US black mark on CPM reign
Biju Dal keeps budget pot boiling
Balco backlash spreads within BJP alliance
Atal’s Sudama goes without juice
Calcutta weather

 
 
US BLACK MARK ON CPM REIGN 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, Feb. 27: 
The Bengal government and the CPM have drawn unusual and unexpected criticism from the US state department which lists in a human rights report the “disappearance” of detainees, assault on teachers and intimidation of media in the state.

The report, released by the US acting assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, also makes an unflattering comment on the state of the CPM. “In Calcutta, the CPM often threatens journalists. However, as the power of the party diminishes, journalists find it easier to criticise the government,” it says.

Unlike earlier, this time the report, part of an exercise to meet Congressional benchmarks for US aid and trade assistance to foreign countries, has lengthy references to Bengal and the Northeast.

Last year, the US consul general in Calcutta, Christopher Sandrolini, was pulled up by the state government for sending two employees to Birbhum’s Nanoor where 11 people, said to be Trinamul Congress supporters, were killed. The controversy ended after Sandrolini met the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu. The state department report does not mention the incident.

The most severe criticism of Bengal is contained in the section on “disappearance”. The report disputes claims by the government that screening committees provide information to families about people detained by the police. “Other sources indicate that families are able to confirm the detention of their relatives only by bribing prison guards.”

The report cites the case of Partha Majumdar, who was taken from his home by the police in September 1997. Despite requests from the State Human Rights Commission, it says, police refused to provide information about Majumdar, who was witness to police shooting which left one person dead.

In the section on ‘Freedom of peaceful assembly and association’, it criticises the state government for beating up primary school teachers holding a peaceful demonstration in front of the Assembly last year.

The report alleges that “in West Bengal, the organised traffic in illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is a source of bonded labour”. It says “Calcutta is a convenient transit point for traffickers who send Bangladeshis to New Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and West Asia”, where “persons sometimes are sold to virtual slavery”.

But the report has words of praise for non-government organisations in Calcutta for good coordination among themselves and with the police in combating the sexual exploitation of women and children. Such coordination, the report says, is severely lacking in cities like Mumbai.

It has particularly praised Sanlaap, a Calcutta-based NGO, for sponsoring “meetings between representatives of sex workers and the police to discuss such issues as violence against women and trafficking”.

The report underscores that the state government has provided technical advice for an education project and points out that the “Central government contributed nothing to the project”.

The report has not spared the Centre either. It accuses the BJP-led government of attempting to gain political control over NGOs and “abridging their freedom of assembly and association”. It also refers to allegations of rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

   

 
 
BIJU DAL KEEPS BUDGET POT BOILING 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
The BJP’s Orissa ally, the Biju Janata Dal, today seized on Mamata Banerjee’s “Bengal” budget to drive a hard bargain with the Centre, asking the party leadership to decide whether to continue in the ruling coalition.

A seething BJD parliamentary party met here twice today and adopted a “unanimous” resolution seeking to pull out of the NDA government in view of the “step-motherly” treatment meted out to Orissa by Mamata and the “consistent” neglect of the state by the Centre. However, the final decision was left to party president and Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik.

Some MPs were of the view that the BJD should immediately snap ties with the NDA, while others felt that the party should quit the government, but give issue-based support from outside. Sources said a few MPs also wanted to vote against the railway budget unless Mamata provides some relief.

Mamata, however, made light of the BJD allegations, saying she has sanctioned all proposals sought by the chief minister. The minister said the MPs’ posturing was due to “internal problems”.

The MPs’ resolution has not been released to the press as they wanted it to be sent to the chief minister first. In Bhubaneswar, Patnaik made a statement, drawing the Prime Minister’s attention to the neglect of Orissa in the rail budget.

However, Patnaik is unlikely to agree to a pullout unless the heat from the MPs intensifies. The party leadership is expected to cite the MPs’ anger to wrest from the Centre concessions during the discussions on the general budget.

Apart from the “bias” in the railway budget, the MPs are also agitated about the discrimination in relief and rehabilitation following the supercyclone as compared to Gujarat and the lack of sensitivity to the prevailing drought in the state.

The meeting was attended by 11 MPs, including two ministers. The party has 10 Lok Sabha and three Rajya Sabha members.

Asked if the party was serious about leaving the NDA government, general secretary Prasanna Acharya said: “We will abide by the decision of our president (Patnaik). We’re communicating our feelings to him. We are only a parliamentary party and not competent to take a decision on a pullout.”

Sethi said the unanimous view of the meeting was that the focus of the railway budget was only on two to three states and Orissa was completely neglected.

Party leader P.K. Samantray also criticised Mamata for her “blatant” discrimination against Orissa, still reeling under the impact of the supercyclone.

   

 
 
BALCO BACKLASH SPREADS WITHIN BJP ALLIANCE 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
As cracks appeared in the BJP over the sale of Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd (Balco), more coalition partners stepped up the offensive against the government on the divestment deal.

While the Telugu Desam, which had been subdued after its initial burst of criticism, today relaunched its assault on the government, the Shiv Sena joined the Opposition chorus in questioning the selloff. “It (the sale) does not look all right. The figures speak for themselves,” Sena chief Bal Thackeray said in Mumbai.

Adding to the Centre’s woes, former law minister Ram Jethmalani described as “indefensible” the decision to sell Balco to Sterlite Industries for Rs 551.5 crore.

BJP sources said disinvestment minister Arun Shourie was confronted with a volley of questions at the parliamentary party meeting this morning. Rajya Sabha member Sangh Priya Gautam wanted an explanation on why Balco, which has cash reserves of over Rs 400 crore and “tremendous back-up assets”, was “auctioned away”. The sources said enough “hints” were dropped on the “unseemly haste” with which the transfer was executed. “For instance, I wonder if assets like the housing colony for 7,000 workers was taken into account in the final valuation. I doubt it was,” said an MP from Chhattisgarh, where Balco is located.

Shourie, assisted by law minister Arun Jaitley, tried to allay the MPs’ fears. “He (Shourie) said the conventional mechanism of assessing assets is flawed and cited the example of a software giant, which has no assets but is still worth a billion dollars,” said an MP.

Jaitley reportedly argued that the longer the deal is deferred, the more the chances of the unit getting undervalued.

However, some MPs privately felt that although the two Aruns spoke “logic”, their explanation did not cut ice. “The logic was convincing but facts speak otherwise. The charge of gross undervaluation will continue to stick,” the sources said.

A senior BJP functionary said the deal “smelt fishy”. “How can the value of a PSU behemoth be evaluated in just eight days? There’s something fishy,” he said.

The uproar in Parliament continued with the Desam lending voice to the Opposition’s cry for an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee. Desam MP C. Ramachandraiah said: “On the face of it, the apprehension of the Opposition members is justified. Maybe in good faith, but there has genuinely been an undervaluation of Balco.”

Shourie rejected the demand. “There is no need for a JPC on the issue and the government has got a good price on the Balco disinvestment. Do not give them (Sterlite Industries) an excuse to walk away from it,” he said.

Despite Thackeray’s strong words, Shourie received support from Sena minister Manohar Joshi. “I don’t think there is any question about transparency in the deal. It is all right,” Joshi said.

Faced with mounting criticism from its allies, the BJP floor-managers scrambled to stall a discussion under Rule 184 — which allows voting — in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. The CPM is pressing for a discussion under the censure motion.

   

 
 
ATAL’S SUDAMA GOES WITHOUT JUICE 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
When Sudama visited Krishna, he took with him a bowl of the puffed rice the lord of Dwarka used to share with him in childhood. A delighted Krishna gave him the boon that his bowl would never be empty.

When Chamkanda Ram got an audience with Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Sunday, he did not carry with him the fruit juice that 30 years ago had the then Opposition MP breaking into poetry. But Vajpayee gave him uninterrupted attention for 20 minutes and promised the kiosk-owner unlimited darshans.

The Prime Minister recalled with fondness the association that started when he was just another parliamentarian. In the evenings, he would walk down from the Jan Sangh’s Delhi Gate office to Connaught Place to have a meal at Kake da Hotel (a favourite with Sourav Ganguly, too). He would then have the fruit juice at Ram’s stall in the outer circus of CP and discuss politics with him. At times, Vajpayee would also regale him with his poetry before walking back to his Rajendra Prasad Road residence.

Last fortnight, Ram wrote a letter to Vajpayee expressing his desire to call on him. “I’m not sure if you remember me,” Ram wrote. “But I have many fond memories. I will be extremely grateful if you spare a few moments for me.” Ram said he was not expecting a reply as his last meeting with Vajpayee took place 18 years ago.

“Atalji has now become a big man. I thought he would not have time for a lowly person like me,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s Office received Ram’s letter, written in Hindi, and decided to show it to Vajpayee. The Prime Minster immediately placed Ram and told his staff to invite him on Sunday. On Saturday, Ram received a telephone call from the PMO confirming the appointment.

Ram could barely sleep during the night. “I kept thinking it is some sort of a dream or that some one is playing a practical joke.” But on February 25, Ram reached 7 Race Course Road with a bouquet and was pleasantly surprised when Vajpayee recognised him.

“You have put on weight,” Vajpayee said. “Yeh samriddhi nahin, bimari ke karan hai (It is due to illness and not prosperity),” Ram replied.

The host then took a walk down memory lane, recalling the times when he was a much more relaxed and free person. Ram recited some of Vajpayee’s poems.

The meeting ended on an emotional note with Ram requesting Vajpayee’s permission to seek more “darshans”. The Prime Minister, in a good mood, told Ram: “Feel free and come whenever you wish to.”

Though he has no intention of disturbing him, Ram is ecstatic with Vajpayee’s offer.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 30.5°C (0)
Minimum: 23.4°C (+5)

Rainfall:

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 90%,
Minimum: 43%

Today

Mainly cloudy sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 21°C.
Sunrise: 6.04 am
Sunset: 5.34 pm
   
 

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