India, Pakistan play down plane strike
Quake debate after railway budget
Jaya-stung Cong in go-alone cry
US team questions aid distribution
Survivors refuse to leave hospital-homes
Gentleman communist who spoke his mind
Package pep pill for power
Govt gropes in dark as disease toll rises
GNLF hints at police plot
Lawyers’ strike over lift limbo

 
 
INDIA, PAKISTAN PLAY DOWN PLANE STRIKE 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
Both India and Pakistan today tried to play down the shooting of the “intruding” Pakistani aircraft issue.

The move indicates both countries’ desire to delink the incident over the Chamb sector from the overall relations between the South Asian twins, the decision to extend the ceasefire in Kashmir and the resumption of dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad.

India stuck to yesterday’s defence ministry statement, which said the intruding aircraft was dealt with by ground forces for violating Indian airspace. Pakistan, predictably, denied the violation, but made no attempt to blow up the incident.

However, uncertain whether India would extend the ceasefire in Kashmir, Pakistan attempted to build up pressure by describing the current ceasefire as a “myth”. It also opened up another front, by expressing concern over reports of Delhi acquiring nuclear fuel from Russia, saying this would enhance India’s nuclear capability.

India clarified that the Chamb incident should not be seen in the context of overall Indo-Pak relations, though it remained firm about the action against the “intruding Pakistani aircraft”. “It will be wrong to link yesterday’s incident at Chamb with our relations with Pakistan,” a senior official in South Block said. He, however, justified the action, saying: “We will take action against any violation of our airspace.”

On the possibility of dialogue between India and Pakistan resuming, the official said: “We have made our position very clear regarding this issue. The President, K.R. Narayanan, also reiterated it in his speech yesterday.”

“We want to have good neighbourly relations with Pakistan, but for this Islamabad has to create the right atmosphere and it can do so began by reining in militants pursuing the policy of violence against India from the Pakistani soil,” the official added.

The foreign ministry mood indicated that it would not like to say anything more before the government ascertains the view of opposition parties tomorrow at the all-party meeting on extension of ceasefire in Kashmir.

Pakistan, however, tried to exert pressure on India by raising doubts about its sincerity in solving the Kashmir problem.

“The myth of the ceasefire, which had carried little credibility, has been destroyed by the admission of the Indian chief commander of the region that Indian military forces in the occupied territory had fired on peaceful protesters,” Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammed Khan was quoted as saying by news agencies.

“There have been throughout this period of peaceful ceasefire reports of continued operations against freedom fighters as well as extra judicial killings, which also led to protests,” Khan was reported to have said.

Agency reports further quoted Khan as saying: “India’s sincerity in settling for talks over the Kashmir issue would be fully tested by whether or not it permits the Hurriyat delegation to visit Pakistan for talks.”

   

 
 
QUAKE DEBATE AFTER RAILWAY BUDGET 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
The discussion on the Gujarat quake, which was to have started today, has been deferred until Monday because of Indrajit Gupta’s death.

The discussion under rule 193 is likely to start on Monday evening after the presentation of the rail budget. The debate, which was to continue on Thursday — as Wednesday is a holiday —- is now expected to be wrapped up on Tuesday, the day on which the economic survey will be released, according to parliamentary affairs ministry sources.

Ministry sources said that as several Cabinet ministers, as well as the leaders of all major parties may be in Calcutta on Thursday to attend the CPI veteran’s funeral, there was “little point” in beginning the discussion on the Gujarat quake. “It a major issue, perhaps one of the most dominant present issues and every senior leader would like to speak on it,” said sources, while explaining the reason for the postponement.

Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, home minister L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, as well as Congress president Sonia Gandhi and members of other Opposition parties are expected to attend the funeral. In today’s BJP parliamentary party meeting, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee condoled Gupta’s death and paid rich tributes to his long career as a parliamentarian.

Government sources, however, maintained that there may not be much acrimony in the discussion, given the human dimension of the tragedy and the enormous loss of lives and property. “We are sure no party would like to use the occasion to score brownie points or put the government on the mat. If they do, it may well boomerang on them,” said sources.

However, the Congress is expected to raise the point of discrimination in relief distribution — a charge Sonia Gandhi has levelled on various occasions.

Besides, it is learnt that privately many members felt the Centre ought to have a more even-handed policy regarding calamities. However, no NDA constituent, including the Biju Janata Dal, is likely to reflect a rapidly growing perception that both Orissa and West Bengal were given a “raw” deal when they were in the grip of a supercyclone and floods last year, while the Centre went out of its way to gift Gujarat a blank cheque because it is a BJP-ruled state.

The Telugu Desam Party may come up with a proposal for constituting a National Disaster Management Commission with statutory powers on the lines of the Election Commission in its submission before Parliament.

Desam sources said the commission, which could enlist experts, scientists, seismologists and oceanographers as members, could be made a permanent and an independent body. Its brief could be to make its own assessment of the extent of damage wrought by any natural or man-made disaster, which could form the basis for determining how much aid — fiscal and material —the Centre should disburse.

“Every time there are allegations that the Centre plays favourites with certain political parties and neglects certain others. Such an independent body can at least take care of that,” said Desam sources.

   

 
 
JAYA-STUNG CONG IN GO-ALONE CRY 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
ADMK chief Jayalalitha today virtually showed the Congress the door by offering the party only five seats in the coming Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. She also turned down the Congress’ request for the chief ministership of Pondicherry in the event the ADMK-led alliance came to power in the state. She said she would favour her new-found ally PMK in Pondicherry.

Jolted by Jayalaitha, the Congress is now singing the “ekla chalo” tune. Senior Congress leader Vayalar Ravi shot a letter to Sonia Gandhi today suggesting that the party should go it alone in both Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In Bengal, too, the Congress has been spurned by another lady, Mamata Banerjee.

Ravi said a majority of the Congress MPs and leaders were upset at the manner in which two ladies — Jayalalitha and Mamata — were treating the AICC president. Mamata has even declined to meet Sonia emissary A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury on the ground that she was busy with her railway budget preparations.

In Tamil Nadu, the Congress leadership is now toying with the idea of floating a third front — minus the ADMK and the Left parties which seem inclined towards Jayalalitha. The task before Sonia is to ensure that the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) joins the front.

Even if the Congress and the TMC join hands, the alliance is unlikely to gain much. But it will boost the Congress’ self esteem and please the local unit of the party. “Zero plus zero is zero but the third front will salvage our pride,” said an AICC general secretary.

Running out of options, the Congress called a high-level meeting today to discuss the political scenario in Tamil Nadu. Sonia chaired the meet that was attended by Madhavrao Scindia, Ambika Soni, Janardhan Reddy, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The dominant view was against having any truck with Jayalalitha. Senior party leaders said instead of facing humiliation, the party should listen to local sentiments favouring a third front. They said that even if the Congress fails to win many seats, it would satisfy the party rank and file.

However, a lot will depend on TMC chief G.K. Moopanar as the Congress once again underlined the need to take a common stand with the TMC. A section of the TMC, led by former Union finance minister P. Chidambaram, is bitterly opposed to the idea of joining hands with the ADMK. If the Congress-TMC combine opts out of the ADMK alliance, it will be a victory for Chidambaram and TNCC chief E.V.S. Elangovan, both of whom are known to be anti-Jaya.

   

 
 
US TEAM QUESTIONS AID DISTRIBUTION 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, Feb. 20: 
A high-level delegation of US Congressmen that visited Gujarat to “understand the magnitude of disaster” expressed concern over the way relief was being distributed.

Members of the delegation alleged that the aid that reached Gujarat from all over the world was not distributed “within the framework of justice and equality” and stressed that the aid should reach the most vulnerable sections.

The Congressmen came to Bhuj yesterday. After visiting the devastated towns of Kutch, they reached Ahmedabad to hold meetings with chief minister Keshubhai Patel, industry minister Suresh Mehta, state government officials and representatives of NGOs.

This morning, the delegation had a breakfast meeting with NGOs and representatives of industries. The two-hour meeting with the NGOs was to chalk out a policy on what American private voluntary organisations like CARE and CRS could do to help rebuild Gujarat.

   

 
 
SURVIVORS REFUSE TO LEAVE HOSPITAL-HOMES 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Ahmedabad, Feb. 20: 
Hasmukhbhai Vaghela was ready to go home on Monday after doctors at VS Hospital fixed his fractured hand and took off the numerous stitches from his battered head. But the sigh of relief from nurses proved short-lived as he returned, this time complaining of “severe headache”.

The government and medical fraternity here is facing a strange predicament. Hundreds of patients, who have been “officially” discharged, are refusing to go home because they don’t have a “home” to go back to. Ignoring all protestations from hospital authorities, they continue to stay put, finding one excuse after the other.

“We thought we could now heave a sigh of relief as the first onerous task of coping with the thousands of injured patients flooding hospitals had been satisfactorily dealt with. But we were wrong. The task of sending home patients who are fit enough to go is proving to be even more difficult,” said Leelavati Daniel, chief matron at VS Hospital here.

She added that though many of the 96-odd patients at the hospital have been asked to leave, they are refusing to budge. While most of the patients arm themselves with new ailments every other day, there are some who admit that their houses in Bhuj, Bhachau, Rapar and Anjar have been reduced to rubble, taking with it the many lives within.

Mahendrasinh, an inmate, said: “For three days after the earthquake I lay unconscious. When I gained consciousness, I was told that none of my family members had survived and that my whole colony in Bhachau had been wiped out.” He asked that “under such circumstances”, where do the hospital staff expect him to go. “I have made friends here, those unfortunate to lose everything are now my family,” Mahendrasinh added from his bed at ward number nine.

Strangely, there are others who have been “advised” by their family to feign illness and stay at the hospital as long as possible. Shying away from either naming himself or his wife, an inmate, who was rushed from Rapar with multiple fractures, said: “My wife, who visited me last week, told me that there was no point in returning home as it would be difficult to run after relief with my plastered limbs. Theek kehti hai woh. Whatever the nurses and doctors say, I will stay here until she says it is time to go home.”

The story is the same everywhere. An activist working with the Janpath Citizens’ Initiative said in most quake-hit villages, those who have been treated and advised to go are refusing to leave the tents.

“This is creating a huge bottleneck as far as tents are concerned. Each emptied tent can be used for housing purposes. Every added tent reduces the chronic shortfall of around one lakh tents,” she said. Of the 150 injured in Bhimsar, 300 in Tapar and 29 in Jasda villages, more than half are fit for discharge, said another NGO volunteer.

But doctors and social workers say they “don’t have the heart and courage” to force homeless patients out of hospitals and clinics.

   

 
 
GENTLEMAN COMMUNIST WHO SPOKE HIS MIND 
 
 
BY MONOBINA GUPTA
 
 
The deep baritone ringing through the phone always unnerved you when you called Indrajit Gupta. And barring the stint when he was home minister in the United Front government, Gupta always picked up the phone himself.

Ask him a question — he would throw another at you — but if you did not lose nerve and held out, Gupta would be spinning out answers in his gruff but polite manner. He was what Ashok Mitra loathes in communists: a gentleman. (Mitra had once said: “I am not a gentleman. I am a communist.”)

Unlike many others in the Communist hierarchy, Gupta had a prickly sense of humour that livened discussions and added “colour” to his otherwise sedate party.

Like Jyoti Basu, Gupta could never be faulted for being boring. During the days when his party was waiting for former Prime Minister Deve Gowda to make up his mind on Gupta’s portfolio, the CPI general secretary delighted mediapersons with his pungent answer: “I am sitting next to the phone waiting for a call from the Prime Minister.”

One of the last of the leading lights of the Communist movement, Gupta stood apart from others in the political elite by his candour and his genuine inability to consummate the skill of political dodging and manipulations.

Even when he became the home minister — the first ever communist to hold such a sensitive post — Gupta could not fit into the skin of an artful dodger who could make black look white.

When he rose to answer his adversaries in Parliament, his colleagues were always a bit wary — not because they doubted his communication skills or his knowledge of the portfolio — but because Gupta was plagued with the most debilitating of “weaknesses”.

He did not know how to cover up the government’s bunglings or whitewash truth. By the end of his tenure as home minister, he was stumbling from one faux pas to another and the repository of anecdotes about him was growing by the day.

Once, while responding to an incident of killing of tourists in Kashmir in the Lok Sabha, Gupta blithely told the House that the visitors should have avoided these places when they knew that the situation there was unsafe.

Immediately, the Opposition pounced on the home minister and his government, shredding both to bits, for not being able to bring the situation under control.

As his colleagues sat sweating, Gupta was once again under the glare — the media had something to report and the Opposition to beat the government with.

The “secular camp” was livid when the home minister refused to pamper Mulayam Singh and dismiss the BJP dispensation in Uttar Pradesh.

In his own government there were long faces, but Gupta had an answer for them : How can a government be dismissed after it has won a vote of confidence in the Assembly?

For a long time the Samajwadi Party chief sulked, blaming Gupta for being overtly sensitive to “such issues”. It was this “sensitivity” that placed Gupta above other leaders, both in and outside the Communist movement.

   

 
 
PACKAGE PEP PILL FOR POWER 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 20: 
Power minister Mrinal Banerjee today announced a Rs 1,200-crore comprehensive project to improve the power situation in the state.

Banerjee said in the Assembly that generation of power is sufficient to meet the demand but the state was facing transmission and distribution problems.

“We have taken up several projects to construct transmission and distribution sub-stations and systems augmentation. We expect that the problems in power supply will be solved within a few months,” Banerjee told the House.

Earlier, SUCI legislator Debaprasad Sarkar said the situation in the districts was bad and the people are suffering. He asked the minister what steps had been taken to improve the situation.

Banerjee said the government had taken a Japanese loan of Rs 500 crore to construct transmission sub-stations. He said Rs 700 crore would be spent for systems augmentation and the fund would be raised from the Power Finance Corporation and from departmental allocation.

Coming down heavily on the DVC authorities, Banerjee alleged that the people of Burdwan and Asansol were suffering from massive power cuts as the corporation is not supplying power.

   

 
 
GOVT GROPES IN DARK AS DISEASE TOLL RISES 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Feb. 20: 
As the toll in the mystery disease stalking Siliguri rose to 12, a helpless and clueless state government warned that the ailment, besides being fatal, could be “infectious” as well.

While three people, including the resident medical officer and a nurse of a nursing home died yesterday, the killer disease claimed two more lives today: Pradeep Chakraborty (30) and Samir Roy (20).

Six others infected with the disease are battling with death at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital. All the victims had complained of severe headache and drowsiness.

Panic-stricken residents and angry relatives of the victims took to the streets and put up road blockades, carrying the bodies of the two people who succumbed today.

The disease had claimed seven lives last month and had sparked a debate between local doctors and an experts’ team sent by the state government on whether the ailment was encephalitis. Medical experts, who are still groping in the dark, have so far failed to identify the disease. Private practitioners and experts are divided on the cause of the outbreak. While neuro-surgeons treating patients last month had certified the cause of the death as encephalitis, experts from Calcutta differed.

Yesterday, health minister Partha De had said that the Terai region being malaria-prone, the disease was another attack of a complicated form of the mosquito-borne disease. Today, however, De said the disease was complex and a cause for concern.

Addressing a news conference here this evening, the health minister said: “Though we have not been able to identify the disease, it is both complex and a cause for concern. It, however, is not the Japanese encephalitis. We are expecting an expert team from the National Institute of Virology, New Delhi, any day. Another mobile unit of investigators from Calcutta is expected to arrive tomorrow to tackle the disease.”

The nursing home where the five people died has been closed down. De said: “The nursing home were the disease claimed its latest victim has been ordered to close down. It was being run without a valid licence.

“We appeal to people with symptoms of the disease like high fever associated with severe headache and convulsions to get admitted to the Siliguri sub-divisional hospital or to the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital. We will provide all treatment free of cost.”

Resentment is growing over the local health department’s failure to identify the disease and tackle it.

“People are annoyed with the fact that the authorities have so far failed to even identify the vector of the disease. If it indeed is a mosquito-borne disease, then the authorities should take immediate steps to remove the illegal cow-sheds and pig-sties dotting the city. The lack of proper civic amenities is also another cause for concern for the residents. Open drains with stagnating sewage water are not being cleared,” alleged Trinamul Congress Siliguri Municipal Corporation councillor Gautam Deb.

   

 
 
GNLF HINTS AT POLICE PLOT 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 20: 
Pointing the finger of accusation at the police, GNLF legislator Shanta Chhetri today threatened to lead an indefinite sit-in demonstration at Writers’ Buildings if the CBI is not given charge of the investigation into the ambush on Subash Ghising.

The GNLF MLA from Kurseong said her party did not have any faith in either the CID or the state police. “The GNLF believes the inquiry will not be impartial if it is done by the CID because it is under the state police. We demand a CBI inquiry into the incident,” Chhetri said.

Earlier, all Opposition parties, including the Trinamul Congress and the Congress demanded a CBI inquiry into the ambush. But chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee rejected their demand.

Ghising’s convoy was attacked on February 10 while the GNLF leader was returning to Darjeeling.

Speaking in the House, Chhetri pointed out that on the day of the attack on Ghising all the senior administrative officers, including the Darjeeling district magistrate, superintendent of police and the officer-in-charge were out of station. She wondered why all senior officers were out of station at the same time.

“We apprehend that a section of the police and the administration is linked to the incident and they might have an indirect hand. We see a conspiracy behind the attack on our party leader. The truth will come out if it is probed by the CBI only,” Chhetri said.

She said she would meet the chief minister tomorrow to officially place the demand before him. Chhetri warned that the government would have to face the consequences if the demand was turned down.

“Thousands of GNLF supporters, including our councillors, will stage a sit-in demonstration until the government orders the CBI probe. If any law and order problems arise over the incident, the government will be held responsible,” Chhetri said.

Director-general of police Dipak Sanyal said the CID alone was not conducting the inquiry. He said a special team had been formed comprising officials from the CID, district police and the Central Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau to probe the incident. “The team is sufficient and confident enough to conduct the probe. Why should we go for the CBI probe?” Sanyal asked.

   

 
 
LAWYERS’ STRIKE OVER LIFT LIMBO 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Asansol, Feb. 20: 
Lawyers at Asansol court went on an indefinite strike yesterday to press their demand for a generator at the recently-inaugurated Adalat Bhavan here.

The Bhavan, on which the government has spent Rs 30 lakh, was inaugurated on January 24.

The lawyers complained that after the completion of the new building they are facing difficulties in going from one court to another.

Of the eight criminal courts, four are located on the third floor of the new building and four on the first floor. The five civil courts are housed in the old building. The elderly lawyers, as well as the aged and sick litigants, are inconvenienced as they have to climb the stairs to go to the third floor courts.

Though the building has a lift, it doesn’t function for most of the day because of rampant power cuts.

President of the Bar Association Bijoy Roy said: “We cannot neglect our health. We have to climb upstairs at least 100 times everyday.

“We have submitted a resolution to the Burdwan district judge to either provide generator facility throughout the day to ensure normal lift service or to shift four criminal courts from the third floor to the ground floor,” Roy added.

The Burdwan district judge, J.N. Roy, who visited the Asansol court yesterday, requested the lawyers to withdraw the strike and assured them of an immediate solution.

According to the additional district session judge, Purnendu Chakraborty, around 3,000 criminal cases and 2,000 civil cases have been affected by the strike.

   
 

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