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68-year-old woman succumbs in Delhi; several States start containment efforts

Back home: Indians, who were stuck in the Iranian city of Qom, being brought to Mumbai on Friday. Vijay BateThe Hindu

India reported its second COVID-19 death on Friday, with a 68-year-old woman from west Delhi succumbing to the infection at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, while the number of positive cases touched 82.

With the country in the second stage of transmission of the disease, countrywide containment efforts were launched. Bihar, Delhi, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha announced the closure of schools, colleges, malls and theatres and cancellation of public events till March 31, while Haryana ordered a ban on religious gatherings and festivals.

“The lockdown that India is currently under is absolutely necessary. India has a 30-day window to halt the beginning of community transmission of COVID-19 cases. The time to act is now. While there is no cause for panic, aggressive measures can also reverse community transmission, if it happens. It’s time that we all worked together to make use of the opportunity that we have right now,” said Balram Bhargava, Director-General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

On Friday, fresh cases were reported from Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. Three persons in Thiruvananthapuram district tested positive, taking the total number in the second wave of infection to 19 in Kerala.

Delhi-NCR reported yet another positive case of a 46-year-old man from Greater Noida, with travel history to Italy and Switzerland. More than 700 people working in his leather company have been put under surveillance, Gautam Buddh Nagar Chief Medical Officer Anurag Bhargava told reporters.

Tech giant Google confirmed that an employee of its Bengaluru office, who had returned from Greece, was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Forty-four Indians, who returned to Mumbai from Iran, were shifted to a 100-bed quarantine facility set up by the Western Naval Command in suburban Ghatkopar, a defence release said.

If the Centre insists, NPR exercise should be carried out in 2010 format, says AAP Minister Gopal Rai

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal arrives at the Delhi Assembly in New Delhi on Friday. Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The Delhi Assembly on Friday passed a resolution against the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a special session here.

By conducting the NPR exercise across the nation, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal alleged during his address, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government was attempting to “divert” the attention of people from “the real issues” being faced by the country such as unemployment and economic crises.

‘No birth certificate’

Mr. Kejriwal’s statement came in the wake of Cabinet Minister Gopal Rai moving a resolution against the NPR in the State Assembly.

Mr. Rai further said that if the Centre insists, the NPR process should be carried out in accordance with the 2010 format.

During the debate on the resolution, Mr. Kejriwal asked for a show of hands to ascertain how many legislators present in the House had birth certificates issued by government agencies; out of the 70-member Assembly, 61 did not have one.

“Me, my wife, and my parents, we do not possess the birth certificate issued by the municipality... will the Central government send the four family members, including the Delhi Chief Minister, to a detention centre? None of the Delhi Cabinet Ministers have the birth certificate, will the whole Cabinet be sent to detention centres?” said Mr. Kejriwal.

“I want to know how many of the [Union] Cabinet Ministers and MPs have the birth certificate. Most of the CMs do not have it,” he said further.

‘The real issues’

“The real issues right now should be unemployment and economy... the Centre might bring forth the claim that all these three things are different, but the Union Home Minister has linked them himself by telling the people to understand the chronology,” he said. “The Home Minister said that first is CAA, then NPR, and then NRC.”

In this process, Mr. Kejriwal alleged, Indian Hindus had the most to lose: if one was a Muslim and did not have papers, an individual would “directly land into the detention centre”; if one was a Hindu from Pakistan then the government would “make your papers”; but if one was a Hindu from India and did not have papers, the individual concerned would still “be sent to the detention camps”.

As many as 11 Indian States, he said, had passed a resolution against the NRC and the NPR and many of these such as Bihar and Tamil Nadu were ruled by parties that are in alliance with the BJP.

“I will request the Central government to not bring the NPR and the NRC because it will be of no good to our country,” the Chief Minister said.

The eight-member Opposition sought to condemn what it alleged was a “deliberate attempt” to spread “doubts and misgivings” about a “well-intentioned move” of the Central government.

All leaders in the eight-nation regional grouping, except Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, welcome his suggestion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday called for a videoconference summit of leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to discuss a common strategy to tackle COVID-19.

All leaders in the eight-nation regional grouping, except Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, welcomed Mr. Modi’s suggestion.

It was received with some surprise, as SAARC has had no summit-level meeting since 2014.

The meetings have been shelved since due to India-Pakistan tensions and Mr. Modi’s decision not to attend the summit in Islamabad.

Though Pakistan did not offer any immediate response to the message on Friday, officials in New Delhi indicated they were ready to organise the conference as early as Saturday.

“I would like to propose that the leadership of SAARC nations chalk out a strong strategy to fight coronavirus. We could discuss, via videoconferencing, ways to keep our citizens healthy. Together, we can set an example to the world, and contribute to a healthier planet,” said Mr. Modi in his message, which urged the leaders to “leave no stone unturned to ensure our people are healthy”.

Date not set

The External Affairs Ministry declined any comment on when the conference would take place, but a senior official told The Hindu that it was likely to be held “soon”. He said the COVID-19 situation had “lent itself to an opportunity” with SAARC.

South Asia accounts for only 125 of the 44,067 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, but there are fears of an escalation in the numbers given the density of population in the region.

While SAARC member-states occupy just 3% of the world’s landmass, they account for 21% of its population.

Quick response

Within hours of the tweets by Mr. Modi, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih and Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering tweeted their responses welcoming the idea of the SARS-CoV-2 videoconference.

Bangladesh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam tweeted on behalf of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, saying that she “welcomes the proposal and looks forward to a constructive dialogue with [SAARC leaders] who consented to discuss the way forward at this testing time for the region and the world.”

In Afghanistan, Sediq Sediqqi, spokesperson of the recently re-elected President Ashraf Ghani, announced Mr. Ghani’s readiness to devise a “unified strategy” to fight the virus in the region.

‘Timely proposal’

Meanwhile, the SAARC secretariat, based in Kathmandu with new Secretary- General Sri Lankan diplomat Essala Weerakoon now at the helm, called Mr. Modi’s offer a “timely proposal” and offered its services to facilitate the conference.

Mr. Modi has in the past held similar videoconferences to inaugurate infrastructure projects in neighbouring countries and for the launch of the GSAT-09 “SAARC satellite” in May 2017.

Set up in 1985, SAARC was the first such grouping for the South Asian region.

Shifted focus

However, in the past few years, due to the government’s decision to call off all talks with Pakistan until cross-border terrorism ends, New Delhi has shifted focus to other regional groupings that do not include Pakistan, like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Modi’s offer to convene the SAARC leadership meeting, albeit just for the COVID-19 crisis and only over a videoconference, will lead to a revival of the SAARC forum itself.

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