Seven Years Of Change

Written by Akhilesh Mishra

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second government has just completed two years in office. Overall, he has now been in the Prime Minister’s office for seven years. It is a long enough time to take stock of the hits and misses of an incumbent head of government. So, how should we assess PM Modi’s tenure so far?

One obvious way is, of course, through the list of achievements, most of which are quantifiable. As an example, the numbers reached in flagship schemes are quite extraordinary. Banking the unbanked through the Jan Dhan Yojana — 42 crore bank accounts — and thus taking financial inclusion to every home in India. Funding the unfunded through Mudra Yojana — 29 crore loan sanctions and Rs 15 lakh crore disbursals — and thus seeding an entrepreneurial revolution. Digitising the undigitised through UPI — 25 billion real-time transactions in 2020 — and thus making India the largest digital payments ecosystem in the world.

However, beyond these remarkable numbers, there is one other way to assess the success or otherwise of Modi — the changes in our national character. What are some of these changes?

First, Modi has fundamentally altered the way central governments used to understand economic policy-making. Before Modi, they almost exclusively focused on macroeconomics and the glamour associated with it, while relegating microeconomics to the background or at best to state governments. That is why even after more than 66 years of Independence (in 2014, before Modi took over), the country was still struggling to electrify all its villages, leave alone homes, or ensure proper sanitation coverage in every village, or make healthcare affordable to all. Modi has corrected this imbalance. So, ensuring that every house gets a tap water connection is now as much a priority as framing a policy framework for privatisation or creating a new paradigm for the agriculture sector with the new farm laws. To his credit, Modi has been able to make stellar progress in these domains.

Second, Modi has forever changed the mindset of only expecting “second best” delivery from central governments. The people of this country will no longer be satisfied with being laggards or followers. If the world develops an efficacious vaccine to combat Covid-19 in less than a year, then we now expect India to be leading that race with not just homegrown vaccines but also administering it at a pace that is amongst the fastest in the world.

Third, Modi has changed our acquired character of the last 70 years, which backed down when faced with a powerful adversary. China, used to having its way from the One Belt One Road initiative to the South China Sea, was stared down into retreating from Doklam and Pangong lake. From climate change negotiations, to free trade agreements, and from large multinational corporations used to bulldozing their way to global think tanks pretending to sway Indian discourse — everyone has realised that this India of 2021 is not the India they knew pre-2014.

Fourth, one of the most significant changes has been in our foreign policy. It is no longer about moral science lectures but is now driven purely through the prism of hard-core national interest. Realpolitik, divorced from grandstanding, is now part of the arsenal.

Fifth, respect for private enterprise and legitimate profit-seeking is no longer taboo. The defence that Modi himself mounted for entrepreneurs — terming them as nation builders — in Parliament is already getting translated into policy and in time may become his most significant economic contribution yet.

Sixth, the work done in empowering women and freeing them from clutches of societal constraints may, in time, become Modi’s most significant social contribution. From administering India’s most important union ministries to permanent commission in the armed forces and from establishing crores of small and micro enterprises to corporate boardrooms, and from freedom from the regressive instant Triple Talaq to legitimate rights in ancestral property — almost all the hidden glass ceilings have been broken.

Seventh, and perhaps the defining and the long-lasting contribution of Modi, would be the way he has managed to fuse our glorious civilisational heritage with our modern impulses. This nation now celebrates the construction of the Ram Temple as exuberantly as it rejoices in the success of the ASAT mission or awaits the launch of Gaganyaan.

The PM Modi-led government is the only government in decades to have been re-elected with a full majority. As the nation battles through the second Covid-19 wave, the appropriate way for the Modi government to mark its seventh anniversary would be to rededicate itself to the seva — service — of the people of this country. This would not just be in tune with the current national imperative but would also be a fitting tribute to the people who voted in this government. After all, would not permanently changing the role of governments — from ruling to seva — be the most stellar achievement of Modi?

The writer is CEO, Bluekraft Digital Foundation and was earlier director (content) MyGov

Stock market hits new 52-week high

With the Sensex and Nifty hitting new 52-week highs on 28 May, the bullish fervour in the market is increasing . “Technical charts are still looking bullish and Nifty is heading to 16,400 in 2-3 months,” says Mehul Kothari, AVP -Technical Research, Anand Rathi. Very short-term players need to be wary. “The FIIs’ long – short ratio is now around 88%, almost a 5-year high. There may be a healthy correction before achieving new targets,” says Kothari.

Mid- and small-cap segments have outperformed in the past three months. 

Maharashtra Extends Covid Lockdown-like Curbs till June 15

The Maharashtra government extended lockdown-like curbs till June 15. “While there has been a dip in the Covid 19 numbers. Last time the peak was after festivals and this time the peak is before festivals. It is important to understand that even though patient numbers are dropping, we are still at the levels of last year's peak,” chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said while addressing the state virtually on Sunday.

According to the fresh guidelines issued by the state government, districts where the positivity rate is equal or less than 10% and the occupancy of oxygen beds available is less than 40 %, “shops under essential service previously allowed to be operate between only between 7am and 11 am, will now be allowed to operate between 7am and 2pm. Standalone shops engaged in non-essential items can be opened depending on the permission by the district management authority. These shops will follow the same timings as those permitted under essential services”.

Delivery of non-essential items along with essential items will be allowed through e-commerce in such districts.

However, post 3pm there shall be restriction on movement except for medical emergencies or home deliveries.

In these districts, government offices except for those involved for corona work can function with 25% attendance. Agriculture sector related shops may remain open till 2pm on weekdays or during some period on weekends depending on the decisions taken by the local administration. In districts where the positivity rate is more than 20 % or where the occupancy of oxygen beds available is more than 70 %, district borders will be sealed.


Mumbai: Test run for two elevated metro lines tomorrow

If all goes according to the plan, more than 10 per cent of local commuters of the Andheri-Dahisar stretch will start using metro rail by early next year.

According to Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, a trial run of the first phase of metro line 2 A will start from Monday. The line will be made fully operational by January 2022. “Overhead electrification work on these two metro lines (2 & 7) has already been completed. Phase 1 trial runs of 20km stretch between Dhanukarwadi and Aarey Metro station will start from Monday,” said R A Rajeev, metropolitan commissioner, MMRDA.

“The Metro lines 2 A and 7 will be made operational in a phased manner. The commercial run of phase 1 between Dhanukarwadi and Aarey will begin in October this year, and by January 2022, entire metro lines of 2A and 7 will be made operational in phase 2. Once commercial run on both lines starts, more than 10 per cent load of local trains of Andheri-Dahisar stretch will shift to metro,” said a senior officer of MMRDA.

“Andheri-Dahisar is one of the busiest stretches of the suburban section of WR. Metro line 2 A and metro line 7 will reduce a load of local trains in this stretch,” said Shailesh Goyal, former National Railway Users’ Consultative Council member.

Metro Line 2A from Dahisar to D N Nagar is an 18.58 km long elevated corridor with 17 stations. It will provide interconnectivity among the existing Western Express Highway, Western Railway, metro line 1 (Ghatkopar to Versova), metro line 2B (D N Nagar to Mandale), and metro line 7 (Andheri East to Dahisar East and the proposed metro line 6 at different locations.

Similarly, metro line 7 (16.47 km long elevated corridor) will provide interconnectivity among the existing Western Express Highway, Western Railway, metro line 1 (Ghatkopar to Versova), the ongoing metro line 2A (Dahisar to D N Nagar) and the proposed metro line 6 (Swami Samarth Nagar to Vikhroli). It will also provide rail-based access to the Mumbai International Airport, SEEPZ, National Park and other commercial and geographical landmarks.

According to MMRDA, it will reduce the current travel time by more than 50 per cent.

According to MMRDA, on average, the expected daily ridership in the normal condition of metro line 7 is around five lakh.

Similarly, metro line 2 A is expecting a daily ridership of around four lakh.

The fares of metro 2A and 7 will be cheaper than those of metro 1 running between Versova and Ghatkopar. It will be Rs 10 for the first 3 km, Rs 20 for 3-12 km and Rs 30 for 12-37 km.

Petrol hits a century in Mumbai

Mumbai on Saturday became the first metro in the country where the price of petrol hit a century and retailed at Rs 100.19 per litre. Diesel, too, hit a new all-time high of Rs 92.17 in the city.

Over the past seven years, there has been a Rs 17 drop in the per litre base price of petrol due to the reduction in international crude oil rates between August 2014 ($118) and May 2021 ($68). Yet, fuel rates have increased due to taxes imposed by both state and Central governments, which contribute to 66% of what a motorist pays, said Kedar Chandak, senior petrol dealer and pricing expert.

Chandak further said the Central government frequently increased the excise duty on petrol. Meanwhile, the state imposed taxes and VAT, the third highest in the country.

The VAT and surcharge on petrol, for instance, rose Rs 11.20 to Rs 28.19 from Rs 16.99 in August 2014. Similarly, the Central excise duty, too, increased Rs 24.32 to Rs 33.80 in 2021 from Rs 9.48 per litre in 2014, thereby giving no relief to the common man. Dealer commission, too, rose Rs 1.46 during this period.

Maharashtra earns more than Rs 25,000 crore annually from VAT on fuel. Every one rupee hike per litre of petrol and diesel prices gives the state additional VAT of Rs140 crore and Rs 275 crore respectively, officials said.

Across Maharashtra, 28 districts now have petrol prices of over Rs.100 a litre and the highest rate on Saturday was at Parbhani, at Rs 102.55. The price of petrol in neighbouring Thane and Navi Mumbai was hiked to Rs 100.32 while diesel was a record Rs 92.29 per litre.

Diesel, too, crossed Rs 90 in 32 districts, upsetting transporters. A media statement issued by the All India Motor Transport Congress on Saturday read: “There is a consistent demand from the transport industry to bring diesel and petrol under GST and switch back to an administered pricing regime.”


Sabarmati Riverfront project’s Phase-II looks east

Along with the development of the western bank of Sabarmati Riverfront, that of the eastern bank and an extension on both the sides are soon to be executed as part of the second phase of the riverfront development project. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation Limited announced the commencement of the Phase-II of the project.

The ground-breaking ceremony for the development of the eastern bank from Dafnala to Camp Sadar Bazar was virtually performed by CM Vijay Rupani on Friday.

The plan for the extension includes a stepped embankment where trees have been planted for active and green development.

The second phase will involve a further extension of the riverfront from Dafnala to Indira Bridge over a stretch of 5.8km on the eastern side and 5.2km on the western side. With this, the total length of the riverfront will be about 34km. An estimated outlay of Rs 850 crore has been set aside for the project.

The concept planning and design work have been completed for the second phase and an in-principle approval has been given. Hydrology as well as hydraulic study has been completed for the development work in the area of Phase-II and its verification is being carried out by National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee.

Tata Arm Buys Majority Holding in BigBasket

Tata Digital said it has acquired a majority stake in online grocery BigBasket, a deal that pits the country’s largest conglomerate against entrenched ecommerce players. The digital unit of the salt-to-software group didn’t disclose financial details of the deal.

Regulatory filings showed that it has acquired around 64% stake in Supermarket Grocery Supplies that owns BigBasket.

BigBasket board had approved the deal earlier this week and Tata Digital has infused primary capital of $200 million in the e-grocer at a post-money valuation of $2 billion.

China’s Alibaba Group and Actis LLP have now exited the Bengaluru-based company. The deal was cleared by the Competition Commission of India in late April.

“Grocery is one of the largest components of an individual’s consumption basket in India, and Big-Basket, as India’s largest e-grocery player, fits perfectly with our vision of creating a large consumer digital ecosystem,” Pratik Pal, chief executive officer of Tata Digital, said in a statement on Friday.

Hari Menon, BigBasket’s cofounder, said the company was “extremely excited” about its future as part of Tata Group. “As a part of the Tata ecosystem, we would be able to build stronger consumer connect and accelerate our journey,” he said in the statement.

Nifty hits record high of 15,436

A strong rally in Reliance Industries boosted sentiment on Dalal Street on Friday with the Nifty closing 98 points higher at 15,436 — an all-time high. Decreasing new daily Covid-infection numbers boosted confidence for investors.

The sensex closed 308 points up, at 51,423, just about 2% from its all-time peak of 52,517 recorded in mid-February. After trading sideways for several weeks, RIL on Friday closed 6% higher at Rs 2,095. Surprisingly of the 30 sensex stocks, a majority, 18, closed lower, indicating how skewed the market was during the session.

According to Joseph Thomas of Emkay Wealth Management, the buoyancy in the market stemmed from improving pandemic related conditions — broad indications that it has actually peaked out. “This gives greater certainty about the future in terms of the likely relaxation of lockdown conditions in the major cities across the country, and also a faster return to normalcy.” Going ahead, monetary policy meeting next week, the rate of rollout of vaccines and also the number of new daily infections would decide the market’s direction.

DoT Allots Spectrum to Telcos for 5G Trials

The Department of Telecommunications has allotted 5G trial spectrum in the 700 MHz, 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands, paving the way for Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea to partner with non-Chinese network vendors and develop India-relevant use cases on the next-gen fast wireless broadband technology.

The DoT’s wireless planning & coordination wing late Thursday evening allotted “100, 800 and 10 units of experimental 5G airwaves to the Big 3 telcos in the 3.5 GHz, 26 GHz and 700 MHz bands, respectively,” a senior telco executive said. The 5G trial airwaves have been allocated for six months, he added.

Allotment of 5G trial spectrum is particularly crucial for Jio and Airtel, who already have 5G-ready networks and have bulked up on crucial airwaves in the recent auction to cater to the surge in data usage amid Covid and also future-proof themselves ahead of 5G rollouts.

DoT’s decision also marks the first official allocation of 5G trial spectrum in the coveted 26 GHz millimetre wave (mmWave) band that ranges from 24.25 GHz to 28.5 GHz frequencies. Telcos have repeatedly underlined the criticality of the 26 GHz mmWave band for bolstering the 5G business case, without which deployment costs of fifth generation fast wireless broadband networks could jump several fold and make 5G services unaffordable to consumers in India.

Earlier this month, DoT had said telcos would be given experimental airwaves in mid-band (3.2-3.67 GHz), sub-GHz (700 MHz) and mmWave band (26 GHz) to run 5G trials for six months. So far, only mid-band spectrum in the 3.3-3.6 GHz bands have been earmarked by the government for 5G services. The department had also said that telcos would also be allowed to use their own airwaves in the 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2500MHz bands to conduct 5G trials.

For the 5G trials, the telcos have teamed up with global original equipment manufacturers and technology providers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and state-owned Centre for Development of Telematics. The 5G trials will happen in multiple locations, including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Gujarat.

The names of Chinese network vendors, Huawei and ZTE, were missing from the original list of applications from telcos that were approved by the government earlier this month, sending a clear signal that the two gear makers would not be part of India’s 5G deployments as well.

Industry executives said the latest allotment of experimental 5G airwaves is also set to pave the way for inclusion of the coveted 26 GHz mmWave band and mid-band 5G spectrum (read: 3.3-3.67 GHz) in the updated National Frequency Allocation Plan — a key spectrum policy document that is undergoing revision.


Administration decisions aimed at developing Lakshadweep

Lakshadweep collector S Asker Ali said the administration's recent decisions, which have invited protests, are aimed at bringing development to the islands. He dismissed the protests as part of a misinformation campaign by vested interests.

Ali told a news conference here that the level of development in the islands had not been commensurate with its potential. "Maldives, which has a similar geographical location and natural beauty as Lakshadweep, has emerged as a great tourism location in the world map. But even today, there are negligible facilities for tourism in Lakshadweep," he said.

Three eco-friendly tourism water villa projects are being developed by the Lakshadweep administration in collaboration with NITI Aayog on the lines of Maldives in Minicoy, Kadmat and Suheli, the work for which will start in August 2021, he said.

Ali said there was a misleading propaganda that a person with more than two children cannot contest to the gram panchayat. “This will not have a retrospective effect. It is a progressive legislation. The majority of families in Lakshadweep has only two children; it is an encouragement for proper family planning,” he said, and added that it would also help in women empowerment.

On the proposed beef ban, the collector said many states in the country had enacted cow protection laws. “Only those associated with its illegal business and those with personal interests are opposing this proposal," he said. Fish was substituted as a nonvegetarian item in students' meals as it is more available in the islands and will be helpful to fishermen, Ali said.

Justifying the proposed detention law, the collector said 300kg heroin, five AK47 rifles and 1,000 live rounds were seized from near the islands a few days ago. The seizure didnt have a direct connection with the islands but it calls for caution. Cases of smuggling of marijuana and liquor and Pocso cases have also been reported. Lakshadweep has been peaceful so far but compromises cannot be made on that basis, he said, adding that the islands are critical from a strategic and security point of view.

Tourism projects provide facilities for tourists and employment and business opportunities for local people. “Liquor permits have been given at select tourist establishments, that too only for tourists,” Ali said. The decision to open liquor shops in the islands had faced opposition for reportedly not respecting the cultural choices of Muslims, who constitute 96.58% of the population.

The collector said the UT administration decided to introduce freight from Mangalore port in addition to Kochi to ensure availability of essential commodities on the islands at the northern end. “The use of this sea route will reduce the navigable distance by about 75 nautical miles and save time by nine hours, which will also result in a reduction in the cost of freight by about Rs 200/tonne," he said.

Ali said the decision to lift the Covid restrictions was a policy decision as the islands had to be opened at some point. “In the last five months, over 1,18,825 persons have travelled from mainland to the islands and between the islands. As many as 300 cargo vessels have come to the islands. Around 1,000 tourists visited the islands in five months. The revision of the SOP helped economic activity as well,” he said.

The Covid situation is under control and 23 of the 26 persons who succumbed to Covid in the islands had comorbidities. He said the administration has enough stock of vaccines to inoculate the entire population with at least the first dose. On people laid off, Ali said they were employees who were hired for additional work. “These are additional workers hired as per demand. Once the work requirement is over, they move on to find other work. This is a routine procedure," he said. The collector said the Union government had initiated privatisation of electricity generation to promote green and clean energy here as the electricity for the entire Lakshadweep is now generated from diesel generators.

He said the ration for poor used to come to one of the islands and was transported to various islands from there. “Now the ration will be transported by FCI to all islands. Those with vested interests misused the earlier arrangement and sold the ration in open market. This practice will be restricted now; also, there will be a saving in the cost of distribution," he said.

Ali also justified the removal of illegal encroachments at various places. He said the administration has started widening the Agatti airstrip in collaboration with the Union government to promote tourism. Various projects are also being implemented to promote coconut farming and tuna fishing.

An initiative has already been launched to make Lakshadweep the nation's largest hub of seaweed farming by forming women selfhelp groups. He said besides a project to make Lakshadweep self-reliant in the field of health, there are efforts to open Amul outlets on all the10 inhabited islands.

Kolkata: Yaas Tail Stings More Than Cyclone

If Kolkata received moderate and sporadic showers during the cyclone on Wednesday, it was drenched by a surprise and unforeseen deluge a day after Yaas — now reduced to a depression — had travelled 400km away from the city.

A breakaway cloud mass from the cyclone that had struck on Wednesday and wreaked havoc in Odisha and caused substantial damage in Bengal led to incessant rain in Kolkata on Thursday. The city received 74.9mm rain till 5pm, nearly three times that of 26.8mm that it had received on the cyclone day. The torrential downpour was preceded by a morning squall that saw wind speed reach a maximum 58km/hr. Even as Kolkatans and weathermen expected it to be a passing cloud, the rain got heavier and more consistent, eventually continuing till the evening and left several parts of the city flooded.

A strong westerly wind cut away a portion of the cyclone cloud mass and formed a north-south squall line that stretched across Jharkhand to Kolkata, said weathermen. It was fed and strengthened by a heavy moisture incursion from Bay of Bengal. “So, we had a long and narrow squall line from Kolkata that passed through Digha, Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda. This was definitely a part of the Yaas cloud mass which triggered more rain in Kolkata nearly 24 hours after it had hit land 290km from the city,” said Regional Meteorological Centre director G K Das. He added that the length of the squall line was 250km.

The sudden extreme weather took even the weathermen by surprise. A thunderstorm had been predicted due to the residual moisture of the cyclone. “We had expected a few spells of rain that would peter off towards evening. But not a consistent shower like the one we had. The strong westerly wind, that helped to form the squall line, had not been expected. It resulted in Kolkata receiving more rain than that on Wednesday when the cyclone had struck,” said Das.

For Kolkatans, there will be no immediate respite from the wet weather. A thunderstorm has again been predicted due to the high moisture prevalence in the region. “If the temperature rises in the second half of the day, we may again have rain and wind on Friday,” said Das.

Meanwhile, Yaas remained stationed over south Jharkhand as a depression. It moved slowly towards the north at a speed of 9 km/hr for six hours on Thursday. It is likely to weaken into a well-marked low pressure area early on Friday.


In 5 years, Maharashtra to go green with 17,385MW solar energy

Maharashtra will now focus only on renewables and is all set to “go green” by generating 17,385MW from solar projects in five years, said energy minister Nitin Raut.

His department has already announced in the recent past that there will be no new thermal generation units in Maharashtra.

As per the estimates, Maharashtra has a capacity to produce 25,000MW from solar projects, but the energy department has framed the new Renewable Energy Policy to produce 17,385MW in the next five years, Raut said.

The REP will also attract investment of Rs 75,000 crore in the power sector and other affiliated industries.

Also, the Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission has set a target for the state to meet 25% of its demand from renewable sources in the next five years and therefore the government has decided to promote renewable energy only, an official said.

“Solar power will be much cheaper than thermal power, benefiting industries and agriculture (for daytime generation for farmers) across the state,” Raut said. By 2030, there are plans to produce 30% of power by solar only.

A statement issued by the energy department said: “The new REP is aimed at providing daytime power to agriculture pumps at cheaper rates. A total 5 lakh solar agriculture pumps will be installed in the state in the next five years. About 10,000 households in remote areas will get solar power.”

Sources said that presently during the pandemic, the power demand has gone down by 33% and several thermal units were lying idle. “In fact, there is a huge gap between demand and supply at this moment,” an official said. For instance, MSEDCL has signed power purchase agreements for 35,000MW of electricity for the state, but is purchasing only 14,500MW due to low demand during the pandemic.

Pandemic: NYT gives 3 estimates of actual India toll

A report in the New York Times has suggested that India’s actual toll from Covid could be about double the official count in an optimistic case scenario and up to nearly 14 times the recorded numbers in a worstcase scenario. That would imply at least 6 lakh deaths and at worst 42 lakh deaths.

The NYT put together these estimates by talking to “more than a dozen experts” including Dan Weinberger of the Yale School of Public Health. The estimates, the report says, are based on extrapolations from sero surveys for the true number of infected people and assumptions about the infection fatality rate, a measure of the number of people who die for every 100 infected.

The report points out that while official figures miss deaths all over the world, “the undercount of cases and deaths in India is most likely even more pronounced, for technical, cultural and logistical reasons”. With hospitals overwhelmed, many Covid deaths occur at home, especially in rural areas, and are omitted from the official count, it quoted Kayoko Shioda, an epidemiologist at Emory University, as saying. It also said that even in the best of times, four out of five deaths in India are not medically investigated.

The best-case scenario assumes that actual infections are about 15 times the number of cases detected, that is about 40.4 crore. It assumes an IFR of 0.15% which gives 6 lakh deaths. A second scenario, which the report describes as “a more likely scenario” takes the actual infections at 20 times what’s been detected by tests, or 53.9 crore. It assumes the IFR is 0.30%, “in line with what has been estimated in the US at the end of 2020”. That gives a figure of 16 lakh deaths or over five times the official count of 3 lakh.

The most alarming scenario assumes there are 26 actual infections for every detected case — based on the last national sero prevalence study that ended in January — which puts the number of infected at just over 70 crore. It also assumes an IFR of 0.6% “to take into account the tremendous stress that India’s health system has been under during the current wave”. Those assumptions yield a toll of 42 lakh or 13.7 times what the official numbers suggest.

New African Violet found in Mizoram

A group of botanists from the Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Science Education and Research have recently discovered a new species of plant belonging to the African Violets family from Mizoram and adjacent areas in Myanmar.

IISER sources said that there are 106 currently known species of this (African Violets) genus, of which 26 are present in northeastern states of India.

Didymocarpus is a genus belonging to the plant family Gesneriaceae (commonly known as African Violets) and its members are distributed from Western Himalayas to Sumatra. Most of these species are narrow endemics and require specialised habitats to survive, thus acting as an indicator of pristine habitats.

Highlighting the importance of Research IISER's Associate Professor (Department of Biological Sciences) Vinita Gowda said: "Beyond the academic desire to document biodiversity, finding the missing pieces' of the biodiversity puzzle are important in designing conservation approaches to protect the fragile ecosystem of such hotspots."

Newly described species Didymocarpus vickifunkiae (Gesneriaceae) is currently known from only three locations in Mizoram and considered as an endangered species.

The IISER scientists said that because of its complex geology and climatic conditions, northeast India is home to a diverse flora and fauna. However, much of it remains poorly documented.

Gowda said that the biodiversity in the northeastern region of India is poorly known due to low priority in research, inaccessibility and remoteness, challenges that are being tackled by research groups such as the TrEE lab (Tropical Ecology and Evolution lab). 

Odisha, Bengal bear the brunt of cyclone Yaas

Cyclone Yaas left a trail of destruction in north Odisha, killing at least two persons, uprooting hundreds of trees, inundating several low-lying seaside villages, flattening kutcha houses while making landfall 20km south of Balasore.

In West Bengal, more than three lakh homes were destroyed and one crore people affected as sea water along the coast and rivers started swelling and breached embankments, a little after Cyclone Yaas made landfall in Odisha. The only life lost was that of a fisherman, who had ventured out to sea, ignoring warnings. East and West Midnapore and North and South 24 Parganas were the worst hit.

Kolkata and Bhubaneswar airports resumed operations on Wednesday evening. Airports in Bihar and Jharkhand will remain on alert.

At 9.30am on Wednesday, the very severe cyclonic storm made landfall with a wind speed of around 130-140kmph, less than the anticipated 150-165kmph.

Around 90 villages were flooded in Balasore alone, authorities said. North Odisha witnessed torrential rain with Chandbali in Bhadrak district recording the highest 288mm followed by Rajakanika in Kendrapada (251 mm) on Wednesday.

The Odisha government has now turned its attention to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among the six lakh people it had evacuated to cyclone shelters after screening their health. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik announced seven days’ relief for all families of 128 marooned villages in the cyclone affected districts.

An alert was sounded regarding possible flood in Budhabalanga and Subarnarekha rivers as torrential rain continued in Similipal area in Mayurbhanj as the cyclone progressed towards Jharkhand. The IMD has predicted extremely heavy rainfall in at least seven districts in Odisha.

NDRF, ODRAF and Odisha Police personnel continued restoration work even before the storm was over by cutting down fallen branches of trees to ensure road connectivity. State capital Bhubaneswar and pilgrim town Puri were largely spared by the cyclone with no significant impact on life and property. The Bhitarkanika National Park in Kendrapada district, known as the country’s second largest mangrove forest, has been seriously affected by the cyclone.

India to get 4 advanced Israeli drones

India will soon get four advanced Israeli Heron Mark-II drones, which can stay airborne for 45 hours at a stretch, in a major boost to its strategic surveillance capabilities along the Line of Actual Control with China.

The first two Heron-II unmanned aerial vehicles will be delivered to the Army in the next two to three months, with the other two coming in before the year ends, under the lease agreement inked with Israel.

Lease of the four satellite communication-enabled Heron Mark-II drones is part of the major plan underway to ensure gapfree and real time surveillance through a wide array of drones, sensors, reconnaissance and electronic warfare equipment along the entire 3,488-km LAC with China.

The three-year lease of the four Heron Mark-II drones is the second such case of the Rs 500 crore emergency financial powers being used by the armed forces to bolster their long-range surveillance capabilities amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh since early-May last year.

The Navy is already extensively using two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones, variants of the iconic armed Predator drones, for surveillance missions over the Indian Ocean.


Goa gives go ahead for setting up government think-tank

The state government has approved the constitution of the Goa Institution for Future Transformation, along the lines of Niti Aayog, to assist, advise and guide it in policy making and formulation under the chairmanship of the chief minister.

While the institute will monitor and guide the government towards achieving its sustainable development goals and Vision 2030, it will also work at doubling the per capita income by 2025.

“Overall, the institution will work with a ‘vision prosperity’ for Goa,” a senior officer said, adding that GIFT will function as an independent body.

Former chief minister Manohar Parrikar in his budget speech 2017-18 had stated that “with the disbanding of the planning commission at the national level, I propose to close the state planning board from the forthcoming financial year. Alternative mechanisms will be announced in due course of time.” Accordingly, the state planning board was disbanded with effect from April 1, 2017.

Chief minister Pramod Sawant in his budget speech 2019-2020 had announced that the “government will established state institution for transforming Goa on the lines of Niti Aayog, which will function as an autonomous body to assist, advice and guide the state government in policy making and formulation, implementation, monitoring of the sustainable development goals and evaluation of various development plans/programmes/schemes. It will also serve as a knowledge hub to the state in replicating best practices which are suited for the sustainable development of the state.”

Accordingly, in order to create appropriate institutional mechanisms to address issues pertaining to the government, a committee under the chairmanship of the chief secretary, Goa with eight members was established for the formation of the proposed GIFT.

The financial implication involved in constituting the institution is around Rs 2.5 crore per annum.

GIFT will be constituted on the lines of NITI Aayog and will coordinate and conduct techno-feasibility and viability studies and advise the state government on critical issues such as sick industries in the state, eco-friendly non-polluting industries, industrial and infrastructure development inline with ‘Make in Goa’ and take up development issues within the state for management as also development of inland rivers.

It will function as a one-stop solution provider, a knowledge and innovation hub for leveraging expertise and for analysing and suggesting improvements in financial management. GIFT will suggest necessary amendments with course corrections measures to deliver results on the basis of knowledge, measurement, monitoring and evaluation and innovation.

The institute will identify and explore opportunities in different sectors and areas for investment. It would also consist of a flexible number of teams organised on sector lines in order to deal with specific concerns, issues and problems of important sectors of the economy.

Qualcomm strikes biggest SEZ lease deal

US-based semiconductors and wireless technology giant Qualcomm is setting up a mega facility spread over nearly 1.6 million sq ft at a SEZ in Hyderabad. This will be the largest SEZ leasing deal in Telangana. It will also be Qualcomm’s largest facility in India.

The Qualcomm facility, to be housed over 17 storeys at the Sustain Properties Pvt Ltd SEZ being developed by K Raheja Group at Raidurg, will entail an investment of Rs 3,904 crore and will create about 8,700 jobs over the next five years, the Visakhapatnam Special Economic Zone said on Monday.

The mega SEZ facility is expected to generate IT services exports to the tune of Rs 28,658 crore over the next five years, it said.

The project has also received approval from the unit approval committee of VSEZ at a meeting held recently. All SEZs in Telangana fall under VSEZ.

Firm planned own campus for $400m

Qualcomm will start with taking possession of four storeys at the SEZ in September and ramp it up with the facility expected to be fully operational by September 2022, VSEZ development commissioner A Rama Mohan Reddy said.

The company is intent on setting up its own campus at an investment of $400 million. The deal was initially announced by the Telangana IT & industry minister KT Rama Rao’s office in October 2018 but the campus proposal was learnt to have been ditched as the land initially identified for the project turned out to be a disputed one.

Following this, the US giant is learnt to have decided to opt for a leased facility in the city, where it already has a couple of facilities that it will be consolidating in the upcoming SEZ facility, sources said.

The US giant is learnt to have decided to opt for a leased facility in the city, where it already has a couple of facilities

Bengal, Odisha, Andhra, A&N get Yaas Ready

Ensure power backup at all Covid-19 hospitals, laboratories, vaccine cold chains and oxygen generation plants located in West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, Union home minister Amit Shah told the states during a virtual meeting to discuss the preparedness on cyclone Yaas. He directed the authorities to evacuate people on the high seas and shift them to cyclone shelters while observing Covid-19 protocols. The safety of shipping and fishing vessels, and ports and oil installations in the area likely to be affected was also discussed in the meeting.

Cyclone Yaas is expected to cross north Odisha-West Bengal coasts between Paradip and Sagar Island around Wednesday noon as a “very severe cyclonic storm”.

At a videoconference held with the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal and the lieutenant governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Shah said a 24x7 control room is functioning in the home ministry, which can be contacted any time for assistance. He advised them to plan for keeping a buffer stock of oxygen for two days and movement of oxygen tankers to allocated states so that in case of any disruption, the supply is not impacted.

RDIF and Panacea Begin Production of Sputnik Vax

The Russian Direct Investment Fund and Indian drug firm Panacea Biotec announced the launch of production of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in India. The first batch of the Covid-19 vaccine produced at Panacea Biotec's facilities at Baddi in Himachal Pradesh will be shipped to the Russia's Gamaleya Center for quality control. Full-scale production of the vaccine is expected to start this summer, RDIF and Panacea Biotec said in a joint statement. 

For 4th consecutive year, Gujarat tops India’s FDI charts

Despite the terrible impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on economic activity, Gujarat has yet again bagged the lion’s share of foreign direct investment in the country, garnering 37% of the country’s FDI in the year 2020-21. The FDI flow into Gujarat during 2020-21stood at 30.24 billion USD.

According to data released by the government of India, the total FDI inflow into the country stood at 81.72 billion USD — the highest in a single year.

Gujarat bagged 37 % of the total FDI share followed by Maharashtra (27%) and Karnataka (13%). The FDI inflow in 2019-20 stood at 74.39 billion USD.

FDI equity inflow grew by 19% in the FY 2020-21 (US$ 59.64 billion) as compared to the FDI equity inflow of 49.98 billion USD in the previous year, i.e 2019-20.

Manoj Das, additional chief secretary in the chief minister’s office and in-charge ACS, industry & mines department said that it is a proud moment for the state to top in FDI once again despite the major impact of Covid-19 globally.

“The CM has constantly focused on attractive policies for industries from across the globe which has helped the state in topping FDI ranking once again. Despite not being able to organize Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit this year due to Covid-19, we have managed to maintain our top rank in receiving FDI-,”he said.

“The state has aggressively begun an exercise of welcoming over 700 global companies who want to shift their manufacturing base from China or expand elsewhere. We have recently written to these companies, listing down the benefits of investing in Gujarat. We are hopeful of not only maintaining first position in receiving FDI, but also increasing our share among states,” Das said.


Maharashtra: Palghar township to come up on 337 hectares of Cidco land

A new, planned satellite township will be built in Palghar, about 115km from Mumbai. This will be the second such township after Navi Mumbai, the development of which started in the 1970s.

The township will be developed on 337 hectares given to the City and Industrial Development Corporation in lieu of constructing the district headquarters, spending Rs 1,000 crore. Cidco has been given 400 hectares, of which 70 hectares is prime sea-facing land. The 337 hectares, which can accommodate 35 Oval Maidans, is on the other side of the newly developed district HQ spread over 103 hectares.

“We have not been able to predict the market with the Covid pandemic. We have, therefore, invited expression of interest as we want to know what the market demands, understand the views of stakeholders, be it educational institutions, IT companies, large industrial houses, experts, scholars. Covid has changed how we shall live and we want to know what will be the right product mix for Palghar,” said Sanjay Mukherjee, MD, Cidco.

Mukherjee said the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, which is the planning authority for the region, wants Palghar to be a residential township. With the terminal station for the Bullet train in BKC, the MMRDA proposes to shift its back office to Palghar so that its employees can live and work there and if required travel by the Bullet train to BKC.

The draft plan is ready and depending on the response Cidco may allow four to five master developers to build the township. If the response is not good, Cidco will build infrastructure and auction plots.

Mukherjee wants Palghar to be a walk-to-work place. Palghar city at present comprises its industrial area too. The Trans MIDC Industries Association, which represents industries in the Thane-Navi Mumbai belt, said the notified industrial area must be excluded from the future civic body, the new Palghar city municipality.

“Municipal bodies have no role to play in industrial areas. MIDC is a statutory corporation, which is duty-bound to provide infrastructure and amenities in this area. The Maharashtra government has failed to respect the constitutional mandate that notified industrial areas are to be exclusive. Navi Mumbai and Panvel industrial areas have been included in municipal limits, resulting in double taxation, resulting in flight of industries to other states,” said Raja Bujle, chairman, legal, for TMIA.

India’s Covid toll tops 3L

More than 3 lakh people have succumbed to Covid-19 in India’s official records. The toll from the pandemic crossed 3 lakh on Saturday, just 12 days after going past the 2.5 lakh mark.

India has recorded 1 lakh deaths from the virus in the past 26 days, becoming the only country in the world where the Covid toll, in terms of milestones of 50,000, has risen by 1,00,000 in under 30 days. At the height of its third wave in December-January, the death toll in the US had increased from 3.5 lakh to 4.5 lakh in 31 days, as per worldometers.info.

India has the third highest cumulative Covid deaths in the world after the US (over 6 lakh deaths) and Brazil (4.5 lakh). Deaths during the devastating second wave in the country now account for nearly half of all fatalities at 1.48 lakh in under three months since February15.

In May, more than 92,000 deaths have been recorded in 23 days so far. That's almost twice the toll of 48,768 in April, which was a record for any month till then.

While the number of fresh cases has declined steadily after infections in the country peaked around May 8, the daily toll has not decreased by much. The seven day rolling average of daily cases was down 32% since the peak on May 8, when the average stood at over 3.91 lakh. On May 22, index was at 2.64 lakh.

By contrast, the seven-day average of daily deaths has dipped by just 5% since hitting a peak of 4,040 on May 16. It stood at 3,838 on May 22. For this calculation, “backdated” fatalities declared over the past few days in Maharashtra were not counted in the daily numbers. Maharashtra has recorded by far the highest number of Covid-related deaths in the country, with 88,620 fatalities so far. Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the only states, among five with the highest cumulative death toll, where second fatalities have been lower than those in the first wave.

Pune: 105km eastern ring road to wind through 46 villages in five tehsils

The Maharashtra state Public Works Department has granted permission to the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation to carry out a joint measurement survey for the proposed 105km eastern ring road, starting from the Urse toll plaza on the Pune-Mumbai expressway.

Sandeep Patil, the MSRDC’s sub-divisional engineer said, “The stretch will pass through areas under Maval, Khed, Haveli, Daund and Purandar tehsils before emerging on the Pune-Satara highway which is part of the Mumbai-Bengaluru national highway. Currently, we are conducting survey for the western ring road and a second team is being set up to conduct the eastern ring road survey work, starting in next two weeks.”

The eastern ring road will pass through 46 villages of these tehsils. The MSRDC and district administration will have to acquire a total about 1,585 hectares, including about 859 hectares of private land, totally worth approximately Rs 5,000 crore, said the MSRDC officials.

“The land acquisition in these tehsils would be a daunting task considering the value and possible resistance from the farmers and land owners. We will have to conduct a series of meeting with them to convince them to give their lands for the project. We are chalking out our strategy. The district collector has already appointed land acquisition officials from the revenue department. We will be working with the department,” a senior official from the MSRDC said.

“The purposed road would reduce traffic congestion significantly in Talegaon Dhabade and Chakan MIDC areas as heavy vehicles would get direct connectivity to state and national highways. Currently, these vehicles ply through towns and cities and are creating traffic issue in these industrial zones,” the official further said.

Meanwhile, the MSRDC has completed land survey of 170 hectares of land that is required for purposed 68 km western ring road which, will pass through Maval, Mulshi, Haveli and Bhor.

“Five villages, three in Bhor and two in Maval have opposed the survey. We are going to conduct meetings with them,” Patil, who makes presentation to the project affected families in the meeting, said.

6 militants gunned down in Assam

At least six Dimasa National Liberation Army militants were killed on Sunday in an encounter with police and Assam Rifles in Dhansiri Area of Karbi Anglong district, a top police official said.

Four AK-47 rifles, four revolvers, some live grenades, improvised guns and huge rounds of ammunition were found in the possession of the slain militants. A section of media, however, said that eight DNLA guerillas were killed in the counter-militant operation, which is still underway under the command of the Karbi Anglong’s Additional Superintendent of Police Prakash Sonowal.

Director General of Assam Police Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta said that six hardcore top cadres of DNLA were neutralised in Karbi Anglong District when they fired at a joint team of police and Assam Rifles during an anti-terror operation.

Counter-insurgency operations in the Dhansiripar area of the Karbi Anglong district, bordering Nagaland, were recently intensified after the suspected DNLA militants killed one Sanjoy Ronghang at Daojingphang village on May 19. Several organisations including Dimasa Students’ Union had condemned the killing.

Cheetah to be re-introduced in India from Africa

Cheetah, the world's fastest land animal which was declared extinct in India in 1952, is expected to be re-introduced into the country in November this year at the Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh, state Forest Minister Vijay Shah said on Sunday.

The country's last spotted cheetah died in Chhattisgarh in 1947 and it was declared extinct in the country in 1952. The Wildlife Institute of India some years back prepared a cheetah re-introduction project.

The Supreme Court had earlier given its approval to introduce African cheetahs to a suitable habitat in India on an experimental basis.

“We have started the process of creating an enclosure for around 10 cheetahs, including five females, to be brought from South Africa to Kuno in Sheopur district and it is going to be completed by August,” Shah said.

Officials from India will be sent to South Africa for sensitisation and training in June and July this year and according to the plan, the transportation of the cheetahs will take place in October and November, he said.

Kuno, located in the Chambal region, is spread over an area of over 750 sq km and has a conducive environment for the cheetah, he said. The protected area, comprising a considerable population of four-horned antelopes, chinkara, nilgai, wild boar, spotted deer and sambar, has a good prey base for the cheetahs, he said.

“According to the approved timeline sent to us by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change this week, the tentative budget outlay of the 'Project Cheetah' is Rs 1,400 lakh for this fiscal,” the minister said.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority is going to release the money for the project to Madhya Pradesh and the Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun next month, Shah said. An expert from South Africa visited the Kuno National Park on April 26 this year along with scientists from the WII and inspected the facilities and habitat created there for the introduction of African cheetahs. They approved it and now the final process of bringing the cheetah is underway, a forest official said.

Earlier, experts from the WII had visited four places in Madhya Pradesh to look for the best habitat for the introduction of African cheetah in the country last year, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests J S Chauhan, said.

The WII team had visited the Kuno National Park in MP's Sheopur district, the Nauradehi sanctuary in Sagar district, the Gandhi Sagar sanctuary on the northern boundary of Mandsaur and Neemuch districts and the Madhav National Park in Shivpuri district, Chauhan said. 


Very severe cyclone may hit east coast on May 26: IMD

The current ‘low pressure area’ over Bay of Bengal is very likely to intensify into a "very severe cyclonic storm" on May 25 and will reach north Bay of Bengal near West Bengal and adjoining north Odisha and Bangladesh coasts around May 26 morning, said the India Meteorological Department in its update on Saturday.

The landfall of the cyclone, named ‘Yaas’, is expected around May 26 evening. Its intensity will, however, not be like cyclone ‘Tauktae’ which hit the western coast earlier this week. “A ‘low pressure area’ has formed over east central Bay of Bengal on May 22 morning. It is very likely to concentrate into a ‘depression’ over east-central Bay of Bengal by May 23 morning… It is very likely to cross West Bengal and adjoining north Odisha & Bangladesh coasts around evening of May 26,” said the IMD. Issuing a warning, it said, “The fishermen are advised not to venture into central Bay of Bengal from May23-25 and into north Bay of Bengal and along & off West Bengal – Odisha – Bangladesh coasts from May 24-26.

“Those out in the deep sea of east-central & adjoining northeast Bay of Bengal are advised to return to the coast.”

Maharashtra: Tigress spotted with 2 cubs in conservation reserve

A tigress, along with her two cubs, was spotted in the Phonda Ghat area of Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district late on Wednesday night.

The area comes under the Amboli-Dodamarg forest range, one of the seven ranges along the Western Ghats declared conservation reserves by the Maharashtra government last year.

Divisional forest officer (Kolhapur) Vishal Mali said, “A truck driver, who had gone to Konkan from Kolhapur to bring laterite stone, spotted the tigress and the two cubs in the Phonda Ghat region. The truck driver could capture a video showing the cubs jumping upon a tree. He shared the video clip with the forest office.”

Mali said, “We have informed the foresters in Sawantwadi about the spotting. Altogether 30 trap cameras will be installed in the Radhanagari wildlife sanctuary to confirm its existence and prohibit human interference in the area.”

Forest department officials had in the end of April spotted a tiger for the first time in one the conservation reserves along the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. The forest officials had said the sighting of a tiger was of major significance as it highlighted the purpose for which the forest ranges were declared conservation reserves.

In December 2020, the state wildlife board headed by CM Uddhav Thackeray had given the conservation reserve tag to the Amboli-Dodamarg, Chandgad, Ajara-Bhudargad, Gaganbawda, Panhalagad, Vishalgad and Jor-Jambhali ranges along the Western Ghats.

Come August, India, Russia look to produce 40m Sputnik doses p/m

As Indian ambassador to Russia DB Venkatesh Varma announced on Saturday that local production of the Sputnik-V vaccine will begin in August, diplomatic sources here said the two countries were looking at manufacturing anywhere between 35 to 40 million doses every month, starting August-September.

Elaborating on the remarks by the ambassador, sources said Russia will also send close to 18 million Sputnik doses - 3 million in May, 5 million next month and 10 million in July - before allowing transfer of technology in August for local production.

Overall, according to the ambassador, the agreement between Dr Reddy’s Laboratories and Russian Direct Investment Fund will facilitate manufacturing of 850 million doses of Sputnik vaccine in India.

“More than 65-70 percent of the Sputnik vaccine produced anywhere in the world will be from India,” said Varma in an interaction with local journalists during a visit to St Petersburg.

He said the Russian side had also proposed Sputnik Light, a single-shot vaccine. “The regulatory approvals for that in India are still not completed. But once those regulatory approvals are given, then Sputnik Light will be one more area of cooperation between India and Russia,” he said.

Of the scheduled delivery of 3 million doses in May, Russia has so far provided 210,000 doses in 2 separate consignments.

It’s a Banana Republic

Mango mania may be passé overseas. Fresh bananas have been the second most exported fruit from India for the past two financial years, breaching the ₹1,000-crore mark for the first time last fiscal, with shipments worth nearly two and a half times those of mangoes.

While grapes continued to be the sweetest fruit for Indian traders, with shipments worth more than ₹2,400 crore in 2020-21, according to the customs department entries, banana exports surged about 41% from ₹710 crore in the previous fiscal. In contrast, mango exports fell marginally to about ₹400 crore, from ₹408 crore a year ago.

Moreover, banana exports have grown about threefold from ₹355 crore in 2017-18, while mango exports have hovered around the ₹400-crore mark during this period.

Traders attributed the surge in banana exports to demand from West Asian and North African countries. “The Philippines, which had a significant banana market share in Gulf countries, started to export more to China. This created a vacuum in the Gulf, which was filled by Indian fruit exporters. We dominate those markets now,” said Pankaj Khandelwal, chairman, INI Farms.

India is the largest producer of bananas, with an annual output of about 30 million metric tonnes, accounting for about 28% of global production. Nearly 90% of the produce is consumed locally.

According to industry executives, larger acreage, better fruit handling infrastructure, less crop risk and stable profits in the hands of farmers, along with the emergence of corporate players, have helped step up exports. INI, Mahindra Agri Solutions and Desai AgriFoods are among the largest institutional buyers of bananas, and bulk of their purchases are exported.

“You need good pack houses and storage to keep bananas fresh,” said Khandelwal. “The procurement schedule has to be planned well before the harvest. Once the crop is harvested, it has to be sorted and shipped out in quick time.”

Besides India and the Philippines, Uganda, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Tanzania, Angola and Mexico are large growers of bananas. Most producing countries look at closer markets as bananas are perishable and extremely difficult to be transported fresh to distant markets. Nearly 500 MT of bananas produced in India go waste because they don’t reach buyers in fresh condition.

Domestic consumption of bananas has also gone up, according to farmers. This has kept the price in the hands of farmers steady at ₹12-15 per kg. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka lead banana cultivation. “Compared to other fruits, bananas are cheaper and have more nutritional value. There are over 100 varieties of bananas grown across India – and it is a profitable crop,” said R Kottaichamy, a prominent banana farmer in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district.

Several farmers in Theni district, which has significant banana cultivation, have switched to nendran, red bananas, elakkai and karpuravalli varieties from Cavendish groups, to meet the domestic demand. Cavendish bananas, elaichi kela and nendran are the preferred varieties in the export market. “We moved out of Cavendish bananas a few years ago after a string of rot and virus attack,” said Kottaichaimy, who grows nearly 20,000 bananas on his15-acre farm.

Harvesting of bananas is done 12-14 months after planting the dwarfs (saplings). Large cultivators also adopt the ‘tissue culture method’, which entails cloning of a selected crop. This method of cultivation is more suitable for exports as it yields an identical crop – in terms of looks, colour and size. Tissue culturing also ensures higher yield in a short period. “Yield management was a problem before, but not anymore… These days we grow the crop using the tissue culture method. We seek the help of agriculture scientists to perfect the crop,” said Rahul Patil, who has a 35-acre farm in Chaalisgaon, Maharashtra.

Patil and other farmers of Jalgaon district have tied up with private companies to export their produce. They also sell raw bananas to chips and farsan companies, and to baby food manufacturers for banana powder. “We get about a couple of rupees more if we sell to private companies. We just have to grow good quality fruits, box them and dispatch as per their procurement schedule,” said Patil.

There are not many processing and canning companies in this segment as it is difficult to keep the fresh banana supply chain running. Several startups tried to launch beverages and smoothies, but without much success.

India reports 8,848 mucormycosis cases

India has so far reported approximately cases of 8,848 mucormycosis or black fungus, one of the rapidly spreading infections observed in those recovering from COVID-19.

Taking note of the increasing numbers, the Central government has emphasised upon expediting the allocation of vials of amphotericin-B, a key drug to treat raging mucormycosis. In this direction, the Union minister of chemicals and fertilisers DV Sadananda Gowda has announced an allocation of 23,680 additional vials of Amphotericin-B.

The minister also informed that the allocation has been made based on total number of patients which is approximately 8,848 across the country. Gujarat (5,800) and Maharashtra (5,090) have been allocated the maximum number of the additional Amphotericin-B vials followed by Andhra Pradesh (2,310), Madhya Pradesh (1,830), Rajasthan (1,780), Karnataka (1,270).

Mucormycosis is a serious but rare fungal infection caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes that has been developing in COVID-19 patients.

As with the COVID-19 scourge, Maharashtra leads in the number of deaths and cases of the dreaded dark cousin of coronavirus — mucormycosis, or commonly known as ‘black fungus’. After the first case was detected in third week of April, the state has now recorded a staggering 1,500 mucormycosis infections till date, said health minister Rajesh Tope.

“Of the 1,500 cases, there have been 100 deaths till now On May 21, we have declared it as a Notifiable Disease under the Epidemic Diseases Act, making it compulsory to report each case of the Black Fungus to the state health department,” Tope said.


13 Maoists killed in Gadchiroli

 C-60 commandos of the police dealt a deadly blow to Maoists in the forest of Paidi, near Kotmi in eastern Maharashtra’s south Gadchiroli, by eliminating 13 rebels, including seven women, during a predawn operation on Friday.

The commandos had laid a “double layered ambush”, cordoning a hillock where the Maoists had set up temporary camp a couple of kilometres from Paidi. They had held a meeting with the tribals in the village previous evening regarding tendu leaf collection and earnings from it.

This stretch had been known as a “safe zone” for Maoists. Sources said the commandos had started their operation on Thursday night but circled the Maoist camp on the hillock in teams in the predawn hours. One AK-47 assault rifle, five SLRs, three .303 rifles, one carbine, pistols and several other materials, including Maoist literature, were seized from the place.

DIG (Naxal range) Sandip Patil said commandos were dispatched in smaller teams from Gadchiroli and Aheri headquarters following input from the police’s human intelligence network regarding the presence of Maoists. “The first bullets were fired from the Maoists camp, after which commandos decided to retaliate,” he said, adding that no commando was injured.

Maharashtra home minister Dilip Walse Patil, who was in the district on Friday, extolled the efforts of the commandos. District guardian minister Eknath Shinde, too, appreciated the teamwork of the Gadchiroli police under DIG Patil, SP Ankit Goyal and additional SP (operations) Manish Kalwaniya.

In Friday’s action, the C-60 commandos managed to wipe out a sizeable chunk of the Kasansoor Dalam, which worked as a crucial link between the Maoists’ north and south Gadchiroli divisions.

The Maoist camp lost senior leader and divisional committee member Satish Mohanda of the Maoists’ Company 4. The deputy commander of the Kasnasoor dalam, Rupesh Gawade, also was killed.

It is learnt that a few Maoists managed to escape with bullet injuries. A village militia member, Kishor Holi, was killed. Senior Maoist leader of north Gadchiroli and action team expert Mahesh Gota’s wife, Sunita Naitam, was among those killed.

Police said four members of Company 4 were eliminated on Friday. “The company formations protect the dalams, but in this case their military men were fewer in number. We will eliminate the rest of the dalams soon if they do not surrender,” DIG Patil said.

Chipko leader Bahuguna passes on

Noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, synonymous with the Chipko movement, on Friday passed away due to COVID-19 at the age of 94.

He was under treatment at AIIMS Rishikesh and was admitted to the hospital on May 8 after testing positive for COVID-19. Bahuguna had been critical since last night and with his oxygen levels dropping, he was shifted to the ICU.

He breathed his last at 12.05 pm on Friday, informed AIIMS director Ravikant.

In his condolence message, Prime Minister Narendera Modi tweeted: “Passing away of Shri Sunderlal Bahuguna Ji is a monumental loss for our nation. He manifested our centuries old ethos of living in harmony with nature. His simplicity and spirit of compassion will never be forgotten. My thoughts are with his family and many admirers. Om Shanti.”

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said “It as a big loss,as he (Bahuguna) made Chipko a movement of the masses.” Bahuguna was a dedicated environmentalist best remembered for spearheading the Chipko movement.

He had been fighting for the preservation of forests in the Himalayas, first as a leader of the Chipko movement and later led the anti-Tehri Dam movement a decade later.

Bahuguna was born in Maroda near Tehri, Uttarakhand in 1927. He fought against untouchability and later started organising women from the state in anti-liquor drives from 1965 to 1970.

He adopted Gandhian principles and walked through Himalayan forests covering more than 4,700 km and observed the damage done by mega developmental projects on the fragile eco-system of the Himalayas and subsequent degradation of social life in villages.


Jaishankar moots diversification of supply chains

Addressing the Nikkei “Future of Asia” conference, foreign minister S Jaishankar called for diversification of supply chains from the current over-dependence on China. India, said Jaishankar, can “derisk the global economy through more effective partnerships” calling for multiple engines of growth, in a multipolar and “rebalanced” world.

“It is only with such redundancy that the world can face the next pandemic better than we are doing the current one.”

The pandemic, he said, had upended the global conversation on globalisation with countries focusing more on strategic autonomy at least in critical areas of the economy and supply chains. “Trust and transparency” are foremost in the minds of countries after the pandemic. “It was bad enough to be confronted with shortages and disruptions; worse that they could become pressure points.” This is a veiled reference to China’s coercive actions on supplies both in the first and second waves of the pandemic.

There was a subtle reference to the fact that countries went into extreme nationalist modes during the pandemic. “Few practiced what they preached. Some even stopped preaching altogether,” Jaishankar said. “Call it buying nationally, middle-class concerns, dual circulation of self-reliance—there is no question that many polities are seeking to hedge against excessive exposure internationally.”

Jaishankar said, “Meeting the health and medical requirements of the world effectively requires a mature recognition of the global nature of the underlying supply chains. … it cannot be addressed purely nationally and in fact needs a collaboration of a very different order. The answer to the pandemic challenge is to expand and smoothen the global flows, while creating confidence that the outcomes are for the benefit of the world.”

Popatrao Pawar’s Hiware Bazar shows the way in Covid mitigation

Hiware Bazar, a village in Ahmednagar district with a population of just 1,650 people, shot into prominence more than a decade ago for its watershed and local development programmes effected through public participation.

Popatrao Pawar, the village’s long-time sarpanch and the man credited with its progress, has once again shown the way, this time in handling Covid mitigation. His effort, known as the ‘Popatrao Pawar model’, drew the attention of Ahmednagar district collector Rajendra Bhosale who got the district administration to replicate it elsewhere. It also drew praise before PM Narendra Modi during a video-conferencing meeting with a group of district collectors on Thursday.

Hiware Bazar, about 115km from Pune, remained Covid-free throughout the first wave between March and December last year. However, on March 20 this year, the village reported its first Covid case amid the second wave. By April 15, the village had 47 cases and two deaths — prompting Pawar and his group of committed activists to look at an effective strategy to curb the spread.

By April 30, the village achieved a no-fresh infection status through a series of measures, including door-to-door surveys, tracing of people with symptoms, restricting incoming and outgoing movement, creating separate isolation centres for the infected, reducing their interaction with the local people, testing of farm workers and sustained awareness.

“The district health department has not found a single new Covid positive case in its survey in the last 20 days,” Pawar said over the phone, while pointing out that only one patient, infected prior to April 30, was taking treatment in hospital.

Collector Bhosale said, “The model adopted by the Hiware Bazar sarpanch was an eye-opener. I had a two-hour discussion with him at the village. We later decided to replicate his model in all 1,300 gram panchayats in the district.”

Both Bhosale and Pawar interacted with the gram panchayat members via video conferencing for two days where Pawar explained his model to make villages Covid-free. “My feedback is that these gram panchayats have started implementing the measures,” said Bhosale.

Pawar recalled the days of the first few Covid cases in the village and said, “We set up a Covid committee and forming five separate teams involving teachers, educated youth and local leaders. They were given PPE kits, hand gloves, masks and sanitisers for the doorstep surveys, which helped identify those with symptoms. We used rapid antigen and RT-PCR tests to further identify positive people and isolate them in the village quarantine facility. We ensured proper medical care for them. I would call up the patients and their families.”

The village also tested over 400 farm labourers, provided them groceries and created accommodation on the farms so that they could continue with their work, Pawar said. “We ensured that people returning from bigger places like Pune and Mumbai were quarantined. Nobody was allowed to enter the village without being tested. Because of this, we found three positive patients before they could enter the village,” he said.

Pawar, however, said the village’s achievement could not have been possible without a collective effort and the support of the local youth.

Speaking about Modi’s mention of Ahmednagar district’s Covid mitigation effort, Bhosale said, “We felt good as the PM praised our initiatives in combating the pandemic. Such praise means a lot in boosting the confidence of the district machinery in carrying on with our efforts in dealing with the pandemic.”

Bhosale said that unlike the first wave when the district had about 75,000 Covid cases, the second wave saw a whopping 1.54 lakh cases in just 45 days or so. “Compounding the problem were issues like non-availability of medical oxygen and Remdesivir. However, the case fatality rate was 0.9% during the second wave as against 1.5% in the first. In absolute numbers, the district had over 250 more deaths than in the first wave,” he said.

Declare black fungus an epidemic: Centre

The Union Health Ministry has appealed to all the states and Union Territories to declare mucormycosis or black fungus as a notifiable disease under the Epidemic Disease Act 1897.

The ministry has also advised that all government and private health facilities, as well as medical colleges should follow guidelines issued by it and the ICMR on screening, diagnosis and management of mucormycosis.

The ministry said mucormycosis or black fungus is a complication caused by a fungal infection. People catch mucormycosis by coming in contact with the fungal spores in the environment. Mucormycosis can also develop on the skin after the fungus enters the skin through a cut, scrape, burn, or other types of skin trauma.

According to the ministry, the disease is being detected among patients who are recovering or have recovered from COVID-19.

Telangana and Rajasthan have already declared mucormycosis as an epidemic.

Cases of black fungus have been reported in various parts of the country including Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar.

Gujarat invites over 700 global firms

Although the 2021 edition of the biennial Vibrant Gujarat Summit has been called off because of the raging pandemic, the Gujarat government is intent on keeping the investment momentum going. The state government has written personalised letters to chairmen and CEOs of over 700 global companies based in over 50 countries, inviting them to invest in Gujarat.

The companies which have been approached are those which are looking to expand their operations or shift their units out of China in the post-Covid era. These companies are from about 40 diverse sectors ranging from pharmaceuticals to finance technology (fintech).

The government of India is also partnering the state government in its endeavour to attract fresh investment. Union ministries and departments like department for promotion of industry and internal trade, department of electronics& it, ministry of textiles, pharmaceuticals and chemicals etc. have assured full support to the latest endeavour by the state government.

Armed with a new industrial policy which offers several incentives to businesses, plug-and-play infrastructure for industries at the special investment regions of Dholera, Becharaji and Dahej and the GIFT city which is a hub for fintech companies, the Gujarat government aims to provide the best business environment to companies from a variety of sectors.

Additional chief secretary in the chief minister’s office, Manoj Das, said the state government has been engaging with global companies through webinars, video conferences, etc. “Although the 2021 edition of Vibrant Gujarat Summit has been put off, we decided to continue our engagement with global investors to attract investment to the state in the post- Covid world,” he said.

Das added, “Global companies are also looking at several other countries from the ASEAN region such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, etc. for investment. Based on analysis and current trends we are primarily targeting companies from the USA, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, UK, Germany, France and Canada. In India, Gujarat has been the most preferred business & investment destination for large multinationals for the past several years. We have set out a target to attract at least 10% of these companies who are looking to set up new facilities in the ASEAN region.”

The official said that despite the lockdown and major adverse economic impact of the pandemic, Gujarat attracted the highest FDI. “As per the official data released by DPIIT, Gujarat received highest FDI worth Rs 1.58 lakh crore ($21.24 bn) between April and December 2020. In the first six months of FY2020-21, Gujarat registered a 550% growth in FDI as compared to the corresponding period of the previous year. We expect this trend to continue and a good number of companies will invest in the state,” Das said.


Adani Scoops up SB Energy

Adani Green Energy Limited signed a share purchase agreement on Wednesday to acquire SB Energy India from its shareholders, Soft-Bank Group and Bharti Enterprises, swooping at the opportunity within seven days of the failure of previous negotiations with Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

The transaction will make AGEL, already the largest listed renewable power company in the country by capacity, one of the largest in the world. The company estimates that upon completion, its operating portfolio will bulk up to 10 GW (10,000 MW) by next year with another 15 GW under development.

SB Energy India has a total renewable portfolio of 4,954 MW spread across four states in India and the transaction marks the largest acquisition in the renewable energy sector in India. The transaction values SB Energy India at an enterprise valuation of approximately $3.5 billion (₹26,000 crore), the company said in an official statement.

Although not disclosed, the EV figure includes $2.9 billion (₹21,100 crore at ₹74/$ exchange rate) of debt and liabilities — around $1.3 billion (₹9,500 crore) of SB Energy’s debt and another $1.6 billion (₹11,700 crore) of pending capex — that will get transferred to AGEL as part of the transaction.

Sources said Adani will actually be paying a nearly $50-60 million discount to the CPPIB offer that got rejected. While CPPIB was buying an 80% stake from SoftBank for $525-550 million (at an implied equity valuation of $656.2-687.5 million for 100%), AGEL is likely to pay $625 million for the entire company.

The Adani spokesperson said, "This is a fully funded acquisition and it is part of our normal capital management planning. Our debt sits under actual SPVs. So, this acquisition will not materially alter the debt profile of AGEL. All of the debts sit within the companies and they are properly funded in a ring-fenced manner, so our balance sheet rises but it does not change our debt matrix."

SoftBank, Bharti also declined to comment on specifics.

Both SoftBank and Bharti will be exiting the high-profile venture at a loss, believe industry players. The sale price is much below the $800 million book value or equity invested by the two since 2015 and a far cry from the $1.2 billion originally sought from investors a year back. Bharti alone had invested $150-160 million in the venture till date since its inception.

"India, without any doubt, has been one of the few nations that has accelerated its global commitment towards climate change and we intend to do our part to execute on the promises made," said Gautam Adani, chairman, Adani Group. "The renewable energy platform that we are building will lay the foundation for attracting several other global industries that are increasingly looking to reduce their carbon footprint (as well as lay the foundation for opening up adjacent platforms that include hydrogen and storage)."

Sources in the know say the deal is expected to get completed by August this year. "That’s when the long-stop date for negotiations has been set. Regulatory approvals are required as the change of control clause in the various power purchase agreements will get triggered," said an official, on condition of anonymity as the talks are in the private domain.

All SB Energy projects have 25-year PPAs with sovereign rated counterparties such as Solar Energy Corporation of India, NTPC and NHPC. The operating assets forming part of the portfolio are primarily solar park-based projects.

"SBG continues our transition to a global investment holding company focused on accelerating the deployment of artificial intelligence; we believe now is the right time to bring in the Adani Group to help drive the next phase of SB Energy India’s growth," said Masayoshi Son, chairman, SoftBank Group.

The transaction with Adani is believed to have been spearheaded by Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Group. "He was dealing directly with Gautam Adani; even the operating team in SB Energy did not know and in typical fashion, they moved in real fast," according to an official with direct knowledge of the matter.

Last December, CPPIB had signed a Share Purchase Agreement with SoftBank to buy their controlling stake for $425-450 million. An additional $100 million were to be paid subject to future outcomes, said people aware of the development.

CPPIB, however, was not keen on a full buyout and wanted Bharti to stay invested.

Cyclone caused ₹15,000-crore loss

Cyclone Tauktae is estimated to have caused a loss of about ₹15,000 crore, that’s slightly over $2 billion with the agriculture sector being the worst hit and Gujarat and Diu the most affected regions due to the strong wind and the resultant flooding.

Infrastructure (mainly the ports along the western coast) and utilities (electricity and telecom) sectors have also been hit severely leading to such losses, a report by RMSI, a global consultancy firm working in the field of natural calamities, climate change etc., said in a report.

Among the states, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra have been partially affected by the cyclone which made a landfall along the Gujarat and Diu coastlines on Monday late evening. There are expectations that the frequency of such devastating cyclones could increase in near future.

According to Pushpendra Johari, Senior VP, sustainability, RMSI, Tauktae was a unique cyclone that impacted all the states and UTs along India’s western coast.

Recent studies on climate change have highlighted the rising sea surface temperature in the Arabian Sea which would increase the frequency of cyclones in these regions, Johari said.

RMSI estimates that out of the total ₹15,000-crore loss, at least half is expected in Gujarat and Daman & Diu while the other four western coastal states incurring the balance half of the loss.

On the sectoral front, about “25-40% losses are expected from the agriculture sector from all the above impacted states.

Off the Mumbai Coast: 26 bodies found in sea, 49 still missing

Bodies of 26 personnel on board Barge Papaa (P-305) that sunk amid the fury unleashed by cyclone Tauktae were recovered from the Arabian Sea by Indian Navy warships engaged in search and rescue operations through Tuesday and Wednesday. The bodies were found floating 50-60 nautical miles ( 90+km) off the Mumbai coast. 49 crew members are still missing, while 186 were rescued.

A total of 273 personnel were earlier said to have been on board, but the ONGC, which had deployed the barge, revised the count to 261 on Wednesday. The search operations for the missing 49 will continue, officials said.

Five Navy ships—INS Kochi, Kolkata, Beas, Betwa and Teg—P8I maritime surveillance aircraft, and Chetak and Sea King helicopters have been engaged in the search at sea which began on Monday, with 1,500-plus personnel pressed into service. The Navy said they were still hopeful of finding survivors.

The operation began after four vessels—two barges off the city’s coast and a barge and drill vessel off Gujarat’s Pipavav port—went adrift. A total of 638 people had been rescued by Tuesday evening.

Navy officials said INS Kochi reached Mumbai harbour on Wednesday with four bodies and 125 survivors before sailing back to join the rescue effort. INS Kolkata was to enter Mumbai harbour late Wednesday night to disembark the other survivors and bring back bodies of other


Pune: Riverbank project to offer boating, chowpatty

The Pune Municipal Corporation has undertaken a very ambitious plan for the Mula-Mutha riverbank development project. This will take place over 11 stages and several new infrastructural upgrades can be expected under the same.

One of the most fascinating initiatives under this project is to start boating at several points along the Mula-Mutha river. Around 16 points are going to be considered for boating. Apart from this, 23 new tanks will be built for Ganpati Visarjan, 11 places along the riverside will be considered for chowpatty and snack corners.

In the 2021-22 annual budget, the municipal commissioner has granted Rs 150 crore for this particular project. The civic body has started work of demarcation of land, design, and find out possible stretches to complete with minimum acquisition of land and hurdles, estimate cost of stretches, list of government and private lands and send notices to them for acquisition.

Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol, speaking about the same, said, “We have two rivers flowing in between the city and there is a dire need to rejuvenate the same. While we are working already to clear the filth in the rivers and clear hyacinth, there is also a need to fix issues around the rivers and the banks and we intend to beautify the same as well. These projects will take a few years but we are sure that’ll be done over the time.”

Mangesh Dighe, head of PMC’s environment department, added, “The river flows through different parts of the city and we are working on three different stretches such as Kharadi, Aundh and Bund Garden to Sangamwadi bridge. Some of the land acquisition work is underway and we are taking no-objection certificates for the same.”

The rivers have become largely inaccessible from the city and are no longer seen as assets to the city. The city has turned its back to these rivers. In order to cope with these current issues and create a meaningful public realm along the rivers, Pune Municipal Corporation has instigated a comprehensive project - Mula, Mutha and Mula-Mutha Riverfront Development Project in the entire Pune Municipal Corporation area.

In November 2019, Maharashtra State Environment Impact Assessment Authority gave a no-objection certificate for the project. Now, PMC is awaiting approval from the state government to form a special purpose vehicle to operate the project like Metro and smart city. It has been pending for the last one year.

This 1,100-yr-old Chola hosp had beds, docs, surgeons

As a raging pandemic befuddles governments of even the most advanced nations on how best to use their resources, inscription on the walls of a Chola temple, built more than 1,100 years ago, shows how the visionary kings had operated a 15-bed hospital complete with doctors and surgeons. The inscriptions give details on medical procedures, salary paid to doctors in the form of paddy — proportionate to their work, the kind of herbal drugs used, and the method to ration food among inmates.

The comprehensive engravings on the granite wall of Venkatesa Perumal Temple at Thirumukkoodal near Kancheepuram, located 70km south of Chennai, on the medical centre established by Virarajendra Chola in 1069AD at the confluence of rivers Cheyyar, Vegavathi and Palar has surprised archaeologists.

The centre had two physicians, including a surgeon, and one barber to perform minor operations, two people for fetching herbs, and nurses and medical attendants to take care of patients. The 55ft long inscriptions with 33 lines running from top to bottom cover an area of 540sqft. It is considered to be one of the biggest such engravings discovered so far in the Indian subcontinent. While 95% of it is written in Tamil, the rest is in ‘Grantha’ script. According to archaeologists, it throws light on 19 herbal medicines used for treating fever, lung diseases and dropsy.

As per the inscriptions, first documented a century ago, the hospital was meant to treat inmates of a students’ hostel and temple servants. S Rajavelu, adjunct faculty member of department of history, Alagappa University and former epigraphist with ASI, who studied the inscriptions in the past, said the facility also catered to the public. “It was akin to a medical hospital and college, where students stayed and it was meant for treating the public. It was an ayurvedic cum siddha hospital because we have references of medicinal plants,” he said.

“The hospital was running on the grants from the government, routed through the temple,” Rajavelu said.

The inscriptions talk of an ‘Atular Salai’, which means hospital. Similar health care centres were also functioning in Thiruvakkam near Kancheepuram, Thanjavur and Srirangam, he added.

Archaeological Survey of India, which maintains the 9th century temple, now plans to recreate the garden by planting herbs mentioned in the inscription. T Saravanan, who took over as senior conservation assistant of ASI’s Kancheepuram sub-circle recently, said the temple would also be renovated for consecration. “The herbal garden is being established as part of renovation works that would commence this year. It is being executed on the directions of the ASI’s director-general, who visited the temple early this year,” he said.

Trapped in pandemic panic, people now look up at hospitals as temples, but in the days of yore temples themselves doubled up as hospitals.