Mr Minister, if I can lift bodies, why can’t you?
VHP in orphan instalment scheme
Calamity surcharge on taxpayers
Quake-proof Bill for houses
Pakistan pads up for succour series
Calcutta Weather

Bhuj, Feb. 1: 
Since morning, Sapna Elahi Pereira, who calls herself a social worker from Mumbai, has been yanking cables from chunks of concrete and hooking them onto a crane.

The chunks of concrete with twisted rods are large. One, obviously the ceiling of a floor with a brown fan, its blades still unbent, is hanging from the middle.

Six days after the quake, the rubble of Bhuj still conceals the dead and the task of clearing the debris is painstakingly slow. Nobody wants to rush through the mounds: an arm or a leg might just come off a maggot-infested rotting body.

It’s only after 3 pm that the salvage party at what was once the Gokul apartments burrowed through debris and began to find bodies. The workers, some of them contract sweepers from Surat, are supervised by army officers and Sapna.

She helps them drape the bodies in sheets and take them to the road. The workers have been given anti-tetanus shots.

Sapna arranges the bodies on the roadside. There is only one truck and she must wait till it returns after taking three to four bodies at a time to the burning ghat. “Please get more trucks. This (the devastation) is unbearable,” she implores.

By 5 pm, Sapna is at her wit’s end. She threatens to get chief minister Keshubhai Patel to come and do the dirty job.

“Where’s Mansingh? Let him come and clear the debris,” she shrieks. Mansingh is the principal secretary, industry, and has been appointed coordinator for relief operations in Kutch.

At the collectorate, Sapna, her face covered by a makeshift mask, black jeans tucked into ankle-high boots, is shouting. “Mansingh, where are you?”

Minutes ago, Keshubhai Patel, Mansingh and Khodabhai Patel — the state industry minister — had driven into the collectorate. They had gone into a huddle in a tent just outside the collector’s office.

The commotion draws Khodabhai’s attention and he steps out, Mansingh behind.

“You,” asks Sapna, pointing to Khodabhai, “who are you?” “I’m the industry minister,” comes the reply.

“What are you doing here?” thunders Sapna. “I’m lifting dead and decomposed bodies. Why aren’t you?”

By this time, a crowd had gathered. Khodabhai’s patience is tested. “Madam,” he says, che-wing his words, “I’ve been here since the 26th evening. I know...”

Sapna cuts him short. “What are you doing?” she says. “You have abandoned responsibility. Hamari ma-behno ki shaklen dekhne layak nahin hain (the faces of the dead cannot be recognised). Where’s your government? It can’t even send trucks to ferry the dead.”

Khoda counters that the administration is doing its best. “If you can’t take it anymore, you can leave. We can manage on our own,” he tells a sobbing Sapna.

The minister continues with his monologue. “We have treated thousands of people. Relief is going everywhere,” he says.

“Do you think,” Sapna gets a word in, “it would take a government in foreign countries so long to clear debris?”

Khoda believes so. “There was an earthquake in the US two years ago. Even now, the debris has not been cleared in many areas. An operation of this scale is not possible anywhere, I can assure you,” he says.


New Delhi, Feb. 1: 
Gujarat orphans are now available on a “time-share” basis, courtesy the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

According to a scheme the VHP has come up with, if a foster-parent pays the outfit Rs 10,000, it will let him have a child for one year. If he or she coughs up Rs 1 lakh, he can have the child for life.

Although it has to be fully worked out, general secretary of Gujarat VHP Kaushik Mehta said on phone from Ahmedabad that the scheme has found takers because the donation is “so small”.

“Already 10 persons have come to us with Rs 10,000 each to take away a child who was orphaned in the quake. They will look after this child for one year each, so he will have an assured home for 10 years,” Mehta said.

What happens to the child after that? The children could always be accommodated in the ashrams run by the sadhus and sants affiliated to his outfit, Mehta said.

The idea of adopting children orphaned by the earthquake was first mooted by VHP working president Ashok Singhal at the Kumbh Mela. It reportedly found favour with Sadhvi Rithambara.

Mehta said Singhal and Rithambara would reach Ahmedabad on Saturday to discuss the matter with the Gujarat unit. “Rithambara has a big ashram in Hardwar and she has offered to adopt as many orphans as possible,” he claimed. So have the sadhus who are members of the VHP’s Marg Darshak Mandal, according to Mehta.

Voluntary organisations involved in adoption ridiculed the VHP’s move, questioning its locus standi to initiate adoption, which, they said, was enmeshed in legalities and was not a “simple, two-minute affair”.

Ajay Kumar Singh, project manager of the Delhi-based Prayas Observation Home, which offers guidance on adoption, said: “The whole thing sounds funny because it does not protect the child’s interest. If somebody adopts a child it should be for life. The VHP should keep the child until someone is willing to take care of or adopt him or her and has the means to cater to the child’s special needs.”

But adoption seems to be catching up with the Sangh parivar. Not to be left behind its progeny, the RSS is also toying with the idea of starting one or more orphanages in Gujarat.


New Delhi, Feb. 1: 
After the convulsions in quake-ravaged Gujarat, the government today sent a shock wave through the taxpaying community when it announced a 2 per cent Gujarat super surcharge on personal and corporate income tax.

The government had been preparing the people for such an impost ever since the tremors flattened towns and cities in Gujarat on Republic Day. But while everyone was expecting it to come in the budget (which would have made the tax effective from the next financial year), the government has decided to garner Rs 1,300 crore over the next two months of this fiscal itself, which will burn a hole in the taxpayers’ pocket sooner than anticipated.

The government, which announced a Rs 500 crore relief package for Gujarat earlier this week, said the entire proceeds from the quake surcharge would be funnelled into relief operations.

Briefing reporters after a two-hour-long Cabinet meeting, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said: “We will be promulgating an Ordinance imposing this tax and the money raised through this measure will be used to help the quake-hit state of Gujarat.”

Today’s announcement means that the income tax payees in the top bracket will now have to pay nearly 35.2 per cent tax. This includes a basic tax rate of 30 per cent plus a 15 per cent existing surcharge and will now be topped by today’s super surcharge, which is to be calculated over and above existing surcharges. Mahajan made it clear that existing surcharges would continue.

Surcharges are collected on taxes and not on earnings which means that an assessee paying Rs 10,000 by way of income tax will now have to shoulder an additional liability of Rs 200.

The Ordinance now being promulgated in view of the “exceptional and extraordinary situation” will be turned into a legal enactment in the forthcoming budget session of Parliament.

Government officials expect the super surcharge to continue into the next fiscal. They also expect surcharges on indirect taxes in the budget as well as massive cuts in subsidy Bills.

The government is also expected to announce other belt-tightening measures to meet the eventual huge costs of bringing life back to normal in Gujarat.

Independent estimates place the cost of re-building devastated districts of Gujarat at over Rs 25,000 crore. Much of this amount will have to be paid out by the government by rebuilding public infrastructure such as roads, airports, ports, schools and hospitals.

Tax-free donations

The Union Cabinet also decided to amend the Income-Tax Act to provide 100 per cent deduction for donations made to charitable institutions to provide relief to earthquake victims in Gujarat.

Until now, the 100 per cent tax deduction facility was extended only to donations made to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund and the Chief Ministers’ Relief Fund. Donations to all other charities could qualify for a tax relief of only up to 50 per cent. But today’s decision allows all charities working in Gujarat to offer up to 100 per cent tax relief, provided the money is given by this September-end and is spent by the end of March 2002.

Mahajan said the Cabinet had also decided to waive import duty on all materials, including construction material, meant for quake relief and rehabilitation operations in the tremor-hit state.

Materials like steel, cement, blanket and tents produced in India and intended for quake victims will be free of any excise duty.

The benefits of section 35 A-C relating to concessions will be available to all taxpayers, including corporates, that wish to take up relief work by themselves.


New Delhi, Feb. 1: 
Urban development minister Jagmohan is trying to bring in a law making quake-resistant certificates from structural engineers mandatory for all construction in cities.

The structural engineers — civil engineers who analyse and design the load-bearing structure of a building — will have to ensure that the houses have been built according to earthquake safety norms.

A code with separate guidelines for different seismic zones already exists in the country, but this is the first time a proposal is being pursued to incorporate it in a Central legislation.

Jagmohan pointed out that the norms were often flouted and diploma-holders, instead of engineers, were allowed to certify all buildings.

After the Centre passes the Bill — Jagmohan indicated he would try to have the law approved during the coming budget session — the states are expected to pass their own legislation.

The minister said that “under the proposed law, only duly registered and licensed engineers would be able to practise, prepare and submit structural drawings and plans to the competent authorities and certify safe construction according to prescribed norm.”

Several metros have municipal laws which make it mandatory that all building plans bear the official approval of a structural engineer.

In Calcutta, the rule was introduced after the Shivalik building collapse in which 16 people were killed. But diploma-holders are still allowed to certify buildings below a certain height. After the Gujarat earthquake, the West Bengal government is planning to review the building rules.


Calcutta, Feb. 1: 
Three days after sending the first plane-load of relief for Gujarat’s earthquake victims, the Pakistan government has cleared its cricket team’s participation in a fund-raising tri-series for the devastated millions.

Once again cricket seems to be the medium which could help improve Indo-Pak relations which recently hit the ocean floor. It’s for India, now, to play ball.

The initiative for the tri-series, which has no parallel, scheduled to be held in Sharjah from February 8 to 11, was taken today by the Jagmohan Dalmiya-headed Asian Cricket Foundation (ACF).

Besides Pakistan, the fund-raiser will feature India and Bangladesh. Had Sri Lanka not been busy with commitments in New Zealand, Sharjah would have hosted a unique quadrangular. The four matches (three league plus the final) will have ODI status, as the International Cricket Council’s approval is a formality. The needful will quickly be done.

The ACF, which came into being last year, works under the Asian Cricket Council umbrella. That it should have a “humanitarian face” is listed in its charter and the ACF couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate project.

This morning’s ACF meeting in Lahore is when the initiative took firm shape. Among those present was Lt General Tauqir Zia, the Pakistan Cricket Board chief and close lieutenant of General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s top gun.

The groundwork, though, was done at last night’s dinner for ACF delegates hosted by former Pakistan captain Rameez Raja at his Model Town residence.

According to sources, the Bangladesh government has also given its okay and, so, only New Delhi’s response is awaited.

Having accepted relief from Pakistan, it’s inconceivable that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government will withhold clearance for the Indian team’s participation. In any case, New Delhi’s stated objection is to the countries engaging in an exclusive series — the reason for cancelling the Indian team’s visit to Pakistan earlier this season.

India and Pakistan, incidentally, haven’t played each other since last summer’s Asia Cup in Dhaka.

It is understood that Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president A.C. Muthiah has already “informally” sounded out the powers-that-be. A formal application from the BCCI to the government for participation in the tri-series will be routed through the sports ministry tomorrow. Muthiah was about to board a Mumbai-Chennai flight this evening, when Dalmiya called on his cellphone to convey the ACF decision.

Apparently, Bangladesh offered to host the fund-raiser, but the ACF played safe by opting for neutral Sharjah. There was the possibility of the Pakistan government saying “no”, a fallout of the row between Islamabad and Dhaka following controversial remarks by a Pakistani diplomat late last year.

The diplomat was recalled, at Dhaka’s insistence, but the bad blood generated led to the scrapping of a Pakistan-Bangladesh series, which was to have filled the void caused by India’s no-show in Pakistan.

Expectedly, the tri-series will disrupt India’s preparations for the upcoming series against Australia. But, then, what has been planned is for a much bigger cause.

Specifically, phase I of the conditioning camp in Chennai (February 6-11) will be shelved and the camp will, instead, be held at one go from February 13-20. The Hero Honda-sponsored Challenger (February 12-15) will be postponed.

Most important, the selectors will meet on February 5 (assuming the government okays participation) to pick the squad which will leave for Sharjah in the early hours of February 7.

The Pakistan team also gets affected. It was to have left for New Zealand on February 10, from Karachi, but will now depart a few days late. Possibly out of Dubai.

As for Bangladesh, nothing gets disrupted. Indeed, the exposure can only be welcomed by a nation desperate for opportunities in the big league.

Meanwhile, contacted in Lahore, Dalmiya said the ACF is hoping to make a significant contribution. “Enough funds must be generated, or else, why have a fund-raiser?” is how he put it.

Only, it’s going to be a race against time. To get a title-sponsor. To award TV rights...

Though the issue then was different, the fielding of a joint Indo-Pak team in Colombo, just before the 1996 World Cup, was also a magnificent expression of Asian solidarity.




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Mainly clear sky, with morning fog. Minimum temperature likely to be 19°C
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