Surcharge Sinha in tax rejig
55 years, but still taken by surprise
Doctors flee disease epicentre
Legal hurdle to Balco selloff
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
Yashwant Sinha, who has earned himself the sobriquet of Surcharge Man, has a tough balancing act to perform when he pulls the wraps off his fourth budget on Wednesday.

All the indicators in yesterday’s Economic Survey underscore the need for a harsh budget with a tough reforms agenda; but political compulsions dictate the need to temper those provisions if he doesn’t want to alienate the electorate just before crucial Assembly elections in four states.

Sinha has already ruled out any change in the rate of tax for personal incomes and direct taxes. Significantly, he has not ruled out changes in the existing income brackets. There are strong indications that he may widen the income brackets, or create new brackets, taking into consideration the inflationary impact. This could provide some relief to the salaried class.

Not many are willing to speculate on the possibility of a reduction in the surcharge on income and corporate taxes. The three surcharges together work out to 17 per cent, which takes the effective rate of income tax to 35.1 per cent at the highest bracket.

Through the 2 per cent surcharge imposed in the wake of the Gujarat earthquake, he has raised nearly Rs 1400 crore.

Sinha, who slapped the Gulf surcharge in 1990 when he was the finance minister in the Chandra Sekhar government, and topped that with the so-called Kargil surcharge last year and the Gujarat surcharge last month, may attempt to consolidate the three surcharges into one. Official circles do not rule out the possibility of a marginal reduction in the consolidated surcharge.

The finance minister will definitely try to raise additional resources through direct taxes. He may do this by widening the coverage of service tax, which was first imposed in 1994. At present, the service tax — which covers a whole range of activity from stock brokers, accountants, management consultants and advertising companies to tour operators, outdoor caterers and mechanical slaughterhouses — is a modest levy and is collected at the rate of 5 per cent on the value of the taxable service. Sinha may enhance the existing rate in certain cases. Indications are that the scope of the service tax would be widened to cover almost all commercial services.

The tax on dividend income is a sensitive issue and Sinha is under tremendous pressure to scrap it altogether. The finance minister knows that if the budget proposals are to make an impact on the economy, they should stimulate the stock market.

A marginal reduction on surcharge coupled with the scrapping of the dividend tax could send the right signals to the stock market. The stock market is now in the doldrums; if the sensex climbs to a heady high, he will not have to go about tom-tomming the virtues of his budget.

While finalising the customs proposals, Sinha has been trying to strike a balance between protection and revenue from imports. The finance minister is expected to lower the protection by 5 per cent on the peak rates from 35 per cent to 30 per cent and from 25 per cent to 20 per cent.

The 5 per cent surcharge on import duty could, however, be increased sharply to 25 per cent on several sensitive consumer goods such as textiles, footwear and plastic in view of the removal of quantitative restrictions on imports in accordance with the commitments made to the World Trade Organisation.


Calcutta, Feb. 24: 
Jyoti Basu left the Assembly for the last time today amid a spectacle he has grown familiar with in his 55-year stint: empty Opposition benches.

As the CPM bathed Basu in praise on his last day in the House, the Congress, Trinamul Congress and BJP boycotted the session. “Basu is neither a god nor a world-famous man. Why will he be felicitated in the House?” asked Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, the Trinamul Congress MLA.

Leader of the Opposition Atish Sinha said so much time should not have been allotted for Basu. “The Assembly is not a platform for felicitation,’’ he said.

Basu seemed to agree. Clad in white dhuti-panjabi and polished black shoes, the former chief minister — the country’s longest-serving one — entered the House at 10.35 am to the thumping of tables. The Opposition benches were deserted, but the seats of the Left Front, SUCI and the GNLF were full.

About 90 minutes were allotted for his felicitation, but the last-day MLA was not amused. “Nobody had told me that I have to say something. So I am not prepared. Even Buddha has not told me. Why this felicitation? I do not like it,’’ Basu said.

But after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee whispered something, Basu began his homework for his speech, taking out his pen and a piece of paper from his pocket and jotting down points.

Despite the man himself, the last day of the 12th Assembly was Basu’s day — an ode to his long career. After winning a seat in the House for the first time in 1946 from the railway union, Basu won from Baranagar in 1952. He spent 22 years as Opposition leader to become deputy chief minister under Ajoy Mukherjee and chief minister in 1977, to step down last year. He is bowing out as an MLA from Satgachhia.

Hasim Abdul Halim, the longest-serving Speaker in the country, described Basu as a leader of the masses and a leader of the nation. “He is our inspiration. He is great,’’ Halim said.

Stating that Basu was a great leader and a pioneer of parliamentary democracy, Bhattacharjee said he was a symbol of hope. The chief minister criticised the Opposition. “It reflects their culture and attitude.”

After a host of other MLAs congratulated Basu, who sat silently, the Speaker requested him to come up and accept a memento. Amid applause and renewed thumping of tables, he was given a memento, a bouquet, a dhuti and a shawl. “What shall I do with all these?” a smiling Basu asked.

Back in his seat, Basu started his last speech as an MLA. “Buddha told me that the House has decided to felicitate me. I told him not to do so. However, when all of you want it, what can I say?” he asked.

“Many people and organisations are felicitating me after I stepped down as chief minister. But I do not like it,’’ Basu said. “There is a saying in Bengali — prasangsa bishamoy, ninda amritasaman (praise is poison, blame nectar).”

After the speech, the Speaker adjourned the House. Basu unveiled an oil painting of Bimal Sinha and laid the foundation stone for a new Assembly building.

A cup of liquor tea and two cream cracker biscuits later, Basu left the Assembly, for the last time, at 1.35 pm. But not without a promise of return — if in spirit. “Abaar aasiba phirey — we are again coming back to this House. I shall not return but our party will definitely return,’’ Basu said.


New Delhi & Calcutta, Feb. 24: 
Doctors have joined the exodus from panic-stricken Siliguri as two more people died of the mystery malaise today.

A.K. Maity, a cardiologist from Siliguri who had been infected with the disease after he treated a few patients, died at a Calcutta hospital this morning. Aruna Chakraborty, a resident of Bhanu Nagar on the outskirts of Siliguri, died at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital.

Chakraborty, too, was treating infected persons at Medinova nursing home, where the first strains of the outbreak were noticed earlier this month.

As doctors and health officials began fleeing the town, non-government organisations today kept vigil at Bagdogra airport, New Jalpaiguri railway station and the inter-state bus terminus in Siliguri in an effort to send them back.

“We intend to prevent doctors and other medical personnel from leaving at this crucial juncture,” a spokesperson for the Siliguri Welfare Association said.

“We have reports that at least 12 doctors have left the city since Tuesday. We managed to prevent several prominent doctors from leaving town today,” the spokesperson added.

Many medical stores in Siliguri have downed their shutters.

The Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) will set up camps at Sealdah station and at long-distance bus terminuses in Calcutta to conduct medical check-ups of those who arrive from Siliguri. The camps will operate from Monday, said Javed Khan, member, mayor-in-council (health).

CMC doctors will record the names of those who arrive from Siliguri and their addresses in Calcutta.

The 15-member team of experts, which is meeting patients in Siliguri, today said the situation was “concerning” but not out of control. Describing the disease as a “localised viral epidemic”, Dr J.C. Gandhi, who is leading the delegation, said: “The situation, though critical, is not out of control and there is no reason to panic. But it is necessary that every person takes some precautions, particularly doctors, nurses and relatives of the patients. Protective gowns, gloves, clothes and masks must be provided to both medical staff and the relatives.”

The doctor added that body fluids had been collected from the dead persons, as well as from the patients battling the disease and the samples have been sent to laboratories in Pune and New Delhi. The results will be known by the end of next week, he added.

The experts doubted the claim that the disease had originated from one Hare Krishna Pal, who was admitted to Medinova with symptoms of the malaise earlier in the month. “Pal was admitted in the clinic in January and had cardiological problems. He was even suffering from jaundice,” the doctors added.


New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
After hitting the Opposition wall, the disinvestment ministry might well get caught in a legal tangle over the Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco) selloff issue.

In 1997, the Supreme Court had debarred private companies from exploiting mining leases in tribal areas. Balco’s mining leases fall mainly in such areas of Chhattisgarh — Katghora, Bilaspur, Manpur, Monla and Rajnandgaon. Once a private entrepreneur takes control over the public sector aluminium company, it can well lose these leases.

Top officials in the disinvestment and mines ministries are aware of the Supreme Court ruling, popularly known as the Samatha judgment. The Balco union, too, knows about the order. If all other forms of pressure fail, the union could well use the judgment as its trump card to stop the government from selling a 51 per cent stake in Balco to Chennai-based Sterlite Industries for Rs 551.5 crore.

If the union succeeds, it could spell double trouble for the government. It would then have to shelve plans of selling public sector companies with mining leases on tribal land.

The Supreme Court had ruled that only the government, in its role as protector of tribal properties, could exploit land described as belonging to tribals under Schedule V of the Constitution for the welfare of tribals. The apex court upheld the judgment passed in 1997 when the Centre sought a review last year.

The Centre then sought Fali S. Nariman’s opinion on the implications of the judgment. Last October, Nariman suggested that each state Cabinet should independently examine “whether existing (mining) licences should be allowed to continue until they expired or whether it was more expedient to prohibit further mining operations”.

This was in light of an Andhra Pradesh move based on the Supreme Court ruling to ban private mining in the state.

Nariman also suggested that the Centre should set up a Cabinet sub-committee headed by the Prime Minister and comprising ministers for environment and welfare to ensure that “the state’s policy is consistent with the policy of the nation as a whole”.

Nariman also suggested that the Centre should set up a Cabinet sub-committee headed by the Prime Minister and comprising ministers for environment and welfare to ensure that “the state’s policy is consistent with the policy of the nation as a whole”.

When the Balco selloff issue cropped up, several top officials in the ministry of mines had pointed this out in writing. The Planning Commission, too, had voiced its apprehensions in its notings on Balco disinvestment. But the disinvestment ministry brushed aside these concerns, saying it had consulted the law ministry.




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Min: 21.8°C (+5)

Relative humidity

Maximum: 98%
Minimum: 31%




Partly cloudy sky. Minimum temperature likely to be 21°C
Sunset: 5.27 pm
Sunrise: 5.11 am

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