Hot and cold on rallies
‘Plastic’ pickers plague police
Drug ’n thug gangs put Howrah on high alert
Teachers being taught to teach English
Hawker return plan drives deep wedge in civic body
Data dearth hits anti-AIDS drive
Hrithik says yes
Sparks fly over city hub towaways
Ladybird lines up jubilee treat for kids

Calcutta, August 2: 
The city police clearly have one set of rally rules for some and another for others.

A day after acting tough with the Trinamul Congress for trying to hold an anti-CPM rally on Rani Rashmoni Road, the police, in an astounding volte-face, allowed the Congress to organise a protest meet on the same venue on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, senior police officers had proclaimed that “no political party would be allowed to stage demonstrations in the city centre and disrupt flow of traffic”.

Nearly a thousand Congress supporters, mostly women, holding aloft placards and chanting slogans against the Jyoti Basu government, converged on Rani Rashmoni Road, in central Calcutta, on Wednesday afternoon. The police, who had chased away Trinamul supporters just 24 hours ago, chose to remain mute spectators. A handful of state Samajwadi Party members joined in the party at the city centre. Their request for police permission to stage a rally at the site had been rejected. But seeing that the police were taking no action against the Congress activists, the Samajwadi demonstrators happily overran Rani Rashmoni Road.

On Tuesday, the Congress women’s wing had been denied permission to hold the rally on Rani Rashmoni Road. On Wednesday, Krishna Debnath, president of the Congress’ women’s wing, claimed that the police had relented after she and her comrades had threatened to launch an agitation if they were not allowed to stage the rally on Rani Rashmoni Road, instead of the Shahid Minar grounds.

But, actually, it was Congress MLA Saugata Roy’s intervention that did the trick. Roy lobbied successfully with deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and got the “new rally rule” changed for the day.

“Yes, I spoke to him (Bhattacharya) this morning and asked him why our members were not being allowed to hold the meeting at Rani Rashmoni Road. I wanted to know whether the state government had taken any decision with regard to rally rules... It was nice of (police chief) Vajpai to appreciate our position and grant us the permission,” Roy said.

Unfazed by charges of “dual standards” fired at his force, city police chief D.C.Vajpai said: “ Our permission to the Congress to hold the meeting on Rani Rashmoni Road should not be viewed as anything more than a stop-gap arrangement caused by the muddy ground conditions at Shahid Minar, the venue originally chosen by them for the event.”

Vajpai reaffirmed that the police would continue to push political rallies to either the Brigade Parade or Shahid Minar grounds “to minimise the inconvenience to the public”.

“But the new venues will be introduced into the system gradually,” said the police chief.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, however, refused to buy the police chief’s argument.

“The police are acting in a vindictive manner at the instance of the ruling Leftists, who are worried over the rise of the Trinamul,” alleged Mukherjee.

“We too wanted to hold our rally on Tuesday on Rani Rashmoni Road, as the Shahid Minar grounds were slushy, but our appeal fell on deaf ears. The government and the police have made it a point to be unfair to us because of political differences,” claimed the mayor.

The mayor is now threatening to go on the warpath against the city police establishment. “We will get even at the right moment if they do not stop these gratuitous acts of injustice,” he warned on Wednesday.

Mukherjee went on to allege that the rally snub was just another instance of the ruling Left Front trying to clip his wings.

“They cannot tolerate the fact that they have lost the civic body to us. Ever since I assumed office, they have been trying to make things tough for me. I will raise all this in the course of my meeting with the government over the weekend,” he threatened.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
They are called the “plastic pickers”. A new breed of pickpockets and thieves have emerged on the city’s crime horizon, whose sole aim is to steal credit cards and then use them to their fullest, even before the thefts are reported.

As this new breed of criminals flourishes, the police have been left groping as they are unable to keep pace with them. Take the following instances which took place in July:

Case I: K.K. Dasgupta, a city businessman, had parked his car in Corporation Place but made the mistake of leaving his wallet behind in his locked car.

A group of “plastic pickers” noticed it and, within minutes, had retrieved it from the car. Though there was not much money in it, it contained Dasgupta’s five credit cards. For the thieves, this was manna from heaven.

They fanned out it different directions and, in less than an hour, had made purchases worth more than a lakh of rupees by forging Dasgupta’s signature.

By the time Dasgupta returned to his car, found the wallet missing and reported the matter to the credit card companies, the cards had already been used. The case was recorded by the Taltala police.

Case II: Tina Mitra’s purse was picked while shopping in New Market. She noticed the theft later in the day, when she was clearing her bag at home. She reported the matter to the credit card company, as well as to the Lake police station.

But, by then, it was too late. She was down Rs 15,000, thanks to the ‘efforts’ of the plastic pickers. She filed a case with Taltala police.

Case III: Satish Kumar, a company executive, was walking in front of Trader’s Assembly in Gariahat when he was ‘relieved’ of his purse by a group of plastic pickers. It contained hardly any money but two credit cards. Like Dasgupta, Kumar noticed the theft after about an hour. It left him Rs 40,000 poorer. The incident was reported at Gariahat police station.

“We have made some arrests, but these plastic pickers are growing in number,” said deputy commissioner of the detective department, Narayan Ghosh. Unlike the humble pickpocket, plastic pickers are literate and “quite adept at forging signatures,” Ghosh added.

Also, the amounts involved in plastic picking cases are massive. “Obviously, no one carries thousands of rupees in wallets,” Ghosh said. “Here, you are dealing with large amounts, especially if you are carrying more than one card.”

Police said “plastic pickers” usually operate near markets as they are always in a hurry to “encash” the cards as fast as possible.

“Time is of essence,” an official said. “The faster you use the cards, the more chances you have of getting away with it before the crime is reported.” Taltala police station, under whose purview falls New Market, the shops on Lindsay Street and portions of Chowringhee, recorded 14 cases of “plastic picking” in July alone. According to Vinod, a “plastic picker” recently arrested and from whose house in Metiabruz the police recovered 52 cards, they usually bought fewer but more expensive goods with the stolen credit cards.

“This makes shopping easier and faster,” said Vinod. “We try and buy cameras and watches which are simpler to carry and get away quickly with.”

However, there have also been cases of television sets and VCRs being picked up with stolen cards.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
Police declared Howrah station a “high-risk zone’’ and announced a series of preventive measures after 120 passengers of both long-distance and suburban trains were drugged and robbed of their belongings in the past two months.

According to superintendent of railway police, D.P. Tarenia, passengers passed out after consuming tea, foodstuff and smoking cigarettes bought from vendors operating in trains.

Some of the victims were drugged by people pretending to be co-passengers. They would strike up a conversation with bona fide passengers and offer them food laced with drugs, which could put them to sleep for over 24 hours.

“The situation is alarming. We will go on a security overdrive from Thursday,’’ Tarenia said.

Sources said policemen would frisk passengers and even check the food and cigarettes they are carrying. On Wednesday, a special task force of trained policemen was formed to check the menace. Plainclothesmen will travel on suburban and long-distance trains to keep a watch on passengers.

Police will carry out drives against unlicensed food vendors. Eastern Railway will appeal to passengers over the public address system on platforms not to consume food offered by strangers and unauthorised vendors.

A middle-aged passenger, Gautam Dutta, was drugged on Kamrup Express and robbed of his belongings on Tuesday.

“He was travelling in the second-class compartment on way to the city. A co-passenger offered him a cigarette after striking up a conversation near Cooch Behar. After taking couple of puffs, he felt dizzy and went into a deep slumber,’’ Tarenia said.

Railwaymen found the unconscious man in the compartment after the train pulled into Howrah station on Tuesday evening. He was taken to Howrah General Hospital, from where he was discharged on Wednesday afternoon. His luggage, which contained valuables and cash, was missing.

Dutta registered a complaint with the Howrah railway police. “I took the cigarette in good faith. He was a very friendly person. The whole world was spinning after a couple of puffs. I dozed off and found myself in hospital,’’ Dutta said, before leaving for his Jadavpur home.

Police said over a million passengers travel through Howrah station every day. More than 500 trains run from the station and 200 policemen oversee security arrangements on the platforms.

Tarenia said the Coromandel, Kamrup, Shipra, Rupasi Bangla, Chennai Mail, Purulia, Jagannath, Puri and the Poorva Expresses are the vulnerable trains. Such incidents occur frequently on these trains.

Medical officers at Howrah General Hospital confirmed that a large number of people, drugged with an overdose of sleeping pills, were admitted there in the past two months.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
It’s time for teachers to go back to school to be taught how to teach English.

In a dramatic reversal of roles, about 1,500 primary school teachers in Calcutta will troop into classrooms at five city centres from Thursday.

And they are not the only ones.

Across Bengal, about 55,000 teachers will learn how to teach English under a programme that will cost the government at least Rs 1 crore.

The reason is not hard to find. The authorities have woken up to the fact that the ban on English at the primary level — lifted after nearly two decades last year — has created an alarming shortage of good teachers at the primary level.

“Never before in the country has any educational board conducted such a massive and expensive programme to train teachers to teach English,” said Jyoti Prakash Chatterjee, president of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education.

“We are not surprised that teachers are facing problems, as they have not taught the subject for a long time now,” he added.

Ever since English was reintroduced at from Class II to Class V in government schools, teachers have been struggling to cope with the subject.

“They (the government) have launched the programme with an eye on the forthcoming Assembly elections,” claimed Prithwis Basu, general secretary of the anti-left Head Masters’ Association. “All they want to do is generate some publicity, after being responsible for creating this situation in the first place.”

In 1998, chief minister Jyoti Basu had initiated the move for the re-introduction of teaching English from Class II, forcing the government as well as the CPM to shift stance on the issue.

According to Jyoti Prakash Chatterjee, it is not just the teachers’ complaints which prompted the training programme. “Another objective is to make the English language fun for students,” he said.

A recent government review has revealed that students attending state-aided schools mostly come from middle-class or lower-middle class backgrounds, who do not get a chance to speak the language at home.

The primary board president said that it is tough teaching English as a second language to children from such family backgrounds.

“This is why we thought it absolutely essential to make the English enjoyable and easy for students,” he added.

The training of primary English teachers will be conducted by a team of 35 senior teachers teaching the language in reputed colleges and universities.

Veteran teachers teaching English at the primary level have also been included in the team. A syllabus — geared to making English easy and enjoyable — has been drawn up.

Teachers who will be trained in the first phase of the programme will then be appointed to train their counterparts in the districts in the next phases.

The total training programme will held be in four phases and is expected to be completed by December this year.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
The hawker issue has split the Trinamul-run Calcutta civic board, with many key departments like roads, slum development, drainage and sewerage rubbishing conservancy chief Mala Roy’s claim that she alone can handle it.

These departments claim the hawker issue cannot be Roy’s baby alone. Mayor Subrata Mukherjee himself is in a fix over Roy’s unilateral announcement that hawkers will be allowed to take up one-third of the pavement space and that they will not be evicted till the Pujas. Some members of the mayor’s council approached him and voiced their displeasure over Roy’s statements, which she made without consulting them.

“There is no question of allowing the evicted hawkers to set up shop on the pavements or give them one-third of footpath space,” said an embarrassed Mukherjee.

A number of council members also alleged that Roy’s move had never figured in the Trinamul’s policy on city hawkers, formulated by Mamata Banerjee. “During Operation Sunshine, Didi (Mamata) was against the eviction only because there was no immediate rehabilitation programme for the hawkers,” said Anup Chatterjee, member of the mayor’s council in charge of roads.

Questions have also been raised on the conservancy department’s authority over city hawkers. Roy herself was unfazed, saying: “I know what I have said. I have discussed the matter with the mayor and also brought it to Mamatadi’s notice.”

She has made herself unpopular with the hawkers by refusing to meet leaders of their unions. She maintains it is the leaders who create confusion and misunderstanding among the hawkers. The Hawker Sangram Committee had called for a boycott against her.

In the earlier Left Front board, Kanti Ganguly, then conservancy chief, was one of the architects of Operation Sunshine. “It was only incidental that he was at that time member, mayor-in-council in charge of conservancy,” said former chief of roads and chief whip in the new board, Sudhanshu Sil.

Ganguly said he never took any decision on Sunshine without consulting Sil. “I used to oversee the hawker issue in central and south Calcutta and Sudhanshu would look after north Calcutta. There was never any difference of opinion,” said Ganguly.

About 200 families living on the streets of north Calcutta have been displaced by the recent CMC drive to clear footpaths of hawkers and other obstructions. They stayed on the wide footpaths near the Sovabazar Metro station and on other pavements in the Jorabagan and Shyampukur police station areas for the past three years.

Guided by Medical Bank, a voluntary organisation, about 800 men, women and children met the mayor last week, requesting him to provide them with some shelter at night.

Gillander House blaze: A fire broke out in a transformer at Gillander House, on Clive Row, on Wednesday night . Twelve fire tenders rushed to the spot and doused the flames in an hour. There was no report of injury, police sources said.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
Battling the lack of statistics, infrastructure and education, 15 city-based organisations and government representatives met on Wednesday at a consultative meet organised by Unicef to formulate a plan on how to deal with children affected by AIDS in the city.

Immediate introduction of sex education in schools, strengthening health services, new facilities for AIDS orphans, sensitisation of doctors and nurses and general public awareness programmes were among the recommendations put forward by non-governmental organisations like including CINI-Asha, IPER, Department for International Development (DIFD) and Vivekananda International Health Institute.

Worldwide, 1,800 children are born with AIDS every day. The main hurdle to a situational assessment in West Bengal is the dearth of data on HIV/AIDS infection. There were 1,939 documented cases of HIV/AIDS in West Bengal until March 2000. “These are only five per cent of the actual infections,” said Trilochan Singh, director of the West Bengal AIDS Prevention and Control Society.

Those present at the workshop expressed fear over the city’s “growing problem with AIDS orphans”, with more and more parents succumbing to the disease. “We need not know how many people are infected to start work. The rate of infection must be checked, and the only way to do so is by raising the levels of awareness,” said Sulagna Roy of Unicef.

“With the cost of only slowing down the disease over Rs 30,000 per month, prevention is still our best bet,” observed Sutopa Bhattacharya of the DFID.

The difficulties of testing for the disease were discussed, with funding, infrastructure, and the legal aspect — all issues of concern. Justice M.G. Mukherjee, chairperson, West Bengal Human Rights Commission, discussed the legal constraints, saying that “HIV/AIDS testing without sanction is illegal. The human right to choose must be protected.”

The output of the workshop will be sent to a Unicef task force in Delhi. Reports from Chennai and Mumbai will also be sent for compilation into regional directives, which will be incorporated into Unicef’s global initiatives. “The final effect of the recommendations will depend on the implementing agencies, as all these suggestions are feasible,” stressed a representative of the state AIDS Prevention and Control Society.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
Hrithik Roshan, with the entire cast of his mega-hit Kaho Na... Pyar Hai, will feature in a musical extravaganza at Salt Lake Stadium on November 11, according to state sports department sources. Hrithik sent his written confirmation for the show on Wednesday. The show, the first of its kind involving the entire crew of Kaho Na, including the playback singers, director and music director, was scheduled for the last week of July at Netaji Indoor Stadium, but had to be put off as the star couldn’t find a break in his shooting schedule.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
Trouble erupted in central Calcutta on Wednesday morning after the city police unilaterally withdrew parking facilities from certain areas on Central Avenue and adjoining roads.

Office-goers and commuters, who have been parking their vehicles in the lanes and bylanes and along one side of Central Avenue for several years now, alleged that police personnel towed away their cars and clamped the wheels without any warning.

Irate car-owners argued with the police and later decided to petition mayor Subrata Mukherjee against “the high-handedness of the police.’’ “The officers never told us that Central Avenue, Madan Street and Prafulla Sarkar Street have been declared no-parking areas,’’ said Sandip Das, a senior officer of a private company on Madan Street.

Ajoy Bose, an executive with another private company on Central Avenue, who had come to a popular restaurant in the area for lunch, said: “Police put a clamp on my wheels for the first time today, although I have been frequenting this restaurant for quite some time now.’’

Police officers seem at odds with each other on the issue. While deputy commissioner of police, traffic, K. Harirajan, said there are parking slots for 31 vehicles on and around Central Avenue, Gautam Gupta of headquarters traffic guard contradicted his boss, saying there was no such arrangement.

“Our DC has specifically instructed officers to clamp down on all vehicles parked on Central Avenue around the restaurant,’’ said officer J.K. Dutta.

“Why can’t the police take action against the long-distance buses parked illegally at the Esplanade crossing?’’ demanded Harish Diwani, a trader on Central Avenue.

Arshad Wali, a businessman, said the police have not issued any notification, nor have they informed local people about the sudden parking drive.

Later, the mayor assured traders and office-goers that he will take up the matter with deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya.    

Calcutta, August 2: 
Calling all children. That’s what the Penguin-Ladybird Book Festival, to be organised from August 4 to 13 at the British Council, will be all about.

The 60th anniversary of Ladybird Books will be marked by an exhibition-cum-sale of fairytales, nursery rhymes and classics. The book show will have limited editions of some of the earliest Ladybird titles reproduced to original specifications. So, from 1940s titles like Bunny’s First Birthday to Gingerbread Boy in the 60s; from classics like Oliver Twist to contemporary best-sellers like The Lion King — they will all be on display.

Two of Tapan Sinha’s films, Aaj Ka Robin Hood and Safed Haathi, will be screened; The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli and Baloo (a Columbia Tristar presentation starring, among others, our very own ‘bad guy’ Gulshan Grover) will be premiered, and a British Cartoon film, Captain pugwash Ahoy! shown.    


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