Freed Yasin drives hard talks bargain
Sex abuse charge against Patna Xavier’s principal
Minister on the run after scam warrant
Headmaster gunned down in Jalpaiguri
Raiders feast on remains of dead
Drought devil spares calamity capital

New Delhi, May 4 
The Centre today released Hurriyat Conference leader Yasin Malik and four others ahead of a possible opening of talks with political groups parallel to the National Conference in Kashmir.

The Hurriyat executive has decided to call a meeting in Srinagar to discuss the Kashmir scenario. “I don’t think there is any ground for any negotiation within the framework of the Indian Constitution,” Malik said after his release.

Malik and four second-rung leaders — identified as Abdul Majid Dandoo, Abdul Ahad Waza, Ghulam Mohammad Sankara and Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai — were released from Tihar Jail this evening after being detained for over six months under the Public Safety Act.

The Centre has released 11 Hurriyat leaders so far. The All-Party Hurriyat Conference is an umbrella organisation of outfits which, till recently, were seeking secession from the Indian Union. Hurriyat chief Syed Ahmed Ali Shah Geelani, Abdul Ghani Lone and Maulvi Abbas were the first to be released. The three were set free soon after Bill Clinton left after his five-day visit in March.

The home ministry, which has a Jammu and Kashmir Affairs department, appears to have taken a back seat with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) calling the shots in the wake of the release of the Hurriyat leaders and reports that the defence minister has held preliminary talks with Syed Mir Qasim, who was Jammu and Kashmir chief minister in the early eighties.

Before the Vajpayee government decides to open talks, it will have to reckon with the fact that the ruling National Conference, a partner in the ruling coalition at the Centre, is not on good terms with Hurriyat. Party chief Farooq Abdullah’s son Omar is a minister of state for commerce in the Vajpayee government.

Following the influx of foreign mercenaries, the Centre will also have to take into account whether these leaders have any influence over the Kashmiri youth. Mir Qasim is believed to be a “spent force” in Valley politics. Malik, however, is articulate and at one point had substantial influence on young Kashmiris.

The government will keep a watch on what steps the released Hurriyat leaders take in the Valley. There was little fuss in Kashmir when they were arrested last year, a sign of their increasing isolation. But the Hurriyat has more mass support than the ruling National Conference.

Officials said not too much should be read into the release of the leaders. Before any dialogue begins, the government will sound Abdullah, they said.

But the release is signal of the new approach adopted by the government. Along with the pro-active hot pursuit policy, a “peace’’ process will also be nurtured and allowed to be continued.    

Patna, May 4 
Tension gripped St Xavier’s School, one of Patna’s premier institutions, as students boycotted classes to protest against an alleged attempt by the principal to “sodomise” a 10-year-old student.

At 9.30 am, all students left their classrooms to demonstrate against the principal, Father Peter. The Rapid Action Force was called in. The principal was provided with security as there was fear of an attack on him.

A student of Class VIII had complained that the principal was trying to do “something funny” with him at a “counselling session”. He was examined by the police. Several other students also levelled similar allegations. They said the principal would invite them into closed rooms and “indulge in immoral activities”. When they protested, the students said, the principal threatened to “ruin their career”.

The chorus of allegations led to a furore which disrupted the school’s functioning throughout the day. Guardians thronging the campus demanded the principal’s removal. Some of them sought police intervention. The students, too, demanded stern action. Father Peter, however, said the uproar was the “handiwork of some who wanted to malign his image”.

District magistrate Amit Khare visited the school — it is one of the oldest in the city and has produced many luminaries — for a spot enquiry. “We have heard the complaints against the principal. But I have advised the complainants to raise the issue at the Parents-Teachers Association. If it is not sorted out there, we can intervene,” Khare said. The police are yet to register a case.

Informed on the matter, director-general of police K.A. Jacob said: “We tried to defuse the tension first. We haven’t gone into the merit of the allegations.”

The Class VIII student said the principal had called him into his room after the classes were over. “He closed the door of the room and shut the windows. Then he asked me to hold my breath and meditate. He first put his fingers into my nostrils. Then he came close to me and began to rub my neck. I felt some pain and told the principal that I was feeling uneasy. But he went on breathing heavily and rubbing my neck.” Later, when he began to cry, the principal let him go, the boy said.

Father Peter said the allegations were an outcome of the students’ fears. “I chose the students for counselling after the class through a process of spiritual exercise to attempt to cure their disorders,” he said. Expressing embarrassment over the charges, he said: “If the students have any allegations, let them come to me and prove them.”    

Patna, May 4 
The state vigilance department today asked the Special Vigilance Court to issue an arrest warrant against Jayprakash Yadav, Cabinet minister in the Rabri Devi government, for his alleged involvement in a fake degree scam, but the minister cannot be traced.

Jayprakash is reportedly involved in giving recognition to a fake B. Ed. college in Katihar. “Operating” since 1987, the college is said to have awarded fake degrees to 1,600 students.

The college, which drew students from across the country, was part of a huge money-spinning racket run by a nexus of politicians, musclemen and top educational administrators. The founder-secretary of the fake B.Ed. college was found murdered in 1998.

Vigilance officials are also investigating the operations of two dental colleges and a university.

The vigilance department in Bihar had begun a probe into the multi-crore degree scam last year and issued arrest warrants against the then Bihar minister of education for state Jiten Majhi and over 100 government officers. While the vice-chancellor of a north Bihar university was rounded up, Majhi went into hiding. He is still at large.

A vigilance department report said over 700 graduate teachers, who obtained MSc degrees from fake colleges, were from West Bengal. They now hold government school jobs, the report said.

Jayprakash had refused to comment. “It is not proper to comment on the FIR against me. I will react after knowing all the details.”

Jayprakash was minister in charge of higher education in the previous Rabri Devi Cabinet when the irregularities were allegedly committed. According to official sources, Jayprakash, now minister in charge of small irrigation, had sanctioned a private institute in Katihar, the Ahmedia Millatnagar Rampara, on the basis of a report based on false documents. The plot on which the college was shown to have been set up was awarded only after 1992. “Yet the minister had granted provisional recognition, allowing 1,600 students to take the B. Ed. Examinations between ’87 and ’91. The college was given permanent recognition after ’97, flouting all norms and legal provisions,” said Amit Kumar, special superintendent in the vigilance department who had conducted the investigation.

The special investigation for ascertaining the status of the college which required the minister’s approval was done by P.P. Sinha, deputy director of the secondary education department. The minister went blindly by the report, sources said.

In his reply to the vigilance department, Jayprakash had cited a court order in support of the provisional recognition. “But the court had no specific direction on recognition. It had just allowed the students to appear in the exam,” Kumar said.    

Siliguri, May 4 
Two suspected Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP) activists today shot dead a senior CPM leader from Jalpaiguri while he was taking class in the Ghoshkapara State Primary School, about 45 km from Alipurduar town. Pranesh Pal, the 52-year-old headmaster of the school, was a member of the CPM Jalpaiguri district committee.

As news of the murder spread, angry supporters of the CPM and other Left Front constituents went on protest rallies throughout the district. Activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India also put up road-blocks in some parts of Alipurduar. The Left Front will observe a 12-hour bandh in Jalpaiguri and neighbouring Siliguri tomorrow.

Police said the two scooter-borne assailants came to the school near the Bengal-Assam border, around 10.30 am and strode straight into the classroom where Pal was teaching. After shooting him, they burnt all documents in Pal’s room before heading off towards the Assam border.

Senior district officials, including the district magistrate and the superintendent of police, and CPM district secretary Manik Sanyal have rushed to Ghoshkapara. Security has been tightened along the Assam and Bhutan borders. CPM district committee member Nilu Dasgupta said Sanyal had also been attacked by Kamtapur activists near Dhupguri early this year. According to him, this was the third attack on an important party functionary — engaged in mobilising public opinion against the Kamtapur agitation — in the district since February. The other two, Dilip Roy and Sunil Dutta, were shot in February and April, he said.

“The Kamtapuris have prepared a hit-list to resist our campaign against secessionism. They targeted Pal because he was resisting their agitation,” Dasgupta said, claiming that the Kamtapuris had recently served a Rs 50,000 extortion note on Pal Sources said Dooars’ tea planters had also complained of extortion threats.

Although KPP chief Atul Roy could not be reached, his partymen slammed the CPM’s allegations as a ploy to vilify their movement.

Besides the KPP, the underground Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the All Kamtapur Students’ Union are also agitating for a separate Kamtapur state for Rajbanshis in north Bengal.

Deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya has also publicly alleged that the KLO has acquired arms-training abroad with the help of ULFA and Bodo militant groups.    

Rann of Kutch, May 4 
Harijan Paba wakes up as early as five in the morning to bring home the dead. Almost immediately after, a line of trucks and tractors loaded with stiff, bloated bodies of cows, buffaloes and sheep grind to a halt in front of the carcass-collector’s house.

The trucks are always full and Paba arranges to dump the carcasses in front of his open field. The bones of the cattle are placed on trees nearby, the skins go to his backyard. He and his ilk — the carcass-collectors of Luna, Bhitara, Gorewali and adjoining villages in the talukas north of the district headquarters of Bhuj and close to the Indo-Pak border near the Rann of Kutch — are the only ones smiling in this season of drought.

According to unofficial figures, the Maldharis — traditional cattle-breeders of Kutch — have lost more than 5,000 cattle heads in the past one month. With no grass or fodder to feed the starving animals, the region has suffered the largest cattle casualty in Gujarat.

The Maldhari’s loss is the bone-collector’s gain. Paba, who belongs to Luna, has already made Rs 25,000 from 1,000 carcasses he has collected over the last two months. “We are in demand. We have seen droughts in the past, but this is the first time where there is no fodder. Naturally, huge hordes of cattle are dying. We pay roughly Rs 200 for each cow or buffalo, depending on the condition. But we sell for as much as Rs 2,000,” he says.

After the carcasses are dumped, Paba pays the dealers in cash and immediately contacts farmers, fertiliser units and skin traders. “We have a well-established supply chain which is fully operational,” he says.

Till the buyers arrive, Paba keeps the dead with him. And with truckloads arriving everyday, the trees in front of his house have become handy storage dumps.

It’s a ghastly sight for unsuspecting visitors. The front yard is straight out of the sets of a Ramsay movie. Bones and animal skulls hang from trees, while the skins are laid out on the ground below. The stench is unbearable. “This is our job and our livelihood,” says Paba. “We are the only ones who are making money this season.”

Not far from Luna, Cher Ali, a cattle-breeder, also wakes up early — but to cart his dead away. Ali has lost more than 200 cows and 20 buffaloes in April alone. Among the biggest breeders in the Rann of Kutch, Ali now divides his time walking long stretches to fetch water and trudging to the bone collectors’ house to haggle for the best price.

“For sentimental reasons, we cannot talk money. Our cattle are a part of our family. We are simply grateful that we can dispose them of,” he says.

Animal deaths in this part of Rann of Kutch have been the highest because most breeders are settled here. Every season, the Maldharis take their livestock to cattle fairs all over the state. This year, however, even the traditional fairs held every two months, have been called off.

But more than the drought, most breeders blame the lack of fodder for so many deaths. “In the past, we have always received grass and fodder from other regions. This time because of the depletion of the ground-water level, fodder from other areas have not arrived. That has led to the crunch,” says Gora Jama, another breeder.

Cattle breeders of Bhuj have also suffered because of a costly miscalculation. The Maldharis from Kutch usually migrate to south Gujarat during drought years. This year, because of good rainfall in Abadasa in north Kutch and Lakhpat on the Indo-Pak border, the Maldharis moved to this belt only to realise that though last year’s cyclone and the good monsoon had filled up water bodies, they had destroyed the grass. Result: no fodder.

So, after walking for close to 200 km from their villages in central Kutch, the Maldharis began their long walk back. Many lost their cattle on the way.

Gora and his brother Haribhai have been camping near Dhuffi village on the Bhuj-Lakhpat road since late January. Gora has already lost 70 cattle on his walk back from Lakhpat, on the country’s western-most tip. “It’s painful to watch them die. We also do not have the strength to walk back to our village near Bhuj town. We need fodder supplies urgently,” he said.

But the state government refuses to acknowledge that the drought has taken its toll of the cattle. District collector Kamal Dayani told The Telegraph: “The mortality rate is normally two-to-four per cent every year. It’s the same this time. Moreover, we are supplying nine lakh kg of fodder every week to 130 government grass depots in the district. Cattle loss has not been significant.”    

Khariar, May 4 
No chapped earth, no dried-up ponds, no crop failure. Kalahandi is not showing any signs of drought.

Drought is in the headlines but Orissa is not. For a change, nature has been kind to Kalahandi, Bolangir and Nuapada, the infamous famine zone in western Orissa.

The districts have logged almost normal and timely rainfall in the past year, averting the calamity that has gripped Gujarat, Rajasthan and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

The Orissa government today confirmed that there was no drought in Kalahandi. Official sources said they were getting reports of a 50 to 75 per cent crop loss from some western districts, but nothing from undivided Kalahandi or Bolangir districts.

Sources said nearly 8,000 villages in the western and southern districts, including Sundergarh, Phulbani, Ganjam and Rayagada, might have lost more than 75 per cent of the crop. Another 4,000 villages were reporting a 50 per cent crop loss. But the figures were not yet finalised.

“We have had a good crop in the last one year and no drought seems imminent in the district,” Bolangir district collector C.S. Kumar said.

Farmers echoed him. “There is no marudi (drought) in the air. The wells in our farmland have enough water, though the water level has gone down a bit because of the heat,” said Parsuram Majhi of Andaipuri village in Bolangir. “We had a good rainfall last year and hope our luck will hold this year as well.”

But even at the best of the times, the poor in the region are starving. The collector said only three per cent land in Bolangir has irrigation facilities. “You never know what will happen if monsoon fails this year,” Kumar said.

A recent study conducted by Action Aid India, an aid agency, for United Kingdom’s Department for International Development found the land distribution extremely skewed in the backward region.

Ten per cent farmers from upper castes own 37 per cent of the productive land. The others, mainly tribals, are either landless or own unproductive land.

The study noted that peasants in many villages lost their land to money lenders after failing to pay the debt they incurred during droughts. For Rs 100 borrowed, a villager had to repay Rs 150 in three months.

The poor also do not have an access to irrigation water as only big farmers have the money to dig ground wells and install a diesel pump.

“There is nothing to be elated about even if you do not have a drought in Kalahandi,” said Santosh Kumar Patnaik of Vikalpa, a Bolangir-based NGO. “Drought or no drought, people here are as hard up as ever. There is plenty of food available on the market even during drought, but the poor have no money to buy it .”

In Andaipuri, for example, five of the 108 families own more than five acres each. The others have plots not even fit for kitchen gardens.

“The wealthy farmers are not bothered about droughts because all of them have wells in their land fitted with diesel pumps for irrigation,” Majhi said.

Majhi said he had a well in his farmland, but he did not have the money to buy a pump. “Where do I get Rs 12,000 to buy a pump? I also have no money to buy diesel to keep it running. So, my well is useless during a drought.”

Patnaik, a former teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, called the government’s drought management programme short-sighted. The government should not wait for a drought to hit the region before moving into action.

“It should try to provide the villagers with things like pumps through loans ahead of time so they can cope with drought when it comes. Drought cannot be prevented, but starvation can definitely be, if the government so wants,” Patnaik said.    


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