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Indian state nears 1 mln coronavirus cases, rivalling Russia, stifling recovery

    * State's COVID-surge restrains India's recovery
Maharashtra, if a country, would rival world's 4th-worst hit
    * Rural areas hit after earlier curbs lifted

    By Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Rajendra Jadhav
    MUMBAI, Sept 11 (Reuters) - India's biggest and richest
state, Maharashtra, is set to record its millionth infection of
the new coronavirus on Friday, putting it on par with Russia in
the pandemic and stifling India's attempts to turn around an
economic plummet.
    The western state, home to financial capital Mumbai, is on
pace to blow past the 1 million mark as infections have been
rising some 20,000 a day recently. Maharashtra, if it were a
country, would now rival Russia for the world's fourth-highest
caseload.
    The spike in the state of 130 million people is the vanguard
for India's breathtaking COVID-19 surge, accounting for nearly
one-quarter of the national total. India is likely to hit 5
million cases in coming days, behind only to the United States.
    With the virus surging unabated through Maharashtra's urban
and rural areas and state authorities struggling to curb
COVID-19 deaths, Prime Minister Prime Minister Narendra Modi is
hamstrung in trying to revive an economy that shrivelled 23.9%
in the second quarter from a year earlier.
    "Maharashtra accounts for approximately 15% of India's GDP.
Unless Maharashtra gets back on its feet, India's chances for an
economic recovery are bleak," said Reuben Abraham, head of IDFC
Institute, a policy think-tank.
    Yet Maharashtra's authorities are unable to ease many
restrictions in the state. Public transport, malls and other
businesses remain depressed even as the rest of India slowly
gets back to business.
    That is unlikely to change soon for a state that is home to
several major industries, including its three most valuable
companies: Tata Consultancy Services Ltd         , Reliance
Industries Ltd           and HDFC Bank          .
    While cities around India have resumed commuter rail,
Maharashtra has held off. In Mumbai - where packed trains define
the workday - suburban train service has been halted since March
for all but essential workers.
    Resuming public transport in the city this month would lead
to a second wave, which would be "difficult to manage", says a
research paper submitted to Mumbai authorities this week.
    Indeed, Maharashtra's partial reopening of factories in
recent months, local festivals and lockdown fatigue help to
explain the state's COVID-19 surge, local health officials told
Reuters.
    "People have tired after spending months at home and they're
stepping out despite knowing they could get infected," said
Subhash Chavhan, a surgeon in Satara district. "They're no
longer taking coronavirus seriously."
    The state's initial reopening, starting in July, accelerated
the spread to previously less-hit rural areas, said Dr. Pradip
Awate, Maharashtra's disease surveillance officer.
    Tiny Rajewadi village did not have a single confirmed
coronavirus case until mid-August. Recently, one in every four
was testing positive for the virus.            
    Also contributing to Maharashtra's infections was the
festival last month for the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh, a
signature 11-day Mumbai celebration that sees huge numbers of
people travelling to and from their hometowns.
    "Before the Ganesh festival there were on an average 60 new
cases daily in the district. Now we're recording more than 150,"
said an official in the coastal district of Ratnagiri.
    COVID-19 is also deadlier in Maharashtra, where it has
killed 2.85% of people with confirmed infections, well above the
national mortality rate of 1.68%. Maharashtra's death toll, over
28,000, accounts for 37% of India's total.
    Rajesh Tope, Maharashtra's health minister, defended the
higher caseload saying the state has been doing more tests than
others and is being more transparent too. 
    "We've never tried hide cases just because they are rising,"
said Tope, adding that Maharashtra has slashed the maximum
private labs can charge for the more accurate RT-PCR testing to
1,200 rupees ($16), barely a quarter of the national cap.
    

    
 (Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Rajendra Jadhav Editing
by William Mallard)
  
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