Bihar catches up with UP in mike mayhem
Round-the-clock cell for drought distress calls
MPs lukewarm to heat horror
Agra Christian attack sparks House fury
Plea to club match-fix cases
Vaiko summoned after Lanka alarm
Death of family after dismissal points accusing fi

 
 
BIHAR CATCHES UP WITH UP IN MIKE MAYHEM 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Patna, April 24 
The streetfights of Bihar spilled over into the Assembly as the people’s representatives traded blows, hurled microphones and mouthed unprintables in a 15-minute free-for-all.

Caught in the crossfire of improvised missiles, Speaker Sadanand Singh fled the House to avoid being hit. Four NDA members, including leader of the Opposition Sushil Modi, were injured in the violence that was a replay of the riot in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in 1997.

The House had gathered to pay respects to leaders gunned down over the past few weeks, including Nirsa MLA Gurudas Chatterjee. But Modi, in his obituary reference speech, fired the first salvo, saying: “The criminals are killing fearlessly in the state for they have been emboldened by the fact that the chief minister has been chargesheeted.”

This spurred Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) members on to their feet. Laloo Yadav, who attended Assembly after being granted parole from jail, led the counter-attack. “Politics and politics. You are now politicising a condolence meeting,” he bellowed.

Having pulled the trigger, the Opposition was in no mood to relent. NDA members insisted that chief minister Rabri Devi should step down, to which the treasury benches retorted that Central ministers L.K. Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi — both named in the Babri masjid demolition chargesheet — should quit first.

The verbal volleys would have subsided but for the sudden rush of blood among some impatient members. Infuriated by the attack on his sister — chief minister — Sadhu Yadav picked up an empty chair and was about to hurl it at Modi when he was thwarted by some BJP members who had surrounded the Well.

But Dadan Yadav, minister of state for finance, who was behind Sadhu, found another chair and threw it at the Opposition leader. Modi ducked and the chair hit Prem Gupta who swerved away to escape being struck on the head, taking the blow on his chest.

The House marshals tried to intervene but were hopelessly outnumbered as the belligerent members fought with their fists and yanked out microphones, throwing them with all their power.

As the bedlam engulfed the House, the chief minister egged on her gladiators and gesticulated at rivals, saying: “Muh noch lenge (I’ll disfigure your face).”

The Speaker, who had left the House, returned to adjourn the morning session. But even that did not deter the legislators who continued slapping and shoving one another.

The obituary reference was finally adopted in the afternoon session, which was boycotted by the Opposition members who squatted in front of the Speaker’s office. Later, they marched to Raj Bhavan and urged Governor Vinod Pande to order an inquiry by the Speaker.

Laloo, while giving his brother-in-law a light rap on the knuckle, said: “We were at the end of our tethers, humiliated and dishonoured. The provocation came from the Opposition.”

He added that he would table a condemnation motion against Modi tomorrow. The NDA members have to be present in the House tomorrow as the Vananchal Bill is expected to be tabled.    


 
 
ROUND-THE-CLOCK CELL FOR DROUGHT DISTRESS CALLS 
 
 
FROM DIPTOSH MAJUMDAR
 
New Delhi, April 24 
Drawing lessons from the hijack crisis, the Centre today set up an emergency drought cell to combat the calamity which has affected more than five crore people in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

The cell — created along the lines of the Crisis Management Group which handled the hijack — will function round-the-clock. This is the first time that such a cell has been set up to deal with a natural calamity.

During the day, it will function from water resources minister C.P. Thakur’s office. After 8 pm, the cell will shift to his residence, for which a separate telephone connection and e-mail address have been taken. An official will man the cell throughout the night. Officials, politicians and panchayat leaders from the affected states can get in touch with the centre whenever the need arises. The arrangement will continue till the severity of the drought persists.

Insisting that the move was not a gimmick, sources close to the minister said Thakur — who is a doctor and used to attending emergency calls long after dusk — “understands the need for a round-the-clock cell in this hour of crisis”. Since the ministry has a whole-time minister after a long time, it was devoting a lot of attention to the problem, they said.

Thakur convened a meeting this afternoon which was attended by minister of state for water resources Bijoya Chakravarty, ministry secretary Z. Hassan, adviser S.C. Sharma and commissioner (Indus) A.C. Gupta, who looks after all the western rivers.

According to ministry sources, the Central Ground Water Board — which is part of Thakur’s department — has been handed over several exploratory wells deep enough to provide up to 15,000 litres of water daily in the affected areas.

The board, which had been carrying out digging operations for exploratory purposes, will hand over 151 wells to Rajasthan and 70 to Gujarat. While some of them will be handed over permanently, some will be on a temporary basis, in case the board requires them for future exploration.

Ministry officials said the emergency cell — which would also advise local hydrologists — will be in touch with the agriculture, rural development and health and family welfare ministries and will also maintain direct link with regional ground water board establishments in Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Jaipur and Bhubaneswar.

“If necessary, the cell will function at night till July, till hopefully the monsoon sets in,” said a source. The ministry has also sought information on water levels at its own reservoirs and canals.

The cell, in coordination with the railways and the surface transport ministry, will also monitor movement of water.    


 
 
MPS LUKEWARM TO HEAT HORROR 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 24: 
The severe drought that has gripped several states merited a special debate in the Lok Sabha today. But contrary to expectations, most MPs were indifferent to the subject.

Though Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee went on Doordarshan and All India Radio yesterday appealing to the people to help tide over the drought, very few ministers were present when the discussion was taken up in the Lok Sabha.

The debate lasted for over six hours. While the Opposition blamed the Centre for not taking timely action, BJP members blamed previous Congress governments for the calamity.

Later, the Prime Minister announced in the lower House that the railways would carry fodder to drought-affected areas free of cost. The government, however, denied reports of large-scale migrations from drought-hit areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Vajpayee was responding to a demand by members cutting across party lines that the railways should carry fodder and other essential commodities free of cost to the affected states.

Agriculture minister Sunderlal Patwa said 20 kg of foodgrains would be provided to families in drought-affected areas at below Poverty line rates. He said two kg of foodgrains per person per day would be given under the Food for Work programme.

Patwa said the Centre had released Rs 54 crore for Gujarat and Rs 102 crore for Rajasthan without insisting on the 25 per cent contribution by states and on the basis of on-the-spot assessments by central teams.

Some Rajya Sabha members attacked the Prime Minister for going public on the Doordarshan and AIR before making a statement in the House. They said the Prime Minister committed an impropriety as he did not take Parliament into confidence even while the session was on.

CPM member Nilotpal Basu, raising the matter during Zero Hour, said had the government come to the House with a statement, a national consensus could have been evolved.    


 
 
AGRA CHRISTIAN ATTACK SPARKS HOUSE FURY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 24 
Tempers flared in Parliament today with the Opposition demanding the dismissal of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ram Prakash Gupta and a ban on the Bajrang Dal following attacks on Christians in the state.

The latest in the series of attacks took place in Agra yesterday, when Bajrang Dal activists burnt copies of the Bible and pamphlets being distributed by a group of missionaries. A fortnight ago, a priest and two nuns were assaulted in adjoining Mathura.

To the government’s embarrassment, its allies, the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam, also joined in the chorus of criticism. Trinamul MP Sudip Bandopadhyay was the first to raise the Agra issue, saying, “The government must put an end to these attacks. The guilty must be brought to book.”

Congress MP Jaipal Reddy said: “The Bajrang Dal is a terrorist organisation and must be banned.” The Opposition said there was a “definite pattern” to the incidents. “We should speak in one voice against fanaticism of all kinds,” said deputy leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party Madhavrao Scindia.

Faced with the volley of protests, the Centre tried to appease its allies by assuring that the Uttar Pradesh government would take action against those involved. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Majahan told the House that he would consult both Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the home minister. “As demanded by the Opposition, I will talk to the Prime Minister about holding a meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC) as soon as possible,” he said.

But senior BJP MP V.K. Malhotra defended the Bajrang Dal. “The Opposition is always ready to fling charges without proper investigation. How can we blame the Bajrang Dal without a proper inquiry.” He charged the Opposition with turning a blind eye to the “atrocities” on Hindus.

“Why did they not speak against the recent torture and ghastly killing of five Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir?” asked Malhotra, prompting Samajwadi MP from Agra Raj Babbarto rush to the well protesting against the BJP’s attempts to “exonerate” the Bajrang Dal.

With matters getting out of hand, Mahajan stepped in to make peace, saying “it is the constitutional responsibility of the Centre and the states to protect minorities”.

Government sources later said a meeting of the virtually defunct NIC could be convened after the budget session. However, according to a source, Vajpayee, when asked by a senior minister to confirm the report that he had planned to call a NIC meeting, replied it had not met since the Ayodhya days and had to be reconstituted.

Various Christian groups also accused the Uttar Pradesh government of harbouring “communal” intentions and demanded that the Prime Minister hold the chief ministers of the states where the violence took place “personally responsible”.

TN Easter clash

In Madurai, one person was hacked to death in a clash during an Easter procession in Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu last night. Police said the trouble started when a person, who was allegedly drunk, tried to obstruct the way of the processionists. A clash erupted when the processionists protested.    


 
 
PLEA TO CLUB MATCH-FIX CASES 
 
 
FROM OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 24 
Amid a plethora of public interest litigations (PILs) relating to match-fixing, the government today decided to move the Supreme Court to club all such PILs in various high courts transferring them to the apex court for hearing and a final comprehensive verdict.

The apex court would also be asked to fix a set of guidelines. Additional solicitor-general S.B. Jaisinghani said: “The government will not hesitate moving the Supreme Court and request it to call for all cases on match-fixing from different high courts for hearing.”

The additional solicitor had just then attended a PIL in Delhi High Court on the match-fixing matter filed by the Health Fitness Trust.

He told the division bench of acting Chief Justice Devinder Gupta and Justice A.K. Sikri that a “flood gate” of petitions on match-fixing had been opened in various high courts. “This will confuse the entire issue” and hence the government would move the apex court for clubbing them together for a comprehensive hearing and a judgment.

The Delhi High Court declined to issue notices but adjourned the hearings to May 4. The court asked the petitioner to separate every issue raised in the petition and specify clearly the remedies sought from the legal process. The court observed that the PIL litigant had “jumbled” many issues.

Security for cricketers

Union sports minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa today said the Centre had never thought of providing security to cricketers who wanted to reveal the names of their tainted colleagues because “they had never asked us for protection”.

The reference to Manoj Prabhakar was obvious. The former cricketer, who had alleged involvement of Indian cricketers in betting scandals about two years ago, had said recently that he had not mentioned the name of the player who had offered him Rs 25 lakh as he was never offered protection.    


 
 
VAIKO SUMMONED AFTER LANKA ALARM 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT AND T.N. GOPALAN
 
April 24 
Embarrassed by Sri Lanka’s “strong protest” against certain remarks made by Vaiko, an ally of the BJP-led government, at an LTTE-sponsored meeting, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh has summoned the MDMK chief and sought an explanation.

Sources said the ministry was not satisfied with Vaiko’s explanation and has decided to seek more details.

Colombo had described Vaiko’s comments, made at the meeting held in Geneva recently, as “jingoistic and preposterous” and said they were aimed at President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is also concerned over the remarks attributed to Vaiko.

An external affairs ministry spokesman said Singh is seized of the matter. He said the LTTE remains a banned organisation in India.

The Centre is keen to end the controversy at the earliest as it does not want to be accused of any bias at a time when the Tamil Tigers are claiming spectacular successes in the armed campaign on the island.

Vaiko has denied the charge and told Singh that it was part of a “vilification campaign” against him by the island government. He asserted that the report was baseless and he was ready to play a tape of the speech before Singh.

The is not the first time Vaiko is courting controversy over Tamil Tigers. LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s parents were present at the wedding of Vaiko’s daughter in Chennai last year. Home minister L.K. Advani was among the guests from Delhi. Vaiko had also caused a flutter by going to Jaffna to express solidarity with Prabhakaran when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was battling it out with the Tigers.

Vaiko’s bete noire Subramanian Swamy said he would seek an appointment with President K.R. Narayanan to apprise him of the MDMK chief’s “impropriety”.

Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had said in his letters to Indian and Swiss foreign ministers said Vaiko’s speech encouraged the LTTE to assassinate Kumaratunga, who had recently escaped a suicide bomb attack. Vaiko was quoted as saying that “she needs to be lucky every time, but we need to be lucky only once”.

Later, in a statement in Chennai, Vaiko said he had not made any hostile remarks against Kumaratunga and his speech was twisted out of context. He condemned the Colombo government for trying to tarnish his image.

Vaiko said he had addressed a rally of the Federation of World Tamils, but nowhere had he mentioned Kumaratunga’s name.

The MDMK chief said he had cited the examples of armed groups like the PLO and the IRA being invited for talks by Israel and Britain to emphasis that Colombo, too, could solve the ethnic tangle through talks.

He said he had recalled that when the IRS made an attempt on the life of the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985, it had called up the prime minister’s office and said: “She has escaped, but she needs to be lucky always, while we need to be lucky only once.”    


 
 
DEATH OF FAMILY AFTER DISMISSAL POINTS ACCUSING FI 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Bhopal, April 24: 
Rajkumar Jatav poisoned his three small children and his wife on Saturday night. He then killed himself.

An electrician with the state-run Samrat Ashok Technical Institute in Vidisha, Jatav, 35, was one of 16,000 daily wage-earners thrown out of service by the Digvijay Singh government as part of its policy to shed flab. He is the third retrenched worker to commit suicide in the past four months.

The bodies of Jatav, his 30-year-old wife Vimla Bai and their children — Chhaya (6), Ekta (4) and Pappu (1) — were found in their home in Vidisha, 60 km from here, yesterday. The electrician used to take home Rs 1,800 every month.

Though the government says the worker mentioned “poverty” as the cause behind the extreme step, several local newspapers claimed that Jatav named the chief minister in his suicide note.

Amid the increasing howls of protest, the most vociferous cries are coming from within the ruling party with Digvijay’s friend-turned-foe Kamal Nath leading the opposition to the retrenchment policy.

While the former Union minister is taking out rallies to prove his strength, other dissidents are marching to 10 Janpath with sacked employees to lodge their complaint with Sonia Gandhi on Digvijay’s anti-worker policies.

The chief minister is unfazed. Defending his decision, he has shot off letters to all opponents of the policy in the Congress, including Kamal Nath and legislator Kalpana Parulekar, as well as BJP’s Uma Bharti, saying: “If viewed in the right perspective, all will agree that the state government’s decision to retrench daily wage employees is perfectly legal.”

He added that the state is forking out almost 90 per cent of its revenue towards establishment costs, leaving almost nothing for its development.

The government decided to sack 30,000 daily wage-earners who were employed after January 1 1989, claiming that the state was in the grip of a severe financial crisis. By retrenching the temporary workers, who draw a monthly stipend of around Rs 2000 each, the state plans to save Rs 30 crore annually.

So far, 16,600 daily wage-earners have been dismissed and another 14,000 are likely to be given the marching orders soon.

Digvijay’s aides are struggling to explain the sackings as the chief minister, during his tenure as Pradesh Congress chief, had taken up the cause of the temporary workers and led many a deputation to Raj Bhavan against the government of the day.

For all his charisma — that led the Congress to a remarkable victory in the 1998 Assembly elections — Digvijay has failed to rein in the more ambitious in his flock.

While the BJP has so far only threatened a statewide agitation against the retrenchments and Uma Bharti is still dilly-dallying about her proposed fast-unto-death from April 28, the loudest protests have been made by Congress rebels.

Kamal Nath, Digvijay’s ‘elder brother’ for over 20 years, fired the first salvo in March, describing the sack order as a “dictatorial decision”. “Termination of more than 30,000 lowly-paid daily wage-earners could have been avoided if the state government had dared to curtail its wasteful and unproductive expenditure,” he said.

Parulekar, the MLA from Mahidpur, went a step ahead and took her grievance to the high command. She took more than 2,000 sacked workers to Delhi last month. But Sonia, busy with a party meeting, could not hear them out. She deputed CWC member Motilal Vora to inquire into Parulekar’s allegations against the chief minister.

The legislator has given Sonia until April 25 to take a decision, after which she will again besiege 10 Janpath with workers’ representatives on May 8.

She has also announced a rally here on May 7 and another in Delhi.    

 

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