Double trouble for Balco selloff
Forces on alert for subdued offensive
Atal gives peace three months
Buddha bites jobs bullet
East sits on poverty powder keg
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Charges of corruption and a confrontation with a state government today threatened to engulf the Centre’s first disinvestment decision of the financial year.

A storm erupted in Parliament over the government’s decision to divest controlling stake in Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco) with the Opposition and some members of the ruling alliance claiming that the public sector aluminium firm has been undersold.

The Centre had yesterday announced that a 51 per cent stake in Balco would be sold to Sterlite Industries, one of the three bidders, for Rs 551.5 crore.

But the Opposition alleged that the government had deliberately undervalued the company at just over Rs 1,100 crore and rushed through the deal. The Opposition put the market value of Balco at Rs 3,500 crore.

Ajit Jogi, chief minister of Chhattisgarh, spearheaded the campaign outside the House, threatening to cancel the mining and land lease of Balco’s Korba plant if the Centre did not reconsider the privatisation. The Congress-ruled state had made an unusual offer to buy Balco after the bidding was closed. Balco has a plant in Bengal, too.

Proceedings in the Rajya Sabha were disrupted twice before the House was adjourned for the day, barely 15 minutes into the post-lunch session. MPs demanded an assurance from the government that the sale would be kept on hold till the issue was discussed to verify the transparency of the deal.

However, defending the deal, disinvestment minister Arun Shourie said: “Allegations are at variance with facts. The government’s decision cannot be held up because of the Opposition’s bulldozing tactics.”

This agitated the members further. C. Ramachandraiah of Telugu Desam, an NDA ally, said the “valuation of Balco was made in just seven days” and demanded that the process for sale should not be undertaken until the comptroller and auditor-general examines the issue.

But Shourie said: “The disinvestment commission had recommended sale of Balco as early as 1997 and the valuation of the public sector unit was on for almost two years. The allegation that it was rushed through is not correct.”

He said the government was ready for a discussion if the chairman of the House decided so after the business advisory committee meeting tomorrow.

Later, in a letter to Shourie, Ramachandraiah said: “There is need for a joint standing committee of members of both the Houses to examine the issue.”

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy said: “The deal smacks of scandal and reeks of corruption.”


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
It will be white flag in one hand and gun in the other.

Away from the limelight of the Kashmir truce extension, security forces have been put on “full combat preparedness” and asked to “go after” terrorists in the embattled state.

The action plan does not mean a return to the “pro-active” days before the Ramzan ceasefire was announced last November. But indications are that by February-end, the Centre is keen to effect a “short-term” strategy for the next three months.

The Centre has prepared a strategy paper which details the role of security forces during the ceasefire. The focus will be on continued anti-infiltration operations along the Line of Control (LoC) and the international border in Jammu and Kashmir as well as protection of minorities, remote settlements and vital installations.

Government sources said the “predominance” of security forces will be restored to a significant extent and they would have a “greater degree of freedom”.

The home ministry has called a meeting tomorrow of the operations group, which will review the security scenario for the truce period. Senior North Block and intelligence officials and the army’s representatives will attend the session. So will Kashmir home secretary C. Phunsong and director-general of police A.K. Suri.

Intelligence agencies have been asked to provide “specific” and “pin-point” information on the movement of militants and their hideouts. The inputs will be passed on to security forces and smaller units who would “go after” the militants. The army and paramilitary forces have been told to act fast once they are tipped off and in tandem with the police wherever necessary.

“Cordon and search” operations, virtually stopped since the ceasefire came into effect, will resume in a limited way, but care will be taken to ensure that common people are not harassed. “As far as possible, all precaution will be taken so that security forces do not take any harsh measures while going about performing counter-insurgency operations,” a government official said.

Another aspect of the strategy is a short-term and a long-term plan to tackle infiltration. The army has been told to “take all steps” to prevent violation of the LoC and to shoot anyone carrying weapons.

Sources said infiltrations could have increased because of the ceasefire. Statistics show that more civilians have been killed during the ceasefire while the number of militant casualties has come down.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today gave Pakistan and militants a last chance to talk peace by extending the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir by three months but laced his offer with a stern warning to foreign mercenary groups which have debunked the truce.

“Having examined all aspects of the question in its totality, the government has decided to further extend the period till the end of May. Let this opportunity not be missed by all those that desire peace, for our patience is not infinite,” Vajpayee said in the Lok Sabha.

Shaking an iron fist at Pakistan, the Prime Minister asked it to give up its “continuous hostile propaganda against India” and instead create an atmosphere conducive to talks by ending terror export.

Pakistan dismissed the ceasefire as “another attempt to mislead world opinion”. Spurred by US President George W. Bush’s letter to Pervez Musharraf yesterday, Islamabad said: “There must be world pressure on India to resume dialogue with Pakistan to solve the issue.”

The truce announcement came a day after an all-party meeting endorsed a further extension of the ceasefire, which came into effect on November 22 last year. Foreign minister Jaswant Singh was prevented from making a statement in the Rajya Sabha by members of Left parties and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who stalled proceedings protesting against the government’s bid to sell Balco.

While extending the ceasefire a third time, the Prime Minister sent a stern warning to Pakistan-based militant outfits that security forces would not allow the people of the state to be sitting ducks and would act “decisively” in tackling terror.

“I wish to make it abundantly clear that the peace process is only for those who wish to benefit from it. We will not let this process be derailed, diluted or misused. For such organisations or elements who have vowed to disrupt the peace process or intend to continue with violence and killing of innocents in Jammu and Kashmir, my message is unequivocal and clear,” Vajpayee said.

“If you inflict injury on any Indian citizen in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere or commit any act of violence or terrorism, the security forces have clear instructions to act decisively and defeat such intentions.”

Vajpayee, however, waved the olive branch at militant organisations in the Valley and said the Centre was ready to sit at the table with groups which “abjure violence”. The offer is a signal to the All-Party Hurriyat Conference that the government is ready to engage with it in the peace initiative.

But the Prime Minister was silent on whether the government would allow the Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan to hold talks with militant leaders across the border.

The Hurriyat scoffed at the ceasefire extension, saying the truce would be of no use unless concrete steps are taken to resolve the dispute.


Calcutta, Feb. 22: 
Putting up a “no vacancy” board, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today told the Assembly that the government would recruit only on contract basis.

The decision, a sweeping policy departure, leaves room for manoeuvre to shed workforce as and when necessary.

The chief minister’s announcement comes a day after he told industry captains that the state was willing to shed stake in its undertakings.

The Centre is also planning to squeeze into the new labour policy a clause allowing contract labour — a move denounced by the Left trade unions as a precursor to a hire-and-fire regime.

A blunt Bhattacharjee said the prime duty of the government was not to provide jobs but to carry out the development of the state. “We provide jobs required for development,’’ he added.

He said the government had also been cautious in providing jobs on compensatory grounds.

The state government is burdened with 3.9 lakh employees.

Bhattacharjee’s statement was in sharp contrast to the promise made by finance minister Asim Dasgupta in his vote-on-account speech to provide two lakh jobs every year.

“We shall employ personnel only when in dire need and it will be on contract basis. A clearance from the Cabinet will be essential in case of such recruitment,” the chief minister said.

The process of hiring on contract has started, Bhattacharjee said. “We have given some appointments in schools and hospitals on contract and are getting good results. The system will remain in practice for recruitment of teachers and doctors. In other sectors also, this practice will be followed,’’ he said.

Asked about job creation, the chief minister said: “We have taken some stringent and unpleasant measures on new recruitment. We have virtually put a ban on fresh recruitment and have instructed all the departments accordingly. We want to reduce expenses in non-plan allocation.’’

He said all department heads had been asked to furnish details of employees, vehicles and the number of phones and cellphones to assess whether manpower and vehicles were being properly utilised. The chief minister, however, said there would not be any ban on recruitment through the Public Service Commission.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Eastern India shares with the north the bulk of the poor in the country, where poverty has come down but not at the desired pace.

The government today disclosed that the number of people living below the poverty line fell by 10 per cent in 1999-2000 from 36 per cent in 1993-94. The poverty decline rate falls short of the 16 per cent target set for the ninth five-year plan.

The data, released by the Planning Commission, show 26 per cent of the people in the country are condemned to a life without basic amenities.

This means as many as 26 crore people are sustaining themselves on an income range of Rs 380 to 540 a month. The poverty line, an imaginary floor to measure the standard of living, varies from state to state. Rural and urban areas, too, have different cut-off levels. For instance, in Bengal, those earning below Rs 409.22 a month in urban areas and Rs 350.17 in villages are put below the poverty line. In Maharashtra, the urban level is fixed at Rs 539.71 and the rural one at Rs 318.63.

Poverty has maintained the rural-urban bias with villages accounting for 19 crore of the poor, but the regional break-up throws up a disturbing phenomenon.

Of the 26 crore poor, the eastern region houses over 9.4 crore, not far behind the 9.8 crore in the vast northern belt.

Uttar Pradesh tops the list of the number of poor at 5.29 crore.

Bihar with 4.2 crore of those below the poverty line, Bengal with 2.1 crore and Orissa 1.6 crore are the states in the eastern region that account for the alarming tilt.

But absolute numbers hide Orissa’s nightmare. In terms of percentage, nearly half the people (47.15 per cent) in the state live below the poverty line.

In contrast, terror-torn Jammu and Kashmir has the least percentage of the poor at 3.48 per cent, according to the data released by the Planning Commission.

In absolute terms, Daman and Diu has only six lakh poor, accounting for 4.44 per cent of their population, preceding Lakshwadeep with 11 lakh poor.




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