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Two militants were also killed during the 18-hour operation

Final goodbye: Security personnel paying tribute to the soldiers killed in the encounter on Sunday. NISSAR AHMAD

Five security personnel, including a Colonel, a Major and a sub-inspector, and two militants were killed in an 18-hour operation in north Kashmir’s Handwara.

“In a firefight at Changimul in Handwara of Kupwara district, two terrorists were eliminated and the team of five security personnel, comprising two Army officers, two soldiers and one police sub-inspector, also died,” an Army spokesman said in Srinagar.

Initial investigation suggested that one militant was a local and the other was a resident of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, identified as Hyder alias Iqbal. Sources said Hyder was “a wanted militant commander”.

Hostage situation

The spokesman said the operation started after intelligence inputs suggested that terrorists were taking inmates of a house at Changimul hostage. “A joint operation was launched by the Army and the police on Saturday. A team of five Army and police personnel entered the area, occupied by the terrorists, to evacuate the civilians. They successfully extricated the civilians. However, during the process, the team was subjected to heavy fire by the terrorists,” said the Army.

Police officials said the operation was called off on Sunday morning after the bodies of the security personnel and the militants were spotted in the house in the village, nestled in a forest zone.

The deceased were identified as Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh and Dinesh and sub-inspector Mohammad Sagier Qazi of the Jammu and Kashmir police’s Special Operation Group. One soldier was injured, officials said.

‘Allow high performing districts to resume all industrial activity’

The country’s high performing economic districts should be allowed to play by different rules in the third phase of the lockdown beginning on Monday, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

In a strategy paper submitted to the Centre on Saturday, the CII called for changes in zone classification, saying that the 100-150 districts with the highest economic value — identified either through GDP contribution or density of industrial clusters — should be allowed to restart industrial activity, even in containment areas, if stringent rules are followed. It argued that the cost of 100% testing and aggressive health protocols is lower than continued shutdown in these areas.

In a CII poll of 300-odd CEOs released on Sunday, almost half said an economic recovery would take over a year. More than half foresee job losses. Three out of four participants identified the complete shutdown of operations as their biggest problem, followed by a lack of demand, supply and distribution chain woes, and a credit crunch.

In such a situation, the industry body argued for a calibrated exit from the lockdown in the country’s most crucial economic regions.

Within these districts, small restricted areas such as the actual street, mohalla, building or industrial complex where COVID-19 cases have been identified should be treated as containment zone. An area of about 500 m radius around these areas should be treated as orange zone. The remaining area of the district should be classified as green zones.

Warning comes after video of a Malayalam actor holding a hatchling on her palm goes viral

The venom in a hatchling is of high concentration.

It doesn’t require an adult cobra to snuff the life out of you; even hatchlings are capable of it, warn herpetologists.

Snake specialists sounded caution on handling snakes after a video of a Malayalam actor holding the hatchling of a cobra on her palm went viral on social media. The hatchling, a few centimetres in length, could be seen holding its hood up in the video and launching itself forward as if to strike.

Oblivious of the risk, the actor continued speaking on video the about the compassion to be shown towards such small guests.

The actor was also seen introducing the snake to some children.

‘Enough venom’

“The young cobra has enough venom, fully developed fangs and a poison delivery system sufficient enough to kill an adult person or cause serious health risks. The cobra venom is neurotoxic. It was suicidal on the actor’s part to hold the snake on her palm and go for a video recording,” said Jose Louies, an IUCN specialist on snakes.

Cobra is one of the four venomous snakes that accounts for most of the snakebite deaths in the country. Russell’s viper, Saw-scaled viper and the Common krait are the other members of the lethal league.

The venom in the cobra hatchling would be of high concentration. The striking distance between the snake and the human body was a few centimetres in this case. With its agility, the young snake could strike at any angle with lightning speed, said Mr. Louies, also the founder of Indiansnakes, a website that tracks snakes and snakebites.

Snakes hatch towards the end of summer months and the chance of encountering them were higher during the monsoon period. Most cases of snakebite occurred during monsoon, he said. Ideally, one should stay away from snakes.

Steps to be taken

If confronted in an unavoidable situation, the movement of the snake could be restrained by covering it with a bucket and then waiting for snake rescuers to arrive.

In case of a hatchling, they should be removed from the area safely, Mr. Louies suggested.

Increased reference to the Home Ministry may discourage investors, says an industry source

The new guidelines lay down stringent provisions for any violations.

To overhaul its nine-year-old uplink and downlink policy for private satellite TV channels, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has issued draft guidelines with stringent provisions for any violations, with an additional clause that the Ministry of Home Affairs can step in to revoke the security clearance in case of repeated violations.

The Ministry said a review was prompted by the “fast evolving broadcasting technology” and “changes in the market scenarios”. It has called for suggestions from the stakeholders in the next 15 days.

‘Half-measure’

An industry source said the policy is a “half-measure” and there are concerns about “too much reference to the Ministry of Home Affairs” which earlier too had a key role to play. “Given its political nature, the amount of reference to MHA will discourage investors,” he said.

What has changed in this policy is that the Ministry in black and white has listed out 11 violations. These violations include: “Delay or non-intimation to the Ministry about change in the shareholding pattern of the company”, “appointment of a Director without prior permission of the Ministry”, “non-removal of a Director who has been denied security clearance” or “showing dual logo/logo or name not permitted by the Ministry” . For any of the 11 violations, the penalty ranges from warning, prohibition to broadcast up to 10 days and even cancellation of permission.

Security clearance

All channels have to take security clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was the case earlier too.

Once granted, the clearance is valid for 10 years. However, the guidelines also mention that the MHA can withdraw the clearance which would mean that the permission to uplink would stand terminated automatically.

A welcome change is the relaxation offered for non-news category channels to broadcast live events. A broadcaster, who didn’t want to be named, said all sports channels had to take separate permission 15-days before telecasting a live event. This process has been streamlined. Instead of seeking permission, now the channel merely has to register online at Broadcast Seva with the necessary document five days prior to the telecast.

By neither releasing GST dues nor raising the borrowing limit, the Union government has squeezed Kerala’s options

The health and economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the fiscal woes of the Kerala government, which is battling a grave resource crunch and a hostile political dispensation at the Centre.

An alarming dip in the State’s own tax revenue, coupled with a delay and cut in Central transfers, have pushed the State to the edge of a financial precipice.

A comparison of receipts in April 2019 and April 2020 reveals the intensity of the crisis. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) collection was ₹1,950.71 crore in April 2019. It dipped to ₹153.26 crore in April 2020. Land revenue has come down from ₹19.65 crore to ₹2.7 crore, State excise duty from ₹193.08 crore to ₹22.83 crore and motor vehicle tax from ₹298.42 crore to a mere ₹3.52 crore.

The Centre has not yet heeded the State’s demand for the release of GST compensation arrears of ₹5,000 crore. The demand for raising the annual borrowing limit from 3% to 5% also remains a cry in the wilderness. The same applies to the demand for enhancing the allocation for the National Health Mission to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

The State has pointed out that supply chain breaks due to the lockdown would result in a shortage of medicines and other essentials that reach Kerala from the neighbouring States.

The government has only ₹2,000 crore in its coffers at present. Other than debt servicing and similar commitments, the recurring expenditure for disbursing salary and servicing pensions amounts to ₹3,850 crore. A tranche of ₹1,276 crore provided by the Centre as revenue deficit grant was perhaps the only major revenue inflow into the treasury this month.

The government’s decision to effect a six-day cut in the salary of employees and teachers for five months to cushion the impact of the pandemic’s impact ended in a legal tangle, with the High Court staying the decision for two months. The State government was forced to promulgate an ordinance to get legal sanction for the decision. However, the deduction would earn the exchequer only ₹500 crore a month and ₹2,500 crore in six months. Moreover, the government will have to return the amount once the crisis blows over.

Healthcare costs

Despite its exemplary efforts so far to contain the CODIV-19 pandemic with minimum loss of life, the threat is far from over. The government will have to bolster quarantine and testing facilities once the lakhs of Non-Resident Keralites and those residing in other States return after lockdown curbs are eased.

The Kerala State Electricity Board, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, the micro, small and medium enterprises, traditional industries and a host of other sectors are desperate for financial assistance to limp back to normalcy.

Turning to the market

The only option left before the government is open market borrowing. Out of the sanctioned limit of ₹24,500 crore for the current financial year, the State has already availed itself of ₹6,000 crore and is now gearing to up to borrow ₹1,000 crore to meet the committed expenditure for the month.

The Reserve Bank of India has, however, cautioned the State against drawing huge sums from the market at exorbitant rates. Which also means that the government would have to tread cautiously while approaching the market.

The State is now looking forward for a substantial assistance from the Centre and also a relaxation in borrowing curbs as a way forward.

It was in this context that Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac took the lead in initiating consultations with Finance Ministers of non-BJP ruled States to form a pressure group to force the Centre accept the demand for more funds.

Dr. Isaac is hopeful of bringing in Telangana and other Congress-ruled States to the fold and pressing the Centre to accept demands.

Whether the Centre will yield to such demands remains to be seen. Or else, the administrative machinery may grind to a halt for want of financial fuel.

We will continue to invest in India as our strategic partnership continues to deepen in all sectors, says the Kingdom’s Ambassador

Despite a massive 50% drop in oil revenues and a downturn in the economy, Saudi Arabia’s investments in India will not be affected, says Saud bin Mohammed Al Sati, the Kingdom’s Ambassador to India, in a written interview, adding that worries of retrenchments in the country are premature.

What measures has Saudi Arabia adopted to counter the virus? Has the kingdom, like Kuwait and the UAE, requested Indian medical teams to help manage the situation, and also treat Indians who may be affected?

There are a large number of expatriates living in Saudi Arabia, which includes around three million Indians. As per King Salman’s royal decree, the kingdom is providing coronavirus-related medical care free of charge to all residents in the country, including those who are staying illegally in the kingdom.

As for the Indian medical professionals, some of them were on leave when the COVID pandemic hit. We have been working closely with the Government of India to ensure that they are able to return to Saudi Arabia. There is also the continuation of medical exports from India to the Saudi market.

Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports has also decided to extend the validity of exit and return visas that expire between February 25 and May 24, 2020, at no charge. The extension will continue for an additional three months for them.

How many Indians are estimated to require to return from Saudi Arabia, and what can you tell us about the preparations and arrangements made in Saudi Arabia for food and shelter for stranded Indians?

In Saudi Arabia, these numbers are relatively small. Most of the Indian nationals who will be coming back in the coming days are people whose contracts have ended or those who would like to go home for personal reasons or were Umrah pilgrims who weren’t able to return on time because of the suspension of flights.

Considering the large Indian community in the kingdom, these numbers are within the range of several thousands. In addition to this, there will be those who may get short-term leave from their employers until business activities can revert to their usual state before lockdown. We are cooperating to make sure that those who would like to come back can be accommodated.

There are worries in India that there will be massive retrenchments in Saudi Arabia, owing to falling revenues, and many Indian migrants will lose their jobs. How can India and Saudi Arabia cooperate to mitigate these losses?

While efforts in the kingdom and regionally are being focused towards combating COVID-19, efforts are also made to ensure that people don’t lose their jobs. It should be noted though that even in this environment, the kingdom did not announce any intentions to delay any projects. Activities will resume to what they were before the pandemic hit. This will be across all economic sectors as the situation stabilises and the markets gradually continue to open.

Last September, you had said that Saudi Arabia had planned investments in India worth $100 billion in various areas, including oil infrastructure. Would these investments be affected by the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak?

These investments were announced during the historic visit of HRH Crown Prince to India in February 2019. Meetings of ministerial committees concerning investment, energy, trade, political and security cooperation, and senior officials meetings for the same will be convened soon.

India is one of the fastest growing economies today and also one of the largest. We will continue to invest in India as our strategic partnership continues to deepen in all sectors. Our plans regarding investment in India are on track.

In particular, what will be the impact due to a fall in Aramco’s profits (21%) on its projected investment in India?

I think I answered this question. Our investment plans are on track.

I ask because Saudi Finance Minister Muhammad Al Jadaan has just said that there will be major cuts in government expenses, and a number of tough and painful measures may be necessary given the economic “crisis”…

As I said, our plans to invest in India remain on track as of now.

The OIC, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, issued a strong statement this month calling on India to protect its minorities, and spoke of a “growing tide of Islamophobia”. Has this been discussed bilaterally, and what is Saudi Arabia’s position on the OIC statement?

I would rather not comment about this. This is not a bilateral issue for us.

This is almost equal to two-and-a-half months’ supply in normal situations

The Food Corporation of India (FCI) has supplied around 126 lakh tonnes of food grains, almost equivalent to two-and-a half months’ supply in normal situations, to States and Union Territories during COVID-19 lockdown.

Between March 25 and April 30, States and union territories obtained 37.13 lakh tonnnes of wheat and 89 tonnes of rice, totalling 126.13 lakh tonnes.

On an average, every month, the FCI issues around 50 lakh tonnes of food grains to States and union territories under the norms of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and other schemes, according to D.V. Prasad, FCI Chairman and Managing Director.

Of the five zones in the country, the northern zone was given the maximum of 39.95 lakh tonnnes; southern zone – 29.18 lakh tonnes, followed by the east – 28.33 lakh tonnes; west – 23.03 lakh tonnes and the northeast – 5.63 lakh tonnes.

What has contributed to the steep hike in the disbursal is the implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY), under which beneficiaries of the NFSA are given 5 kg of food grains each per month free of cost for three months (April – June) over and above their monthly entitlement of 5 kg per person.

Enough stock

Nearly 62 lakh tonnes of food grains have been lifted by the States under the PMGKAY and this is about 50% of the total allotment of around 120 lakh tonnes.

Enough food grains stocks have been positioned across the country to meet demands of the State governments for feeding the people affected due to COVID-19, Mr. Prasad points out.

During April, the FCI moved 60 lakh tonnes of food grains to its godowns across the country, a record quantity, surpassing the previous high of 38 lakh tonnes in March 2014. This included transportation of about one lakh tonnes by road to the Kashmir Valley and Leh/Ladakh as well as about 81,000 tonnes to Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya in the northeast.

If it is approved, COVID-19 testing speed and accuracy may increase significantly

Sunil Vazirani.

After the United States, Italy and Europe, India might soon see the deployment of antibody ELISA kits to know if a person has actually recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus without even knowing that he or she had been infected, thus returning to a normal life without restrictions.

The kits will be put to use after they receive the approval of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation, the national regulatory body for pharmaceuticals and medical devices. They have been developed by scientists from India, the U.S. and the U.K. for Erba Mannheim, a company founded by Mumbai-based businessman Sunil Vazirani.

‘Not going away’

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Vazirani, who started TRANSASIA Bio-Medicals in 1979, long before he set up Erba Mannheim Germany in 1995, said that the world was realising the coronavirus was not going away without a vaccine.

“Our kits help identify individuals who had COVID-19, were asymptomatic and recovered without even knowing. They can thus confidently return to work and bring back normalcy to life, while reducing the stress on the frontline warriors," Mr. Vazirani said.

Italy is testing 5 lakh people a day using the kits developed by Erba Mannheim. Each kit can be used to perform 100 tests, Mr. Vazirani said. The kits took a month-and-a-half to develop.

After first receiving the European CE approval, Erba Mannheim also received the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s nod for the advanced method of testing antibodies, which it claims is much faster than the rapid testing kits from China.

Mr. Vazirani claims that his COVID-19 antibody ELISA kits can test 100 samples an hour, with an accuracy rate of 98%.

Research tells us that the SARS-CoV-2 viral antigens stimulate the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that can be detected with IgM and IgG antibody tests. IgM is produced first and is detectable during early onset of the disease. IgG is produced later and is maintained for long-term immunity. ERBA Mannheim’s kit, called ErbaLisa® COVID-19 ELISA kits, can detect both antibodies.

Through group company TRANSASIA India, Mr. Vazirani’s team has applied for permissions to use the kits in India, for which 500 sample kits have been imported.

“Antibody tests are important to do. India imported rapid test kits from China which, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research, have a 6-30% [rate of] accuracy,” he explained.

A team that includes Drugs Controller General of India Dr. V G Somani and others is looking into approvals for the antibody kits.

Asked how many people could actually be infected with COVID-19, Mr. Vazirani said, “It is anybody’s guess, but 20-30 times more than those [who have been] tested have been infected. Our understanding is that 80% of those infected don’t show symptoms.”

Existing plants

Once the approval is obtained, Mr. Vazirani plans to produce the kits at existing TRANSASIA India plants in Daman and Sikkim, which will further the setting up of a COVID-19 unit making only testing kits for the virus. This plant in Andhra Pradesh’s Med Tech Zone is backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and is awaiting necessary regulatory approvals and on-ground permissions.

For the future, Mr. Vazirani believes that the kits will help individuals test themselves, and also help companies test their employees in a big way.

“Everybody is worried. This is an easy and affordable test. It will help bring back confidence in people — that they have the antibodies. ,” Mr. Vazirani said.

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