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India digs deep to boost defences on crucial China frontier

India|: Atal Rohtang Tunnel: A tunnel nearing completion in the Indian Himalayas will slash by hours the time it takes troops to reach the Chinese border, part of an infrastructure blitz by New Delhi that is gathering pace since a bloody border clash. The nuclear-armed Asian giants blame each other for a brutal high-altitude battle in June that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties. See more Photos: New Swiss Alps tunnel set to transform Europe's rail links Pictures: India surpasses 5 million coronavirus cases India: Folk dancers in Ahmedabad rehearse ahead of Navaratri festival NEET medical entrance exam begins amid strict Covid-19 protocols in India Both have sent massive troop reinforcements, but India has also stepped up its activities behind the frontlines - belatedly so, analysts say. Its stepped-up infrastructure programme includes roads and bridges as well as high-altitude helipads and airstrips for civilian and military aircraft. The showpiece is a $400-million tunnel in Himachal Pradesh state, providing an all-weather route for military convoys to avoid a 50-kilometre trudge through mountain passes that are snow-bound in winter and subject to frequent landslides. This photograph taken on September 1, 2020, shows the north portal of the Atal Rohtang Tunnel in Teling village in Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh state. Image Credit: AFP From late this month, what used to be a four-hour, winding, high-altitude crossing will be cut to a 10-minute dash through the mountains in the state-of-the-art tunnel. “There have been times on the pass route when vehicles have broken down, causing traffic jams of even six to eight hour,” said Lieutenant-General Harpal Singh, head of India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO). “This tunnel and the other infrastructure plans change a lot for the troops,” he said. Engineering feat Labourers are working overtime to get the tunnel ready before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to open it later this month. Currently, essential items such as arms, ammunition and food have to be transported up in bulk before winter starts in an area where temperatures can plunge to minus 40 Celsius. In this photograph taken on September 1, 2020, project Chief Engineer KP Purushothaman (C), along with other officials, inspects a site at the south portal of the Atal Rohtang Tunnel, in Dhundi Village near Solang in Himachal Pradesh state. Image Credit: AFP Constructed at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres and stretching nine kilometres, the Atal Rohtang tunnel is also a feat of engineering. A decade in the making, freezing winter temperatures meant work could only take place from April to September. Workers wore special microchips to help locate them if they got trapped in an avalanche. Still, India’s efforts only belatedly mirror those of China, experts say. “Earlier administrations wasted two decades,” said Harsh Pant, from the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi. “China, and its infrastructure, is much stronger today.” Training the locals Sanjay Kundu, the Himachal Pradesh police chief, has also proposed arming locals and training them to report possible Chinese spies and drone and helicopter sightings. “Ultimately, whether it is at the border or the hinterland, people need to be trained and they need to be trained in defending themselves,” he said. The government hopes it will reassure worried villagers. “In the last few weeks they’ve seen a lot more activity of fighter planes over the region,” said Lobsang Gyaltsen, an elected representative from a village around 30 kilometres from the border. “They often wonder if China is attacking,” Gyaltsen said. Tanks The BRO says it has built more strategic roads - most in the high-tension zone next to China - the last four years than in the previous decade and aims to complete 15 more key routes by the end of 2021. Labourers are upgrading a recently-completed 250-kilometre stretch parallel to the Chinese frontier that cuts journey times from Ladakh’s capital Leh from one week to less than a day. Significantly, by next month all bridges along the route will be able to support the weight of a 70-tonne T-90 tank on a trailer, or a truck carrying a surface-to-air missile, according to press reports. There are several strategic high-altitude tunnels as well as 125 bridges at different stages of planning in the states of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim bordering Tibet and Xinjiang. Besides the strategic value, the improvements will also be life-changing for people who can be cut off from the rest of India for months in winter. This will boost the local economy and attract more people to the sparsely populated area, and so make it less prone to cross-border incursions by the Chinese, the government hopes.

GulfNews World

Hounding Rhea in Sushant’s death an affront to India’s ethos of a balanced debate

For the last month or so, a theatre of the absurd is being played out in a section of the Indian media over the death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the allegations and counter-allegations surrounding his former girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. With the investigations into the unnatural death of Sushant having been taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the federal investigative agency, after much haggling over jurisprudence and charges and counter-charges of the probe being influenced by people with vested interests, the least that one had expected was that the canards that were flying around and the kite-flying that was going on in the name of a fair probe and trial to subside and the sleuths to get down to the task at hand — getting to the bottom of the truth. See also Urmila Matondkar vs Kangana Ranaut: Bollywood reacts to actress' spat The 'Queen' of controversy: Why Bollywood loves to hate Kangana Ranaut Jaya Bachchan defends Bollywood in Parliament: Kangana Ranaut, Sonam Kapoor react From Salman Khan to Kangana Ranaut, Bollywood celebrates PM Narendra Modi’s birthday Instead, what has transpired in the last month or so is a vituperative campaign of hate and distrust aimed at each other by those who are at loggerheads over Rhea’s alleged and presumed role in Sushant’s death. This trial by the media has reached such a fever pitch that a subplot — that of another Bollywood actress, Kangna Ranaut’s fight with the ruling Shiv Sena in Maharashtra — is now front and centre. We are in a bizarre scenario whereby if you are to buy into any one of the many theories that are doing the rounds over Sushant’s death and Rhea’s alleged role in pushing him to the brink, then you will be forced into taking a stand in the Kangna-Shiv Sena spat as well — as a buy-one-get-one! No holds-barred slanging match This is as much ridiculous as it is damaging because in the cacophony of allegations and counter-allegations, doubts and aspersions, an eye-for-an eye no holds-barred slanging match between the actress and the ruling party in Maharashtra and the municipal body in Mumbai that took down the actress’ office structure on the claim that it was built in violation of civic law, the real issue on our hands has already got diluted: That of getting to the truth behind the death of Sushant. Already we had the media trials of Rhea holding a nation’s conscience to ransom with its attempt to unravel the ‘truth’ behind Sushant’s reported suicide, whereby, the entire issue has now boiled down to an unsavoury ‘you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us’. What the entire saga over the death of a popular and talented Bollywood actor has unravelled over the last three months is our penchant for building imaginary battlefields and populate them with the heroes and even villains of our choice. Sanjib Kumar Das Over and above that, we now have the added baggage of another contest, that of Kangna’s ‘fight for justice’ against the Shiv Sena as a sub-plot within a sub-plot to tie us in a few more knots instead of helping untie the ones that are already there. Insensitive comments by Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut against Kangna have been a further affront to the ethos of freedom of speech as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and a sorry tale of how a section of the political class in the world’s largest democracy loves to feed itself and even gloat on a skewed sense of entitlement and empowerment. Drug-glamour nexus With the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) playing a very important role in dealing with a tertiary sector of Sushant’s death — that of the drug-glamour nexus in a section of the world’s largest film producing industry — one had thought that a hitherto taboo subject had finally been brought out of the closet and would finally be taken to the launderer. In reality, unfortunately, what has unfolded before our eyes is a baffling and a rather inexplicable tendency to hold Rhea guilty of having played a role in her former boyfriend’s unnatural death. Mind you, this is by no means an attempt to defend Rhea out of turn. If she is indeed found to have had a role in the drug peddlers finding some lucrative clients in the glamour world, along with several other names from the tinsel world that have also come up during the course of the probe, then all of them need to be dealt with the full face of the law without any fear or favour whatsoever. In fact that is the reason why have a probe at all in the first place. But jumping to conclusions, holding a public opinion-based trial on prime-time television and acting judge-jury-and-executioner as a self-appointed voice-of-the-nation of sorts — even before any charge sheet is filed against anyone in this grisly case — is an unfortunate and gross violation of not only moral values but also that of India’s centuries’-old tradition of aiding and abetting an open and more reason-based debate and not just a slanging match of point-counter point. Truth, the collateral What the entire saga over the death of a popular and talented Bollywood actor has unravelled over the last three months is our penchant for building imaginary battlefields and populate them with the heroes and even villains of our choice. To take any debate, any discussion further, we need some element of fear-mongering, we need to feed our own sense of entitlement and most of all – we need a punching bag to boost our own ego. And in the bargain, truth could well be a collateral! Twitter: @moumiayush

GulfNews World

NEWSMAKER: Yoshihide Suga — The right-hand man is now centre stage

Yoshihide Suga stifled a smile, stood up from his seat and bowed five times — a formal acknowledgement to a thundering ovation in Japan’s Diet on Wednesday that he had become the nation’s 99th Prime Minister. With that act of public humility, the longest administration in modern Japanese history came to an end. Suga, long the quiet, effective and functionary second-in-charge now leads Japan as it faces daunting political, economic and societal changes. Above all, Japanese society covets conventionalism — and in Suga it has achieved that once more. Also read Typhoon Haishen moves onshore in S Korea after battering Japan Can Japan's ancient Noh theatre survive COVID-19? Japan's 'flying car' gets off ground, with a person aboard Japan's tuna market, the world's largest, hit hard by coronavirus pandemic With support in the Lower House secured, Suga’s position was confirmed in the Upper House and he then named a cabinet that was simply surprising if only for its lack of surprises. During a 30-minute news conference following his appointment, Suga remained on script, repeating that he would continue with Abenomics — revitalising Japan’s economy, promoting digitalisation and pledging to tackle burdensome bureaucracy, cut taxes and overcome the malaise brought by the coronavirus pandemic. If there was a hint of emotion in his speech, it came with a promise to repatriate Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s — also a high priority in the Abe administration. Simply put, Suga was quite happy to be publicly seen as Abe’s right-hand man — and seems comfortable with that supporting moniker now. Of 20 ministers in Suga’s new cabinet, there are just five new faces — including Abe’s younger brother as defence minister — while Taro Aso stays on as finance minister, Toshimitsu Motegi remains foreign minister and Yasutoshi Nishimura stays on as minister in charge of economic revitalisation and the government’s coronavirus response. Perhaps the biggest challenge now facing this 71-year-old whose favourite snack is pancakes and sugar syrup is convincing Japanese voters that he’s the right man for the top job now. But over the past month, when it became clear that a worsening ulcerative stomach condition would curtail Abe’s near decade-long rule, Japanese are warming to the farmer’s son. For a man comfortable with the minutiae of ruling and party politics, Suga comes to the helm at a time when Japan is struggling with challenges in a traditional and ageing society, an economy that ticks over and a neighbour in China who has ambitions in the South China Sea. Mick O’Reilly Over the past eight years, Suga remained in the spotlight with twice-daily media briefings and a reputation for managing Japan’s complex bureaucracy. As the administration’s public face, he had the task of unveiling the name of the new imperial era in 2019, when it was confirmed that Emperor Akihito was standing down. The new era under Emperor Naruhito, suga announced, was to be called Reiwa — meaning “beautiful harmony”. When he appeared in a festival hosted by online video-sharing giant Niconico, he was greeted by a burst of applause from the mostly young audience, with some even waving and screaming at him as if he were a rock star. Suga said he was flattered by the attention, smiling shyly at the mention of his new nickname, “Reiwa ojisan” — “Uncle Reiwa.” Path to premiership Suga was born in 1948 into a family of farmers in Akita Prefecture. Upon graduating from high school, he left for Tokyo in search of a leg up and wound up working for a cardboard factory in the capital’s Itabashi Ward. He then worked his way up to become a politician in 1987 when he successfully ran as an assemblyman in Yokohama, before debuting as a Lower House lawmaker in 1996. As he has recalled in his past interviews with the media, it wasn’t until 2001 when he fully took notice of Abe, who was then deputy chief Cabinet secretary. The two men immediately hit it off over North Korean issues at a time when Tokyo had a sense of urgency regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, and as the issue of Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 80s became a hot topic in 2002. He later served as internal affairs minister under Abe’s first, scandal-laden administration, which lasted only a year until 2007. Unfazed by Abe’s poor performance, Suga in 2012 convinced him to run again for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election — helping catapult him back into power. Since then, the two have been close allies — making Suga’s rise to the top position a natural progression. For a man comfortable with the minutiae of ruling and party politics, Suga comes to the helm at a time when Japan is struggling with challenges in a traditional and ageing society, an economy that ticks over and a neighbour in China who has ambitions in the South China Sea. Added to that, the existential threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and by heightened tensions across the Strait of Taiwan mean Suga will need to raise his profile quickly and effectively on the regional and global stage. Role model Suga often cites as his role model samurai warrior Toyotomi Hidenaga, who is widely credited with helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his elder brother and a legendary warlord from the 1500s, cement his rule. Similarly, his strength within the LDP stems from the fact that he’s not seen as being any faction’s camp — other than being a loyal and effective second-in-charge to Abe. But will that be enough for the party now that he’s in the top job? Unlike Abe, who has maintained a career-long ambition to revise the postwar Constitution, Suga appears to have no fixed political vision or ideology — rather instead he’s a politician who is simply interested in wielding power over bureaucrats rather than using the power to achieve a specific cause. With a general election due in Japan before October next year, Suga now has a year to convince Japan’s voters he fully deserves to be viewed as a man in his own right — not merely Abe’s long-standing right-hand man. Yes, continuity is important — but might that be his eventual undoing? Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf New Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.

GulfNews World

Coronavirus cases top 30m worldwide with Europe on edge

World|: Copenhagen: Coronavirus infections topped 30 million around the globe on Thursday as the World Health Organization warned of “alarming rates of transmission” across Europe and cautioned against shortening quarantine periods. The WHO’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said a September surge “should serve as a wake-up call for all of us” after Europe set a new record last week, with some 54,000 cases recorded in 24 hours. See more Pandemic forces 'pink farm' to get creative in Brazil News in pictures: 'Horrifying' shooting of naked woman, Trump spurns science, cricketer Sreesanth's plea, Douyin soars, COVID worry, Beirut fire, US migrants, Indian economy... Chinese firms bet on plant-based meat as COVID-19 fuels healthy eating trend “Although these numbers reflect more comprehensive testing, it also shows alarming rates of transmission across the region,” he told an online news conference from Copenhagen. More than 30 million infections have been recorded and more than 943,000 people have died since the novel coronavirus emerged in China late last year, according to the latest AFP tally based on official sources. Europe accounts for 4.7 million of the total. Across Europe, governments are battling to contain the fresh spike in cases, while wanting to avoiding inflicting fresh damage on their economies and imposing broad new restrictions on their virus-weary populations. French authorities are preparing tighter restrictions in several cities to curtail a surge in COVID-19 cases that has seen nearly 10,000 new cases per day reported over the past week. Health Minister Olivier Veran said new measures would be announced for Lyon and Nice by Saturday, after curbs on public gatherings were imposed this week in Bordeaux and Marseille. ‘Second hump’ In Britain, new measures will take effect Friday, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning that pubs may have to close earlier to help avoid a “second hump” of coronavirus cases. Residents of northeast England, including the cities of Newcastle and Sunderland, will no longer be allowed to meet people outside their own homes. The government, which is facing criticism over a lack of testing capacity, imposed rules across England on Monday limiting socialising to groups of six or fewer, as daily cases reached levels not seen since early May. Britain has been Europe’s worst-hit country with nearly 42,000 deaths. The city of Madrid meanwhile backtracked on a plan for targeted lockdowns and said it would instead move to “reduce mobility and contacts” in areas with high infection rates. Austria announced that private indoor gatherings would be limited to 10 people, including all parties, private events and meetings indoors. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had warned earlier this week that the Alpine nation was entering a second wave of infections. Israel shutdown Outside Europe, Israel is set to be the first developed country to enforce a second nationwide shutdown, to begin on Friday afternoon. Its government called for hundreds of its citizens who are blocked on the Ukraine-Belarus border to return home. Around 2,000 Hasidic Jew pilgrims, mainly from the US, Israel and France, are massed at the border which has been closed by Ukraine for most of this month to prevent the spread of the virus. The pilgrims were hoping to reach the city of Uman for the Jewish New Year this weekend. Israel has the world’s second-highest virus infection rate after Bahrain, according to an AFP tally. In further comments on Thursday, the WHO Europe said it would not change its guidance for a 14-day quarantine period for those exposed to the virus. The recommendation is “based on our understanding of the incubation period and transmission of the disease. We would only revise that on the basis of a change of our understanding of the science,” WHO Europe’s senior emergency officer Catherine Smallwood said. France has reduced the recommended time period for self-isolation to seven days, while it is 10 days in the UK and Ireland. Several more European countries, such as Portugal and Croatia, are also considering shorter quarantines. Vaccine race Elsewhere, a study released by Oxfam found that rich nations have already bought up over half the promised COVID-19 vaccine stocks. “Access to a life-saving vaccine shouldn’t depend on where you live or how much money you have,” said Robert Silverman of Oxfam America. Drugs companies are racing to produce an effective jab to counter a virus that has now killed more than 940,000 people around the world and infected almost 30 million. The five leading vaccine candidates currently in late-stage trials will be able to supply 5.9 billion doses, enough to inoculate about three billion people, Oxfam said. Some 51 percent of those jabs have been snapped up by wealthy nations and blocs including the United States, Britain, the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong and Macau, Japan, Switzerland and Israel. The remaining 2.6 billion have been bought by or promised to developing countries including India, Bangladesh, China, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico. As tragedies multiply, governments face legal action from citizens for alleged response failures. A French association of COVID-19 victims plans to file a legal complaint against Prime Minister Jean Castex over France’s handling of the pandemic, its lawyer said. In China, however, bereaved relatives have had their lawsuits abruptly rejected while dozens of others face pressure from authorities not to file, according to people involved in the effort. The economic effects of the pandemic continue to grow. On Thursday New Zealand plunged into recession for the first time in a decade, the 12.2 percent contraction in April-June “by far the largest” since records began, national data agency Stats NZ said.

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All Air India Express flights to and from Dubai suspended for 15 days

UAE|India|: Dubai: Air India Express flights to and from Dubai have been suspended for 15 days from September 18 until October 3, Gulf News has learnt. Multiple sources confirmed to Gulf News that all operations of the low-cost subsidiary of India’s national carrier Air India to Dubai Airports were suspended from midnight. See more The easiest way to book a COVID-19 test in the UAE 6 most common vaccine misconceptions: Response from experts COVID vaccines approved for emergency use, for front-liners The airline, which has been operating flights under the Vande Bharat Mission to repatriate stranded Indians from the UAE, is also flying passengers eligible to return to the UAE from India under the air bubble agreement between the two countries. According to sources, the suspension of the services is due to an issue related to COVID-19. However, Gulf News could not get an official response from the authorities at the time of publishing this report. Dubai International Airport has started showing “cancelled” status for all Air India Express flights scheduled on Friday. Meanwhile, passengers have started receiving messages that some of the flights on Friday have been rescheduled to Sharjah International Airport “due to operational reasons.” Passengers travelling to Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut confirmed to Gulf News that they received the message about the rescheduled service late Thursday.