Calamity connects Atal and Pervez
Seismic alert on city cousin
38 battle for life inside flooded coal mine
Budget bristles with tax tremors
Rush to touch ground in quake capital
Quake blow to infotech image
Calcutta Weather

 
 
CALAMITY CONNECTS ATAL AND PERVEZ 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 2: 
In a gesture being seen as setting the thaw in frozen bilateral relations, Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee started their first official contact this evening.

The five-minute conversation came along with Delhi’s green signal to the Indian cricket team to play in the Sharjah triangular against Pakistan and Bangladesh to raise funds for quake victims. Vajpayee himself directed sports minister Uma Bharti to give the go-ahead.

Earlier this week, Musharraf had conveyed his sympathies for quake victims in a message to Vajpayee and subsequently sent three planeloads of relief material. Though many saw this as a public relations game, Delhi could hardly ignore the gesture.

Though today’s conversation was very brief, its implications are much bigger. The PMO issued a two-para statement on the telephonic talks, which overshadowed Vajpayee’s chat with former US President Bill Clinton in the morning. Clinton, too, has offered to help reinstate quake survivors.

This evening, the Pakistan chief executive took the initiative to call up the Prime Minister to again convey his sympathy for “the great loss of lives and devastation caused by the earthquake in Gujarat”. The leaders spoke in Hindustani, punctuated in places with English words.

This was the first conversation between the two leaders since Musharraf seized power in 1999.

Musharraf appreciated Vajpayee’s gesture of publicly thanking Pakistan for sending relief, citing it as one reason why he called up. Vajpayee returned the thanks, saying his “gesture was greatly appreciated by the people of India”.

The Prime Minister assured Musharraf of “India’s continuing desire to build good neighbourly relations with Pakistan”.

The conversation, held between 7.10 and 7.15 pm, had become the talk of diplomatic circles much before it began.

South Block, however, sought to play down the conversation to ensure it is not seen as the first step to resume the talks stalled since February 1999. It was keen to establish that Vajpayee was merely acknowledging Pakistan’s aid for the quake victims.

There was confusion about who took the initiative to break the ice. This was sparked by a statement Vajpayee made at a function this afternoon that he would soon be speaking to Musharraf. The Prime Minister said he was happy that Pakistan was trying to help in India’s time of distress. But in the evening it was clarified that the Pakistan leader had picked up the hotline.

Speculation mounted in spite of Vajpayee making it clear in the afternoon that talks could resume only if Islamabad created a “conducive atmosphere” by reining in militants.

Asked if he would discuss other issues, Vajpayee said: “It is at the time of distress that people come together and share grief.” On whether this would lead to resumption of talks, he added: “We have always favoured talks for which the right atmosphere has to be created. Violence, killings and terrorism must stop and the climate should be such that fruitful and meaningful parleys can take place.”

In Islamabad, Musharraf expressed the hope that the chat with Vajpayee would lead to the resumption of talks.

By agreeing to take the call, Vajpayee has signalled that India appreciates Pakistan’s gesture and will respond favourably whenever Islamabad expresses the desire for good neighbourly relations. But at the same time, he has made it clear that the onus to resume talks lies with Pakistan.

Earlier this morning, Clinton spoke to Vajpayee and said Indian Americans were “very keen” to extend help to the quake survivors in whatever way possible.

   

 
 
SEISMIC ALERT ON CITY COUSIN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 2: 
Calcutta is safe, but residents of neighbouring South 24-Parganas beware. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) today warned that the district is more prone to seismic activity than other areas in West Bengal.

The department has divided the country into five seismic zones. West Bengal falls between categories three and four, that is, between the moderate and high-damage risk zones.

V.S. Ramamurthy, secretary, science and technology, said the met department is yet to carry out a comprehensive seismic study of Calcutta as it is not on its priority list, while Delhi is.

The Kutch, Himalayan foothills, the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar islands fall in the very high-risk Zone V.

Delhi comes next in the high-risk Zone IV. The IMD has prepared the seismic map in collaboration with the Bureau of Indian Standards and Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council under the urban development ministry.

   

 
 
38 BATTLE FOR LIFE INSIDE FLOODED COAL MINE 
 
 
FROM SALMAN RAVI
 
Jamshedpur, Feb. 2: 
At least 38 miners were trapped inside a flooded mine at the Bagdigi Colliery after a large pillar of coal caved in this afternoon. Officials said their chances of survival were slim.

The pillar at the eighth seam of the mine, under Lodna Area of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), gave way after miners used powerful explosives to excavate coal, causing the water in a nearby pond to gush in.

A manager and an assistant manager are among those trapped.

“Of the 51 miners on the morning shift, which began around 8 am, 45 had reported for work. Seven of those present for duty had come out seconds before the accident,” said a senior officer of the Dhanbad administration.

“Though it is too early to jump to conclusions, we fear that given the circumstances, those trapped inside might have been killed. Operations have been launched to flush out water from the mine,” the officer added.

“Water has come up to the mouth of the pit. This indicates there is no room for air inside the mine and as such the hopes for survival of any of the miners are little. The pond, spread over 300-400 sq. ft, was used to store water for mining purposes. The 100-foot-deep mine is completely submerged,” a police officer said.

Sources said the only way they could survive was to go to the right side of the flooded seam, which is at a higher level. “Pumps are being requisitioned from different mines to dewater the colliery,” they said. However, so far no communication has been established with the miners as telephones inside the mine were not working, they added.

BCCL general manager P.P. Singh, who is manning the control room at Lodna, said several heavy-duty pumps have been installed to flush out the water at the Jairampur colliery, which is interconnected with Bagdigi. However, it could take about 48 hours to empty the 12 million gallons of water that gushed into the mine. “We are hopeful,” Singh added.

The sources admitted that powerful detonators were used to excavate coal inside the mine. “It is a routine affair to use explosives to blow off the hard chunks of coal during excavation,” said an officer at the Lodna area control room. “Only an inquiry will establish why the pillar gave way to the adjacent pond. But prima facie evidence indicates that the explosion could have triggered the collapse. Pond water actually gushed in from the Jairampur colliery end,” he added.

“We heard a powerful explosion around 1 pm. The vibrations were so powerful that we thought it was an earthquake. Moments later we saw officials of the colliery running helter-skelter. We then realised that a mishap has occurred inside the mines,” said Krishna Agarwalla, who owns a phone booth near the colliery’s main gate.

Soon after colliery officials pressed the panic button, a team of experts drawn from the Mines Rescue Station and the Directorate-General of Mines Safety rushed to the spot.

Though the BCCL chairman-cum-managing director is out of station, senior officials are camping at the spot to supervise rescue operations. Relatives of the trapped miners have flocked to the mines and are camping there.

Police said though no case has been registered yet, a case of culpable homicide amounting to murder will be filed once they complete investigations.

   

 
 
BUDGET BRISTLES WITH TAX TREMORS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 2: 
The government is getting ready to bludgeon taxpayers in the budget and the 2 per cent super surcharge on corporate and personal income tax imposed yesterday has only served to whet its desire to heft the tax axe.

The raison d’être for the new imposts will once again be the quake-wrought devastation in Gujarat. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee indicated as much today when he said: “The 2 per cent surcharge is not enough keeping in view the magnitude of the devastation in Gujarat.”

Vajpayee, who was addressing journalists after launching an Urdu weekly, tried to soothe the already frazzled nerves of taxpayers by saying that the new levies would not be heavy.

North Block mandarins wore triumphant “I-told-you-so” grins on their faces when asked to explain what Vajpayee meant. Yesterday, they had indicated that the government was weighing the option of loading imposts on indirect taxes like excise to raise the requisite funds to deal with the calamity in Gujarat.

The bureaucrats said finance ministry officials were working late into the night to work the new imposts into the budget which is due out on the last day of this month. They admitted that the Rs 1,300 crore to be raised over the next two months from the income tax and corporate surcharge was a piffling amount and insufficient to mitigate the suffering in Gujarat.

The money being collected now will be funnelled to meet immediate relief expenses. But the government shoguns have to think ahead to see what they can do next to mobilise money for the actual task of re-constructing the ravaged state.

There were no specifics about the new imposts that the finance ministry was mulling. But sources said among the options being considered was the imposition of special levies of between 1-2 per cent on service taxes as well as on customs duties. The levy introduced through yesterday’s decision will obviously continue.

The Gujarat disaster could come as a quirk of fate for industry, with the government now likely to set its face against the growing clamour for tax reliefs in several sectors that have been wrestling with the problem of falling demand for goods.

Subsidies granted for cheap food and fertiliser are going to be cut further. The screws are likely to be tightened on government departments as well — instead of apportioning higher budget allocations, they will be asked to cut administrative expenses by at least 10 per cent.

The sale of public sector units and their assets will also be speeded up. The argument that the government will now be able to trot out is that the money is needed for Gujarat. Till now, one or the other minister or a political grouping had managed to stall the selloff of various state-run companies.

   

 
 
RUSH TO TOUCH GROUND IN QUAKE CAPITAL 
 
 
FROM AVIJIT GHOSH
 
Ahmedabad, Feb. 2: 
The stock of down-to-earth buildings has risen after the fall of the high-rises.

Much sought after until the killer quake, the multistoreyed buildings are the city’s new untouchables. Ahmedabad’s property dealers, whose voluminous presence is endorsed by the city’s yellow pages, are unanimous that they have not received a single buyer’s query for a high-rise flat since January 26.

“Instead, there is a rush to get out of high-rise buildings and move to single-floor houses,” says real estate agent Ramesh Shah.

The quake fear, fuelled by rumours of recurrence, has made people desperate to abandon even quality high-rises, which did not witness a single crack after the earthquake. “Good or bad, people have lost faith in all builders,” says another property dealer, Milanbhai Jethwa.

The rush to get out of high-rises has created a sharp rise in the rentals of single-storey houses, bungalows, row houses and twin bungalows.

“There is a 30 to 50 per cent rise in the tenement or twin bungalow rents,” says Shah.

What was available for about Rs 8,000 per month is now being offered at Rs 11,000 to Rs 12,000.

The rush for rentals is so high that property dealers are finding it hard to cope with the demand. Middle-level executives are believed to be pressuring their companies to find them accommodation closer to terra firma.

“Some companies have approached us for guest house accommodation. They want bungalows that can be shared by four to five families,” says Shah.

The sharp boom in rentals is in stark contrast to the near closure of the buying and selling business for the time being. According to market reports, nobody is interested in buying anything: a flat in a high-rise apartment or even a bungalow.

“Many people are interested in selling off their flats but there are no takers,” says Jethwa. However, that has not stopped bungalow owners from hiking their rates: both for sale as well as rentals.

Market watchers expect this slump to continue until the quake’s memory recedes into Ahmedabad’s subconscious. But they also forecast long-term changes in the shape of the city’s future skyline.

“We will see less high-rises now. Rather than invest in a luxury flat in a multi-storeyed apartment, people will prefer a smaller home on the ground or at the most on the first floor. The future points towards row houses, twin bungalows and tenements,” says another property dealer, who prefers anonymity.

From the property dealers’ point of view, there is a silver lining to the trend as well. Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya has said that the civic authorities have identified at least 175 buildings, some of them high-rises, as risky. At least 23 of these have to be demolished. This could lead to a growth in demand for buildings.

“Come what may, the demand for more buildings, even highrises, will continue. People cannot live in the open for ever. And not everyone can afford an independent house,” says the property dealer.

Property dealers predict a population shift towards more open spaces: from the crowded Satellite Road area towards plots available on the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar highway and the Bhopal area.

   

 
 
QUAKE BLOW TO INFOTECH IMAGE 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, Feb. 2: 
Indians on H1-B visas may continue to flood the Silicon Valley, but the Gujarat earthquake has knocked the bottom out of India’s image as an emerging information technology super power.

Government agencies in New Delhi and elsewhere have either failed or refuse to use the new power of the internet to organise relief and to put out timely information on the aftermath of the huge disaster in Gujarat.

In glaring contrast, the world wide web has been used by international relief agencies, the UN and foreign governments as the fastest and the least cumbersome way of coordinating help to the displaced, the injured and the hungry in Gujarat.

The solitary exception within the Indian government of effective use of IT in organising relief is the Washington embassy’s website. Not surprisingly, more than one lakh persons a day are visiting the site, which has the most comprehensive information anywhere on the internet on every aspect of the Gujarat tragedy. Since the earthquake on January 26, more than 17,000 people living in India have accessed the embassy’s website for information on the tragedy.

Belatedly, the Cabinet Secretariat is understood to be looking at the Washington experience as a model to be followed by other Central government agencies.

Ironically, it is at the most important government agency in New Delhi dealing with the earthquake that the use of IT is the most pathetic. The agriculture ministry’s Natural Disaster Management Agency, the primary coordination agency for dealing with the Gujarat calamity, has a site, but it represents the worst in bureaucracy. It is prolific in claiming what has been done, but offers very little by way of guidance to those who want to help or get information on what needs to be done or how..

Contrast this to the information provided online by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. It lists the priority needs in Gujarat on a daily basis: today the site called for mobile communication equipment, small generators, portable surgical units and medical hardware.

The UN’s disaster management team is, similarly, putting out information every day on the situation in Gujarat. The agriculture ministry’s disaster management site, on the other hand, has a list of an inter-ministerial coordination group, which “will plan, coordinate and monitor all relief operations relating to the procurement and despatch of essential items”.

The group was set up during the Orissa cyclone and has not been updated: it lists Orissa’s resident commissioner in New Delhi as one of its members. As if to mock the relief work, which is obviously still far short of Gujarat’s needs, the site also has an announcement, made in August 1999, setting up a high power committee headed by a former secretary to prepare disaster management plans in future.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 31.3°C (+3)
Minimum: 16.9°C (+2)

Rainfall:

Nil

Relative Humidity

Maximum: 94%,
Minimum: 39%

Today

Mainly clear sky. Possibility of morning mist or fog. Minimum temperature likely to be around 17°C
Sunrise: 6.20 am
Sunset: 5.20 pm
   
 

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