Triple blasts spark poll-eve alarm
Key players place faith in Kali, Calcuttans
High stakes behind school turf tussle
For a CM young at heart, clean and charismatic
Awareness is more than a chore, it’s fun
A drink well-laced with disease
Pure-blood panel in place
Neglect plagues Netaji cradle
ILO contract for state film centre
Rabin Deb’s ’96 election upheld

 
 
TRIPLE BLASTS SPARK POLL-EVE ALARM 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
Dhan Debi Khanna Road, Beleghata; 9.30 am. A ramshackle hut bursts into flames and the silence of the neighbourhood is shattered by the sound of a massive blast. A man leaps out of the broken door, his body in flames, flailing and screaming in pain.

On Wednesday morning, this set the tone for a string of poll-related violent incidents across the city, sparking fear and panic, despite the reassuring voice of the police. “Our message to the people is to stay calm,” said deputy commissioner of police (headquarters), Raj Kanojia, adding: “The police are totally equipped to handle all situations and ensure peace in the city on polling day.”

The man in flames was Swapan Bose, a bomb-maker who, by his own admission, had been “employed” by a local CPM leader to add to the party’s “armoury” (picture on Page 17). Barely able to speak after the blast, Bose told newsmen in a frail voice: “This is my profession, and I had been asked by Dipu Sarkar (local party leader Dipak Sarkar) to make bombs for election day. I was careless and threw my bidi carelessly on a pile of explosives.”

Despite firm denials by the CPM candidate from Beleghata, Manab Mukherjee, this was enough to trigger major protests by Trinamul workers, who fanned out in different directions and blocked roads. From Narkeldanga Main Road, through Beleghata Main Road and Rajabazar, Mamata’s brigade stopped all vehicles, put up barricades and disrupted traffic for nearly two hours.

An agitated Ajay Sanyal, Trinamul candidate from Beleghata, said this was only a “small dose” of what the Marxists had in store for the city on Thursday. “I shall send a fax to Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill and draw his attention to how the CPM is trying to rig the polls.”

Within half an hour of the incident, two explosions rocked the nearby Jorabagan area. The first damaged the Shiv Sena’s office in Posta, the second blew up a few feet from the car of Sanjoy Bakshi, Trinamul candidate for Jorabagan.

In retaliation to the blast at the Shiv Sena office, a large number of BJP workers squatted on Kalakar Street for about half an hour. It was only after persuasion from the police that the Shiv Sena supporters allowed the traffic to flow.

“We had to cordon off the entire office, provide pickets and even stage a flag march to reassure the activists before they decided to see reason,” said deputy commissioner of police (central), Zulfiquar Hasan.

While Shiv Sena workers said that they did not know whether it was the Trinamul or the CPM which had targeted them, Hasan said that hoodlums from across the political spectrum had got “active” on poll eve.

Barely had the dust settled in the Posta area when Sanjoy Bakshi escaped an attempt on his life. While his car was passing down Pathuriaghata Street, a bomb was hurled at his car, missing the vehicle by barely a few feet. Though no one was injured, some of Bakshi’s supporters ran after the miscreants, who managed to escape.

Police said that this may have been in retaliation to an attack on a CPM election office in the area by Trinamul supporters on Tuesday night, which left the structure severely damaged. But the cops are taking no chances. Extensive raids were carried out in different parts of the city and its adjoining areas, which yielded several kg of explosives, besides arms and ammunition. Most of the seizures were made in areas like Beniapukur, Tiljala, Topsia, Tangra and Kasba.

“Today’s raids will go a long way in curbing violence on election day,” assured inspector-general of police, South Bengal, Ranjit Mohanty.

   

 
 
KEY PLAYERS PLACE FAITH IN KALI, CALCUTTANS 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
It’s the day of reckoning, especially for the big players in the city, who have spent the last month wooing the electorate. How will the more prominent among them spend Thursday, while Calcutta goes to the polls?

The highest common factor is the tendency to resign themselves to God and fate. Some have braved rain and sun, some have relied on the party machinery, but on Thursday, they’ll have little to do but wait and watch, hope and pray.

Tapas Pal, Trinamul Congress candidate for the Alipore seat, and wife Nandini will be up from dawn. The first thing they will do is seek the blessings of Goddess Kali. “We will pray that not a single drop of blood is shed throughout the day anywhere,” Nandini said. After a light breakfast, they will go to the local booth to cast their votes. Then they will set out separately to visit the various booths in his constituency.

At the other end of the city, Jyoti Basu, a seasoned campaigner, politician and former chief minister, will spend the day at home, save for going to the booth to cast his vote and a likely visit in the evening to the party office on Alimuddin Street.

In place of deities, Basu has faith in the party and the people. Accompanied by wife Kamal, he will be at Prakash Bhavan at 10.30 to press the button.

After keeping a watchful eye in Midnapore for the first part of the day, Mamata Banerjee will be back in the city around 11.30 to support her candidate at Mitra School, on Harish Mukherjee Road. The rest of her plans are fluid, but she will be keeping in constant touch with all her party candidates.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could not be contacted. But wife Meera said she and her daughter Sachetana, who will be exercising her franchise for the first time in an Assembly election, will vote in the early hours at Patha Bhavan school, in Ballygunge.

Kali seems to be the favourite among most candidates. Somen Mitra will leave home after seeking the blessings of the goddess, whose pictures adorn the walls of his bedroom. He plans to cast his vote on the dot at 7 am. The remainder of the day will be spent touring the constituency.

For once, the city’s problems will not be of prime importance to mayor Subrata Mukherjee, as the candidate for the Chowringhee seat sets out at 7 am.

To keep himself free from tension, he will first spend some time with the younger members of his household, before visiting the booths in the area. “From time to time, I will have to contact my mother, as she worries a lot,” Mukherjee said.

Hoping for her maiden entry into the Assembly, Bowbazar candidate Nayna Bandopadhyay will invoke the goddess and seek the blessings of her mother-in-law. She will cast her vote at 7 am at Calcutta Boys’ School. Husband Sudip will, however, press the button around 11, as he will have to escort his 84-year-old mother to the booth.

Actress Madhabi Mukhopadhyay will visit her booth first, before going to the others she is contesting in Jadavpur. “I won’t be thinking about the outcome on Thursday. I believe in the people and have faith in what they decide,” said Madhabi, hoping to be the giant-killer of 2001.

   

 
 
HIGH STAKES BEHIND SCHOOL TURF TUSSLE 
 
 
BY DEVADEEP PUROHIT
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
These days, Patha Bhavan looks more like a battlefield, less like the premier school it’s supposed to be. The parents of Patha Bhavan’s primary school students have taken their agitation against the secondary school management to the streets. Their point of protest: The secondary school management’s sudden decision to introduce tests for children from the primary school seeking admission to Class V.

But behind the scenes, a bigger battle is being fought between the primary and secondary schools. One that involves big money and real-estate rivalry. “The introduction of admission tests for Class V is a pressure tactic to label the primary school a separate entity. It’s also a means for raising quick money for the secondary school. And it’s aimed at taking sole possession of the Merlin Park plot,” alleges a member of the primary school management.

The Patha Bhavan turf tussle is being fought against the backdrop of a 43-cottah plot on 8, Merlin Park, earmarked for construction of the primary, secondary and intermediate sections of the school. A protracted legal battle was fought over the plot, that originally belonged to U.N. Brahmachary, for around two decades. According to sources, some powerful city developers, keen on the prime plot, backed one of the tenants in a long-drawn-out legal battle. Recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that the state government’s land acquisition department or the school should pay a compensation of Rs. 2.5 crore to the occupants for acquiring the land.

The secondary school management committee is confident of mobilising the compensation sum. “We have a 55-cottah plot near the EM Bypass which we can sell. The amount can also be easily raised by entering into joint ventures with private parties,” says Santosh Bhattacharya, president of the secondary school management committee, who insists that “the primary school has no locus standi, as it is not recognised by the Board”.

The primary school has called for an integrated management committee. But Bhattacharya has, apparently, ruled this out, unless the primary school agrees to only two seats in the committee without voting rights. “If they don’t agree to our proposal, we may start a primary section of our own,” warns Bhattacharya.

Sadhan Gupta, his counterpart in the primary school, retorts: “For 30 years, wards of primary school teachers have never paid fees in the secondary school and vice-versa. There have been no admission tests for Class V. All major functions have been organised jointly. How can they suddenly say the schools are different?”

   

 
 
FOR A CM YOUNG AT HEART, CLEAN AND CHARISMATIC 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
Sambit Pal is a 21-year-old political science student of Presidency College. The IIrd-yr student is going to vote on Thursday for the first time. He hopes to be ruled by someone who is:

HANDS-ON: A CM who’ll visit the constituency regularly

VOCAL: Someone who can shout for us in the Assembly

CLEAN: Not corrupt, puts people above party or self

TRANSPARENT: We should know what our leader is doing

SMART: Someone who is educated and presentable

DILPREET SINGH is also studying political science. The IIIrd-yr student of Jadavpur University has voted once before, and is raring to make her way to the polling booth once again. She is sure she wants her leader to be:

YOUNG-AT-HEART: Someone who will try to understand the youth

INTERACTIVE: Talk to the citizens on a day-to-day basis

CONSIDERATE: Fight eve-teasing with a firm hand, make streets safe again for girls

UNBIASED: There should be no party politics in college

SENSIBLE: Ban bandhs, which harm the economy and achieve nothing

SHEETAL GUPTA is a final-year B.Com student at South City College. This is the second time the 21-year-old will vote. She feels it is about time West Bengal had someone in charge who can be:

CONFIDENT: Arrogant is one thing, self-assured means the ability to do what you believe in

CONSISTENT: It’s time we saw someone who can at least try and live up to pre-poll promises

QUALIFIED: Education is essential to address the needs of the educated.

TRENDY: An awareness of trends and changes is the need of the hour. So we want someone who will encourage things like the IT boom

BUSINESS-SAVVY: Bengal is begging for a leader who will do something to stop the industrial decline. We have so many natural resources, we just need change in policies that hinder growth of the economy

TATHAGATA CHOWDHURY is a frequently-spotted face on the city stage, as well as on your TV. The IIIrd year student at South Calcutta Law College will exercise his fundamental right for the first time. He thinks the person in the hot seat should be:

CHARISMATIC: We need someone who is a good communicator and is media-savvy

ALL-ROUNDER: Should be as comfortable with cultural affairs as with commerce and trade.

YOUNG: Preferably under 40, to deal directly with the youth, instead of through red-tape and unions

FILM-FRIENDLY: Pay greater attention to the film industry, particularly the condition of the studios

FAIR: No rigging in booths

HIMANGSHU CHATURVEDI, IIIrd year student of B.Com at St Xavier’s, is also studying for his CA. On Tuesday, he’ll put his finger where his mouth is — to vote for the first time. His dream occupant of Writers’ Buildings is:

POLISHED: It’s time for a little bit of decency and seriousness at the top

ACTION-ORIENTED: Since all parties have the same agenda, we need someone who can walk the talk

MATURE: Someone from a stable party, or at least someone who is responsible enough to handle a coalition

SINCERE: No tall promises, please. All we want is an honest attempt at improving basic facilities, such as water supply and electricity

BOLSTER BENGAL: We are losing out because of the existing education policies. Reintroduce English from the beginning, subsidise primary education...

   

 
 
AWARENESS IS MORE THAN A CHORE, IT’S FUN 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
In the by-lanes of Dhakuria, Kamalika Kayal and her friends, dressed in smocks larger than themselves, plant saplings with loving care. Their laughs are punctuated by shrieks, as a classmate sprays them, and not the shrubs, with a water hose.

For the students of Binodini Girls’ School, social work is more than a responsibility. It’s fun.

While the younger kids start at home, keeping their school green and clean, older girls spread out to nearby slums and to a local school for the challenged.

The 63-year-old public school caters to mainly lower-middle class girls from South 24-Parganas. Despite a perennial funds crunch, they have started a regular social awareness campaign with the girls.

“About three years ago, the Indian Chamber of Commerce came to talk to us about the Better Calcutta contest. We realised that apart from education, we have another responsibility... to create social awareness,” explains principal Dr Manashi Dey.

So, the first project Binodini adopted was a malaria-awareness campaign in the slums.

“There was a huge problem with malaria that year,” recalls project coordinator and biology teacher Tapati Banerjee. The girls went to the neighbouring slums, with posters on how to prevent malaria.

They soon tasted success. “Malaria has really gone down in the area,” grins Samriddhi. Though the 18-year-old has just written her Higher Secondary exams, she and her friends came to school on Wednesday to help out with work, which has just begun this session.

“When we were in school, we had to balance our time. But now, we can devote all our time to social projects,” says Shalmi.

The malaria campaign has been extended to include an education campaign. The girls speak to the dwellers of the Dhakuria slum, young and old, about the importance of a formal education.

“So many people in the slums may know how to write their name, but they don’t know how to read or write,” says Priyanka, holding a placard with a beautiful classroom full of happy students, painted by one of her classmates.

This is in addition to the mass education classes that are held regularly in the evening, run by the school itself. Students of all ages filter in for the free classes, some of them conducted by the day students.

“Class XI and XII girls take maths, English and Bengali classes quite regularly,” says the principal.

Regular trips are paid to a school for those suffering from cerebral palsy. The girls sing songs with them, or just hang around to give them company. This year, they plan to include visits to an old-age home.

The huge grey school building, with over 1,100 students in the day section alone, is not easy to maintain, with the staff employed kept at a bare minimum.

“The girls pitch in, sweeping the floors, dusting, making sure garbage is not lying around,” continues Tapati Banerjee.

Srimayee Basu, a student of Class IX, doesn’t go out for field work, but does what she can at school. “It is my responsibility to help others,” smiles the 15-year-old. She has started helping out her mother at home, too. “Ma is very pleased, and so is Ma’am. It makes me happy to see them happy.”

   

 
 
A DRINK WELL-LACED WITH DISEASE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
The law remains unenforced and the promise is yet to be fulfilled.

Selling of coloured sherbet was banned by both the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and the police, to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases. Yet, sherbet stalls are doing brisk business around Lalbazar police headquarters and the Corporation office at Esplanade, while the authorities choose to turn a blind eye.

The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, dating back to 1954, has hardly ever been executed. Only a series of amendments has followed since then.

“These sherbet and soft drink stalls don’t have licences and are run illegally,” said member, mayor-in-council (health), Javed Ahmed Khan. But, Khan, too, appeared to be in a spot, when asked why the Corporation chose to remain a mute spectator and allow hawkers to mint money during the summer.

“We will revive our drive against illegal hawkers by the end of May,” Khan said. But the Corporation will not check the quality of the drinks sold on the pavements, as these are no different from other unlicensed fast-food stalls, added Khan. “Some samples of sherbet and soft drinks sold at roadside stalls were found laced with industrial dyes,” said a Corporation health officer. According to him, though the report has been submitted, his seniors at the civic body are yet to show interest in it.

Most Corporation officials think that evicting the roadside stalls is impossible, especially after the face-off between Mamata Banerjee and mayor Subrata Mukherjee during the second phase of Operation Sunshine. The drives were stopped overnight and hawkers were back on the pavements.

“So much effort went into evicting the hawkers... And then, one fine morning, they were welcomed back. Their number is increasing by the day. My men can only request them to spare a little space for the pedestrians. It would take on a political colour if we are harsh with them,” said a senior police officer.

City doctors, too, admitted that spurious sherbet sold on the roadside are sources of several water-borne diseases. Viral hepatitis is one of these. “Most of the soft drinks are contaminated and the colour used in the syrups is not edible,” said D.N. Guha Majumdar, a gastro-enterologist. A doctor at the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Beleghata admitted that they handle several cases of jaundice and typhoid during summer and “the source of most of them is roadside food stalls.”

   

 
 
PURE-BLOOD PANEL IN PLACE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
Special measures are likely to be introduced to prevent the transmission of dangerous viruses to patients who require frequent blood transfusion. An inquiry committee, set up by the state government after several thalassaemic children have been detected HIV positive, is finalising its report and recommendations.

The Telegraph had reported on February 16 that a 10-year-old thalassaemic child had been found infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The parents vouched that the blood he requires for transfusion every three weeks had been procured from government blood banks.

A month later, the electronic media showed a six-year-old thalassaemic boy, who too had been infected with HIV, and interviewed his parents. They asserted that the blood given to the child every month was procured from the blood bank of NRS Medical College and Hospital.

The health department then constituted a panel to find out how the children were infected with the fatal virus, especially after a Supreme Court directive in 1995 that all blood collected for transfusion must be tested by blood banks for Hepatitis B, malaria, venereal disease and HIV.

Headed by the director of the Central Blood Bank, Dr A.K. Bhowmik, the committee includes Prof Moloy Ghosh, head of the department of haematology, NRS Medical College and Dr Subhas Hazra, assistant professor of medicine, Calcutta Medical College and Hospital. The panel, according to Dr Bhowmik, had on two occasions called the parents of the seven thalassaemic children so far known to have been infected by the AIDS virus. But only three turned up. “We will have another sitting after the elections.”

Meanwhile, virologists will be consulted to check the feasibility of introducing special tests, like the P24 antigen, which reduces the “window period” or delay in detecting whether a blood unit has HIV to seven days. The conventional Elisa method being currently used at blood banks detects the antibodies of the virus six to eight weeks after a person is infected, during which time he or she could be donating blood.

And even as countries observed World Thalassaemia Day on Tuesday in solidarity with thousands of people, mostly children, struck by this genetic blood disorder, the parents of these patients reel under the shortage of blood.

The elections have taken a toll on the holding of voluntary donation camps by various youth organisations, the members of which were busy in campaigning. Stocks at all government-run blood banks are very low, while mothers like Arati Majumdar of Ballygunge Station Road run from pillar to post to procure blood to save her daughter.

A few NGOs are responding. Medical Bank volunteers will be present at the Sovabazar and Dum Dum Metro stations for a week from Tuesday, holding banners near the ticket booths and offering to get the blood grouping of passengers done. “We will tell them about the blood crisis and urge them to donate,” said D. Ashis, secretary of the Bank.

The names, addresses and blood groups of the passengers will be listed so that the passengers can be called on in times of need by thalassaemic children.

   

 
 
NEGLECT PLAGUES NETAJI CRADLE 
 
 
BY DEBASISH CHATTOPADHYAY
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
The ancestral home of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at Kodalia, in South 24-Parganas, is falling apart for want of maintenance. The two-storeyed house, built by Netaji’s great-grandfather, is more than 200 years old. Now included in the Rajpur-Sonarpur municipality, the house does not have an electricity connection and a major part of it is covered with creepers and weeds.

The house was once a meeting place of nationalists during the pre-Independence era. Netaji would put up there for long periods and attend the family Durga puja. His great-grandfather came to Kodalia from Burdwan in 1580. Janakinath Bose, Netaji’s father, was born in Mahenagar, where he worked as a teacher before shifting to Cuttack.

Raghu Bose, vice-chairman of the Rajpur-Sonarpur municipality and a nephew of Netaji who lives in a wing of the building, said: “The house has many shareholders. The portion belonging to Netaji is looked after by his family and a few years ago, one of his relatives took the initiative to renovate the house. Now, the municipality is trying to maintain it.”

In 1952, then Union railway minister Humayun Kabir renamed Changripota station as Subhasgram, but no steps were taken to preserve the building.

“We have appealed to the government several times to renovate and maintain the house, but nothing has been done to date. Fed up, the local people joined hands with the municipality to take up renovation work in 1996, the birth centenary of Netaji. Most of the rooms remain locked through the year and are thrown open to the public only on special occasions, such as January 23 and 26. But the yearly Durga Puja is held without fail,” said Piyus Das, secretary of Netaji Krishti Kendra.

The library, built by Netaji’s father and run by local people at present, also needs funds for its maintenance. “We have arranged a permanent exhibition on Netaji but don’t have the resources to maintain it,” Das added.

“Instead of preserving this spot of historical importance, Netaji’s descendants are busy passing the buck to each other for the decay,” said Satindranath Chakraborty, an octogenarian resident of the area.

The Centre, too, had promised help, but five years have lapsed since then. The government’s sole achievement has been to put up some sign boards to direct visitors to a house engulfed in shrubs, said Chakraborty.

   

 
 
ILO CONTRACT FOR STATE FILM CENTRE 
 
 
BY DEVADEEP PUROHIT
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
There’s good news for one of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s pet ‘cultural’ projects in town. Roop Kala Kendro, in Salt Lake, is set to win a prized contract from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to make documentary films on child labour. The initial proposal from the Geneva-based body has reached the government and ILO officials are scheduled to visit the city soon to tie up the project, which may add up to Rs 40 crore.

“It’s the first time India is being considered for making such documentaries for international agencies. After this, some World Health Organisation (WHO) productions may well be outsourced at Roop Kala Kendro,” said Arun Bhattacharya, special secretary, information and cultural affairs, government of West Bengal.

Officials at the information and cultural affairs department are “euphoric” at the prospect of Roop Kala Kendro emerging as a film-making hub of the East. But sources in the department were quick to warn that the government will have to react, and fast, if the Kendro is to attract major international projects. “The potential is immense. It’s up to the government to convert the opportunity into reality. Agencies like the ILO will not tolerate any delay at our end. They will just seek out other players,” says an official.

Roop Kala Kendro was conceived during 1990-91, with active support from the likes of Satyajit Ray. Formally inaugurated in January 1999, the centre, set up as part of an international cooperation agreement between India and Italy, had two objectives — making educational video films on socially relevant topics and running a digital film training centre for young talent in the state. As part of the agreement, the Italian government’s education ministry will provide state-of-the-art equipment and training facilities for resource persons of the institute, while the West Bengal government, as its nodal agency, will take care of the physical infrastructure.

The Kendro has two offices, one in Salt Lake and the other in Barzio, Italy. A 10-member team from the institute has completed four months’ training in Italy and the initial consignment of hi-tech machines, costing around Rs 10 crore, including OB van, editing machines, computers, cameras have landed in the city. Once the first phase of construction is over, the equipment will be installed in Roop Kala Kendro, constructed on a two-acre plot in Salt Lake. “The first phase of work, including a studio, an editing room and the administrative office, will be completed by June 2001. We will start the All India Council of Technical Education-approved diploma course on animation, documentary and feature-film making by August 2002,” said Bhattacharya. Initially, 30 students will be admitted for the year-long programme.

   

 
 
RABIN DEB’S ’96 ELECTION UPHELD 
 
 
BY OUR LEGAL REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 9: 
Calcutta High Court on Wednesday declared that the election of Rabin Deb from Ballygunge Assembly constituency in 1996 was valid. The ruling, on the eve of the 2001 Assembly polls, will benefit Deb, who is contesting from the same constituency against Trinamul Congress’ Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar this time.

While delivering the judgment, Justice K.J. Sengupta rejected the petition filed by the then Congress candidate, Dibyendu Biswas, who lost to Deb by 1,482 votes. Biswas had alleged that Deb was illegally declared elected from the Ballygunge seat and the returning officer, Narayan Bhowmik, had “committed many wrongs” during the counting of votes.

However, the judge criticised Bhowmik’s action and observed that the official was negligent in his duty. The returning officer had not kept 11,212 ballot papers in order, he said. The judge also directed the chief electoral officer not to appoint Bhowmik a returning officer in future elections. He also suggested that departmental proceedings be initiated against Bhowmik and steps be taken against those found responsible for the destruction or misplacement of the unused ballots.

The judgment created a stir. Trinamul leaders were amazed that the judge had found the act of the returning officer illegal and the election of Deb legal.

   
 

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