Hotel boom at front door
Dunlop to stay shut, union blamed
Stop-as-you-please buses booked
Showcause for hospital death
Calcutta connects to satellite-age crime
Extortion-hit rly staff flee remote Assam stations
Tripura villagers play cops
Rural Manipur cold to polls
Red terror maims Bihar campaign

A string of five-star and above hotels is coming up in Calcutta, promising to take the hospitality war to dizzy heights.

The Grand Hyatt will be built not far from the Oberoi Grand. It is coming up on 42, Chowringhee Road, property that belonged to the erstwhile Darbhanga royals, next to Tata Centre.

Even as Hyatt International of the US and its Indian partner, Asian Hotels, firms up plans, the hospitality industry is debating whether the luxury hotels that will change the city skyline in two years’ time will have enough custom.

Despite the anxiety, the industry is betting on it with hard cash — an inevitable sign that the majors are readying to fight over every crumb of the hospitality cake.

Hyatt International has pumped $ 5 million into its joint venture with Asian Hotels. The Grand Hyatt will be Asian Hotels’ second venture in the city. Asian Hotels, run by the Delhi-based Sarafs who also own Hyatt Regency in Delhi, is building a luxury hotel just off the EM Bypass bordering Salt Lake. The Salt Lake Hyatt will be a 250-room, Rs 150 crore project managed by SK Jatia.

A stone’s throw from it, also on the bypass, two more super-deluxe category hotels are taking shape: an ITC Welcomgroup property (concept design on right) and the city’s second Taj. The investment into each of these projects is around Rs 250 crore.

That’s a lot of money for an industry that answers the question ‘is the global traveller headed this way?’ with hope rather than conviction. “We are not doe-eyed foreign investors and have done our complete homework on what the city is going to look like and who will come here,” says an indignant Jatia Group spokesman.

The investors are no fly-by-night operators. They are international players with proven credentials, and, perhaps most importantly, have deep pockets.

B.K. Jhunjhunwala, director of Hotel & Resorts Ventures Pvt Ltd, which is planning the Grand Hyatt on Chowringhee, says: “Hyatt International is very impressed with the excellent site. We expect enough demand in the city in the next few years. I cannot comment on the seven-star business, but it is surely going to be one of the country’s finest hotels. The foreign partner has already made a survey of the market and is hopeful that the city will generate enough business. An investment of Rs 12.5 crore is already in.”

The location of the Grand Hyatt itself signals the beginning of a competition that can only get fiercer. It will be the only other top-bracket hotel on Chowringhee in the heart of the city, apart from the Oberoi Grand, a point that the Old Lady of Chowringhee’s regulars might ponder over.

In a state which has little to show in terms of industrial growth, who is the hospitality industry expecting to host?

The existing five-star deluxe hotels — Taj Bengal and Oberoi Grand — make do with an average 60 per cent occupancy rates. Both together provide about 450-500 deluxe rooms. Another 700-750 are expected to be added with ITC, the Salt Lake Hyatt and the Grand Hyatt. The second Taj will add a further 200-250 rooms.

In three to four years, the total capacity of top-bracket hotels (including Hotel Hindustan International and Park, but excluding ITDC’s Ashok, near Dum Dum airport, is likely to be more than doubled.

Veer Vijay Singh, general manager, Taj Bengal, says: “It is a chicken-and-egg situation. What will come first, infrastructure or the tourists? The instance of Delhi in 1982, when hotels mushroomed because the city was hosting the Asian Games, is a good one. The common question then was, who is going to use all this excess capacity? Sure, there was a lull for the next one or two years, during which average occupancy was pretty low, but then the hotels started filling up. In Calcutta, even today, supply is more than demand but things will improve greatly.”

Echoes Bhandari, general manager of the Oberoi Grand: “Corporate events are increasing. The international presence in the city should be going up.”

The biggest promise of big-spending travellers passing through the city is held out by projects such as the race track that can attract clientele in large numbers. “Our projection is that once the Formula One Car racing facility takes off, we anticipate a room requirement of about 4,000,” says P K Mohapatra, managing director of the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation. “Till now, the city has only deluxe rooms in the city and ITC Welcome group will probably be the first in the super-deluxe category.”

The hotels are expected to draw on the strength of their countrywide chains to generate revenue in the city. They are also gearing up for a tariff war.

Welcomgroup is expecting to host “upmarket global travellers in the eastern region, national and international delegates participating at conventions in the city as well as delegates and visitors to the Science City”.

There could be more players, too, in the fray. If the state, indeed, hands Great Eastern to Accor Asia, it could be the biggest signal yet that the government is pulling out all the stops.    

A day before its scheduled reopening, Dunlop India Limited (DIL)’s Sahaganj factory on Sunday slid back into uncertainty after the management decided to keep the shutters down till the Citu-run workers’ union furnished a written pledge of cooperation.

“Under the circumstances... we are sure it will be appreciated that the reopening of the Sahaganj factory will not be possible,” said B. Sen Sarma, an official spokesman for Dunlop.

After the reopening of Dunlop’s factory at Ambattur, as planned during the day, the management said that the uncertainty surrounding the reopening of the Sahaganj unit on Monday could not be adequately cleared, in the absence of written support from the workers’ union.

“We have all along been suspecting that they (the management) are up to some mischief,” said Ashok Paul, vice-president of the union at Sahaganj. “They want rioting on Monday so that they can cry off their responsibility and put the blame on us.”

In a two-page press note, the Sahaganj management claimed it had been possible to reopen the Ambattur plant because of the availability of such a pledge of continuing cooperation from the workers’ union there.

Treating the two plants as inter-linked, the management said the reopening depended on the Dunlop workers’ union signing and returning the “final minutes of discussion” that took place on January 6 between the management and the two unions.

“We have received from the Ambattur union assurances of full support and the minutes duly signed. We are still awaiting the signed copy and an assurance from the Sahaganj workers’ union,” Sen Sarma said.    

Giving in to public pressure, city police chief D.C. Vajpai on Sunday directed divisional deputy commissioners of police to clamp down on private and public buses stopping in the middle of roads to pick up passengers.

According to the deputy commissioner, south, Ranjit Pachnanda, police prosecuted the drivers of 50 private and 10 state government buses for picking up and dropping passengers in the middle of various important roads in south Calcutta.

Officers said a police team fanned out in Rashbehari Avenue, Gariahat Road, Tollygunge Road, Prince Anwar Shah Road, Ballygunge, Minto Park, Sarat Bose Road, Alipore Road, Diamond Harbour Road, New Alipore, S.P. Mukherjee Road and Ashutosh Mukherjee Road and took action against bus drivers who stopped their vehicles on any part of a road they are not supposed to.

“Officers from every police station were out on the streets from the morning. They challenged the drivers of buses who parked their vehicles anywhere else on the road other than the scheduled bus stop,’’ Pachnanda said.

Asked why police began the drive on Sunday, when the volume of traffic is much less than on weekdays, Pachnanda said it was to avoid inconvenience to office-goers, who get irritated when policemen stop buses to take action against errant drivers.

“Passengers think precious time is lost when the police take action against bus drivers during office time and pick a fight with the policemen. So we decided to start the drive on Sunday. It will serve as a warning as bus drivers get to hear of it,’’ he said.

Pachnanda added that the drive will continue even on weekdays for some time.

Sources said the Lalbazar police headquarters is flooded with complaints about how buses abruptly stopped in the middle of roads, forcing drivers of vehicles behind them to apply the brakes in a hurry. This not only led to jams but also to collisions.

According to Writers’ Buildings sources, state deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, too, received such complaints from people who met him at the Calcutta Book fair.

A senior member of the Booksellers and Publishers Guild said the deputy chief minister agreed on the need to discipline bus drivers.

He later summoned Vajpai to his office and ordered him to organise special raids on bus drivers.

Vajpai held a meeting with senior Calcutta Police officers at Lalbazar to plan the drive.

Sources said he initially ordered the traffic department to penalise bus drivers who violated rules and blocked traffic movement.

Senior officers of the traffic department suggested that divisional DCs and local police stations, too, be involved in the drive. “It will be much more effective,’’ said a senior officer who attended the meeting.

Accordingly, police officers identified 50 important roads and intersections where bus drivers tend to stop abruptly in the middle of the road.

The joint commissioner of police, traffic, V.V. Thambi, said police presence on these roads will be strengthened from Monday.

Collisions injure two

A woman was injured when she fell off the pillion of a scooter which collided with a Maruti on the Bypass near Beleghata. The scooterist fled.

In another accident on Prince Anwar Shah Road, a man was injured when his car collided with another vehicle.    

State health minister Partha De has convened an emergency meeting at Writers’ Buildings on Monday to discuss the situation at SSKM Hospital, where a doctor, a nurse and a group-D employee have been issued showcause notices following the “unnatural death” of a patient on Saturday.

The meeting will be attended by the health department’s principal secretary, the hospital superintendent, the deputy director of health (nursing) and members of the hospital’s managing board.

Early on Saturday, 14-year-old Amal De was found dead in the hospital compound under “mysterious circumstances”. A resident of Thakurpukur, South 24-Parganas, Amal had been admitted on January 28 with renal failure.

The Trinamul Congress has threatened to open a camp in the hospital to monitor “all activities” of the SSKM management.    

New-age crime has come to Calcutta, but not before leaving its mark on Mumbai and Delhi. Sophisticated gadgets and influential connections have enabled private international satellite network communication companies (ISNCC) to run a parallel telecom facility in the city.

“The companies had set up their own rate-chart for international calls, which was much lower than the standard charges,’’ said the chief general manager of Calcutta Telephones, K. Ramanujam.

According to Ramanujam, Pushpen Sarkar of Bengal Communications had tied up with some foreign ISNCC to bypass VSNL and the Insat-1A and Insat-1B transponders, for outgoing and incoming international calls. The CBI has accused Sarkar and Bengal Communications of violating the Indian Telegraph Act and causing the national exchequer losses amounting to Rs 4.5 crore.

Sources in Calcutta Telephones said Sarkar, arrested on 19 January, had managed 50 telephone connections at Hatiara Road, in the Rajarhat area of North 24-Parganas, over a period of six months. When customers — a select group of businessmen who made frequent ISD calls — rang any of these numbers, they were connected to a foreign satellite through a server hooked to a very small antenna (V-Sat). The incoming signals were received through a dish antenna at Rajarhat.

“Once the consumer called any of the numbers, he would enter the network. There would be a beep, following which he would dial the country code, city code and the destined number in any foreign country. Similarly, a foreign caller would dial the number of Sarkar’s collaborator in the US and then India’s country code, city code and the destined number,’’ explained U.N. Biswas, joint director (east) of the CBI.

“Separate codes for countries and cities worldwide would be circulated among the select clients. The system worked in such a manner that the billing in the Calcutta Telephone’s meter merely registered the local calls made from Sarkar’s phone to the subscribers,’’ said Ramanujam.

Preliminary investigations have revealed that there are at least three foreign ISNCC collaborators of Bengal Communications.

Sarkar, who has told sleuths that he is the agent of MAP Industries in New Jersey, USA, has been remanded in judicial custody for 15 days.

Calcutta Telephones had earlier filed an FIR with the CBI, complaining that Bengal Communications was resorting to “unfair practices and cheating, which has resulted in loss of revenue to the Government of India”.

U.N. Biswas said: “We are verifying and cross- checking documents to find out the exact extent of the losses.’’ The CBI is probing how Sarkar managed to obtain so many telephone connections, and exploring his ‘network’.

While Sarkar is said to have been “very evasive about his clients”, CBI sources, quoting documents seized from Sarkar’s Rajarhat office, said they had found the names and addresses of 500 businessmen, many from the Salt Lake area.

The ‘novel’ crime in Calcutta is an action replay of what has been unearthed in Delhi and Mumbai over the past few months.

“A number of cases have come to our notice and we have handed over all cases to the CBI or police. A violator can be booked under the Criminal Procedure Code, Indian Penal Code and various Acts of the Indian Telegraph Act or the Wireless Telegraph Act,” said G.K. Mehrotra, senior deputy director, vigilance, department of telecommunications.

Sunil Mittal, director of Mittal Construction, Mumbai, was recently nabbed by the CBI for “tapping the leased line of VSNL and offering connections for less than 50 per cent of the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited rates”. He is said to have tied up with an associate in California, USA.

In Delhi, a subscriber was booked by the CBI under section 420 of IPC last December for “acting as a franchisee of VSNL for connecting long-distance telephone calls without any authorisation”.

A senior VSNL official said: “International calls worth more than Rs 55 crore were made through him, using our network.”    

Guwahati, Feb. 6 
Seven stations in the Lumding-Badarpur section under the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) are unmanned at present because of militant threats, Railway Board chairman V. K. Agarwal said here today.

The law and order situation in the state has been “deteriorating day-by-day” and largescale extortions from railway staff in the hills have resulted in railway personnel fleeing the seven stations.

The railways have apprised the Union home ministry of the matter and the Centre has asked the state government to post at least two units of paramilitary force at each of the 18 stations in the hill section, he said.

Extortions were holding up work at a number of places, he said. Contractors and engineers are also being abducted by extremist outfits for ransom, he added.The railways have deployed one company of Railway Protection Force at New Jalpaiguri in view of increasing extremist activities in the region. He said the recent blast at the station underlined the need for more vigilance to protect life and public property.

Besides the fear psychosis, insurgency has resulted in the loss of earning for the railways, he said. Over the first nine months of 1999-2000, there had been three blasts and six sabotages, he said.

The threat perception had led to the cancellation of night trains in Assam between August 12, 1999 and December 27, 1999 and again from January 1, 2000, to January 30, he said.

Bandhs and rail blockades called by various organisations are also taking their toll on the morale of railway employees, Agarwal informed. He said over the first nine months of 1999-2000 employees have received 177 threatening calls over telephone as compared to 153 calls in the corresponding period the previous year. “These had disrupted running of trains and affected loading and unloading of goods,” he said.

Agarwal said the Railway Board has approved of an additional service to Chennai from Guwahati twice a week. “With this there will be six south-bound trains a week from here,” he said. As far as setting up of the Rangiya division was concerned, he said eight divisions have been sanctioned in the country and Rangiya was one of them.

He added that the survey for the fourth bridge over Brahmaputra at Bogibeel was on. “The NEC had earlier said it would be a road bridge, but we protested. Now it is going to be a road-cum-rail bridge,” Agarwal said.

Work on the double track from New Jalpaiguri to New Bongaigaon is also in progress. With the opening of the track along the south bank from Jogighopa to Guwahati in March, the entire stretch will have two tracks, he said.    

Agartala, Feb. 6 
Tribal villagers apprehended eight National Liberation Front of Tripura rebels at Rambhadra in Amarpur subdivision of South Tripura district yesterday.

The villagers also rescued two abducted fishermen — identified as Brajendra Das and Sukumar Das — and recovered the body of another person taken hostage on January 31. The NLFT “collaborators” are now in police custody.

Seven detained

Police have detained seven persons in connection with the attack on Sadar subdivisional officer Sukram Debbarma in front of his office here last evening. Sources said the United Bengali Liberation Front (UBLF) could be behind the incident.

Debbarma and his driver survived the attack, but the subdivisional officer’s bodyguard Ratan Ghosh succumbed to his injuries on way to hospital. It is yet to be ascertained how the armed assailants entered the high-security zone in which Debbarma’s office is located.

The Tripura government today said it was contemplating an inquiry into the incident. It also expressed concern over the growing strength of the UBLF. Chief minister Manik Sarkar, visited Debbarma and his driver.    

Khangabok, Feb. 6 
One of the most backward areas of Manipur, Khangabok is approaching the February 12 Assembly elections with scepticism.

Long denied opportunities for development, Khangabok is infamous for its child labourers. Ask any child working in the capital town of Imphal where he hails from and chances are he will name either Khangabok or the adjoining constituency of Heirok.

Aspirants to the seat have failed to cut much ice with the disenchanted electorate, but this has not stopped any of them from trying.

Manipur PCC president Ibobi Singh has promised to make the area “prosperous” if he is elected. Though national issues comprise the crux of his campaign, the Congress leader is not overlooking local issues.

“The Congress is a national party, which is why issues of national importance are integral to my campaign. But I am certainly not ignoring local issues,” he told The Telegraph.

Jatra Singh of the Manipur People’s Party is, however, focusing solely on local problems. The legislator is presently campaigning in a Muslim-dominated village, raising issues like the poor condition of roads in the constituency and lack of funds for development schemes.

“The people are more concerned about their own problems. National and state-level issues come later,” he said after a round of door-to-door campaigning at Shangai Yumpham village.

Of the 24,000 voters in Khangabok, 5,000 are Muslims. It is these voters who will be the “deciding factor” in the contest for the Khangabok seat.

In the 1995 elections, Jatra Singh pipped Ibobi Singh at the post on the strength of the minority votes. However, the Congress leader is hoping to turn the tables this time.

“The Congress is secular, which is what the minority community wants every party to be. We expect the Muslim voters in Khangabok to translate their faith in the Congress into votes,” he said.

What has made the electoral contest an event to look forward to is the fact that the two main contenders are part of the five-party Secular Democratic Front alliance.

Both Ibobi Singh and his MPP rival have refrained from criticising each other, lest it endanger the alliance.

As far as the voters are concerned, anyone who appears to be sincere about developing their area is the man they will vote for.

“All we want is development. It does not matter which party our legislator owes allegiance to,” said a Muslim resident of Shangai Yumpham village.

Realising that it is their votes which will decide the victor, the minorities are wary of immediately.pledging their support to either of the main contenders.

There are altogether five candidates in the fray.    

Daltonganj, Feb. 6 
The core of Bihar’s red underground simmers beneath the dense curtain of mist that shrouds Palamau.

An unusual lull grips the villages dotting the foliaged slopes. Stripped of all the trappings of an approaching election, the hamlets present an eerie sight with only Naxalite poll boycott posters visible on the walls. Political parties dare not venture into this “zone’’ lest the underground erupts.

Even the most adventurous policemen tremble in fear at the thought of defying the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and People’s War (PW) fiat.

But a few gusty candidates, who breached the red bastion to campaign in the remote villages, faced the Naxalite ire.

People’s War activists yesterday snatched the flag and the vehicle of Independent candidate Rajkishore Singh alias Matar Singh and set them ablaze in Semrigoan in front of this correspondent.

Singh, an undertrial, was contesting the polls from behind bars and his son, Rajesh, was campaigning on his behalf.

Singh’s son was dragged out of the jeep and flogged for nearly 15 minutes by four Naxalites before being let off with a stern warning. The militants subsequently set the jeep on fire and rolled it down the slope into the Sukhri river. Sources said the PW targeted Singh because he was a former member of a rival faction.

Massive deployment of paramilitary forces in Chatra, Bishrampur and Maligaon have failed to deter the Naxalites in the Palamau-Hazaribagh zone. However, bulk of the contingents are stationed in the urban areas.

Two days ago, Naxalites torched the vehicles of sitting RJD legislator Manik Raichandra and Congress candidate Chandra Sekhar Dubey in Bishrampur. The MCC even abducted two CPI(M-L) members and killed them last week to whip up fear psychosis among the contestants.

A curfew-like situation prevailed in the district headquarters with round-the-clock patrolling by security forces.

The administration suspended long-distance bus services and most of the city buses were taken off the road.

Of the 400 companies of paramilitary forces, at least 210 companies have been deployed in Palamau and Hazaribagh. Forty sniffer dogs have been pressed into service to detect landmines on unmetalled roads.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, militants used improvised landmines to kill over 50 CRPF jawans.

This time too, Naxalites have threatened to unleash a bloodbath if voters and politicians defied their poll boycott call.

“But we have to campaign and we have learnt to live with fear,’’ said Ramkrishna Ram, president of the district RJD unit.

The low-key campaign and fear of militants have prevented candidates from raising social and development issues.

Despite Laloo Prasad Yadav’s promises to promote small-scale industries, the local saw mills and private graphite mine-owners are shifting base to other states.

The district mining office said five investors who had procured license for graphite mines in the region have surrendered them following militant threat.

Even the Khadi and Village Industrial Board has failed to resuscitate handloom and sericulture industries in this backward district.    


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