India Begins Booster Campaign As Omicron Cases Soar

People queue up for a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test during a Covid-19 coronavirus screening at the Siliguri District Hospital in Siliguri on January 6, 2022. (Photo by Diptendu DUTTA / AFP)

 

India began a Covid-19 booster shot campaign for frontline workers and vulnerable people aged 60 and above on Monday as authorities grapple with a rapidly escalating outbreak driven by the Omicron variant.

Daily case numbers are approaching the enormous figures seen last year, when thousands died each day and workers maintained round-the-clock funeral pyres for the mass cremation of virus victims.

Nearly 180,000 new infections were recorded overnight, up nearly six times from a week earlier, with several urban centres imposing night-time curfews and restrictions on public gatherings.

“We’ve seen the number of cases increasing,” said Sheetal Vaishnav, a doctor helping oversee Monday’s vaccinations at a clinic in the capital New Delhi.

“It’s necessary that we start protecting our population more.”

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Pope Francis Calls For ‘Reality Therapy’ For Anti-Vaxxers

People aged 60 and above with pre-existing medical conditions, health professionals, and other essential workers are all eligible for a booster nine months after their second jab.

“I want to keep myself safe in this pandemic, that’s why I got it,” said Sunil, a municipal worker who received his latest shot on Monday.

“Nothing happened in the first one, and nothing in the second one, what can go wrong with the third one?”

– Positive signs –

India appears better placed to weather the Omicron strain than it was ahead of the calamitous Delta wave it suffered last year.

During that period, more than 200,000 people died within a few weeks, according to official figures. Experts believe the real number is several times higher.

That outbreak saw hospitals overwhelmed, oxygen run out and patients scramble to source medicine from depleted pharmacies.

In the time since, Indian health workers have injected more than 1.5 billion vaccine doses, with teens aged 15-18 eligible since last week.

As in other countries, deaths are a fraction of those during the Delta wave — with 146 fatalities recorded on Sunday, compared with more than 4,000 per day during last year’s spike.

But experts still fear the number of new infections to come could test the country’s hospitals in a bleak rerun of last year’s catastrophe.

“This could potentially stress out health care systems to levels comparable to or worse than the second wave,” Gautam Menon, a professor at India’s Ashoka University who has worked on Covid infection modelling, told AFP last week.

After a similar surge in cases, neighbouring Nepal has closed schools until the end of January and is considering limiting public gatherings.

The Himalayan nation’s 75-year-old prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is currently in isolation after other senior politicians tested positive for the virus.

COVID-19: Election Rallies Cancelled As India Sees Omicron Surge

People queue up for a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test during a Covid-19 coronavirus screening at the Siliguri District Hospital in Siliguri on January 6, 2022. (Photo by Diptendu DUTTA / AFP)

 

Election rallies were cancelled in India’s heartland Thursday as authorities fret over a sudden Covid surge, driven by the Omicron variant, which has seen confirmed infections nearly triple in two days.

Teeming crowds have thronged campaign events for next month’s poll in Uttar Pradesh — the country’s most populous state with over 200 million people and a pillar of support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has traversed key cities to cut the ribbon on infrastructure projects and partake in Hindu religious rituals to boost the state government’s prospects.

But with several cities imposing coronavirus curfews and health experts warning of exponential infection growth, several parties have brought their public campaigns to a halt.

“Owing to concerns over the growing number of Covid cases, all… rallies of the party have been cancelled,” Ashok Singh, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress, told AFP.

Another opposition group said it had switched to virtual campaigning while the BJP cancelled a rally planned for Thursday in Noida, a satellite city of the capital New Delhi that has seen a spate of new cases.

Party spokesman Manish Shukla denied the virus was the reason for calling off the Noida event — where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, seen as a potential Modi successor, was set to appear.

“It was cancelled due to some other technical reason,” he told AFP, without giving further detail.

But recent electioneering has sparked concern in some quarters of the BJP.

“Imposing curfew in the night and calling (hundreds of thousands) of people in rallies during the day – this is beyond the comprehension of the common man,” party lawmaker Varun Gandhi tweeted last week.

– ‘No room for complacency’ –

More than 200,000 people around India died last year in a huge spring virus wave that overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums — an outbreak partly blamed on infections spread through election rallies.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal this week announced he had tested positive for Covid, days after appearing at campaign events for municipal polls in the city of Chandigarh.

Health experts advising the government say the Omicron variant — first detected in India five weeks ago — is causing a huge upsurge in urban centres.

“There is no room for complacency,” V.K. Paul, a doctor working with the government on its coronavirus response, told a press conference Wednesday.

“Systems will be overwhelmed, your house will be overwhelmed.”

India recorded more than 90,000 new infections overnight while financial capital Mumbai saw its highest daily count yet in the pandemic.

In Amritsar, the Sikh faith’s holy city near the Pakistan border, 125 passengers on a charter flight from Italy tested positive on arrival, local media reported.

Delhi has ordered all residents outside of essential workers to stay home this weekend.

India began rolling out vaccinations to those aged 15-18 on Monday, with more than 12 million newly eligible teens receiving their initial doses in the first three days, according to government data.

India Begins Vaccinating Teens As Omicron Fears Rise

A health worker prepares a dose to inoculate a woman with the Covaxin Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a school-turned-vaccination centre in New Delhi on May 5, 2021.
Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP

 

India extended Covid vaccinations to teens aged 15-18 on Monday, after officials tightened restrictions in big cities to avoid a repeat of last year’s devastating outbreak.

More than 200,000 people around India died in a huge spring virus wave that overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums.

Health workers have since administered more than 1.4 billion vaccine doses but less than half of India’s population is fully inoculated, according to government data.

Hundreds of teenagers patiently queued with their parents on Monday morning outside a school turned into a makeshift medical centre in the capital New Delhi.

“It’s really great to have your first vaccine,” said 16-year-old Soumadeep, after receiving his first dose of the Indian-made Covaxin.

“It’s like a new year gift for the children.”

Officials have fretted over the arrival of the Omicron coronavirus variant and a sudden rise in daily infections, with some of India’s biggest urban centres imposing fresh restrictions last week.

READ ALSO: Israel To Reopen To Vaccinated, Low-Risk Country Visitors

New Delhi and tech hub Bangalore are under overnight curfews from 10 pm each evening, with bars and restaurants in both cities ordered to operate at half capacity.

Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, has barred public gatherings of more than four people from 9 pm to 6 am and restricted wedding ceremonies to 50 guests.

– ‘Safeguard the kids’ –

Last year’s Delta variant wave in India struck after one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, the Kumbh Mela, which attracted around 25 million Hindu pilgrims.

That festival, along with large state election rallies, was blamed by experts for fuelling the surge.

Despite a record rise in global infections, the Omicron outbreak has seen a less dramatic increase in hospital admissions, fuelling hopes the variant is less severe than Delta and other strains.

But the experience of last year’s outbreak has left many worried for the weeks ahead.

“It’s a concern — the cases are on the rise,” said Pushp Jain, whose son was queuing to receive his first dose in Delhi on Monday.

“The variant is mild. But obviously to safeguard the kids, we need to have the vaccination.”

India has the world’s second-highest number of cases, with nearly 35 million confirmed infections.

Its 481,000 known Covid deaths are the third-highest, behind the tolls in the United States and Brazil.

But under-reporting is widespread and some studies have estimated India’s true toll could be up to 10 times higher.

India will begin rolling out booster vaccines for people aged over 60 from next Monday.

New Year Tragedy: Stampede At India Religious Shrine Kills 12

This frame grab from an NNIS video taken on January 1, 2022 shows a packed crowd of devotees at the Vaishno Devi shrine, one of the country’s most revered Hindu sites, near Katra town in Jammu and Kashmir union territory. NNIS / AFP

 

At least 12 people died and 13 were injured in a stampede at a religious shrine in India in the early hours of Saturday as thousands of pilgrims massed to offer prayers, officials said.

The disaster happened around 3:00 am (2130 GMT) while it was still dark on the route to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, one of the country’s most revered Hindu sites.

“People fell over each other… It was difficult to figure out whose leg or arms were tangled with whose,” witness Ravinder, who gave only one name, told AFP by phone from the scene.

“I helped pick up eight bodies by the time ambulances arrived after about half an hour. I feel lucky to be alive but am still shaking with the memory of what I saw,” he said.

READ ALSO: Colorado Wildfires Destroy Hundreds Of Homes

One official said that there was a rush to offer special prayers for the new year but this was not confirmed by others.

Millions of shrines dot Hindu-majority India’s cities, towns and villages as well as remote sites in the Himalayas or in jungles in the south.

Some are hugely important pilgrimage sites and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has invested heavily in improving infrastructure to ease access.

Before the pandemic, every day about 100,000 devotees would trek up a steep winding track to the narrow cave containing the shrine to Vaishno Devi.

Authorities had capped the daily number to 25,000 but witnesses and press reports said that this may have been exceeded several times over.

 ‘Argument’

Two stampedes in as many months in India in 2008 left more than 370 Hindus dead. Others in Kerala in 2011 and in Madhya Pradesh two years later each killed more than 100.

In the latest incident, other reports suggested an argument had broken out between devotees.

Rescue operations started immediately and the injured — some of whom were reported to be in a serious condition — were taken to hospital.

Video footage on social media showed small minivan ambulances with flashing lights rushing to hospitals while it was still dark, as well as massive crowds.

Access to the shrine was halted after the stampede but later resumed.

The shrine to Vaishno Devi, a manifestation of Hindu goddess Vaishnavi, is in the hills some 60 kilometers from the city of Jammu.

People travel to the nearby busy town of Katra and then trek upwards for around 15 kilometers on foot or by pony — there is also a helicopter service — to the cave entrance where they often have to wait for hours.

Ravinder, the witness, said that the crash happened at a point where huge crowds of people coming down from the shrine meet those going up.

He estimated that there were at least 100,000 people.

“No one was checking registration slips of the devotees. I have been there many times but never seen such a rush of people,” he said.

“It was only when some of us managed to lift a dead body up with our hands that people could see (what was happening) and made space for moving the bodies out,” he said.

Another witness who came from Ghaziabad outside New Delhi with a group of around 10 people said there was “mismanagement’.

“If we knew that so much crowding was happening, they should have stopped the people,” the man said without giving his name.

Modi said on Twitter that he was “extremely saddened”.

Other senior officials including the president offered their condolences, and the home minister called the tragedy “heart-wrenching”.

AFP

Bollywood Megastar Salman Khan Survives Snake Bite

Indian Bollywood actor Salman Khan attends the politician Baba Siddique’s Annual Iftar party in Mumbai on June 10, 2018. Sujit Jaiswal / AFP

 

Bollywood “bad boy” Salman Khan has revealed how he starred in his own real-life action drama when he was bitten by a snake and spent six hours in the hospital.

Khan — who enjoys a cult-like status in star-obsessed India — said the serpent bit him twice when he tried to remove it from his countryside home near Mumbai ahead of his 56th birthday on Monday.

Using a stick, Khan said he “picked up the snake with a lot of love and brought it out, and the snake wrapped itself on the stick and then it started climbing upwards,” he told reporters.

After he was bitten, local villagers “screamed ‘hospital, hospital, hospital’, saying that I should be taken to a hospital quickly. There was so much commotion, the snake was a bit venomous, and it bit me again.”

The actor was administered with antivenom, kept under observation and then discharged after six hours.

Khan is one of Bollywood’s biggest draws, despite a host of controversies.

He was found guilty of culpable homicide for a 2002 hit-and-run which killed a homeless man sleeping on the pavement in Mumbai.

His five-year prison sentence was almost immediately overturned by a higher court.

Khan was convicted in 2018 of shooting dead two rare antelopes on a hunting trip two decades earlier but denied killing the animals.

The snake that bit him survived the latest encounter, with Khan saying it has now been safely taken back to the jungle.

India saw an estimated 58,000 snakebite deaths per year — or 160 every day — between 2000 and 2019, according to a study published last year.

AFP

Miss India Wins Miss Universe Held In Israel Despite Boycott Calls

Miss India, Harnaaz Sandhu, is crowned Miss Universe during the 70th Miss Universe beauty pageant in Israel’s southern Red Sea coastal city of Eilat on December 13, 2021. Menahem KAHANA / AFP

 

Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu was crowned Miss Universe in the Israeli city of Eilat early Monday, with several contestants defying pressure to boycott in support of the Palestinians.

The 70th edition of the annual pageant, held in Israel for the first time, has also faced complications from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandhu took the top prize in the Red Sea resort with Paraguay’s Nadia Ferreira first runner-up and Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane taking the second runner-up spot.

South Africa’s Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts had urged its contestant to stay away from Eilat, citing “atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians.”

The call echoed Palestinian groups who pleaded with contestants to avoid the event.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel wrote: “We urge all participants to withdraw, to avoid complicity in Israel’s apartheid regime and its violation of Palestinian human rights.”

 

Miss India, Harnaaz Sandhu, is crowned Miss Universe during the 70th Miss Universe beauty pageant in Israel’s southern Red Sea coastal city of Eilat on December 13, 2021. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

 

The 80 contestants also included Miss Morocco Kawtar Benhalima and Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani, whose majority Muslim nations normalised ties with Israel last year.

In an interview with AFP in Jerusalem late last month, the outgoing Miss Universe Andrea Meza, of Mexico, said the pageant should steer clear of politics.

“Miss Universe isn’t a political movement, nor a religious one. It’s about women and what they can offer.”

Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, nations that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, have not sent contestants but both cited complications related to the pandemic, not Israel’s rights record.

The United Arab Emirates, which also normalised ties with Israel last year and where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett made a historic visit Sunday, has also not sent a candidate.

But the UAE said that was “due to time constraints,” in selecting its national winner.

Criticism

Contestants for the pageant landed in Israel late last month and have since toured sites, sometimes coming under criticism for cultural insensitivity.

In one stop in the Bedouin city of Rahat, the candidates wore robes with traditional Palestinian embroidery while rolling grape leaves — which Miss Philippines Beatrice Luigi Gomez tweeted was a “Day in the life of a Bedouin.”

The Bedouin are a traditionally nomadic people who belong to the community of Palestinian citizens of Israel. They have long complained of discrimination in housing and education.

“Colonialism, racism, cultural appropriation, patriarchy, whitewashing, all in one place,” tweeted Ines Abdel Razek of the advocacy group the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy.

Participants in the pageant, which was co-owned by Donald Trump before he became US president, must be between the ages of 18 and 28 and may never have married or had a child.

According to organisers, the coronation ceremony will be watched by 600 million viewers in 172 countries.

Crypto Scammers Hack Twitter Account Of Indian PM Modi

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives for a meeting of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary committee in New Delhi on December 7, 2021. Prakash SINGH / AFP

 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter account was hacked Sunday with a message declaring his country had adopted bitcoin as legal tender and was distributing the cryptocurrency to citizens.

Modi is a prolific tweeter and is the world’s most popular incumbent politician on the platform, with more than 73 million followers on his main account.

A swiftly deleted tweet from his main @narendramodi handle said the Indian government had officially bought 500 bitcoin and was “and distributing them to all residents of the country”, along with a scam link.

His office tweeted that the account was “very briefly compromised” and that Twitter had since restored control.

It was the second time one of Modi’s Twitter accounts was hacked, after another was taken over last year to send out a tweet urging the public to donate to a fake coronavirus relief fund.

Sunday’s hack ironically comes as India prepares to clamp down on a flourishing cryptocurrency trade with a new law likely to be introduced in parliament this month.

Details of the legislation remain unclear but the government has flagged a broad ban on private digital currencies.

The local crypto market has boomed since the Indian Supreme Court overturned a previous ban last year, with Bollywood actors and cricket stars fronting ad campaigns for local exchanges.

Modi himself said last month that cryptocurrencies could “spoil our youth” and the central bank has repeatedly warned they could pose “serious concerns on macroeconomic and financial stability”.

AFP

Indian Farmers End Year-Long Mass Protests Against Modi Reforms

The Indian flag

 

Indian farmers formally ended year-long mass protests Thursday after Prime Minister Narendra Modi abandoned his push for agricultural reforms, defusing one of the biggest challenges faced by his government.

Thousands of people have been camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi since last year to campaign against laws they said would have led to a corporate takeover of the sector.

Modi’s administration rushed through a repeal of the laws last month in a rare back down, and farmer representatives said they agreed to stand down after the government agreed to other demands.

READ ALSOPutin Heads To India With Eye On Military, Energy Ties

“Farmers’ unity, peace, and patience has been the key to the victory and this will not be allowed to erode in any circumstance,” said Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a coalition of farmers’ unions, in a statement.

Protesters began disassembling their makeshift camps on the highways leading into the capital on Thursday.

They plan to wait until after a funeral for India’s defence chief General Bipin Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash on Wednesday, before returning to their homes on the weekend.

Protests had carried on in smaller numbers after the repeal of the laws, with farmers seeking additional concessions including compensation for the families of the more than 700 farmers they say died during the protests.

The government agreed to that demand and also pledged not to prosecute those using fire to cheaply clear their fields — a practice that regularly shrouds Delhi in smog each winter.

About two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population draw their livelihood from farming and the sector has long been a political minefield.

Thousands of Indian farmers die by suicide every year because of poverty, debt and crops affected by ever more erratic weather patterns caused by climate change.

The three agricultural laws passed in September 2020 aimed to deregulate farm produce markets, where state bodies have for decades set guaranteed minimum prices for crops.

But the reforms became a lightning rod for opposition to Modi’s administration by farmers, who said the changes would have left them at the mercy of big business.

 Looming Elections 

The protest sites on highways leading into Delhi turned into colourful, semi-permanent camps, with volunteers providing food, sanitation and even dentist surgeries and foot massage parlours.

One rally turned violent in January when a tractor convoy transformed into a rampage that embarrassed the government on Indian Republic Day, leaving one farmer dead and hundreds of police injured.

Modi’s reversal came ahead of important elections for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh states, both home to huge numbers of farmers.

Economists however said the decision to repeal the laws doomed any prospect of fixing the agricultural industry’s underlying problems.

“The government will always put political considerations such as state elections over sensible economic policy or environmental considerations,” economist Mihir Swarup Sharma of the Observer Research Foundation think-tank told AFP.

“The failure to impose penalties for stubble burning is a serious setback to attempts to improve North India’s air quality, which is the worst in the world by far.”

AFP

UPDATED: India Defence Chief Among 13 Dead In Helicopter Crash

In this file photo taken on July 08, 2018 the then Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat (C) and his wife Madhulika Rawat (L) pay respect at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. NARINDER NANU / AFP

 

Indian defence chief General Bipin Rawat and 12 other people were killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday, with one survivor being treated for his injuries.

Rawat was India’s first chief of defence staff, a position that the government established in 2019, and was seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 63-year-old was travelling with his wife and other senior officers in the Russian-made Mi-17 chopper, which crashed near its destination in southern Tamil Nadu state.

READ ALSO: Putin Heads To India With Eye On Military, Energy Ties


Security personnel stand guard outside the entrance of defence chief General Bipin Rawat’s house in New Delhi on December 8, 2021. Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP

 

“His untimely death is an irreparable loss to our Armed Forces and the country,” defence minister Rajnath Singh said on Twitter.

 

Footage from the scene showed a crowd of people trying to extinguish the fiery wreck with water buckets while a group of soldiers carried one of the passengers away on an improvised stretcher.

Rawat was headed to the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) to address students and faculty from the nearby Sulur air force base in Coimbatore.

The chopper was already making its descent at the time of the crash.

It came down around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the nearest main road, forcing emergency workers to trek to the accident site, a fire official told AFP.

The sole survivor of the crash, a captain working at the DSSC, was being treated for his injuries at a nearby military hospital, the air force said.

Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said he was “deeply shocked” by the accident and Rawat’s death.

“We worked closely together in the last few years. It is a huge loss to the nation,” he said.

Career Officer 

Modi described the late Rawat as a patriot with exceptional insights on “strategic matters.” Photo: Narendra Modi

 

Rawat came from a military family with several generations having served in the Indian armed forces.

The general joined the army as a second lieutenant in 1978 and had four decades of service behind him, having commanded forces in Indian-administered Kashmir and along the Line of Actual Control bordering China.

He was credited with reducing insurgency on India’s northeastern frontier and supervised a cross-border counter-insurgency operation into neighbouring Myanmar.

Rawat was chief of the 1.3 million-strong army from 2017 to 2019 before his elevation to defence services chief, which analysts said was to improve integration between the army, navy and air force.

He was considered close to the Modi government and turned heads last month when he reportedly made an approving reference to “lynching terrorists” in the contested territory of Kashmir.

The Mi-17 helicopter, which first entered service in the 1970s and is in wide use by defence services around the world, has been involved in a number of accidents over the years.

Fourteen people died in a crash last month when an Azerbaijani military Mi-17 chopper went down during a training flight.

In 2019, four Indonesian soldiers were killed and five others wounded in central Java in another training accident involving the aircraft.

India’s air force said an inquiry was underway into Wednesday’s accident.

AFP

 

Putin Heads To India With Eye On Military, Energy Ties

File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Summit taking place in Glasgow, via teleconference in Moscow, on November 2, 2021. –  (Photo by SPUTNIK / AFP)

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin will arrive in India on Monday for just his second overseas trip since the pandemic, seeking to bolster military and energy ties with a traditional ally being courted by Washington.

In its efforts to address a rising China, Washington has set up the QUAD security dialogue with India, Japan, and Australia, raising concerns in both Beijing and Moscow.

India was close to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a relationship that has endured, with New Delhi calling it a “special and privileged strategic partnership”.

“The friendship between India and Russia has stood the test of time,” Modi told Putin at a virtual summit in September. “You have always been a great friend of India.”

It is only the Russian leader’s second trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began — he skipped both the G20 and COP26 summits this year — after a June summit with US President Joe Biden in Geneva.

“It’s hugely symbolic,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan from the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank.

“There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of the India-Russia relationship and whether it is fraying because of Russia’s closeness with China and India’s with the US, but this visit puts all that to rest.”

Nonetheless Putin has to contend with complex regional dynamics, with tensions mounting between New Delhi and Beijing, traditionally an ally of Moscow, following deadly clashes in a disputed Himalayan region.

“Russia’s influence in the region is very limited,” said Tatiana Belousova of OP Jindal Global University in Haryana, “mostly because of its close ties with China and unwillingness to act in dissonance with the Chinese regional interests.”

– ‘Quite remarkable’ –

The Kremlin said last week the talks will be dominated by defence and energy issues, with the boss of Russian energy giant Rosneft, Igor Sechin, also attending as a “number of important energy agreements” were on the table.

Russia has long been a key arms supplier to India, which is looking to modernise its armed forces, and one of their most high-profile current contracts is for the long-range S-400 ground-to-air missile defence system.

The deal, worth over $5 billion, was signed in 2018 and deliveries have reportedly begun, but it threatens to upend the burgeoning relationship between New Delhi and Washington.

The United States has threatened sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which is aimed at reining in Russia, and the state department said last week that no decisions had been made on any waivers for India.

“It is quite remarkable that India still decided to go ahead with the S-400 deal, despite the US disapproval,” said Belousova.

New Delhi has long sought to diversify its military imports but analysts believe it could take some time before it moves away from Russia.

Military equipment was “paramount” to India given “unabated” tensions with Pakistan, according to Unnikrishnan. “You’re going to try and nurture whatever is required to ensure that.”

India is also keen to increase domestic production and has launched a joint venture with Russia to manufacture AK-203 assault rifles.

India and Russia normally hold annual summits, but the leaders’ last in-person meeting was on the sidelines of the 2019 BRICS Summit in Brazil.

“The leaders will review the state and prospects of bilateral relations and discuss ways to further strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries,” India’s ministry of external affairs said in a statement last month.

The two countries’ foreign and defence ministers held talks Monday ahead of Putin’s arrival.

A number of agreements and contracts were signed on small arms and military co-operation, India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh tweeted.

Moscow and New Delhi hold “identical or near-identical positions on the most important global and security issues”, said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Love Struck Indian Builds Taj Mahal Replica Home For Wife

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2021, an aerial view of a replica of the Taj Mahal is pictured at Burhanpur in India’s Madhya Pradesh state. Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP

 

A lovestruck and historically minded Indian husband has emulated the world’s most famous display of marital devotion by building for his wife a replica of the Taj Mahal.

The original “Monument to Love” was constructed on the orders of heartbroken Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz, in the 17th century.

Anand Prakash Chouksey’s beloved remains very much alive, and even helped consult on the project and his version of the marble wonder of the world, around one-third the size of the original.

“My wife’s only demand was for a meditation room. She’s a spiritual woman,” the 52-year-old businessman told AFP.

“She says the dome creates a different environment and there is a lot of positive energy.”

READ ALSO: For The First Time, India Has More Women Than Men

Teardrop 

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2021, Indian businessman Anand Prakash Chouksey (L) poses along with visiting school children in front of a replica of the Taj Mahal at Burhanpur in India’s Madhya Pradesh state. Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP

 

The original Taj Mahal — dubbed a “teardrop on the cheek of time” by writer Rabindranath Tagore — is in Agra south of Delhi, however, the new replica is 800 kilometres (500 miles) away in Burhanpur.

But the central Indian city is none other than the place where Mumtaz died while giving birth to her 14th child in June 1632, having accompanied Shah Jahan to quell a local revolt.

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2021, boys play soccer in front of a replica of the Taj Mahal at Burhanpur in India’s Madhya Pradesh state. Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP

 

Mumtaz’s body was even initially buried there too, and according to locals Shah Jahan had at first wanted to build the Taj Mahal for her on the banks of the river Tapti.

“The soil structure back then was not suitable to build the Taj here that’s how it was decided to be built in Agra,” Chouksey explained.

The city is still home to the dilapidated remains of the palace where the royals lived, including a once-beautiful hammam or bathhouse built by Shah Jahan for his wife to relax in before she died.

Message Of Peace 

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2021, an aerial view of a replica of the Taj Mahal is pictured at Burhanpur in India’s Madhya Pradesh state.  Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP

 

Chouksey’s story has none of the tragedy and building his new home has taken him three years — a dozen less than the mausoleum that inspired it.

It cost 15 million rupees ($200,000) to build.

“We used marble from Makrana to build the house, which is the same that was used to build the Taj Mahal,” he said.

Chouksey plans to mount an Indian flag on top of the main dome and add symbols from India’s most popular religions to the four minarets surrounding his new manor.

In this photograph taken on November 25, 2021, school children walk past a replica of the Taj Mahal during their visit to Burhanpur in India’s Madhya Pradesh State. Uma Shankar MISHRA / AFP

 

“We want to send a message of peace and religious harmony. There is a lot of hate around. Love solves all problems in life and Taj Mahal is a symbol of that.”

AFP

For The First Time, India Has More Women Than Men

Women wait for transportation at a bus stand in New Delhi on November 25, 2021. – India has more women than men for the first time on record, according to government data that also showed a slowing birthrate in the world’s second-most populous nation. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

 

India has more women than men for the first time on record, according to government data that also showed a slowing birthrate in the world’s second-most populous nation.

Parents in India have historically favoured sons over daughters, who are often considered burdensome and costly due to the tradition of wedding dowries.

Sex-selective abortions have been outlawed but the practice has persisted, and national population data has consistently recorded one of the world’s highest ratios of men to women.

But the latest National Family and Health Survey, released by the health ministry on Wednesday, recorded 1,020 women per 1,000 men after two years of research.

This is the first time any significant government population survey has shown more women than men in India, dating back to the first national census in 1876.

“The improvement in total sex ratio is positive and a step in the right direction but much still needs to be done towards gender equality,” Population Foundation of India (PFI) health scientist Sanghamitra Singh told AFP.

The difference is explained by womens’ longer life expectancy, with more boys still being born than girls — 1,000 males for every 929 females.

“That could indicate some degree of son preference,” Singh said.

The data also showed India’s fertility rate had fallen to two children per woman, down from 2.2 in the last survey from 2015-16.

That figure is below the replacement level needed to maintain population levels, which PFI hailed as a “significant feat for the country’s family-planning programme”.

India is home to around 1.3 billion people and UN projections forecast the country’s population to overtake China later this decade.

The survey’s data was drawn from around 600,000 households across India.

Singh said a clearer picture would emerge after India completed its Covid-delayed census, originally due for publication this year.