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Mamata accuses central ministers for inciting violence, Nadda lays blame on TMC

KOLKATTA, May 6: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee Thursday accused the central ministers of inciting the post-poll violence that has erupted in the state after election results were declared on May 2. The CM claimed that the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre is yet to come to terms with its loss in the state Assembly polls.

Addressing the press, Mamata also made a slew of announcements for those affected due to violence.

A compensation of Rs 2 lakh each for the families of deceased
Jobs of home guard to one family member each of all five persons killed in CAPF firing in Sitalkuchi.

On the other hand, BJP national president J P Nadda accused the TMC of targeting BJP workers in the state after the convoy of Union Minister V Muraleedharan was attacked in west Midnapore earlier today. Muraleedharan has claimed the attack was carried out by “TMC goons”.

The ongoing tussle between the two parties finds its genesis in the post-poll violence that took place hours after the TMC, led by Mamata Banerjee, won its third successive term in the state on May 2. Several opposition parties, including the BJP, have accused the TMC of carrying out attacks on the cadre and offices of their political opponents in the state.

On Thursday, Mamata stated that at least 16 persons – mostly from the BJP and the TMC and one of the Samyukta Morcha — died in post-poll violence.

The Centre has deputed a team of top bureaucrats to West Bengal for a fact-finding exercise on the ongoing violence in the state. The four member team, constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), is headed by an additional secretary rank official.

“The team left this morning and is likely to begin its work in Kolkata shortly. It has been given 48 hours to come back with a report,” an MHA official said.

Sources said the team will meet top officials of the West Bengal police apart from the chief secretary and other bureaucrats in the administration. It will also make field visits to some of the places where violence has been reported since Sunday and talk to affected families, sources said.

Union Minister of State for External Affairs and BJP leader V Muraleedharan’s convoy was allegedly attacked by locals in Panchkhudi area of West Midnapore district Thursday, with the minister claiming the attack was orchestrated by “TMC goons”. The Union Minister, however, escaped unhurt.

Muraleedharan shared a video on his Twitter handle where some people could be seen throwing sticks and stones at the minister’s convoy and chasing his car. They also broke the rear window of his car. “TMC goons attacked my convoy in West Midnapore, broken windows, attacked personal staff. Cutting short my trip,” Muraleedharan tweeted.

However, TMC West Midnapore district president Ajit Maity denied the minister’s allegations and said it was a “spontaneous protest” by the people against the BJP.

SC nixes Maratha reservation, no review of 50% ceiling on quota

NEW DELHI, May 5: The Supreme Court on Wednesday quashed the 2018 law framed by the Maharashtra government to give reservation to the Maratha community, ruling the state could not have breached 50% ceiling on quota.

The constitution bench also declined to consider scrapping the 50% ceiling on reservations in educational institutions and jobs by reviewing a legal precedent that has, for three decades now, held the ceiling as inviolable.

The five-judge bench, headed by justice Ashok Bhushan, held that the law providing for quota to the Maratha community beyond 50% violated equality and that the state failed to show any extraordinary reason why Marathas should be considered as socially and economically backward class.

The bench also upheld the validity of the 102nd constitutional amendment and ruled that the Centre alone has the power to determine socially & educationally backward classes (SEBCs). It underlined that states can’t have a separate list of SEBCs and the power is only with the President to notify the list of SEBCs. In determination of SEBCs, the President shall be guided by the National Commission on Backward Classes.

The bench delivered its verdict on a clutch of petitions arising out of a law framed by Maharashtra for reservation for Marathas, causing a breach in the ceiling.

It is in the wake of the Maharashtra’s quota law that the bench was called upon to revisit its 1992 ruling by referring the issues to a bench of nine or eleven judges.

Almost 30 years after a nine-judge bench in the Indra Sawhney case (famously known as the Mandal Commission case) imposed the ceiling of 50% on total reservation, the five-judge bench had, in March this year, agreed to examine whether the 1992 ruling should be reconsidered in the wake of various states providing for quota exceeding 50% and the Central government framing a law in 2018 for reservation to economically and socially backward classes.

Other members of the five-judge bench are justices L Nageswara Rao, S Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S Ravindra Bhat.

Terming it a matter of “seminal importance”, the bench had also heard Centre and states on the necessity of reviewing the mandate laid down in the Indra Sawhney case, which ruled that “reservation should not exceed 50%, barring certain extraordinary situations.” Further, the 1992 judgment barred reservation solely on economic criterion.

The Centre chose not comment on the validity of the Maratha reservation law and confined its submissions to the ambit of the 102nd constitutional amendment whereby it introduced quota for economically weaker sections (EWS). The Union government has maintained that the amendment has not altered any arrangement and states will continue to have the power to have a separate list of socially and educationally backward classes for the purposes of reservation.

Most states, including Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, were in favour of breaching the 50% limit, claiming that even after seven decades of independence, several classes and communities were deprived of development. They were united in asking for a review of the 1992 verdict.

There were, however, some organisations that argued in support of keeping the 50% ceiling, pointing out that since 1992, no judgment by the top court had questioned the sanctity of the 50% rule. Instead, they argued that subsequent judgments have followed the Indra Sawhney’s ruling.

During one hearing, the bench also wondered for how long reservation should be allowed to continue considering the scheme under the Constitution for reservation to be a temporary measure.

Based on a report by the Maharashtra State Backward Commission and using the window of “extraordinary situations” in the Indra Sawhney case, the Maharashtra law of 2018 had provided 16% reservation in jobs and admissions to the Maratha community in addition to the existing 50% quota. But the Bombay high court, by its judgment in June 2019, brought down the reservation to 12%in admissions to educational institutions and 13% in jobs, prompting the state to move in appeal.

UP panchayat polls: SP extends lead, parties try to woo Independents

LUCKNOW, May 5: The Samajwadi Party (SP) extended its lead over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections on Wednesday as parties vied with each other to woo independent candidates, who won the largest chunk of rural body seats.

Trends and results available for 3,050 district panchayat wards on Wednesday evening showed SP winning or leading in 779 wards, BJP in 579, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 361 and Congress in 76. Independents and smaller parties won or led in 1,272 wards.

The BJP, which secured a landslide victory in the UP assembly election by bagging 312 out of 403 seats in the state assembly, suffered setbacks in its bastions of Ayodhya, Varanasi, Lucknow and Gorakhpur in the panchayat elections and SP maintained its grip on strongholds of Etawah (western UP), Kannauj (central UP), Mainpuri (western UP), Azamgarh (eastern UP), Etah (western UP), Kasganj (western UP) and Farrukhabad (western UP).

The panchayat elections are not contested on party symbols, but all parties officially released the names of the candidates backed by them. The State Election Commission (SEC) has said results won’t be declared on party lines.

Independent candidates, a majority of them rebels from various political parties, are likely to play a crucial role in the election of the district panchayat chairpersons to be held later this month.

BJP has already opened communication channels with independents to try and win district panchayat chair and block chief positions. The indirect elections are to be held for 75 posts of district panchayat chiefs and 826 block chiefs, likely by the end of May, according to a SEC officer.

The victory of SP and other Opposition candidates is likely to set the ground for fresh political realignment and alliances before the assembly election in 2022.

Smaller political parties, including the Suheldev Bhartyiya Samaj Party (SBSP), Aam Admi Party (AAP), Apna Dal, Azad Samaj Party (Bhim Army) and Pragtisheel Samajwadi Party-Lohia also bagged wards in the areas of their influence.

The Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha launched by the smaller parties has called for a united alliance against the NDA in the 2022 assembly election, said SBSP chief Om Prakash Rajbhar.

The farmers’ agitation against three central agrarian laws dented the BJP’s fortunes in west UP where it had won maximum seats in the 2017 assembly elections.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which won only one seat in the 2017 assembly election and was wiped out in its stronghold in west UP, made a comeback in the panchayat polls, winning seats in Meerut, Shamli, Bulandshahr, Baghpat, Hapur and Bijnor.

The BJP had “organised” chaupals in the villages before the panchayat elections with party MPs, MLAs and a battery of ministers campaigning in the rural areas. The defeat of family members of senior party leaders added to the woes of the BJP.

Chief minister Yogi Adityanath congratulated the victorious party candidates and thanked the voters for supporting the BJP candidates. In a tweet, Yogi called upon the victorious candidates and people to assist the administration in fighting the Covid pandemic. They should follow the Covid guidelines and corona curfew protocol, he said.

BSP that won only 19 seats in 2017 also made a comeback in its strongholds of Saharanpur (western UP), Mau (eastern UP), Amroha (western UP), Ghaziabad (western UP), Bhadohi (eastern UP) and Ambedkar Nagar (eastern UP). Party chief Mayawati had directed leaders and workers to begin preparations for the assembly election.

Congress state unit president Ajay Kumar Lallu said 389 party- supported candidates had won the district panchayat wards.

HC raps Central Govt over Delhi’s oxygen crisis

NEW DELHI, May 4: The Delhi High Court on Tuesday told the central government that IIT or IIM will do a better job if the Centre handover the management of oxygen tankers to the premier institutes.

According to the Delhi HC, the Supreme Court said the union government will have to supply 700 metric tonnes of life-saving gas. "If you don't undertake this exercise, you will be in contempt. Now, this is your job, there are tankers available but you are not willing to do this job," the Deli High Court told the Centre on Tuesday.

Further, the High Court also suggested that the Centre must rope in experts from IIMs and IITs to provide a smooth supply of liquid medical oxygen.

The High Court began hearing the petition relating to various issues arising due to the rise of Covid-19 infection in the national capital on Tuesday.

Amicus Curiae Rajshekhar Rao suggested that some unutilised oxygen tankers can be diverted from Maharashtra to Delhi.

Separately, the High Court sought responses of the Centre and the Delhi government on a PIL to temporarily increase the number of cremation and burial sites in the city.

The court directed the authorities to consider data provided by the petitioner, Pratyush Prasanna, while filing their replies.

In his plea filed through advocate Snigdha Singh, Prasanna has claimed that "due to an acute shortage of hospital beds and other necessities such as testing kits and oxygen supply, there have been an overwhelming number of deaths in the country, especially in the national capital region".

As a result, the cremation sites and burial grounds are also full and, therefore, a substantial amount of time was being taken to cremate the body, the plea has claimed.

Hospital beds being allocated to Covid patients in exchange for bribes, says ruling BJP MP

BENGALURU, May 4: At a time when many Covid patients in Bengaluru are reportedly struggling to find hospital beds for treatment, Bangalore South BJP MP Tejasvi Surya on Tuesday alleged that there was “widespread corruption” in allocating Covid beds in Karnataka’s capital city.

“Bribes are being taken to allocate Covid beds. An unholy nexus of BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) officers, Arogya Mitras and certain private agents is behind this scam,” Surya alleged, claiming this had led to an “artificial shortage” of beds in the city.

Speaking to the media along with Basavangudi MLA Ravi Subramanya, Surya claimed “unscrupulous methods” are being adopted and patients who require medical attention are being denied hospital beds. He also claimed that in over 4,000 instances, the BBMP-in charge had booked beds in the name of an asymptomatic patient after being alerted of a vacancy.

“So, the same bed is again allotted to another patient after a few hours, either based on monetary considerations or influence by authorities in other cases. The common man calling the helpline is left high and dry,” he alleged.

The BJP MP also claimed that there have been instances when many patients were admitted quickly in certain hospitals — Manipal, Navachetana, Aster CMI and Aster RV — after midnight hours.

“When in each of the (eight) zones and on the helpline number (108) there are 100 bookings being done per day on an average, who are the patients being admitted to hospitals and given Covid treatment?” he asked.

“Every day there are so many patients who are getting discharged, so many who are unfortunately dying and therefore there must be beds that are made available daily. When you check the BBMP website, at any point of the day, it shows all beds are blocked. How does this happen?” he further questioned.

Surya further claimed that he is aware of situations where patients were asked to pay money upfront to get a hospital bed. “My office has tipped off the police in an instance after which an accused was arrested,” he said.

Meanwhile, Karnataka Congress chief D K Shivakumar “congratulated” Surya, and MLAs Satish Reddy, Ravi Subramanya and Uday Garudachar for “exposing the corruption” in the allocation of beds to Covid patients.

“Under whose control is BBMP? They should immediately name the BJP minister responsible for people’s suffering,” Shivakumar said.

Surya’s allegations come at a time when Bengaluru reported 20,870 new Covid cases and 132 deaths on Tuesday. There was 44,631 new cases and 292 deaths in the state on the day.

Reacting to the allegations, Deputy CM C N Ashwathnarayan said that people found allotting beds for money would be arrested under the Goonda Act.

“The public can call 112 and lodge complaints about such practices. The extortion of money from Covid patients will not be tolerated. Nodal officers from the police department will be deployed to supervise such issues,” he said.

Head of the ministerial Covid task force in the state, Ashwathnarayan, said, “Blocking of beds will not be allowed. It will be made compulsory for both government and private hospitals to update the status of bed allotment in the SAST (Suvarna Arogya Suraksha Trust) portal on a real-time basis.”

The task force further explained that officials have been directed to ensure that the helpline number 1912 is working perfectly at all time and to automate the bed allotment process. “An Integrated Index App should also be created within two days in an effort to streamline Covid management,” Ashwathnarayan said after a meeting with the members of the state task force.

7 More Die In Karnataka Hospitals Due To Oxygen Shortage

BENGALURU, May 4: Oxygen crisis deepened in certain parts of Karnataka on Tuesday, with the deaths of seven COVID patients in Kalaburagi and Belagavi allegedly due to oxygen shortage.

According to sources, four people died in the morning in Kalaburagi government hospital and three in Belagavi government hospital allegedly due to shortage of the life saving gas.

However, Mining and Geology Minister Murugesh Nirani, who is in-charge of Kalaburagi district, dismissed the allegation saying that those who died had COVID infection at an advanced stage.

These incidents came close on the heels of deaths of 24 COVID patients in the last two days in Chamarajanagar district hospital allegedly due to oxygen shortage.

However, leader of opposition and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who visited Chamarajanagar district hospital on Tuesday, claimed that 28 and not 23 people had died in the hospital from Sunday morning to Monday morning.

He alleged the incident reflected badly on the governance and demanded the resignation of health minister Dr K Sudhakar for the poor handling of the COVID-19 situation.

Taking a serious view of the oxygen shortage, Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa on Tuesday assigned the Large and Medium Scale Industries Minister Jagadish Shettar to arrange oxygen supply and coordinate with the Centre to get the state's quota of oxygen.

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru a few hospitals raised an alarm against the oxygen shortage to treat the critically ill COVID patients.

An executive of the Chaitanya Medical Centre in Yelahanka said there was an oxygen crisis on Monday due to which they had to shift all their COVID patients to other hospitals.

"Now we have got the stock of oxygen, which would last for two to three days, but yesterday we shifted all our patients to other hospitals as the stock had exhausted," the executive said.

Medax Hospitals in RT Nagar here had also flagged the shortage of oxygen.

In his letter to the relatives of the COVID patients, the medical director of the hospital Dr Srihari R Shapur wrote that the facility was running out of oxygen and asked them to make necessary arrangements in other hospitals.

"This is to inform you that we are running out of oxygen supply. We are unable to provide oxygen care for the patient.We have been informed since May 1 6 pm. We will shortly run out of oxygen by 5 pm on May 3. Kindly arrange for beds in different hospitals. We regret this situation," Dr Srihari stated in the letter.

Rajmahal hospital too wrote to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (city corporation) stating that the vendor company was not supplying oxygen despite repeated requests.

"In this scenario, managing 30 plus COVID patients is becoming a challenge.We need your immediate intervention and assistance to tide over the situation," the manager of the hospital said in the letter.

The Bengaluru Rural MP D K Suresh too expressed concern over the paucity of the life-saving gas in Rajarajeshwari Medical College in the city.

In his video message on Monday, he asked Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to arrange oxygen for the COVID patients.

Karnataka on Tuesday reported 44,631 new COVID-19 cases and 292 deaths, taking the caseload and fatalities to 16,90,934 and 16,538 respectively, the health department said.

The state has 4,64,363 active cases.

24 Patients Die In Karnataka Hospital Allegedly Due To Oxygen Shortage

BENGALURU, May 3: The Karnataka government has ordered an inquiry after 24 patients died at a government hospital on Sunday night. The deaths were reported at the hospital in Chamarajanagar allegedly after the oxygen supply dropped. At least 144 patients are being treated at the hospital.

"My boy had recovered 75%. If there had been an oxygen cylinder he could have been saved," said Lokesh.

Another such relative, Rajanna, said he received a distress call from his nephew at midnight. "He called me around 12 o'clock saying there was no oxygen. Please see what you can do. When we came here immediately, they didn't allow any of us in. When we called again, there was no reply. That meant he was gone. He died because of lack of oxygen".

23 out of the 24 patients were being treated for Covid.

Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa has appointed IAS officer Shivayogi Kalasad to investigate the deaths of the 23 patients. The report into the deaths has to be submitted to the government within three days.

Mysuru MP, Pratap Simha, said, "Last night, when media people drew my attention to the situation of oxygen shortage in Chamarajnagar district, I myself contacted Deputy Commissioner (DC) Dr MR Ravi and took a conference call with ADC who is in charge of oxygen. At night itself I contacted Southern Gas and they provided 15 cylinders. Before that also we had given from the quota. Despite all this, this sad incident occurred. Chamarajnagar is not some far away place. We feel it is part of us. We are part of their sorrow."

Dr. Ashwathnarayan C N, the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka, tweeted:

The district has recorded a total of 11,928 cases of COVID-19 infection since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020. At least 167 people have died since then due to the virus.

The All India Congress Committee general secretary and Karnataka in-charge, Randeep Singh Surjewala demanded the arrest of the Health Minister. "This is murder by designed negligence of Yediyurappa Govt ! The Health Minister must resign. Will CM Yediyurappa ji own moral responsibility for the deaths?" Surjewala tweeted.

Congress Karnataka chief DK Shivakumar said the government is only interested in publicity and does not take any responsibility.

Several hospitals across the country have been reporting a shortage of oxygen, with many patients losing lives due to this.

Karnataka reported 37,733 fresh COVID-19 cases, 21,149 recoveries, and 217 deaths in the past 24 hours. The number of active cases in the state stands at 4,21,436 with 11,64,398 recoveries.

Mamata loses in Nandigram, but TMC ahead in 215 seats; DMK takes TN; BJP keeps Assam; LDF retains Kerala

NEW DELHI, May 2: In the keenly-watched Nandigram seat, BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari defeated Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee by a mere 1,622 votes. However, the TMC was ahead in 215 seats (212 wins) and the BJP in 75 (73 wins), with the TMC comfortably crossing the halfway mark in the state with 294 assembly seats.

In Assam, the BJP crossed the halfway mark in early leads, ahead of its nearest rival Congress, which campaigned hard to reclaim its one-time bastion.

At least 15 rounds of sanitisation will be carried out at each polling centre, besides social distancing and other precautions, including a ban on gatherings, will be strictly followed, officials said. They said counting of votes will begin at 8 am and continue late into the night.

As many as 1,100 counting observers will watch the process and candidates and agents will have to produce a negative COVID test report or double dose of vaccination certificate to get an entry.

There will be 2,364 counting halls as compared to 1,002 halls in 2016 in 822 assemble constituencies, a more than 200 per cent increase, in view of the COVID guidelines, according to the Election Commission which had drawn flak from the courts over the conduct of polls during the pandemic.

Polling was held in eight phases in West Bengal between March 27 and April 29, in Assam in three stages on March 27, April 1 and 6, while votes were cast in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry in a single phase on April 6, when the COVID surge had begun in many of the states.

Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are among the 11 states that account for 78.22 per cent of the total active cases, according to the Health ministry.

A three-tier security arrangement is in place in West Bengal’s 108 counting centres and at least 292 observers have been appointed and 256 companies of central forces deployed across 23 districts of the state that voted in a gruelling election marred by violence and vicious personal attacks.

Election Commission Rejects Trinamool Request For Recount In Nandigram

New Delhi: The Election Commission has rejected the Trinamool Congress's appeal for a recount of votes at Nandigram, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had faced her aide-turned- arch rival Suvendu Adhikari.

The Returning Officer has said that the result will be officially declared after the VVPAT slips are tallied with the votes on the Electronic Voting Machines. After a day of yo-yo competition. the results this evening indicated that the Chief Minister had lost to Adhikari by 1,736 votes in the contest that was the centre-piece of the assembly election in the state.

The Trinamool Congress had declared the counting process "fishy". Banerjee alleged "malpractices" and said she would approach the courts.

"Let the Nandigram people give whatever verdict they want, I accept that. Nandigram was a sacrifice that was needed in the larger victory. We have won the state," said the Chief Minister, whose party is heading for a stupendous 210-plus seat victory. "But I will go to the court because I have heard there were some malpractices," she had said earlier this evening.

The Chief Minister's announcement this evening came amid much confusion with the Election Commission website updations running excruciatingly slowly. Even around 10.30 pm, the site showed partial results from Nandigram, in which the Chief Minister appeared to be leading.

"Something is fishy about Nandigram, don't you think? A party wins nearly three-fourths of all the seats in the state and the Chief Minister loses her seat - something very fishy went on in Nandigram," said senior Trinamool leader Derek O'Brien.

Ms Banerjee had trailed Adhikari for half the day as counting progressed. But Trinamool said it was to be expected since the votes belonged to a majority-community block. The tables would be turned, they said, once the votes from minority dominated areas are counted. By the evening, the contest had become a cliffhanger, with Banerjee overcoming a 10,000-plus gap in votes and pulling forward. Thereafter, the results went yo-yo with every round.

For Trinamool, which is heading for a 210-plus seat victory against a massive challenge by the BJP's hugely powerful election machinery, the Chief Minister's defeat in Nadigram will be an acute embarrassment.

Nandigram was the place which had catapulted Ms Banerjee to power a decade ago. But the groundwork was said to be done by Suvendu Adhikari, who was one of Ms Banerjee's closest aides.

The Chief Minister – stung by his defection in December – had taken the battle to his home turf, declaring that she would contest from Nandigram, quitting her regular seat in Kolkata's Bhowanipur.

What followed was a deeply polarising campaign in which Adhikari had tagged the Chief Minister a "begum" and warned people that votes for her will lead to the creation of a "mini Pakistan".

Banerjee had retaliated saying that she was the daughter of a Brahmin who knows her scriptures. Her Chandi paath in Nandigram a day before the filing of nomination, the injury to her leg the very next day and her delivery of speeches from her wheelchair were the high points of the red-hot campaign.

Serum Institute chief says he’s left India, planning to start Covid vaccine production abroad

LONDON, May 1: Serum Institute of India chief Adar Poonawalla has said that he flew to London late last week before the United Kingdom banned travellers from India because he was being threatened. “I’m staying here for an extended time because I don’t want to go back to that situation,” he said in an interview with The Times that was published on Saturday.

Poonawalla is chief executive officer of the Serum Institute, which is the local maker of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University and pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca.

“Everything falls on my shoulders but I can’t do it alone,” he said about the alleged threats. “I don’t want to be in a situation where you are just trying to do your job, and just because you can’t supply the needs of X, Y or Z you really don’t want to guess what they are going to do.”

“The level of expectation and aggression is really unprecedented,” Poonawalla said. “It’s overwhelming. Everyone feels they should get the vaccine. They can’t understand why anyone else should get it before them.”

The Serum Institute chief said phone calls for the Covishield vaccine was the “worst thing”. While the conversation begins cordially, Poonawalla said, it goes in a “very different direction” when he explains why he cannot possibly meet the vaccine demands, according to The Times.

“They are saying if you don’t give us the vaccine it’s not going to be good,” he added. “It’s not foul language. It’s the tone. It’s the implication of what they might do if I don’t comply. It’s taking control. It’s coming over and basically surrounding the place [Serum Institute campus in Pune] and not letting us do anything unless we give in to their demands.”

The Centre has said that Poonawalla will be given Y category security cover across India. The Ministry of Home Affairs had issued orders after conducting a detailed threat assessment.

Poonawalla also added, “There’s going to be an announcement in the next few days.” He said that the Serum Institute is hoping to increase production capacity of its Covishield vaccine from 2.5 billion to 3 billion doses a year within six months.

Poonawalla has said he was planning to start production in other countries amid struggles to meet supply commitments.

Several states in India have postponed the rollout of the third phase of inoculation for those between 18 to 45 years as they have run out of vaccines, exacerbating a second wave of the pandemic.

The 40-year-old told The Times that he cannot comment about the Narendra Modi government’s decision to allow Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar and conduct Assembly elections amid the surge in infections.

“If I give you the right answer, or any answer, my head would be chopped off,” Poonawalla said. “I can’t comment on the elections or Kumbh Mela. It’s too sensitive...I don’t think even God could have forecast it was going to get this bad.”

India has reported more than 3 lakh coronavirus cases for the last nine days. On Saturday, it set another global record by reporting more than 4 lakh new infections. The country now has 1,91,64,969 total cases since the pandemic first broke out in January 2020.

Queues for oxygen, hospital beds and outside crematorium too, thanks to Modi govt, says Rahul Gandhi on Covid situation

NEW DELHI, May 1: In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with PTI, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Saturday said the entire world is shaken by the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic in India and there are queues everywhere, whether for oxygen cylinders, for life-saving medicines, for hospital beds and even outside crematoriums.

He accused the government of misreading and mishandling the situation and alleged that all early warning signs were ignored, including from scientists.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

Q. The second wave of coronavirus has hit India hard. We see people gasping for medical aid, medicines, oxygen. They have no access to facilities in the national capital and across the country. How do you see the situation and the response of the government?

Ans. It breaks my heart every single day to wake up to the absolute devastation around us. This is not a wave; it is a tsunami that has destroyed everything in its wake. There are never-ending queues everywhere. There are queues to get an oxygen cylinder, queues to refill the cylinder, queues to get life-saving medicines, queues to get a hospital bed, and now there are queues outside crematoriums. There is a fatal shortage of every single item we need to tackle Covid-19. Our capital’s best hospitals are bursting at the seams. We are getting frantic SOS calls for oxygen from India’s top doctors. Hospitals are petitioning High Courts for oxygen. Our healthcare workers are seeing patients die in front of their eyes, they cannot save people. India is now the world’s coronavirus epicentre. The entire world is shaken by what they are seeing in India. None of this should have happened. There were multiple early warning signs. Forget the signs, scientists clearly warned the government this would happen – they ignored them. We could and should have been much better prepared. And now, where is the government in this crisis? It is completely missing in action. They are obsessed only with saving the Prime Minister’s image and blaming others. The new buzzword is that the ‘system’ has failed. Who is this ‘system’? Who runs the ‘system’? It’s just a ploy to avoid admitting responsibility.

Q. Did the government falter in assessing the Covid situation? Who is at fault?

Ans. Absolutely. The Prime Minister is at fault. He runs a highly centralised and personalised government machinery, is solely and substantially devoted to building his own brand, is utterly focused on imagery rather than substance. The fact is that this Government completely failed to understand or to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic -- right from the very beginning, despite repeated warnings. Since the very start of this pandemic back in 2020, I kept trying to warn the government about the disaster ahead if we did not urgently prepare but they attacked me and ridiculed me. It’s not just me – anyone who tried to sound the alarm, the state callously and thoughtlessly ignored. Modi government let this virus enter India through our airports in February and March of 2020. And then it panicked and without consultation or thought imposed the world’s harshest lockdown. Migrant workers were left to fend for themselves and an unprecedented exodus began from the cities. The poorest of the poor were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres home with no support, no aid, no assistance. In his sheer ignorance, the Prime Minister said he would defeat the virus in 21 days, akin to the battle of Mahabharata! Modi government is plainly arrogant and focuses on perception over reality- declaring victory against the virus is absolute insanity and demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of what this virus is. The only way to fight corona is with humility and by realizing that you are faced with a relentless opponent, who can adapt and is very resilient. The PM had an entire year to better prepare, protect India, and think through this crisis but what did they do? Did the PM & the Govt add sufficient oxygen capacity, ramp up testing, increase hospital beds, ventilators? Did the PM think long-term about the state of our health infrastructure and start building for the sort of subsequent Corona waves that almost every country in the world was experiencing? It was sheer luck that we emerged out of last year’s nightmare, to a point where we had less than 10,000 new cases in a day early in 2021. We were not testing enough then. We are not testing enough now. Where was the preparation for this massive second wave? Why were the jumbo facilities put up last year dismantled? Why did they raise oxygen exports over 700% - think of that number, 700% - in the months before this brutal second wave?

Q. What could the Government have done differently to address the second wave?

Ans. The Modi Government was both grossly negligent and blindly overconfident. The BJP announced the end of the pandemic and congratulated the Prime Minister for his “success” even as the second wave was just beginning. The Prime Minister himself is on record as having said that India had successfully fought the pandemic and won. In reality, there was no coherent strategy. One, the government should have built massive capacity over the last year –– testing, oxygen, hospital beds, ventilators. Two, they should not have declared victory prematurely. Three, the Prime Minister and his government did not even acknowledge there was a problem. How can you fix something you don’t even accept exists? Four, the government did not act on scientific advice or evidence. They continuously ignored rising cases and were busy instead with election campaigns. They encouraged super-spreader events. They even bragged about them. Our Prime Minister and Home Minister were not even wearing masks in public over the past few months. What sort of a message is that sending to citizens? Five, most importantly, the only solution we have is vaccination. We are supposed to be the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. And yet, India is desperately short of vaccines. We are making them, why weren’t our people first in line to be vaccinated? If that is not a failure to plan and execute, what is?

Q. With India seeing around 4 lakh cases a day, the highest in the world, is there a case for the national emergency considering the unprecedented crisis?

Ans. We are already in the midst of a national emergency. But just declaring something is not the answer. The biggest problem of this government is it announces and then absconds. Now that the situation is completely out of control, they have dropped the ball and thrown it to the states. They have made the states and citizens truly ‘Aatmanirbhar’. Rely on yourself is the motto. No one will come to help you. Definitely, not the Prime Minister. The need of the hour is to hold hands, work together and heal our people. India must be the only country in the world facing this massive pandemic without the guidance of an expert and empowered group that is charged with fighting the virus and protecting the people, with planning ahead, anticipating needs and taking the decisions that will result in swift action to save lives.

Q. GoI has said it repeatedly warned states about the second wave and asked them to map the need for essential supplies like oxygen, ICU beds, and continue with containment efforts. Would you say the current situation is a collective failure of the Centre and states?

Ans. The entire country has already been under the Epidemic Act for more than a year. The Centre has absolute power over states under the Act. This is a government that wants to control everything. When cases went down, they declared victory, and the Prime Minister took all the credit as he always does. Now that the situation is terrible, why are you blaming the states? Out of 162 oxygen plants sanctioned in October by the Centre, only 33 are functional. This was set up with the PM-CARES funds. The Modi Government took tens of thousands of crores of donations in his name, without any transparency, without any accountability. The states have rejected the sub-standard ventilators supplied by the Centre through these funds. States do not even get their GST dues on time. States are dependent on the Modi Government for quotas of oxygen, Remdesivir and Tocilizumab injections. The Modi Government has chained the hands of the states behind their backs, so they are completely powerless, and then asks them to sort out their own affairs. Obviously, the system will collapse.

Q. Adult vaccinations are starting on May 1 along the lines you demanded, but states say they cannot start as they do not have the vaccines. What is your view? Did you seek the expansion of vaccinations too early? The UK will start adult vaccines from June?

Ans. First, the government set a target of vaccinating 300 million by August. This is the above 45 age category. They managed to fully vaccinate not even 2 percent of the total population. With the mounting pressure of the government not vaccinating enough, they added another 600 million to the list, by starting vaccinations for the 18+ group from May 1. But where are the vaccines? Why did the Modi Government abandon the people between age groups of 18 to 44 years by refusing to take responsibility for their vaccination? Why is there a discriminatory policy on the pricing of vaccines? Why should there be five different prices for the same vaccine? What is the strategy beyond two companies? How can that suffice for almost 1 billion people? We need 2 billion doses. Now, they are scrambling for vaccines. The numbers just don’t add up.

Q. You have said the liberalised Vaccine policy is discriminatory. Vaccine makers have reduced prices for states. Your comments?

Ans. This is the story of ‘discount sale’, where you mark up the price, and then make a show of reducing it. It is a complete eyewash. Why should states pay more than the Centre to buy vaccines? Why should the states be left to fend for themselves? Why should there be a difference in price for vaccines for the Centre, the States and the private hospitals? Why should the price of the vaccine even for the two companies be different? Why the discrepancy? After all, even when States pay for the vaccination of those between the age groups of 18 to 44 years, it is taxpayer’s money.

Q. The government has not invoked compulsory licensing for vaccines despite repeated calls by Congress?

Ans. Dr Manmohan Singh asked for compulsory licensing in his letter to the Prime Minister. The Congress President has repeated it several times now. Other countries have done this. The USA ramped up its vaccine production using their Defense Production Act. We have to do whatever it takes, within our laws, to ramp up the domestic production of vaccines here. We have a domestic manufacturing base. We can manufacture for both India and the world. All the industry needs are licenses and raw materials. It should have been done months ago.

Q. The Congress party has said it is willing to work together with the Centre in the fight against Coronavirus. How will you make it accountable then?

Ans. Congress Party has said from day one that it is willing to work with the government in the fight against Coronavirus and for a year now, even in just the last few days, the Congress President has repeated this position very clearly. We have been consistently giving suggestions on all possible forums. Forget taking them seriously, the government has not even meaningfully acknowledged these suggestions. I see no contradiction in working together with the government in times of unprecedented crisis while at the same time holding it accountable for its decisions. The problem arises when the government doesn’t believe in consultation, in carrying everyone along, in tapping expertise it lacks. This government seems to think that acknowledging help is needed is a sign of weakness. The hubris and pettiness of this government are unbelievable.

Q. The Madras High Court has held the Election Commission responsible for the Covid situation. Your views?

Ans. The Court was echoing a widely held view. In the past 7 years, like so many other institutions, the Election Commission of India has also crumbled. The Court has said what it believes, I don’t want to make any further comment. Let your readers judge for themselves. Our Institutions are a warning system- they give us feedback and information on how to respond to crisis but our institutions have been completely destroyed and taken over. The press, judiciary, election commission, bureaucracy - none of them have played their role of guardian/watchdog. This means India today is like a ship in a storm, sailing without any information. Corona is just part of the problem - the real problem is that India now doesn’t have the capacity to respond to any major crisis because of what has been done to its systems over the last 6 years.

Q. There have been demands within for internal elections and a new Congress president? Are you ready to lead again in such times, especially when there are demands from various quarters within for you to lead?

Ans. I have always favoured internal organisational elections within the Congress and these will be conducted in time. It is for the party workers to decide as to who should lead the party. I will do whatever the party wants me to do. But right now the focus is on controlling the pandemic, saving lives, and alleviating India’s widespread suffering and pain. There will be time for everything else in due course.

Delhi lockdown extended by a week, says CM Arvind Kejriwal

NEW DELHI, May 1: As the national capital continues to grapple with rising Covid-19 cases and resultant oxygen shortage, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday announced that the prevailing lockdown in the city has been extended by another week.

The national capital on Saturday registered 412 fresh Covid deaths, highest in a day while it recorded over 25,000 new cases with positivity rate 31.61 per cent. Maharashtra, on the other hand, reported 63,282 new COVID-19 cases and 802 deaths, taking the infection tally to 46,65,472 and the toll to 69,615, the state health department said.

Kejriwal also confirmed that Delhi has received 4.5 lakh doses of Covid-19 vaccines and will hence start inoculating people between 18 to 44 years of age from Monday. However, walk-ins will not be allowed, he stated. Instead, only those who took prior appointment for vaccination will be able to take the dose.

After twelve people succumbed to Covid-19 due to delay in oxygen supply in Delhi’s Batra Hospital, Delhi High Court Saturday pulled up the Centre and directed it to ensure that “Delhi receives its allocated supply of 490 MTs today by whatever means”.

“Water has gone above the head. Enough is enough. Now you’ll arrange everything,” the court told the Centre. “You’ve made allocation, fulfil that,” the court said.

India on Saturday reported over 4,00,000 fresh Covid-19 cases for the first time as the tally crossed 19 million-mark, according to Union health ministry’s data. With 4,019, 93 fresh coronavirus cases, India”s Covid-19 tally has risen to 19,164,969. The country also recorded 3,523 deaths on Friday, including 870 in Maharashtra, 375 in Delhi, 332 in Uttar Pradesh, and 269 in Chhattisgarh.

Meanwhile, at least sixteen Covid-19 patients and two nurses were killed after fire broke out at the ICU of The Welfare Hospital in Bharuch district on Saturday. Locals broke the glass windows and rescued the other patients. Sources said there were around 27 patients in the ICU ward at the time of the fire. They were shifted to nearby private hospitals.



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