RBI burst to cut interest rates
US jumpstart to Atal return trip
Bengal-baffled Sonia looks for leads
Suicide after cheating charge
Double hit for new-age Draupadi
Calcutta weather

Mumbai, April 1 
Heralding the start of a new financial year, the Reserve Bank today unveiled a four-pronged monetary strategy designed to drive down interest rates that capped weeks of speculation over such a move.

It slashed the Bank Rate — the key reference rate for the pyramid of interest rates in the economy — by one percentage point to 7 per cent, its lowest level ever. The Bank Rate is the rate at which the Reserve Bank provides refinance funds to commercial banks.

It also slashed the cash reserve ratio — a statutory requirement under which banks have to keep a portion of their liquid funds with the RBI — by one percentage point to 8 per cent. The CRR cut will leave banks with an additional cash hoard of Rs 7200 crore that they can lend out.

The RBI also cut the Repo rate — the fixed interest at which banks get funds from the RBI against government securities — by one percentage point from its present level of 6 per cent to 5 per cent.

But what surprised the bankers most was the move to reduce the savings deposit rate of scheduled commercial banks from 4.5 per cent to 4 per cent. The move is certain to force depositors to shovel their cash into other avenues of investment where they can get better returns. That could be a blow to the commercial banks which had racked up savings deposits of Rs 1,76,143 crore in August 1999 (the latest available figures).

“I’m glad that the RBI has moved comprehensively in the matter. The reduction in interest rates and cut in CRR are both positive developments,” finance minister Yashwant Sinha said in a statement after RBI’s announcement.

The RBI had been under intense pressure from the ministry to adopt initiatives to drive interest rates down, especially after the cut in the small saving rate by one percentage point to11 per cent in January failed to nudge banks to bring down interest rates.

The focus of attention will now turn to the banks which will have to decide on a cut in lending rates — a key demand of industry which has been putting off investment decisions because of the high rates. At present, the prime lending rate — the interest at which banks lend to their most creditworthy corporate customers — hovers around 12 per cent. Most bankers expect half a percentage point cut in the lending rates.

While the CRR will be cut by 50 basis points each in two stages from the fortnights beginning April 8 and April 22, a reduction in repo rate by one per cent to five per cent will be effective from April 3 . The savings deposit rate cut will be effective from April 1.

The money market had some inkling of the monetary putsch by the RBI and had ratcheted up gilt prices ahead of today’s announcement.

The Centre and the state governments will be among the biggest beneficiaries of the attendant rate cuts on ways and means advances and the overdrafts they receive from the RBI.

Bankers have been anticipating the rate cuts because the government has budgeted for higher market borrowings this fiscal. The Reserve Bank has a mandate to raise Rs 1,17,000 crore during the next 12 months which will require the central bank to raise at least Rs 15,000 crore in April itself.

Experts say the interest cuts could spark a rate war in the housing finance business where ICICI and HDFC are locked in a no-holds-barred battle for customers. On Saturday, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (Hudco) cut its interest on retail housing loans by 0.25-1.25 percentage points.    

Washington, April 1 
Encouraged by the reception that it received in India last month, the Clinton administration is hoping that there will be one more summit meeting between the US President and the Indian Prime Minister before Bill Clinton demits office.

Quiet preparations have begun here for a visit by Vajpayee to the US in September, although the trip is nowhere near to being formally announced.

Officials on both sides are working on the assumption that Vajpayee will arrive here in early September, meet Clinton and then travel to other parts of the US before attending the Millennium Summit at the UN in New York.

Clinton, who believes that 22 years is too long a gap between US presidential visits to India, wants to institutionalise the summits by having a second meeting with Vajpayee within a year. It will enable the next US President who will assume office in January 2001, to continue the practice. But with only six months to go for Vajpayee’s return trip, the effort on both sides will be to go beyond the paraphernalia of state visits and add substance to Indo-US relations between now and September.

Towards that end, power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam will arrive here within a few days for talks with his US counterpart Bill Richardson and officials of the US department of energy.

Energy is one of the key areas for joint action between India and the US and Richardson has a keen interest in the country. He was one of the first Americans in the Clinton administration to visit New Delhi after the BJP-led government came to power in 1998.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha is also visiting Washington this month. Although the primary purpose of the trip is to attend the spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, his visit will be substantive in view of the commercial interest which the Americans are currently showing in India.

A meeting of the Indo-US working group on terrorism will also take place here in the second week of April. Significantly, the meeting of the group will be preceded by a trip to Washington by Pakistan’s interior minister Moeen Haider. Although Pakistani officials are at pains to reject any link between Haider’s trip and Indo-US talks on terrorism, concern raised by India about cross-border terrorism from Pakistan will figure prominently in talks between the Pakistani minister and US officials.

Meanwhile, there are straws in the wind to suggest that the US may be preparing for a wider engagement of India, involving multilateral cooperation and global non-proliferation. David Welch, US assistant secretary of state for international organisation affairs, said the US may announce new benchmarks for the expansion of the UN Security Council soon.

On whether the US had changed its position on India’s claim for a permanent seat in the Council, Welch said Germany and Japan deserved seats as permanent members. In addition, the US favoured a permanent seat for each major regional group.    

New Delhi, April 1 
As the Congress cabal held its first “secret conclave” spurred by the leadership’s humiliation in Bengal, an exasperated Sonia Gandhi promised her aides she would get to the “bottom of the fiasco” but not before wondering “where did I go wrong?”

Buoyed by the defeat of Sonia’s nominee in the Rajya Sabha election, the dissidents met to throw a leadership challenge to the Congress president.

A number of senior leaders, including two working committee members, attended the conclave which stressed on “democratic” functioning and “clarity” on issues like economic reforms, coalitions and CTBT.

The dissidents were unanimous that “something” was wrong with Sonia’s style of functioning and they needed to intervene immediately to stem the rot.

Sensing trouble, the Sonia camp decided to go on the offensive. To set the house in order in Bengal, Sonia will meet top state leaders over the next two days. “She has an open mind and does not want to punish. But at the same time, she wants to know the truth,” an AICC functionary said.

What has rankled the high command is Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee’s invitation to leaders of her parent party to join her grand alliance against the CPM. The victory of Mamata’s nominee, Jayanta Bhattacharya, was made possible by the Congress, a number of whose legislators cross-voted, leaving their party’s D.P. Roy in the lurch.

Mamata’s offer found support in senior Congress MP Margaret Alva. “Mamata is emerging as the rallying point of all anti-Left forces and the Congress will benefit in the Assembly elections by tying up with her,” Alva said.

Sonia met Bengal Congress working president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi last night amid growing demands for his resignation for engineering Roy’s nomination at a time when former state chief Somen Mitra was unanimously chosen by the legislature party.

Das Munshi said a meeting between her and five leaders —Pranab Mukherjee, A.B.A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Atish Sinha, D.P. Roy and himself — should be held to ascertain the reasons for the debacle.

Sonia is flooded with reports spelling out what went wrong. One of them, submitted by general secretary Ambika Soni, who was an observer, admits that Roy was not the “best choice” and “wrong inputs” were given to Sonia.

The report indicts state functionaries for failing to gauge the MLAs’ mood. It points out that at the legislature party meeting before the biennial election, 51 MLAs had promised to toe the leadership’s line.

Sonia is expected to take a series of Bengal-specific steps once the dust settles down. Likely among them are replacing Prabha Rau, the general secretary in charge of the state, with either Ahmad Patel or Ghulam Nabi Azad and dismantling the working president’s post and give Chowdhury an ornamental position.

The Congress is also considering holding secret negotiations with Mamata for a possible post-Assembly poll arrangement. As a dry run, a plan is afoot to enter into a tacit understanding for the June civic elections. But, Sonia will insist on Mamata quitting the NDA if she wants to become chief minister with Congress support.    

Calcutta, April 1 
Accused of cheating, a B. Com examinee killed himself last evening by jumping off a train. Claiming the invigilators were politically motivated, Chhatra Parishad supporters blocked roads in central Calcutta this afternoon, disrupting traffic for over four hours.

Ajit Kumar Mistri, a student of Bangabasi College in central Calcutta, was asked to leave the examination hall yesterday during the final paper of the B. Com Pass examination allegedly for cheating.

Handing over his incomplete answerscript, Mistri left the examination centre at Anandamohan College and took a train from Sealdah to Kamarhati in North 24-Parganas, where he lived. He jumped off the running train near Belghoria station.

Chhatra Parishad supporters from Bangabasi claimed that Mistri was “unnecessarily harassed” by the invigilators, which forced him to take his own life.

Sajal Ghosh, a Chhatra Parishad leader, said there were “political reasons behind this harassment” as the Bangabasi College students’ union was controlled by the Chhatra Parishad while the Anandamohan College union was SFI-dominated.

The Chhatra Parishad put up road blockades on Mahatma Gandhi Road and Amherst Street, demanding action against the invigilators.

Ghosh said Mistri’s only offence was looking back twice. “The Anandamohan College authorities were especially harsh on students from Bangabasi college,” Ghosh charged. A memorandum will be submitted to the vice-chancellor, he added.

Anandamohan College authorities, however, said Mistri was copying from a sheet of paper he had smuggled in.    

Balewa (Gorakhpur), April 1 
One for sorrow, two for joy, feels Gita Singh, happily-married to two husbands.

A 12-year-old sniggers when asked for the direction to Balewa’s most famous resident’s house. “The woman who married two men at the same time?” she asks. But Gita, 28, is oblivious to the avalanche of unkind comments on her.

She is equally unfazed by Hindu law, which could penalise her for polyandry and put her behind bars. The 21st-century Draupadi, though three-down on husband-count, is one up on another: she chose her own path.

After Indian men having made a habit of bigamy through centuries, Gita turned the tables on them on February 24 by marrying two husbands and solemnised the “union” with full Vedic rites. Both respected and reviled in the village cluster bordering Gorakhpur, Gita is convinced that what she did was for her own good. There is room for two men but not for moral questions.

“Look, Ramdeo Singh, the man I fell in love with, remains in Jalandhar most of the time, leaving me behind to fend for myself. Aur din kaal thik bhi nahi hai,” she says.

Marrying two men was a practical decision that she took after much thought, Gita says. “I could neither leave Ramdeo nor remain alone, so I decided to marry his cousin Baliram as well,” she says. “Of course, I took Ramdeo’s consent. He agreed and when he was here all of us decided to get married at the same function,” she adds.

Gita’s parents kept away from the triangular marriage. They have not got in touch with her till date, but she has no time to indulge in self pity. She concentrates on breaking rules, and breaking them well.

She snubbed her critics squarely by calling pundits to bless her marriage. “Initially, even the pundits had problems because they had never done something like this before, but then I thought there is no point hiding. After all, it is my own life that I have to be bothered about. What will the villagers do if something bad happens to me in Ramdeo’s absence?”

A former pradhan of Balewa, Balkvrishna Yadav, acted as a pillar of support to Gita. Yadav explained why he backed Gita. “It was a pre-emptive measure,” he says, grinning widely. “She is young and in Ramdeo’s absence she was bound to have an illicit relationship with someone else. Who would have taken care of the child that she would have borne?” Yadav asks.

Happy that Gita acknowledges him as the one man who saw the happy ending through, Yadav says effusively: “This is the one good karma that I did in my life. I will be remembered, at least by her family.”

There are certain complications, though, that arise from being shared by two men. Each husband has his own preferences.

While Ramdeo likes her in a blue sari, Baliram prefers red. One is a strict non-vegetarian while the other will not touch animal protein.

But Gita, who makes sure she wears the pants — all of two pairs, is not too perturbed. “These problems are there, but I decide,” says Gita. “Yeh to ladke hai, sab kaam to mujhe hi karna hai (they are boys, finally it is I who has to take care of both).”

The husbands too have no problems. Both are very much in love with her and have willingly put her in the driving seat. “Jo karti hai, theek karti hai,” says Ramdeo with pride. Husband No. 2 Baliram quips: “Even Draupadi had five husbands and I don’t think the Pandavas ever complained. And as of now, she has only two.”

Bollywood bigamy specialist David Dhawan please note. Women do it to.    

Temperature Maximum: 34.8°C (1°C below normal) Minimum: 24.6°C (1°C above normal) Humidity, Maximum: 95% Minimum: 56% Sunset: 5.48 pm, Sunrise: 5.32 am Today: Mainly clear sky. Little change in maximum temperature.    

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