Tourism blitz in Sikkim
Govt apathy hits hospital
Key-ministry bias on age rattles mandarins
Delhi mulls guarantee to Imphal
Sinha slams NSCN on ceasefire
George returns, via Manipur
Laloo for Cong entry in front
Bengal free ride on Congress Tehelka truck
Pervez peace pill to fight poverty
Poll-bitten UP chief minister braves bites

Siliguri, June 25: 
Buoyed by an impressive increase in the arrival of tourists, both international and domestic, the Sikkim tourism department has launched an aggressive marketing and publicity campaign to sell the tourism potential of the state tucked away in the eastern Himalayas.

“Tourism, Sikkim’s only viable industry and its major source of revenue, is on a upward trend,” said Sikkim tourism commissioner-cum-secretary Karma Gyatso.

Speaking to The Telegraph in Siliguri, Gyatso said: “During the first half of the tourist season this year, the state has seen a phenomenal rise in the arrival of tourists. This augurs well for the tourism industry.”

The tourism department has drawn up elaborate plans to showcase the Himalayan state. “Besides attracting domestic tourists who constitute the bulk of holidayers, the department has taken up aggressive marketing to sell Sikkim in the international market. The tourism department’s participation at last year’s International Tourism Fair in Berlin and the World Trade Mart in London earlier this year has paid dividends. We played host to a number of leading international travel trade writers from Europe in April, receiving tremendous coverage. The department now plans to hardsell Sikkim to European visitors travelling to India,” Gyatso said.

Recipient of the national award for the best performing tourism state in the north-eastern region for two successive years, 1999 and 2000, Sikkim is confident that by the year-end, it will witness a record number of tourist arrivals. “Last year, the state received over 2.5 lakh tourists, including 16,000 visitors from abroad. The first season this year has already seen a growth of almost 20 per cent in domestic tourist arrivals and a 10 per cent increase in foreign tourists. Between March and May, the state gets around 35 per cent of visitors. The bulk of the tourists come during the festive season, in October and November,” Gyatso said.

To attract the young holidayer, the department is focusing on adventure sport and eco-tourism. “With our abundance of natural resources, we are promoting white-water rafting on the turbulent Teesta. We are also jointly hosting the Teesta Tea and Tourism festival in December. This apart, the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation has plans to introduce aero-sports like para-jumping and hand-gliding,” Gyatso said.

“Along with various other incentives, the government has eased the Inner Line Permit (IPL) and foreign tourists can now stay for 45 days. Superintendents of police have been empowered to issue IPL extension by 15 days to help foreign tourists. A single-window clearance system has also been adopted for the easy flow of tourist traffic to prime destinations like Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La,” he added.


Bardhaman, June 25: 
For the 50,000-odd people at Barshul block in Bardhaman, minimum medical care involves traversing a distance of 40 km to the district government hospital.

Barshul received the status of a separate block in 1993 but, till date, the health centre is yet to be uplifted to block level standards, thanks to dilly-dallying tactics at Writers’ Buildings.

Set up under the community development project during the tenure of Bidhan Chandra Roy, the primary health centre has deteriorated over the years.

“The health department at Writers Buildings has been sitting on the file for modernisation of the Barshul primary health centre for two years,” district chief medical officer (health) Prodyut Saha alleged.

The centre, having 20 beds, is the main stay for people of Raina, Jamalpore, Memari and Barshul. It opens daily for half an hour where a doctor attends to outdoor patients. There is no stock of medicine even for diarrhoea or fever. This puts extra pressure on the Bardhaman district hospital. And for diarrhoea or fever, village people are being forced to travel to get medicines from the government hospital at Bardhaman.

“If minimum treatment was available in the health centre, I would not have to lose my son,” said Bimal Das, who runs a tea stall near the health centre.


New Delhi, June 25: 
The BJP-led government is lurching towards a fresh controversy — this time over a discriminatory “first-among-equals” policy that will allow secretaries in a few key ministries to stay in the saddle till they are 62, while their counterparts in other “lesser” ministries retire at 60.

The ostensible reason for floating such a proposal is to ensure a work continuum in the important ministries, which flies in the face of canons of natural justice. The irony is that the proposal is being made at a time when the government is talking of downsizing the bureaucracy. In fact, the talk is to downsize the bloated bureaucracy by 3 per cent in the 10th plan.

In 1997, the retirement age of the secretaries was raised from 58 to 60 years. Two years ago, there was a proposal to revert to the earlier retirement age of 58 which was implemented in few public sector undertakings like Air-India, Indian Airlines and some state government offices.

The hush-hush proposal has become a subject of intense debate in the corridors of power, but no one is saying yet which are the key ministries whose secretaries will benefit from this largesse.

Sources in the commerce ministry said: “In America, the retirement age is 65 just to ensure a steady and smooth working procedure in the ministries. It should be revised upward but obviously without any discrimination.”

“What exactly does an apex ministry mean? All the ministries in the government are equally important. Whatever decision is taken should apply to everybody in the government,” said sources.

It’s obvious that what applies to a few secretaries in the key ministries doesn’t apply to the rank and file.

Last August, a core group of secretaries decided to identify redundant staff in all ministries and assign them to a computerised pool from which they would be redeployed wherever new jobs cropped up. The surplus staff would be re-trained while they cooled their heels and could even be granted time off to explore greener pastures.

The committee considered a proposal to give the employees the option to go on leave of up to three years during which they could join private organisations for a trial period. At the end of the period, they could either resign or return.

At least two departments — the department of supply and the department of industrial development — have already been shut down without any fanfare.

Other departments that have been considered for the chopping block include departments of fertilisers, consumer affairs and non-conventional energy.

Two departments are being corporatised, taking them outside the purview of Central budgets — the departments of telecom services and operations and the Central electricity authority. Officials added that an informal decision already exists to freeze recruitment to some one lakh vacant low-level jobs.


New Delhi, June 25: 
George Fernandes today assured Manipur’s representatives that he would pursue “at all levels” the “core” issue of withdrawing the ceasefire extension with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah).

Fernandes gave the assurance in writing — which was later distributed to the press — after a two-hour meeting with MLAs and MPs from Manipur at his house.

He held the meeting not only in his capacity as NDA convener but as “the only national leader with credibility in the North-east”, as he was described by Samata Party spokesman Shambhu Srivastava. However, Samata sources admitted a solution to the Manipur impasse would have to be sought outside the framework of the Bangkok Accord signed between the Centre and Muivah.

A mutually acceptable solution that emerged at today’s meeting was that a decision could be taken at the Cabinet level to reiterate that Manipur’s borders would not be violated instead of introducing an amendment to this effect in the accord. Another solution was getting a resolution passed in Parliament which would convey the same assurance.

BJP national secretary in charge of the Northeast, Padmanabha Acharya, had earlier proposed a change in the accord itself. But reasoning against tampering with the accord, a Samata leader said: “It was signed after several rounds of high-level deliberations. If the accord is amended within days, what sanctity will the government’s signature have?”

A Samata source said: “Even a comma or full-stop cannot be inserted without the NSCN leader’s knowledge and consent. Bringing in a major change would entail reopening talks with Muivah. Such a move would raise the hackles of the people of Nagaland who are already seeing visions of a greater Nagaland in the accord. It may end up setting the north-eastern region on fire.”

However, today’s meeting failed to resolve some basic issues like whether the territorial integrity of Manipur alone would be protected while that of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh — states which are covered by the Bangkok Accord — would go unaddressed. “The state of Manipur has always had a special status which will continue,” was all Fernandes had to say.

Another issue was whether in Manipur the withdrawal of the ceasefire extension would coincide with the announcement that its borders were being protected. Fernandes was even more evasive.

“We are discussing Manipur. I believe in so far as Manipur is concerned, the position taken by every political party is that its integrity will not be compromised.”

Fernandes said an NDA meeting to discuss the Manipur crisis could be called. “But right now the Prime Minister is busy and there’s also a question mark over his physical fitness.”


New Delhi, June 25: 
Stoking the embers of the controversy generated by the territorial extension of the Naga ceasefire, Assam Governor Lt Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha today accused the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) of indulging in “brinkmanship” to avert a split in its ranks.

Addressing a seminar in New Delhi, Sinha said the outfit’s demand for extension of the ceasefire to all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas of the region bordered on “brinkmanship”.

The NSCN(I-M) agreed to the ceasefire as it was “in a weak situation”, said the former Army officer, known for speaking his mind.

The theme of the seminar, organised by the Institute for Conflict Management, was “addressing conflicts in India’s Northeast”.

The Governor said there was absolutely no support for militancy in Nagaland. “The people of Nagaland want peace. Moreover, all is not well within the Naga outfit. NSCN (I-M) president Isak Chisi Swu is a Sema, while general secretary Th. Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga. Resumption of hostilities (with the security forces) would have resulted in a split within the group,” he said.

Sinha said the protests in Manipur and other Northeastern states following the extension of the ceasefire without “territorial limits” was the fallout of the Centre’s “initial mistake” in agreeing to a truce with geographical limits.

The Centre’s announcement that the ceasefire had been extended to parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh led to widespread violence in Imphal. Thirteen people were killed in police firing after the Assembly building and some other government structures were set ablaze by protesters. “It was a mistake on the part of the government of India to have initially agreed to geographical limits,” Sinha said.

Stating that a ceasefire meant cessation of hostilities everywhere, the Governor said, “A ceasefire without geographical boundaries is not the same thing as it being extended to Naga-inhabited areas. Unfortunately, it was not projected in this light.”

He said influx of migrants from across the border with Bangladesh was primarily responsible for the growth of insurgency, “at least in Tripura and Assam”.

Sinha’s views on infiltration caused many a confrontation between him and the Congress, which is now in power. The Governor sparked a heated debate in 1998 by submitting a damning report on the issue to President K.R. Narayanan. The report listed the “main causes” of infiltration.

Sinha’s suggestion to scrap the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was tantamount to setting the cat among the pigeons. Pro-IM(DT) Act parties, especially the Congress, accused him of transgressing his constitutional powers.


New Delhi, June 25: 
In the past, he was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hand-picked man to do the job of a trouble-shooter — whether it be occasioned by Jayalalithaa’s shenanigans or Parkash Singh Badal’s demands.

Till he was forced to resign as defence minister, thanks to the Tehelka tapes, George Fernandes was up and about on the capital’s power-scape exuding confidence and panache from beneath the facade of an ageing jhola-wallah in his crumpled kurta-pajama.

Though he was retained as NDA convener, without an official position of power it was not quite the same thing as in the past.

Today, however, things seemed to change a bit for the better from Fernandes’ viewpoint. He re-entered the NDA political scape as the trouble-shooter for Manipur. The difference being that there was no brief from Vajpayee.

Fernandes made it clear he had convened the meeting of the Manipur MPs and MLAs on his own, but he also stressed that it was in his capacity as NDA convener.

His party spokesman Shambhu Srivastava waxed eloquent on how “George Saab was the only national leader with credibility in the Northeast”. Privately, many thumbed their noses at the way home minister L.K. Advani had allegedly botched up matters in sensitive Manipur.

Samata members are already talking in terms of how Fernandes will return to the political centrestage with a bang if he pulls off a coup in Manipur and douses the flames.

“If he can restore the faith of the people of that state in the Centre and the political establishment in general, mark our words, George Saab will be the new hero of the Northeast,” claimed one.

The subtext was: in this prospective “win-win” situation, Fernandes could also extract something weighty from Vajpayee — like a plum ministership.


New Delhi, June 25: 
Laloo Prasad Yadav today demanded that the Congress be included in the People’s Front to make the battle against the “fascist” BJP meaningful.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal chief said without the Congress, an alternative to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was not possible.

Rubbishing the “equi-distance” policy of the People’s Front, Laloo said Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and the People’s Front were helping the BJP by keeping the Congress out.

The former Bihar chief minister said he would discuss the issue of reconsidering the “equi-distance” policy with front leaders.

Laloo said he had discussed the issue with CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet. He also met former Prime Minister V.P. Singh at the latter’s residence to greet him on his birthday today. Sources said the RJD chief will take up issue of including the Congress with V.P. Singh.

“We just want to know who is enemy number one, the BJP or the Congress. We all consider BJP as to be enemy number one. If we want to maintain equi-distance from both the BJP and Congress, how shall we fight BJP in those states where the RJD and Samajwadi Party do not exist?” Laloo asked.

He said a “morcha” should be formed with the Congress, which is in power in 11 states. The proposed morcha could have some mechanism to rein in the Congress if it gets consumed by “dictatorial ambitions”.

After inaugurating the party’s central office here, he Laloo said he had no compulsions to be in the Congress camp as his party had the necessary numbers in Bihar. But the Congress is a secular party and could not be ignored, he pointed out. He said the equi-distance policy of the People’s Front was sending a signal across the country that secular forces were divided.

Laloo advised the Samajwadi Party and other secular forces not to issue “irresponsible” statements which hamper the unity of like-minded forces and affect the national struggle against those responsible for the demolition of Babri Masjid.


New Delhi, June 25: 
The Congress today got a confirmation why its alliance with Mamata Banerjee did not click in the Bengal Assembly polls, when only 57,512 people from the state signed the memorandum seeking a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the Tehelka exposé.

Led by West Bengal Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee, an AICC team today submitted a truck-load of papers — 6,25,00,000 signatures — to President K.R. Narayanan.

But Bengal’s contribution was negligible. An embarrassed party leadership sought to point at preoccupation with the Assembly polls as a reason for the poor show.

Some other states that went to polls like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry fared much better. Tamil Nadu, with 39 Lok Sabha seats, contributed 6.25 lakh signatures, while Pondicherry was far ahead of Bengal with 1.25 lakh signatures.

At 24 Akbar Road, the Congress headquarters, Bengal’s figures became a butt of ridicule with cynics saying Bengal is the only state where “genuine signatures” were obtained.

Not everyone in the party was convinced about the 84 lakh signatures collected from Uttar Pradesh where the Congress has performed miserably in all by-elections.

Spokesman Anand Sharma, however, saw nothing wrong in it. “It is a manifestation of the common people’s sense of outrage against Tehelka,” he said.

The Congress memorandum marked a climbdown for the party which had demanded the exit of the Vajpayee regime.

The memorandum made it clear that the Congress will be satisfied if the government accepts the demand for JPC and initiates criminal proceedings against those figuring in the exposé.

The memorandum, addressed to Narayanan, said that the main Opposition party does not want any political confrontation or debate on Tehelka.

It said: “National character and self-esteem will come under a cloud if the matter is not urgently and directly addressed. We believe that we owe it to the nation and to posterity to combat this ill relentlessly.” Mukherjee said he would speak to the Prime Minister about this.

Congress leaders told Narayanan that the large number of signatures indicates the extent to which public confidence has been shaken.

“The NDA government has lost the moral right to rule. As a protector of the Constitution, it is for you to decide how to save the people of India from the impervious government,” the memorandum said.

Congress leaders regretted that BJP-NDA functionaries seemed more inclined to suppress truth and tinker with “petty ripples on the surface”. They alleged that the corruption in the Vajpayee regime is a “seamless web”.


Islamabad, June 25: 
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has reiterated his “cautious optimism” about the July summit in India.

“I am going there with a cautious optimism,” he told the 26th International Nathiagali Summer College, speaking on Physics and Contemporary Needs, here today.

“South Asia must come out of its pit of poverty and learn to live in peace and harmony,” he said.

“It is in this spirit that I have accepted the invitation of Indian Prime Minister (Atal Bihari Vajpayee),” he added.

Musharraf will be in India from July 14 to 16 and hold summit-level talks with Vajpayee on 15th.

The self-anointed President, however, refused to elaborate on what he meant by “cautious optimism”. Pakistan has no “aggressive design” but will not compromise on its minimum nuclear deterrence, he said.

“Pakistan’s minimum nuclear capability is entirely for self-defence. We have no aggressive designs. We believe in acquiring a minimum credible deterrence and not to direct our limited resources towards a race of weapons of mass destruction,” the President said.

The “minimum nuclear deterrence will not and cannot be compromised as the security of Pakistan rests on this capability”, Musharraf said.

Pakistanis do realise that the Islamic world and the country are lagging behind in science and technology and a lot of catching up has to be done, “and this was possible if we focus on this area”, Musharraf said.

Pakistan has the capability and potential to catch up, he said, and assured the government’s support.

The government was aware of the powers and potentials of technology, Musharraf said.

If Pakistan remained ever-dependent on borrowed knowledge and imported technology, without the development of a sound, indigenous scientific and technological base, “we can neither prosper nor live in peace and security,” he said.


Lucknow, June 25: 
Rajnath Singh got bitten by mosquitoes as he slept in a small, junior school room in faraway Dadri. The chief minister compromised on his comfort and sleep, listening to the unending grievances of those living in the treacherous ravines of Bundelkhand.

At another place, Kalraj Mishra, the state BJP chief, mingled with villagers of Johava Sharki as torchlight bearing men led him from one hut to the next, in the dark night, the stillness breaking only with his repeated promises.

The jittery BJP’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh has begun in full earnest. Though hidden under the rather thin facade of “reaching out to the masses”, the agenda of the “politician-to-people interaction”, as the party is calling their latest mission, could scarcely be missed.

On the first day of the programme called “chalo gaon ki ore, gaon ki sune” (lets head towards the villages, lets hear their voice), the party’s leaders fanned out across the state, attempting to target villages in the 9,000 nyay panchayats.

As part of the unprecedented and ambitious programme, BJP leaders will seek to reach out to the villagers, listening to their grievances while camping overnight with them. The first hand information gathered by them will be used — either to boast or apologise, to promise or proclaim — during the Assembly polls.

In Dadri, Rajnath heard the villagers patiently for some time as they bombarded him with their problems. No water, they said. No electricity either, added others. The men wanted jobs, the women better roads and security. The boys wanted play fields, the girls wanted to go to school. Both wanted it nearby and not 14 km away. Everybody wanted hospitals.

Then it was the chief minister’s turn to return the favour, bombarding them with appeals for “some more time”, and promises of development.

He started off with the school where he was camping. “This junior school will be made into a high school,” he said. The chief minister announced a Rs 100-crore package for Bundelkhand. As villagers looked at him in shock and surprise, he added that there would be an “immediate relief” of Rs 1 crore for construction of roads, a hospital and a checkdam. Unrelenting, Rajnath then said Nabard would spend Rs 500 crore for better roads all over the state.

But all this came with a rider. Rajnath needed time and that is what he wanted from the people. Knowing that nothing of any consequence has happened in Uttar Pradesh — leave alone Bundelkhand — in the past five years, Rajnath said others had got 52 years to do something, it was not fair to expect the impossible from the BJP in just five years.

“These schemes that I have announced will take a minimum of five years to bear fruit, give us that time at least. If after five more years you are not happy with us, then you can vote us out,” he said, in what could be the precursor of his election speech.

Though it is too early to gauge the impact of the BJP’s reach-out-to-the villages programme, what is clear is that the party has an unenviable task ahead. As Mishra realised in the small Rae Bareli village that fell on his schedule.


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