Six sick units sent to morgue
Atal SOS to Liberia on Sierra hostages
Spurred by elders, Azhar applies apology balm
Psst! Gujarat won’t mind a peg
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, June 20 
With Mamata Banerjee busy battling on the politically-charged streets of Bengal, the government today brushed aside the Trinamul Congress leader’s objections and pushed through the closure of six public sector units.

The units which face the axe are Mining and Allied Machinery Corporation, National Bicycle Corporation of India, Tannery and Footwear Corporation, Weighbird India, Bharat Process Mechanical Engineers and Rehabilitation Industries Corporation.

Four of these units are in West Bengal. The shutdown is expected to affect at least 2,500 workers.

“The Cabinet has decided to convey to the Board for Financial and Industrial Reconstruction (BIFR) and high courts that it concurs with the recommendations of the expert group that the six units are unviable and action needs to be taken to close down these units,” parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said.

The silver lining for Mamata is that the Cabinet has decided to revive two of the units facing closure — Bharat Ophthalmic Glass and National Instruments. Revival plans have been submitted for both.

National Instruments is close to Mamata’s heart as it falls within her South Calcutta constituency.

But sources close to the Trinamul leader said she is unlikely to be appeased by the survival package as she hates not being consulted.

Mamata’s aides raised cain when they learnt from newspaper reports that the government was planning to sneak onto the Cabinet agenda the closure of the six units. They immediately got in touch with the Cabinet secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office for confirmation of the news.

They found out later that the Cabinet papers which had reached the railway minister’s office late last night did not mention the closure agenda.

Mamata’s aides were unwilling to say whether the omission was deliberate or a clerical blunder, but they said that efforts had been made to bypass her.

Railway ministry sources said they tried to get in touch with Mamata who was busy with a street-march in Calcutta.

For Mamata, the Cabinet decision is a huge blow as she had taken up the fight on behalf of the hundreds of workers whose jobs are now threatened.

Trade unions have predictably lashed out at the decision. President of the Bengal unit of Citu, Niren Ghosh, said in Calcutta that Bengal alone would not be able to fight the BJP which is “determined to cripple the state”.

“We had organised strikes and bandhs in protest against this move by the Centre. But West Bengal alone will not be able to prevent this,” he said.

Ghosh took a swipe at the Trinamul leader, saying: “What is Mamata doing to prevent the BJP government from closing down these units?”

But observers said the government move to push through the agenda behind her back could be a blessing in disguise for the Trinamul leader. She can always raise her voice against the Vajpayee government and argue that she had been taken for a ride by the Centre which made good use of her absence and stabbed her in the back.

Along with the revival plans for the two units, the government has decided to re-open a voluntary separation scheme (VSS) for a period of two months for employees in the six PSUs. The Centre will have to fork out an additional Rs 200 crore for the purpose.

The government had earlier introduced VSS in 10 ailing units. Of these, nine were referred to the Expert Group, while the tenth — Cycle Corporation of India — was not referred and its revival was taken up separately.

More than 5,000 employees had opted for the VSS introduced earlier, helping the units to shed flab considerably.

Following the downsize, the industry ministry had planned to take a second look at the possibility of reviving these sick units.

But officials also felt that while trimming the workforce was an important component of any revival package, these units also needed additional capital infusion.

This, industry ministry mandarins felt, could be done by inducting a new joint venture partner.    

New Delhi, June 20 
Worried about the fallout at home of the dragging Sierra Leone hostage crisis, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has written to the Liberian President, urging him to use his influence over the Revolutionary United Front to free the 21 Indian peacekeepers.

The letter was handed over to Charles Taylor by India’s ambassador to Accra A.K. Banerjee, who also looks after Liberia.

This is the first time since the three-week crisis began that India has got in touch with Liberia. Vajpayee and other senior leaders had contacted heads of governments of other western and African nations earlier.

The 21 soldiers, one of whom is reported to have been freed after he fell sick, were taken hostage while on UN peacekeeping duty. The RUF then announced that the soldiers would be freed only in exchange of their captive leader, Fodey Sankoh. None of their demands have yet been met.

Vajpayee’s letter is indication that Delhi is desperate for an early end to the crisis. It is aware that the issue could offer a handle to opposition parties to embarrass the government when Parliament convenes for the monsoon session next month.

Before knocking on Taylor’s door for help, Vajpayee had spoken twice to Nigerian President Olusegun Obosanja. But realising that Taylor wielded greater influence with the RUF, Delhi changed tack. Taylor’s immediate reaction is not known, but there are indications that he is only too ready to pull off a rescue act.

India’s late reaction in getting its act together stems from its failure to gauge the gravity of the crisis. When the peacekeepers were first surrounded by the RUF in May, Delhi thought the crisis would soon blow over as the soldiers were not disarmed nor their rations and medicine cut off. It was taken aback when the crisis snowballed beyond control.

Delhi also approached western nations like the US and UK, and then Nigeria for help in the hostage crisis without realising that Liberia was better equipped to handle it.

Agency reports from Freetown quoted UN spokesman David Wimhurstas as saying that the peacekeeper, suffering from intestinal disorder, was brought to the Sierra Leone capital from diamond-rich Kailahun by road.

India is also worried about the proposed change in the mandate of the soldiers in Sierra Leone, from peacekeepers to peace enforcers. A western nation is likely to move a resolution in the Security Council.

Delhi is reluctant to have the mandate changed as it feels the strength of its peacekeeping force and the equipment they have are insufficient to take on added responsibility. It has warned that if the mandate is changed, it will be forced to re-deploy its soldiers.    

Hyderabad, June 20 
After being pilloried for playing with religious sentiments, Mohammed Azharuddin today tendered a qualified apology for his statement that he was “being victimised and targeted” because he belonged to the minority community.

In a statement issued here, the former India captain said: “From the media reports, I find that the sentiments of the people have been hurt for my uttering the minority community word. I have been quoted in the wrong context. This was never to defend myself from any inquiry or investigation. It was purely a reaction to the adverse remarks singled out against me for the past many months. I apologise if I have hurt anybody’s feelings.”

Azharuddin retracted his statement amid mounting pressure from religious leaders. A delegation of senior Muslim residents of Hyderabad met the cricketer this morning and requested him to issue an apology.

The residents felt that Azharuddin had wronged them by making extremely “disparaging remarks and bringing in religion where it was not necessary”.

“He had not thought of religion or its bindings when he divorced his wife of over seven years,” said a member of the delegation.

“We convinced him that he should issue an apology and keep cricket above communal considerations,” said another citizen, requesting anonymity.

Azharuddin told the leaders that he had been “quoted in the wrong context”. “This was never to defend myself from any inquiry or investigation,” he said.

Azharuddin, in an interview to a daily here, had alleged that “mainly because I belong to the minority community, I am being victimised and targeted, especially by some ex-cricketers who have a personal grudge against me”.

His outburst had coincided with sacked South African skipper Hansie Cronje’s testimony that he first accepted a bribe from an Indian bookmaker introduced to him by Azharuddin in 1996.

Cronje’s cross-examination, scheduled for today, was put off until tomorrow to allow the high court in Cape Town to decide whether the proceedings should be open to the electronic media.

The application, moved by national broadcaster SABC and a private tv station E-TV, argued that it was the constitutional right of South Africans to know the truth about cricket match-fixing.

In his cross-examination, Cronje is expected to be questioned about various aspects of his testimony, including his allegation about Azharuddin.

Wadekar questioned

The CBI today played the Prabhakar tapes before former cricket manager Ajit Wadekar, reports our special correspondent in Delhi.

This is the second time that Wadekar has been examined by the CBI. Today’s questioning comes in the wake of the submission of nine secretly filmed video tapes by Manoj Prabhakar.

Wadekar had admitted before the hidden camera that “he had given a written report to the BCCI on the fracas in the hotel” in Colombo where, according to Manoj, he was offered Rs 25 lakh by Kapil Dev in exchange for turning out a poor performance.

During his earlier examination last month, Wadekar had reportedly said he had no knowledge of Manoj’s allegation.

CBI sources today were reluctant to say what Wadekar had to say in his defence, but admitted he was “clearly uncomfortable”.    

Gandhinagar, June 20 
When the global meets the local, Gandhiji takes a backseat.

Teetotaller Gujarat is getting ready to ease its prohibition of five decades, peg by peg, to lure foreigners and NRIs with wine into the dry state.

The liquor ban seems to have left Gujarat high and dry. So the government of Keshubhai Patel, who nurtures dreams of building a “global Gujarat through information technology”, is thinking of giving liquor permits to hotels to bring hordes of tourists and heaps of foreign capital to the native state of Gandhi, who considered liquor a bad moral influence.

Hoteliers have been urging the state government for long to change its liquor policy as “it is adversely affecting their business”. The hoteliers’ lobby, in fact, had asked for full prohibition, but the government has ruled it out for the moment.

The men with the foreign capital are unhappy too. The state government’s ambitious Infocity project is getting delayed because of the liquor ban among other reasons. The US-based company which was to develop Infocity wanted pubs there where at least beer would be served.

IT minister Vimal Shah admits that the prohibition is a hindrance in attracting investors. Relaxation for NRIs and foreigners is proving to be too little, too late.

“That should not be a problem now as we are in the process of changing the policy so that NRIs, foreigners and permit holders do not face any problem,” says state tourism minister Khodabhai Patel.

He points out that the prohibition is already being lifted in phases. “We have already relaxed strict prohibition laws for foreign tourists and NRIs who will get liquor at airports and railway stations,” he says.

“The Gujarat hoteliers’ demand may be justified, but we cannot lift prohibition totally,” he hastens to add. He also says though the state is losing crores because of prohibition, it has some good side effects. “It is a small price the state is paying. The fact that a girl can walk alone on the street even at midnight makes the prohibition worthwhile,” the minister says.

The government is afraid of the backlash in case prohibition is lifted. A senior BJP leader said there would be a violent reaction if a government decides to end the liquor ban, a sensitive issue in the state.

When former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela had suggested lifting the ban to for the cause of industry, the state was up in arms. Vaghela had to retract his statement. But now the state is even ready to risk a reaction to make a concession to foreigners and NRIs and “boost tourism and industrial development”, so irresistible are the charms of globalisation.

The state government has also started feeling the pinch, though Gujarat is the only state to have made prohibition “successful”. Keshubhai Patel’s government now wants to be compensated by the Centre for the losses incurred due to the ban.

Gujarat finance minister Vajubhai Vala has told the chairman of the 11th Finance Commission A.M. Khurso that the state is losing Rs 2,000 crore every year due to prohibition.

Vala requested the commission to recommend the compensation to the Centre. “We want to be compensated and appreciated for what other states — Andhra Pradesh and Haryana — have failed to do,” the finance minister said.

This is not the first time that Gujarat has asked for compensation, though the Centre has never obliged. “Yet we never thought of reviewing our prohibition policy which is our moral commitment to Mahatma Gandhi. After all it is the land of Gandhi,” said a senior BJP leader.

But the spirit of Gandhi does not look strong enough to take on globalisation. For after all, it’s all about money, honey!    

Temperature: Maximum: 31.3°C (-3) Minimum: 26°C (-1) RAINFALL: 15.5 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 95%, Minimum: 85% Today: A few spells of rain, with one or two showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.22 pm Sunrise: 4.54 am    

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