Govt goes into huddle to douse price fire
Deaths in hunger-starvation crossfire
Axe spectre on defiant Khurana
Uma begins fast as Digvijay stands firm
Outcry on fishermen killings
Dal(U) heads for break-up
Bangla envoy challenges Advani claim

New Delhi, April 30 
Hectic parleys have begun at the Prime Minister’s residence on 7 Race Course Road to discuss the possibilities of a rollback and placate allies who are demanding scaling down of prices of many items.

Two meetings were held at Atal Behari Vajpayee’s house on Friday evening. More telephonic conversations between concerned ministers and Vajpayee, if not closed-door face-to-face discussions, are expected before finance minister Yashwant Sinha replies in Parliament to the ongoing debate on his financial statement.

Highly-placed government sources described Friday’s meetings as significant. It went unnoticed due to the removal of Madan Lal Khurana as the BJP vice-president. The first meeting was attended by various leaders, including Sinha, home minister L.K. Advani, industry minister Murasoli Maran, minister of state for planning and programme implementation Arun Shourie and minister of consumer affairs and public distribution Shanta Kumar.

However, the absence of fertiliser minister Suresh Prabhu and petroleum minister Ram Naik has triggered speculation that the government may not concede all the wishes of the allies and the Opposition. The allies are demanding that the decision to remove part of the subsidies from fertilisers be rescinded. They are also demanding a decrease in the new prices of LPG and kerosene.

Kumar’s presence has strengthened the assumption of a partial rollback of foodgrain prices in the PDS.

The government, in an informal discussion with key allies like the Telugu Desam and the Trinamul Congress, had dropped hints that it was only the foodgrain prices that it could reconsider. Given the volume of the oil pool deficit, a discount in that sector was impossible.

Vajpayee convened a second, smaller meeting later that evening. It was attended by Sinha, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary specialising in fiscal affairs, N.K. Singh, and Union finance secretary P.G. Mankad. They discussed the impact of a marginal rollback and how it would hurt the economy.

At a Confederation of Indian Industry symposium, Sinha had mentioned through innuendoes that the government may have to accede to the wishes of the allies.

Similarly, Vajpayee had rued the lack of consensus in the crucial economic sector. He meant not just his adamant allies but even the Congress which had first charted out the economy’s liberal roadmap.

For the government, the rollback might not lead to too much embarrassment due to the drought. Vajpayee has already underlined the seriousness of the situation by appealing to the nation. PDS concessions have already been announced for the four drought-affected states. If the rollback is to be restricted to mere PDS concessions, protagonists of the liberal path will not find too much ammunition to target the government.    

Sabarkantha (North Gujarat), April 30 
“Starvation means when you have had nothing to eat for a long period of time and eventually die for want of food.”

“Hunger means your stomach is empty and you want food. Therefore, an empty stomach does not mean starvation. It only means hunger. And so many people are hungry but they eat food.”

The enlightening lesson came from V. Thiruppugazh, collector of Sabarkantha, a remote tribal district bordering Rajasthan. This dividing line between hunger and starvation is of critical importance to the district headquarters of Himmatnagar, two hours away from Aanjni, the village in Khedbrahma taluka where Saibabai Harshanbai Bubadia (earlier reports had identified him as Saheba Bumbadia) and his seven-year-old daughter Savita died on April 25.

The official line is that they were hungry but not starving. “If it’s just hunger, the government will save face,” explained C.B. Solanki, a social worker in Khedbrahma. “However, if it’s starvation, chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s politics will get a beating, the Opposition will get the upper hand and poor Thiruppugazh will get a transfer to a remote department in the state secretariat.”

Overnight, Aanjni had become an important destination. Rows of government cars, ambulances and trucks of fodder and grass ply to and fro. The fair price shop, non-functional for the first 18 days of the month, is “fully open with lots of stock”. Relief work has started and wages have been promised soon. For the village and the taluka, it’s almost paradise — getting what they normally should from the government.

In front of Saibabai’s broken-down hut, a group of villagers huddle under a semi-thatched structure. In the foreground were the parched fields on which no one from Aanjni has set foot for the past four months.

“In normal times, the fields would be all green. This is harvesting season and we would all be busy harvesting the crop — wheat, bajra, moong dal,” said Harshanbai Bubadia, Saibabai’s 60-year-old father.

As the sun set over the Aravalli mountains surrounding the village, Harshanbai wonders how he survived while his son and granddaughter did not. “I wish I could offer you some tea,” he said. “There is none. We have got a sack of grain but no money to buy even a match box. Anyway, the grain came only yesterday.”

Inside the hut there were just two vessels. A small aluminium vessel — that was supposedly contaminated and led to the “food poisoning of Saibabai and his daughter — and an earthen pot, both empty. There was one torn saree and a piece of cloth. Nothing else.

The food-poisoning theory is tried on Saibabai’s widow, who had just returned from the primary health care centre at Poshina. She retorted with a burst of abuse, then added: “Nothing was cooked. My sister gave me two corn rotlas (thick corn bread). The two pieces were broken into 10 pieces for my five children and the two of us. My husband did not even eat that. He just had a cup of black tea for breakfast. They are bloody liars.”

After a pause she burst out: “The government said his stomach was full of food. They are fools — it was full of hunger.”

The collector showed a ration card which “proved” that Saibabai’s family had bought 6 kg of wheat, 2 kg of sugar and salt and a kilo of rice. Actually, it was his father who bought them on his ration card after collecting money from other villagers. This was distributed among the three families, but nothing was given to Saibabai’s family which lived apart but were listed on his father’s ration card.

The collector said they found the corn rotlas and a vessel of vegetable when they visited his hut. But Laljibhai Kalabhai Ninama — a local social worker who reached the house at three in the morning on April 25 — said he found three or four small pieces of the corn bread and a little bit of ground chillies.

Ninama had picked up the corn pieces. The next day, the local tehsildar came and forced him to hand them over, saying they were poisoned and had to be sent for tests.

“We’ll get the results soon,” said Thiruppugazh. “The deaths were not due to starvation. The man and his daughter ate stale food and died.”

Saibabai’s father has been given a cheque of Rs 10,000 as compensation. But even after three days, no account has been opened for him to encash it. There is grain in the house, but no money to buy a match box. One of Saibabai’s sons — a two-year-old — vomits on an empty stomach, but there is no water to give him.

Is he starving? Or just hungry?    

New Delhi, April 30 
Indications from the BJP top brass are that Madan Lal Khurana may go the way of Shanker Sinh Vaghela and Kalyan Singh and face suspension or expulsion if he goes on questioning the Centre’s economic policies.

Khurana has hinted that he may persist with his crusade against the government’s exim policy and the Sankhya Vahini project, leaving the leadership no option but to throw him out. “He cannot fit into the party. The party did not like the way he has been conducting himself,” a senior BJP office-bearer told reporters.

With the former Delhi chief minister determined to give notice on May 2 for a Lok Sabha discussion on how the Centre has compromised with “national sovereignty” and “security” through some decisions, the stage is set for a final confrontation — between the high command and a member of the old guard. According to observers, the latter has become an endangered species.

Khurana, Vaghela, Kalyan, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Shanta Kumar and Sunderlal Patwa were members of the old guard which had a stranglehold over their fiefs, roughly around the same time. Five were chief ministers when the BJP had the Hindi heartland in its clasp.

Shekhawat was the chief minister of Rajasthan, Patwa and Shanta Kumar headed the Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh governments respectively, while Kalyan’s writ was absolute in Uttar Pradesh.

Vaghela was the odd man out in this phalanx, because of Chimanbhai Patel’s dominance in Gujarat. But after Patel died, he was quick to help the BJP fill the vacuum and rise to power in 1995.

Unlike the others, Khurana had an added feather in his cap. While the BJP lost Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the 1993 Assembly elections, Khurana retained Delhi by an absolute majority. Shekhawat, too, returned to power, but with the help of Independents and a splintered Janata Dal.

Vaghela and Kalyan are now out of the BJP. Shekhawat is out on a limb in Rajasthan with Ashok Gehlot in the saddle. Patwa and Shanta Kumar have survived as Central ministers, but have little to do with their former fiefs.

BJP sources said Patwa still managed to assert himself in Madhya Pradesh by nipping the prospects of “rising stars” like Vikram Verma (who has been shifted to the Centre as a Rajya Sabha MP) and Uma Bharti. While the new Thakur-Brahmin alliance — between present BJP incumbent Prem Singh Dhumal and former Congressman Sukh Ram — has rendered Shanta Kumar a “misfit” in Himachal.

BJP sources said Shekhawat also finds himself out of sync with the rise of the backward castes in his state, courtesy Gehlot. Although the BJP played up the Jat reservation issue in the last Lok Sabha polls and put up a creditable showing, sources admitted that the party could not encash the “goodwill” for the lack of a Jat leader. Shekhawat’s “pro-Rajput” politics was no longer useful in Rajasthan, they rued.

Khurana, they said, was a victim of Delhi’s new caste politics. The trend was visible at a function in early April to commemorate the party’s 20th anniversary. Prominent on the dais with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and party chief Kushabhau Thakre were non-Punjabi leaders Sahib Singh Verma (a Jat) and Mange Ram Garg (a west Uttar Pradesh baniya).

When Khurana asked Garg if Delhi MPs could be allowed to say a few words, he was politely refused, prompting him and V.K. Malhotra to leave the stage.    

Bhopal, April 30 
Come tomorrow, Uma Bharti will go on an “indefinite fast unto death” protesting against Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh’s decision to retrench 30,000 daily wage earners in a bid to streamline his government.

Bharti, however, claims that 60,000-70,000 workers will be rendered jobless in the retrenchment drive. “I have already asked for the permission and blessings of our party president Kushabhau Thakre on this issue,” Bharti told reporters this morning. “I will launch my indefinite fast in front of the state secretariat from 9 am tomorrow.”

A fortnight ago, Bharti had threatened that if the government failed to resolve the retrenchment crisis by April 28, she would go on an indefinite hunger-strike.

The deadline has passed, but the chief minister is in no mood for a compromise. Last week in a letter to Bharti and those in his own party agitating against the policy, Digvijay said his government was not removing regular employees, but only adopting certain austerity measures to whittle down expenditure.

“I am not removing daily wage earners. Those who are being retrenched were illegally appointed after January 1, 1989, without any government order. Action will be taken against all erring officials who hired them,” he told The Telegraph.

The government has identified two IAS officers and 11 Indian Forest Service officials responsible for some of the illegal appointments.

Digvijay even appealed to Bharti asking her to defer the agitation, saying that the entire administrative machinery would be busy from April 30 to May 6 for the state’s “Gram Sampark Abhiyan”.

In this yearly exercise, state officials go to the villages to interact with the villagers and record their grievances, while the chief minister makes surprise visits with his chief secretary.

But an adamant Bharti has decided not to make her fast a political issue, but a personal struggle for retrenched daily workers. “This is not a BJP political issue. No BJP poster or banner will be used. This is certainly not the time for politics when hapless daily wage earners, thrown out of employment, are committing suicide with their families. I cannot stoop so low as to play politics over dead bodies,” she said.

She has also roped in some Congress members for her agitation. Kalpana Parulekar, Congress MLA from Mahidpur who is vehemently opposing Digvijay’s retrenchment policy, has expressed her wish to join Bharti.

At a press conference earlier this week, Parulekar said Bharti was welcome to join her workers’ agitation. Bharti also claimed that she received a call last night asking her if Parulekar could join her in the fast.

“I said it is all right with me. But whether she will actually join me in agitating against her chief minister, depends on her,” she said.

She has also written to senior Congress leader Kamal Nath who has recently issued anti-Digvijay statements on the retrenchments. A second letter has been sent to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to appraise her of the “Come and Save Lives” call. Bharti’s demand is: “The government should remove workers only after an alternative means of earning livelihood has been provided.”    

Chennai, April 30 
Three fishermen from Tamil Nadu were reportedly shot dead by the Sri Lankan navy, provoking an unusually sharp reaction from chief minister M. Karunanidhi who has sought the Centre’s intervention.

The fishermen from Nagapattinam on the eastern coast were fired upon by a “nervous” Lankan naval patrol on April 23, state government sources said.

Such incidents had happened earlier, but Karunanidhi’s reaction has never been so high-pitched. He has written to the Prime Minister, demanding central intervention to end the sufferings of Tamil fishermen.

He said the interests of the Tamil fishermen could not be sacrificed at the altar of harmonious relationship with Sri Lanka. “The loss of any more lives will simply not be acceptable,” he added.

The controversy has erupted a little over a week after Delhi was caught in a crossfire between Lanka and Vaiko, another ally of the BJP from the southern state. Lanka had officially protested against Vaiko’s reported comments against President Chandrika Kuamaratunga at a human rights conference.

Observers believe that Karunanidhi’s tough stand could be because the Assembly elections are hardly a year away and he would not like to provide ADMK general secretary Jayalalitha with a campaign plank.

Jayalalitha today condemned the incident, and alleged that it had occurred due to the Indian navy’s “lethargic” attitude.

Though more often than not, it is the Rameswaram fishermen who stray into the Lankan waters in search of prawns in the Kacha Theevu region, fishermen of other areas too, cross the borders. Even the Lankan Tamil fishermen do this occasionally.

But the ethnic bloodbath of Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere in 1983 and the consequent Tamil uprising has changed all that.

With increasing militant traffic between the Indian shores and the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, any boat found in the international waters became suspect in the eyes of the Lankan navy.

The situation deteriorated further when the Tamil Tigers emerged as a formidable force.

Fishing boats were fired upon and sunk, fishermen, abducted and kept in detention camps and sometimes shot dead. With the Lankan military driven to the wall at the moment, the Lankan navy has apparently become edgier.    

New Delhi, April 30 
The Janata Dal (United) came closer to effecting a formal split with the Samata Party’s national executive demanding that its MPs should be recognised as a distinct block in the Lok Sabha and allotted separate seats. The national executive session began here today.

The demand is significant in the context of reported moves by Dal(U) leader and Central minister Ram Vilas Paswan to float his own outfit under the Dalit Sena’s banner.

The Samata and Dal(U) had fought the 1999 Lok Sabha polls on a common symbol and the Election Commission had derecognised the Samata as a national party. But the merger gambit never materialised and the Samata’s former president and defence minister George Fernandes tried hard to prevail on Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to reinstate its status as a separate party after differences with the Dal(U).

The two socialist groups made another bid to merge on the eve of the Bihar Assembly polls in February but their effort came a cropper. After the elections, Paswan has been reportedly trying to split what remains of the Dal(U) on paper.

But with the Samata MPs pressuring the leadership to go on their own, Paswan may find it easy to get his required share of one-third members to get by the anti-defection law.    

Siliguri, April 30 
Bangladesh deputy high commissioner M. Humayun Kabir today refuted L.K. Advani’s claim that some northeast militant groups had set up base in his country. “Bangladesh does not allow anyone to use its territory against India,” he said. “Our Prime Minister has also said this.”

The home minister’s comment came during a visit to Tin Bigha, the corridor splitting the lush fields of the two countries.

Kabir also denied Union minister of state for telecommunications Tapan Sikdar’s allegation that Bangladeshis had taken over a number of Indian enclaves and were helping their compatriots to sneak into Indian territory with the help of fake residential certificates. His country, he said, wanted an early exchange of enclaves.

Stressing that trade should be expanded among Saarc nations through north Bengal, Kabir said: “At the moment, there is just three per cent trade among Saarc members. Much of our problems will be solved if we collectively fight against illiteracy, poverty and underdevelopment.”

Kabir said Bangladesh needed to correct its trade imbalance with India. “The difference is glaring. While our imports from India are about $1 billion, our exports are just about $60 million,” he said. To narrow the deficit, Dhaka has sought zero tariff on 25 export items.

The deputy high commissioner, who attended the annual meeting of the Press Club of North Bengal, recalled India’s help during the Bangladesh liberation war. “Our relationship is inseparable,” he said.

Bangladesh was also keen to expand trade relations with Nepal and Bhutan, he said. Currently, Changrabanda, near Tin Bigha, and Fulbari serve as transit points for trade with Bhutan and Nepal.    


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