33 on the block in selloff flurry
PM puts reforms ahead of Mamata
Azhar struck in Cronje reverse sweep
US envoy sees slur on secular India
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, June 23 
Unveiling its most ambitious divestment programme, the government has announced it would sell its holdings in 33 companies this year. 

The Cabinet committee on divestment today cleared for selloff 14 PSUs, including IBP, Container Corporation and State Trading Corporation. The decision on the 19 others had been taken earlier. 

Serious differences in the Cabinet, however, stalled big-ticket divestments in Maruti Udyog and telecom twins Videsh Sanchar Nigam and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam.

The committee also sought early completion of disinvestment in Indian Airlines, Air-India, Balco and IPCL. 

“The government had set a target of Rs 10,000 crore, this has not been changed,” minister for disinvestment Arun Jaitley said.

The decision to divest 10 per cent in Indian Oil and 2 per cent in Container Corporation of India Ltd through public offerings was taken a long time ago but never implemented. Today’s meeting merely revived the sale. IOC’s shares will be put on the market after about a month, when a restructuring exercise is completed.

Apex chambers of commerce like Ficci and CII were pleased that the government was now more serious about full-scale privatisation and had jettisoned its earlier plan to sell small stakes to raise revenue.

The talking point after the much-hyped meeting was the back-room politics that stalled the selloff of national icons like Maruti and VSNL.

Jaitley wanted to sell the government’s 50 per cent stake in Maruti for an estimated Rs 3,000 crore, 27 per cent in VSNL for about Rs 1,500-3,500 crore, and approximately 30 per cent in MTNL. But, unfortunately for the disinvestment minister, the heavy industry ministry has been objecting to the Maruti sell-off arguing that it should not be rushed through till the automobile policy is finalised. Maruti workers today threatened strike over any selloff.

Similarly, the communications ministry wanted more time before the stake sale in MTNL and VSNL was taken up. 

The ministers representing these two departments — Manohar Joshi and Ram Vilas Paswan — were present at today’s meet. Petroleum minister Ram Naik was successful in delaying a selloff decision in any oil PSU other than IBP. 

Disinvestment secretary Pradip Baijal, however, claimed MTNL, VSNL and Maruti did not come up for discussion at all. He added that a three-year disinvestment plan would be taken up at the next Cabinet committee meeting, likely in mid-July.

The 19 companies earlier cleared for divestment include IPCL, Indian Airlines, Air-India, Hindustan Copper, ITDC, Madras Fertilisers, National Fertilisers, Engineers (Project) India, Hindustan Cable and Jessop and Co.

Company        % Selloff

Hind Zinc         26
Shipping Corp     40
Hind Organic      33
Hind Insect       51
Indian Oil        10
Concor             2
MMTC              Full
STC               Full
MSTC              Full
Sponge Iron       Full
Ranchi Ashok      Full
Utkal Ashok       Full
IBP               Undecided 
MECL-I            Undecided

New Delhi, Calcutta, June 23 
By pushing ahead with plans to divest government holdings in two more companies with a presence in Bengal, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has sent a signal to Mamata Banerjee that, despite her obvious discomfort, he is determined to privatise and close down public sector units, where necessary.

Although Trinamul spokesman Pankaj Banerjee claimed that the government would make a public announcement deferring the decision to close four units after the civic polls in Calcutta, indications from the Prime Minister’s office suggest otherwise.

Embarrassingly for Mamata, the shutdown decision came in the week leading up to the polls and she did register her protest, but did not go public.

Mamata was told at the last Cabinet meeting that she would have to stop suspecting foul play in every major reformist decision taken. Indications that the Trinamul leader might be following that advice was available when Pankaj Banerjee welcomed the jumbo divestment list unveiled today. “Disinvestment is warranted to save the sick, fund-starved PSUs,” he said.

Sudheendra Kulkarni, a director in the PMO, has been assigned to keep in touch with Mamata and ensure she does not lose her cool. He spoke with the railway minister campaigning in Calcutta soon after the closure decision relating to four Bengal units.

Delhi has advised Mamata to behave responsibly till the civic poll results are declared. The Vajpayee administration believes she would win, not because of her own popularity alone, but also because of the Prime Minister’s. 

Kulkarni had assuaged her when she felt hurt at being overlooked while economic decisions concerning Bengal were taken. Mamata has told Vajpayee that she is facing Assembly polls next year and, if there is a debacle, the government’s “disastrous economic policies” would be held responsible.

After today’s divestment list was announced, with Balco and Jessop being put up for large-scale selloff, the CPM was quick to take a swipe at Mamata. “I don’t know what Mamata is doing to prevent this,” state secretary Anil Biswas said.

“She is displaying a letter reportedly written to her by the Prime Minister. But the people of Bengal only want to know whether these PSUs will be closed down or not,” Biswas added, referring to the units placed on the chopping block last Tuesday.

Government sources said they had little choice in deciding the future of companies that were beyond redemption. At the same time, they preferred to hold their silence till the poll results are out. 

Cape Town, June 23 
A day after giving a clean chit to Mohammed Azharuddin, Hansie Cronje ended his deposition by suggesting that the former India captain may have been “involved” with bookie Mukesh Gupta. 

The lawyer for United Cricket Board of South Africa Brendon Manca asked Cronje whether he did not think it was strange that the person Azharuddin had introduced him to had handed him $30,000 to fix a match.

Cronje replied “he (Azharuddin) could have been involved with Mr Gupta but I didn’t for any reason think he was doing business with Mr Gupta at all”.

The sacked captain later went on to say: “If he is the one who has introduced me, then he can also do business with Mr Gupta.”

During his deposition yesterday, Cronje had said he did not believe Azharuddin was involved in match-fixing. The fallen hero told Judge Edwin King that other players could be involved in match-fixing, but he did not know who they were. 

“If they could get to me, they could get to anyone,” he said, referring to bookmakers and match-fixers.

Cronje, who had retained his composure throughout the 11 hours of questioning this week, broke down as he was led out of the witness box by his brother Frans.

The former captain ended his evidence to the commission with a promise to use his illicit gains to mend the harm he had done to the sport and the country.

“I hope I can put the money to good use to try to redress the wrongs I have done to my game and my country,” he said.

In today’s testimony, Cronje denied that a payment from a gambler Marlon Aronstam motivated him to make an early declaration in a Test against England in January. Had he not made the declaration, it appeared the match was likely to be a draw.

But during the rain-interrupted match, Cronje suggested to England that each side forfeit an inning, and South Africa would make an early declaration, giving the English team a target to chase. England accepted and narrowly won the match.

“I think I was trying to make a match of it and I wanted to win it,” Cronje testified. Aronstam made three payments to Cronje totaling 53,000 rand ($7,500) and gave him a leather jacket.

Aronstam, who took the stand after Cronje, also broke down in tears, leading to a short adjournment. He later testified that within an hour of meeting Cronje, the captain had effectively “suggested he throw a game of cricket. You can believe it or not. I was shocked”.

Aronstam said Cronje had asked him how he could make money from cricket. “I said you could make money by supplying me with match reports. The ball is in your court,” Aronstam said of his conversation with Cronje. “I paid Hansie the 50,000 rand for pitch reports... and other information he could supply such as the weather.”

Cronje admitted he tried to cheat his own teammates when he enticed them into agreeing to accept money for a substandard performance.

Cronje said he told the bookie Sanjay that his teammates Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Williams wanted $25,000 each to perform poorly in a one-day international against India on March 19. Cronje had offered them $15,000 each to play badly.

A commission official then asked Cronje about the discrepancy between the amounts. “Maybe I was trying to cut something for myself,” he said. 

New Delhi, June 23 
The US today voiced concern over the spurt in attacks on Christians in the country, saying that they ran contrary to India’s secular image.

Speaking in context of the killing of Brother Kunjikondam in Mathura and the serial blasts in churches in three southern states, US ambassador in Delhi Richard Celeste told foreign ministry officials: “These attacks run contrary to India’s secular image in the outside world. They strike a very discordant note and have raised the concerns of the international community.”

Celeste, however, took care to dissociate the Vajpayee government from the attacks, pointing out that both the President and the Prime Minister had expressed concern over them.

The ambassador’s remarks indicate that the global community is aware of the government’s seriousness about tackling the situation with a firm hand. India’s case is also buttressed by the fact that the Prime Minister has held discussions with leaders of minority groups.

However, by going public with its concern, the US has signalled that if nothing is done soon, Delhi might itself in the middle of a needless controversy.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh is scheduled to meet US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in Warsaw later this month for the first-ever conference on “Community of Democracies”. Over 100 countries are expected to participate. India is one of the conveners.

The leaders are slated to meet on June 26, a day before the conference begins. The attacks on Christians are likely to come up during the talks, and India might be hard put to defend itself as a country that does not encourage religious intolerance.

A.B. Vajpayee, who is leaving for a five-day visit to Italy and Portugal on Sunday, is also likely to face embarrassing queries on the issue. The Prime Minister’s managers are trying to set up a meeting with Pope John Paul II to send a signal that India should not be bracketed with Pakistan for religious intolerance.

Ambassadors of the European Union in Delhi discussed the attacks in a meeting earlier this month. Though they did not issue a statement —- like they did after the killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines —- many members, including Italy, voiced concern. If the attacks continue, the issue is likely to figure in a big way at the meeting of European diplomats early next month.

After Staines’ murder in Manoharpur last year, India had faced much flak from the West for failing to prevent attacks on minorities. With the US not mincing words any longer, pressure could very well mount on Delhi if the trend is not reversed. 

Temperature: Max: 31°C (-3), Min: 25.5°C (-2) Relative Humidity: Maximum: 98% Minimum: 83% Rainfall: 23.2 mm Today: One or two showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.23 pm, Sunrise: 4.55 am 

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