Free-for-all setback to power talks
Staines spectre on meet
Thakre second stint hope fades
Cong slams 100 days of Atal
SC notice on bogus institutes
Business chill in information glasnost Bill

Lucknow, Jan. 21 
Efforts to break the power deadlock in Uttar Pradesh received a setback after discussions between the striking employees and energy minister Naresh Aggarwal turned into a verbal free-for-all.

Hardening his stand, Aggarwal announced later in the evening that the government will begin recruitment to fill up the posts of the striking and sacked engineers.

As the standoff over trifurcating the electricity board stretched, the state continued to remain in the dark as vast areas of Lucknow, including VIP zones, remained without power, contrary to claims that generation had increased.

The ripple-effect of the strike was felt in Delhi which reeled under severe power cuts as more than 25,000 employees of the capital’s electricity board went on a one-day tool-down agitation as a show of solidarity. The power cuts are expected to continue through the night though the strike ended at 5 pm.

Heeralal Sharma, general secretary of the joint action committee of striking employees, said: ‘‘The strike has been successful. We will start attending to complaints from 5 pm and most of them would be restored by tonight. However, a few places will have to wait till morning for the restoration of electricity.’’

Sharma warned the Delhi government that they would resist any restructuring of the Vidyut Board. ‘‘The employees and engineers of the DVB will resist any form of restructuring and privatisation based on the advice of self-seeking consultants of the World Bank and support by self-serving politicians and bureaucrats,’’ he added.

Aggarwal, in an effort to divide the employees, said junior officers who are not on strike would be immediately promoted to the posts of their seniors who are either on strike or have been suspended. The government also suspended 170 engineers, the largest in a single day, taking the number of sacked employees to 378.

After the failure of last night’s talks, Aggarwal met a delegation of 30 leaders this morning. Sources present in the meeting said neither side was willing to budge an inch. ‘‘The minister kept on saying that discussions would proceed only if this demand was withdrawn while union leaders accused him of being corrupt,’’ a source said.

One of the leaders, who was arrested under the National Security Act but was released for the discussions, even accused Aggarwal of striking deals with private companies.

At this point, the minister reportedly said: ‘‘You people have been looting the power sector for decades. It is not your personal property. You are protesting because you and your future generations can no longer loot the state.’’

This, the sources said, triggered verbal volleys from the employees who threatened to walk out of the meeting.

The government, sensing that the crisis is snowballing beyond its control, has decided to form a crisis management committee.

Though this has not been officially announced, Uttar Pradesh party president Om Prakash Singh told members of the state executive that public reaction to the standoff has to be gauged. BJP circles feel that barring the power employees and their families, others favour reforms in the power sector.

However, some observers are wondering why chief minister Ram Prakash Gupta has been silent so far. A section in the BJP is unhappy with Gupta as it feels that the ‘‘whole show is being controlled by Aggarwal’’ who belongs to the Loktantrik Congress.    

Manoharpur (Keonjhar), Jan. 21 
Frightened Christian leaders braced for a reprisal as the annual prayer meeting, which had ended last year in the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, began here today.

“We are scared. Dara Singh may not spare us after this. Police will leave after our prayers on Sunday,” Rolia Soren, a community leader said.

Singh, a religious fanatic, had led the attack on Staines and his sons, Philip and Timothy, who were burnt alive in a jeep in front of Manoharpur church on January 23 last year. Singh, who has about Rs 10 lakh on his head, is still hiding in the nearby jungle.

Soren, a member of Manoharpur Baptist Church and a follower of Staines, had lodged a complaint with the police after the brutal murder that prompted the Vajpayee government to set up a judicial commission. Justice D.P. Wadhwa’s Commission indicted Singh who was also wanted for other attacks on minorities, including Muslim cattle traders.

Soren said he and local church pastor Chaitanya Murmu were Singh’s main targets now. They were asked to sleep inside the church with police protection after the police recently received a tip-off on a possible attempt on their lives.

“I am not sure if we can elude Singh for long. He may eventually get us,” Murmu said, adding “I am not afraid to die. But I do get frightened sometimes. After all, I am a human being.”

Police have beefed up security here after the community leaders decided to hold the three-day prayer meeting starting today.

“The authorities tried to dissuade us, but the jungle camp, as we call it, has been an annual affair here for the past 18 years. It was here that Graham bhai died with his children. If we don’t hold the prayers it will be an insult to their souls,” Soren said.

“The district authorities asked us to hold a low-key function. So we invited Christians from the neighbouring villages only. However, now I fear for their safety because their villages lack police protection,” he added.

Police pickets have been posted here and in two neighbouring Christian villages. The local church was converted into a mini police barrack forcing the organisers to hold prayers outside the church.

“At first, we protested, but later we welcomed them. Their presence is needed here, Murmu said.    

New Delhi, Jan. 21 
Kushabhau Thakre is unlikely to be re-elected as BJP president once his term ends in May.

Sources cited his declining health as the main reason for inducting a new face. Thakre has served one term as party chief.

Although the BJP constitution was recently amended at the Chennai national council to give just one term of three years (it was previously two years) to all office-bearers, including the president, it was clarified that this would not apply to the organisational elections already under way.

Therefore, it was said Thakre would qualify for another term.

The party chief himself gave the impression that he was not averse to the idea. Last November, he made a series of contradictory statements about his future plans. At a news conference in Indore, Thakre insisted he would not accept another tenure as president because of his health.

A week later, he told reporters in Delhi: “I will obey the party’s dictates and serve in whatever capacity it wishes me to.”

BJP sources, however, said his recent illness had practically settled the issue of re-election. “It is almost out of question now, since he may not be mobile any longer,” said a source.

Thakre had an angiography last week after which he complained of chest pain and breathlessness. Tests showed that the arteries leading to the heart were blocked and a bypass surgery could be inevitable, according to sources.

The operation may take place in March after the Assembly elections in Bihar and three other states.

Thakre’s biggest asset, said the sources, was his mobility which let him keep in constant touch with the BJP cadre all over the country. But after the operation, he would have to cut down on travelling.

And although this is not mentioned as the main reason for a change of guard, there is a distinct feeling within the BJP that under Thakre the party has lost its identity to the government.

The RSS had criticised him for the Chennai declaration which just stopped short of stating that the BJP was the NDA, and had no agenda other than the NDA’s.k

“We need a person who can give the party its earlier image and reliability,” said an office-bearer.

Many believe that despite his supposed organisational skills, Thakre could not appreciate the ground reality in complex states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and, instead, took the “easy way out” by obliging leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee.

It was under his leadership that Kalyan Singh was dethroned and the BJP suffered some of its worst losses in strongholds like Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The last was Thakre’s home state.

Party sources felt that after the heady growth under L.K. Advani, Thakre lacked the “dynamism and creativity” to build on it. He allowed it to bask in the “reflected glory” of Vajpayee’s personality.

The BJP has its task cut out in choosing Thakre’s successor. Two front-runners are senior vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy and general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu. Both are from the south, an attribute the RSS-BJP feels will broaden the party’s base.

State units have been asked to enlist their primary members and set up the electoral colleges for choosing presidents and other office-bearers by February end.

The state-level elections will take place between March 1 and May 7. Once the state-level electoral colleges are formed by the third week of May, the stage will be set for the election of Thakre’s successor.    

New Delhi, Jan. 21 
The Congress today termed Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s 100 days in office as a “failure on all fronts”.

AICC spokesman Anil Shastri asked the Election Commission to pull up the government for violating the model code of conduct by highlighting “achievements” of the Vajpayee regime in newspapers when four states were going to polls. He listed several areas where the government had bungled:

Terrorism has not been checked. Even security personnel are being targeted in Jammu and Kashmir.

Hijack of IC 814 and release of hardcore militants in exchange for the hostages reflected an all-round failure in security, foreign policy, aviation safety and fight against terrorism.

Saffronisation of the bureaucracy in Gujarat.

Breach of constitutional rights and freedom of religion.

Collapse of law and order in Jammu and Kashmir.

Unprofessional handling of the tourism industry, where opportunities were lost to cash in on the millennium hype.

Disinvestment of public sector units.    

New Delhi, Jan. 21 
The Supreme Court today issued notices to the Union human resources development ministry and four others on a petition seeking steps against “fake” educational institutions.

The three-judge bench of Justice S.P. Bharucha, Justice S.S.M. Quadri and Justice M.B. Shah issued the notices on a public interest litigation by the Common Cause, a society affiliated to the University Grants Commission (UGC), Medical Council of India and All India Council for Technical Education.

The PIL contended that the government should be directed to lay down a clear policy so that “teaching shops”, ill-equipped to teach courses, are not allowed to flourish. Petitioners’ counsel Ashwini Kumar and Rajiv Nanda told the apex court that the government set up a task force of experts on July 7, 1998 for a thorough examination of the issue. But even after recommendations by the task force, nothing was done to curb “fake” institutions from duping lakhs of students.

The counsel said that the task force suggested heavier punishment for the managers of “fake” institutions.    

New Delhi, Jan 21 
Information and broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley set the cat among corporate pigeons with an off-the-cuff warning about the possibility of misuse of the Right to Information Bill coming up shortly.

“It can be misused by business rivals who could then use the media to fight their proxy battles,” he said, speaking at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Except certain areas, the Bill — to be presented in the budget session — will make every piece of information in the government’s possession available to the public. Eight areas have been kept out of the purview of the Bill.

With memories of the recent disclosure of the list of companies that have defaulted on bank loans fresh in mind, the prospect has sent a frisson of fear through the corporate world.

“Companies can seek information about other companies possessed by government agencies often as a way of learning about their competitors,” said G.P. Goenka, Ficci president, at the seminar on right to information.

Corporate lore is replete with tales of skulduggery where business rivals ferret out secrets about each other and try to use them to their advantage. Once this Bill is passed, settling scores will become that much more simple — goodbye espionage.

There is a sense of foreboding about the way the provisions of the Bill could be misused. Corporate observers point to the way bank unions spilled the beans on the country’s worst loan defaulters in retaliation against a report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) suggesting closure of three heavily loss-making banks.

Scared by the havoc such damaging revelations could wreak, industry has started to lobby the government to work in a system of checks that would pre-empt the revelation of certain commercial secrets to the public.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between flow of information and the functioning of businesses. One critical issue which has to be discussed is the extent to which the private sector is subjected to the requirements of the right of information legislation,” said Goenka.

Another leading chamber has said even in the US freedom of information Act has some safeguards. Apart from information related to defence and national security, trade secrets, including sales statistics, inventories, customer lists, scientific or manufacturing processes or formulae, material protected by attorney- client, doctor-patient or lender- borrower privileges are exempt from the purview of this Act.

CII added that under the various laws of the land companies are required to furnish a great deal of information into the public domain. In the case of patents, some information is made available to the public under law, while the rest is confidential. CII would like this provision to continue.    


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