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Government eases inter-State travel but curbs on malls, religious gatherings stay

The Centre on Sunday extended the nationwide lockdown, first imposed on March 24, for the fourth time till May 31 while giving considerable flexibility to the States in deciding red, green and orange zones of COVID-19 intensity.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, in its fresh guidelines for Lockdown 4.0, eased restrictions considerably by allowing inter-State movement of buses and cars, opening of all shops, except those in malls and containment zones, and the delivery of non-essential items through online shopping platforms. Barber shops and salons can also open.

The 33% restriction on workforce in offices has also been done away with.

The decision to extend the lockdown was taken after the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) directed the Centre and the State governments to continue the lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The National Executive Committee (NEC), chaired by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, was directed to modify the lockdown guidelines keeping in view the need to restart economic activities.

While metro systems, domestic and international air travel continue to remain suspended, the new guidelines allow plying of auto-rickshaws, cab aggregators and private taxis, subject to permission by local authorities. Special train services will continue to operate on limited routes.

The National Directives for COVID-19 Management said that the practice of work from home should be followed to the extent possible and staggered work hours should be adopted in respect of all offices and other establishments.

“There should be provision for thermal scanning, hand wash and sanitisers at all entry and exit points and common areas; and all work places and other sensitive locations are to be sanitised regularly. In work places, social distancing would also need to be ensured through adequate distance between workers, adequate gaps between shifts, staggering the lunch break of staff and so on,” the guidelines said.

The MHA said the Aarogya Setu mobile app is a powerful tool “to facilitate quick identification of persons infected by COVID-19 or at risk of being infected, thus acting as a shield for individuals and the community.”

MGNREGA gets ₹40,000 crore in FM’s fifth tranche

The Centre has agreed to demands from States to hike their borrowing limits from 3% to 5% of their GDP in light of the COVID-19 crisis, but on the condition that they implement specific reforms.

The fifth and final tranche of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan stimulus package, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Sunday, also included an additional ₹40,000 crore allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), and a new policy welcoming private companies into every sector of industry, while limiting public sector enterprises to strategic sectors only. Corporate enterprises were also offered some relief via changes to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) and the Companies Act.

The total package amounts to almost ₹21 lakh crore by the Centre’s accounting, but is heavy on credit-related measures, including ₹8 lakh crore worth of liquidity enhancing measures by the RBI.

They are shifting from traditional sowing method because of labour shortage

The DSR technique will save irrigation water, labour and power in contrast to the traditional method.File photo: AFP

As the labour shortage is imminent owing to exodus of migrant labourers amid the ongoing lockdown, farmers in Punjab seem all set to go for direct seeding of rice (DSR) this khairf season, moving away from the traditional practice — of sowing nursery and then transplanting it.

Farmers and agri-experts told The Hindu that they are hopeful that this technology, which had been recommended in Punjab as an alternative method of rice (paddy) planting, will save irrigation water, labour and energy (power) in contrast to conventional method of raising rice nursery and then transplanting rice seedlings in a puddled field.

“The DSR technique is less time consuming and labour intensive than the conventional practice. The DSR technique called ‘tar-wattar DSR’ has been developed and successfully tested on a good scale at farmers’ fields. It helps in saving irrigation water, there’s lesser weed problem, besides there is reduced incidence of nutrient deficiency, especially iron, owing to lesser leaching of nutrients and deeper root development,” said Makhan Singh Bhullar, principal agronomist at the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University.

Mr. Bhullar said that the technology has a wider adaptability as it is suitable for medium to heavy textured soils including sandy loam, loam, clay loam and silt loam, which account for 87% area of the State.

Groundwater recharge

“Not only this, the DSR offers avenue for groundwater recharge as well as it prevents the development of hard pan just beneath the plough layer. It matures 7-10 days earlier than puddle transplanted rice, hence it gives more time for the management of paddy straw, for the timely sowing of next wheat crop. Results from research trials and farmers’ field survey have also indicated that wheat grain yield, after DSR, is 1.0-1.2 quintal per acre higher than puddle transplanted rice,” said Mr. Bhullar.

“As the DSR involves more precision in timing and greater accuracy in operations compared to conventional transplanted rice. It gives best yield and quality when sowing is done in the month of June,” said Mr. Bhullar.

Bhartiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) general secretary Harinder Singh’, said there’s absolutely no doubt that sowing with DSR will increase this year. “I am myself all set to sow paddy with the new technique. It’s cheap, less time consuming and save water as well. Besides, this year we are facing labour shortage as many migrant labourers have gone back to their native places. So, at such a time the DSR is a viable option for me,” he said.

With the terrorist organisation not willing to announce a ceasefire even amid the COVID-19 crisis, they mustn’t get a ‘free pass’ from U.S., says former envoy to Kabul

Saying that the U.S. is trying to salvage its deal with the Taliban, despite rising violence in Afghanistan, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) member and former envoy to Kabul Amar Sinha stressed it would be pointless for India to engage with the group till it joins the intra-Afghan dialogue.

After a bitter electoral battle, the top leadership in Kabul has reached a settlement that will bring Abdullah Abdullah into the government with President Ghani as the President of the High Council for peace and national reconciliation, expected to lead the intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban. How do you see this development?

Despite all the fighting and the rival factions, the Afghan leadership has shown once again its ability to come together when that is needed the most. We saw this in 2009, and again in 2014 after elections brought fractured mandates. And this time, too, it is heartening to see the efforts of Mr. Ghani, Mr. Abdullah, and other leaders to effect a compromise. One shouldn’t overlook this development. It is a positive development, certainly.

This week has also seen some of the worst possible attacks in Kabul, including at a hospital maternity ward. Has the situation there worsened since the U.S.-Taliban agreement?

Unfortunately, the U.S.-Taliban deal has a tolerance for violence written into it. It contains no commitment to stopping attacks against Afghan forces, only those against American soldiers and NATO forces. According to intelligence reports, the Taliban has decided to not to claim attacks on civilians. Those are left to ISIS-KP.

The U.S. statement also puts the blame for the attacks on ISIS, not Taliban. How should India see this U.S. position?

The U.S. is trying to salvage their deal with the Taliban, especially with elections ahead. They must have their own sources, but it is strange to absolve the Taliban of guilt while investigations are still under way.

The real question is that if the Taliban says that ISIS-KP is their enemy, should they not join hands with the U.S. and Afghan government to go after ISIS-KP? At the moment, the Taliban are not even willing to announce a ceasefire, amidst the coronavirus crisis, amidst these brutal attacks, and not even during the month of Ramzan. They mustn’t get a ‘free pass’ from America.

What is your reaction to U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s suggestion — in an interview to The Hindu — that India should talk directly to the Taliban?

I think everyone here realises that if the Taliban comes back to power, joins the mainstream, then India will engage with them as we do any political force in Afghanistan. But they need to become a political force first. What is of concern is Mr. Khalilzad saying that India needs to speak to the Taliban directly to discuss security concerns. This reminds one of the situation before 2001, before the global war on terror, when each country was on its own.

At present, the Taliban is a destructive force. It will become a political force only when it joins the intra-Afghan talks. Otherwise, at best the Taliban can pretend to be some sort of a government in exile based in Doha, conducting negotiations with other players, but not with people in Afghanistan.

Why should India give legitimacy to this kind of force in its own neighbourhood?

Yet, you have yourself taken part in talks in Moscow in 2018, which included the Taliban….

Yes, Russia convened an intra-Afghan meet, where regional countries were invited, and Taliban representatives were present. We attended it as a “non-official” presence.

Talking directly to the Taliban is different, and should be done only once we know what we want. It’s clear that what the Taliban wants is recognition. India should have a wish list of its own.

Some have suggested that India’s wish list should include commitments on security, safety of minorities, and infrastructure projects… Would you agree?

For me there is only one real expectation we should have: that the Taliban should deal with India as an independent entity, as a nationalist Afghan entity, and not a proxy for other countries.

Bilateral ties between New Delhi and Kabul remain strong, but there is a sense India is being sidelined in the regional talks on Afghanistan…

No doubt, our bilateral ties are very good, and we must be engaged in the regional process for peace in Afghanistan.

We deal with Afghanistan’s neighbours at many regional fora: SCO, RIC, SAARC etc. However, we should not feel bad if India is not at every table.

The truth is, when it comes to Afghanistan’s future, India cannot be ignored.

The districts where the cyclonic storm is likely to inflict the most damage are COVID-19 red zones

On high alert: Marine police personnel patrolling a beach to prevent fishermen from venturing into the sea in Puri, Odisha. PTIPTI

Odisha is bracing for heavy rain under the influence of severe cyclonic storm Amphan, which is set to skirt away from the State’s northern coast to make landfall between West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said in its bulletin on Sunday: “The severe cyclonic storm ‘AMPHAN’ over southeast Bay of Bengal and neighbourhood slightly moved and lay centred over central parts of South Bay of Bengal and neighbourhood about 980 km south of Paradip (Odisha), 1,130 km south-southwest of Digha (West Bengal) and 1,250 km south-southwest of Khepupara (Bangladesh).”

It added: “It is very likely to move nearly northwards slowly during next 24 hours and then re-curve north-northeastwards and move fast across northwest Bay of Bengal and cross West Bengal — Bangladesh coasts between Digha (West Bengal) and Hatiya Islands (Bangladesh) during the afternoon or evening of May 20.”

Rainfall will commence in Odisha from May 18 with heavy rainfall likely to occur at isolated places over the district of Gajapati, Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara.

The IMD has issued an ‘orange alert’ for May 19 and 20 when heavy to very heavy rainfall is likely to take place in coastal districts.

Twelve districts remain on alert. “We have kept infrastructure ready for people to be evacuated from vulnerable areas. We will issue a clear instruction for evacuation after receiving detailed information about the severe cyclone,” said Special Relief Commissioner Pradeep Jena.

Red zones

The State government is concerned about evacuation since the cyclone is expected to have the maximum impact on Balasore and Bhadrak districts, which are marked as red zones in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, and have reported 119 and 74 COVID-19 positive cases, respectively. It will be a difficult task to maintain social distancing while evacuating and sheltering the affected population.

Three units of the National Disaster Response Force and the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force have already reached Bhadrak district.

Ten units of the NDRF will be deployed, while another 10 are on standby.

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