Double suspense for Pervez host
Haldia inches closer to lifeline
Asim’s wall between shoppers and malls
A question two countries can’t answer
60 feared downed
Calcutta Weather

 
 
DOUBLE SUSPENSE FOR PERVEZ HOST 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, June 23: 
Will President Musharraf do what President Clinton did not? If those in charge of the Pakistani leader’s security agree, Pervez Musharraf could stay overnight at Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 14, the day he is scheduled to land in India on his mission to “change history”. The summit with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been fixed for the next day at Agra.

Another grey area is whether the reception being planned by the Pakistan envoy would be used to set up a meeting with the Hurriyat leaders who have requested Vajpayee and Musharraf for a summit-eve dialogue.

According to a tentative schedule, Musharraf, who will be here from July 14 to 16, will spend the first day in Delhi, the second in Agra and round off his trip with a visit to the dargah of Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer.

A team from Pakistan, comprising protocol officials and security personnel, is expected to arrive in Delhi shortly to finalise the itinerary.

Indications suggest that President K.R. Narayanan will invite his Pakistani guest to stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan. If Pakistani security officials give the go-ahead, Musharraf will spend the night at Narayanan’s residence on Raisina Hills.

Few heads of states or visiting dignitaries have, in the recent past, accepted the offer to stay at the President’s house. President Bill Clinton, too, had preferred to stay at the Maurya Sheraton hotel during his ice-breaking visit in March last year.

The event that could gather political significance is the civic reception being planned by the country’s high commissioner in Delhi, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi. Though neither Vajpayee nor Musharraf have so far responded to the Hurriyat’s request for a meeting, the one place where the Kashmiri leaders could get an opportunity to call on the Pakistan President is at the reception.

Musharraf will attend it if he can squeeze out time from his packed programme.

The general and his wife are expected to reach Delhi on the morning of July 14. A welcome ceremony will be held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt. In between his meetings with Indian leaders, Musharraf will drive down to Rajghat and also visit his ancestral haveli in the old city. President Narayanan will host a banquet in the evening.

Next morning, Musharraf will leave for Agra for the summit with Vajpayee. It is not clear yet whether the two leaders will go together or use the travel time for last-minute discussions with advisers. Vajpayee and Musharraf are expected to spend most of their time in Agra in discussion.

Delegation-level talks could be held as well, depending on the outcome of the summit meeting. Indications are that the summit and the dialogue between the two sides could spill over to the next day and may continue till about lunch time. At the end of the talks, the two sides can come out with either a joint statement or issue individual press statements giving their own spin to the outcome of the discussions.

After lunch on July 16, Musharraf will leave for Jaipur by helicopter and then proceed by road to Ajmer. He will return to Islamabad later in the day.

Pant briefs PM

The Centre’s interlocutor on Kashmir, K.C. Pant, briefed Vajpayee this evening on the “ground realities” in the Valley. The meeting is significant in view of the Hurriyat’s request for a summit-eve meeting with the Prime Minister.

Asked if Pant’s briefing was to help Vajpayee decide whether or not to meet Hurriyat leaders, government sources sounded ambivalent: “You can read between the lines. The Prime Minister sought a briefing from Pant a day after the Hurriyat’s request. All we can say is that the timing of the meeting is significant.”

   

 
 
HALDIA INCHES CLOSER TO LIFELINE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 23: 
The 23-year-old Haldia Petroleum saga is finally reaching its denouement: with just a week to go before consultant KPMG Peat Marwick submits its report, the Centre and the Bengal government appear ready to shake hands on a deal that will bring in Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) as the fourth partner in the state’s tortured dream project.

“We will come up with a decision that all of you will like,” petroleum minister Ram Naik said today. “We are waiting for the KPMG report. We will examine the report and take a positive approach towards the project.”

Naik went into a huddle with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen, finance minister Asim Dasgupta, and West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation chairman Somnath Chatterjee.

The petroleum minister informed them that an in-principle decision had been taken to allow the IOC to participate in the project — the talisman of Bengal’s industrial renaissance. But a few glitches would first have to be sorted out, the most important being the huge debt that has clouded prospects for viable operation of the Rs 5,170 crore project.

Naik said the debt burden — which has skewed the current debt-equity ratio to 5.5: 1 — would have to be restructured in line with the recommendations of KPMG.

“The Centre is anxious to save the project from its current financial mess,” said Naik. “The Bengal government, the Tatas and the Chatterjee Group have pumped huge funds into the project. We do not want to see these funds go down the drain.”

The international consultant appointed by IOC to carry out a due diligence report on Haldia Petro, will submit its report by June 30.

The chief minister said: “We expect something positive on HPL by the end of next week.”

The Haldia Petro project was conceived in 1978 and the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) cleared the financial package in 1996. Work on the project began in January 1997 and it went on stream in March 2000.

“Being a new project, it is loaded with interest. The long gestation has meant that the project cost has changed since the time it was first conceived. Petroleum prices have gone through the roof during this period. The interest burden has to come down in order to make the project viable,” Naik said.

Commenting on IOC’s rationale for participating in HPL, Naik said if Gas Authority of India Limited could enter the field of petrochemicals so could IOC. “It is a related field for IOC,” he added. Industry sources said it had become clear from today’s meeting that the Centre was keen to help bail out Haldia Petro.

   

 
 
ASIM’S WALL BETWEEN SHOPPERS AND MALLS 
 
 
BY PALLAB BHATTACHARYA
 
Calcutta, June 23: 
Retailers in the city were in a state of shock after being slapped with Asim Dasgupta’s 20 per cent luxury tax on the imported products they sell.

Owners of retail arcades, who say that almost 60 per cent of the merchandise they stock comprises imported products, were agonising over the implications of the tariff wall which they feared would stifle the prospects of a nascent retail boom in the city.

“The sliver of a hope that had been raised by the surge of enquiries from the big-ticket retail chains could simply fade away if the tax is imposed,” said a retailer.

Most retailers felt that the tax would divide the consumers into two camps: the price-conscious customer who would dive into the grey market which is almost certain to thrive, and the quality-conscious buyer who would buy the products in Delhi or Mumbai.

That will not only kill the magic of the malls but also nix whatever hopes Dasgupta may have of ratcheting up revenues.

Some consumers termed the “luxury” tax a misnomer. “How can you call cycles and toys luxury items? By taxing only imported goods, are we saying that when the same items are made here they become non-luxury necessities?” asked a shopper.

Dasgupta said the rationale for the tax was to “protect our industries”, which were threatened because of “uneven competition due to in-discriminate liberalisation”.

But retailers pointed out that many of the targeted goods were not made by “our industries” but by manufacturers based in other states. “If the finance minister meant Indian producers, it is the job of the Central government, not the state, to protect them,” said a retailer.

Others questioned the efficacy of the protection. “Though the government boasts of protecting the industry from the onslaught of imports, it is not going to help anyone,” said Feroz Ali, president of the Confederation of West Bengal Trade Association.

Ultimately, retailers felt, the customer would be shortchanged — most didn’t care whether the product came from Pune or Portugal as long as it was strong on quality and was priced right.

Traders said that over the past few years, there had been a distinct change in consumer preference with many opting for imported products, particularly in cosmetics, garments, electronics and gift-item sectors. “With the imposition of the luxury tax, they will be costlier. This will drive away the consumers,” said Ali.

M.K. Belani, director of Metro Shopping Plaza, said the people in Calcutta were price-sensitive and they would withdraw from the market at the slightest provocation. “It is still too early to make a proper judgement. I think the government ought to give the tax a second thought,” he said.

Gautam Jatia, general manager of Landmark, said the decision was quite unexpected at a time when business was pretty bad.

Most retailers felt that the grey market would thrive, but Dasgupta remained unfazed. “My officers know how to stop the sale of these products in the grey market,” he said.

Ali said the confederation would make a presentation before the finance minister on the issue and urge him to withdraw the tax.

Tuition ban row

The proposal to ban private tuition by government teachers has generated heat within the Left Front. At a stormy meeting with a CPM-backed teachers’ union today, several front partners opposed the move.

   

 
 
A QUESTION TWO COUNTRIES CAN’T ANSWER 
 
 
BY SUMIT DAS GUPTA
 
Calcutta, June 23: 
Some people do not want Peter Bleach to walk free. For them, the British arms expert, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Purulia armsdrop case, is a man who knows too much.

It’s been 11 months since the five Latvian crew, co-sentenced in the Purulia armsdrop case, were granted remission of life sentences on humanitarian grounds by the President of India. But the lone Briton continues to languish behind the bars of Presidency Jail, where he’s been since January 1, 1996.

It’s been 10 months since Peter’s mother Oceana Bleach and legal activist Deepak Prahladka petitioned President K.R. Narayanan for remission of his sentence. But all that the petitioners have to show for it is an acknowledgement of receipt from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

It’s been seven months since the British foreign office wrote to its Indian counterpart, pleading Bleach’s case. But there’s been no response from South Block yet.

“This is discrimination of the worst kind. The Russians and I were convicted identically — there is not even a single day’s difference between our jail sentences, nor a single rupee’s difference between our fines. The fact is that the Russians were released last year. The only question now is why I am not being treated equally,” writes Bleach.

The question, drummed out on his “rickety typewriter with frayed ribbon” in his 9 feet/12 feet cell, appears straightforward. But the answer is not. “Peter Bleach’s release is not a simple matter. He is the fall guy for some, the prize catch for others. The question of his release involves governments and security agencies of two countries, and maybe more,” explains a senior CBI official on condition of anonymity.

Bleach places the blame for his continued incarceration squarely at the CBI’s door. “I’m certain that the CBI does not want me to be released and I firmly believe that it is the CBI which is doing all in its considerable power to prevent it.... As long as I am in jail — the evil ‘foreign hand’, and British to boot — the CBI probably thinks they can keep a lid on things. Once I’m gone, there is a risk that people here, and maybe even the courts, will start asking hard questions.”

What is the CBI determined to “keep the lid on”? The truth. What are the “hard questions” that the bureau and its masters fear?

Every relevant question that remains unanswered in a case that continues to be as murky as it was on the dark night of December 6 winters ago — Who were the guns meant for? Why did they want it? Who was behind the ‘international armsdrop conspiracy’?

On the night of December 17, 1995, a huge cache of arms and ammunition was dropped over Purulia. Bleach and five Latvian crew members were arrested at Mumbai airport, while the alleged mastermind of the armsdrop plot, Kim Davy, walked away.

They were charged with the conspiracy to abet the waging of war against West Bengal and sentenced to life imprisonment on February 2, 2000. On July 26, 2000, the Latvians headed home.

The British government’s attitude to the case has been, in Bleach’s words, “indifferent... appalling”. It’s a matter of record that the Briton had kept the Defence Export Services Organisation, London, and the North Yorkshire Police Special Branch posted about the armsdrop plot.

The British authorities had assured him that they would alert their Indian counterparts on the basis of Bleach’s information. But after being arrested, Bleach, “initially put down as a witness”, became “the accused”.

Then, during court proceedings, it was established that Sgt Stephen Leslie Elcock of the North Yorkshire Police Special Branch had tampered with official documents related to the case, “under instructions from the Secret Service”.

With the Secret Service being accused of “fabricating” evidence in this sensitive case, Conservative MP Teddy Taylor demanded an explanation from then home secretary Jack Straw, who initially dismissed the discrepancy as “a clerical error”, but later added that “the Security Service’s involvement in this case was peripheral and it is normal practice to remove passing references to the Security Service from (such) documents”.

Straw had refused to elaborate as “it is a long-standing government practice not to comment on operations that may have been mounted by the Security Service and Intelligence Service...”.

Taylor, waging a lone battle to keep the armsdrop case in the political limelight, has maintained that Bleach is a “victim of a high-level cover-up by powerful people who want Peter to hang”. At present, he is “baffled and saddened” by the Indian stand.

“The Indian government hasn’t even bothered to acknowledge — leave alone reply — a letter from our government regarding Peter’s release. The foreign office here is not sure what the next step must be. The legal standpoint appears so logical that I can only term Peter’s continued imprisonment a grave injustice.... The Indians are probably waiting for Blair to do a Putin (the Russian President’s visit to India is said to have paved the path for the Latvians’ release).”

According to the senior CBI official, Bleach’s predicament stems from the fear of “the home, rather than the foreign ministry” that he has an ace or two up his sleeve and so once he is set free, the “lid could be blown off a plot to cover up security failure at one level and political conspiracy at another”.

Bleach, on his part, is “absolutely amazed” with both the British and the Indian governments — one for not doing enough to protect “the fundamental legal and civil rights of one of its citizens”, and the other for “breaking their own laws... and adopting a malicious and vindictive attitude”. R.K. Khanna, his advocate, warns that the battle for justice has just begun.

“This is blatant denial of equal treatment under Article 14, a sordid tale of miscarriage of justice and violation of human rights. The concerned officials who are responsible for violating and denying such rights shall be liable to compensate Peter Bleach for such wrongful detention subsequent to July 2000,” said Khanna.

But for now, Peter James Gifran Von Kalkstein Bleach is The Nowhere Man clinging to the distant dream of returning home to the “tiny, lazy coastal town” of Whitby.

   

 
 
60 FEARED DOWNED 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Malda, June 23: 
About 60 persons are feared drowned after a boat capsized in the Ganga near Manikchowk this morning. But Malda district magistrate A.R. Bardhan put the number of missing persons at 50.

Till evening, the bodies of two children had been recovered and 19 persons were in hospital. Rescue was reportedly hampered as the district administration debated whether the accident occurred at Rajmahal in Jharkhand or at Manikchowk.

Bardhan was mobbed by survivors who complained about the rescue effort.

The overloaded boat was carrying about 150 passengers and goods. Most of the passengers hailed from Jharkhand.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Max: 31.4°C (-3)
Min: 25.4°C (-2)

Relative humidity

Maximum: 98%
Minimum: 75%

Rainfall

0.1 mm

Today:

A few spells of light to moderate rain accompanied by thunder
Sunset: 6.22 pm
Sunrise: 4.55 am
   
 

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