Praise masks peacemaker play
Hefty hike in gas price, diesel gets a breather
President crosses Taj divide
Asim charter for e-governance
Calcutta weather

 
 
PRAISE MASKS PEACEMAKER PLAY 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, March 22 
Authoring a modern-day Mark Anthony speech, President Bill Clinton today lavished praise on India while cleverly carving out a role for himself as a friend close at hand, ready to bring the nuclear neighbours to the talks table.

Keeping in mind India’s aversion to any suggestion of mediation, Clinton emphasised that whatever decision Delhi takes will be its own and not dictated by any outsider. But, he asserted, the US was eager to help bring down the temperature in the subcontinent.

“Let me make it clear, I have certainly not come to South Asia to mediate in the dispute over Kashmir. Only India and Pakistan can work out the problems between them. And I will say the same thing to General (Pervez) Musharraf in Islamabad,” Clinton said in his address to the joint session of Parliament this morning, before leaving for Agra.

“But if outsiders cannot resolve this problem, I hope you will create the opportunity to do it yourselves, calling on the support of others who can help where possible, as American diplomacy did in urging the Pakistanis to go back behind the Line of Control in the Kargil crisis,” he added.

In the run-up to the presidential visit, White House had been issuing regular statements indicating that Clinton, in his last term, was keen on playing peacemaker in South Asia and would try and nudge India and Pakistan towards negotiations to restore peace in the region.

India, however, insisted that Pakistan would first have to create the “right atmosphere” by stopping terror export to Kashmir for talks to resume.

Officials here pointed to Clinton’s statement yesterday that an end to terrorist violence and respect for the Line of Control were necessary conditions for the stalled dialogue to make progress.

“India has never denied a dialogue with Pakistan. Prime Minister Vajpayee went to Lahore to give fillip to the talks with Pakistan. We are still ready for talks, but the right atmosphere has to be created before they can begin,” foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said.

He added that there was no “dissonance of views between the Indians and the Americans on resuming the dialogue process with Pakistan. President Clinton has also made it clear that there cannot be a dialogue for dialogue’s sake”.

But US secretary of state Madeleine Albright struck a note of discord, saying Washington had not changed its position on Kashmir and the President’s remark should not be seen as an endorsement of Delhi’s stand.

“I would not interpret it that way. I think our policy is what it was when we came here and what the President has said many times,” she said.

Albright held a meeting with her counterpart Jaswant Singh to discuss issues raised at yesterday’s delegation-level talks.

Officials here sought to brush aside Albright’s remark, maintaining that what the President said yesterday and during today’s speech to Parliament was more significant.

Urging India to restart the dialogue with Pakistan, Clinton said: “Engagement with adversaries is not the same thing as endorsement. It does not require setting aside legitimate grievances. Indeed, I strongly believe that what has happened since your Prime Minister made his courageous journey to Lahore only reinforces the need for dialogue.”

Clinton laced his speech with glittering tributes to India’s greatness and its ability to play the leadership role in South Asia. At the same time, he subtly voiced the West’s fear of another military conflict between the nuclear twins.

“Deterrence alone cannot be relied on to prevent accident or miscalculation,” the President said. “In a nuclear standoff, there is nothing more dangerous than believing there is no danger.”

By stressing on his role in Kargil, Clinton sent the signal that Washington is only too eager to help kickstart the dialogue stalled since the conflict.

India, while welcoming the part US played in persuading Islamabad to pull out the intruders, maintains that its army had reclaimed 80 per cent of the captured territory and that then Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif had visited Washington as a “face-saver” to get out of the hole.

But observers believe the Kargil conflict did internationalise the Kashmir problem and carved out, for the first time, a role for the Americans.    


 
 
HEFTY HIKE IN GAS PRICE, DIESEL GETS A BREATHER 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 22 
The government today announced a steep increase in the prices of cooking gas, kerosene, and aviation turbine fuel in a bid to reduce the deficit in the oil pool account. Diesel has been spared.

Prices of cooking gas have been raised up to Rs 51 per cylinder, while that of kerosene has been more than doubled. The price of aviation turbine fuel price has been raised by over Rs 3 per litre.

As per the new prices, effective from this midnight, cooking gas will cost Rs 196.35 in Delhi, Rs 198.80 in Mumbai, Rs 221.45 in Calcutta and Rs 202.25 in Chennai, while kerosene will be sold at Rs 5.46, Rs 5.57, Rs 5.87 and Rs 5.64, respectively, in the four metros.

The decision to raise the prices, which has been pending for quite some time, was approved at a meeting of the coordination committee of the National Democratic Alliance today, petroleum minister Ram Naik said.

Representatives of the Telugu Desam Party, who had earlier forced the government to put off the hike till civic body polls were over in Andhra Pradesh, were not present at the meeting. The alliance meeting was attended by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Samata Party leader George Fernandes.

The BJP’s allies did not react immediately to the mark-up, but the Opposition greeted it with howls of protest. The Congress, which had been considering to move cut motions against the budget hikes in foodgrain and fertiliser prices, has threatened to step up its agitation following the fuel price increase.

Most Congress leaders were huddled in a meeting with the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Yadav when the government made the late-evening announcement.

Congress leader Rajesh Pilot said: “We have been insisting for a long time now that this government is anti-poor.” He said the Congress would strengthen its agitation which had centred around withdrawal of subsidies on foodgrain and fertilisers. The Left, too, took a strong critical view. A Left leader said the prices would take cooking gas and kerosene beyond the reach of not only the poor but also the lower middle class.

Announcing the new prices, Naik said the government would review diesel prices after four months. The hike in prices would help cut subsidies by Rs 5,330 crore in a year but the oil pool deficit was still estimated at Rs 13,670 crore for the next financial year at current international oil prices, he said.

Naik said the subsidy on kerosene at the existing price level amounted to Rs 7.83 per litre and that on cooking gas Rs 162 per cylinder. The international prices of aviation turbine, which along with petrol has been cross-subsiding cooking gas and kerosene, have been rising steadily. This has forced the Centre to increase the price, he added.    


 
 
PRESIDENT CROSSES TAJ DIVIDE 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
Agra, March 22 
It was a perfect fusion of the East and the West, a harmonious blend of power and beauty as President Bill Clinton took his fill of the Taj Mahal, keeping his long-awaited date with this monument of love.

The man who can make the world swivel around him had waited with bated breath for this magic moment. He gazed in awe at the resplendent tomb glinting in the sunlight — his daughter Chelsea was beside him as the President walked around the premises of the Taj Mahal for an enticing hour-and-a-half.

Hours before reaching Agra, the President had told Parliament that the world was split between those have seen the Taj and those who have not. “In a few hours, I will have a chance to cross over to the happier side of that divide.”

The President had wanted it to be a “private” occasion and it was made as sequestered as possible. Only photographers and camerapersons were allowed to script the event — clicking into memory the President as he sat on the lover’s bench first with his daughter and then with his mother-in-law. The US delegation was with him, trailing behind. Clinton, those accompanying him said, “looked truly relaxed”.

In a maroonish brown shirt and black trousers, Clinton wore the casual look of a tourist happy to put behind him the shadow of international terrorism and the spectre of a nuclear holocaust.

Here his concerns were different. Barely half-a-kilometre from the Taj Mahal, at the Taj Khema hotel, the President spoke to a gathering of Indian captains, environmentalists and NGOs urging them to make the world a “cleaner and safer” place.

Standing on a lush green carpet, with the shadow of the Taj Mahal behind him, Clinton said: “When we stand in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, we remember it is a monument built in love. All the most important monuments are built for love. The most important monument today we can give our children and our children’s children is the preservation of the Earth that was given to us.”

A green and white shamiana and green screens hemmed the elevated grassy patch where the seminar took place, and in its background stood the Taj Mahal.

Before Clinton took the dais, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright had signed a joint statement on cooperation in energy and environment. The President announced an aid of $45 million to promote more efficient energy production, another $50 million to promote clean energy throughout South Asia and $200 million for clean energy projects through the Import-Export Bank.

He linked his concern for environmental degradation to his visit to the Taj which, he said, is damaged by what some scientists call “marble cancer”. Since 1982, efforts have been underway to protect the monument. “But still a constant effort is needed to save the Taj Mahal from human environmental degradation. I cannot help wondering if a stone can get cancer, what kind of damage pollution can do to children,” he said.    


 
 
ASIM CHARTER FOR E-GOVERNANCE 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, March 22 
Promising headlights for the bullock cart, Asim Dasgupta today unfurled a manifesto for e-governance in Bengal. In his 15th budget, Dasgupta also charted a course to make a hundred capitalists bloom, announcing he had tied up loans for adventurous youth with a head for business.

Between the two e-words — e-governance and employment — Dasgupta wove a Rs 25,661 crore budget (11 per cent more than last year’s Rs 23,030 crore) that abolished surcharge and additional surcharge on 550 commodities, slashed sales tax rates across the board on consumer goods, made the biggest-ever allocation for infrastructure (Rs 1335 crore for power, Rs 874 crore for roads) and closed with a deficit of Rs 5 crore.

Dasgupta’s budget is in fact so consumer-friendly and soft that it competes in its populism with Mamata Banerjee’s railway budget. Dasgupta has even attempted to go further, slashing sales tax on items on which the Centre hiked excise duty. The only commodities that will be costlier due to the Bengal budget are cars and India Made Foreign Liquor.

But the striking similarity between the Dasgupta budget and the Mamata work is in the way both have taken to infotech. Dasgupta’s model of e-governance began at home, with the finance department feeding all the inputs for its budget to a computer with a software designed by its new whizkid, Subrata Guha, a Ph D in computer science.

But Dasgupta’s e-government has as its bulwark the West Bengal State Electricity Board whose transmission and distribution network the minister will use to set up a Rs 200 crore fibre optic cable network that will connect Writers’ Buildings to the remotest outback in North Bengal. (Mamata Banerjee, too, has promised a fibre optic cable network using the railways’ infrastructure).

Dasgupta has allocated Rs 40 crore in 2000-2001 as the government’s share of the investment in the joint sector company that will implement the project. The minister refused to spell out details on the joint sector partner but claimed that the high bandwidth information backbone “apart from helping enhancement of production and employment generation ...(will be an information backbone that) ...will also open up an additional source of earning for West Bengal.”

Dasgupta also said the finance department itself was practising governance at the click of a mouse. The commercial taxes directorate had computerised all information on dealers.

Of the 79 treasuries in the state, 51 had been computerised. The transition to hitech has been painless, with no employee rendered redundant.

Dasgupta said he is now working on a sophisticated information mapping model that is available with the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority to police and monitor the revenue administration in every ward and block. The fibre optic network, he said, will give the government access to fast and accurate information.

“People at the block level will be able to communicate information by e-mail,” he said after presenting the budget.

Dasgupta also adopted Amartya Sen’s mantra of competition as the driving force of growth in his Y2K budget that has targeted creation of 8 lakh jobs.

Stoking the dying embers of Bengal’s entrepreneurial spirit, Dasgupta announced the government will encourage formation of “self-help groups”. Though the policy will extend to urban centres, the minister’s stress is on rural areas.

Land reforms had so expanded the rural market, he said, that the National Sample Survey has found that nearly Rs 11,000 crore was being spent by villagers on industrial goods. The demand for industrial goods was also growing at a phenomenal 10 per cent per annum, he claimed.

Each self-help group in Dasgupta’s scheme will comprise not more than 10 poor youth, preferably women. The groups will be given credit from cooperative banks on presentation of profitable proposals. Panchayats will monitor the functioning of the groups. For rural groups, Dasgupta has tied up loans adding up to Rs 100 crore.

Dasgupta said that an initial target of 2,000 such groups had already been crossed and the total number now stood at 3,753 “with a very impressive record of loan repayment of nearly 100 per cent.”

In the same way, he said, 1,000 groups will be set up in urban areas in coordination with cooperative banks and municipalities. “On the basis of accumulation of own savings and loans from the cooperative banks, these self-help groups, usually in urban slum areas, can help to improve employment generation,” Dasgupta said.

The minister’s search for entrepreneurs has also led him to dotcom ventures. A department of information technology has already been set up.

Dasgupta said he is now setting up a venture capital fund with Rs 25 crore for infotech projects in the joint sector.

In yet another entrepreneur-search initiative, Dasgupta announced the Bangla Employment Programme (BEP). Under the BEP, the government will circulate booklets listing profitable schemes and procedural information for distribution among the youth.

The state government will provide 15 per cent of the cost of an acceptable project as grant while the entrepreneur will have to pay 10 per cent. The balance 75 per cent, Dasgupta promised, will be arranged as loans. He has set aside Rs 40 crore for BEP.    


 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 
Temperature: Maximum: 35°C (Normal) Minimum: 21.2°C (-1) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 92%, Minimum: 38% Today: Partly cloudy sky. Slight rise in maximum and minimum temperature. Sunset: 5.44 pm Sunrise: 5.42 am    
 

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