Fertile ground – The pull of India’s tractor-makers | Business


WERE ANY more evidence needed to reflect how surprising 2020 has been, consider tractor sales. In April Hemant Sikka, president of Mahindra & Mahindra’s farm-equipment business—which makes around 300,000 of the things a year, more than any other company anywhere—sat in his Mumbai flat near his shuttered main factory wondering if he still had a business. India’s nationwide lockdown that began a couple of weeks earlier led analysts to foretell doom for all manner of vehicle sales. Instead, Mr Sikka’s main challenge has turned out to be meeting unprecedented demand, both at home and abroad.

The Indian conglomerate’s tractor sales have broken records since May; production is operating at 100% of capacity. At its American factories the company has added a second shift. Regional managers around the globe are clamouring for tractors to replenish sparse dealer lots.

After collapsing in March, the share price of Mahindra & Mahindra has doubled, pulled along by the booming tractor division. So have the share prices of Deere and AGCO, two American manufacturers of farm equipment, suggesting that investors are eyeing bountiful profits from the industry as a whole.

Mahindra’s particular niche—durable, low-horsepower machines—has been especially sought-after. In America that is the fastest growing segment, with sales up by 18% in the first nine months of the year, compared with 2019, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. By contrast, sales of the largest tractors have declined by 2%. The smaller tractors are used on properties of less than 100 acres (40 hectares). That makes them ideal for organic farms, which, because they eschew pesticides, cannot be large. They are also handy for tasks such as mowing lawns or hauling things around the rural properties where many city-slickers have fled from covid-infested urban areas.

In India other factors are at play. Stories about Indian farmers have long focused on suicides and misery. This year there is good news. The summer harvest was 6% bigger than last year. Prices for farm produce were up by an average of 12%. This has boosted farm incomes (even though it has concerning implications for inflation). The winter crop looks equally promising, thanks to favourable monsoon rains, which have been 9% heavier than usual and, critically, well-distributed over India’s northern agricultural belt. Reservoirs are at their highest level in a decade, which bodes well for harvests to come.

The extra cash, combined with lower interest rates and cheaper credit, has enabled farmers to modernise. Some are upgrading to slightly larger machines, capable not just of pulling a plough but also of hauling heftier kit like harvesters. The draconian national lockdown, which for weeks prevented migrant workers from returning to their villages from cities, added another incentive to accelerate mechanisation. Farmers in India often regard buying a Mahindra tractor as akin to having a child: both become part of their lives and livelihoods for decades to come. With brighter prospects than in years past, many may wish to add more little Mahindras to the fold.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Fertile ground”

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JPMorgan: India’s structural promise remains intact: JPMorgan


India stands out among emerging markets because of its technology skills. Fund flows would remain strong, especially chasing the digital theme, says Filippo Gori, CEO, JPMorgan, Asia Pacific. In an interview with Joel Rebello and MC Govardhana Rangan, Gori says the China Plus One strategy of multinational corporations could see some manufacturing move to low-cost nations like Vietnam and Thailand. Edited excerpts from the interview:

This pandemic is being compared to the one the world saw a century ago. Does history tell us how economies could progress from here?

I see the crisis accelerating existing trends more than anything else – for example we were on a path of digitisation and innovation and the pandemic is a catalyst to accelerate some of those transformations. You can look back in history when Europe had the Spanish flu or plagues but I don’t think learnings can be properly extrapolated. My impression is that central banks and governments have acted very quickly and ensured there is no liquidity crunch. But our view is that this situation will strain the world economy for a while.

But what more can they do? What’s next?

There are a few arrows left for the central banks around the world including negative interest rates. In India, the RBI has been very pro-active and aggressive, injecting unprecedented liquidity into the system – effectively cutting rates by 175 bps – and back-stopping some credit risk. What happens next will depend on the speed and strength of the economic recovery but it’s likely many markets will require continued policy support through 2021.

One fallout of central banks’ action is capital flows. Do the fundamentals justify the inflows in emerging markets as an asset class?

As an asset class EM has some challenges and some countries within this have greater risk than others in terms of economic concerns. However, India, has received a lot of positive interest from global investors over the past few months and its valuation premiums are unlikely to fall in isolation since the country’s structural promise remains intact. In terms of technology, India has done a lot in this space and this plays into the core global themes around consumption and digitisation.

One argument is that it is only one company that has cornered majority of flows in India in the last few months. Is there a broader theme?

You often need a leader to show the way, which can help promote further flows and the importance of that shouldn’t be discounted. In terms of other themes, the China Plus One theme is interesting. For example, we don’t expect a single country to be the technology factory of the world and we believe more tech companies will establish broader supply chains across more countries to reduce the single-country risk exposure. India can definitely play a role within this.

We have seen a lot of things moving to Vietnam and Thailand. Why has it not moved to India and what needs to be done?

Labour costs in China have reached a point where it is cheaper to move supply chains to other markets, and Vietnam and Thailand stand out as potential destinations for labor-intensive manufacturing. But it won’t be immediate and may take three to five years to build new supply chains outside of China. If there is one area where we feel strongly that India can play a leadership role, it’s in tech. India is on the cusp of a digital transformation and that is making people excited and they are seriously considering India like never before. For example, despite the lockdown in India, JPMorgan’s operations have continued to operate very effectively.

What are the top destinations in the region according to you?

Not in any particular order, but Japan, China, Australia and India. We have seen some large transactions in the capital markets and M&A. There is good dialogue with companies analysing opportunities in these markets that could bode well for the future.





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Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner, dies aged 91 at her Mumbai home


Athaiya, who won an Oscar for her work in the 1983 film “Gandhi”, passed away peacefully in her sleep, her daughter Radhika Gupta told PTI.

Mumbai: Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner, died at her home on Thursday after prolonged illness, her daughter said. She was 91.

Athaiya, who won an Oscar for her work in the 1983 film “Gandhi”, passed away peacefully in her sleep, her daughter Radhika Gupta told PTI.  

 

The last rites took place at the Chandanwadi crematorium in South Mumbai  

“She passed away early this morning. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain. For the last three years, she was bedridden because one side (of her body) was paralysed,” her daughter said.

Athaiya, who was born in Kolhapur, began her career as a costume designer in Hindi cinema with Guru Dutt’s 1956 superhit “C.I.D”.

She won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” along with John Mollo.

In 2012, Athaiya returned her Oscar to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safe-keeping.

In a career spanning five decades and over 100 films, she won two National Awards — for Gulzar”s mystery drama “Lekin” (1990) and the period film “Lagaan” directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (2001).

 



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Covid: India’s coronavirus outbreak in 200 seconds


India’s Covid-19 outbreak in 200 seconds. Video, 00:03:27



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India’s Modi launches property-card scheme to aid rural households


October 11, 2020

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a property-card scheme on Sunday that he vowed would provide clarity of property rights in villages and enable farmers to use their property as collateral for loans from financial institutions.

Two-thirds of India’s population lives in rural areas, where few possess proper land records and property disputes are common.

“This is a historic effort towards rural transformation,” Modi said in a webcast speech while launching the programme.

The government plans to use drone technology to map land parcels in rural areas and cover some 620,000 villages over the next four years, Modi said.

“Despite owning houses, people were facing multiple problems while borrowing from banks. These people can now borrow very easily from banks after showing property cards issued under ownership scheme,” Modi said.

An initial batch of 100,000 people from over 750 villages across six states will begin to receive the digitised property cards this month.

Each card will have a unique identity number similar to the Aadhaar card – the world’s biggest biometric identity project, covering more than a billion people in India.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by William Mallard)





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India’s Aircraft Carrier, INS Vikrant, Made Some Serious History


Here’s What You Need To Remember: By 1971, war clouds were again on the horizon between India and Pakistan due to Islamabad’s brutal repression of East Pakistan. This prompted millions of refugees to flee into India, prompting New Delhi to begin supporting insurgent supporting independence of the region from West Pakistan.

In the wake of the commissioning of China’s second aircraft carrier, it’s worth remembering that the People’s Republic of China is actually only the third Asian state to operate its own aircraft carrier. The first was Japan, which after a long hiatus following its World War II misadventures, is only just getting back into carrier operations.

Meanwhile, not only has the Indian Navy operated the powerful vessels for nearly sixty years, it also used them effectively in a map-changing war in 1971.

Back in 1957, New Delhi purchased the British Royal Navy’s Hercules, a Hermes-class light fleet carrier that was 75 percent complete when her construction was frozen in May 1946.

Hercules was towed to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where shipbuilder Harland and Wolff completed her in a configuration modernized for jet fighter operations with an angled flight deck and steam catapults. She was finally commissioned as the Vikrant (“Courageous”) in Indian Navy service on March 4, 1961.

As a light carrier, Vikrant was considerably smaller compared to her contemporaries, measuring only 210 meters long and displacing 17,600 tons. But her limited deck space was fine, as the Indian Navy was also busy building its naval air arm from scratch, procuring the first of 66 Hawker Sea Hawk jet fighters—mostly second-hand British and German aircraft—as well as 17 tubby piston-engine Breguet Alize anti-submarine aircraft.

After receiving training in the UK, an Indian Sea Hawk pilot performed the service’s first carrier landing on May 18, 1961. However, Vikrant subsequently sat out a 1965 conflict with Pakistan as she was undergoing a refit.

Conflict in the Bay of Bengal

By 1971, war clouds were again on the horizon between India and Pakistan due to Islamabad’s brutal repression of East Pakistan. This prompted millions of refugees to flee into India, prompting New Delhi to begin supporting insurgent supporting independence of the region from West Pakistan.

By late 1971, the government of Indra Ghandi was set on supporting Bengali revolutionaries seeking to eject the Pakistani military entirely.

Though only three of Vikrant’s four boilers were functioning, limiting her maximum speed to just 17 knots, naval command insisted she must participate in the coming conflict, lest a second no-show deal a blow to the Navy’s morale.

The Vikrant’s role was to maintain a naval blockade of East Pakistan—preventing the Pakistani Army from dispatching reinforcements or evacuating by sea. Once the ground campaign began—a lightning campaign in which helicopters and amphibious tanks were used to leap-frog across Bangladesh’s many rivers—the Vikrant’s air wing would focus on hammering Pakistani naval assets and port facilities.

The air wing’s main combat strength came from INAS 300 “White Tiger” squadron, equipped with eighteen Sea Hawk fighter bombers. With a maximum speed of 600 miles per hour, these would have been outclassed had they encountered the handful of F-86 Sabre’s the Pakistani Air Force had deployed to East Pakistan, but their true potential lay as stable ground-attack platforms armed with four 20-millimeter Hispano cannons, and up to four 500-pound bombs or sixteen 5” rockets.

The lumpy three-ma Alize patrol planes of INAS 310 “Cobra” Squadron were foremost designed to search for submarines using air-dropped sonobuoys and surface-search radar (to catch subs that were surfaced or snorkeling to recharge batteries) and then sink them with depth charges and homing torpedoes. However, they also could be adapted to a more conventional attack role carrying 68-millimeter rockets and bombs. 

The Alizes could fly long distances with their range of 1,000 miles, but would take a while doing so: though there maximum speed was 290 miles per hour, they frequently cruised at only half that. Their radars proved useful for maintaining the blockade by monitoring shipping traffic in lengthy patrols.

A third unit, INAS 321 “Angels” Squadron, operated Alouette III helicopters in the search-and-rescue and resupply role.

Ghazi Hunts Vikrant; Vikrant Hunts Ghazi

The Pakistani Navy concluded a lack of facilities and geographic vulnerability made it impractical to deploy major warships to East Pakistan, so its presence there was limited to squadron of four gunboats as well as smaller armed boats capable of navigating Bangladesh’s many rivers. Thus, the major naval battles of Indo-Pakistani war were fought on India’s western flank. 

However, the Pakistani Navy had one joker up its sleeve: the submarine PNS Ghazi, a former U.S. Tench-class submarine from World War II. Pakistan hoped that a lucky torpedo or two from Ghazi might sink Vikant, turning its losing hand in the Bay of Bengal into a winning one—or at least constrain Vikrant’s operations.

The Indian Navy was also aware of Ghazi’s presence in the sector and made sinking her a priority.

The website Mission Vikrant 71 collects numerous fascinating anecdotes that convey the experience of the sailors and aviators onboard the Vikrant—including one account by pilot Richard Clarke describing Indian anti-submarine operations.

On the second day of the war on December 4, the Vikrat was cruising off the Andaman islands when her lookouts reported spotting a periscope. Clarke scrambled his Alize into the sky loaded with depth charges and headed towards a “distinct ripple.” He released the depth charges on target and was received by jubilant crew upon landing on deck. 

But Clarke recalled that upon being summoned for debriefing, “I very sheepishly had to tell the Fleet Commander that there in fact there was no submarine in the crystal clear blue waters below the ripple when I flew over it. But I realized this only seconds before the depth charges exploded”

In fact, on December 3 Ghazi failed to locate Vikrant and instead moved to deploy mines at the entrance of Visakhapatnam port, the site of the Indian naval HQ. Around midnight on December 3-4 mysterious circumstances caused the submarine to sink with the loss of all 92 aboard.

Whether this was a result of depth charges launched by the Indian destroyer Rajput, a collision with the sea floor while attempting to dodge those depth charges, or due to a mishap during minelaying remains controversial.

Either way, the sinking left Vikrant with a free hand. Starting December 4, her Sea Hawks and Alizes flew nearly 300 sorties hammering Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Khulna, sinking numerous small ships and setting fuel stores on fire. One tanker in Chittagong was blasted into three segments.

The carrier also used electronic warfare to locate Pakistani gun boats and dispatch air strikes to sink them.

The carrier-based warplanes encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire, and often returned pocked with shrapnel and bullet holes—though none were lost in the fourteen-day war.

As the Indian Navy began dispatching small amphibious landing forces to cut off retreating Pakistani troops, it also needed intelligence to determine appropriate landing zones. Therefore, Alizes also flew low and slow photo reconnaissance missions with a crewmember using a hand operated F24 camera to obtain the necessary information to plan the landing operations

Cut off from reinforcements, with riverine assets largely sunk from the air (and even one occasion, by amphibious tanks), and unable to evacuate by sea, Pakistani army forces in East Pakistan surrendered on December 16, resulting in the creation of present-day Bangladesh. 

Afterwards, according to 300 squadron officer Gurnham Singh, when one of the carrier’s Alouette helicopters was dispatched ashore on a resupply mission—pilots from 300 squadron requested the chopper crew return with some war booty: spicy Chittagong pickles. This wish was granted when the chopper returned bearing 30 kilos of the spicy pickles plus paratha flat breads.

To this day, the Vikrant’s combat operations in the Bay of Bengal remain the only carrier-based combat operations undertaken by an Asian state since World War II.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Wikipedia.



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Banyan – For good and ill, India’s prime minister is hard at work | Asia


LAST YEAR Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the most Olympian of India’s public intellectuals, infuriated many of his compatriots. Instead of lauding the audacity of a government that had just imposed direct rule on Jammu and Kashmir, India’s most troubled state and its sole Muslim-majority one, Mr Mehta issued a warning. We should not cheer the “Indianisation” of Kashmir, he said, but rather fear a creeping “Kashmirisation” of India. The focus should not be on what Narendra Modi, the prime minister, wanted Indians to see: an assertion of national (read Hindu majoritarian) will and an end to decades of flaccid ambiguity over the territory, which is claimed by Pakistan. Rather, argued Mr Mehta, it should be on what was meant to remain unseen in Kashmir: the failure of the world’s biggest democracy to respect its most basic constitutional responsibility, to seek the consent of the governed.

In his first term, before his thumping re-election last year, Mr Modi often reflected such dualities. He could speak of unity while practising the politics of division, or talk of freeing markets while entrenching the power of the state, or publicly champion the little man while privately pandering to mighty plutocrats. Now well into his second term, the prime minister seems not only to have kept his Janus face, but to have sprouted the extra arms of a Hindu deity.

In a few short weeks his government has pushed through an impressive stack of laws. Tackling issues that have for decades been cobwebbed by political point-scoring, it has among other things taken bold steps to free farming from state control, untangle stifling labour rules, revise public education and reform the bureaucracy. The new regulations on labour, for instance, collapse 44 laws into four simplified national codes.

The moves are understandably controversial. They take a sledgehammer to chunks of the patriarchal socialist state, erected in the early decades of India’s independence, that had escaped earlier bouts of liberalisation. Mr Modi’s numerous and noisy acolytes are proclaiming a great moment of transition. Even critics of his government concede that, whether or not the specific laws are well-considered, Mr Modi has at least shaken trees that needed shaking and at last shown the mettle to do what he had promised, but failed to deliver, in his first term.

Yet all this welcome vigour in the foreground cannot completely disguise what happens in the background. Just as with one arm Mr Modi unshackles India’s economy, with another he is quashing hard-won freedoms. His government used not only its bigger numbers, but petty rules, a highly dubious voice-vote and an opposition walk-out to ram more than two dozen laws through parliament in a single week.

Away from parliament, too, the Modi government’s disdain for due process grows ever more striking. To a degree unprecedented even in India’s murky politics, it has turned ostensibly impartial agencies of the state, such as the police, into blunt instruments of executive power. And in their zeal to promote a glowing narrative, the prime minister’s supporters go to bizarre lengths to mute or discredit contrary views. This is not just a matter of critics facing bogus lawsuits or tax demands. During one recent media frenzy, an army of sycophantic television anchors and online trolls screamed murder after a Bollywood actor’s tragic suicide, just to besmirch a political party that opposes Mr Modi’s.

Behind all the noise, what such antics reveal is an increasingly pronounced aspect of the Modi era that residents of Kashmir, in particular, are all too familiar with: hypocrisy. Consider foreign funding. Citing national security and the need for accountability, the Modi government has selectively throttled donations to groups it does not like. Over six years some 15,000 NGOs have been forced to shut, the latest being the Indian office of Amnesty International, a human-rights defender. Yet with another hand, Mr Modi pulls a veil over political funding, as well as over the personal “emergency” fund for the prime minister that was set up during the pandemic.

Whatever he is doing with all his other hands, Mr Modi is always sure to keep one free for waving at crowds. In “liberated” Kashmir last year, cameras caught him on a ship on Lake Dal, standing erect like an admiral of the fleet. More recently he was pictured at the opening of a road tunnel high in the Himalayas, standing aboard a jeep, again waving. But a closer view of both scenes revealed something else. There were no crowds, only security men.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Modi the multi-tasker”

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India’s already-high inflation likely climbed further in September: Poll


BENGALURU- Retail inflation in India likely rose further above the central bank’s medium-term target last month as food prices climbed due to lingering supply disruptions, a Reuters poll found, reducing the chances of another interest rate cut.

Persistent high prices have hurt the recession-stricken economy, which contracted a record 23.9% in April-June despite the Reserve Bank of India cutting its key repo rate by a cumulative 115 basis points since the pandemic started.

Although the government has eased some lockdown restrictions to help the economy, supply chain disruptions have shown little sign of abating as the virus continues to spread rapidly in India.

The Oct. 6-8 Reuters poll of 47 economists suggested consumer prices rose 6.88% last month from a year ago, its highest in five months and faster than August’s 6.69% rate.

If realised, inflation would be above the top end of the RBI’s medium-term target range of 2%-6% for the sixth consecutive month.

“An acceleration in food inflation and ongoing virus-related supply disruptions have kept headline CPI inflation higher than we had anticipated, but price pressures should ease soon,” said Shilan Shah, senior India economist at Capital Economics.

Above-average rainfall this year, a key determinant of yields in farming, is predicted to help reduce food-price pressures over the coming months.

But inflation running above target is expected to keep the RBI on the sidelines for the rest of this year, despite expectations the Indian economy will mark its first full-year contraction since 1979 this year.

The Indian government appointed three new external members to the Monetary Policy Committee on Monday after delaying the latest policy-setting meeting, which is scheduled to conclude later on Friday.

“We expect the RBI to remain cognizant of the price pressures but maintain their accommodative stance especially as it is food-led. Rate cuts will be delayed but not denied,” said Rini Sen, India economist at ANZ.

The poll also forecast that industrial output fell for the sixth month in a row in August, with a 7.5% decline, its longest falling streak since June 2009, as infrastructure output , which accounts for about 40% of total industrial production, contracted 8.5%.





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We Do Not Wish To Be India’s Daughters


Updated on 1 Oct 2020. Posted on 1 Oct 2020

We do not wish to be India’s daughters.

On the 14th of September, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman from the city of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, was brutally gang-raped by four upper-caste men. They also gouged out her eyes, cut off her tongue, and broke her spinal cord because of which she suffered multiple fractures and intense bleeding. On the 29th of September, she succumbed to her injuries and became just another statistic in India — a country in which a woman is raped every 15 minutes.

While all four accused were arrested, the Uttar Pradesh police refused to hand over the woman’s mortal remains to her family and forcefully cremated her in the early hours of the 30th of September. The horrendous incident (rightly) sparked outrage amongst Indians with many protesting the actions of the police and demanding an end to our country’s prevalent rape culture.

Rapes wont stop by hanging, pelting or castrating rapists. Rapes will stop when you stop normalising this shit, Rapes will stop when you stop pretending rapists are some uncivilised men who wait in dark alleys for women and not regular people with whom you engage everyday

Like many, many other women before her, Manisha Valmiki was christened ‘India’s daughter’, because that’s who you become when something horrific and unspeakable happens to you.

Once again India’s daughter suffers terribly. At a loss of words to express my anger & sorrow about the #Hathras incident. I stand with the family who lost their loved one to this heinous crime. Strict action must be taken against this inhuman behaviour #JusticeForManishaValmiki

Mere hours after Manisha’s death, a 22-year-old Dalit woman from Balrampur, also in Uttar Pradesh, died after being drugged and gang-raped by two men. She also became India’s daughter — a woman who serves as a carriage for the country’s guilt.

Trigger warning: Another horrific rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Balrampur. In any other situation, in any other country, leaders in charge would take moral responsibility and resign for failing to ensure safety of women.

Remember the Unnao rape victim? She was also India’s daughter — a woman who bears the weight of our country’s collective failure. 8-year-old Asifa was also India’s daughter and so was Priyanka Reddy. And then there was Jyoti Singh — India’s Nirbhaya, perhaps India’s first daughter.


Manan Vatsyayana / Getty Images

Being India’s daughter entails a lot of pressure and sacrifices. You have to endure the pain of being reduced to a mere object. You have to put up with the ordeal of being consistently robbed of your agency. You have to suffer at the hands of a system that stands against you in every imaginable way. Being India’s daughter is synonymous with having your existence erased in the most gruesome manner possible. Being India’s daughter is having justice denied to you at every step of the way.

We carry fear within us. We carry rage. We carry sadness. But we do not wish to carry more burdens because being India’s daughter is a burden.

Men, please keep your dick and guns in your pants and let us ask for accountability from the system that led to this.

Everything in the world is not a spectacle for your hormones. https://t.co/cmwBsnJpzW

It shouldn’t be our cross to carry.

Violence is at the heart of the ideology that is taking India back to the dark ages. Violence based on religion. Violence based on gender. Violence based on caste. Violence based on language. Violence based on region. And all this violence to ensure political & social dominance.

We’re not your daughters. We do not wish to be your daughters. Because nothing good ever comes out of being India’s daughter.


Sam Panthaky / Getty Images

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India’s new paper Covid-19 test could be a ‘game changer’


The new Feluda test uses a gene-editing technology to detect the virus

A team of scientists in India has developed an inexpensive paper-based test for coronavirus that could give fast results similar to a pregnancy test.

The test, named after a famous Indian fictional detective, is based on a gene-editing technology called Crispr. Scientists estimate that the kit – called Feluda – would return results in under an hour and cost 500 rupees (about $6.75; £5.25).

Feluda will be made by a leading Indian conglomerate, Tata, and could be the world’s first paper-based Covid-19 test available in the market.

“This is a simple, precise, reliable, scalable and frugal test,” Professor K Vijay Raghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, told the BBC.

Researchers at the Delhi-based CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), where Feluda was developed, as well as private labs, tried out the test on samples from about 2,000 patients, including ones who had already tested positive for the coronavirus.

They found that the new test had 96% sensitivity and 98% specificity. The accuracy of a test is based on these two proportions. A test that’s highly sensitive will detect almost everyone who has the disease; and a test that has high-specificity will correctly rule out almost everyone who doesn’t have the disease.

The first ensures not too many false negative results; and the second not too many false positives. India’s drug regulator has cleared the test for commercial use.

With more than six million confirmed infections, India has the world’s second-highest Covid-19 caseload. More than 100,000 people in the country have died of the disease so far.

After a slow start, India is now testing a million samples a day in more than 1,200 laboratories across the country. It is using two tests.

India still doesn't allow Covid-19 tests from saliva samples
India still doesn’t allow Covid-19 tests from saliva samples

The first is the time-tested, gold standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR swab tests, which uses chemicals to amplify the virus’s genetic material in the laboratory. The second is the speedy antigen test, which works by detecting virus fragments in a sample.

The PCR test is generally reliable and costs up to 2,400 rupees. It has low false positive and low false negative rates. The antigen tests are cheaper and use finger-prick blood samples to find signs of previous infection. They are more precise in detecting positive infections, but generate more false negatives than the PCR test.

Scaling up testing in India hasn’t meant easy availability yet, according to Dr Anant Bhan, a researcher in global health and health policy.

“There are still long wait times and unavailability of kits. And we are doing a lot of rapid antigen testing which have problems with false negatives,” Dr Bhan told the BBC.

He believes the Feluda test could potentially replace the antigen tests because it could be comparatively cheaper – and more accurate.

“The new test has the reliability of the PCR test, is quicker and can be done in smaller laboratories which don’t have sophisticated machines,” Dr Anurag Agarwal, director of IGIB, told the BBC.

Sample collection for the Feluda test will be similar to the PCR test – a nasal swab inserted a few inches into the nose to check for coronavirus in the back of the nasal passage. India still doesn’t allow Covid-19 tests from saliva samples.

The Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology team behind the new test
The Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology team behind the new test

In the traditional PCR test, the sample is sent to an accredited laboratory where it has to go through a number of “cycles” before enough virus is recovered.

The new Feluda test uses Crispr – short form for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – or a gene-editing technology to detect the virus.

According to researchers, gene-editing works in a way similar to word processing – it’s like using the cursor to correct a typo by removing an incorrect letter and inserting the correct one. The technique is so precise it can remove and add a single genome letter. Gene-editing is mainly used to prevent infections and treat ailments like sickle cell disease.

When used as a diagnostic tool, like Feluda, the Crispr technology latches on to a set of letters of a gene carrying the signature of the novel coronavirus, highlights it, and gives a read-out on a piece of paper.

Two blue lines indicate a positive result, while a single blue line means the test has returned negative.

“Testing remains a limited resource and something that we need to do everything we can to improve its availability. So Feluda is an important step in that direction,” said Dr Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School.

India has the second-highest Covid-19 caseload in the world
India has the second-highest Covid-19 caseload in the world

The Crispr-based tests are a part of a “third wave of tests” after the time consuming and labour intensive PCR and antigen tests, according to Dr Thomas Tsai of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

In the US and the UK, several companies and research labs are developing similar paper strip tests which can be cheap and mass produced. One of the most talked-about has been a paper-based strip developed by Sherlock Bioscience which has been cleared for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The test claims to detect the “unique genetic fingerprints of virtually any DNA or RNA sequence in any organism or pathogen”. DNA and RNA are sister molecules responsible for the storage of all genetic information that underpins life.

“The ideal and ultimate test will be the one that is paper-based which you can do from home,” said Dr Tsai. “But of course, there are some biological restrictions to the technology – we can’t expect people to extract and amplify the RNA from home.”

This is where the Feluda test might end up making a huge difference to the way we look at gene-editing based diagnostic tests.

Dr Debojyoti Chakraborty, a molecular scientist with CSIR-IGBMR and a lead member of the team that developed Feluda, told the BBC that they were working on a prototype of a test where “you can extract and amplify the RNA using PCR machine at home”.

“We are trying for a simple, affordable, and truly point-of-care test so widespread testing is not limited by machines and manpower,” Dr Chakraborty said.

India has been using PCR and antigen testing so far
India has been using PCR and antigen testing so far

“India has the opportunity to show the value of this test, because it has such a big population and it’s coming right at the time when it is needed,” Dr Kissler said. “If their efficacy is demonstrated, it can have benefits that ripple around the world.”

A vaccine will be vital for fully recovering from the pandemic, but according to Dr Kissler, reliable, accessible testing is also key to achieve “a sense of normalcy”.

“In the ideal world I envision, taking a test will be as easy as brushing your teeth or making toast,” he said.



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