Siliguri fights to get back on track
Hill prison students on hunger strike
Raid-belt officers face axe alert
Dacoits on loot spree in north
State to get more playgrounds
Smuggler trouble for passengers
Finance falters before Mamata red signal
Balco sell-off put on hold till House debate
Migrant law validity under SC scanner
Berlin to join Delhi war against terror

Siliguri, Feb. 26: 
Armed with assurances from doctors and the government that the situation was improving, residents began returning to their homes even as the toll in the mystery fever went up by one.

Two persons suspected to be infected with the disease were admitted to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital (NBMCH) where a separate ward has been set up.

The Siliguri subdivisional officer, Rajesh Singha, said: “While Sita Devi (70) died at NBMCH this morning, two persons suspected to be infected with the disease have been admitted to the hospital. Miliar Kerkatta (28) was referred to NBMCH from the Jalpaiguri Sadar Hospital this morning and Sharmila Larka (20), a resident of Kharibari under Siliguri subdivision, was admitted to the hospital with suspected encephalitis in the evening. Of the 25 patients suspected to be infected with the mystery malaise, nine are being kept in isolation at NBMCH. The rest are under observation.”

The government has decided to take drastic action against doctors, house-staff and interns of NBMCH who had fled the hospital. “Apart from taking official action against the absconding doctors, I will ask the health minister not to issue them the clearance certificate they require to register themselves as medical practitioners. These doctors betrayed their basic medical ethics at a time when their services were needed the most,” urban development minister Ashoke Bhattacharya said.

“If the doctors flee in fear of a disease, I fear what kind of doctors they will be in future,” he added.

Both Bhattacharya and health minister Partha De claimed that the disease had been contained.

The town limped back to normal today as markets and shops, which had been closed for the past two days, opened. “We had no other option but to close our shops earlier than usual on Friday and Saturday as there were hardly any customers. Only a handful of our regular bulk customers, who come from Darjeeling and Sikkim, ventured out to make trips to Siliguri during the past four days,” explained a vegetable wholesaler at the Bidhan market in the heart of Siliguri’s commercial hub.

Local residents, who had refused to leave their homes without a mask, today took them off, apparently reassured by the experts’ claim that the disease was a “localised viral outbreak” which lasts between two to three weeks.

Attendance at offices, both government and private, improved. “We had been functioning with skeletal staff for most of last week. The attendance improved at this branch from today,” said a manager of a nationalised bank on Hill Cart Road.

Diagnostic centres and medical stores, which had downed shutters following the epidemic scare, also were back in business. Barring the 16 schools which are Madhyamik examination centres, the others will reopen on Thursday.

Thirteen of the 15 medical experts who had been camping in the town for the past few days returned to their respective centres today with samples of body fluid collected from patients. One member each from the World Health Organisation and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, New Delhi, are still here to gather more samples which will be sent to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, US, the foremost research centre in the world dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases.


Siliguri, Feb. 26: 
Nine All-Gorkha Students’ Union (Agsu) activists, who were taken into custody for allegedly assaulting a GNLF worker, have gone on a fast-unto-death at the Darjeeling district jail to protest against their “fabricated arrests”.

The students began their hunger strike on February 23 and said they will not call it off until all 15 arrested men are released unconditionally. Two of the students, whose condition deteriorated today, were shifted to the Darjeeling Sadar Hospital.

The Agsu supporters were arrested for allegedly beating up a GNLF worker, Darshan Rai, at Darjeeling.

Police alleged that the group, armed with khukris, had attacked and seriously wounded Rai, who is from the Tungsung tea garden. Agsu president Roshan Giri denied the charge.

“A group of 15 Agsu supporters, armed with khukris and other weapons, had assaulted Darshan and were planning to attack other GNLF men in retaliation against the attack on the houses of Agsu leaders in Darjeeling and Phokrayabong following the ambush on GNLF chief Subash Ghising,” police said.

Giri scoffed at the allegations. “The GNLF is trying to make Agsu a scapegoat in the attack on Ghising. We are in no way connected with the attack,” he said.


Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
Alarmed by the soaring crime graph in South 24-Parganas, the district police have decided to suspend officers-in-charge of police stations if two dacoities take place in their areas within a month.

Superintendent of police Deb Kumar Ganguly, who took over from A.K. Maliwal a fortnight ago, has also requested Writers’ Buildings for additional forces, vehicles and a sophisticated wireless network.

Since December, 150 dacoities and 35 murders have taken place in the district. The figures for the September-November 2000 period were 20 and 12 respectively.

The OCs have been asked to remain alert. Cracking the whip, A senior official said that if two dacoities are reported from a police station area within a month, the officer-in-charge concerned will be suspended.

“We are trying our best to curb crime in the district. In a recent night-long raid, we arrested about 900 people, some of whom were wanted in a number of cases. A huge cache of arms was recovered,” the superintendent said.

Rajesh Kumar Singh, the additional SP in charge of the rural sector of the district, said the authorities were firm about dealing with gangsters with an iron hand. “The number of resistance groups have been increased in villages and emphasis has been laid on better co-ordination with the police. Already, the inspector-in-charge of Falta has been suspended for not being alert enough while on duty,” he said.

Most crimes occur in rural areas and the villagers blame police for failing to arrest the culprits. In December, dacoits looted 32 houses in Usti in Diamond Harbour subdivision. On January 1, gangsters swooped down on Mourberia village, again in Diamond Harbour, and raided 44 houses.

The public outrage forced chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to visit the remote area in a cycle-van, accompanied by district magistrate Alapan Bandopadhyay and Maliwal, then superintendent of police.

A day after the raid, dacoits looted five houses in Ramdhari village in Baruipur, near Mourberia, and beat up the residents.

On January 3, the day of Bhattacharjee’s visit to Mourberia, criminals struck at more than a dozen houses at Mithakundu-Barenduli village in Kulpi and two days later, around 10 houses were looted in Iswaripur. After a fortnight, on January 18, the gangsters plundered several houses at Joynagar, Sonarpur and Bhangor.

In the riverine areas of the district, pirates robbed a number of fishing boats and kidnapped more than a dozen fishermen who were later released on payment of a hefty ransom.

The district has also recorded a higher number of murders over the past three months.

The recent murder of Golok Sen Roy, a teacher and CPI leader from Behala, has shaken the district administration. Unknown assailants walked into a school and shot Roy.


Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
Armed dacoits went on a looting spree at Habra in North 24-Parganas early on Monday. They looted five houses and injured five villagers, including two women, who tried to resist.

A gang of 20 dacoits, armed with revolvers and bhojalis cordoned the houses at Hat-thuba village in Habra police station area and started looting. All of them managed to flee.

According to police, the gangsters came in a matador van and taxi and raided the sleepy hamlet around 2 am. They first stormed the house of Tarapada Debnath. A section of the robbers entered Debnath’s house while the rest of the goons kept a close eye on the neighbouring houses from the main gate. The gangsters also threat-ened Debnath and his family members against raising a hue and cry.

They took Rs 30,000 and gold ornaments and beat up Debnath’s wife when she tried to resist them.

The dacoits, then divided into four groups and raided four other houses. After the looting, the goons walked towards their vehicles parked on the main road.

The villagers, then, raised an alarm. A number of them came out from their houses and started chasing the goons. However, the dacoits managed to flee before the villagers could nab them.

On hearing about the incident, personnel from Habra police station rushed to the site. They inspected the spot throughout Monday but could not arrest any of the culprits.

District superintendent of police Kuldip Singh said a massive manhunt is on to track down the goons. “We are raiding all possible hideouts and the culprits will be arrested soon,” he added.

It was the second incident of mass-dacoity in past five days. Several houses were looted in Gobardanga area on Wednesday.

Police have failed to trace any one of the culprits as yet.


Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
The government will develop 20 playgrounds in various towns across the state, including Siliguri, Darjeeling, Haldia, Serampur and Kharda.

The project, to be implemented by the municipal affairs department, will cost an estimated Rs 4 crore.

Urban development and municipal affairs minister minister Ashoke Bhattacharya said the playgrounds would be developed to make them suitable for games like football, cricket, and even kho kho and Kabbadi.

A committee comprising eminent sportsmen has been formed to supervise and monitor the project.

The minister said the government was also planning to build gymnanastic and swimming centres at various towns.

Besides, Bhattacharya said, Rs 5.5 crore had been allotted to the CMDA-run municipalities for beautification of parks.


Burdwan, Feb. 26: 
For daily passengers of trains that run between Burdwan and Howrah, squeezing into packed compartments was bad enough. But of late, the trips have become a nightmare as commuters have to rub shoulders with smugglers and free-trippers.

With an alarming increase in the number of ticketless travellers and smugglers carrying rice, iron scrap and coal to “agents”, commuters complain that they feel claustrophobic.

Passengers allege that trains make several unscheduled halts and stop at certain stations longer than usual. Smugglers reportedly tamper with coaches of waiting trains, delaying their departure.

“We feel unsafe. Repeated appeals to the authorities have yielded no result. So we have stopped complaining,” an aggrieved passenger said. Fearing a backlash by smugglers, commuters are not keen to fight the menace without the backing of the authorities.

The railways have conveniently passed the buck to the police. “We are concerned about the smugglers. But what can be done if the police don’t act?” a railway official asked.

A government rail police official said: “We conduct raids at regular intervals, seize articles and make arrests. Huge quantity of smuggled coal, iron ore and rice is seized almost every month. But the smugglers manage to get bail and carry on their activities,” he said.

However, the official said, a crackdown on smugglers is not easy. Many deploy women and children to ferry their goods. “When we nab them, they raise a hue and cry and manage to win public sympathy. In most cases we have to surrender to public pressure.”

He also complained of a nexus between railway employees and smugglers. Apart from local trains, several long-distance trains, especially those connecting Calcutta and north Bengal, make unscheduled halts to help smugglers get off.

Ticketless passengers compound the travails of the commuters. “From Asansol to Burdwan, the journey is manageable, if one is travelling by Agnibeena Express or by Mayurakhi Fast Passenger from Andal station. But once the train stops at Burdwan station, free-trippers pour in and barge even into first-class compartments. It is a blessing that Coalfield Express does not halt at Burdwan,” a commuter said.

Admitting that free-trippers have become a “headache” for the railways, a senior railway official said: “We have intensified the drive against ticketless passengers and those availing of reserved compartments without valid tickets.” The only solution lies in running more trains between Asansol and Howrah during peak hours, he added.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
Mamata Banerjee today had her way on a fare hike-free budget despite stiff resistance from finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

The relentless pressure piled by Mamata paid off but Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hand was also forced by political compulsions when he gave the go-ahead to a soft budget.

The coming elections to the West Bengal Assembly are crucial for the National Democratic Alliance’s future in the state. The BJP on its own is not a big player in any of the five states going to polls in April-May. But in Bengal, its ally Trinamul Congress is expected to put up a tough fight against the CPM.

In Tamil Nadu, the picture is not rosy for the NDA with the DMK-led front fighting a grim battle against the ADMK camp. A hike-free budget is expected to improve the NDA’s chances in all the states.

Mamata, on her part, did not leave anything to chance. She kept up the pressure on Vajpayee, aware that the finance minister, Railway Board officials and the Prime Minister’s economic council were all in favour of a rise in passenger fares.

Vajpayee himself wanted a hike and said as much at a function in Lucknow where Mamata was present. A couple of days later, on February 9, the railway minister called an all-party meeting and got an endorsement from most parties for a “pro-people” budget.

Vajpayee was forced to send Sinha to her the same evening to discuss the issue. But Mamata stuck to her stand of “not burdening the common man”. She argued that by increasing passenger fares, the railways would generate only Rs 400 crore more and that it could manage without a hike.

The railway minister called on Vajpayee on February 14 and pleaded with him again on the need for a hike-free budget.

The Prime Minister gave no assurance but asked her to meet Planning Commission deputy chairman K.C. Pant to discuss the budgetary allocations. Mamata sent ministry officials to Pant.

Mamata had sent another menacing message in the first week of February by calling off seat-sharing talks with Bengal BJP leaders, led by Ashim Ghosh.

Amid media speculation that Mamata was hobnobbing with Congress leaders and could quit the government if she was not allowed to present a soft budget, an alarmed Vajpayee told Digivijay Singh and O. Rajagopal, ministers of state, to take more interest in the department in view of the “unpredictable” nature of the railway minister.

Mamata did not fight her battle on the political front alone. Where economics mattered, she was ready with her logic.

Pitted against hardnosed mandarins of the finance ministry, Mamata argued that the world over transport costs were falling.

Her trusted aides also dropped hints that the railway was losing money was because the Centre refused to pay for the uneconomic routes the utility was forced to service and transport of goods to disaster-hit areas.

Tempers flared at a meeting where Mamata was not present when a railway official wondered who would pay for the trains carrying relief supplies to Gujarat.

Finance ministry officials later sprung figures compiled by industry chambers, pointing out that the railway’s input costs were going up and the only way out is to cut subsidies by raising fares.

Mamata did cut subsidy — not on fares but where it hurt her detractors most. She chose freight and picked out three vital industrial inputs, steel, iron and coal, for the rate increase.

By making these three industrial inputs costlier, the railway has struck back at an industry lobby working out of western India.

However, Mamata today denied any pressure from the Prime Minister or the finance minister to increase passenger fares. “They did not interfere in the budget,” she said.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The Centre today announced that it would put the transfer of Balco shares on hold till March 1 when Parliament rounds off the debate on the Rs 55I-crore deal.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said in the Rajya Sabha that the government had “nothing to hide” on the transfer of 51 per cent Balco stakes to the private sector aluminium company Sterlite Industries, even as the Opposition continued to disrupt the House on what it said was a “total sellout”.

Mahajan said the government was willing to have a discussion on the issue. The Upper House will debate it tomorrow and the Lok Sabha on March 1, as the general budget will be presented on Wednesday.

Asserting that the decision to disinvest the bluechip PSU was taken by the Cabinet, Mahajan dismissed the Opposition charge that Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had committed a “parliamentary impropriety” by defending the deal outside the House. “When the Prime Minister is asked by newsmen to comment on the deal cleared by the Cabinet, what do you expect him to do? He has to defend his Cabinet’s discussion. He has committed no impropriety,” Mahajan said.

Earlier, the Opposition had stalled Question Hour in the Lok Sabha, protesting against Vajpayee’s remark at a function that the Balco decision was a “good agreement” on which there was “no confusion”. Members stormed to the Well of the House and forced Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to adjourn it till 12 noon.

As soon as the House had assembled for the day, Congress member Priya Ranjan Das Munshi had demanded whether the Prime Minister could make a statement on Balco when the House was slated to debate the issue on March 1.

The Centre was put on the mat on Balco yesterday after Ajit Jogi, chief minister of the Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, said he would not allow Sterlite Industries to operate from his state, where Balco is headquartered.

Jogi, who was in the capital to attend a farmers’ rally, warned at a news conference that he would end water and electricity connections to the disinvested public sector unit and cancel the bauxite mining lease given to Balco three years ago if it was handed over to Sterlite. Jogi alleged that “someone” in the Prime Minister’s Office had received Rs 100 crore in the deal.

Today it was the turn of the Balco Employees’ Union to take on the Centre. The union charged that irregularities marred the biddings undertaken by the government to award Sterlite Industries the strategic partnership with Balco. It further said Hindalco’s bid was submitted only to support Sterlite’s and was “totally unrealistic”.

Court mum

Delhi High Court today declined to issue any directions to the two writ petitions challenging the sale of Balco equity. “When the matter is being discussed in Parliament why should the court interfere?” the bench said and deferred hearing till March 27. The offloading of the shares by Balco under the Centre’s disinvestment policy was challenged by the Balco Employees’ Union and Delhi advocate B.L. Vadhera in two public interest litigations.

The government’s decision to have a House discussion seemed to have been prompted by the realisation that it was futile to have a confrontation between the executive and the legislature on an issue which could set the precedent for future disinvestment decisions.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The Supreme Court today decided to go into the validity of the Illegal Migrants’ (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT) as the Centre and the West Bengal government said they “could not do anything about the Act in the absence of political consensus”.

The court had earlier directed the Centre to repeal the Act if all the parties involved agreed, and not to “cleverly pass the buck” to the court.

But after solicitor-general Harish Salve submitted today that the Union government was helpless as there was no “political consensus” on scrapping the Act, the apex court directed the Centre, West Bengal, Assam and other Northeastern states to finish their pleadings in eight weeks and their written submissions of not more than five pages in another two weeks. The case would be listed after eight weeks, it said.

Claiming that IMDT gave a long rope to the migrants to stay on in India, Salve said both the Centre and Assam believed that the Act was discriminatory and needed to be repealed but could not scrap it for lack of political consensus. Salve said the court could examine the Act and quash it if it was found discriminatory.

IMDT is applicable only in Assam although it is a Union legislation. Under the Act, the onus of proving that a person is not a bona fide citizen of the country lies with the government rather than the person concerned.

West Bengal had made it clear in an affidavit that it was “impossible” to deport immigrants as they have mingled with the local population over the years and “unscrupulous politicians and officials” have obtained ration cards and electoral cards for them.

Bengal also told the court that it was doing everything possible to send back the illegal immigrants but alleged that the Assam government was callous in its attitude and was doing nothing to deport them.

The Centre, while expressing its inability to scrap the Act, said in another affidavit that the “implementation of the National Identity Card Scheme would largely depend on Parliament passing an enabling legislation providing for compulsory registration of citizens and foreign nationals residing in the country and issue of identity papers to them”.

The apex court said “the way illegal Bangladeshi migrants are pouring in, they are a threat to both the economy and the security of the country”.

“They are eating into the economy of the country and are to a large extent a security threat,” the three-judge bench of Chief Justice A.S. Anand, Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justice Brijesh Kumar observed.

Appearing for the Assam unit of Congress, which has also joined as a petitioner, senior counsel and Congress Rajya Sabha member Kapil Sibal opposed any move to scrap the Act.

He said the court should not do anything to examine the validity of the Act nor go into its constitutional aspect because if the government felt that the Act was to be repealed, it should initiate the steps necessary in Parliament. It was not for the court to step in.

The Centre gave details of “safeguards” taken to prevent further immigration. It said the entire length of the Indo-Bangladesh border would be fenced by March 2007. Fencing is complete on a stretch of 841 kilometres.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The close Indo-German relations and the attempt by the two sides to broadbase bilateral ties will be given a final stamp of approval with the visit of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to India in October.

German defence minister Rudolf Scharping made the announcement at the end of his week-long visit and intensive dialogue with the Indian leadership. Though his Delhi counterpart George Fernandes was his main host, Scharping also met foreign minister Jaswant Singh and the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra.

The high point of his visit was the setting up of a mechanism which would enable the defence ministers of the two sides to hold regular consultations with each other and also provide the platform for senior military officials of India and Germany to interact.

Scharping identified India as a country which is “indispensable to international security” and said that though Germany was not trying to transfer its European experience on security and strategic issues to the region, it was hopeful that the proposed dialogue-mechanism would provide the forum for the defence establishments of the two countries to act closely with each other.

Germany is India’s biggest European trading partner and has identified Delhi as one of the main countries in the region with which Berlin should build up a strategic relationship.

Over the past two years there had been frequent high-level talks between the two countries. German foreign minister Joscha Fischer has already been here twice in the last two years and Jaswant Singh was in Berlin in January this year. German president Johannes Rau is also expected here within a month or two. But it is Schroeder’s visit that can raise bilateral relations to the level both expect it to reach.

Scharping hailed Delhi’s extension of the ceasefire in Kashmir as a “responsible decision in a very dangerous and risky situation” and felt it was time for Pakistan to respond to Delhi’s gesture and try to settle the outstanding disputes between the two sides peacefully.

He said the proposed Indo-German dialogue mechanism will focus on emerging threats and risks posed by terrorism, ethnic conflicts and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction “in unsafe hands”.

The German defence minister expressed satisfaction on India’s decision to put a freeze on further nuclear tests and pointed out that Delhi was not the only country as some “big countries”, too, had problems with ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT ).

On the proposed US National Missile Defence (NMD) he said: “It makes sense to have intensive dialogue and consultation on the issue before it is implemented.”

However, he hinted that there was instability in many regions due to the rise of religious fundamentalism and international terrorism and democratic countries should get together to find a mechanism in making such regions stable and safe for their own economic development.

Scharping, when asked to comment about Germany selling its military hardware to India, made it clear that his mission here was not to look for a German arms market nor to solve problems that exist between the two sides on such issues.

The controversy over the HDW Submarines deal was now more than two decades old and perhaps the Indian side will review to decision to blacklist German arms manufacturers now, he said.

However, he was cautious on resumption of military cooperation between the two countries suspended after the May 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests.

Asked if Berlin was ready to resume weapons sales to Delhi, specially whether it would bid for the major naval submarine building project and collaboration on the main-battle-tank Arjun engines, Scharping said it would be a “step-by-step decision”.


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