Opposition banks on budget blues, govt on polls
Advani keeps Vittal out of graft sermon
Andhra CEO in project hardsell
Trinamul opts out of district terror meet
Scientists lose way in Delhi labyrinth
Population plan push for safe abortion
e-justice goes to Karnataka jail
Four-yr-old killed in Pak shell blast
BJP fights Sangh battle with Congress

 
 
OPPOSITION BANKS ON BUDGET BLUES, GOVT ON POLLS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 22 
A stormy budget session is on the cards with the Opposition preparing to put the government on the mat for “saffronisation of the polity”.

The Opposition is also gearing up to target the BJP-led coalition after the railway budget is tabled on Friday and the general budget, which is expected to be “harsh”, is presented on February 29.

The BJP leadership, however, does not appear to be unduly worried. Flush with reports predicting the NDA’s victory in at least three states — Bihar, Orissa and Haryana — the party top brass are confident that the allies will not get carried away by the Opposition “propaganda”.

BJP managers are, however, yet to draw up a strategy to contain the fallout of a harsh budget.

Prominent among the contentious issues likely to raise the heat in the House are: the Constitution review, the Gujarat government order allowing employee participation in RSS activities, the attacks on Water, the Indian Airlines hijack, the Subrahmanyam Committee report on the Kargil intrusions, the decision to disinvest in public sector units and the controversy over the Indian Council of Historical Research.

The 54-day session, to continue till May 17, will begin with the customary address by President K.R. Narayanan to the joint sitting of both Houses. The President’s address, cleared by the Cabinet last week, is expected to touch on the Constitution review. Narayanan had earlier expressed reservations about the move.

The Houses will break for a month-long recess from March 17. Departmental standing committees will scrutinise the detailed demands for grants of various ministries during this period.

While small formations such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are likely to disrupt the presidential address tomorrow, the Congress is planning to create bedlam from Thursday. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi chaired the party’s working committee meeting today, where it was decided that an adjournment motion under Rule 184, which allows voting, will be tabled for discussion on the “hidden agenda”.

Sources said the Congress plans to launch a joint campaign with like-minded secular parties. But they conceded they were unsure whether the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, RJD and the Left would be willing to associate themselves with the Congress. The Samajwadi Party has publicly said it would back any move to debar persons of foreign origin from holding high offices.

Apart from the RSS bid to “saffronise the polity”, the Congress also plans to raise issues concerning national security, deteriorating relations with Pakistan, increased terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, the women’s reservation Bill and creation of small states. Congress sources said that with the party expected to perform poorly in the Assembly elections, Sonia will be under pressure to “perform”.

Among the other important legislation pending before Parliament are according statutory powers to the Central Vigilance Commission, enactment of a law to stop money laundering and patent and WTO-related Bills currently with the standing or select committees of Parliament.    


 
 
ADVANI KEEPS VITTAL OUT OF GRAFT SERMON 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 22 
Amid the controversy over chief vigilance commissioner N. Vittal’s approach to corruption, Union home minister L.K. Advani today asked the CBI to investigate graft cases “without fear or favour”.

Addressing officials of the CBI, state criminal investigation departments and forensic experts at a conference on crime, Advani asked agencies to “investigate cases of corruption without fear or favour and irrespective of the status or the affiliation of those involved”.

He, however, cautioned the officers — among whom were CBI director R.K. Raghavan, special directors P.C. Sharma and Gopal Achari, personnel secretary B.B. Tandon and Union home secretary Kamal Pande — that the ranks of the investigating agencies must also be “kept immune to the disease” of corruption.

Advani’s speech, which dwelt on corruption, organised crime at the national and international levels as well as cyber crime, did not mention Vittal, who has faced sharp criticism from the BJP for his tackling of corruption among government officials and politicians.

The vigilance chief has drawn a lot of flak for not only posting names of corrupt officials on the Net but also by asking the CBI to probe the income tax angle in the hawala case.

Describing corruption as the “biggest enemy” of development, the home minister said it was also one of the biggest factors behind the growth of organised crime.

In a clear reference to previous governments at the Centre, Advani said: “Over the past few decades, corruption has been allowed to corrode many institutions, including political and government institutions.”

He observed that the dividing line between organised crime and the proxy war unleashed by Pakistan was “getting thinner and thinner”.

Highlighting the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, the Airbus hijack, the growing acts of violence by Leftist extremists and insurgency in the Northeast, he said these crimes had “left a terrorist trail that is traced back to forces inimical to our nation”.

Focusing on cyber crimes, Advani said a fool-proof system was needed to protect the country’s economic assets and security-related information from “these new breed of criminals”.

He thanked the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has sent a representative to assist CBI officers in dealing with Internet crimes.    


 
 
ANDHRA CEO IN PROJECT HARDSELL 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 22 
Chandrababu Naidu is not just CEO, Andhra Pradesh. He is also a perfect salesman.

Arriving in Delhi today, he sold his dreams for his native land to a host of luminaries including the Prime Minister, several ministers, politicians and journalists. It was an aggressive public relations exercise, launched on budget session eve to push the Centre into clearing projects worth Rs 10,000 crore.

With Hyderabad likely to figure on President Bill Clinton’s itinerary, Naidu is in a tearing hurry to clear his projects, which include an international airport at Hyderabad.

Apart from Atal Behari Vajpayee, Naidu also met half-a-dozen Central ministers and hosted a luncheon meeting with MPs from his state and select journalists from Delhi. He also hosted a dinner for IAS officers belonging to the Andhra cadre.

The chief minister distributed a folio containing 564 pages of his correspondence with the Centre from the day of I.K. Gujral’s prime ministership, seeking clearance of pending projects.

Though Congress MPs stayed away from the lunch meeting, it was attended by CPI and BJP parliamentarians, besides Naidu’s own Telugu Desam Party MPs. Union ministers from Andhra Pradesh, Bangaru Laxman, Bandaru Dattatreya and S.B.P.B.K. Satyanarayana, were also present.

Naidu discussed the pending projects ministry-wise. He called upon the MPs to raise development issues concerning the state in Parliament and with various consultative committees and standing committees so that the schemes are expedited.

Naidu, who is returning to Hyderabad tomorrow morning, started his day with an interview with STAR TV. He then had a 45-minute meeting with Vajpayee when he discussed the controversies surrounding RSS outfits, pending state projects and important Bills likely to come up during the budget session.

But Naidu was not forthcoming about his discussion with the Prime Minister. However, he admitted that he expressed dissatisfaction with Sangh parivar activities and said such contentious issues should not be on the government agenda.

Naidu said he has not written to the Prime Minister, but asserted that the Desam is against allowing government employees’ participation in RSS activities.

Naidu also spoke to finance minister Yashwant Sinha and railway minister Mamata Banerjee. He was also scheduled to meet home minister Lal Krishna Advani.

He also planned to meet communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan and information technology minister Pramod Mahajan, but the meetings may be deferred because of lack of time.

Besides the international airport at Hyderabad, some key Andhra projects awaiting clearance from Delhi are the Godavari water utilisation scheme, the Gangavaram port development plan for which 1000 acres of land has been sought from the surplus land of Vizag steel plant and release of drought relief funds.    


 
 
TRINAMUL OPTS OUT OF DISTRICT TERROR MEET 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Feb. 22 
The Trinamul Congress has decided to boycott all-party meetings in districts, sparking fears of escalating terror.

The meetings are called by district administrations to contain political violence.

“We will no longer participate in such meetings as our workers have always been subjected to bigger attacks from the CPM after these,” Trinamul spokesman Jayanta Bhattacharya said today.

The party, however, will attend the all-party meeting to be held in March with Jyoti Basu as chairman “to give him a complete picture of the political terror unleashed by Marxists in rural Bengal”.

Bhattacharya charged that Trinamul workers at Keshpur in Midnapore district are facing “the CPM cadre’s wrath, although all-party meetings have been held as many as seven times”.

Sources said Trinamul’s boycott decision may escalate violence before the municipal polls in May.

Bhattacharya said there was no coordination between the CPM and the administration. “While home minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya is urging party workers to surrender their arms, CPM secretary Anil Biswas is saying the cadre do not have them,” Bhattacharya said.

The Trinamul, which has three elected MLAs and eight Lok Sabha members, will contest the Rajya Sabha polls from West Bengal in March. It will take up the issues of the polls and all-party meetings with party chief Mamata Banerjee when she returns after the railway budget.

Sources said Mamata has directed party workers not to resort to bandhs and blockades which may cause inconvenience to Madhyamik and higher secondary examinees. However, she has instructed them to “counter the CPM’s terror in the districts in every possible way”.    


 
 
SCIENTISTS LOSE WAY IN DELHI LABYRINTH 
 
 
FROM T.N. GOPALAN
 
Chennai, Feb. 22 
They are good in labs, but miserable at lobbying.

Unhappy with their pay-scales, scientists in the country’s premier nuclear, space and defence organisations had wanted to meet the Prime Minister. But lost in the impenetrable forests of North Block and South Block, they ended up without finding their way.

The desperate scientists now want to meet Abdul Kalam — the man behind the Pokhran blasts and scientific adviser to the government — and ask him to plead their case.

Over 17,000 scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation banded together to form a joint action council.

But since its formation, the council’s “action” has been limited to meeting a few reporters and writing a couple of letters to newspapers.

The scientists are in the dark about the corridors of power, having spent their lives in laboratories. They do not know what to do next or whom to meet.

“There is a senior official sitting somewhere in the North Block — or is it South Block? — who is supposed to be in charge of our establishments. But we have no idea what he is doing and what happened to our repeated representations,” a council member said.

“Should we seek the help of some politician? Will it be risky? Will we be misunderstood? Airing our grievances in New Delhi could help, especially during the budget session. But how do we go about that?”

The scientists are almost apologetic about the council itself. It was formed not to agitate, but to lobby for the demands, a member hastened to clarify.

“We would only like to press our demands, point to the dangers involved in keeping our pay-scales and promotional avenues unattractive to the new engineering graduates.

“This is not a trade union. We’d not do anything to compromise the security of our country by kicking up troubles in those vital areas,” he said.

A very soft-spoken engineer, council chairman K. Balachander, points out that the salary structure and perks of even a Kalam or Atomic Energy Commission chairman R. Chidambaram or Isro chairman Kasturirangan are well below those enjoyed by the South and North Block mandarins.

Among the council’s demands are the creation of a separate cadre for them like those of the UGC, exemption from Income Tax, professional allowance and increasing the retirement age to 65 years.

Balachander says the pay-scales in a comparable sector, like colleges and universities as fixed by the Universities Grants Commission, are much more attractive. Over 1,500 scientists in government service have quit in the last two years in search of greener pastures, he adds.

With each Pay Commission, more and more anomalies seem to creep in, but their representations have been in vain, Balachander adds.

Kalam remains the only hope of the scientists.    


 
 
POPULATION PLAN PUSH FOR SAFE ABORTION 
 
 
FROM DIPTOSH MAJUMDAR
 
New Delhi, Feb. 22 
The Centre has proposed “expansion of the availability of safe abortion care”, steering the population policy into a sensitive sphere.

The initiative on abortion — a contentious issue in the West and prohibited in Catholic and Islamic nations — runs the risk of fuelling a controversy, but the health ministry feels it is imperative to keep the population control programme on track.

The proposal, made in the action plan appended to the National Population Policy, points out that “abortion is legal, but there are barriers limiting women’s access to safe abortion services”.

The government wants to remove these barriers through a series of steps, one of which could be a potential flashpoint.

The Centre is keen to simplify the procedure to register abortion clinics. But health officials were quick to add that the stress was on safe abortion and norms would be enforced to prevent the mushrooming of seedy clinics.

The government will also facilitate the establishment of more abortion training centres in the public, private and NGO sectors.

A separate set of regulations on abortion will be drafted and notified. Enforcement mechanisms at district and sub-district levels will be strengthened to ensure that these norms are followed.

Though registration procedures will be streamlined, licences to abortion centres will be made norms-based. The government says that this way, it can pass on “the onus of meticulous observance of standards onto the provider”.

The long-term goal is to offer “services for termination of pregnancy at primary health centres and community health centres”.

The expanded abortion programme lists four areas of priority: “Make safe and legal abortion more attractive to women and household decision makers by increasing geographic spread; enhancing affordability; ensuring confidentiality; and providing compassionate abortion care.”

It involves education campaigns targeting women, household decision makers and adolescents. They would be made aware of safe abortion services and the hazards in unsafe methods. Such campaigns could run into opposition from the groups which had questioned the propriety of distributing AIDS pamphlets to teenagers.

New technology is also being incorporated. The government feels that updated and simple technologies are safe. For instance, manual vacuum extraction, which is not necessarily dependent on anaesthesia, is a safe method.

The health ministry proposes to promote collaboration among private sector health professionals, non-government organisations and the public sector to spread safe abortion services.

The health ministry is also exploring the possibility of modifying the syllabi of medical students to train them in new abortion procedures.    


 
 
E-JUSTICE GOES TO KARNATAKA JAIL 
 
 
FROM RAMAKRISHNA UPADHYA
 
Bangalore, Feb. 22 
After e-commerce and e-governance have become the buzz words, it is the turn of the judiciary to go hi-tech.

Karnataka High Court has initiated a revolutionary move to take dispensation of justice from the confines of a court room to the doors of the aggrieved.

Within the next three months, video-conferencing facility will be provided from the chambers of all chief metropolitan magistrates at the district level to major jails in the state to enable undertrials to vent their grievances to the magistrates.

Justice G.C. Bharuka, the computer-savvy judge of Karnataka High Court who has taken the initiative, said since there was greater awareness about violation of human rights, the court had decided to accord priority to the rights of hapless undertrials who were now under the mercy of law enforcement authorities.

The magistrates will periodically hear the grievances of undertrials, including physical or mental torture, the quality of food and hygiene conditions in jails.

“We need not wait for the undertrials to be produced in court. When video conferencing is in place, the magistrates will have direct access to them. Of course, for this venture to succeed, we need the cooperation of jail authorities,” he said.

Chief Justice Y. Bhaskara Rao is also keen to use computers for recording evidence through tele-conference if witnesses are not in a position to come to court.

He is believed to have suggested that this medium could be used in hearing rape cases to avoid embarrassment to victims.

Justice Bharuka feels that technology can be an effective tool in changing the pace of judicial administration as delayed justice is a common complaint.

The high court has drawn up a Rs 16.5 crore plan for its “e-judiciary” programmes, and the state government has already released Rs 5 crore to meet its requirements.    


 
 
FOUR-YR-OLD KILLED IN PAK SHELL BLAST 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Srinagar, Feb. 22 
Five persons, including a child, were killed in heavy Pakistani shelling last night on Tangdhar in north Kashmir. A dozen shops and houses in the town were destroyed.

Police sources said artillery shells fired by Pakistani troops have been hitting Tangdhar for the past three days. Last night’s shelling was the heaviest this winter.

A four-year-old girl was among the five civilians killed while seven persons were wounded in the artillery barrage. Sources said the injured, who are being treated at the local army hospital, could be shifted to Srinagar for specialised treatment if their condition deteriorates.

Five houses were destroyed in a blaze triggered by the intense shelling.

Seven shops were gutted as the artillery struck the main market.

With last night’s deaths, the toll has gone up to seven. Two women were killed in the area a couple of days ago. Indian soldiers returned the artillery fire and the exchanges continued till this morning.

Sources said the area along the Line of Control in the Tangdhar sector in Kupwara district is highly tense and security has been beefed up.

The sector is vulnerable to Pakistani shelling in the winter months when the region remains cut off as the passes are blocked. Pakistani troops barraged Tangdhar in July 1998. Several buildings, including an army hospital, were destroyed in the shelling.    


 
 
BJP FIGHTS SANGH BATTLE WITH CONGRESS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 22 
The BJP today demanded that the Congress “apologise to the nation” for laying siege on the Gujarat Assembly and shouting slogans against the Governor.

Describing the incident as “really fighting”, BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu said in a statement issued from Visakhapatnam: “This reminds us about the Nazis’ attack in Germany on Reichstag (Parliament)... It is fascism at its worst.”

Yesterday, the first day of the budget session, was disrupted by the Congress MLAs protesting against the government permitting its employees to join the RSS.

The Congress members had waved khaki shorts and anti-RSS placards to protest against Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari’s recent visit to a RSS shakha outside Ahmedabad. Bhandari’s speech was drowned in cries of “RSS Governor go back” and “What did the RSS do? Murdered Gandhiji and ruined the nation”.

By condemning the Congress agitation, the BJP indicated that it was not defensive about the Governor having graced an RSS function or the government circular.

Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya today announced that the government would not rescind its decision to allow its employees to join the RSS.

Naidu expressed “shock” that the Opposition leader in Gujarat, Amarsinh Choudhury, had allegedly defended the attack and said his party was “proud” of what they had done. Claiming that the Congress had “lost its balance”, Naidu attributed the incident to the party’s rout in the Lok Sabha polls and its likely defeat in the Assembly polls.

“Recent history has shown that whenever the Congress has lost, its party men have acted in such a reckless fashion. They are wreckers of democracy. When they lost a legal battle in 1975, they imposed the Emergency. Before the 1984 polls, they perpetrated a genocide on the Sikh community to evoke communal tension. When they lost the argument in the Bofors case, they did not hesitate to pull down their own friendly government,” he pointed out.    

 

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