Nod for gas price rise, no to job cut
Most wanted thug dies in Bihar poll hitback
Aussie antidote to fake 500s
Atal settles Japan sanctions score
School cheers Sachin shackle-free run

New Delhi, Feb. 22 
The Union Cabinet tonight decided to raise the prices of cooking gas and kerosene, but a long-standing proposal to downsize government was blocked by Mamata Banerjee with surprise support from L.K. Advani.

The second man in the Cabinet also voiced mild objection to the price increase move, arguing that the government should not be seen taking so many harsh decisions at the same time.

But, pressures on the government to cut subsidies — cooking gas and kerosene together eat up Rs 12,800 crore a year — are far too great for it to heed this opposition.

Cooking gas price is expected to go up Rs 30-40 for a 14-kg cylinder that now costs Rs 170.21 (Calcutta) with an announcement scheduled to be made in Parliament on Thursday.

The government has been talking about a Rs 2 increase per litre of kerosene which now costs Rs 3 in ration shops. Given the politically sensitive nature of the issue, it is not clear yet if the extent will be as much. Kerosene is regarded by politicians as the poor man’s fuel.

The accompanying move to cut expenditure, necessitated by the growing gap between government revenue and spending, ran aground in the sandbags of opposition from a populist Mamata Banerjee.

Had the Cabinet been unanimous on introducing schemes to reduce the number of Central employees, Yashwant Sinha would have got the mandate to make the announcement in the budget next week. The government has been planning to freeze fresh recruitment in some areas. In last year’s budget, Sinha had made such a promise.

Mamata Banerjee got her way with the argument that the proposal would alienate large chunks of the electorate. A few other Cabinet colleagues, though not as vocal as her, agreed on the likely unpopularity of the move. It was then that home minister Advani made his surprise intervention. Communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan joined in.

Advani’s double gesture — opposing the price rise and the downsizing — is thought significant because it carries home a message from an important section of the BJP.

Some senior BJP leaders and at least one general secretary with populist leanings have been insisting in private that the BJP slow down its speed of reforms, particularly those that are seen to be going against the people.

A Cabinet source later insisted that today’s disagreement did not mean the issue would not come up again. He, however, claimed what the government intended was not “downsizing” but “rightsizing”, implying a scheme for gradual easing out of surplus employees.    

Patna, Feb. 22 
Bihar ended the final phase of elections with a death toll of 12, but for once the lawkeepers woke up to the lawlessness around them and struck back.

Violence also marred the final leg of elections in Manipur, where three persons died, but Orissa and Haryana witnessed peaceful polling.

West Champaran, the site of Gandhi’s satyagraha, was today the arena of a fierce encounter between security forces and voters on one side and dreaded gangsters on the other.

Seven persons, including Zakir Mian, a criminal who has been featured in India’s Most Wanted, died in this clash, while five others were killed elsewhere in the state. About 60-70 per cent voting was recorded in the 108 seats. Counting will start on Friday.

Gopalgunge, from where the chief minister’s brother is contesting, was the scene of the most tragic death today. A 60-year-old widow died there, being caught in a shoot-out between CPM and Samata workers. Jogi Devi, who had come to cast her vote, was hit by a stray bullet as the rivals exchanged fire. She died on the spot.

Janata Dal(U) block leader Ghulam Rasool was stoned to death in Darbhanga district.

The trouble in West Champaran’s Bettiah block started around 10.20 am when a polling station was raided by about 12 gangsters led by Zakir Mian. Armed with Kalashnikovs and other automatic weapons, they directed the election staff to leave the booth and went in to cast false votes.

Some of the men took position outside the booth as the few home guards on duty scampered for cover. But a mobile armed paramilitary unit was tipped off and it reached the spot after asking for reinforcement.

Zakir Mian’s gang opened fire on the patrol team. The security force returned the fire. A BSF unit arrived soon to join the fight.

The gang began to retreat, hurling bombs and grenades to keep the securitymen at bay. They were pursued by hundreds of villagers, who had identified the booth-grabber as Zakir Mian.

The gang took shelter in a jungle and continued to fire. “For about two hours, the encounter continued. By the time it was over, seven were killed,” said director-general of police K.A. Jacob. Five of the criminals fled.

Zakir Mian was apparently backing an Independent candidate. But the police said a diary found on him had names of several politicians.    

New Delhi, Feb. 22 
The government will adopt the technology patented by the Australian reserve bank to manufacture fresh Rs 500 denomination notes, an earlier batch of which is being counterfeited on a massive scale by Pakistani intelligence and pumped into India.

Government sources said the Reserve Bank of India has been asked to print the Rs 500 notes on polymer paper, which Australia has used successfully for several years without leaving the scope for counterfeiting them.

The elaborate designs on Australian and New Zealand dollar notes, according to the sources, cannot be copied and, even if attempted, can be easily detected. US energy multi-national Mobil also possesses polymer paper-based technology to print notes.

To thwart the designs of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the RBI has been told to study the special technology that Australia, which has commercialised production of currencies, and New Zealand apply in using ink on the notes.

It is not only next to impossible to “copy” the polymer paper-based Australian and New Zealand dollars, their longevity is seven times more than the Indian notes. The printing cost of the new notes will be one-and- a-half times more.

The decision was among several others taken at a meeting of officials from the ministries of finance, home and external affairs, Cabinet secretariat, Intelligence Bureau, RBI, National Crime Records Bureau and the governments of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat to prevent the ISI from “destabilising” the economy.

A finance ministry official described the situation as “not very alarming” in terms of the total amount of fake currency under circulation. The official argued that compared to a total of Rs 1,92,000 crore of currency in circulation, the value of counterfeit notes seized from various states does not exceed a couple of crores.

Some officials admitted that “fear” was “spreading among the public” and people are refusing to accept Rs 500 notes.

Home ministry sources said the main problem was in the 1987 series of the denomination that is being phased out. A new design with several changes, including shifting the location of the Ashoka Pillars, will be introduced.

Among the steps suggested at today’s meeting are a publicity campaign by the RBI on the differences between genuine and counterfeit currency and equipping banks with ultra-violet lamps for quick detection of fake notes. The police will be told not to harass those reporting fake currency cases.    

New Delhi, Feb. 22 
Ryutaro Hashimoto, former Japanese Prime Minister, may have had a good visit here, but Atal Behari Vajpayee refused to play a part in it.

Repeated requests from the Japanese embassy failed to persuade Vajpayee, indicating that he was not yet willing to forget Hashimoto’s role in imposing sanctions on India after the 1998 nuclear tests.

The ostensible reason was the Prime Minister’s “pre-occupation” with other engagements. But insiders said Vajpayee has not got over the negative role Hashimoto played in isolating India.

He not only cancelled Japanese loans to India, but also took the initiative in ensuring that World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans were put on hold to teach Delhi a lesson.

Besides, Tokyo tried to corner Delhi into signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty without delay and into dismantling its nuclear programme.

Attempting to undo the damage, Hashimoto said here today: “I personally regret that after the nuclear tests we had no choice but to impose sanctions.”

“I regret that bilateral relations had suffered as a result of this. We have a great desire to prevent the stalling of bilateral relations,” the former Japanese Prime Minister added.

He pointed out that in 1995, when China had conducted nuclear tests, loans to Beijing were also stopped and were resumed only after the Chinese government signed the CTBT.

Hashimoto, who is at present adviser to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on foreign affairs, was here to participate in a seminar organised by the Tata Energy Research Institute, meet Indian leaders to gauge their views on signing the test ban pact and to improve bilateral relations.

Though he could not meet Vajpayee, he did speak with foreign minister Jaswant Singh, finance minister Yashwant Sinha and defence minister George Fernandes. There were also meetings with former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

His comments on the nuclear issue were far more mature and subdued than the strident tone adopted earlier.

“If India wishes to sign the CTBT and join the international community it is a good thing. It will be a symbolic gesture and the event will be mutually beneficial,” he said.

Referring to the resumption of loans to India from multilateral funding institutions, the Japanese leader said the loans were given on a case-by-case approach. “But we regret the cessation of overseas development assistance to India.”    

Mumbai, Feb. 22 
As a stunned nation woke up on Monday to Sachin Tendulkar’s grim announcement that he was stepping down, Shubadha Wamburkar began the week by distributing sweets.

Wamburkar, the portly administrative manager of Sharda Ashram Vidya Mandir, the school Sachin went to, is now relieved.

“This little fellow is very emotional. Never took insults lying down. Just watch him now. A weight has been lifted from our shoulders,” she said.

Wamburkar and Naresh Churi, who took over as coach after the legendary Ramakant Achrekar retired, were joined by the current crop of players from the Dadar school — regarded as Mumbai’s cricket factory — “to share thoughts and hope for Sachin’s success”.

Some of these boys are part of the Mumbai and West Zone under-16 teams and are knocking on the doors of senior domestic cricket.

Sachin’s decision to accept the captaincy, despite his initial misgivings, his sorry stint in Australia and his resolve to quit has taught them invaluable lessons.

“No amount of practice at the nets can teach you these harsh lessons. Sadly, my boys have realised the captaincy of the Indian team is not such a good thing after all,” said Churi.

But, he added, there is a silver lining. “It is a positive development. Boys from Sachin’s school now know it’s better to be a good player rather than a captain playing under pressure. We are happy for Sachin,” the coach said.

Achrekar, whom Sachin would have liked to confide in the most before taking one of the most painful decisions of his life, is not in Mumbai. Ailing for a while, the man who made India’s most precious commodity, has been recuperating in his village near Goa for the past month.

“I am sure Achrekar Sir has approved of his decision. It must be painful for him to hear that Sachin has been dragged into so much controversy and things other than his batting are being discussed,” said Churi.

Though Sachin’s announcement came as a bombshell to the cricket-crazy city, his former teachers and his neighbours at the Sahitya Sahawas colony in Bandra are not too surprised.

Wamburkar, who has watched Sachin grow from a gawky child to sporting icon, said: “I have never seen such an emotional child. He was bound to react like this. When his principal Mona Verghese died in a road accident in 1988, he was shattered. He garlanded her photograph and cried in front of it for months.”

Agreed Madhuri Nandikar, the Tendulkars’ neighbour in Sahitya Sahawas. “Give him a cricket bat and a bowler to bowl at him. That’s the Sachin we know. Not the Sachin standing in front of a microphone constantly defending himself against useless allegations,” she said.

Success did not take away Sachin’s sensitivity. In his second series (against New Zealand in Kiwisland), then skipper Mohammed Azharuddin blamed the young star for his run-out. After the tour, Sachin rushed to Achrekar for solace. “Sir, no one has shouted at me. Not even you. Was I so wrong?”    


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