IIT-B shows a way to produce oxygen from nitrogen generators

 The Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, has stepped in to offer a quick and simple solution to the oxygen crisis. The institute, in collaboration with Tata Consulting Engineers Ltd, has successfully carried out a pilot project to convert nitrogen generator plants into oxygen generators, simply by replacing the molecular filters.

Conversion of existing nitrogen plants will take only around three to four days, unlike setting up a new oxygen plant for medical use that could take at least 45 days. And, these pressure swing adsorption nitrogen plants are available in abundance in industrial units across the country. Conversion of a decent-sized nitrogen plant will cost around10-15% of the total cost of setting up a new oxygen plant.

While the institute has validated the proof of the concept, the technology needs to be scaled up at multiple locations to help the country tide over the current emergency. An MoU was signed between IIT, TCE and Spantech Engineers (which deals with PSA nitrogen and oxygen plants) to finalise a standard operating procedure to scale up the technology.

The technology is proven and has been in use since the 1970s, said Amit Sharma, managing director, TCE.

Second Wave: Over 40 governments commit to help India with medical essentials

As India battles an unprecedented second wave of Covid, over 40 governments have committed to helping out India with essential medical requirements.

Foreign minister S Jaishankar held a briefing with all heads of missions on the current crisis and his message was to seek out all manner of support to combat a Covid surge that has seen a UK variant and a double mutant adding to the virulence of the disease.

Envoys have been tasked with acquiring all manner of oxygen support — no tanker, concentrator or cylinder is too small at a time like this. Given India’s size, the main demands are — medical oxygen, Remdesivir and Tocilizumab to treat moderate to severe Covid.

Briefing journalists on Thursday, foreign secretary Harsh Shringla said government had already made a quick assessment of India’s requirements, which were being conveyed to countries who had expressed interest in helping out. Help was coming from governments, private sector, diaspora and individuals. The consultations, he said, had been happening at the highest levels.

The foreign minister told envoys that India is reaping the benefits of both the Vaccine Maitri initiative as well as the Covid assistance proffered to many countries when they battled their own surges. This has seen India being assured of help at a time when the ruling global sentiment seemed to be ‘each on their own’.

Envoys were told not to become engrossed in battling negative perceptions and opinions in media. This would distract them from their primary job, which is to access and procure as much medical assistance as is possible. This instruction came after what is seen as an unnecessary rejoinder by the Indian high commission against an article in The Australian.

The sense of urgency, Jaishankar said, had to be maintained, because the current need is a short term one, to fill in the gap while India ramps up its own capacities.

At the operational level, he said, the Empowered Group 2 was engaged in identifying sources of equipment that India needed, clearing their passage into the country and arranging for their dispatch to the parts of the country where they are needed.

Shringla said large Indian companies, part of the global supply chains were sourcing equipment and oxygen as well. “We are trying to channelise the assistance we’re getting, getting them to different parts of the country.” He said the government has also given these imports blanket exemption from certain taxes. The Indian Red Cross has been designated as the organisation receiving these items as they come in from different parts of the world.

Navi Mumbai: A Supermoon ‘miracle’

The Supermoon phenomenon that occurred early this week has performed a small ‘miracle’ at the parched Panje wetland, which the environmentalists were quite literally begging the government to do. Due to the strong tidal effects of the Supermoon, the seawater at Panje breached the man-made bunds that were blocking the water movement and now several migratory birds have returned to the wetland.

A Supermoon occurs when the moon’s orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth at the same time it is full.

Bird-watchers were delighted to find several tagged greater sandplover birds, after nearly three years. The greater sandplover is a small, yet hardy, migratory bird which flies hundreds of kilometers from the central desert areas near Turkey.

The Supermoon effect has further encouraged environmentalists to continue their fight to permanently save the wetland. “Panje had been reduced to a dry land with the blocking of five tidal water inlets by vested interests despite an order from the National Green Tribunal to clear them. Some tidal water, however, flowed over the man-made bunds into parts of the wetland, thanks to the recent supermoon event,” said activist B N Kumar of NGO NatConnect Foundation.

Local birder Parag Gharat, who ventured out with his camera after seeing the waterflow, spotted many tagged birds in the last two days. After cross-checking with Bombay Natural History Society, the tagged birds were identified as greater sandplover ( Charadrius leschenaultii).

“The presence of migratory birds teach us the importance of maintaining our wetlands as they are urban sponges that absorb flood waters. Wetlands are home to several microbes which are essential for our biodiversity as we are taught in our schools,” Kumar said.

Nandakumar Pawar, head of Shri Ekvira Aai Pratishtan, regretted that most of the Panje wetland remained dry as water flow continued to be blocked by vested interests. “We just cannot understand how the officials can keep flouting the NGT order to clear the man-made blocks at the five water inlets,” Pawar.

After SII, BB cuts Covaxin price to ₹400 for states

A day after Serum Institute of India announced a Rs 100 per dose cut in Covishield prices for state governments, Bharat Biotech followed suit with a price reduction of Rs 200 per dose for Covaxin.

On Thursday, Bharat Biotech announced that it was cutting Covaxin prices from Rs 600 per dose to Rs 400 per dose for state governments. With this reduction, the price gap between Covaxin and Covishield for state governments is down to just Rs 100 per dose.

The prices for private hospitals, however, remain unchanged at Rs 1,200 per dose. The Hyderabad-based vaccine-maker had already said that it would stick to its original pricing of Rs 150 per dose for the Centre.

“Bharat Biotech is deeply concerned with the critical pandemic circumstances that India is facing at this time. Recognising the enormous challenges to the public health care system, we have made Covaxin available to state governments at a price of Rs 400 per dose,” the company said in its announcement.

“We wish to be transparent in our approach to pricing which was determined by internally funded product development, several operational-intensive BSL-3 manufacturing facilities (the first of its kind in the country) and clinical trials. We wish to champion ‘Innovation in India’ and our commitment to public health is absolute!” it added.

In its tweet on the price reduction, the company said: “With the greater part of the organisation’s facilities and resources being diverted to Covid-19 vaccines, we continue to work towards offering superior Covid-19 vaccines and sincerely wish that this gesture enables our country towards a faster recovery.”

While announcing the pricing of Covaxin on April 24, Bharat Biotech had said that Covaxin being an inactivated and highly purified vaccine, its manufacturing was expensive due to very low process yields. “Recovering costs is essential in the journey of innovation towards other vaccines such as intranasal Covid-19, Chikunguniya, Zika, Cholera and others. Our core mission for the last 25 years has been to provide affordable, yet world-class healthcare solutions for the globe,” it had said.

Maharashtra Extends Lockdown-like Restrictions Till May 15

The Maharashtra government extended till May 15 the existing lockdown-like restrictions enforced to stem the spread of Covid-19 in the state.

An order issued by chief secretary Sitaram Kunte said the decision to extend the restrictions has been taken as the state continued to be threatened with the spread of Covid-19. It was imperative to continue the emergency measures to prevent and contain the spread of the virus, he said.

The sweeping curbs on movement of people and a host of other activities, imposed early this month, were to continue till 7 am on May 1. The restrictions were further tightened on April 14 and then last week, brining more activities under their ambit.

Thursday’s lockdown notification was a mere formality since Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope, a few days back, had said that the state cabinet had issued orders for an extension of the lockdown. ET had reported that the current lockdown would continue in the state till June.

Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court during a hearing on the Covid situation, suggested to the state government to go for a ‘15-day complete lockdown’.

The HC bench, led by chief justice Dipankar Datta, said, “Please advise your government, if for 15 days there can be a complete lockdown. No one comes out unless absolutely crucial.” The court added, “If people don’t follow restrictions, if they don’t follow guidelines, then how will it work? Are they preparing for a third wave?

Tatas get CCI nod for $1.2bn Bigbasket buy

The Competition Commission of India cleared Tata Digital’s acquisition of a majority stake in Bigbasket without conditions. Tata Digital’s interest in Bigbasket first became public last October. The acquisition of a 64.3% stake in Bigbasket will make Tata Digital the leading player in e-grocery, setting the scene for a big battle with Amazon, Flipkart, JioMart and Soft-Bank-backed Grofers.

Tata Digital is a 100% arm of Tata Sons, the promoter of the $106-billion airline to automotive conglomerate. It will acquire 64.3% in Bigbasket’s online business-to-business arm Supermarket Grocery Supplies, the CCI said. Later, SGS will acquire ‘sole control’ over Innovative Retail Concepts, which is engaged in business-to-consumer sales through the Bigbasket website. The CCI nod came late Wednesday night.

The acquisition, estimated to be worth $1.2 billion, bolsters the Tata conglomerate’s digital play as coronavirus-induced lockdowns and curfews propel India’s online shopping market. “When you look at trends for the future, there are clear signs. Anything that is digital, we are making a big bet on,” Tata Sons chairman N Chandrasekaran had said at an event early this year. “The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology, changing the way people live, work and consume as well as how companies operate.”

Tata Digital is in the final stage to acquire a majority stake in e-pharma platform 1MG which is expected to be concluded soon. It has already infused Rs 100 crore in 1MG via a convertible instrument. The debenture instrument, when converted into equity shares, will give Tata Digital a 5.7% stake in 1MG. Prior to this, Tata Digital had invested in CSC Grameen eStore, a rural e-commerce venture promoted by the government.

Founded by five dotcom bust survivors in 2011, Bigbasket today operates in more than two-dozen Indian cities. Existing Bigbasket investors Alibaba and Actis, which holds around 30% and 17% in the e-grocer, will be selling their shares to Tata Digital, according to people briefed on the matter. On February 17, TOI had reported on Tata Digital seeking CCI nod to acquire Bigbasket with details of investors like Alibaba selling its shares.

Tata Digital’s acquisition in Bigbasket comes after India tightened regulations for investments from Chinese entities. This has restricted Alibaba from upping its stake in the Indian e-grocer.


Centre partial to Gujarat, UP : Prithviraj Chavan

Former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has said that not only in distribution of vaccines, but even in allocation of N95 masks, PPE kits and ventilators, there was huge discrimination, as NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi preferred BJP-ruled Gujarat and UP. “From information tabled in Lok Sabha, it has been confirmed that there was lopsided and politically biased distribution of critical medical equipment, such as PPE kits, N95 masks and ventilators,’’ Chavan said. Chavan said Gujarat got 9,623 N95 masks per 1,000 Covid-19 patients, Maharashtra only 1,560, UP 3,916, more than twice of Maharashtra. Gujarat received 4,951 PPE kits, UP got 2,446 and Maharashtra 223 per 1,000. Gujarat got 13 ventilators, UP seven, and Maharashtra two per 1,000.

Israeli missile test-fired from indigenous Tejas

The indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft is now ready to carry the Israeli Python-5 air-to-air missile, said the DRDO on Wednesday, after the shortrange weapon was test-fired from the jet.

The fifth-generation infra-red guided Python-5 missiles, which have a range of around 20 km, will add to the air-to-air combat capability of Tejas.

The Israeli Derby beyond visual range missiles, with a 50-km range, had earlier been integrated with the fighter.

“The test-firing of the two missiles at Goa completed a series of trials to validate their performance under extremely challenging scenarios. The Derby missile achieved a direct hit on a high-speed manoeuvering aerial target. The Python missiles also achieved 100% hits, thereby validating their complete capability,” said a DRDO official.

Prior to the actual test-firings, extensive missile carriage flight tests were conducted at Bengaluru to assess the integration of the Python-5 with aircraft systems on board the Tejas, ranging from avionics and fire-control radars to missile weapon delivery and flight control systems.

“After successful separation trials at Goa, the live launch of the Python on a Banshee target was carried out. In all the live firings, the missile hit the aerial targets,” said the official.

The Indian Air Force is slated to induct 83 new Tejas, including 10 trainers, in the 2024-2028 timeframe under the Rs 46,898 crore deal inked with defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics in February this year. The 73 new Tejas Mark-1A jets will have 43 “improvements” over the 40 Mark-1 jets ordered by IAF earlier.

Rivals Bharat Biotech, IIL to collaborate

They have traditionally been rivals, competing for market share for various vaccines, be it rabies, Hepatitis-B, DPT or even the pentavalent shot.

Competitors Bharat Biotech and Indian Immunologicals Ltd have now turned collaborators for rapid scale-up of capacities for indigenous Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin. IIL will be making the drug substance, a critical component of a vaccine, for Covaxin at its new Karakapatla facility, located near Bharat Biotech’s facility in Hyderabad’s Genome Valley.

According to sources, IIL will begin making the drug substance for about a couple of million doses of Covaxin from July as part of the two year tie-up and from November this will be ramped up to close to 10 million doses. Sources said such commercial agreements take months to hammer out but this time was sealed in four weeks.

Globally, too, Covid-19 has made allies of MNCs such as Sanofi & GSK, who are collaborating on developing a vaccine. More recently Sanofi has agreed to manufacture Moderna’s vaccine in the US and Merck has agreed to make J&J’s vaccine.

“At a recent meeting helmed by Bharat Biotech Bharat Biotech chairman Dr Krishna Ella and IIL managing director Dr K Anand Kumar were very clear this was of national importance and they should not see any other thing than to come together,” said a source with knowledge of the matter. Indian vaccine industry pioneer KI Varaprasad Reddy said: “Sanofi and GSK were bigger rivals but they are together now.”

Powerful quake hits Assam

A powerful earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter Scale jolted Assam and other parts of northeast on Wednesday while six aftershocks were recorded in the hours after the first quake which shook up Sonitpur in northern Assam at 7.51 am on Wednesday.

According to the National Centre for Seismology, the tremors were felt even in North Bengal and other parts of the northeastern states.

According to the disaster management officials in Guwahati, there are reports of damages of buildings and roads in different parts of Sonitpur, Tezpur, Nagaon and adjoining areas but the detailed reports are awaited.

NCS data said that after the first quake, six aftershocks of magnitude 3.2 to 4.7 on the Richter Scale were recorded over the next 2 hours 47 minutes in the vicinity of Sonitpur and Nagaon districts. Successive earthquakes in the mountainous northeastern states, especially in Assam, Mizoram and Manipur have the authorities worried. Seismologists consider the mountainous northeastern region as the sixth most earthquake-prone belt in the world.

DRDO’s tech to help set up 500 O2 plants

DRDO will set up 500 medical oxygen plants within the next three months from the allocations made by the PM Cares Fund, defence minister Rajnath Singh said on Wednesday.

"The medical oxygen plant technology developed by DRDO for on-board oxygen generation for light combat aircraft Tejas will now help in fighting the current crisis of oxygen for Covid-19 patients," said Singh. The DRDO said the transfer of MOP technology has been undertaken to Bengaluru-based Tata Advanced Systems Limited and Coimbatore-based Trident Pneumatics. These two companies will set up 380 plants for installation across various hospitals in the country, with at least five such plants coming up in the Delhi-NCR region next month.


Somewhere in Agra....

It was the kiss of life of a weeping woman desperate to save her dying husband. But that wasn’t meant to be. Visuals of Renu Singhal trying to revive her man as he lay almost lifeless and cramped in an autorickshaw, sans oxygen or a hospital bed, may well be one of the defining images of this pandemic, a photo that has broken a million hearts. Ravi Singhal, 47, could not be rescued despite Renu’s frantic attempts at mouth-to-mouth cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He died as she cradled him in her arms, his head on her lap.

The autorickshaw was parked right in front of a government hospital. Renu had taken Ravi to at least four private hospitals before arriving at Sarojini Naidu Medical College, where too she was denied admission.

The incident took place on Friday, but slowly the visuals have popped up on numerous screens throughout the country and abroad, triggering shock, sadness and dismay. The couple lived in Agra's Awas Vikas area.

The situation at hospitals across Agra, a Covid hotspot even last year, remained grim on Tuesday. Caretakers of patients kept making rounds of markets throughout the day in search of beds and oxygen cylinders. Several Covid hospitals were forced to discharge patients due to lack of essential infrastructure. Life-saving medicines, too, remained out of reach for hundreds.

According to a top health department official, the oxygen supplied is “far too less compared to the requirement.” At least 70 metric tonnes per day are needed at 48 designated Covid hospitals in the district.

Senior member of IMA, Agra unit, Dr Ravi Mohan Pachori, said, “Majority of the hospitals involved in treatment of Covid-19 patients are suffering from a break in oxygen supply. It will be difficult to save patients in critical condition without that. Machines like BiPAP, HFNC and ventilators have stopped working in several hospitals. The situation is getting worse by the day.” District chief medical officer of Agra district, Dr RC Pandey, said, “We are doing what we can, as we see to it that hospitals have enough (of oxygen). Supply has not stopped, but isn’t keeping up with the high demand. Over 10 teams are working to close the gap.”

The Agra health department reported 11 Covid-19 deaths in the past 24 hours, a figure that many said was an understatement.

COVID-19 situation in India beyond heartbreaking: WHO

The World Health Organization chief raised an alarm over India’s record-breaking wave of Covid-19 cases and deaths, saying the organisation was rushing to help address the crisis. “The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told mediapersons.

The WHO also said it had transferred more than 2,600 of its experts from various programmes, including polio and tuberculosis, to work with Indian health authorities to help respond to the pandemic.

He spoke as India fights a catastrophic second coronavirus wave that has overwhelmed hospitals, with crematoriums working overtime.

India, in fourth place, has in recent days been driving the global caseload.

A surge in recent days has seen patients’ families taking to social media to plead for beds and oxygen supplies even as New Delhi has extended its week-long lockdown.

“WHO is doing everything we can, providing critical equipment and supplies,” Tedros said.

He said the UN health agency was among other things sending “thousands of oxygen concentrators, prefabricated mobile field hospitals and laboratory supplies”. The country of 1.3 billion has become the latest hotspot of a pandemic that has killed more than three million people worldwide.

The US and Britain rushed ventilators and vaccine materials to help India weather the crisis, while a range of other countries also pledged support. 


India world No. 3 in military spending

India remains the third biggest military spender in the world, though far behind the US which spends more than 10 times and China which spends almost four times its defence budget.

Total global military expenditure rose to $1,981 billion in 2020, an increase of 2.6% in real terms from 2019 despite the global gross domestic product contracting by 4.4% mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic impact, latest data released by global thinktank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on Monday said.

“We can say with some certainty that the pandemic did not have a significant impact on global military spending in 2020. It remains to be seen whether countries will maintain this level of military spending through a second year of the pandemic,” said Dr Diego Lopes da Silva of SIPRI.

The 10 biggest military spenders were the US ($778 billion), China ($252 billion), India ($72.9 billion), Russia ($61.7 billion), UK ($59.2 billion), Saudi Arabia ($57.5 billion), Germany ($52.8 billion), France ($52.7%), Japan ($49.1 billion) and South Korea ($45.7 billion).

The top five together accounted for 62% of global military expenditure. China’s, in particular, grew for the 26th consecutive year, with its uninterrupted increase being the largest by far over the 2011-2020 decade. Pakistan ($10.3 billion) was ranked 23rd on the list.

India’s expenditure includes a huge pension bill for veterans and defence civilians. In the 2021-2022 defence budget, the pension bill was Rs 1.15 lakh crore out of the total Rs 4.78 lakh crore outlay.

India also has to maintain an over 15-lakh strong force because of unresolved borders with China and Pakistan.

TN: Vedanta’s oxy plant to start operations

The meeting of all recognised political parties chaired by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami on Monday decided to allow operation of Vedanta Ltd’s Sterlite plant in Tuticorin to produce oxygen for four months with the power supplied by the state utility.

The all party meeting was called in the wake of Supreme Court asking the Tamil Nadu government on its views to permit operation of the oxygen plant at the shutdown Vedanta’s copper smelter unit in Tuticorin after a petition was filed by the company in this regard.

The meeting unanimously decided to allow operation of the oxygen plant at Vedanta’s copper smelter plant or Sterlite Copper in Tuticorin temporarily for four months.

The supply of power to operate the oxygen plant and other related units will by the state power utility and Vedanta cannot use its own power facilities. As per the decision, the oxygen plant operation may be extended beyond four months depending on the exigencies and post that power supply will be disconnected.

The meeting also categorically said that on no account Vedanta’s copper smelter unit or its power generation unit or any other unit will be allowed to operate. The parties also said Tamil Nadu should be given preference for supply of oxygen produced at Vedanta’s copper smelter plant and only excess should be supplied to other states.

People who were connected with the operation of an oxygen plant will be allowed entry with necessary pass.

A committee headed by District Collector and consisting of District Superintendent of Police, officials of state pollution control board, two government officials who are experts in oxygen production technology, environmentalists, non-governmental organisation operating in environment area, anti-Sterlite protesters and people of Tuticorin will decide and monitor production.

Earlier speaking at the meeting Palaniswami said Vedanta has approached the Supreme Court to allow it to protect and maintain its important assets in the smelter plant and permit it to produce 1,050 tonnes of oxygen and supply freely to nearby hospitals and to other states. According to Palaniswami, the company said that based on the oxygen plant, production can be started in two or four weeks. 

RIL, BP Start Production from 2nd Deepwater KGD6 Field

Reliance Industries and BP have begun production from their second deep water gas field in the KG D6 block.

RIL-BP’s ‘Satellite Cluster’ field has come onstream two months ahead of schedule despite Covid-19 challenges, the two companies said in a joint statement. The field will produce gas from four reservoirs, utilising a total of five wells and is expected to reach gas production of up to 6 (mmscmd).

The two firms have been developing three deep-water gas fields in KG D6 block—R Cluster, Satellite Cluster and MJ—which together are expected to produce around 30 mmscmd of natural gas by 2023.

R-Cluster started production in December 2020 and MJ is expected to come onstream in second half of 2022.

Maharashtra: Pregnant tigress choked to death, paws chopped

A four-year-old pregnant tigress with four fetuses in her womb was brutally killed by poachers in the Mukutban forest range on Sunday. The matter was kept under wraps by the forest department for more than 24 hours for reasons best known to them.

This is the 17th tiger death in Maharashtra in a little over three months.

This is the second tigress poached in Pandharkawda division in one month. A tigress died in a wire snare on March 23 in Ghonsa in Maregaon range but forest officials are still clueless about the identity of the poachers.

SV Ramarao, CCF of Yavatmal, said: “The tigress had wounds of wire snares in her neck and other injuries on her body, which were inflicted by some sharp-edged weapons..”


551 oxygen plants to be set up through PM CARES

In line with Prime Minister’s direction to boost availability of oxygen to hospitals, the PM CARES Fund has given in-principle approval for allocation of funds for installation of 551 dedicated Pressure Swing Adsorption medical oxygen generation plants inside public health facilities in the country.

In a statement, the Prime Minister Office said,”the Prime Minister has directed that these plants should be made functional as soon as possible. The Prime Minister said that these plants will serve as a major boost to oxygen availability at the district level.”

These dedicated plants will be established in identified Government hospitals in district headquarters in various States/UTs. The procurement will be done through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The PM CARES Fund had earlier this year allocated Rs 201.58 crore for installation of additional 162 dedicated Pressure Swing Adsorption Medical Oxygen Generation Plants inside public health facilities in the country. The basic aim behind establishing PSA Oxygen Generation Plants at Government hospitals in the district headquarters is to further strengthen the public health system and ensure that each of these hospitals has a captive oxygen generation facility.

“Such an in-house captive oxygen generation facility would address the day to day medical oxygen needs of these hospitals and the district. In addition, the liquid medical oxygen would serve as a “top up” to the captive oxygen generation,” the PMO said. The statement further stated that such a system will go a long way in ensuring that government hospitals in the districts do not face sudden disruption of oxygen supplies and have access to adequate uninterrupted oxygen supply to manage the COVID-19 patients and other patients needing such support.

New Delhi & France kick off naval exercise in Arabian Sea

India and France on Sunday kicked off their major ‘Varuna’ naval exercise in the Arabian Sea, as a step towards promoting maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region. The bilateral exercise, in which France has deployed its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier FNS Charles de Gaulle with its Rafale-M naval jets, comes soon after the two countries joined the US, Japan and Australia in the ‘France plus Quad’ La Perouse wargames in the Bay of Bengal earlier this month.

With China’s aggressive and expansionist behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, there is growing strategic congruence among like-minded democratic countries to ensure a stable and secure Indo-Pacific as well as a rulesbased order in the region. “The three-day Varuna will see high tempo-naval operations at sea, including advanced air defence and anti-submarine exercises, intense fixed and rotary wing flying operations, tactical manoeuvres, surface and anti-air weapon firings, among other maritime security operations,” Navy spokesperson Commander Vivek Madhwal said. India has deployed guided missile stealth destroyer INS Kolkata, stealth frigates INS Tarkash and INS Talwar, fleet support ship INS Deepak, with Seaking-42B and Chetak integral helicopters, as well as a Kalvari-class diesel-electric submarine and P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft for the exercise.

Covid 2nd wave has shaken country: PM

The second wave of Covid-19 infections has shaken the country and is testing the limits of people, but the government is utilising its entire might to give a fillip to efforts of state governments to overcome the crisis and beat back the disease, PM Narendra Modi said on Sunday.

In his monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio address, the PM acknowledged the virulence and spread of the current wave. “Many of our near and dear ones have left us untimely. After successfully confronting the first wave of corona, the country was full of enthusiasm, full of self-confidence, but this storm has shaken the country,” he said.

Seeking to reassure people of the efforts to contain the spread of infections, the PM said he has had lengthy deliberations with experts from the pharma industry, vaccine manufacturers, those connected with oxygen production and experts from the medical field who had all offered valuable suggestions.

This time, for emerging victorious in this battle, we have to accord priority to expert and scientific advice. The government of India is applying its entire might to give a fillip to the endeavours of state governments. The states too are trying their best to fulfil their responsibilities,” the PM said.

In a departure from his usual practice, Sunday’s Mann ki Baat was only on Covid-19 with experts and healthcare workers speaking of their experience and the need to contain panic.

Modi spoke to doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers to instil confidence in people and said the biggest priority was to defeat the disease.

Modi emphasised that people should get information only from correct sources. “You can consult your family doctor or doctors in the neighbourhood on the phone. I am noticing that many of our doctors are taking upon themselves this responsibility, on their own. Many doctors are providing information to people through social media.... Many hospitals have websites where information is available,” he said. The PM urged people to opt for vaccination and not be swayed by rumours. “Now, from May 1 onwards, the vaccine is going to be made available for every person above 18 in the country. Now, the corporate sector and companies too will be able to participate in the programme of administering vaccines to their employees,” he said, adding that the programme of free vaccination by the Centre would continue.

Modi lauded the voluntary services being provided by people from different walks of life who are delivering medicines, vegetables and other essentials to families living in quarantine and those offering free ambulance.


Covid-19 Crisis: Pressure mounts on US to send supplies to India

The US Chambers of Commerce, lawmakers and eminent Indian-Americans have stepped up pressure on the Biden administration to ship AstraZeneca and other Covid-19 vaccines along with several life-saving medical supplies to India, which is witnessing a deadly surge in coronavirus cases.

“As the Covid pandemic inflicts a heavy toll on countries around the globe, the US Chamber strongly encourages the administration to release the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses in storage - as well as other life-saving support - for shipment to India, Brazil, and other nations hard-hit by the pandemic,” said Myron Brilliante, executive vice-president and head of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.

He said these vaccine doses will not be needed in the United States, where it is estimated that vaccine manufacturers will be able to produce enough doses by early June to inoculate every American.

This move will affirm US leadership, including in initiatives such as COVAX, and as we work with partners around the globe because no one is safe from the pandemic until we are all safe from it, Myron Brilliante said.

The US Chambers issued the statement after Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar sought global help in the fight against COVID-19. “Will strive to ensure that our supply chains are as smooth as possible in a difficult global situation. The world must support India, as India helps the world,” he said in a tweet.

US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters that the United States continues to work closely with India to facilitate the movement of essential supplies and also address the bottlenecks of the supply chains.

“The Covid-19 situation in India is a global concern,” she said. “We also continue to collaborate with our partners in India to battle this at the highest level. We know Secretary (of State, Tony) Blinken spoke to his counterpart on Tuesday and we remain deeply engaged with India at all levels as we work to combat this crisis of the pandemic together,” Ms Porter said.

Congresswoman Rashida Talib tweeted that the COVID-19 crisis in India is a harsh reminder that the pandemic is not over until the whole world is safe. President Biden “must support a patent waiver to ramp up global production now,” she said.

“As we look to our Indian friends battling this pandemic, we’ll also acknowledge the toll that it’s taking, not only on the people of India, but as well as all throughout South Asia and, quite frankly, all over the world,” Ms Porter said.

The Washington Post in a lead editorial hoped that all of India can seize the moment and begin to reverse the course of this disaster. “India is not a faraway problem. In pandemic time and distance, every place is nearby,” it said.

Maharashtra: Chipi airport opening delayed yet again

The opening of the newly built airport at Chipi in Sindhudurg will get delayed as the director general of civil aviation has said that repairs to the runway are needed before it starts functioning. The state government had earlier planned to inaugurate the airport on Republic Day but later switched the date to March. The Arun Kumar, DG of Civil Aviation, said, “They (the government) have to repair the runway and ensure it conforms to the safety standards prescribed.’’ The airport will give a fillip to tourism in the coastal district of Sindhudurg, which Maharashtra wants to develop as an alternative destination to Goa. At present, most tourists travel to Sindhudurg and nearby places by road or through Konkan Railway.

The airport is being developed by Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, which had awarded a contract to IRB Infrastructure Developers Limited for building and operating the airport.

Then IRB Sindhudurg Airport Pvt Ltd, an SPV (special purpose vehicle), was formed and entrusted with the task of project development and operations.

A ten-seater Falcon 2000 aircraft had conducted a trial run in September 2018 at the airport. The then Civil Aviation Minister, Sunil Prabhu, who comes from Sindhudurg district, wanted the airport to start operations at the earliest, but many formalities had to be completed.

The runway is 2,500 metres long, which can be extended up to 3,400 metres.

A spokesperson of the IRB Sindhudurg Airport Private Limited said, “Work on the runway is underway in consultation with and under the guidance of professional experts and various authorities as well those involved in project development. Once completed, the same would undergo rigorous testing and after that the DGCA would be informed.’’ 

10 die as avalanche hits BRO near China border

At least 10 bodies were recovered whereas eight persons were unaccounted for on Saturday after an avalanche triggered by an alleged glacier burst hit the Malari-Sumna area in Chamoli district along the India-China border in Uttarakhand on Friday. A communique from the Army said 384 labourers working with the Border Roads Organisation in the area had been rescued. Six of them were critical. There were 430 labourers in two BRO camps in the area which were hit by the avalanche.

“The incident took place around 4 pm on Friday when an avalanche hit a location about 4 km ahead of Sumna on Sumna - Rimkhim road in Uttarakhand. This is on Joshimath - Malari- Girthidobla - Sumna- Rimkhim axis. A BRO detachment and two labour camps exist nearby for road construction work along this axis. An Army camp is located 3 km from Sumna. The area has experienced heavy rains and snow since the last five days which is still continuing,” the communique said.

According to army officials, Border Road Task Force teams from Joshimath were working to clear slides enroute from Bhapkund to Sumna and it was expected to take some more time to clear the complete axis since rains and pressure winds were disrupting the rescue and road clearing operations.

A BRO official from Joshimath said that four choppers along with an avalanche sniffer dog and several rescue personnel were on the ground, involved in rescue work. National Disaster Response Force  and State Disaster Response Force teams were assisting the Army and ITBP in clearing the route leading up to the area.

Chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat also held an aerial inspection of Sumna and adjoining areas on Saturday to take stock of the situation. He said that he spoken with home minister Amit Shah who assured him of the required assistance in the rescue operations.

NV Ramana sworn in as 48th Chief Justice of India

Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana was sworn in as the 48th Chief Justice of India by President Ram Nath Kovind on Saturday.

He took the oath at a ceremony held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad were among those present.

Justice Ramana took the oath in English in the name of God. After the swearing in, President Kovind congratulated Justice Ramana and extended him best wishes for a successful tenure. Justice Ramana was appointed as the chief justice of India on April 6. 


Covid surge: Modi gives CMs a five-point strategy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his discussions with CMs of high-burden states made five suggestions on how the second wave of infections could be handled and brought down.

Modi said there was a need for aggressive implementation of Covid-appropriate behaviour and protocols so that burden on hospitals was reduced. The use of face masks and social distancing, along with messages on hygiene, would reduce the pressure on the medical system.

The PM said monitoring of recovery rate in hospitals and increasing it by timely and prompt treatment was essential. This needed efforts to ensure treatment protocols were followed and standards maintained. Creating awareness that no medicine be taken without doctor's advice was vital as it would ensure medicines were available for those who really needed them.

A focus on oxygen audits and ensuring judicious use of the medical gas was essential even as the Centre and states made efforts to increase production and improve distribution, Modi said. Lastly, in order to deal with the increased pressure, manpower at hospitals should be increased by deploying retired medical practitioners and staff from the armed forces.

US rejects demand of Indian vax makers

As India’s Covid crisis deepens, US rejected a key demand by Indian vaccine makers, indicating it would prioritise its own citizens before addressing India’s request for vaccine components.

Responding to journalists, the US state department spokesperson said, “We have a special responsibility to the American people”. He added, “It’s of course not only in our interest to see Americans vaccinated; it’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see Americans vaccinated.”

The implied subtext was that vaccination of Indians was less important even as non-availability of the components will be a blow to India’s vaccine programme.

Foreign minister S Jaishankar has held a couple of rounds of discussions with counterpart Anthony Blinken on easing of the US export embargo. Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla has held similar discussions with Wendy Sherman, US deputy secretary. Washington sources said some US Congressmen have also expressed support. But that getting a positive response is going to be difficult is now clear.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed doubts about helping India develop its pharma sector, especially as India tightened its pharma exports in the context of the Covid crisis.

Merkel was quoted as saying by Politico, “We now have a situation with India where, in connection with the emergency situation of the pandemic, we are worried whether the pharmaceutical products will still come to us,” observed Merkel. “Of course, we have only allowed India to become such a large pharmaceutical producer in the first place, in the expectation that this should then also be complied with. If that is not the case now, we will have to rethink.”

Indicating that Germany might rethink its own industrial policies Merkel said, “The truth is, we haven’t treated our pharmaceutical industry so well for many years.”


India sends DSRV to track Indonesian submarine

India has dispatched a deep submergence rescue vessel to help in the ongoing search and rescue operation for the Indonesian diesel-powered submarine that went missing with 53 sailors on board around the Bali Strait on Wednesday.

The Indian Navy’s DSRV, basically a mini-submarine that dives to “mate” with a “disabled” submarine to extricate sailors trapped deep underwater, was sent on board its “mother ship” Sabarmati from Vizag on Thursday morning.

Fitch Affirms ‘BBB-’ Rating for India

Fitch Ratings on Thursday affirmed its ‘BBB-’ sovereign rating of India, while saying that the recent surge in coronavirus cases posed increasing downside risks to the country’s fiscal 2022 GDP growth outlook.

The current wave of the pandemic may delay India’s economic recovery, but is unlikely to derail it, Fitch said. It maintained a negative outlook for the rating, reflecting “lingering uncertainty around the debt trajectory”.

For India, it has forecast GDP growth of 12.8% in FY22, moderating to 5.8% in FY23.

India on Thursday reported 3.14 lakh new Covid cases, the world’s highest single-day tally.

The negative outlook, Fitch said, reflected lingering uncertainty around the debt trajectory following the sharp deterioration in India's public finance metrics due to the pandemic shock from a previous position of limited fiscal headroom.

Fitch expects pandemic-related restrictions to remain localised and less stringent than the national lockdown in 2020, even as the vaccine rollout has been stepped up.

EC slaps Covid ban on Bengal rallies

The Election Commission banned roadshows, bike rallies and padayatras for the remaining part of the West Bengal poll campaign, besides capping attendance at public meetings to 500 people subject to availability of adequate space with social distancing.

The EC said any permission for roadshow, cycle, bike, vehicle rally, if already granted, would stand withdrawn, while clearance for public meetings would stand modified in line with the new instructions issued by the commission invoking its power under Article 324 of the Constitution. As for nukkad sabhas and street plays, they will continue to be banned only between 7pm and 10am.

The fresh curbs — effective from 7pm on Thursday till the closing of campaign at 6.30pm on April 26 — were imposed in view of several instances of election meetings and campaigns where norms relating to social distancing and wearing of masks were flouted “in blatant disregard” of the commission’s guidelines for Covid-safe campaign.

“The commission has noted with anguish that many political parties and candidates are still not adhering to the prescribed safety norms during public gatherings, and this is making difficult for the state and district election machineries to enforce the directions fully,” the poll panel said in its order.

A senior EC functionary said that the ceiling of 500 people at public meetings would depend on the capacity of the ground to be assessed by the district election officer. This upper limit of 500 will apply to physical rallies addressed by political leaders, star campaigners and candidates as well as virtual rallies where their address or speech will be played to the gathering in a public space, using multimedia aids.

Meanwhile, polling for the sixth phase of polls in West Bengal was held on Thursday. At least 79% voter turnout was recorded til 5pm in 43 assembly constituencies of the state.


Somewhere in Vidarbha....

Travellers click away as a sub-adult tiger sits on the Agarzari-Mohurli road near Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Vidarbha on Tuesday. Tadoba’s wildlife biologist Prajakta Hushangabadkar, who was returning from work to Mohurli, said it happened around 5pm. The restrictions on people’s movements due to Covid seem to have encouraged the tigers to come out on the roads.

Japan PM too cancels India visit

After UK PM Boris Johnson, Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga too has postponed his visit to India because of the deteriorating Covid-19 situation. Suga was keen to visit India early May for what would have been his first summit meeting with his counterpart Narendra Modi.

However, Japan too has seen a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases. The Japan government is said to be considering a state of emergency in Tokyo and some other areas because of a fresh surge in infections. This is for the third time in as many years that the annual summit meeting couldn’t take place. The pandemic prevented the summit last year and in 2019 then PM Shinzo Abe had to call off his visit because of violence in Guwahati, the venue for the summit. 


SC sets rules for time-bound completion of criminal trials

In order to bring uniformity in investigation and trial proceedings in criminal cases across the country and to wrap up hearings in a time-bound manner, the Supreme Court directed all high courts and governments to follow the rules approved by it which were drafted by three advocates on its suggestion.

As per the rules, a schedule should be fixed by the trial court to hold proceedings, preferably on a day-to-day basis, and application for bail in nonbailable cases must ordinarily be disposed off within three to seven days from the date of first hearing. It also said state governments shall appoint advocates, other than public prosecutors, to advise the investigating officer during the probe.

Approving the draft criminal rules on practice, a bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat directed all HCs to take expeditious steps to incorporate the rules within six months. The rules were drafted by senior advocates Siddharth Luthra, R Basanth and lawyer K Parameshwar who assisted the court as amicus curiae in settling the issue.

The court passed the order after taking cognisance of the lack of uniform practices with regard to preparation of injury reports, deposition of witnesses, translation of statements, numbering and nomenclature of witnesses etc. The court said uniformity was needed to bring clarity with regard to trial court proceedings and records for the purpose of appreciation at the HC level and eventually, before the SC.

“This court is of the opinion that courts in all criminal trials should, at the beginning of the trial, ie after summoning the accused and framing of charges, hold a preliminary case management hearing. This hearing may take place immediately after the framing of charges. In this hearing, the court should consider the total number of witnesses, and classify them as eyewitness, material witness, formal witness and experts,” the rules said.

“The schedule of recording of witnesses should then be fixed, by giving consecutive dates. Each date so fixed should be scheduled for a specific number of witnesses. However, the witnesses may be bound down to appear for 2-3 consecutive dates, in case their depositions are not concluded. Also, in case any witness does not appear, or cannot be examined, the court shall indicate a fixed date for such purpose,” the rules added. The SC also directed state governments and the Centre to carry out consequential amendments to their police and other manuals, within six months.

Bengaluru: Centre greenlights ORR-KIA Metro

In a major relief to Bengalureans, the Centre cleared the long-pending Outer Ring Road-Kempegowda International Airport Metro corridor.

Speaking to reporters after a Union cabinet meeting, railway minister Piyush Goyal said: “The government has approved Bengaluru Metro’s Phase 2A from Central Silk Board Junction to KR Puram and Phase 2B from KR Puram to Kempegowda International Airport via Hebbal Junction.”

The line is crucial for the city as it will pass through its IT corridor housing several multinational companies as well as areas like Silk Board, Bellandur, Marathahalli, KR Puram, Nagawara, Hebbal, Yelahanka and KIA.

“The project will streamline the urban transportation system in Bengaluru, which is stressed due to intensive developments, increase in the number of private vehicles and heavy construction, putting stress on travel infrastructure and industrial activities, and provide the people safe, secure, reliable and comfortable public transport,” a statement issued by the central government said.

Welcoming the decision, chief minister B S Yediyurappa said this will enhance ease of living for citizens by decongesting Bengaluru.

Union minister for housing and urban affairs (independent charge) Hardeep Singh Puri said: “Once completed in the estimated 54 months, this project will play a key role in decongesting the city, which contributes 40% to India’s IT exports and is home to a large number of IT parks, hubs & industries, many of which are located on the route.”

“This connectivity will ease traffic congestion on roads leading to the airport. It will also contribute to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” he added.

BMRCL had prepared a detailed project report for ORR Metro in 2016 at a cost Rs 4,202 crore and it was to be operational by 2021. However, the plan was deferred as the project didn’t get clearance from the Centre. The agency is now planning to make it operational by 2025-2026.


Kerala: Ancient ‘hero stones’ found at Chathurangapara in Idukki

An ancient stone with the image of a hero sitting atop an elephant has been found at Chathurangapara near Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in the district. Researchers of the Archeological and Historical Conservation forum in Nedumkandam who discovered the “hero stone” said that such a discovery has been made for the first time in south India.

“The one-foot stone has the carving of a hero sitting on an elephant with a bow and other weapons in his hands. He has worn ornaments on his ears and neck. The stone depicts a hero with a raised sword in his right hand. Another person and animal form is seen nearby and it was obscure,” said Nedumkandam archeological forum member Dr Rajeev Puliyoor.

According to researchers the “hero stone” was discovered below the hill on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border at the base of a banyan tree at Chathurangapara. The place is geographically very important on an ancient trade route from Kerala to Madurai that is over two thousand years old. This hero stone is another example of the mysterious history of the high range area.

Historian and former vice-chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University Rajan Gurukkal said, “It is difficult to date the hero stones without inscriptions or firearms, for the practice of erecting them in the deep south had been common since the Iron Age. They were installed as anthropomorphic memorial stelae in relief design for fallen heroes since very old times. Tamil heroic poems help us associate them with pastoral heroism of cattle raids. The practice continued even into the late 19th century. Keeping in view of the relief features, the hero stone of Chathurangapara appears to be of 15-16th centuries.”

Earlier, for the first time in south India, petroglyphs (carvings on rocks) similar to Indus script on megalithic-era menhirs were found at Chakkakkanam near Nedumkandam in Idukki in 2019. Last year, prehistoric stone monuments were discovered in the catchment area of Anchuruli in Idukki dam reservoir. The 2,500-3,000 year old megaliths, including menhirs, were found after the water level receded in Pezhumkandam in Anchuruli.

“The headstone is a good proof that Idukki was inhabited centuries ago. This evidence also reminds us that the high range claims another unrevealed history,” said Puliyoor.

Maoists kidnap and slit throat of 15-year-old boy

Maoists murdered two youngsters in Sukma, including a 15-year old boy, because they have close family members in the security forces. They accused the child of being a police informant, beat him savagely and slit his throat on Sunday night. Five persons, including two off-duty cops, have been murdered in Sukma in the past five days.

Sunday’s killings took place in Milapalli region of Jagargunda area, barely 20km from the site where Maoists ambushed security forces on April 3.

The 15-year-old, Madkam Arjun, was targeted because his brother is a jawan in CRPF’s Bastariya Battalion, said police. The other victim, 21-year-old Taati Hadma, was accused of helping police. His father was an assistant constable, but had quit the force a year ago due to Maoist threats and returned to his village. Bastar range IG P Sundarraj said a group of armed Maoists barged into the houses of Arjun and Taati, dragging them out and marched them into the forest. There, the duo was beaten mercilessly and then their throats were cut.

Their bodies, covered in wounds, were found the next morning. Police found leaflets around the bodies that said the Maoists’ Jagargunda area committee claimed responsibility for the killings. Maoists have been on the rampage this month, beginning with the massacre of 22 security personnel in Tekulguda. On April 15 they cut the throats of two off-duty constables who were on their way to buy veggies and groceries.

Everyone above 18 years eligible for COVID-19 vaccine from May 1: Government

Everyone above 18 years of age will be eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 from May 1, the central government said on Monday as it liberalised the vaccination drive to allow states, private hospitals and industrial establishments to procure the doses directly from manufacturers.

Under the third phase of the vaccination drive commencing next month, the vaccine manufacturers would supply 50 per cent of their monthly Central Drugs Laboratory released doses to the central government and would be free to supply the remaining 50 per cent doses to state governments and in the open market.

Manufacturers would have to make an advance declaration of the price for 50 per cent supply that would be available to the state governments and in the open market before May 1, 2021, an official statement said.

Based on this price, state governments, private hospitals, industrial establishments, etc would be able to procure vaccine doses from the manufacturers.

Private Hospitals would have to procure their supplies of COVID-19 vaccine exclusively from the 50 per cent supply earmarked for entities other than those coming through the central government channel.

The private Vaccination providers would need to transparently declare their self-set vaccination price and the eligibility through this channel would be opened up to all adults, that is everyone above the age of 18, the statement added.

Vaccination will continue as before in the government of India vaccination centres free of cost to the eligible population — healthcare and frontline workers and all people above 45 years of age.

The Union Health Ministry said the important decision to allow vaccination to everyone above the age of 18 from May 1 was taken in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Prime Minister said that the government has been working hard for over a year to ensure that maximum numbers of Indians are able to get the vaccine in the shortest possible of time. He added that India is vaccinating people at world record pace and we will continue this with even greater momentum,” it added..


India records its most Covid deaths in a single day

Daily deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic touched an all-time high on Friday, crossing 1,300 for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic even as fresh cases surged to another new peak at nearly 2.34 lakh.

Meanwhile, one out of every four cases detected across the world on Thursday was in India, as surging numbers in the country were driving the global daily counts towards an all-time high.

There were 845,408 new cases recorded across the world on Thursday, just 16 short of the peak of 845,424 reported on January 8, as per worldometers.info. Of these, India accounted for 216,902, around 26%. Brazil, with the second-highest tally of daily cases on Thursday, was not even close to half of India’s count at 80,529.

On Friday, India recorded 2,33,987 new cases, an increase of 8% over the previous day’s 2,16,902. As many as 16 states posted their highest-ever surge in cases, a record for a single day. Fatalities provided a grim picture with daily deaths climbing to a record 1,340, going past the previous highest of 1,275 reported on September 15 last year, at the peak of the first wave in the country. Like the previous day, deaths in four states crossed the 100 mark, with Gujarat’s toll coming close to three figures at 94.

Maharashtra reported 398 deaths. Chhattisgarh continued to report the second highest daily toll at 138, followed by Delhi (141) and UP (103). Fatalities were also rising in Karnataka (78), followed by MP at 60. Jharkhand reported 56 deaths, its highest from the pandemic in a single day.

Maharashtra was also at the top among the 16 states that saw their highest daily cases on Friday. It logged 63,729 new infections, going past the previous high of 63,294 recorded on Sunday. UP continued to report a massive surge as a record 27,426 cases were detected in the last 24 hours.

Goa: Anmod Ghat comes alive with blossoming of fragrant wild orchids

The Anmod Ghat, which connects Karnataka and Goa, has come alive with the beauty of the delightfully pink purple Dendrobium lawianum blossoms.

The Anmod Ghat section connects Goa’s Dharbandora taluka with Joida in Karnataka, and is filled with immense diversity of floral wealth.

The spring season here sees the flowering of a variety of wild flowers. The Dendrobium lawianum is one such species of scented wild orchids, which blossoms during the spring across the Ghat.

Dendrobium lawianum species generally grows on trees and rocks. The Dendrobium lawianum that blooms in Anmod Ghat section is a small epiphytic herb, which grows and flowers on the indigenous species of trees of the Ghat.

Pune-based Mayuresh Kulkarni, a researcher, who is presently carrying out studies on wild orchids, said that habitat destruction is now posing a threat to Epiphytic orchid diversity, like the one seen in Anmod Ghat.

“It is often a cause of species becoming threatened. Dendrobium lawianum, which is endemic to Western Ghats of India, can be seen blooming in natural forest even by the road side. If trees are being chopped then it will be big loss to biodiversity, conservation is key to save nature,” said Kulkarni.

Like other road sections where tree cover has been affected due to work of widening being carried out across the country, the highway passing through Anmod Ghat is also undergoing expansion.

Gajanan Shetye, a wildlifer fascinated with the beauty of the Dendrobium in the Anmod Ghat section, said, “The fragrant species is endemic orchid and for its existence within the fragile ecosystem, insect pollination in the species need specific vectors to visit.”

This epiphytic orchid is generally resilient to even to vagaries of climatic changes due to its adaptive habits and specialised roots.

IMD forecasts ‘normal’ monsoon

At a time when the economy remains fragile and the country is battling a second Covid-19 wave, the India Meteorological Department has forecast a “normal” monsoon — good news for the farm sector and one which will ease concerns over rising food inflation.

Plentiful monsoon rainfall during June-September period is essential not just for the rural sector but the broader economy as well as it fuels demands and prevents agrarian distress. Last year too, the farm sector escaped the brunt of the pandemic and was an important factor in faster-than-expected recovery in the last two quarters of FY21. A couple of days ago, private forecaster Skymet also predicted a normal monsoon.

The IMD’s forecast points to the 2021 monsoon being the third consecutive year (2019-2021) of good rainfall. India earlier had three consecutive years of ‘normal’ or ‘good rainfall’ in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

For first time at this stage, IMD released a map, showing a state-wise probability of monsoon’s status and a month-wise forecast from May.

Though it suggested a higher probability of either ‘normal’ or ‘above normal’ rainfall over most parts of India, its initial forecast shows ‘below normal’ rainfall in east and northeast, which includes Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, north Chhattisgarh, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Assam.

Nashik: India’s worst-hit city by share of its population

The four cities with the highest number of fresh cases per million population over the last month are all in Maharashtra. Nashik at the top is followed by Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai, in that order. Sandwiched between these cities and Delhi (at no. 9) are Lucknow, Bangalore, Bhopal and Indore, with Patna rounding off the top 10.

In absolute numbers, Mumbai has added 3.7 lakh cases between March 16 and April 15, much higher than any other city, while Delhi seems like it is the next worst hit. Absolute numbers, however, can give a misleading picture as cities with much bigger populations would tend to have more cases.

Calculating the number of cases per million makes it possible to compare cities with vastly different population sizes.

Thus, Mumbai and Delhi with populations of over 20 million each have had single day highs over the last month of over 17,700 and 14,300, respectively. But again, when we look at these numbers in proportion to their population, Lucknow’s high of just under 4,500 on April 15 is actually more alarming.

We looked at the number of Covid infections over the last one month in the country’s 30 most populous urban agglomerations — contiguous urban areas like Greater Mumbai or Greater Kolkata — according to the UN’s World Urbanisation Prospects data. For two of these, Hyderabad and Vijaywada, data wasn’t available.

Almost all the cities have breached their previous highest daily cases during the course of this month and are continuing to witness a rise in daily cases. This is a serious worry for the health infrastructure in these cities, as there is no telling how far the cases would increase before they reach the peak.

Mercifully, Mumbai, Pune, and Nashik are now seeing decreasing number of cases over the last few days indicating that these cities could be over their peak.

In the cities in Kerala that form part of this list, as well as in Coimbatore and Visakhapatnam, the all-time high for daily cases was not during this past month.

The analysis here pertains to urban agglomerations, which means Mumbai includes Thane and Navi Mumbai and Chennai would include Thiruvallur, for instance.

The only exception to this is Delhi, whose satellite cities are in other states and have not been included as part of the population or cases in Delhi.

UK home secretary approves Nirav extradition to India

UK home secretary Priti Patel has ordered the extradition to India of Punjab National Bank scam accused billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi.

Nirav (50) is currently lodged at Wandsworth prison in London. India wants to extradite him to stand trial to face charges of defrauding PNB of Rs 6,498 crore, of laundering the proceeds and interfering with witnesses and evidence.

District judge Sam GoozĂ©e had on February 25 sent Nirav’s case to Patel to make a decision on whether to order extradition, saying he was satisfied there was a “prima facie” case, meaning there is evidence upon which Nirav could be convicted at trial in India. He also said that his extradition would be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and it would not be oppressive to extradite him despite his deteriorating mental health.

A UK home office spokesperson said: “The extradition order was signed on April 15.” Nirav has 14 days to apply for permission to appeal to the UK high court. He may seek leave to appeal against both the decisions of the district judge and of the home secretary.

If permission is granted, the high court will go on to consider the appeal. If there is no application to appeal, he must be extradited within 28 days of the secretary of state’s decision to order extradition. Appeals to the Supreme Court can only be made if the high court has certified that the case involves a point of law of general public importance.


Pune: MSRDC completes land survey in Haveli, Mulshi for ring road

The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation recently completed the joint measurement survey of 100 hectares of land in four villages — one in in Haveli and three in Mulshi tehsil — for the proposed 68.8km western ring road passing through Maval, Mulshi, Haveli and Bhor tehsils.

Sandeep Patil, the sub-divisional engineer of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation said, “The survey is the first step towards land acquisition. We have been conducting meetings with farmers on regular intervals and explaining to them the importance of the project, compensation aspect, etc. This exercise has cleared many doubts of farmers. As a result, we could carry out the survey smoothly.”

"We have made a comprehensive presentation, which is being shown during meetings with farmers. The compensation will be given on the lines of the Samruddhi expressway project," said a senior MSRDC official.

During the survey, a team of officials from the MSRDC and land acquisition department recorded condition of the land and existing properties in the form of well, house, trees, among others.

“Based on our findings and three years’ land deals, the state town planning department would decide the compensation amount for the farmers. Since the survey is done under camera, there wouldn’t be any confusion in future,” added Patil.

The road /project, as per the estimation, requires about 763 hectares of land in 38 villages of these tehsils. The state government has already approved the project and made a budgetary provision of Rs.26,000 crore for the work.

The Western ring road will start from Urse village in Maval thesil, then it will go through villages of Mulshi, Haveli before connecting Mumbai-Bangalore highway at Kelavade village in Bhor tehsil.

The land acquisition process for the eastern ring road is yet to be started. The road is aimed at reducing traffic congestion in Pimpri Chinchwad and Pune civic limits.

Wholesale inflation at an 8-year high

Wholesale price inflation shot up to an eight year-high in March driven by an increase in the prices of fuel, manufactured products and metal, signalling the strengthening of inflationary pressures and posing a fresh challenge for policymakers besides ruling out any interest rates cuts for now.

Inflation, as measured by the wholesale price index, accelerated to 7.4% in March, higher than the 27-month high of 4.2% in February.

This is the highest inflation rate recorded in the new data series. The previous high was 7.4% in October 2012.

The sharp rise in March was also attributed to low base as data for March 2020 was computed with a low response rate due to the nationwide lockdown.

The spike in WPI came against the backdrop of an increase in retail inflation, which jumped to a four month high in March.

The NDA government had been so far been successful in taming inflation since assuming power in May 2014, but a string of factors and the Covid-19 pandemic has added to pressures on the prices front and triggered unease among households dealing with job losses, salary cuts and uncertainty.

Data showed that wholesale inflation in the manufactured products segment rose to an eight-year high of 7.3% in March, highlighting the return of pricing for manufacturers as the economy opened up, and global metal prices strengthened.

The inflation rate in the fuel and power segment rose to a two-year high 10.3%, compared with a decline of 2.9% in March 2020, which was attributed to the surge in global crude oil prices.

Vegetable prices declined due to improved supplies.

With the manufactured products category, vegetable and animal oils and fats rose an annual 34.2%. High edible oil prices have added to the burden of household budgets. Manufactured food inflation shot up to a 49-month high of 9% largely led by edible oils.

Economists said they expect the Reserve Bank of India to continue with its pause on interest rates despite the rising uncertainty and risks to growth due to localised lockdowns being imposed to prevent the spread of the fresh surge in Covid-19 cases. The central bank focuses on retail inflation while deciding on rates, but also takes into account price movements across a broad spectrum.

Inflation in the food group rose by 3.3% in March 2021.


Pune: Breaking the Chain

Joint commissioner of Pune police Ravindra Shisve made it clear that people should prefer to walk down, instead of using vehicles, to neighbourhood shops for buying essentials.

“People can use vehicles only in case of emergency and will have to explain the nature of emergency travel to the policemen at the check points. People should avoid unnecessary travel and are requested to cooperate with the police,” he said.

“Only vehicles and persons involved in essential services are allowed to move on the roads. The weekend lockdown will remain in force and people should follow the existing rules during the weekends. The police will implement all the directives issued by the PMC commissioner,” he said.

Sudhir Hiremath, deputy commissioner of Pimpri Chinchwad police, said, “No one is expected to come out on the roads just for a walk or bicycle ride during the next 15 days.”

He said, “People can go to their nearest grocery store or dairy to buy essentials, between 7am and 6pm. They are not expected to go to some other part of the city for the same. After 6pm, only medical stores and food delivery people will be permitted.”

Hiremath said the police would not restrict people going for vaccination, provided they must carry necessary documents with them. He said there were 50 checkpoints in the Pimpri Chinchwad police commissionerate. “We will take strict action against people going out after 6pm,” the officer said.

Pune rural police will deploy about 2,000 policemen at 150 check points. “Hotels, restaurants, eateries, dhabas will continue with parcel service,” Pune rural superintendent of police Abhinav Deshmukh said.

“Divisional commissioner Saurabh Rao held video conference meeting with industrial representatives on Wednesday. We categorically told them their employees and vehicles should carry necessary documents and identity cards,” he said.

Centre cancels CBSE Class 10 exams, puts off Class 12 boards

Keeping in view rising Covid cases and apprehensions expressed by students and school administrators, the Centre on Wednesday decided to cancel the Class 10 board exams and reschedule Class12 boards with a decision to be taken on fresh dates on June 1.

The decisions were taken at a review meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Initial discussions considered rescheduling both Class 10 and12 exams but the Prime Minister is understood to have remarked that students had already suffered considerable uncertainty and should be spared further travails to the extent possible.

The meeting decided that the Class 10 board exams be scrapped with students unhappy with their results permitted to take the tests whenever they are held next.

The Centre’s decision pertains to India's largest board, CBSE, and the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations, a private board with a much less number of affiliated schools, will announce its plans in the next two days. It was felt that the Class 12 board exams have a significant bearing on higher education choices and so should not be scrapped right now. An official said the assessment formulae could impact students unevenly, and the effort would be to try and hold the exam at a later date.

According to CBSE officials, this is the first instance when the board has to scrap the Class 10 exams altogether. Last year, due to the riots in North-East Delhi and coronavirus infections, the exams were partially cancelled. A formula based on marks scored in the exams a student did take was used to calculate the final result.

This year, 21,50,761 candidates were scheduled to appear in the Class 10 exams, which is nearly 2.5 lakh more than 2020. A total of 14,30,243 candidates registered for the Class 12 exams, which is almost 2.2 lakh more than last year.

The meeting to review the examinations was attended by education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, the principal secretary to the PM, the cabinet secretary, school and higher education secretaries and other top officials.

With active Covid-19 cases crossing the 13-lakh mark, it was reported that the government was reviewing the Board exam schedule. In the meeting on Wednesday, it was decided that the board exams for Class 12, scheduled to be held from May 4 to June 14, will be rescheduled and a further review of the situation will be held on June 1 by the CBSE. A notice of at least 15 days will be given before the start of the examinations.

The CBSE will prepare objective criteria for the results of Class 10. Any candidate who is not satisfied with his/her marks on this basis will be given an opportunity to sit for an exam as and when conditions are conducive to hold it.

Many school principals and educationists welcomed the decision.

Covid-19: Daily cases at 1,99,620

India reported nearly 2 lakh fresh Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, with the daily case count almost doubling in 10 days amid an unprecedented surge in the pandemic.

A total of 1,99,620 new cases was recorded, just 380 short of the 2-lakh milestone, a mere 10 days after the singleday case tally had crossed 1 lakh. 

The US, the only other country to log over 2 lakh cases in a day, had taken 21 days to hit the grim milestone after crossing the 1-lakh mark. Cases in the US hit 1 lakh on October 30 last year and crossed 2 lakh on November 20. The country went on to record a peak of 3,09,035 cases in a single day on January 8, as per worldometers.info.

Such has been the second-wave surge in India that daily cases have hit a new high on nine of the last 11 days — the only two exceptions being Mondays, when numbers usually drop sharply due to lower testing and staff shortages over the weekend.

The death toll from the virus was over 1,000 for the second day running as 1,038 fatalities were recorded on Wednesday, the highest daily toll since October 2. On Tuesday, India had reported a total of 1,035 deaths.

The pandemic continued to spread alarmingly through several states, particularly those in the Hindi heartland. As many as nine states posted their highest-ever rise in daily count on Wednesday.

Through the day, huge crowds of migrants from UP and Bihar thronged the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, desperate to return home. Among them were daily wagers who worked in shops, restaurants and markets. Besides, there were electricians, carpenters and drivers who found their work drying up.

Activists working with the poor say the Maharashtra government’s Rs 5,476-crore relief package is too little given the enormity of the distress caused by the stringent restrictions. The state government is offering 3kg of wheat and 2kg of rice free of cost for a month for those who hold ration cards under the National Food Security Act. The state has 7 crore listed beneficiaries.

The state’s relief scheme will also provide two lakh Shiv bhojan thalis free of cost to the needy for a month. 

The state has also announced relief worth Rs 1,500 each for 12 lakh construction workers, five lakh hawkers and 12 lakh rickshaw drivers for a month.


Covid-19: India’s daily cases hit new peak of 1.85 lakh

India continued to report new peaks in daily Covid-19 cases with a record 1.85 lakh fresh infections added to the caseload on Tuesday, an 8.5% rise from the previous peak of 1.7 lakh recorded on Sunday.

Daily deaths crossed 1,000 for the first time since October 2, with at least 1,035 fatalities recorded on Tuesday, with data from Assam yet to be received till late at night.

New cases in the last 24 hours stood at 1,84,705, with Assam's count yet to be added. This was the eighth new all-time of daily cases reported in the last 10 days. During this period, the peak has risen from 1,03844 on April 4, registering a steep 78% increase.

Uttar Pradesh: Seven-year-old tigress found dead in Dudhwa

A seven-year-old tigress was found dead in Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary of Dudhwa tiger reserve in UP’s Lakhimpur Kheri district on Tuesday afternoon. This is the fourth tiger death in Uttar Pradesh in a span of 45 days. Three of them died in Lakhimpur Kheri district.

The carcass was found in Chaltua beat. Officials claimed that the tigress had injuries on its genitalia and was not able to hunt. They believe it died a natural death but will await its autopsy report. The autopsy will be conducted by a panel of experts at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in Bareilly on Wednesday.

Soon, e-courts may let cases be filed 24/7

Limiting the registry’s role in prioritising cases, Phase 3 of the e-Courts project, currently in the draft stage, has proposed a 24/7 digital window to litigants and lawyers to file cases from anywhere, anytime with the provision of scheduling digital hearings in an open court, ensuring compliance of timelines by both judges and litigants.

Use of artificial intelligence has been proposed to “intelligently recommend schedules for hearing by optimising and coordinating the schedules and time of different actors (judges, lawyers and litigants)”, the draft proposal put up on the website of the justice department seeking stakeholders’ suggestions said.

The Centre’s ambitious e-Courts project, initiated in 2005, has completed two phases so far. At a cost of Rs 2,300 crore, it has computerised almost all 19,000 functional district and subordinate courts with broadband connectivity and equipped judges and courtrooms with modern communication gadgets. The Supreme Court e-Committee is responsible for policy planning and strategic direction.

The next phase of judicial reforms envisages a complete transformation of Indian courts into digital platforms — having facilities of e-Pay, e-Summons, e-Hearings and e-Judgment — where litigants can appear remotely, schedule hearings at his/her convenience and an option of choosing alternative dispute resolution mechanism or a regular case while e-Filing.

It has proposed an interoperable criminal justice system where connectivity between courts, prison and police will be leveraged to ensure speedy trial of cases and limiting adjournments on account of non-appearance of witnesses or unavailability of lawyers. The digital court will provide for a data exchange protocol embedded with a privacy policy. During the second phase of the e-Courts project, more than 3,400 courts were made videoconference compatible, providing connectivity with prisons. These facilities are already available in the Supreme Court and HCs.

Phase 3 also proposes transcription of court proceedings from audio/video format to typed digital record that can be made available to litigants and lawyers after the end of hearings. “Live streaming or sharing recorded court proceedings can enable courts to become more open,” the draft proposal said.

Government fast-tracks nods for vax cleared in other countries

With surging Covid-19 cases fuelling calls for faster vaccination, the Centre enabled faster access to foreign-made vaccines by doing away with bridging trial studies prior to grant of emergency authorisation for shots approved by recognised regulators like the US FDA or UK’s MHRA.

The changes in regulatory approvals are intended to increase availability of jabs amid a steep second wave of the infection. The vaccines can be imported in ready-touse vials or in a fill-and-use form, health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said. Vaccines granted emergency approval by drug regulators of the US, the EU, Japan and the UK or those listed with WHO for emergency use will be given the exemption.

There will, however, be post-approval parallel bridging clinical trials in the Indian population for such foreign vaccines. Further, the first 100 beneficiaries of such foreign vaccines shall be assessed for seven days for safety outcomes before a wider rollout for the immunisation programme, the health ministry said. The government said it would carry out price and supply negotiations with vaccine makers.

The decision to facilitate quicker access to foreign vaccines is expected to encourage imports, including import of bulk drug material, optimal utilisation of domestic fill and finish capacity which will, in turn, provide a fillip to vaccine manufacturing capacities and availability for domestic use, the government said. The decision to do away with pre-approval bridging studies is understood to reflect both the urgency of the situation and evaluation of evidence that many vaccines are doing well with millions of people having received the shots.

“The National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19, after comprehensive deliberation, recommended that vaccines for Covid-19, which have been developed and are being manufactured in foreign countries, and which have been granted emergency approval for restricted use by USFDA, EMA, UK MHRA, PMDA Japan or which are listed in WHO (Emergency Use Listing) may be granted emergency use approval in India, mandating the requirement of post-approval parallel bridging clinical trial in place of conduct of local clinical trial as per the provisions prescribed under Second Schedule of the New Drugs & Clinical Trials Rules 2019,” the health ministry said.

“The decision has created an enabling regulatory provision to enable those foreign-made Covid vaccines that have been approved by credible foreign regulators,” the ministry said, underlining that it denotes streamlining and fast-tracking of the regulatory system to increase availability and accessibility. Meanwhile, makers of Russian vaccine Sputnik V welcomed emergency use approval by India, saying 60 countries had allowed use of the shot that is seen to deliver 91% efficacy. Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF said deals were in place with Gland Pharma, Hetero Biopharma, Panacea Biotec, Stelis Biopharma and Virchow Biotech for manufacture.

So far, India has granted emergency approval to three vaccines for restricted use. While Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Serum Institute of India’s Covishield are part of the national vaccination drive, the recently approved Sputnik V will be initially imported for distribution before local manufacturing begins.

While Covaxin, being a locally developed vaccine, is undergoing full clinical trials in India, bridging studies to check safety, efficacy and immunogenicity in local population were conducted on both Covishield and Sputnik V before grant of emergency use authorisation.


Mumbai: Miyawaki therapy

A canopy of kanchan, karanj, neem, jamun and palash trees casting a 20-feet-high shade on the Central Railside Warehouse in Jogeshwari is barely reminiscent of the cement bags, construction debris and toxic air particles that once defined this corner until a year ago. The 23,000-sq-ft of dusty wasteland is now a foliage-rich micro forest with over 7,000 kinds of medicinal and fruit trees with bumble bees and butterflies around.

This jungle-like greenwood, in the middle of Mumbai’s urban sprawl, is the first urban forest that sprouted to life in 2020 when Pradeep Tripathi of Green Yatra, an NGO, used the Japanese Miyawaki planting technique to recreate in one year, a natural forest. “A green wall,” is what Tripathi calls this bulwark against heat, dust, carbon and concrete in the city.

At least 50 such miniature fast forests have been popping up in the city — dumping yards like Nisarga Udyan, busy road like Chembur’s Eastern Freeway and in barren wastelands such as Bhakti Park’s industrial ward.

Developed by Japanese vegetation ecologist Akira Miyawaki in the ’80s and adapted by urban cities like Singapore, Kenya, New York, and now Mumbai, crafting these DIY forests requires saplings with well-developed roots of 20 to 50 different species planted closely together in a random mix like one would find in the wild.

Advocates for the method say these micro forests “grow 10 times faster, 30 times denser and are 100 times more biodiverse” than those planted by conventional methods.

Tripathi has sown nearly 7 lakh saplings in and around Mumbai and gearing up to plant another lakh across Navi Mumbai before monsoon. BMC too has planted 2.21 lakh trees to fill 43 tiny Miyawaki forests over the past year, the first of which bloomed near Worli in January. “The BMC, in its budget for 2020 and 2021, allocated Rs 20 crore to plant at least 3.75 lakh trees using the Miyawaki method and the fact that most of these trees have reached a height of 5 to 7 feet in just one year is a sign that the forests are growing properly and can become the city’s lungs,” said Jitendra Pardeshi, BMC’s superintendent of gardens.

A would-be forester needs to bear a high initial cost for the intensive process of surveying natural vegetation of the area, to test the soil, dig pits, build nutrients into the soil and judiciously plot out a mix of trees. “It can cost you up to Rs 500-800 per sapling,” says Tripathi.

But is creating mini forests enough to salvage the city’s traditional tree cover? Urban planner Pankaj Joshi, principal director of Urban Centre Mumbai, feels, while Miyawaki afforestation of critical stretches with large infrastructure projects may be a good way to heal sore plots of land and a great alternative to “farcical” tree transplantations that don’t survive, “Care has to be taken that most species planted are indigenous,” he says, pointing at the silver oaks brought into Panchgani between the ’20s and ’40s. “It’s been 100 years and even now birds don’t sit on those plants nor eat their fruit. It’s important that these trees don’t just perform as a plant but the entire ecosystem responds.”

Tripathi agrees. Just a shade of green does not mean biodiversity. “The flaming red Gulmohar from Madagascar, rain trees native to South America or yellow peltophorum from southeast Asia that you get to see in Mumbai these days are all non-native with hardly any birds nesting in them,” he says.

And though Miyawaki forests cannot replace natural ones — “carbon content in an individual tree is less compared to one growing in a natural forest and they score less in hydrology due to a lack of deep roots” points out Subhash Ashutosh, director general, Forest Survey of India — the pros outweigh the cons. “Miyawaki forests can still be effective as a quality reforestation process because their total biomass content is high and so is their nutrient uptake due to their dense 1000-tree cluster of different species compared to natural forests with not more than 250-300 trees,” reassures Ashutosh.

Tripathi recently planted 40,000 saplings at Nisarga Udyan in Koparkhairane that will transform the 3-acre landfill site into the largest urban forest in Mumbai metro region. “No land is bad land anymore,” he smiles.