Pune: Shekhar Kapur to be next FTII chairman

The I&B ministry has confirmed that veteran filmmaker Shekhar Kapur will be the next chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India governing council and president of FTII Society. His term will run till March 2023.

In a tweet, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar referred to Kapur as an experienced filmmaker, who will add “value” to FTII. In response, Kapur wrote: “We are a land of stories, of creativity. And of such varied culture. With your support, and combined with modern technologies, I see a future where our creative talent takes our stories and wins hearts and minds of people worldwide (sic).”

Kapur succeeds Brijendra Pal Singh, who was appointed in 2018 after the abrupt resignation by Anupam Kher. FTII Society is largely composed of eminent film and entertainment personalities, some of whom serve on the governing council. The current Society includes actors Divya Dutta and Kangana Ranaut, filmmakers Satish Kaushik, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Rajkumar Hirani, among others.

As per ministry officials, the current Society’s term will be over next week and new members will be announced in a few days.

India opposes polls in Gilgit-Baltistan

India has lodged a strong protest with Pakistan over announcement of elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, saying that Pakistan has no locus standi on territories that have been illegally and forcibly occupied by it.

The government said Pakistan was carrying out cosmetic exercises intended to camouflage its illegal occupation.

Pakistan media had earlier reported that the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly will go to polls on November 15.

“The Government of India has conveyed its strong protest to the Government of Pakistan and reiterated that the entire UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including the areas of so-called Gilgit and Baltistan are an integral part of India by virtue of its accession in 1947,” the Centre said in a statement.

The MEA said India had ‘completely rejected the recent actions such as the so-called “Gilgit-Baltistan (for elections and caretaker government) Amendment Order 2020” and continued attempts by Pakistan to bring material changes in areas under its illegal and forcible occupation. Calling upon Pakistan to immediately vacate all areas under its illegal occupation, India said such actions can not hide grave human rights violations for past seven decades.

In a ruling earlier this year, Pakistan Supreme Court allowed Islamabad to amend a 2018 administrative order to conduct general elections in the region. The Gilgit-Baltistan Order of 2018 provided for administrative changes, including authorising the Prime Minister of Pakistan to legislate on an array of subjects.

Following the verdict, India issued a demarche to a senior Pakistani diplomat here and lodged a strong protest over the court ruling.

India rejects China’s stand on LAC in Ladakh

India rejected China’s position that it abides by its 1959 stand on the perception of the Line of Actual Control, and asked the neighbouring country to refrain from advancing an “untenable unilateral” interpretation of the de-facto border.

The stand by China spelt out by its foreign ministry insisting that it takes the 1959 line on perception of the LAC amid a nearly five-monthlong border standoff in eastern Ladakh triggered a strong reaction from India.

“India has never accepted the so-called unilaterally defined 1959 Line of Actual Control. This position has been consistent and well known, including to the Chinese side,” MEA Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

The spokesperson’s comments came after a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Hindustan Times that China abides by the LAC as proposed by then Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter dated November 7, 1959.

Srivastava referred to various bilateral agreements including the 1993 agreement on maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC, 1996 pact on confidence building measures (CBMs) and the 2005 agreement on political parameters and guiding principles for settlement of the boundary issue, to emphasise that both sides showed commitment to reach a common understanding of the alignment of the LAC.

“China has not recognised Ladakh Union Territory illegally set up by the Indian side”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was quoted by the media in Beijing when questioned on the issue.

Pertinently, China first expressed its opposition to India’s move to create a separate Union Territory of Ladakh, a day after the state of Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated into two union territories on August 5, 2019, the then External Affairs Ministry spokesperson had said India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.

“Based on the two sides’ consensus no side should engage in the border areas in any activities that might complicate the situation to avoid undermining efforts by the two sides to ease the situation”, Wang said.

India and China are locked in a nearly five-month-long border standoff in eastern Ladakh.

After marathon 14-hour talks between India and China at the Corps Commander level on September 21, both side said they will stop sending more troops to the region.

Hathras Horror

A 19-year-old woman, who was gangraped and tortured in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district two weeks ago, succumbed to injuries at a Delhi hospital on Tuesday, prompting outrage and protests.

Recalling the horrors of the Nirbhaya case, the Dalit teen was allegedly sexually attacked by four men on September 14 and was referred to Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital on Monday in an extremely critical condition with spinal injuries, paralysis and cuts on her tongue. She couldn’t survive the night and died at 3 am, Hathras Superintendent of Police Vikrant Vir quoted her family as saying.

As news of her death spread, protests broke out at the hospital as well as in Vijay Chowk and in Hathras, about 180 km away.

Four men, reportedly belonging to an upper caste and residents of the woman’s village, who were charged with gangrape and attempt to murder, apart from charges under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, have been arrested. They will now be also charged with murder.

On September 14, the young woman had gone to the fields with her mother and went missing soon after. She was found later, beaten and tortured, her tongue cut as she bit it when the accused attempted to strangle her, the SP said while giving details of the attack.

A spokesperson at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Aligarh where she was first admitted said her legs were completely paralysed and arms partially.

Leading the protests outside Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad said he appealed to all members of the Dalit community to take to the streets and demand death penalty for the guilty.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the “class-specific jungle raj” of UP has killed another young woman.

BSP chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav also condoled the death of a “Dalit daughter”.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal described the young woman’s death as a shame for society, the country as well as for all governments.

Cricketer Virat Kohli, who is in the UAE for the ongoing IPL, said, “What happened in #Hathras is inhumane and goes beyond cruelty. Hope the culprits of this heinous crime will be brought to justice…”

In Bollywood, actors Akshay Kumar, Farhan Akhtar, Richa Chadha among others called for “serious punishment”. Akhtar posted a heartbreak emoji on Twitter and said it was a “sad, sad day”.


Covid cases touch 60L

India’s Covid-19 caseload neared 60 lakh with 88,600 fresh infections being reported on Sunday, while the number of people having recuperated from the disease crossed 49 lakh pushing the national recovery rate to 82.46 per cent, according to the Union Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, the second sero-survey of the Indian Council of Medical Research shows that Indian population is still far from achieving herd immunity against coronavirus infection, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Sunday while underlining the need for following Covid appropriate behaviour.

The total coronavirus cases mounted to 59,92,532, while the death toll climbed to 94,503 with 1,124 people succumbing to the disease in a span of 24 hours, data updated at 8 am on Sunday showed.

The total recoveries have surged to 49,41,627, and there are 9,56,402 active cases of coronavirus infection in the country which comprises 15.96 per cent of the total caseload, the data stated. The Covid-19 case fatality rate was recorded at 1.58 per cent. According to the ICMR, a cumulative total of 7,12,57,836 samples have been tested up to September 26 with 9,87,861 samples being tested on Saturday.

Travellers from Dubai and the UK were primary sources of importing Covid-19 into India, according to an analytical study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi. According to the research, which has been published in the ‘Journal of Travel Medicine’, Covid-19 was induced into Indian states mainly due to international travels. The study has also found that infected cases from Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh played less role in spreading the disease outside their communities. Whereas infected people in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Karnataka played a significant role in the local transmission.

Maharashtra is first in country to ban sale of loose cigarettes

Maharashtra has become the first state in the country to ban the sale of “loose” cigarettes and beedis.

A notification issued by the state public health department on Thursday states that, in sync with sub section (2) of section 7 of Cigarette and other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce Production, Supply & Distribution) Act, 2003, the state imposes a complete ban on sale of single stick loose cigarette and beedis. The notification is signed by principal secretary (health) Dr Pradeep Vyas.

This has been done because loose cigarettes were sold without packet, which carry graphic health warnings meant to educate the public about the harms of smoking. Smoking has been linked to cancers and heart disease.

Tata Memorial Hospital’s cancer surgeon Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi said that the new order would help cut down the habit among the youth. “The tobacco epidemic in India is fuelled by youth who are 16 to 17 years of age. They buy loose cigarettes as they don’t have the financial resources to buy a full packet,” he said. Also, grown-ups who bought loose cigarettes never felt the pinch of higher taxes imposed on tobacco goods.

“Studies have shown that a 10% rise in taxes results in 8% drop in the number of smokers. But if people are allowed to buy a single cigarette, they don’t feel the effect of the higher taxes,” added Dr Chaturvedi. As per the Global Tobacco Youth Survey 2016, Maharashtra has the lowest smoking rate in the country.


Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus Redevelopment

The pre-bid meeting for the CSMT redevelopment project received huge response from industry, developers and fund houses.

The digital meeting was attended by about 43 bidders, including developers Adani Group, Tata Projects, Eldeco, GMR Group, JKB Infrastructure, SNCF Hubs & Connexions, I Squared Capital, Kalpataru Power Transmission, Ace Urban developers, GR Infrastructure, Essel Group, Larsen & Toubro; architects BDP Singapore, Hafeez Contractor, AECOM; fund houses Anchorage Infrastructure Investment Holdings, Brookfield; and consultancy firms JLL, Boston Consultancy Group, KPMG, PwC India, EY; and the British High Commission.

According to a railway ministry statement, the Rs.1,642-crore redevelopment project encapsulates integration of various modes to make the iconic railway station a multi-modal transport hub.

The total real estate built-up area is 25 lakh square feet and the construction period is four years, it said.

The redevelopment plan for the station, a Unesco World Heritage site, will include segregation of arrival and departure, divyang friendly station, better level of services for passengers, energy efficient facilities and restoring the heritage site as per its 1930 levels.

The station will function like a city centre rail mall where, in addition to a passenger’s transportation needs, their daily needs like retail, food and beverage, entertainment, souvenir shopping would also be fulfilled. The aim is that most of their daily needs are catered to by visiting the railway station, thus avoiding unnecessary travel within the city.

The Request for Qualification for the redevelopment on public-private partnership mode has been invited by Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Limited.

During the pre-bid meeting, it was highlighted that at the RFQ stage the applicants would need to fulfil only the financial criteria, and the technical eligibility criteria have been dispensed with.

As per the tender documents, IRSDC will be a single-window for approval of the master plan and building plans in consultation with local authorities in terms of power conferred under Section 11 of Railway Act, 1989. Alternate Investment Fund or Foreign Investment Fund are also eligible to participate. No change in land use is required and no prior environmental clearance is required from the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

The selected bidder at the RFP stage will take up the redevelopment of the railway station and commercial development of the surrounding land on leasehold basis for 60 years for commercial development and up to 99 years for residential development on selected plots, along with operation and maintenance of the station for 60 years on concession basis.

“During the meeting, most of the participants sought clarification on user charges, eligibility criteria, commercial utilisation of space and various other issues,” an official said.

Dams full, water bounty for Marathwada this year

The rivers are in spate and the dams overflowing in the Marathwada region, one of the country’s most drought-prone areas. Just a few years ago, water scarcity in Latur city in the region had reached such grim proportions that a water train had to be operated.

This year, Latur district has already received over 100% of its normal rainfall. Much like Latur, five other districts in this region have received over 100% of their normal rainfall and seven of 11 major dams are overflowing here. The collective water storage in all dams in the region is 192.4 TMC, which is almost 75% of the combined storage capacity and double that during the corresponding period last year.

While the region already received 774mm, or 114% of the normal rainfall, till Monday, more rain is expected across Marathwada. Officials across the region, especially those in Beed, Latur and Osmanabad districts that often reel under scarcity, said there is sufficient water available for drinking purposes till next monsoon.

Jaisingh Hire, assistant engineer with the Command Area Development Authority, Aurangabad, said seven of the 11 major irrigation projects supplying water to Marathwada are overflowing currently, while the rest also hold considerable stock when compared to the average stock in the past. “The region will not witness any drinking water crisis as these dams, along with other reservoirs and barrages, hold sufficient water. Moreover, irrigation needs can be addressed effectively as majority of dams hold over 33% live storage, which is benchmark for releasing water for agricultural purposes,” he said.

Latur collector G Sreekanth said district has sufficient water to cater to drinking needs till December 2021.

Bihar votes on Oct 28, Nov 3 and 7

In what is being termed as one of the biggest elections to be held during the Covid-19 pandemic globally, Bihar will go to polls in three phases next month and results will be announced on November 10, the Election Commission said as it also released a set of unprecedented arrangements and rules for campaigning and voting.

The 243-member Bihar assembly will see voting on October 28, November 3 and 7 from 7 am to 6 pm, instead of the standard 7am-5pm schedule to accommodate Covid-19 patients, suspects and those in quarantine during the last hour of voting. This will, however, not be applicable, in the Left-wing extremism affected areas.

Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar, who seeks a fourth term, along with coalition partners BJP and Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party under the NDA banner will take on the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD and Congress combine in the absence of incarcerated RJD patriarch Lalu Prasad Yadav. The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, migrants distress and job losses owing to the nationwide lockdown and the farmer crisis that is picking pace remain the top issues at stake.

Amid much apprehension over the spread of the virus during the mammoth poll exercise, a slew of measures have been put in place.

Wearing face masks during every election related activity is mandatory, at the entry of poll premises thermal scanning of all persons will be carried out, sanitizer to be made available at all locations, compulsory social distancing measures to be in place. “As far as practicable, large halls should be utilised to ensure social distancing,” an official statement by the EC read.

While physical contact during rallies is prohibited, political parties and candidates can hold rallies as part of their campaign amid strict social distancing norms.

During door-to-door campaigning, a maximum of five persons including the candidate and excluding security personnel will be allowed.

In a first, candidates will have the option to deposit the security amount for contesting the elections online.

Covid-19: Pune tops in cases, deaths/m among metros

Pune has the highest number of Covid cases and deaths per million population among the country’s nine largest megapolises with over 5 million population. But Bengaluru is where the situation appears to be worsening fastest, with the city having the highest growth in cases and deaths over the last one month. Ahmedabad continues to have the worst case fatality rate of 4.8, though it has come down over the last month.

Pune, Mumbai and Chennai, in that order, have the highest number of Covid cases and deaths per million population. Pune has overtaken Mumbai in the last one month.

Pune, Mumbai and Chennai are followed by Bengaluru in terms of cases per million, but with a resurgence of the disease in recent weeks, Delhi is in fourth place with in terms of deaths per million with 254 fatalities per million.

The 86% growth in cases and 58% rise in deaths over the last month in Bengaluru are the highest for any of these cities on both counts. Pune has seen the second sharpest growth in cases over the last month at 77%. When it comes to deaths, Kolkata has seen the biggest spike after Bengaluru.

The case fatality rate, or the number of deaths for every hundred cases, has come down in all nine cities over the one-month period, which might indicate better management of hospitalised cases or that cases are now less severe than they were. Delhi and Mumbai have seen the greatest reduction in CFR, followed by Ahmedabad and Pune.

However, with the exception of Hyderabad and Bengaluru, these cities have higher CFRs than the national average. Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Surat continue to have the highest CFR among these nine urban agglomerations, a term used to describe contiguous urban areas that are for all practical purposes one city, for example, Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai.

Mumbai: Toll rates to rise from Oct 1

Toll rates at Mumbai entry point booths at Vashi, Mulund, LBS Marg, Airoli and Dahisar will go up from October 1. The one-way toll for a passenger car, which was Rs.35, will now be Rs.40. A state government notification said for toll recovery against cost of flyovers, bridges, subways and road development besides maintenance, the increase of roughly 18% in rates is made effective every three years. The toll of Rs.35 has been constant for six years. The new rates will be applicable till September 30, 2023.

For light commercial vehicles, the toll has been increased by Rs.10 one-way to Rs.65, and for trucks and buses by Rs.25 each way to Rs.130. For multi-axle vehicles, the increase is of Rs.25, to Rs.160.

In September 2002, a toll was introduced at Vashi, Mulund, LBS, Airoli and Dahisar, and it was extended in 2010 on the pretext of maintenance. The collection contract will continue till September 2027. Mumbai Entry Point Toll Ltd is expected to generate a cash flow of over Rs.11,500 crore by 2027. MEP had paid Rs.2,100 crore upfront in 2010 to the state as part of the contract. If one considers the bank loan interest, maintenance cost and other charges over 17 years, Mumbaikars paid more than 10 times the initial cost of Rs. 2,100 crore by 2017.


Harley to Ride Out of India

US motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson announced it will stop making and selling its bikes in India as part of a global restructuring plan. The company had been cited several times by US President Donald Trump in his complaints about India’s high tariffs, which succeeded in persuading the government to change its tax policy in favour of the bike maker.

Harley-Davidson is said to be evaluating several scenarios for India, which could include a partnership with Hero MotoCorp, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Harley-Davidson didn’t comment on this. Hero MotoCorp said, “We do not comment on market speculation.”

“Between August 6, 2020 and September 23, 2020, the company approved commitments to additional restructuring actions under The Rewire related to optimising its global dealer network, exiting certain international markets, and discontinuing its sales and manufacturing operations in India,” the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in the US. “The India action will include an associated workforce reduction of approximately 70 employees.”

In a separate press statement in India, Harley-Davidson said it’s overhauling its operating model and market structure.

“Harley-Davidson plans to close its manufacturing facility in Bawal (Haryana) and significantly reduce the size of its sales office in Gurgaon,” it said in the press release. “The Harley-Davidson (India) dealer network will continue to serve customers through the contract term.”

The company expects to incur restructuring expenses of $75 million in 2020, of which about 80% is expected to be cash expenditure, “including one-time termination benefits of approximately $3 million, non-current asset adjustments of approximately $5 million, and contract termination and other costs of approximately $67 million,” it said without elaborating.

India had slashed tariffs on the import of completely built units of motorcycles ahead of Trump’s visit to India earlier this year. Motorcycles with engine capacity of more than 1,600 cc now attract a single-digit import tariff. The government had previously slashed it to 50% from 100% following Trump’s statements but even this he had termed “unacceptable.”

People close to Harley-Davidson said India may figure in its so-called Hardwire strategy. However, this will depend on the nature of any alliance that it enters into. “The current structure will be folded up and the new structure, if they decide to continue, may be for an alliance, it may be for contract manufacturing or distribution agreement of imported models,” said a person close to the development.

If the alliance talks fail, Harley will be the fourth US automaker to exit independent operations in India in the past decade.

Truck maker Navistar exited its joint venture with Mahindra & Mahindra in 2012, General Motors left India in 2017, while Ford India sold its majority stake to Mahindra last year. Polaris, an all-terrain vehicle maker, called off its multi-utility vehicle venture with Eicher Motors in 2019.

Harley-Davidson has over 60% market share in the 750 cc and above space. The US motorcycle maker was bullish on India, but has been disappointed by its failure to notch up substantial sales. It sold 2,470 units in the domestic market in FY20, almost half of what it sold five years ago. About 2,142 units were exported from India. At the end of FY19, the company had registered a loss of ₹12.14 crore on revenue of ₹382.36 crore, based on financial data sourced from Veratech Intelligence.

Since its India entry in 2010, Harley-Davidson has sold over 25,000 motorcycles across categories. It was the first premium motorcycle brand above 600-750 cc to enter India and there are about 6,500 Harley Owners Group members in the country. It has the largest network of 33 dealers for premium motorcycles in India.

India runs night test of nuclear-capable Prithvi-II missile

India conducted a night test of the nuclear-capable Prithvi-II ballistic missile, which has a strike range of 350-km, from the integrated test range at Chandipur, off the Odisha coast, on Wednesday.

Defence sources described the trial as a “routine, periodic exercise” carried out by the Strategic Forces Command after randomly picking a missile from the stockpile in a mission to revalidate night-firing capabilities.

“The missile, which was launched from a mobile launcher at 7.30 pm, achieved all targeting and technical parameters in a textbook manner. The flight path was monitored by radars, telemetry stations and a ship deployed near the designated splashdown in the Bay of Bengal,” said a source.

The liquid-fuelled Prithvi, which was the first nuclear-capable missile to be inducted into the tri-Service SFC in 2003, can carry 500 to 1,000-kg payloads. The surface-to-surface missile was later equipped with improved high accuracy navigation and manoeuvring systems.

The SFC, of course, also has the more advanced solid-fueled missiles like the Agni-I (700-km), Agni-II (2,000-km) and Agni-III (3,000-km). The three-stage Agni-V, the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile with a strike range of over 5,000-km, is also being inducted to act as a deterrent against China.

Agni-V brings the whole of China -- including its northernmost city of Habin – and Asia as well as parts of Europe, Africa and Australia within its strike envelope. While some Sukhoi-30MKI, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar fighters have been jury-rigged to make them capable of delivering bombs, the third leg of the “nuclear triad” is represented by the nuclear ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant.

INS Arihant became fully operational in November 2018 after completing its first “deterrence patrol” to complete the country’s long-awaited capability to fire nuclear weapons from land, air and sea.

The liquid-fuelled Prithvi, which was the first nuclear capable missile to be inducted into the tri-Service SFC in 2003, can carry 500 to 1,000-kg payloads

3 Indian bids for first bullet train tender

The National High Speed Rail Corporation opened the bids for first tender entailing investment of around Rs 20,000 crore for construction work for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project. All the bidders for this 237km stretch of the mainline are Indian companies.

NHSRCL said this is one of the biggest tenders covering 47% of the bullet train alignment between Vapi and Vadodara in Gujarat. This work also includes construction of four stations on this corridor.

As per an official release, three bidders involving seven major infrastructure companies have participated in the competitive bidding. Two of these are consortiums – Afcons Infrastructure-IRCON International-JMC Projects India, and NCC-Tata Project-J Kumar Infra Projects – and Larsen and Toubro.

Officials said the 237 km corridor will cross 24 rivers and 30 road crossings. “This entire section is in Gujarat where over 83% of the land has been acquired for the project,” the NHSRCL spokesperson said.

There is a high possibility of the government starting operations of the country’s first bullet trains project before next Lok Sabha election at least in the Gujarat portion.

The land acquisition has been delayed in Maharashtra. On Wednesday, the railway ministry informed the Rajya Sabha that the delay, particularly in Maharashtra, was due to “resistance of local residents at some locations.” In Maharashtra, barely 23% land has been acquired so far.


Parliament Clears 3 Key Labour Codes

Parliament passed three key labour reform Bills that will provide greater flexibility to employers to hire and fire while ensuring social security for workers. The three Bills — Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions; Industrial Relations Code and Social Security Code — were passed in the Rajya Sabha by a voice vote amid boycott by the opposition over the suspension of eight members.

The Lok Sabha passed the Bills on Tuesday. The three codes will now go to the President for his assent.

Replying to the debate on the bills in the upper house, labour minister Santosh Gangwar said: "The purpose of labour reforms is to provide a transparent system to suit the changed business environment."

The minister informed the house that 16 states had already increased the threshold for the closure of industrial units and laying off workers without government permission to 300 workers.

“States have been given flexibility to tweak labour laws as per their need,” he said.

He maintained that it was not good for employment generation to keep the threshold low at 100, because it discouraged employers to recruit more workers than this.

“Investors will be encouraged to set up big factories and employ more and more workers,” Gangwar said, explaining the rationale behind this provision.

He said these Bills would safeguard the interest of workers and provide universal social security to workers by expanding the ambit of the Employees' Provident Fund Organisation and Employees' State Corporation of India.

He also said there would be a social security fund to cover around 40 crore unorganised sector workers. Commenting on the Social Security Code, the minister said, provident fund benefits could now be availed of by all firms with 20 or more employees, as the schedule defining establishments has been done away with.

The government will also extend the benefits of the EPFO to self-employed, the minister added.

He sought to allay apprehension that workers’ right to strike had been withdrawn under the new Code.

Shivangi Singh to become first IAF woman fighter pilot to fly Rafale

Kashi girl Shivangi Singh, the Rafale squadron’s first woman fighter pilot, is set to make history by flying the multi-role air dominance aircraft amid escalating border tensions with China.

Commissioned in 2017 in the second batch of women fighter pilots, Flight Lieutenant Shivangi Singh is currently undergoing conversion training and will shortly become a part of 17 Squadron, the Golden Arrows, in Ambala.

She has been flying MiG-21 Bisons since her commissioning. It was a proud moment for her family members in Varanasi after she was selected to be among those who would fly the freshly-inducted Rafale fighter. Her family members celebrated with a feast on Wednesday at their modest dwelling in Phulwariya area of Varanasi.

Shivangi and another flight cadet, Pratibha, from Rajasthan, received their wings during the combined graduation parade of pilots and ground duty officers at Air Force Academy, Dundigal, near Hyderabad, in December 2017.

After her schooling and graduation, Shivangi joined 7 UP Air Squadron NCC at Banaras Hindu University to fulfil her dream. After her selection through the common aptitude test, she went to the Air Force Academy for training in July 2016. Her induction into the Golden Arrows squadron comes at a time when the Rafale jets are being fully operationalised.

India: Covid toll crosses 90k

India’s Covid-19 fatalities crossed the 90,000-mark, the last 15,000 deaths coming in just 13 days, even as the number of fresh cases in September so far went past the two-million mark, much more than over 1.9 million cases which were recorded in the entire month of August.

With 86,825 new infections on Wednesday, India’s Covid-19 count in September reached 20,44,570, which is the highest recorded in a month by any country in the world. The country surpassed its own record of 19,87,705 cases, which it had added to the Covid-19 caseload in August.

The breaching of the two million mark in September came even as the number of fresh cases remained below 90,000 for the fourth consecutive day on Wednesday. The low daily count comes in the wake of reduced testing across the country in the last few days. Barring on September 19, when a little over 1.2 million tests were conducted in the country, daily testing has remained below the one-million mark since September 18, as per the figures provided by covid19india.org. On Tuesday, a total of 9,53,683 tests were conducted, nearly 20,000 more than the previous day.

India’s total caseload went past the 57-lakh mark on Wednesday at 57,27,193, while a total of 46,63,623 patients (81.4% of the caseload) have recovered from the virus. The number of active cases, at 9,72,496, continued to remain below the one-million mark for the third consecutive day.

With 1128 fresh deaths, India’s cumulative toll reached 91,074, the last two weeks seeing a rise in daily deaths. While the last 15,000 of the total fatalities came in the last 13 days, the country took 15 days to go from 60,000 deaths to 75,000 deaths.

Tamil Nadu, the second worst affected state after Maharashtra in fatalities, crossed the 9,000-mark by adding 63 deaths, taking the state’s toll to 9,010.

Two days after reporting a dip in daily cases and deaths, Maharashtra was back to adding over 20,000 cases on Wednesday and also reported a significant jump in fatalities. As many as 21,029 fresh cases and 479 deaths were recorded against 18,390 infections and 392 fatalities on Tuesday.

West Bengal’s cumulative toll went past the 4,500-mark after registering 61 fresh deaths. In a worrying sign, Kerala went pass the 5,000-mark for the first time by registering 5,376 infections. Apart from Kerala, Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh were the only states which registered their highest daily cases with 1946 and 249 infections, respectively.

Turkey’s Kashmir remarks at UNGA unacceptable: Government

After Turkish President Recep Erdogan raised the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly, the government asked Turkey not to meddle in India’s internal affairs and to reflect on its own policies more deeply.

In a pre-recorded video statement to the general debate at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Erdogan had referred to the Kashmir issue and said it was key to stability and peace in South Asia and “still a burning issue”.

He added that steps taken following the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status had further complicated the problem.

India’s permanent representative to the UN T S Tirumurti said Erdogan’s remarks constituted gross interference in India’s internal affairs and were completely unacceptable. “Turkey should learn to respect the sovereignty of other nations and reflect on its own policies more deeply,” he said.

Turkey is among the few countries which have continued to support Pakistan’s case after India decided to revoke J&K’s special status last year. Erdogan had also said Turkey was in “favour of solving this issue through dialogue, within the framework of the UN resolutions and especially in line with the expectations of the people of Kashmir”.

Direct cargo ferry service to Maldives starts

A direct cargo ferry service has commenced between India and the Maldives with the government describing it as a new landmark in regional connectivity. The ferry service was first announced by PM Narendra Modi in June 2019 during his visit to the Maldives.

It was launched in an e-flag off ceremony jointly by MoS (independent charge) ministry of shipping Mansukh Mandaviya and minister of transport and civil aviation of Maldives Aishath Nahula.

India is currently the fourth largest trade partner of Maldives. Officials said direct ferry service will reduce transportation cost, provide a timely, short and cost effective means of transportation for goods from India to Maldives and boost bilateral trade. India’s annual bilateral trade with the Maldives is around $280 million. It’s also important for India that the service will improve regional connectivity at a time when it has been working to promote a number of initiatives in the Indian Ocean Region.

Bedlam in RS as farm bills passed

The Rajya Sabha passed two contentious farm bills by voice vote amid ruckus over allegedly denying the Opposition its voting rights. The bills will go to the President for his assent before they are notified as laws.

Later in the day, 12 Opposition parties gave a notice for a no-confidence motion against Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh Narayan over the manner in which the two bills—the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020—were passed. Such a move has never been made in at least 30 years.

Trouble began in the usually calmer House after Narayan, who was elected for a second term last week, refused to take into account the Opposition’s demand for voting on sending the bills to a select committee for legislative scrutiny. Members present in the House told Mirror that Tiruchi Siva (DMK), Derek O’Brien (TMC), KC Venugopal (Congress) and KK Ragesh (CPI-M) moved the resolution. With time running out even for a discussion in the House since the Rajya Sabha hall that doubles as seating space for Lok Sabha needed to be cleared out by 1 pm, Congress MP Ghulam Nabi Azad asked Narayan to take up the bills on Monday instead of rushing them. When his demand was denied, Opposition MPs stormed into the well, raising slogans.

Bedlam then ensued. Two MPs climbed atop a bench in front of Narayan, some others tried to tear the rule book, another MP tore and flung pages of his copy of the bills while yet another attempted to break the deputy chairman’s microphone.

The ruckus prompted Narayan to adjourn the House for 10 minutes. When the proceedings resumed, he took up clause-by-clause passage of the bills amid the uproar. He considered the bills to be passed by a voice vote and denied a division of votes. Narayan’s repeated requests to the members to vacate the well and follow social distancing norms were met with further agitation and louder sloganeering. The sound system inside the House was muted and marshals physically removed the agitating MPs.


Viraat to start last journey today

Decommissioned aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy, Viraat will be towed to the Alang Shipbreaking Yard in Gujarat on Saturday morning where she will be dismantled. Viraat was India’s second aircraft carrier.

The earlier plan was to tow her away on Friday, but it was shelved due to bad weather.

Officers of the western naval command said that the ship will be first pulled out from the western command’s pier with the help of Mumbai Port Trust tugs. Thereafter, the two tugs brought to tow her away will take over. She will be escorted by naval helicopters till she is moved to the western coast. Thereafter, naval dornier planes will monitor her movement. “It will take at least three days for her to reach Alang,” a naval officer said.

The carrier was sold for Rs.38.5 crore and was bought by Shri Ram Green Company and the auction was done by Metal Scrap Trading Corporation. The navy had offered Viraat to many states. The Maharashtra government was to station her at Nivti and make her into a convention centre-cum-hotel along with a private partner. Andhra Pradesh had also shown keen interest in it. Viraat, the second Centaur-class aircraft carrier, was in service for 30 years before being decommissioned in March 2017. There were proposals in the past to preserve it as a maritime museum. But later every state that had earlier shown interest backed out. Viraat was occupying an important space in the naval dockyard and as a result, other ships had to be kept away.

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retired), who had flown on all three aircraft carriers, Vikrant, Viraat and Vikramaditya, said, “It is sad that we have not been able to preserve even one of the two aircraft carriers which represented full one service of Sea Harrier (straight takeoff and vertical landing) aircraft.

Kashmir: Army indicts troops in encounter that killed 3 men

The Army has found “prima facie” evidence that its troops “exceeded” their powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act during an encounter in Kashmir’s Shopian district in which three men were killed in July this year and has initiated disciplinary proceedings.

On July 18, the Army claimed three militants were killed in Amshipura village in the higher reaches of south Kashmir’s Shopian district.

Following complaints from families of the deceased persons’ and social media reports that the three men were from Rajouri district in Jammu and had gone missing at Amshipura, the Army initiated an inquiry, said Col Rajesh Kalia, the defence spokesperson in Srinagar.

“The inquiry has brought out certain prima facie evidence indicating that during the operation, powers vested under the AFSPA1990 were exceeded and the Do’s and Don’ts of Chief of Army Staff as approved by the Supreme Court have been contravened. Consequently, the competent disciplinary authority has directed to initiate disciplinary proceedings under the Army Act against those found prima-facie answerable,” the statement said.

It is not immediately clear how many Army men are being proceeded against. The evidence collected indicates the three unidentified terrorists killed in Amshipura were Imtiyaz Ahmed, Abrar Ahmed and Mohammed Ibrar who hailed from Rajouri. Their DNA report is awaited. “Their involvement with terrorism or related activities is under investigation by the police,” the statement said.

Relatives of the three youths had lodged a written missing persons report after they lost contact with them on July 17.

According to the rules, a Summary of Evidence will now be initiated against the erring Army personnel after which Court Martial proceedings will begin.


Exports drop in August 2020

India's exports contracted for the sixth consecutive month in August, dragged down by a decline in shipments of petroleum, leather, engineering goods, and gems & jewellery, while imports tumbled by 26% during the month.

Exports in August were $22.7 billion, compared to nearly $26 billion a year ago, which was a decline of 12.7%. Imports fell by 26% to almost $30 billion in August, resulting in a trade deficit of $6.8 billion. Oil imports declined by about 42% to $6.4 billion during August.

Gold imports shot up to $3.7 billion in August compared to $1.4 billion in the same month last year. During April to August, exports contracted by nearly 27% to around $98 billion, while imports fell almost 44% to $118 billion.

Centre: Can’t legalise same-sex marriage

Two years after the Supreme Court de-criminalised Section 377 IPC, four LGTBQ community members requested the Delhi high court to legalise same-sex marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act, but ran into stout opposition from the Centre, which said this fell foul of several criminal and civil laws recognising marriage only between a “biological man and woman”.

The petitioners—Delhi-based Abhijit Iyer Mitra and Gita Thadani along with Madurai-based Gopi Shankar M and G Oorvasi — told a bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan that Section 5 of Hindu Marriage Act, 1956, provides that “a marriage may be solemnised between any two Hindus” and hence there could be no objection to same-sex marriage between two Hindus of the LGTBQ community.

The petitioners sought a declaration that since Section 5 of Hindu Marriage Act, 1956, does not distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual couples, the right of same-sex couples to marry should be recognised under the Act.

But the Centre, through solicitor general Tushar Mehta, registered its opposition to the petitioners’ plea. He said he had no instructions from the government on the specific issues raised by the petitioners. However, he said he could off-hand argue that same-sex marriage ran counter to several criminal and civil laws recognising marriage between “biological men and women” only. He said India’s social norms and cultural ethos were codified in statutory laws, like prohibited degrees of relationships and ‘sapinda’ marriages, and added both conditions had varying criteria for a man and woman entering into a matrimonial alliance.

In a same-sex marriage, who will be the man and who will be the woman to fasten this statutory condition, he asked.

The SG said there were different age criteria for men and women in a marriage and asked how that was going to be enforced. In case of domestic violence in a same-sex marriage, who will be the woman for enforcement of her rights under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, he asked. Mehta also cited Section 498A of IPC, which punishes a husband and his relatives for inflicting mental and physical torture on the wife for a jail term of up to three years.

Doval Leaves SCO Meet

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval left a virtual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation after Islamabad’s representative showcased a fake map that claimed Jammu and Kashmir and Junagadh as part of Pakistan.

“This was in blatant disregard to the advisory by the host against it and in violation of the norms of the meeting. After consultation with the host, the Indian side left the meeting in protest,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said in New Delhi. The virtual meeting was chaired by Russia.

“As was to be expected, Pakistan then went on to present a misleading view of this meeting,” Srivastava said responding to a query on the issue. A government source said the Pakistani action violated the SCO charter and all established norms of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of SCO member states. The Indian team issued its strong objection to the use of the illegal map by Pakistan and even host Russia tried very hard to persuade the Pakistani representative not to do so. Pakistan was represented at the meet by Moeed W Yusuf, special assistant to the prime minister on national security.

China violated mutual agreements, militarised border: Rajnath tells LS

Amidst a barrage of questions from the Opposition on the handling of the border situation along the Line of Actual Control with China, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha that China continues to be in illegal occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. kms in the Union Territory of Ladakh as ‘China does not accept the customary and traditional alignment of the boundary’ between the two countries.

Singh gave a chronological account of the worsening relations with China over transgressions along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh and maintained that ‘while our armed forces abide scrupulously’ by the mutually-agreed norms, ‘this has not been reciprocated by the Chinese side.’ Singh said that in addition to the 38,000 sq km in Ladakh illegally occupied by China, ‘under the so-called Sino-Pakistan‘Boundary Agreement of 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in PoK to China.’ “China also claims about 90,000 sq km of Indian territory in the Eastern Sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh,” he added.

The Opposition had put in several notices to the Speaker to allow a discussion or an intervention to raise questions on the issue but were turned away leading to a walkout by the Congress.


Navi Mumbai: Cidco Metro back on track

Two mega infrastructure projects— the Rs.16,000-crore Navi Mumbai international airport and the Cidco Navi Mumbai Metro Rail project worth Rs.7,633 crore— are back on track albeit with new deadlines.

While the airport deadline is pegged post-2024, the Metro run for all three lines connecting various residential areas and the industrial hub of Taloja MIDC is scheduled for end-2024.

Line IV of the Metro, the last point connectivity with the airport, has been kept in abeyance as it has to be synchronised with the proposed CST-Panvel elevated Metro track and entry/exit to the airport by proposed sky bus.

Cidco is executing work on Line I, which is expected to be commissioned in 2021, while Line III, which is a short distance, will get commissioned after that. Line II will follow thereafter. The entire 22.09-km Metro project providing connectivity in Cidco-Panvel city municipal corporation area will be completed by 2024. Cidco has awarded the contract for Lines II and III to Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.

Line III, described a loop (line), will connect Line I from Belapur railway station to Pendhar with Taloja. 

August retail inflation above RBI’s comfort level

Retail inflation remained above the central bank’s comfort level for the fifth consecutive month in August, and held near the previous month’s level as prices of some food items remained stubborn, prompting economists to rule out any interest rate cut for now.

Retail inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, rose an annual 6.7%, nearly the same level recorded in the previous month. Inflation for the food and beverages segments was at 8.3% in August, marginally lower than the 8.5% in the previous month. Double digit inflation in meat and fish (16.5%), eggs (10.1%), milk and milk products (12.5%), vegetables (11.4%), pulses and products 14.4% and spices (12.3%) sustained the pressure on the overall numbers. The RBI had flagged the building of inflationary pressure and had pressed the pause button in its interest-rate-cutting cycle.

The data showed inflation in the fuel segment shot up to a 5-month high of 3.1% in August compared with 2.7% in July.

Inflation in urban areas was at 6.8% in August, higher than the rate in rural areas, which stood at 6.7%.

Separate data showed inflation, as measured by the wholesale price index, rose an annual 0.2% in August, moving into positive territory after four months of contraction. The gap between the two indices has also narrowed.


Maharashtra: Ready Reckoner rate revised

The Maharashtra state government announced an average hike of 1.74% in the ready reckoner rate for properties across the state, except for Mumbai where it reduced by 0.6%. The rates will come into effect from Saturday.

Pune district registered the highest hike of 3.91%, followed by Raigad and Nandurbar at 3% in the revision announced for 2020-21.

The increase for Pune Municipal Corporation areas is 1.56% and 3.41% in Pimpri Chinchwad limits.

The rate for the rural areas in Pune district was a high 8.62%, while it was 2.92% in the influence areas where infrastructure projects have been announced and 5.4% in municipal council areas.

At 3.91%, ready reckoner rate hike highest in Pune district

Revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat said that the rates had to be corrected, and for the first time after a revision in the rules, it was reduced in some areas.

“We decided on a realistic rate. The RR rates were reviewed after 2017, and we found that in many areas, the rates were consistently high, and hence we rationalised them,” he said.

Developers had requested that the rates be reduced as they were very high in some areas, he added.

The average hike for rural areas in the state is 2.81%, for influence areas 1.89%, municipal council areas 1.29% and municipal corporation areas 1.02%.

Ready reckoner rate is the standard value of an immovable property assessed and regulated by the state. New rates come into effect from April 1. But this year, the announcement was deferred to September for the first time by the revenue department due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fall in the rate for Mumbai is also a first. It was done as per the revised order in 2018 where RR rates could be reduced.

The ready reckoner rates were announced after recommendations from district collectors, interactions with people’s representatives, and realtors.

Thorat said the department had been working on the rates for the last six months. “We reduced stamp duty. The RR rates in most areas have been marginally increased or reduced,” he said.

The state government had reduced the stamp duty by 3% for the September-December period, and by 2% for the January-March 2021 period to boost sales.

Developers have been demanding a reduction in the RR rates. Credai national vice-president Shantilal Kataria said their members were taken aback by the increase in rates for Pune.

“It is surprising that the government announced a hike in the RR rates especially for Pune which is the most affected. They are the highest whereas we were expecting it to decrease. This system of deciding ready reckoner rates is not scientific,” he said.

Forex reserves reach record $ 542 bn

India’s foreign exchange reserves rose by USD 582 million to reach a lifetime high of USD 542.013 billion in the week ended September 4, RBI data showed.

In the previous week ended August 28, the reserves had surged by USD 3.883 billion to USD 541.431 billion.

In the reporting week, the foreign currency assets, a major component of the overall reserves, increased by USD 269 million to USD 498.362 billion, the data showed. Expressed in dollar terms, the foreign currency assets include the effect of appreciation or depreciation of non-US units like the euro, pound and yen held in the foreign exchange reserves.

The gold reserves rose by USD 321 million in the reporting week to USD 37.521 billion, as per the central bank data.

Government plans 5,300 km of bullet train network

Would you prefer a high-speed train from Delhi to Ahmedabad, which would take just a little over three hours to cover the 886-km distance, to going by air, road or a regular train?

This is the second bullet train project being planned in India and it would connect into the high-speed rail corridor from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, on which work is underway, thereby offering a fast train option from Delhi all the way to Mumbai.

The National High Speed Rail Corporation has started inviting tenders for preparing feasibility studies for seven new HSR corridors which, along with the Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor could offer a network of 5,377 km of high-speed rail tracks in India if they are given the green signal.

HSR corridors could connect urban tourism and economic hubs such as Delhi, Amritsar, Bengaluru, Varanasi, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Nashik, Nagpur, Chennai, Mysuru, Pune, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Kolkata, Udaipur, Agra and Jaipur. Religious sites such as Shirdi, Ajmer, Mathura, Bodhgaya and Prayagraj are being planned as HSR stations as well.

“The contours of these projects will be known only once the detailed project reports are prepared. If we have a corridor from Delhi to Ahmedabad, which then links into Ahmedabad to Mumbai, lots of benefit will come to the people. We will definitely try for such continuity,” Achal Khare, managing director of NHSRCL said.

The key to the feasibility of these routes is a ridership survey, since the bullet train is expected to cost much more than regular trains. One such ‘willingness to pay survey’ is set to be conducted by NHSCRL for the Delhi-Ahmedabad route. This would involve interviewing about 6,000 air, road and normal rail travellers on the Delhi-Ahmedabad route to estimate the expected shift from the existing modes to HSR.

Such a survey, which is expected to be done for all the seven new corridors, will also study the traffic demand potential, traffic data for the past five years from the toll plaza operating on the national highways and expressways, and data for rail travel and air travel for the past five years. Economic indicators such as the gross domestic product of the country, the state GDP and district domestic product for previous years since 2011-12 will be studied too as part of these ridership surveys.

The planned routes have been selected in anticipation of high passenger traffic and because they will offer onward connections to similar high-speed trains. The 886-km Delhi-Ahmedabad route, for instance, is proposed to have 16 stations en route.

“We are very optimistic about this project as not only will it connect the national capital with Ahmedabad through Jaipur, Ajmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur, which get a lot of foreign tourists, but also connect further into the ongoing Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor, offering one an option to reach Mumbai from Delhi through a fast-train connection,” said a senior government official, who did not wish to be identified.

The 865-km Delhi-Varanasi route is proposed to have 12 stations including at the Jewar International Airport, Agra, Lucknow and Prayagraj. “Uttar Pradesh is a heavy footfall route. There will be tourists keen to hop onto a bullet train from Jewar International Airport to Agra and Varanasi. The same is the case with Punjab on Delhi-Amritsar route,” said the official.

Twelve stations are proposed on the 753-km Mumbai-Nagpur route, including at Nashik, Shirdi and Aurangabad while the 760-km Varanasi-Howrah route may pass through Bodhgaya. The 435-km Chennai-Mysore route may pass through the IT hub of Bengaluru while the 711-km Mumbai-Hyderabad route would connect the city of Pune.

Existing challenges on the ongoing 508-km Ahmedabad-Vadodara-Surat-Mumbai corridor, however, put a question mark on the future of the new corridors and their cost, especially at a time when the economy has taken a beating following the Covid-19 pandemic. The government said last week that the pandemic had delayed the land acquisition process and tenders for the corridor, and that though the project should meet its 2023-end deadline, the real time frame for the completion has to be reassessed after six months. Only 63% of the land has been acquired so far and 81% of the Rs.1.08 lakh crore cost of the project is to be funded through a 20-year loan from Japan International Cooperation Agency.

“Land acquisition is a challenge in any linear project. To minimise that, we are trying to plan the HSR corridors along the new expressways and national highways,” said Khare.

The government believes that the benefits would outrun the costs. “NHSRCL would be ushering India into the category of a few countries (about 15) using the high-speed railway system,” says the bid document. “Apart from being a technological marvel, HSR corridors would afford many quantifiable benefits like saving in travel time, vehicle operation cost, reduction in pollution, job creation, reduction in accidents and enhanced safety, imported fuel substitution, and reduction in pollutants. The project would also boost the infrastructure and add to the growth of the economy.”

India may’ve had 65L Covid cases by May: Sero survey

A total of 64,68,388 adult Covid infections were estimated in India by early May, even though the adjusted all-India seroprevalence was a low 0.73%, according to the results of a serological survey conducted by the ICMR released on Friday.

While the survey indicated that less than 1% of the adult population was exposed to coronavirus by mid-May, the official tally at the time was even lower at only 85,940 cases detected till May 15. This would indicate most cases may have been missed during the first few months of the outbreak.

This could be because the testing strategy was tailored by limited test kits and lab capacity and also because cases may have been asymptomatic.

A sero survey estimates the percentage of population exposed to a virus by finding the presence of antibodies. Antibodies indicate that a person had been infected but is no longer so.

Though the ICMR had shared some findings of the study in June, the final study was published in the ‘Indian Journal of Medical Research’ on Friday. A total of 30,283 households were visited and 28,000 individuals enrolled for the sero survey across the country. In June, too, ICMR had estimated prevalence of infection at 0.7%. It had said risk of the spread was 1.09 times higher in urban areas. While in urban slums, it was 1.89 times higher than rural areas.

“Males in urban slums and occupation with high risk of exposure to potentially infected persons were associated with seropositivity,” it said. Of the 157 people found positive in the survey, 43.3% were in the age group 18-45, 39.5% were aged 46-60 and the remaining 17.2% were over the age of 60. Seropositivity was, however, highest in the 46-60 age group, with 62 out of 9,525, or 0.6%, testing positive and lowest in the youngest age group at 0.5% (68 out of 13,552).

Swami Agnivesh Passes Away

Social activist Swami Agnivesh, who was suffering from liver cirrhosis for a long time, died of multi-organ failure at a Delhi hospital on Friday, doctors said. He was 80.

Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot were among those who condoled his demise.

Gandhi called his demise an “irreparable loss” to the country. “Swami Agnivesh, the founder of Bandhua Mukti Morcha and revolutionary leader of Arya Samaj, passed away today. His demise is an irreparable loss to the country and Arya Samaj. My humble tribute to him,” he posted on Twitter in Hindi.


Moscow: Jaishankar-Yi meet

India and China have agreed on a five-point plan for resolving the prolonged border face-off in eastern Ladakh that included abiding by all existing agreements and protocol on management of the frontier, maintaining peace and tranquility and avoiding any action that could escalate matters.

The two countries agreed to the plan during talks between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on Thursday evening on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet.

The Indian Army and the Chinese People's Liberation Army have been locked in a tense standoff in multiple areas along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh since early May.

The Ministry of External Affairs issued a joint press statement early on Friday featuring five points which were agreed by both the sides at the "frank and constructive" discussions by the two ministers.

"The two foreign ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side. They agreed, therefore, that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions," it said.

The joint statement said Jaishankar and Wang agreed that both sides should take guidance from the series of consensus reached between leaders of the two countries on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes.

This assessment was a clear reference to decisions taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at their two informal summits in 2018 and 2019.

The Indian delegation conveyed to the Chinese side that the provocative behavior of the PLA at friction points on the LAC showed its disregard for bilateral agreements and protocols. "The Indian side clearly conveyed that it expected full adherence to all agreements on management of border areas and would not countenance any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally. It was also emphasized that the Indian troops had scrupulously followed all agreements and protocols pertaining to the management of the border areas," said a source.

Jaishankar told Wang that maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border areas was essential to the forward development of ties, the government sources said.

The external affairs minister also conveyed to his Chinese counterpart that the recent incidents in eastern Ladakh inevitably impacted the development of the bilateral relationship.

Canada think tank: Khalistan is a Pak geopolitical project

Khalistan is a geopolitical project nurtured by Pakistan, concludes a top Canadian think tank in its report which has adverse implications for the national security of both Canada and India. Coming weeks before the so-called Referendum 2020 by the Khalistani group Sikhs for Justice, the report highlights how the Khalistan movement owes its energy to Pakistan.

The report by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, ‘Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan’ authored by Canadian journalist Terry Milewski says: “It does not fit the Khalistani narrative that Pakistan’s treatment of its shrinking Sikh minority has brought demonstrations to the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi. Rather, it makes it all the more bizarre that undying solidarity with Pakistan has become a kind of theme song for the American lawyer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who leads Sikhs For Justice, the driving force in the campaign for a referendum on Sikh independence.”

Pannun, the report observes, has sided with China in its dispute with India and recently wrote to Pakistan PM Imran Khan, swearing that “if India ever attacked Pakistan, the pro-Khalistan Sikhs will extend full support to Pakistan”. The report marks, as a turning point, a 2018 event when Canada’s national security report had to omit a reference to Sikh Khalistanis. The 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada replaced “Sikh (Khalistani) extremist ideologies and movements” with the more generic “Extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India.”

RIL becomes 1st Indian co to hit $200bn mcap

Reliance Industries became the first Indian company to cross the $200-billion market capitalisation mark after its stock surged over 8% on the back of reports that global retailing giant Amazon has been offered a $20-billion worth of stake in its retail venture.

From being an entity with a market cap of nearly $43 billion a little over five years ago and a pure-play business-to-business entity, RIL’s market value has risen almost five times as it scaled up its two consumer-focused businesses — telecom and organised retail — during the intervening period. In the process, it has leap frogged to become one of the 10 most valued companies in Asia and also among the top 40 globally. RIL is the only Indian company in these exclusive clubs, Bloomberg data showed.

In the last two years, while the BSE’s market cap has remained stagnant at around Rs.155 lakh crore, RIL’s market cap has almost doubled from close to Rs.8 lakh crore to Rs.15.3 lakh crore. So if RIL is taken out from India’s total market cap, the fall in value is about Rs.7.5 lakh crore. Seen another way, while RIL’s market cap has grown about 92% since September 2018, the combined market cap of all other Indian companies has shrunk by 5%.

The phenomenal rise in RIL’s market cap came during the past five years as it again transformed itself from being a major B2B focused company to a business-to-consumer entity, in a country with over 1.3 billion people.

As its refining business grew at a fast clip, RIL tried its hands at petro-product refining, but that didn’t take off as was expected. 

Golden Temple can get foreign donations

The home ministry has granted a licence to Amritsar’s Sachkhand Sri Harmandir Sahib-Darbar Sahib — popularly known as the Golden Temple — to receive foreign donations.

The association has, since its creation in 1925, offered free ‘langar’ to devotees and public; extended financial assistance to the poor, needy, students and medical patients; and assisted with disaster relief with the domestic donations received by it. Now, with its registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010, it can also receive contributions from Sikh devotees and others across the world for these objectives.

Home minister Amit Shah termed the registration of Sri Harmandir Sahib under FCRA as a “pathbreaking” decision. “Sri Darbar Sahib’s divinity gives strength to us. For decades, the Sangat worldwide was unable to serve there. Modi government’s decision to allow FCRA (licence) to the Sri Harmandir Sahib deepens the connect of Seva between the Sangat globally and the Sri Darbar Sahib. A blessed moment!”, he tweeted.

He added: “Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji is blessed that Wahe Guru ji has taken Seva from him. The decision on FCRA at the Sri Harmandir Sahib is a pathbreaking one...”

A home ministry release said Sachkhand Sri Harmandir Sahib, Sri Darbar Sahib, Punjab, had applied for registration under FCRA on May 27, 2020. On Thursday, the decision to register it as an association of "religious nature" under FCRA, was communicated by MHA. The registration shall remain valid for five years, after which it can be renewed.

India inks military pact with Japan

India is working to enhance its strategic reach in the Indian Ocean and beyond by clinching reciprocal military logistics pacts with friendly countries to counter China’s expanding footprint across the Indo-Pacific.

Japan has now become the sixth country, after US, France, Australia, South Korea and Singapore, with which India has such an agreement to enable military forces to share logistics to support each other’s warships and aircraft as well as bolster overall interoperability and defence cooperation.

“India is negotiating similar pacts with UK and Russia. The Russian one should be inked later this year. We don’t have the intention or the wherewithal to establish overseas bases like China is doing far and wide,” a senior official said .

Defence secretary Ajay Kumar and Japanese ambassador Suzuki Satoshi signed the agreement on “reciprocal provision of supplies and services” between the Indian armed forces and the Japanese self-defence forces.

With an eye on an expansionist and rule-flouting China, the ‘Quad’ grouping of India, US, Australia and Japan is also set to gain more heft now.

China, which now has the world’s largest Navy, is looking to set up more logistics bases


Ladakh on the boil again

The situation along the Line of Actual Control remained extremely tense after Chinese troops reportedly closed in on Indian positions on the South Bank of Pangong Tso on Monday and fired shots in the air while both sides were in close range. The Indian Army on Tuesday morning said that despite the ‘grave provocation by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, ‘our troops exercised great restraint and behaved in a mature and responsible manner.’ The Western Theatre Command, one of the five regional commands of the Chinese army, however, alleged that shots were fired by the Indian side and sought an investigation into the incident and strict action against those who fired the shots. India has since denied the charge and called it ‘an attempt to mislead their domestic and international audience’.

The Army said that PLA troops on Monday attempted to ‘close-in with one of our forward positions along the LAC and when dissuaded by our own troops, they fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate our troops.’ On Monday, Chinese and Indian soldiers came within shooting distance in key hills occupied by India between Rechin La-Rezangla-Mukhpari and Magar Hill in South Pangong. Indian soldiers shouted at Chinese soldiers when they saw them coming up to a position near Mukhpari. Officials said there were no physical skirmishes or any provocation from the Indian side but the Chinese fired a burst of warning shots.

Unconfirmed and undated photos, allegedly released by the army, show Chinese soldiers at Mukhpari armed with spears and rifles, pointing to the use of mass weapons that was initially denied by China after the deadly clashes on June 15 at Galwan Valley in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

Sources said that since Indian troops recently occupied tactical positions on some of the heights in the region, thwarting Chinese attempts to ‘unilaterally alter the LAC’, there has been increased Chinese movement to push back the Indian side.

PM Narendra Modi chaired a meet of the Cabinet Committee on Security on Tuesday evening to discuss the stand-off with China that has shown no signs of abatement despite several rounds of diplomatic and military engagements. Home Minister Amit Shah, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who is also a member of the Special Representatives engaged in high-level discussions with China were a part of the meet.


Literacy rates

Which state has a higher literacy rate: Andhra Pradesh or Bihar, Telangana or Assam, Karnataka or Uttarakhand? If you picked the southern state each time, you were wrong and by a considerable margin.

AP’s rate of 66.4% is the lowest among states and UTs and lower than Bihar’s 70.9%. Telangana’s 72.8% is well below the national average of 77.7% while Assam is well above it at 85.9% and Karnataka’s 77.2% pales in comparison to Uttarakhand’s 87.6%, which is bettered only by Kerala and Delhi. Maharashtra is sixth with 84.8%.

Data from a 2017-18 National Statistical Office report on education reveals these counter-intuitive truths and shows that, at least when it comes to literacy, notions of “developed states” can be misleading.

Not all preconceptions are wrong though. Kerala remains by some distance the best among the major states with a literacy rate of 96.2%. More impressively, the gap between male and female literacy is the smallest in Kerala at just 2.2 percentage points. To put that in context, the gap at the all-India level is 14.4 percentage points with male literacy at 84.7% and female literacy at 70.3%.

Typically, states with relatively low literacy rates also tend to have the highest gender skews, but that is not always true. Andhra Pradesh, for instance, has a gap between male and female literacy rates of only 13.9 percentage points, while Rajasthan (23.2), Bihar (19.2) and UP (18.4) have pronounced gaps despite better overall literacy rates.

The gap between urban and rural literacy rates is of the same order of magnitude as that between males and females. Once again, Kerala has the lowest gap of a mere 1.9 percentage points. At the other end of the spectrum on this count are Telangana, where urban literacy is 23.4 percentage points higher than rural literacy, and Andhra Pradesh, where the difference is 19.2 percentage points.

Combined effect of gender and urban-rural skews means the difference between urban male literacy and rural female literacy is an alarming 27.2 percentage points at national level. In individual states it can be much worse.


Ease of biz rankings

Uttar Pradesh has made a strong comeback rising to the second position in 2019 from 12th place in 2018 in the ease of doing business rankings. Himachal Pradesh moved up to the seventh place in 2019 from 16 in 2018. In the overall ranking, Delhi moved to the12th spot in 2019 from the 23rd place in 2018. The rankings for 2019 were to be released in March this year but had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government had launched the ease of doing ranking for states to trigger a competition among states to reform their business and approval processes to attract investment. The sustained progress of India’s rankings in the World Bank’s ease of doing business had also had an impact on states to shore up their approval and regulatory processes and increase their potential to attract investors.

“India is seen taking the reform process seriously which showed when foreign direct investment in the country increased even during the Covid-19 pandemic, amid what was called the world’s strictest lockdown. Some states have shown extraordinary energy in putting together action plans and making sure that reforms happen. States have embraced the true spirit behind the State Business Reforms Action Plan," said Sitharaman while releasing the rankings.

The larger objective of attracting investments and increasing ease of doing business in each state was sought to be achieved by introducing an element of healthy competition through a system of ranking states based on their performance in the implementation of business reform action plan.


Japan offers perks to its companies moving to India as well

A week before an India-Japan summit, Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry announced it would add India and Bangladesh to a list of Asean countries to qualify for subsidies for Japanese manufacturers moving out of China. The METI announcement comes days after India, Japan and Australia decided to advance cooperation on building trusted, resilient supply chains.

PM Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, the outgoing Japanese prime minister, will hold their last virtual summit on September 10. The two countries are expected to sign the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) which will allow military services of both countries to share logistics. (India signed a similar pact with Australia in June). It will be a fitting note to Modi’s last meeting with Abe before the Japanese leader steps down given their rapport and the big steps in bilateral cooperation taken during their tenures.

The summit comes when India and Japan are locked in separate tensions with China.

The SCRI (Supply Chains Resilience Initiative) is intended to build alternative supply chains. At a trilateral meeting with trade ministers of Australia and Japan, commerce minister Piyush Goyal said, “Diversification of supply chain is critical for managing risks associated with supply of inputs, including disciplining price volatility. We could provide the core pathway for linking value chains in the region .”

The announcement by the Japanese government will shift the onus on India to attract Japanese companies seeking alternatives to China.

Covid-19: India’s cases hit 4m

Covid-19 cases in India raced past 4 million, just 13 days after hitting the 3 million mark, even as fresh cases in the past 24 hours surged to a new high of over 87,800. This was the third consecutive day of highest rise in new infections.

India is the third country after the US and Brazil to record 4 million cases. While India took the longest time for cases to increase from one to 1 million (168 days), its subsequent growth in infections has been the fastest.

Cases in India have grown from 1 million to 4 million in 50 days, while it took 75 days in Brazil and 86 days in the US. The last million was in just 13 days—the fastest million so far— with previous being 16 days, recorded in both India and the US. However, India’s fatality rate remains the lowest among the three worst hit countries, less than half the mortality rate in the US.

At the 4 million mark, India has recorded 69,551 fatalities from the virus.

At the same stage, the US had reported more than 1.4 lakh deaths and Brazil over 1.2 lakh.

On Friday, India recorded a rise of 87,852 fresh cases, as per the last 24-hour data. Deaths from the infections numbered 1,062, the fourth straight day of 1,000-plus casualties in the country. Active cases rose by 17,000, the biggest single-day rise in quite some time, to nearly 8.5 lakh. Recoveries from the infection totalled nearly 31 lakh.

Besides Maharashtra, four other states reported their highest single-day surge in cases — Chhattisgarh (3,203 cases, including 1,515 from Thursday midnight), Haryana (1,884), Rajasthan (1,570) and Arunachal Pradesh (214).

Andhra Pradesh reported 10,776 Covid-19 cases on Friday, taking the cumulative caseload to 4,76,506, even as 76 more people died in the last 24 hours. While the overall toll jumped to 4,276, as many as 12,334 Covid-19 patients were declared cured on Friday, making it the highest single-day recoveries so far in the state.


IMF confirms India’s GDP worst-hit among G20

A tweet put out by the International Monetary Fund's chief economist Gita Gopinath confirmed that the Indian economy saw the steepest contraction in the first quarter among G20 countries.

“In #GreatLockdown Q2 2020 GDP growth at historical lows. Graph puts G20 growth numbers on a comparable scale, quarteron-quarter non-annualized. Should expect rebounds in Q3 but 2020 overall will see major contractions. China recovers strongly in Q2 after collapse in Q1,” the tweet read.

FASTags will be a must for TPI from April

From April next year, you won’t be able to renew the third party insurance of your vehicle, except for two and three-wheelers, if it doesn’t have a valid FASTag. Moreover, all vehicles with four or more wheels would need to have FASTag from January 1, 2021and violation would attract a penalty of Rs.300-500.

The road transport ministry has published a draft notification proposing these changes in the Central Motor Vehicle Rules in order to increase penetration of FASTags. Though all cars and other bigger vehicles sold after December 1, 2017 have got FASTags since this was made mandatory for registration, a huge number of old vehicles don’t have the smart tags.

“The move will ensure greater coverage of FASTag used for paying toll charges digitally,” said a source. However, there are concerns whether insurance companies and the insurance regulator would find it possible to ensure that only vehicles with FASTags can renew the third party insurance. Currently, nearly 50% of the vehicles have this insurance coverage and the regulator has been trying to increase the coverage.

Services Activity Shrinks: August 2020

Services activity in India contracted for the sixth consecutive month in August, but the pace of decline slowed as some firms gradually resumed operations with lockdown restrictions easing. The IHS Markit Services Purchasing Managers' Index moved up to 41.8 in August from July's 34.2, but remained below the 50-mark that separates growth from contraction.

India’s services sector including construction shrank 26.8% on-year in the quarter ended June, when the economy contracted 23.9%, the first contraction in four decades.

CDS Rawat: Must plan for two-pronged conflict

The Indian armed forces are capable of suitably dealing with China’s aggressive actions along the LAC, chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat said, while warning Pakistan against trying to take advantage of the ongoing confrontation in eastern Ladakh.

Speaking at a webinar organised by an American think-tank, Gen Rawat said India faced the “threat of coordinated action along the northern and western fronts” with China and Pakistan. This collusive threat needed to be factored into defence planning, he said. “If any threat develops around our northern borders, Pakistan could take advantage of that and create some trouble for us. Therefore, we have taken adequate precautions to ensure that any such misadventure by Pakistan is thwarted. In fact, Pakistan may suffer heavy losses should it attempt any misadventure,” Gen Rawat said.

Noting that the Indian armed forces will have to be prepared to meet the immediate crisis and concurrently prepare for the future, the CDS said, “Our policy of engagement, if not backed by credible military power and regional influence, would imply acknowledging China’s pre-eminence.” China’s continuing infrastructure development in Tibet, development of strategic railway lines and reforms in PLA are being closely studied by India, he said. On the other hand, Pakistan has been conducting a proxy war, sponsoring and equipping terrorists from its soil to create trouble in J&K for years.


August PV Sales Accelerate

Monthly passenger vehicle sales shot up in strong double digits for the first time in nearly two years, as steady retail demand coupled with easing of constraints in supply chain after the lockdown helped produce and dispatch more vehicles in August.

The industry estimates around 234,000 passenger vehicles were dispatched from factories last month, about 20% increase compared with 195,800 units a year earlier. In August last year, the wholesale number had fallen almost 32% and that low base aided year-on-year comparison for last month. The estimated sales for last month were 18% more than in July.

Commercial vehicle companies continued to report lower sales from a year earlier, but numbers increased sequentially.

Automakers in India report wholesale dispatches from factories to dealers and not retail sales made to customers. Industry numbers were buoyed by the performance of the country’s top two carmakers, Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai Motor India — sales for both grew by a fifth in the local market.

Maruti Suzuki reported growth of 21.3%, dispatching 113,033 passenger vehicles to dealerships in India. While sales of mini cars Alto and S-Presso nearly doubled at 19,709 units, those of compact cars (Swift, DZire, Tour S, Baleno, Celerio, Ignis and WagonR) rose over 14% to 61,956 units. The midsize sedan Ciaz though saw a 23% fall in sales at 1,223 units. Wholesale volumes in utility vehicle segment (Ertiga, XL6, Vitara Brezza, S-Cross) grew 13.5% to 21,030 units.

Hyundai Motor India’s sales rose 20% to 45,809 units. Tarun Garg, its director of sales, marketing & service, said good response to the new Creta, Verna, Tucson, Nios, Aura and recently launched Venue had helped performance. “We would like to carry on with cautious optimism as uncertainty still surrounds the pandemic,” he said.

At homegrown Mahindra & Mahindra, wholesale volumes grew marginally to 13,651 units. Chief executive (automotive division) Veejay Nakra said: “At Mahindra, we continue to see good recovery in demand for SUVs and pick-ups in the small commercial vehicles segment … We have been able to meet the uplift in demand by managing supply chain challenges and, going forward, will continue to keep focus on it.”

Toyota Kirloskar Motor reported a 48% plunge in sales to 5,555 units. Volumes, however, grew sequentially. Retail sales were 25% higher than wholesales. “August witnessed an increase in demand for most of our models akin to pre-Covid times, including customer enquiries and orders. However, supplying vehicles from our end (to dealers) posed a challenge due to rising number of Covid cases in Bengaluru (its factory is located nearby) and surrounding areas, where most of our workforce resides,” said Naveen Soni, senior vice president (sales & service)