India rolls out coronavirus call centers to stop stampede to hard-pressed hospitals

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Health authorities set up coronavirus call centers in urban centers across India on Friday, scrambling to stop people flooding hospitals demanding immediate tests to see if they have come down with coronavirus.

Doctors and medical students were recruited to run virtual diagnostic facilities and prescribe preventive care in over 30 languages to ensure hospitals are seeing just the most severe cases rather than everyone worrying about possible infection.

As of Friday, Indian authorities had confirmed 691 positive cases among 26,798 people tested, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research.

But testing rates in India, the world’s second most populous country with 1.3 billion people, have been abysmally low compared with Western nations, with experts fearing many thousands of coronavirus infections are lurking undetected.

This week Prime Minister Narendra Modi told all people to self-isolate indoors for three weeks in the most massive lockdown of public life anywhere in the world.

But frequent cases of public naming-and-shaming of people who have tested positive, or of those hiding recent travel to virus hotspots, have alarmed many Indians suffering from common colds or mild flu and prompted them to besiege a small number of hospitals designated to provide diagnoses for the virus.

“State-run hospitals are struggling to curb an influx of people seeking immediate diagnosis, and a majority of (these people) test negative,” said a senior federal health official in New Delhi.

He said the pressure on hospitals caused by public panic over coronavirus must be eased to help doctors overwhelmed with other medical emergencies.

TIP OF ICEBERG?

Health authorities have registered 17 deaths from the highly infectious respiratory disease but there are fears that toll may be only the tip of the iceberg and could soon overtake other hard-hit nations like China, Italy, Spain and the United States.

India country has just one doctor for every 1,457 citizens, according to a 2019 parliamentary report.

The financial capital Mumbai was the first city to set up a coronavirus call center this week, allowing people go through a set of questions to determine how long they have experienced symptoms, their age and where they have traveled recently.

Those callers who remain fearful of infection can opt to speak to a doctor via video chat before heading to hospital emergency rooms treating the disease.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, the state-run Infectious Diseases Hospital was struggling with a growing volume of people seeking tests.

“There is tremendous pressure being put on people by neighbors forcing many of them to get a certificate proving they are not infected,” said Anima Halder, a doctor at the state-run hospital.

“People can contract infections if they come unnecessarily to a hospital and stand in a queue only to clear up the doubts of their neighbors,” she said.

Phone interviews with doctors at eight state-run hospitals across India highlighted their concerns about dwindling supplies. “We need everything – safety gear, test kits, ventilators and virtual medical support,” said Naren Diwan, a doctor working at Mumbai’s state-run hospital.

Three health ministry officials said that more than 4,000 mobile testing centers were now being prepared in large trucks to operate as makeshift diagnostic centers.

These trucks will serve mainly industrial and special economic zones where thousands of seasonal, migrant laborers are expected to rejoin the workforce after the lockdown ends.

“We know that testing facilities will have to be spread across the country before people step out to work,” a senior health official said, requesting anonymity.

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Indian doctors evicted over coronavirus transmission fears: medical body

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Some doctors combating India’s coronavirus outbreak have been evicted from their homes by force, a medical association said on Wednesday, due to fears that they may be infected and spread the disease to neighbors.

The country went into a 21-day lockdown on Wednesday, and experts have said it faces a tidal wave of infections if rigorous steps are not taken to keep the virus in check.

India’s public health care infrastructure is poor and it suffers from an acute shortage of medical staff, who will generally see many patients over a short period.

Some doctors in temporary residences had been forcefully evicted by their landlords over infection fears, the Resident Doctor’s Association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi said.

“(They) are now stranded on the roads with all their luggage, nowhere to go, across the country,” the association – which represents 2,500 doctors – said in a letter to the federal home minister on Tuesday, urging the government to intervene.

Late on Tuesday India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, himself a doctor, said on Twitter he was “deeply anguished” to see reports of doctors being ostracized in residential complexes, adding that precautions were being taken to ensure health care workers were not carriers of the infection.

A home ministry spokeswoman said the Delhi state administration had issued orders saying penal action would be taken against those evicting doctors. She did not comment on the situation in other states.

India, a country of 1.3 billion, has recorded 539 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths.

It has just one doctor for every 1,404 people, the government said in February, significantly below the World Health Organization’s norm of one per 1,000.

The AIIMS association’s president, Adarsh Pratap Singh, said three doctors in New Delhi and around 15 in the southern city of Hyderabad had already faced issues with their accommodation. He did not have estimates of how many have been impacted overall.

“People are not accepting them… The morale of doctors is down because of this, a stigma is being created due to lack of awareness of coronavirus,” he told Reuters on Wednesday.

Airline staff have faced similar problems, with state-run carrier Air India and private airline IndiGo saying there had been instances of employees being ostracized from their communities.

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Privacy fears as India hand stamps suspected coronavirus cases

Authorities in several states have used GPS, personal data and hand stamps to track people suspected of having COVID-19.

People suspected of having the coronavirus in India have received hand stamps and are being tracked using their mobile phones and personal data to help enforce quarantines, raising concerns about privacy and mass surveillance.

The outbreak which causes a disease called COVID-19, has infected more than 209,000 people worldwide and killed at least 8,700, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

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In India, more than 200 people have been infected and four have died, with officials reporting multiple cases of people fleeing from quarantine.

In response, the western state of Maharashtra and southern Karnataka state this week began using indelible ink to stamp people arriving at airports.

The hand stamps include the date that a person must remain under home quarantine, and states that those marked are “proud to protect” their fellow citizens.

“When I first heard of the stamping in Mumbai, I thought it was fake news,” said Supreme Court lawyer NS Nappinai, an expert in data privacy legislation.

“I understand the concern but where does one draw the line? Should fundamental rights be suspended in an emergency like this?”

The coronavirus pandemic has enabled authorities from China to Russia to increase surveillance, with the risk that these measures will persist even after the situation eases.

Technology is being used across Asia to track and help contain the pandemic.

In India, government officials are also pulling out citizen and reservation data from airlines and the railways to track suspected infections.

“We found people who were stamped and were travelling. They had signed a self-declaration that they will not travel because they could be carriers of coronavirus,” said Archana Valzade, undersecretary in Maharashtra’s health department.

“It is their duty as well to stop the infection. Stamping is essential and very useful to reduce the spread,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding no one has raised objections so far.

In southern Kerala state, authorities have used telephone call records, CCTV footage and mobile phone GPS systems to track down primary and secondary contacts of coronavirus patients. Officials also published detailed time and date maps of the movement of people who tested positive.

“People have been jumping quarantine and it has been a challenge to track them,” said Amar Fettle, who is heading the coronavirus control team in Kerala.

“But we have formed hundreds of squads, including policemen to track and ensure people follow the norms.”

As more COVID-19 cases are reported in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday urged citizens to stay home and follow government instructions.

Modi’s appeal came just days after several news outlets reported that stamped people had broken self-quarantine rules.

In Mumbai, travellers with a history of having visited coronavirus-impacted countries were asked to get off a train, health officials in Maharashtra said.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a bureaucrat’s son met with friends on his return from a visit to Britain and had to be forced to be admitted to hospital where he tested positive.

“As a doctor who has worked in the public health service and in the community, I find people are not realising the seriousness of the pandemic,” said physician Armida Fernandez, former head of one of Mumbai’s biggest municipal hospitals.

“Knowing the situation of public health in India and that we are dealing with 1.3 billion people … I am for the steps the government is taking,” she said.

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Indian state promises compensation to workers hit by coronavirus

The 200-million-strong UP state to make payment to poor and daily wage workers for income lost due to the pandemic.

Millions of poor Indians may receive cash compensation for income lost due to coronavirus, as officials in northern Uttar Pradesh (UP) state start counting the number of qualifying citizens on Wednesday.

UP – the most populous state with a population of 200 million and one of the poorest in India – became the first to announce on Tuesday that it would make online payments to poor and daily wage workers if they lost work because of the global pandemic that has caused chaos worldwide and badly affected economic activities.

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“We are tabulating the number of vegetable vendors, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, autorickshaw drivers and temporary staff at shops,” said a labour official who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“This is a major decision. But we don’t have any data on the workers. The announcement is to make online payments to them, so we need the information such as social security numbers, bank account numbers, of all workers.”

25 million jobs could be lost globally

The International Labour Organization said on Wednesday that about 25 million jobs could be lost globally due to coronavirus.

With three deaths and 151 confirmed cases of the virus, of which 16 were from UP, India has seemingly fared better so far than elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America.

Experts say the low number of infections in the second-most-populous nation might be due to the low rate of testing by authorities. They also say India’s already overstretched medical system would struggle to deal with a major rise in serious cases.

About 30 percent of UP state’s population – or 60 million people – live below the poverty line, surviving on less than $2 a day, according to Indian government and World Bank data.

The labour official said departments, including labour, finance and agriculture, were meeting on Wednesday, with a final report to be submitted to the chief minister within three days.

“We are in the process of preparing a scheme,” the state’s principal secretary for finance, Sanjiv Mittal, confirmed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Labour experts said the federal government must also consider reimbursing the labour costs of coronavirus-hit industries and small businesses to ensure they do not lay off staff.

“Workers in certain sectors, such as hotels, food and beverages, poultry and transport, are already hit by social distancing,” said labour economist Anoop Satpathy of the VV Giri National Labour Institute.

“As the number of affected cases increase and we move towards a lockdown situation, businesses and workers will be severely impacted,” said Satpathy, who headed the Indian government’s expert committee on minimum wages.

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India's poor testing rate may have masked coronavirus cases

The WHO urges countries to test more people to curb the pandemic, but India has not expanded testing so far.

Indian authorities have said they will not expand coronavirus testing, as most affected nations are doing, despite criticism that limited testing could leave COVID-19 cases undetected in the world’s second-most populous country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to test as widely as possible to curb the pandemic, but India has only been testing those who have travelled from affected countries or come in contact with a confirmed case and shown symptoms after two weeks of quarantine.

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On Tuesday, it added healthcare workers with symptoms who are treating patients with severe respiratory illnesses.

India is conducting only about 90 tests per day, despite having the capacity for as many as 8,000. So far, 11,500 people have been tested, according to the Associated Press.

WHO guidance ‘premature’

Officials have said the WHO guidance didn’t apply in India because the spread of the disease has been less severe than elsewhere.

Balaram Bharghava, who heads the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s top medical research body, said the guidance was “premature” for India, where community transmission has not yet been detected.

“Therefore it creates more fear, more paranoia and more hype,” he said.

Last week, a British citizen who approached a public hospital in New Delhi for coronavirus test was told she was not eligible under India’s testing criteria and turned away.

The woman, who requested anonymity fearing business consequences for her employer, said she told hospital officials that she may have had contact with an infected person in her hospitality sector job, but could not be sure.

After trying and failing to be tested a second time, she left India this week for France, where her family lives and where President Emmanuel Macron had announced extreme measures to curb the coronavirus.

Indian authorities have justified their restrictions as a way to keep a deluge of people from demanding tests that would cost the government money it needs to combat other diseases such as tuberculosis, malnutrition and HIV/AIDs.

ICMR said there was no need to expand such testing. However, authorities said they’re preparing for community spread by bolstering their lab testing infrastructure. India has 52 coronavirus testing centres.

As a result of the narrow testing criteria, sick people with potential exposure to the coronavirus are being sent home, and some experts fear that India’s caseload could be much higher than government statistics indicate.

Bharghava, the ICMR chief, said virus infections in India can still be traced back to people who travelled into the country from affected locales and that testing protocols would be revised if community transmission is detected.

Coronavirus cases in India rose to 147 on Wednesday, a day after a third person, a 64-year-old man, died in the western state of Maharashtra.

The South Asian nation has closed most schools and entertainment facilities, including cinemas.

Authorities say most of the infections have been “imported” – linked to foreign travel or direct contact with someone who caught the disease abroad.

India has suspended all incoming tourists and will bar non-Indian passengers on flights from the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and the United Kingdom from Wednesday.

Travellers coming from or transiting through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine when they arrive in India, the government announced on Monday.

Arrivals from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany are already subject to similar restrictions, while most border points with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar have been shut.

Undetected spread

But concerns of undetected communal spread are growing.

“Given the pattern of disease in other places, and given our low level of testing, then I do think that community transmission is happening, ” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute.

WHO said that, while self-initiated isolation by people with mild symptoms remains the most important community intervention, testing of all suspected cases, symptomatic contacts of probable and confirmed cases, would still be needed.

“We need to be geared to respond to the evolving situation with the aim to stop transmission of COVID-19 at the earliest to minimise the impact. … We need to act now,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the WHO’s director for the region.

More than 400 million of India’s 1.3 billion people live in crowded cities, many without regular access to clean water, conditions that could allow the disease to spread rapidly.

“Community spread is very likely. But the only way to know for sure is through more expansive testing,” said Dr Anant Bhan, a global health researcher in Bhopal, India.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems.

India has a lower proportion of elderly than other countries, but its healthcare facilities are limited and already struggle to accommodate the large number of patients with other diseases.

“This, along with our high population density, can be our great challenge,” public health researcher Oommen Kurian told the Associated Press.

India has been reluctant to expand testing, not wanting to trigger panic and overwhelm hospitals, but also because of the cost: While the tests are free for patients, they cost the government about 5,000 rupees ($67) each.

In an already stretched and underfunded public healthcare system, money spent on the coronavirus leaves less for other public health problems. India spends only 3.7 percent of its total budget on health.

The coronavirus may also be spreading in India because health officials have struggled to maintain quarantines, with people fleeing from isolation wards, complaining of filthy conditions.

In Maharashtra, five people, one of whom had tested negative and the rest who were awaiting test results, walked out of an isolation ward last Saturday.

Enforcing containment

India has implemented a 19th-century epidemic law that empowers public officials to enforce more rigorous containment measures and impose penalties and punishments for escapes.

Lav Agarwal, a health ministry official, said authorities “often don’t get enough support from people”.

Similarly, in neighbouring Sri Lanka, the government has ordered about 170 passengers who evaded airport screening after returning from several affected countries to report to police or face financial penalties and possible imprisonment.

Aditya Bhatnagar, an Indian university student who was studying in Spain, described unsanitary conditions at an isolation ward where he and 50 others passengers on a flight from Barcelona have been kept since landing in New Delhi on Monday.

Bhatnagar said the rooms, each holding about eight people, lacked basic hygiene features such as clean bedsheets and bathrooms. He told the Associated Press that the group, awaiting their COVID-19 test results, was not provided with masks or sanitiser.

“I don’t think these measures would be enough to contain the pandemic,” Bhatnagar, the ICMR chief, said, adding that some passengers had opted to move from the wards and into private hotels, paying 4,000 rupees ($55) a night to self-isolate for at least 14 days.

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India's iconic Taj Mahal closed amid coronavirus fears

The monument, which attracted over 7 million visitors last year, is shut as India tries to combat spread of COVID-19.

India will close the iconic Taj Mahal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – to visitors from Tuesday as part of measures to try and combat the coronavirus pandemic, the tourism ministry said on Monday.

“All ticketed monuments and all other museums have been directed to be closed until March 31,” Tourism Minister Prahlad Patel tweeted late on Monday.

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Most schools and entertainment facilities, including cinemas, have already been closed across India, the world’s second-most populous country with 1.3 billion people, according to the AFP news agency.

The South Asian nation has reported 126 cases of infection and three deaths from the virus. On Tuesday, a 64-year-old man died in the western state of Maharashtra – the hardest hit state with more than 30 confirmed cases.

Experts say India’s already overstretched medical system would struggle to deal with a major rise in serious cases.

Quarantine stamp

Mumbai, a densely populated metropolis of 18 million, also authorised hospital and airport authorities to stamp the wrists of those who have been ordered to self-isolate with indelible ink reading “Home Quarantined” and displaying the date until which the person has been ordered to self-quarantine, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

On Sunday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed setting up an emergency fund to fight the coronavirus pandemic in South Asia, with New Delhi offering $10m to get it going, Reuters news agency reported.

“Any of us can use the fund to meet the cost of immediate actions,” Modi told the other leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – via video conference.

Though coronavirus infections have remained low in South Asia so far, Pakistan has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in recent days, with 184 infected with the virus.

Worldwide, the number of deaths has passed 6,500 with more than 168,000 infections in 142 countries and territories.

‘Jewel of Muslim art’

The UN cultural agency UNESCO calls the white-marble Taj the “jewel of Muslim art”. US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania visited the site last month during his official visit to India.

The Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, attracted more than seven million visitors in the year 2018-2019, earning a revenue of Rs 86 crore ($11.6m).

Along with the Taj Mahal, dozens of other protected monuments and museums across in the country including the Ajanta and Ellora caves and religious sites such as the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, were ordered closed.

India has also suspended all incoming tourists and will bar non-Indian passengers on flights from the European Union, the European Free Trade Association, Turkey and the United Kingdom from Wednesday.

Travellers coming from or transiting through the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine when they arrive in India, the government announced on Monday.

Arrivals from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany are already subject to similar restrictions, while most border points with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar have been shut.

In Mumbai, unions involved with its Bollywood film industry – one of the largest in the world – said they would stop all work until the end of March.

The closure of the Taj Mahal, the most-visited site in India, came as the central bank, after an emergency meeting, said on Monday it would boost cash injections into financial markets by one trillion rupees ($13.5bn) to address the economic effect of the pandemic.

The Reserve Bank of India also announced another round of foreign-currency swaps to inject $2bn into the market to stabilise the rupee, which fell to record lows last week.

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India orders international cricket matches in empty stadiums to combat coronavirus

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – The India government has ordered upcoming international cricket matches to be played in empty stadiums, as travel operators warned of an unprecedented impact of a blanket visa ban by the government to combat the spread of coronavirus.

With just 68 confirmed cases and no deaths, India has so far been relatively unscathed by the virus compared to elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America. But experts fear that its overstretched medical systems may not be able to handle the type of intensive care required to handle a spike in infections.

New Delhi said late on Wednesday it will cancel almost all visas issued for travel to the country until April 15, in one of the most far-reaching attempts to prevent the spread of the virus. [L4N2B443Y]

On Thursday, the country’s sports secretary said it wanted the national cricket team’s upcoming matches to be played in empty stadiums – an unheard-of occurrence for one of India’s national obsessions.

The chief ministers of two states where India is due to play matches against South Africa this month “have been advised to avoid gathering of people,” RS Jhulaniya told Reuters. “Matches may go on without spectator crowd”.

Brijesh Patel, governing council chairman of the Indian Premier League, the country’s premier domestic cricket tournament due to start later this month, said the organization would meet on Saturday to discuss “all possibilities” regarding the tournament, including visas issues for overseas players and the possibility of playing matches in empty stadiums.

Tourist and business travel has already dipped sharply this year, but the visa ban will take activity to an “all time low”, according to Chetan Gupta, general secretary of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India.

As one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, millions of people in the country rely on tourism for employment. Around 10 million foreign tourists visit the country each year, according to government data.

“All our members are suffering at the moment,” Gupta said. “No one has any business at all – inbound, outbound or domestic.”

Since emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the flu-like coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 and killed over 4,600 people globally, according to Reuters calculations.

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State Bank of India to buy 49% stake in Yes Bank under rescue plan

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – State Bank of India (SBI.NS), the country’s largest lender, will take a 49% stake in Yes Bank (YESB.NS), the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said late on Friday as it laid out a plan for the rescue of the troubled private lender.

India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at a briefing in New Delhi on Friday said the restructuring plan would be implemented within 30 days.

The RBI sharply increased Yes Bank’s authorized share capital, paving the way for the bad-debt laden lender to receive a cash injection after it failed in its months-long attempt to raise enough money to meet regulatory requirements.

Based on details in the RBI’s statement, analysts calculated that SBI’s investment would need to total almost 25 billion rupees ($339.10 million). The RBI and SBI have not given a figure.

SBI said on Thursday its board had given it an in-principle nod to explore an investment in Yes Bank, an about-turn after it had in December repeatedly denied it would play any role in aiding its competitor.

SBI’s announcement came just hours after the RBI took control of Yes Bank, saying it would work swiftly on a revival plan for the lender.

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RPT-India pushes state banks to boost lending as coronavirus fears grow – sources

(Repeats story for additional subscribers)

By Manoj Kumar and Nupur Anand

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI, March 4 (Reuters) – India is pushing state-run banks to approve new loans amounting to 500-600 billion rupees ($6.8-8.2 billion) by the end of March, according to two government sources, as authorities seek to shore up a stuttering economy as the coronavirus spreads.

Public-sector banks have received nearly 8 million new applications for loans, mainly from rural households and small businesses, and the government expects up to 6 million of them to be approved by the end of the month, said a senior finance ministry official with direct knowledge of the matter.

Policymakers are worried the coronavirus outbreak could curb economic growth for at least the first two quarters of this year, so are looking to drive up lending to bolster investor and consumer sentiment, according to the second government source.

Lenders have been asked to focus particularly on 10 states in northeast and central India, regions where less credit has been made available than elsewhere, said the person. Both sources declined to be named as the discussions are private.

“India is facing a new challenge in coronavirus, and the government is trying to push bank credit as much as possible,” the finance ministry official told Reuters.

Indian officials said on Wednesday that the total number of coronavirus cases in the country had jumped to 28, up from six earlier in the week.

Banks’ outstanding credit fell by nearly 635 billion rupees ($8.67 billion) between Jan. 31 and Feb. 14, data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) showed last week.

The New Delhi government fears credit growth could dry up further after data showed that corporate capital investment contracted 5.2% in the October-December quarter from a year earlier, after clocking a 4.1% decline in the previous quarter.

This helped drag economic growth to 4.7% in the last three months of 2019, the slowest pace in more than six years.

Growth in bank lending to farming and corporate clients decelerated in January compared with the same period a year earlier, according to RBI data.

Some bankers remain reticent to increase lending, though.

The chief financial officer of one public-sector bank said that, even though it had the capacity to boost credit, it was being cautious because indiscriminate lending in a slowing economy would only amplify the sector’s bad debt problems.

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Kashmir dailies print blank front pages to protest gov't ad ban

The Indian government has blocked ads to Kashmir Reader and Greater Kashmir following the Pulwama attack.

    Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Major English- and Urdu-language newspapers in Indian-administered Kashmir have printed blank front pages to protest against the central government’s decision to block advertisements to two dailies.

    In place of regular news, the papers’ front pages, on Sunday featured a message denouncing the “unexplained denial of government advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader”. Several journalists, led by the Kashmir Editors’ Guild (KEG), also held a demonstration in the main city of Srinagar, demanding the withdrawal of the ban. 

    The government action against the two newspapers came two days after a deadly suicide attack in Pulwama on February 14, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

    Newspapers in India are heavily dependent on government advertisements for their survival and the ad-blockade hit both Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader. The first was forced to cut its 20-page edition to 12, while the second went from 16 to 12.

    “The decision has neither been conveyed formally nor was any reason detailed to the respective organizations, so far,” the KEG said in a statement.

    The region has been under the direct rule of the central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a fragile coalition government collapsed in June 2018. Speaking to Al Jazeera on behalf Satya Pal Malik, the state’s appointed governor, Vijay Kumar, his principal adviser, said: “There are always some norms on which certain decisions are made.”

    Accusing the Modi establishment of political vendetta, Bashir Manzar, the KEG’s secretary general, told Al Jazeera: “We have decided to fight the deliberate strangulation and subversion of the institution of media in the state.

    “We have been asking the government for an explanation but there has been no response in 15 days. Today, we were forced to come up with the blank front pages. That’s all we can do as newspapers,” he said, adding that the government was doing injustice with the readers by blocking the flow of information.

    “On the ground, when our reporters go out to report, some are beaten and some [are] hit with pellets. This atmosphere is going on for the past 30 years. It is just killing the messenger,” Manzar said.

    Last month’s attack in Pulwama, which killed 42 Indian paramilitary security forces, was the deadliest in the decades-long armed rebellion in Kashmir against Indian rule.

    In recent years, the disputed region has witnessed a spike in gun battles between the security forces and the rebels, who either want freedom or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.

    Both India and Pakistan claim the whole of Kashmir territory and have fought two of their three wars over it.

    ‘Act of crude intimidation’

    In a statement on Sunday, Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific head of the press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), denounced the government ban against the two newspapers.

    “Amid a surge in tension in the Kashmir valley, it is absolutely vital that newspapers should be able to cover the situation in a completely independent manner, especially as press freedom is an essential condition for defusing tension,” he said.

    “Targeting the two newspapers in this completely arbitrary manner clearly constitutes an act of crude intimidation,” Bastard added.

    “The authorities have no right to harass the publications they dislike with the aim of imposing their own version of the facts.”

    India is ranked at 138th out of 180 countries in the RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera, Shekhar Gupta, the president of the Editors Guild of India, described the government’s ban as “reprehensible” and called for its immediate withdrawal.

    “It is a cheap trick on part of any government to use advertising as a pressure against the media.”

    Journalists work under extreme conditions in the region. On January 22, four journalists were shot with pellets by security forces when they were covering a gun battle in southern Kashmir. On January 26, when India marked its Republic Day, accredited Kashmiri reporters were denied entry to an official parade despite the fact that they carried the government-issued passes to the event.

    According to the November 2017 report by the International Federation of Journalists, at least 21 journalists have been killed in the conflict – either directly targeted or caught in crossfire in Kashmir.

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