Bengal poll shadow on Sinha closure courage
SC steps in on day of Balco selloff
Kashmir truce model for NE
10 years in school & no exams!
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New Delhi, March 2: 
The government’s resolve to go ahead with shutting down unviable public sector units may be put on hold for Bengal’s Assembly elections.

Switching on to a more cautious mode after having told industrialists he was willing to take “any risks whatsoever” on disinvestment, finance minister Yashwant Sinha admitted in an interview with The Telegraph that ally Trinamul Congress had yet to agree to the closure of eight loss-making units. Five of these are in Bengal.

He tacitly implied that no action would be taken till talks with Trinamul are concluded.

“We have been discussing it with them (Trinamul). They wanted a reassessment. We have done that, we found restructuring not possible... We will continue talking to them,” Sinha said. MAMC, Bharat Ophthalmic Glass, National Instruments Ltd and Rehabilitation Industries Corporation are among the units that face shutdown.

Trinamul leaders have told the BJP that its election prospects were being hampered by the aggressive Delhi stand on closures. Mamata Banerjee wants a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to explore possibilities other than closure.

North Block officials separately said though they had made up their minds on closure, the government had to give Mamata and other allies breathing space till elections.

The finance minister was, however, firm on the rest of the disinvestment agenda of selling 27 companies this year. “We will be concentrating on strategic sales (privatisation),” he said. He asserted that “a consensus obviously exists” within the coalition.

With some ebullience, he pointed out that the first major sale to a private firm — of Balco — had “been sealed and closed today and the cheque received” with the support of all allies.

Sinha said that despite remaining silent on revamping three sick banks, including two Calcutta-based ones — Allahabad and United Bank — in his budget speech, he was working on a package. “We may provide for this in a supplementary demand to the general budget,” he said.

“I would like to keep the recapitalisation package (for the banks) to a minimum,” cautioned the minister. The three banks have been seeking a bail-out package for some time. At one stage, the finance ministry had toyed with the idea of closing them down, but it seems to have changed its mind.

Sinha admitted that while there was a broad consensus on permitting contract labour at meetings with chief ministers, there was a lack of agreement on allowing companies employing up to 1,000 workers to retrench without government permission. “It’s not part of that understanding (on contract labour),” he said.

The minister defended this new policy, stating he had merely increased the ceiling on number of workers a factory employed and that he had “increased the separation package from 15 days to 45 days”.

“This is a win-win situation for everyone... It makes it costlier for the company to contemplate closure,” he argued.

The finance minister also indicated that the contentious issue of opening up more sectors to foreign investment had been skirted as it was still being debated by a group of ministers.


New Delhi, March 2: 
The legality of the Balco sale to Sterlite Industries will now be decided by the Supreme Court, which today stayed all proceedings across the country and transferred the cases to itself as a single batch.

This happened on a day when the government sold its 51 per cent stake in the aluminium company to Sterlite for Rs 551.5 crore. Immediately after the sale deed was signed, Balco workers proposed to go on an indefinite strike to oppose the selloff.

The Balco employees’ union had filed a petition in the Chhattisgarh High Court. The Supreme Court bench of Justice B.N. Kirpal, Justice Doraiswamy Raju and Justice Ruma Pal, however, issued notices to the union saying their case was now transferred to the apex court.

The interim stay order came on a plea filed by the Central government seeking transfer of petitions pending before Chhattisgarh and Delhi High Courts to the Supreme Court.

The government said the apex court should hear all cases to avoid conflicting verdicts.

Besides the employees’ petition, a public interest litigation against the divestment was filed in Delhi High Court by lawyer B.L. Wadhera.

Moving the transfer petitions on behalf of the Centre, attorney-general Soli J. Sorabjee told the Supreme Court that the Balco union and its leaders were taken into confidence at every stage of the evaluation and negotiations. Sorabjee said the sale amount of Rs 551.5 crore was arrived at after going through reports of the evaluation committees. Four methods were used for the appraisal: discounted cash flow, comparable valuation, balance sheet and asset valuation.

The government petition contended that its expert committee had valued the 51 per cent stake in Balco at between Rs 300 crore and Rs 507 crore while the sale was concluded at Rs 551.5 crore.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi, who had said that the government was selling Balco at a throwaway price, is now leading the attack from another flank.

He told the Assembly today that Korba district revenue officials were issuing notices to disinvestment minister Arun Shourie and department secretary Pradip Baijal for violating the Land Acquisition Act.

Jogi’s contention is that the Central government is trying to transfer land, that was taken over from tribals, to non-tribals (Sterlite). Section 170 (a)(b)(c) of the Madhya Pradesh Land Acquisition Act does not permit such transfer.

In 1977, the Supreme Court had debarred private companies from exploiting mining leases in tribal areas. Balco’s mines are mainly in Chhattisgarh, a predominantly tribal area.


New Delhi, March 2: 
After Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee now wants to try out the ceasefire experiment in the entire Northeast.

The truce proposal — in all probability a conditional offer — is likely to be announced in Parliament later this month. According to sources, it will be offered to all insurgent outfits, including both the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, Ulfa, National Democratic Front of Boroland and those operating in Tripura.

The chief ministers of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh today “informally” gave the Centre the go-ahead to extend its four-year ceasefire with the NSCN(I-M), paving the way for a unilateral truce with all militant groups.

Sources said Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani convinced the three chief ministers — Prafulla Mahanta (Assam), Radhabinod Koijam (Manipur) and Mukut Mithi (Arunachal) —that their green-signal to broadbase the existing ceasefire with the NSCN(I-M) would “usher in peace” and ultimately benefit the Northeast.

“Their (the chief ministers’) response has been positive. They were earlier reluctant but have now changed their stand. The Centre’s objective is to bring peace and development to the region,” Advani told reporters, but added in the same breath that “extension of the ceasefire” did not mean the government had conceded the NSCN(I-M)’s “demand for a Greater Nagalim”.

The sources said Vajpayee would make the truce announcement towards the end of this month, now that the “clearance” of the three states, which have a sizeable number of Nagas, has been obtained.

But they warned that the “road to peace is fraught with danger” because of the region’s “inherent complexities”. According to an observer, the Northeast was “more complex” than Kashmir.

The Centre had been trying to coax and cajole the three states into giving their consent to extending the Centre-NSCN(I-M) ceasefire. Last year, the three chief ministers — Manipur was then led by W. Nipamacha Singh — had opposed the move, saying it would aggravate the situation.

A hint of what the Centre was planning came on February 27 when Koijam declared a month-long “ceasefire” with all 17 groups operating in Manipur without consulting the home ministry.

But not all are optimistic. A senior official said the experience of the Centre-NSCN(I-M) truce had made them wiser. “Nearly four years have elapsed but constructive dialogue to bring about a political solution to the Naga problem has yet to start. If anything, the NSCN(I-M) has been able to make the Centre wilt before some of its major conditions before the ceasefire came into effect in July 1997,” he said.

The sources said the Centre would also have to take into account the fact that some outfits could reject the truce offer. The People’s Revolutionary Party for Kangleipak (Prepak) has already rejected Koijam’s “ceasefire”. Moreover, with Assam going to the polls soon, Central officials wonder what made Mahanta give his consent.


New Delhi, March 2: 
If the Centre has its way, students can waltz through 10 years of school without having to break their backs preparing for examinations.

Human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi told the Rajya Sabha today that the government does not want schoolchildren to face examinations till Class X. Students, he suggested, should sit for tests only at the higher secondary level.

Joshi said he had already advised the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which plans school curriculum, to make suggestions along these lines. The Central Board for Secondary Education has also been informed about the plan.

Though Joshi did not elaborate in the House, the NCERT had made a similar proposal a few months ago. The Centre has consulted a number of academics, who are, however, divided on the issue and do not see eye-to-eye on the alternative evaluation system.

It will be difficult for the government to implement the no-exam plan unless an alternative evaluation method is agreed upon.

But Joshi’s announcement in Parliament does indicate that he and his team of officials are seriously considering the proposal and are in touch with educationists and curriculum planners. Already, a number of schools have stopped marking students at the pre-primary and the primary levels.

Education officials explained that if the government pursues the plan seriously, a consensus on the alternative evaluation system could be evolved over the next couple of years. Several countries in the West have devised such alternative assessment procedures and do not hold regular term, semester or annual examinations at the primary and high school levels.

Joshi also spoke out against “corporal punishment”. Pointing to a Supreme Court order that students should not be subjected to any form of physical punishment, the minister said efforts were on to make such an offence punishable.

The minister indicated that his government would follow the path of the Maharashtra government, which had specified the weight of satchels to be carried by students studying in different classes. “Heavy school bags should not be carried by tiny students,” Joshi said.

The erstwhile Shiv Sena-BJP government had enforced a rule prescribing different weights of satchels to be carried by students.

Joshi said the government was also constituting a Child Commission which will look into problems faced by schoolchildren.

Corporal punishment is among the issues to be examined by the commission, he added.




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