President push to women’s Bill
Rao puts Babri blame at Kalyan door
Sonia emissaries meet Jaya
Policemen killed in militant strike
Atal set for Kazakh date with Musharraf
Blind students versus GM
Train pirates strike again in terror belt
Burdwan grapples with road death trap
Hi-tech hospital for Barasat
Bill bid tolure dropouts back to school

 
 
PRESIDENT PUSH TO WOMEN’S BILL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19: 
President K.R. Narayanan urged politicians to arrive at a consensus on the Women’s Reservation Bill and ensure that it was passed during the Budget session.

“This would be a fitting tribute by India’s Parliament to the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment’, which we are observing this year,” Narayanan said in his joint address to both Houses of Parliament amid loud cheers from women MPs.

The President said although the Bill to legislate 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state legislatures had already been introduced in Parliament, it was “unfortunate” that it had not yet been enacted into law. He stressed that one of the major gains of Indian democracy was the “ever-growing active participation of women in the political process”, not just as voters but also as elected representatives and bearers of executive responsibility. Narayanan put the Women’s Bill in the context of the “acute awareness” among women of their under-representation in Parliament and state legislatures.

Although the emphasis on the contentious Bill was seen as a signal of the Vajpayee government’s intent to take it up in the Budget session, BJP sources were sceptical of the result. They admitted that key NDA constituents like the Samata Party and Janata Dal (United) were opposed to the Bill in its present form and added that backward caste MPs of the BJP had demanded a separate quota within the 33 per cent for OBC women.

Apart from the Women’s Bill, the President also addressed the issue of the Gujarat quake and mentioned the Orissa super-cyclone while doing so. “The catastrophe in Gujarat, as also the super-cyclone in Orissa in 1999 and natural calamities in other parts of the country in recent years, have once again highlighted the urgent need to expand and modernise our disaster management capabilities,” he said. Narayanan also called for updating existing construction rules and regulations, enforcing them with rigour, and ensuring stern action against violators.

The President also spoke of the government’s intent to set up a permanent National Disaster Management Authority with suitable statutory authorities in the states, based on the recommendations of the newly-constituted National Committee on Disaster Management, which held its first sitting yesterday.

There was no direct reference to the Constitution review panel, after the government realised that an explicit reference may reopen the differences between the President and the Prime Minister on subjects like indirect election and a fixed tenure for Parliament. Narayanan, however, said Parliament should do its best to further the republican values enshrined in our Constitution.

President also stated that the government was “uncompromising” in its commitment to secularism. “We have stepped up our vigil against communal and extremist organisations. The law will take its course unsparingly and impartially against those who seek to create trouble,” warned Narayanan.

   

 
 
RAO PUTS BABRI BLAME AT KALYAN DOOR 
 
 
FROM OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19: 
Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao today sought to put the entire blame for the demolition of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya on the then Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.

Deposing before the Justice Liberhan Commission probing the factors leading to the demolition of the mosque, Rao said Kalyan Singh, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh then, did not take any precautionary measures as advised by the Centre.

Rao, during whose tenure the masjid was demolished, said S.B. Chavan, who was then home minister, had visited Ayodhya few days before the demolition. On returning to Delhi, Chavan had returned informed the Union government about “certain lacunae” on the part of the state government.

The former Prime Minister vouchsafed that the Central government had immediately instructed the state to take all precautionary measures, which were not paid heed to and led to the demolition of the masjid.

Rao also blamed the sants for failure of talks on the Ayodhya issue. He deposed that the dharma sansad had then unilaterally announced the date for kar seva before the third round of talks scheduled for November 1992. “At the end of October 1992 itself, the sants and sadhus had unilaterally conducted the meeting of the dharma sansad to fix the kar seva for December 6, 1992,” Rao told the Liberhan Commission.

The negotiations broke after the dharma sansad decided to start kar seva without even informing the government or any other party to the negotiations, Rao said. “When the two sides came for the meeting on November 8, 1992, the other side (Muslim leaders) said that as the sants have unilaterally fixed the date for kar seva, there is no point in continuing negotiations,” Rao added.

Rao’s lawyers, senior counsel R.K. Anand and noted criminal lawyer I.U. Khan accompanied Rao. The former Prime Minister who took oath in Hindi swearing “in the name of God” before starting to record his deposition. Rao’s deposition would continue tomorrow also.

   

 
 
SONIA EMISSARIES MEET JAYA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, Feb. 19: 
Congress emissaries Pranab Mukherjee and Ghulam Nabi Azad today called on ADMK boss Jayalalitha at her residence and discussed seat-sharing arrangements with her. However, the talks which lasted nearly an hour proved inconclusive.

Emerging from the discussions, Mukherjee told waiting reporters that they would brief party president Sonia Gandhi on the discussions after which a final decision would be taken on the alliance with the ADMK.

Asked whether the duo conveyed their reservations on the PMK to Jayalalitha, Mukherjee said they had apprised her of the Congress’ perceptions. However, sources said the emissaries restricted themselves to bargaining hard with Jaya on seat allocation in Tamil Nadu and haggling over the chief ministership of Pondicherry if the ADMK front came to power in the state; the PMK issue did not figure in the talks.

The Congress had suddenly come under pressure in Tamil Nadu to make up its mind about joining the Jaya alliance. First, there was a news item in a local newspaper which hinted at Jaya’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the Congress. Besides, there were speculations that Jaya was whittling down her earlier offer to the Congress and the TMC.

Congress leaders hit the panic button and pressed their spin doctors to reassure an impatient Jayalalitha of their loyalty and hint that they would be content with a “decent” allocation of seats and the assurance of a chief ministership in Pondicherry if the ADMK-led front won a majority there.

Earlier in the day, Mukherjee and Azad called on TMC chief G.K. Moopanar and later affirmed that the two parties would act in tandem on the alliance issue, though they were at pains to insist that the joint strategy was not aimed at extracting greater concessions from Jayalalitha.

After the meeting with her, the two returned to Moopanar’s residence for a further round of discussions after which they told reporters that the “two parties would contest the coming elections as part of the same front”.

Sources said Jaya is not offering more than 30 seats to the TMC and perhaps 10 to the Congress. This would go down if Congress insists on the chief ministership of Pondicherry.

The Congress seems to be in the unenviable position of placating both Jayalalitha and Moopanar. The last time when Mukherjee visited Chennai for preliminary talks on the alliance with the ADMK chief, he did not even meet the TMC boss, rubbing him on the wrong side. So, when Jaya sprang a surprise by admitting the PMK into the front, the Congress had to pull all stops to mollify Moopanar and persuade him to at least agree to a joint strategy if he was against the idea of floating a third front.

   

 
 
POLICEMEN KILLED IN MILITANT STRIKE 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar, Feb. 19: 
Militants attacked security forces today, killing five policemen and seriously injuring seven others, including five members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, even as life in Srinagar remained disrupted for the fourth consecutive day prompting police to enforce an undeclared curfew in some areas.

Late this afternoon, militants attacked a Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police (JKAP) jeep taking a prisoner to Srinagar. Sources said the militants sprayed the jeep with bullets near Amargrah in Sopore on the Srinagar-Kupwara highway.

JKAP head constable Ghulam Rasool was killed on the spot, while three other policemen and the prisoner received were injured. Two more policemen, identified as Mohammad Asif and Manzorr Ahmed, later succumbed to injuries. The prisoner, Mohammad Ramzan is undergoing treatment.

Militants also attacked the ITBP battalion headquarters at Bemina with rifle grenades, killing one soldier and injuring five others. The condition of those injured is said to be serious.

Militants also threw grenades at the Border Security Force, injuring four personnel. A report from Palhallan added that, late yesterday, militants gunned down police constable Nazir Ahmad.

The police and Central Reserve Police Force, meanwhile, had a tough time dispersing stone-pelting youth who forced shops and business establishments to close.

For the first time in four days, skeletal traffic started plying in city areas and shops in some localities had reopened. However, youth shouting pro-freedom slogans pelted passing vehicles with stones. Within minutes, the roads were deserted and shopkeepers pulled down shutters.

The administration later enforced an undeclared curfew in some areas. However, protesters still came out in many localities.

   

 
 
ATAL SET FOR KAZAKH DATE WITH MUSHARRAF 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems set to meet Pakistani military ruler General Pervez Musharraf sooner or later.

Indications are that the two leaders will get more than one opportunity of meeting on the margins of either a regional or an international meet this year.

But if they miss these dates, Vajpayee and Musharraf can get to meet each other in Almaty at a Kazakhstan-proposed summit-level meeting on Asian security at the end of the year.

Kazakhstan foreign minister Arlan Idrisov is arriving here on Wednesday night on a two-day official visit to discuss with India the proposed summit meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building-Measures in Asia (CICA).

Idrisov is coming here from Pakistan after his meeting with the military rulers in Islamabad about security in the region. During his stay here, the Kazakh foreign minister will call on Vajpayee and have a detailed discussion with his Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh. He will also meet petroleum minister Ram Naik who is the co-chairman of the Indo-Kazakh Joint Commission.

Besides India and Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Palestine, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan will participate in the summit.

Apart from drumming up support for the summit, Idrisov is likely to discuss regional development, particularly those relating to Afghanistan.

After Musharraf’s visit to Kazakhstan, the country had made it clear that Almaty does not mind dealing with any country. The Kazakh foreign minister had said after last month’s UN sanctions on the Taliban that the measures should have been even-handed and that the international body should not have spared the Northern Alliance.

Kazakhstan is important for India not only for its strategic location in central Asia, but also for the fact that it has the largest hydro-carbon resources in the region. The Indian leadership has had good relations with Kazakh President Nazarbaev and has been associated with his initiative on the CICA. Almaty, on its part, has so far managed to strike a fine balance between India and Pakistan, being close to both the South Asian neighbours without showing any obvious bias towards either Delhi or Islamabad.

Despite the attempt to give CICA a high profile, the Kazakh leadership has failed to it into an effective body whose decision on security-related matters will be taken seriously by the Asian countries. The presence of “contradictory forces” as its members, such as India-Pakistan, Turkey-Iran and Israel-Palestine has kept CICA back from becoming a forum which can help in articulating the security concerns and formulating a common security policy for Asian countries. Many experts feel this drawback may be corrected at the forthcoming summit.

But India has been closely associated with the CICA — for two reasons. One, to deepen and enhance its bilateral relations with the Central Asian countries. Two, to ensure that its political adversaries do not get a free hand to act against its interests in this security forum. Jaswant Singh had participated in the foreign minister’s meeting of the CICA member countries in 1999.

   

 
 
BLIND STUDENTS VERSUS GM 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Bhopal, Feb. 19: 
On August 3, 1993, Rajeev Thakur, a sixth standard student and inter-school chess champion, was preparing for an examination on British India. Suddenly, a stinging pain hit him in the head and eyes. His sight began to blur as he read Dalhousie’s annexations for one last time. He fell off his chair and his world plunged into darkness. Forever.

Rajeev, now a BA History Honours first-year student, is still struggling to come to terms with his life and lessons. He reads Bismarck’s foreign policy using Braille. And still is a chess champion in his own right.

On February 5, Rajeev measured his next move with none other than world champion Vishwanathan Anand in Chennai, playing the white against Anand’s black.

Rajeev survived more than 70 moves and matched up to the world champion’s wits for 55 minutes. “Then I lost,” says a triumphant Rajeev. “I played a game at a regular normal speed against Anand. My beginning was good. He was on the defensive for the first 25 minutes since I was playing white and in a better attacking position. But midway I became defensive and then he started attacking. I collapsed.”

Arushi, an NGO working for the visually challenged in Madhya Pradesh, and Airtel, a private telecommunications company, took 20 blind boys to play chess with Anand. Rajeev lasted the longest.

“Chess happens to be my uncle’s hobby,” he says. “Ever since I was a little child, I played chess with him. In 1992, I was 13 years old when I played for the inter-school championships for the first time. I became the champion. I defeated my opponents in every game I played in the next one year.”

But then fate struck a cruel blow. “Doctors said it is a retina detachment. It can happen to anyone, at any time while the person is reading a book. I underwent several operations but I could never see again. They say a vein behind my eyes is blocked and blood doesn’t pass through. ‘Meribatti ka fuse ur gaya. Short circuit ho gaya. Aur kabhi jalne wala nahi hai,’” he said, cracking a joke at his own expense.

“Nevertheless, I did not give up on chess. That became my major leisure pursuit. They have a special kind of chess board for us which have holes for the pawns, just like Chinese checkers.

“The whites have small dots on them like the telephones have over number 5 and the 32 black checks on the board are little raised,” he says.

Along with Rajeev, Anushi took another champion for a chess dual against Anand. Radheshyam Panwariya (23) was born blind. So was his 16-year-old brother Nilesh.

Radheshyam’s father is an alcoholic and his mother works as a domestic help. But he went for the national championships for the handicapped when he was 14 and won the first prize in chess.

Thereafter, he played one game after another and always emerged the winner.

“Because I was blind, I never had any friends. Everyone avoided me. So I learnt to play chess,” he says. “I went to the Helen Keller School for the Blind in Indore and during my free time, I would just play chess by myself. Competitions were rare. But whoever I played with, even normal regular people, lost against me. I was inspired. Then the National Association for the Blind organised three championships between February and December 1997.”

In June 1998, Anushi took Radheshyam to Chennai for a match with Anand. He played the white. “I can’t play the black against Anand. God, that would be suicide. I lost, but I put up a tough fight for 45 minutes,” says Radheshyam, now doing his masters in Hindi literature from Hamidia University. Inspired by Rajeev and Radheshyam, Anushi has plans to start a chess academy for the blind shortly with Anand as the technical advisor.

   

 
 
TRAIN PIRATES STRIKE AGAIN IN TERROR BELT 
 
 
FROM DEBARATI AGARWALA & ALAMGIR HOSSEIN
 
Malda & Berhampore, Feb. 19: 
After a brief lull, armed dacoits have struck again on long-distance trains. Gangsters looted a second-class coach of the Sealdah-Barauni Hatebazare Express near Azimgunj early this morning.

The dacoits fired at a businessmen and knifed another trader who refused to hand over their wallets. Both men were admitted to Malda Hospital with serious wounds.

This is the third time that train dacoits have struck along the stretch from Azimgunj and Jangipur in Murshidabad district in the past three months.

In November, dacoits had raided coaches of the Kanchankanya and Gour expresses between Azimgunj and Jangipur railway stations.

The pirates struck as soon as the train left Azimgunj station this morning. A gang of eight gangsters stormed a reserve coach of the Barauni-bound train. They first targeted a group of five goat-traders who were on their way to Bihar from Calcutta and looted Rs 4 lakh from them. The dacoits escaped after pulling the alarm chain. The operation lasted 10 minutes.

News of the train robbery spread among the passengers as the train reached Malda. The irate passengers ransacked the station manager’s office and beat up four railway employees to protest against what they alleged was the casual approach of the railway police in curbing such incidents.

Preliminary investigations reveal that two of the dacoits, pretending to be passengers, had boarded the train at Sealdah. Both had reservation tickets. The other gangsters boarded the coach at Azimgunj.

Mohammad Shafique, one of the injured traders who witnessed the operation, said: “We were woken up from our sleep by the cries of the dacoits. All of them were armed with pipeguns and bhojalis. They shouted at us not to move.”

The gangsters told the passengers: “We won’t rob you. We have come only for these five traders.” They then aimed a pipe-gun at Shafique and ordered him to hand over the money.

“I tried to resist them. I almost pinned down one of the goons. Suddenly one of the dacoits fired at me and the bullet pierced my right hand. I slumped on the floor and they took out my wallet. I cannot remember what happened then...I became senseless,” Shafique added.

Mohammad Kalim, another injured trader, said: “The dacoits told me to hand over my bag as soon as possible. I became nervous. One of the dacoits hit my head with a bhojali as I dithered. They took out Rs 1.10 lakh.” Another businessman was also hit with a bhojali butt.

After their short but swift operation, the dacoits pulled the chain. As the train slowed down, all the gangsters jumped off.

As soon as the train reached Malda, the passengers, who included around 400 students, turned violent. They alleged that the railway police were hand-in-glove with the dacoits. The passengers claimed that two travelling ticket examiners had arranged seats for two of the gangsters who boarded at Sealdah station.

The passengers said the railway authorities had assured them of safety after the back-to-back dacoities in November. “They had said that passenger security arrangements will be made more stringent to curb dacoities. But no action has so far been taken,” they added.

   

 
 
BURDWAN GRAPPLES WITH ROAD DEATH TRAP 
 
 
FROM RANJAN LAHIRY
 
Burdwan, Feb. 19: 
Road accidents are on the rise in Burdwan district.

Statistics with the district police headquarters show that in 2000, 403 people had died and 873 were injured in road mishaps.

In 1999, 429 people were killed and over 745 injured. In 1998, 336 persons had died and 697 were injured. The figures for 1997 were 308 and 878 respectively.

The maximum number of road mishaps have been reported from Burdwan Sadar and Durgapur.

A senior police official said that most victims are pedestrians and those riding two-wheelers. The G.T. Road and the Panagarh-Moregram National Highway have been identified as accident-prone areas.

“The people have absolutely no awareness of how to walk on the streets during rush hours. Pedestrians often cross roads according to their whims,” the official said.

Add to the problem is reckless driving. Drivers of trucks, buses and two-wheelers pay scant heed to traffic rules.

“There should be an intense campaign against jay-walking and reckless driving,” said Ajoy Ranade, additional police superintendent (Burdwan).

District police authorities have set up a separate traffic wing in the subdivisions, but it has not been of much help. “Actually, the problem is lack of adequate trained traffic constables. Traffic control is in the hands of home guards and members of the National Volunteer Force, who are not properly trained in traffic management,” an official said.

Bad road conditions, a sea of hawkers and lack of parking space have compounded the problem.

“It is a fact that in most places, there is no parking space. The civic authorities, too, have done precious little to draw up plans to set up parking lots in towns like Burdwan, Durgapur and Asansol. Only industrial complexes have their own parking areas. Hawkers block pavements on both sides of major roads with little regard for pedestrians, who are forced to walk on the streets,” the official added.

   

 
 
HI-TECH HOSPITAL FOR BARASAT 
 
 
BY AMIT UKIL
 
Calcutta, Feb. 19: 
The stage is set for the inauguration of the first phase of a new 200-bed hospital in Barasat, North 24-Parganas, which is expected to provide holistic care to a large population in the hinterland of the district headquarters.

To be managed by the West Bank Hospital team, a group of NRI doctors who have set up the now well-known 150-bed centre on Andul Road in Howrah, the new hospital has been built on 1.5 acres provided by Kalpataru Sangha, a semi-religious organisation founded by philosopher Sri Beni Madhab.

Located near Champadally More in the Ramkrishna Pally area, the hospital is about 15 minutes from Madhyamgram on Taki Road. The Sangha had started constructing the building in 1993 and had intended it to be a hospital right form the beginning. But though the Sangha followers are made up of architects, lawyers and engineers, they did not have doctors among them.

In early 2000, they got in touch with the West Bank Hospital team, led by its director, Dr Satadal Saha, after one of their members was treated there. “Our philosophy of providing non-commercial healthcare matched with theirs and we agreed to help them out,” Saha said recently. “We agreed to take the project forward and run it professionally,” more so because there were no political links and the Sangha stood “purely for the benefit of the people”.

The whole of last year was taken up in formulating the modalities of the hospital, including the phases in which the project would be implemented. “An MoU was worked out whereby we would be responsible for setting up and managing the centre,” Saha said. “The intention is to provide competent healthcare at affordable prices.”

West Bank will continue to be a tertiary centre of excellence, where super-speciality treatment like cardiology, neurosurgery and transplants will be available. “Also, with the changing health insurance scenario, the insurance companies will seek centres where uniformity and quality will be available. We aim to achieve this at the Barasat hospital.”

To be officially called Arogya Niketan O Gabeshana Pratisthan, the hospital initialy will have an operation theatre, outdoor departments, diagnostics and basic eye surgery facilities. The indoor department will start by June-July with 40 beds. In 12 to 18 months, another 75 beds will be added, and by the 24th month, 85 more beds will be made available.

“There are many good doctors and nursing homes in Barasat but what is lacking is the ambience for collective work that would be able to deliver complete health care,” Saha pointed out. The new hospital will have 10 doctors from West Bank, while 30 more will be taken in from the region. “Most of them will provide services wholetime.”

The hospital will be a boon for people in the area. “They won’t have to travel to Calcutta for procedures like a hernia operation. A complete infrastructure will now be available at their doorsteps, where continuity of care will be a main advantage.” And the rates would be 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than at West Bank.

   

 
 
BILL BID TOLURE DROPOUTS BACK TO SCHOOL 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 19: 
The government has introduced a legislation to make education mandatory for dropouts in primary schools.

The legislation, called Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya Bill, 2001, was passed in the Assembly on Thursday and is awaiting the President’s consent.

“There are various reasons for dropping out, including poor economic condition of parents. Many people, mostly from villages, feel it more important to send children to paddy fields instead of schools. Parents have to be motivated to send their wards to the schools and we hope that the new legislation will be helpful on this score,” minister for school education Kanti Biswas said.

Officials said the education to be provided to the dropouts under the law will be different as there is no scope for the students to return to the formal system.

Initially, such education will be provided to dropouts at the primary level and later extended to the secondary and higher secondary levels.

According to the Bill, the Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya will act as an agency under the education department, which will solely monitor education for dropouts. It will design and develop study courses, arrange teaching and evaluation, develop study centres and register dropouts.

A list of dropouts from every block will first be prepared, after which study centre will be set up. The dropouts will be provided with books, notebooks and pencils. After completion of their courses, the students will be evaluated and given certificates.

Apart from text books, students will also be provided education with audio-visual aids. Teachers, both working and retired, and social workers will be involved in this campaign.

A recent survey by the education department says the annual number of dropouts in over 50,000 primary schools is about 65 lakh.

Nearly 95 lakh students enrol in primary schools from Classes I to V. But the number of students drastically come down to 29 lakh in Class VI, which is the start of the secondary level. The report also reveals that about 40 lakh students give up education between Classes II and III.

“We are left with no option but to introduce the new legislation as all previous efforts to bring back the dropouts have failed,” an official said.

   
 

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