Nitish gets seat without numbers
Ally rollback call on PM
Ship for Haldia vanishes at sea
Bengal kicks off power reforms
Calcutta weather

Patna, March 3 
Bihar has been snatched away from Laloo & family. Nitish Kumar was sworn in as chief minister today and given 10 days to prove his majority in the House.

Sonia Gandhi’s letter extending support to an RJD government led by Rabri Devi reached Patna’s Raj Bhavan two hours after Governor Vinod Pande asked Nitish Kumar to form the government.

Laloo Yadav has called a statewide agitation from tomorrow. A bandh will follow on Sunday.

The arithmetic of the Assembly is still fuzzy. The NDA has claimed it has a majority in the 324-member house. Till this evening, Nitish could count 151 MLAs in his support and Laloo 153. The “undecided” total 20 — 11 of the CPI and the CPI-ML and nine Independents.

Even if all the independents support Nitish Kumar, his tally will be 160, three short of the number for a simple majority. Though the CPI and the CPI-ML have stated they will be “equidistant”, it is inconceivable that the Leftists will support the NDA. Their support to Laloo can take his tally to 164, one more than the number required for a simple majority.

Kumar said he had submitted a list of 151 MLAs and since the RJD had not submitted any list, “the Governor sent the invitation to me.”

Laloo claimed he had letters of support from 161 MLAs, including those of the Congress (23).

“The move was already preplanned by the BJP and the RSS. This Governor is worse than Sundar Singh Bhandari (who had recommended imposition of Central Rule last year) who was also appointed by the RSS,” an angry and exasperated Laloo said.

Even if Nitish does not command the numbers now, the time he has been given and the pelf of the Patna throne can tilt the balance in his favour. Nitish Kumar said he will expand his ministry. He also said he was committed to carving out Vananchal. There are reports that the NDA ensured the support of the JMM-S by promising the deputy chief minister’s berth to Shibu Soren.

For Laloo, the biggest challenge will now be to keep his flock intact. The Congress is critical of the Governor for “acting in haste.” But a section led by BPCC working president, Ramjatan Sinha, yesterday urged Sonia Gandhi not to support the RJD.

In Delhi, Parliament was adjourned for the day after an Opposition uproar against the Governor’s decision.

Thousands of RJD workers thronged the Raj Bhavan in Patna and blocked its three gates. “Vinod Pande hai, hai; Vinod Pande go back,” they shouted. They were cleared by anti-riot police after which they marched to 1 Anne Marg to cheer up a depressed Rabri Devi.

In the NDA camp, workers of the BJP and its allies were jubilant. They crowded into Nitish Kumar’s house, sprinkled coloured powder and burst crackers. At 5 pm, Nitish Kumar was sworn-in in the Durbar Hall of the Raj Bhavan. Senior Union ministers from Bihar, Yashwant Sinha (finance), Ramvilas Paswan (telecommunications), Sharad Yadav (civil aviation), George Fernandes (defence) and Jaya Jaitley, national president of the Samata Party, cheered him.

Patri se Bihar ki gaari utar gaya hain. Isko patri ka upar lana hain,” (The Bihar train has jumped rails, it has to be put back on track), Nitish Kumar said after taking the oath of office and secrecy.

He defended the Governor’s decision. “He had waited long enough before giving us a chance. I will prove my majority on the floor of the House.”    

New Delhi, March 3 
Three allies of the BJP today mounted pressure on the Vajpayee government to rescind the decision to partially withdraw fertiliser and food subsidy.

The BJP, which was trying to avoid a confrontation with its partners on the issue, will now have to initiate a dialogue with them.

The Telugu Desam, Trinamul Congress and the Shiv Sena have demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the issue. For the past few days, the parties had been insisting on a climbdown but did not demand a meeting with the Prime Minister. Vajpayee, who believes in consensus and coalition dharma, has agreed to give them a patient hearing.

The three partners have not spelt out the extent of the rollback, though the Trinamul has laid down a proposal that is unacceptable to the government. Trinamul spokesman Sudeep Bandopadhyay has suggested that the incentives granted to the cellphone industry be withdrawn and the money channelised to persist with the existing food and fertiliser subsidies.

Asked whether Vajpayee would agree to a rollback as such a move would send wrong signals to the industry, a section of which has expressed unhappiness with the tilt towards populism in the budget, sources close to the Prime Minister said he would “definitely hear them out”.

This implies that the Race Course Road thinktank would rather wait and watch to assess the seriousness of the demand. The Desam’s problem is that it faces local body polls from March 9. The Vajpayee camp is aware that Chandrababu Naidu is not averse to tough decisions provided there are no elections round the corner.

The Prime Minister’s Office would, therefore, assess whether Naidu’s insistence on a rollback is “going to be persisted with” or “forgotten” once his own political compulsions are over.

The Andhra Pradesh chief minister had lashed out at the budget, describing it as “anti-poor” and “back-breaking to the poor”. Bandopadhyay, the Trinamul chief whip, too, had criticised Yashwant Sinha’s proposals as had the DMK. Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi is so unhappy with the increase in issue price of rice that his government will not pass on the additional burden.

Last week, the finance minister had shot down the allies’ demand for a rollback in the hike in price of cooking gas and kerosene. But the government was forced to defer the move at the insistence of Naidu and others.

What has unnerved the government is the Desam’s joining hands with grumbling allies to lead the joint movement. The withdrawal of support by any one ally cannot bring down the government. Only the Desam, with 29 MPs, can deal a blow to the Vajpayee regime’s stability.

During his meeting, Vajpayee is expected to tell the allies that instead of going public with their grievances, they should first try and thrash out their problems either in the Cabinet or at NDA discussions.

Sources admitted that if the allies continue to stick to their populist stance even beyond the first fortnight of March — by which time the Desam would be free of its electoral burden —the proposal for a hike in LPG and kerosene prices would have to be shelved.    

Calcutta, March 3 
The mystery of the missing ship — that’s what’s haunting the high seas off Haldia.

The Global Mars, loaded with 6,000 tonnes of edible oil, set sail for Haldia from Singapore on 24 February.

The next day, the Malaysian ship `disappeared’ with 17 crew members on board.

“Nothing has been heard from or about the ship for the last seven days. While the agents, Adsteam, fear piracy, the vessel might well have sunk or gone off somewhere else,” said N.C. Karmakar, general manager, operations, Haldia Dock Complex.

The edible oil was headed for Ruchi International which has a plant in Haldia where the oil is packed into pouches and distributed.

The agents of Global Mars, Adsteam, formerly Seatech, have said that “the vessel has probably been hijacked”.

But officials in Haldia feel that chances of pirates targeting a vessel loaded with edible oil are “very remote”, considering that “so much more valuable stuff is shipped on that route”.

Pirate gangs hold sway over large stretches of the South-East Asian seas, especially the Malacca Strait.

Last October, a Japanese cargo ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of aluminium ingots had been hijacked.

The Indian Navy, however, had stormed the ship off the coast of Mumbai and rounded up the pirates.

In the Global Mars case, neither the Calcutta Port Trust nor the Haldia officials had a clue about the missing ship till Friday.

But the International Maritime Bureau, a Paris-based anti-piracy organisation, was quick to get into the act. It spread the word of the 3,279-tonne tanker going missing, and hinted that it had been hijacked “before it could enter the Andaman Sea”. Reports from the bureau claimed that the 17 crew members comprised seven South Koreans and 10 Myanmarese.

The anti-piracy bureau, an outfit of the International Chamber of Commerce, has even announced a reward “of up to $100,000 for information leading to the sighting of the missing ship”.

For the moment, the Haldia Dock Complex officials can do nothing but “wait and watch”.

“This is beyond our jurisdiction. We have not received any enquiries about the missing ship. We only hope that the crew members are safe, wherever they are” said Karmakar.    

Calcutta, March 3 
Bengal has drawn up a blueprint for power sector reforms that will completely restructure its state electricity board, the power monopoly that now straddles all three segments — generation, transmission and distribution.

For a start, the West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) will hand over its two thermal power generating plants — Santaldih and Bandel — to the West Bengal Power Development Corporation. WBPDCL, which already owns the 1260 mw Kolaghat and the 630 mw Bakreswar power plants, will then emerge as the principal entity in the state involved in power generation.

WBSEB’s 90 mw hydel power capacity will be farmed out to a new hydel power corporation which will also oversee the 900 mw Purulia pump storage unit and the Rammam hydel unit.

The state electricity board’s extensive transmission and distribution network (which covers the entire except Calcutta and its suburbs) will also be carved up, with its rural network being handed over to a spanking new entity called the West Bengal Rural Electrification Corporation which has already been set up.

The Board will then be left only with its urban distribution network which will be split up into five zones with independent accounting systems.

The government will also be relinquishing its tariff-setting powers in favour of the West Bengal Electricity Commission now that Justice (retd) SK Fauzdar has assumed charge as chairman on February 28.

The commission has been empowered to set tariff for both Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) and WBSEB, both of which had earlier petitioned the government for a rate increase.

“The state cabinet has accepted the report of the reorganisation committee in the power sector which was headed by N.C Basu,” Mrinal Banerjee, minister-in charge, power department, told The Telegraph.

Banerjee and power secretary Ramsevak Bandopadhyay had a two-hour

discussion with Justice Fauzdar today on the scope of the reforms and other related issues.

The power sector reforms has taken on an urgency after finance minister Yashwant Sinha announced in his recent budget the creation of a Rs 1000 crore fund to help loss-making and cash-strapped state electricity boards to pay back their dues to the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).

The pay-back will be through a process of securitisation of the dues that the Board owes NTPC. Under this, the government of India will pay NTPC a part of the dues and get debt paper for that amount from the Board which will be redeemed at a later date.

Bandopadhyay said the state government will provide space in Jessop House to the West Bengal Electricity Commission, moving it out of the two small WBSEB flats it now occupies in Salt Lake. The Commission will need place to set up a court room where it can hold hearings on the tariff hike proposals of the state utilities, look into consumer problems as well as transmission and distribution issues.

Banerjee also discussed the manpower requirement of the Commission and a rough budget which the government ought to provide for its effective functioning. The commission has two members — A.K.Jain and R.R.Ganguli — and a secretary of an IAS rank.

“Bengal will not miss the opportunity of staking its claim to central government assistance as promised in the union budget because of tardy power sector reforms. We have yet to receive any paper in this regard from the Centre,” Banerjee said.

Unlike Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, Bengal has no plans to privatise its power distribution network. The other two states have had to accept this as a pre-condition for huge loans from the World Bank. Bengal is determined to resist any attempt by the Centre to attach a similar precondition for disbursals from the new fund.

Instead, Bengal has proposed that the scope for utilisation and the efficiency of the utilities receiving the funds ought to be the sole criteria for disbursal of the Central grant.

Power Minister Banerjee is, however, open to the Centre’s proposal to set up some efficiency standards to assess the performance of state power utilities.

The state government also wants the Centre to call a special conference of power ministers to deliberate on the latter’s plan to introduce a central legislation that would incorporate the essential features of the state reforms Act so that the states could corporatise and initiate reforms without needing to enact separate reform laws.

Meanwhile, the state power department will launch its own website on March 22. It will be the first department, apart from West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, to hook on to the net. The site has been designed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).

The site will be an interactive one giving project details of all the state power utilities - WBSEB, CESC, Durgapur Projects Ltd.    

Temperature Maximum: 33.4° (normal) Minimum: 22.1° (2° above normal) Humidity, Maximum: 95% Minimum: 56% Sunset: 5.37 pm, Sunrise: 6.01 am Today: Partly cloudy sky. Clear night. Rise in maximum temperature. Not much change in minimum temperature    

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