Delhi signal for truce with teeth
Bush sends Musharraf missive for talks
Mystery malaise in death sweep
Saifuddin floats twin-tipped party
Buddhaspeak leaves business breathless
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Feb. 21: 
The Centre today endorsed a third extension of the Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, but indicated that security forces will have room for manoeuvre to ensure that the situation in the state did not deteriorate.

Though it was not spelt out, there were clear signals that the government will not sit back and watch its security personnel and the civilian population become “soft and easy targets” for those trying to scuttle the peace initiative.

Before deciding on the ceasefire, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which met this evening, took into account the essence of what emerged at the all-party meeting earlier in the day. Parties across the political spectrum were unanimous that truce should be extended. But they also had made it clear that security forces had to be more vigilant against militant strikes.

The government, however, was silent on whether it would allow Hurriyat Conference leaders to visit Pakistan to hold talks with leaders of militant outfits based across the border.

The CCS deliberated on whether the truce should be renewed a third time in the backdrop of the attacks on security forces, killings of civilians, violations of the Line of Control (LoC) and the recent intrusion into Indian airspace by two Pakistani military aircraft. The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Following an 80-minute discussion, the committee decided that the unilateral truce — first declared on November 22 — be extended by a period of “not less than a month”.

After the meeting, home minister L.K. Advani, who had so far reserved his comments on extending the ceasefire, told reporters that the Prime Minister would make an “elaborate” statement in both Houses of Parliament tomorrow after Question Hour. He said “all aspects were discussed threadbare” and the decision was “unanimous”.

Government sources said as Parliament was in session, it was felt it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to make a detailed statement in both Houses.

They said the message that Vajpayee wanted to send across by fielding Advani was that there were no differences of opinion on prolonging the truce in the highest echelons of the government. On previous occasions, foreign minister Jaswant Singh had briefed the press.

But the government is wary of revealing its next course of action in the embattled state and the steps it intends to take to make “peace work despite provocations” from across the border.

It is understood that Vajpayee will allow a “degree of freedom” to the security forces to operate against terrorist outfits who continue to target security personnel and civilians alike.

Vajpayee is also likely to send a stern message to Pakistan tomorrow. Sources said he might also hit out at Islamabad for failing to rein in militants.


New Delhi, Feb. 21: 
Flashing a clear signal that neither Kashmir nor Pakistan are off the US radar screen, President George Bush tonight wrote to Pervez Musharraf calling for talks with India.

“President Bush has emphasised that dialogue is vital for resolving differences between the two countries,” agencies quoted a Pakistan foreign office statement as saying. It added that Bush “also underlined the shared interests of the two countries in a peaceful and stable South Asia”.

Bush’s first official letter to Musharraf was handed to him this afternoon by US ambassador William Milam hours before Delhi was to take a decision on renewing the Kashmir truce.

The letter comes as a morale-booster to the Musharraf regime after former President Bill Clinton’s stern words in a national telecast last March. Clinton had then ticked off the military regime and demanded that Musharraf take immediate steps to restore democracy.

Earlier, two of the four visiting US Congressmen — Indian caucus co-chairman Jim McDermott and fellow member David Bonior — left for Islamabad. McDermott and Bonior are both Democrats and had come to India in connection with the quake.

The other two Congressmen, co-chairman Ed Royce and Joe Pitts, who are both Republicans, skipped the visit citing prior engagements. Royce had held talks with Hurriyat leaders yesterday.

One of the objectives of the US duo visiting Pakistan appears to be bilateral developments following Delhi’s ceasefire call. Islamabad could be asked to explain what steps it was taking to sustain the truce and how this could lead to the talks table.


Siliguri, Feb. 21: 
The mystery malaise which crept up on Siliguri threatened to spin out of control with seven persons dying overnight, taking the total toll to 19 and spreading panic.

Fifteen patients are battling for life at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital and seven in the Siliguri Sub-divisional Hospital.

Doctors of private hospitals have maintained that the disease — with symptoms like high fever accompanied by persistent headache, delirium, convulsion, or loss of consciousness — was encephalitis, but the government has termed it cerebral malaria.

Civic doctors who came back to Calcutta from Siliguri admitted that they were still clueless about the disease. “We don’t know if it is encephalitis, malignant malaria or any other disease,” they said. “But that it is vector-borne, we are sure.”

State urban development and municipal affairs minister Ashoke Bhattacharya, who held several rounds of meetings throughout the day here on the issue, said the government was tackling the disease on a “war footing”.

“A six-member special team of medical experts from Pune, Delhi and Calcutta will arrive on Friday to identify and investigate the cause of the disease. Another team of experts from the Apollo Hospital of Chennai will also arrive shortly,” he said. “This apart, a four-member vector control team from the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), along with two neurologists, will arrive tomorrow.”

While Pratima Pradhan, a 24-year-old nurse of a private nursing home, and Indrajeet Gupta, a 29-year-old resident of Mahananda Para, died last evening, five more — Ram Kumar Pal, 27, Jibon Singha, 29, Nibaran Goswami, 26, Bhanu Dey, 28, and Ashis Chaudhuri, 40 — succumbed to the disease today.

Member mayor-in-council Javed Ahmed Khan confirmed that the state government has sought the help of the CMC’s health department to identify the pathogen of the killer malaise. He said two doctors and two field staff, including the chief of the vector-control unit, have left for Siliguri with laboratory equipment.

Bhattacharya said funds would not be a constraint in checking the outbreak. “We have already sanctioned Rs 10 lakh. Ten extra garbage-disposal vehicles have been requisitioned,” he said.

The minister said the ward master and staff of the Indian Population Project-8 will be pressed into service for “a door-to-door survey of the impact” of the epidemic. “All cow-sheds and pig sties will be removed from residential areas and we have decided to cancel all leave of Siliguri Municipal Corporation employees,” he added.

Bhattacharya has also requested owners of private nursing homes which are refusing to admit patients with the symptoms to cooperate with the government.

Nursing homes had stopped taking in patients with the symptoms following a controversy over issuing death certificates mentioning “encephalitis” as the cause of death.


Saifuddin floats twin-tipped party  
Calcutta, Feb. 21: 
A platform that could give a nagging headache to both the CPM and the Trinamul Congress crystallised today with Saifuddin Chowdhury floating the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) which would contest the coming elections with the Congress.

Chowdhury will be the president of the new outfit, while Samir Putatunda, who quit the CPM on Monday, will be its general secretary.

Political circles here acknowledged that the outfit had the potential of evolving into a force which could attract the malcontents in the CPM ahead of the polls, leading to a split in the party. Some even drew a parallel with the 1969 split of the CPM which gave birth to the CPI-ML.

However, the CPM adopted a chin-up attitude and dismissed the formation of PDS as a “non-event”. “All that we can say is that the number of parties went up by one today,” state CPM secretary Anil Biswas said.

The new party could also pose problems for the Trinamul. First, the PDS-Congress alliance could cut into the Trinamul’s share of anti-CPM votes. Second, the dissidents in the CPM could switch loyalties to the PDS instead of the Trinamul, strengthening the new party which is going to fight the Trinamul in the elections.

If Mamata fails to draw away the dissidents in the CPM and the Congress in the days ahead, the PDS-Congress counter could spoil the Trinamul’s chances of victory in many seats. “We have strong reasons to believe that... there is actually room for a committed party like ours on the spectrum,” said Chowdhury and Putatunda.

Among those who joined the new party from the CPM were Tapati Saha, a lightweight sitting MLA from Taltala, and Mojammal Haque, an expelled CPM leader-turned-Independent MLA from Murshidabad.

Without naming the CPM, Chowdhury and Putatunda came down heavily on the party. “They (read CPM) cannot expect a self-respecting leader to allow himself to be ideologically quarantined and become a blind adherent to an ideology which does not take into account global changes,” Chowdhury said.

They also cited the CPM’s costly errors in judging momentous situations, pointing out the missed opportunity of installing a CPM-led government at the Centre with Jyoti Basu as Prime Minister. They felt the CPM had blundered by being slow to adopt new technology and delaying the entry of computers into the state by nearly 15 years.

But for all their criticism, the organisational structure of the PDS is modelled along the lines of the CPM. As in the CPM which has a 58-member state committee, a state secretariat — smaller, but no less powerful — will run the PDS. In place of the regulation politburo or central committee, a national committee, to be set up later, will oversee policy formulation in the PDS.


Calcutta, Feb. 21: 
When Manmohan plays the muse instead of Mayakovski, the market forces must be allowed the poetic licence to wonder: “Is this chief minister for real?”

A team of “surprised” industry captains trooped out of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s chamber at Writers’ this afternoon, taken aback by his assurance that the government would disinvest its stake in majority of the 67 ailing state-run companies in Bengal.

The Marxist chief minister, once known as much for his opposition to privatisation as his admiration for the Russian Revolution-era poet Vladimir Mayakovski, did not stop displaying his newfound warmth for economic reforms guru Manmohan Singh at disinvestment. He also agreed to ease the state’s stranglehold on education — another holy cow — and let in private funds.

For the nine top guns of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the policy departure — in the making since the chief minister kicked off his tenure with an unusual focus on business — per se was not as staggering as the flair with which Bhattacharjee sold them his blueprint.

“The chief minister was so positive and sincere about making the state a strong investment destination that all of us were taken by surprise. This new approach will certainly take the state a long way so far as the state’s industrial rejuvenation is concerned,” gushed Ficci chairman Chirayu R. Amin, who led the team which spent nearly an hour with the chief minister.

Ficci secretary-general Amit Mitra echoed Amin, saying the meeting was “unusual” and it would help refurbish the state’s image in the country.

Others, who went in expecting a true-blue Marxist sermon, were equally generous with their applause. “Is this chief minister for real? He appears to be more private sector-friendly than many of his counterparts in other states,” a member of the delegation said.

Amin said the chief minister was “extremely bullish and positive” about private investment in both industry and education.

He said Bhattacharjee admitted lacunae in infrastructure and promised to correct most of it as soon as possible. “He has committed cooperation in land allocation for companies in information technology. New export zones are also being developed. The state government itself will work as a catalyst for any project, which is very encouraging,” Amin said.

The sick state-owned units that the chief minister referred to are now under a review by a high-level committee set up by the government. Chief secretary Manish Gupta is the chairman of the panel. On the basis of the committee’s report, the government will identify the units and quantum of disinvestment. A senior official said the chief minister “clearly stated that the government has no inhibition of hiving off the loss-making units into joint ventures. These units can be given to private entrepreneurs who are already in similar business”.

Amin said the chief minister also invited private investment in building engineering colleges and a teachers’ training college.

The Ficci has also proposed to the state government to change the academic pattern from 10+2+3 to 10+4. “We have been advocating a 10+4 system of education for a long time, but it was not accepted by the University Grants Commission. We wonder if West Bengal could give the country a lead in this sphere as well. It will definitely set a wonderful example,” Amin said.




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