Early Diwali after dam delight
Andhra waits on razor’s edge
Paswan doles out cheap phones
Centre to shed foodgrain flab
Tremors in BJP on Agra cry
‘Chargesheet’ challenge to Sonia second term

Gandhinagar, Oct. 18: 
Diwali burst upon Gujarat early as the overjoyed BJP government uncorked celebrations today after the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to the Sardar Sarovar Project, dealing a blow to the anti-dam lobby led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

While the NBA termed the judgment as “most illogical, dangerous and anti-people”, the government hailed it as one which will usher Gujarat into a new era of prosperity, where there will be no droughts and water scarcity.

The “good news” was conveyed by Narmada and major irrigation projects minister Jay Narayan Vyas from Delhi to chief minister Keshubhai Patel as he was presiding over the weekly Cabinet meeting. Patel promptly adjourned the meeting and kick-started celebrations by distributing sweets.

Speaking at an impromptu function on the grounds of the state secretariat, Patel said: “It is a great day for us. The day we were waiting for so long has finally come. It has opened new vistas of prosperity for Gujarat.” After speeches and firecrackers, the chief minister declared a holiday to mark the “golden day” in Gujarat’s history.

The government has lined up a series of celebrations to commemorate the apex court’s order for early completion of the Sardar Sarovar Project, described as “Gujarat’s lifeline”.

Tomorrow will be observed as Vijay Diwas. Fire crackers will be burst across the state followed by maha aarti in all temples. The next day, all schools, colleges and universities have been asked to hold “victory rallies” to spread the message that the days of misery are over.

After the euphoria had sunk in, Patel told reporters that the government will immediately increase the dam’s height to 90 metres. The construction is expected to be completed in two months. But even after the height is increased, water will not start flowing in the Narmada canals.

Patel said: “We will have to use pumps to take water to the canal going into Saurashtra. The reservoir level has to be at 110 metre to enable water to flow into the canal, part of which is yet to be completed.”

“Now if everything goes well, the height of the dam will go up to 138 metres as per the design in another 18 months. After that, there will be no water scarcity in Saurashtra, north Gujarat and Kutch — a dream the BJP has been selling for years,” a senior party leader said.

The verdict has come as a breather to the BJP government, which received a setback in the recent civic and district panchayat elections. With gram panchayat elections scheduled for December amid fears of another drought, the verdict has perked the demoralised BJP cadre.

Even as the BJP celebrated, the NBA issued a statement, accusing the apex court of “playing into the hands of the dam builders” while neglecting the fundamental rights of the vulnerable people affected by the project.

“It is time the President of India intervened to protect the rights of the tribals which is his constitutional obligation. For that, he should stay the construction of the dam,” an NBA spokesman said.

The NBA has called upon all the people to launch an agitation to challenge this “anti-people and anti-constitutional verdict of the apex court”. For the NBA, it seems, the fight is far from over.    

Hyderabad, Oct. 18: 
More than 1.5 lakh people were evacuated today from the low-lying coastal areas as Andhra Pradesh braced for a cyclone, expected to pack windspeeds of up to 100 kmph and bring torrential rain.

Latest reports from the weather office said the storm, which has swirled over Bay of Bengal since the weekend, lay centred 200 km southeast of Machilipatnam and is likely to hit the Andhra coast by tomorrow morning or afternoon.

State officials said the storm is likely to uproot trees, damage buildings and power installations and disrupt road, rail and telecommunication links in four coastal districts. “It is very calm and only drizzling now. There were some winds in the afternoon, but now there is unusual silence,” said a resident of Machilipatnam.

The meteorological office at Visakhapatnam and its radar station at Machilipatnam said the cyclone, moving at a speed of 20 kmph, is “likely to hit the coast between Sulurpeta and Kavali in Nellore district”.

“According to present indications, the cyclone is expected to hit the mainland between Ongole and Machilipatnam by tomorrow morning or afternoon,” said Met officials at Hyderabad.

However, the cyclone is expected to bypass the Orissa coastline north of Andhra. Last year, coastal Orissa turned into an isle of despair after the state was ravaged by a supercyclone which killed nearly 10,000 and rendered millions homeless.

The evacuation process began this afternoon in about 50 areas spread over Nellore, Prakasham, Guntur and Krishna districts, which are likely to bear the brunt of the storm’s fury. In Nellore, residents from 372 settlements have been shifted, while people of 68 villages in Prakasham have been taken to safer places. More than 20,000 have been shifted from Guntur alone. “About 42 relief camps have been set up to relocate the people for the time being,” said B.P. Meena, collector of Krishna district.

With chief minister Chandrababu Naidu away in Tokyo, senior officials and Cabinet ministers are taking no chances. A high-level committee comprising chief secretary P.V. Rao and weather officials is meeting twice a day.

The administration in nine coastal districts have been put on high alert. Special teams of officials have fanned out across vulnerable areas and control rooms have been set up in all coastal district headquarters.

The army, air force and the navy have been asked to be on standby. Two MI-8 choppers have arrived from Bangalore and another one was being requisitioned, revenue minister P. Ashok Gajapathiraju told reporters. “The air force is making all arrangements to deploy as many helicopters as required,” the minister said.    

New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
The Centre today slashed registration fees for new telephones by 33 per cent for urban subscribers and 50 per cent for those staying in rural areas.

A rural subscriber can now buy a connection for just Rs 500 while the cost in urban areas will be Rs 2,000. The new rates are applicable from November 1.

Announcing the reduced rates at the economic editors’ conference here, communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan said: “It is an effort to improve tele-density. There are poor people who still feel that a registration of Rs 3,000 is too high. It will also help penetration of telephones in rural areas. Five hundred rupees is within a villager’s limit.”

The telephone top brass believe otherwise. They say this gesture of ministerial largesse will burden them with a higher outgo.

“It will have a direct burden on us since our budget calculations were based on old registration fees. It is difficult to estimate how much we will now earn since it will be applicable from November and will depend upon the number of registrations,” a Bharat Sanchar Nigam officer said.

Paswan, however, is confident of the scheme’s success. “We will be able to provide connections within a month in areas where there are no waiting lists. We know demand is bound to increase, but we will be able to offer them within a month,” he said.

Paswan said the communications ministry has also simplified registration forms. “The seven-page form has been simplified to one single page. We found there were unnecessary questions in the old form, so we have condensed it into a one-page form,” he added.

The minister also announced that “Sanchar Dhabas” would be set up to accommodate Extra Departmental Employees in the postal department. These “Dhabas’ will have computer and internet connection and the employees’ job will be to help surf or provide information through the net.

Extra Departmental Employees are small shop owners or rural school teachers who, on a monthly pay and commission basis, distribute and collect letters in villages.

A committee of officials from the departments of post and telecommunications had been set up to work out ways to rehabilitate the surplus employees.

MTNL service delay

Telecom secretary Shyamal Ghosh today said the cellular service planned by Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) would be further delayed.

Cellular services were to be provided in Delhi and Mumbai by October. “The services will start only by January next year as there was delay in acquisition of sites for base stations.

“I agree, and it is a valid criticism, the delay has been caused because MTNL was unable to get the site for setting up base stations,” he said. In Delhi, about 147 base stations would have to be set up and only 60 have been identified.

Ghosh said the government will consider imposing a penalty on MTNL similar to that imposed on private cellular operators for delay in rolling out the network within the stipulated time.    

New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
The government today announced a slew of populist measures in an effort to clear part of its overfull food silos.

The measures include increasing the total quantum of cheap food sold through PDS to the poor and reducing food prices for middle class families.

Food minister Shanta Kumar said the group of ministers given the job of finding ways to cut down the huge grain stock had decided to increase the amount of cheap food sold through PDS by 3.9 million tonnes.

He said the decision came following a government assessment that population explosion had resulted in the increase in the number of below-poverty-line families from 5.96 to 6.52 crore.

Officials say the measures would help the Centre offload about 13-14 million tonnes of foodgrain from its storehouses by March-end. According to them, 132 lakh tonnes of rice and 269 lakh tonnes of wheat are stored in its granaries against a buffer norm of 65 lakh tonnes of rice and 116 lakh tonnes of wheat.

However, the measures come with a price tag. The extra subsidy cost to the Centre will be about Rs 1,000 crore, including the Rs 672 crore incurred on account of the increase in the total amount of grain being sold to poor families.

The government might also have to pay an extra Rs 1,000 crore as interest and storage cost for the huge amount of food it is buying. This is besides the Rs 350 crore it stands to lose from an earlier decision to buy pest-infested foodgrain from farmers in Punjab and Haryana. As a result, the total food subsidy bill is likely to increase by 25 per cent to Rs 10,000 crore.

For the middle class, the group of ministers has decided to bring down prices marginally. Ration shops now charge middle-class families — termed “above the poverty line families” — Rs 11.30 for a kg of rice and Rs 8.20 for a kg of wheat, which is also the cost price at which the Centre buys, stores and wholesales foodgrain.

But there are hardly any takers at these prices as grain can be bought in the open market at lower rates. Hence the government’s bid to bring down prices by about Rs 1-2 a kg, to levels at which it is auctioning food to private traders, even if it means swelling the subsidy bill.

According to the Centre’s calculation, this slight decrease in prices will help to sell an extra 40 lakh metric tonnes of wheat and 30 lakh metric tonnes of rice. The Centre has also decided to allow wheat exports in a bid to help ease the stocks.

Kumar has a more ambitious scheme to sell rice and wheat to one crore families — identified as the poorest in the country — at just Rs 3 and 2 a kg respectively. However, when this scheme can be implemented will be decided at another meeting of the ministerial group. Officials said the finance ministry had stalled the plan.

State-sponsored social welfare institutes will also be allotted extra foodgrain at 5 kg per head per month in addition to their usual quota. Food allocated to various welfare schemes of the government and to reputed NGOs will also be given at below-poverty-line rates.    

New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
The BJP today scurried for cover as the first rumblings of protest within the party’s minorities morcha against RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan’s call to minorities to join the “Indian mainstream” added to the pitch of the Opposition and church uproar against the Sangh leader’s Agra address.

The minorities cell, which met this morning, said its attempts to bring Muslims into the BJP fold were being thwarted by the RSS’ “intemperate” remarks. Members of the morcha’s Delhi chapter, including those from the Jamia Millia University, spoke of how they had fanned out into Muslim mohallas in response to Bangaru Laxman’s call to enlist more minorities in the party and complained that just as they were on the verge of success, the RSS put a spanner in the works with its strong “anti-minorities” statements.

At the Agra mahashivir, the RSS sarsanghchalak reiterated his organisation’s stand that Muslims and Christians living in India should be “loyal” to its culture and traditions and not indulge in extra-territorial affiliations. The implicit message was that Muslims should not treat Mecca and Medina as their “holy land” and Christians Jerusalem and the Vatican.

Despite the BJP’s attempts to keep today’s meeting under wraps, a press release issued by party secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi found its way to a section of the media. The statement justified Sudarshan’s stand and asked Muslims not to look at the RSS through the “eyes of the Opposition” and other forces which exploited them for their own ends.

It claimed that the RSS had not questioned the nationalist credentials of Muslims as it was made out to be.

Interestingly, the statement, leaked to an electronic media reporter, did not carry the signature of the BJP office secretary, R am Kirpal Sinha, as is the practice. When party spokesman and vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy was queried in a press conference — Naqvi was also present — he pleaded ignorance and pledged an inquiry into how the note was leaked.

The note, however, did not mention that general secretaries Sunil Shastri and Maya Singh as well as senior leader JP Mathur attended the meeting, allegedly with “great reluctance”.

By late evening, the BJP tried to contain the damage by putting out an official statement, which said Shastri and the others were present in the meeting, where Naqvi called on the Muslims to give a “befitting reply” to “such false propaganda” about the RSS.

“As a result of such conspiracy during the last 50 years, Indian Muslims have become victims of economic and social backwardness,” the statement said.

It pointed out that Sudarshan had said everyone was “free to follow his own religion”.

The Congress, meanwhile, kept up pressure on the BJP. Reacting to L.K. Advani’s remarks that the relation between the RSS and the BJP government was akin to that shared by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government with Mahatma Gandhi, it said: “This is the first time that the Father of the Nation has been compared to the RSS. It is a confirmation that the Government of India accepts RSS supremo K.S. Sudarshan’s provocative exhortation to the Muslims and Christians.”

Party spokesman Anand Sharma accused the home minister and the NDA of “doublespeak”, saying while Advani “revered” the RSS as much as the country revered Gandhi, BJP president Laxman “deliberately” underplayed the RSS’ influence in shaping the country’s policies.    

New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
Congress dissidents are preparing a “chargesheet” against Sonia Gandhi that accuses her of neglecting the party and abjectly failing to revive it in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.

As part of the run-up to the party polls in November, the dissidents plan to challenge the Congress chief’s bid for a second term on grounds of “all-round failure”. Lack of political acumen, inability to head an effective Opposition, rise of coterie and failure to revitalise the Congress in four states are some key issues in the chargesheet.

“The contest will not be a mere clash of personalities. It will be on issues, facts and figures. Who was responsible for the 272 fiasco, the Haryana blunder and the party’s worst ever performance in the 1999 general elections?” a dissident leader asked.

The 272 fiasco refers to the AICC chief’s unsuccessful bid to become Prime Minister after the fall of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in May 1999 when she had claimed the support of 272 MPs outside Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Congress remained well short of majority after the Samajwadi Party, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party refused to back her.

The Sonia camp reacted sharply, promising to give a “befitting, point-by-point rebuttal” to all charges at an appropriate time. Ambika Soni, the newly-appointed head of the AICC’s media department, said most of these allegations had been answered during the general elections. “If someone raises it in the party fora, we are prepared to answer,” she added.

On the revival of the party in four states, she said: “In Uttar Pradesh, our tally in the Lok Sabha went up from nil to 10. The vote percentage shot up from eight to 18. In Bihar, the party is in government and in Bengal and Tamil Nadu also, there has been marginal improvement.” However, she admitted that there were many challenges before the party.

Sonia’s detractors are upset with her over her attempt to “disown” the past. Disgruntled partymen who held important posts in the Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri regimes are outraged over the Sonia camp’s bid to take a high moral ground on party polls, corruption and other issues.

A senior leader explained: “An attempt is being made to prove that whatever happened during the Rao and Kesri era was all fraud and wrong. We were all part of it. How is it expected that we will endorse this line?”

Similarly, the party’s move to wash its hands of Rao after his conviction in the JMM bribery case and the prominence given to some leaders who had left the Rao government in 1993-94 have not gone down well with the old guard. There have been repeated attempts to persuade Rao to come out and criticise the Congress under Sonia, but he has refused to be drawn into any fresh controversy.

Attempts are being made to persuade contender Jitendra Prasada to withdraw from the fray. Kamal Nath, who holds the distinction of being a man for all seasons, has been pressed into action. The Prasada camp has only one condition — address the issues raised by him particularly the one dealing with inner-party democracy and accountability.

Rao to contest term

Rao will file an appeal in Delhi High Court next week, challenging the October 12 trail court verdict sentencing him to three years’ rigorous imprisonment in the JMM case.    


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