Oil standoff drags on, Buddha steps in
Govt gets a week to shift 150 officers
Protest code for unions
Jharkhand Party fight leads to twin murders
‘Safe’ mine shut with unsafe tag
Navy admits buying faulty spares at steep price
Ten-day breather for Delhi buses
Double blow to Sheila in court
Low-key Advani leaves Tehelka battle to George
Bollywood defends awards

Calcutta, April 4: 
The standoff at Indian Oil Corporation’s installations stretched to the third day today with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee meeting representatives of the Citu-led union and requesting them to call off the agitation.

“I have spoken to the trade union and chief secretary Manish Gupta has met the Indian Oil management. I hope the strike will be called off in a day or two,” Bhattacharjee said.

The Citu-affiliated Shramik Union called the strike at the oil company’s installations in the state on Monday to demand immediate implementation of the long-term agreement on wages and other facilities signed between the management and 20 labour groups in January this year.

The strike has pushed the city and the districts to the brink of an oil crisis.

Loading of petrol, diesel and kerosene have stopped at Indian Oil’s installations in Mourigram, Budge Budge, Siliguri and Rajbandh. Bottling of cooking gas cylinders at the company’s Kalyani and Durgapur plants have also come to a halt, a spokesman for Indian Oil said. “If the strike goes on for a few more days, there will be a severe crisis of petrol and diesel for cars, buses and other modes of public transport in Calcutta and the districts,” said Joydeb Sarkar, general secretary of the West Bengal Petroleum Dealers’ Association.

Sarkar said that as a result of the strike, a large number of oil tankers have lined up the roads leading to the installations in Mourigram, Siliguri and Rajbandh.

Labour secretary N.K.S. Jhala met the Indian Oil general manager for West Bengal, N.K. Moitra, as well as leaders of the striking union at Writers’ Buildings this morning in an effort to reach an understanding.

Jhala requested the union representatives to call off the agitation as it was affecting public life. “We are trying to resolve the matter,” he said.

A senior Indian Oil official said the Intuc-led employees’ union in the eastern region has opposed the agreement and subsequently moved the Central labour commissioner (CLC). The CLC has invited the Indian Oil management to participate and a meeting is slated for April 10 in New Delhi.

“The agreement can’t be implemented in the eastern region until the case is settled with the Central labour commissioner. Moreover, the Citu-led union is unrecognised and technically it can’t be a party to the agreement and sign it,” the official said.

Jhala, however, requested Moitra to find out if the union’s demand can be met without it having to sign the agreement.

The Citu-led union had initially called a strike on March 21 and then deferred it to April 5.

An Indian Oil official said that as a result of the strike, 80 per cent of the company’s 85 petrol pumps in Calcutta and its suburbs have already been severely affected. In the districts, Indian Oil dealers run 335 filling stations, 25 per cent of which are facing fast-depleting stocks of petrol and diesel. The oil company supplies 80 kilo litres of petrol, 200 kilo litres of diesel and 35,000 cooking gas cylinders to Calcutta daily.

But there is no immediate threat to flight operation. “We are bringing cooking gas cylinders from our plant in Balasore in Orissa. There is no immediate threat to operation of planes as we have more than 10 days’ stock of aviation fuel at the airports,” the official added.


Calcutta, April 4: 
The Election Commission has directed the government to immediately transfer about 150 administrative and nine police officers who are either posted in their home districts or have completed four years at the same place of work.

Chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen said the police officers had already been shifted. “The administrative officers will be transferred within a week,” he said. Chief election commissioner M.S. Gill is likely to visit West Bengal to monitor poll arrangements before the notification is issued on April 16. All transfers will have to be completed before the notification date.

According to the commission’s guidelines, government officers have to be shifted compulsorily if they are working in their home districts or continuing in their posts for over four years.

Sen said the commission had exempt 20 officers from the list on compassionate grounds. “These officers are to retire in the next six months. They will not be involved in election work,” he explained. Of the 150 administrative officers to be shifted, 110 have completed four years in the same post and in the same place.

The remaining 40 officers are all posted in their native districts. Most of them are West Bengal Civil Service officers holding the ranks of deputy collectors and subdivisional and block-level officers. The police officers who were transferred are all from the state police service.

The Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, a non-government organisation, has drawn the attention of the commission to about 45 police officers who were indicted by the state human rights panel.

It has asked the commission not to assign them any poll duty. Sen said the NGO’s complaint had been forwarded to the commission. It is learnt that the poll panel has taken the complaint seriously and has asked the organisation’s representatives to come to Delhi for discussions.

Sen has directed all returning officers to take measures to whitewash poll graffiti on public premises within 72 hours.

He said expenditure incurred by civic bodies on this during the last Lok Sabha elections would be disbursed by his department soon.

He denied that the Calcutta Municipal Corporation authorities had refused to clean up graffiti as the election department was yet to clear its dues.

“It is true they have not received the full amount due to us. I have instructed my department to clear dues for white-washing walls by the CMC during the last elections,” Sen said.

Sen warned all political parties against using the walls to make personal attacks against their rivals. He said that such graffiti or wall writings are not permitted by the commission.

Trinamul Congress general secretary Mukul Roy had complained to Sen that the CPM’s graffiti on the Tehelka disclosures had depicted Mamata Banerjee as being a party to it. Roy had asked the commission to stop such a “false and motivated” campaign against his party immediately.


Calcutta, April 4: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today urged workers to resolve grievances by remaining on the right side of law and asked unions not to behave in an irresponsible manner.

Addressing the 99th annual general meeting of the Merchants’ Chamber of Commerce, he said labour must pay heed to production and productivity while exercising their democratic right to express their problems. They should put forward their demands through legal methods,” he said.

The chief minister’s message is the first in which he listed concrete steps that trade unions should follow while fighting for their demands. In the past, all he had said was that unions should refrain from violence.

Bhattacharjee listed the initiatives launched in the past 10 years to improve state’s industrial profile. This prompted remarks from industrialists that he turned the occasion into an election campaign to present a record of investments that have flowed into the state and those on the way.

“Between 1991 and 2000, 2,474 investment proposals worth Rs 55,000 crore were approved. Of this, more than Rs 18,000 crore has fructified,” he said.

He pointed to a recent McKinsey & Co report which said Bengal has one-tenth of the country’s market and the state’s economy is the third largest.

Responding to a question from Assocham president Raghu Modi on the tardy pace of construction of the city’s flyovers, the chief minister said he was aware of it but could not explain why it was taking a long time to complete them.

Modi urged the government to shed off its cholchhe cholbe attitude and adopt a more dynamic and pro-active approach.

Merchant chamber president Ravi Todi said Bengal has all that it takes to grow faster, but there are no strong signs of that happening.

“Investors’ perception problem has to be corrected quickly,” said Todi, whose tenure as president ended today. Sushil Dhandhania, senior vice-president, will succeed him.


Binpur (Midnapore), April 4: 
The recovery of the mutilated bodies of two Jharkhand Party supporters from the Kapatkata canal yesterday has brought to light the growing factionalism in the organisation.

Police said the two murdered Jharkhand Party supporters — Piru Hansda and Srimat Soren — belonged to the faction controlled by Ajit Saha and Aditya Kisku. They were once close to party legislator Naren Hansda, who died about a year ago.

Chunibala Hansda, Hansda’s wife, won the Binpur Assembly byelections after her husband’s death and also held the post of party president. However, few in the party are willing to support her as the president.

The trouble began when other Jharkhand Party leaders such as Babu Bose, Liyakat Ali, Ajit Saha and Aditya Kisku aspired to become legislators and hold key party posts.

This led to the formation of different factions in the party with Chunibala and her associates forming one group. Babu-Liyakat formed the second and Ajit-Aditya developed the third.

The rivalry among the factions is so intense that each group, instead of fighting the CPM — their main rival in the Jhargram subdivision — are now busy fighting each other.

The two Jharkhand Party supporters were killed during an armed conflict between the Babu-Liakat and Ajit-Aditya groups, a senior police official said.

Soon after their bodies were found, the Babu-Liakat faction called a 24-hour bandh in the Jhargram subdivision yesterday to gauge public support.

The bandh was, however, partial, police said.

The Congress has forged an alliance with Chunibala at Binpur. Chunibala met Kamal Nath, AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal, in Calcutta on Monday.

For the Jhargram seat, Babu Bose has declared himself as the party’s candidate without waiting for Chunibala’s approval. The party president is likely to expel him.

However, wall writings have appeared in Jhargram which say that Babu Bose is the Jharkhand Party candidate.


Asansol, April 4: 
Tension has gripped Pandaveswar after the Eastern Coalfield Limited authorities closed down the Shamla Kenda mines citing “safety” reasons from Monday.

Around 500 workers have been transferred to six other mines under the company. The decision has come as a surprise because the Shamla Kenda mines were recently awarded a prize for its safety record.

Questioning the sudden move, union leader Ganesh Pal said: “How can the mines be closed for safety reasons when it was recently awarded? Shamla Kenda had never figured on the list of unsafe mines.” Citu leader Haradhan Ray alleged that the ECL authorities had hatched a conspiracy to close down profitable mines like Shamla Kenda.

S. Dasgupta, general manager of Khattadih mines, said the Shamla Kenda colliery was declared unsafe because fire had broken out in two pits.

The blaze is affecting other pits and the miners’ lives could be at risk.


New Delhi, April 4: 
What was so long in the realm of government corridors and reams of files finally became public today.

For the first time in years, the navy admitted that there were several instances when faulty and old spare parts for its vessels were purchased at astronomical amounts from the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.

Not finding any escape route, the ministry of defence also owned up to the role middlemen play in striking and finalising deals. Defence minister Jaswant Singh’s media consultant B.G. Verghese, one of the three authors of the Kargil Review Committee report, said: “Middlemen exist. But an inquiry has been ordered and it will ascertain at what levels middlemen functioned and (how) they can be eliminated.”

The navy’s stand is startling as it comes after the army’s defence last week of the acquisition of Russian-made Krasnopol laser-guided ammunition and T-90 main battle tanks, deals for which allegedly took place under questionable circumstances. However, naval headquarters today defended the acquisition of the Israeli Barak anti-missile defence system.

Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash (personnel) said after 1988, when naval headquarters found “slippages” in the progress of Trishul surface-to-air-missiles, it had decided to buy an air-missile system from abroad to counter Pakistan’s anti-ship missiles.

The Barak AMD was shortlisted and sanction for the first lot of seven systems was given by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 1997. In 1999, the Kargil conflict “compelled” decision-makers to “press” for the remaining six systems.

Prakash said the Barak could “engage supersonic and subsonic missiles”, but was not clear about why the navy’s threat perception was always Pakistan-specific and did not look at the missile systems that China possessed.

Prakash admitted that Vice-Admiral V.S. Purohit’s allegations that old and faulty spare parts had been purchased at inflated prices from the former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation were true. The former vice-admiral (logistics) had filed a case saying he was not being promoted because of pressure from middlemen.

“It happened because no pricing details would be given to us. When the USSR was dismantled, the supply chain broke. We had ships which were grounded and components were urgently required. But we had no means to ascertain the price as theirs is not a transparent system,” he said.

“The price variation was massive,” Prakash said, revealing facts so long suppressed by the defence establishment. “At times, for particular spares, it used to be anything between $15 to $6,000. Yes, in some cases these massively quoted prices were agreed to and some of these cases are being investigated. It has happened in Visakhapatnam dockyards.”


New Delhi, April 4: 
The Delhi crisis eased a little with the Supreme Court today allowing vehicles to ply without the special gas permits till April 14.

However, the apex court made it clear that the Delhi Transport Corporation “must” ensure the availability of 860 buses to ferry school children.

The court also directed a committee to examine the existing standards of the CNG fuel and the norms to be adopted by the fuelling stations and file a report within four weeks.

Soon after the court concession, non-CNG (compressed natural gas) buses and autorickshaws returned to the roads, letting public transport users heave a sigh of relief after three days of chaos.

Flaunting the temporary amnesty, most non-CNG vehicles sported on their windsheilds copies of the receipt of the court affidavits. These affidavits have to be converted to special permits by April 14.

“Many buses were on the road today after the relaxation announced by the city government,” said the joint commissioner of police, Maxwell Pereira.

He also said that in line with the court directive, the police will allow to ply vehicles which have have filed an affidavit with the court and obtained receipts. “We are here not to harass them,” he said.

However, the situation was not so peaceful near the Prime Minister’s residence today. Around 40 Delhi Congress MLAs demonstrated outside 7 Race Course Road to protest the Centre’s “apathy” towards solving the transport crisis.

The legislators accused the Centre of shirking the responsibility of setting up adequate supply stations for CNG-run vehicles.

The demonstration was led by the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president, Subhash Chopra. They were denied permission to meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“The legislators wanted to lodge a complaint and seek the Centre’s cooperation to solve the transport crisis,” said Pramod Kumar, secretary of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee.

The transport crisis that hit the city since April 1 has not only affected commuters in the capital but also those in the satellite suburbs.

The northern railway has decided to increase the number of trains running in the Delhi-Ambala station to ease the problems of the commuters. The coaches of suburban trains have also been increased from 12 to 16.

The Supreme Court ruled that “bus and three-wheeler operators, who have applied for new CNG vehicles or placed orders for conversion of the existing ones into CNG mode and filed affidavits, could be issued provisional permits till April 14 by the state government’s transport department.”

With this order, the Delhi government withdrew its application seeking an extension of the court deadline till April 14.

The Union government has taken another eco-friendly measure, allowing the sale of low-benzene petrol in Delhi.

A government release said all retail outlets in the National Capital Region have started sale of petrol with a maximum limit of one per cent benzene from April 1.


New Delhi, April 4: 
The theatre of confrontation shifted from the streets of the capital to courtroom today with the Supreme Court frowning on statements attributed to the chief minister and the Centre dissociating from the Congress-ruled state administration’s stand.

The court today took exception to the manner in which the executive spoke out against the judiciary on the CNG (compressed natural gas) issue. Chief minister Sheila Dixit and her transport minister were quoted as saying they were prepared to “face even contempt of court” if the transport situation worsened.

A bench, headed by Chief Justice A.S. Anand, directed the Delhi chief secretary to explain in an affidavit the conduct of Dixit and Hashmi. The Chief Justice observed that in the name of “public cause”, the Delhi government was actually shielding its lapses and inability to govern properly.

“This is an attempt to hoodwink the public by saying that we are ready to face contempt for your cause. Sympathy for the commuters is being used by the Delhi government to cover up its administrative lapses and lack of governance,” he said.

“We are distressed by the reports in the newspaper and the electronic media about the defiant attitude of the Delhi government. The attitude, if as reflected in the newspapers is correct, is wholly objectionable,” the bench said.

“I am personally hurt,” Anand said while asking the chief secretary to explain the conduct of the government through an affidavit. The Delhi government is expected to file its reply by next week.

The issue was further complicated with the Central government declaring in the court that it was “dissociating” from the state government’s “stand”. The dramatic announcement resulted in the withdrawal of additional solicitor-general Kirit Rawal from the case.

Legal sources pointed out that as an additional solicitor-general was appointed by the Central government, he could not take a stand in a case where the Centre differed with the state.

Rawal withdrew his counsel for the Delhi government after the Centre announced that it did not share the state government’s stand, especially the statement purported to have been made by Dixit and Hashmi.

The apex court asked the additional solicitor-general “whether the statement of the chief minister does not amount to a breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the state”.

This assumes significance because state governments are dismissed on grounds of “failure of law and order and breakdown of constitutional machinery”.

Law minister Arun Jaitley said Rawal withdrew from the case as an additional solicitor-general could not take two stands on one issue.

“Kirit rang me up to say that he was withdrawing from the case for and on behalf of the state government,” Jaitley said.

Legal circles were divided on whether Rawal should have pulled out. Some said he should have. Had he continued to argue for the Delhi government after the Centre dissociated itself, it would have involved a conflict of interests.

Others, however, pointed out that Delhi technically continued to be a Union territory with a lieutenant-governor at the helm of affairs. “Like Pondicherrry, Delhi has an Assembly, but the Centre cannot abdicate its role or throw away its responsibility vis-a-vis a Union territory. It now suits the BJP-led Centre to put the blame on the Congress government,” a lawyer said.


Hyderabad, April 4: 
With ally Chandrababu Naidu staying miles off the rally venue and L.K. Advani keeping an unusually low pitch, George Fernandes today took the lead in the Tehelka hitback, warning that the exposé had endangered national security.

Speaking at an NDA rally, Fernandes said the “big lies” on the tape had needlessly tarred the country’s image and threatened its safety because “top secret” defence issues were now being “probed” in public.

“Pakistan and other neighbours who were afraid of our strength are now laughing at us because they have knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses,” Fernandes asserted.

The tape-tainted leader, however, ploughed a lonely furrow as Naidu turned his back on the NDA, and literally shifted one of his scheduled meetings to a spot 10 km away. This was in line with a Telugu Desam decision to skip all rallies at which the government would go all out to clear itself of corruption allegations.

Home minister Advani was not much help either, only making a feeble attack on the Congress and reiterating the Centre’s “commitment” to accountability in public life.

Quoting the Prime Minister, Advani said the government had never tried to block any inquiry into the tapes. “Tehelka exposed the flaws in the system of defence purchases, so it should be thoroughly looked into, the Prime Minister had said,” he said.

Fernandes, however, kept up the tempo of his hitback, claiming that he was the “victim” of malicious arms dealers who he had shut out of the defence ministry in days of taking charge.

“I had ordered an inquiry into all defence purchases above Rs 75 crore made since 1989. The probe was being conducted by the Central Vigilance Commission and CAG. My ministry had handed over 500 files to them,” he said.

Looked at from this angle, the Tehelka revelations were not a surprise, Fernandes said. “I knew it was coming any day. But the tapes are nothing but lies, big lies,” he added.

The NDA leaders were greeted with black flags by the Youth Congress when they landed in Hyderabad airport this morning. In the afternoon, they visited Ramoji Rao Filmcity.


Mumbai, April 4: 
And winner of the Goody-Two-Shoes award is ... the jury.

Amid charges that the National Film Awards were rigged by a jury with saffron tendencies — the board had at least five persons with BJP links — Bollywood has ganged up to clear the air over the controversy this year.

At a news conference called by the “film fraternity”, industry big guns Mahesh Bhatt and Javed Akhtar today vociferously defended the best actor and best actress prizes given to Anil Kapoor for Pukar and Raveena Tandon for Daman, claiming it a victory for mainstream cinema over “elitist” parallel films.

Raveena, who was supposed to attend the conference, was missing. So was Anil, hero of the national-integration potboiler Pukar. But Bhatt and Akhtar went full throttle, seeing a conspiracy by the “elite” to hijack the awards.

The controversy erupted after jury member Pradip Kishen — the filmmaker husband of writer Arundhati Roy — protested that the awards were “pre-judged” by a “cabal” of eight jury members and left in a huff. On Kishen quitting, Bhatt demanded: “Kaun banega gatekeeper? Who should be the gatekeeper of arts and culture in our country? Should it be the elite? I have no reason to disbelieve the minister of information and broadcasting, especially when she assured the nation that no hanky panky was involved.”

Calcutta-based cinematographer Shashi Anand and Odissi danseuse Madhumita Raut, also on the jury, had also cried foul, citing the fact that some films, including Daman, which were rejected by review panels initially, were recalled later and went on to win awards. But Bhatt stressed that the award selection process was above board as they were decided on the basis of the majority principle. Implying Kishen was guilty of the brahminical attitude that keeps mainstream cinema from being recognised, he warned that the awards this time reflected “a reorganisation of the cultural hierarchy”.

Akhtar joined Bhatt. “Let’s not see a ghost in every cupboard. I fail to understand what the BJP is gaining by giving an award to Raveena Tandon or Anil Kapoor,” the poet-scripwriter said. He added that the dissenters were free to voice their opinion. “People are also saying that Pradip Kishen is the frustrated husband of a very successful woman. But I am not saying that.”

Bhatt said: “Let’s keep the state outside the awards.”


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