Paswan, Sinha spar over free phones
Defensive Atal plays down Kargil Day
London cool to Pak envoy sack
Naidu lines up for desi dose
Cong serves meet notice on Laloo
Naveen in dock over conversion
Mamata set to close Parliament free kitchen

New Delhi, June 7 
Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha and communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan seem to be on a collision course over free telephones for telecom employees.

Even as Paswan today labelled the media as anti-poor for criticising his move, Sinha said “proper user charges should be paid by everyone”.

Participating in an online chat show, Sinha said: “I entirely agree that proper user charges should be paid by everyone. Not only VIPs when not in office, but by everyone when in office, too. And it should apply not merely to telephones and bungalows, but also to other facilities, like water and electricity.”

In a bid to defend his scheme, Paswan blamed the media for being insensitive to “issues related to the poor and downtrodden”. Free telephone facility, already being availed by class I and II employees, was now being extended to class III and IV employees, said Paswan. He pointed out that all retired telecom employees were already availing of the free phone facility.

Paswan also said Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) had recently decided to grant service telephone facility to its employees and the proposed move would provide a parity between MTNL and telecom employees.

Interestingly, his announcement spurred Indian Oil employees today to demand free LPG gas connections and supply as a work incentive.

Addressing the first meeting of the National Telecom Advisory Committee and National Telephone Services Committee, Paswan said the issue was blown out of proportion. The move was designed to boost the morale of employees, especially when the Department of Telecom Services is expected to be corporatised in the next six months, he said.

Earlier this week, the telecom commission, including secretaries in the ministries of finance, industry and information technology, approved the controversial proposal to provide free phones to 3.2 lakh employees of the Department of Telecom and Telecom Services at an annual loss of up to Rs 100 crore.

Sources said the department has decided that these phones would be private and would not be provided with STD facility.

Sources in DoT said the department is set to lose Rs 101.9 crore by way of free installation and rentals and the waiver on interest on security deposit. Moreover, the waiver on rentals will be a recurring blow to the coffers.

But the joint meeting of the telecom advisory committee and the telephone services panel came out in support of Paswan’s move. The agenda papers said: “The issue had been discussed between the minister and various federations and if not implemented, these could have an affect on industrial peace.”

As per the scheme, the facility would be extended to all telecom employees going on deputation to other ministries and PSUs and those coming from outside to the telecom departments on deputation.



New Delhi, June 7 
The A.B. Vajpayee government does not want to celebrate last year’s Kargil victory with much hype.

A debate in the highest echelons of government on whether the victory should be observed with the purpose of scoring a few political points was inconclusive in early May.

Though no final decision has been made, the government, it seems, would prefer to leave it largely to the defence ministry to remember the sacrifice made by the many martyrs with a degree of austerity.

Last year, the government focused on the victory as a major political issue after coming out of a debilitating war. In fact, even the Opposition could not match the propaganda blitz launched by the BJP. The Congress and the Left failed to divert attention to what they believed was the core problem of intelligence failure.

But with the polls over and the BJP government back in the saddle with a more convincing majority, the ruling party has not been too strident in claiming the Kargil victory as its own. In fact, a combination of three factors forced the government to play down Kargil.

First, the Prime Minister did not want too much gaiety about victory in a war that brought back so many bodybags from the icy slopes of Batalik and Drass. Second, the Subrahmanyan report, which probed the events leading up to Kargil, did find instances of intelligence lapses. Third, the hijack episode last December proved that the government’s security apparatus is still far from foolproof.

As a result, May 26, the day on which the rather belated Operation Vijay was launched last year, came and went. Except for sections of the media, no one in the government, not even the defence ministry, chose to observe the day on which Indian airforce planes began strafing the enemy bunkers on different peaks of the Drass and Batalik heights.

The BJP has been careful about choosing political issues that need highlighting. It felt the 25th anniversary of the Emergency was a better bet any day than the controversial victory in Kargil. In fact, it has just constituted a very high-level Group of Ministers and separate task forces under them to look into the entire gamut of security-related problems. Remembering the Emergency would be a more certain way of embarrassing the beleaguered Congress.

There are some in the BJP who would say that another factor behind downplaying Kargil could be the gradual distancing of George Fernandes from the supreme decision-making infrastructure at South Block and 7, Race Course Road.

But the government brushes aside this insinuation, saying there is a lot of time left to decide on how it wants to commemorate the Kargil victory. After all, the withdrawal of Pakistani troops and mercenaries began only in the second week of July.    

London, June 7 
The British foreign office in London made it clear today that a change of Pakistani high commissioner in London would not reduce the United Kingdom’s refusal to accept the military regime of Pervez Musharraf as legitimate.

The British response came after it was confirmed that Professor Akbar Ahmed, 56, was abruptly sacked on Monday as Pakistani high commissioner in London after only seven months in the job.

No reason was given for the dismissal.

A spokesman for the British foreign office said: “Change of high commissioner is a matter for the Pakistani authorities. We have been informed.”

Prof. Ahmed’s dismissal was also confirmed by an official at the Pakistani high commission in London but he refused to give any other details. Javed Iqbal, a career diplomat who is due to go to Beirut as his country’s ambassador, has taken over as acting high commissioner in London, the official added.

After last October’s coup, Prof. Ahmed surprised his friends and acquaintances by leaving his comfortable job as an academic based in Cambridge by taking on a high-profile diplomatic assignment in London. He said he had been telephoned out of the blue by Musharraf, whom he had met only twice before.

Prof. Ahmed is best known in Britain as the man who conceived the idea of making a feature film on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. When Jeremy Irons, his first choice, turned down the lead role, he cast Christopher Lee, the actor famous for his role as Dracula in horror movies.

Jinnah, which Prof. Ahmed conceived as an answer to Attenborough’s Gandhi, opened in Pakistan last Saturday in Pakistan and has been well received.

Unfortunately for Prof. Ahmed, his accession to the high commissioner’s job coincided with the controversy over the financing of Jinnah, which was made with a budget of £ 3 million. He fell out with the film’s director, Jamil Dehlavi, who accused him of siphoning funds from the project into an off-shore account.

It was also an embarrassment when it was revealed that an Indian, Farrukh Dhondy, the former commissioning editor for multi-cultural programmes at Channel 4, had helped to write the screenplay for a fee of £ 12,000.

Prof Ahmed has strenuously denied misusing the funds. However, getting embroiled in a dispute with Dehlavi meant he had less time to devote to Musharraf’s mission. Although Musharraf had probably brought Prof. Ahmed in an effort to win greater acceptance for his military regime, the high commissioner was not able to make the British government view the coup leader in a more sympathetic light.

A dissatisfied Musharraf may have used the growing controversy over Prof. Ahmed’s financial handling of the film as a pretext to remove him.

Spelling out the British government’s position, the Foreign Office spokesman said: “There must be a clear and early return to democracy. We cannot agree with the Pakistani Supreme Court that the coup is legitimate. Pakistan remains suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth.”


Hyderabad, June 7 
Cyber-savvy Chandrababu Naidu is a believer in desi medicine, it seems. The CEO of Andhra was among the first to take a dose of medicated fish from Bathini Harinath Gowd today.

The medicine is distributed in the old city every year during monsoon. With the sighting of the Mrigashira Karthi star this morning at 5.30 am, the distribution of the desi medicine began at the ground where hordes of visitors had gathered. At least eight special trains had brought people from all over the country, including Calcutta, Patna, Rajasthan, Ahmedabad and Simla.

The magic medicine, which has gained popularity since the past one decade, is given free to the people. The medicine — a yellow paste — is stuffed into the mouth of a live fish of three inches, which is then thrust into the patient’s throat. The entire Gowd family and their friends serve the medicine for nearly 24 hours .

The medicine is a family secret handed down by word of mouth. “A sadhu from the Himalayas had taught the medicine formula for bronchitis to my father. The medicine will lose its potency if sold,” says Harinath Gowd. The family does not expect any remuneration from the patients but only donations from philanthropists to provide facilities to the people who throng the venue on the day.

Naidu announced a grant of five acres of land for the Gowd family to promote their activity.

In view of the communal tension in the city, the state government had compelled the Gowds to shift the venue at short notice to Nizam college grounds in 1999 which led to a chaotic situation. The Gowds announced the new venue in advance so that the police could organise facilities for the visitors. The government has also arranged for the sufficient supply of fish through the state fisheries department. “Almost 3.5 lakh people have come including five thousand from Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Japan” says Ramainga Gowd,.

Although some quacks are selling a paste of similar colour and scent in Hyderabad, Aurangabad and Nanded, many patients have fallen back to the medicine given by the Gowds. The Gowds prescribe a 40 day-diet after taking the medicine. They also prescribe that the patient take it diligently for three years for good results.

While there is no scientific basis for the medicine, the Gowds chapa mandu is very popular.    

Patna, June 7 
The discontented Congress ministers of the Rabri Devi government turned on the heat on Laloo Prasad Yadav today, demanding that he convene a meeting of the coordination committee and take the common minimum programme of the coalition seriously.

On the eve of joining the RJD-led government, the Congress had prepared a common minimum programme. RJD president Laloo Yadav was made chairman of the coordination committee, which was formed last month. But the committee has not met so far.

But the RJD president seems unfazed by the rumblings in the coalition and concentrated all his energy on renewing his tirade against Governor Vinod Pandey. He even said he was surprised at the Congress’ apathy towards issues bothering the secular camp in Bihar. “Had they been serious, they would have joined the movement against the Governor,” the RJD president is believed to have told party leaders.

Echoing party chief Sonia Gandhi’s concern over Bihar’s law and order, state party president Chandan Bagchi said Laloo Yadav should call an immediate meet of the coordination committee.

Bagchi, who attended the meeting of the Congress ministers yesterday, said the Nawada massacre was the result of a breakdown in government machinery. Not happy with the mass transfer of police officers, Bagchi said the policing system needs to be toned up fast.

After the secret parley, 19 of the 23 Congress ministers met again yesterday at Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park to review “our own performance as well as that of the entire government”. However, the ministers did not raise the embarrassing issue of Bagun Sumbrai attacking his party and ministerial colleague Manoj Yadav. Forest minister Theodore Kiro hosted the dinner.

The meeting emphasised the “Congress ministers’ sense of isolation” from the RJD ministers primarily due to lack of coordination. Some of the Cabinet ministers complained that they had very little to do.

Struggling under the crushing weight of the fodder cases against him, Laloo Yadav seems to have pushed the Congress unrest down his priority list. The concerted attack on the Governor seems to be a well thought out scheme to dub Pandey’s liberal sanction to cases against Laloo Yadav and Rabri Devi as vendetta.

Laloo Yadav’s blistering attack on the Governor even spilled on to the court, where his advocates were arguing against the framing of charges against Bihar’s first couple in the disproportionate assets case.

Yesterday, RJD spokesman Shivanand Tiwari called the Governor “a museum piece”. Other party leaders have dubbed Pandey as “an agent of the NDA”. Rabri Devi, in one of her public rallies, accused the Governor of indulging in “extra constitutional activities”.

The RJD has prepared a dossier on the Governor and a delegation of six RJD leaders will meet the President on June 8. The RJD president may even sit on a dharna in front of Parliament to intensify the anti-Governor stir.

But the Congress ministers are in no mood to take things lying down. Some of them might come out on the streets, embarrassing Laloo Yadav. “We are not in a mood to bring bad name for the ruling RJD but our tolerance has a limit,” said Bagun Sumbrai, tribal and backward caste welfare minister.    

Bhubaneswar, June 7 
A Christian forum today accused the state government of being a party to the recent reconversion drive in Manoharpur and said it would take the case to the National Human Rights Commission.

Sajan K. George, national convener of Bangalore-based Global Council of Indian Christians, said the BJP-Biju Janata Dal coalition provided “tacit” support for reconversion, performed by the Sankaracharya from Puri in the Keonjhar village on Friday.

George claimed that the senior government officials present at the reconversion were there to ensure that it took place without hindrance. He accused them of looking the other way as organisers made inflammatory and derogatory speeches against the minorities. The officials, however, said that they were there to maintain peace.

He called the reconversion part of a “secret plan hatched by the Sangh Parivar and the government to convert Christians into Hinduism”.

George said the forum would petition the National Human Rights Commission to step in and find out “the reality of the situation” in Manoharpur. He said the NHRC should probe the role of government agencies in what he called an act against basic tenet of any religion.

He said only three of some 70 people converted were Christians, but the others were all Santhalis. “The tribals were not Hindus, but animists. So, it was not a reconversion, but conversion.”

George identified the reconverted Christians as Manikya Gagarai of Dumburdia and Kishan Marandi and Karun Besra, both from Manoharpur.

He said the three converted themselves because of some land-related dispute, but did not give details.

The state government was “insensitive” to the plight of Christians, George said. He added that a forum delegation wanting to meet chief minister Naveen Patnaik failed to get an appointment. “We wanted an assurance from the chief minister that the attacks on us and our religion would stop, but he is refusing to meet us. We are planning to stage a sit in outside his residence to make ourselves heard,” he said.

The forum called for a “social audit” by heads of different religions and prominent citizens on the functioning of different organisations in the country. He said the outfits should maintain transparency about their work.

George accused the Minorities Commission of not working for the religious minorities. “It is now working more for the government than for us. This has to change.”

The forum leader said the parivar was trying to marginalise Christians through a hate campaign. “This country also belongs to us. We are as much Indian as anyone else.”    

New Delhi, June 7 
All good things come to an end. So, it seems, will the heavily subsidised food for MPs tossed up by Mamata Banerjee’s railway canteen in Parliament.

A joint parliamentary committee on catering has sought suggestions for revision of rates of food served inside Parliament, where a cup of piping hot tea comes for 50 paisa, a bowl of assorted dal is available for 60 paisa, a glass of lassi for Rs 3, roasted chicken with boiled vegetables for Rs 10 and a full tandoori chicken for Rs 40, thanks to a whopping Rs 2.55 crore subsidy from the finance ministry. By joint panel for catering chairman E. Ahmad’s own admission, the rates have not been revised since 1985.

Ahmad’s move to rationalise prices will definitely provoke the elected representatives. With a meagre salary of Rs 4,500 and a nominal allowance during the 100-odd days of Parliament session, they think they have a right to “minor concessions”, never mind palatial houses in Lutyen’s Delhi, 1,00,000 free telephone calls, unlimited first AC travel and air journeys.

Some MPs, declining to come on record on the subject, even suggested that the subsidy should continue on MPs, while others like journalists, visitors and officials working in Parliament can be charged according to market rates. “Äfter all we are serving the nation. It is a small gesture of goodwill. What about the big businessmen availing of government concessions without contributing or working for the poor? I think the subsidy on our food should continue,” a Samajwadi Party MP said.

Besides subsidised food, legislators are entitled to half-a-kg of tea leaf for Rs 64 and a kg of pure ghee for Rs 140, available at various counters inside Parliament.

The railways were given the charge of running the subsidised canteens in 1974 by the Salve committee on a “no profit, no loss” basis. Next year, the general purpose committee of Parliament decided that if catering units suffered any losses, it would be compensated by the two Parliament secretariats through a grant of subsidy.

Price revision was supposed to be an annual exercise, but since 1985, prices have not been revised. With a huge library ready, there will be additional canteens and the subsidy of Rs 2.55 crore is set to shoot up.

In the past, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to bar non-MPs from subsided canteens. For many, a visit to Parliament is not complete unless it is rounded up with chicken, tomato or vegetable soup with bread and butter (Rs 2.10), vegetable thali (Rs 5) or chicken/mutton curry (Rs 5-7) along with free unlimited rotis and salad and kheer/fruit cream (Rs 2 ), all coming for less than Rs 15.    


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