[email protected] sets sights on West
Govt smarts under Balco setback in RS
Atal pledges talks after Annan boost
Contrite Karmapa returns barefoot
Jogi bids for Balco in apex court
PM calls for nuclear chorus
4 die in strike on police camp
Atal visit boost to Iran bond
Ally alert on violence spiral
Police numbers crunch

 
 
[email protected] SETS SIGHTS ON WEST 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Bangalore, March 12: 
Asia may soon have an information technology belt that could challenge the monopoly of the West in the New Economy.

The proposal came from Singapore minister for communications and information technology, Yeo Cheow Tong, at the Asia Tech conference here.

At the meet, inaugurated by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee on Sunday, Tong called for an “Asian IT belt” to take on the IT sector in the US and Europe.

In his keynote address, Tong said all Asian countries should link up and build a powerful IT community that could offer stiff competition to the US and Europe. There is a need for close cooperation between the Asian countries, he said.

“The cities in Asia which have already made significant advances in information technology can join together and build an IT community. Other cities can join when they are ready,” Tong said, at a seminar attended by the captains of the IT industry, including Infosys chief N.R. Narayanamurthy.

No country in Asia, other than Japan, could give the US or the European Union a run for their money now, Tong said.

Asia can emerge as a major contender in the global IT market only through joint collaboration in the field of technology and closer economic ties between companies, he said. “We also need to remove barriers to individual markets,” he added.

Tong called for a regime where infotech professionals will be allowed to travel within the Asian region without visas. “Talent should be able to move more easily between countries, especially on short-term visits for project assignments,” observed Tong.

He called for the creation of an Asian cyber-market place that would help infotech companies transact business. “As a start, the various Asian cities that are already wired up and infocom-enabled can jointly develop the infrastructure,” he said.

Tong said Asia will not have a common currency in the foreseeable future. “The idea is difficult to implement in the region,” he said.

Singapore has initiated a discussion among some Asian nations on “visa-free travel”.

   

 
 
GOVT SMARTS UNDER BALCO SETBACK IN RS 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 12: 
The Vajpayee government was left red-faced today when an Opposition-sponsored amendment to the motion of thanks on the President’s joint address to Parliament was carried in the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress amendment, which disapproved the absence of any mention of the Balco disinvestment in the speech, was carried 103:64 in the Upper House, where the NDA lacks majority. The main official motion was then adopted by voice vote.

This is the third time in parliamentary history that an Opposition-sponsored amendment has been adopted, the earlier occasions being 1980 and 1989.

The amendment was jointly moved by Pranab Mukherjee and Suresh Pachouri (Congress); Nilotpal Basu, Dipankar Mukherjee and S. Ramachandran Pillai (CPM); and B.S Ramoowalia (Independent).

The amendment said that at the end of the motion the following lines should be added: “but regret that the address does not contain the Government’s decision to sell out Balco, a cent per cent owned central PSU having a track record of continuous profit earning and having a huge cash reserve to a private company whose track record of managing and running an aluminium manufacturing company is not known and is of doubtful nature.”

That the amendment was carried has no impact on the stability of the government. But it is significant because this is the first time that the Opposition has closed ranks in Parliament since the NDA government took charge in 1999. All earlier attempts to nail the government have failed because of the reluctance of the Samajwadi Party and Nationalist Congress Party to allow the Congress take the upper hand.

Opposition sources today said both the Samajwadi and the NCP “willingly” collaborated with the Congress. Sources said the absence of Samajwadi MP Amar Singh, whose antipathy to Sonia Gandhi is well known, because of illness made the job easier.

Reacting to the victory, Congress spokesman S Jaipal Reddy said it amounted to “moral disapprobation” of the Balco deal. His BJP counterpart, Jana Krishnamurthy, said: “It was expected but it does not count for anything because it is neither a constitutional nor a moral and legal defeat.”

CPM MP Nilotpal Basu said it was an “expression of increasing unity across the Opposition both inside and outside Parliament, particularly on the Korba deal”.

Opposition sources said the decision to move the amendment was taken a few days ago but kept under wraps for fear that the ruling coalition may split the ranks.

“We did not want to go overboard but instead concentrated in ensuring that the government was defeated by a solid margin,” said sources. They claimed they had “no problems” bringing R.S. Kaushik of the Samajwadi and Praful Patel of the NCP around.

Kaushik said: “These are issues on which we cannot allow differences with the Congress to come in the way. Our party has always been against capitalism and the WTO.”

Finishing touches to the strategy were given in a meeting held at 2 pm today. Only the ADMK and Asom Gana Parishad skipped the meet as their MPs were busy with Assembly poll preparations.

   

 
 
ATAL PLEDGES TALKS AFTER ANNAN BOOST 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 12: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said the Centre would soon begin talks with all parties and groups in Jammu and Kashmir before the deadline set for the ceasefire ends.

Bolstered by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s advice yesterday, Vajpayee also made it clear that it was not the UN resolutions of 1948 but the Simla Accord and the spirit of the Lahore Declaration of 1999 that would form the basis of such an exercise.

“Mr Kofi Annan’s statement is very significant and we are trying to get a copy of it verbatim. The UN resolutions are dated and have outlived their utility. It is the Simla Accord and the Lahore Declaration which should form the basis of any talks we may hold with Pakistan,” he said, adding that India was “ready for talks”.

Replying to the motion of thanks to the joint address of the President to both Houses in the Rajya Sabha, Vajpayee said: “The ceasefire has been extended but, before it expires, the government intends to take certain steps. And the first step will be to talk to various groups in Jammu and Kashmir. Although they have not been invited so far, we do intend calling them over shortly.”

He assured the House that the Opposition would not kept in the dark and described the Kashmir standoff as a “national and political” issue and not a “religious” one. “The issue is linked to the question of national integrity and unity and any solution to the Jam-mu and Kashmir problem will ha-ve to be sought within the framework of the national mainstream and not outside it,” Vajpayee said.

Cocking a snook at critics of his Lahore bus journey, Vajpayee said: “Such persons must be regretting their remarks after Mr Annan’s statement. They tried to undermine the significance of the yatra by saying it was undertaken for political gains. But they should bear in mind that the Kashmir issue is linked to the question of national unity. India’s international stature has got enhanced after that and even internally the nation has become stronger.”

Congress leader Arjun Singh asked whether any proposed dialogue with Pakistan would be within the parameters of a resolution adopted by Parliament in 1995. The resolution had averred that Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) was an integral part of India and was not negotiable.

Vajpayee replied: “I was a member of the House when the resolution was adopted and I was a party to the discussions which preceded its endorsement. Why are you trying to delink me from the resolution?”

Vajpayee also announced that a Bill to upgrade Uttaranchal’s status would be introduced in Parliament to enable the Centre to pump more funds into the newly carved out state.

He said a chief ministers’ meeting would be convened to discuss WTO ramifications on farmers. “It has created a new situation but we are bound irrevocably by the treaty and have to meet the challenges it has thrown up,” Vajpayee said. “This means we have to enhance our produce and improve quality so that it can conform to international norms and compete in the global market.”

If necessary, he added, the government would further hike import duties on farm products to give domestic players a level-playing field.

He blasted those who advocated free electricity to farmers and, in particular, took pot-shots at Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh who had criticised power privatisation. “The power sector should be kept out of politics. How much can the Centre do?” he said. “We should remember that elections and power politics are not everything. Social well-being is most important.”

Vajpayee praised Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu for sticking to his decision not to waive power tariff to the rural sector on the eve of the elections. “He won the election because people do not want free electricity. What they want is quality power and uninterrupted supply, but there are people who want to mix power with politics,” Vajpayee said.

   

 
 
CONTRITE KARMAPA RETURNS BAREFOOT 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Gaya, March 12: 
The Karmapa is paying the price for being well-heeled.

The Buddhist leader, who had visited the sanctum sanctorum of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya with shoes on, was compelled to make a second trip to the same place, barefoot. It was to appease some monks here.

The 17th Karmapa, who fled Tibet to be granted refugee status recently by Delhi, visited the temple again at 10 am today along with his associates. Before entering the shrine, he stopped near the checkpost of the Temple Management Committee, where he took off his shoes to walk silently towards the temple.

“The Karmapa has come here with a gesture of penance. He meditated in front of the seat of Buddha’s enlightenment,” said one of his associates.

On his arrival on March 6 in Bodhgaya, where Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, the Karmapa paid his first visit to Vajrasan in Mahabodhi temple, the inner shrine of Buddhists — but with his shoes on.

It raked up the four-month controversy over regulation of visits from VIPs with shoes on. It sparked a debate with a section of Buddhist monks demanding that the Karmapa make a public apology and face the punishment laid down in section 11 of the Mahabodhi Temple Management Act, 1949.

Bhadant Anand, general secretary of All-India Buddhist Monk Association, demanded that the chairman of the Temple Management Committee, who happens to be the district magistrate, impose a penalty on the Karmapa and direct him to issue a public apology.

But after the Karmapa’s gesture today, the orthodox monks appear mellowed. Bhadant Anand, general secretary of the association, said in a statement today that he was happy that the Karmapa tried to understand the mood and sentiment of the monks here but “there was no wavering from the demand of a public apology”.

Bhadant Anand said it was strange that the district administration was looking for evidence of the Karmapa’s violation of the regulation. “I have videotapes of his visit and he was with shoes,” he said.

Ever since the Karmapa faced this hostility, his associates were trying to convince the monks that it was not a calculated defiance, but a mistake. But this failed to quieten the rebel monks. The incident depressed the Karmapa so much that the latter remained confined to his room for the whole day on March 10.

In December, a controversy had broken out in Bodhgaya when some Tibetan Buddhist monks had entered the temple shrine with shoes on. The issue, which miffed a section of the monks, snowballed into a controversy. On one occasion, the police had to fire a couple of rounds to disperse the demonstrators, who had resorted to throwing chappals and stones. A number of monks were hurt.

   

 
 
JOGI BIDS FOR BALCO IN APEX COURT 
 
 
FROM OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 12: 
The Ajit Jogi-led Congress government in Chhattisgarh today offered to buy the 51 per cent stake in Bharat Aluminium Company that the Central government had sold to Sterlite Industries and gave an undertaking in the Supreme Court to provide protection to the workers and the management.

Giving the undertaking before a division bench of Justices B.N. Kirpal and Ruma Pal, counsel for Chhattisgarh and Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, Kapil Sibal, said water and electric supply to Balco’s Korba plant would continue uninterrupted.

Sibal told attorney-general Soli Sorabjee, arguing for the Union government, “You give us the plant. We will buy it for the same price (Rs 551.50 crore).”

Sorabjee shot back, saying the Congress had “initially” maintained that the plant was worth Rs 1,500 crore. “What happened to that claim now?” asked Sorabjee.

“We are ready to pay Rs 552 crore to buy the shares of the Central government which was sold to Sterlite Industries Ltd,” Sibal reiterated, pleading for vacation of the apex court’s earlier order that the state government should provide water and electricity, security to Balco’s workers and the new management headed by Sterlite and “maintain law and order in and around the plant”.

Rajiv Dhawan, senior counsel for the Balco Workers’ Union, said his client would not prevent anybody from going in or coming out of the plant nor would it intimidate those eager to resume work.

On March 7, the apex court had restrained the Chhattisgarh government from disrupting supply of water, electricity and food to Balco’s Korba plant while directing it to provide security to workers and the new management.

Today, the apex court observed that “in view of the undertaking given by senior counsel Kapil Sibal on behalf of the state government there is no need to continue with our March 7 order”.

In another setback to the Union government, the court declined to stay the showcause notices the sub-divisional officer (revenue), Korba, had served on March 2 and March 3 on the disinvestment secretary and Sterlite chairman Anil Agarwal and the Balco chairman in connection with the alienation of tribal land.

They were asked to show cause why tribal land allotted to Balco should not be cancelled once the same land was handed over to non-tribals (Sterlite) after the Balco sale. The respondents to this notices or their legally authorised representatives were ordered to be present on March 15 before the sub-divisional officer’s court in Korba.

The court also ordered the parties to file affidavits within two weeks and rejoinders within another week while posting the case for further hearings to April 9.

The state government had also issued notices to the Centre asking it to show cause why the land acquired for the plant be not cancelled after the sale of a majority stake to a private party.

Sibal told the court that the state government had constituted a committee comprising the chief secretary, director general of police and additional director general police (intelligence) to monitor the law and order situation in and around the plant.

   

 
 
PM CALLS FOR NUCLEAR CHORUS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 12: 
Calling for a consensus on national issues, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said his government would convene a meeting of chief ministers to discuss the impact of the WTO agreement on agriculture. He also invited all parties to advance the Kashmir peace process.

Replying to the motion of thanks to the President’s address in Lok Sabha, Vajpayee asked Pakistan to change its “hostile attitude” towards India.

On nuclear policy, Vajpayee said the government would strive to evolve a consensus among parties to ensure there was no resentment on key issues.

In his hour-long speech laced with one-liners, the Prime Minister targeted Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee.

The only time Vajpayee struck an aggressive pose was when he described as “baseless” and “irresponsible” a report in a magazine that had referred to corruption charges against the PMO. “Nowadays, newspapers have their own politics and play games,” he said.

On Ayodhya, the Prime Minister asserted that the government would not interfere with the legal process in the Babri demolition case. “We have never interfered in the functioning of the CBI and we will never do that,” he said.

   

 
 
4 DIE IN STRIKE ON POLICE CAMP 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar, March 12: 
A militant today shot his way inside a special operations group camp in north Kashmir, killing four persons, including three police officials.

Police sources said the suicide squad member stormed the heavily guarded compound in Palhallan Pattan on the Srinagar-Baramullah Road after surprising the sentry at the gate. The sentry ducked but the bullets felled a police official standing nearby.

The militant entered the camp firing from his assault rifle. Two policemen were mowed down.“He opened fire from a close range on both the officers, including inspector Karnail Singh who was in charge of the camp, killing both,” said an officer in Baramullah.

Karnail Singh, sub-inspector Mohammad Amin and assistant sub-inspector Mohammad Sultan died on the spot.

A sentry manning a bunker inside engaged the militant while another guard opened fire. In the exchange, the militant was killed. A civilian, Abdul Rashid Ganaie, died when he was caught in the cross-fire.

The body of the militant — who wore a pheran (Kashmiri robe) — was taken to the police station. An AK-47, a magazine and four hand-grenades were recovered, sources said.

In another incident, militants attacked a special operations group vehicle with bombs and assault rifles seriously injuring two policemen. In the retaliatory firing, one civilian died.

Militants also hurled a hand-grenade on the Border Security Force picket at Hari Singh High street, wounding 22 persons.

Hurriyat meeting

For the first time since it was constituted in 1993, the separatist All-Party Hurriyat Conference excluded the pro-Pakistan Jamaati Islami from its executive meeting today.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Jamaat representative, has been in the centre of a controversy with the Hurriyat chairman seeking his recall on the ground that he was making statements which went against the collective decisions of the umbrella group.

Reacting to the development, Geelani said “we have not been invited for the meeting.” But he made it clear that “I will continue to represent my party in the Hurriyat.”

   

 
 
ATAL VISIT BOOST TO IRAN BOND 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, March 12: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is planning a three-day official visit to Iran next month, amid speculation that the country’s decade-old isolation will end soon with major world players reviewing their policy towards Iran.

The significance of the proposed visit, likely to take place from April 10 to 13, lies in Delhi’s desire to build relations with key Islamic countries in the region. The visit assumes importance in the context of the developments in Afghanistan and the possibility of broadbasing relations.

The significance of the visit lies also in the fact that it is the first Prime Ministerial visit from India to Iran in nearly nine years. P.V. Narasimha Rao was the last Indian Prime Minister to have visited Iran in 1993.

One of the major thrusts of Vajpayee’s visit will be to renew contact at the highest level —something that has not taken place since 1996 when then Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited India.

Vajpayee is likely to have detailed discussion with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, the country’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament and perhaps also Rafsanjani, who now heads the “Expediency Council”, among other members of the Iranian leadership.

There is also a proposal for Vajpayee to address the Majlis —the Iranian parliament, where Khatami’s pro-reforms supporters are in the majority. Agreements on energy, commerce and in co-operation on information technology are also likely to take place during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit.

Vajpayee may also visit the historic city of either Isfahan or Shiraz. A team of Indian businessmen is likely to be there during the Prime Minister’s visit and there is a possibility of some agreements being signed in this area as well.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh had a successful visit to Iran last year. The two sides have agreed to broadbase their bilateral relations to political, economical, social and cultural spheres.

Both countries now have regular interaction and have also initiated a security dialogue on major developments in the region and elsewhere in the world. Vajpayee’s visit will give the final push to the relationship that his foreign minister has set in place.

At the end of his visit Vajpayee and Khatami are likely to come out with a joint statement that will lay stress on the two sides’ desire to strengthen and broadbase their bilateral ties and jointly fight international terrorism.

With many key countries in the world reviewing their policy towards Teheran and with wide-spread speculation that Iran’s international isolation may soon be coming to an end under Khatami’s reforms programme, it is important that Delhi, too, renews its ties with Iran.

Despite traditional and historical ties, India and Iran had failed to have close co-operation with each other. After the cold war, it was the Kashmir issue and then the demolition of the Babri Masjid that led Teheran to regard Delhi with suspicion. India on its part continued to view Teheran through its Pakistani prism and, thus, maintained distance from it.

Over the years, however, both sides have found many important issues — both at the political and economic level — where they have common views and which are to their mutual interest.

Iran, one of the world’s largest producers of natural gas, finds a ready market in India — one of the biggest consumers of its product in the region. India’s expertise in the information and technology field, is perhaps another area where Teheran is keen to seek co-operation.

The development in Afghanistan, particularly the rise of the Taliban, is cause for major concern for Iran as it shares a long disturbed border with the strife-torn state. This has not only created a situation where Iran has started distancing itself from Pakistan, but also provided an opportunity where it can now cooperate more closely with Delhi.

   

 
 
ALLY ALERT ON VIOLENCE SPIRAL 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, March 12: 
The pre-election violence graph continued to rise as two more people were killed in a clash between Congress and CPM supporters at Islampur in Murshidabad district.

Police said one of the victims was a Congress supporter while the other was a CPM activist. Two others, including a woman, have been admitted to the Berhampore Sadar hospital with serious wounds.

The killings come barely 24 hours after three Trinamul Congress workers were shot dead in Midnapore and three CPM supporters were found with their throats slit in Murshidabad.

The CPM’s allies are alarmed at the sudden spate in pre-poll violence. PWD minister and RSP leader Kshiti Goswami said the police would have to be more “more vigilant” in the run-up to the Assembly elections. Goswami said he would soon discuss the issue with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee after he returns from New Delhi.

Today’s clash in Islampur was the fallout of a feud over the cultivation of char land. On Friday, the CPM drove nearly 150 Congress supporters out of their homes in Mollahdanga and Ghughupara villages.

This morning, the displaced Congress supporters returned to the villages, triggering the clash. CPM activists prevented them from entering their houses.

Fire arms, bombs and sharp-cutting weapons were indiscriminately used, leading to the death of two persons. Armed CPM supporters also went on the rampage and looted three shops and 20 houses belonging to Congress supporters.

Superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar, who is camping in the villages, said the police recovered the looted goods and arrested five persons.

In Midnapore, a team of Trinamul leaders, including Pankaj Banerjee, chief of the party’s policy-making body, visited Salemanpur village under Danton police station area where three Trinamul activists were shot dead yesterday, allegedly by CPM activists.

Addressing a meeting to condole the death of the three men, Banerjee criticised the district police for their “inaction”. He also threatened to launch a bigger movement if the CPM workers were not arrested within a week.

“We have reports that the local police are acting at the behest of CPM leaders and this practice has to be stopped,” Banerjee told reporters after the rally.

However, superintendent of police A.K. Maliwal claimed that 10 more CPM workers have been arrested.

   

 
 
POLICE NUMBERS CRUNCH 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Midnapore, March 12: 
Inadequate police personnel and an antiquated communication system have led to a complete breakdown of the intelligence network in scarred Midnapore district.

As a result, police have failed to tackle law and order in the district over the past two years. The breakdown in intelligence has led to violent incidents like those in Chhoto Angaria and Keshpur.

These are some of the findings of additional director-general of police (intelligence), S.K. Dutta, who arrived here yesterday on a two-day visit from Calcutta.

Dutta’s main task is to assess police networking in the district before the Assembly elections and recommend appropriate measures.

Dutta, who held talks with superintendent of police A.K. Maliwal yesterday, pointed out the “three serious drawbacks” of the police set-up in the state’s biggest district with a population of about a crore.

“We have only 35 policemen for every one lakh population, which is the lowest in any district in the state. How can we manage to check largescale crimes?” said an official who attended the meeting.

Maliwal admitted that 19 police stations have no vehicles. “We have so few police vehicles in the district that we find it quite difficult to send across reinforcements to a troubled spot,” he said.

   
 

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