India steps up efforts to curb locust infestation

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Battling its worst desert locust outbreak in decades, India is ordering new equipment to control the swarms before summer crop-sowing gathers pace in the middle of this month.

India has brought the locusts under control at 399 locations in five states and has placed an order to buy 60 new insecticide spraying machines, two government sources said.

Authorities have used specialist vehicles and fire engines to spray insecticides in an area of 55,542 hectares in the western states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, central state of Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, and Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north.

The government also plans to buy five helicopter-mounted spray systems to curb the fast-spreading swarms by mid-June when monsoon rains help farmers boost rice, cane, corn, cotton and soybean sowing, according to the sources, who are directly involved in formulating plans to tackle the scourge.

Nearly half of the 60 insecticide spraying machines will arrive this week, they said.

India needs to stop the infestation from spreading further to ensure the swarms do not devour summer crops.

“We’ve been rather lucky that we’ve got a week or two to get our acts together and stop locusts before summer sowing gathers momentum,” said Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotech Centre, a non-profit scientific society.

The locust infestation has not caused significant damage so far due to the lean season – the gap between the previous harvest and the next planting season.

The farm ministry should be allowed to use drones to spray insecticides on vast swathes of northern, western and central plains – the main farm belt, Choudhary said.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Factbox: China’s numerous diplomatic disputes

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is engaged in diplomatic disputes on numerous fronts, from acrimony with the United States to a backlash over its clampdown on Hong Kong, a border dispute with India and criticism over its handling of the novel coronavirus.

Following are some of the main points of contention between China and other countries:

UNITED STATES

From disputes over trade and technology, to U.S. criticism over the coronavirus outbreak and China’s accusation of U.S. backing for protests in Hong Kong, ties between the world’s two biggest economies are at their lowest point in decades.

HONG KONG

China’s plan to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong provoked U.S. retaliation and disapproval from other Western capitals. The city’s former colonial ruler Britain said it would offer extended visa rights to British national overseas (BNO) passport holders from Hong Kong.

CORONAVIRUS

Several countries, including the United States and Australia, have called for China to be held to account for its early handling of the coronavirus, which emerged late last year in the city of Wuhan. China has also faced criticism for what some have characterized as heavy-handed “virus diplomacy”.

TAIWAN

China has stepped up diplomatic and military pressure on Chinese-claimed but democratically ruled Taiwan, trying to coax it into accepting Chinese rule. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, re-elected by a landslide in January, has rejected that, saying only Taiwan’s people can decide its future.

INDIA

China and India are engaged in the most serious military standoff on their disputed border since 2017, with soldiers in the remote Ladakh region accusing each other of encroachment.

XINJIANG

China has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere over its treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims in its western Xinjiang region. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation calling for sanctions on officials responsible for the oppression of Uighurs.

HUAWEI

The United States has raised security concerns over equipment provided by Chinese telecoms gear giant Huawei, warning that allies that use it in their networks risked being cut off from valuable intelligence-sharing feeds. Last month, the United States moved to block global chip supplies to Huawei, which denies that its equipment poses a security risk.

CANADA

Ties have been strained since Canada arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the firm’s founder, in late 2018. Soon after, China detained two Canadians and blocked imports of some canola seed. Meng lost a court ruling last month in her fight against extradition to the United States.

EUROPEAN UNION

EU foreign ministers agreed last week to toughen their strategy on China to counter its increasingly assertive diplomacy against a backdrop of concern about Hong Kong. The bloc has been frustrated over market access for its companies in China, which has sought to block an EU report alleging that China was spreading disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, according to diplomatic sources.

AUSTRALIA

China last month imposed tariffs on barley imports from Australia, the latest escalation between them. Relations soured in 2018 when Australia banned Huawei from its 5G broadband network, and China has been angered by Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China has overlapping claims in the energy-rich South China Sea, which is also an important trade route, with the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. The United States has accused China of taking advantage of the distraction of the coronavirus to advance its presence in the waters.

(Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Cyclone kills at least 82 in India, Bangladesh, causes widespread flooding

By Ruma Paul and and Subrata Nagchoudhury

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – The most powerful cyclone to strike eastern India and Bangladesh in over a decade killed at least 82 people, officials said, as rescue teams scoured devastated coastal villages, hampered by torn down power lines and flooding over large tracts of land.

Mass evacuations organized by authorities before Cyclone Amphan made landfall undoubtedly saved countless lives, but the full extent of the casualties and damage to property would only be known once communications were restored, officials said.

In the Indian state of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said on Thursday that at least 72 people had perished – most of them either electrocuted or killed by trees uprooted by winds that gusted up to 185 km per hour (115 mph).

In neighboring Bangladesh, the initial toll was put at 10.

“I have never seen such a cyclone in my life. It seemed like the end of the world. All I could do was to pray… Almighty Allah saved us,” Azgar Ali, 49, a resident of Satkhira district on the Bangladesh coast told Reuters.

Mohammad Asaduzzaman, a senior police official in the area said the storm tore off tin roofs, snapped power lines and left many villages inundated.

When the cyclone barrelled in from the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday the storm surge of around five meters resulted in flooding across the low-lying coastal areas.

Reuters Television footage shot in West Bengal showed upturned boats on the shore, people wading through knee-deep water and buses crashed into each other. More images showed villagers trying to lift fallen electricity poles, fishermen hauling their boats out of a choppy sea, and uprooted trees lying strewn across the countryside.

Designated a super cyclone, Amphan has weakened since making landfall. Moving inland through Bangladesh, it was downgraded to a cyclonic storm on Thursday by the Indian weather office. And the storm was expected to subside into a depression later.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted a tweet expressing concern over the people suffering in West Bengal.

“Have been seeing visuals from West Bengal on the devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan. In this challenging hour, the entire nation stands in solidarity with West Bengal,” he said.

Concern was growing over flooding in the Sundarbans, an ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border, best known for thick mangrove forests and its tiger reserve.

“The tidal surge submerged some part of the forest,” said Belayet Hossain, a forest official on the Bangladesh side of the forest. “We have seen trees uprooted, the tin-roofs of the guard towers blown off,” he said.

Over on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, a village official said embankments surrounding a low-lying island, where some 5,000 people live, had been washed away, and he had been unable to contact authorities for help.

“We have not been able inform them about anything since last night, the official, Sanjib Sagar, told Reuters.

MASS EVACUATIONS

Authorities in both countries managed to evacuate more than three million people, moving them to storm shelters before Amphan struck. But the evacuation effort was focused on communities that lay directly in the cyclone’s path, leaving villages on the flanks still vulnerable.

The airport in Kolkata, West Bengal’s state capital, lay underwater and several neighborhoods in the city of 14 million people have had no electricity since the storm struck, according to residents.

After the storm passed people were trying to retrieve articles from the rubble of their shops in the city.

Pradip Kumar Dalui, an official in the state’s South 24 Parganas area, said that storm waters breached river embankments in several places, flooding over half a dozen villages, that were home for more than 100,000 people.

Electricity lines and phone connections were down in many places, but so far no deaths had been reported in this area, he said.

The cyclone came at a time when the two countries are battling to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and some evacuees were initially reluctant to leave their homes for fear of possible infection in the packed storm shelters.

 

(Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneshwar, Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Cyclone kills 14 in India, Bangladesh leaving trail of destruction

By Subrata Nagchoudhary and Ruma Paul

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – A powerful cyclone pounded eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and destroying thousands of homes, officials said, leaving authorities struggling to mount relief efforts amid a surging coronavirus outbreak.

The populous Indian state of West Bengal took the brunt of Cyclone Amphan, which barrelled out of the Bay of Bengal with gusting winds of up to 185 km per hour (115 mph) and a storm surge of around five meters.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at least 10 people had died in the state, and two districts been completely battered by one of the strongest storms to hit the region in several years.

“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted,” Banerjee said, adding that although 500,000 people had been evacuated, state authorities had not entirely anticipated the ferocity of the storm.

With rains continuing, she said the hardest hits areas were not immediately accessible. Federal authorities said they could only make a proper assessment of the destruction on Thursday morning.

“We are facing greater damage and devastation than the CoVID-19,” Banerjee said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has so far killed 250 people in the state.

Members of National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF) remove a branch of an uprooted tree after Cyclone Amphan made its landfall, in Digha, near the border between the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, India, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

In West Bengal’s capital city, Kolkata, strong winds upturned cars and felled trees and electricity poles. Parts of the city were plunged into darkness.

An official in the adjoining Hooghly district said thousands of mud homes were damaged by raging winds.

In neighboring Bangladesh, at least four people were killed, officials said, with power supplies cut off in some districts.

Authorities there had shifted around 2.4 million people to more than 15,000 storm shelters this week. Bangladeshi officials also said they had moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, to shelter.

But officials said they feared that standing crops could be damaged and large tracts of fertile land in the densely-populated country washed away.

“Fortunately, the harvesting of the rice crop has almost been completed. Still, it could leave a trail of destruction,” said Mizanur Rahman Khan, a senior official in the Bangladesh agriculture ministry.

Cyclones frequently batter parts of eastern India and Bangladesh between April and December, often forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands and causing widespread damage.

SURGE AND HIGH TIDE

Surging waters broke through embankments surrounding an island in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district, destroying more than 500 homes, local official Rezaul Karim said.

“We could avoid casualties as people were moved to cyclone centers earlier,” Karim said.

Embankments were also breached in West Bengal’s Sundarban delta, where weather authorities had said the surge whipped up by the cyclone could inundate up to 15 km inland.

The ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border is best known for thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat and is home to around 4 million people in India.

On the Sundarbans’ Ghoramara island, resident Sanjib Sagar said several embankments surrounding settlements had been damaged, and some flooding had started.

“A lot of houses have been damaged,” he told Reuters by phone.

Anamitra Anurag Danda, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank who has extensively studied the Sundarbans, said that embankments across the area may have been breached.

“The cyclone surge coincided with the new moon high tides. It is devastation in the coastal belt,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR, Writing by Rupam Jain and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Nick Macfie, Alex Richardson and Nick Zieminski)

Cyclone Amphan tears into India, Bangladesh, destroys homes, whips up storm surge

By Subrata Nagchoudhary and Ruma Paul

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – A powerful cyclone tore into eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, destroying mud houses and embankments and whipping up a storm surge along the coast, officials said, after millions of people were moved out of its path.

At least one 70-year-old man was killed by a falling tree in Bangladesh’s coastal Bhola district, a police official said. The low-lying country has evacuated 2.4 million people to shelters.

Another 650,000 people have been moved to safety in the eastern Indian states of Odisha and West Bengal, authorities said, an operation carried out amid surging coronavirus infections.

It was too early to estimate a toll on life or damage to property.

Cyclone Amphan began moving inland with winds gusting up to 185 kph, Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director-general of the India Meteorological Department, told reporters.

Mohapatra said that the storm surge could rise to around five meters in the Sundarbans delta, home to around four million people and thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat.

“Our estimate is that some areas 10-15 kilometers from the coast could be inundated,” Mohapatra said.

On the Sundarbans’ Ghoramara island, resident Sanjib Sagar said several embankments surrounding settlements had been damaged, and some flooding had started.

“A lot of houses have been damaged,” he told Reuters by phone.

The storm will also sweep past Kolkata, a sprawling city of 4.5 million people, where strong winds uprooted trees and electricity poles, littering several streets, television showed.

A home ministry official said authorities in West Bengal and neighboring Odisha had struggled to house thousands of evacuees as shelters were being used as coronavirus quarantine centers.

Extra shelters were being prepared in markets and government buildings with allowances made for social distancing, while masks were being distributed to villagers.

Police in West Bengal said some people were unwilling to go to the shelters because they were afraid of being infected by the coronavirus and many were refusing to leave their livestock.

“We have literally had to force people out of their homes, make them wear masks and put them in government buildings,” said a senior police official in Kolkata.

In Bangladesh, standing crops could be damaged and large tracts of fertile land washed away, officials said. Farmers were being helped to move produce and hundreds of thousands of animals to higher ground.

“Fortunately, the harvesting of the rice crop has almost been completed. Still it could leave a trail of destruction,” Mizanur Rahman Khan, a senior official in the Bangladesh agriculture ministry, said.

Bangladeshi officials also said they had moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, to shelter.

(GRAPHIC: Map of cyclone path – https://ppe.graphics.reuters.com/ASIA-STORM/INDIA-BANGLADESH/xklpykdqpgd/Amphan-cyclone.jpg)

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR, Writing by Rupam Jain and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)

India set to ship drug sought by Trump for coronavirus

By Zeba Siddiqui and Sumit Khanna

NEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD (Reuters) – India is set to begin shipping the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to the United States where President Donald Trump has touted it as a potential weapon against the coronavirus.

“The first shipments should start next week,” said Sudarshan Jain, secretary general of Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA).

India is the world’s largest producer of hydroxychloroquine but last month banned most exports to secure its own supplies, drawing warnings of retaliation from Trump.

This week India allowed some exports of the drug and Trump has thanked New Delhi for the decision.

Jain said companies in India are ramping up capacity to meet the U.S. demand, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, IPCA Laboratories and Cadila Healthcare.

Cadila has increased production tenfold to 30 metric tonnes per month and is ready to produce more if needed, Managing Director Sharvil Patel told Reuters.

Companies are ramping up while battling a three-week nationwide lockdown India imposed on March 25.

Cadila is based in western India’s Gujarat state, a drug production hub where industry insiders say the shutdown has forced companies to contend with supply chain disruptions and worker shortages.

“There are 28 manufacturers of hydroxychloroquine in Gujarat,” said H.G. Koshia, a senior drugs department official. “All of them have enhanced production in view of rise in demand.”

The IPA’s Jain said firms were confident they could produce adequate quantities to meet both global and domestic demand.

“The government is getting a lot of requests from other countries,” Jain noted.

India is stocking at least four months’ supply and has agreed to export to at least 30 countries, according to export body Pharmexcil’s estimates.

Hydroxychloroquine is unproven as a treatment https://in.reuters.com/article/uk-health-coronavirus-usa-hydroxychloroq/special-report-doctors-embrace-drug-touted-by-trump-for-covid-19-without-hard-evidence-it-works-idINKBN21O2VH but its use has soared as the United States has quickly become the epicentre of the pandemic.

U.S. deaths due to coronavirus topped 16,400, while India’s death toll stands at 199.

(Additonal reporting by Neha Dasgupta in New Delhi; writing by Abhirup Roy and Zeba Siddiqui; editing by Aditya Kalra and Jason Neely)

‘Some of us will die’: India’s homeless stranded by coronavirus lockdown

By Zeba Siddiqui and Sunil Kataria

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – In a densely packed neighborhood of Delhi, hundreds of homeless people queued up this week as volunteers doled out rice and peas from a vat in the back of a van.

Only a handful of the people in the crowd wore masks. There were no hand sanitizers or wash basins in sight and no social distancing.

“I need the food,” said a man in the queue, Shiv Kumar.

“If I stand apart, someone else might come in between.”

Volunteers say such scenes are playing out daily across India, as laborers and waste pickers – most of them homeless or too poor to afford a meal – are among the hardest hit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-week nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Most of the estimated 4 million plus homeless people in India have had no way of earning a living since the lockdown began on March 25. With streets deserted, even begging is not an option.

Many wander aimlessly, some find refuge at homeless shelters where ranks of people sleep beside each other.

While the plight of India’s migrant workers has garnered headlines, with thousands forced to walk miles to reach home since the lockdown began, many aid workers say the millions of homeless in India face a bigger risk.

Officials say the shutdown is necessary to stem the spread of the coronavirus. India has reported more than 1,500 cases and 38 deaths from the outbreak.

But rights groups have criticized the government over what they say has been inadequate planning ahead of the lockdown.

“You cannot impose such drastic measures on a population the size of India all of a sudden,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit group that works with the homeless.

“In shelters, we face serious challenges such as the lack of adequate space and sanitation,” she said. “If one person in a shelter gets infected, it’s going to be very hard to control its spread.”

‘URGENT REQUIREMENT’

While some cities like Delhi and Chennai have several homeless shelters, in other parts of the country, like Mumbai, many are stranded on the streets, rights groups say.

Some states are now scrambling to put the homeless in tents in parks, or at schools and other vacant spaces.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a municipal councillor said government-run homeless shelters were all packed and there was no way of keeping people apart as a coronavirus precaution.

The Delhi government said in an order last week that social distancing must be “strictly followed” at the 200 odd night shelters across the city. But at least four shelters Reuters visited this week said they were struggling to follow the orders given the numbers of people seeking help.

“How do we do social distancing? If we separate them we will have to let many of them go,” said a manager at one shelter with a capacity of 500 people.

The federal Ministry of Urban Affairs only issued an order on March 28 – four days after the lockdown began – telling state governments there was “an urgent requirement” to support the homeless, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

While the government has outlined a $22.6 billion stimulus plan that provides for direct cash transfers and food security measures for the poor, many activists say it is unclear how many homeless, many of whom lack documentation, would get any aid.

MOST VULNERABLE

Doctors and health experts say the homeless are among the most at risk from the virus as many already suffer from illnesses such as tuberculosis, and their morbidity rates are higher than for the general population.

“How does one quarantine someone who has no home, or someone who lives cheek to jowl with 10 others in a small room?” said Dr Zarir Udwadia, an infectious diseases specialist in Mumbai, who has been treating coronavirus patients.

“Poverty and overcrowding like ours are likely catalysts for the COVID-19 explosion we anticipate with trepidation,” he said.

The spread of coronavirus among such a population would be terrifying, warned Indu Prakash Singh, a member of the Supreme Court’s urban poverty monitoring committee.

“In any pandemic these are first people to be hit,” he said calling efforts to tackle the issue “slipshod”.

Many of those on the streets view the coronavirus with a grim fatalism.

“Some of us will die, some of us will live to suffer,” said Zakir Hussain, a 45-year-old laborer, standing near a homeless shelter in Delhi.

“We are poor. We’ve been left here to die. Our lives are of no value to anyone.”

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in New Delhi and additional reporting by Subrata Nag Choudhury in Kolkata; Editing by Euan Rocha and Robert Birsel)

Countries threaten jail for April Fools’ Day jokes about coronavirus

By Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Thailand to India, countries have told people not to make April Fools’ Day pranks related to coronavirus, with some threatening jail time as they seek to prevent the spread of rumours which could put lives at risk.

Tech giant Google, which is famous for its annual spoofs, has cancelled the tradition because of the pandemic which has killed about 40,000 people worldwide.

Thailand said on Tuesday that April Fool’s Day jokes about the virus could be punished under a law carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

“It’s against the law to fake having COVID-19 this April Fools’ Day,” the government said on Twitter.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to tell people not to prank about the virus, adding that anyone spreading rumours or false information could face up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to NT$3 million ($99,200).

In India, Maharashtra state’s cyber security unit said it would take legal action against anyone spreading fake news on April Fools’ Day.

“The state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumours/panic on #Corona,” Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted, adding that he had instructed the authorities to “act swiftly & strongly (against) such miscreants”.

Under the heading “Corona is no joke”, Germany’s health ministry also urged the public not to make up stories related to the virus.

With people relying on the internet and media for vital information about coronavirus, there are fears that jokes could fan the spread of misinformation.

From drinking cow urine to sleeping by chopped onions, myths about how people can catch and cure COVID-19 are already widely circulating.

The World Health Organization has described it as an “infodemic”, which could increase the spread of the virus among vulnerable people.

Google said it had suspended its annual April Fools’ tradition “out of respect for all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one,” it said in an internal email to staff.

In previous years Google has advertised fictitious jobs at a new research center on the moon, turned Google Maps into a game of Where’s Waldo – also known as Where’s Wally – and claimed its search technology uses trained pigeons to rank pages.

Taylor Herring, a British PR agency whose clients include TV channels and international brands, advised all companies to ditch the jokes this year.

“Tip for any brands planning an April Fool’s Day stunt. Just. Don’t,” it said on social media.

Others commented on twitter that April Fools’ Day had been cancelled because no one could make up anything more unbelievable than what is currently happening in the world.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Indian police fire tear gas on jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown

By Sanjeev Miglani and Sumit Khanna

NEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Police in western India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said on Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country’s 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.

But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

Many have been walking for days, some with families including small children, on deserted highways with little access to food or water.

On Sunday, about 500 workers clashed with police in the western city of Surat demanding they be allowed to go home to other parts of India because they had no jobs left.

β€œThe police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available…However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat deputy commissioner of police Vidhi Chaudhari said.

She said the workers, most of them employed in the shuttered textile industry in Surat, were driven indoors by tear gas volleys and on Monday 93 of them were detained for violating lockdown orders.

TIP OF ICEBERG

India has registered 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on Monday. The number of known cases is small compared with the United States, Italy and China, but health officials say India is weeks away from a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

A health official said the large scale movement of people into the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus widely, compounding the challenge of containing the outbreak in the world’s second most populous country.

“It’s an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up, like having migratory populations moving from one place to another. Like non-affected states adjoining affected states,” said Dr S.K. Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks of illness.

Homeless people wait for food, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, health workers dressed in protection suits sprayed disinfectant on a group of migrant workers who were also trying to make the journey home to their villages, local television showed. They were made to sit on a street corner in the Bareilly district and doused with hose pipes, prompting anger on social media.

Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, later said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal they had also turned their hoses onto migrant workers.

“I have asked for action to be taken against those responsible for this,” he said in a tweet.

The federal government said on Monday that it had no plans to extend the shutdown beyond the three-week period.

But neighbouring Nepal announced it would prolong its shutdown for another week from Tuesday. The landlocked country has reported only five cases of the virus and no deaths, but it is concerned contagion will spread as more people travel.

(Additional reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Death toll rises to 32 in religious violence in India’s capital

By Aftab Ahmed

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 32 people have been killed in the deadliest violence to engulf India’s capital New Delhi for decades as a heavy deployment of security forces brought an uneasy calm on Thursday, a police official said.

The violence began over a disputed new citizenship law on Monday but led to clashes between Muslims and Hindus in which hundreds were injured. Many suffered gunshot wounds, while arson, looting and stone-throwing has also taken place.

“The death count is now at 32,” Delhi police spokesman Anil Mittal said, adding the “entire area is peaceful now.”

Men remove debris in a riot affected area following clashes between people demonstrating for and against a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

At the heart of the unrest is a citizenship law which makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the new law adopted last December is of “great concern” and she was worried by reports of police inaction in the face of assaults against Muslims by other groups.

“I appeal to all political leaders to prevent violence,” Bachelet said in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any prejudice against India’s 180 million Muslims, saying that law is required to help persecuted minorities.

New Delhi has been the epicenter for protests against the new law, with students and large sections of the Muslim community leading the protests.

As the wounded were brought to hospitals on Thursday, the focus shifted on the overnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar, a Delhi High Court judge who was hearing a petition into the riots and had criticized government and police inaction on Wednesday.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the transfer was routine and had been recommended by the Supreme Court collegium earlier this month.

Opposition Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said every lawyer and judge in India should strongly protest what he called a crude attempt to intimidate the judiciary.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said inflammatory speeches at the protests over the new citizenship law in the last few months and the tacit support of some opposition leaders was behind the violence.

“The investigation is on,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who romped to re-election last May, also withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August with the objective of tightening New Delhi’s grip on the restive region, which is also claimed by full by Pakistan.

For months the government imposed severe restrictions in Kashmir including cutting telephone and internet lines, while keeping hundreds of people, including mainstream political leaders, in custody for fear that they could whip up mass protests. Some restrictions have since been eased.

Bachelet said the Indian government continued to impose excessive restrictions on the use of social media in the region, even though some political leaders have been released, and ordinary life may be returning to normal in some respects.

(Reporting by Aftab Ahmed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)