Poll-bound Buddha in job drive
Howrah set for long power wait
Mystery fires baffle bandh-crippled hills
Sangh on guard, Babri panel spews fire
Ayatollah seal on Atal hand of friendship
Mamata gets even with BJP
PM poised between Pak and deep sea
Burning oil line sears Bihar
Health watchdog for states
George, Paswan for Bengal battle

 
 
POLL-BOUND BUDDHA IN JOB DRIVE 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 12: 
The state Cabinet today decided to recruit for government jobs, sparking a debate over whether this violated the election code of conduct.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee insisted that the government had not violated any election laws.

“We have decided at the Cabinet meeting today to fill up vacancies as a matter of policy only. Actual recruitments will be made after the elections. We have not violated election norms by taking a policy decision at the Cabinet meeting,’’ he said.

The Cabinet meeting on March 21 had decided that recommendations of the sub-committee on appointments would be taken up at today’s meeting, he added.

“I am surprised to find media reports alleging that a special Cabinet meeting has been convened to recruit people for government jobs. This is incorrect as the date for the Cabinet meeting was fixed last month,’’ Bhattacharjee said.

Official sources said the recruitment of 208 policemen for Jadavpur, Purba Jadavpur, Regent Park and Sonarpur police stations and Garia police outpost was approved by the Cabinet today. Recruitments to fill vacancies in health, education, labour and science and technology departments were sanctioned.

The Cabinet also decided to offer a job to the son of government officer Gopal Krishna Roy, who was murdered on E.M. Bypass while returning home to Salt Lake with his wife recently.

Chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen declined to comment on the recruitment decisions.

He, however, said the government had not violated rules by holding a Cabinet meeting after the poll date was announced. “A government has to run its administration till the election process is completed. Holding a Cabinet meeting is part of running the administration.”

Cable TV warning

The Election Commission notice has warned private cable television channels not to show programmes which is likely to incite poll violence.

In a communiqué received today by the state election office, the commission directed private channels operators to observe restraint while reporting on election campaign.

   

 
 
HOWRAH SET FOR LONG POWER WAIT 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 12: 
The power crisis in Howrah will take at least a month to ease but the situation in other south Bengal districts is expected to improve in a few days, power minister Mrinal Banerjee said today.

A 50-MVA transformer has to be installed in Howrah. The transformer is lying in Liluah and engineers are having trouble transporting it because of its size, Banerjee said.

One or two buildings will have to be demolished to install the transformer and their owners have raised objections, he added. “I am hopeful that the problems will be sorted out.”

Blaming DVC for the widespread power cuts in Burdwan, Asansol and Durgapur, the minister said the state electricity board was now ready to supply power to these areas.

Power is supplied in the state by WBSEB, CESC, DVC and DPL and there is clear demarcation of the areas each agency caters to. No agency can supply power outside its own zone, Banerjee said.

“There has been a massive power crisis in Asansol and Burdwan, which are the command areas of DVC,” the minister said.

Despite generating adequate power, WBSEB could not supply to these areas since they were part of DVC’s zone. “Realising the people’s problem, we have no alternative but to break the norm,’’ the minister said.

Banerjee added that he had spoken with the DVC authorities and they had accepted his proposal. An agreement would be signed soon between the DVC and WBSEB. The state electricity board would also supply power to Durgapur, which comes under DPL, the minister added.

Central agencies such as NTPC, DVC and Talcher have drastically reduced power generation, leading to the crisis, he said. But the situation is improving and is expected to return to normal in a couple of days.

   

 
 
MYSTERY FIRES BAFFLE BANDH-CRIPPLED HILLS 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, April 12: 
As the indefinite bandh called by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) entered its fourth day, the Darjeeling district administration was baffled by mystery fires across the hills.

The Bijanbari block development office in Darjeeling sub-division was set ablaze early this morning. “Some unknown miscreants set fire to the panchayat cell of the BDO office at Bijanbari. The blaze started sometime between 3 and 4 am. Though some panchayat documents were destroyed, the fire was doused before it could engulf the entire building,” district magistrate Anil Verma said.

Since Monday, when the bandh started in the three sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, there have been unexplained blazes in state government offices.

Furniture and carpets at the divisional forest manager’s office in Kalimpong were set on fire early on Tuesday. The same night, a forest godown was torched at Lava, also in Kalimpong.

Tyres of a North Bengal State Transport Corporation bus parked near the district magistrate’s office on Kachari road in the heart of Darjeeling town were also set ablaze in the early hours of Tuesday.

Verma said the administration was clueless about the incidents of arson. “We are totally baffled about who is behind these fires and what their intention is. We are yet to ascertain whether these mystery fires are bandh-related,” the district magistrate added.

Verma said a lot of rumours were doing the rounds. “We have been getting several reports of alleged cases of arson for the past few days.

On most occasions, they turned out to be false alarms. But we are taking measures to provide protection to state government properties in the far-flung areas.”

Though the patience of the hill residents is thinning, the GNLF leadership refused to call off the bandh. “We see no reason why we should call off the bandh even if chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee requests us to do so. Let him first make his police arrest all the masterminds (of the attack on Subash Ghising) and seize all the sophisticated weapons stockpiled by the conspirators. Only then will we call off the bandh.

“If the state government is sincere in maintaining peace, they should transfer the home (police) department to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC),” GNLF Darjeeling unit chief Deepak Gurung said. He is also executive councillor of the DGHC.

Reeling under the impact of the bandh, a hill resident said: “Frequent bandhs are killing the tourism and tea industry, the backbone of the hill economy. We see no reason why the GNLF should force such frequent and prolonged bandhs on the common man.

Frequent strikes have also had an adverse effect on the residential schools in the hills. There have been mass withdrawals and new admissions have fallen below par,” a Darjeeling resident said.

   

 
 
SANGH ON GUARD, BABRI PANEL SPEWS FIRE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 12: 
L.K. Advani’s deposition before the Liberhan Commission drew a guarded response from the VHP and unequivocal condemnation from Muslim organisations.

VHP general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore said December 6, 1992 — the day the Babri masjid was demolished — should be inscribed in “golden letters”.

“(The) Indian government’s liberal outlook often passes off for cowardice,” Kishore told reporters. “But December 6 gave Hindus an opportunity to display their sense of self-respect and self-pride. A Belgian journalist told me in admiration that Hindus had proved they were not cowards on that day.”

The acharya said the demolition had three spin-offs. “First, it resulted in a tremendous self-awakening among Hindus. Then it succeeded in reining in our fanatic Muslim brothers who were forever dictating terms to us. That has stopped at least, and they have been put in their place. Lastly, it sent a signal to the international community that Hindus could no longer be taken for granted,” Kishore said.

He said all that the VHP wanted was a “permanent temple in place of the makeshift one” when asked about Advani’s statement that a “de facto temple” was converted into “a de jure temple” after December 6. “But I want to make it clear that the structure that was brought down was not a mosque but a temple and, for all practical purposes, it was a functioning temple,” he said.

The home minister’s explanation had implied that the structure was a temple from the very beginning and effectively ended the VHP’s demand for a “grand temple” on the debris of the mosque.

The Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) — which is insisting that the mosque be rebuilt — described Advani’s testimony as a “classic illustration of Sangh doublespeak”.

Contesting several of Advani’s claims, Lucknow-based BMAC convener Zafar-e-yab Jilani said “the Supreme Court judgment of October 1994 given by a five-judge bench... says that the demolition of the mosque was a shameful activity and a criminal act. It does not call it a disputed structure or a temple.”

Jilani said “...in 1950, the then Uttar Pradesh government, the Faizabad deputy commissioner, superintendent of police and the city magistrate had filed a suit (No. 2). Another suit (No. 25) was filed by Ramchander Das Parmahans who heads the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas. Both suits have categorically stated that the building is a mosque and not a temple and the Union of India is bound by it. The White Paper on Ayodhya brought out by the Centre also referred to it as the Babri mosque.”

According to him, in 1991, the BJP government in the state had moved Allahabad High Court for amending the description of the building. But the application, he said, was withdrawn by the Samajwadi-Bahujan Samaj Party government.

Samajwadi MP Azam Khan said Advani’s deposition read like a drama script. “He treats the country like a theatre in which he is play-acting,” Khan said.

   

 
 
AYATOLLAH SEAL ON ATAL HAND OF FRIENDSHIP 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Tehran, April 12: 
Buoyed by a string of positive meetings with senior Iranian leaders, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today held an hour-long meeting with the supreme leader of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, in an apparent bid to garner all-round support for improved bilateral ties.

Vajpayee followed this up with a credit line offer of $200 million to Iran. This is a huge amount by Indian standards and conveys its sincerity in strengthening ties with Iran.

Vajpayee’s meetings in the last two days with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and senior members of his government had been excellent. The two sides signed the Tehran Declaration, which, among other things, strongly criticises state-sponsored terrorism and expresses the desire to combat the scourge jointly.

The move was clearly aimed at Pakistan, which supports not only militants in Kashmir, but also the Taliban in Afghanistan — an area of concern to Iran.

Before his address to the Iranian Majlis yesterday, Vajpayee was assured by Speaker Mehdi Kharroobi that the Majlis would actively support any initiative by the two governments to improve ties.

However, support from outside the parliament is crucial if any of this is to be translated into real terms. India does seem to have an edge in this regard. Its biggest advantage, perhaps, is that it does not pose any threat to Iran.

The two sides do not have any dispute over boundaries nor are they engaged in a cultural war. Though this was relevant even during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s trip to Tehran in 1993, the last Indian Prime Minister to visit the country, the scenario is brighter this time because of recent developments in both countries.

The May 1998 nuclear tests have elevated India’s status in the region. As a result, the outside world has started taking note not only of Delhi’s growing power in the region, but also its leadership in other areas, particularly information technology. Iran’s earlier desire to play a role in resolving the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has also undergone changes, mainly because of the rise of the Taliban and reforms in Iranian society since Khatami came to power.

That India has managed to improve its relations with the US without losing its identity — demonstrated by its decision to go ahead with the Pokhran II tests despite opposition from key world players — is also at the back of the mind of the Iranian leadership.

Iran can also look to India for help in maintaining security in the Gulf. This is all the more so as Tehran is keen to rework its equation with the West and does not want to be dubbed a rouge state like Iraq.

The two sides are also keen to map a long-term arrangement on the supply of Iranian natural gas to India. This will give the former a major market to sell its product and help the latter meet its energy need. By setting up joint ventures, Delhi can also help Tehran to have access to technology in a number of key sectors and help revive its economy.

   

 
 
MAMATA GETS EVEN WITH BJP 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 12: 
Mamata Banerjee today turned the tables on the BJP by naming for the Midnapore byelections a candidate who had fought twice from the same constituency on a BJP ticket.

Mamata’s announcement today nominating Manoranjan Dutta as the Trinamul Congress candidate for the May 10 bypoll came as a shock to some of her party members who had been aspiring to the seat.

Sources said Mamata, by nominating Dutta, was trying to extract revenge on the BJP for luring away her party’s junior-level workers.

Early this week, Union minister Tapan Sikdar had held a camp in Garia where around 2,000 Trinamul workers had switched over to the BJP. Sources said the party also delayed coming out with its candidates’ list in the hope of netting Trinamul as well as Congress rebels.

Speaking at a public rally in front of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation today, Mamata said Dutta has a greater chance of winning the Midnapore seat this time as a Trinamul candidate in the absence of any charismatic candidate from the CPI as well as the BJP. While the CPI has nominated Prabodh Panda, the BJP has fielded its district president Ramakant Tiwari.

The Midnapore Lok Sabha seat fell vacant after the death of veteran CPI leader Indrajit Gupta.

Dutta occupied the second place in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls from Midnapore in a triangular contest among the CPI, BJP and the Trinamul. The Trinamul nominee, Nitish Sengupta, fared badly and came third in the race. Dutta did better in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, losing by a smaller margin of 28,773 votes to Gupta with Congress candidate Samir Roy getting barely 50,000 votes.

But the state BJP leadership, is not attributing much importance to Dutta’s decision to switch over to the Trinamul.

“His decision will not affect our electoral prospects,” said state BJP vice-president Muzaffar Khan, claiming that thousands of Trinamul workers in Midnapore have joined the BJP to protest against the Congress-Trinamul poll pact.

   

 
 
PM POISED BETWEEN PAK AND DEEP SEA 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
Tehran, April 12: 
India played safe, keeping all options open on the proposed Indo-Iranian gas pipeline.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee signalled that India would favour a deep-sea route, which would preclude Islamabad’s involvement, but did not rule out a land route that would have to pass through Pakistan.

“We must ensure that the project is cost-effective and secure even while keeping all our options open,” Vajpayee told a joint business meeting of Indian and Iranian industrialists this afternoon.

“The feasibility study of the offshore route should be completed expeditiously,” he added.

Vajpayee urged the business community of both countries to help improve bilateral ties. He singled out five sectors where the two countries could enter into fruitful ventures. These include power stations, value-added industries based on downstream hydrocarbons like petrochemicals, refineries and fertilisers.

Vajpayee felt India and Iran could also cooperate in information technology, telecommunications, electronics and pharmaceuticals.

The Prime Minister suggested a preferential trade agreement. He argued in favour of strengthening the North-South transport corridor as it would not only boost trade between the two sides but also provide access to Central Asia.

But the key area of cooperation, said Vajpayee, was energy security and it will remain so in future.

The Prime Minister said ongoing projects on LNG (liquefied natural gas) should be monitored and completed in time.

“This will enable cooperation in the field of energy to bear early fruit. It will create a conducive environment and augur well for the more ambitious projects we have in mind,” he said.

Vajpayee, however, glossed over the overland route, while maintaining that “all options are open”. Indian officials said Iran has been apprised of India’s security concerns about Pakistan. But the land option was not being ruled out completely because the government does not want to face criticism in future for having closed the cheaper route only to score brownie points over Islamabad.

Indian officials argued that technology for the deep-sea route was now available as a similar off-shore project was completed in the Black Sea recently.

The gas pipeline project is estimated to cost around $4 billion.

India and Iran will have to raise the amount from international lending agencies or involve foreign oil companies in its execution.

The land route, though slightly cheaper initially, may prove to be more expensive in the long run as India will have to pay Pakistan around $400 million every year as transit fee.

Moreover, officials said, given the present hostile relations between India and Pakistan, it also poses a security threat to the project.

However, all this may change if a “dramatic breakthrough” is achieved by the two sides on the Kashmir tangle, which would lead to normal bilateral relations between the two countries. Sources said Vajpayee might have kept all options open keeping this scenario in mind.

   

 
 
BURNING OIL LINE SEARS BIHAR 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, April 12: 
A massive fire broke out near a railway track in Bihar today after an oil pipeline leakage, charring villages and setting ablaze an adjoining river bed.

The fire erupted in Indian Oil Corporation’s Barauni-Kanpur product pipeline near a railway track in Raghunathpur, about 70 km from Ara in Bhojpur district.

An Indian Oil press release said three villagers received severe burn injuries while at least 50 were left dazed and psychologically unstable “due to exposure to sudden bursts of flame which went up to a height of 15-20 feet”.

Engineers have reached the site and are repairing the damaged pipeline. Indian Oil said this evening that the flame was under control.

An official said the affected pipeline area contained about 2,500 kilolitres of petrol and most of it had gone waste. However, sources said the leakage was unlikely to disrupt the supply of petrol.

Eyewitnesses said the pipeline from Barauni caught fire around 6 am when a villager allegedly hurled a burning bidi end without noticing the leakage. “Huge columns of smoke belched out of a paddy field and soon the fire engulfed three villages — Bonkot, Shikaria and Yogivad,” said Yudisthir Ojha, a resident of Shikaria.

The villagers rushed out of their homes; at some places groups of villagers stealing petrol fought among themselves, too busy to notice that the blaze was menacingly advancing towards them.

The flames leapt on to the railway track near Raghunathpur. Around 7 am, the Howrah-bound Poorva Express and the Magadh Express going to Patna were scheduled to pass through.

But the trains were stopped midway. The Brahmaputra Mail and the Dadar-Guwahati Express were also stopped and diverted through Gaya and Barauni-Varanasi.

Ramesh Kumar, Indian Oil’s manager, operations, for Patna, said foam and dry chemical powder were sprayed to control the blaze. Indian Oil sources said the pipe was 33 years old and the cosmetic repairs made earlier had failed to keep it in good health.

Sudhir Kumar, district magistrate of Bhojpur, said two people had received severe burn injuries and many people developed breathing problems. “The situation is not grim but if the smoke keeps blowing in one direction, it could be a problem,” he said.

An Indian Oil official at Barauni said the pipeline was filled with petrol when the fire broke out. “There was heavy leakage in the pipeline at two places. The valves have been switched off but the fire has spread,” he said.

The leak, which started at 6 am, soon spread further. It flowed down the Cher river and into the villages of Bonkot, Shikaria and Yogiva.

The oil was flowing down from a high pipeline and it soon spread to the railway station area too. After the fire broke out, the leak spread fast into the villages and the river.

The dancing flames engulfed a part of the railway line and damaged the tracks. The blaze engulfed the river bed as well.

   

 
 
HEALTH WATCHDOG FOR STATES 
 
 
FROM AMIT UKIL
 
New Delhi, April 12: 
A joint meeting of the National Human Rights Commission and the ministry of health and family welfare has recommended setting up public health regulatory authorities in all states and a national public health advisory body to regulate public health practices, which are in “considerable disarray”.

The authorities and advisory body, which will also monitor implementation of public health programmes, are among a series of recommendations aimed at improving access to health care and services, nutrition and tightening tobacco control.

“Public health is in a state of considerable neglect. The reasons...do not prominently lie in the lack of infrastructure and means,” said NHRC chairman Justice J.S. Verma, who was at the helm of the deliberations.

“We have found that problems can be tackled at low cost. But whatever (medicine and material) was supplied was not fully utilised. What we need is greater commitment and motivation to replace the casual approach of those involved,” he added.

The authorities will be on the lines of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, explained Dr Srinath Reddy, professor of cardiology at AIIMS and a member of NHRC’s core group on public health. “They will respond to the recognised needs for wider development through multisectoral co-ordination.”

The proposals include enhancing capacities at the national and regional levels for inter-disciplinary learning and research on linkages between public health and human rights. “The WHO will be a facilitator in building a synergy between law and public health and will form a network for this purpose,” the representatives proposed at the end of the two-day meeting.

As lack of opportunities for people’s participation in the development of health care systems is a human rights violation, the meeting proposed the “decentralisation of authority in health care systems through Panchayati Raj and other local bodies”. To this end, the ministries and departments concerned will develop indicators for progressive decentralisation.

The absence of adequate quality health-care personnel at the primary and secondary level have resulted in lack of access to basic health care, which is a human rights violation. The meeting thus recommended that “the NHRC facilitates standardisation and quality assurance in the training of various cadres of health-care personnel”.

This will be achieved by restructuring undergraduate education for health-care providers to make it more public health-oriented with regard to knowledge, motivation and skills.

“Professional bodies like the Medical Council of India will be asked to change the content and manner in which the education will be delivered,” the representatives said.

The proposals also include developing state-specific plans for delivery of emergency care to ensure access for everyone during emergencies.

Clinical guidelines for common diseases and disorders should be developed by the Medical Council to regulate medical practices. The council should complete this process within a year, the proposal adds.

   

 
 
GEORGE, PASWAN FOR BENGAL BATTLE 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, April 12: 
Mamata Banerjee will have to match her lung-power with not only the Left leaders but also George Fernandes and Ram Vilas Paswan.

The BJP, after acting stingy on seat-sharing deals in many states, today woke up to the advantages of alliances — at least in Bengal — and roped in the former defence minister and Union communications minister to campaign in the state.

The price for the deal: 14 seats to George Fernandes’ Samata Party in the state. A few seats will also be given to Paswan’s six-month-old Lok Jana Shakti Party and the Janata Dal (United), sources said.

“It will be an NDA campaign against the Left Front and the Trinamul-Congress combine. Fernandes and Paswan are good orators, especially at election gatherings,” said a BJP leader, happy at the “mutually beneficial” deal.

For Tehelka-tainted Fernandes, the Bengal battleground will provide an ideal setting to get even with Mamata who had been among the first to press for his resignation after the sting operation.

To expose the Trinamul-Congress’ “opportunist” alliance, the NDA is using the plank: “Neither A team (Left), nor B team (Mamata used to dub the Congress as the B team of the CPM), nor C team, but elect NDA.”

State communications minister Tapan Sikdar, Samata Party general secretary Shambu Shrivastwa and acting president of Samata Party’s Bengal unit, Sampa Das, signed the electoral pact today.

Expressing satisfaction at the seat-sharing arrangement, Shrivastwa said: “We are confident we will open our account in Bengal.” The NDA will ask for votes to get rid of the Left Front so that it can develop the state, he added.

Ministry defence

The defence ministry today claimed that the Tehelka website’s allegation that former defence minister George Fernandes had lied on the Armoured Recovery Vehicle deal was baseless.

The ministry said the reports were “libellous” in content. It asked the web portal to place information regarding defence deals before the Commission of Inquiry and the Army Court of Inquiry.

   
 

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