Nitish exit puts George future under cloud
Atal reigns over meet of little merit
Factions fight over Samata crown
Parched Bankura banks on CM’s poll sops
Buddha bandh slur leaves railway fuming
Parents close headless school
Villagers lynch two ‘dacoits’
BCCL, state in coal dues row
Distress sale as potatoes rot
New work rules for districts

 
 
NITISH EXIT PUTS GEORGE FUTURE UNDER CLOUD 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 5: 
The split in the Samata Party has cast a shadow over the political future of George Fernandes.

The break-up means the parting of ways of Nitish Kumar and Fernandes, old comrades-in-arms, who spearheaded anti-Laloo politics in Bihar.

Having burnt his boats with Nitish, Fernandes is likely to align with communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan who had recently floated the Lok Janshakti Party, splitting the Janata Dal (United). Paswan and Fernandes share a common aversion for Sharad Yadav and Laloo. The BJP may also support Fernandes if he joins hands with Paswan.

The defence minister is not in a position to win an election from Bihar with the help of rebel MPs who do not have a mass base. He needs the support of either Nitish or the Paswan-BJP combine.

The BJP is also opposed to the Dal (U)-Samata merger as it would rob it of the status of the main Opposition in Bihar. The BJP has 32 members in the House, the Samata has 29 and the Dal (U) 11.

Fernandes, Jaya Jaitley and Paswan were worried over the Nitish-Sharad Yadav moves to bring about the merger to split the RJD to expand the Dal (U) base.

The plan was to make RJD working president Ranjan Prasad Yadav chief minister of Bihar and split the Yadavs. But a potential Ranjan-Sharad-Nitish axis sent jitters through both Fernandes and Paswan and discreet moves were afoot to isolate them.

Sources allege that Fernandes even “faked” interest in splitting the RJD and had a long meeting with Ranjan on Wednesday, “only to ferret out information and sabotage the move”. Nitish’s camp believes the Fernandes-Jaitley duo had masterminded the split.

Yesterday, Nitish was to address a joint news conference with Jaitley at Fernandes’ 3 Krishna Menon Marg residence. But he left in a huff when he saw some rebel MPs.

Indications of future alignments became evident today with Paswan welcoming the split. “I congratulate those who opposed the merger with the Dal (U), which is the “B” team of the RJD,” he said, adding that Sharad Yadav was a liability for any party as he did not have any political base.

The break-up of the Samata has come as a godsend for Laloo. Indications are that the six-member rebel group may split again with each going in different directions.

Raghunath Jha, who was today elected Bihar unit chief by the dissidents, and Brahmanand Mandal were in touch with Laloo. Arun Kumar and Prabhunath Singh are likely to join Paswan.

Fernandes may follow suit at a later stage. Two MPs — Manjay Lal and Mahindra Baitha — and Sreenivas Prasad from Karnataka, the minister of state for civil supplies in the Vajpayee government, may stay with him. Minister of state for railways Digvijay Singh and Renu Kumari have aligned with Nitish.

   

 
 
ATAL REIGNS OVER MEET OF LITTLE MERIT 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Jan. 5: 
Barring an assurance on Ayodhya and a sop to farmer MPs in the form of a sub-committee to examine the Centre’s agriculture policy, the BJP national executive achieved little.

It was not political issues that overshadowed the two-day conclave, but the J.K. Jain saga that was set in motion when the former Rajya Sabha MP and owner of Jain Television was dropped from the executive on the session’s eve.

In his concluding address today, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was quoted as saying that his Ayodhya statements were made “after a great deal of thought and were not impulsively shot off”.

Vajpayee also said the Opposition, which was “bereft of issues”, had deliberately raked up the temple issue at every Parliament session to try and divide the ruling coalition. He claimed that even on agriculture, despite the Congress’s adjournment motion during the winter session, the Opposition had failed to put the government on the mat.

Asked if Vajpayee was referring to the statement in which he described the Ram temple as an “expression of nationalist sentiments” or his “Kumarakom musings”, a senior BJP leader said there was no “contradiction” between them.

“They all say the same thing in different language and are in perpetuity. It is only the media which is obsessed with contradictions,” the leader said.

Agriculture — on which the executive passed an entire resolution in its economic session — formed the main leitmotif of Vajpayee’s concluding address.

The Prime Minister pointed out that India was faced with a “paradox”: there was an abundance of foodgrain, yet large areas went perennially hungry. “The question before India is how to meet it,” he said.

But the resolution on agriculture, though reworked several times, offered little enlightenment and ended up as a whole-hearted endorsement of the Centre’s initiatives and proposals, including the move to usher in phased privatisation in the sector.

BJP spokesman Jana Krishnamurthy today announced that a seven-member panel, headed by former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Sekhawat, will be set up to study the Centre’s agriculture policy. The committee is expected to submit its recommendations within two months. BJP sources, however, were sceptical of any concrete outcome.

Even the Jain episode, which was supposed to have sent shock-waves through the BJP, ended up uniting the party.

A section of the RSS is believed to have used Jain to launch a smear campaign against the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and obliquely against Vajpayee himself and also to play on differences between Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani.

But sources said Advani checkmated the game-plan by being part of the decision to drop Jain from the executive.

   

 
 
FACTIONS FIGHT OVER SAMATA CROWN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, Jan. 5: 
The battle for the Bihar Samata crown raged hotter today with the two bickering factions holding parallel conventions to elect their own candidates for president.

While the rebel faction led by Raghunath Jha elected him their chief, Nitish Kumar’s camp authorised him to pick two presidents for the Bihar and Jharkhand units. Both factions claimed they were the “original Samata”.

Nitish, however, held back from publicly naming his candidates in his convention at Vidyapati Bhavan, ostensibly keeping the door open for the rebels to fall in line. Three km away near Gandhi maidan, Jha’s camp railed against Nitish’s, dubbing it the JD (U) Samata.

While Jha declared it was impossible “to stick on to Nitish Kumar’s company” after his quit charade, the former agriculture minister said he would elect a state chief “who would not “try to hijack party issues or blackmail the national president”.

Troubleshooters Digvijay Singh and Umashankar Singh, deputed by George Fernandes to broker truce, visited both camps by turn. Digvijay first pleaded with Jha to call off his meet, who snubbed him, saying: “Better convey this to Nitish Kumar who has already joined a camp.”

Digvijay then hopped over to Nitish’s convention, spoke in the former minister’s favour and denounced the rebels as “upstarts”, making no bones about his political preference.

Three MPs were spotted at Nitish’s camp —- Renu Singh, Digvijay and Lallan Singh. Though his camp boasted of the support of many MLAs, Sunil Pandey and Mohamed Obedullah were absent.

Leaders at Jha’s meet included Prabhunath Singh, Arun Kumar, Brahmanand Mandal, Mahendra Baitha and Manjoy Lal. Prabhunath proposed Jha’s name for president, which was passed by a voice vote. Prabhunath then said Jha’s name would be forwarded for ratification to Fernandes, who “had agreed to accept Jha as a state leader”.

Jha said after the election: “The mandate is now clear, we are the original Samata.” Nitish countered: “We are the actual Samata. Others are out to malign the history of the party.” Grassroots workers were left looking from one camp to the other in search of the real Samata.

   

 
 
PARCHED BANKURA BANKS ON CM’S POLL SOPS 
 
 
FROM UTPAL BANERJEE
 
Bankura, Jan. 5: 
Drought-affected Bankura is getting ready to welcome chief minister Buddhaddeb Bhattacharjee, who arrives here tomorrow.

With Assembly elections round the corner, the visit has roused “expectations” in the Left Front circles of this “backward” area.

People are hoping the chief minister will announce some employment generation schemes for residents of the district which is reeling under a drought-like situation for the third successive year, said district CPM secretary Amiya Patra.

Bhattacharjee, who is visiting Bankura for the first time since taking over, will inaugurate the new building of the police superintendent’s office and the subdivisional hospital at Bishnupur. He will also hold a meeting with members of the district planning board to discuss “problems and prospects” of the district.

The chief minister will be given a reception by the district Left Front committee on the bank of the river Gandheswari in the afternoon. He will address a public meeting there. About two lakh people are expected to attend the rally, Patra said.

The chief minister’s scheduled meeting with district officials, including zilla parishad chairperson Tarubala Biswas and district magistrate Dilip Choudhury, is considered crucial in view of the prevailing drought.

Agricultural labourers are the hardest hit by the three-year dry spell. Busloads of farm workers are migrating to the adjoining districts of Burdwan and Birbhum, which are relatively better off, in search of work.

Over 30 per cent of the land here has not been cultivated this year. Crop in over 25 per cent of the land has wilted in the absence of rain, district authorities said.

The district’s Left Front committee had sent a team to Writers’ Buildings on December 27 to discuss the issue with the chief minister.

The delegation had asked for measures to solve the acute problem of rural unemployment during the lean months. Patra said the team had asked for Rs 15 crore to dig ponds and purify water reservoirs. Another sum of Rs 15 crore was sought to construct and repair roads in the villages. This would also generate opportunities in the countryside, Patra said.

There has been virtually no rabi or boro cultivation this season because of lack of water for irrigation, a senior district official said. The Kansabati reservoir has dried up and not much water is available from the Damodar Valley Corporation. The rapid fall in the level of sub-soil water has been causing concern. Tube wells remain idle as the level has gone down by five to eight metres. Ponds are also fast drying up.

“You can imagine what lies in wait for our district and the adjoining Purulia district under the plateau region with the advent of summer if some remedial measures are not taken up right at this moment,” the official said.

Official circles are hoping that the district will receive some “poll gifts”. They believe that with elections due soon, the government will not allow the situation to get out of hand. But the Opposition does not share the optimism.

Debaprasad Kundu, the chairman of the Trinamul Congress-ruled municipality, and Congress leader Kashinath Mishra do not expect any good to come out of the visit. “Bhattacharjee’s visit is an election rally. We have no expectation from him, “ Kundu said.

   

 
 
BUDDHA BANDH SLUR LEAVES RAILWAY FUMING 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Jan.5: 
Train services on Eastern and South-Eastern Railway and the Metro Rail were affected by a large number of obstructions on tracks by Trinamul Congress supporters.

Officials said Metro Rail has never seen such an intense agitation by its checking assistants and other casual employees, most of whom belong to the Trinamul.

“When 56 Leftist organisations called a bandh on December 11 in 1998 and the Citu and Intuc together called a bandh on February 8 in 1999, Metro services were much better as there were no squatters on the tracks. The police removed those who tried to create trouble outside the stations,” a senior official said.

Officials said there were fewer obstructions in previous bandhs on the railway tracks in Howrah and Sealdah divisions, as a result of which more trains could be run.

As train services were suspended in the Howrah, Sealdah and Asansol divisions since morning, attendance in government offices and establishments was thin.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee charged the railway authorities with “covertly participating” in the bandh called by their minister, Mamata Banerjee.

“It is true that Trinamul Congress supporters have squatted on the tracks at a number of places and at Metro stations. But the police quickly dispersed the squatters. Even after that, the railway authorities refused to run trains despite our repeated requests. It seemed they were determined to make the bandh a success to oblige their minister,” he said.

Senior railway officials reacted sharply. “What nonsense .... It’s absolute rubbish ..... You must be joking,” said I.I.M.S. Rana, the general manager of both Metro Rail and Eastern Railways.

“We ran special patrol trains this morning to carry the jawans of the government railway police (GRP) to many places, including Dankuni, Ranaghat and Baruipur. We lodged 24 FIRs with the police. We even operated about 14 Metro trains between Dum Dum and Girish Park. But we could not run the trains because of prolonged squattings. We tried our best to maintain the services.”

A large number of casual employees from Trinamul switched off the power supply in the third rail and squatted on the tracks at Rabindra Sadan, Jatin Das Park, Sobhabazar, Tollygunge and Rabindra Sarovar. “They were incorrigible. When we removed them from Rabindra Sadan, they promptly went to Jatin Das Park. It became impossible for the authorities to operate the trains,” said Narayan Ghosh, deputy commissioner of police (headquarters).    


 
 
PARENTS CLOSE HEADLESS SCHOOL 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Malda, Jan. 5: 
Fed up with the way a school was being run at Kahala village in Ratua, parents have locked it up.

The school with 1,500 students has not had a headmaster for five years and its 15 teachers are not regular. It has also not had a managing committee since 1965.

Teacher-in-charge of the school Abinash Chandra Singh admitted that classes were not held regularly. “We have an inadequate number of teachers and several are always on leave. But it is not true that studies have gone to the dogs. I have also repeatedly requested the district inspector of schools for the appointment of a headmaster,” he said.

Villagers alleged that the teachers do not take classes in school but have flourishing private tuitions. “We have tried to draw the attention of the teacher-in-charge several times but all our appeals have fallen on deaf ears. There is no fixed time-table for holding classes,” said one parent.

Villagers also raised questions about the way accounts are maintained. “The school takes a hefty sum as donation during admission of pupils to Class V and the provident fund contribution is made from there.” The teacher-in-charge denied the allegation.

Parents locked the main gates on Tuesday. Several students went to school on Wednesday, but returned home after waiting for some time. “We will not allow the school to reopen until the district magistrate or the district inspector intervenes,” one parent said.

Singh said he had filed a complaint with the Ratua police station about the school being locked and also informed the inspector. “I suspect that a section of people of Kahala and adjoining villages don’t want me as the teacher-in-charge. I want to resign but whom do I submit my resignation to?” he asked.

However, inspector Manoranjan Biswas said he was unaware of the incident. “I am looking into the matter,” he added.

   

 
 
VILLAGERS LYNCH TWO ‘DACOITS’ 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Jan. 5: 
Two persons were lynched and one seriously injured at Mandirbazar in South 24-Parganas for allegedly attempting to commit a dacoity.

Around 5.30 am, six youths were seen moving around suspiciously in Gabberia village. The villagers first questioned them but did not get any satisfactory reply. while the others were talking, three youths managed to escape.

The villagers then started beating the rest with iron rods and lathis. Two of the youths died on the spot and the third was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.

Police said one of the victims was later identified as Akbar. He was wanted in a number of cases, including dacoities and murder.

The incident happened close to the spot where two persons were killed in a clash a few days ago.

CPM legislator Nikunja Paik said: “The successive incidents of killing have made the villagers shaky. Moreover, after the first incident, police were informed to take proper action and post personnel in the village. But they did not pay heed to our request”.

A police picket has now been posted in the area. Senior police officers, including the sub divisional police officer, have visited the spot.

The Congress legislator from Diamond Harbour, Seikh Doulat Ali, said: “This subdivision has of late become a hot bed of violence. There were dacoities in Usti and Madhyamaruiberia. Before that, two persons, including a woman, were killed.

“After the dacoity at Madhyamaruiberia, the chief minister came and promised the villagers security but nothing happened. Today’s incident has only proved that.”

The sub divisional police officer of Diamond Harbour, D.S.Rudra, however, said: “The two incidents of killings were different. The first had some political colouring but today’s incident happened due to mob fury. In the first incident, some arrests were made.”

   

 
 
BCCL, STATE IN COAL DUES ROW 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Durgapur, Jan. 5: 
The state-owned Durgapur Projects Ltd (DPL) is facing an acute shortage of coal which will only get worse if Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) stops supply.

BCCL has warned that if all its dues are not cleared immediately, it will stop supply. A letter to this effect has reached DPL. The dues run up to Rs 43 crore.

The coal shortage has virtually reduced the “pushing number” of DPL’s coke-oven plant to half of its rated capacity. A.K. Dubey, DPL chairman and joint managing director Tarun Chatterjee met power minister Mrinal Banerjee at his residence recently to sort out the problem.

Dubey said BCCL has agreed to continue sending two rakes of coal as a temporary measure but is firm that its dues be cleared immediately.

The power minister, however, said it was not possible to pay up the BCCL at present. He would rather wait for the finalisation of the ongoing talks with the Centre on all pending dues of different Central government organisations.

Banerjee said: “We are trying to securitise the entire amount of Rs 2,200 crore of dues to different Central government undertakings. That will solve the crisis. It is not possible to sort out the crisis of any particular unit by paying off its dues only.”

The government plans to raise money by floating securities which will be picked up by banks. The loan will be used to pay up the Centre. The banks will be repaid later with interest.

Banerjee said the proposal to securitise the dues was first made by the Centre.

“Since February last year, discussions are on with the Centre. If it comes though, the Centre will buy bonds and we have to ensure a monthly premium of Rs 40 crore for a period of 10 years to an escrow account to neutralise the dues.”

Banerjee visited Delhi twice to discuss the progress with the Union power minister last month. But BCCL’s “non-cooperation” has disappointed him.

“How can a Central undertaking behave this way?” he asked. He argued that before making such demands, the Union government should clear its own undertakings to the state power sector.

   

 
 
DISTRESS SALE AS POTATOES ROT 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 5: 
Potato prices have been slashed by half in three months, bringing cheer to consumers but leaving the farmers very worried.

About 330 cold stores in the state, which are usually empty by November 15, are still holding 10 lakh tonnes of potatoes this year.

Most of this stock will be turned out into yards to rot because the cold stores have to be cleaned for the new crop. About three-and-a-half months are required to get the stores ready. The new potato crop will start arriving from March 1.

As a result, farmers are resorting to a distress sale. Crop worth Rs 100 is being sold for Rs 70. For a reasonable profit, crop worth Rs 100 should be sold at Rs 350.

The price of potatoes has come down from Rs 5 a kg in late September to Rs 2.40 a kg. Officials in the agricultural marketing department do not expect the price to cross Rs 5 a kg till December.

West Bengal had produced 75 lakh tonnes of potatoes last year. Harvesting of this year’s crop has already started. Another 75 lakh tonnes of potatoes are expected. The total cold storage capacity in West Bengal is 37.4 lakh tonnes.

The bumper crop last year was not the only reason for the glut. The introduction of railway transport in the sector is also a factor. After the railways’ entry, pharias (middlemen) were pushed out of inter-state trading because they could not compete with the low transport cost.

The pharias used to send their consignments to Assam, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh by trucks. The cost of road transport is about three times higher than that of rail transport. So the bigger farmers who had enough produce to fill entire wagons opted for rail transport.

But the smaller farmers were left with no way to send their produce outside the state. They could not afford to book railway wagons as their produce was too little. With the pharias out of the trade, there was no way of sending it by road either. As a result, the stock kept piling up in the cold stores.

“Introduction of railway wagons in transporting potatoes to Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa was the root cause,” said a senior agricultural marketing officer in the state government.

Satyanarayan Agarwal of Shyambazar potato market said: “The prospect of potato trade is bleak because of the bumper winter crop.”

According to agricultural marketing department the Hooghly district will be the hardest hit as 70 per cent of the total potato crop in the state comes from the district.

Recent slum in the paddy market may also adversely affect the Rs 3000-crore potato trade in the state by bringing down prices further as less money in the hands of the cultivators will pull down the demand for potatoes in the local market .

   

 
 
NEW WORK RULES FOR DISTRICTS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 5: 
The state government today announced a series of rules to restore work culture in the districts.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta held a meeting with chief secretary Manish Gupta to finalise the rules which come into effect on January 15.

The government has formed a three-member task force to check the attendance of government offices and submit a monthly report to the finance secretary.

Employees who stay out of office for work, such as inspection, will now have to maintain a field diary. They will have to inform department heads of their programme seven days in advance. Employees cannot leave the district office for tours without taking permission 15 days in advance.

   
 

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