Army admits firing in somersault
‘Budget-busy’ Mamata cancels Ghani meet
Moopanar on DMK wish list
Pawar relief proposal comes to PM rescue
Solar solace from B-school
Militancy taint on bypoll
Cloud on IISCO revival
Arrows greet greens
Chop & change poll ploy for CPM
Kerosene crisis in exam run-up

Srinagar, Feb. 18: 
The army today admitted that an officer had ordered “controlled firing in air” at Hygam on Thursday, ending days of finger-pointing between the police and the military.

Both the Jammu and Kashmir police and the army had accused each other of opening fire on the villagers, protesting against the alleged custodial killing of a local pharmacist. Five civilians, including two women, had died and 18 others injured in the incident.

“The convoy commander exercised his right to protect a military operational convoy, and in exercising his right to self defence, he ordered five of his men to open controlled fire in the air and move on quickly to the destination,” army commander Lt. Gen. J.R. Mukherjee told reporters in the fortified corps headquarters at Badami Bagh.

“Immediately on reaching his destination, the convoy commander reported the entire incident to his superiors,” he added.

Giving details of Thursday’s incident, Mukherjee said an army and another security force convoy were held up when a crowd blocked the Srinagar-Baramulla highway, demanding the body of Jaleel Ahmad Shah. “Shah was a militant of the Harkatul Jehadi Islami, who died in a security force operation on Thursday morning.”

The convoy commander, Mukherjee said, immediately asked for help to clear the highway. Police and additional troops arrived and tried to pacify the crowd. Initially, they were successful as the protesters moved off the road, and the convoy was asked to proceed.

“As the convoy started moving, the crowd turned violent and started pelting stones and kangris (fire pots) at the convoy. There are reports of some elements firing at the convoy,” the army commander said.

The army has ordered “a detailed inquiry into this unfortunate incident”, Mukherjee added. The death of a 14-year-old boy in firing by troops at Maisuma is also under investigation, he said.

But the sparks generated by the incident refused to die down. Nearly 25,000 people — one of the biggest gatherings in the state in recent years — joined Shah’s Fateha (prayers after death) ceremony at Hygam today.

Anticipating trouble, the government had put the senior All-Party Hurriyat Conference leaders under house arrest. But Shia leader and Hurriyat executive member Moulvi Abbas Ansari managed to reach Hygam and led the prayers.

Addressing the mammoth gathering, the Moulvi said that “innocent civilians have been targeted” during the ceasefire. “Your only fault was that you were asking them to hand over the body of Jaleel Ahmed Shah, killed by them in custody. Instead of handing over the body, they showered you with bullets. Is this the ceasefire?” Ansari asked, saying that only a ceasefire was no solution to the problem. “The government should take other steps to resolve this dispute,” he added.

Sopore police chief Showkat Malik personally supervised the security arrangements. Senior district police and civil officials were also present in the village.

Earlier, the deputy home minister and works minister were heckled by the angry crowd. They were booed and greeted with shouts of “Killers go back”. Police officials had to escort the ministers out of the village.

Crippling curfew

A strike and curfew crippled normal life for the third day in Srinagar, which remained tense with protesters clashing with the police throughout the day in various parts of the city. Two persons were injured when police opened fire to disperse demonstrators at Bagiyas.

A police sources said trouble started when a mob, raising anti-India slogans, hurled stones at the police at Bagiyas this afternoon.

A baton charge failed to disperse the protesters, who began to pelt stones. The police then opened fire, seriously injuring two youths, identified as Bilal Ahmed and Riyaz Ahmad. Reinforcements were rushed in as women began pouring out on the streets.

Despite patrolling by paramilitary and police personnel, protesters threw stones at the securitymen, forcing the police to fire teargas shells and resort to baton charge in several areas.


New Delhi, Feb. 18: 
A pact-shy Mamata Banerjee cited pre-budget commitments to call off a meeting with A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury sending fresh tremors through the Congress.

The Trinamul chief is insisting upon having an “open” alliance with the Congress and the BJP —- a proposition that is unacceptable to the Congress. She has also rejected Kamal Nath’s formula suggesting a three-way alliance that envisaged the Congress fielding candidates against the BJP but leaving seats for Trinamul in exchange of a similar gesture from her.

Mamata phoned Chowdhury expressing regret over her failure to call on the Malda MP. While pro-mahajot Congress MLAs were still hopeful for a “working solution,” many in the AICC did not share the optimism.

They said the “budget excuse” will go on till February 26 admitting that it will make party MLAs jittery.

The Congress camp was also upset over Ajit Panja’s remarks that targeted state party chief Pranab Mukherjee.

Trinamul leaders however, made it clear that Mamata had no intention to snub “Barkatda”. They said the railways minister was fighting a grim battle with finance minister Yashwant Sinha and top government functionaries, who are insisting on hiking passenger fare and freight charges.

“For Mamata didi, presenting a soft budget is more important as it will make or mar our prospects,” a Trinamul leader said, pointing out that seat-adjustment with the Congress is a “minor issue” compared to the ongoing battle in Rail Bhavan.

Sources said Mamata was neither willing to toe the Congress line nor prepared to burn bridges with the BJP.

An alliance with the BJP is high on her agenda and she plans to bring out a common manifesto with the BJP. “She wants everything across the table, nothing tacit or hidden,” a Trinamul leader said.

He added that the Trinamul chief was not “ashamed” of having a tie-up with the BJP. If Mamata goes ahead with a common manifesto with the BJP, the Congress will have no option but to distance itself from the Trinamul.

Trinamul sources said if nothing works out between her and the Congress, she may still make some “concessions” for some Congress MLAs close to Chowdhury. Chowdhury supporter Shankar Singh met Mamata but the Trinamul chief remained non-committal.

In the evening, Congress MLAs camping in Delhi called on Mukherjee who is leaving for Chennai to hold talks with Jayalalitha.

The Congress leadership fears a minor split in the state Congress though it is trying hard to limit the damage. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is in constant touch with Kamal Nath to keep herself abreast on Bengal developments.


Chennai, Feb. 18: 
Merely two days after declaring that he had given up on the Tamil Maanila Congress and would go ahead with seat-sharing talks with his NDA allies and some new entrants such as the Pudhiya Thamizhakam, a Dalit organisation, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi back-pedalled.

“I am willing to hold direct talks with TMC chief G.K. Moopanar if he is so inclined…but then he is refusing to respond. What can I do? We have already had a few rounds of discussions with the TMC leaders. The hitch is only over the number of seats it wants to contest. We are willing to concede 40 seats, but they want more,” Karunanidhi said.

The chief minister could be trying to sabotage a possible TMC-ADMK alliance by revealing that Moopanar has one foot in the DMK camp also. Alternatively, he could be trying to woo back Moopanar, with whom he has very good personal rapport.

Recently, when Murasoli Maran was ill and an anxious Karunanidhi was pacing the corridors of the hospital, Moopanar spent one whole night trying to console him. Even after they fell out two years ago, the two did not trade personal charges. Karunanidhi’s son and heir-apparent, M.K. Stalin, is also known to be close to the TMC chief.

On his part, Moopanar would also prefer to associate with the DMK chief than with the temperamental lady from Poes Garden.

But Moopanar, who is betting on the TMC’s merger with the Congress in the not too distant future, cannot afford to cast his lot with any front in which the BJP is present.

This has posed problems as Karunanidhi is not inclined to leave the NDA. He has made it clear that appeasing the squeamish TMC is not on his agenda. Industries minister Maran is also strongly against any such move.

Besides, most TMC cadre prefer to plump for the ADMK as they perceive it to be the winning horse.

The Congress, meanwhile, continues to be on the horns of a dilemma. Even Priyanka Gandhi is believed to have expressed strong opposition to joining hands with a party that glorifies her father’s killers.

An angry Jayalalitha has reiterated through the columns of a newspaper that the Congress has no business carping about her alliance with the PMK. The ADMK chief has also let it be known that she had kept the Congress high command on tenterhooks for days before condescending to meet the party’s emissaries, Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad, tomorrow.

The Congress is trying to put on a brave face by claiming that it would decide on the alliance issue only after obtaining some “clarification” from the ADMK on the PMK’s position in the front.


New Delhi, Feb. 18: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel were put on the defensive when Congress president Sonia Gandhi raised the issue of alleged discrimination in relief distribution on caste, communal and political grounds in the quake-ravaged state in a meeting of the National Committee on Disaster Management.

Vajpayee and Patel denied the charge, but followed it up with an assurance that a “strict vigil” would be maintained to ensure that “no discrimination will be made and all help will go to the needy irrespective of religion, caste or political affiliations”.

Committee vice-chairman and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar came to the Centre’s rescue, proposing that the village-level rehabilitation committees include one Dalit, one woman and one minority representative, wherever the last group was in large numbers.

Pawar’s proposal was readily accepted by Patel. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan told reporters: “This will help us fight the allegation of discrimination.”

Reports have come in from the state of how the upper castes were cornering the aid — materials and money — while the Dalits and minorities were unable to access them. In places, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists had reportedly denied help to Muslims unless they said “Jai Shri Ram”.

The meeting, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by representatives of all national and regional parties as well as the Orissa chief minister, also endorsed Vajpayee’s suggestion to set up a working group of professionals and experts, which could function like a task force to deal with calamities and prepare a long-term plan. Mahajan said the Prime Minister would create such a group in due course.

While the meeting agreed that the Gujarat quake was the “worst natural disaster in the last 200 years in our country”, Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik used the occasion to ask for more Central funds. Mahajan quoted Vajpayee as assuring Patnaik that “all natural disasters, whether in Orissa or Gujarat, are the same and in future the government will stand behind the Orissa people”.

Members also brought up the issue of relief materials still waiting to be disbursed and instances of “red tapism”. Vajpayee and Patel said although the government machinery was working “promptly and properly”, a constant watch would be maintained.

Vajpayee used the forum to send out a political message that Patel would not be replaced as chief minister, dispelling speculation in Gandhinagar that he was being nudged out for a more “dynamic and efficient” leader. In his speech, Patel expressed confidence that his government would meet the challenge arising from the quake. Vajpayee backed him, observing in his concluding remarks that the chief minister’s address had “given us confidence that his government will indeed meet the challenge”.

“The Centre will not lag behind in giving whatever assistance the Gujarat government will need,” he stressed.

BJP general secretary Narendra Modi, who was allegedly spearheading an oust-Patel campaign in Gujarat where he has been camping since the quake, has been asked by the central leadership to use his energy in preparing for the Assembly polls, party sources said.

However, the meeting steered clear of discussing contentious matters relating to the role of the builders and their nexus with the government. “By and large, members were satisfied with the Gujarat government’s response,” said Mahajan. The Prime Minister’s last sentence, he said, was that the meeting was “calm and constructive”.


Ahmedabad, Feb. 18: 
Girja Saran, professor at the Indian Institute of Management, is no stranger to Kutch. He had worked on projects earlier on greening this arid zone. So, he was aware that the region gets at least six hours of sunlight every day. This meant, solar radiation was high in the area. That set him thinking. The result was a unique idea to help the survivors of the devastating quake.

Before Saran, nobody had thought of solar community kitchens. But in these few days, the local people of Kutch have lapped it up.

Saran did not waste time once he got the idea. He sought help. No one let him down. The Gujarat Energy Development Agency gave him 16 cookers for free.

Saran along with D.S. Parmar of IIM-A and Dilsingar Singh of Khadi Village Industries Corporation reached Bhachau on January 31.

“Since Bhachau was flooded with relief, we picked the Vijpasar village, 20 km from the highway and 45 km from the quake epicentre,” said Saran. Of the 400 families in this village, 61 people had been killed and 81 were recovering from their injuries in medical camps. The village had been razed. People were camping in the open fields.

Saran and his two associates asked the people to clear an area (20 ft by 20 ft). Some had heard about solar cookers, and were welcoming, but some were suspicious. But by morning, Saran found that a space had been cleared for their cookers.

Saran remembers the meal — khichri, vegetable curry and khir — but what still gives him immense happiness is the memory of the smiles. It must have been the first proper meal the people had in days.

“We were amazed to see the women already using the cookers on their own when we went there next day,” said the professor.

This community kitchen helped the women save between two and fours a day — time they could use to rebuild their houses and their lives.

Nobody seemed to mind sharing the meals, even though caste divisions run deep in the region. The calamity had brought all of them together.

Word spread about the community kitchen success story. At Bhachau, the three were approached by the head of a school in Gandhidham. “Message was immediately sent to the Gandhi Ashram to send 18 cookers to the school, which they did.”

A roadside first-aid camp took one cooker to heat water to wash wounds.

“We visited some more remote villages.... We accomplished what we had set out to do in this first trip,” Saran said.

Now, he has 600 cookers at his disposal which he wants to distribute among the rural poor hit by the quake.

All this has given Saran another idea. He wants to set up solar cafes — SolCafe, he calls it — along the highway. These cafes will sell food cooked using solar energy. He believes this would be possible in six months.

No charity this one, though. If it proves viable, the management professor will sell these cafes for good money.


Majitha, Feb. 18: 
The campaign for tomorrow’s byelection has reopened old wounds in Majitha, the hub of miltancy in the eighties and nineties.

Both the Akali Dal and the Congress have roped in former militants, reponsible for much bloodshed in the region, to canvass for the bypoll.

“What choice do we have? I have seen two relatives killed in 1984. Just when I was beginning to forget what I had to go through, this election came with all the parties harping on the dark days of the militancy. It is only aimed at divising Hindus and Sikhs,” said Meera Rani, a voter.

“I was injured in a bomb blast. Some of those whom the police said were involved in an incident that killed five people are campaigning for one party or the other today. Either the police were lying or there is something terribly wrong with our political system,” said Kartar Chand, another resident.

“Why should parties be allowed to remind people of the terrible days of militancy?” he asked.

But no one from either community is willing to name the people allegedly responsible for violence during the militancy who are now involved in the election campaign.

“We have been living here for ages. We stuck to our roots and want to live peacefully. We will never name those responsible for the mayhem then. You can call it fear. This is not a normal byelection. The ruling party is testing its campaign here for the Assembly elections to follow,” said Chaman Lal.

While the Akali campaign is being seen as divisive, the Congress has not lagged behind.

“The Congress is harping on its role of bringing militancy to an end in Punjab. But the cost in terms of innocent lives was too much. Too many people disappeared from the constituency during Congress rule. Nobody knows anything about them,” said Rakesh Datt in Chawinda Devi village.

Most senior Akali leaders have been entrusted with different tasks. The campaign at Chawinda Devi is being run by former Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee chief Jagir Kaur. She is accompanied by Akaljeet Singh, who was jailed during the militancy era and is still facing trial. Pakistan-based Wasan Singh Zaffarwal’s call to the electorate not to vote for the Congress has added to the fear prevailing in Majitha.

The Akali Dal is not denying that it has roped in former militants. “There is no harm if a former militant wants to join the mainstream and campaign for a political party. It is his democratic right. It only goes to show that they were perfectly normal people who were forced by state terror to take up militancy,” said state finance minister Kanwaljit Singh.

“And why blame the Akalis alone? There are many former militants who are campaigning for the Congress and have worked for the party during the Sunam and Nawanshar bypolls earlier,” Singh added.

Rajmohinder Singh is the Akali Dal nominee while the Congress has fielded Satwinder Singh Kathunangal.


Burnpur, Feb. 18: 
The prospects of the ailing Indian Iron and Steel Company’s revival through a collaboration with any foreign company have turned grim following continued agitations by executives as well as workers.

A Russian company had written to the IISCO management expressing willingness to send a team of experts to the Burnpur plant on Monday. But an embarrassed management is not in a position to confirm the date.

Similarly, plant visit programmes of Mitsui of Japan and BHP of Australia by the fourth week of this month remain uncertain. SAIL had floated a global tender and shortlisted the three companies. A final decision was scheduled to be taken by June 30.

T.S. Hora, executive director of the company, had requested the officers’ association to suspend the agitation during the plant visit by teams from abroad.

He had also tried to convince them that under the given situation, only “the joint venture route” could ensure the turnaround of IISCO. The officers would also get an opportunity to express their views to the potential partners.

But an association refused to budge. “Neither the executives nor the workers are in a mood to relent till our demands are met,” P.C. Pan, general secretary of the association, said.

The company is also keeping itself away from the Prime Minister’s Trophy scheduled for February 21, a competition held annually to select the best steel plant in the country.

The executives of the company are aggrieved over the SAIL board’s refusal to grant wage parity in all plants and subsidiaries.

The agitation had begun with a four-day relay hunger strike from January 27. Nearly 1,150 executives are taking part in the protest.

The agitating executives have roped in their wives and children, who staged a three-day dharna since February 5 in front of the office of the managing director.

All the five workers’ unions have come together under a banner, the Save IISCO Committee. Said Chandrasekhar Mukherjee, Citu leader and president of the committee: “It is a unique development. The workers as well as the executives are fighting together against injustice.

According to Mukherjee, the SAIL board had cleared higher wages for its executives and it would shortly announce pay packets for workers.

S.K. Hazra Chaudhury, general secretary of the Steel Executives’ Federation of India, said: “I do not cater to the view that the executives and workers of SAIL are superior to their counterparts in IISCO. Their demands are justified and we are with them.”

The protesting employees have decided to “fast unto death” from February 26. In the run-up, they will take mass casual leave on February 21. The executives had gheraoed the managing director on February 12.


Guptipara, Feb. 18: 
Environmentalists and green-advocates’ voyage to Majher Char island in Guptipara to plant trees turned into a river battle today when villagers, led by a panchayat pradhan, attacked them with arrows and brickbats.

Howrah Gantantrik Nagarik Samiti general secretary Subhas Dutta alleged that the local Chawkbati panchayat pradhan, Saraswati Mondol, and Bimal Pramanik of the Krishak Samiti led the attack on the environmentalists’ boats. Seven members of the team comprising the Nagarik Samiti and a local NGO, Sabujer Sathi, were injured in the alleged CPM attack. Chhatra Parishad has called a 12-hour Guptipara bandh from 6 am tomorrow.

The Green Bench had ordered plantation of saplings in the island to compensate for the destruction of greenery by the local panchayat. The panchayat had felled 1,000 trees in November and sold them for Rs 30,000. The Nagarik Samiti and The NGO had appealed to the Green Bench against the felling.

The Green Bench had ordered that the money be utilised for the development of the island and to plant saplings.


Calcutta, Feb. 18: 
The CPM has decided to deny tickets to a number of sitting MLAs in Malda and Midnapore districts.

CPM Malda district secretary Sailen Sarkar is likely to contest the Assembly polls from Ratua this time. He was elected twice to the Assembly from Englishbazar and also became a minister.

In Manikchowk, the CPM is putting up Ashima Chowdhury, widow of former CPM minister Subodh Chowdhury who was elected twice from the same seat.

Sadikul Islam, a teacher of Malda College, is in line for the Araidanga seat. Gajol Panchayat Samiti president Sadhu Tudu is likely to be fielded from Gajol. Sitting MLA Debnath Murmu will probably be denied a ticket.

The CPM is likely to nominate Samar Roy, a coordination committee leader, from Englishbazar. The district leadership appears divided over the Sujapur Assembly segment nominee. One section is lobbying for Hajipur Rahaman, former president of Kaliachowk Block I in Sujapur.

In Midnapore, the CPM appears set to rehabilitate axed leader Sambhu Mandi, a former minister of state for tribal welfare. Mandi, dumped for his alleged links with the Jharkhandis, is being given the Binpur ticket. The Jharkhand party twice defeated the CPM nominee from Binpur after Mandi was dumped.

The CPM will deny a ticket to Jhargram sitting MLA Buddha Bhakat though he won by a high margin last time. Hema Satpati will be nominated instead.

The leadership has suggested a change in Gopiballavpur as well. It wants to drop sitting MLA Shakti Rana and field Bhabani Hatial. In Nayagram, sitting CPM MLA Subhas Soren is likely to be replaced by Bhutnath Soren.

Insiders said the CPM is trying hard to woo the tribal votes in Jhargram subdivision as many candidates were defeated by the Jharkhand party last time.

With district units having sent their nominee lists, Alimuddin Street is giving final touches to the process. The CPM has convened a state committee meeting on February 25 to announce a final list.


Calcutta, Feb. 18: 
An acute scarcity of kerosene has landed more than 25,000 Madhyamik examinees in South 24-Parganas in trouble.

Kerosene lanterns are the only source of light for the students in Basanti, Gosaba, Usthi and some parts of Diamond Harbour, who are now preparing for the Madhyamik examinations scheduled to begin on February 26.

The scarcity stems mainly from hoarding and skewed allotment to dealers by the district unit of the food and civil supplies department. “The situation is grave and I will talk to the district controller of food and civil supplies to ensure smooth supply of kerosene to the remote areas to enable the students to prepare for the exam,” Alapan Bandyopadhyay, district magistrate, said.

Some traders buy blue kerosene, meant to be distributed through the public distribution system at a subsidised price of Rs 7.85 a litre, and mix chemicals to make it white to sell at Rs 16 to 20 a litre.

“Moreover, these traders sometimes stop selling kerosene for a week. When the prices go up due to the artificial scarcity, they sell it at a premium,” said Kalyan Bhadra, president of West Bengal Petroleum Dealers’ Association.

He said the racket could not flourish without the connivance of officers in the food and civil supplies department.

Of the 70 lakh people in South 24-Parganas, 62 lakh buy blue kerosene against cards. The remaining eight lakh have to procure the white kerosene from the open market.

The monthly kerosene supply by the oil comanies to the district is about 7,200 kilo litres. “But an imbalance in distribution results in scarcity, particularly the Sunderbans. The villagers either have to live in darkness or buy it from the black market,” Bhadra added.


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