India now world's No 7 in coronavirus cases as lockdown eases

With 190,535 cases, India exceeds Germany and France even as it begins to ease the world’s largest virus lockdown.

India has more than 190,000 coronavirus cases, the seventh most worldwide, even as the South Asian country begins to reopen the world’s largest lockdown to contain the pandemic.

More states opened up and crowds of commuters trickled onto roads on Monday in many of India’s cities as a three-phase plan to lift the nationwide lockdown started, despite an upward trend in new infections.

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  • India to ease coronavirus lockdown despite record new cases

  • India victims of 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy dying of coronavirus

  • A toddler trying to wake up dead mother shocks Indians

India’s health ministry on Monday said the country had 190,535 confirmed coronavirus cases, exceeding that of Germany and France. With 230 deaths in the past 24 hours, the total death toll stands at 5,394.

The new cases are largely concentrated in six Indian states, including New Delhi, the capital. 

More than 60 percent of India’s COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in just two states – Maharashtra, the financial and entertainment hub of India, and Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The lockdown, however, remains in place until June 30 in the containment zones – areas that have been isolated due to coronavirus outbreaks.

Experts, meanwhile, warn the pandemic has yet to peak in India.

The first phase of the easing of the lockdown will restrict curbs to containment zones and gives states more power to decide and strategise lockdown implementation locally.

Reporting from New Delhi, Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said, “It continues to be very much a mixed picture here” after four phases of the lockdown first imposed on March 25.

“The government is calling what is happening from Monday the Unlock Phase One, and apart from the lockdown continuing in containment zones till the end of the month, we are seeing more restrictions being eased in the rest of the country,” said Puranam.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced the capital city’s borders will be closed for another seven days, she said, with with exemptions for essential services.

The government said it would allow the hospitality and retail sectors and places of worship to open from June 8 and expected authorities to ensure physical distancing rules and staggered business hours.

Schools and universities will resume classes after discussions with Indian state authorities, with a decision due in July.

Restrictions on international air travel and city train services have not been revoked but permission for intra-state travel was granted.

Indian Railways began running another 200 special passenger trains on Monday and some states have opened their borders to vehicular traffic.

Maharashtra has allowed shops and offices to open outside containment zones and has given a nod to the resumption of film and television shooting, with some restrictions in place.

In a radio address to the nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned citizens and asked them to remain vigilant. “Becoming careless or lackadaisical cannot be an option,” he said.

Modi’s government has stressed that restrictions are being eased to focus on promoting economic activity, which has been severely hit by the virus lockdown.

He said India will set “an example in economic revival” and asked the nation to show “firm resolve”.

Last month, Modi announced a $266bn package – 10 percent of the country’s GDP – to revive the battered economy.

The sudden halt to the economy due to the two-month lockdown has been devastating for daily labourers and migrant workers who fled cities on foot for their family homes in the countryside.

The country’s unemployment rate in May rose to 23.48 percent, according to data released on Monday.

In his open letter, Modi acknowledged the “tremendous suffering” of millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs and were forced to make gruelling and dangerous trips back to their home towns.

At least nine of the workers have died on trains in recent days while travelling home.

There are also concerns the virus may be spreading through India’s villages as millions of unemployed people return home from cities.

“People who are incredibly critical of the lockdown say India cannot remain under lockdown indefinitely as 114 million people have lost their jobs, 90 million of them being daily wage earners who have to work every single day to survive,” said Al Jazeera’s Puranam.



101 East

India: Under Lockdown

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What is the way forward in India-Nepal border dispute?

India says new road to Lipulekh falls within Indian territory, but Nepal claims at least 17km of it lies on its land.

Kathmandu, Nepal – For several weeks, Indian soldiers have been engaged in a standoff with their Chinese counterparts along their disputed border, even as New Delhi is busy planning a strategy to resolve a land dispute with another neighbour, Nepal.

India’s latest diplomatic row with Nepal erupted on May 8 when New Delhi announced the inauguration of a Himalayan road link that passes through the disputed area of Kalapani.

More:

  • Why Nepal is angry over India’s new road in disputed border area

  • New Nepal map heightens land dispute with India

  • India’s updated political map stirs controversy in Nepal

Under pressure from the opposition, civil society and a vociferous Nepali press, the government of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli issued a new political map of the country, showing Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within its borders.

India objected, saying the new Nepal map “included parts of the Indian territory”.

The dispute’s origins lay in the November 2019 release of India’s new political map, which showed Kalapani within India.

The announcement saw Nepal’s capital Kathmandu rocked by protests, while Oli’s government requested a high-level meeting to resolve the dispute. But India was not forthcoming.

The two neighbours entered a new paradigm of “cartographic war” as anger grew on both sides.

Acrimonious exchanges

It began with an ill-placed remark by the Indian army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, that suggested Kathmandu had acted at the behest of China.

Nepal’s Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel dubbed General Naravane’s comments an insult to the Nepali soldiers working in the Indian Army. Nearly 40,000 Nepali Gurkha soldiers are part of 40 battalions.

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Oli questioned India’s commitment to its national motto of “Satyamev Jayate” (truth prevails) by suggesting New Delhi subscribed to “Singhamev Jayate” (the lion prevails).

His remarks about the “Indian virus” spreading the coronavirus pandemic into Nepal added fuel to the fire.

Oli’s nationalist position seemed to be directed at his domestic audience as he used the issue to deflect criticism from his government’s handling of the pandemic, as well as consolidate his beleaguered position within his party.

But experts believe New Delhi risks damaging the relationship further through its hawkish commentators and nationalist media.

“Oli’s response did not precede but followed the public uproar,” said Akhilesh Upadhyay, former editor of The Kathmandu Post and a senior fellow at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS), a Kathmandu-based think-tank.

He pointed at Nepali objections to the 2015 bilateral agreement between India and China that opened up Lipulekh for trade, to say Nepal’s position has remained consistent despite multiple governments.

India has argued that the road is completely in its territory but Nepal says at least 17km of the new road “passes through Nepali territory,” arguing that the road crosses over to the east bank of the Mahakali River.

Nepal considers east of the river to be its territory based on the 1816 Sugauli Treaty signed with British colonial rulers.

In a series of articles, Kantipur, Nepal’s biggest-selling newspaper, presented the historical evidence: Five British-Indian maps issued between 1819 and 1894 that show Limpiyadhura as the headwaters of the Mahakali; a 1904 letter written by then Prime Minister Rana Chandra Shamsher to village chiefs of the triangle; and evidence of a 1958 voter list and the 1961 census by Nepali authorities in the region.

Nepal also possesses land registration records and tax receipts from the disputed territory.

“The heart of the dispute,” Upadhyay said, “lies in differing cartographic interpretations about the headwaters of the Mahakali river.” Nepal argues Limpiyadhura is the location of the headwaters; India regards a smaller stream flowing down from Lipulekh as the river’s headwaters.

The dispute is further muddied by the presence of Indian troops in Kalapani since before the 1962 war with China.

The Sugauli Treaty remains, for Nepal, the “mother of all documents”, Upadhyay said, according to which the Mahakali is the boundary river between the two countries, and any future demarcations will be based on the treaty.

What is the way forward?

The row appears to have reached an impasse.

“The Nepal prime minister’s earlier remarks on a solution, with possible road leasing to India, was a welcome step towards de-escalation, but since then, we have only seen repeated moves from both sides that have raised the temperature, further politicised the issue and thus made dialogue more difficult,” said Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Brookings India.

Similarly, Sudheer Sharma, editor of Kantipur daily, said, “The dispute has become more complicated after a hardening of stances on both sides. Nepal’s earlier demands were focused on the withdrawal of troops from Kalapani; its recent position now includes the insistence of Limpiyadhura as the headwaters. The dispute looks like it is heading towards a point of no return.”

The presence of the Indian army in the trijunction that connects India, China and Nepal complicates the issue.

Analysts say it is difficult to foresee a withdrawal of troops, as the official Nepali position demands.

Sharma said: “There had been proposals in the past where India would withdraw its troops while Nepal would guarantee Indian security interests in the region. But this looks difficult now.”

The situation acquires a further hurdle against the background of a simmering India-China border dispute along their de facto border – the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – a border that remains undemarcated.

Furthermore, Nepal’s ruling Communist Party government has reached out to China for investment and better connectivity in recent years, which has troubled India.

But Beijing’s ambiguous position that Kalapani is a bilateral issue between India and Nepal has been keenly watched by Nepali analysts since the current road is a result of its 2015 agreement with New Delhi.

Despite the tensions – the second over Kalapani in six months and the most serious bilateral dispute since the 2015 unofficial blockade – analysts on both sides have begun to call for a political solution to Kalapani.

India may continue to defuse the crisis through back channels, said Xavier from Brookings, but “this is no longer sustainable”, as the dispute had become a “permanent irritant” in bilateral relations.

Similarly, Upadhyay said because both sides have an “irreconcilable position”, the dispute will not end “based on cartography”.

Broader engagement from both sides is essential towards finding a solution that satisfies both sides, said Xavier.

“There are many possible modalities. Maybe it could include joint military deployment, special access rights for Nepali citizens or even a free-trade zone with China,” he said.

Many have also pointed to India’s resolution of the border with Bangladesh in 2015 – “far more intractable”, according to Jayant Prasad, ex-ambassador to Nepal – as a possible way out.

Most of the 1,751km-long Nepal-India border has been demarcated through a joint boundary committee except for Kalapani and Susta, which lies in southern Nepal.

“[The] India-Nepal border issues appear more easily solvable, so long as there is political goodwill and statecraft exercised on both sides. The way to move forward is to formally approve the strip maps, resolve the two remaining disputes, demarcate the entire India-Nepal boundary, and speedily execute the work of boundary maintenance,” Prasad wrote in The Hindu.

However, Sharma of the Kantipur daily cautioned that dialogue looks unlikely soon.

“There are new complications because positions have hardened on both sides. Further, more than India, it may not be as easy for the Nepali side to come to a political solution because of the domestic backlash any leadership that negotiates on Kalapani will face.”

Although the Nepali position has hardened over perceptions that New Delhi has not been forthcoming in Kathmandu’s efforts to resolve the dispute, India sought to defuse the crisis on Friday by calling for “constructive and positive efforts”, and said that it had taken the dispute’s “seriousness” into account.

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New Indian roads, air strips sparked border standoff with China, India observers say

NEW DELHI/SRINAGAR (Reuters) – A Himalayan border standoff between old foes India and China was triggered by India’s construction of roads and air strips in the region as it competes with China’s spreading Belt and Road initiative, Indian observers said on Tuesday.

Soldiers from both sides have been camped out in the Galwan Valley in the high-altitude Ladakh region, accusing each other of trespassing over the disputed border, the trigger of a brief but bloody war in 1962.

About 80 to 100 tents have sprung up on the Chinese side and about 60 on the Indian side where soldiers are billeted, Indian officials briefed on the matter in New Delhi and in Ladakh’s capital, Leh, said.

Both were digging defences and Chinese trucks have been moving equipment into the area, the officials said, raising concerns of a long faceoff.

“China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s office said in a statement.

“At present, the overall situation in the border areas is stable and controllable. There are sound mechanisms and channels of communication for border-related affairs, and the two sides are capable of properly resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultation.”

There was no immediate Indian foreign ministry comment. It said last week Chinese troops had hindered regular Indian patrols along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

But interviews with former Indian military officials and diplomats suggest the trigger for the flare-up is India’s construction of roads and air strips.

“Today, with our infrastructure reach slowly extending into areas along the LAC, the Chinese threat perception is raised,” said former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao.

“Xi Jinping’s China is the proponent of a hard line on all matters of territory, sovereignty. India is no less when it comes to these matters either,” she said.

After years of neglect Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has pushed for improving connectivity and by 2022, 66 key roads along the Chinese border will have been built.

One of these roads is near the Galwan valley that connects to Daulat Beg Oldi air base, which was inaugurated last October.

“The road is very important because it runs parallel to the LAC and is linked at various points with the major supply bases inland,” said Shyam Saran, another former Indian foreign secretary.

“It remains within our side of the LAC. It is construction along this new alignment which appears to have been challenged by the Chinese.”

China’s Belt and Road is a string of ports, railways, roads and bridges connecting China to Europe via central and southern Asia and involving Pakistan, China’s close ally and India’s long-time foe.

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How one Indian company could be world's door to a COVID-19 vaccine

PUNE (Reuters) – If the world is to gain access to a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s a good chance it will pass through the doors of Serum Institute of India.

Serum Institute, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines by volume, is working on several candidates for the novel coronavirus – including potentially mass-producing the AstraZeneca/Oxford university one that has garnered global headlines – as well as developing its own.

The efforts are partly being shepherded by Umesh Shaligram, the head of research and development. His employer is a private company but every day, shortly before midnight, he receives a WhatsApp message from the government asking for updates, and about any new hurdles he faces.

The message is usually from K. VijayRaghavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top scientific adviser – an indication of the critical, and even strategically important, nature of the race to develop the vaccines the whole world is waiting for.

Shaligram promptly responds with a progress report and details any bottlenecks.

“Any delays, you just tell them,” said Shaligram, adding the government has been doing everything it can to fast-track clearances, and resolve import delays and other issues.

“We have begun to see approvals come through in days, even on a Sunday night, for trials and things like that,” he said, noting some of these processes typically took 4 to 6 months.

While most of the attention regarding vaccines typically goes to the pharmaceutical developer, India quietly plays a key role in manufacturing 60%-70% of all vaccines sold globally with the Serum Institute playing a lead role, said the company’s Chief Executive Adar Poonawalla.

At the company’s sprawling, 150-acre campus in the western Indian city of Pune, Shaligram and his team are working flat-out. Dozens of buses ferry in hundreds of workers each day to the grounds, which are buzzing with activity even as the city around it remains largely under lockdown.

The push comes as the number of cases of COVID-19, both globally and domestically, continue to surge and world leaders look to vaccines as the only real way to restart their stalled economies, even though none have yet been proven to be effective against the coronavirus.

Poonawalla, whose family owns he vaccine maker, said scientists, drugmakers and manufacturers were collaborating at an unparalleled scale to spur development and availability.

“We are all in a race to battle the disease, there is no one-upmanship here,” he told Reuters, sitting in his office beside his family’s 74-year-old stud farm.

VACCINE CANDIDATES

Serum, founded in 1966 by Adar’s father Cyrus Poonawalla, has partnered with U.S. biotech firm Codagenix, its U.S. rival Novavax (NVAX.O) and Austria’s Themis to potentially manufacture three COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are still in development.

Another candidate in the works is the experimental vaccine developed by a team at the University of Oxford and now licensed to drugmaker AstraZeneca (AZN.L), with whom Serum are in talks to mass produce the vaccine, which is now in the clinical trial stage.

The United States has secured almost a third of the first 1 billion doses planned for the potential vaccine, initially known as ChAdOx1 and now as AZD1222, by pledging up to $1.2 billion.

Poonawalla aims to initially produce 4-5 million doses a month, beginning from June, and then gradually ramp up to 350-400 million doses a year.

“Hopefully we will build a stock of a few million doses to give to our country and other high-risk areas across the globe come October-November when the trials ought to be concluded,” the 39-year-old said, while giving Reuters rare access to tour his facilities.

He added he had been given to understand by the development team that the trials had an 80% chance of success, given that the vaccine is based on a tried-and-tested platform.

Based on the information currently available, Poonawalla also said he anticipated AZD1222 would be a single-dose vaccine and not require a booster dose.

He sees AZD1222 potentially priced at about 1,000 rupees ($13) per dose in India, but expects it will be procured and distributed by governments without charge.

Serum is also working on developing its own in-house vaccine options to tackle the disease, Poonawalla said.

VIALS, TUBES, CHEMICALS

Even if a vaccine does succeed, a treatment to fight COVID-19 would still be required, said Poonawalla, noting some people do not get the desired immune response, even if vaccinated.

“You may get mild symptoms, you may get severe symptoms. It depends on your system, but there is a chance,” he added. “Not all vaccines are fully effective.”

The Serum Institute produces more than 1.5 billion doses of vaccines every year, for everything from polio to measles.

Poonawalla says that gave the company an edge in securing supplies of vials and high-quality chemicals required to make a vaccine in bulk once all approvals are in place.

“We have partnered with many of our suppliers to have one to two-year inventories of glass vials and tubing glass stocked in advance, so luckily for us that won’t be an issue.”

Any successful vaccine is however bound to be in short supply at first, he stressed.

India recorded more than 6,000 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, bringing its total to over 118,000 cases with more than 3,500 deaths, even as it gradually begins to ease its nearly two-month long nationwide lockdown.

There have been more than 5 million infections and over 330,000 deaths reported worldwide.

The Indian government stands ready to cover the costs of trials of any vaccine in the country, said Poonawalla, adding that the government had also expressed interest in placing advance orders for a potential vaccine.

“We’ve reached out and they have been very positive,” he added. “But we’ve said hold on … as we don’t want to take government money until we are very confident we can deliver.”

UNLOCKING VALUE IN THE ‘HYPE’

Serum, one of the few companies ramping up hiring during the health crisis, is also designing a separate facility to make vaccines for pandemic-level diseases that could handle 90% of the current vaccine candidates being developed, beyond just the COVID-19 ones.

That facility, which will be ready in the next two to three years, would be able to potentially churn out 700-800 million doses a year, according to Poonawalla.

The CEO said he considered taking the company public some years ago to fund some large acquisitions, but changed course when the deals fell through.

Now he’s considering a different approach. He is exploring creating a holding entity that will host the company’s pandemic-level technologies, including manufacturing rights, intellectual property and the sale of all of Serum’s COVID-19-related candidates, and selling a minority stake in the venture.

“That will unlock value in the main hype,” he said.

Poonawalla said he had engaged bankers to test the waters on this, but stressed he would only consider selling a stake to ethical, long-term funds or sovereign funds that do not expect huge returns and want to “make a difference to the world”.

“After getting them onboard, I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to charge high prices to give them returns.”

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Subcontinent's silly season could get serious

As if the world doesn’t have enough on its hands with a pandemic that’s proving difficult to control, we now have a fresh worry: tensions boiling in the subcontinent between Chinese and Indian troops in the far north and north-east of the area, and between Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir.

Last weekend, a serious skirmish took place between Chinese and Indian troops in the north Sikkim sector in which a young Indian lieutenant apparently struck a Chinese major in the face after the latter appeared to menace an Indian captain, shouting “This is not your land… just go back!”

Although the headstrong young lieutenant, a third-generation soldier, was immediately transferred out by higher authority, sections of the Indian media, including a publication close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have hailed him as a hero.

Separately, clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers erupted at a spot called “Finger 5” on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake in eastern Ladakh, an area bordering Xinjiang and Tibet that saw pitched battles in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.

Two-thirds of the water body is controlled by China and the Finger 5 incident apparently involved 250 troops using rocks and iron rods, leaving injuries on both sides.

Over in Kashmir in the past fortnight, India lost an officer of colonel rank, a major and three soldiers. They died storming a hideout in troubled Kupwara district to rescue hostages taken by intruders, described by India as Pakistanis belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. Fearing a repeat of the Indian retaliation seen in February last year following a suicide bombing in Kashmir, the Pakistan Air Force has flown fighters close to the Line of Control, including night sorties.

The summer months when the Himalayan glaciers melt with the arrival of warmer weather are generally the silly season for the low-intensity skirmishes that routinely take place along the frontiers.

While mortar and machine gun fire is frequently exchanged on the India-Pakistan line, the Chinese and Indians are careful to only confront each other with guns pointed to the ground. Such encounters take place when border patrols run into each other along their undemarcated line and one side thinks the other has pushed too far.

Instead, there is jostling and warnings – and in the rare instance as happened over the weekend – a flying fist.

Three years ago, Indian troops entered Bhutanese territory to push out Chinese troops from a key tri-junction in the Doklam area, whose control would have given China enormous advantage in checking India’s access to its seven north-eastern states in a conflict situation. The area is considered so vital strategically that China reportedly had offered Bhutan 540 sq km of territory in exchange for the 89 sq km of territory it sought from the kingdom.

NEW STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENT

This time, however, frictions are rising amid a marked change in the strategic environment. That lends additional danger to the scenario and the risks of a significant escalation on the various fronts.

India’s steadily advancing strategic embrace of the United States, at a time when US-China ties are worsening by the day, has caused worry in Beijing. The weapons India has begun to acquire from the US, and a series of bilateral agreements, have increased inter-operability of the forces. Beijing also suspects a noose is sought to be drawn around it by the Quadrilateral Dialogue or Quad, which pulls in the US, Japan, Australia and India.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

After initial hesitation about upsetting China, Quad nations held their first foreign minister-level meeting in New York last September. Earlier this month, the four decided to consult weekly at officials level. Although the subject for now is health, there are suspicions about where the consultations could lead to, given the developments around East Asia.

A Quad-Plus meeting was held in the second half of March that included New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Since that meeting, Chinese coast guard actions against Vietnamese fishing vessels in disputed waters saw the Philippines voicing rare public criticism of China, as it backed Hanoi’s position. A second Quad-Plus meeting this week was raised to the level of foreign ministers, and this time brought in South Korea, Brazil and Israel.

New Delhi also is in danger of appearing to play too closely to Washington’s decoupling playbook when it comes to access to its 1.4 billion-size market, reducing Beijing’s incentives to be accommodative of Indian concerns.

After pulling out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks last November on fears of being swamped by Chinese goods, India recently announced it would no longer give blanket permission for countries with which it shares “land borders” – widely interpreted as a euphemism for China – to invest in its market.

While this does not amount to a ban, only increased scrutiny, it comes at a particularly sensitive time for China, which fears US pressure is shutting it out of key foreign markets. New Delhi’s decision followed a small, opportunistic Chinese investment in India’s biggest mortgage lender as stock prices collapsed in the wake of the pandemic.

India has its own list of grievances about Chinese insensitivities, starting with Beijing’s steadfast support for Pakistan. Beijing announced the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs partly through territory that is the subject of a Pakistan-India bilateral dispute, without consulting New Delhi. That one act caused capital-short India to turn its back on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Subsequently, China’s repeated “technical holds” on naming Pakistan-based Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group, to a list of global terrorists identified by the United Nations irked India severely.

Azhar, whose group claimed responsibility for the February 2019 Kashmir suicide bombing that nearly brought India and Pakistan to war, was finally named to the group in May last year after intense pressure applied by Washington and Paris.

THE KASHMIRI CANKER

Meanwhile, Kashmir remains the perennial canker between India and Pakistan.

The deaths of the Indian soldiers there in the past fortnight follow on the heels of the loss last month of five commandos killed along the Control Line in Kashmir’s Keran sector during a close-quarter firefight with insurgents attempting to infiltrate the line.

The incident prompted a visit to the area by Indian army chief Manoj Naravane, who accused Pakistan of “exporting terror” at a time when the world was preoccupied with the coronavirus.

Senior commanders generally step in to calm situations such as these. However, India has proclaimed a “new normal” since February last year when it went for significant escalation, using fighter aircraft to hit a purported terrorist camp inside Pakistani territory.

This took place amid the heat of the election campaign after an Indian Kashmiri suicide bomber sent by Jaish detonated himself on Feb 14, taking with him the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary troops. Following the air strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken of a “new convention and policy” towards Pakistan, taken to mean he would not be deterred by its nuclear weapons. On the stump, he has said his own nukes were not “crackers meant to be burst during Deepavali”.

For its part, Islamabad has shown it does not lack resolve; in a dogfight that followed its own warning strike close to an Indian military facility, an Indian pilot was shot down and later returned.

The danger is that all of this comes when all countries involved are at a weak moment; the pandemic has ravaged what anyway were wheezing economies whose swagger had been significantly curtailed. In India, for instance, pensions aside, this year’s defence budget is just 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product – there simply is no money for more, given the multiple other challenges the country faces.

Rather than help reduce tensions, weakness can sometimes cause situations to escalate. A spark here and there could lead to wider conflagrations if, for instance, a nation unwilling to commit ground troops is tempted to reach for stand-off weapons, such as missiles.

MODI’S DISENCHANTMENT

So far, all concerned seem to be inclined to tamp down the situation. India’s General Naravane told journalists on Wednesday that the incidents on the China border had “no connection with any domestic or international situation prevailing today” and the current ones, too, would be handled “as per protocol between the two countries”. A Chinese spokesman has echoed similar views, saying his nation was committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity.

While India-Pakistan ties were always fraught given their tortured history, the pity about the Sino-Indian relationship is that no Indian leader had stepped into the prime minister’s office with such a positive attitude towards China as Mr Modi.

Today, admiration and the instinct to emulate China, which led him to promote Gujarat as “Guangdong of the East”, have soured into deep scepticism. This is driving him to take his nation, long admired for its independent foreign policy, towards what looks like a “non-treaty ally” relationship with Washington. In turn, this feeds into apprehensions about New Delhi turning into a lackey of the US.

Ironically, Mr Modi had been banned from entering the US for more than a decade following his mishandling of communal violence early in his tenure as Gujarat state minister.

The weather forecast for the Indian subcontinent is for a normal monsoon. Hopefully, that will cool what could be a hot summer on the borders.

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India food shortage: Food production shackled by coronavirus – ‘Farmers can’t travel!

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University of Kent economics lecturer Dr Amrit Amirapu said India has had one of the strictest coronavirus lockdowns in the world put in place and during an Express.co.uk interview, he warned India’s food production and distribution chain has seen major disruptions. He explained this could have long term impacts and negatively affect the food production industry.

Dr Amirapu said: “The supply of food has been negatively affected.

“In India there has been one of the strictest lockdown imposed in the world.

“That has made it difficult for migrant labourers to continue working on farms during the harvest period.

“There has been a reduction in the supply of labour needed to harvest food.

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“In developing countries agriculture is far more labour intensive than it is in rich countries.”

Dr Amirapu concluded that this reduction in Labour could have notable ripple effects as we move through this pandemic.

He also explained that there were other issues coronavirus had caused besides reduction in workers.

He continued: “India is a big food producer, at the same time there have been reports that farmers have found it difficult, after harvesting food, to travel to agricultural food markets.

“Apparently the police are preventing them from doing that under the interpretation they are breaking the lockdown rules.

“It is the case that in some areas food supply itself is directly affected.”

Dr Amirapu also highlighted the worst problem developing countries could face during the coronavirus pandemic in regards to food.

He said: “The worst problem for developing countries, in terms of food shortages, is there are a lot of poor countries that rely on food imports.

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“So for many of these countries, they import quite a lot of their food to the tune of billions of dollars worth of food.

“The problem is there is going to be rising exchange rates causing the price in food to go up in local currency.

“So for example, if you are in Zambia the price of imported rice is going to up.

“This applies even if nothing else happens, even if the price of rice internationally doesn’t change.

“That is going to happen and at the same time, unemployment is going to increase all across the world.

“People are going to have less money to spend on food.”

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Indian lenders pitch for government-funded 'bad bank' – sources

(Repeats for additional subscribers)

By Nupur Anand and Aditi Shah

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI, May 13 (Reuters) – Indian lenders want the government to provide up to $2 billion to set up a “bad bank” at a time when their heavy pile of soured debt is expected to double in size due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.

The banks have proposed that the government set up an asset reconstruction company (ARC) to initially buy non-performing loans worth up to a total of 1 trillion rupees ($13.3 billion), the banking industry sources told Reuters.

The Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) has drafted the proposal and sent it to the government and the Reserve Bank of India for their approval, according to the two bankers plus a third banking industry source. They asked not to be named as the discussions are confidential.

“The government needs to put in anywhere between 100 billion rupees to 150 billion rupees ($1.3 billion-$2 billion) to form the ARC where the bad loans can be transferred,” said the first source.

The IBA, finance ministry and central bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Indian banks are already grappling with a bad debt pile of 9.35 trillion Indian rupees, equivalent to about 9.1% of their total assets, as of Sept. 30 last year.

The government and bankers are worried that the share of bad loans may double with the economy grinding to a halt during the nationwide lockdown.

The ARC, likely to be named National Asset Reconstruction Company Ltd, will be set up for an initial period of 10 years, two of the sources said. A non-performing loan must be worth at least 5 billion rupees to qualify to be bought, they added.

The ARC would pay the lenders at least 15% of the present net value of the loans it buys in cash, while the remaining would be paid in the form of security receipts, the two sources said.

The receipts can be redeemed by the banks once the account has been settled or sold to other investors in the secondary market, the people added.

Additionally, a separate asset management company and an alternate investment fund would also be created in which banks and other private companies could participate by managing the stressed assets to secure better valuations, the sources added.

“The initial discussions have been encouraging but the plan will succeed only with the government’s blessings,” said the first source.

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India PM outlines economic rescue package

Indian PM Narendra Modi has announced an economic package of more than $260bn to help the country cope with its prolonged coronavirus lockdown.

In a TV address, he said the funds, around 10% of India’s GDP, would support farmers and small businesses.

He said Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman would announce further details in the next few days.

On Tuesday, some passenger rail services resumed, an important symbol of the slow return to normality.

India has confirmed about 70,000 cases of coronavirus and about 2,300 deaths, although some analysts suggest low testing rates may mean many cases are missed.

The very strict lockdown, which started on 25 March, has already caused huge economic distress, with tens of millions of poorer Indians and migrant workers worst affected.

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AP's Kashmir photographers win Pulitzer for lockdown coverage

News agency’s Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand honoured with this year’s Pulitzer Prize in feature photography.

India’s unprecedented crackdown on Indian-administered Kashmir last August, which included a sweeping curfew and shutdowns of phone and internet services, was difficult to show to the world.

But Associated Press news agency’s photographers Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand found ways to report it. Now, their work has been honoured with the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature photography.

More:

  • India at 142 on World Press Freedom Index over Kashmir blackout

  • ‘Brazen attack’: Outrage over Kashmir police probing journalists

  • Q&A: Senior Indian journalist Hartosh Singh Bal

The prize winners were announced virtually on Monday owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

Pulitzer board administrator Dana Canedy declared the winners from her living room via a livestream on YouTube rather than at a ceremony at New York’s Columbia University.

In a statement on their website following the announcement, Pulitzer said the Kashmiri photographers were selected for their “striking images of life” in the disputed Himalayan territory.

The Pulitzers are generally regarded as the highest honour that United States-based journalists and organisations can receive.

‘Important and superb’

Snaking around roadblocks, sometimes taking cover in strangers’ homes and hiding cameras in vegetable bags, the three photographers captured images of protests, police and paramilitary action and daily life.

They then headed to the local airport to persuade travellers to carry the photo files out with them and get them to the AP’s office in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

“It was always cat-and-mouse,” Yasin recalled on Monday in an email. “These things made us more determined than ever to never be silenced.”

Yasin and Khan are based in Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, while Anand is based in the Jammu district.

Anand said the award left him speechless. “I was shocked and could not believe it,” he said.

The AP’s president and CEO Gary Pruitt said their work was “important and superb”.

“Thanks to the team inside Kashmir, the world was able to witness a dramatic escalation of the long struggle over the region’s independence.” 

Conflict has flared for decades in the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both the nuclear powers.

The tension hit a new turning point in August, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-administered portion of Kashmir of its semi-autonomy, and divided the Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories.

India poured more troops into the already heavily militarised area, imposed a months-long curfew and harsh curbs on civil rights, and cut off internet, mobile phone, landline and cable TV services.

India said the moves were needed to forestall protests and attacks by rebels seeking independence. Thousands of people, including senior politicians and separatists, were arrested.

Last month, several leading Kashmiri journalists were charged by the Indian police under stringent laws for their “anti-national” social media posts – a move slammed by press and rights groups from around the world.

New York Times leads at Pulitzers

The New York Times collected three 2020 Pulitzer awards, including for Brian M Rosenthal’s investigative report into New York City’s taxi industry that revealed predatory loans that took advantage of vulnerable drivers.

It also won the international reporting prize for a series of stories on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, while the paper’s Nikole Hannah-Jones won best commentary for a personal essay that viewed the US’s origins through the lens of enslaved Africans.

Reuters news agency won the breaking news photography award for pictures of the Hong Kong protests.

The Courier-Journal in Lexington, Kentucky won the breaking news reporting prize for its coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons from Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.

The explanatory reporting prize was awarded to the staff of The Washington Post for a series that showed the effects of extreme temperatures on the planet.

The Baltimore Sun took home the local reporting accolade for reporting on a financial relationship between the city’s mayor and a public hospital system that her office oversaw.

Two organisations won the national reporting award: ProPublica for an investigation into a series of accidents in the US Navy and The Seattle Times for coverage that exposed design flaws in Boeing’s 737 Max.

Ben Taub of The New Yorker won the feature writing award for a story on a Guantanamo Bay guard’s growing friendship with a captor who was tortured.

A special citation was awarded to Ida B Wells, an early pioneer of investigative journalism and a civil rights icon.

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Jailed Kashmiri separatist Yasin Malik 'being denied fair trial'

Slapped with a slew of cases, many in disputed Himalayan region fear the pro-freedom leader could be executed.

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Imprisoned in New Delhi and slapped with a series of cases, including reopening of 30 years old murder charges, a top Kashmiri separatist leader is being denied a fair trial, his family and rights activists have alleged.

Yasin Malik, one of Indian-administered Kashmir’s prominent pro-independence leaders, is the chief of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was banned by the Indian government last year and declared an “unlawful association” that fomented “terrorism”.

The armed resistance against the Indian rule in Kashmir began in 1989, with a majority of people and rebel groups in the region demanding either independence or merger with neighbouring Pakistan.

Both India and Pakistan rule over parts of Kashmir territory, but claim it in its entirety. The two nuclear-armed nations have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the region.

In a controversial decision in August last year, India divided its only Muslim-majority state to create two federally-run territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The move was followed by a crippling seven-month lockdown in the region and arrests of all major political and rebel leaders.

Slew of cases against Malik

Malik, 54, is lodged in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail after he was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a two-year-old case of “terror and separatist funding”.

When the NIA arrested him in April 2019, he was already in a jail in the disputed region’s Jammu city after the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) was slapped on him in early March. The law allows imprisonment up to a year without trial.

Days before that, Malik was under preventive custody in a Srinagar jail following a rebel attack on a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, in which more than 40 Indian soldiers were killed.

The separatist leader has also been charged with the killing of four Indian Air Force (IAF) officers in 1990, shortly after the armed resistance began in the Muslim-majority region.

Seven people, including Malik, were accused of killing the IAF officers in the region’s main city of Srinagar. The  Jammu and Kashmir High Court stayed their trial in 1995, but that ruling was struck down by the same court in April last year.

Malik’s lawyers maintain that the charges do not stand since Malik and his accomplices were armed rebels who had announced a unilateral ceasefire in 1994.

Malik is also accused of orchestrating the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed in 1989. Rubaiya is the daughter of then federal home minister and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Both the cases – the killing of IAF officers and Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnapping – are being pursued in a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) court in Jammu by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) agency.

‘It seems like political vendetta’ 

The filing of all these cases against the leading pro-freedom leader has forced many in the disputed region to fear that the Indian state has already decided to “sign his death warrant”. 

Malik’s JKLF had announced the unilateral ceasefire in 1994 after assurances of a political settlement and suspension of “militancy related cases” against him and his colleagues by the Indian state, according to an open letter he released from prison through his family last month.

“[The] first five years of present government led by PM Narendra Modi saw no militancy-related cases against me and my colleagues. But suddenly from 2019, the TADA court in Jammu started trial of these 30-year-old militancy related cases which is actually against the spirit of ceasefire pledge made in 1994,” he wrote.

In his letter, Malik also accused the judge of behaving like a “prosecuting or police officer” and being denied a fair trial.

“Though I have every legal right to be presented physically before the court, but the judge and the CBI at the behest of government are not allowing me to present myself before the trial court physically,” he wrote.

“I am being presented through video conference, where neither I am able to hear the arguments of the lawyers nor am I being allowed to speak.”

One of Malik’s family members told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that the reopening of murder cases reveals the government’s “ominous designs”.

“When you reopen a 30-year-old case and pursue it at a fast pace in a bid to hastily produce judgement, you can understand the intentions of this government,” he said. “This is a political rather than a judicial move.” 

Tufail Raja, the lawyer representing Malik in the NIA’s “terror funding” case, alleged that cases are being fabricated against him.

“But he is not the one who will succumb to any pressure,” Raja told Al Jazeera.

Raja said Malik has decided that if the government does not offer him a fair trial, he will boycott it. He added that Malik’s plan to start another fast unto death – he attempted one in March but gave up after assurances of a fair trial by authorities – from April 1 was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Human rights groups in Kashmir have also accused the government of being unfair towards Malik.

“Fair trial is a globally recognised right for everyone. If you are suddenly pulling out old cases and not even allowing the accused to properly represent his case, then there would definitely be question marks over it,” Khurram Parvez, a leading activist who heads the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), told Al Jazeera.

“As of now, it seems like a political vendetta.” 

Another ‘judicial murder’ on the cards?

Many people in the Kashmir valley fear Malik is next in line to be “judicially murdered” by India’s right-wing government to further their political gains. In 1984, JKLF founder Maqbool Bhat was sent to the gallows by the Indian state.

“We have seen that when it comes to Kashmiri political detainees, apart from the Indian state, even their judiciary also bypasses all rules laws and guidelines,” Faizan Bhat, a Kashmir-based independent researcher, told Al Jazeera. 

“The way Yasin Malik’s case is being hastily pursued right now is leading to lot of ominous apprehensions of history being repeated.”

Former Indian diplomat Wajahat Habibullah, who had met Malik several times in the 1990s along with army and intelligence officials to persuade him to shun the violent struggle, also acknowledged speculations of him being hanged doing the rounds.

“I am not in the government, so I can’t verify or authenticate these rumours, but I expect law would be allowed to take its own course,” Habibullah told Al Jazeera.

“After being released from prison in 1994, he [Malik] had abjured violence and was not guilty of any criminal offence since then,” he said.

AS Dulat, former chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) spy agency, said he had met Malik in the 1990s on behalf of the government, but denied that New Delhi had reached an agreement with his organisation, the JKLF, regarding the murder cases.

“The understanding was that he would give up militancy and adopt the Gandhian path. It can be said that he stood by his words. But from New Delhi’s side, there was no agreement regarding cases of militancy against him. Those cases were never mentioned,” Dulat said.

“I don’t want to comment over speculations of him being hanged, but if he were to be hanged now after all these years, I would say it is very sad,” he said.

Meanwhile, Malik’s deteriorating health in jail during a global coronavirus pandemic has also added to the woes of his family.

“He has cardiological issues. Due to interrogations by security agencies, his heart valve had to be replaced. The current pandemic and poor conditions in jail worry us more,” a family member told Al Jazeera.

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