Signposts for reform round II
Minister murder shadow on aides
Pande keeps Bihar rivals in suspended animation
Jaswant in Taliban turnaround
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha is expected to unveil the second stage of economic reforms when he rises in Parliament on Tuesday to present the budget for 2000-01.

The Economic Survey presented today said the central lesson of the Nineties was to push ahead with reforms in the face of the continuing challenges of globalisation. The government intends to scale down import tariff walls, enunciate clear and decisive policies to encourage foreign direct investment, and carefully calibrate the removal the remaining restrictions on foreign exchange flows by drawing up a clear-cut schedule for convertibility on the capital account.

Since the crisis of 1991 (when the forex reserves plummeted to such an abysmal level that they could cover only six weeks of imports), there has been substantial and sustained reform in external economic policies relating to foreign trade, investment, external debt and currency convertibility.

“We have reaped the rewards of such progress in the form of higher exports of goods and services, higher foreign investment, greater inflows of technology, much lower exposure to foreign debt and the absence of currency crisis and balance of payment difficulties,’’ says the Survey.

The Survey calls for a more effective management of public finances at all levels. In some ways, the challenge has become more daunting in recent years following the sharp increase in government wage bills resulting from the Fifth Pay Commission’s recommendations. The gross fiscal deficit of the centre and the states taken together (which reflects the net borrowing requirements of government) had declined from 9.2 per cent of GDP in 1991 to 6.2 per cent in 1996-97.

In recent years, this has climbed back to 8.5 per cent and is expected to rise further this year. Quite clearly, the prospects for accelerating economic growth depend crucially on the success in managing the fiscal deficit.

Equally clearly, the challenge can only be surmounted through hard decisions on many fronts. The Survey calls for a redefinition and narrowing of government responsibilities to those functions that only government can discharge effectively with a view to paring the size of the bureaucracy, systematic efforts to reduce subsidies by targeting them to the poorest segments of society; and a vigorous drive to sell off the government’s holdings in state-owned commercial undertakings.

The Survey says to sustain the ongoing recovery in the industry, the country should look beyond the knowledge-based industries. The financial sector, especially banking, needs to be strengthened. Difficult decisions have to be taken in respect of problems of weak banks, structural rigidities of the banking system and continued problems with non-performing assets.

Effective public programmes for irrigation, agricultural research and rural credit are an essential ingredient for rapid growth in agriculture and allied activities. Existing policies must also be reformed to encourage greater private investment and participation in many of these areas including irrigation, storage and transportation. More rapid development of agriculture also requires continued reform of policies for agricultural trade, pricing and marketing. The removal of the remaining controls on agricultural exports should accompany the rollback of import controls already announced over the next 15 months so that farmers can benefit from integration with the world markets. Forward markets should be encouraged in all agricultural commodities.

Infrastructure, including power, roads, ports, telecom and civil aviation, continues to be a serious constraint on the country’s economic growth potential. The unsustainable underpricing of electric power has to be phased out. The Survey calls for faster reforms in state electricity boards.

No amount of guarantees and counter-guarantees can substitute for the systematic application of commercial principles in the generation, transmission and distribution of power.

According to the Survey, the infotech revolution provides tremendous opportunities for India. The early success of the industry in India owes a great deal to the relative absence of government controls and the availability of skilled manpower. If this success is to be extended to other knowledge-based industries, the state should remove pricing , financial and administrative controls.    

Guwahati, Feb. 28 
Police suspect that some aides of slain PWD minister Nagen Sarma may have been privy to the conspiracy to eliminate him yesterday.

“We have reasons to believe that Sarma was lured into a trap yesterday,” said inspector-general (special branch), N. Ramachandran. However, the death of Sarma’s personal assistant, Makhan Barpatra Gohain, in the ambush has impeded investigation, he added.

The special branch had informed the state government and Sarma of the threat to his life several times in the past. Even chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had called him over to let him know of the threat perception. The GOC, 4 Corps, Lt Gen. D.B. Shekhatkar, said the Ulfa had been keeping tabs on Sarma for the past few days.

In view of the threat perception, Sarma’s staff were instructed to keep the special branch informed of his movement. “We passed on the information to the respective district units,’’ Ramachandran said.

The police had been providing additional security to Sarma because of the threat. Usually, a minister’s car is accompanied by a pilot and an escort vehicle. But in Sarma’s case, there was an additional security vehicle. Moreover, the district police concerned provided extra security whenever he was around.

“They had refrained from informing us of his visit to Nalbari yesterday,” Ramachandran said. This was the reason why the special branch did not get adequate time to “sterilise” Sarma’s path, he added. It was only after the minister arrived at Nalbari that he called the officer-in-charge of the Nalbari police station to inform him that he was proceeding to Mukalmua.

Accordingly, the police officer arranged for road linings and went ahead of the minister’s convoy as an advance party. He later heard the explosion and turned around to find that the minister had been killed with four others.

Sarma was going to the Dakhin Kamrup College beyond Mukalmua. According to Ramachandran, the decision that Sarma would attend the function was taken at least 15 days ago at a meeting where he was present.

Initially, there was some uncertainty about the function since the higher secondary examinations were scheduled to begin from tomorrow. However, someone informed him at the last minute that the function would take place as scheduled.

Ramachandran said the ambush had been carried out “in a professional manner.’’ The blast was triggered off from a forest nearly 200 metres away, he said.

The militants connected the triggering device with the explosives by a wire which was deftly camouflaged, he said.

“They used a wire which any person would have overlooked as a damaged telephone cable,” the officer added.    

Patna, Feb. 28 
Bihar remains struck by post-poll paralysis with neither the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) nor the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) making any visible headway in getting the numbers they require for a majority in the fractured Assembly.

Attention is shifting sharply to Governor Vinod Pande who could play a key role in deciding which way the fortunes turn. Both the RJD and the NDA are keen that they be given the first opportunity to form the government, essentially in the hope that the promise of portfolios and sundry spoils of office will lure away undecided elements in the legislature.

But Raj Bhavan has so far kept an enigmatic face; Governor Pande declined to meet both RJD leader Laloo Yadav and NDA’s chief ministerial candidate Nitish Kumar on the plea that the results of the Assembly election had not been formally notified. Laloo and Nitish were told by Raj Bhavan today that the Governor is unlikely to give any side a hearing before Wednesday, by when the results will be official. As the deadlock continues, Patna’s political circles are rife with speculation that the Governor may eventually have to place the new Assembly in suspended animation and declare President’s rule. On paper, neither formation looks getting anywhere near a majority at the moment. Even if the NDA gets the support of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and all 18 independents, it does not reach the magic figure of 162.

The RJD on the other hand continues to be spurned by what it calls “like-minded secular parties” like the Congress which has 23 MLAs and the CPI and CPI(ML), which together have 11. The Congress and the Left bloc are so far sticking by neutrality, unwilling to support the RJD against which they contested the election.

There are, in fact, rumblings within the state Congress on the question and a section is threatening to break away if the central leadership decides to support the RJD in the name of keeping the NDA out of power. On their part, NDA leaders are looking forward to such a split in the Congress for it will help bolster their numbers.

Asked where they would get the required numbers, both RJD and NDA leaders remained evasive, even while they expressed confidence they will be able to prove their strength. “We cannot talk publicly about where we will get support but we are confident we will get it,” Nitish Kumar said after his formal election as NDA legislature party leader this afternoon. The NDA legislators’ meeting, a tumultuous affair, was attended, among others, by defence minister George Fernandes, communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan and civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav. “This mandate is against the RJD and Laloo Yadav and we are confident that we will form the government,” a heavily-garlanded Nitish said immediately after the meeting.

Laloo, however, stoutly reiterated his claim to be called first. “The whole world has seen that I am first in the race, you cannot push me to second or third place now. I am the first and we will form the government,” he told a press conference this afternoon. He was equally lost, though, on where he would get his number from. “All parties opposed to the BJP will support us,” he said. Asked whether he would go to New Delhi to lobby Congress president Sonia Gandhi for support, Laloo said: “If need be I will go to Delhi, too.”

Admitting that horsetrading has started, the RJD leaders today alleged that the Union ministers have landed in Patna by private planes carrying “huge bags of currency notes to purchase the MLAs”.    

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
In its first official statement on the Indian Airlines hijack, the government today pointed to a “triangular coordination” between the sky pirates, Taliban and Harkat-ul Mujahideen, and the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Stating this in Parliament, foreign minister Jaswant Singh claimed the Kandahar militant-for-hostage swap was the “best possible solution in a basket of worst alternatives”.

In a turnaround from his stand during the eight-day standoff, Singh alleged that even as the Taliban authorities had adopted an “attitude of correct facilitators”, they had “consistently and clearly” sympathised with the hijackers and their supporters and “acted accordingly”. He had earlier commended the Afghan militia for “cooperating” with India.

The minister emphasised that the decision to allow the hijackers and the three freed militants to leave Afghanistan was the Taliban’s decision. “The Taliban was told by us that as they exercised jurisdiction in Kandahar, the released terrorists would be brought to the airport, whereafter they would be under Taliban control but not that of the hijackers. It was also explicitly conveyed to the Taliban that we expected the hijackers and the released terrorists to be treated as criminals in conformity with law. The decision taken by the Taliban to allow the hijackers and the released terrorists 10 hours to leave Afghanistan was theirs alone,” Singh said.

In a suo motu statement in the Rajya Sabha, he alleged that the hijack was “masterminded” by the ISI with help from the Harkat-ul Mujahideen. Pointing to Pakistan’s “complicity” and its “patronage and support” of terrorists in India, Singh said the Mumbai police had arrested four ISI agents, two of whom were Pakistani nationals while the others belonged to the Harkat.

He added that the hijackers were now “believed” to be in Pakistan and a CBI inquiry had been ordered in the case.

Singh said he visited Kandahar to ensure that the passengers were released without any “last-minute hitch” and, if the need arose, to take spot decisions.

He clarified he travelled on the same aircraft as the freed terrorists because of “logistical compulsions brought about by the limited infrastructure at Kandahar airport”.

Explaining why the government did not strike at Amritsar airport, where the plane was parked for around 45 minutes, Singh said information on the hijackers — their number, nationality and the weapons with them — was still “scanty and speculative”. At the same time, he added, messages from the plane were sounding “increasingly tense and demanding”. Singh said: “While we were conscious these messages could have been conveyed under duress, at that time there was no way of definitively establishing relevant facts.”

Singh said the team of negotiators held direct talks with the hijackers for five days — from December 27 to 31. The Indian officials had made it clear that negotiations would not take off unless the hijackers tabled a “full, formal and unambiguous” list of demands.    

Temperature: Maximum: 30.4°C (-1) Minimum: 17.3°C (-1) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 88%, Minimum: 33% Today: Mainly clear sky. Little change in night temperature. Sunset: 5.35 pm Sunrise: 6.05 am    

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