Daring dawn swoop nets dreaded don of the docks
300 shifted at port
Pushback cloud on water-locked Madhyamik
Slippery gateway to submerged city
Chinese shopowners hang up their boots
University keeps Part I students on tenterhooks
Nimble fingers pluck joy out of shoppers’ paradise
Industry ushers unions to talks table
Flurry of meetings in flood-hit city
UGC review of teachers’ tests

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
A dramatic tale of death and deceit has unfolded in Calcutta’s Cosa Nostra with the arrest of mafia don Babbar. The don, an accused in six murder cases, was picked up from a Watgunge slum late on Thursday night.

According to deputy commissioner of police, port, Zulfikar Hasan, Babbar was arrested from his house in the infamous Steamgulli slum, under the Watgunge police station jurisdictiction. The 26-year-old don had come to the city to clinch a business deal and visit his mother.

Babbar, one of Calcutta’s ‘most wanted’, had gone underground after killing brother-in-law Ladla. But of late, Watgunge police station had been receiving complaints from local businessmen of extortion calls. “Babbar’s men have been demanding exorbitant ‘gunda kharach,’ or protection tax, from businessmen in the area before the Pujas,” said an officer.

Local residents say Babbar’s Steamgulli house is surrounded by his henchmen, who keep a round-the-clock watch on people entering the area. Hasan said they had been tipped-off about Babbar’s arrival in the city with two associates on Thursday “to clinch a financial deal’’.

A team of five cops was deputed to gather more information and chalk out the raid. On Thursday night, policemen entered the Watgunge slum in ones and twos and surrounded Babbar’s house. They then carried out lightning raid to net the dreaded criminal. But Babbar’s associates managed to give the cops the slip.

On Friday, Babbar told investigating officers about his life in crime. He also gave them a graphic description of Ladla’s murder in 1998. In one of the most daring daylight murders the city has witnessed, Babbar and three of his men had shot Ladla dead in his hideout. The police have been trying to track Babbar down ever since.

Ladla, 48, was the reigning satta and mafia don of the port area. His army of criminals consisted of about 100 local youth and his ‘collections’ added up to over Rs 3 lakh a day.

In 1994, Ladla took a fancy to Babbar’s sister, Gulnar, kidnapped her at gunpoint and took her to his harem. She was, apparently, the fourth of Ladla’s five ‘wives’. Gulnar’s brothers — Babbar, Munna, Quamar and Omar — swore revenge and started building their own criminal empire.

When Ladla realised that Gulnar’s brothers were trying to threaten his authority, he sent his sons, Tinku, Sarfaraz and Chand, to warn them. Babbar told police officers that this sparked a skirmish, in which Sarfaraz shot Omar. This was June 1998.

Realising that they could match Ladla’s musclepower, Babbar and his brothers got in touch with Gulnar and hatched a plot to kill the don. Ladla would always move around with five gunmen but they were all sent away when he went to a secret chamber of a swank apartment inside a dingy Watgunge slum.

When Gulnar tipped off her brothers that Ladla was resting at this hideout, Babbar, Munna and their associates stormed the apartment and shot Ladla. Babbar then went underground but ran Ladla’s crime den by remote control from his hideout.

Sources said Babbar rarely visited his house. But in the run-up to the Pujas, he had come calling a few times, under the cover of darkness — to meet his mother and raise extortion money.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
If Thursday had sent alarm bells ringing through Metiabruz and parts of Kidderpore, Friday turned out to be frightening.

Large areas of Metiabruz and Kidderpore went under four feet of water as the full tide of the Hooghly lashed the port area.

Nearly 300 men, women and children had to be evacuated from the Iron Gate and Bangaleebazar areas of Metiabruz by local residents and civic employees.

The port area was swept by two consecutive tidal bores on Friday —- one at 1.49 am and another 12 hours later. Water gushed through the breach in the ‘bundh’ at Khauraipatty, in Metiabruz. The ‘bundh’ had been built at least 50 years ago to prevent tidal waves from entering Metiabruz and surrounding areas.

There was no respite for residents here, who fear that the worst is yet to come. The highest tide of them all (bhara kotal) is slated to hit the area at 2.23 am on Saturday.

On Circular Garden Reach Road and Karl Marx Sarani in Kidderpore, there was knee-deep water throughout Friday. “We were sleeping on the ground floor of our two-storey house. I woke up to sound of my three-month-old baby crying. As I stepped out of bed, I realised, to my horror, that there was ankle-deep water in the room. I immediately picked up my boy and fled upstairs,” said Rahnuma Begum, of Paharpur Road, in Metiabruz.

As the day dawned, things only got worse. The water gradually rose to knee-height. Panic-stricken people started fleeing the area.

Then, the second full tide struck at 1.52 pm. This was even more fierce. With the water level swelling to over four feet, those who had chosen to stay back home packed their belongings and set off in search of dry ground.

Residents of Metiabruz were seen wading through knee-deep water in front of the Borough 15 office of the CMC.

In Kidderpore, Saheb Ghosh, owner of a sweet shop, said residents were fed up with the apathy of the municipal authorities who hadn’t done anything to prevent flooding of the area, despite repeated requests. “Even after the water recedes after the high tide, the streets remain waterlogged, as there are gaping potholes on them. The stench of accumulated garbage adds to the discomfort. We will not allow this to continue in our area,” added Ghosh.

Mainul Haque Chowdhury, member, mayor-in council, in charge of municipal schools and a councillor from Metiabruz, said that he had spoken to mayor Subrata Mukherjee about carrying out relief operations in the area.

“We have shifted affected families to safer places and will distribute relief material among them on Saturday morning,” he said.

Local CPM councillor Mrinal Kanti Mondal, however, alleged that the Corporation was “yet to arrange relief for the flood-hit.”

“We have not seen such a flood for years. The last time it happened was in 1978. Some 50 residents have abandoned their homes and sought refuge in a nearby mosque,” said Maulana Rahmani, Imam of Noumania Mosque, in Metiabruz.

There was no power supply in the area for over three hours on Friday afternoon. There was no customer at Syed Salauddin’s hugely-popular biriyani-chaap Shahi Mahal either. Instead, some furniture was seen floating around in knee-deep water inside the restaurant.

“My shop has been waterlogged since the morning. There is no telling when the water will subside and when things will return to normal in the area,” lamented Salauddin.

Even as Metiabruz was busy battling the elements, goondaism reared its ugly head.

A councillor of the port area, Minda Kumar, was threatened over telephone after the Calcutta Municipal Corporation authorities had demolished an unauthorised construction by a transport operators’ body on Thursday night. Some goons even tried to force their way into Minda Kumar’s flat on Nimak Mahal Road. But they stopped by the local police.

n Power theft drive: Three persons were arrested on Friday on charges of power theft in a pre-puja drive conducted jointly by CESC and the police.

More drives are in the offing to check the theft of power by the community puja pandals,” a CESC spokesperson said.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
The flood waters sweeping through large parts of the city and districts are threatening to push back next year’s Madhyamik examinations. The West Bengal Board of Secondary Education has been unable to despatch registration certificates to lakhs of students throughout the state who are to sit for next year’s Madhyamik.

With the entire process being delayed by the floods, officials hinted on Friday that this might force the Board to defer the exams, slated for February-end. Board president Arun Kiron Chakraborty said the schedule will be announced by October-end after reviewing the situation with representatives from four regional offices across the state.

“The flood has affected a majority of our makeshift camp offices, opened solely to expedite despatch of registration certificates to students,” he said.

Work had come to a standstill in all the 16 camp offices in flood-hit districts like Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan and Nadia.

On Friday, students and guardians assembled at the Board’s Park Street office, enquiring about the delay in despatch of registration certificates. Chakraborty said the last date for receiving applications from ‘compartmental’ or ‘continuing’ candidates had been pushed back from September 22 to November 10. Candidates who have not been able to submit their forms to the camp offices have been directed to go to the Board’s city office on Park Street.

The Board has also failed to send cheques worth lakhs to 30,000-odd examiners. Teachers who had examined last year’s answerscripts have not received their payment yet.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
The next time you reach the airport before check-in time or are stranded by a disruption in flight schedule, watch your step. You can be grounded by slippery underfoot conditions or have your clothes sullied by dirty water dripping from an ornate ceiling.

The executive lounge of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport at Dum Dum, projected as a marvellous piece of architecture, has actually become a source of embarrassment for the airport authorities, as the monsoon deluge has thrown facilities out of gear. Rows of plastic buckets line the lounge, acting as receptacles for water leaking from the ceiling of the lounge in the domestic terminal for more than 10 days now and passengers, waiting for their respective flights, run the risk of losing their footing on a treacherous floor rendered slippery by the nagging trickle of filthy water.

The authorities expectedly put up a brave front. “The leaks are being attended to. We are almost through with the repairs,” airport director B.K. Arora said on Friday.

Airport sources maintain that following the heavy rain which lashed the city 10 days ago, water had seeped through the suspension joints of the roof and trickled through the false ceiling. “The floor is marbled and with water dripping constantly, it can become very slippery,” an official admitted. It is learnt that the clogged drains on the roof of the lounge had led to water accumulating and, consequently, seeping through.

Poor maintenance is one of the main reasons behind the leaking roof, it is alleged. “We felt sorry for passengers, who unknowingly sit on the sofas directly under the points where the roof leaks. The moment their clothes are soiled by the dripping water, they scurry for cover. This has been going on for more than a week now and it is unfortunate,” said an airport official.

The sorry state of affairs at the showpiece executive lounge isn’t centred around only a leaky roof. The toilets too are poorly maintained and had to be closed on a few occasions recently, as choked drains made them unusable.

Airport sources said lack of maintenance had led to the collapse of a portion of the roof of the Indian Airlines ticket counter in one corner of the domestic terminal about six months back. Fortunately, no one was injured as the counter was empty. Only a computer and some telephone receivers were damaged.

Anything but a perfect picture at the gateway to the City of Joy.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
Donald Hou sits on a narrow bench in his shop on Bentinck Street, worrying which of his neighbours will pull the shutters down next. The rush of the Puja shopping crowd whizzes by the shop windows trying to be up with the times with displays of sad-looking sneakers and clones of big brands.

Lim Brothers, New Fo, Athin and Ahfun wound up recently. More will possibly follow. “We are forced to leave this business because we cannot dupe customers and bear the tyranny of trade unions,” Hou said.

About a hundred years ago, Chinese immigrants opened their shoe businesses in Calcutta. In the Seventies, there were about 250 Chinese-owned shoe shops in the city. Most were on Bentinck Street, which owes its fame entirely to Chinese shoe shops, rows and rows of them standing cheek by jowl, their interiors inscrutable, a little mysterious; the smell a little different.

Now, there are only about 45.

Hou and other shopowners put militant trade unions at the top of their problems. “We have informed the government about the onslaught of trade unions, but the government has not paid attention. You will be surprised to know that we, the Chinese, have formed an association to save ourselves,” said B. Lim.

Lim, president of the Calcutta Shoe Traders’ Association, has shut down his own shop, Lim Brothers. Trouble — that’s how the Chinese see it — started in the Seventies, coinciding with the surge in trade union militancy and the coming to power of the Left Front.

“To cater to our esteemed customers, we used to employ cobblers, besides salesmen. But, in the Seventies, the cobblers started agitating for a wage increase, which we were not able to bear. We were forced to do away with them,” Hou said.

But October 1996 is described by Lim as the low point. Three casual labourers were sacked for absence from duty for long without notice. They had to be reinstated under pressure from the Citu-affiliated Paschim Banga Sansthan O Dokan Karmachari Samity.

Between the Seventies and the end-Nineties fell the shadow of not labour unrest alone. Sreeleathers and Khadim’s happened. Bata, in the face of competition, reached down to the bottom of the market.

Chinese shoes lost their price edge. Their only edge. A Sreeleathers or Khadim’s gent’s shoe starts at the bargain price of around Rs 250. The Chinese can’t sell at too much lower.

Earlier, there was Bata at the top, with its legendary lasting quality and there was the Chinese shoe at the lower end of the market. And, nothing in between.

Hou, however, takes pride in recalling the glory days that came even earlier. “The Europeans used to wear Oxford shoes with their suits and the Bengalis pump shoes with dhoti and panjabi or shirts.”

The Europeans left first and the Bengalis left wearing pump shoes later. Those that still do are not coming to the Chinese shops any more. “We were proud of customers like Jyoti Basu and Jatin Chakraborty (the late Left Front minister) and many other eminent people,” Hou said. “Uni ekhon boro manush hoye gechchen,” he added, referring to the chief minister.

That sums up the trade trouble of Chinese shoe shops. A part of their market is dead and another part has outgrown them.

Queues outside the nimble-footed Sreeleathers and Khadim have lengthened. They have replaced Chinese shoes with their advertising and marketing prowess. As Chinese shops closed down along the entire stretch from Bentinck Street to the Chowringhee-Lower Circular Road crossing, they have been opening snazzy showrooms in the area with all the trappings of modern marketing.

“We need not boast about our products. The customers will speak about them,” said R.C. Guha, shop manager of Sreeleathers.

Individual shopowners all, the Chinese cannot match them. Nor can they compete in product development, but can only follow the market trend. That’s why the sneakers on the shopfront. Or, the platform heels.

“Usually, we sell two to three pairs daily, each pair costs on an average Rs 200-300. A shoe shopowner earns no more than Rs 8,000-9,000 per month,” Hou said.

He also owns a restaurant, the other trade the Chinese are known for in Calcutta, and spends most of his time there.

His son, Francis, looks after the shoe shop. “The entire family works in the shop, but they are not paid a single paisa. They do everything, from stitching to selling,” Hou said. Past 60, he still bends over from his stool to ease the customer’s feet into shoes. “We pay each worker Rs 50 a day and Rs 5 as commission for every pair sold. We also give them tiffin,” Hou said.

Each shop employs three workers on an average. One of them, Akbar Hussain, has a different tale to tell. “We are at the mercy of the shopowners. In 1997, we saw a ray of hope when Citu started a movement, but nothing came of it.”

Karmachari Samity secretary Swapan Nath contests the wages Hou said workers are paid. “It is only Rs 30 a day and Rs 5 a pair. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid.”

He denied that in the recent shutdown of four shops, the Samity had any role. “Eight shops have joined our union and they are running more or less in a well-fashioned manner,” he added.

Lim, meanwhile, is struggling with a crisis of existence. Lim Brothers, which he owned, closed down after 70 years. “(Despite) being the president of the association, I cannot continue my business. I don’t know what I shall do at the fag end of my life.”

That is a problem Francis, who is a commerce graduate and has done computer courses, does not have. “Our next generation is not eager to continue in this shoe business. They are either trying their hands in other businesses or going abroad,” Lim said. “But they are doing this with a heavy heart.”

Hou’s 20-plus son Francis thinks Canada is a better option than Calcutta.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
Nearly 30,000 students who had appeared in Calcutta University’s BA and B.Sc Part-I (honours) examinations face a tension-filled Puja waiting for results.

“We are trying our best to prepare the results as early as possible. But I don’t think there is any chance of publishing the results before the vacation,” said Onkar Sadhan Adhikari, the university’s controller of examinations. If the results are not declared before the Pujas, starting next week, the university will be departing from a decades-old tradition.

Sources in the university attributed the delay this time to the lack of enough examiners. Scarcity of teachers to check answer-scripts is a long-standing complaint in Calcutta University. Teachers are reluctant to do the job because of the poor payment.

This time, the problem has been compounded as the university is required to publish the results of BA and B.Sc Part I honours and pass examinations at the same time. On the directive of the University Grants Commission, it had to extend the term of BA and B.Sc pass courses to three years from two. So far, only honours courses had a three-year duration.

“We will have to examine the answer-scripts together. For this, we had to catch hold of a larger number of examiners and this took us a lot of time,” said an official. This year, nearly 60,000 students have appeared in the BA, B.Sc Part I honours and pass examinations.

Till 1999, BA and B.Sc Part I (honours) results were declared before the Pujas and pass courses much after the vacation. Inquiries are pouring into the university’s examination department every day, with anxious examinees wanting to know the date of publication of the results.

“We had no idea our results will not be published before the Pujas. We can’t prepare for the Part II exam scheduled in the beginning of 2001 until the Part I results are out,” said a student of Lady Brabourne College.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
With the city shopping till it drops, the detective department has issued a warning: Puja shopping is fun, provided you reach home with the stuff that you’ve picked up.

Narayan Ghosh, deputy commissioner, detective department, said on Friday that puja shoppers should be on their guard against ‘outstation’ pickpocket gangs who’ve descended on the main marketplaces.

While plainclothes sleuths from the detective department have been deployed at prime pre-Puja spots, the number of personnel is just not enough. Scores of criminals from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and even Andhra Pradesh, have infiltrated the city.

Ask Anasuya Sil. A few evenings back, the middle-aged lady had just finished shopping at Gariahat when she heard a voice: “Boudi, apnar sareer pechone kada (there is mud on the back of your saree).’’

A boy, barely 15, materialised to brush the “kada (mud)” off her sari. “Shall we go to a tap so that you can wash it off?’’ suggested the young Samaritan.

There was a cluster of women at the tubewell. “Move over, boudi wants to wash her sari,’’ commanded the boy. The women dispersed. As Sil was busy trying to locate and wash off the mudstains, the youth and the women melted into the darkness — with her shopping bag.

Several gangs from the city’s fringe areas and even from Andhra Pradesh strike makeshift base camps a month before the festivities begin to “survey shopping patterns and devise effective strategies”.

They subsequently fan out to key commercial centres like Gariahat, Shyambazar, Hatibagan, Hazra marketing complex, College Street, Bowbazar and New Market. Each gang is assigned a particular area, a “specific beat’’.

In Sil’s case, it was one of the “kepmari” groups in action. These squads usually involve entire families of lifters. The children are used as decoys to lure victims to “vulnerable” spots. The women post themselves as “onlookers’’ at the site. They throw a protective ring around the young decoy “in case of a crisis”. The booty is eventually passed on to the “male members’’ of the gang, who wait at vantage points.

“The kepmari operations are well-planned and usually involve groups from outside the state,’’ says officer-in-charge (watch), detective department, J.M. Roy.

According to officials, a large number of such families from the Telengana district of Andhra Pradesh infiltrates the city prior to the Pujas. “There is one entire village of south Indian lifters in Bandel, in Hooghly district, which temporarily migrates to the city during the Pujas,’’ says Roy.

Several gangs are holed up in temporary shelters at Pilkhana, in Howrah, and frequently change base.

Shopkeepers are understandably worried. Says Pinto Bhai of Vishal Garments in Gariahat, “We have installed closed-circuit cameras and detectors. Our boys have also been asked to move around with the customers discreetly and keep a watch on them. But, ultimately, it’s up to the police to provide protection to the shoppers.”

With reports of pickpocket and shop-lifting pouring in, Narayan Ghosh called his men to chalk out operations.

“We have formed a team with officials of the watch section to net the sneakers. Officers in plainclothes keep a close watch. If they notice anyone moving suspiciously, they shadow them in an effort to catch them redhanded,” the detective chief explained.

Cops have been posted at different shopping centres, like Burrabazar, New Market, Gariahat Market. Over two dozen criminals have already been arrested from the Burrabazar area. They are all from Bihar and UP.

“We have recovered sharp metal pieces from the criminals. They walk into a crowded place with the ‘cutter’ tucked between their fingers. They then home in on a soft target,” said an officer.

Cases of extortion and looting are on the rise in the Burrabazar area. “We are giving priority to Burrabazar, with policemen patrolling the area constantly,” said Ghosh.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
Calcutta-based businessmen have decided to take the bull by the horns.

After running to the government every time there is labour trouble, they have decided to call trade union leaders to a confidence-building meeting. The Indian Chamber of Commerce is being used as the forum for the talks that will be held after the Pujas, with the blessing of the political bosses at Writers’ Buildings.

They might also become party to the exercise to “brand the state investor-friendly,” with unions playing active partners rather than their traditional adversarial role.

C.K. Dhanuka, president of the chamber, said: “It’s an established fact that trade unionism has denied the state its deserved share in industrial investment, as entrepreneurs have always suffered from a fear psychosis.”

The chamber secretariat has already started working on the image makeover and invitations to union leaders will go out after the coming week of vacation.

Chittabroto Mazumdar, Citu general secretary, welcomed the proposal but displayed traces of the long-standing distrust between the two sides. “We don’t mind sitting with industry on specific issues, but sharing a platform on a permanent basis is not possible.”

The difference in the ways the two sides look at the problem of low investment still exists very much. “Factors like poor infrastructure, red tape and inaction from both bureaucracy and polity have also inhibited investment flow, but the fear of labour problem always looms large,” Dhanuka said.

Mazumdar, on the contrary, believes: “Linking lower investment to trade union activity is not only an exaggeration but also a simplification of the problem.”

But the readiness to sit across the table on his part and the decision of the chamber to invite all union leaders, irrespective of political affiliation, are indications that at least there will be an effort to clear some of the bitterness in relations.

“We are well aware of their political differences, but are banking on their commitment to the working class of the state,” said Dhanuka.

He stressed the urgency of a trust-building initiative, lacing it with a warning: Otherwise, “prepare for the worst”. “Industrialists are not obliged to invest and can’t be forced to bring in investment unless there is a scent of profit,” he added.

The statement was in response to the unions’ charge that industry is not investing in the state.

Both sides expect the other to go the distance to a meeting point of their positions. “Unless industry changes its attitude towards workers, things won’t improve,” said Mazumdar.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
The repeated flooding of many parts of the city since Tuesday has not deterred a number of organisations from holding national and international-level meetings in Calcutta. On Thursday, at least three major conferences and seminars were held in the city.

At Taj Bengal, right next to Tolly’s Nullah, a workshop on “empowerment of women through hi-tech training” was inaugurated by Vasundhara Raje, Union minister for small-scale industries.

“Emancipation and empowerment will only come from economic independence. Women should set goals and achieve them with self-determination,” she told the 100-odd participants.

Raje referred to Tagore, Vidyasagar and Rammohun Roy as those who had advocated women’s empowerment. The workshop was organised by the Central Tool Room and Training Centre, Calcutta, where six women are now undergoing hi-tech training.

n National Science Seminar: A national seminar on science, the first hosted by Calcutta, was held at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum. “The objective of this National Science Seminar is to make students aware of the developments in science and technology,” said Prof S.C. Pakrashi, senior scientist with INSA. The theme for this year’s seminar is ‘Health for all: Vision and Reality.’

n Software park in Dhaka: Crossing borders, deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya inaugurated an international seminar on Indo-Bangla technology cooperation.

He announced that Dhaka had allotted 300 acres for setting up a software technology park there. “IT companies from our country can share their knowhow for the development of the park,” he said.

The two-day seminar was attended by Bangladeshi diplomats and WBIDC chairman Somnath Chatterjee.    

Calcutta, Sept:29: 
A 12-member team of the University Grants Commission (UGC) is in the city to review the strategy of the College Service Commission for recruitment of teachers to government-aided colleges in Calcutta and elsewhere in Bengal.

Sources close to the UGC said after the first day of the review on Thursday, the team expressed its satisfaction over the state panel’s performance. During their three-day stay in Calcutta, the team will examine the recruitment procedures of the commission, the syllabi and infrastructure, and will talk to the panel of experts who correct the answerscripts. The team may also examine the answerscripts of the last exams conducted by the commission.

State panel chairman Ajit Banik said the team will send its report from Delhi after a fortnight. The report is of key significance as it will confirm whether the standards of the State-Level Eligibility Test (SLET) conducted by the commission follow the UGC norms.

The review follows a recent UGC directive making it mandatory for all universities, colleges and educational agencies to get their courses examined after every two years. The measure will ensure that the state panel maintains proper standards in the SLET exams, conducted every year to recruit teachers to government aided colleges in Calcutta and its districts.    


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