the Aarogya Setu mobile application will continue to be encouraged.

Independence Day functions will be allowed with social distancing and by following other health protocols, e.g., wearing of masks etc. International air travel of passengers has been permitted in a limited manner under the Vande Bharat mission. Further opening up will take place in a calibrated manner, it said.


Mumbai: Sero-survey finds antibodies in 57 % of those tested in slums

Mumbai’s first sero-survey has revealed presence of antibodies in 57 per cent of those surveyed in slum pockets and 16 per cent of those tested in non slum middle-class and upper middle-class neighbourhoods.

The BMC health workers, in conjunction with Niti Aayog and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research tested 8,870 people across three wards – M (west) covering Chembur and Mahul; F-north covering Matunga, Sion, Wadala, Dadar and parts of Prabhadevi; and R north covering Dahisar.

The presence of antibodies indicates that the person contracted the infection, fought it off and in the process developed reasonable resistance to the virus. The larger the number of people in a community with antibodies the better because it leaves virus with a narrower scope to spread.

At the same time, a lower incidence antibodies – as in slightly better off neighbourhoods in this survey – is also not a bad thing as it indicates fewer people contracted the infection. This means that precautions like social distancing, use of masks, and maintaining hygiene worked in these areas.

Sero-surveys not only help communities understand how effective their fight against an infection has been, they also help in formulating future action plans, interventions and resource distribution.

Since this sero-survey used random samples, a lot of those tested and found to carry anti-bodies may not even know that they were infected. This is because many infected with Covid-19 remain asymptomatic.

Additional Municipal Commissioner Suresh Kakani described the results of the sero-survey as encouraging and said the report indicates that Mumbai is on the right track. “Timely transfer of symptomatic patients from community to isolation centres has worked,” he said.

Asked if the presence of antibodies in 57 per cent of those surveyed in slum pockets indicated that slums in Mumbai may have developed “herd immunity”, Kakani said that the researchers were reluctant to draw such a conclusion before the report is shared with national and international agencies.

Herd immunity refers to a large part of a community developing resistance to an infection, either by developing anti-bodies naturally or through an immunisation drive, leaving the virus with fewer bodies to infect and eventually petering out.

Kakani said that the survey revealed that infection fatality rate in slums is now down 0.05 to 0.10 per cent. “That is bare minimum and a very encouraging indicator. We felt deaths in slums would be more. But it wasn’t so,” he said.

Another finding of the sero-survey was the marginally higher prevalence of anti-bodies among women. The survey also indicated a lower rate of infection among women at 45 per cent against men’s 55 per cent. “Women – and it has been proven beyond doubt in national and international studies – have greater immunity against Covid-19. This is because of oestrogen hormone. Women also developed antibodies faster than men,” Kakani said.

Antibody testing involves drawing blood to test serum for antibodies against Covid-19. If a test is positive, it indicates that the person has been exposed to the infection around 15-21 days prior to the test. The test looks for IgG antibodies. These antibodies are produced in the body at least 14 days after the infection.

Kakani said the low prevalence of infection among middle class neighbourhoods could be attributed to social distancing, use of masks and access to better hygiene. “The higher sero prevalence in slums could possibly be due to population density and shared common facilities like toilets,” he said.

Corbett tops in tiger count

Jim Corbett national park in Uttarakhand has the most number of tigers in the country, with 231 of the 2,967 big cats counted for the ‘Status of Tigers, Copredators & Prey in India’ report released by Union forest and environment minister Prakash Javadekar.

Corbett’s tiger count has been rising — from 137 in 2006 to 174 in 2010 and 215 in 2014. “We had expected the numbers to be over 250,” said director of the reserve, Rahul. It is followed by Nagarhole
(127) and Bandipur (126), both in Karnataka, Bandhavgarh in MP (MP) and Kaziranga in Assam (104 each). Among states, MP topped the tiger estimation, with 526 (it had 308 last time), going past Karnataka (524 this time, 406 earlier).

Uttarakhand remained on the third spot, with 442 tigers, up from 340 previously. The AITE is undertaken every four years, the latest in 2018. This time, Corbett is the only reserve with over 200 tigers and has the highest tiger density in the country, 14.

The count in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, which straddles the India-Nepal border, has also gone up. “It is a splendid increase, from 58 in the last estimation to 82 this time,” said Sanjay Kumar Pathak, field director of the reserve. Pilibhit reserve’s tiger population is also up by two to 57. And what used to be a non-tiger zone in Uttar Pradesh, Sohagi Barwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharajganj, now has one tiger. In fact, the Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains (Uttarakhand, UP and Bihar) witnessed a significant rise in tiger population, from 485 to 646, in keeping with national trend (which saw a 33% jump). The Central India & Eastern Ghats belt, which covers eight states, saw the biggest jump, 50%.

Four of country’s 50 reserves — Udnati Sitanadi in Chhattisgarh, Satkosia in Odisha, Mukundra in Rajasthan and Kawal in Telangana — have just one tiger.


First vertical COVID-19 transmission from mother to child recorded in India

BJ Medical College and Sassoon General Hospitals have reported the first confirmed case of vertical transmission of coronavirus disease from a mother to baby in the country.

Although the mother tested negative for the virus in her RT-PCR test, the baby girl’s nasopharyngeal swab, placenta and umbilical cord tested positive for the virus. According to the doctors, as this is the first of its kind case reported in the country, it will be documented in detail and published in a medical journal.

The baby was successfully treated for a period of three weeks and required intensive care due to severe inflammation. However, the baby has been recovered completely and has been discharged, officials said.

It all started when a 22-year-old pregnant woman gave birth to a baby on May 27. The mother had shown fever one day before the delivery and also signs of weakness which was presumed to be due to pregnancy. “The mother was tested for COVID-19 and a RT-PCR test was done in which she tested negative for the virus but the baby girl started showing symptoms like fever, lethargy and signs of severe COVID-19 along with abnormal blood tests, suggesting severe inflammation. The baby’s nasopharyngeal swab, placenta and the umbilical cord were taken for testing and they tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr Aarti Kinikar, head of paediatric department at BJMC and SGH.

Dr Kinikar informed that such cases have been reported in China along with one case in the UK. In this case, although the mother tested negative for the virus, she did transmit the infection in the child. “After a period of four weeks when we did an antibodies test, there was evidence of COVID-19 infection by strong antibody response in the mother. It is possible that she recovered on her own. This was a very challenging case for us. The baby developed a severe case of COVID-19 and it required a lot of dedication and effort to successfully treat it,” she said.

Dr Murlidhar Tambe, dean of BJMC and SGH, said that this was the first confirmed case of vertical transmission reported from the country and the experts at the hospital were able to identify it and treat the baby successfully.


Corona is as Fatal Today as it was in Beginning: Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the hazards of the Covid-19 pandemic were far from over and that it was spreading fast in several places.

His statement comes amid a rising number of positive cases being reported across the country daily.

“We need to be extra vigilant. We have to bear in mind that Corona (virus) is as fatal today as it was in the beginning – that’s why we have to be fully cautious,” Modi said in his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio address.

India’s recovery rate is, however, better compared to other countries and its mortality rate was also comparably lower, he pointed out.

“The loss of even one life is saddening, but India has also succeeded in saving the lives of millions of her people. Wearing a face mask, using a gamcha, or a light towel to cover, twoyard distancing, frequently washing hands, avoiding spitting anywhere, taking full care of hygiene and sanitation — these are the weapons to protect us from Corona,” the PM said.

Modi also urged people to take a pledge of freedom from the pandemic this Independence Day.

Separately, he also took pot shots at Pakistan on the occasion of Kargil Vijay Diwas, saying India can never forget the circumstances under which the battle had taken place.

“Pakistan had embarked upon this misadventure, nursing delusions of encroaching upon Indian soil, to distract attention from the internal strife prevailing there. India was then in the process of making efforts to foster good relations with Pakistan,” Modi said. Quoting a Hindi couplet, Modi said — ‘enmity with one and all for no reason comes naturally for the wicked’.

“People with such a disposition keep thinking of harming even their well-wishers… that is why when India extended a hand of friendship, Pakistan tried to respond, stabbing in the back. But after that, when our gallant Army displayed deeds of valour, when India demonstrated her might, the whole world watched it,” Modi said.

MP CM Tests Covid Positive

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on Saturday said he has tested positive for Covid-19. He was admitted to a designated private hospital in Bhopal, a BJP leader said. “I appeal to all my colleagues that whoever has come in my contact should get tested for coronavirus. My close contacts should move to quarantine,” Chouhan said in a tweet. “I have been reviewing the status of coronavirus infection in the state every evening since March 25. Now I will try to review the situation through video conferencing as much as possible.” Chouhan, 61, later tweeted he was completely healthy. He also said in his absence, the meeting to review the coronavirus situation will be held by Home Minister Narottam Mishra, Urban Development and Administration Minister Bhupendra Singh, Medical Education Minister Vishwas Sarang and Health Minister Prabhuram Choudhary.


India to buy 6 more US naval aircraft for $1.8bn

India has kicked off the acquisition process for six more long-range Poseidon-8I aircraft from the US, while a plan is also underway to fast-track procurement of six Predator-B armed drones amid the ongoing confrontation with China.

Top defence sources said the ‘letter of request’ for six more P-8Is for around $1.8 billion has been issued to the US for the government-to-government deal under Pentagon’s foreign military sales programme. “The US will soon send the ‘letter of acceptance’ after congressional approval. The contract should be inked by early next year,” a source said.

Concurrently, the armed forces are examining “emergency procurement” of six Predator-B or weaponised Sea Guardian drones from the US.

India is extensively using the naval P-8I patrol planes, packed with radars and electro-optic sensors and with Harpoon Block-II missiles and MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, for surveillance missions over Indian Ocean and eastern Ladakh.

The Navy had inducted eight P-8I aircraft under a $2.1 billion deal. 

Delhi-Varanasi High-Speed Corridor Plan Rolled Out

Work on a detailed project report for the proposed Delhi-Varanasi high-speed rail corridor has begun on the instructions of the central government.

The 865-km-long corridor is one of the eight HSR passageways that have been proposed to optimise high-speed rail connectivity between major cities and give an impetus to the industrial sector. Work has already started on the 508-km-long Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor that will see bullet trains running at 320 km per hour.

Once the Delhi-Varanasi corridor is ready, a bullet train could reduce travel time between the two cities to about four-and-a-half hours. Last year, India’s first semi-high-speed Vande Bharat Express train was flagged off between New Delhi and Varanasi.

“The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited has been entrusted by the ministry of railways to prepare detailed project reports for seven new HSR corridors in India — namely Delhi-Varanasi, Varanasi-Howrah, Mumbai-Nagpur, Delhi-Ahmedabad, Chennai-Mysore, Delhi-Amritsar, and Mumbai-Hyderabad,” Sushma Gaur, additional general manager (corporate communication) at NHSRCL said.

The proposed link between Varanasi and Howrah is the latest addition to the government’s HSR corridor plan. Earlier his month, NHSRCL had invited four bids related to data collection, preliminary designs, and survey work for the preparation of the detailed project report of the Delhi-Varanasi HSR corridor. “The collection of relevant data for the preparation of interim detailed project report is under process. The location of stations will be proposed after survey reports and consultation with the government,” Gaur said.

India, China agree on ‘early and complete’ disengagement from Ladakh

Amid reports that Chinese troops are reluctant to step back further from Pangong Tso and Patrolling Point 17A at Gogra, two of four friction points along the LAC, the two countries on Friday agreed for an “early and complete” disengagement.

Both India and reviewed the situation in eastern Ladakh during a fresh round of online diplomatic talks under the framework of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on border affairs.

The MEA said the two sides agreed at the Friday talks that another meeting of their senior army commanders may be held soon to work out further steps to ensure complete disengagement “expeditiously”.

“They agreed that early and complete disengagement of the troops along the Line of Actual Control and de-escalation from India-China border areas in accordance with bilateral agreement and protocols and full restoration of peace and tranquility was essential for smooth overall development of bilateral relations,” it said in a statement.

Both sides commenced the disengagement process from July 6 following talks between NSA Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

In Friday’s talks, the MEA said both sides agreed that it was necessary to “sincerely” implement the understandings reached between senior commanders till date.

“The two sides agreed that another meeting of the Senior Commanders may be held soon so as to work out further steps.”


PM lists out potential sectors for US investors

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a strong pitch for American business to invest in India, emphasising that there was never a better time to do so especially in a “nation you can trust”. India and the US, he added, must combine to help the world bounce back faster from the coronavirus pandemic.

“American investors often look out for the perfect timing to enter a sector or a country. To them, I would like to say — there has never been a better time to invest in India,” the PM said addressing the USIBC India Ideas Summit.

“The rise of India means a rise in trade opportunities with a nation you can trust, a rise in global integration with increasing openness,” said Modi in an important political message at a time when countries and companies are looking to diversify supply chains from China.

India could power the global economic recovery, the PM said while listing out sectors such as aviation, insurance, defence, space, energy and infrastructure as opportunities for US investors. “I have given you a few options, that too without any consultancy fees,” he remarked in jest as he elaborated on why India makes for a profitable investment destination.

“Today, there is global optimism towards India. This is because India offers a perfect combination of openness, opportunities and options. India celebrates openness in people and in governance. Open minds make open markets. Open markets lead to greater prosperity. These are principles on which both India and the US agree,” Modi said.

Modi said even during the Covid-19 pandemic, India has attracted foreign investment of more than $20 billion between April and July 2020. “Investment is the best show of confidence. Every year, we are reaching record highs in FDI. Friends in USIBC inform that ‘pledged investment’ from the US has already crossed $40 billion this year,” the PM said.

The pandemic, Modi said, had shown that the global economy needed to focus against external shocks. “It has taken a global pandemic to remind us how important resilience is. Global economic resilience can be achieved by stronger domestic economic capacities. This means improved domestic capacity for manufacturing, restoring the health of the financial system and diversification of international trade.”

The PM said his call for an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ was an effort to contribute towards a resilient world. “And, for that, we await your partnership,” the PM said in his pitch to American companies.

Modi termed India as a land of opportunities and said the Indian insurance sector was one of the best investment options presently to generate long-term and assured revenues. “India has raised FDI cap for investment in insurance to 49%. 100% FDI is permitted for investment in insurance intermediaries. The insurance market in India is growing at a rate of more than 12% and is expected to grow to $250 billion by 2025.”

The PM also cited the tech sector as being ideal for US investments as he said India’s rural internet users were now more than urban users. “Opportunities in technology also include opportunities in the frontier technologies of 5G, big data analytics, quantum computing, blockchain and Internet of things,” Modi said. The PM also invited American companies to invest in India’s agriculture sector and said India’s food processing sector is expected to be worth over half a trillion dollars by 2025.

TN signs 16 MoUs to attract investments

The Tamil Nadu government entered into 16 Memorandums of Understanding with investors, including Adani Enterprises, to attract fresh industrial investments of ₹5,137 crore into the state. The investments to come up in varied sectors, including IT, auto components and food products, will result in generating direct employment to more than 6,500 people.

Over the last three months, Tamil Nadu has managed to strengthen its new project pipeline by executing MoUs to attract over ₹30,000 crore fresh investments from both Indian and overseas players. These projects, when completed, are likely generate direct employment to over 67,000 persons in the state.

On May 27, the state signed 17 MoUs for attracting new investments worth ₹15,128 crore. Early this week, it signed eight MoUs that promised combined investment of ₹10,399 crore.

On Thursday, the MoUs were signed in the presence of chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami at the state secretariat. The new ventures will come up across districts, including Chennai, Chengalpet, Kanchipuram, Coimbatore, Dindigul and Tirunelveli.

Adani Enterprises will invest ₹2,300 crore in establishing a data park at Siruseri Sipcot IT campus. The project will employ 1,000 people. Singapore’s Princeton will be investing ₹750 crore to set up a data park also in Siruseri, but will employ around 100 people.

Super Auto Forge has agreed to invest ₹500 crore in establishing forged steel and aluminium parts unit in Sipcot industrial estate at Vallam - Vadagal in Kancheepuram district.

Airflow Equipments plans to invest ₹320 crore, also in Vallam – Vadagal, and employ 500 people in its industrial unit to make components for the logistics sector.

ATC Tires has promised to invest ₹250 crore in a technology enhancement project at Sipcot’s Gangaikondan industrial estate in Tirunelveli. The unit will employ 400 people.

Visteon Automation Systems will invest ₹100 crore at Maraimalainagar in an auto component unit.

In addition, a leading vermicelli brand Top Anil will invest ₹100 crore in a food products unit in Dindigul district and will employ 1,000 people. BPL-FTA and Srivaru Motors will invest ₹300 crore and ₹150 crore in lithium Ion battery and e-bike manufacturing units respectively.

India to equip Rafale jets with ‘Hammer’ air-to-ground missiles

India is planning to also equip its new Rafale fighter jets, which already have a deadly weapons package, with the “Hammer” air-to-ground precision-guided munitions amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh.

The first five of the 36 omni-role Rafales, contracted from France under the ₹59,000 crore deal inked in September 2016, are slated to touch down at the Ambala airbase on July 29.

Even as preparations are in full swing to ensure the Rafales become fully-operational as soon as possible in the backdrop of the heightened military tensions with China, talks are under way with France to swiftly acquire the Hammer (highly agile modular munition extended range) weapons for the jets.

The 20 to 70-km range Hammer munitions, which are designed to destroy bunkers, hardened shelters and other targets in all terrains including the mountainous ones in eastern Ladakh, will be procured under the emergency financial powers granted to the armed forces during the confrontation with China.

The all-weather Hammer munitions are similar to the Israeli-origin “Spice” precision-guided bombs, which were used by Indian Mirage-2000 fighters during the Balakot aerial strikes in February last year. A Rafale jet can carry up to six Hammer weapons to hit as many targets simultaneously. While the Rafales will almost be combat-deployable when they arrive at Ambala, capable of firing its over 300-km range Scalp air-to-ground cruise missiles and other weapons, the integration of the 120-150 km range Meteor air-to-air missiles will take some time.

Of Mann’s mountain man....

An 18-year-old has taken it upon himself to overturn the dry fortune of Gondavle village in Satara’s Mann taluka. The hamlet’s drought-prone nature has stuck with the teen, who, since two years, has been digging the mountains and land for watershed management. His efforts have produced stellar results — Gondavle has been able to conserve 1 crore litres of water; praise from villagers has cascaded upon the young adult thereafter.

Rohit Bansode’s efforts have simply not stopped here. He has planted 10,000 trees in the environs and even dug up a well, earning much respect from the hamlet. His efforts offer an inspiring lesson all the more if one takes a look at his background. His father is the only earner in the family and the money comes through odd jobs; they barely make ends meet.

Two years ago, an epiphany struck Rohit when he was watching a TV talk show hosted by Aamir Khan. Inspiration drove him to work towards turning reversing the drought-prone state of the village, even if it meant striving over eight hours in the field.

Rohit said, “There was not much that was being done in the village to deal with the water crisis. I thought, even if I start small, I will be able to bring some difference in the village. The day I decided to do so, I replaced the books in my bag with tools used for digging and a water bottle and there was no looking back after that.”

The first two days at the rough slope under the scorching sun gave him boils and fever. It did not deter him for the efforts continued and now, two years later, he has achieved what he had set out to do. “I have made patterns on the hills and people’s fields, where the water could be stored for a year. This will help farmers plan their agriculture activities accordingly,” he said.

Rohit starts his day at 6 am, goes to the hills to dig, returns at 2 pm for lunch and then again leaves at 3 pm to hills and to return by 7 pm. He asserts that there’s nothing else in the world that makes him as happy as this activity.

Inspired by Rohit, his younger sister Rakshita (15) also started tagging along, after initially trailing him simply and watching him from a distance. She now helps him plant trees.

Their father, Shankar, is proud of Rohit’s work. “I was worried for my son when he returned with boils and fever. But his perseverance has only given me a reason to be proud. No one compelled him to take up this activity. Rohit is made for bigger things in life,” he said.

Gondavale village’s sarpanch, Ajit Pol, called Rohit a “blessing” for the village. “He has done so much for all of us. The gram panchayat is low on funds and cannot do much because of the same, but this young boy has changed everything. The efforts are commendable and cannot be praised enough. There is a lot of water that is being stored and conserved now.”

Land under Mumbai, Kolkata, Kandla ports to be made into townships

Three central government-owned major ports – Mumbai, Kolkata and Deen Dayal (Kandla) – are likely to generate nearly Rs.1 lakh crore by developing townships and office space on their under-utilised or unutilised land, according to government estimates.

This could be the first big ticket initiative to monetise large tracts of land by government agencies. Revenue generated from this would be used for port-related developments. The move comes amid the government’s growing emphasis on port-led development.

Sources said the Centre has finalised the township policy for these three ports, which will allow them to prepare the detailed land use plan, including areas for redevelopment. The policy is likely to get Cabinet nod, sources said. According to an estimate, at least 1,600 hectares of land under 10 major ports can be redeveloped.

The policy will enable the three port trusts to renew thousands of old leases, which will generate more revenue and put an end to a plethora of litigations.

Sources said only in the case of Mumbai port, over half of the total 495 hectares under township area can be utilised for redevelopment that can generate over Rs.50,000 crore for the port trust. An estimate suggests renewal of leases would generate nearly Rs.2,000 crore and the annual income from these leased properties would increase more than four times, once the policy is implemented. One of the options being explored for Mumbai port is to develop a huge office complex, which can be given on rent to government departments, sources said.

Similarly, in the case of Deen Dayal port (Kandla), nearly 800 hectares out of the 2,768 hectares of township area has potential for redevelopment. The port has an estimated potential to generate Rs.1,600-crore revenue through allotment of about 819 hectares.

Sources said in the case of Kolkata port, about 100 hectares of the township area can be utilised for development. Moreover, the port trust can generate about Rs.25,000 crore by leasing out the already existing township land.

India-made N-plant achieves criticality

India declared its first indigenously developed atomic power plant built at the Kakrapar nuclear complex in Gujarat ready to be switched on.

PM Narendra Modi described the development as a “shining example” of his vision for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and a “trailblazer for many such future achievements”.

“Congratulations to our nuclear scientists for achieving criticality (ready for operation) of Kakrapar Atomic Power Plant-3! This indigenously designed 700 MWe KAPP-3 reactor is a shining example of Make in India. And a trailblazer for many such future achievements!” he tweeted.

The third unit is the first of the two nuclear power plants designed and developed by Indian scientists based on pressurised heavy water reactor technology. The fourth unit, also of 700 MW, is under construction.

Nuclear power accounts for roughly 3-4% of supply though India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation at seven nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of 6,780 MW. Most of these reactors were based on Canadian heavy water technology, followed by Russian designs. Seven more reactors are under construction with a combined generation capacity of 4,300 MW.

The Kakrapar complex is built on the banks of Tapti river in Mandvi tehsil some 80 Kms from Surat. It has two units of 220 MW fuelled by natural uranium in operation.

In coming days, various tests will be conducted and power will be increased progressively before it is connected to the western grid. The unit is the 23rd nuclear power reactor of the country and is the front runner in a series of 16 indigenous 700 MW nuclear power reactors.

According to the Nuclear Power Corporation, the components and equipment for the reactor have also been manufactured by Indian industries.

The power plant in Kakrapar, Gujarat is the first of the two nuclear power plants designed and developed by Indian scientists based on pressurised heavy water reactor technology


Mumbai: Airport look for CSMT soon

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus is all set to get an airport look from inside with its heritage look intact from the outside. The Indian Railways has decided to undertake the five-year project under the Public-Private Partnership model, which will include brand new platforms, foot overbridges (equipped with escalators), new offices, a mall, a five-star plaza and even a hotel, with a waiting area double the current size. The project will not tamper with the height of the station, which is 24 mt.

The Railway Board has already approved the master plan and the project will be undertaken by the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Ltd., the implementation arm of the railways.

Sanjeev Kumar Lohia, the managing director and CEO of IRSDC said a request for qualification will be invited from private parties after a nod from the PPP appraisal committee, which is the highest authority for approval. The committee comprises representatives of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Railways.

Similar redevelopment has been planned for seven other railway stations, namely Thakurli, Kalyan, Lokmanya Tilak, Dadar, Andheri, Bandra Terminus and Borivali. While consultations for the Thakurli station master plan are under way, a draft conceptual plan is ready for the other stations. Whenever ready, a user fee, just like the airports, will be levied on passengers and visitors through platform or parking charges. This will be one of the main revenue streams for the concessionaire.

CSMT is the first railway station of the city to be redeveloped under the PPP model. It handles over 1,000 local trains and nearly 100 long-distance trains. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, it had an average daily footfall in the range of five to six lakh. Recently, a conservation project was undertaken for the terminus, which will be improved upon as part of the redevelopment. A senior IRSDC official said all new construction will not be taller than the current height of 24 metre.

Earlier in June, IRSDC had opened RFQ applications for Nagpur, Gwalior, Amritsar and Sabarmati railway stations and shortlisted a few developers under the PPP model. As part of a nationwide plan, the railway authorities are looking at a huge capital investment in station infrastructure in the next five years.

Amarnath Yatra cancelled due to Covid-19

The Amarnath Yatra 2020 has been cancelled due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board announced on Tuesday. The decision to cancel this year’s annual pilgrimage to the cave shrine in south Kashmir Himalayas was reportedly taken in the wake of the closure of religious places in Jammu and Kashmir due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is the second year in a row that the pilgrimage has been called off. Last year it was cancelled mid-way, days before the Centre announced its twin decisions to scrap Article-370 and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories.

“The Board is aware of and respects the sentiments of millions of devotees. To keep the religious sentiments alive, the Board shall continue live telecast/virtual darshan of the morning and evening aarti. Further, the traditional rituals shall be carried out as per past practice. Also, the Chhadi Mubarak shall be facilitated by the government,” the statement read.

The Board discussed the Supreme Court’s order dated July 13 in which the decision to conduct the Yatra was left to the administration/government after assessing the ground realities prevailing in Jammu & Kashmir in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.

23.5% people in Delhi affected by Covid-19: Survey

A sero-prevalence study has found that 23.48 per cent of Delhi residents have been affected by Covid-19.

Director of the National Centre for Disease Control Dr.Sujeet Kumar Singh said the remaining 77 per cent are still vulnerable to the viral disease and containment measures need to continue with the same rigour. The study was conducted from June 27 to July 10 by the NCDC in collaboration with the Delhi government and involved testing 21,387 samples. It showed that 20 per cent population in eight of the 11 districts in the national capital have developed antibodies against COVID-19. The survey also indicated that a large number of infected people remain asymptomatic.

A sero-survey involves testing of blood serum of individuals to check for the prevalence of antibodies against infection. Delhi recorded 1,349 fresh COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, taking the tally in the city to over 1.25 lakh, while the death toll mounted to 3,690, authorities said.


The Rural - Urban Divide

Right from literacy, accessibility to schools and household expenditure on education, the rural-urban gap remains significant.

There is a digital divide, too, with just 4% of rural households having access to computers as compared to 23% in urban areas. The rural-urban gaps in education are revealed in a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office.

The “Household Social Consumption: Education” survey covered 1.1 lakh households in over 8,000 villages and 6,000 urban blocks between July 2017 and June 2018. The study involved 1.5 lakh students.

While 92.7% of rural households have a primary school within 1 km compared to 87.2% in urban areas, only 38% of rural household have access to secondary school compared to 70% in the urban areas on similar parameters.

While accessibility to a neighbourhood school at primary level is not an issue in rural areas, the gross attendance ratio is also satisfactory with nearly 100% of boys and girls in rural as well as urban areas attending classes. However, in sync with reduced accessibility, there is a gap at secondary level between rural and urban settings.

The all India literacy rate among persons aged 7 years and above is 77.7%. However, for the same age group, the rural literacy is 73.5% and in the urban areas it is 87.7%. The digital divide between rural and urban households is stark with just 4% of the rural population having access to computers. The report highlighted that while 15% surveyed population in the rural cluster has internet access, 42% of the surveyed students in the urban areas have access to the internet. Only 24% of the persons between age 15-29 years in rural areas are able to operate a computer as compared to 56% of their urban counterparts.

There is also a big gap in expenditure in education, especially at school level. Annual average expenditure per student at secondary and senior secondary level in a rural household stands at Rs.5,856 and Rs.9,148 respectively. An urban household for the same classes spends Rs.17,518 and Rs.23,832 respectively. As per the report, the average expenditure per student incurred during an academic session for basic courses was nearly Rs.8,331 for general courses and Rs.50,307 for technical and professional courses.

Widening 900-km Char Dham road a Himalayan blunder

Two expert members in the Supreme Court-appointed committee on Char Dham road project – to connect the Char Dham shrines in Garhwal Himalayas with an “all-weather” road --have flagged serious issues over the widening of this 900-km road to 10 meters uniformly and termed it as “a Himalayan blunder”.

This “minority view” has been incorporated in the “main report” that the panel chairman environmentalist Ravi Chopra has submitted to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

In their note, the two members – Hemant Dhyani and Navin Juyal – have raised concern over the road transport and highways ministry’s decision to divide the entire stretch to 53 smaller projects to avoid conducting environment impact assessment study despite the hills being contiguous. Each divided stretch is less than 100 km. The MoEFCC norms make it mandatory for a linear project of more than 100 km to go for EIA study.

Dhyani and Juyal are among five members who have objected to widening of the road to 10 meters while the majority (21) have favoured widening of the corridor to 10 meters. The majority group has also submitted its “final report” to the MoEFCC, recommending several damage mitigation measures. Sources said with the deep differences may end up the matter going back to Supreme Court.

Era of great caution behind us: Jaishankar

If India has to grow, it has to shed its traditional caution, step out more, be more confident and articulate its interests, said external affairs minister S Jaishankar amid indications that China’s aggression on the Line of Actual Control may have spurred New Delhi to discard the historical hesitations and explore fresh geostrategic options.

Speaking at an interaction, Jaishankar said India has moved away from the traditional notions of nonalignment. “If we are to grow by leveraging the international situation, we have to exploit the opportunities out there. Can’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to stay away from it all, and when I find it convenient I will step out’. Either you’re in the game or you’re not in the game. The era of great caution, and greater dependence on multilateralism, is behind us. We have to step out more. We have to be more confident, we have to articulate our interests better. We need to take risks. Without taking risks, you can’t get ahead. Those are choices we have to make,” the minister said.

Jaishankar’s remarks come as the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s border challenge pose both a crisis and an opportunity for India to reset its own economic and international compact.

Answering a question whether non-alignment is all about distance from the US, he said, “Non-alignment is a term of a particular era and a particular geopolitical landscape. There are two aspects to it. One part of it is to be independent, which has resonances from our history and freedom movement. That remains and is the continuity factor. The other part was legitimate in the ’50s and ’60s — stay out of trouble, don’t get entangled in other people’s problems.”

The minister further said: “Today, India has a contribution to make. People turn to us for solutions. We’re no longer the bystander. We have a contribution to make. We have to weigh in on big issues — like the rules for connectivity, maritime security, terrorism and climate change.”

Changing Times....

How times change. Nearly 50 years after then US President Richard Nixon ordered the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India in the face of its imminent victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war, Washington has sent the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Nimitz to the same waters in a show of solidarity with New Delhi amid tensions both face with China.

Currently the world’s largest aircraft carrier, Nimitz sailed into the Bay of Bengal on Monday to be greeted by the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command for what was described as a “passex,” an incidental naval exercise during a warship’s passage (rather than a planned exercise). It was a far cry from December 1971 when the Indian Navy was tasked with confronting the US Navy battlegroup, and the Soviet Union rushed its nuclear submarines to support Delhi.

“The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is transiting through IOR. During the passage, #IndianNavy units undertook Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with #USNavy. Indian Navy had also conducted similar PASSEXs with (Japan’s) #JMSDF and #FrenchNavy in recent past,” an Indian Navy spokesperson said in a tweet on Monday, seeking to place the exercises, which will extend into Tuesday, in a broad context.

The US too made no reference to China, but its language preceding the exercise was unmistakably aimed at Beijing. “Don’t underestimate the strength of free democracies,” US defense secretary Mike Esper tweeted, supplementing a US Navy tweet that said “The strength of @USNavy aircraft carriers includes the friendships they help build.”

IndiGo to lay off 10% of its workforce

Low cost carrier IndiGo said it is laying off 10 per cent of its workforce due to the adverse financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although sources said that pilots will not be affected, numbers indicate that almost 2,500 of their estimated 25,000 employee strength will lose their jobs.

The airline, which was believed to have cash reserves of Rs.20,000 crore, had earlier announced pay cuts and leave without pay to cut costs.

The airline announced a “6E Care Package” to help the impacted employees which included several measures to support them. The company said impacted employees will be paid a notice pay based on the gross salary as per their notice period, and a severance pay of their CTC (cost to company) for every completed year of service.

“At a minimum, an impacted employee will receive at least 3 months’ gross salary. Those with higher tenure will receive more as per the calculation,” the airline said.

IndiGo also announced that it would be paying performance linked incentives to non-crew employees for 2019-20 even after their exit. It also announced a longevity bonus for cabin crew which would be paid along with the full and final settlement.

The airline said that the medical insurance coverage for the impacted employees would be extended till December and there will be a provision to continue the policy even later.

An “outplacement allowance” has been announced to support impacted employees to explore career opportunities outside IndiGo. It is also launching a talent directory to ensure that if and when the airline hires again, the laid-off employees will be given first preference. An in-house emotional support programme will help those who need it. Employees are also being given one-way air tickets to travel back home.

India resumed domestic passenger flights from May 25 after a gap of two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the airlines have been allowed to operate only a maximum of 45 per cent of their pre-Covid domestic flights.

IndiGo, which has more than 250 aircraft in its fleet, had increased its domestic market share of 48 per cent in March to 52 per cent in June. The April to June quarter was a washout for all airlines as international commercial operations could not commence due to several curbs. The limited domestic operations also failed to increase income as expected, as the occupancy rate has been around 50-65 per cent.


India surges past 1m cases

India has recorded over 1 million Covid-19 cases and 25,000 deaths from Coronavirus, crossing the twin milestones on Thursday amid a massive surge in the pandemic. The country added over 36,000 new cases and 684 deaths during the day, both by far the highest in a single day.

India is the third country, after the US and Brazil, to log one million cases and the eighth to register over 25,000 deaths. India’s caseload has risen from 8 lakh to 10 lakh (1 million) in just six days, as compared with nine days while moving from 6 lakh to 8 lakh and 11 for the previous 2 lakh cases. Likewise, the death toll has risen from 20,000 to 25,000 in just 10 days.

On Thursday, India recorded 36,139 new cases, over 3,600 more than the previous peak of 32,498 a day earlier, as per data collated from states. With this, India’s caseload rose to 10,04,806. Active cases rose by nearly 12,000 while around 23,000 patients were declared cured during the day.

Thursday also saw the highest single-day rise in the Covid-19 death toll, with 684 fatalities reported from across the country. The previous highest toll of 616 (discounting 2,003, mostly backdated death reported on June 16) was recorded on Wednesday. Karnataka saw a huge spike in fatalities, adding 104 to its toll. It became the third state, after Maharashtra and Delhi, to register 100 deaths in a single day.

The day’s toll was also high in Tamil Nadu (69), Delhi (58), Andhra Pradesh (40), Uttar Pradesh (34), Bengal (23) and J&K (16). In what would be another record, at least 11 states reported their highest singleday surge in cases, led by Maharashtra, which recorded a massive 8,641 new infections.

Amid a major spike in the pandemic in the state, Karnataka became the third state to log 4,000 or more cases in a day, nearly 1,000 more than Wednesday’s number. Even as fresh cases rose to a new high in Tamil Nadu, Chennai continued to report declining numbers. As Chennai detected 1,157 cases on Thursday, a mathematical model suggested that the infection was no more an epidemic in the city.

Telangana recorded 10 deaths and 1,676 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, taking the total tally of cases beyond the 40,000 mark.

New consumer protection Act comes into force today

Beginning today, several sections of the new Consumer Protection Act 2019 will come into force, allowing mediation, hearing of cases of a much higher value and a provision to challenge unfair conditions of service providers. However, an entire chapter of the Act dealing with a separate Consumer Protection Authority for advertisements, e-commerce rules for websites, and making celebrity endorsers liable is yet to be notified.

It has taken almost a year for the new Act to be notified, despite the President’s nod in August 2019. Until now, the Consumer Protection Act (1986) has been in force.

As per the new Act, the District Forum has been renamed the District Commission and can now hear cases with a value of up to Rs.1 crore. The earlier limit was Rs.20 lakh. In comparison, the State Commission can now hear cases up to Rs.10 crore, while the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission can hear cases with value higher than Rs.10 crore, keeping with the inflation in the country.

Additionally, a professional mediator can now be appointed and consent terms entered between the parties before him will be treated as an order of the court. The opposite party will now need to deposit 50 per cent of the amount ordered by District Commission before filing an appeal before the State Commission. The earlier ceiling of Rs.25,000 has been removed.

Another important feature of the new Act is that a consumer can file a case wherever he resides, instead of filing a case at the location of the opposite party. Section 49(2) and 59(2) of the new Act gives power to the State Commission and the NCDRC, respectively, to declare the allegedly unfair terms of contract to be null and void.

Even though these provisions are now in force, functioning of the consumer commissions in Mumbai and have virtually come to a halt since March, when the pandemic struck. “The new Act only provides for e-filing, with no provisions for virtual hearing. We were expecting the State and the Central government to come with rules regarding this,” said Uday Warunjikar, the president of the Consumer Courts Advocates Association.

The Mumbai Grahak Panchayat, a city-based consumer body, had written to the Minister of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection regarding the non-functioning of consumer commissions, asking for the rules to be framed.

The District Forum has been renamed the District Commission.

It can now hear cases with a value of up to Rs.1 crore.

The State Commission can now hear cases up to Rs.10 crore.

The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission can hear cases with value higher than Rs.10 crore.

Consent terms entered between the parties before a professional mediator will be treated as an order of the court.

A consumer can file a case wherever he resides.

The State Commission and the NCDRC can declare null and void the allegedly unfair terms of contract.


Mumbai - Pune Expressway: ₹1k fine if you cover Khalapur-Urse eway stretch in less than 36 mins

Take at least 36 minutes to cover the 55 km stretch between Khalapur and Urse toll plazas on Pune-Mumbai Expressway from August 1, or you will face action for speed norms violation.

“Starting from August 1, those covering the distance in less than 36 minutes will be booked for over-speeding. A fine of Rs.1,000 would be collected from each offender,” Pritam Yavalkar, deputy superintendent of police, Highway Safety Patrol said.

The Union ministry of road transport and highways has set a maximum speed limit of 100 kmph for expressways and 50 kmph in ghat sections for cars and light motor vehicles.

Yavalkar said, “If we travel from the Khalapur to the Urse toll plaza adhering to these maximum speed limits, it takes 36 minutes for the journey. We conducted couple of tests on the route with the help of officials from the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation.

The driver followed the maximum speed limits, including that for ghat sections of the expressway, on both the occasions and took 36 minutes to reach Urse from Khalapur. The benchmark time has been calculated after taking all these factors into account.”

He said, “It is easier for us to keep a tab on over-speeding during the daytime by deploying speed guns and intercepting vehicles, but the same is fraught with risk at night because the speed gunmounted vehicles will occupy a part of the e-way and in most night-time accidents, vehicles end up straying into the shoulder lane. Hence, the authorities feel that all vehicle users must scrupulously follow the calculated benchmark time for their own safety during night travel.”

He said, “The teams of HSP officials will remain posted at the toll plazas in the night-time and they will check the receipts and text messages of the drivers to verify their travel time between the two toll plazas. Action of speed violation will be taken against the drivers completing the journey in 35 minutes or less than that.”

India identifies eight routes to connect N-E with Bangladesh

With China looking to improve trade and connectivity with Bangladesh, where the government seems to be warming up to Chinese overtures, India looks to provide a leg-up to connectivity with its eastern neighbour. The government is hoping that the first trial run last week of a container ship from Kolkata to Agartala through Chattogram Port of Bangladesh will go a long way in improving trade connectivity with Dhaka, apart from facilitating development of India’s northeast. According to Indian authorities, 8 routes have been identified for improving northeast’s connectivity with Bangladesh.

“Both sides recognise that increasing connectivity through air, water, rail and road offers mutually beneficial opportunity for enhancing economic cooperation between Bangladesh and the northeastern states of India and beyond,” said a source.

The two sides had last year finalised Standard Operating Procedures for the use of Chattogram and Mongla ports for movement of goods to and from India, particularly to and from the northeastern region.This agreement allows movement of goods in Bangladesh through waterways, rail, road or multi-modal transport. The eight routes identified for access to the northeast via Bangladesh comprise Chattogram/Mongla Port to Agartala (Tripura) via Akhura, Chattogram/Mongla Port to Dawki (Meghalaya) via Tamabil, Chattogram/Mongla Port to Sutarkandi (Assam) via Sheola and Chattogram/Mongla Port to Srimantpur (Tripura) via Bibirbazar and vice versa.

“Thus the trial run assumes significance as this will lead to development of the northeast region and enhance India’s connectivity with Bangladesh,”said an official.

Kaziranga hit hard by floods in Assam

The devastating floods in Assam have hit Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve hard, altogether killing 96 animals, including seven one-horned rhinoceros.

Meanwhile, the death toll due to the flood has reached 79 on Saturday with 26 districts along the Brahmaputra affected including Jorhat, Sontipur, Tezpur, Goalpara, Dhubri and Barpeta.

According to DFO of Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, 96 animals died and 132 have been rescued in Kaziranga National Park and 59 camps out of 223 are affected inside the Park.

“The animals which died due to drowning include seven rhinoceroses, three wild buffaloes, seven wild boars, two swamp deer, 74 hog deer and two porcupines have died in the flood,” officials said.

The Kaziranga Park authority said that 50 animals, including 46 hog deer have been injured due to the flood while 132 others have been rescued by the forest officials, locals and rescue workers.

The flood has caused several animals to stray out of Kaziranga’s limits and into human habitations, keeping forest authorities busy with rescue work. A tigress had strayed to a house near Kaziranga and the forest officials tranquilized the animal before transporting it to a rescue camp. The animal has now been released in a safer part of the reserve.

This was not the only rescue. The park authority tweeted on Saturday: “A rhino has strayed out near Bandar Dhubi area at Bagori Range yesterday and is taking rest near NH37. The drive out operation is being carried out to guide the rhino to the park.”

Apart from this, a baby rhino, which got separated from its mother, was rescued and taken to safety in by the staff of Kaziranga & Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation on July 16.

Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal visited the flood affected areas of Kaziranga National Park on July 16. He said, “The staff of the national park are committed towards the safety of the animals here.”


India got 273 m out of poverty in 10 years

India had the biggest reduction in the number of multi-dimensionally poor people estimated at over 270 million during the 2005-15 period, a new UN report has said. The data, released by United Nations Development Programme and Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, showed 65 of 75 countries studied significantly reduced their poverty levels between 2000 and 2019.

Four countries —Armenia (2010–2015 /2016), India (2005/2006–2015/ 2016), Nicaragua (2001–2011/2012) and North Macedonia (2005/2006–2011) halved their global MPIT value and did so in 5.5–10.5 years. These countries show what is possible for countries with very different initial poverty levels. They account for roughly a fifth of world’s population, mostly because of India, the report said. The multidimensional index is a measure that looks beyond income to include access to safe water, education, electricity, food and six other indicators.

But the impact of Covid-19 may slow down efforts to reduce multidimensional poverty. The pandemic unfolded in the midst of this analysis. While data are not yet available to measure the rise of global poverty after the pandemic, simulations suggest that, if unaddressed, progress across 70 developing countries could be set back by 3–10 years, the report said.

“Covid-19 is having a profound impact on the development landscape. But this data — from before the pandemic — is a message of hope. Past success stories on how to tackle the many ways people experience poverty, can show how to build back better and improve the lives of millions,” said Sabina Alkire, Director of OPHI at the University of Oxford.

Among the 1.3 billion people still living in multidimensional poverty today, more than 80% are deprived in at least five of the ten indicators used to measure health, education and living standards in the global MPI.

The data also reveals the burden of multidimensional poverty disproportionately falls on children. Half of the 1.3 billion poor have not yet turned 18. While 107 million are 60 or older, the report said. Children show higher rates of multidimensional poverty: half of multidimensionally poor people (644 million) are children under age 18. One in three children is poor compared with one in six adults, the report said. “Covid-19 is the latest crisis to hit the globe, and climate change all but guarantees more will follow soon. This is why the Multidimensional Poverty Index is so important” said Pedro Conçeicão, Director, Human Development Report Office at UNDP.

Pandemic: IITs relax admission criterion

The Indian Institute of Technology has decided to relax an admission criterion regarding Class 12 marks this year in view of partial cancellation of exams by various boards due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Union HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ announced on Friday.

For admissions to IITs, apart from qualifying the Joint Entrance Examination - Advanced, the candidates are required to secure either minimum 75 per cent marks in Class 12 board exams or rank among the top 20 percentile .

While JEE-Mains is conducted for admission to engineering colleges across the country, it is considered as a qualifying test for JEE-Advanced.

“Qualified candidates who have passed class 12 examinations will now be eligible for admissions irrespective of marks obtained,” the HRD minister said in a series of tweets.

Key school boards, including the CBSE and CISCE, cancelled their remaining Class 10 and Class 12 exams amid growing concerns over student safety in view of the spike in COVID-19 cases.

The boards have announced their respective results using alternative assessment schemes based on performance in exams already conducted or internal assessment.

The JEE Mains examination, which has been postponed twice, will now be held from September 1-6, while JEE Advanced, which is conducted by the IITs, is scheduled to be held on September 27.


After Chabahar Port II, Farzad-B too is set to go out of Indian hands

Iran has ended its agreement with India for two key projects, the second phase of Chabahar Port and development of the Farzad-B block, reflecting the souring relations between the once strong allies.

The West Asian country will fund and develop a rail link under the second phase of the Chabahar Port on its own, while the contract for developing the Farzad-B block is likely to be handed over to a local company following slow progress by ONGC Videsh.

In the historic ‘New Delhi Declaration’ signed on January 25, 2003, both countries had decided to jointly develop the Chabahar Port complex and Chabahar-Fahranj-Bam railway link.

Since then, the Chabahar project, along with the Farzad-B block deal, has been something that forced India to play a balancing act between the US and Iran. In 2020, however, both projects appear to be out of India’s hands.

While the first phase of the Chabahar Port was developed by India, US sanctions stopped progress in the second phase. Though the initial agreement was signed in 2003, a contract was signed between India and Iran to develop the 628-km railway line along the Iran-Afghanistan border, in 2016.

The initial agreement signed in May 2015 translated into a formal 10-year contract.

Both the Kandla Port and JNPT were entrusted with the job of developing Chabahar Port. The then chairman and managing director of Shipping Corporation of India was given charge of Indian Ports Global — a special purpose vehicle for execution of the contract. A revenue-sharing pact with a minimum guarantee throughput was agreed upon, based on which Iran wanted India to increase traffic at Chabahar Port. MGT is the lowest number of cargo and passengers that can pass through a port on a daily basis, from arrival at the port to loading onto a ship. Now, Iran has indicated it will provide $400 million from the Iranian National Development Fund for the railway line. As part of the deal, Indian railways arm IRCON was supposed to provide $1.6 billion for the rail project.

People in the know said the Indian firm could not move ahead with the project because of US sanctions on Iran. In addition, Iran’s growing proximity to China may have also played a part. Iran and China are set to sign a deal worth $400 billion, lining up an investment roadmap for the next 10 years.

Even when US sanctions were on a high, India had kept the project on the discussion table. However, strengthening Indo-US relations under Donald Trump forced India to go slow on Iran projects. A prime example was the halt in oil imports from Iran following the recent US sanctions. Earlier in 2006, India and Iran had conducted a joint naval exercise prior to then President George Bush’s visit to India.

Though India had been looking to secure a contract for the gas field since 2009, the sanctions against Tehran played spoilsport. Around 75 per cent of the deal was finalised by May 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and announced sanctions on Iran.

The Farzad-B block has gas reserves of 21.6 trillion cubic feet. The major dispute between India and Iran was over setting up of two pipelines, and also over money to be quoted on the development plan, said the source, adding that the Indian firm wanted only one pipeline.

The contract for the Block was signed on December 25, 2002, by the consortium comprising ONGC Videsh, Indian Oil Corporation, and Oil India for carrying out exploration in the Farsi offshore block. The contract expired in June 2009 after declaration of commerciality of the block, based on the gas discovery of Farzad-B gas field.

When the sanctions were lifted following the nuclear deal with the next US President Barrack Obama, Iran had increased its demands with Indian negotiators for Farzad. Iran’s administration had even hinted about giving the project to a Russian or Chinese firm. In August 2019, Iran indicated that it may not wait for India now.

India loses Chabahar rail deal

“India dropped from Chabahar Port deal. This is the diplomacy of the Modi government that won laurels even without getting the work done, China worked quietly but gave them a better deal. Big loss for India. But you can’t ask questions!” tweeted Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi citing a report in The Hindu.

Interestingly, the move comes as Iran is nearing a $400 billion 25-year strategic partnership with China. In its report, The Hindu stated that the partnership will include Chinese involvement in Chabahar’s duty free zone, an oil refinery nearby, and possibly a larger role in Chabahar port too.

India and Iran had signed an agreement to construct the rail line in 2016. Chabahar, which is located 72 kilometers west of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, holds immense strategic and economic significance for India.

Iran has now decided to go ahead with the project, which entails the construction of a rail line from the strategic Chabahar port to Zahedan running along the border with Afghanistan, on its own the report said.

The 628-km-long Chabahar-Zahedar rail line project was inaugurated by Iranian Transport Minister Mohammad Eslami recently.

The report said that the project is expected to be completed by March 2022, and the government will use funds from the Iranian National Development Fund.

India was expected to invest $1.6 billion in the project, which was meant to be a component of a trilateral agreement with Iran and Afghanistan to create an alternate trade route to Central Asia An MoU between the state-owned Indian Railways Construction Ltd and Iranian Rail Ministry was signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran to sign the Chabahar agreement with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghanistan President Ghani. 

Auto Sales Plunge

Automobile sales across categories recorded their steepest decline last quarter as production as well as sales were severely impacted by the Covid-induced lockdown, prompting industry body Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers to make a renewed case for a GST cut on vehicles to generate demand.

Passenger vehicle sales fell for the ninth straight quarter by 78.43% to 153,734 units in April-June 2020, Siam data showed. Sales of commercial vehicles declined for the fifth consecutive quarter by 84.81% to 31,636 units in the same period. Meanwhile, two-wheelers slid for the sixth straight quarter by 74.21% to 1,293,113 units in the period under review.

Automakers in India report wholesale dispatches from factories and not retail sales made to customers.

Holding that the current slowdown is the deepest and the longest the industry has seen in the past two decades, Siam president Rajan Wadhera said the industry would continue to engage with the government for incentives to recover volumes, which are expected to tank by 26-45% across segments in the ongoing fiscal year. Automobile sales in the local market dropped by 9-29% in FY20.

Siam has urged the government to temporarily reduce GST rate by 10% across all categories of vehicles. The incentive for the scrappage scheme could be generated in the form of 50% rebate in GST, road tax and registration charges, Wadhera said The auto industry with an expected profitability of around 3-9% is not in a position to offer discounts anymore for scrappage incentive.

Additionally, the industry body has recommended the introduction of an incentive-based vehicle scrappage policy and a procurement programme backed by adequate funding for diesel and CNG buses by state transport undertakings to boost demand.

Wadhera said while automakers have resumed production, it has not been smooth due to supply chain issues owing to continued restrictions in some places where supplier factories are located, non-availability of labour and delays in clearing of import consignments, besides Covid-19 cases emerging in and around production sites of some member companies. Wholesale is therefore lagging retail.

Focus on tech - RIL’s first online AGM

Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani stood behind a virtual podium and addressed the company’s 43rd – and first-ever online – annual general meeting on Wednesday. With a gigantic blue screen beaming information as his backdrop, Ambani made several big announcements to the 3.73 lakh shareholders who had logged in. Despite the announcements, RIL’s shares fell by 6.15 per cent on Wednesday.

The first announcement was that Google will invest Rs.33,737 crore to buy a 7.73 per cent equity in Jio Platforms. The two companies will also collaborate to create an affordable Android-based smartphone, even as Jio readies 5G capability that will be rolled out as soon as the spectrum is made available.

Talking about the deal, Ambani said, “We welcome Google on board and are excited about our partnership for what it can deliver to Indians, from universalising internet usage to deepening the new digital economy and providing a prime mover to India’s economic growth. Together, we hope to play a strong facilitative role in the transformative journey of building a new, digital India.”

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, said of the partnership, “The pace and scale of digital transformation in India is hugely inspiring for us and reinforces our view that building products for India first helps us build better products for users everywhere….I am excited that our joint collaboration will focus on increasing access for hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t currently own a smartphone while improving the mobile experience for all.”

The Ambani children Akash and Isha, along with RIL president Kiran Thomas, also took the podium to announce several nextgen tech initiatives, some of which are aimed at facilitating the new normal of working or studying from home. Jio Glass, a mixed reality eyewear solution will help teachers and students to engage in a virtual 3D classroom with enhanced imaging capabilities, or enable work meetings remotely with the use of holographic images and interactivity. The younger Ambanis also unveiled plans for Jio TV Plus, a content aggregator that will bring several OTT platforms and TV channels together; an integrated healthcare system under the Jio Health Platform and the ‘made in India’ 5G capability.

Mukesh Ambani also revealed plans for a retail push, under JioMart, that will help transform kirana stores (to make them more akin to mini-marts) and help them connect with customers via WhatsApp and other tech. He added that Reliance would work with start-ups to inculcate and promote ‘made in India’ opportunities. Ambani’s announcement that the deal with Saudi Aramco in the oil-to-chemicals business has not progressed as expected, because of unforeseen conditions in the energy sector and Covid-19, may have put a dampener on things. “Nevertheless, we at Reliance value our over two-decade-long relationship with Saudi Aramco and are committed to a longterm partnership,” he added.

With the Google deal, RIL has locked down three of the Big Four of the tech world: In April, Facebook bought a 9.9 per cent stake in Jio Platforms for Rs 43,574 crore, and RIL already has a tie-up with Microsoft relating to the latter’s Azure cloud solutions.

The ‘family show’ concluded with Nita Ambani, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee, taking the podium and pledging to bring the Games to India one day. She also elaborated on the company’s various philanthropic mandates and activities, This was the first time Nita, who heads Reliance Foundation, said she was addressing an AGM.

Trade Balance Surplus After 18 Years

India registered a trade surplus in June, the first in almost two decades, as imports plummeted, raising concerns over the health of the domestic economy.

India’s exports contracted for the fourth consecutive month and shrank 12.41% to $21.91 billion in June while imports fell 47.59% to $21.11 billion, yielding a surplus of $790 million.

The previous trade surplus was in January 2002.

Oil imports dipped 55.29% to $4.93 billion in June while gold imports plunged 77.42% to $608.7 million. Non-oil, non-gold imports—an indicator of the strength of domestic demand—shrank a steep 42.2% last month.

The decline in imports suggests tepid investment and consumption demand. India’s economy is forecast to contract up to 7% in FY21, according to some estimates.

In the first quarter of the year, exports fell 36.7% to $51.32 billion, while imports shrank 52.4% to $60.4 billion. India’s current account balance also recorded a marginal surplus at 0.1% of the gross domestic product in the quarter ended March 31 after a gap of 12 years.

The fall in exports was due to lower shipments of petroleum, textiles, engineering goods, and gems and jewellery. Iron ore, drugs and pharmaceuticals, chemicals and some agricultural commodities reported a rise, which helped limit the decline in exports.

Federation of Indian Export Organisations expects the full year contraction in exports to reach 20% in case of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. As many as 26 of the 30 major items of imports contracted in June.

Assam Floods: Over 90 dead, lakhs displaced

The current wave of floods in Assam have affected nearly 36 lakh people in 26 districts. Seven more people died on Wednesday due to incessant rains. So far, 92 people have died in the state in flood-related incidents. While 66 people died in floods, 26 were killed in landslides.

In Kaziranga national park, at least 66 animals, including two rhinos, have drowned and hundreds of wild animals have been left marooned as water levels rose dangerously inundating more than 80 per cent of the park, park’s director P Sivakumar said. The Brahmaputra and eight other rivers in Assam are flowing above the danger level. As per data from the Assam disaster management, 3,371 villages are under water and standing crops in 1.28 lakh hectares have been ruined. More than 44,000 have been moved to state relief camps.


Inter-state migration touched 9m annually between 2011 and 2016

The Covid-19 pandemic may have brought the vulnerability of migrant workers into focus but data show more and more people have been moving from their native villages in search of work opportunities to other states over the decades. The magnitude of inter-state migration in India accelerated from five to six million annually between 2001-11 to nine million annually between 2011-16.

Urban population in India grew from 286.1 million in 2001 to 377.1 million in 2011 which constitutes 31.1% of the total population residing in 53 urban agglomerations with more than a million people. Nearly 14% of this urban population was estimated to be living below the poverty line in 2011-12 with 65.5 million living in slums. India’s urban population is expected to rise to around 606 million by 2030.

These figures are part of a comprehensive voluntary national review report on a wide range of sectors and progress made presented by Niti Aayog at the United Nations High-level Political Forum on sustainable development on Monday.

The report, Decade of Action: Taking SDGs from Global to Local, emphasises how India is focussing on making the SDG monitoring and implementation more localised for better results. It maps India’s progress, challenges and the way forward on various SDG goals ranging from no poverty, zero hunger, good health and gender equality to sanitation, sustainable cities and reducing inequalities.

In the backdrop of the pandemic, Niti Aayog, vice-chairman, Dr Rajiv Kumar, asserted that “the role of international cooperation is more critical than ever before.”

Despite the pressure on cities, the report says “migration can, in fact, be turned into a strong economic opportunity by overcoming bottlenecks such as migrants’ lack of access to healthcare, social entitlements, education for children, lack of improvement in skill profile and employability”.

A significant proportion of migrants and the poor in cities are employed in the informal economy which makes them vulnerable, especially in times such as the Covid-19 crisis. The report says that to mitigate the impact on various sectors including migrants both the central government and the states have announced an economic relief package with both short term and longterm measures.

Google to Invest $10 b in India Over 5-7 Years

Google will invest $10 billion in India over the next five to seven years with the aim of consolidating its position in the digital ecosystem of the world’s fifth-largest economy that is emerging as a battleground for global internet giants.

Alphabet Inc-owned Google’s outlay for India — nearly double the $5.7 billion investment made by rival Facebook in the digital platform of India’s largest conglomerate Reliance Industries in April — will be deployed through a mix of investments and partnerships, chief executive officer Sundar Pichai said.

Pichai neither denied nor confirmed reports of Google’s interest in Jio Platforms or a stake acquisition in Vodafone Idea. The country-specific nature of the fund is the first of its kind in the world for Google. “We’ll do it (deploy funds) through a mix of equity investments in large Indian companies, startups, partnerships, as well as infrastructure investments such as data centres,” he said. The fund size, he said, provides an “opportunity to directly make larger investments” in bigger companies.

Google dominates search, video, maps and email in India. Nine out of 10 smartphones sold in India come with Google’s Android OS.

Commenting on the equalisation levy imposed by India, Pichai said he favoured adoption of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development framework to tax foreign digital transactions.

The mega-investment plans are also one way to combat the issue, which has seen a pushback from other US technology companies as well. “Investing in a country directly is the best way to address the problem in the long run,” Pichai said.

Pichai, among the most successful Indian immigrants in the US, has been critical of US President Donald Trump’s move to suspend H-1B visas. Google was the top recipient of the visas in 2019, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Google will be looking out for companies that can build for India and scale up quickly across languages, according to Pichai, who said capabilities such as artificial intelligence will make it very "interesting" for Google.

“We want to scale beyond English and really invest in access, so that effectively Indians in their own language be it Punjabi or Tamil (can access internet),” the India-born CEO said. Google’s push to build local products has been boosted with the success of payment app Google Pay, which is now being scaled up globally.

India has over 500 million internet users, with 450 million of them accessing it on smartphones from smaller towns in the country.

With China, which has local behemoths such as Baidu and Byte-Dance, largely out of bounds for western internet companies, India is the only large market open to them. Google, under Pichai’s leadership, has been attempting to re-enter China, after exiting it a decade ago, but has faced setbacks. Last week Bloomberg reported that Google had abandoned plans to set up a cloud unit in the country. It has also suspended processing user requests from Hong Kong after China imposed a national security law in its special administrative region.

Pichai did not comment on Google’s China ambitions but said India has the local talent and access to a large market along with aspects of a strong entrepreneurial and venture capital foundation to build an ecosystem of its own.

On whether he looks at the call of Atmanirbhar Bharat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a threat for American tech companies like Google, he said his company is trying to develop apps in India as well as invest in firms which are doing it. “We want to help play a small role in accelerating that trend.”

“We are definitely happy to partner with governments, in compliance with laws in a democratic society. Privacy regulation is incredibly important,” said Pichai, who earlier in the day interacted over video with PM Modi.

Responding to a query on whether Google will extend its initiative to pay publishers for content in countries like Australia, Pichai said it was still “early days”.

“We have tried to incorporate news more in our products to generate more traffic. We’ve over the last couple of years added subscriptions as a big area,” Pichai said.

Retail inflation rises to 6.09 per cent in June

Retail inflation rose to 6.09 per cent in June, mainly on account of higher prices of food items.

Food inflation in June increased by 7.87 per cent, according to Consumer Price Index data.

The inflation figures are based on data collected from limited markets in view of the restrictions imposed on account of coronavirus pandemic.

The data collected, however, did not meet the adequacy criteria for generating robust estimates of CPIs at the state-level.

The retail inflation based on Consumer Prince Index was 3.18 per cent in June 2019.

The government had released truncated CPI data for April and May in the backdrop of the lockdown to contain COVID-19 pandemic.

Ex-royal family can run Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple

The Supreme Court upheld the rights of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore in the management and administration of the centuries-old Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, one of the richest places of worship in the country.

It set aside the Kerala High Court’s order of 2011, which had directed the state government to set up a trust to take control of the Thiruvanthapuram temple’s management and assets. A bench of Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra rejected the HC’s observation that the rights of the Travancore family to the temple ended with the death of the last ruler. The temple has been controlled by a trust run by the descendants of the erstwhile royal family since Independence.

A committee, comprising Hindus, constituted by the SC under the chairmanship of the district judge of Thiruvanthapuram will continue as the administrative head as an interim measure. The committee will take a call on opening the last of the temple’s six underground, secret vaults. In 2011, gold, jewels and statues worth around Rs 1 lakh-crore were unearthed from five vaults following an order from the SC based on a public interest litigation to assess the 16th century temple’s wealth. In July 2017, the SC had said it would examine claims that the last vault had been closed since it contained an “extraordinary treasure with mystical energy”.

The state government said it respected the ruling.

Four years after the treasures were found below the temple, gold worth Rs.186 crore was reported missing. A committee constituted by SC conducted a special audit and found large-scale financial irregularities in the temple.