The world’s biggest cricket stadium was renamed after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a surprise move Wednesday hours before its inaugural international match between India and England.
The 110,000-seater stadium was the pet project of Modi who was chief minister in Gujarat state, where Ahmedabad is the main city, before taking over as head of government in 2014.
The new name was announced by President Ramnath Kovind during a ceremony ahead of the third Test between India and England.
“This stadium was the dream of the prime minister and he had during his stint as chief minister here floated the idea of building the world’s largest stadium,” Home Minister Amit Shah said at the event.
The $100-million, perfectly round venue, with seats in the blue and saffron of the Indian team, promises unobstructed views from every angle.
It eclipses the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia, which dates back to 1853.
The former Motera stadium was inaugurated as the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Cricket Stadium by Modi in February 2020 when he hosted a mega-rally there with then US president Donald Trump.
Patel, an independence leader, is immortalised by the world’s biggest statue, the enormous Statue of Unity completed in 2018 measuring 182 metres (597 feet) — twice the size of the Statue of Liberty — which has struggled to attract visitors.
President Kovind said the stadium will be just one part of a huge Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Sports Enclave that will house amenities for 33 Olympic sports.
Although cricket enjoys massive popularity in the country of 1.3 billion, India already has more than a dozen stadiums capable of holding international matches.
Blasting catchy pro-farmer songs from a speaker, an electric-blue tractor rattled down an Indian village road collecting pails of milk — just some of the donations sustaining massive protest camps outside New Delhi.
More than two months after the first farmers set up camps on the capital’s borders, tens of thousands more have joined them, calling for the repeal of new agriculture laws.
The farmers, who have slept outdoors through the winter cold, are being supported by an army of small villages in the northern states neighbouring Delhi.
“This campaign, this farmer movement, isn’t theirs — those who are sitting there — alone,” Sumit Arya, the 35-year-old head of Makrauli Khurd, a village about two hours’ drive from the main protest sites, told AFP.
“The movement belongs to all of us, the rural villagers.”
Makrauli, home to 4,000 people, is a hive of activity every morning with men and women bringing vegetables and wood to collection points.
On Tuesdays, villagers carry small metal buckets full of milk freshly squeezed from their cows to the back of trailers, where men like Ajit Singh gently pour them into larger cans.
“We can’t give our time there but we can take care of their food and water needs and whatever they need in winter,” the 58-year-old farmer told AFP as he sat on a bed of hay in a trolley.
Around him, villagers raised their fists and chanted “zindabad” (“long live”), in reply to someone yelling “kisan ekta” (“farmers united”) — a rallying cry often heard at the protests.
The government says the agriculture sector needs to be modernised. But farmers fear the deregulation will place them at the mercy of big corporations.
Farming has long been a political minefield in India, with nearly 70 percent of the 1.3-billion-strong population drawing their livelihood from agriculture.
The protests — which turned deadly in late January when a tractor rally in Delhi turned into a rampage — have become one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government since it came to power in 2014.
Passion and community
Since the start of the sit-in protests in late November, a support network has sprung up to care for the sprawling camps.
Tractors pulling trolleys laden with wood, rice, flour, sugar and vegetables leave villages like Makrauli on daily or weekly rotations for the camps.
They are joined by farmers and their families eager to spend the day or several nights at the sites.
“We strike up friendships… Two or three tractors keep going from our village to keep their spirits up,” Ajay Punia, 18, told AFP on a trailer en route to Delhi from Makrauli with 11 others aged 14 to 65.
The villagers played songs of resistance, as green and yellow farmer union flags and the Indian tricolour fluttered from the tractor.
Moments later, two trolleys carrying about 30 people — mostly women — from another village passed by and the two groups pumped their fists into the air and chanted slogans. Beside the highway, people waved their support.
By the time the villagers pulled up at a big protest camp at the Tikri border with Delhi, energy levels were high.
The trolley stopped at a community kitchen run by Makrauli and several nearby villages, and the boys and men climbed out and sat in a straight line on a mat.
They were served freshly made roti with pea-and-potato curry and a cup of fresh milk — brought from Makrauli earlier in the day by another tractor.
“Without this brotherhood, nothing works. Even in our village, different castes are a part of it,” Arya said.
“People are getting increasingly pulled towards this (protest)… And whatever its length, we are not backing out.”
Time was running out to save dozens of people trapped inside a tunnel three days after a devastating flash flood likely caused by a glacier burst in India’s Himalayan north, officials said Wednesday.
More than 170 people were still missing after a barrage of water and debris hurtled with terrifying speed and power down a valley on Sunday morning, sweeping away bridges and roads and hitting two hydroelectric plants.
Thirty-two bodies have been found so far, officials said on Wednesday. It may take days for more bodies to be recovered under the tonnes of rocks and other debris and the thick blanket of grey mud.
Twenty-five of the bodies were yet to be identified. Many of the victims are poor workers from hundreds of miles away in other parts of India whose whereabouts at the time of the disaster may not be known.
The main focus of the massive rescue operation, underway day and night since Sunday, is a tunnel near a severely damaged hydroelectric plant that was under construction at Tapovan in Uttarakhand state.
Workers there have been battling their way through hundreds of tonnes of sludge, boulders, and other obstacles to try and reach 34 people who rescuers hope are alive in air pockets.
“As time passes, the chances of finding them are reducing. But miracles do happen,” Piyoosh Rautela, a senior state disaster relief official told AFP.
“There’s only so much that one can do. We can’t push in multiple bulldozers together. We are working round the clock — man, the machinery we are all working round the clock. But the amount of debris is so much that it’s going to take a while to remove all that,” he said.
Vivek Pandey, a spokesman for the border police told the Times of India that if the 34 are alive, the biggest concern is hypothermia, “which can be fatal in such conditions”.
Outside the tunnel, there were medical teams on standby with oxygen cylinders and stretchers, as well as anxious relatives.
Shuhil Dhiman, 47, said that his brother-in-law Praveen Diwan, a private contractor, and father of three, had driven into the tunnel on Sunday morning with three others when the flood-hit.
“We don’t know what happened to him. We went near the tunnel but there are tonnes of slush coming out. The tunnel has a sharp slope from the opening and I think water and slush have gone deep inside,” Shuhil Dhiman told AFP.
“I am hoping against hope,” he said. “The authorities are doing their best but the situation is beyond anyone’s ability.”
The disaster has been blamed on rapidly melting glaciers in the Himalayan region caused by global warming.
Building activity for dams, the dredging of riverbeds for sand, and the clearing of trees for new roads — some to beef up defence on the Chinese border — are other factors.
Three people were confirmed dead and at least 150 were missing in northern India after a broken glacier caused a major river surge that swept away bridges and roads on Sunday, police said.
The massive burst of water tore through the Dhauliganga river valley, destroying everything in its path, videos taken by terrified residents showed.
Three bodies had been found and a desperate search was underway for more, police said, and efforts are underway to clear villages in the stricken region of Uttarakhand state.
“We have located at least three dead bodies on the river bed,” a police spokesperson in the state told AFP.
“Our last update puts the missing persons number at 150, and there are 16 or 17 persons trapped inside a tunnel.”
Most of those missing were at the Tapovan power plant next to a dam that was breached by the surge.
Emergency workers were desperately trying to reach about 17 people trapped inside a tunnel at the complex that had been filled with debris.
Scores of mobile phone videos shared on social media showed the massive burst of water tearing through a narrow valley below the power plant, leaving roads and bridges destroyed in its wake.
Most of the villages being evacuated are on hillsides overlooking the river, which is a tributary of the Ganges.
“The district administration, police department and disaster management have been ordered to deal with this disaster,” Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said on Twitter.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was monitoring the relief operation.
“India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there,” he said on Twitter.
Authorities emptied two dams in a bid to stop the flood waters reaching the Ganges at the towns of Rishikesh and Haridwar, where authorities have barred people from going near the banks of the sacred river, officials said.
The flash floods have caused damage to a dam next to the Rishiganga power plant and other infrastructure, Neeru Garg, a senior police officer in the region, told AFP.
Indian police tightened security Saturday around camps where farmers have been protesting against new agricultural reform laws, as thousands more arrived to join the campaign.
Authorities cut internet links to most of the camps where tens of thousands of farmers have been based since November as they demand the repeal of the laws.
Tensions have been rising since a mass tractor rally on Tuesday turned into a rampage across Delhi where clashes between farmers and security forces left one dead and hundreds injured.
At least 10,000 new protesters have arrived since Thursday to bolster the campaign, according to observers.
In the camps, many farmers held a one-day fast on Saturday — the 73rd anniversary of the assassination of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi — in a bid to show their tactics are peaceful.
But outside, on top of the internet cut, police blocked a main road into the Ghazipur camp on the outskirts of Delhi.
Additional security forces were deployed after clashes erupted Friday between farmers and opponents of their campaign.
Some local groups say they want the protesters to go home but the farmers’ leaders are adamant they will stay. There have been accusations that right-wing activists have manipulated the counter-protests.
The new laws allow farmers to sell their produce on the open market after decades of selling to state-run bodies.
Farmers say the changes will mean the takeover of the agriculture industry, which employs two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population, by conglomerates.
The government says the changes will boost efficiency and rural incomes.
A fire broke out Thursday at India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest maker of vaccines, but a source said production of the coronavirus vaccine was not affected.
Television channels showed thick clouds of grey smoke billowing from the site in Pune in western India.
The Serum Institute is producing millions of doses of the Covishield coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
“It is not going to affect production of the Covid-19 vaccine,” a source at the Serum Institute told AFP, adding that the blaze was at a new plant under construction.
An official at the local fire station told AFP that six or seven firetrucks had reached the site.
“We have no other information… on the extent of the fire or whether anyone is trapped,” the official said.
In January, Indian regulators approved two vaccines — Covishield, produced by the Serum Institute, and Covaxin, made by local firm Bharat Biotech.
India began one of the world’s biggest vaccine rollouts on Saturday, aiming to vaccinate 300 million people by July with both Covishield and Covaxin.
Many other countries are relying on the Serum Institute to supply them with the vaccine.
India exported its first batch on Wednesday — to Bhutan and the Maldives — followed by two million doses to Bangladesh and a million to Nepal.
The country plans to offer 20 million doses to its South Asian neighbours, with Latin America, Africa and Central Asia next in line.
Serum Institute, the world’s biggest vaccine maker by volume, also plans to supply 200 million doses to Covax, a World Health Organization-backed effort to procure and distribute inoculations to poor countries.
India began one of the world’s biggest coronavirus vaccination programmes on Saturday, hoping to end a pandemic that has killed 150,000 people in the country and torpedoed the economy.
AFP looks at the numbers involved in the vast and complex undertaking compounded by weak infrastructure, online hoaxes and worries about one of the vaccines being rolled out while still in clinical trials.
300 million people
Over the coming months, India aims to inoculate around a quarter of the population, or 300 million people. They include healthcare workers, people aged over 50 and those at high risk.
On the first day, around 300,000 people were set to be vaccinated at 3,000 centres. About 150,000 staff in 700 districts have been trained to administer jabs and keep records.
The government aims to manage the entire process digitally with its own app, CoWIN, which will link every vaccine dose to its recipient.
45,000 fridges (and one bike)
India has four “mega depots” to take delivery of the vaccines and transport them to state distribution hubs in temperature-controlled vans, keeping the doses colder than 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 Fahrenheit).
A total of 29,000 cold-chain points, 240 walk-in coolers, 70 walk-in freezers, 45,000 ice-lined refrigerators, 41,000 deep freezers and 300 solar fridges are at the ready.
These will be needed once the Indian summer arrives in the coming months.
In one recent practice run in a rural area, a consignment of dummy vaccines was photographed being delivered by bicycle.
To stop any of the vials being stolen and being sold on India’s large drugs black market, authorities are taking no chances, with armed police guarding every truck.
CCTVs are in place at warehouses with entry subject to fingerprint authentication. Automated data loggers will monitor storage temperature and transfer messages every three seconds to a central unit, according to the Times of India.
“Security measures are essential to not only address the issue of logistics and safety but also build confidence in people that the supply chain is intact, unbroken and safe to the point of delivery,” Preeti Kumar, a public health specialist, told AFP.
200 rupees per dose
India has ordered an initial 11 million doses of Covishield, AstraZeneca’s vaccine made by India’s Serum Institute, at 200 rupees ($2.74) each, and 5.5 million doses of Covaxin at 206 rupees each.
The government’s “emergency approval” of Covaxin, made by India’s Bharat Biotech, has some doctors worried because phase 3 human trials are yet to be completed.
With Covaxin still in “clinical trial mode”, Indians being given the shot on Saturday were given a consent form to sign that made clear that its “clincal efficacy… is yet to be established”.
Authorities say people will be given two doses of one of the vaccines — and not one of each — 28 days apart. Effectiveness begins 14 days after the second shot, they say.
Serum plans later to sell the jab privately to Indian individuals and firms for 1,000 rupees ($14), raising fears that the rich will get inoculated sooner.
69 percent in no hurry
A recent survey of 18,000 people across India found that 69 percent were in no rush to get a Covid-19 shot, in part due to public scepticism fuelled by online disinformation.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan took to social media on Thursday to dispel some of the doubts.
“There is no scientific evidence to suggest that #COVIDVaccine could cause infertility in either men or women. Kindly do not pay heed to such rumours or information from unverified sources,” he said in one tweet.
And one Brazilian plane
Other developing countries are banking on India for getting vaccines, and Brazil wanted to send a plane to India this weekend to collect two million doses from Serum.
But President Jair Bolsonaro said Friday that “political pressure” by India had postponed the flight. Serum chief Adar Poonawalla told the Times of India it would supply Brazil in two weeks.
India plans to offer 20 million doses to its neighbours, with the first batches shipped over the next two weeks, Bloomberg News reported. Latin America, Africa and ex-Soviet republics will be next.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday postponed a post-Brexit trip planned this month to India after the Covid crisis worsened in Britain, Downing Street said.
“The prime minister spoke to Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi this morning, to express his regret that he will be unable to visit India later this month as planned,” a spokesperson said, blaming a fast-spreading strain of the virus.
Johnson announced a new England-wide lockdown on Monday following the emergence of the virulent new strain, explaining urgent action was needed to prevent spiralling numbers of cases overwhelming health services.
“The prime minister said that it was important for him to remain in the UK so he can focus on the domestic response to the virus,” Downing Street said Johnson had told his Indian counterpart.
Johnson still hopes to visit India in the first half of 2021, before Modi is due to attend a G7 summit in Britain later this year.
The British leader was due to be a guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations on January 26, shortly after the UK left the European Union’s single market and as it seeks new trade deals around the world, particularly in fast-growing Asia.
Announcing the trip last month, Johnson said the visit would showcase “Global Britain” and help to deliver a “quantum leap” in Britain’s relations with India, the jewel of its former empire.
India said on Monday it was joining other countries in temporarily suspending all flights from Britain after the emergence of a new and more infectious strain of Coronavirus there.
“Considering the prevailing situation in UK. Government of India has decided that all flights originating from UK to India to be suspended till 31st December 2020,” the aviation ministry said in a tweet.
It said the suspension would come into effect from 11:59 pm (0629 GMT) on Tuesday.
In a “measure of abundant precaution”, it added, passengers arriving from Britain on transit flights would be subject to a mandatory RT-PCR test on arrival.
Britain is home to a huge Indian diaspora and several flights per day take hundreds of people between London and New Delhi and London and Mumbai.
India has recorded more than 10 million coronavirus infections, the second-highest in the world after the United States, and 145,000 deaths.
However, its rate of infections has come down sharply in recent weeks from almost 100,000 per day in September to around 25,000.
This is despite restrictions being eased considerably and economic activity returning almost to pre-pandemic levels.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is due to visit India in late January — was set to chair a crisis meeting later Monday to discuss the outbreak of the new strain.
More than a dozen European nations have already banned flights and travellers from Britain, with more expected to take action.
Health authorities in Britain’s former colony Hong Kong also said UK flights would be banned from Tuesday.
Crucial transit country France moved to block people and goods crossing the Channel, while the Netherlands said passengers arriving by ferry would be denied entry.
US officials, however, signalled they were holding off on a similar move for now, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was confident existing 14-day quarantine rules for arrivals were sufficient to handle the threat.
India surged past 10 million coronavirus cases on Saturday, official data showed, the second-highest in the world although new infection rates appear to have fallen sharply in recent weeks.
The number of cases increased by just over 25,000 in 24 hours, according to the health ministry, while the total number of deaths from the virus in India now stands at 145,136.
In September, the vast nation of 1.3 billion people had been recording daily new cases of almost 100,000 and looked on track to surpass the United States as the worst-hit country.
But the outbreak has accelerated in the US and appears to have lost momentum in India, despite the country being home to some of the most crowded cities on the planet.
The United States, with a population a quarter the size of India’s, has been reporting upwards of 200,000 new cases daily in recent weeks, 10 times as many as India.
India’s fatality rate is also considerably lower — less than half that of the US.
Residents in the capital New Delhi told AFP they were still worried but were more comfortable than before about leaving their homes.
“Obviously the fear levels have come down over time. Initially, it was more scary,” said housewife Huma Zaidi, 46.
“But we are still taking precautions like wearing masks when going out and avoiding social gatherings.”
India has lifted restrictions on most activities to boost the struggling economy, although some states and territories have reimposed curbs.
“I plucked up my courage and went out for lunch for the first time in six or eight months,” said Simpy Dhar, 44, a language instructor.
“However, my fear is not eliminated completely. I know coronavirus is still out there.”
– Vaccine challenge –
The 10-million mark came as the world’s second-most populous nation gears up for the colossal and challenging task of starting to vaccinate the population next year.
The government aims to inoculate 300 million people initially, with health workers and other frontline staff expected first in line.
India has yet to approve any vaccines but several drugmakers have applied for authorisation, including AstraZeneca, which has partnered with India’s Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine maker.
Health ministry officials were expected to meet the Election Commission — which carries out vast state and national polls — as they map out how to distribute the shots, the Press Trust of India reported Thursday.
Experts have cautioned that the country could struggle because of its weak cold-chain infrastructure — needed for keeping vaccines refrigerated — particularly in poor and densely populated urban areas and remote rural regions.
“All the experience that India has in vaccinating is on the much smaller game of annual vaccinations of children,” Satyajit Rath, an immunologist at the National Institute of Immunology, told AFP.
“I’m not sure that India’s public healthcare systems are sufficiently developed… Even mildly below-freezing requirements (for vaccine transportation and storage) are likely to prove extremely challenging in the rural hinterland’s healthcare system services.”
– Scepticism –
Like elsewhere, Indian authorities also have to convince some Indians sceptical about the safety of the shots.
A recent survey of 18,000 people across India found that 69 percent said they were in no rush to get vaccinated.
LocalCirles, which conducted the poll, cited “limited information about side-effects, efficacy levels and a growing belief in parts of the population that Covid-19 cannot infect them because of their high immunity levels”.
“The companies seem to be in a rush; they may have cut corners. I will not be first in line. I’d rather wait and watch,” said housewife Zaidi.
Rohit Bhalla, a schoolteacher, added that while he was looking forward to being vaccinated, the government needed to launch education campaigns.
“There is lot of fear about vaccines. The government must start awareness drives to dispel these fears,” the 38-year-old told AFP.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to India next month in his first major bilateral visit to another country since taking power last year, his office said Tuesday.
During the trip, Johnson will invite India to join next year’s G7 summit, which Britain is hosting, as one of three guest countries, alongside South Korea and Australia.
The Indian trip is aimed at strengthening bilateral trade ties and investment, and cooperation in various areas including defence, security, health and climate change.
It will coincide with India’s annual Republic Day celebrations on January 26, will also come just weeks after the UK leaves the European Union single market on December 31, and as it seeks new trade deals post-Brexit.
“I am absolutely delighted to be visiting India next year at the start of an exciting year for Global Britain, and look forward to delivering the quantum leap in our bilateral relationship that Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi and I have pledged to achieve,” Johnson said in a statement.
“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet.”
Johnson’s visit follows an invitation from Modi, who last weekend took part in a climate summit hosted by London, and its announcement comes with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in India this week.
“What we recognise (are) the possibilities for a deeper trading relationship, the contours of our economy I think would allow that,” Raab told a joint New Delhi news conference with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar.
“We will want to nudge our trade ministers along and see what we can achieve.”
Jaishankar said there was “a very serious intent” to intensify the two countries’ trade relationship. “We see the strategic case,” he told reporters.
– ‘Growth opportunities’ –
Britain left the EU on January 31 and is in a standstill transition period where the bloc’s rules still apply until December 31, as it tries to secure a free-trade agreement.
But it has in recent months struck deals with a number of countries, including Japan and Singapore, as part of its post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy.
“I think sometimes we have been too myopically focused just on Europe, whereas actually one of the advantages of leaving the transition period is that we will regain control over our ability to strike free trade deals with the rest of the world,” said Raab.
“And certainly if you look at India and the Indo-Pacific region and take a long-term view, that is where the growth opportunities will be.”
Johnson will be only the second British leader since India’s independence from Britain to attend the annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi as guest of honour, after John Major in 1993.
His office highlighted the two countries’ burgeoning trade and investment relationship, which it said is worth £24 billion ($32 billion, 26 billion euros) annually and supports more than half a million jobs.
It noted their increased cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic, with India’s large pharmaceutical sector supplying more than half of the world’s vaccines.
At least a billion doses of Britain’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine are being manufactured at the Serum Institute in the western Indian city of Pune.
Meanwhile, the UK has received 11 million face masks and 3 million packets of paracetamol from India during the pandemic, according to Downing Street.