Unicef pitches up child rights-abuse cry
BJP arms to swivel Babri gun on Cong
Sonia fights shy of temple talk
Service twist to PM birthday
CPM death fury chars houses
Spurned Anupam in court offensive
Shoe showdown in Bodhgaya
Sangh basks in beauty bar
Students off Naidu social roadshow

New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
Two days ago on the international broadcasting day for children, scores of school students grilled Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. They charged him with continued and blatant violation of their rights.

Today, echoing their concerns, the Unicef said, India is home to a third of the world’s malnourished children, trapped in intractable poverty, violence and disease.

In its report “The state of world’s children 2001”, the Unicef underlined that 47 per cent of children under three in India are still underweight and malnourishment is high, despite the country producing enough food for its entire population.

Only 27 per cent of children in this age group, suffering from diarrhoea are treated with oral dehydration salt. Discrimination against female children begin in the foetal stage and continue through infancy. “The median duration for breastfeeding is two months shorter for girls than boys,” says the report.

The picture remains botched up not just in India, but the world over. “It does indeed seem very ble-ak,” says Rita Pannicker of Butterfly, an organisation working with street children. But there is reason for hope in In dia. Infant mortality has fallen from 146 in 1960 to 70 in 1999 and access to medical treatment has improved.

But like Pannicker, every other social worker trying to extricate the underprivileged children from a morass of exploitation and abuse blames the bureaucracy for its “pathetic” lack of will. “There is no point just blaming the political leadership. Some amount of blame must be apportioned to the bureaucracy as well,” says one.

Their sentiments filtered through the remarks of Unicef’s executive director Carol Bellamy. “The lives of children and women are the truest indicators of the strength of communities and nations. If the youngest and most vulnerable are left to find their way alone, a country violates the rights of its people and sabotages its future as an equal partner in the global economy,” said Bellamy.

The Unicef rapped different governments for pushing childcare and education on the sidelines of their agenda. “The governments are not investing enough in childcare and education”, was the Unicef’s singlemost indicting observation.

In India, the report honed the arguments of those sections criticising the government for leaving children in the 0-6 age group out of the scope of its 83rd Constitutional Amendment Bill to make education a fundamental right.

“The first three years in the life of a child are crucial to ensuring a healthy, happy and productive future,” said the report. The statistics put out by the Unicef on early childhood care is ala-rming for policy-makers. Of 129 million children born last year, 11 million under five died the same year, majority of them from preventable causes. The top five child killers in 1998 were respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, vaccine preventable infections, malaria and prenatal conditions.

Ten million children under 15 have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS. In the developing countries over 20 per cent of children are out of school and 15 million girls in the 15-19 age group give birth every year.

Two months ago the department of women and children had hosted a global conference on early childhood care where delegates from the world over had anguished over the continued neglect of children by governments and other agencies. “The governments should decide their priorities while allocating funds. Should you make survival and education of children one of your top priorities rather than higher education or defence?” asked Pannicker.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
With the decks being cleared for the Ayodhya debate in Lok Sabha, the BJP has decided to go on the “offensive” and not pull its punches in the face of an Opposition onslaught, party sources said.

While the BJP’s broad strategy would be to reiterate the NDA resolution adopted in the coordination committee meeting last Sunday, sources said the party would attempt to put the Congress on the mat and deflect “much of the blame” for the Babri demolition on former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and Arjun Singh.

“Right from the time the Ram Lalla idols were placed inside the disputed structure under a Congress government in the Centre and Uttar Pradesh, the party seemed to be working towards the demolition. Who was responsible for unlocking the gates of the structure for puja and later the shilanyas, if not the Congress? And is it not a fact that Rajiv Gandhi started his election campaign in 1989 on the Ram rajya slogan in Faizabad-Ayodhya?” a leader asked.

BJP sources claimed that the Congress would be under a “double-barrelled” attack since the Samajwadi Party also feels that the Congress is “as responsible as the BJP, if not more” for pulling down the mosque on December 6, 1992.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and BJP parliamentary party chief whip V.K. Malhotra decided this evening to field three speakers to oppose the Opposition-sponsored motion. Apart from Malhotra, law minister Arun Jaitley and minister of state for human resources development Shahnawaz Hussain are expected to join the debate.

Sources said while Jaitley was chosen to give the “legal perspective” on the complicated title suits involving the disputed site and related matters, Malhotra’s credentials were that he was regarded as a “hardliner without appearing as one”.

Initially, the BJP toyed with the idea of putting up one of the VHP hardliners to cash in on the political momentum generated by Vajpayee’s statements and had thought of either Vinay Katiyar or Swami Chinmayanand. But given the allies’ “secular” mood, sources said the leaders decided to “play safe” and allow Malhotra to speak.

Hussain, at whose Iftaar the Prime Minister declared his preference for building the Ram mandir on the disputed site, has been chosen to try and assuage the minorities’ sentiments although he faced flak from the Muslim clergy for “defending the indefensible”.

Sources said none of the three ministers — L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti — was expected to intervene since the debate would also cover the issue of their continuance in office after being chargesheeted in the Babri demolition.

However, on the issue of their resignations, BJP sources were confident that all the NDA allies would defend them despite the suggestion in last Sunday’s meeting from Farooq Abdullah and Sharad Yadav that they ought to step down.

“The NDA resolution stated clearly that there was no reason for these three ministers to resign on an issue that had no bearing on their constitutional duties and we are sure our allies will stand by it,” said a source.

Sources said though the Alliance MPs did not hold a meeting so far, Mahajan was informally in touch with the leaders of the various constituents on the floor strategy.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
Unsure of the political fallout of the Ayodhya issue, Leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi has decided not to speak on the mandir-masjid controversy in Lok Sabha tomorrow.

Sonia is not the only one shying away from the debate. The nine other Congress Lok Sabha members from Uttar Pradesh have also declined to comment on the controversy for fear of losing the upper caste Hindu votes.

They include Narain Dutt Tiwari, who had ordered shilanyas in 1989 as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Congress sources said Sonia opted out as she was not “confident” of speaking on the issue. Officially, the party is citing “paucity of time” as a factor for Sonia’s omission. Jaipal Reddy, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Girya Vyas and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi are being fielded instead of her.

The speakers have been told to focus on BJP’s communal agenda and the NDA partners’ “double-speak” on secularism. At the same time, Congress leaders have been instructed not to be “defensive” about criticising the role of the Narasimha Rao regime in the events leading to the Babri masjid demolition.

Some Congress floor managers are still trying hard to persuade Sonia to make a brief intervention tomorrow to the effect that the law should take its course and that the Congress is not against the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, but her advisors are against the move.

“If she says something, there will be a controversy. We do not want to play into the hands of the Sangh parivar,” a Sonia aide said, virtually admitting that the main Opposition party was yet to take a clear-cut stand on the dispute.

He said the Congress chief deliberately avoided speaking on a sensitive issue that can evoke strong views. Being a first time parliamentarian, Sonia was avoiding participation in all contentious issues like Kargil report, disinvestment and foreign policy debate, he said.

“She is inexperienced as a parliamentarian. After her 272 goof-up outside Rashtrapati Bhawan, she has become extremely careful about what she says,” he added, pointing that Sonia chose to speak on a less controversial subject like the farmers’ issue as part of her grooming.

Sonia had claimed support of 272 MPs, after the fall of the Vajpayee government in May 1998, that was never there.

Initially, the Congress was planning to go for a “poster war” to “expose” NDA allies like the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam and the DMK, but the move was shelved.

“Mum is the name of the game. We have been told that it is better not to rake up the temple issue in the coming round of Assembly polls in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and other states as it could lead to a backlash,” a party MP, who had mooted the “poster war” idea, said.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
It’s sycophancy of a subtler variety.

While Sonia Gandhi’s courtiers celebrated her birthday on December 9, with alphabet cakes spelling out her name, and other goodies, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cheerleaders in the BJP have decided to be more solemn and observe his birthday on December 25 as Social Service day.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra told the press today that blood donation camps and other social service schemes will be organised on the occasion. Party activists will also explain its policies and programmes to the people.

Mumbai MP Kirit Somaiya announced plans to set up 345 hepatitis-B vaccination camps in the city. In a statement issued to the press titled “Unique Gift to Shri Atalji on his birthday”, Somaiya claimed 2 lakh children will be vaccinated in Mumbai by a voluntary organisation.

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office maintained Vajpayee has made it clear he would not like any ostentation on his birthday.

He has allotted the first part of the day for VIP callers and the latter for the hoi polloi.

For the rest, the Prime Minister is expected to get on with his normal business and meetings, said the sources.

He will not participate in any of the BJP-sponsored programmes, they said.


Cooch Behar, Dec. 12: 
Hundreds of CPM supporters went on the rampage and set on fire 25 houses belonging to Congress workers in a night-long vendetta attack on three villages under Kotwali police station.

Superintendent of police Kailash Chandra Meena said trouble erupted last evening in Pondibari village, 40 km from Cooch Behar town, during a panchayat gram sabha meeting. As the rival groups came to blows, a 40-year-old CPM worker, Nihar Sarkar, was stabbed to death.

This added fuel to the fire. The clash intensified, leaving five people injured. Of them, two persons, including an 18-year-old boy, were Congress activists while the others were from the CPM.

Meena said: “In retaliation, CPM supporters attacked three Congress-dominated villages — Shivpur, Bandiadanga and Atatialguri. About 25 houses were set ablaze. We have set up a police camp in the area to prevent further flare-up.” The SP said raids had been carried out from early morning, but no has been arrested so far.

Residents of the three hamlets said the police reached the area af-ter the CPM cadre had left. They alleged no CPM-dominated village was searched by the police but harassed Congress workers.


Mumbai, Dec. 12: 
He has. Will she?

Take Zee TV to court, that is. Seething since dropped unceremoniously from Sawal Dus Crore Ka, actor Anupam Kher has filed a petition against Zee TV with Bombay High Court, accusing it of breaching the contract he had signed with the network.

But that was to be expected, since Zee TV let it slip early last week that the Kaun Banega Crorepati clone had bombed especially because Kher was not getting along with co-host Manisha Koirala.

As Kher fretted and fumed over the “deliberate leaks” to the media and threatened the network with legal action in a spate of interviews during the course of the week, Zee did the unexpected last Sunday. It dumped Koirala along with Kher in what the entertainment industry viewed as a move to soothe the ruffled feathers of Kher, the actor the network had counted on to take on Amitabh Bachchan on STAR’s most popular programme till date.

Zee TV said it terminated the contract with Kher and Koirala because their “bad vibes” had spilled onto the sets, sealing the show’s fate. The change of hosts was part of its plan to revamp and reformat the failed show, the network explained.

In his petition, Kher charged the network of flouting the October 13 contract, which, he said, made it necessary for both sides to give a two-month termination notice. He claimed to have received no such notice from Zee TV.

Though he moved the court on December 7 following reports that his head might roll, Kher filed another petition yesterday after the network officially fired him.

Kher stated that the channel was to pay him Rs 3.90 crore for 156 episodes, of which Rs 1 crore was payable to him as “signing amount”. He said Zee TV would have to forfeit the Rs 1 crore under the terms of the contract for not giving him notice.

Koirala was unavailable for comment despite several phonecalls to her Versova home, but sources said she was “deeply hurt” by Zee TV’s decision to dump her as well.

She has, however, no intention of taking the network to court as of now because it has explained why it dropped her, sources said. “But then, you never know what will happen tomorrow because she had agreed to host the show despite her busy schedule. She has now lost her face and feels bad about it.”


Patna, Dec. 12: 
Gunshots have shattered the peace of Bodhgaya Temple, where Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

Trouble broke out around 5 pm yesterday when four Tibetan lamas wanted to enter the premises with their shoes on. The lamas said that as part of a special ritual, they would have to go round the temple a thousand times.

“This would be impossible to perform without having shoes on a winter evening like this. Besides, some of our team members were too old,” said Lama Phudgan, one of the Tibetans.

But the temple management would not listen. When some of the lamas tried to force their way through, the temple guards called the police and handed them over.

This snowballed into a pitched battle — between some management committee monks said to be backed by an RJD Rajya Sabha member and a rival faction led by “rebel” leader Bhante Anand.

Opposing the “harsh measure” meted out to the Tibetans, Anand’s men gathered in huge numbers.

As soon as they began shouting their protest, the supporters of Bhadant Pragyasheel, president of the management committee and sympathetic towards the RJD MP, tried to stop them.

The rival factions fell on each other as hundreds of foreign tourists ran for cover. The temple committee was raided by miscreants who ransacked it.

Police first used lathicharge, but when it failed, fired three rounds.

Police superintendent R. Shankaran said the detained lamas were released with a warning.

The incident, which turned one of the most sacred places for Buddhists into a battle turf of Lalooland, has left visitors appalled.

“We are ashamed. I could never imagine that peace-loving monks could ransack a house,” said a visitor from Korea, Kim Ling.

But the fighter monks are unabashed. With an eye on the committee polls next month, both groups are trying to cash in on the situation.

Temple insiders and police sources said the shoe fracas was only the flashpoint of an ongoing battle between the supporters of Anand and the followers of the RJD leader who wants to increase his hold over the temple committee.

The battle is intensifying with the polls in the offing. While the MP wants to rope in as many RJD supporters as possible into the committee, Anand wants only Buddhists to be on the panel.

For this purpose, Anand wants the Temple Management Act to be repealed. The Act lays down that the district magistrate — usually a Hindu — should be president of the committee.

If the magistrate is not a Hindu, another Hindu member should be coopted into the panel, which Anand calls “discriminatory”.

The rebel leader had threatened to immolate himself in the temple, but desisted after intervention from the Governor.


Lucknow, Dec. 12: 
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh’s announcement — that beauty contests, which are by nature “against Bharatiya sanskriti and unethical”, would be banned in the state with immediate effect — has pleased the Sangh parivar.

Singh, who was the first to congratulate home-bred beauty queen Priyanka Chopra who bagged the Miss World title recently, has suddenly decided that he hates beauty contests.

“It’s an obscene exhibition of the female body and a degradation of the female form,” the chief minister said. He added that no permission would henceforth be granted for such shows in the state. Addressing a public meeting in Mathura, Singh said the ban would come into effect immediately.

Echoing the Sangh’s old distaste for fashion shows and beauty contests, he added: “Earlier, the world used to look up to India as a guide and guru, but our culture is under such an attack that we have to organise beauty contests to get noticed.’’

Calling the contests unnecessary and irrational the chief minister said it was high time the government dealt with such wanton exhibitionism seriously.

The strong presence of the Sangh parivar had ensured that Uttar Pradesh was the first state to ban the controversial Fashion TV.

Rajnath’s statement has, however, been welcomed by women’s groups who feel that the trend of holding “so called” beauty contests in every nook and corner of the country is very disturbing.

Nishi Pandey, a professor of English at Lucknow University said beauty contests with such fancy names as Miss Bareilly and Miss North India — there is Miss Awadh in Lucknow also — was nothing but a crass way of exploiting women who get nowhere after such shows are over.

“Of course there is the question of infringing on women’s rights, their freedom to do what they want but I think it is overweighed by the need to retain our culture and not to pander to western ethos so blatantly.’’ Pandey said.

Meanwhile, worried organisers of such shows are already trying to find a way out of the ban.

Aruna Saksena, the chief organiser of the Miss Lucknow contest coming up on December 16, which is being sponsored by a major English daily, says the contest is not about beauty but brains and women’s confidence. She added that the contest that is being held for the last seven years will “emphasise not on beauty but on intelligence”.

Aspiring models are worried that the ban will also include fashion shows. Diya Tiwari, a local ramp model, said: “It’s a very scary thought. Where will we go?”


Hyderabad, Dec. 12: 
The Andhra Pradesh government has given up its efforts to involve school children in its people’s participation drive as part of the Janmabhoomi programme.

The Cabinet yesterday decided that students will not be transported to villages to take up social audit, health awareness, and community development works.

The Chandrababu Naidu-led government’s move follows criticism of the involvement of children in the official programmes by parents and Opposition parties. About three lakh children were sent to villages in March and August to educate villagers on social development works.

Congress leaders had filed a writ petition against “exploitation” of the children. But the Telugu Desam turned the tables on the Congress by getting the children to state that they were working voluntarily on holidays.

However, matters came to a head with the death of an agricultural university student during a Janmabhoomi project.

Information and public relations minister N. Shiva Prasad said “the government was not keen to stage manage the show”. The government has also decided against asking school children below 10 to participate in the human chain on the final day of the programme.

Giving a lowdown on the progress of the project a year after its launch, the government said community development works worth Rs 123 crore were not completed and the focus will be on their completion during next two phases. Schemes worth about Rs 132 crore were completed last year as people, reportedly, donated about 32.5 lakh man-hours.


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