On a prayer for two days under debris
Tremor fears spark exodus
Advani heads rapid action force
Hindujas face CBI ‘evasive’ charge
Japan in film friendship
Saifuddin ready for war, minus Mamata
State cell to tackle quakes
Mahajot heat with ultimatum to Delhi
Highway robbers arrested
Haldia clinic

Bhuj, Jan. 30: 
Just about 3 feet. The gap between life and death.

Squashed between slabs of fallen concrete, Kusam Soni spent two days in her caved-in flat. Friday’s 7.9 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre near Bhuj, tipped the 7-storied Gokul Apartments over like a dumper truck dislodging its load of garbage.

Soni’s ground floor apartment fell flat on its face, sunk in by an avalanche of rubble.

As windows rattled and beds shook, Soni, 38, a mother of two, hit the floor instinctively, lying on her back. “The world around me collapsed. My fridge, television, cabinets, everything came down,” the housewife rescued on Sunday said. She closed her eyes when she saw the ceiling cracking up and then crashing down.

“When I opened my eyes several minutes later, I saw the ceiling hanging over my head barely three feet away,” she recalled.

Soni’s survival is nothing short of a miracle and her rescue is one of the few success stories in an otherwise gloomy scene in Bhuj.

Trapped under the rubble, she could not move her limbs for more than 50 hours. She didn’t have a drop of water to drink. “I prayed and prayed,” she said. When she realised she had survived the cave-in, Soni called out to her husband. But there was no reply.

“Fear swept over me as I felt I was going to suffocate.” To keep her nerves she repeatedly rattled off the Hanumanchalisa, which she knew by heart.

Her son, 5, and daughter, 7, were at school celebrating Republic Day. The school was spared. Her husband, who was out shopping, returned to find his wife buried under the rubble. “I called out to her repeatedly. But there was no sound. I feared the worst and began to cry,” Vinod Soni, a jeweller, said.

Soni said she heard her husband calling her name. “I kept shouting I’m down here. But my voice never reached him.”

Under the debris the trapped woman could not make out whether it was day or night. “There was darkness all around.” Shielded by the collapsed roof of her flat, she did not feel cold at all. “But I was very thirsty. When I became desperate, I tried to calm myself with prayers.”

All this time, her husband was frantically moving up and down the administrative hierarchy, requesting for a crane to search for his missing wife.

“They offered me a bulldozer instead. I refused because it could have killed my wife,” he said. The crane arrived on Sunday with rescuers. Huge chunks of concrete were winched away as rescuers dug through the debris.

“When the tunnel as long as 15 feet was ready, I popped in with the rescuers and called out to her,” Vinod Soni said. For the first time, he heard her.

Soni was reading a newspaper lying on a mattress in a tent at a makeshift hospital of the army. And she was smiling, among the few to smile in tear-sodden Bhuj.


Ahmedabad, Jan. 30: 
Gulabbhai Sanghvi was lucky. Friday’s killer quake struck when he was performing pooja in a temple. Not only did he escape unscathed, his five-member family survived, too.

But even before the relief had sunk in, the trauma began. His hometown Bhuj had been turned into a ghost town — flattened by the tremors that originated only 20 km away. He was so scared that he decided to leave till normality returned.

Gulabbhai is not alone. Hundreds from the worst-hit Kutch district have been pouring into Ahmedabad on their way to Mumbai, Vadodara and other “safer places”. Last night, Gulabbhai arrived in the city with 35 others.

“Nobody is going to stay in Bhuj,” said Prashant Shah, who is accompanying Gulabbhai. Four days after the earthquake, the bodies still trapped under the debris have started decomposing. The stench is becoming unbearable. Moreover, there is a strong possibility of an epidemic, Shah said, justifying the exodus.

Over the past two days, a steady stream of Kutchi refugees and migrant labourers have been flowing into the city. Some are putting up at the Jain Kutchi Bhavan in Paldi, while those left with no other means have headed for the already overcrowded railway station and state transport bus stand.

Jain Kutchi Bhavan, run by the Kutchi Jain Seva Samaj, can accommodate 2,000 people. The Samaj has two more multi-storeyed buildings in the city, which, too, have become shelters for the Kutchi refugees, who want to spend a few nights here before leaving for next destination.

“Though we have adequate facilities and can accommodate all those coming from Kutch, nobody wants to stay in Ahmedabad as they feel this city is equally unsafe,” said Jignesh Shah, manager of the resthouse.

But he is doing his best to help the shaken lot. “Since no Kutchi wants to stay here, we are arranging transport for them to go wherever they want to go,” he said. Shah has sent more than 300 people by train to Mumbai in the past two days.

Worse is the plight of those who have been rendered homeless and managed to flee from their destroyed villages with only the clothes they had on. Unable to afford the luxury of staying at the Jain Kutchi Bhavan or any other such place, they are camping at railway stations and bus stands, where utter chaos reigns.

Wood scarcity

As rescue teams extricate bodies cremating them is becoming difficult with an acute shortage of wood. Kutchis living in Ahmedabad have been supplying relief materials. They are now sending truck loads of wood as well.

With dead bodies piling up and waiting to be cremated, it has become absolutely necessary to arrange for wood.


New Delhi, Jan. 30: 
In a move that will ensure swift response to natural calamities, the Centre today decided to set up a permanent disaster management group (DMG) comprising senior officials and scientific experts.

The move comes a day after the Prime Minister visited Gujarat and said the nation was not equipped to tackle the catastrophe.

Top government sources said the DMG proposal figured in this evening’s maiden meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) set up yesterday by the Prime Minister. It is headed by L.K. Advani, and has George Fernandes, Yashwant Sinha and Nitish Kumar for members.

“The time has come to set up a DMG which will address what the country needs to do when calamities of such massive proportions occur and how best the government should be equipped to handle difficult situations,” Advani told reporters after the meeting.

The Centre, however, will not derecognise the crisis management group that is coordinating quake relief and rehabilitation under the chairmanship of Cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad.

The DMG to handle the Gujarat quake will comprise senior officials from various ministries and departments as well as seismologists, meteorologists, geologists and cyclone experts. Advani, the Gandhinagar MP, was the obvious choice to head the group, and will visit Kandla port and the devastated villages of Gandhidham, Anjar, Bhachau, and Rapar in the next two days.

The EGoM has been empowered to take independent decisions which will not require to be ratified by Cabinet before implementation and will be forwarded directly to Vajpayee. The panel has also been authorised to take financial decisions on Gujarat.

The panel held preliminary discussions on how to proceed and how best to involve the corporate sector in rebuilding Gujarat. It will deliberate on how foreign donations, material contribution and other assistance should be channelled for speedy reconstruction. “The quantum of budgetary support to the Gujarat government was discussed,” a member said.

Advani said he was impressed by the work of the foreign relief teams, and hinted that the Centre was planning to buy the sophisticated equipment used by them.

Donation tax relief

The Centre has announced 100 per cent tax deduction on donations made on or before June 30, 2001, to charitable institutions registered with the income-tax department for offering relief to the quake-hit.    

New Delhi, Jan. 30: 
The Bofors trial court today reserved orders on the Hindujas’ application to go abroad till February 1.

Additional sessions and district judge Ajit Bharihoke issued the order after CBI counsel N. Natarajan said the three brothers had been “evasive” during questioning and getting hold of them for further trial would be difficult as they had obtained citizenship of foreign countries.

The agency also said it did not object to them going abroad if the court obtained proper surety to ensure their presence for further probe. “Even if they were allowed to go abroad by the court, appropriate conditions should be put to secure their presence during their trial keeping in mind their past conducts,” Natarajan said.

The Hindujas’ lawyers said their clients were ready to give any kind of surety and security, including cash, and would meet all conditions imposed. They claimed the trio had cooperated with investigations and had come to India voluntarily, making clear their bonafide to face trial.

The court has directed the CBI to update it by March 19 on the progress in the extradition of Ottavio Quattrocchi from Malaysia and the status of Interpol’s red-corner notice against Martin Ardbo, the then chief of the now-defunct M/S A.B. Bofors.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, S.P. Hinduja denied that the brothers had not cooperated with investigations. “They (CBI) have not given a correct picture to the judge. We have answered all kinds of questions put to us by the CBI and there is nothing more they have to know from us. Yet they say we were being evasive. Nothing can be far from the truth,” he said.

Earlier, the Hindujas’ lawyers said the trio’s absence from their “global business headquarters” would lead to heavy losses and the court should keep in mind that they decided to appear before it without getting summons. They added the brothers had a “stake” in Indian society and business, and would never flee law.

“The brothers were among the first to avail of the people of Indian origin scheme floated by the Indian government so that they could come to India without even using their British passports,” they said.

SP, GP and PP had come to India on January 19 to appear before court. The CBI had accused them of getting 81 million Swedish kroners as kickbacks in the Bofors gun deal struck during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. But they claim the money they got from Bofors had nothing to do with the deal.

PP, a Swiss national, can take refuge under Article 7 of Swiss federal law. This provides that no Swiss national can be extradited without his written consent and even if a written consent is given, it can be withdrawn by him. PP’s lawyers said he did not invoke this provision to dodge the CBI.


New Delhi, Jan. 30: 
Differences on the nuclear issue notwithstanding, India and Japan are thinking of jointly producing a film, perhaps of the Bollywood variety, to signal normalisation of bilateral relations.

Indian films, specially the masala Hindi films, are popular in Japan and enjoy a viewership cutting across the age barrier. “Indian movies are fun to watch. They are a little strange too,” said Tomoko Hosino, a well-known actress now in India as a member of the Eminent Person’s Committee.

The panel, set up after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to India last August, is aimed at bringing the two sides closer through ideas and suggestions thrown up by members of the intelligentsia of the two countries.

The film, to be co-produced by the two sides, is being scheduled for next year to commemorate the 50th year of establishment of diplomatic relations between Delhi and Tokyo.

“In view of the growing importance of our two nations in Asia and the world, we are trying to identify areas where India and Japan can work closely with each other,” co-chairman of the committee Toyoo Gyohten said.

One of the areas of cooperation, though not being formally proposed at this juncture, is sharing of Japanese technology on building earthquake-resistant structures. Tokyo is sending expert medical teams to Gujarat to help in relief and rescue.

About five years ago, a major earthquake had rocked Kobe. Though it did cause some damage to life and property, the quake-resistant structures helped in avoiding larger devastation. In the coming days, the two sides may talk about cooperation in this area.

Gyohten said the two sides were looking at areas like agriculture, science and technology, information technology, tourism and culture for cooperation. However, he pointed out that there are some problematic areas too.

A major problem area concerns Japanese investors. About 200 private Japanese firms have invested in India. Japan is India’s largest aid donor and its total investment amounts to over Rs 10,000 crore. But Japanese investors continue to face several problems.

Jiro Aiko of Sony, who is on the committee, said though India has made major progress in infrastructure development, it still isn’t enough for potential Japanese investors.


Midnapore & Calcutta, Jan. 30: 
Expelled CPM leader Saifuddin Chowdhury, trying to bring together anti-CPM forces in Bengal, today ruled out any electoral understanding with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress.

At a news conference here today, Chowdhury, the founder of Jana Chetana Manch, an intended platform for convergence of Left and democratic, but anti-CPM forces, said he was opposed to forging links with Mamata because he regarded her as an “opportunist and most certainly not secular”.

“I would rather leave politics than join hands with her because she is not secular and because her Trinamul is an ally of the communal BJP. There is no question of entering into any kind of understanding with her,” Chowdhury said.

Chowdhury’s manch has evoked limited response so far from the CPM and other mainline Left parties. But the expelled leader hopes to join hands with transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, the resident rebel of CPM.

Though Jyoti Basu believes Chakraborty — regarded as his protégé — will not leave the CPM, Chowdhury expressed the hope that the minister, said to have been cornered in the party, will come out and form an anti-CPM alliance.

As an indication of a possible merger, Chakraborty will inaugurate a stall put up by Jana Chetana at the Calcutta Book Fair that opens tomorrow.

“We are not out to break up any party. If anyone wants to join us, we will welcome him. As for Subhasda... he will most certainly be with us,” Chowdhury said.

The new Left party, expected to be floated in February, will field candidates in all the 294 Assembly seats, Chowdhury asserted.

CPM state secretary Anil Biswas rubbished Chowdhury’s claim that Chakraborty will leave the CPM. He said that Chakraborty, being a “responsible leader”, would not leave the party under any circumstances.

“He can inaugurate as many book stalls as possible, but that does not mean he is going to leave the CPM,” Biswas said.

The party chief scoffed at last week’s meeting between Chakraborty and state Congress president Pranab Mukherjee on a possible collaboration between CPM rebels and the Congress.

Echoing Biswas, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said at Writers’ Buildings that he did not believe Chakraborty would quit the party with which he was associated for more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, Congress circles in Midnapore were upbeat over the presence of party MLA Ajit Khara, along with Chowdhury, in the sit-in that was organised during the day by the United Communist Party of India and Jana Chetana Manch.


Calcutta, Jan. 30: 
The West Bengal government is sending drinking water, medicines, blankets and tarpaulins for the earthquake victims in Gujarat.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today held a meeting with finance minister Asim Dasgupta and chief secretary Manish Gupta regarding sending of relief material to Ahmedabad and Bhuj.

Bhattacharjee also held a separate meeting with the disaster management committee to conduct a study in the state on the possibility of major disasters.

The committee, headed by the chief secretary, was formed to draw up plans for tackling any natural calamity. The secretaries of irrigation, agriculture, health, finance are the other members of the panel.

Bhattacharjee asked the chief secretary to negotiate with airline authorities in ferrying relief materials to Gujarat.

The chief minister said at Writers’ Buildings that a team of doctors had reached Gujarat and will work there in consultation with the local administration. He said Rs 2 crore had already been sent as a token contribution and more would be given later.

The medical team has informed the state government that medicine and drinking water are urgently required.

Bhattacharjee said arrangements were being made to send water in pouch packets, blanket, tarpaulin and medicine. As the relief materials are to reach immediately, it would be sent by air.

The chief minister said many people in the state were yet to receive news of their relatives in Gujarat.

“We are in touch with the Gujarat administration but it has become very tough to make contact. We are making all efforts to get news of people from the state who stay in the quake-ravaged areas,” Bhattacharjee said. He appealed to the people of West Bengal to donate money generously to the chief minister’s relief fund.

To enable the relatives of earthquake victims visit the state and to carry relief material, South Eastern Railway has decided to attach one additional second class coach to the Howrah-Ahmedabad Express today and tomorrow.

The finance minister said experts from the Geological Survey of India had conducted a survey on the possibility of earthquakes in the state a couple of years ago.

He said the experts had already identified some places as being earthquake prone.“We are studying the survey report carefully and shall take steps accordingly. The GSI scientists will conduct another survey,” Dasgupta said.

Railway aid

More than 1,400 officers and staff of Eastern Railway have donated one day’s salary to contribute Rs 1.61 crore to the Prime Minister’s relief fund on Gujarat earthquake.    

Calcutta, Jan. 30: 
At least 17 Congress MLAs in West Bengal have decided to serve an ultimatum on the high command by early next week, demanding seat adjustment with the Trinamul Congress in the coming Assembly elections.

The MLAs, who met in the Assembly last week, said they have begun a signature campaign. “But this is expected to take final shape when the Assembly resumes on February 5,” said a legislator.

The dissidents include several MLAs owing allegiance to former PCC chief Somen Mitra, who is opposed to any deal with Mamata Banerjee until she dumps the BJP.

The move to issue an ultimatum follows former state president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s renewed call for a mahajot with Mamata against the ruling Communists.

Chowdhury, defying the leadership, had declared that he would join a mahajot with Mamata despite her links with the BJP. The announcement flew in the face of his successor Pranab Mukherjee’s attempts to convince him of the dangers of a so-called grand alliance with Mamata and the BJP.

Chowdhury even dared the high command to take action against him. “We will bring about mahajot, come what may. The emergence of anti-CPM forces is the need of the hour to oust the ruling Communists from Bengal,” he announced.

Taking a cue from his mentor, Abdul Mannan, chief whip of the Congress Legislature Party, said today that he also favoured an electoral adjustment with Mamata “ignoring her BJP connections”.

Though silent on the proposed ultimatum, Mannan said: “There will be no end to the CPM’s 24-year misrule if we are unable to bring together anti-Left forces.” He suggested that it would be possible if the Congress decided not to put up candidates in the constituencies where “we are organisationally weak”.

Citing examples, Mannan asked: “What’s the use of fielding party nominees in the Garbeta Assembly segment where we have no strength?”

He said a one-to-one fight against the CPM has to be chalked out at any cost.

Another Congress MLA, Sougata Roy, said the majority of party MLAs is opposed to the manner the high command has been consistently ruling out a grand alliance with Mamata.


Siliguri, Jan. 30: 
Cooch Behar police have busted a gang of highway robbers, which had struck terror on the highways of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri for the past six years.

Gang leader Nagen Burman and four other members were arrested near Mathabhanga in Cooch Behar yesterday.

Cooch Behar superintendent of police Kailash Chandra Meena said: “The Mathabhanga police got a tip-off that the dreaded Nagen Burman gang had assembled at Bayishguri Kalibari on the outskirts of Mathabanga town to commit a dacoity. The police surrounded the area late last afternoon.

While two gang members managed to give the slip, gang leader Nagen and four of his associates were arrested after an hour’s chase.”

The gang has admitted to have committed several bus dacoities in Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts for the past several years.


Calcutta, Jan. 30: 
A diagnostic and day-care centre was inaugurated at Haldia on Sunday where a complete range of tests and therapeutic endoscopy facilities will be available for residents of the region. Called Apollo Cliniq, it is affiliated to the AMRI-Apollo Hospital in Calcutta and is promoted by Haldia Medicare. CT scans and image intensifiers for interventional radiology are among the state-of-the-art equipment that have been installed there.    

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