Depositors totter on brink of breakdown
Big Two speak up as Sangh stands by
Tape-tainted Bangaru shies off BJP meet
Spycam shadow between Advani & Arun
Second snub from Naidu
Bid to clear Bollywood muck
Manish date with Gates
Subhas jab at govt for flyover delay
Crime-belt raids
Snake men set to close venom shop

Lucknow, March 23: 
Narayan Chaudhary hasn’t gone home since Thursday morning. The bank in which the 73-year-old deposited his life’s savings of Rs 2 lakh has been bolted and there is no way he can get in.

As mean looking policemen posted outside the gates of City Co-operative Bank tell him to return home, Chaudhary shakes the grills of the gate with renewed resolve. “Tell them to give me my money, you sons of dogs,” he screams at the cops as they turn menacingly towards the hundreds of others who egg him on.

There are thousands like Chaudhary who have been left teetering on the brink of a mental collapse after the firm they had invested in vanished overnight with around Rs 400 crore. They had either put their money in shares floated by the parent company, Century Consultants Limited, or had deposited crores in the bank owned by them.

The victims were not just outside the organisation, there were victims within. Srikanth, the manager of the Gomtinagar branch of CCB, was so scared and nervous that unable to deal with outraged customers banging on the doors of his bankrupt bank, he had a heart attack. Today he is in the intensive care unit of Civil Hospital.

Other staff of the bank and stock-broking company are on tenterhooks as well. While some say they have stopped eating, worried about finding another job, others are scared that they will be beaten up, held responsible by a cheated public for something they had absolutely no hand in.

The offices of CCL and its subsidiary Cyberspace Infosys India Ltd are locked as are the four branches of City Cooperative Bank. Their proprietors, A.K. Johri and Arvind Johri, have fled after defaulting at the Bombay Stock Exchange and National Stock Exchange, unable to pay the margin money of Rs 50 crore.

Though CCB officials keep assuring depositors that their money will be given by next Monday, the fact remains that State Bank of India has stopped clearance of CCB cheques; the Securities and Exchange Board of India has begun an inquiry into the dealings of CCL and there is an Interpol alert for the Johris and other senior executives of their firm.

Questions have been raised about what the Prime Minister was doing laying the foundation stone for a multi-crore project involving the Johris.

On January 31, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had inaugurated the multi-crore Software Technology Park at Balaganj which was a joint venture of the Johris and the state government. The Uttar Pradesh government had a 26 per cent equity in the project through Uptron, with the rest being taken over by Cyberspace Infosys Ltd.

Today the project lies in a shambles. No one knows what the future holds for the “grand IT park”.

Alok Ranjan, secretary to the chief minister, maintained that the whole project has to be “relooked into”.

“A big question mark hangs over the project as the senior partner is missing. There will be a meeting on the issue soon.”

Investors are also blaming the administration and the police for helping the Johris escape. “The policemen are hand-in-glove with the bank officials,” a depositor announced, claiming that she had seen a senior police officer step into the bank and pocket a wad of Rs 500 notes on Thursday.

Police dismissed the allegation and said they are doing the best they can to nab the absconding executives. “We have alerted airports across the country to be on the lookout for the company’s senior executives,” special superintendent of police B.B. Bakshi said, adding that the premises and offices of CCL had been sealed along with two apartments owned by the Johris.

But no one seems to be convinced. “The Johris escaped on Wednesday after a court order was slapped on them by Sebi,” says Akhilesh Chand. “Police knew about it, what is the point of alerting airports in India when they are in Singapore?”


New Delhi, March 23: 
Despite the Tehelka revelations, the RSS reposed faith in the Vajpayee government at a function this evening organised by the Sangh mouthpiece, Panchajanya.

Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan said the Opposition had overreached its rights by demanding the resignation of the National Democratic Alliance government and blasted it for the Parliament standoff.

“They are not allowing Parliament to function. This is street politics. They have even rejected an official probe offered by the government. Is this any form of politics?” he said.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was present on the dais along with home minister L.K. Advani, also used the opportunity to lash out at the Opposition for its almost “indecent” campaign against his government.

Although the RSS rank and file have tended to voice their displeasure over the exposé, the Sangh leadership has stood by Vajpayee.

Sudarshan had bailed out the Vajpayee government in the initial stages of the controversy and had virtually given it a clean chit at a press conference last Sunday during a pratinidhi sabha organised by the Sangh.

Without naming the Congress, Sudarshan took a dig at it, saying if corruption was the issue, it had blundered in the past. He recalled the adage that those living in glass houses should not throw stones.

At a time when the embattled government is under fire, all this was music to Vajpayee’s ears. It was a deft move on his part to have the Sangh by his side when diatribes were being heaped upon him by an Opposition that had finally found an issue.

Blasting the Opposition, the Prime Minister said that rules of democracy permitted a change in government without blatant animosity and violence. But what the country was experiencing at the moment was too much of rancour and bitterness, which was harming the whole democratic set-up.

Vajpayee said the Opposition was overplaying the issue because of the coming Assembly elections. He said the country could not be ruled without consensus but difficulties were being created in the path of arriving at that consensus.

The Prime Minister also had a small sermon for the media. Vajpayee said the media should refrain from going in for sensational stuff. This was not the first time he had criticised the media since the Tehelka revelations.

He, however, said his government did not want to meddle in media matters. Government regulation, he said, was not a solution and it was for the media to adopt self-regulatory measures.


New Delhi, March 23: 
The Tehelka revelations have cast their shadow on the two-day BJP national executive beginning here tomorrow with Bangaru Laxman deciding not to attend.

The disgraced leader wrote to acting president Jana Krishnamurthi this evening, saying he was staying away so that the “so-called Tehelka exposé” could be discussed in a “free and frank manner in my absence”.

Laxman met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi — the pointsman between the Sangh and the BJP — before making up his mind. In his letter to Krishnamurthi he mentioned that he had spoken to Vajpayee.

In the normal run of events, Laxman, as a former BJP chief, would have shared the dais with Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kushabhau Thakre — all former heads of the party. But the overwhelming opinion was that the media spotlight would have been on Laxman, possibly seated cheek by jowl with Vajpayee and Advani.

“At a time we have launched a massive damage-containment move on the Tehelka fallout, such an image would have been bad for the party. We felt he should lie low for some time and avoid media glare,” sources said.

Laxman was taken to task at a parliamentary party meeting this morning where, sources said, some MPs described the sequence in the videotapes showing him taking the money as “shocking and disgraceful”. “How can we face our voters?” said a Bihar MP. “How are we going to tell them that the BJP is truly a party with a difference?”

The political resolution which will be adopted at the executive is also likely to focus on the Tehelka tapes. Though sources said it would try to show the deal was “fictitious” and therefore “not germane to the larger issue of corruption”, they admitted that discussions on the draft might have been embarrassing for Laxman. So his decision to stay away was greeted with relief.

At the same time, sources said, Laxman could not be pushed too far because of his Dalit moorings. “Whether we like it or not, his appointment had made an impact on the Dalits, especially in Andhra Pradesh (to which he belongs),” said a national executive member from Andhra.

“Earlier, the Dalits voted lock, stock and barrel for the Congress. But in the recent by-election, if the Desam won the two seats comfortably it was because a large chunk of Dalits voted for them thanks to Laxman.”

A suggestion to drop the former party chief from the national executive was brushed aside by the leadership, which felt his decision to stay away was the “wisest” step from his and the BJP’s viewpoint.


New Delhi, March 23: 
The Vajpayee ministerial council seemed divided on the Tehelka issue.

While home minister L.K. Advani said the Tehelka tapes were “doctored and edited” and raised a question mark on their credibility, minister of state for disinvestment Arun Shourie saw nothing wrong in the manner in which the Tehelka team went about its sting operation.

Shourie, a former investigative journalist, said: “If there is any wrongdoing in dark rooms ..., journalists will go there.”

Shourie seemed disinclined to attribute motives to the Tehelka revelations. A journalist would resort to tactics of “unorthodox nature”, such as using a hidden camera to reveal something that could not be easily detected, he told a symposium on “Partisan politics in journalism” here today.

Shourie’s investigative reports, such as those on former Maharashtra chief minister A.R. Antulay, had caused waves in the ’80s. He had used “unorthodox tactics” like setting up a reporter to purchase a woman to expose the flesh trade on the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border. He had also used a secret recorder to record an interview with the late Gundu Rao when he was Karnataka chief minister. Shourie added that when such disclosures are made, the government should take notice.

Shourie told the symposium, organised by RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya, that the evidence against former BJP president Bangaru Laxman in the Tehelka tapes was “direct” while much of the other evidence was based on hearsay and contained exaggerated statements by persons like R.K. Jain and R.K. Gupta.

On the violation of privacy through such means, Shourie said any person holding public office “cannot say this is unfair”. He regretted that “allegation-mongering” had seeped into journalism and suggested that journalists make efforts to unravel the truth behind allegations.

Advani, however, rejected the Opposition demand for the resignation of the NDA government in the wake of the Tehelka exposé. “The Opposition is to be fully blamed for disrupting parliamentary proceedings, bringing disrespect to democracy. The demand for resignation of the government is anti-democratic and unjust and we are not going to oblige the Opposition. Till we have majority in Parliament and the people’s mandate, we will run the government,” Advani said at an emergency meeting of the BJP parliamentary party here.

Advani said the House had voted on the motion of thanks to the President’s address, Balco, and the vote-on-account on the general budget and the railway budget. “The government won all the four with a big majority,” he said.

The home minister was quoted by BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra as saying that the Tehelka tapes were “doctored” because in their telecast by a private TV channel since last night, the rooms had appeared to have changed from the earlier ones.

Lambasting the Congress, Advani said it talked of national security but when the government was prepared for a debate on the Tehelka exposé, they were demanding its resignation.

“The Opposition talks of national security. This government, when it undertook Pokhran and later tackled Kargil, showed how serious it was about national security. At the time of Kargil when Lok Sabha was dissolved, the Congress demanded convening a special Rajya Sabha session to discuss it when our soldiers were shedding blood for the country. On the other hand, when the government is ready for a debate on the Tehelka issue, the Congress is not ready for it but is demanding the government’s resignation,” he said.


New Delhi, March 23: 
Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu has decided not to attend Sunday’s proposed National Democratic Alliance rally, called to drum up support for the Tehelka-stained government.

This is the second time that the Desam, a key ally of the BJP, has snubbed the Vajpayee government. The Desam had also refused to support the confidence motion that the government had planned to move early this week.

Desam sources said no one from the party would attend the rally. They said that though Naidu had been invited, he would skip the rally as he would be seen publicly supporting the government despite the news portal catching some of the leading lights of the NDA taking bribe.

Despite the absence of Naidu, Rama Krishna Hegde and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, the rally is expected to be a success with 10 chief ministers — six from the BJP and four from the allies — sharing the dais with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani and other senior BJP leaders.

From among the allies, chief ministers Prakash Singh Badal, Om Parkash Chautala, Farooq Abdullah and Navin Patnaik are likely to attend.

The rally, conceived by Vajpayee and NDA convener George Fernandes, who quit as defence minister last week following the Tehelka expose, is intended to send out the message that there is no crack in the NDA and that the allies stood solidly behind the Prime Minister even after the disclosure.

Asked why the Desam was boycotting the rally, parliamentary party leader K. Yerran Naidu downplayed the issue, saying the party was not in the NDA but only giving outside support. Asked if the chief minister had deputed someone for the rally, Yerran Naidu replied in the negative.

DMK sources said Karunanidhi would not attend as he was preoccupied with election preparations. However, he may depute T.R. Baalu or Murasoli Maran. Both have been summoned to Chennai by the chief minister and are likely to return to Delhi on Sunday morning.

Senior JDU leader and Rajya Sabha MP Rama Krishna Hegde has already left for Bangalore and is returning to Delhi only on Monday. Hegde has said that he will not share the dais with his bete noire George Fernandes.

Hegde questioned the “timing” of the CBI filing an FIR against Vincent George, personal aide of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The Dal(U) leader said it smacked of “vendetta”.

Hegde, however, hastened to add that the case against George did not “develop overnight” and obviously it was not “cooked up”.

He also rejected the theory that the Tehelka exposé was a conspiracy against the NDA government.

“I think Tarun Tejpal and Tehelka have done a great service to the country in exposing corrupt practices in civil administration, politics and defence services,” Hegde said.


New Delhi, March 23: 
India’s biggest entertainers and impresarios will meet in Mumbai next week for a two-day brainstorming conference that will seek to give shape to an industry besieged by the underworld even as investors forecast phenomenal growth in the sector over the next five years.

Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan will be joined by producers, distributors, film guarantors, content providers and event managers from home and abroad at FRAMES 2001, hosted by the Federation Of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the apex chamber that lobbied hard and got for entertainment companies the industry status they were seeking.

FRAMES — an acronym for Films, Radio, Audio-Visual, Music, Exhibitions and Shows — will bring to the country personalities like Richard Soames of Film Finance Company, which provides producers guarantees of completing a film. Soames’ operations are mostly in the US and the UK. He has so far fought shy of India, despite Bollywood being the largest single film industry in the world in terms of output, because it is unregulated.

A study by Arthur Andersen, commissioned by FICCI, which will be released at the inaugural of FRAMES, has “conservatively estimated” that the industry will grow from about Rs 96 billion now to about Rs 286 billion by 2005. This is bad news for the print media because, says Arthur Andersen, the growth of the entertainment industry will be boosted by advertisement revenues that will migrate from newspapers and magazines.

Internationally, the average share of the print media in the total advertising expenditure is about 45 per cent. In India, the share of print media in total advertising expenditure is as high as 55 per cent. This is expected to come down to international levels.

Within the entertainment industry, the films segment is estimated to grow from Rs 13 billion to Rs 40 billion; television broadcasting from Rs 30 billion to Rs 84 billion, cable television from Rs 24 billion to Rs 70 billion, television software from Rs 14 billion to Rs 54 billion, music from Rs 12.5 billion to Rs 19 billion, radio from Rs 0.8 billion to Rs 7 billion, live entertainment and event management from Rs 1.5 billion to Rs 11 billion.

“We are trying to professionalise the industry and this will drive out black money,” said Bobby Bedi, co-chairman of the conference. Bedi has been the producer of such films as Bandit Queen and Fire. “We are telling both equity investors and debt investors that as an industry we are as bankable as any other. Given the background — people being arrested and interrogated (the reference is to the arrest of Bharat Shah and threats from the underworld) — this is an effort to bring clean money into the industry, ” he added.

The efforts gathered pace since the Industrial Development Bank of India, co-sponsor of FRAMES, recognised the industry. Bedi said about 10 entertainment companies have made IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) and about 20 more were in the pipeline. Some 300 additional screens in the multiplexes were slated to come up all over the country over the next two years. In the music business, piracy has come down from 80 per cent to 40 per cent.


Calcutta, March 23: 
Bengal chief secretary Manish Gupta today left for the US to meet Microsoft boss Bill Gates and seek his support for a centre for higher studies in information technology.

Gupta, who was invited by Gates to participate in the World Government Leaders’ Conference in Seattle, is expected back on April 3. The three-day conference begins on March 27.

Gates did not invite the Centre to the conference hosted by Microsoft. West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka only were invited. This led to some problems as the Centre was unwilling to clear the visits in the absence of an invite to its representative.

West Bengal’s progress in IT sector has reportedly been appreciated by the Microsoft chief. IT companies in the state earned Rs 700 crore in 1999-2000, against Rs 450 crore in 1998-99.

Gupta was chairman of the Task Force on Information Technology set up by the state government on March 5, 1999. A few hours before leaving, the chief secretary said he would project the state’s IT policy, proposed by the task force, at the conference.

“The government wants to set up a Centre for Excellence with Microsoft’s assistance for higher research facilities for students of information technology. A high level of education among the youth will lead to growth in this sector,” he said.

Gupta said the research institution would be a wing of the proposed Technology University to be set up in the state by 2002. The knowledge of information technology will gradually be made an essential requirement for some categories in government and public sector employment. IT services would also be included in vocational courses, he said.

The chief secretary will highlight the incentives offered by the government to business houses in the IT sector during his meeting with Gates.

“The West Bengal government will promote the setting up of two world class software technology parks by 2004,” he said.


Calcutta, March 23: 
Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty today expressed dissatisfaction over the “very slow progress” in construction of six flyovers in Calcutta.

Addressing the Trans Expo at the Netaji Indoor stadium, Chakraborty said: “I have visited Mumbai a number of times and every time I go there, I see some new flyovers. I have been told that 56 new flyovers have come up in Mumbai in the past three years. In Hyderabad, 21 new flyovers have been constructed over the same period. In Delhi and Chennai, 24 and 23 flyovers have come up in three years.”

“But we were supposed to build only six flyovers in the city and almost two years have passed, but not a single flyover has been constructed,” he lamented.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was present at the function when his colleague was criticising his own department. The transport department is responsible for the construction of the flyovers which are coming up with financial aid from Japan.

Chakraborty, who appears set to stay with the CPM and contest the election from Belgachia, blamed “some people with vested interests” for the delay in construction.

“Someone lives in Howrah and had moved the high court against the state government which had to fell some trees in Gol Park for construction of the flyover. We have won the case, but could not avoid the delay,” he said.

Chakraborty, who is under “close supervision” of the state CPM leadership, said Bengal was more industry-friendly than either Kashmir or Assam as both these states were “disturbed”.

“Our chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and former chief minister Jyoti Basu are trying hard for massive industrialisation in West Bengal. Both of them have given priority to the growth of industry in the state,” he added. Bhattacharjee was seen laughing when Chakraborty was praising him.

Chakraborty promised the people of the state a “green channel”—- a highway which will connect Kalyani in Nadia district with Kakdwip in South 24-Parganas.

“There will be at least 23 flyovers in the entire stretch of this green channel and we will meet at Hotel Taj Bengal on March 29 to finalise the scheme,” he added.

Bhattacharjee said the government was trying hard to improve road conditions in the state and set up new highways for the growth of industry in Bengal.

“Without good roads, industry cannot flourish anywhere and we are trying hard to involve private agencies and the Central government for improvement of roads,” he added.


Calcutta, March 23: 
In a pre-election crackdown, police arrested about 1,000 people and seized huge quantities of arms and illicit liquor during raids in South 24-Parganas.

Those arrested were wanted in cases of dacoity, snatching and extortion. Some of them are political activists.

Shyam Mondal, the prime accused in the murder of Behala CPI leader and school teacher Golok Sen, was among those held. Sen was killed in broad daylight in the school when he worked. A colleague was arrested after the murder but later released on bail.

Bapi Das and Pinku Das of Behala, Sheikh Raju of Tiljala, Sahadeb Baidya of Jadavpur and Adinat Mondal of Sonarpur were also held during the raids.

Police did not face any resistance anywhere except in Bhangore, where a Trinamul Congress worker was among nine persons held.

The circle inspector of Baruipur, Sahabul Hossain, said that policemen raided the house of Trinamul worker Isaq Molla at Kusta Village when he was planning to a crime with his men.

“Over microphone, we asked Isaq and his men to surrender. But they tried to escape in the dark, throwing bombs. Seeing them running, our men chased them and arrested nine of them,” Hossain said.


Nabagram (Murshidabad), March 23: 
Unable to find a market for snake venom, the first snake-charmers’ cooperative in the country is on the verge of shutting shop.

The snake-charmers, or sapurias, of Murshidabad are now thinking of returning to their old trade of putting up shows in front of homes and selling amulets, which, they claim, keep the serpents away.

The sapurias, also known as bedes, were a nomadic tribe about half a century ago. Gradually, a number of them settled in Nabagram and Moregram in Murshidabad district.

Realising over the years that they were not treated as part of the mainstream and were called by the villagers only to attend snake-bite cases, the sapurias decided to gain “respectability” by setting up a cooperative from where they would sell snake venom to research institutes and medicine companies.

Armed with a licence from the forest department, the sapurias set up the Murshidabad Sharpo- dyan Samabayay Limited in November, 1992.

They set up a one-room office on a two-cottah plot in Nabagram and stored different types of poisonous snakes, including chandrabora (viper), keute (cobra) and kalash (common grade), to extract their venom for sale. The cooperative has nearly 200 poisonous snakes.

“But we have not been able to make much headway as we do not know the nuances of the trade. Running from pillar to post, finally we got an opportunity to sell venom to a well-known chemical company in Calcutta. But we were paid poorly,” said Miru Sapuria, secretary of the cooperative.

They even contacted entomologist and snake-bite specialist Amiya Kumar Hati in Calcutta and learnt the methods of drying and preserving snake venom.

“Snake venom is very costly and one gram costs anything between Rs 1,000 and Rs 5,000. The sapurias should contact the bio-chemistry department of Calcutta University and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Jadavpur. They can also contact the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai,” Hati said.

While trying to establish contact with the Haffkine Institute, the snake-charmers’ cooperative has also requested the district administration for a plot in Lalbagh town near Berhampore to build a Sharpo Udyan (snake garden) to attract tourists and also develop it as a centre for breeding poisonous snakes and mass production of dried venom.

“I am willing to cooperate with the snake-charmers’ cooperative. I think it will be better for tourist attraction if they can set up their snake garden on the western bank of the Bhagirathi,” said Vivek Kumar, Murshidabad district magistrate.

Following an appeal from the sapurias, the National Cooperative Development Corporation has said it is willing to extend financial help. Last year, after an inspection of the snake-charmers’ cooperative, the office of the additional registrar of Cooperative Societies asked the members to draw up a Rs 10-lakh project to expand the cooperative.

“But, so far, everything has remained on paper and we find it difficult to make both ends meet. So, we have gone back to our old traditional trade of shaap khela and duping people with amulets,” said Kutu Sapuria.


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