Killer disease drives away criminals
Buddha backs Subhas deal
Student writes without hands
Madhyamik examinees injured
Gang on looting spree after liquor shop stop
Borrow & study bonanza for students
Long on intent, short on strategy
Benefit only for those at top
BJP sounds farmer backlash alarm
Foreign TV tax takes channels by surprise

 
 
KILLER DISEASE DRIVES AWAY CRIMINALS 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Feb. 28: 
The mystery malaise that swept Siliguri has scared away criminals, giving policemen a much-needed breather.

In the past fortnight, the Siliguri police station recorded only one crime — a motorcycle theft.

As the death toll mounted with every passing day, panic-stricken residents locked up their homes and fled the town. At any other time, burglars would have grabbed the opportunity to clean out the unguarded houses. But the disease has kept even hardened criminals at bay.

“During the past two or three weeks, the crime rate of the town fell drastically. We recorded only one crime during the period — the theft of a motorcycle, which was promptly recovered,” said inspector-in-charge, Siliguri, Pradeep Pal.

During any given week, there are at least two to three cases of motorcycle thefts and half-a-dozen robberies apart from snatching and mugging.

“On an average, we have six to seven reported burglaries. It is surprising that though so many people have left town, there has been no report of burglary or theft in a house in the past 15 days. Neither have we got heard of any of the petty crimes that are reported everyday. The police, in fact, have it pretty easy,” Pal added.

A resident who chose to brave the scare and stay on in Siliguri said: “The killer disease affected people across the social spectrum. It seems to have scared the thieves and burglars who would otherwise loot a house given half-a-chance. Like anyone else, they must have been afraid of contracting the mystery disease.”

The crime rate also fell in Bhakti Nagar police station in neighbouring Jalpaiguri. The police station is located close to the Medinova nursing home, from where the disease is suspected to have spread.

Not surprisingly, criminals have kept safe distance from the neighbourhood which has not reported a single crime in two weeks.

“The only crime worth mention was a case of petty theft recorded during the second week of this month. We have noticed a decline in crime during the past few weeks,” said duty officer A Chettri. Bhakti Nagar is a favourite haunt of criminals who often take refuge here after committing robberies in Siliguri. But since the outbreak of the disease, no thugs have been caught slipping in to the area.

Matigara police station, adjoining to Siliguri, also reported a sharp decline in the crime rate.

Sub-inspector A.K. Ghosh said: “Definitely, a decline in the crime rate has been noticed in the past few weeks. In fact, we have not had a single report of any crime in the last fortnight.”

However, the crime spiral continued in the areas under Phasidewa, and Kharibari police stations on the Indo-Bangladesh border. “There has not been any marked change in the crime rate. We have our share of the usual crime here. There has been neither any marked rise nor fall in the crime rate,” said Bijon Kumar De, Kharibari officer-in-charge.

   

 
 
BUDDHA BACKS SUBHAS DEAL 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Feb 28 : 
Anxious to please Subhas Chakraborty, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today overruled objections of other colleagues to handing over the North Bengal State Transport Corporation (NBSTC) complex at Ultadanga to a private promoter.

The transport minister had placed the proposal before the Cabinet. He said NBSTC had acquired 15 cottahs from the CIT in 1995 to build a five-storey structure, but could not complete the project due to paucity of funds. So the transport department had decided to invite private participation.

School education minister Kanti Biswas objected to the handover of government land to a private developer for commercial use.Biswas said the government’s development agencies should be asked to take up the job by awarding contracts through tenders.

This sparked a verbal duel with Chakraborty. However, the chief minister pacified Biswas saying the offer from the private developer was “good” and the transport department would monitor the work.

The transport minister said his department had received seven offers from private developers and selected Samcon Developer as it was willing to pay Rs 6 crore for 99 years’ lease of the entire premises. “No government agencies are in a position to take up the project as they have no money,” Chakraborty added.

The chief minister overruled all objections to the project, saying: “ I have personally examined all papers regarding commercial use by NBSTC complex by a private party. The offer is good and there is nothing wrong in offering the government property for development’’.

Bhatacharjee’s green signal to the proposal is being seen as a snub to finance minister, Asim Dasgupta and urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya. Chakraborty even did not consult his deputy , Susanta Ghosh, while taking the matter to the Cabinet. After the proposal was cleared, Ghosh said: “It is a big deal and I am too small a fry to make any comment on it.”

The urban development department was the first to block Chakraborty’s attempt to lease out the property to private promoters. The department’s own development agency , Calcutta Improvement Trust, is the owner of the land which was leased to the NBSTC in 1995. The department, through the CIT, asked for Rs 6.67 crore as compensation.

But the promoter company had offered only Rs 6 crore for the entire project. When Chakraborty approached the finance minister for reduction of payment to the CIT, he did not oblige.

After the chief minister’s intervention, the CIT scaled down its demand to Rs 2 crore and the impasse ended.

Chakraborty’s plea that the NBSTC had no funds to run its bus services had convinced Bhattacharjee. Its liability had gone up so much hat NBSTC was not even allowed to operate bank accounts by Regional Provident Funds authorities and could not deposit provident fund instalments collected from employees. Chakraborty pleaded that the only way to bail out the NBSTC was to lease out its premises to private parties for commercial exploitation.

   

 
 
STUDENT WRITES WITHOUT HANDS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Sehera Bazar (Burdwan), Feb. 28: 
Like lakhs others, Sujit Dawn is appearing for the Madhyamik examinations this year. But he is not just another face in the crowd — Sujit is the only physically handicapped student in the district who writes with his leg.

Holding the pen between his right toes, he writes his paper without any trouble. A student of Uchalan High School, Sujit is writing the exam from Sehera Bazar High School.

The only son of Swapan, a timber merchant, and Putul Dawn, Sujit was born without hands. In Danapara village near Uchalan, he was brought up in a joint family. Sujit’s inspiration is his sister Rinku who is also appearing for Madhyamik this year.

Sujit wants to become a teacher. “Right from childhood, I have no hands, but I was never upset. I prepared myself mentally. I can write, I can draw, I can even play the harmonium and tabla,” says Sujit.

He loves singing and reading detective books. “Without Sujit we cannot think of organising any cultural programme,” says his friend Amit Maity.

“Sujit refused to take any help from us,” says headmaster of Sehera Bazar High School, Daiteswar Mazumdar. “We asked Sujit to take the help of a writer or sit in a separate room. He says ‘when I can write like others, why should I take help?’”

The school authorities have arranged for a separate bed so that he can sit and write. He is also being allowed 30 minutes extra time by the board. But on the first day of the exam, Sujit submitted his answer sheet 20 minutes before time, says Mazumdar.

   

 
 
MADHYAMIK EXAMINEES INJURED 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 28: 
At least 10 Madhyamik examinees were injured when a bus in which they were travelling hit against a speeding truck coming from the opposite direction at Dhupguri in North Bengal this morning.

The incident took place when the examinees were on their way to the examination centre at Dhupguri school.

Arun Kiran Chakraborty, president, West Bengal Board of Secondary Education said the injured students were taken to Dhupguri hospital where two of them were admitted. Four others have been shifted to Jalpaiguri hospital in a critical condition, the president said.

According to him, the other injured candidates who were released from the hospital after first aid reached the examination centre 30 minutes late. They were given extra time to complete their English papers.

The examination was disrupted in Coochbehar School when local youths snatched away the answer script from a candidate who was sitting beside a window in the examination hall.

The school officials have lodged an FIR at the local police station. The examinee was given a fresh answer script.

Tension prevailed in a girls’ school in Ichapur in North 24 Parganas when some examinees demanded that they be allowed to use clip boards for writing.

Sources said the examination was suspended for some time as guardians joined the students and assembled in front of the headmaster’s office for his permission. The matter was settled after a discussion between the guardians and teachers of the school.

   

 
 
GANG ON LOOTING SPREE AFTER LIQUOR SHOP STOP 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Canning (South 24-Parganas), Feb. 28: 
Two days after the district police administration decided to suspend officers-in-charge if they failed to check dacoities in their respective areas, an armed gang of eight looted 10 houses at Nikarihata last night.

The sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) of Canning, Dilip Adak, said gang leader Samsul Laskar and his men first stopped at a country liquor shop where they sat and drank. Samsul is a local terror and extortionist.

Around 11 pm, an altercation broke out between Samsul and the liquor shop owner, Dhiren Sardar. The gang severely assaulted Dhiren before emptying the cash box. They then went on a looting spree, raiding seven houses and injuring three persons before decamping with cash and jewellery worth several lakhs of rupees.

Additional superintendent of police (rural) Rajesh Kumar Singh, who visited the area, said: “We hope the gang members will soon be nabbed as most of them are local residents.”

Sukumar Das, a local resident, said that in end-January, the same gang had burgled 20 houses in a nearby village but no arrests had been reported yet.

Houses gutted

A fire gutted 29 houses in Keoratala, Taranagar, last night. The sub-divisional police officer of Diamond Harbour, D.S. Rudra, said the fire might have been caused from an earthen oven.

He said the blaze spread fast as there was a strong breeze blowing. Stacks of hay aggravated the fire. Police said eight people we-re rescued and six, including two children, were injured in the blaze.

   

 
 
BORROW & STUDY BONANZA FOR STUDENTS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: 
The Centre today announced a new education-loan scheme that would help school and college students obtain bank loans and pursue expensive courses both within and outside the country.

Under the scheme, loans will be available up to Rs 7.5 lakh for studies in India and up to Rs 15 lakh for studying abroad.

Announcing the scheme while making his budget statement, finance minister Yashwant Sinha said: “I am glad that the Indian Banks Association has formulated a new comprehensive Education Loan Scheme which will cover all courses in schools and colleges in India and abroad.”

Recollecting his own student days, the finance minister said that he had “personally experienced poverty”. He also talked about the “problems” he had faced in pursuing higher studies. “I, therefore, feel that no deserving student should be deprived of higher and technical education for want of finances,” he said.

“No collateral or margin will be stipulated for loans up to Rs 4 lakh, the interest of which will not exceed the prime lending rate ,” he announced. “For loans above Rs 4 lakh, the interest rate will not exceed the PLR plus one per cent.”

Sinha said the loans would have to be repaid over a period of five to seven years with provisions of a grace period. “I hope that this scheme will enable needy children to pursue higher and technical studies both inside and outside India,” he added.

The minister said that the integrated National Education Programme, better known as the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, would gradually become the principal umbrella scheme in the elementary education sector. “In fact,” he said, “all existing schemes on elementary education will converge with this scheme after the Ninth Plan and it will cover all districts by March next year.”

Sinha told the House that a task force, set up to strengthen “India’s competitiveness” in technology education, has made wide-ranging recommendations on upgrading technology institutions. The Roorkee Engineering College will be upgraded to an IIT and funding for the IIT, Guwahati, has also been increased to ensure early completion.

“A new Centrally Sponsored Scheme for computer literacy and studies in schools is being launched and other initiatives (are being) planned for encouraging IT education from school to college levels,” he added.

Though no new health schemes were announced, plan allocation for the ministry of health and family welfare has been increased from Rs 4,920 crore to Rs 5,780 crore. The health ministry’s allocation include Rs 180 crore for the AIDS control programme.

Sinha said that the government was setting up a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library “to bring the knowledge already in the public domain in international languages to prevent the grant of patents”. He said a programme would also be taken up to lend more teeth to the state drug-testing laboratories.

For women, the finance minister announced a proposal to strengthen the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, which would allow extending micro-credit to poor asset-less women through NGOs.

   

 
 
LONG ON INTENT, SHORT ON STRATEGY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: 
Former finance minister Manmohan Singh said Yashwant Sinha’s fourth budget was long on intent but short on strategy to meet the challenges before the nation.

The reforms guru also distanced himself from the disinvestment programme and took a dig at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime. “Privatisation of 27 companies is on the anvil. But if these companies are to be privatised the Balco way, then the nation is headed for disaster,” Singh said. Even by the government’s admission, he added, the disinvestment figures were nowhere near the target. “Last year they said they will raise Rs 10,000 crore through disinvestment but got something near Rs 2,000 crore.”

Talking about second-generation reforms, Singh, who heads the Congress economic thinktank, urged the government to create a national consensus in favour of the new set of legislation needed in a WTO regime.

The otherwise modest Singh could not resist saying that the paradigm of economic policy that the Congress had put in place had now been accepted by those (read the BJP) who criticised it when they were out of power.

Reacting to the budget, Singh expressed disappointment with Sinha’s exercise and said: “At a time when the nation is faced with serious crisis of growth and investment, it was expected that the government will unveil a grand design for revival. Instead what the country has got is a patchwork of measures and initiatives.”

Picking specific issues, Singh said there was no clear strategy to revive economic growth. “There is no mention of the need to increase domestic savings without which higher growth will just not be possible.” He was surprised why Sinha chose to remain silent on the government’s plans to stimulate growth in employment.

He said that for the fourth consecutive year, the Central plan expenditure had fallen short of the budgetary estimate. “The shortfall in 2000-2001 budget is about 10 per cent. This will affect growth and all-round social development,” he said, regretting that Sinha had chosen to lower budgetary allocations for key programmes like the national mid-day meal scheme, employment assurance, malaria control and rural housing.

According to Singh, a cut in interest rates on small savings would have an adverse impact at a time when inflation was nearing a double-digit figure.

Welcoming the increase in import duties on some farm products, Singh pointed out that there was no automatic self-triggering mechanism to adjust duties to reflect changes in international prices.

“There is also no operational content as to how the agricultural growth would be put on a higher growth and investment path,” he said.

   

 
 
BENEFIT ONLY FOR THOSE AT TOP 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: 
CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee today slammed the budget for being anti-worker and anti-people and said there was nothing to “like” in it except for the tax relief offered to “ordinary” people.

“It is not a budget that will help anyone except those at the top,” the senior communist leader said.

Chatterjee’s list of complaints was lengthy. It ranged from the government’s indifference to agriculture and the small-scale sector to tampering with labour laws that could rebound on workers.

“Will it create new jobs?” he asked, before giving his own appraisal. “Instead of creating jobs, the government is reducing jobs,” he said.

Chatterjee felt that the budget carried with it the distinct stamp of the World Trade Organisation and its “anti-worker, anti-people” bias.

“No protection has been given to iron and steel sectors. The increase in customs duties is marginal,” he said.

The CPM believes the finance minister’s tax strategy amounts to getting resources from Union excise duties while doling out concessions on customs duties and direct taxes to the rich.

“This government has made clear that this is the second generation of reforms which means dismantling everything,” Chatterjee said. Rapping the Centre for its flawed farm policy, the budget, he pointed out, leaves the peasantry defenceless in the face of agriculture imports.

The CPM has all along said that unbridled globalisation would hurt the poor most and Chatterjee today echoed as much, saying: “The small-scale sector will be ruined.”

The budget, the CPM said, has given “unjustifiable” concessions to multinational companies and big business houses.

It ridiculed the finance minister’s claims of producing a “growth-oriented” budget and said that Central outlay in crucial sectors like rural development, agriculture, industry and minerals was lower in absolute terms compared to last year’s estimates.

Anti-people, says Citu

Citu leader and member of the West Bengal CPM secretariat Chittabrata Majumder described the budget as “anti-people and anti-working class”.

“There is no budgetary allocation for public sector undertakings in West Bengal like National Instruments, Bharat Opthalmic Glass Limited, Cycle Corporation of India, Mining and Allied Machinery Corporation and the National Jute Manufactures Corporation,” Majumder, who is also the Citu state secretary, said.

“Naturally, workers in these companies will not get their salaries from April,” he added.

Majumder said the National Platform of Mass Organisations would observe a protest day across the country on March 2.

   

 
 
BJP SOUNDS FARMER BACKLASH ALARM 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra’s description of the budget as “farmer- friendly” has not found many takers in his own party.

MPs were sceptical about how effective Yashwant Sinha’s farmer package would be — whether its positive impact, “if any”, would percolate down to the grassroots and solve the problems facing the agriculture sector.

BJP national secretary Chhatrapal Singh, who represents Bulandshahr in the Lok Sabha, said: “Farmers will not benefit unless the procurement price for their produce is enhanced and the state evolves an effective mechanism to purchase their output.”

Singh pointed out that while the budget has made urea costlier and prices of other inputs like fertilisers, diesel and power were raised earlier, the purchase price of wheat and sugarcane has remained stagnant.

“The price paid to farmers should be linked with the market prices of other goods,” he said.

But R.K. Kusmaria, the MP from Damoh in Madhya Pradesh, was more optimistic about the budget. “It offers protection to farmers by increasing the excise duty on agricultural imports,” he said.

At yesterday’s BJP parliamentary party meeting, a furore was raised over the expected largescale import of wheat, rice and sugar in view of the impending removal of quantitative restrictions on several items.

Food and public distribution minister Shanta Kumar assured MPs that import duties on wheat, sugar and milk had been raised to protect local farmers.

Some members were unhappy with the reduction in soft-drink prices. “It’s true that more of the so-called common people are consuming Coke and Pepsi, but the budget ought to have balanced their price reduction by increasing the taxes on luxury goods like air-conditioners, cars and fridges. Otherwise, it gives the impression of being a pro-elitist budget, which panders to the wishes of just the super-rich,” one said.

Kusmaria said multinationals would benefit from the sop to soft drinks while the indi- genous small sector had been ignored.

“If they were in collaboration with soft drink MNCs, it would make sense. Now, the move smacks of discrimination against the small industry,” he said.

Sinha announced several measures to effect reforms in agriculture and safeguard farmers’ interests under the WTO regime — a hike in customs duties, liberalisation of domestic agricultural trade and cheaper finance to cultivators.

“I wish to assure the House that in order to safeguard the interests of our farmers, we shall move swiftly whenever any perceptible threat on account of imports is noticed,” the finance minister said in his speech.

To ensure adequate credit flow, Sinha decided to reduce the interest rate charged by Nabard from 11.5 percent to 10.5 percent and asked banks to accelerate the kisan credit card scheme to cover all eligible farmers in the next three years.

But BJP MPs, especially those from the heartland, saw the announcements as “ornamental dressing up of an empty shell”.

“There’s nothing inside. It’s like telling the farmers to have Coke and Uncle Chipps when their own potatoes are rotting in godowns and cold storages which don’t work,” said an MP from eastern Uttar Pradesh.

With leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Vishwanath Pratap Singh taking up cudgels for farmers, BJP MPs were at a loss how to counter their campaign and Sinha’s budget was certainly not seen as an answer.

   

 
 
FOREIGN TV TAX TAKES CHANNELS BY SURPRISE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 28: 
STAR India CEO Peter Mukerjea exulted over Budget 2001. “A very positive budget for the Indian industry, better than last year,” he said.

Mukherjea said the tax concessions for ISPs and broadband had given a shot in the arm to New Media. A reduction in corporate tax surcharge and that of tax on gameshow winnings from 44 to 30 per cent were good moves.

However, Kunal Dasgupta, CEO of Sony Entertainment Television, was more circumspect. “It is a very good budget, structurally improving with great potential for growth. But the television industry will be hit,” he said.

Except for the relief on the import of cinema equipment, the budget does little for the entertainment industry. There is service tax on broadcasting, photography and sound recording. Moreover, service tax has been imposed on foreign telecasting channels.

“The finance minister is quite clear that we have to pay income tax here. We have to face the reality of life and contribute our bit to the economy,” Dasgupta said.

“The imposition of service tax strikes a discordant note,” said Amit Khanna, co-chairman of Ficci entertainment committee who heads the Reliance Entertainment Company. Otherwise, he said, the capital account liberalisation will benefit media companies which will come out with IPOs. The reduction of corporate surcharge would also benefit media companies.

The tax on foreign telecasting channels has taken everyone by surprise. The information and broadcasting ministry, according to sources, has been caught unawares.

Prominent among the foreign telecasting channels are STAR, Sony, ESPN, Discovery, CNN and other channels in the Turner stable. However, they describe themselves as distributors and not broadcasters.

Zee’s position is ambiguous because though the channel is declared Indian, its owner, Subhash Chandra, is an NRI.

Certain questions arise on the imposition of income tax on foreign telecasting channels. Who will be classified as a foreign telecasting channel? What about any agreement that may exist on the avoidance of double taxation and will the tax be on revenue or profit? Channel chiefs say their finance staff are going through the fine print of the budget to understand the implications.

   
 

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