Call more, pay less bonanza
Wedding hall has hostelites up in arms
Bomb factory unearthed
Redress comes easy for cabbie and passenger
Getting Mick to sing baul, with Dylan & Das
Sutradhar Saonli back before the footlights
Buses damaged over road death
Seagull saved by activists
Gadget to crush used syringe trade
State snubs hall-owners’ plea for ending strike

 
 
CALL MORE, PAY LESS BONANZA 
 
 
BY ALOKANANDA GHOSH
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
Cellphone users in Calcutta have something to smile about — an early Poila Boisakh gift from operators. Both Command and Spice are ready to slash airtime rates up to 45 per cent, starting April 5 (see box). With this, the operators claim that the average cost of cellphone usage will work out to just 1.6 times that of a ‘land line’.

January had turned out to be the cruellest month for cellphone users in the city, with Spice and Command announcing steep rate hikes. But April brings cheer, with the sharpest drop in airtime rates since mobile phones were introduced in 1995.

There are an estimated 170,000 cellphone subscribers in Calcutta. Both Spice and Command expect this figure to “almost double” by the end of the year, with the revised rates enabling them to broaden their subscriber base.

The monthly rental, memberships fees, outgoing and incoming rates have been reduced under every scheme for post-paid connections. For pre-paid cashcards, outgoing rates have dropped from Rs 6 to Rs 4.50 a minute, and incoming from Rs 3 to Rs 2.25. The activation charges have been brought down from Rs 840 to Rs 630, and the month-days extended from 21 to 30.

Following the steep rise in airtime rates early this year, both operators have been “flooded with complaints”. Several pre-paid customers refused to refill their cash cards, while some low-end users were forced to disconnect. “The rate hike in January this year was unwarranted and premature,” admitted R. Mahesh, vice-president, marketing, Spice Telecom. “This time, we want to ensure that the customer gets value for money. So, we are offering a comprehensive package, drawn up keeping in mind usage patterns and requirements of the Calcutta customer.”

Rajiv Sawhney, chief operating officer, Usha Martin Telekom, however, defended the January hike as it carried the message that “there’s nothing called a free lunch”. But Sawhney stressed that Command was striving “to make services more affordable to the common man”.

According to Arun Kapoor, chief operating officer, Spice Telecom, the new rates “will allow small-time businessmen, self-employed persons and even housewives to own a cellphone”.

Besides, Spice and Command have also lined up a host of add-ons. For the Command customer, Talkathon allows users “to receive or make calls of unlimited duration from or to one number of their choice for a monthly subscription under Talk Easy, two numbers under Talk 400, and three numbers under Talk 1000. Nightvantage from Spice and Night Speak from Command, also for a monthly fee, will allow users to “talk free between 10 pm and 8 am”.

   

 
 
WEDDING HALL HAS HOSTELITES UP IN ARMS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
The 180 boarders of St Xavier’s College hostel on Short Street have submitted a petition to the Principal, Father P.C. Mathew, seeking his intervention in preventing the conversion of a nearby plot into a venue for marriage receptions.

“The boys fear their studies will be disturbed by the noise and commotion from such ceremonies,” said Father Mathew on Monday. “Moreover, the din from the cars that would line up, blow horns and park on narrow Short Street would add to the clamour.”

He has already written letters to the deputy commissioner of police (south), Shakespeare Sarani police station and the mayor of Calcutta, requesting them to prevent the plot (9A, Short Street) from becoming a centre for community gatherings and celebrations.

“The students sit to study in the evenings and carry on till late at night. Many of them are very serious about their studies and this is the best time for them to read,” pointed out the hostel superintendent, Father Anil Gomes.

The hostel, which is almost 100 years old, and the college have always had a peaceful environment. “We do not want this to be disturbed by this proposal from the promoters of the property,” Father Mathew said. “It is on these grounds that I had approached the police and civic authorities.”

His request had yielded results earlier. A police team went to the spot some weeks ago and demolished the bamboo construction erected for a canopy. But the logs and bamboos were still on the compound on Monday. “We hope that the owners of the property realise the plight of the students and alter their intentions,” the Principal said. “If not, it could lead to all sorts of problems. There is no guarantee that the receptions will not turn boisterous. The students could get agitated, especially if it is during their exams, and this could lead to an unpleasant confrontation with the hosts and guests. And we shouldn’t be blamed for any eventuality,” he added.

The promoters, however, say that they are well within their rights and are executing the proposal according to all existing laws and civic requirements.

Speaking on behalf of Manoj Bothra, the main promoter, a representative at the site said they had “approached all the authorities” in the Corporation and the fire brigade to find out about the rules and requirements. “We are abiding by every one of them.”

He said he would meet the college authorities to seek an amicable settlement.

“If need be, we could construct a high wall on the plot, which would act as a barrier with the hostel.” But that would not prevent the traffic jams and the blaring of horns on Short Street, the Principal said.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, who is aware of the problem, has said that the moment the premises is used for commercial purposes, the owners will be taxed by the CMC. He sympathised with the students and suggested that the plot be put to some other use.

The police, too, are against the proposal and have indicated that they may conduct further “raids” to prevent the holding of marriage receptions on the premises.

   

 
 
BOMB FACTORY UNEARTHED 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
A bomb-manufacturing factory was unearthed at Shibpur, in Howrah, following an explosion on Sunday evening in which a bomb-maker was seriously injured. Police arrested one of the factory “owners”, Nizamuddin (45), “a well-known CPM activist and anti-social”. The injured fled before the cops arrived.

A huge cache of bomb-making ingredients was seized from the premises. The bustee remained tense and residents stayed indoors as police searched the area.

Residents had been complaining about crude weapons being manufactured in the locality for quite some time now. “But the officers chose to turn a blind eye to the situation,” complained a local resident. The Trinamul Congress claimed that the bombs were being manufactured by local CPM activists.

   

 
 
REDRESS COMES EASY FOR CABBIE AND PASSENGER 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
In a move aimed at safeguarding both taxi-driver and passenger, police commissioner Dinesh Vajpai has redrawn several guidelines and ordered his men “not to harass taxi-drivers or passengers who approach them to lodge complaints at any thana”.

This was announced on Monday afternoon, following a marathon meeting between Vajpai and several representatives of the Bengal Taxi Association (BTA). The list of grievances of the BTA brigade included criminal assault on drivers and police harassment.

Under the revised directive, a cabbie or a passenger can walk into any police station to register a complaint, regardless of location. Till now, the complainant was allowed to register a case only with the police station under whose jurisdiction the incident occurred.

“The new directives will definitely help the people,” said Banibrata Basu, deputy commissioner, detective department. “It is unfair to expect people to know the jurisdiction of every police station and then approach it to register a complaint. Invariably, they end up shuttling from one police station to another. But with this new directive, taxi-drivers and passengers will not have to face such harassment. They can simply walk into the nearest or most convenient police station and present their case,” added Basu.

Under instructions from the police commissioner, the city detective chief dashed off an order explaining the revised rules to all 43 officers-in-charge of city police stations. “First, you will have to register the complaint and then forward it to the police station concerned as soon as possible. Never refuse the complainants,” was the instruction, loud and clear.

A list of suggestions, drawn up by Lalbazar police headquarters, for taxi-drivers and passengers includes the following points:

If you are harassed, by goons or police, call the Lalbazar control room, mention the site of the incident. The telephone numbers are: 235-0230 and 235-3024

If you are in trouble, just go to the nearest police station and lodge your complaint

You can register your complaint with any thana in the city. The officer who records your complaint will forward the case to the police station concerned. If you want to go to the particular police station, an officer of the thana where you have first lodged your complaint will escort you.

If the incident occurs in adjacent districts like North and South 24-Parganas and Howrah, call Lalbazar headquarters. Your complaint will be forwarded to the thana concerned.

According to Basu, all divisional deputy commissioners have been told to “keep a close watch” on the barricades set up for night vigil as complaints of police harassment have started trickling in.

“A directive has already been sent to the deputy commissioners to conduct surprise checks at the barricades and take on-the-spot action against any policeman guilty of harassing driver or passenger,” said Basu.

   

 
 
GETTING MICK TO SING BAUL, WITH DYLAN & DAS 
 
 
BY SUBHRO SAHA
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
Imagine Mick Jagger belting out Bengali baul numbers while plucking the khamak at the Park Rock Festival in New Jersey, or Robbie Robertson wielding the dotara at the Berkeley Rock Fest, San Francisco. Far-fetched? Not quite, if the original Bengal minstrel has his way.

Baul Samrat Purna Das Baul, who had introduced baul gaan of rural Bengal to the West during that magical eight-month tour of the US in 1965 with rock and folk icons like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner,... organised by Albert B. Grossman, is planning a second coming.

Having formed the first baul fusion group — ‘Khyapa’ (the title Tagore bestowed on his father, Nabani Das Baul) — Purna Das, along with sons Krishnendu (Babu Kishen), Subhendu (Bapi) and Dibyendu, is chalking out plans for a unique tour of the US next year, designed to bring together on stage a galaxy of superstars and forge a grand reunion of sorts, with baul music as the fulcrum. Hailed as “India’s Bob Dylan” by New York Times in 1984, Purna Das Baul is set to hit the major rock fests in the US with his baul fusion in 2002. In the pipeline is a tour spanning four to five stops in the US like New Jersey, New York City, LA... and a few cities in Japan.

Purna Das, who has also made music with Bob Marley, Gordon Lightfoot and Mahalia Jackson, is banking on a little help from his friends to make divine music again. “One of my dreams is to make Mick Jagger sing baul gaan in Bengali on stage in the US and record it. Maybe, I’ll have to teach him basic Bengali diction before that,” he smiles.

The folk-rock-jazz-reggae feast this time is almost sure to feature Robbie Robertson, frontman of erstwhile rock group The Band, world music guru Peter Gabriel, and Herbie Mann — “all sympathisers with meaningful fusion”.

Purna Das is trying his best to cajole long-time friend Dylan to come out of his one-gig-a-year wilderness and trek Highway 61 Revisitedon stage with the “rest of the folks”. “I have already told him about my project and he is quite enthusiastic. I am keeping my fingers crossed, praying he can do at least one show with my fusion band,” hopes the Baul who had cut a CD of Bengali songs and gifted it to Dylan on his birthday, a few years ago.

Khyapa — the ageing minstrel explains — while sticking to its base structure of “quintessential baul gaan”, will also incorporate diverse western elements like jazz, blues and reggae to “make my music acceptable” to present-day America. “I want perfect harmony between the dhol and drums, the dotara and the guitar, the flute and the saxophone.”

Purna Das, who has toured 120 countries and represented India at the WOMAD (the world’s biggest festival of folk music) for years, explains that funds for Khyapa are being raised through private sponsors, “so that the music is freewheeling and there’s a platform for improvisation”.

On Monday, while working out the logistics of Khyapa’s maiden US tour with youngest son Dibyendu in his Dhakuria home, Purna Das spares a thought for Allen Ginsberg, the “spiritual fountainhead” who had “discovered” him and taken him westwards. “Allen would have been one of the happiest men around at our fusion concerts had he been alive,” he says wistfully.

   

 
 
SUTRADHAR SAONLI BACK BEFORE THE FOOTLIGHTS 
 
 
BY SOUMITRA DAS
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
Unbeknown to many, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture in Ranikuthi has suddenly become the city’s cultural hotspot. At 3 Regent Park, the institute already houses Galerie La Mere, a dance school and a tiny auditorium that can seat about 150, with an equally tiny stage. After remaining behind the scenes for over two years, it is in this auditorium that Saonli Mitra has chosen to make a comeback.

Minutes before joining the other actors in the large room above Park Circus market, where the theatre group Pancham Vaidic has rehearsed many a spellbinding play, Saonli explained why she plumped for the Ranikuthi auditorium: “After the performance of the play Agnimantha as part of Natyatarpan in memory of my parents, the audience stood up and demanded that I reappear on stage. I told them that there was no suitable place where I could perform. The audience, in turn, declared that they were behind me. Surprisingly, 250 people stood patiently in a queue to write down their names and contact addresses.”

So Pancham Vaidic started the system of donor membership. Initially, they had planned a natyagram, a theatre village. They decided to look around for a large enough plot for the project. Saonli was very close to Jaya Mitra, who ran the institute before her death. Her son, Ranjan Mitra, and Shyamal Mukherjee, who have taken over the institute, offered the small auditorium to the group gratis.

Says Saonli: “Here we could do things on a small scale before a small audience. There was the possibility of a parallel space being created. We are very grateful to them. They keep open house for us.” The results have been very encouraging. Donor-members come all the way from Chandernagore, Chinsurah, Paikpara and Baranagar to attend performances. “We have already established a rapport with the audience and interaction with them is encouraged,” says Saonli. The authorities are already thinking of getting the hall airconditioned.

Now Saonli is thinking of establishing a cultural complex at the institute with joint effort because the place already has such an ambience.

Throughout last winter, Pancham Vaidic has held many shows at the auditorium, with Saonli occasionally putting in an appearance. At the first performance of Sujan Bratir Simanta there, a discussion was held with the audience on Sardar Sarovar. Through Narmada Bachao Andolan, the group has appealed to the authorities to rethink the decision on the dam.

During performances of Agnimantha, Saonli stood in for an absentee protagonist. The play is about a political figure, who had disappeared for years. During his absence, his wife had struggled to raise their son. After the man’s sudden return, hopes are raised that his presence would revive the movement. But the man flees, and he is at last liquidated. Here Saonli plays the man’s wife, which is a secondary role, she is quick to add.

Sujan Bratir Simanta is against the “socialisation of war.” Saonli has no role in it. She is the disembodied voice of a dead woman. But at the coming performance of the play at the ongoing National School of Drama festival, she will play the role of the sutradhar.

There have also been readings from Buddhadeb Basu’s Mahabharata-based plays and Tagore’s writings on the theme of timeless love (Rabindranather Kaljayi Prem). But isn’t this an overdose of propaganda? Saonli replies: “If this is propaganda, it is meant for the good of humanity and not to further the cause of any political party. If this is perceived as propaganda, I don’t mind it.”

   

 
 
BUSES DAMAGED OVER ROAD DEATH 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
A mob damaged two private buses after a 19-year old youth was killed in a road accident at Baruipur, on the city’s southern fringes on Monday morning. Traffic was disrupted for nearly two hours after the accident.

Police said the mishap occurred around 10 in the morning when two private buses on the same route, coming from Canning to Calcutta, were trying to overtake each other at Ramnagar. One of the buses knocked down local businessman Nur Hasan Sardar, who was crossing the road on a bicycle, on his way home from the market. Sardar was rushed to Baruipur sub divisional hospital, where he was declared brought dead.

Minutes after the accident, hundreds of the area’s residents assembled on the spot and stopped both the buses. They pelted stones at the vehicles, damaging both heavily. In the melee, the drivers managed to flee.

The residents squatted on the road, demanding the arrest of the “guilty” drivers and a police picket to be posted at the four-point crossing close to Ramnagar. The blockade was lifted after Baruipur police station officer-in-charge Basudeb Das assured them he would look into the matter.

Samir Chakraborti, resident of the area and Trinamul Congress leader, said: “The area close to Baruipur railway station has become an accident-prone zone. Accidents are a regular feature here. Most of the drivers do not bother about traffic rules. We have requested the police to post a picket and after every accident, they assure us they will but do nothing.”

Malay Haldar, local CPM activist, said: “ We have told the district administration to look into the matter. Moreover, local MLA Sujan Chakrabarti himself met police officers several times on this account but no measures have been taken so far.”

   

 
 
SEAGULL SAVED BY ACTIVISTS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
The two kites caged in a coop for chickens, along with a seagull, at Jadu Babu Bazaar, have not been rescued on Monday as the police were waiting for the chicken-seller to arrive and unlock the cage.

The birds were spotted by a 14-year-old student of Class VII on Sunday, who took the initiative to free them. Police say they should wait for another 48 hours before taking any step.

When asked why they refused to break the lock of the coop, office-in-charge of Bhowanipore police station, Apurba Kumar Som Chowdhury, said: “How can we do that? It is a big market. Where do we look for the chicken-seller? The kites are without food and water as a result.”

The three birds were caught by Bishu Mondal from Canning a week ago and were kept in small cages. The seagull was rescued by volunteers of People For Animals (PFA) on Monday when they pressured the police after the news came out in Metro. The bird has been rehabilitated at the aviary in Karuna Kunj.

   

 
 
GADGET TO CRUSH USED SYRINGE TRADE 
 
 
BY DEEPANKAR GANGULY
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
Alarmed at the growing business in used disposable syringes, the civic authorities have decided to ask all health establishments in the city to instal handy disposable syringe-destroyer units. “We are procuring this device for our health clinics too,” said mayor Subrata Mukherjee on Monday.

Demonstrating a disposable syringe-destroyer unit, member, mayor-in-council, health, Javed Ahmed Khan said more than a lakh used syringes were recycled daily in areas like Ultadanga, Kidderpore, Ekbalpore, Chetla, Tangra, Tiljala and Topsia. The electrically-operated desktop unit, costing Rs 2,500, takes only three seconds to melt a hypodermic needle and slash the used lancet.

The civic authorities had made an allotment of Rs 2 lakh to procure syringe-destroyer units for the CMC-run health clinics in different parts of the city.

Used syringes from government hospitals and health set-ups in the city are increasingly finding their way back into chemist shops, exposing citizens to the risk of AIDS and Hepatitis-B and other diseases caused by needle-stick injuries, Khan said.

Recently, medical officers of the Corporation discovered one such centre at Tangra, on DC Dey Road, near Palmer Bazar, where used disposable syringes and saline bottles from government hospitals were collected from the rag-pickers, to be supplied to wholesalers. Mohammad Aslam, who runs the collection centre, said more than a thousand syringes and about 2,000 saline bottles were collected daily and sold to the wholesalers at Rs 5 a kg. About 100 syringes made a kg, he added.

The discovery alerted the civic health authorities and forced the conservancy department to conduct raids in the slum areas in search of stored recycled syringes. “We will also request the state health department to instal disposable syringe-destroyer units in the 25 government-run hospitals in the city where 11,825 indoor patients are treated daily,” he said.

   

 
 
STATE SNUBS HALL-OWNERS’ PLEA FOR ENDING STRIKE 
 
 
BY STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 2: 
With the state-wide cinema strike entering its ninth day on Monday, worried office-bearers of the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA) have sought the government’s intervention to end the impasse. But the government has refused to step into the ring at this stage.

The strike called by the Bengal Motion Pictures Employees’ Union (BMPEU), demanding a hike in the existing pay structure, among other things, has hit the industry where it hurts most.

Pradip De, chairman of a high-power committee to look into demands of cinema-hall workers, and Pulak Mukherjee, Association spokesperson, met principal secretary, information and cultural affairs, Arun Bhattacharya, at Writers’ Buildings on Monday.

“Bhattacharya told us to settle the dispute with the striking employees first, as the government cannot intervene at this juncture,” said Pulak Mukherjee. Terming the government’s response “lukewarm”, he admitted that there were no immediate solutions in sight. “We have been unable to sit at the negotiating table and draw up an agenda to end the impasse, primarily on account of the negative and adamant attitude of the workers,” alleged Mukherjee.

The employees’ union joint general secretary, Dilip Ghosh, however, blamed the stalemate on the Association. “The employers’ body has refused to comply with any of our demands, forcing us to continue with the strike,” declared Ghosh.

Both groups felt that the forthcoming elections would stall negotiations further, leading to the strike dragging on.

A majority of the halls in the city, especially in north and central Calcutta, have remained shut since March 23. While employees are demanding that the pay structure be revised, that halls shut on account of bonus disputes be reopened, and that halls with more than 10 workers implement the Employees’ State Insurance Scheme, employers insist that their demands cannot be met till a few fundamental issues aren’t addressed.

“Steps must be taken to curb piracy and slash high taxes,” said John Mantosh, owner of Lighthouse and New Empire. “Without that, we can only sympathise with the workers, but not respond to their demands. With revenues dropping, we just cannot afford to revise staff pay structure.”

With the stand-off between hall-owners and workers continuing, it’s the Calcutta movie-goer — missing out on big-budget Bollywood release One 2 ka 4 and Oscar winners like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — who is the loser.

   
 

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