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Treatment not proven: Health official

The ICMR has not given clearance, says the Centre. Getty Images/iStockphotoGetty Images/iStockphoto

Plasma therapy is not an approved treatment for COVID-19 and is only one of the several therapies being explored currently, the Union Health Ministry said on Tuesday. The therapy is still at an experimental stage and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) is currently studying its efficacy, it added.

“ICMR has not given any clearance for its use as a prescribed treatment and the misuse can have fatal outcome for the patients,” the Ministry said.

The Health Ministry statement comes days after the Drug Controller General of India gave its go-ahead to a proposal by the ICMR for the clinical trial of convalescent plasma therapy in COVID-19 patients as per the protocol developed by the Council.

Evidence not enough

At the daily press briefing, Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal said currently there are no approved therapies for COVID-19 and there is not enough evidence to claim that plasma therapy can be used for treatment of the disease. The ICMR has launched a national-level study to look into the efficacy of plasma therapy in treatment of COVID-19.

“Till the ICMR concludes its study and a robust scientific proof is available, plasma therapy should be used only for research or trial purpose. If plasma therapy is not used in proper manner under proper guidelines, then it can also cause life threatening complications,” he cautioned.

Last week, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had asked the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) to contact recovered COVID-19 patients to come forward for blood donation, from which convalescent plasma could be collected and used.

“As mentioned by ICMR, the convalescent plasma will be really helpful in treating severe and serious COVID-19 patients,” Mr. Vardhan had said.

Mission for Clean Ganga discusses funds needed for community toilets, urinals

Mega gathering: Maha Kumbh Mela is organised once in 12 years, and 10 million had congregated in Haridwar in 2010.

Crowds, or even the prospect of one, may be anathema everywhere, but the government has begun planning for the Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in January 2021. The gathering has a long history and draws large crowds from the world over, who come to take a ritualistic dip in the Ganga.

An April 16 meeting, organised by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), the Water Ministry body overseeing the clean up of the river, discussed funds needed by the Uttarakhand government for providing community toilets and urinals for the attendees.

The Maha Kumbh Mela is organised once in 12 years, and the last time the event was held in 2010, about 10 million reportedly congregated in the city.

For organising the event, the State sought ₹85 crore from the NMCG for creating 16,075 community toilets (made of fibre and portable) and 20,000 community urinals. However the Executive Committee of the NMCG deferred a decision on the grounds that several other components of the proposal — making provisions for dustbins and solid waste management — were not yet included and a decision on the project would be taken at the next meeting, according to a record of the minutes of the meeting. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Director-General, NMCG, did not respond to a request for comment.

Routine meeting

The meeting was convened via video-conference and had officials from the NMCG, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Uttarakhand and is held every month to decide on funding for projects to clean the Ganga as well as its tributaries.

A participant at the meeting told The Hindu that there was no discussion with Uttarakhand on whether it would be safe to organise the Kumbh Mela, given that the world is yet to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global case count continues to increase.

“There was no discussion on whether the organisation of the Kumbh would be impacted by COVID-19. But there’s a lot of time left and the situation could change. If there’s still as much of a risk as there is now, I’m sure measures will be taken,” the person said.

However, preparing logistics in advance was par for the course, given the size of the event.

A similar Kumbh was organised in Prayagraj in 2019.

The Government of India has taken a $1.5 billion loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to fund its immediate response to COVID-19, both in terms of the health and socio-economic impacts. The bank is also in talks with the government to fund further stimulus measures, including support for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises and for extending health services through public-private partnerships.

The money, translating to more than ₹11,000 crore, will be spent to implement the containment plan and rapidly ramp up the test-track-treatment capacity.

Besides chinkaras and blackbucks, poachers have targeted peacocks, grey francolins in Rajasthan

Environmental activist Anil Bishnoi tending to an injured chinkara in Rajasthan. Special arrangement.

The instances of poaching of wild animals and birds, including the endangered chinkara or Indian gazelle, have registered a sharp increase across Rajasthan during the COVID-19 lockdown, with the hunters taking advantage of slack monitoring and sparse public movement in the remote areas.

Armed poachers have been moving inside the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries since the lockdown was enforced. Besides killing chinkaras and blackbucks, the poachers have targeted peacocks, grey francolins and other birds covered under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, as endangered species.

During the last one week, instances of chinkara poaching were reported in Pali, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Nagaur districts.

Several of the cases were detected and reported to the forest authorities by the members of the Bishnoi community, which is known for its beliefs associated with nature worship and wildlife conservation.

Forest and police teams recovered a chinkara carcass near Bhundel village in Nagaur district late on Sunday night. Range Officer Hemendra Sirodia said the villagers had earlier reached the spot but the poachers fled. In another incident near Gudda Bhagwan village, the local residents nabbed one poacher, while two others escaped.

Four motorcycle-borne poachers killed a chinkara near Olwada village adjoining the Ranthambore National Park in Sawai Madhopur district on Saturday. When the villagers tried to catch them, they fired in the air and fled with the carcass of the antelope which was tied to a bike.

Caught a poacher

Wildlife lovers assisted by a teacher, Pradeep Bishnoi, caught a poacher who killed a blackbuck near Napawas village in Pali district’s Sojat block on Monday. Similarly, chinkara meat being cooked by some poachers was seized in Jaisalmer district’s Ramgarh village on Sunday night, according to Divisional Forest Officer Om Prakash Bishnoi.

A muster of 22 peacocks and 15 grey francolins was found dead in Lohiya village of Bikaner district on Monday. Jeev Raksha Sanstha president Mokhram Dharnia said the investigation had revealed that someone had fed poisonous grains to them.

Environmental activist Anil Bishnoi, who lives in Hanumangarh district’s Lakhasar village, rescued a chinkara which was found injured in an agricultural field on Monday. Mr. Bishnoi, a recipient of the State-level Amrita Devi Environmental Award in 2009, gave primary aid to the animal and handed it over to the forest officials in Pilibanga.

The chinkaras are usually poached in Rajasthan, allegedly by the Bawaria community, whose traditional occupation is hunting.

Rashtriya Loktantrik Party MP from Nagaur, Hanuman Beniwal, has expressed concern over the increasing incidents of poaching.

Religious freedom panel lists nation among ‘countries of particular concern’

A file photo of an anti-CAA protest in New Delhi.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has downgraded India to the lowest ranking, “countries of particular concern” (CPC) in its 2020 report. The report, released in Washington by the federal government commission that functions as an advisory body, placed India alongside countries, including China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. India was categorised as a “Tier 2 country” in last year’s listing. This is the first time since 2004 that India has been placed in this category.

“India took a sharp downward turn in 2019,” the commission noted in its report, which included specific concerns about the Citizenship Amendment Act, the proposed National Register for Citizens, anti-conversion laws and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. “The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims.” The panel said that the CPC designation was also recommended because “national and various State governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity, and engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence against them”.

The Centre reacted sharply to the USCIRF report on Tuesday, terming it “biased and tendentious” and rejected its observations.

“We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report,” official spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said. “Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” Mr. Srivastava added.

Three of the 10 USCIRF commissioners, including Gary Bauer, Johnnie Lee, and Tenzin Dorjee, dissented with the panel’s recommendation on India as being ‘too harsh’ and that ended up placing the country alongside what they termed as “rogue nations” like China and North Korea.

“I am confident that India will reject any authoritarian temptation and stand with the United States and other free nations in defence of liberty, including religious liberty,” wrote Commissioner Bauer in his dissenting note.

The commission also recommended that the U.S. government take stringent action against India under the “International Religious Freedom Act” (IRFA). It called on the administration to “impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations”. In 2005, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was at the time the Chief Minister of Gujarat was censured by the USCIRF. The commission had recommended sanctions against Mr. Modi for the 2002 riots and the U.S. government had subsequently cancelled his visa.

The USCIRF 2020 report makes a specific mention of Home Minister Amit Shah, for not taking what it deemed as sufficient action to stop cases of mob lynching in the country, and for referring to migrants as “termites”. In December 2019, the USCIRF had also asked the U.S. government to consider sanctions against Mr. Shah and “other principal leadership” over the decision to pass the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Naval ships and IAF, AI planes readied

The IAF will deploy its transport aircraft.

The Union government is drawing up a major evacuation plan involving the Navy, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Air India to bring back Indians stranded in West Asia following the nationwide lockdown and travel restrictions due to COVID-19, multiple defence sources said.

“A major evacuation plan is under discussion with the Ministry of External Affairs being the lead ministry. When, where and how many and factors like who is to be evacuated and so on are under deliberation,” a defence source told The Hindu. The tentative window for evacuation has not been decided yet but it is expected to be after the lockdown ends on May 3.

Defence sources confirmed that Navy and IAF had been asked to work out the modalities from their end and accordingly preparations were on. “An exercise of aircraft availability was done to have a picture about capability, turn around time, sortie generation possibility and so on,” a second source said, adding there was no tasking yet.

The IAF has a fleet of US origin C-130 Hercules medium transporters and C-17 Globemaster heavy transport aircraft, in addition to older Russian IL-76 aircraft, which have been playing a major role in recent Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts.

Naval ships need enough time to sail from their home ports with requisite preparations to handle civilians. “The nation lockdown ends on May 3. So there is reaction time and there is also lot of administrative and logistical issues to be worked out,” another defence source said on this.

There are more than eight million Indians who live and work in the Gulf region and with plummeting oil prices there have been concerns of massive job losses.

But pause in industrial activity has aided Yamuna

Few gains: All boat jetties along the Ganga remain deserted, but pollution continues due to sewage discharge into the river.Ranjeet KumarRanjeet Kumar

The lockdown may have dramatically reduced air pollution across the country but it hasn’t significantly reduced pollution in the Ganga, according to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board.

The dissolved oxygen (DO) concentration, a measure of the amount of free oxygen available in river systems, “rose marginally” from March 22-April 15. A high DO value is considered a good indicator of river health. However, two other measures, BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) — both indicators of the amount of oxygen necessary to break down organic and inorganic pollution — showed “insignificant reductions”, the CPCB report notes. The lower these numbers are the better they indicate river health.

“Reduction in BOD concentration has been less significant owing to continual discharge of untreated or inadequately treated sewage. Marginal reduction can be seen only in the 4th week of the lockdown. Further, there is gradual increase in BOD levels towards downstream stretches of the river, with the maximum values in West Bengal,” according to the CPCB report. “Reduction in COD concentration has also been less significant. Few locations show increase in the COD values, while in remaining stations reduction in COD levels was not significant. This marginal reduction can be attributed due to stoppage of industrial activities.”

Domestic wastewater from 97 towns situated near river Ganga, and industrial effluents, are the main sources of water pollution in the river, with an estimated quantity of 3,500 MLD (million litres per day) of sewage, out of which 1,100 MLD is treated and the remaining 2,400 MLD gets discharged untreated. Industrial effluent is estimated to be about 300 MLD.

The CPCB assessed pollution a week before lockdown and weeks after at 36 locations in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The pollution in the river is highest in Uttar Pradesh. The bulk of the sewage treatment plants commissioned under Ganga are in Uttar Pradesh towns and though projects worth ₹23,000 crore have been commissioned (across 11 Ganga basin States), a noticeable increase in the cleanliness of the river isn’t yet apparent.

The CPCB, however, said that there was notable improvement in water quality in the Yamuna. “Analysis results indicate there is considerable improvement in the water quality of river Yamuna with respect to DO, BOD and COD when compared with pre-lockdown and lockdown period,” the CPCB notes. However, this was done basis an assessment at only three locations in Delhi and the gains were significantly due to reduced industrial activity.

Agriculture dept. officials studying spatial forecast models

A normal monsoon is important for a good harvest of rain-fed crops.

While the India Meteorological Department has predicted a normal monsoon, spatial forecast models show wide variations in rainfall across the country which can have dire implications for farmers, especially on the northeastern coast and the dryland areas of the Deccan.

For instance, there are likely to be long dry spells and low rainfall in June and July, similar to what happened last year, followed by excess rainfall in the later part of the monsoon in August and September, according to Agriculture Ministry officials working on an analysis of the seasonal forecast before holding State-level meetings on the likely implications.

There could be a possibility of dwindling rainfall in June and July in the rainfed regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Marathwada and Vidharbha regions of Maharashtra, which could impact rainfed crops, official sources said.

The forecasts also show that below normal rainfall with 40% probability is expected in the coastal region of Odisha, southern part of West Bengal and the north coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. Advisories may need to be issued for uplands and midlands in these areas, official sources said.

On the other hand, above normal rainfall is expected in some western States such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, western Madhya Pradesh and north western Maharashtra, which is an opportunity for enhancing production of kharif season crops in these areas, especially those that depend on rainfed agriculture.

The spatial forecast is provided by the South Asia Seasonal Climate Outlook Forum, which includes a number of national agencies led by the World Meteorological Organisation, Agriculture Ministry sources said.

The National Disaster Response Force is preparing to face the twin challenges in many States

Staying alert: In this August 2018 photo, members of the National Disaster Response Force patrolling along the Periyar during the floods in Kerala.H. VibhuH. Vibhu

With the southwest monsoon around the corner, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is preparing to face the twin challenges of COVID-19 and floods in different parts of the country. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast a normal monsoon, which is expected to hit Kerala on June 1.

“In the rainy season, managing the situation in areas that have been reporting COVID-19 cases, particularly in the hotspot and containment zones, will be an uphill task. Given the forecast, it will require more preparation,” said a senior NDRF official.

There is a chance of above normal rain in August and September, according to the IMD.

Over the past week, the NDRF has been working on an action plan to meet all possible exigencies. The top brass has been briefing the field formations on measures to be taken. The organisation has been in constant touch with the IMD and the local administration in the respective States.

Assam, which witnesses heavy rains and flash floods during the monsoon, leading to several deaths and displacement of lakhs of people in the affected areas, had asked for monsoon pre-deployment of NDRF teams.

“Response teams in other States are awaiting further instructions. It is an unprecedented situation wherein more than 90% resources will have to be mobilised. Last year, when the country recorded the best monsoon over the past 25 years, 200 of the 216 teams had to be deployed in close to 20 States for rescue and relief operations. Before that, we also responded well to Cyclone Fani which had hit eastern India in the first week of May 2019,” the official said.

The NDRF has taken note of the latest IMD warning of the likely formation of a low pressure area over the south Andaman Sea and the neighbourhood around April 30, which is likely to intensify into a depression during the subsequent 48 hours, triggering moderate and heavy to extreme rainfall in isolated areas.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, NDRF teams in several States joined the local administration in implementing preventive measures and distributing essentials, including medical supplies. They also stepped in to alleviate the problems faced by thousands of stranded migrant labourers, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

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