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International

India to stand by Bhutan for post-Covid-19 recalibration: Envoy

By Devadeep Purohit

India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essentials as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured his counterpart Lotay Tshering that New Delhi will give all possible support to the Himalayan nation to minimise the health and economic impact of the pandemic.

In an interview to The Telegraph in mid-May, Indian ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj, explained in detail what Delhi is doing for its most trusted friend in the region.

The India-Bhutan friendship is getting reinforced in this time of lockdown. Will you please share details of how India is standing by its close and friendly neighbour?

Kamboj: India-Bhutan cooperation continues apace, in the times of Covid-19, encompassing myriad areas, including provision of essentials as well as our support to the re-prioritisation of projects envisaged by the Royal Government of Bhutan under the 12th Five Year Plan to bolster Bhutan’s Economic Stimulus Plan of Nu 30 billion.

The Government of India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essentials as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan. Around 500 vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies enter Bhutan on a daily basis, a figure that is comparable to the number of vehicles prior to the lockdown in India.

Despite the lockdown restrictions, India has also facilitated the maximum number of special Druk Air flights to ensure the return of Bhutanese students and nationals…. 1,739 (1,778 as of May 30) Bhutanese nationals from Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mohali, Mumbai, Amritsar, Chandigarh and Delhi have been able to return to home territory as an outcome of these efforts.

We have assured Bhutan that India will stand in solidarity as it re-calibrates its development pathways in the wake of Covid-19.

India’s gestures have been lauded by His Majesty the King of Bhutan as well as the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr Lotay Tshering. It is indeed most gracious of Bhutan to have acknowledged this friendship between two special friends. Significantly, India’s efforts have also been lauded by the Bhutanese people, in particular our support in ensuring essential supplies to Bhutan during the lockdown, and the handing over of medical supplies, as would any good friend to another, in times of need.

Going forward, how is the Indian government planning to keep the supplies normal in Bhutan?

Going forward, this support will continue to be extended by the government of India. In his recent telephone conversation with the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Prime Minister Modi had referred to the timeless and special nature of India-Bhutan ties, and assured Lyonchhen that India would ensure all possible support to Bhutan for minimising the health and economic impact of the pandemic.

Bengal becomes key, because of geography, in the Indian government’s initiatives to keep life normal in Bhutan. Please do share details of the Delhi-Calcutta hand-holding to ensure supplies in Bhutan.

The ‘duars’ of north Bengal signify doorways. And indeed if I say that north Bengal is the gateway to Bhutan, few would disagree. The India-Bhutan border crossing at Jaigaon/Phuentsholing is the key entry point for not only both Indian and foreign tourists but also essential goods and commodities.

The Bengal government, the ministry of external affairs, the government of India and the Royal Government of Bhutan have worked tirelessly and in close coordination with one another to ensure that essential supplies move seamlessly from India to Bhutan. And here I must especially acknowledge the efforts of our colleagues in the Bengal government who have worked proactively in the cause of the special and privileged India-Bhutan relationship in these testing times. Indeed, their actions have strengthened the long-standing bonds of friendship between our countries….

India is extending help to several countries in this hour of crisis. But in case of Bhutan, the responsibility seems to be much more. Will you please explain the reasons?

Bhutan is a land-locked country and most of its essentials such as food, fuel and medicines emanate from India even in normal times. Hence, we would be failing in our duty if we did not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bhutan and ensure that supply lines remain intact even in these challenging times. Supply of raw materials and basic resources needed by Bhutan from India are also important to ensure that its indigenous industries and factories do not close down.

Bhutan is virtually a Covid-free country. How did they achieve this feat?

Bhutan has had only 15 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (which has gone up to 43 on May 31), with no deaths so far. All the Covid-19 positive cases have been individuals who have travelled to Bhutan from abroad. Of the 15 Covid-19 cases, five (now six) persons have recovered.

So far, there has been no local or community transmission in the country. While there has been no lockdown in Bhutan, the country is in partial lockdown mode with all borders closed, all educational institutions indefinitely closed for now, work from home in many government and private offices, emphasis on physical distancing in public places and public transport and restrictions on public gatherings.

The health ministry of Bhutan has developed two apps — Druk Trace and Stay Home — to facilitate contact tracing in public places and public transport and to monitor/track people placed in quarantine.

Municipal officials and ‘Dessups’ (volunteers) are ensuring strict implementation of the restrictions and Covid-19 precautions imposed by the government across the country.

May I add that Bhutan has been hugely successful till date in containingCovid-19 through its emergency response, by a simultaneous closure of borders, a 21-day mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for all persons returning to Bhutan, a combination of proactive testing and tracing along with compulsory testing of all quarantined persons before discharge.

And needless to add, the leadership of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, who has led from the front, has been critical in shaping Bhutan’s Covid policy response. In fact, Bhutan’s containment model for Covid-19 could well be a model/exemplar for many others.

Tourism is a very important sector of the Bhutan economy. How is the country managing the loss of income from the tourism sector?

The Tourism Council of Bhutan has re-prioritised its flagship programme to engage those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, through a stimulus package. As per the council, the expected budget for the stimulus plan is Ngultrum 286 million. It is expected to benefit about 2,436 people in the tourism industry, who would be engaged under four different areas: infrastructure and project development, training and re-skilling, waste management and surveys and study projects in the tourism sector.

The benefits of the activities will contribute to the development of infrastructure, training, development of an eco-tourism master plan, assessment of trekking routes and creation of amenities at major tourist sites, leading to an overall enhanced experience for tourists as well as the development of the tourism sector which is based on the ‘High Value-Low Impact’ model.
Indian ambassador to Himalayan nation, Ruchira Kamboj, in an interview with The Telegraph

Health

Bhutan adds 10 more coronavirus infections

The ministry of health in Bhutan said on Sunday that 10 more patients have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the country, which marks the largest daily increase in the number of cases in the country, the total number of coronavirus infections in the country stood at 43.

Thimphu:
A Bhutanese student in quarantine in capital Thimphu has tested positive for COVID-19, making it the third case in the country and the first Bhutanese national to be infected, the Health Ministry said Thursday.

As per the ministry, the student has returned from Britain recently and was in quarantine when tested for the virus.

The ministry has initiated contact tracing and most of the contacts were already put under quarantine. Around 25 people were tested for the virus of which only the student was tested positive.

Meanwhile, the country’s health minister has also informed that the ministry has called back the doctors who went abroad. Around 24 have returned and are currently in quarantine centers.

Bhutan currently has only around 3,000 health workers and as per the minister this number will not be able to deliver the services if the country enter into the worst-case scenario. Around 600 backup volunteers have been trained to carry out health screening and the ministry plans to train 5,000 more.

To meet the shortages, the ministry also plans to keep those working in private clinics for backup services. The country also plans to call resigned doctors, nurses and health workers to make up for shortage if faced with worst-case situation.

Wildlife & Biodiversity

The cost of wildlife exploitation

NEW DELHI: Wildlife trade has become big business and the subsequent exploitation of wild animals puts our health, economies and biodiversity at risk, says World Animal Protection as they launch a campaign today targeting G20 leaders to support a permanent wildlife trade ban to protect wildlife and prevent future zoonotic pandemics.
As part of the campaign, international animal welfare charity, World Animal Protection is asking the Prime Minister of India, who will represent the country at the G20 summit, to support the call for a global ban on wildlife trade forever.
Covid-19 is one of the worst pandemics of animal origin that we have faced in a century. But the charity believes it won’t be the last, unless we urgently ban all commercial trade of wild animals globally.
Businesses are placing profit, estimated between USD 7-23 billion a year, over the health and welfare of both people and animals. The multi-billion-dollar trade in wild animals takes animals from their natural environments or commercially farms them, exposing them to stress and cruelty creating a hotbed for disease. As we have seen with COVID-19, these diseases can then be transferred to humans.
The main reason for the industrial scale commodification of wildlife is public demand for wild animals as food, traditional medicine, exotic pets, entertainment and fashion accessories.
World Animal Protection has been campaigning for many years to shift social attitudes and change industry practice to stop the exploitation of wild animals for the following uses:
Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM)
The demand for traditional medicine has devastating consequences for many species of wildlife traded globally, including bears that are poached and farmed for their bile.
The cruelty and poor conditions these bears suffer on farms leaves them susceptible to diseases which can then be transferred to people in close proximity. This risk to public health from the intensive farming of bears, and many other wildlife species, can be eradicated with a comprehensive wildlife trade ban.
TAM has an estimated value of USD 60 billion a year, and thought to account for nearly 30 per cent of China’s pharmaceutical revenue.
Exotic pets
Each year, millions of wild animals are captured from their natural habitats and bred in cruel captive conditions to be traded around the world as pets. Snakes, parrots, iguanas, lizards, tortoises, and even otters – these are just some of the wildlife species suffering as pets around the world.
Wild animals in the tourist industry
The growth of global tourism has driven the trade of tens of thousands of wild animals to be used for entertainment where they are being beaten, chained and abused.
The animals caught up in this cruel industry have often been legally traded or captive bred and spend many hours a day in close proximity to humans, increasing the potential spread of zoonoses.
“Cruel multi-billion-dollar businesses have been exploiting wild animals on an industrial global scale and we are now all seeing the true cost of that. This pandemic isn’t just about wild animals being sold for food. It’s much bigger than that, it’s about greed and the commodification of wild animals at every level. If we learn anything from this situation, it is that we need to leave wild animals where they belong, in the wild. We all have a responsibility to make a shift in our behaviour and attitudes towards animals that could save the lives of millions of people, animals and our economies. Some measures are being taken at national level, but there is a need for a coordinated global action. We urgently need to persuade the G20 to take steps towards implementing a global wildlife ban to protect us from future pandemics,” said Steve McIvor, CEO at World Animal Protection.
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has been a vocal advocate of wildlife conservation and has repeatedly called for compassion towards animals.
In this address to the nation after announcing the lockdown, the Prime Minister had urged all citizens to care for animals around them.
“The need for a global ban on wildlife trade is urgent and extremely important. What we are witnessing with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of human exploiting wild animals for their gains. This must stop now. The Prime Minister of India understands the importance of wildlife preservation and has supported animal welfare issues in the past. Now as he prepares to represent India at the G20 summit, we appeal to Narendra Modi to give his support to the call for an end to wildlife trade forever,” said Gajender K Sharma, Country Director, World Animal Protection India.
World Animal Protection has a strong track record of supporting local communities to transition away from incomes based on wildlife cruelty.
It’s urgent that we come together now to implement to a comprehensive wildlife trade ban to eliminate the threats of future pandemics to our health and economies.
Join us and ask Prime Minister Narendra Modi to support the call for an end to global trade of wild animals. www.worldanimalprotection.org.in/end-global-wildlife-trade-forever
This story is provided by NewsVoir

Weather

Dust and thunderstorms are likely over several parts of north India on May 29-30

New Delhi: Dust and thunderstorms are likely over several parts of north India on May 29-30, bringing the much-needed relief from the intense heatwave, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said on Monday.

Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh have been experiencing blistering heat for days with temperatures soaring over 45 degrees Celsius in some places.

The IMD had on Sunday issued a red colour-coded alert for north India for May 25-26 when the prevailing heatwave conditions are expected to peak.

Kuldeep Srivastava, head of the Regional Meteorological Department of the IMD, said due to a western disturbance and easterly winds, dust storm and thunderstorm activity is likely over Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh on May 29-30.

The wind speed is also likely to be around 50-60 kilometres per hour during this period, Srivastava said, adding that this will bring relief from the intense heat.

A western disturbance is a cyclonic storm that originates in the Mediterranean Sea and travels across Central Asia. When it comes in contact with the Himalayas, it brings rains to the hills and the plains.

Health

Phase-1 trial: Adenovirus COVID-19 vaccine found safe, induces immune responses

Trial was carried out on 108 participants aged 18-60 in Wuhan

A phase-1 trial using a single dose of a vaccine (Ad5-nCoV) that uses a recombinant adenovirus type-5 vector that carries the genetic material that codes for spike glycoprotein of novel coronavirus was found to be safe, well-tolerated and able to generate immune responses against the virus. The adenovirus is a weakened common cold virus.

The trial was carried out on 108 participants aged 18-60 years in Wuhan, China, and had 36 participants each in the low, middle and high-dose groups.

The trial did not involve randomisation of participants and did not have a control arm. The results are based on short duration of follow-up. The results were published in the journal The Lancet.

Safety of the vaccine

The most common adverse reaction was pain at the injection site (58 participants or 54%), fever (50 participants), fatigue (47 individuals), headache (42 participants) and muscle pain (18 participants). Most adverse reactions reported were mild or moderate in severity. One participant who was given the higher dose vaccine reported severe fever, along with severe symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath and muscle pain. However, these adverse reactions persisted for less than 48 hours. No serious adverse event was noted within 28 days post-vaccination.

80% success chance for Oxford vaccine trials, says Serum Institute chief

“As it was a first-in-human study of the adenovirus type-5 vectored COVID-19 vaccine, it was not designed to measure the vaccine efficacy,” they write. But they note that in animal studies, seven out of eight ferrets were protected when challenged by the virus 21 days after immunisation with the vaccine.

Immune responses

The vaccine was found to elicit neutralising antibodies, which peaked at day 28 post-vaccination, while rapid specific T-cell responses peaked at day 14 after vaccination. The antibody response to the vaccine in the high-dose group was slightly greater than that in the middle-dose and low-dose groups.

After 28 days, most participants had a four-fold increase in binding antibodies (35/36, 97% low-dose group; 34/36 (94%) middle-dose group, and 36/36, 100% in high-dose group). Meanwhile, 18 (50%) participants in the low-dose group, 18 (50%) in the middle-dose group, and 27 (75%) in the high-dose group showed neutralising antibodies against the virus.

WHO backs COVID-19 vaccine trials that deliberately infect participants

The vaccine also stimulated a rapid T cell response in the majority of volunteers, which was greater in those given the higher- and middle-doses of the vaccine, with levels peaking at 14 days after vaccination. About 83% (30 of 36) of low-dose participants, 97% (35 of 36) of middle-dose participants and 97% (35 of 36) of high-dose participants developed T cell responses at 14 days.

But 28 days after vaccination, the majority of recipients showed either a positive T cell response or had detectable neutralising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 (low-dose group 28/36, 78%; middle-dose group 33/36, 92%; high-dose group 36/36, 100%).

Limitations

The pre-existing immunity to adenovirus type-5 vector used in the vaccine, regardless of the vaccine doses, could reduce the immune responses (both neutralising antibodies and T-cell response) to the virus and also lower the peak of the responses, particularly for neutralising antibodies immunity. The high pre-existing immunity might also have a negative effect on the persistence of the vaccine-elicited immune responses, they write. Recipients aged 45-60 years seemed to have lower seroconversion of neutralising antibody, compared with the younger recipients.

In the study, 44-56% of participants had high pre-existing immunity to adenovirus type-5, and had a less positive neutralising antibody and T-cell response to the vaccine, they note.

Only five (25%) participants of 20 in the low-dose group, seven (37%) participants of 19 in the middle dose group, and ten (63%) participants of 16 in the high dose group, who had high pre-existing immunity to adenovirus type-5, had at least a four-fold increase in neutralising antibody titre at day 28 post-vaccination.

Phase-2 trial

The researchers will be testing the low- and middle-dose vaccine in phase-2 trials. “We selected doses for the phase-2 study mainly on the basis of the safety profile of the candidate vaccines shown in the participants within seven days and 14 days post-vaccination,” they note.

The phase-2 trial will be a randomised, double-blinded and placebo-controlled trial. The trial has already been initiated in Wuhan to determine if the results can be replicated and to also assess the vaccine for safety up to six months after vaccination. The vaccine will be tested on 500 healthy adults — 250 volunteers will get the middle dose, 125 will get the low dose and 125 will receive a placebo. The trial will include participants aged over 60.R. Prasad : , The Hindu

Environment

BJP’s minister exposes anti-coservation attitude regarding Dihing Patkai

GUWAHATI: Coal mining has forever remained a controversial business across India. In upper Assam the modus operandi of mining coal has always been alleged to be illegal and so, controversial.

The Assam government today hinted that it will back the Centre’s decision claiming that coal mining in the Dehing-Patkai reserve will be allowed only if it is sanctioned to be legal.

BJP’s promoinent leader , the state forest and environment minister, Parimal Suklabaidya, talking to media said, “It is during our BJP government that we identified the illegal mining going on in Dehing-Patkai and accordingly action was taken.” He further added that this government is only trying to make things legal, and it is the illegal nexus which had benefitted all this while that is creating the controversy now. Explaining further he said that illegal mining has been continuing in the area since 2003.

Moreover, it has never been reported that a single elephant has fallen victim to the illegal coal mining or its transportation in the area. “Is it really an elephant corridor where mining is taking place?” questioned the minister indicating that the “Amazon of the East,” i.e. the rain forest and the elephant reserve contained within it are far off from the actual area where mining of coal takes place. The forest minister further said that the state government has not yet given the approval, and it can happen only after proper scrutiny of the area.

For the record, a mining lease of 30 years was given to Coal India Limited (CIL) – a central government PSU – in 1973. After its expiry, CIL was supposed to apply for clearance from the forest department which it did only in 2012. However, coal mining had continued there always without the lease being renewed.

The Assam Forest Department had slapped a penalty of Rs 43.25 crores on CIL for this illegal mining activity inside the forest for 16 years since 2003; the department is yet to recover this amount. The forest department had also filed FIRs against officials responsible for alleged illegal activity on around 73 hectares of land inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve between 2003 and 2019. (Source: G Plus)

International

Nepal releases new political map showing Lipulekh and Kalapani as part of its territory

Nepal has issued a new national map incorporating areas also claimed by neighboring India, prompting fierce criticism from New Delhi.

At issue is about 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of mountainous land incorporating Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. Nepal’s new map locates the small stretch of disputed land within its northwest border, between China and India.
The cartographic dispute is based on differing interpretations of treaty signed by the British East India Company with the King of Nepal in 1816, which established the boundary between the two countries. Though both sides have long claimed the territory as their own, Wednesday marked the first time Nepal issued a map including the disputed area. India already includes the contested area in its own official map.

The dispute was reignited on May 8, when Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh virtually inaugurated a newly built 80-kilometer (50-mile) road connecting India’s Dharchula to Tibetan autonomous region via the Lipulekh pass, which is part of the contested area.
India expects the route to facilitate trade and the movement of Hindu pilgrims to Mansoravar lake in Chinese-administered Tibet, which is considered auspicious.
But hundreds of angry Nepali protesters took to the streets across Nepal opposing the Indian inauguration, burning Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effigy and called it a violation of their territorial sovereignty.
Nepal responded quickly. On May 9, its foreign ministry issued a statement asking India to “refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal.”
India responded, saying that the inaugurated road section lies “completely” within its territory, and that the two countries would discuss it after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic had passed. “Both sides are also in the process of scheduling Foreign Secretary level talks which will be held once the dates are finalized between the two sides after the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of Covid-19 emergency,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The next day, the Nepali government summoned the Indian ambassador over the matter.
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli suggested India was bullying Nepal, and warned, “We won’t let go the issue of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. This is our land and we will reclaim it. It is not a disputed land. It is our land. India created unnecessary controversy by claiming it as theirs. This government will make concrete efforts to reclaim the territories.”
Even China weighed in that day, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying during a daily press conference: “We hope the two countries will resolve their differences properly through friendly consultations and refrain from taking any unilateral action that may complicate the situation.”
On Wednesday, Nepal officially unveiled its revised and expanded national map — a move that India’s foreign ministry quickly criticized as “unilateral” and lacking in “historical facts and evidence.” “Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India,” the ministry added in its statement.
Nepal has not explained why the areas were not previously included in its national map.
Unveiling Nepal’s new political map that includes territories on Wednesday, central minister Padma Kumar Aryal expressed hope India will take it “in a positive way”. This is an unusual optimism to settle a boundary question.

Aryal did not elaborate her “positive” remark. Given the nature of India-Nepal relation, however, indicates that the Nepal government hopes India will factor in what is going on domestically in Nepal’s politics

THE BACKSTORY: OLI’S PM CHAIR

Nepal is being ruled by a relatively upstart political party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which turned two over last weekend. The two-year-old party came into being with China’s ruling communist party after merger of two dominant communist parties of Nepal – the Marxist-Leninist and the Maoist.

Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli shares the chair of the Nepal Communist Party with Pushpa Kumar Dahal, more commonly known as Prachanda. Oli is from the Marxist-Leninist stream and Prachanda from Maoist faction.

Oli became the prime minister following an electoral victory in 2017 and a compromise between the two factions in the ruling party in 2018. But his position in the Nepal’s PMO has not been secure. There has been pressure on him to make way for a Maoist prime minister.

Covid-19 outbreak in Nepal and the failure of the Oli government to manage the disease in the country only mounted pressure on the prime minister, who was not ready to let go the reins of the power out of his hand.

Though, he once proposed to resign in favour of Bamdev Gautam. But the other factions, particularly the one under Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal did not agree.

Then in the middle of Covid-19 outbreak, the Oli government promulgated two ordinances on April 20. They were not related to Covid-19 strategy. These laws amended the Political Parties Act of Nepal making it easier to split a party.

This move baffled political observers as the Nepal Communist Party has majority in the country’s parliament. This, however, exposed the fault-lines lying beneath the surface unity of the party, and also the growing pressure on Oli to quit.

The Kathmandu Post reported that the approval for the ordinances from President Bidya Devi Bhandari came while a secretariat meeting was underway to discuss the ordinances. The daily called it “well-choreographed move”.

Soon after the ordinances were brought out, the rival faction stepped up ante against Oli. Prachanda took charge of the rival faction forcing Oli to withdraw the ordinances in four days.

This was also the time when Chinese ambassador in Nepal got involved holding meetings with both factions and also with President Bhandari. A compromise was reached. But public opinion was going against the government and the ruling party.

Some time in between a strategy was devised to deflect public attention from crisis in the government and its failure to tackle Covid-19 crisis. National pride became the rallying point. Oli has a history of thriving on anti-India sentiments.

India soon opened new Kailash Mansarovar route through Lipulekh pass. Nepal protested. The November 2019 updated map released by India provided the launching pad.

India had released its new political map following creation of two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh from erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The map can be seen here.

Nepal had then protested over inclusion of Kalapani in India’s map. India had then said its boundaries with Nepal had not been altered in the new map.

Six months later, Nepal has now released its new political map. Its old map obviously did not show Kalapani, Lipiyadhura and Lipulekh as its territories. These areas have not been under Nepal’s administration.

There is more to Kalapani story and Oli’s anti-India stance. During his first term as Nepal’s prime minister, there was a constitutional crisis in Nepal fueling anti-India sentiments with India unofficially imposing blockade for months. To counter India, Oli had signed a series of agreements with China.

His remark that novel coronavirus from India is more lethal than the variants from Italy and China, is convenient politicking to raise an anti-India sentiment among his political constituencies.
The issue

The main issue is that Lipulekh Pass is considered a disputed border region by Nepal and both the countries claim it to be a part of their territory. India has always been clear on this and considers Lipulekh within the country borders. On Friday (May 8), the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had inaugurated the new route to reach Kailash Mansarovar. Indians and Tibetans have been in border trade for quite some time now at the Lipulekh Pass and this new road links the pass to Dharchula, which is a town in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand in India. Soon after the inauguration, Nepal raised an objection to the new route.

As of now, the second stretch is being converted into a double lane road by the Border Roads Organisation. Till now, 76 km of the 80 km stretch, (that will cut down the travel time to two days by vehicles) is completed and the last 4 km stretch till Lipulekh Pass is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.

A statement released by the Ministry of Defence said, “The road originates from Ghatiabagarh and terminates at Lipulekh Pass, the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar. In this 80-km road, the altitude rises from 6000 to 17060 ft. With the completion of this project, the arduous trek through treacherous, high-altitude terrain can now be avoided by the pilgrims of Kailash-Mansarovar”.

Why is Nepal objecting to the connecting road for Kailash Mansarovar through Lipulekh Pass?Credit: iStock

The new route via Uttarakhand will have three main stretches.

1) The first one is a 107.6 km long road from Pithoragarh to Tawaghat.
2) The second will be from Tawaghat to Ghatiabgarh on a 19.5 km single lane.
3) The third is the 80 km from Ghatiabgarh to Lipulekh Pass at the China border.

The Lipulekh stretch can be only covered on foot and almost takes five days to reach. Not only this, a number of accidents have happened on this road. Till now, Indian pilgrims could reach Kailash Mansarovar via three routes only, through Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal).

Wildlife & Biodiversity

Wild boars die in Arunachal as African swine fever kills 15,000 pigs in Assam

As Assam prepares for mass culling to check the spread of African swine fever (ASF) that has killed almost 15,000 domesticated pigs, adjoining Arunachal Pradesh fears that the “foreign” disease may have “gone wild”.

This is the first time that ASF has been reported in India. Assam claims the disease came from China, where almost 60% of pigs have died since 2018.

Officials in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Siang district said six carcases of wild boars, including three piglets, were found in a community forest at Lidor Soyit upstream of Sille River. The spot is about 25 km from district headquarters Pasighat.

There have been unverified reports of several wild boars dying from an unknown disease in East Siang and Upper Siang districts, but the recovery of the carcasses — some partly eaten by scavengers — on Thursday made officials wary of the possibility of ASF having spread from scores of domestic pigs that have died in the State over the last two months.

“A team of forest, veterinary officials and experts trekked about 10 km to locate the carcasses after receiving information from the villages. We suspect ASF is the cause of death, but will have to await confirmation after we send blood and tissue samples to labs outside,” Divisional Forest Officer (Territorial) Tashi Mize told The Hindu on Friday.

Some of the carcasses appeared to have been consumed by porcupines. “ASF is confined to porcine creatures, so other animals are unlikely to be affected. But the possibility of becoming carriers of the virus could affect the wild boar population,” he said.

While veterinary officials have advised culling of domesticated pigs in the affected areas, the Forest Department has identified critical areas and advised villagers not to hunt wild boars and consume their meat.

Assam seeks help
The Assam government as sought a financial package of ₹144 crore from the Centre for compensating pig farmers who have lost their only source of income.

“The situation is turning grim with AFS spreading from six to 10 of Assam’s 33 districts and killing 14,919 pigs despite having taken all possible preventive measures. We are discussing other options,” State Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Minister Atul Bora said.

These measures include culling, which the State government was initially reluctant to undertake.

The Veterinary and Forest Departments also got together to dig trenches on the periphery of wildlife reserve, specifically the Kaziranga National Park that houses an estimated 15,000 wild boars, to stop them from coming in contact with domestic pigs reared in adjoining villages.

Officials say there is no cure for ASF, which kills almost 100% of the pigs it strikes.

Health

American’s rescue from Bhutan involves a king, a ventilator and an 8,000-mile journey

NEW DELHI – The 76-year old American tourist arrived at the hospital in Thimphu, the sleepy capital of Bhutan, on a cool day in early March.

His symptoms were perplexing. He complained of stomach trouble and breathlessness, but his vital signs were normal. There was one exception: The level of oxygen in his blood was so low that doctors thought the monitor was malfunctioning. On a hunch, they decided to test him for the novel coronavirus.

Bert Hewitt, a retiree from Maryland with a passion for hiking, would become the first confirmed coronavirus case in Bhutan, a country of 780,000 people nestled in the world’s highest mountains and famous for its pursuit of “gross national happiness.”

Hewitt’s prognosis was not good. He had high blood pressure, and he was a cancer survivor whose spleen had been removed, compromising his immune system. His condition deteriorated rapidly.

In other ways, however, Hewitt would turn out to be exceptionally lucky. His case received personal attention from Bhutan’s beloved king. He was evacuated back to the United States in a Gulfstream jet outfitted with a biocontainment unit. The 8,000-mile journey was so complex that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later singled it out for praise – especially because the patient was “frankly expected to die.”

Hewitt’s survival is also a source of pride in Bhutan, a young democracy where the monarchy remains revered. The command “from his majesty was to really take care of him,” said Dechen Wangmo, the country’s health minister. “The whole nation was, I think, praying for Bert.”

Hewitt’s odyssey began in mid-February. He and his partner, Sandi Fischer, a 59-year-old psychologist from Los Angeles, planned to travel around India and Bhutan. They took a week-long cruise down the Brahmaputra River in northeastern India, stopping in small villages.

On the last night of the cruise, the staff prepared a sumptuous banquet, but Hewitt’s appetite had vanished. He could not eat a bite.

To reach Bhutan, Hewitt and Fischer flew north toward an unbroken line of Himalayan peaks, then descended into the valley that is home to the country’s only international airport.

Hewitt’s gastrointestinal problems worsened, he said, and he felt breathless. After an outing to the town of Punakha, where the pair mingled with locals at an annual festival, Hewitt could barely walk from the car to a cafe for a cup of tea.

At first, doctors in Thimphu believed Hewitt had a stomach bug. On March 4, he returned to the hospital. Within 24 hours, there was an answer: coronavirus.

For the Bhutanese authorities, it meant the threat they feared had arrived. Health officials rushed to trace Hewitt’s contacts. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck oversaw the process in person, staying through the night, said Dechen Wangmo, the health minister.

By the next morning, 73 direct contacts were moved to quarantine facilities. Another 225 indirect contacts were told to isolate at home. In the northeastern Indian state of Assam, health authorities traced nearly 600 people, including the staff of the river boat.

Hewitt and Fischer were moved to a new wing of Thimphu’s main hospital, which is named after Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, a previous king. The current monarch sent Hewitt a pair of blue silk pajamas and a bedspread.

The king constantly inquired as to the couple’s well-being. In a call with Fischer, he said he hoped to speak with Hewitt, a physicist by training, about black holes one day. “He was lovely and very solicitous and kind,” Fischer said. She also heard from Bhutan’s prime minister, Lotay Tshering, who is himself a doctor. Strangers sent letters and flowers to the hospital.

From his room, Hewitt could see a line of white Buddhist prayer flags fluttering on a ridge. Despite the efforts of a dedicated team of doctors and nurses, he became increasingly ill. The X-rays of his lungs were “horrendous,” Fischer said.

A doctor told Hewitt that the only option was to place him on a ventilator. It would be the last thing he remembered for 10 days.

Back in Maryland, Hewitt’s children were frantic. His elder daughter reached out to the government for help getting her father home. William Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations at the State Department, approached Phoenix Air, an air charter company in Georgia with expertise in medical evacuations.

The nearest aircraft with a biocontainment unit was in Nairobi. It flew to Bhutan with a crew that included a nurse and a paramedic, a Phoenix executive told a Georgia newspaper. Fischer watched from a hospital window as Hewitt, still on a ventilator, was wheeled into a waiting ambulance. She thought she would never see him again.

The jet stopped in Kolkata, India; Dubai; the Greek island of Crete; Paris; and Newfoundland, Canada, to refuel and take on fresh crew members. None of them were allowed to leave the aircraft during the journey because they were transporting a contagious patient, the Phoenix executive said.

Early on March 14, more than 30 hours after the jet departed Bhutan, it landed in Maryland. Hewitt was transferred to the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where his eldest daughter is the director of care management. Hewitt’s daughter and a spokeswoman for the hospital declined to respond to questions.

During the pandemic, the State Department has helped repatriate more than 85,000 Americans. Only 20 have been covid-19 patients. They include 14 passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and six others who were evacuated via “dedicated biocontainment missions,” said Walters, the State Department medical official.

While each of the six had a “unique mix of challenges, none have matched the evacuation of the U.S. citizen from Bhutan,” he said. The other medical flights were from Nigeria, Djibouti, Chad and the Congo Republic.

Such evacuations cost upward of $200,000, Walters said, and families undertake to reimburse the government for the price of the journey.

Hewitt was on a ventilator for 10 days. His first memory is waking up with someone pressing on his head and calling his name. Hewitt said that a doctor there told him that “whatever they tried in Bhutan probably saved your life.” After about two weeks, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility.

At first, he was too weak to press the call button to summon a nurse. Yet to his own surprise, he made a swift recovery. He had left Bhutan with nothing except his passport, which was returned to him in a biohazard bag.

Fischer also ultimately tested positive for the virus but remained asymptomatic. She was the only confirmed case traced back to Hewitt: None of their Bhutanese contacts, including their tour guide and driver, tested positive. Nor did the handful of their contacts tested in India. To date, Bhutan has recorded 15 coronavirus cases in total.

Last week, Hewitt was able to complete his former daily exercise regimen: a five-mile walk up and down hills in the woods next to his home. He and Fischer – who managed to return to California after seven weeks in Bhutan – talk every morning.

Hewitt believes he came within a few days of dying. He is at a loss to explain his recovery. “I still think it’s a miracle I survived,” he said.

An optimist by nature, he used to take a cavalier attitude toward things like travel insurance. “I’ll be a bit more careful in the future,” he said, then laughed. Pandemic or no, there aren’t any trips on the horizon: His daughter, he said, has threatened to confiscate his passport.
by Joanna Slater, The Washington Post