CM paves private path for health
Mamata passes hawker baton
Ghost staff drain civic coffers
Missing boy mystery deepens
Drive to keep wares off kerb
Have fun, pump in funds
Districts wait for bodies to surface
Killer disease strikes, but health-enforcers missing
The burnt-clay horse crumbles

Calcutta, June 24: 
Infotech, housing, tourism, and now health. Privatisation holds the key to the Bengal of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s dreams.

Inaugurating the telecardiology project linking Siliguri with the Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences on Sunday, the chief minister stressed the need to involve “the private sector and NGOs” in the healthcare sector of the state.

“Improving health facilities and raising the efficiency of the city hospitals have been taken up as priority areas of action,” said Bhattacharjee. “We are confident that, inspired by the lead taken by the government, corporates will come forward to get involved in the healthcare sector.”

Congratulating Dr Devi Shetty, chairman of Asia Heart Foundation, and his “brilliant team” for the telecardiology project, Bhattacharjee expressed hope that this joint-sector model would succeed “so that such an experiment can be replicated in several other places for increasing coverage”. The project is a joint-sector effort by the state government and the Asia Heart Foundation.

Speaking to state municipal affairs and urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya, stationed in Siliguri, via satellite video link, the chief minister said: “Dr Shetty has shown the way. Now, the onus is on us to carry his good work forward.”

Dr Shetty said he was confident that the West Bengal model would be an ideal one which “other states would like to follow”.

As part of the West Bengal State Health Development Project, existing facilities are being upgraded and new facilities created in district and subdivisional hospitals, confirmed Bhattacharjee.

Underlining the significance of telemedicine, Dr Shetty later said it would emerge as “one of the most important vehicles of treatment” in the next couple of years and most of the Calcutta hospitals would have the facility. “In 99.9 per cent cases, healthcare involves only opinion and prescription, which can be given on the basis of story, data and images, and you don’t need to touch the patient. It can be done through telecommunication.”

The Asia Heart Foundation also announced the setting up of a trauma-care unit in the city soon. The state-of-the-art centre, only the second of its kind in the country, will be set up on land donated by the government on the SSKM Hospital premises.

“The seed money we need for the first phase of the project is Rs 8 crore, of which the Armenian Church has donated Rs 3 crore. We hope to treat the first patient at the unit within eight months of the land being transferred. The total project cost, once it’s complete, will be around Rs 25 crore,” Dr Shetty said.

Sonia John, chairperson of the Armenian Church, said: “It’s been a long-cherished dream for us to gift Calcutta a unit like this.”


Calcutta, June 24: 
Mamata Banerjee is singing the consensus, rather than confrontation, tune. For once, she wants to work with the Left Front government. No, it’s not the beginning of a surprise political partnership. It’s just a ‘safety first’ political gambit.

The issue in question: Hawker hatao. Mamata’s line: Let the Corporation and the government work together on this. Mamata’s logic: If things go wrong, the Trinamul-led civic body can blame it on the government.

“We may be held solely responsible for damage to the hawkers’ wares and any other untoward incident if we go ahead with the eviction from 21 roads. We must involve the state government, as well as other political parties, to find an amicable solution to the problem,” Mamata has told some party MLAs.

She will discuss the matter with Trinamul MPs, MLAs and councillors at a meeting on Monday. Mamata has confided to some party leaders that she’d prefer the formation of “a high-level committee”, comprising representatives of the government, other political parties and civic authorities, to monitor the eviction and rehabilitation of 15,000-odd hawkers.

Mamata, insiders say, is particularly worried over how the CMC can manage the rehabilitation problem without government support. She has already held a preliminary round of discussions with the mayor. “Whatever we decide to do, we should do jointly with the government. After all, eviction will have to be done with police help and the force will have to be supplied by the government. We will discuss all aspects of the issue in Monday’s meeting,” said Subrata Mukherjee.

Sources said the CMC will urge the government to offer available land at various tram depots in the city, which can be used to construct multi-storeyed complexes with funds from Hudco and other financial institutions.

“Hawkers can be rehabilitated in the proposed complexes, which can also be used for other commercial purposes to raise funds to repay the loans,” a Trinamul MLA said.

Municipal affairs minister Asok Bhattacharya made it clear on Sunday that he was not averse to the idea of a “joint drive” and a “collective effort” for hawker eviction and rehabilitation.

“We are ready to participate in the civic drive against hawkers. We have not made a single move to date on the city’s civic affairs without consulting the mayor. We are ready to render all cooperation in this regard,” Bhattacharya told Metro, when contacted in Siliguri.

Bhattacharya even welcomed a proposal from the civic body on hawker rehabilitation. “Let them identify all the available space and send a proposal to us. We will definitely consider it. We have already spent Rs 15 crore building alternative sites for hawkers after Operation Sunshine. Many of them, like the one on Galiff Street, are lying unoccupied,” he added.

But a section of Trinamul MLAs and councillors was not “convinced” with Bhattacharya’s assurances.

“The CPM has allowed the hawkers to thrive on the city streets and only made tall promises about their rehabilitation for years. Now, they want us to solve the problem overnight simply because we have wrested the civic board from them,” a Trinamul legislator said.


Calcutta, June 24: 
Bansi is a name in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) account books. He was an employee who retired in 1981. Every month, the CMC dutifully sends him a cheque bearing his pension. The bank it sends the cheque to is at Rajdhanwa, in Giridih, Jharkhand.

Atanka Swain is another such name. He, too, retired two decades back. The CMC sends his pension-bearing cheques to a bank at Basudebpur, in Bhadrak, Orissa.

The CMC has not seen either Bansi or Atanka for the past 20 years. No one knows whether they are dead or alive, says CMC assistant director (conservancy) Swapan Mahapatra.

Both, like 12,000 other CMC labourers, worked well past the official retirement age of 60, as none of them could ever produce a birth certificate, he says.

Kartick Ram, who is still working, has a slow, wobbly gait and a shrivelled face that suggest he has long passed the retirement age of 60. Lalti Mullick is his colleague; she has a grandson who is married but still thinks she is 30.

Today’s Kartick and Lalti will end up as yesterday’s Bansi and Atanka. It means that the CMC will go on paying overage staff their salary and pension when they are “most probably” dead. It also means that the CMC will go on spending over Rs 40 crore every year on such dubious pension claims, year after year.

Bansi and Atanka — or Kartick and Lalti — are among the 20,000 word-of-mouth appointees of the 1960s and 1970s whom the CMC later regularised.

To go on drawing their pension, their relatives just have to get the bank, where the CMC sends a cheque, produce a ‘live certificate’ once every six months and go on making thumb impressions. There are only three instances of the CMC getting back pension-cheques it sent to banks in Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the past 20 years.

All this, however, may change if the CMC has its way. It has made “periodical presence of pensioners” at the civic headquarters a must, following the widespread complaints of “ghosts” picking up pension even after death. The CMC will save a lot of money if over-age employees can be screened and ghost-pensioners identified.

“If one goes through CMC records, it will seem that our labourers are almost immortal,” laughs mayor Subrata Mukherjee.

“The CMC earns only Rs 170 crore by way of revenue every year, and spends Rs 236 crore on salary alone,” says chief of municipal finance and accounts, Shekhar Dutta. “If we can save a few crores, that can easily be channelised to development.”


Calcutta, June 24: 
The police and relatives of 11-year-old Ayush Bajaj, missing from his Rabindra Sarani residence since Friday, are still not sure whether he was kidnapped.

While Ayush’s father, Pawan, said his son was “missing”, deputy commissioner of police, north, Kundan Lal Tamta, is not sure that he was not kidnapped.

The telephone is constantly ringing in Pawan’s third-floor flat. An anxious Anupama, Ayush’s mother, who has not eaten since Friday, reaches for the phone with alacrity, expecting some good news. But in vain. Her four-year-old daughter, Rupal, is dumbstruck.

Ayush, a Class VI student of Daulatram Nopany Vidyalaya, returned home at 12.45 pm on Friday after school. After a snack, he went out for a ride on his cycle. After half-an-hour, he came back to drink a glass of milk offered by his mother. Then around 2.30 pm, he again left and has not returned since.

“There was nothing unusual about his behaviour. We thought Ayush had gone to his friend’s house when he left around 2.30 pm for the second time. But he has not returned,’’ said a distraught Pawan.

He said Anupama called him up around 6 pm when Ayush did not return. “I rushed back home and started ringing up Ayush’s friends, classmates and our relations. But having failed to get any information, we lodged a ‘missing’ diary with Shyampukur police station,” he said.

Pawan deals in plastic granules and his office is in the Burrabazar area. He has stopped going to work since Friday.

Tamta said Pawan told investigators that he did not receive any ransom calls. He did not have any business rivals either. Ayush was popular in school.


Calcutta, June 24: 
The city police on Saturday began a drive against shop-owners on Park Street, Shakespeare Sarani and AJC Bose Road who have encroached on the pavements with wares that are to be stocked inside the shops.

The manager of a shop in the Park Street police station area was arrested on Saturday for blocking the pavement with air-conditioners and refrigerators.

“We have seized the air-conditioners and refrigerators which the shop had displayed on the pavement, hindering movement of pedestrians,’’ said Ranjit Pachnanda, deputy commissioner of police, south.

According to Pachnanda, commuters and government employees, who walk down to their offices along the pavements on Shakespeare Sarani, Park Street and AJC Bose Road, had complained to the Park Street and Shakespeare Sarani police stations last Monday against the shop-owners. “A few company executives of Park Street had even called me at my office to mention the spots where the goods were stocked on the pavements,’’ he added.

The police chalked out a plan on Thursday to conduct the drive. “Officers were sent to survey the pavements and identify the particular areas,’’ an officer of Park Street police station said. On Saturday, police teams fanned out on Park Street, Shakespeare Sarani and AJC Bose Road. Three other persons were picked up at AJC Bose Road for conducting business on the pavements, Pachnanda said.

“The raids will continue into the next week. I have directed the police to check Sarat Bose Road and its adjoining areas,’’ he added.


Calcutta, June 24: 
The state tourism department is taking a hard look at the industrialist on a vacation with his wife and children. For the cash-strapped department, he is someone more than a tourist; he is a potential investor.

The tourism department has, for the first time, admitted that it has failed to live up to its own targets in promoting the state as a tourism hot spot. This has led to the decision to gradually withdraw from all commercial activities, leaving the business of making — or losing — money to businessmen.

“Please consider yourself as investors and not mere tourists,” was the message conveyed to leading members of Calcutta’s business community at a recent seminar on “Reforms in the tourism sector”, organised by the Bharat National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where senior officials from the Union tourism ministry and the state tourism department were invited for discussions.

The tourism department, henceforth, will concentrate on the development of core tourism areas to attract tourists, a senior department official told The Telegraph.

New tourism minister Dinesh Dakua feels the state government has not done enough in these areas, said his officials. “The minister has made up his mind that matters are best left to private hands,” one of the officials explained.

“Let’s admit one fact,” a senior official said. “The government is neither capable of, nor is really interested in, investing any more in this sector in a way that will get returns.”

The government has already decided on a two-fold plan to gradually withdraw from commercial activities. The first part of the plan involves handing over its tourist lodges to private operators — already one in Jalpaiguri, the Teesta Parjatak Abasan, is now being run by the staff of other nearby private hotels. The second involves reducing the number of staff in the department by not filling up posts that fall vacant after the staff retire and by redeploying surplus staff elsewhere.

The plans are already being implemented but will take at least a decade — considering the number of staff on the department’s rolls — to reach fruition, said officials.

Besides, to increase revenue, the state government has decided to put in more effort in wooing the middle-budget Bengali tourist. Surveys have revealed that the number of foreign tourists who visit Bengal every year is only two lakh — the state gets only seven per cent of foreigners who come to India — and that, too, comprises people mostly from Bangladesh, who come here to visit relatives or for medical treatment or studies.

The number of domestic tourists, on the other hand, is around 60 lakh annually, said officials. “That’s why we want to concentrate more on this sector,” one of them explained.

To streamline the activities of the department, it has divided the state into six core tourism areas. They are western Dooars (comprising the Siliguri-Jalpaiguri belt), eastern Dooars (Coochbehar-Alipurduar-Jaldapara), the Darjeeling hill areas controlled mostly by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, central Bengal (the Malda-Murshidabad-Nadia-Birbhum belt), the western forest tracts (comprising the forests of Bankura, Purulia and the north-western areas of Midnapore) and the coastal belt (comprising Digha and the Sundarbans).

At least one district tourism officer will be posted in each district popular with tourists to help tourists and investors, said officials.


Malda, June 24: 
The district authorities of Rajmahal in Jharkhand and Malda have decided to wait for the bodies of Saturday’s boat-mishap victims to float up as the salvage operations have proved futile in the swollen Ganga at Manikchak.

More than 50 passengers went missing when a motorised country boat overturned mid-stream, between Rajmahal and Manikchak. There were 150 passengers in the overcrowded boat, also laden with quintals of paddy and vegetables.

Seventy-five passengers were rescued within moments after the accident. But two of them died on way to hospital. The bodies of two children were recovered on Saturday.

A joint rescue team of police and the Civil Defence carried out several search operations but failed to make much head way in the face of strong currents and inclement weather.

SP (Malda) Debasish Roy said he has alerted the Farakka River Bed staff to keep a watch on the river as bodies might be washed away towards Farakka by the currents. Additional district magistrate of Malda Rajesh Kumar Sinha said the bloated bodies were expected to float up by Sunday night.

However, it has not taken long for local people to take the tragedy in their stride as overcrowded, motorised country boats were seen ferrying between Rajmahal and Manikchak as usual.

The district administration has already started passing the buck over the resumption of the ferry services. The boats are coming from Rajmahal, they justified. “Not a single boat from Malda has gone to Rajmahal,” they said.

A district official of Shahibganj, however, said the Jharkhand administration has imposed a ban on the motorised country boats. The launch service between Manikchak and Rajmahal was normal, he added.

A trader from Rajmahal, however, said the launch services are irregular and their timings were not convenient. Businessmen from Rajmahal were forced to take the country boats, he said.

Residents of Manikchak blamed corruption in the local administration for Saturday’s accident. Motorised country boats meant extra income for the local police, they alleged.


Behrampore (Murshidabad), June 24: 
Two persons have died of a mystery disease and 15 others are suffering from it at Dhuliyan, about 85 kilometres from here.

As the news of the deaths spread across Dhuliyan town, residents panicked. The situation was further compounded as no health officials was available on Sunday.

Neither the chief medical officer or the superintendent of Behrampore Hospital nor their deputies could be contacted despite repeated attempts by the district authorities.

A district official said health secretary A.M. Chakraborty, now in Siliguri, had called up district magistrate Vivek Kumar. He has reportedly sought a report on the missing health officials.

Kumar said the dead and all those who were affected were bidi workers and had gone to Jharkhand’s Dumka region to work in a bidi packaging factory about a month ago.

The dead were identified as Mohan Sheikh (26) and Dabir Sheikh (16). Mohan and Dabir had fallen sick after working at the factory for 22 days.

The other bidi workers, mostly residents of the Tarabagan and Nutanbazar areas in Dhuliyan town, returned home but had to be hospitalised with symptoms of fever, headache and vomiting.

Piyali Singh Yadav, the only doctor found to be attending to patients at Behrampore Hospital, said the disease could be a type of malaria or a viral fever.

When the patients were in Dumka, they had water from an abandoned well and were bitten by mosquitoes, she said. “Blood samples have been drawn from them and sent for tests. We hope to pin-point the disease as soon as we get the reports,” she added.

Kalam Sheikh and Bablu Sheikh, both admitted to hospital with high fever, severe headache and nausea, were too weak to sit up on their beds. “I started feeling sick on Friday night. On Saturday morning I was burning with fever and had a splitting headache. My family members shifted me to hospital. But there has been no relief,” said Kalam.

Chakraborty has asked a team of doctors from Calcutta to leave for Behrampore immediately.

The ripples of the panic in Dhuliyan could be felt in Behrampore. Behrampore Municipality councillor Saudagar Ali has faxed a request to health minister Suryakanta Misra for immediate medical attention and an investigation into the nature of the disease.


Panchmora (Bankura), June 24: 
One day Buddhadeb Kumbhakar sat down with his boy and said, Look son, you are 14, you’ve got a whole life ahead, so think hard and never — never — do what I and my forefathers did — make terracotta horses.

It was a sad day in Buddhadeb’s life. On the wall hung the photograph of his grandfather, Rashbehari. The old man had received the Master Craftsman Award from the President. He had gone to collect the award from Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1969. It was the day Panchmora smiled. It was the day, the whole of Bankura smiled.

Now Panchmora — the village where a large number of these craftsmen have settled — has nothing to smile about. The village elders are sitting down to write the epitaph of the terracotta horses that made it big once: at trade fairs and in homes. The ubiquitous brown horse with its erect ears, long neck, short legs, slanting eyes and detachable tail became a symbol for our cottage industry, such was its status.

But now Buddhadeb has told his son to stay away because it’s all over but the writing of the obituary. That’s what he thinks.

The horse will probably still be around for some more time — popping up in trade fairs, curio shops and Cottage Industry outlets — but its days are numbered.

Years back, the government set up a school to train artisans. Today, nobody goes there. Only a dusty signboard reminds that once it was a “school”.

A craftsman’s cooperative set up about two decades back also did not last because of certain “political factors”.

Now middlemen rule and fleece the craftsmen.

But more than middlemen, what is worrying these craftsmen of Bankura is a rapidly dwindling source of the raw material — clay.

The now-defunct cooperative had acquired a plot of land a long time back, but now it’s been used up. “If we dig any further, we will find rocks. There’s hardly any clay. We fear in another 10 years or so, the supply will dry up completely,” says Madan Kumbhakar, an artisan.

Getting more land is an uphill task because landowners are reluctant to allow craftsmen to dig their land for clay as it affects cultivation.

And then there is the familiar story of government neglect. The craftsmen allege that the Cottage Industry in Calcutta does not make any effort to procure horses from them. So, they have to bring it here all the way. Packing and carting is a major problem for them.

“At least 50 per cent of the horses get damaged in transit,” says Buddhadeb.

“Once an hotelier from Nepal offered 10 times the price we charge for these horses. But we couldn’t send it,” he adds.

No, he says, things won’t improve. They will only get worse.


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