Cyclone Nisarga lashes India’s business capital

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Cyclone Nisarga was forecast to drop heavy rains and sustained winds of 100 to 110 kilometers per hour when it hit Mumbai. (AFP)
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India’s financial capital Mumbai, above, has not been hit by a cyclone in more than a century. (AFP)
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Updated 03 June 2020

Cyclone Nisarga lashes India’s business capital

  • Mumbai has not been hit by a cyclone in more than a century

MUMBAI, India: A cyclone made landfall Wednesday south of India’s financial capital of Mumbai, with storm surge threatening to flood beaches and low-lying slums as city authorities struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Live TV coverage showed inky black clouds framing the sea on India’s western coastline. Trees swayed wildly as rain pounded the coastal towns and villages of the central state of Maharashtra.
In the state capital Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, India’s largest stock exchange and more than 18 million residents, high winds whipped skyscrapers and ripped apart shanty houses near the beach.
Mumbai has not been hit by a cyclone in more than a century, raising concern about its readiness. In the hours before the storm hit India’s shores, drivers and peddlers deserted Mumbai’s iconic Marine Drive, fishermen yanked their nets out of the wavy Arabian Sea and police shooed people away from beaches.
As the cyclone wended its way up India’s western coast, homes in city slums were boarded up and abandoned, and municipal officials patrolled the streets, using bullhorns to order people to stay inside.
Cyclone Nisarga was forecast to drop heavy rains and sustained winds of 100 to 110 kilometers (62 to 68 miles) per hour through Wednesday afternoon after slamming ashore near the city of Alibag, about 98 kilometers (60 miles) south of Mumbai, India’s Meteorological Department said.
At Alibag, visuals shared by India’s Disaster Response Force on Twitter showed toppled carts, roads scattered with fallen trees and tin roofs ripped apart.
The state of Goa, south of Maharashtra, already received 127 millimeters of torrential rain — about a week’s average, the agency said.
Some 100,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas in Maharashtra and neighboring Gujarat, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. Both states, already among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, activated disaster response teams, fearing extensive flooding could further impair overwhelmed health systems.
“If hospitals and clinics are damaged by the cyclone, the city won’t be able to cope with the large number of COVID-19 cases, and social distancing measures will become virtually impossible to follow,” Bidisha Pillai, chief executive of Save the Children in India, said in a statement.
Some 200 COVID-19 patients in Mumbai were moved from a field hospital built beneath a tent to another facility to avoid the risk of strong wind gusts, officials said.
S.N. Pradhan, director of India’s National Disaster Response Force, said that evacuations were nearly complete and that social distancing norms were being followed in cyclone shelters.
“Let us fight this danger like we are standing up to the corona pandemic and are on our way to defeat it. Likewise, we will prevail over this situation too!” Maharashtra’s top official, Chief Minister Uddhav Balasheb Thackeray, tweeted.
The cyclone also threatened to worsen prospects for an economic turnaround as a 9-week-long coronavirus lockdown began to ease this week. India has reported more than 200,000 cases and 5,800 deaths due to the virus, and epidemiologists predict that the peak is still weeks away.
Maharashtra, which accounts for more than a third of India’s cases, has seen the rate of infection slow in recent days, beneath India’s national average.
Some special trains departing from Mumbai that for weeks have carried millions of economic migrants who lost their jobs in lockdown were rescheduled, and newly restored domestic airline travel postponed.
Nisarga comes just two weeks after Cyclone Amphan tore through the Bay of Bengal on India’s east coast and battered West Bengal state, killing more than 100 people in India and neighboring Bangladesh.
Such storms are less common in the Arabian Sea than on India’s east coast, usually form later in the year and do so over a longer period. But Nisarga may represent the ways in which the warming of oceans due to climate change is already altering lives, experts said.
The frequency of cyclones in the Arabian Sea is predicted to increase, said Adam Sobel, a climate scientist at Columbia University.
The temperature of the top layer of the sea, from which the cyclone draws its energy, is “unusually high,” said K.J. Ramesh, former chief of India’s Meteorological Department. Much more frequent and intense cyclones have been appearing over a shorter time in recent years due to climate change, he said.
“Forecasting such storms becomes a challenge,” he said.


Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

Updated 12 August 2020

Taliban rule out cease-fire until it is agreed in talks

  • President Ghani’s order to release 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners opens way for negotiations

KABUL: The Taliban have rejected calls for a truce before the long-awaited talks with the government get underway. They said that the possibility of a cease-fire could be debated only during the talks.

“When our prisoners are released, we will be ready for the talks,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Tuesday.

“A cease-fire or reduction of violence can be among the items in the agenda of the talks,” he said.

This follows President Ashraf Ghani signing a decree for the release of 400 hardcore Taliban prisoners on Monday — who Kabul said were responsible for some of the worst attacks in the country in recent years — thereby removing the last obstacle to the start of the negotiations set by the Taliban.

However, Kabul has yet to announce the date of their release.

Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed peace council, said that Doha, Qatar, would be the likely venue.

“Deliberations are continuing, and no decision has been made on a firm date yet,” he said.

Ghani pledged to release the prisoners after the Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly, voiced support for their freedom.

After three days of deliberations the Jirga, which comprises 3,400 delegates, said that its decision was for the sake of “the cessation of bloodshed” and to remove “the obstacle to peace talks.”

After the Jirga’s announcement, Ghani said that “the ball was now in the Taliban’s court” and that they needed to enforce a nationwide cease-fire and begin talks to bring an end to more than 40 years of war, particularly the latest chapter in a conflict that started with the Taliban’s ousting from power in the US-led invasion in late 2001.

The exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban was part of a deal signed between the insurgent group and the US in Doha in February
this year.

The prisoner swap program — involving the release of 5,000 Taliban inmates in return for 1,000 security forces held by the group — was to be completed within 10 days in early March, followed by the crucial intra-Afghan talks.

February’s deal between the Taliban emissaries and US delegates, led by the US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, came after 18 months of intensive and secret talks, amid growing public frustration in the US about the Afghan war — America’s longest in history.

Ghani, whose government was sidelined from the February accord, initially voiced his opposition to freeing the Taliban inmates.

However, faced with increasing pressure from the US, Kabul began releasing 4,600 prisoners in a phased manner.

The intra-Afghan talks are also crucial for US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection in November and is keen to use the pull-out of forces and the start of negotiations as examples of his successful foreign policy. However, experts say the next stage will not be easy.

Analyst and former journalist Taj Mohammad told Arab News: “The talks will be a long, complicated process, with lots of ups and downs. It took 18 months for the Taliban and US to agree on two points; the withdrawal of all US troops and the Taliban pledging to cut ties with militant groups such as Al-Qaeda. Now, imagine, how long it will take for the completion of a very complicated process of talks between Afghans who will debate women’s rights, minorities rights, election, Islamic values, … the form of government and so on.”

For some ordinary Afghans on the streets, however, the planned talks have revived hopes for peace and security and “are more needed in Afghanistan than in any other country.”

“I am more optimistic now than in the past. All sides have realized they cannot win by force and may have decided to rise to the occasion and come together,” Fateh Shah, a 45-year-old civil servant from Kabul, said.

Others spoke of their dreams to “go back home.”

“I have been away from my village for 19 years, and as soon as peace comes, we will pack up and go there,” said Rasool Dad, a 50-year-old porter who lives as a war-displaced person in Kabul, talking of his desire to return to his birthplace in southern Helmand province.

However, 30-year-old banker Sharif Amiri wasn’t very optimistic about the future.

“Even if the talks turn out to be successful, that will not mean an end to the war or the restoration of security. There are spoilers in the region, at home and at an international level who will try to sabotage peace here,” he said, hinting at rivalries among countries in the region, including major powers such as Russia, China and the US, who have used Afghanistan as a direct and indirect battleground for years.