Rush to calm Lanka jitters
Sinha sulks after PM nod to Paswan freebie
CM aspirants swamp Raj Bhavan
Calcutta weather

 
 
RUSH TO CALM LANKA JITTERS 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, June 10 
Foreign minister Jaswant Singh leaves on a two-day visit to Colombo tomorrow to help the embattled nation thrash out a consensus on the “devolution package” and assure it that Delhi believes the ethnic strife must be ended without a “Czechoslovakia-type” carving up of the country.

Senior foreign ministry officials today stressed that the first step to resolving the Tamil problem within the framework of the Sinhalese Constitution was cessation of violence, particularly terrorism. This was a clear signal to the Tamil Tigers that, despite DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s remarks, Delhi did not encourage them in any way.

Jaswant, who will touch down in the Lankan capital in the afternoon, is slated to hold talks with President Chandrika Kumaratunga and his Colombo counterpart, Lakshman Khadirgamar. He will also meet with senior Opposition leaders, including Ranil Wickramasinghe, to discuss the devolution package proposed by the People’s Alliance government.

The foreign minister told reporters that he had been invited by the Lankan government and the peace package was topmost on the talks agenda. However, the DMK chief’s suggestion that the country must be partitioned to end the ethnic strife is also likely to crop up.

The remark, which left Delhi scurrying to save face, was strongly resented by Colombo. Media minister Mangala Samaraweera said such a move would lead to Balkanisation of the region.

There were reports of a fresh flare-up today, with agencies saying 25 Lankan soldiers and eight civilians had been killed in an army offensive in north Jaffna. The fighting resumed even as the Tamil Tigers appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help broker a ceasefire in Thenmarachchi division to evacuate civilians.

A Lankan government release said an officer and 24 soldiers had been killed and 49 wounded when troops mounted an operation near Sarasalai, southeast of Jaffna town, to bust a Tiger “strongpoint”.

Jaswant’s visit is significant as it is the first high-level one from Delhi since war erupted this time round for the control of Jaffna. His last visit to Sri Lanka was in March last year, when he went to the Nuwara Eliya hill resort for the Saarc foreign ministers’ meet.

The Lankan foreign minister, however, visited Delhi following the recent flare-up in Jaffna. There have other ministerial visits from Colombo also to discuss the situation in the island-nation.

Jaswant’s visit also comes in the wake of the assassination of a senior minister in Kumaratunga’s Cabinet, and after the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government was forced to clear the air on its Lanka policy.

However, foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal insisted that “the foreign minister’s visit to Colombo should not be seen as a damage-control exercise.” He said the Cabinet Committee on Security meet last week had already cleared the confusion created by the DMK chief’s statements.

Jassal said Lanka had been “always aware” of India’s stand on the ethnic problem. “You can only have a political solution to the Tamil question. But the first step towards it is the cessation of violence, particularly abjuring terrorism,” he said.

Jassal reiterated Delhi’s position when asked to comment on the Tigers’ offer for a ceasefire. “We want cessation of violence to create the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem.”

On Jaswant’s talks agenda, Jassal said: “It is an evolving situation in Sri Lanka. But the foreign minister’s visit is a political engagement at the highest level and all issues of importance will be discussed.”

Reuters quoted an LTTE statement issued from their London office requesting the Red Cross to arrange a truce to evacuate civilians. “Thousands are still caught up in the crossfire and unable to move to areas of safety,” it said.

A Red Cross spokesman confirmed the truce offer. “But we have been in touch with both warring sides for more than two weeks with regard to arranging to go into the Thenmarachchi division to assess and respond to the humanitarian need there.”    


 
 
SINHA SULKS AFTER PM NOD TO PASWAN FREEBIE 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, June 10 
Communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan today emerged triumphant in his battle with finance minister Yashwant Sinha over his decision to give away free telephones to over 3.2 lakh telecom department workers.

At a meeting called today to reconcile the differences between the two warring ministers, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee agreed with Paswan that the telephone freebie was just the right bait to get the telecom workers to endorse the government’s plan to corporatise the services arm of the telecom department, and accept a reduced bonus.

Under the deal, the telecom workers will get free telephone connections, 150 free bi-monthly calls, and will not have to pay rentals. The cost of the giveaway will be borne by the cash-rich department of telecom (DoT).

In return, the workers have agreed to scale down their bonus demand from 73 days’ pay to the last year’s level of 70 days. They have also endorsed the government’s plan to turn the department of telecom services (DTS) — the agency that will provide mobile phone services in several cities including Calcutta later this year — into Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd by October 1.

A red-faced Sinha refused to comment on the deliberations held today; a smiling Paswan also declined to talk.

“The rent-free telephone facility to employees is a negotiated package arrived at after careful deliberations,” a government spokesman said soon after the meeting held at the Prime Minister’s residence.

The finance minister had come out very strongly against Paswan’s plans even though the communications minister was not seeking any help from Sinha to meet the roughly Rs 120 crore tab that the telephone freebie would entail. Sinha’s opposition was on a point of principle: he said in a recent interview that all freebies should end and government servants and ministers ought to be asked to pay user charges for all the facilities that they enjoy.

This is the first defeat for Sinha since he announced the launch of the second generation of reforms in his last budget. Until now he has managed to stonewall the BJP’s allies who have been clamouring for a rollback of the hike in the prices of foodgrain sold through the public distribution system and subsidised fertilisers for farmers.

Sinha’s embarrassment today comes on top of recent media attacks on his handling of an income tax probe into the tax-free status of foreign institutional investors registered in Mauritius.

At today’s meeting Vajpayee was assisted by his two most politically-savvy aides Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the PM, and N.K. Singh, secretary in the PMO.

It is not yet clear whether the telecom employees will have to pay installation and registration charges for their phones. DoT officials said: “Normally, there is no registration charges levied on service phones. However, since this will be a free phone in addition to the existing service phone given to Class I and II officers and emergency services personnel in other grades, registration charges could be included in the bill. We will get a clear picture on Tuesday after the meeting of the Telecom Commission.”    


 
 
CM ASPIRANTS SWAMP RAJ BHAVAN 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Patna, June 10 
Fortyfive-year-old Ram Nishad has come to meet the Governor from distant Chhapra with only one demand: he should be made chief minister.

Nishad is not alone. Patna is swarming with people who have landed in the city from far-flung districts harbouring ambitions to feel the power that has been promised to them by their “messiah” Laloo Yadav.

A little after noon today, Nishad strode up to the Raj Bhavan gate, introduced himself and said he had to meet the Governor to stake claim to the chief minister’s post.

Thrown out by the security guards, Nishad, however, returned half-an-hour later with a marigold garland round his neck. He nonchalantly walked up to the statue of Rajendra Prasad overlooking Raj Bhavan, hopped onto the pedestal and burst into an impromptu speech.

“You stopped me from going anywhere near the Governor. But I have taken oath as chief minister with the President as witness,” Nishad told the securitymen.

The guards, however, are unruffled. “We have to deal with such aspirants to the throne of Bihar everyday. Over three companies of security forces camping in this prohibited area face them daily,” said Ershad Alam, an inspector at the security camp near Anne Marg.

Nishad wasn’t the only aspirant today. Shortly after he was bundled into a waiting black maria and whisked away, Ranjan Rai sneaked into the prohibited area and, taking advantage of the confusion, walked through the Raj Bhavan gates.

Challenged, Rai calmly replied that he had heard that the chief minister’s post could fall vacant and he would like to step in. He was summarily ejected.

The hapless guards said that a Dalit woman from Sitamarhi, Aarti Devi, was a regular visitor to Raj Bhavan. “She wanted to unseat Rabri Devi who, she was told, would be out soon. We have sent her to a home for mental treatment. She has not been coming here for about a month now,” said a security inspector.

Security around Anne Marg was tightened after a woman from Samastipur, angry at being denied entry to the chief minister’s residence, set herself on fire last November.

Though she survived, a handicapped teacher from Lohardaga was not so lucky. She died after setting herself ablaze to protest against the guards’ refusal to allow her to meet Rabri Devi.

Ranjana Trivedi, a social researcher at Patna University, blames Laloo’s lofty promises for the trend. “Ordinary backward caste men and women have become articulate and ambitious over the years due to the RJD president’s efforts to make them stand up and fight. This could be one reason for this sudden greed for political power,” Trivedi said.

“Some of the men and women who come here to meet the chief minister are really poor people who believe their problems would he solved once they meet the chief minister,” she added.

Psychiatrist Dr Purvesh Tiwari offers a different explanation. “The influx of cranky people from the districts may be due to a collapse of mental healthcare system in the state. There is no arrangement for psychiatric treatment in most hospitals in the districts. So what would these cranky men do other than fantasising to be chief ministers?” he asked.    


 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 
Temperature: Max: 34.5°C (+1), Min: 26.1°C (-1) Relative Humidity: Maximum: 95% Minimum: 67% Rainfall: 21.7 mm Today: One or two showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.17 pm, Sunrise: 4.54 am    
 

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