India’s top tourist attraction the Taj Mahal will reopen this week, the government said Monday, two months after it was shut as a deadly surge in coronavirus infections swept the country.
Cases and deaths in the vast nation of 1.3 billion people soared to record levels in April and May, with state and national authorities imposing lockdowns and other restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.
Infections have declined in recent weeks, with major cities including the capital New Delhi and the financial capital Mumbai lifting some curbs on movement and activities.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal was shut down in March last year as India imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns at the start of the pandemic.
The monument of love built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal reopened in September with restrictions on the number of visitors before shutting again in mid-April.
The Taj Mahal is in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which was badly hit during the massive wave of infections and deaths.
Covid-19 precautions mean visitors would not be allowed to touch the shining marble mausoleum, an Archaeological Survey of India official said.
“All Covid-appropriate precautions are being taken,” the official told AFP.
“Visitors will have to step on a sponge-like platform which will act as a sanitiser for shoes.”
India’s capital New Delhi on Sunday extended its lockdown as the country’s COVID-19 crisis grew with infections and deaths hitting record highs.
The vast nation of 1.3 billion people recorded 349,691 fresh cases and 2,767 deaths — the highest since the start of the pandemic.
The northern megacity — home to 20 million people and the worst hit in India — had imposed a weeklong lockdown on Monday as hospitals’ beds and oxygen supplies ran out.
“We have decided to extend the lockdown by one week,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a video statement.
“The havoc of corona(virus) continues and there is no respite. Everyone is in favour of extending the lockdown.”
The announcement came as the healthcare system struggled to cope with the huge spike in cases, with reports of overwhelmed hospitals, severe oxygen and medicine shortages, and patients’ families pleading for help on social media.
There has been growing criticism of the government over allegations that it was caught underprepared ahead of the surge.
On Sunday, Twitter confirmed it had withheld dozens of tweets critical of the unfolding crisis at the request of the Indian government.
The social media giant said the tweets were blocked in India after a legal demand from New Delhi, months after similar action was taken against comments critical of the government’s new agriculture laws that had sparked violent protests.
Some tweets involve remarks, including from regional opposition lawmakers, about the overwhelmed healthcare system, which has seen patients die from oxygen shortages.
“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law,” Twitter said in a statement.
“If the content violates Twitter’s rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.”
In the last seven days, India has recorded more than two million cases — an increase of 58 percent on the previous week, according to data compiled by AFP.
Other Indian cities under lockdowns, night curfews, or other restrictions to try and contain the spread of the virus include the financial hub Mumbai.
The government has stepped up its efforts to provide oxygen supplies through special trains and airlifts of containers from other countries.
Ajay Singh Yadav only managed a final video call with Raj Karan before his close friend became the latest of an alarming number of young Indians, including children, falling victim to the new coronavirus wave sweeping the country.
Some doctors say the reason that under-45s are now vulnerable is that they go to work and eat out more, but there is no definitive proof.
They could also be more prone to a new “double mutant” variant found in 60 percent of samples in Maharashtra, the hardest-hit state.
Karan, 38, was campaigning in village elections when he fell ill. Yadav rushed him to a hospital, but he too tested positive and was put into isolation.
“I am devastated… I could only see him via a video call,” Yadav, 39, told AFP in the northern city of Lucknow.
The nation of 1.3 billion people has been hit by a new wave that has caused one million positive tests in a week, and authorities are rattled.
At the start of the year, India thought it had beaten the pandemic and had kicked off a mass vaccination drive.
Face masks and social distancing were cast aside and huge crowds flocked to religious festivals and election rallies.
But in hospitals, doctors started warning of a rise in cases, including a new phenomenon — younger patients — for a disease usually viewed as riskier for older adults.
Children in hospital
In a country where around 65 percent of the population is under 35, there is growing concern about the impact on the young.
New Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has said 65 percent of new patients are below 45.
India’s medical research agency does not have a demographic breakdown of cases, but doctors in major cities confirmed that more young patients are coming to hospitals.
“We are also seeing children under the ages of 12 and 15 being admitted with symptoms in the second wave. Last year there were practically no children,” said Khusrav Bajan, a consultant at Mumbai’s P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and a member of Maharashtra’s Covid-19 taskforce.
In Gujarat state, pulmonologist Amit Dave said young people were experiencing “increased severity” from coronavirus for their lungs, hearts and kidneys.
One Gujarat hospital has set up the state’s first paediatric coronavirus ward.
States across India have reported a similar increase of young patients.
In the southern IT hub of Bangalore, under-40s made up 58 percent of infections in early April, up from 46 percent last year, data aggregator Covid19india.org said.
Variants and vaccines
“I haven’t seen such a rise in cases in the last one year as I’ve seen in the last one week,” Delhi-based book publicist Tanu Dogra, 28, who was bedridden for a week after testing positive in March told AFP.
“Everybody on my timeline, on my WhatsApp, is frantically messaging each other because they’ve all tested positive.”
In Brazil — which like the rest of the world had more severe cases and deaths among the elderly during the first wave — doctors are also seeing a higher prevalence of younger patients.
Experts say more data is needed to back up the anecdotal evidence in India, with genome sequencing of samples playing a key role.
“Sequencing will tell you about the mutant that’s emerging,” added virologist Shahid Jameel.
“But it doesn’t take away from everything else that you should be doing — that is to wear a mask and avoid crowded places.”
Authorities have imposed weekend lockdowns and night curfews to stem the virus spread.
But medical professionals say India’s sluggish vaccination drive — currently limited to over-45s — should also opened up to everyone.
Their call was echoed by young Indians in Delhi, who told AFP they felt more exposed as they had to go to work, many as breadwinners for their families.
“Right now young people need (vaccines) more… I see every day that people in their early 30s are getting hospitalised,” 25-year-old pharmacist, Muzammil Ahmed, told AFP.
With hospitals overwhelmed, specialists like Venkat Ramesh, an infectious disease consultant at the Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad, said the crisis is already “severe” with worse to come.
“When I speak to my colleagues in major metropolitan cities across India, they have numerous calls from patients trying to find a bed,” Ramesh told AFP.
“I’m quite afraid for the next one month. Given the rapidity of the rise in cases, it is certainly worrying.”
“When the victim was sitting in an autorickshaw, the men also entered (the vehicle) and asked one monkey to sit on the front seat and another at the back,” the official said.
“They took the money the lawyer had in his wallet and fled with the monkeys.”
Police suspected the gang were behind other similar thefts and officers set up a dedicated team to track down the culprits, who were arrested Thursday at a bus stop along with their animal accomplices.
The third thief is still at large while the monkeys have been sent to an animal rescue centre.
Monkeys are often trained as street performers in India and incidences of the hairy simians attacking residents are not uncommon.
Last year a troop of monkeys attacked a medical official and snatched blood samples of patients who had tested positive for coronavirus in Meerut city in northern India.
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.”
Five senior police officers have been suspended over their handling of an investigation into the gang-rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman that has sparked outrage across India and triggered days of protests.
The seriously injured teenager from the disadvantaged Dalit caste was found in mid-September outside her village in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state and died this week in a New Delhi hospital.
The police have arrested four high-caste men on charges of gang-rape and murder.
But the police have faced criticism for cremating the woman’s body in the middle of the night — reportedly with the help of some petrol — against the wishes of her family and religious custom.
A senior policeman on Thursday sparked further outrage after claiming that a forensic report and an autopsy had shown that the woman had not been raped.
This contradicts statements from the victim and her mother and reported hospital findings, while experts said the forensic test was carried out too long after the attack.
Hundreds of police have also barricaded the village, preventing the woman’s family from leaving and journalists and opposition politicians from talking to them.
The family’s mobile phones have also reportedly been seized.
The victim’s brother told one Indian news channel that the family were scared for their lives. The local high court has ordered authorities to provide the family protection.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath late Friday announced the suspension of the Hathras district police chief and four others.
The Hindu monk and close ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced that the victim’s family, the accused and the suspended policemen would all undergo lie-detector and drug tests.
On Friday evening in the latest protest, around 500 people including the capital’s chief minister and a prominent Dalit politician gathered in central New Delhi demanding justice.
“We (women) are not actually free, even though India is independent,” Sanskriti, one of the women at the Delhi protest site told AFP.
“This is something I want to raise my voice against. And I just wish all the people get united and they understand that it is high time to do something about it,” she added.
The young woman’s death comes months after four men were hanged for the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi, in a case that came to symbolise India’s epidemic of sexual violence.
An average of 87 rapes were reported in India every day last year, according to data by the National Crime Records Bureau, but large numbers are thought to go unreported.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan branded India an “oppressor and aggressor” on Wednesday, a year after New Delhi imposed direct rule on Indian-administered Kashmir.
Solidarity marches were held in all major Pakistani cities to mark the anniversary of New Delhi stripping Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, a move that outraged Islamabad.
Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan territory, has been split since 1947 between India and Pakistan, both of which claim it in full and have fought wars over it.
“India stands exposed before the world, yet again, as an oppressor and aggressor,” Khan said in a statement.
“Its so-called secular and democratic credentials stand fully discredited,” he added, calling India’s action last year a “crime against humanity”.
Khan led a march through Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, before addressing the region’s legislative assembly.
Across the city, more than 2,000 people turned out at a series of anti-India protests.
“We ask the world to give Kashmiris their right of self-determination, otherwise we will cross the Line of Control and help our brothers on the other side with arms,”, Arslan Ahmad, a refugee who fled Indian-administered Kashmir, told AFP.
“Half of my family is under siege in Indian-occupied Kashmir, my mother is dying to meet her sister, this dispute has left our generations torn apart,” 31-year old Usman Mir added.
Police were enforcing tight restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir on Wednesday, where religious and political groups had called on residents to observe a “black day”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government had promised the move would bring peace and prosperity to Indian Kashmir after three decades of violence sparked by an anti-India uprising.
Pakistan, however, has alleged it is a violation of the rights of Kashmiri people.
Khan accused India of trying to turn Kashmir’s Muslim majority into a minority by ending restrictions on outsiders buying up property “in blatant violation of… UN Security Council Resolutions and international laws”.
The change in rules has sparked fears that the Modi government is pursuing an Israel-style “settler” project.
A referendum in Kashmir mandated by a UN resolution in 1948 has never taken place.
“India has learned from Israel how to change the demography (of Kashmir),” President Arif Alvi told a rally in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, which observed a one-minute silence.
Hundreds of billboards and banners displayed graphic images purportedly of human rights violations by Indian authorities in Kashmir.
On Tuesday, Pakistan released a new official map showing all of Kashmir as its territory.
The Pakistan military, meanwhile, said Indian troops had fired a shell across the de-facto border, killing a young woman and wounding six other people.
Such exchanges are common along the Kashmir demarcation line, with shells blasted in both directions.
Pakistan has repeatedly likened Modi to Adolf Hitler and called for international intervention.
Thirteen people have been killed and more than 150 injured in sectarian violence that erupted in India’s capital New Delhi for the third day, a hospital official said Tuesday.
“I can now confirm 13 deaths. At least 150 people have come to our hospital with injuries,” Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital official Rajesh Kalra told AFP, adding that a dozen people were in critical condition.
“We are still receiving some people with injuries, most of them firearm injuries today.”
Clashes over a contentious citizenship law roiled India’s capital for a second day Tuesday — coinciding with a visit by US President Donald Trump — as the death toll rose to at least nine.
There have been widespread protests since the law that critics say is anti-Muslim was passed in mid-December, with more than 25 people killed.
“There have been nine confirmed deaths,” Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital official Rajesh Kalra told AFP.
He said 31 people, including 10 who were seriously hurt, were brought to the New Delhi hospital on Tuesday.
Senior policeman Alok Kumar told AFP that officers were still receiving reports of violence.
“The protesters are attacking police wherever they are present and clashing among each other where the police aren’t there,” Kumar added.
One of those killed Monday was a policeman, a senior officer told AFP.
More rioting was reported Tuesday, with a large plume of black smoke rising in the sky.
Broadcaster NDTV said three of its reporters and a cameraman were attacked by a mob on the northeastern fringe of the megacity of 20 million people.
“There is hardly any police presence in the area. Rioters are running around threatening people, vandalising shops,” a resident of the poor, migrant neighbourhood of Maujpur told the Press Trust of India.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who visited a hospital where the injured were being treated, called for calm.
National Home Minister Amit Shah, whose ministry controls law and order in the capital region, met with senior Delhi government officials and promised to deploy more police if they were needed, Kejriwal said.
At least 10 people in India were killed when their bus made contact with a roadside power line and caught fire, officials said late Sunday.
The accident occurred in the eastern state of Odisha, near Mandarajpur, when part of the bus carrying about 40 passengers ignited after touching an 11-kilovolt power line, the Press Trust of India cited a police officer, Sadar Jayant Kumar Mohapatra, as saying.
Five other people were in critical condition, a hospital emergency officer in Cuttack city said, according to PTI.
Initial investigations suggested the luggage carrier of the bus touched the power line when the bus driver tried to give way to a two-wheeled vehicle on the narrow road, PTI quoted Chief Fire Officer Sukant Sethi as saying.
At least 43 people were killed Sunday in a devastating fire that ripped through a bag factory in the cramped, congested old quarter of the Indian capital New Delhi, trapping scores of workers who were sleeping inside.
The blaze was the worst in Delhi since 59 movie-goers died in a cinema in 1997, with the city’s poor planning and enforcement of building and safety regulations often responsible for such deadly incidents.
Tearful relatives spoke of receiving desperate calls from factory workers from around 5:00 am (23:30 GMT) pleading to be freed from the inferno in the dark, poorly lit premises in the commercial hub of Sadar Bazar.
The four-storey building was home to a series of manufacturing units producing items including school bags and packing materials which only worsened the spread of the fire, officials said. Locals said the factory also made purses.
“Most of the casualties happened because of suffocation,” witness Mohammed Khalil told AFP.
“After the fire, people didn’t have any way to get out and I believe many were asleep and because of the smoke, they got suffocated.”
Indian police have arrested more than 500 people ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on a hotly disputed religious site in the holy city of Ayodhya, media reports said, with authorities fearing the verdict could trigger unrest.
The decision on the future of the site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims is due by November 17 and thousands of paramilitaries have already been sent to the northern city.
Hindu hardliners want a temple built on the site, currently barricaded off decades after a 16th-century mosque there was demolished during 1992 riots that left 2,000 people dead.
Hindus believe the mosque was built over the site of the birthplace of their god Ram.
Security is being tightened across India in the run-up to the ruling and Uttar Pradesh state police chief O.P. Singh told the Economic Times that more than 500 arrests had been made.
“The main message to the police force is to maintain peace at any cost,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Most of the suspects were taken into custody while a further 70 people were detained over their social media posts, he said — warning the internet could be blocked in the region if required.
Singh added that police had also identified more than 10,000 people he described as “anti-social”.
A police spokesman declined to comment to AFP.
In recent years Ayodhya has become a rallying point for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Some senior BJP members are being tried separately over their role in the mosque’s 1992 destruction.
In 2010, a High Court divided the disputed land between Hindu and Muslim groups but both parties appealed to the Supreme Court which has since repeatedly put off a verdict.
Media reports say Modi has told ministers to refrain from making comments on the case that could fuel tensions.
For minority Muslims, the dispute and a recent clampdown in Muslim-majority Kashmir have become symbols of the hostility that they say they face from the government.
Hindus make up about 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population while there are about 200 million Muslims.