BJP deletes diesel price cut demand
Party rediscovers national agenda
Sonia mulls special slot for Rao
Shimon Peres sets up date with Jaswant, Advani
Keshpur braces for bandh
Spillover clashes break two-month calm
Trucks to Bangla held up on border
PF scheme for unorganised
Ghani sends mahajot signal
Funds hurdle in AIDS fight

New Delhi, Jan. 4: 
A “friendly” suggestion by the BJP to the Centre was rejected out of hand at the national executive, confirming the perception that the party is more than ready to play second fiddle to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The economic resolution, focusing exclusively on agriculture, had listed 13 suggestions in the draft circulated at the executive. One of them was to bring down diesel prices as the international crude oil price had fallen. The suggestion was reportedly made by the BJP’s Kisan Morcha which held its national executive last week at Sona in Haryana to discuss the plight of farmers.

BJP sources said petroleum minister Ram Naik shot it down, saying the crude price level was still “fluctuating wildly”, and it was “risky” to lower prices. When petro prices were hiked, the global crude price was $30 per barrel while now it is $20. Some executive members said the $10 per barrel difference was good enough to force a review.

“For the past week, the price level has been unstable. Sometimes it is $25, sometimes $22 and today $20. If the government brings it down and the prices suddenly rise thereafter, its oil pool deficit will go out of hand,” said sources.

BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy said finance minister Yashwant Sinha had already stressed that if the international crude oil price went down, the government would take “note”. “But the disturbing news is that oil-producing countries have decided to reduce their output, so the government will have to study the situation afresh,” he said.

Krishnamurthy also claimed no one had criticised the Centre’s agriculture policy. “Hundreds of drafts may be there but the discussion took place on the basis of the draft placed before the members. Whatever they wanted to say they said, but no one was critical of the government’s policies,” he said.

The resolution endorsed the Centre’s virtual decision to restructure the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and allow private sector intervention in handling procurement, storage and distribution. “Limit the role of FCI to maintain buffer stock. PDS operations could be decentralised. This would not only minimise economic cost of PDS for BPL (below poverty line) section but also supplement the government’s efforts in setting up additional storage capacity,” it stated.

But BJP sources said the Centre’s move to involve the private sector in agriculture did not go down well with MPs from agrarian states, who felt it might benefit kulaks but would decimate small and marginal farmers. The resolution blamed the Opposition for “trying to misguide farmers that import of agriculture produce resulted in fall of prices of domestic farm produce”.

Eager to please the government, the BJP placed on record its appreciation of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, the Sarvapriya Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. It urged the government to publicise its directive to commercial banks not to punish rural loan repayment defaulters.


New Delhi, Jan. 4: 
BJP president Bangaru Laxman tried to push the Ayodhya issue on the backburner, saying the government would work within the confines of the national agenda of governance.

“Attempts were made to throw a spanner in this process by raising the question of Ayodhya. They (the Opposition) could not succeed. The Prime Minister has clearly spelt out the policy of the government,” Laxman said at the BJP national executive today.

He stressed that the National Democratic Alliance would “carry on the good work conforming to the coalition dharma to which we are committed”.

Laxman urged the national executive members to prepare for Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam by analysing the political situation and planning “effective” strategies.

The BJP had “immense opportunities” to increase its strength substantially in all these states and even make a bid for power either on its own or with its allies, he said.

In states like Assam where the BJP does not have an ally, Laxman called on members to identify potential ones.

“The morale of the party workers must be kept high so that they can face the challenge effectively,” the party chief said.

Laxman also underlined the need to build a consensus and “dedicate the next 10 years for total development, as envisaged by the Prime Minister”.

Calling on the BJP to “rise above controversies and contentions”, Laxman said the party should be the “true arbiter of the people’s causes” and its activism should be aimed at identifying the “ills and sore spots” and bringing “succour to the needy”. “An activist party instrument serves as an expression both of the popular will and popular participation,” he emphasised.

CPM blamed for attacks

The BJP, which was at the receiving end over sporadic attacks on the Christian community allegedly by the Sangh parivar, has now turned the tables on the CPM, reports our special correspondent. The party has charged the Marxists with attacking Christians in Kerala. It also urged chief minister E.K. Nayanar to take steps to ensure the safety of minorities in the state.

Referring to the recent incidents in Kerala this week, minister of state for railways O. Rajagopal alleged that the “communists, who have been posing all the time as protectors of the minorities, are the real enemies of Christians and Muslims in Kerala”.

In a statement here, Rajagopal said the CPM engineered communal tension in the state. He alleged CPM hand in the attack on a prayer meeting in Sreekantapuram in Kannur district this week and said the “minorities are little safe in the communist-ruled Kerala”.

The Union minister said the “CPM goons had threatened Father Joseph Panthaladikkal, the chief priest of the church, who repeatedly pleaded with them ‘not to disturb the prayer’ on January 1.


New Delhi, Jan. 4: 
Jockeying has begun for the 24 Congress Working Committee seats with Sonia Gandhi contemplating the induction of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as a special invitee in the apex body.

Rao is an All India Congress Committee (AICC) delegate as the lone, surviving former Congress president.

Sonia returned to Delhi today after a week-long holiday in Lakshadweep. Her office is flooded with appointment requests as she alone has a mandate to pick and choose.

The AICC’s central election authority chairman Ram Niwas Mirdha today forwarded her a list of resolutions adopted by AICC members from all over India asking her to name the entire CWC.

The “authorisation drama” has left many in the party fuming. The young Turks are particularly unhappy and they are still hoping against hope that “Madame” will insist on polls for half the CWC as envisaged by the party constitution.

However, that appears a remote possibility as Mirdha has already called off the two-day AICC session scheduled to begin on January 6.

Sonia was initially reluctant to accept the “authorisation bait” but some of her overzealous managers ensured that she was left with no choice but to “honour the mandate”. In the next few days, she will consult senior party leaders, chief ministers of the Congress-ruled states, state party chiefs, legislature party leaders and other functionaries before naming the new Congress secretariat.

Sources close to Sonia said she wanted to set some “ground rules” before going ahead with the new CWC.

For instance, the chief ministers and state party presidents will not be considered, except as special invitees. One possible exception to the rule is likely to be made for the Northeast from where Nagaland chief minister S.C. Jamir is all set to be inducted into the working committee.

Apart from striking a balance on gender, caste and regional lines, Sonia is weighing the pros and cons of drafting in Rao though a number of senior leaders opposed to the former Prime Minister are working overtime to block his nomination.

Rao’s role in Ayodhya and the charges of corruption on him are being cited as factors why he should be kept out of the CWC.

However, a small section of partymen feel Rao’s presence will be beneficial.

They point at his political acumen, grip over diplomacy, economic restructuring and security related issues as assets for the party.

They said if Rao was kept away from the CWC, the party will be deprived of a sane voice and wise counsel. Moreover, as a special invitee, he could be easily dropped in case he starts posing a threat to the leadership.

Rao’s induction or omission has now assumed so much importance that it will be seen as a litmus test for Sonia.

If he is kept out, Sonia will be seen as a factional leader still in control of those who left the party during the Rao regime.

However, if she goes for merit and sends out a signal that the days of coterie are over, the Congress under her may mark the return of “good old days”.


New Delhi, Jan. 4: 
In a visit that underscores the important position India has carved out for itself in the region, Israeli leader Shimon Peres is arriving here on Monday to brief the country’s leadership on latest developments in West Asia.

Ostensibly, the former Prime Minister is coming here to attend an Indo-Israeli business partnership being organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in Hyderabad on January 9.

But Peres plans to spend the previous day in Delhi, talking with Indian leaders about the latest developments in the peace process.

This is the second time in quick succession that Peres has decided to visit India for its support to the peace efforts in the embattled region. He came last September, close on the heels of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who, too, was here to give his side of the story to Delhi.

On Monday, the Israeli leader will meet external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and home minister L.K. Advani as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be leaving for a week-long tour of Southeast Asia on Sunday.

According to South Block officials, Peres’ visit was a reflection of India’s growing importance to both Israelis and Palestinians.

In private, the Islamic world has often described India’s stand as “soft-pedalling of Tel Aviv”. But though it has not gone down well with many Arab nations, it has paid Delhi rich diplomatic dividends.

India, which has traditionally enjoyed a warm and close rapport with Palestine, can today claim to be one of Israel’s closest allies and, that too, without compromising on the Palestinian cause.

However, there were no immediately signals whether Arafat, too, would despatch one of his emissaries to Delhi. But the two sides are in close touch through their diplomatic missions.

Last year, around November-end, K.V. Rajen (secretary east) in the Indian foreign ministry led an official delegation to West Asia to hold foreign office consultations with the Israelis. Rajen also took the opportunity to interact with Palestinian leaders.

India has not come out with any harsh statement against Israel after the recent flare-up, in which hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and injured in firing by Israeli troops.

But Delhi’s decision to hand over a Rs 50-lakh fund to the Palestinians for medical and humanitarian help appears to have gone down well with the leadership there.

One of the main thrusts of Peres’ discussion with Indian leaders will definitely be on US President Bill Clinton’s latest peace-package to restore normalcy in the region and its implications if accepted by both the sides.

Peres may also take the opportunity of asking Indian leaders — as they enjoy the confidence of Arafat and other senior Palestinian leaders — to build up support for the peace-package.

Discussions may also be held on the forthcoming elections in Israel and the possibility of Ehud Barak’s return to power as well as the implications of a hardline Israeli leader becoming the next Prime Minister of the country.


Midnapur, Jan. 4: 
An uneasy calm prevailed in Keshpur one day after a series of clashes left several Trinamul Congress and CPM workers injured.

Smoke still curled out of haystacks set on fire by the mobs yesterday. People stayed indoors today, only peeping out from their windows when noisy cranes removed the damaged buses and other vehicles. Scores of houses had been burnt and many policemen wounded in the violence.

No fresh clashes were reported today. Senior police officials are camping in the district.

Both Trinamul and CPM workers took out processions in support and against the Bangla bandh. The CPM has painted Keshpur red, flooding the villages with the party flag.

In Midnapore town, people went on a buying spree to stock up for tomorrow.

Dinen Roy, the district Trinamul secretary, said the party would try hard to make the bandh a success.

District CPM secretary Dipak Sarkar said his party will restrict its activity to anti-bandh publicity. “We will not resort to physical violence to foil the bandh as we are the ruling party.”

Inspector-general (western range) Jit Ram Bhagat denied the Trinamul charge that there was not enough security for Mamata in Keshpur yesterday. She has not complained to the police that she was injured in a CPM attack, he added.

Announcing the bandh at a press meet in Midnapore, party spokesperson Sudip Bandopadhyaya said: “A one-sided violent attack on our peace-loving supporters, who were returning home from yesterday’s meeting, proves that this government is pro-Stalinist in character and will not allow the electorate to participate in the ensuing poll peacefully.

“We have told Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was enquiring about Mamata’s health from the Prime Minister’s Office, that President’s rule should be immediately imposed in the state.”

Bandopadhyaya said more than 1,000 Trinamul supporters were injured, of whom 300 are in hospital. About 370 vehicles were damaged and 500 Trinamul supporters are still missing, he added.

Refuting police allegations that Trinamul supporters instigated yesterday’s violence and were responsible for injuring at least 40 policemen and setting four police jeeps on fire, Bandopadhyaya asked: “Can outsiders use weapons and use force in a foreign area like Keshpur and that, too, while going back home after attending a meeting peacefully? “

Calcutta mayor Subrata Mukherjee said the violence was a sign of “CPM’s frustration in view of the largescale attendance of people in our meeting.” He added that the Intuc will actively support tomorrow’s 12-hour bandh.

But the CPM is determined to foil the bandh in Keshpur. Tarun Roy, a member of district CPM secretariat who is also in charge of Keshpur, said there will be no response to the bandh call.

“You know only a few people participated in Mamata’s meeting from Keshpur. I tell you none will respond to the bandh tomorrow,” Roy said this evening.

Roy and other CPM leaders said the main purpose behind Mamata’s Keshpur rally was to create disturbance.

Mamata was not present at the press conference to announce the bandh. She was resting in her room in the Rani Shiromoni Lodge. Her roommate Sonali Guha said that she skipped the meet because of a throat problem and the injury on her leg.


Arambagh, Jan. 4: 
After two months of peace, Arambagh was again tense as supporters of the Trinamul Congress and the CPM clashed at Bulundi village. One house was torched and four ransacked.

Nine persons were admitted to hospital with injuries. Three of them had to be transferred to the zilla hospital later as their condition deteriorated.

Superintendent of police (Hooghly) N. Ramesh Babu said the CPM had filed a complaint against the Trinamul supporters in Arambagh police station for attacking houses of its supporters.

“The Trinamul Congress has not lodged any complaint till Thursday evening”, he said.

The police started conducting raids in the area but there were no arrests till Thursday evening.

Trinamul leader Akbar Ali Khondakar, who is now in Delhi, got in touch with Babu over phone and alleged that the police were not taking action against CPM supporters at Bulundi.

The trouble started early this morning when a group of Trinamul supporters assembled at Bulundi village and got into an argument with CPM supporters over the violence in Keshpur yesterday.

The altercation soon turned violent, with bombs and bamboos being used indiscriminately.


Malda, Jan. 4: 
Over 1,000 lorries bound for markets in Bangladesh are stuck on the Hilli border since December 31.

Officials said today the trucks, about 200 of them loaded with perishables such as fruits, were held up because of a bandh called by the Hilli Exporters’ and Customs Clearing Agents’ Association.

The association is protesting against “harassment” of its members and truck drivers by the Border Security Force (BSF).

“We were forced to suspend exports to Bangladesh and call the bandh because we could not take the harassment any more,” said Ujjal Saha, an association spokesperson.

“We have written to the district authorities as well as the external affairs ministry, seeking their intervention.”

The association alleged that the BSF harasses exporters and drivers even if they have the necessary clearance from Customs to move the goods across the border. “Once the vehicles are cleared by Customs, the BSF has no business to stop them,” Saha said.

Refuting the charge, a BSF spokesperson said the force only monitored the movement of vehicles as part of its measures to discourage cross-border infiltration.

The BSF has stepped up vigil on vehicles after discovering that consignment documents often contained serious discrepancies. “If the consignment is far heavier than the load mentioned in the papers, we will naturally like to know what else is being taken across the border,” the spokesperson said.

But Customs authorities are cut up with the paramilitary force and have written to the Union home ministry, pointing out how the BSF’s action is affecting exports. K.K.Pradhan, deputy commissioner, Customs, said from Siliguri that “we don’t accept BSF’s theory of illegal immigration. No agency, not even the BSF, can check a vehicle after we have cleared it. It is a patently illegal act.”

A meeting is scheduled for January 16 in Siliguri where senior BSF and Customs officials will thrash out the issue.

South Dinajpur magistrate Hitesh Kumar and superintendent of police Anuj Sharma said officers have been sent to the spot to ascertain the cause of impasse.


Calcutta, Jan. 4: 
Carpenters, cobblers, rickshaw-pullers, handcart pullers, railway hawkers and domestic servants will now be entitled to provident fund.

The state government today announced a social security scheme for workers in the unorganised sector.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta said the State-assisted scheme of Provident Fund for Unorganised Workers was the first of its kind in India. It would benefit 30 lakh workers and self-employed people in the sector.

The government will have to spend Rs 60 crore a year to implement the scheme which comes into effect from January 1, 2001, Dasgupta said.

The scheme will cover all workers in the unorganised sector aged between 18 and 55 with a monthly income of not more than RS 3,500.

Each worker will contribute Rs 20 a month and the state government will contribute a matching sum.

The deposited amount will be refunded to the account-holder with interest at the age of 55. In case of the death of a worker, the amount will go to his nominee. Loan can also be taken against the deposited amount three years after opening the account.

The amount will be kept in individual accounts in any nationalised bank and the pass books will remain with the workers.

Dasgupta said the interest would be the same as that given to employees in the organised sector by the provident fund commissioner.

“The bank where the amount will be deposited will give low interest but the government will provide further amount to make the interest same as provident fund,’’ finance minister said.

Dasgupta said a private agency would be engaged at the block and town level to help beneficiaries. The state government has identified 49 industries and 15 self-employed occupations under the unorganised sector.

The decision to launch the scheme comes after open criticism by transport minister Subhas Chakraborty who said the Left Front government had done little for daily wage-earners and unorganised workers. The remark had sparked a controversy with CPM state secretary Anil Biswas advising him to quit if he felt the government has done nothing for the poor.


Malda, Jan. 4: 
Former state Congress president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury triggered speculation of a split in the party by saying he would hold talks with Mamata Banerjee for a joint campaign against the Left Front.

Calling for a collective leadership, Chowdhury said neither the Congress nor the Trinamul could alone oust the Left.

Chowdhury, a rebel in residence, trained his guns on state Congress president Pranab Mukherjee and showered praise on Mamata at a press conference. “It is unfortunate that Pranab-babu does not take us into confidence on any party matter. He makes himself available only for a chosen few in Calcutta with whom he discusses policies and programmes. If you confront him for an explanation, he does not give a truthful answer,” he said.

“Only a mahajot with Mamata at the helm can conduct an effective campaign against the Leftists and oust them from office,” Chowdhury asserted.

The veteran leader from Malda said he had asked confidants Abdul Mannan, Sankar Singh and Paresh Pal to work towards forming a mahajot. “I myself will talk with her on this count,” he added.


Asansol, Jan. 4 : 
The lone non-government organisation fighting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and AIDS in the industrial belt around Asansol and Durgapur faces the threat of closure even before its second foundation day.

The Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (Care) had set up its branch, Shram Shakti Project, at Asansol in April 1999. But a dearth of funds has set alarm bells ringing.

Funded by the British government’s department for international development (DFID), the project was to combat the menace among “high risk groups” in the industrial belt, covering nearly 1.5 lakh people for five years.

Ashok Kumar Agarwal, the project manager, said funds started dwindling from the beginning of the current financial year. If this trend continued, the project would have to be wound up.

In the first year, the project covered the Satgram area of Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL), Burn Standard Company Limited and the red light areas of Asansol. The target groups included sex workers, industrial workers and their wives.

The organisation worked with over 1,000 sex workers in the red light areas of Lachhipur and Sitarampur in Asansol sub-division. This year, it has reached out to IISCO, said Seema Chakraborty, a project official.

The project plans to cover other parts of ECL, Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, Dishergarh Power Supply, Durgapur and other industrial areas like Titagarh in the next five years, she added.

“But if the flow of funds continues to be slashed, I don’t know how long we will be able to carry on this job,” said Agarwal. He would not spell out the amount received in grants so far.

Apart from the funds crunch, rigid rules are also a problem. Funds have to be routed through the state AIDS society, which follows the guidelines of the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco). Naco does not recognise industrial workers and their wives as target groups for HIV/STD intervention, explained Anita Pal Chowdhury, another project official.

The project authorities have approached the DFID headquarters in New Delhi and Naco to find a solution.

Sanjeeb Saha, a project official, quoted a report of the Needs Assessment and Baseline Survey that had found “high prevalence of STDs among industrial workers in the area”.

According to the survey, eight per cent of the industrial workers, 52 per cent of their wives and 42 per cent of the sex workers clinically examined showed symptoms of STDs. Alarmingly, almost 30 per cent industrial workers did not seek treatment from doctors.

Giving an idea of the project’s contribution, field officer Sonali Mukherjee said Shram Shakti has reached out to 1,36,438 people, treated 1,200 STD cases and distributed 2,84,274 condoms till November. The stigma attached to a patient suffering from sexual disease is on the wane due to its sustained campaign, Sonali claimed.

Two HIV-positive cases were detected in a factory in Asansol recently, but neither the company nor the workers had ostracised them, she said.

Among the target groups, the percentage of people aware of STD and HIV/AIDS has risen from 24 per cent to 43 per cent. The rate of condom use among sex workers in the belt has gone up to 38.9 per cent from 7 per cent last year.


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