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No Clampdown On Info, Supreme Court Warns In Big Covid Hearing

NEW DELHI, April 30: No state should clamp down on information if citizens communicate their grievances on social media, the Supreme Court said today amid alarming Covid surge in India, stressing the court will "treat this as contempt if any citizen is harassed".

A frightening spike in Covid cases in India - hit by a deadly second Covid wave - has led to a deluge of SOS messages on social media as hospitals scramble for resources. "There should not be any presumption that grievances raised on internet are false," the top court insisted today.

"It is of grave concern to me as a citizen or (a) judge. If citizens communicate their grievances on social media, we do not want clampdown on information. Let us hear their voices. We will treat this as contempt if any citizen is harassed if they want bed or oxygen. We are in (a) human crisis," Justice DY Chandrachud said. Even doctors and healthcare workers are not getting beds, he added, calling the situation "grim".

Last week, Twitter confirmed deletion of several tweets "in response to a legal request from the government". The posts were deleted for spreading misinformation on Covid, government sources had said.

As the government hopes to curb the spread with the new phase of vaccination starting tomorrow that widens the coverage to all adults, the top court yet again questioned the centre over the pricing of vaccines.

"Why is the government not buying 100 per cent of doses produced in this time? Why should there be two prices for the centre and the states... what is the rationale?" the Supreme Court asked.

India must follow the "national immunisation model which we had followed since independence," the court said. "Pricing issue is extraordinarily serious. How will poor people find money to get vaccinated? We cannot have this private sector model," the court said. Hostels, temples, and mosques should be turned to Covid centers to tackle the spike, the top court suggested.

The centre has tweaked the vaccine policy to allow states and private entities to buy doses directly from vaccine makers. Manufacturers are free to supply 50 per cent of the doses to states and in the open market. The change in policy, however, has brought the government under criticism.

Last week, the government said its procurement price for both vaccines - Bharat Biotech's Covaxin and the Serum Institute's Covishield - would remain at ₹ 150 per dose, and that the vaccines it procures will be free for states.

Amid the controversy, Bharat Biotech has reduced the price for states from ₹ 600 to ₹ 400 per dose while the SII has cut the prices from ₹ 400 to ₹ 300.

The centre has "special responsibility towards Delhi," the Supreme Court said today, stressing that the national capital "represents micro problems of the country". The Supreme Court told the Arvind Kejriwal-government that this is "no time for political bickering", and it should cooperate with centre.

"The ground situation in Delhi is (medical) oxygen is really not available. Not only in Delhi, but also Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. What is the effect we are going to see today and the next hearing? How much oxygen you are going to provide to these critical states?" Justice Chandachud asked the centre.

The centre told the court that the transportation of oxygen tankers to Delhi is a huge logistical challenge and it would be eased out soon. "Delhi's problem is acute because it is a non-industrial state. By and large, we have been supplying oxygen to all states," the government said. Virtual control rooms are operating 24x7, it said.

Arundhati Roy calls India Covid crisis a ‘crime against humanity’ and Modi a ‘crisis-generating machine’

NEW DELHI, April 29: Indian author Arundhati Roy has criticised Narendra Modi’s government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, slamming him for his early triumph over coronavirus and describing it as “outright crime against humanity.”

“The system hasn’t collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps ‘failed’ is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity,” Ms Roy wrote in The Guardian.

Describing the current government as a “crisis-generating machine,” Ms Roy said it is “incapable of leading us out of this disaster”.

She said “Modi the magician” took a bow for saving humanity by containing the virus during the first wave while “boasting and gloating” about the virus doing less damage than predicted by experts.

“Now that it turns out that he has not contained it, can we complain about being viewed as though we are radioactive? That other countries’ borders are being closed to us and flights are being cancelled?

“That we’re being sealed in with our virus and our prime minister, along with all the sickness, the anti-science, the hatred and the idiocy that he, his party and its brand of politics represent?”

India is witnessing an enormous spike in the second wave of the pandemic after the rise of cases dropped last year dropped. India’s Covid-19 death toll surpassed 200,000 on Wednesday as the World Health Organisation said variants are behind the spike.

India saw the highest ever number of cases on Wednesday with 379,257 fresh infections and 3,645 deaths. There have been a total of 17.9 million cases.

The healthcare system is in a dire state with a lack of beds, hospitals turning away patients, shortages, and the black market selling medicines and oxygen. Parks and public spaces are being turned into crematoriums to contain ever-increasing deaths which are said to be higher than the official death toll.

Ms Roy describes oxygen as the new currency on “India’s morbid new stock exchange”.

“Senior politicians, journalists, lawyers – India’s elite – are on Twitter pleading for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. The hidden market for cylinders is booming. Oxygen saturation machines and drugs are hard to come by,” she said.

“It’s as if there’s an invisible UFO parked in our skies, sucking the air out of our lungs. An air raid of a kind we’ve never known,” Ms Roy said on the shortage of oxygen and people dying of hypoxia.

Hitting out at Mr Modi’s politics of “polarisation” and attempts to stifle criticism, Ms Roy said the top minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Mohan Bisht, has sent the message to the people to “die without complaining.”

The minister, best known as Yogi Adityanath after becoming a monk, had declared that there was no shortage of oxygen in any hospital in his state and said those spreading rumours on social media would be arrested and have their property seized.

The system has not collapsed, Ms Roy noted, as it is being played out on “Modi-aligned Indian television channels.”

She blamed both the Modi government and the previous Congress government of dismantling the already existing “little medical infrastructure,” spending just about 1.25 per cent of gross domestic product on healthcare.

“The system has not collapsed. The ‘system’ barely existed,” she said. “This is what happens when a pandemic hits a country with an almost nonexistent public healthcare system.”

Ms Roy concludes it by asking Modi to take a “break from his hard work” and leave on his customized VVIP $564m Boeing 777, Air India One, for the rest of the country to clean up their mess.

India Is Bleeding: Priyanka Chopra

NEW DELHI, April 29: Priyanka Chopra, in her bit in the fight against the deadly second wave of COVID-19, has set up a fundraiser for India, her "home."

The actress, who is currently in London due to work commitments, has been trying to highlight the grim situation of India due to the coronavirus surge on international platform.

Priyanka, on Thursday, shared a video of herself urging people to donate as much as they can to help all who are suffering from the coronavirus in India.

The actress and her husband, singer Nick Jona, have set up the fundraiser in collaboration with GiveIndia, which is an online donation platform.

Priyanka Chopra, in her video, talked about the Oxygen crisis, hospital beds shortage and a reported deficit of COVID-19 vaccines and medicines in India and stated why the global community needs to care about what's currently happening in the country, her native land.

"Why do we need to care? Why is it so urgent right now? I'm sitting in London and I'm hearing from my friends and family in India about how hospitals are at capacity, there are no rooms in ICUs, ambulances are too busy, oxygen supply is less, crematoriums having mass cremations because the volume of deaths is so much," the actress can be heard saying in the clip.

"India is my home and India is bleeding. And we, as a global community, need to care. And I'll tell you why we need to care: Because unless everyone is safe, no one is safe. And I understand a lot of people must be angry thinking about why we are in this place in the first place? Why is this happening? Well, we'll address that. We'll address that after we stop the urgency," she added.

In her caption, Priyanka shared that she and Nick Jonas have already donated for the cause and will continue to donate more.
"India, my home, is suffering the world's worst Covid crisis, and we all need to help! People are dying in record numbers. There is illness everywhere, and it's only continuing to spread and kill at great speed and scale. I have set up a fundraiser with GiveIndia, the largest organization on the ground in India providing Covid relief. Whatever you can spare, truly makes a difference. Your donation will go directly to healthcare physical infrastructure (including Covid care centers, Isolation centers, and oxygen generation plants), medical equipment, and vaccine support and mobilization. Please donate. Nick and I already have and will continue to contribute," she wrote in the caption.

"We have all seen how far and wide this virus can spread, an ocean between us makes no difference. No one is safe unless everyone is safe. It's so heartening to see so many people stepping up to help in so many ways. We need to beat this virus, and to do that requires ALL of us. From the bottom of my heart THANK YOU!" read her full post.

Priyanka Chopra, in a series of tweets on Wednesday, shared that she will be helping arrange vaccines and oxygen for her home country. She also asked the USA to share their stock of COVID vaccines with India at the right time.

India recorded over 3 lakh fresh COVID cases on Thursday. More than 2 lakh people have succumbed to the virus till now in the country.


Tragic Scenes In India As Hospitals Out Of Breath, Crematoriums Overwhelmed

NEW DELHI, April 28: India crossed a grim milestone with the COVID-19 fatalities surging past the two lakh-mark on Wednesday.

The country has been reporting at least 3 lakh daily cases for the past one week. The explosion in cases has led to shortage of oxygen, medical supplies, overwhelming healthcare facilities and crematoriums.

Devastating scenes have been surfacing where people are dying on the streets and desperate families crowding outside hospitals and pharmacies in search of treatment and medicines.

India saw a record single-day rise of 3,60,960 coronavirus cases, which pushed the total cases to 1,79,97,267, while the death figures crossed two lakh following 3,293 fresh fatalities, according to Union health ministry data updated on Wednesday.

Delhi to import 18 oxygen tankers from Bangkok, 21 oxygen plants from France: Kejriwal

NEW DELHI, April 27: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Tuesday that they are importing 18 oxygen tankers from Bangkok, which will reach tomorrow (Wednesday) and help Delhi bring oxygen from generation plants to hospitals.

“We have faced difficulty in getting oxygen allotted by the Centre because there is a shortage of tankers. The Delhi government has decided to import 18 tankers from Bangkok. They will reach tomorrow. We asked the Centre to provide IAF planes for this. Their response has been very positive and I am hoping this coordination will be successful. Once these tankers come, the problem in transporting oxygen will be sorted out.

He said the Centre had also provided Delhi with 5 tankers to transport oxygen.

Delhi hospitals have been reeling under oxygen shortage for the past week, with 20 patients dying in one hospital after oxygen pressure dropped. Hospitals in Delhi do not have their own medium-scale oxygen generation plants, which has exacerbated the problem.

Kejriwal also said that the government is importing 21 oxygen plants from France.

“They are ready to use and will be placed in different hospitals. This will help alleviate many problems… In the next one month, Delhi will have 44 oxygen plants. Of these, 8 are being set up by the Centre. There were some delays in doing this but hopefully they will be up by April 30. The other 36 will be put up in other hospitals,” he said.

The CM had earlier written to industrialists as well different state governments, asking for extra tankers and oxygen. In the Delhi High Court on Monday, the Centre’s counsel told the court that the state had the power to only ask for tankers, not oxygen, which can only be routed through the Centre.

On Tuesday, Kejriwal said: “We are getting tremendous support and things are moving fast. A lot of people have helped but have placed the condition that they not be named. This again is a great gesture as they do not want credit for their work,” he said.

In Delhi, the biggest shortage is being seen in ICU beds, with 4,723 out of 4,737 such beds occupied and only 14 available. Of these, 11 are in a children’s hospital and available for children and pregnant women.

The Delhi government is now planning to add 1,200 more ICU beds by May 10.

“This wave seems more dangerous, it is spreading faster and people are sicker. There is a shortage of ICU beds, we get calls from people looking for them. Despite best efforts, hospitals are overloaded. We are now expanding ICU facilities. 500 IU beds will be put up in the ground outside GTB Hospital, 500 at Ramlila Maidan (will be linked to Lok Nayak Hospital) and 200 at the Radha Soami Ground in Chhattarpur. These will be ready by May 10 and some pressure will be lifted off the existing system. We are working with the Centre as well as state governments and are getting help from everywhere. If we work together, there is no reason we cannot win over this,” he said.

IIT scientists say active Covid cases likely to peak at 38-48 lakh in mid-May

NEW DELHI, April 26: Active cases in the ongoing second Covid-19 wave in India may peak at 38-48 lakh between May 14-18 and daily new infections could hit a high of 4.4 lakh from May 4-8, according to a mathematical model by IIT scientists who have revised their projections upwards.

India on Monday saw a single-day rise of 3,52,991 (3.52 lakh) Covid-19 infections and 2,812 fatalities with 28,13,658 (28.13 lakh) active cases.

The scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur and Hyderabad applied the Susceptible, Undetected, Tested (positive), and Removed Approach' (SUTRA) model to predict that active cases would go up further by over 10 lakh by mid-May.

The latest projection tweaks the time frame as well as the numbers. Last week, the researchers predicted the pandemic may peak between May 11-15 with 33-35 lakh total active cases and decline steeply by the end of May.

Earlier this month, their modelling approach projected that active infections in the country would peak by April 15, which didn't come true.

“This time, I have also computed minimum and maximum for predicted values and posted it. I am reasonably confident that the actual values will be within the min and max values mentioned,” said Maninder Agrawal, professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT-Kanpur.

India becomes first country in world to record 3.5 lakh Covid-19 cases in 24 hours

NEW DELHI, April 26: India in the last 24 hours reported more than 3.5 lakh new COVID-19 cases and became the first country to make this grim record, the data by worldometers suggested on Monday (April 26, 2021) morning.

According to the worldometers website, India which is going through the raging second wave of coronavirus recorded 3,54,531 infections on Sunday, besides 2,806 new COVID-19-related fatalities.

The country's total coronavirus caseload has now increased to 1,73,06,300 and is only behind the United States which has witnessed more than 3.2 crore infections.

India has been registering more than 3 lakh cases every day for the past few days and the unprecedented surge has now taken its COVID-19 active count to 28,14,544.

This has led to the World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commenting on the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in India who said that the current crisis is a 'devastating reminder' of what the virus can do.

He had also said that WHO is 'deeply concerned' about the increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths in India right now.

Election Commission responsible for spreading Covid-19, should probably be booked for murder: Madras HC

CHENNAI, April 26: The Madras High Court on Monday said that the Election Commission of India (ECI) is singularly responsible for spreading Covid-19 and murder charges should probably be imposed on it for its “irresponsible” behaviour.

Criticising the ECI for not stopping political parties from violating the Covid protocols, the first bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said, “You (ECI) are the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today.”

“You have been singularly lacking any kind of exercise of authority. You have not taken measures against political parties holding rallies despite every order of this court saying ‘maintain Covid protocol, maintain Covid protocol’,” the court said, asking whether the poll watchdog “was on another planet when poll rallies were held”.

Chief Justice Banerjee and Justice Ramamoorthy were hearing a petition filed by the state transport minister M R Vijayabhaskar seeking directions to the ECI to follow certain measures during the counting of votes on May 2 at his Karur constituency, where a total of 77 candidates had contested.

Reminding the counsel of ECI that it is all about “survival and protection” now and that “everything else comes next”, the court further said that it would issue orders to stop counting if ECI fails to prepare a blueprint before May 2 on how Covid protocols will be maintained during the process. This needs to be done to ensure that “this state does not succumb to your idiosyncrasies any further,” the HC said.

It added, “Politics or no politics, whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or deferred…At no cost, the counting of votes on May 2 result in being a catalyst to a further surge. Public health is of paramount importance and it is distressing that constitutional authorities have to be reminded in such regard…”

The case will be heard next on April 30.

Mamata welcomes Madras HC order, demands withdrawal of central forces who may be infected with Covid

KOLKATTA, April 26: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday demanded withdrawal of central forces to contain Covid spread in West Bengal in the next phase of polling, while welcoming the Madras High Court’s observations that the Election Commission could not avoid blame for the spread of Covid.

“I welcome the Madras High Court order, which clearly said the EC cannot escape its responsibility. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EC are responsible for the (current) situation (of Covid spreading in the state),” Banerjee alleged at a workers’ meeting in North Kolkata where party candidates and workers were present.

India becomes first country in world to record 3.5 lakh Covid-19 cases in 24 hours, death toll rises by 2,806

NEW DELHI, April 26: India in the last 24 hours reported more than 3.5 lakh new COVID-19 cases and became the first country to make this grim record, the data by worldometers suggested on Monday (April 26, 2021) morning.

According to the worldometers website, India which is going through the raging second wave of coronavirus recorded 3,54,531 infections on Sunday, besides 2,806 new COVID-19-related fatalities.

The country's total coronavirus caseload has now increased to 1,73,06,300 and is only behind the United States which has witnessed more than 3.2 crore infections.

India has been registering more than 3 lakh cases every day for the past few days and the unprecedented surge has now taken its COVID-19 active count to 28,14,544.

This has led to the World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commenting on the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in India who said that the current crisis is a 'devastating reminder' of what the virus can do.

He had also said that WHO is 'deeply concerned' about the increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths in India right now.

Delhi Lockdown Extended for Another Week Till 3 May

NEW DELHI, April 25: The lockdown imposed in Delhi has been extended for another week till 3 May, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced on Sunday amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in the National Capital.

The lockdown imposed from 19 April was slated to end at 5 am on 26 April.

Kejriwal stated that it had become necessary to implement the lockdown last week and it was the last resort.

“Last week, we had imposed a six-day lockdown, which was supposed to end at 5 am tomorrow (26 April). The intensity, with which the cases are rising, made it imperative to impose this lockdown. This was the last resort against the rising cases in Delhi and it had become essential to do it. But the COVID surge refuses to come down. We took opinions from the people and everybody said that the lockdown should be extended. It is now being extended in Delhi for another week till 5 am next Monday (3 May),” Kejriwal said in a briefing.

Kejriwal further said that the National Capital is witnessing an unprecedented positivity rate.

“The positivity rate has now increased to 36-37%. Such a high positivity rate was never seen in Delhi before. It has come down in the past few days to approximately 29%. I am not saying that COVID is on the verge of going away. We will have to see the numbers for the next few days. It may rise or reduce. I pray to God that we are able to tackle the disease,” he said.

‘Ministers, Officers Working Round the Clock for Oxygen Supply’
Kejriwal further announced that in order to combat the oxygen crisis in the National Capital, an online portal has been started by the government.

“We have seen in the past few days that there has been a shortage of oxygen in Delhi. Delhi needs 700 tonnes of oxygen. We have been allotted 490 tonnes by the Central government, but even that amount hasn’t reached us yet. Till yesterday, only about 330-335 tonnes had reached Delhi. This is one of the biggest reasons that Delhi is facing a shortage,” he said.

Thanking ministers and officers in Delhi, Kejrwal said they were working round the clock to ensure oxygen supply to the hospitals.

“Since oxygen is so precious and scarce in times like these, it has to be managed properly. We have started taking stringent steps for the management of oxygen. We have made a portal and issued orders that every two hours, everybody from the manufacturers to the hospitals have to update the status of the supply,” he said.

Kejriwal further said that the state government has received ample support from the central government in tackling the situation in the state. With over 24,000 new cases, Delhi on Saturday recorded the highest ever single-day death toll with 357 deaths.

People Crying For Oxygen, Leaders Laughing At Rallies: Priyanka Gandhi

NEW DELHI, April 21: Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on Wednesday slammed the Centre for showing insensitivity towards people during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying when "people are screaming for shortages of medical oxygen, medicines and hospital beds", the central leaders are seen laughing during election rallies.

"Even today they're busy with campaigning. They are laughing from the stages (at rallies). People are crying, screaming for help, seeking oxygen, beds, medicines, and you're going to huge rallies and laughing! How can you?" said the Congress leader.

Elaborating about the deteriorating situation across the country due to COVID-19, She said that the Centre is engaged in election rallies for the West Bengal Assembly polls.

Blaming the BJP-led government at the Centre for the alarming spread of COVID-19, She said that the Centre is concerned more about power rather than public health.

Hitting out at Central government for the shortage of oxygen cylinders in the hospitals, the Congress leader alleged that the shortage of medical oxygen was due to the lack of logistics, and asked why the government did not make arrangements when a second COVID-19 wave was likely to hit the country harder.

While adding that " the government has failed to put in place a proper plan to battle the second wave of infections."

"Why did it not make arrangements when a second wave was inevitable? The country is facing a shortage of oxygen because there was no strategy, this is the government's failure and bad planning," she added.

She asked the Prime Minister to act now as India is the biggest producer of Oxygen.

The Congress leader said, "India's production capacity for oxygen is one of the largest in the world. Then why's there a shortage? You had 8-9 months (between first and second wave), your own Sero surveys indicated that a 2nd wave is imminent, you ignored it."

"You had time. Today, only 2000 trucks in India can transport oxygen. How tragic it is that oxygen is available but it's not reaching where it should. 1.1 million Remdesivir injections were exported in the last 6 months. Today, we are facing a shortage," she added.

"The government exported 6 crore vaccines between January-March. During this time 3-4 crore Indians were vaccinated. Why were Indians not prioritised? Vaccine shortage is due to bad planning, Remdesivir shortage is due to no planning, oxygen shortage due to no strategy. It's Government's failure," she said while criticising the Centre for the shortage of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir as the country battles the second wave of infections.

On the COVID-19 tests being conducted across the country, she further said, "Why did they not ramp up? Why the antigen tests? To lower their numbers? Even today reports are coming that private labs are being told to stop the testing. Why? What is important - people's lives or your numbers and the image of your government?"

Commenting on the claim made by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister that they have increased testings, she said, "Their own Sero survey in October-November said, 5 crore people came in contact with the virus. Ramping up of testing was recommended. Uttar Pradesh Government started 70 per cent antigen tests which means only 30 per cent RT-PCR test is being done."

This Emergency Shows Lives Don't Matter For Government, Says Court

NEW DELHI, April 21: Delhi's desperate oxygen crisis resonated in the High Court today, with the judges skewering the Centre with harsh questions, demanding why it was "not waking up to reality".

"How is the government so oblivious to the reality on ground? You can't have people die because there is no oxygen," the court said while hearing an appeal by the Max Group, which had flagged oxygen crisis in two of its hospitals this afternoon.

Slamming the Centre for still allowing industrial use of oxygen despite its yesterday's order, the court said, "This is really ridiculous. You are concerned with the industries while people die... That means human lives doesn't matter for the government," the judges said.

At yesterday's hearing, the court had asked the government to be "sensitive" to the situation. It had asked that oxygen be diverted from industries that consume it the most -- like petroleum and steel -- and divert it for patients. Economic interests cannot override human lives or "we are heading for disaster", the court had said.

That the situation has changed for the worse 24 hours on --- with six hospitals desperate for oxygen instead of three -- left the judges livid.

When the Centre said it was surprised by the hospital's petition, the judges said, "Don't get surprised by this petition. You should know the situation... Yesterday we told you about (using) the petroleum and steel industries' oxygen. What have you done?"

When the Union health ministry said "files have started moving", the judges shot back: "What is the outcome? We aren't bothered about these files".

Pointing out that the Centre has ample resources to deal with any crisis, the court said the industry has made it clear that it would be ready to help.

"You have your own state-run petroleum companies. You have the Air Force. We have (given) several orders yesterday. What have you done the whole day?" the judges demanded.

The Centre's submission that it has floated a tender for import of oxygen incensed the judges who said, "You take your own sweet time (and) people will die".

"It is the Central government's responsibility to ensure sufficient oxygen supply to hospitals. We therefore direct them to protect the fundamental right to life by whatever means. If necessary, the Central government should divert all the oxygen from industries for medical usage," the court said.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta pointed out that while the Centre is making all efforts to step up the supply of oxygen, industries cannot be shut down by simply flipping a switch.

"Some need 72 hours. Hence we gave April 22 as the date," added the Solicitor General, who appeared for the Centre at the second half of the hearing that started late in the evening.

Refusing the Centre's pleas for an adjournment of the hearing till tomorrow, the court said: "Our concern is not just for Delhi. We want to know what the Central government is doing with regard to oxygen supply across India… The citizen can only fall back on the state. It is the responsibility of the government (to supply). Beg, borrow or steal, it is your job".

Post 10 pm, the court adjourned the hearing.

Underscoring that it is the Centre's responsibility if there is any casualty because of oxygen shortage, the court asked the government to give an undertaking that it would ensure sufficient oxygen to Delhi's hospitals till they take up the issue in the morning.

24 Maharashtra Covid Patients Dead As Tanker Leak Disrupts Oxygen Supply

MUMBAI, April 21: Twenty-four COVID-19 patients died in Maharashtra's Nashik today after an oxygen tanker leaked outside a hospital, disrupting supply to patients for around 30 minutes.

"As per current information, 24 people have died due to the interrupted supply of oxygen at the Zakir Hussain municipal hospital," said district collector Suraj Mandhare.

All the victims were on ventilators and in need of constant oxygen supply. Zakir Hussain Hospital is a Covid-dedicated facility. Around 150 patients were either oxygen-dependent or on ventilators.

Visuals showed gas leaking from the tanker outside the hospital and dense white fumes covering the area rapidly.

Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope promised the government will look into the matter and conduct a thorough probe.

"As per the information available with us, patients who were on ventilators at the hospital in Nashik have died. The leakage was spotted at the oxygen tank which was supplying oxygen to these patients. The interrupted supply could be linked to the deaths of the patients in the hospital," Tope said.

"We will issue a statement later after the investigation is over," he added.

Panic struck patients and their family members as the oxygen supply was stopped. Heart wrenching visuals showed families trying to help the patients as they gasped for breath.

Fire trucks were rushed to the spot to stop the leak. Videos showed water sprayed to control the leak; the firefighting team also wore protective gear.

Around 31 patients out of 80 who need oxygen have been shifted to other hospitals.

An official of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray's office said that the victims' families will be compensated with ₹ 5 lakh each. A high level probe into the matter will be launched, the official added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims.

"The tragedy at a hospital in Nashik because of oxygen tank leakage is heart-wrenching. Anguished by the loss of lives due to it. Condolences to the bereaved families in this sad hour," he tweeted.

As states opt for stringent Covid curbs, PM says lockdown should be ‘last option’

NEW DELHI, April 20: On a day India registered a record 1,761 deaths due to Covid-19, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation and emphasised that lockdown should be the last resort. He urged the state governments to focus more on micro-containment zones.

“In today’s situation, we have to save the country from lockdown. I would also request the states to use lockdown as the last option. We have to try hard to avoid lockdown and the focus should be on the micro containment zones only,” Modi said during his speech, which lasted nearly 20 minutes.

With several states imposing stringent curbs, including night curfews and lockdowns, Modi said, “Our aim is to save lives. But the impact on the economy and livelihoods should also be as less as possible.”

“If we all follow COVID-19 protocols, there’ll be no need to impose lockdowns,” he added.

Even as the latest curbs have sparked a fresh exodus of migrant labourers from cities, Modi asked the states to convince the labourers to not leave for their hometown while assuring them that they will not be stripped of their livelihood.

Stating that people were suffering in the present situation, the Prime Minister said, “we need to fight it out with all our might”. He also expressed confidence that the coronavirus will be defeated with the combined efforts of the people. “I want to thank our doctors and all our healthcare workers for working non-stop in this fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

The Prime Minister also called upon the youth to come forward in spreading awareness about the Covid protocols. He said the younger generation should join hands to form small committees in their localities and housing societies to educate people about the necessary measures to be taken to stop the spread of the virus.

“This way we will not need to impose any lockdown or designate vast containment zones,” he said.

Noting that the pharma sector was working relentlessly to meet all COVID-19 challenges, including manufacturing vaccines and their supply, he said the firms have ramped up their production already. Although the shortage of oxygen has come across as a major issue, all the stakeholders were working together to meet this challenge, he said.

He also pointed out that the situation is distinctly different from last year when the country did not have COVID vaccine or infrastructure to produce PPE kits and other medical equipment.

His address came hours after he appealed to vaccine manufacturers to scale up their production capacity to inoculate all Indians in the shortest possible time. He also assured all possible support and smooth approval process for the vaccine candidates which are currently under trial phase.

According to a statement from the PMO, Modi noted that the government has now allowed vaccination for every adult starting from May 1 as it believes in the ability of vaccine makers.

Rahul Gandhi tests positive for Covid-19

NEW DELHI, April 20: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday tested positive for Covid-19. Giving out the information on Twitter, he urged people who came in contact with him in last few days to follow required protocols.

“After experiencing mild symptoms, I’ve just tested positive for COVID. All those who’ve been in contact with me recently, please follow all safety protocols and stay safe,” the Wayanad MP wrote on the microblogging site.

Apart from him, senior Congress leader Anand Sharma too tested positive for COVID-19 and has been shifted to a private hospital in Gurgaon. The 68-year-old Sharma, who was admitted to the Delhi’s Apollo Hospital late last night, tested positive for the infection Tuesday and has now been shifted to the Gurgaon’s Medanta Hospital.

In view of India’s Covid-19 situation, Gandhi had earlier suspended his campaign for the ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal and urged others to “think about consequences of holding large rallies”.

On Monday, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was admitted to the trauma centre of All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Delhi after testing positive for the virus.

Lockdown in 5 cities of Uttar Pradesh, Allahabad HC scolds Yogi Adityanath Govt

NEW DELHI, April 19: The Allahabad High Court on Monday (April 19) ordered lockdown across five cities of Uttar Pradesh in view of the worsening COVID-19 situation.

The five cities are Lucknow, Prayagraj, Varanasi, Kanpur and Gorakhpur. The restrictions will remain in place till April 26.

The court chided the Yogi Aditynath-led state government for not handling the COVID-19 pandemic well enough.

A bench comprising Justices Ajit Kumar and Siddhartha Varma issued a slew of directions which virtually amounts to a lockdown.

"Those in the helm of affairs of governance are to be blamed for the present chaotic health problems and more so when there is a democracy which means a government of the people, by the people and for the people," the order said.

The court has allowed essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies with less than three staff members to open.

It has ordered suspension of all religious activities and establishments till the end of the lockdown period. Shopping complexes and malls would remain shut as well.

Educational institutions and activities of other government, semi government or private organisations shall remain closed as per the order.

Several cities across the country are undergoing lockdown including Delhi, where a 6-day complete lockdown has been ordered.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that the city will be put under complete lockdown from the night of April 19 till April 26 morning.

Manmohan Singh suggest 5 ways to tackle Covid-19 crisis

NEW DELHI, April 18: Former prime minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to make public the orders for doses of coronavirus vaccine placed by the government and indicate how the vaccines will be distributed across states based on a transparent formula.

He also asked the Prime Minister to give some flexibility to states to define categories of frontline workers who can be vaccinated even if they are below 45 years of age.

Pointing out that domestic supplies are limited, Singh suggested that any vaccine that has been cleared for use by credible authorities such as the European Medical Agency or the USFDA, should be allowed to be imported without insisting on domestic bridging trials.

As India reels under the second wave of coronavirus, Singh said people are now beginning to wonder when their lives will get back to normal and argued “there are many things we must do to fight the epidemic but a big part of this effort must be ramping up the vaccination programme.”

Here’s the full text of Manmohan Singh’s letter to PM

“First, the government should publicise what are the firm orders for doses placed on different vaccine producers and accepted for delivery over the next six months. If we want to vaccinate a target number in this period, we should place enough orders in advance so that producers can adhere to an agreed schedule of supply,” he said.

Secondly, he said the government should indicate how this expected supply will be distributed across states based on a transparent formula.

“The central government could retain 10 per cent for distribution based on emergency needs, but other than that, states should have a clear signal of likely availability so that they can plan their roll out,” he said.

Arguing that states should be given some flexibility to define categories of frontline workers who can be vaccinated even if they are below 45 years of age, he said states, for instance, may want to designate school teachers, bus, three-wheeler and taxi drivers, municipal and panchayat staff, and possibly lawyers who have to attend Courts as frontline workers. “They can then be vaccinated even if they are below 45,” he said.

Singh also asked the Prime Minister to proactively support vaccine producers to expand their manufacturing facilities quickly by providing funds and other concessions.

“In addition, I believe this is the time to invoke the compulsory licensing provisions in the law, so that a number of companies are able to produce the vaccines under a licence. This, I recall, had happened earlier in the case of medicines to deal with the HIV/AIDS disease. As far as Covid-19 is concerned, I have read that Israel has already invoked the compulsory licensing provision and there is an overwhelming case for India to do so as well quickly,” he wrote.

Suggesting that any vaccine that has been cleared for use by credible authorities such as the European Medical Agency or the USFDA, should be allowed to be imported without insisting on domestic bridging trials, he said “we are facing an unprecedented emergency and, I understand, experts are of the view that this relaxation is justified in an emergency.”

“The relaxation could be for a limited period during which the bridging trials could be completed in India. All consumers of such vaccines could be duly cautioned that these vaccines are being allowed for use based on the approval granted by the relevant authority abroad,” he said.

Pointing out that the key to the fight against Covid 19 must be ramping up the vaccination effort, he said, “we must resist the temptation to look at the absolute numbers being vaccinated, and focus instead on the percentage of the population vaccinated.”

“Currently, India has vaccinated only a small fraction of its population. I am certain that with the right policy design, we can do much better and very quickly. I hope the government will accept these suggestions immediately and act on them promptly,” he added.

72-Hour Silence Period, 'Night Curfew' On Campaigns In Bengal Over Covid

KOLKATA, April 16: A 72-hour campaign silence period will be in place in the remaining rounds of voting in Bengal, the Election Commission said today, citing Covid. Rallies or meetings will not be allowed between 7 pm and 10 am, said the election body a day after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for clubbing the four phases into one day.

The decisions came on a day images of crowded political roadshows and meetings emerged from Bengal, reflecting a complete disregard to precautions needed amid a record coronavirus surge in the country. But the Election Commission ruled out packing the rest of the vote into one day of voting.

In its letter, the Election Commission said it had noted that Covid safety rules had not been followed during the campaign.

The poll panel has said all candidates and political parties must wear masks and it will be the duty of organisers of rallies to ensure masks and sanitisers.

The usual 48-hour silence period - when all campaigning is on hold ahead of the vote - was earlier extended to 72 hours for the fifth phase in Bengal on Saturday. The election body cited the incident in Coochbehar on Saturday, in which four people were killed in firing by central forces when a mob attacked a polling station.

The election panel said the clashes erupted as central security forces tried to help a sick boy near the polling booth in Sitalkuchi early Saturday morning. Local people thought the boy was beaten up by personnel and soon, nearly 300-350 villagers gathered and attacked the booth. Some of them tried to snatch the weapons of the personnel, which forced them to fire, said the Election Commission.

Bengal votes next on Saturday, April 22, 26 and 29.

Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress had demanded that the remaining phases be clubbed as a precaution against the raging Covid infection.

"Amid an ongoing pandemic, we firmly opposed (the Election Commission's) decision to conduct the Bengal polls in eight phases. Now, in view of the huge surge in #COVID19 cases, I urge the ECI to consider holding the remaining phases in ONE go. This will protect the people from further exposure to #COVID19," Ms Banerjee tweeted last evening.

In a meeting with the Bengal Chief Electoral officer today, the BJP opposed the suggestion saying: "Elections held recently do not reveal any trend by which rise in Covid cases can be attributed to democratic process."

The BJP also argued that the "right accorded to 61 per cent of the state's candidates should be given to the remaining 39 per cent" and there should be a level-playing field.

Mamata Banerjee and the BJP have swapped allegations of poll violations and violence in the acrimonious campaign for Bengal.

You Brought Covid And Ran Away: Mamata Banerjee Slams BJP At Rally

KOLKATA, April 15: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Wednesday blamed the BJP for the resurgence of COVID-19 in parts of the state and said had the government vaccinated everyone in time, there wouldn't have been this second outbreak of the pandemic.

Speaking at an election campaign rally at Jalpaiguri in north Bengal on Wednesday, she attacked the BJP, without naming the party, for importing the virus into Bengal through the hundreds of "outsiders" it was bringing into the state for election campaign.

The Trinamool candidate for whom she was campaigning at the rally, Dr Pradip Barma, was absent from the stage. He has tested positive for Covid and is in hospital with mild symptoms.

Ms Banerjee did not share these details. She only said Pradip Barma has a cold and cough and unable to attend the rally.

"Where were you all these days? You have brought Covid and run away. We had cured everything. If they had given the vaccination to all the people in time, then there would be no new cases of Covid," Ms Banerjee said, referring to the BJP without naming the party.

"Do you know, they have got a whole lot of people into the state. In the name of election campaign, they have got so many outsiders and they have spread the disease here and run away and now they say 'Give us the vote'," she said.

"Disease can strike anyone anytime. People should get proper treatment. But when there was Covid here last time, none of them came here. Now they are only coming for elections," added the Trinamool Congress chief.

The BJP has condemned her comments.

"Instead of sitting and drawing pictures at Gandhi statue yesterday (Tuesday) for three-and-a-half hours, she could have held a meeting with health officials. That would have helped the people of Bengal," said Jay Prakash Majumdar, vice-president of the BJP, adding, "She is the health minister of the state after all."

The Chief Election Officer of Bengal has called an all-party meeting on April 16 to discuss the steps needed to enforce the Calcutta High Court's directive on enforcing Covid-appropriate behaviour at election rallies and roadshows.

Banerjee was heard ticking off one of her aides who approached her on stage without a mask. He had come to hand over a football to her to throw to a member of the audience as part of the "Khela hobey" anthem of the Trinamool Congress.

He came very close to her and Ms Banerjee said sharply, "Why aren't you wearing a mask? Everyone must wear their mask. Please wear it".

Weekend Curfew In Delhi; Malls, Gyms Shut, Home Delivery For Restaurants

NEW DELHI, April 15: Delhi will shut down this weekend to "break the chain of transmission" as it tackles a steep rise in Covid cases, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced today. Essential activities including weddings or travel from airports and train stations will be allowed with curfew passes.

Auditoriums, restaurants, malls, gyms and spas will be shut down and movie theatres will be allowed with a third of their capacity on weekdays. Eating out is banned again and only home deliveries and takeaways will be allowed. Weekly markets will continue but with restrictions - one market will be allowed on any day at a given zone.

Calling the wave of new cases deadlier than before, Mr Kejriwal said all gatherings -- social, religious or political - stand banned. The number of people at weddings will be limited to 50 and only 20 people will be allowed at funerals.

"These restrictions are for your sake, for you and you families. It will be inconvenient but these restrictions are necessary to break the chain of transmission," Arvind Kejriwal said in a video address.

He added, "Don't panic. All essential services will be available through the weekend."

Kejriwal announced the curbs after meeting with Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal and top officials earlier today.

Delhi reported 17,282 fresh cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday in the highest single-day surge in the capital since the pandemic erupted. The figure makes Delhi the worst-hit city in the second wave of infections raging through the country.

Over 100 deaths were reported yesterday.

Delhi's rate of people testing positive has climbed to nearly 16 per cent, up from 12.4 percent on Monday.

Before yesterday, the highest single-day spike in Delhi was reported in November -- 8,593 cases.

There are 50,736 active cases so far in Delhi.

Across India, Covid cases climbed to a new record of over two lakh infections in 24 hours.

Kejriwal had earlier said a lockdown is not the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus and that it would be enforced only if the "hospital system collapses" in Delhi.

The Delhi government this week linked banquet halls, schools and sports complexes to hospitals to ramp up beds for Covid treatment. Private hospitals have been told to set aside a chunk of beds for virus cases.

Last year, Delhi was under complete lockdown between March 22 and May 18 and after this, the capital reopened in stages.

Mamata sits on dharna against EC's campaign ban, paints in silent protest

KOLKATA, April 13: An uncommon calm prevailed around West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee today as she sat in her wheelchair at the Gandhi Murti in Kolkata in protest against her being banned from campaigning for 24 hours. Amid the hullabaloo of the buzzing city, the otherwise feisty leader spent some silent hours practicing her brush strokes.

Clad in her trademark white cotton sari with a black border, she also wrapped a black scarf around her neck, seemingly as a mark of protest. Then there was the black mask, too.

She arrived at Mayo Road, where the Gandhi stature is located, around 11.40 am and began her sit-in. The Trinamool leader was left alone, with not even party colleagues joining her.

Barricaded from the media, a canopy was raised for her dharna in protest against the Election Commission's decision to impose the ban on her from 8 pm on April 12 till 8 pm on April 13.

A few glances and some head nods are all that she had for media persons standing many feet away. To placate a persistent few, she held up some of her paintings. And then there was silence again.

The poll panel on Monday banned her from campaigning for allegedly making "highly insinuating and provocative remarks laden with the serious potential of the breakdown of law and order and, thereby affecting the election process".

The ban comes in the run up to the fifth phase of Assembly polls in the state on April 17. The Election Commission's move was a "black day for democracy" by her party colleague Derek O'Brien.

"They cannot beat us, that is why they ban us," the Trinamool MP tweeted yesterday, referring to the Election Commission as "Extremely Compromised".

Leaders of other political parties, too, strongly reacted against the poll body's action. Abhijit Banerjee of the Congress said, "Banning Mamata Banerjee from campaigning for the next 24 hours while ignoring hate speeches of BJP leaders is nothing but a naked display of favouritism by the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora."

NCP leader Nawab Malik said the Election Commission's decision appeared to be politically motivated.

The fifth and sixth phases of the West Bengal Assembly polls will take place on April 17 and April 22.

Mamata Banerjee Banned From Campaigning For 24 Hours

NEW DELHI, April 12: Mamata Banerjee was banned from campaigning in Bengal for 24 hours this evening over speeches that the Election Commission said violated the poll code. The Chief Minister was accused of breaking the law with her comments on Muslim votes and for allegedly urging voters to revolt against central security forces.

Mamata Banerjee announced a sit-in protest against the ban. "To protest against the undemocratic and unconstitutional decision of the Election Commission of India, I will sit on dharna tomorrow at Gandhi Murti, Kolkata from 12 noon," she tweeted.

The ban till 8 pm on Tuesday - outgoing Election Commissioner Sunil Arora's final order - comes half-way through the Bengal election, with four more rounds of voting left in an intense campaign pitting Mamata Banerjee against a galaxy of BJP leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Bengal Chief Minister, 66, had been served two notices last week by the Election Commission, which said her replies to them betrayed "selective amnesia".

She was asked to explain her speeches on March 28 and April 7, allegedly accusing central forces of intimidating voters and urging women to hit back or surround the security personnel.

"Who gave so much power to them that the central police are threatening the women without allowing them to cast their votes? I saw the same thing in 2019, I saw the same thing in 2016," she said during the March rally.

"I know under whose instruction they beat up people and how they beat up. It is your duty to save the families of the people. If any of our mothers and sisters suffer a single strike with the stick, attack them with ladles, spuds and knife. I am telling you. It is the right of women. And if any of our mothers and sisters are denied entry in the voting compartment all of you come out and revolt," she allegedly said.

In Cooch Behar, she made "highly objectionable remarks" on the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF), said the election body.

"If the CAPF (Central Armed Police Forces) create disturbances, I tell you ladies, a group of you go and restrain (gherao) them while another group will go to cast their votes. Don't waste your vote. If you engage yourself only in restraining them they will be happy that you did not cast your vote. This is their plan. This is the plan of the BJP. And your plan will be that you will not be scared if they try to intimidate you coming to your village on the one hand, and on the other you just talk to them," the Chief Minister said.

The Election Commission called these "false, provocative and intemperate statements" that "vilified" central forces and had caused "extreme demoralisation" in their ranks.

In another notice, the Chief Minister was accused of "openly demanding votes on communal grounds".

"... I am requesting my minority brothers and sisters with folded hands... don't divide the minority votes after listening to the devil... who had taken money from the BJP... He passes many communal statements and initiates clashes between Hindus and Muslims... comrades of the CPM and BIP is roaming around with money given by BJP to divide the minority votes," Ms Banerjee had said while campaigning in Hooghly district on April 3.

Her response to both the notices were defiant.

Modi Ji, Stop This Eventbaazi. Vaccinate All Who Need It: Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI, April 12: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "stop holding events" and, instead, take steps to vaccinate everyone in the wake of the ferocious second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country. He also sought financial help for the poor to tide over the prevailing economic conditions.

In a video message posted on Twitter today, he reminded the Prime Minister of his promise to win the battle against the pandemic in 18 days.

"You got bells rung, thaalis banged, mobile-phone torches lit. Corona kept moving ahead. Now it is the second wave. And lakhs of people have turned victims of the disease," Mr Gandhi said in the message.

"Now end this eventbaazi (propensity to hold events). Provide vaccines to those who need them. Stop exporting vaccines. And provide income support to our poor brothers and sisters. Thank you," he said.

The tweet accompanying the video carried a similar message saying the battle against "couldn't be won even after 385 days".

Gandhi's message came on a day India saw the highest ever fresh number of Covid-19 cases being registered across the country at 1,68,912 and 904 pandemic-related deaths. The cumulative figure for the country now stands at 1,35,27,717 infections and 1,70,179 fatalities since Covid-19 hit India in January 2020.

The video message also comes days after Modi reportedly suggested the holding of a "Tika Festival" ("Injection Festival") to bump up vaccination numbers, even though several states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have shut down vaccination centres due to a lack of stocks.

A furious debate has also been raging over opening up of vaccination to all sections of the society instead of sticking to the limit set by the Central government of 45 years-or-more.

A spate of state elections and festivities have only exacerbated the situation with Covid-19 protocols barely being followed amid mass gatherings.

Delhi Announces Strict New Covid Curbs On Restaurants, Theatres, Travel

NEW DELHI, April 10: The Delhi government on Saturday announced new restrictions amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, banning most public gatherings and setting limits for attendance at restaurants, theatres, on public transport and functions like weddings and funerals.

The new rules which will stay in place till April 30, along with the earlier announced 10-pm-to-5-am night curfew, include a ban on all types of social, political, sports, entertainment, academic, cultural and religious gatherings in Delhi.

Only 50 people will be allowed to attend weddings and not more than 20 at funerals.

Restaurants, bars and cinemas will operate at 50 per cent of their seating capacity.

Buses and metros will also take only half as many people as they can seat.

All swimming pools except those where sportspersons are training for national and international events will be closed.

Stadiums can hold sports events but without spectators.

Schools and colleges were already asked to close down earlier this week.

Government offices will work at 50 per cent capacity as well except for high-level Grade 1 officers.

However, the health department, police, home guard civil defence, fire and emergency services and district administrations will continue to work without any restrictions.

Private companies have been advised to call their employees at staggered timings to avoid crowding. Work from home should be encouraged as much as possible.

All passengers coming from Maharashtra, the worst-affected state, by plane will have to show a negative RT-PCR test report, not older than 72 hours, for entering Delhi.

Those who come from Maharashtra without a negative test report will be quarantined for 14 days. People linked to government work will be exempted.

The announcements come hours after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ruled out the possibility of a lockdown but said that new restrictions will be implemented soon.

Delhi reported 7,897 new coronavirus cases and 39 deaths in the last 24 hours on Saturday, taking its overall tally to over 7.1 lakh.

On Friday, the city had reported over 8,500 new infections in the year's biggest one-day spike.

India's daily coronavirus cases on Saturday rose by a record for the fifth time this week and deaths surged to the highest in more than five months, with hospitals and crematoriums overflowing in parts of the country.

New cases in the world's second-most populous country have totalled the most of anywhere in the world over the last two weeks. India's overall tally of 1.32 crore is the third-highest globally, just shy of Brazil and below the worst affected country, the United States.

The second surge in infections, which has spread much more rapidly than the first one that peaked in September, has forced many states to impose fresh curbs but Prime Minister Narendra Modi not ordered national lockdown given the high economic costs.

Politicians Banned In Bengal District After Clashes, Phase 5 Campaign Cut

NEW DELHI, April 10: No politician can enter West Bengal's Cooch Behar district for the next three days, the Election Commission has said following Saturday's violence in which four people died.

The "silence period" for the next phase of voting in the state, the fifth phase which is on April 17, too has been extended to 72 hours from 48 hours, thus cutting the campaign period.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced that she will, on Sunday, visit the area where the clashes broke out, while the Trinamool Congress had planned to organise black-badge protests across the state to mark the incident.

Apart from this, the special general observer, the special police observer as well as the Chief Electoral Officer of Bengal have been asked to keep the Election Commission informed of the ground developments in Cooch Behar for the next 72 hours.

"Election Commission has covered itself with mud by stopping Mamata from going to Cooch Behar. After all she is still the CM of Bengal and it is her duty to visit the place of this unfortunate occurrence. We know for certain now that EC is not fair," tweeted Yashwant Singha, who joined the Trinamool Congress last month.

Clashes took place outside a polling station in Cooch Behar after a local mob attacked security forces over a misunderstanding, the Election Commission said earlier on Saturday, adding that the Central Industrial Security Force, or CISF, personnel had to open fire to "save their lives and government property like EVMs".

The election panel said the misunderstanding began when the central security forces were trying to help a sick boy near the polling booth in Sitalkuchi early Saturday morning, when some locals thought the boy was beaten up by personnel, and assembled nearly 300-350 villagers.

"Due to the misunderstanding, the agitated mob attacked the CISF personnel detailed at the booth with deadly equipment and some of them even tried to snatch their arms and ammunitions," it said.

The Election Commission ordered stopping the voting exercise at the polling station of the Sitalkuchi constituency where the incident happened when polling was on.

The incident trigged a war of words between Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and rival BJP.

Earlier in the day, at another booth, an 18-year-old first-time voter was killed allegedly after he was shot. The incident took place at booth number 295 at Pathantuli constituency.

While the Trinamool chief called it a "planned attack" and accused the central forces of "murder", demanding Union Home Minister Amit Shah's resignation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi slammed her and her party.

Ms Banerjee also said Bengal Police CID (Crime Investigation Department) would conduct a probe.

5 terrorists gunned down in separate encounters in J&K

SRINAGAR, April 9: Five terrorists were eliminated by security forces in two separate encounters in Jammu and Kashmir on Friday. In Tral area of Awantipora, two terrorists were gunned by the security forces. "The operation is still underway," said the Inspector-General of Police.

The encounter began at around 8am at Nowbugh. The area has been cordoned off by the security officials.

In Shopian district, where security forces are engaged in a fierce gun battle with terrorists for more than 12 hours now, three terrorists have been killed.

Chief of proscribed terrorist outfit Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (JeM) is among the terrorists in the Shopian district. However, as the identity has not yet been ascertained of deceased terrorists, it is not known if he is still inside the mosque.

The encounter between security forces and terrorists started in Shopian on Thursday where terrorists are holed up inside a mosque. According to a report, the Jammu and Kashmir Police last night sent the brother of one terrorist and a local Imam inside the mosque to persuade the terrorists to surrender.

Rahul Gandhi Attacks Government On Rafale Jet Deal, Talks About 'Karma'

NEW DELHI, April 6: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today slammed the government over the Rafale fighter jet deal, saying karma is the ledger of one's action and no one can escape it.

He said this after a French media report claimed that 1.1 million Euros was paid to a "middleman" by the aircraft manufacturer, a charge that was denied by the BJP as baseless.

Rahul Gandhi has been alleging that commissions have been paid in the Rafale deal, which the government has denied.

The Congress said Rahul Gandhi's often repeated allegations of corruption in the deal were proved correct after the French media report.

"Karma = The ledger of one's actions. Nobody escapes it. #Rafale," Rahul Gandhi said on Twitter. He also put out a similar tweet in Hindi.

Karma = The ledger of one's actions.

Nobody escapes it.#Rafale

— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) April 6, 2021

The Congress had made a big issue of the Rafale deal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls but lost the elections.

Dassault Paid 1 Million Euros To Indian Middleman In Rafale Deal: Report

NEW DELHI, April 5: The 2016 Rafale deal between India and France also involved the payment of 1.1 million Euros by aviation major Dassault to an Indian middleman, French publication "Mediapart" has reported citing an investigation by the country's anti-corruption agency.

Dassault claimed the money was paid for 50 replicas of Rafale fighter planes ordered from a Defence Company whose owner Sushen Gupta is being investigated in the Agusta-Westland helicopter scam.

"The company (Dassault) said the money was used to pay for the manufacture of 50 large replica models of Rafale jets, even though the inspectors were given no proof that these models were made," Mediapart reported.

One of these models can be seen outside the residence of the Air Chief. Sources say other models are installed at the Western Air Command, the IAF base in Gwalior; some are headed to the new Rafale squadron being set up in Hasimara and others lie in a warehouse waiting to be installed.

The allegations were first uncovered by the French anti-corruption agency Agence Francaise Anticorruption (AFA) during their audit of Dassault, according to the report.

But the AFA "against all apparent logic" decided not to refer the case to prosecutors, it said.

"As they combed through the 2017 accounts, the AFA inspectors raised an eyebrow when they came across an item of expenditure costing 508,925 euros and entered under the heading 'gifts to clients'," the AFA report said.

"The sum was indeed huge for a gift. Though French law does not set out precise limits, legal precedents suggest that giving a watch or an expensive meal costing several hundred Euros can be enough to constitute corruption."

The report said to justify this "larger than usual gift" Dassault supplied the AFA with a proforma invoice dated March 30, 2017, which was supplied by an Indian company called Defsys Solutions.

"This invoice, which related to 50 per cent of the total order, was for the manufacture of 50 models of the Rafale C, with a price per unit of 20,357 euros," the AFA report said."

Defsys Solutions is run by Sushen Gupta, who is being investigated by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate in the AgustaWestland case involving kickbacks paid in India in a deal for VVIP choppers. Defsys is one of the subcontractors of Dassault in India.

Sushen Gupta was earlier arrested and granted bail in the chopper deal case.

The AFA inspectors asked Dassault for an explanation. "Why had Dassault ordered an Indian company to make models of its own aircraft at 20,000 Euros a plane? Why was this expenditure entered in the accounts as 'a gift to client'? And were these models, each one of which was supposed to be the size of a small car, really ever made?"

According to Mediapart, "Dassault was unable to provide the AFA with a single document showing that these models existed and were delivered, and not even a photograph. The inspectors thus suspected that this was a bogus purchase designed to hide hidden financial transactions".

The Congress demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement on the reveal.

"An investigation conducted by French Anti-Corruption Agency - AFA has now revealed that after signing of the deal in 2016, Dassault paid 1.1 Million Euro to a middleman i.e. Defsys Solutions. This amount was shown as 'Expenditure by Dassault' as 'Gifts to Clients'," Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.

"Does it now not require a full and independent investigation into India's biggest defence deal to find out as to how much bribery and commission in reality, if any, was paid and to whom in the Indian government?"

The ruling BJP said the Congress knows the alleged middleman. "The name of Sushen Gupta has come up in this case. Everyone knows him. Salman Khurshid has said so in the past as well," Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

90 Voters, 181 Votes In Assam Polling Booth. 6 Officials Suspended

GUWAHATI, April 5: Six polling officials have been suspended in Assam after the Election Commission found that 181 votes had been cast at a booth in Dima Hasao district that had only 90 registered voters.

The booth is in the Haflong constituency that voted in the second phase on April 1. Officially the constituency - won by the BJP's Bir Bhadra Hagjer in 2016 - recorded only 74 per cent polling.

Sources said the poll body plans to issue a re-poll order for this booth, which was an auxiliary polling station for the main centre. An official order to this effect has yet to be issued.

"The Presiding and 1st Polling officer, in their statements, have admitted that they allowed the voters registered against the main polling station to cast their votes in the auxiliary polling station," a press release from the Election Commission said.

According to a news agency, Seikhosiem Lhangum (Sector Officer), Prahlad Ch Roy (Presiding Officer), Parameswar Charangsa (1st Polling Officer), Swaraj Kanti Das (2nd Polling Officer) and Lalzamlo Thiek (3rd Polling Officer) have been suspended, with immediate effect.

The poll body cited "dereliction of duty" in its suspension order.

This will be the second instance of re-polling ordered by the Election Commission in Assam this year, after it directed a new round of voting for the Ratabari seat.

That was after images of election officials transporting an EVM (electronic voting machine) in a BJP BJP candidate's car triggered controversy. The four officials involved were also suspended.

The incident also led to violence in Karimganj district, where the seat is located. The car belonged to the wife of Krishnendu Paul, a BJP contestant in nearby Patharkandi.

As they sought to explain the incident, the Election Commission also said "the polled EVM comprising of BU, CU and VVPAT was found with its seal intact without any damage whatsoever".

The opposition cited the incident to allege "EVM capturing" by the ruling BJP. The Congress's Gaurav Gogoi led the way, tweeting: "This is the only way the BJP can win Assam".

Assam is holding a three-phase Assembly election that began on March 27. The second phase was held last week and the third, and final, phase, is scheduled for Tuesday.

The ruling BJP is bidding for re-election and is fighting a challenge from the Congress-led 'mahajot', or opposition alliance, that includes former ally BPF, or Bodoland People's Front.

Results of the election will be declared on May 2.

22 soldiers killed in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma

RAIPUR, April 4: A day after five jawans were killed in a fierce gunfight between the security forces and Maoists at a forest in Chhattisgarh's Jonaguda, a total of 17 bodies were found from the encounter site on Sunday.

After Saturday's encounter, 18 security personnel went missing. As details of the encounter keep emerging, it appears to be one of the biggest attacks on India's security forces in the last few years.

Not much is known about whether the Maoists also suffered losses, or what kind of weapons they used against the security forces. But the possibility of this being a planned attack is not being dismissed yet. One woman Maoist is believed to have been killed.

A gunfight broke out between the security forces and the Naxals on Saturday which went on for three hours and five jawans were martyred. A day after, 17 bodies were found and the toll is likely to go up. Around 30 security personnel have been injured. A woman Maoist leader has been found dead.

After the encounter, Naxals looted more than two dozen weapons from security personnel, according to CRPF sources.

A stronghold of Maoists, the encounter took place inside a forest near Jonaguda, which falls in Bastar's Bijapur and Sukma district border.

On Friday night, separate teams of security forces launched a massive anti-Naxal operation in South Bastar forests. According to reports, the security forces were getting tip-offs about Madvi Hidma, a top Naxal leader linked with 2013 Jhiram Ghati killings, in which over 30 people, including senior leaders of Chhattisgarh Congress, were killed.

The joint operation was launched from five places — Tarrem, Usoor and Pamed (Bijapur), and Minpa and Narsapuram (in Sukma).

The gunfight took between when the patrolling team that was dispatched from Tarrem was inside the forest near Jonaguda. Cadres of the Peoples' Liberation Guerilla Army battalion ambushed the team and there was heavy firing for hours.

It is not yet clear whether the tip-offs were traps to draw security forces to the spot or whether the anto-Naxal operation actually stirred one of the layers that protect Hidma. Hidma's security cover starts from almost one kilometre. The top Maoist leader at the time of the encounter might have been in the vicinity, which triggered the heavy firing.

US Silent About What Is Happening In India: Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI, April 3: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Friday said that the United States has been silent on "what is happening in India". He said this while speaking about the vision of democracies in the world.

Gandhi went on to say that "I fundamentally believe that America is a profound idea, the idea of freedom the way it is encapsulated in your constitution...But you have to defend that idea."

Rahul Gandhi said this during an online discussion with former US Ambassador Nicholas Burns, now a professor with the country's Harvard Kennedy School.

Gandhi said, "I don't hear anything from the US establishment on what is going on here in India." He said this while Burns was speaking about the ideas of democracy against the "harsh vision being offered by China and Russia".

Interjecting Burns, Rahul Gandhi said, "I don't hear anything from the US establishment about what is happening here in India. If you are saying 'partnership of democracies', what is your view on what is going on here? I fundamentally believe that America is a profound idea, the idea of freedom, the way it is encapsulated in your constitution, it's a very powerful idea. But you have to defend that idea. And that is the real question."

During the discussion Gandhi also alleged that a "wholesale capture" of India's institutional framework by the ruling dispensation has changed the paradigm in which opposition parties operate post-2014 as the institutions that are supposed to support a fair political fight do not do so anymore.

"To fight elections, I need institutional structures, I need a judicial system that protects me, I need a media that is reasonably free, I need financial parity, I need a set of institutional structures that allow me to operate as a political party. I do not have them," Gandhi said.

Rahul Gandhi claimed that the manner in which the BJP is behaving, a lot of people are getting discontented very fast and there is a need to bring these people together.

During the online discussion, Gandhi also answered a question on what he would do if he was to be Prime Minister of India. He said he would focus more on creating jobs than purely "growth-centric" policies.

"I would move from just a growth-centric idea to a job-centric idea. I would say, we need growth but we are going to do everything to push production and job creation and value addition," he said in response to a question during an online discussion.

China is occupying our territory as India is internally divided: Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI, April 2: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has said that China continues to occupy the Indian territory because it sees a "weakened India, an India which is internally divided."

The Congress MP from Kerala’s Waynad made these remarks during an interaction with Ambassador Nicholas Burns of Harvard Kennedy School on Friday.

The Congress leader said, “China is occupying Indian territory as we speak and this is because China sees a "weakened India”, an India which is internally divided".

"I am absolutely convinced that a strong India with a clear strategy will have no problem in dealing with China," Rahul said.

Hitting out at the BJP, Rahul said the ruling party has made a "wholesale capture" of the entire "institutional framework" of the country, and this was preventing a "fair political fight".

"There is a wholesale capture of the institutional framework of this country and absolute financial and media dominance," Rahul said.

"To fight elections fairly, there is need of institutional structures, a judicial system that protects, a media that is reasonably free, also financial parity, and there is need of a whole set of structures that actually allow to operate a political party."

"We are in a paradigm where the institutions that are supposed to protect us, do not protect us anymore. And the institutions that are supposed to support a fair political fight, don't do so anymore," he said.

Nicholas Burns is the Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard`s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former US Under Secretary of State.

This was their second such interaction after one during the height of the pandemic. On the electoral losses of his party, the Congress leader said, "Not just the Congress, the BSP, the SP, the NCP are not winning elections."

To bolster his allegation, he gave the example of Assam EVM row, saying, "BJP candidates are running around voting machines in their cars. But there is nothing going on in national media."

Gandhi also said, "When we were in the government, we had a feedback system which enabled effective governance. That feedback system is not there now. The current regime`s style of governance is centralised... it`s the idea that believes that centralised power understands everything."

In the beginning, he said that the assassination of his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 changed him. He also said that he had always been accustomed to an "environment" of public service and had been brought up with the idea that you cannot tolerate injustice.

Delhi to Meerut in just 45 minutes! Delhi-Meerut Expressway opens for public

NEW DELHI, April 1: The long-awaited Delhi- Meerut Expressway is now opened for traffic from today. It will reduce the travel time between Meerut and Delhi to 45 minutes instead of over two and half hours taken currently.

The expressway connecting the two cities is operational from today. Taking to Twitter, Minister for Road Transport & Highways Nitin Gadkari said 'we have full filled our promise of reducing travel time between Delhi to Meerut'.

"Delhi Meerut Expressway has now been completed & opened to traffic. We have full filled our promise of reducing travel time between Delhi - Meerut from 2.5 hours to 45 minutes," Nitin Gadkari informed in a tweet.

The 96 km-long 14-lane expressway will reduce travel time between Meerut and Delhi to 45 minutes. At present, commuters travel through NH 58 to reach Delhi and it takes over three hours to cover a distance of 70 km.

The expressway will also reduce the travel time of commuters from Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Haridwar and Dehradun to Delhi.



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