Food trucks on road to empty villages
Priya pours scorn on ‘Sardar Patel’ Advani
Conclave on Christian attacks
Navy joins drought relief drive
BSF jawans killed in blast
Britain lures students with job baits

Chohtan (Western Rajasthan), April 26 
This is going to be a too much too late story.

Caravans laden with food and fodder are just about beginning to line up on the highways into Rajasthan, but who for? Vast majorities of those most affected by the drought have either fled these parts or are in the process of fleeing. Nearly 40 per cent of their cattle are dead and the rest are on the run in various directions, looking for sustenance. When food and fodder reach western Rajasthan, the addressees won’t be there anymore to receive their belated gift parcels.

“If only they had done this six months or so ago, we would not have had such a crisis on our hands,” says Sanjeev Dave, a local voluntary worker, “but the government did not act even though all the signs of an impending emergency were available long back. This is not something that has happened overnight.” Relief at this stage, Dave says, will barely help. “The affected are not there to benefit from these stocks this season. And the next season is always another story. Maybe, the relief effort will make media stories and maybe it will prevent the situation from getting worse but the damage has already been done.”

The fodder stocks haven’t vanished suddenly, the story of poor crops and the bankruptcy of the farmers’ home economy is an old story, the taps, tubewells and waterholes of the region have been slowly going defunct for at least the past eight months. Crisis has been stalking western Rajasthan for a while; nobody noticed. And those that did, didn’t get heard.

Devraj of Baytu village in Barmer, for instance, had been complaining a long time — since the last summer — that something was the matter with his sheep and goats. “They were getting thinner and lazier and then they began to lose their fur. I went to the government veterinary hospital several times but either there was nobody there or they said I was being too sensitive about my herds. They have all perished.”

In other parts of Barmer too, farmers have raised alarms about an epidemic, specially among the goats and sheep. The symptoms are the same: emaciation, sluggishness, hair loss. And then, in all cases, death. Dave, the voluntary worker, has heard of the scourge.

“It is some mystery ailment, it either comes from water or from eating poisonous plants but nobody has bothered to get to the root of it. Who will? At the grassroots level, the government machinery has almost collapsed, nobody works, nothing works.”

Signs of governance or administration, in fact, begin to fast disappear as you leave the townships of western Rajasthan and move into the interiors. No roads, no transport, no electricity or water supply, no schools, no health centres, no fair price shops. We met farmers in the interiors of Barmer district who hadn’t ever heard of such a thing as a fair price shop or prices that are specially lowered by the government for people such as them. We met mothers who had no notion of what a health centre is.

And where these arms of the government do exist — in the Chohtan block, for instance — they are in a state of terminal paralysis. The primary health centre lies abandoned, the fair price shop is located in a part of town where nobody can locate it; it is probably tucked behind a shop that sells fair price goods at commercial market rates.

The state of the administration makes claims of additional tonnes being funnelled into the public distribution system (PDS) ring rather hollow. “What is the point of dumping emergency food stocks, or any stock into the PDS if the PDS is not going to reach those who need it? Most of the most needy either have no access to the PDS or are not even listed to derive benefits from it,” says Amar Raj Singh, a primary school teacher who admits not frequenting school because “there are very few students and very few facilities to teach them”. Mag Raj Jain, head of a Barmer-based voluntary agency, agrees: “The arrival of food and fodder at this stage will only mean that contractors and middlemen will get hold of the bulk and sell them off. Most of the aid will not reach those who need it.”

Voluntary agencies are, in fact, the only people who are visible and are working among the drought-hit. The government and administration are yet to gear up and get going. Political parties, which have had a long tradition of participating in relief efforts at times of crisis, are noticeable by their absence: neither the Congress nor the BJP, neither ruler nor pretender, is anywhere with the people whose cause they espouse.

Lalji Rathore, a small farmer from Boodhiyon ki Dhani had a Congress flag fluttering atop his little pucca house but he laughed when asked if his house was the local party relief centre. “This flag?” he sardonically remarked. “They put it up at the time of the election and I haven’t bothered taking it off. The children like it. Why should politicians come around now? This is a drought, not an election.”    

New Delhi, April 26 
Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi today punctured home minister L.K. Advani’s carefully cultivated image of an iron man, saying the manner in which he was being compared with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — the first home minister of independent India — was “neither adding glory to Advani nor to Patel”.

Das Munshi was speaking on a debate on demands for grants for the ministry of home affairs. As he went around denting the image of the home minister with clinical precision, reeling out a list of Advani’s failures from Kargil to Kandahar, a grim Advani sat silent, taking down notes.

Though agitated BJP members tried to shout him down on several occasions, an undeterred Das Munshi carried on with his barbs. Eulogising Patel, Das Munshi said that while “one fought the British empire, stood by Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru”, Advani went around preaching Hindutva. “He is suffocating (sic) in home ministry by compromising on the values he preached. I consider this government helpless, directionless and without any vision.”

“Sardar Patel compelled the British to kneel down. Our Patel compelled Jaswant Singh to kneel down before the hijackers,” he said. Das Munshi said the Prime Minister had the courage (yesterday) “to confess that by going to Lahore, I reached Kargil”.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was forced to confess “because your IB and RAW failed” in their responsibilities, Das Munshi charged. He alleged that intelligence inputs were not properly assessed and the Prime Minister was not properly briefed. “Your ministry failed to give proper direction to the Prime Minister before he undertook the Lahore bus journey,” he said.

The Congress leader also pilloried the home minister for keeping Vajpayee in the dark “for 45 minutes when IC 814 was hijacked by ISI operatives”.

“You have no vision in your ministry. What costly price we paid,” Das Munshi said, reminding members of the Kargil intrusion and Kandahar, where the hijacked aircraft had been flown.

When MDMK chief Vaiko tried to put Munshi on the defensive by raising the Chinese aggression during Jawaharlal Nehru’s regime, Das Munshi countered, saying that V.K. Krishna Menon, who was defence minister then, had offered to resign. But neither George Fernandes nor Advani resigned.

Displaying a January 12 issue of BJP Today, which printed the preamble of the Constitution without the words “socialist, democratic and secular”, Das Munshi said it betrayed the BJP’s hidden agenda.    

New Delhi, April 26 
The Centre has invited about 15 Christian organisations and all 22 Christian MPs for closed-door talks in the wake of the increase in attacks on the community.

Members and officials of the ministries of home and welfare will also be present in the meeting slated for April 28 and to be headed by law minister Ram Jethmalani.

The organisations invited include Missionaries of Charity and Churches of North India and groups representing Syrian Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant communities from the south and the northeast.

“All 22 Christian MPs, including Oscar Fernandes (Congress) and P.A. Sangma (Nationalist Congress Party), have been invited,” an official said.

“We also wanted to invite Sonia Gandhi but we do not know whether she still remains a Christian or has changed her religion to Hinduism or Parsi,” the official added.

The meeting will also discuss the draft Bill prepared by the law commission on changes to be made in the Christian Divorce Act.

Under the present divorce law for Christians, the wife has to prove three grounds of cruelty, adultery and insanity to get a divorce, whereas the husband has to establish any one.

“However,” said the official, “the main thrust of the meeting will be on Christian bashing in the country. The government wants to prove its secular credentials.”

In the Lok Sabha today, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee condemned the recent attacks on Christians in Uttar Pradesh and said that he had directed the chief minister to take “stringent” measures.

Though the government had initially wanted the April 28 meeting to discuss only the proposed amendments to the Christian Divorce Act, the official said that “we wanted to take the opportunity” to dispel misgivings of Christians that the BJP government would not protect minorities.    

New Delhi, April 26 
Finally the defence services are moving in to help in the drought situation. This time it is the Indian Navy which has been asked to carry eight million litres of drinking water to any of the two ports in Gujarat — Kandla or Mundhra.

This was decided after a review of the drought situation by senior bureaucrats headed by Cabinet secretary Prabhat Kumar. They took stock of how relief is being distributed in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the two most affected states, whether the stage has reached for the health ministry’s intervention as a number of arid stretches was littered with animal carcasses.

The senior officials discussed the fund situation in these two states, whether more money could be released under programmes like the Desert Development Programme, Integrated Wasteland Development Programme and the Water Shed Programme. It discussed the quantity of foodgrains and fodder that would have to be released.    

Srinagar, April 26 
Five Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and four members of a family were among 17 persons killed in separate incidents in Kashmir yesterday, a senior police officer said.

He said a BSF vehicle was damaged in a blast in Gharana village in RS Pora sector of Jammu today, reports our correspondent.

Sources said the BSF soldiers, including a sub-inspector, identified as Kirpal Singh, were killed on the spot while an assistant commandant of 120 battalion of the BSF received serious injuries. He was rushed to hospital after reinforcements, led by senior BSF officers, reached the spot. His condition was stated to be critical.

A senior police officer said BSF jawans were on patrol duty when their vehicle hit the landmine. Later a search was carried out in the area.

Unidentified gunmen forced their entry into the house of one Abdul Gani Dar in Gojigam village near Tanmarg in northern Baramulla district. They opened indiscriminate fire on the inmates, killing Dar, his wife, daughter and son. Taking advantage of the darkness, the gunmen escaped. Police and security forces visited the village this morning. The bodies have been buried in the village. Police have registered a case and have mounted searches to nab those involved in the killing.

In two separate encounters in Doda district in Jammu, seven persons, including three militants, two special police officers and an alleged police informer were killed. One soldier was also killed while fighting at Desa and Gandoh in the hilly Doda district in Jammu. Another special police officer was killed by militants in Srigufwara in southern Anantnag district this afternoon.    

New Delhi, April 26 
In a bid to take on the US and Australia — aggressive marketers of higher education abroad — Britain is unveiling a package of more scholarships and relax visa conditions to let students stay back to gain job experience and work part time while studying.

“We are trying to re-brand British education,” explained Colin Perchard, minister (cultural affairs) in the British High Commission here.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, while Britain imposed restrictions on foreign students, aggressive salesmanship by the US and Australian universities ensured that a larger stream of Indian students head for there.

Britain is now trying hard to reverse the trend. Some 220 universities in the United Kingdom have come up with scholarship schemes for Indian students which are to be announced soon in a series of roadshows planned by the British Council in 10 cities.

While scholarships for almost all kinds of courses will be available, most of the funding will be for management courses.

Visa restrictions will be lifted and multiple entry visas for upto 3 years will be more easily available. Students who go for a three-year course will be allowed to stay back for another two years to gain work experience. While studying, foreign scholars will be permitted to work for upto 20 hours during academic weeks and for unlimited hours during holidays.

The package devised by the British Council is based on a painstaking study conducted by it to find out why Britain lost out in the education mart.

At present, about 4,000 Indian students leave for British universities annually compared to 10,000 to the US and between 4,000-6,000 to Australia. Britain wants to reverse this trend by increasing the number of Indian students by 50 per cent.

“We expect British schools and colleges to come to India in June and July to offer courses and scholarships,” Perchard said.

While the cost of studying in the US and Britain is the same, in Australia its slightly cheaper. British universities, however, have one USP which their rivals don’t have — management masters courses can be done in one year instead of the usual two. “This means one years’ expenses saved and more quality worktime for those who finish quickly,” Perchard pitched.    


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