Parties snub poll panel on women quota
Neglect charge against army
Slow progress in China talks
Gowda hope for third front
Khurana claims Sangh support
Drought drains villagers, fails to satisfy officia

 
 
PARTIES SNUB POLL PANEL ON WOMEN QUOTA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 29 
Parties across the entire political spectrum have shunned the Election Commission’s proposal and refused to provide a fixed quota of seats for women candidates in Parliament and state Assemblies.

At today’s meeting with the commission, all major political parties favoured passing of the women’s reservation Bill instead of taking on the responsibility of correcting the gender imbalance in elected bodies.

Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill touted the meeting as “really good” but political leaders said there was hardly a consensus on any of the seven issues of electoral reform that were on the agenda. “Barring the issue of a common electoral roll, there was no consensus on any other issue,” said a Left leader. The most fractious of all issues was women’s representation in elected bodies.

Barring the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (United), two most passionate opponents of the 33 per cent women’s reservation Bill, all parties felt that a consensus should be evolved on the Bill and it should be passed in Parliament. There were hardly any takers for Gill’s proposal that political parties should fix a percentage of seats for women candidates since the women’s reservation Bill seems to hang in a limbo.

“The government has already introduced a Bill in Parliament and efforts should be made to reach a consensus,” BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu said. Senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, too, believed that another attempt should be made to iron out the differences on the Bill.

It has now been five years that governments at the Centre have tried to ram through the Bill that will give women 33 per cent representation in Parliament and Assemblies. But every time the Parliament witnessed noisy scenes, even physical scuffles between pro and anti-reservation lobbies, pushing the Bill off the agenda.

Today’s interaction between the commission and political parties reinforced these divisions within political parties on the controversial issue of women’s reservation. “There was no consensus among the parties at the meeting,” said CPI leader D. Raja.

The main ground on which the anti-reservation lobby has been stonewalling the Bill is that it does not have a separate quota for backward castes, Dalits and minority women. This appears to be the reason why Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav seem inclined to support the commission’s suggestion that political parties fix a quota for women candidates.

For all other political parties, however, the main concern is to pass the pending women’s reservation Bill instead of fixing the responsibility on individual parties. “The Election Commission does not have the power to de-recognise any party for not sticking to a specific quota of seats for women,” said a Samata Party leader.

Those opposing the commission’s proposal are arguing that the logistics will be difficult to work out. For instance, there will have to be a fixed percentage of seats for women in all political parties. “There is also a possibility that women candidates will be left with the losing seats,” said a Left leader.

The commission had also suggested debarring chargesheeted candidates from contesting elections as a measure for lessening the hold of criminals on politics. “But all political parties rejected the proposal because they felt that such a provision could be used to settle scores with political enemies,” Gill said.

   


 
 
NEGLECT CHARGE AGAINST ARMY 
 
 
FROM CHANDAN NANDY
 
Bharatpur, April 29 
No one has been allowed to enter the charred ammunition dump at Bharatpur since the fire began last afternoon, not even the local police. The army has announced its own inquiry by a senior official.

But the local administration slammed the maintenance at the dump and the lack of preparedness to face such disasters. It also criticised the army’s “callousness” in handling a storage facility for such expensive ammunition.

The impact in real terms means that if there is a war tomorrow, the Southern and Central Commands would have rifles and revolvers without bullets and their 103, 130 and 155 mm Bofors field guns would have nothing to fire. They will have to wait before new ammunition arrives.

Coming within less than a year of the Kargil intrusions, the Bharatpur fire has once again caught the army napping.

The ammunition dump for conventional wars was a primitive arsenal, spread over a large area. The ammunition was kept virtually in the open, with only asbestos sheets on metal props for cover. In some places, even these were missing and tarpaulin shelters were assumed good enough to protect the high-powered explosives. There was no sandbag protection to limit the damage from such accidents.

The depot has an underground magazine where the fire did not reach but the army insisted the space was not enough.

The dump had been constructed by the British and is described as an “open plinth”. Former army officials complain that in the 21st century such open dumps are anachronisms. They could be easily bombarded and entire armies immobilised during a war.

The fire fighting facilities were also inadequate. For such a huge storehouse, there were only five fire tenders to fall back on. The nearest firestations were at Agra and Mathura and by the time they could send firetenders , the dump was inaccessible, rockets springing from everywhere, flares lighting up the sky, explosions shaking the surrounding sleepless villages.

Even the army’s own five fire tenders were of little help. There were no water spouts or high-powered jets to enable a speedy dousing of the flames that engulfed even neighbouring villages. The army appeared paralysed, in a state of shock, not knowing what to do as the shells flew past. Nothing was done for several hours.

Questions are now being raised in the corridors of South Block why no contingency plan was in place. Since the dump allowed open storage of ammunition, such a crisis should have been foreseen and accordingly a “firefighting blueprint” kept ready.

No one knows how the dump was ignited.

Yesterday, Delhi thought it could be fuses. This morning, there were complaints of a possible short-circuit from the overhead electric cables blowing in yesterday’s gale and brushing each other. Then there was this theory of the over-heated summer grass catching fire and inflicting the damage. Finally, the army had veered around to their oft-preferred scapegoat — a sabotage.    


 
 
SLOW PROGRESS IN CHINA TALKS 
 
 
FROM DIPTOSH MAJUMDAR
 
New Delhi, April 29 
No breakthrough was expected. None happened. The Sino-Indian dialogue on protracted boundary disputes moved a fraction of an inch after yesterday’s day-long deliberations of the joint working group comprising external affairs officials on both sides.

Now, the group of experts operating within the jurisdiction of the JWG would meet as “often as necessary” instead of the ritualised “annually once” meeting.

The JWG has been meeting since 1988 to resolve the boundary disputes. Recently, the Vajpayee government had admitted to a starred question in Parliament that China claims nearly 90,000 sq km of Indian territory in the eastern sector of the India-China boundary in Arunachal Pradesh.

India has been insisting that “China continues to be in illegal occupation of (approximately) 38,000 sq km in Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, under the Sino-Pak “Boundary Agreement of 1963” Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China”.

The JWG has been meeting once a year to initiate confidence building measures and prevent any untoward incident on the border.

Though the ministry of external affairs has been mum on the on-and-off skirmishes along the border, the defence ministry has seldom denied it. There were reports of Chinese Red Army troops violating the Line of Actual Control at different spaces even late last year.

In recent months, there has been some movement on the diplomatic front to calm down the armed units on both sides of the border. This process received a boost after foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s visit to Beijing in June 1999. Next month’s China visit of President K.R. Narayanan will also help improve the Sino-Indian relationship.

The Indian team at the JWG was led by Lalit Mansingh and comprised senior external affairs ministry officials. The Chinese delegation was led by Yang Wenchang, the Chinese vice-foreign minister. Wenchang also met Singh and conveyed his greetings from foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan.

The two sides reviewed the development of bilateral relations since Singh’s June visit. They discussed boundary-related issues, including clarification of the LAC. The ministry of external affairs statement said the two sides “agreed that the expert group would meet as often as required to discuss boundary-related issues, including LAC clarifications”.    


 
 
GOWDA HOPE FOR THIRD FRONT 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 29 
Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda said here that an alternative alliance will emerge to foil the Congress and BJP in the Centre.

Gowda, on way to a Left party rally in Farakka, said here on Saturday that the BJP and the Congress votes were declining sharply, indicating a shift to alternative equations. “Call it the Third Front, the National Front, whatever. It is going to emerge in the next few months,” Gowda said.

He, along with Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral, will meet chief minister Jyoti Basu on May 4.

Asked if they would urge Basu to head the alliance and agree to be projected as Prime Minister, Gowda said: “There is the need for an alternative political arrangement, and it is not my concern who will lead it.”

Unlike the BJP-led NDA, the front will have to survive with the help of regional parties. Gowda said his mission was to tour the country and express “our concern” over the BJP’s policies and non-secular bias.

Without commenting on Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, Gowda said some parties need to be cautioned for hobnobbing with the BJP. “What will they tell the people after the hefty hike in the administered prices of fuel and other essential items?” he asked.    


 
 
KHURANA CLAIMS SANGH SUPPORT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 29 
Madan Lal Khurana, who was sacked as BJP vice-president yesterday, has the tacit support of the RSS. Khurana had met RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan early this month and discussed the “anti-national” economic policies being pursued by a “coterie” around the Prime Minister.

Khurana was removed from his post for alleging that the Vajpayee government was working under US pressure.

He today said he would give a fresh notice under Rule 193 to Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi on Tuesday for a discussion on the “anti-national economic policies being pursued by the government”.

Before going public, Khurana had flown to Nagpur and briefed Sudarshan about the US commerce secretary’s letter, dated December 16, 1999, asking the Centre to remove quantitative restrictions on 1,429 import items and the MoU with regard to the Sankya Vahini project.

The RSS, too, had hit out at a “coterie” around the Prime Minister. Denying that he was acting on the behest of the RSS or former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, Khurana said: “Whatever I said was in tune with the RSS and BJP’s stand. But I am pained that I have not been told about my crimes.”

He said the RSS continues to be “our guide and philosopher” and the “RSS viewpoints are governed by swadeshi”. He said he was also hurt at the manner in which a senior party functionary like him was treated by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Khurana said on March 7, he had called on former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. A journalist handed him the US commerce secretary’s letter. The US proposal was disastrous for the domestic small-scale industry, he said. The next day, he brought the matter to the notice of the Prime Minister. Later, he briefed the RSS chief.

He sought a meeting with the Prime Minister to explain to him the dangers of succumbing to US pressure. “From April 1 to 16, I waited in vain and on April 17, I was given five to seven minutes”, which was inadequate to explain such a serious matter, Khurana said.

On April 21, he wrote to A.B. Vajpayee saying he would be raising these issues in Parliament since he could not discuss them in person with Vajpayee. He said he would go ahead with his fight in the “nation’s interest” even as a senior BJP functionary hinted at his expulsion from the party.    


 
 
DROUGHT DRAINS VILLAGERS, FAILS TO SATISFY OFFICIA 
 
 
FROM SUJAY GUPTA
 
Mehsana (North Gujarat), April 29 
In Nani Hirwani, a village in the Kheralu taluka, Kantibhai Bhikabhai’s kitchen is empty. And the only utensil he owns has cracked “because of too much scraping”. Food is a pathetic mix of coarse grass crushed and diluted with water. Salt is a luxury — once a month when the ration shop opens.

On paper, the residents of Kheralu, Satlasang and Vadnagar are a privileged lot. The three talukas have received 298 mm of rainfall, much more than the cut-off level of 125 mm, and have not been declared drought-affected. They are classified as “semi drought affected”, which does not permit relief work being opened or compensation sanctioned under the calamity relief fund.

So, on the long road in search of water, the women of Kheralu trudge through the parched land, the clanging of their empty vessels breaking the eerie afternoon silence. Faces covered, they look like bedouins in a desert. At the edge of the dusty road, they turn into an empty field. Three rotting carcasses raise a filthy stink. For the vultures circling overhead, this is lunch.

“Are you in search of water too?” they ask. “Why come this far? There is water in the cities. Actually, there is water here too, if you believe the taluka officials,” one of them laughs.

Suddenly, the lofty promises of the government in faraway Ahmedabad, or the figures that “proved” that the three talukas in the district were only “half drought-affected” seem funny. Not even cruel.

As reports of starvation deaths come in, and stories of relief work started by the administration prove false, it seems that a game is on. A game of juggling figures and spouting technicalities.

“Their explanation on the starvation deaths was found wanting. Then they said relief work has started. In Sabarkantha and Mehsana, areas bordering Rajasthan, there seem to be no sign of relief work,” said Madhusudan Mistry, who runs an NGO called Disha in North Gujarat.

But taluka development officer S.J. Patel says: “I have decided to open relief works in 10 villages in Kheralu even though they are only semi drought-affected. Work has been sanctioned and the relief clerk goes there.” He complains that “there is no one to come and work. These villagers are so lazy”.

According to Patel, the villagers also “have enough money to eat. Enough work was sanctioned under the Gokul Gram Yojna where Rs 62 per person was paid. There is also enough fodder,” he said.

Kantibhai has been to Patel to ask him if he could get some work. Three of the four wells in his village have dried up and the fourth has only two feet of brackish water that will finish any day. No one in his village has found work in the past one month. Their clothes have not been washed and the fields are parched.

Murung Patel took a loan of Rs 1,000 to buy bajra seeds, but with the failed crop, he had no money to pay back the moneylender. Three cattle have died in this village. With the three on the road, that makes six. The taluka officer, however, says that in all the 158 villages in the area, only three cattle have died, of which two had succumbed to disease, while one was killed by a tiger.

Lovely stories these. Welcome to “semi drought affected” Mehsana and Nani Hirwani.    

 

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