Caste and superstition deadlier than polio virus
Panja bluster scuppers Iraq visit
Pilgrims’ fear fades
Mamata damper on Congress
CPM plans price protest
Flood-hit Delhi to sound Nepal on dam
Rebel trouble spoils victory party
Walking dead fight for life
Centre passes buck on Rajan bungle
Poaching finger points at zoo staff

New Delhi, Oct. 7: 
Suraj Singh, an upper-caste landowner in Bihar, would rather expose his child to the deadly polio virus than allow a lower-caste health worker to vaccinate him.

In West Bengal’s South 24-Parganas, a health worker is chased away by an angry father, Moinuddin, who believes the vaccine will make his child impotent. “Allah sabai ke dekhbe. Aapni aami ki korbo (Allah will take care of everyone. What can we do),” he said.

This deep-rooted superstition has kept at least three villages outside the reach of the immunisation drive which began five years ago.

Unicef’s Dr K. Suresh, who has just returned from West Bengal following the last round of the campaign, says there are “three lakh children in the state whose parents have refused immunisation”. In Uttar Pradesh, four lakh children are still unvaccinated, while the figure for Bihar is two lakh.

Despite the resistance, the pulse polio immunisation campaign has made significant inroads. Over the last 19 years, the number of polio cases has dropped from 30,000 to 1,134 — though Uttar Pradesh and Bihar still top the list of states with the highest incidence of the disease.

The picture could have been rosier if age-old discriminations, propped up by caste and religion, had not come in the way of immunisation.

Upper castes won’t allow a lower caste health worker anywhere within touching distance of their children. Neither will they take their children to immunisation booths in semi-rural areas where lower castes are in a majority. “People do not want to go to booths manned by lower castes,” says Suresh.

Even the sight of a polio-afflicted child cannot bring people to overcome these prejudices. In Muslim-dominated areas, there is a taboo on male health workers entering the andarmahal, or coming face to face with women in purdah.

“It’s mostly the women who are at home when health workers go. And there’s no question of the burkha-clad woman coming out to meet a strange man,” says the doctor.

State health departments are now trying to rope in women workers for better access. But that would remove just one of the many socio-cultural barriers. A lot of people still believe the vaccine leads to infertility and is a cover for a sterilisation drive. As a health officer puts it: “Government programmes are always suspect before the people.”

Villagers are often swayed by local doctors. “Hamare doctor ne mana kar diya,” said a villager in Uttar Pradesh. “Ek dose ke baad aur lena zaroori nahin hain.” (Our family doctor has prescribed against the vaccine. One dose, he has said, is enough.)

Myths also play their part, pushing the villagers deeper into superstition. Many believe nothing can save a child from polio, which is divine retribution for sins they have committed.

The stories are bizarre. The shadow of a snake falling over a child can cripple him with the disease. So can watching a full solar eclipse.

Immunisation statistics reveal a much better record in southern states. As against the several lakh unvaccinated children in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, the figures in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu drop to thousands.

Andhra Pradesh, however, catches up with the Hindi belt. There are more than two lakh children still outside the immunisation net.    

New Delhi, Oct. 7: 
Unsettled by junior foreign minister Ajit Panja’s remarks about India joining France and Jordan to break the flight embargo on Iraq, the Centre has called off the visit of the country’s vice-president, Taha Yaseen Ramadhan, later this month.

Ramadhan is the number two in Baghdad’s pecking order after President Saddam Hussein.

Delhi has pointed to the Prime Minister’s knee operation for scrapping the Iraqi leader’s tour. Atal Behari Vajpayee has cancelled all official engagements for the next two weeks.

South Block, therefore, decided to rework the visit for a later date. Foreign ministry mandarins also argued that since Ramadhan’s visit had not been officially announced, it would not be correct to say that the tour had been cancelled.

However, Panja’s controversial remarks during his trip to Baghdad last month has left the foreign office squirming.

The minister of state is reported to have said that India will join France and Jordan in breaking the flight embargo imposed on Iraq to provide food, medicine and other essentials to the Iraqi people.

Foreign ministry officials sought to paper over Panja’s statement by arguing that his remarks were deliberately misinterpreted. The minister, when asked by a local journalist in Baghdad, had said that India felt that implementation of the UN resolution on Iraq and the embargo on it should go in tandem, the officials said.

Even if misinterpreted, his remarks have already done the damage in the Gulf and other parts of the world. Indian officials have scrambled to clarify Delhi’s position to various diplomats, alarmed by the remark. A visit by the Iraqi number two now would only make India’s allies in the West and the Gulf doubtful about its stand.

Delhi is trying to take corrective measures in its policy towards the Gulf and the Arab world in general. It realises that many countries in the region continue to have misgivings about Saddam and, therefore, India is extremely careful about its dealings with Iraq.

Jaswant Singh will leave on the first-ever foreign-ministerial visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar later this month to clear the air and strengthen Delhi’s ties with the key Gulf states. Ramadhan’s visit could undermine the visit.

Since 1991, when the then foreign minister, I.K. Gujral, went to Iraq and hugged Saddam during the height of the Gulf War, Delhi’s relations with Baghdad have come under close scrutiny from the other nations in the region.

Of late, India has made a conscious effort to play down its bilateral relations with Iraq, limiting itself to exchange between parliamentarians and economic cooperation. Panja was the highest ranking Indian leader to visit Iraq in the past one decade.

Under the UN’s oil-for-food programme, Iraq is allowed to sell oil worth $ 22 billion every year to buy food and other essential items for its people. India is among the countries involved in the programme.

Some in South Block feel India should get a bigger share of the Iraqi pie and get the major contracts from Baghdad once the embargo is lifted.    

Jayrambati, Oct. 7: 
The cloud of fear hanging over the birthplaces of Ma Sarada and Sri Ramakrishna faded as devotees flocked back in large numbers on Mahanavami.

Suspected CPM activists had last month targeted the Sarada Matri Mandir for giving refuge to victims of political clashes. Jayrambati is the birthplace of Ma Sarada. Sri Ramakrishna was born at Kamarpukur. Monks at the Matri Mandir had also received threatening phone calls.

But the terror of those long nights seemed to have been exorcised with today’s gathering of the pilgrims.

According to Swami Ameyananda of Jayrambati, over 15,000 pilgrims had bhog on Mahanavami. Swami Devananda of Kamarpukur Thakurbari said over 12,000 pilgrims visited the temple.

Matters improved after the Ramakrishna Mission sought the intervention of the government. “Things seem to have improved a lot after his (chief minister Jyoti Basu’s) intervention. The district authorities have called us every day. There were no disturbances in our mandir so far,” said Swami Ameyananda.

District magistrate Dilip Chowdhury, who visited both the places today, said: “We are taking every possible step to restore peace in the area.”

An all-party meeting was also called at Kotalpur on September 21 under Basu’s instructions. The Trinamul Congress stayed away.

Chowdhury said the recent floods also did their bit to dilute the political tension. Eight persons died in Kotalpur alone. The pujas also helped calm tempers.

However, the Trinamul block president of Kotalpur, Nemai Ghosh, said the prevailing calm was just a lull before the storm. “We live in constant fear. The administration is out to see that no youth belonging to the Trinamul can roam about freely. The police patrol has become a source of panic. No one knows who will be the next target,” he said.

The area’s traders, too, were affected by the violence. “This puja has been the darkest ever in recent years,” said a garment-shop owner. “First was the spiralling violence among political parties. Then came the floods.”    

Calcutta, Oct. 7: 
Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s decision to withdraw her resignation from the Vajpayee Cabinet after her dramatics over six days, has come as a disappointment to the state Congress which was expecting her to sever ties with the “communal BJP.”

State Congress leaders, who were hopeful about a political tie-up with Mamata after her resignation over the fuel price hike, were disappointed at the subsequent turn of events.

It is clear the Congress high command as well as the PCC leadership failed to exploit the situation during the crucial days and hardly made any effort to win over the estranged Trinamul chief.

While PCC chief Pranab Mukherjee remained non-committal on the question of wooing Mamata after her resignation from the Cabinet, Congress chief whip in the Lok Sabha, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, was content with issuing a statement urging her to dissociate herself from the BJP and rejoin the Congress.

Former state Congress president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, an exponent of mahajot, was away in Malda. None of these top leaders made any conscious attempt to get in touch with the Trinamul leader and win her over from the BJP fold.

A section of state Congress leaders feels the high command was not really interested in sending feelers to Mamata as it expected a last-minute volte face by her.

“The apprehension came true. We really cannot blame the high command for its failure to take the initiative to woo Mamata at the initial stage of the drama,” said a PCC leader.

Asked to comment on the Trinamul leader’s decision to withdraw her resignation after receiving a fax from the Prime Minister, PCC vice-president and MLA Saugata Roy said: “It is basically an internal matter of the National Democratic Alliance of which Trinamul Congress is a partner. However, we feel Mamata’s decision to withdraw the resignation will cause a setback to her public image.” “She took up the people’s cause as the price hike will affect all sections of society. But her subsequent decision indicates a climbdown and dilution of her original stand,” Roy observed.

The PCC leader reiterated that a tie-up with Mamata could be considered only if she decided to part company with the BJP.

“There cannot be any alliance or adjustment with Trinamul Congress as long as it remains in the NDA. We consider the NDA an anti-people political front,” he asserted.

Pankaj Banerjee, chairman of the Trinamul Congress’ policy-making body, however, rejected the contentions of both the CPM and the state Congress on Mamata’s decision to revoke her resignation.

“Mamata has taken the wind out of the CPM’s sail over the price hike by extracting a commitment from the Prime Minister to give another look at the issue. As far as the state Congress is concerned, we are least bothered by what the party thinks about Mamata’s decision. Let them continue to help the CPM,” Banerjee observed.    

Calcutta, Oct. 7: 
The CPM will launch a statewide movement later this month against the Centre’s decision to increase prices of petroleum products, says a staff reporter.

It is waiting till the month-end because partymen will be free from flood-relief work and the four-day CPM plenum starting on October 20 in Thiruvananthapuram will be over. The state CPM will organise “protest rallies” at important intersections in the city and the district headquarters. It also plans to hold demonstrations in front of Central government offices and district headquarters.    

New Delhi, Oct. 7: 
The water resources ministry has decided to take up with Nepal the construction of a high dam in the Himalayan kingdom to control the excessive flow of water from the rivers there and stop the recurring floods in Bengal, Bihar and northern Uttar Pradesh. Since most of the rivers flowing through Bihar and north Bengal originate in Nepal, the deluge would be impossible to control without cooperation between the neighbours.

C.P. Thakur, who held the water resources portfolio until recently, took up the issue with Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in August.

“I told him that construction of a barrage was the only permanent solution to the flood problem in these states. He was positive,” Thakur said.

Thakur added that he would take the initiative for the dam in consultation with his successor, Arjun Sethi. He would convene a meeting of all MPs from the flood-hit states and lead a delegation to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Sethi to push for the project.

“It needs active cooperation between the two countries, but India has to play the major role,” Thakur, who is now health and family welfare minister, said.

Construction of a high dam was one of the demands of an all-party meeting convened by Laloo Prasad Yadav here last month. The meeting, attended by all Bihar MPs, chief minister Rabri Devi and Union ministers Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Digvijay Singh, called upon the Centre to construct a high dam in the catchment area of Nepal to prevent floods in Indian states.    

Ahmedabad, Oct. 7: 
After performing unexpectedly well in the recent district panchayat and municipal elections, the Gujarat Congress suffered its first jolt on Friday when rebel candidates won the post of president and vice-president of Ahmedabad and Kutch district panchayat elections.

The Congress had secured absolute majority in both Ahmedabad and Kutch where rebels, owing allegiance to former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, got elected defeating the official party candidates.

As a result the Congress, which had trounced the BJP in 22 out of 23 district panchayats, now controls only 20 district panchayats.

In another disappointment for the Congress, in Amreli district, where both the BJP and the Congress had won 15 seats each, the Samata Party candidate supported the BJP. However, Gujarat High Court stayed declaration of results at Amreli after both parties moved court .

Shaken by the rebellion, the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee suspended the rebels and the newly-elected president and vice-presidents of the Ahmedabad and Kutch district panchayats.

It has also served show cause notices to former Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) ministers Babubhai Shah, Madhubhai Thakore and Haribhai Patel who were instrumental in installing rebel candidates.

Congress spokesman Hasmukh Patel blamed the faction led by Vaghela, whose party has merged with the Congress, for engineering a defection in the two district panchayats. He, however, ruled out any action against Vaghela, saying “he was not directly involved but those who were instrumental in defeating official candidates have been suspended and served show cause notices”. Patel said because of factional feud and ambition of some people “who do not deserve any post” the Congress has lost two panchayats despite comfortable majority.

He claimed that when the party had sent observers to elicit the opinions of the newly-elected panchayat members of these two districts, it found that the rebels were a hopeless minority. But they got elected by indulging in “unethical practices” which is why the Pradesh Congress has taken swift action against them to teach them a lesson for indulging in anti-party activities, he added.

Patel brushed aside the developments in Ahmedabad and Kutch and said: “It is not really a setback for us. It is a minor ripple and we are not perturbed.”

He, however, admitted “the ripple” was an outcome of intense factionalism in the party which has turned victory into defeat in two crucial district panchayats.    

Nawabganj (Uttar Pradesh), Oct. 7: 
Only her death can prove she is living.

At 45, Gulabi Devi is a shrivelled, prematurely-balding woman, who has wasted her youth trying to prove she is alive. After her husband died, her relatives had a death certificate issued in her name and grabbed her property.

After decades of a futile fight that ravaged her youth, Gulabi, her frame racked by hunger and deprivation, looks at real death as deliverance.

Pushed out of her two-storied house in Devaria 15 years ago, Bhagyashrini Devi lives in a dark hole surrounded by four crumbling walls.

Like Gulabi, she was pronounced “dead” after her husband’s death.

In every part of Uttar Pradesh, there are “dead” people trying to just prove they are alive.

After her husband Fakir Khuswaha’s death in March 1980, 14 men barged into Bhagyashrini’s house in Chipiyan village and threw her out. They were armed with a “certificate” from the revenue department which proclaimed her to be “dead” two years ago. They distributed the property left by her issueless husband among themselves.

It is the same story in village after village where people are declared dead by the revenue department, in collusion with members of the victim’s family.

A tour of around 15 villages in Azamgarh, Varanasi and Gonda revealed that there are more then 1,000 such people.

The state government had directed the Revenue Board in October 1999 to launch an abhiyan (mission) to trace out Uttar Pradesh’s “living dead” and bring them “back” to life. But the resurrection project has not been much of a success.

After it came to light that in Jaithpur village of Gonda district, 22 people were declared dead in May 1998 in one single day, the National Human Rights Commission rapped the state government and asked it to furnish a report about the “deaths” within 10 days.

In January, Allahabad High Court had ruled “to declare living people dead is a gross violation of human rights under Article 21” and referred the issue “unanimously” to the rights panel.

The Association of the Dead has taken up the dead men and women’s cause.

Its president, Lal Bihari, who suffixes “Mritak” to his name, could successfully bring himself “back” to life. He was declared dead in 1976, but pronounced living after 16 years.

But the struggle was “killing”. He tried to contest the elections against Rajiv Gandhi for Amethi in 1989, which the high court said “doesn’t make sense” and his candidature was cancelled. He kidnapped his nephew and held him in captivity for 15 days so that a case against him would be lodged in the police station. The police laughed it off.

Then he created a ruckus in the Assembly and threw things at the Speaker. Though the police arrested him, they could not slap a case against a “dead man”.

In 1994, he was pronounced “living” again by the court.

Though the Association of Dead People has been fighting for its kind, they lack the funds. “The lawyers charge exorbitant amounts to fight our cases,” says an association member.

In the Gonda village, while no one got the property back, 12 were “brought back to life” after the government cancelled their death certificates. But four of those who were decrepit with old age and disease have died since then.

Says Gopal Bindeshwari, 70, “After transferring my land to my four nephews I was declared dead. I fought for sometime and went to the police and hired lawyers. But now I feel defeated. Where do I get the money to feed the police and lawyers? Old people like me can only hope for death.”

In Mazharat, another village, Daya Ram Sangam, “killed” by his own sons, says he has been fighting for 17 years and has lost the will to fight. “I have no money, no strength. My own sons have declared me dead. I cannot fight anymore.”

Rajiv Sharma, chief revenue officer in Gonda, says it is very difficult to prove one is not dead after the revenue department says so officially. “If the whole village says you are dead, what can you do?”

Police officials investigating such cases go and meet family members of the victims and say that the person in question is dead and gone.

“They produce witnesses who claim they have attended the funeral,” says Sharma, adding that 22 revenue officials have already been punished for forging documents. “There is very little the old and poor can do,” he adds.

When Jaiprasad Tiwari of Gonda returned from Ahmedabad to attend his wife’s funeral in his village, he found out to his surprise that he too had “died” along with his wife in an accident.

His brothers, who had by then received a letter transferring the land in their names, called out some villagers who accused Tiwari of being an imposter and swore that the “original” Jaiprasad had been cremated along with his wife.

“The police and revenue officials take money from both sides — those that want to prove others dead and those who want to come back to life,” says Brij Bhusan Khuswaha of Belloriganj.

“After a certain while it is better to remain dead,” he says, tears welling up in his weary eyes.    

New Delhi, Oct. 7: 
The Centre has blamed the Maharashtra government for botching up Chhota Rajan’s extradition from Thailand

The home ministry today said the Congress-led coalition government did not send the extradition papers to the Centre which would have strengthened India’s case for detaining the wounded don in Bangkok. “Extradition papers have not been received yet from the state government,” a home ministry statement said.

Rajan was about to fly out of Thailand a free man when he was re-arrested on the request of a team from the Mumbai police. The investigators were late to reach Bangkok because of the delay in the Centre’s permission.

Apportioning all blame on the state government, the Union home ministry absolved itself, saying “the government of India has been extremely concerned and prompt in the matter”.

The Centre’s reaction comes days after Maharashtra’s home minister Chhagan Bhujbal accused New Delhi of sitting on the state’s request that Rajan be brought to India for trial.

Observers said the reactions from the Centre suggest that efforts were made to “slow down” the process to bring Rajan to India. They said the government had a reason to turn a deaf ear to requests for his extradition as Rajan was a big help in fighting Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

Delhi insists it did everything to get Rajan extradited from Thailand. The statement says that on September 18, three days after the shootout in Bangkok in which the gangster was injured, the CBI sent a message to the Thai police, pointing out that Rajan was under an international “red corner” notice since 1995.

“It was pointed out to the Thai police that Rajan stood accused in numerous criminal cases. The Thai police were requested to detain Rajan on the basis of the ‘red corner’ notice and inform us so that extradition papers could be sent,” the statement says.

“On September 29, the CBI wrote to the Maharashtra government, requesting that necessary extradition papers may be sent. Extradition papers have not been received yet from the state government,” the home ministry adds.

Maharashtra says the Centre had initially turned down its request for sending a police team to Bangkok. But the home ministry statement says the Centre granted the necessary clearance and even informed the Thai government, through the Indian embassy, that a police team was being despatched and “they should detain Rajan on the basis of the ‘red corner’ notice.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials here wondered why the Mumbai police did not act fast enough to book tickets on “any flight” before Rajan was taken to the Thai court.    

Hyderabad, Oct. 7: 
The killing of a one-year-old tiger by poachers at the Nehru Zoo has sent shockwaves through the administration even as the government suspected the hand of insiders in the murder.

Sniffer dogs were brought in and fingerprint experts visited the cage where “Sakhi” was found on Wednesday night with her head missing and skin peeled off.

The case has been handed over to the crime branch of the Andhra police. Investigators have left for Vishakpatnam, Vijayawada, Bidar and Nagpur to check out antique shops and taxidermists.

Chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, who visited the zoo today and went around the tiger safari enclosure, said there was a possibility that some zoo employees had connived with the poachers.

Four employees — the animal keeper, the park watchman, forester and zoo sergeant — have been suspended. Ten of the 35 watchmen have been picked up for questioning.

Naidu said a consultant will be appointed to recast the security arrangements in the zoo which is spread over 400 acres. The only protection the tiger safari has against poachers is the masonry wall of the Mir Alam water tank and an iron fence.

Even the animals appeared to be in a state of shock and most of them refused to eat anything through the day. Karuna, the mother of the killed tiger, is still roaming the safari in search of Sakhi.

The zoo authorities were stupefied by the gruesome killing. “It is the handiwork of a specialist butcher. The tiger was killed with knives and rods inside the cage in the animal house and later dragged out through the corridor for skinning,” said assistant curator Shekar Reddy. Not only had the culprits used the water pond for cleaning up, they also dumped the body inside before they fled.

The zoo has 43 cats, comprising six jaguars, two pumas, six panthers, seven Asiatic lions, eight African lions, four white tigers and over 10 Royal Bengals.

Of the seven lions and nine tigers being sent to Andhra from Orissa’s Nandankanan, only two animals, one white tiger and another Royal Bengal, have reached the zoo.

The zoo is notorious for poaching, especially during Dussehra. In 1996, the zoo staff had killed a deer for a festive occasion and shared the booty among themselves.

Last year, a peacock and several rare species of birds were reported missing. The zoo’s curator, K.N. Banerjee, was kidnapped by his own staff two years ago, also during Dussehra.

“It seems the month of October is not good for the zoo,” said an official.

Three days ago, a visitors’ vehicle broke down in the tiger safari. A relief vehicle came two hours later, but not before the tourists had the fright of their lives with the animals surrounding the stranded vehicle.    


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