Buy signal, eight years too late
Pressure to probe airport flaws
Bulldozer Jagmohan robbed of his cause
Autonomy flipside for Farooq
Atal sacrifices iodine to stop Dandi II
Calcutta weather

 
 
BUY SIGNAL, EIGHT YEARS TOO LATE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, July 18 
A day after 56 persons died in an Alliance Air Boeing 737 crash in Patna, the government promised to replace the “rickety old crates” with the state-owned airlines even as it scrambled to quell mounting criticism over the way it had been compromising passenger safety.

“We are considering buying new (replacement) aircraft,” civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav said here today.

The government has been quibbling for years over the type of planes required to replace the ageing fleet with Air India, Indian Airlines and its subsidiary Alliance Air. Even as he stoutly defended the use of two-decade-old planes, Yadav said he would be pulling out an eight-year-old file that has been gathering dust in the civil aviation ministry in order to find the replacements for over a dozen ageing Boeing 737-200s.

“I can’t tell you how many planes we will buy, but we will work out something within the next few days,” he said after emerging from a Cabinet meeting where he and his colleagues resolved to extend unstinted help to the victims of yesterday’s crash.

The plans to buy the replacement planes for a Boeing 737s date back to the Narasimha Rao government. The logjam in decision-making — resulting from the dilly-dallying by a disinterested bureaucracy and a string of political heads in the civil aviation ministry who were keener to buy commercially unviable 50-seater planes — put the plane purchase plans on hold.

Matters came to a head during the BJP government’s tenure when two successive Indian Airlines chairmen were sacked for their opposition to purchase of 50-seater French aircraft for IA’s subsidiary Alliance Air and instead demanded the purchase of replacement aircraft.

In an interview to The Telegraph, the then Indian Airlines managing director Anil Baijal had said “this (replacement) has to be top priority for us, otherwise we will be left with a fleet of just 30 flying planes and 20 junk”. But obviously those in power chose not to listen to him.

While Baijal was politely told his tenure as CEO could not be extended beyond May this year, the airline’s previous managing director P.C. Sen was sacked in a far more peremptory manner by former civil aviation minister Ananth Kumar through an order delivered late at night.

Sen and Baijal have been warning that the purchase of small aircraft would precipitate the financial ruin of the airline as revenue generated by these planes would be far less than the outgo because of interest and capital repayment. Instead both were pushing the airline to replace its ageing fleet of 11 Airbus 300s and 12 Boeing 737-200s, with more modern versions of Airbuses and Boeings.

The domestic airline had recommended Boeing 737-900s, Airbus 321s and Airbus 320s to replace the 11 250-seater Airbus 300 planes and Boeing 737-600s, Boeing 717s and Airbus 319s to replace 12 Boeing 737-200s and asked the government for help to choose the right plane.

In Calcutta, Mamata Banerjee said the state of aircraft used in the eastern region were rotten. “Old planes are used in this sector and government should seriously consider scrapping a plane once its lifespan is over,” she said.    


 
 
PRESSURE TO PROBE AIRPORT FLAWS 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Patna, July 18 
The toll in yesterday’s air crash went up to 56 as pressure mounted on the inquiry committee to look into the shortcomings at the airport here.

The airport is not equipped with a radar, and its fire safety unit needs an overhaul. Eyewitnesses said that the first fire-tenders that reached the crash site could not function as its foam-discharge system had jammed. It had to be sent back and another fire-engine had to be called.

Residents of the VIP area around the area today said there is an urgent need for coordination between the civil administration and aviation authorities. They felt that the airport was not equipped to handle a crisis of the kind faced yesterday.

Rescue workers continued to sift through the metal wreckage today. A 40-year-old man’s body was exhumed from the mounds of wreckage.

Two state government bulldozers dug through the rubble, mangle of wires, metal boxes and belongings of the victims, even as specialist engineers from the Air Safety Department began the examination of the aircraft splinters at the crash site. Unlike yesterday, the army and the police cordoned off the area to keep the onlookers at bay.

The rescue officers said the body dug up today could not be identified. While parts of the body were totally charred below the waist, the head had gaping injury wounds.

“He could be a local. He might have been hit on his head by the crashing aircraft and under its impact the victims head must have been crushed,” said Amit Khare, district magistrate, Patna. But local sources said the body could be that of a missing NTPC officer. A delegation of NTPC officers has approached the hospital authorities for identification of the body.

Chitkora colony in Gardanibag, site of the accident, wore a gloomy look this morning when the bodies of four colony residents were handed over to their relatives. The bodies, taken later in trucks decorated with flowers to the Bansghat burning ghat, were placed in a row on the pyres and cremated.

The residents returned to dark homes as the colony remained without electricity for the second day after the crash.

As the daylong ransacking of the wreckage came to an end, an eerie silence prevailed amid total darkness.

At the morgue of the Patna Medical College, the bodies of the passengers of the ill-fated flight, united in death, remained huddled together amid huge chunks of ice. Since late last night the authorities had started handing over the bodies to the families. Eight bodies had earlier been sent in a flight in which railway minister Mamata Banerjee was travelling.    


 
 
BULLDOZER JAGMOHAN ROBBED OF HIS CAUSE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, July 18 
Jagmohan, the young demolition man in his seventies, will finally have to quieten down. With the Cabinet today ordering regularisation of all unauthorised colonies that sprung up in Delhi between 1977 and 1993, the urban development minister’s demolition drive is bound to go slow.

It appears that the Centre, under considerable pressure for Jagmohan’s campaign, has been able to bring around the minister to a compromise. Led by the formidable M.L. Khurana, six BJP MPs lobbied before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and told him that the demolitions would erode the party’s electoral base here.

Jagmohan, however, was not discriminating between the rich and the poor as his bulldozers fanned out to different parts of the capital. Not just jhuggi-jhopri, he was even dismantling the homes of the rich and the famous.

The process of regularisation will not be entirely free of cost. In non-affluent areas, the government will notify land rates and allot the plot in the name of plot-holder. Ten per cent extra will be charged as penalty for encroachment, though the government hopes to keep down the land prices in the impoverished areas.

In the affluent areas, the charges will be in accordance with market rates which would be determined by the Central Board of Direct Taxes. The board will study the landprice pattern in affluent neighbourhoods and then announce the rates. The plot-holders in affluent illegal colonies would have to pay a heavy penalty of 50 per cent of the land price over and above the price decided by the board.

The move will reduce demolition to a large extent, urban development ministry sources said. The government argued that with the regularisation, municipal laws and by-laws would be applicable to the new colonies authorised. They will get all municipal amenities and in return would also have to fill the municipality’s coffers with the taxes levied. “We shall also have fresh funds for developments,” said the official.

The cut-off date is 1993, as suggested by the Delhi MPs other than Jagmohan. Illegal constructions carried out after March 31, 1993, would be demolished.

It means that Jagmohan’s plan to clean Delhi of encroachments will not really happen.

There are more than 1,000 such colonies which came up during Delhi’s population boom and arrival of migrant labour in the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties. Jagmohan was in favour of dismantling each and every one of them. But now, he has veered around to accept a majority decision.

A number of Bangladeshi colonies may be regularised in the process, sources said.    


 
 
AUTONOMY FLIPSIDE FOR FAROOQ 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, July 18 
Home minister L.K. Advani today told Farooq Abdullah that there would be greater devolution of financial and administrative powers for Jammu and Kashmir, not more autonomy.

The climbdown in Abdullah’s stand, evident during his talks with the Prime Minister last evening, appeared complete today after his breakfast meeting with Advani. Far from pushing his demand for a return to the pre-1953 status, Abdullah looked “more positive” and said “autonomy and devolution of powers were two sides of the same coin”.

Top government sources said the “apparent constitutional crisis, which some believed to have arisen after the Assembly passed the autonomy resolution and the Union Cabinet’s rejection of the proposal, was now over”.

A senior government official said anything other than greater autonomy was agreeable. “The government has indicated clearly that it is prepared to devolve more financial and administrative powers to the state. But the onus is now on Abdullah and his autonomy committee to come up with concrete proposals on what kind of authority in what sectors they are interested in.”

The official said the Centre would always welcome fresh proposals on areas where Jammu and Kashmir wanted greater say, but there was “no need” for a Group of Ministers to handle the issue. No time-frame had been set for either the state to furnish its demands or for the Centre to act on them, he added.

In another indication that the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister had softened his stand and agreed to go along with the Centre, Abdullah is understood to be keen to have a meeting with Planning Commission deputy chairman K.C.Pant to discuss the gamut of financial powers that can be transferred to the state.

Referring to a clause in the State Autonomy Report upheld by the National Conference-dominated Assembly in late June, sources said the residual powers in case of Jammu and Kashmir will remain with the state. In the case of all other states, the residual powers rests with the Centre. Apparently, the SAR had said that the Centre had taken over some of the residual powers in 1986. But an official explained that by that time militancy had just begun and the Union government’s intervention was necessary.

Abdullah on the other hand kept up with his public relations exercise. Apart from meeting the Prime Minister at his residence this morning, he also hopped over to I.K. Gujral’s residence to exchange notes on the autonomy issue and went to 10 Janpath for a tete-a-tete with Sonia Gandhi. Abdullah wants a group of ministers to go into the issue, a request which the government says it will take time to decide. First of all, Abdullah must first spell out what he really wants.

Abdullah, who was at Race Course Road for almost half-an-hour today, introduced his ministerial team dealing with the autonomy issue to Vajpayee. The team comprises urban development minister G.M. Shah, law and parliamentary affairs minister P.L. Handoo, finance minister Abdul Rahim Rather, education minister Mohammed Shafi and former industries minister Bodh Raj Bali.    


 
 
ATAL SACRIFICES IODINE TO STOP DANDI II 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, July 18 
The British used batons when they tried to thwart Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930. Atal Behari Vajpayee is using iodine diplomacy to prevent Dandi March II by a group of unlikely supporters of Gandhi.

The Centre, bowing to pressure from the RSS-Swadeshi Jagran Manch lobby, yesterday agreed to give people salt without iodine. The manch has been demanding withdrawal of the ban on sale of non-iodised salt.

The concession on the cheap commodity was the only price the Prime Minister paid through his emissaries yesterday to buy a breather from his critics in the Sangh parivar.

On other issues, the government stood its ground at the meeting between BJP leaders and senior Cabinet ministers on one side and the RSS-Manch grouping on the other. The government has not given any assurance on disinvestment, foreign direct investment and WTO-related decisions — pet hates of hawks in the parivar.

BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu, who was at the talks yesterday, said there was no hitch in lifting the ban on non-iodised salt. “All these years, we have been taking non-iodised salt and nothing happened,” he said. “Non-iodised salt can be sold with a statutory warning on the packets, like cigarettes.”

But doctors and public health researchers have warned that the lifting of the ban would have a adverse impact on iodine-deficient regions of the country.

The manch is scheduled to start a march from Dandi to Sabarmati from August 9 to break law symbolically by selling non-iodised salt. The march is now likely to be pre-empted by a government order lifting the ban.

But the Sangh is expected to go ahead with its agitation plans against the Centre’s economic policies. Sangh leaders have to take care of their constituencies despite the ego-massaging yesterday.

They are against foreign direct investment, especially in e-commerce, and reckless disinvestment. But the government gave no undertaking that it would toe the swadeshi line on these issues.

The meeting was attended by home minister L.K. Advani, finance minister Yaswant Sinha, disinvestment minister Arun Jaitley and administrative reforms minister Arun Shourie. Among BJP leaders, there was party chief Kushabhau Thakre, K.N. Govindacharya, Venkaiah Naidu and Narendra Modi.

The Sangh sent S. Gurumurthy, P. Muralidhar Rao, Ravindra Mahajan, Bhagawati Prasad Sharma (all from the manch) and RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi.

The talks were not smooth. It took over five hours to explain to the Sangh hardliners the compulsions behind certain decisions of the government.    


 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 
Temperature: Maximum: 27.1°C (-5) Minimum: 24.9°C (-1) RAINFALL: 34.6 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 74% Today: The met office predicts a few spells of light to moderate rain Sunset: 6.21 pm Sunrise: 5.05 am    
 

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