Sting off consumer law
Bid to take Webel off tech highway
Spurned suitors murder teenager
Delhi did call, insists Jaya camp
Centre sends warning
DMK demands use of ‘N-weapon’
Cong cools off to Mamata
Atal plays on people before President
Turkey terror treaty coup stuns Pakistan
JNU students jailed in Iran

 
 
STING OFF CONSUMER LAW 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, July 4: 
The Centre’s decision to propose some changes in the Consumer Protection Act (Copra) may rob the law of all meaning and make it a “big zero”, feels the state government.

The proposed amendments, tabled in Parliament recently, seek to bring several aspects outside the consumer courts’ purview and make payment of fees mandatory while lodging a suit in a consumers’ redressal forum. The amendments, if passed in toto, would mean a gradual “de-toothing” of Copra and make it “absolutely ineffective”, consumer affairs department minister Narendranath De said today, promising to take up the matter with the Centre.

The proposed amendments have also drawn protests from consumers’ organisations, member-judges of the Calcutta District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum and advocates; some proposed changes are “entirely against” the spirit with which consumer redressal fora were set up throughout the country to protect the public against big business lobby, they feel.

One of the amendments, to be discussed by Parliament later this month, suggests taking away several subjects from the purview of consumer courts. Claims which have other “remedies of judicial nature” will not be entertained by consumer courts any more, Section 3 of the Bill says.

This gives many businesses — mainly those having a large percentage of government involvement like banking and insurance — immunity from any action by consumer disputes redressal fora; for instance, if a consumer feels he has been wrongly dealt with by the postal savings bank, he will have to go for redressal — more often than not delayed — to the National Savings Commissioner; if he has a complaint about banking services, he will have to go to the banking ombudsman concerned.

Consumers’ fora have reacted sharply to this amendment. “The Centre might just as well abolish Copra if it wants to take away so many important sectors from its purview,” working president of the Bengal Federation of Consumer Organisations said.

Another proposed change — to make payment of fees by complaining consumers mandatory — has also drawn a lot of flak; according to the practice now, a consumer can lodge a complaint without paying any court fee.

   

 
 
BID TO TAKE WEBEL OFF TECH HIGHWAY 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, July 4: 
Webel, the state government’s nodal IT agency, may no longer be involved with the state’s IT endeavours.

According to sources in the government and Webel, the task of IT promotion will now be given to an independent IT corporation and Webel will look after the electronics industry, maintenance of software technology parks and infrastructure issues in Saltlec (Salt Lake Electronic Complex).

Manabendra Mukherjee, the state’s first IT minister, said: “The government has been thinking on this line for some time, but nothing has been finalised yet.”

He, however, declined to comment when asked the reasons behind such planning. Referring to the composition of the corporation and its domain of activity, Mukherjee said: “I can’t give you any details before we reach a decision.” He described the process as time consuming but didn’t divulge anything about the deadline.

According to an industry observer, the government has been considering “stripping Webel of IT” for quite some time.

“The top management couldn’t perform. Not only did they fail to cash in on the comparative advantage of the state in terms of attracting IT investments, they also did little to give the agency a professional look,” the observer said.

“The government, which relied very much on the infotech industry for the state’s industrial revival, didn’t want to jeopardise the state’s IT initiatives by suddenly bringing in a new agency and delay the process,” he added.

Sources revealed that the government had made “significant progress” with regard to the proposed IT corporation. “Formalising the decision is just a matter of time,” a government insider said.

   

 
 
SPURNED SUITORS MURDER TEENAGER 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Midnapore, July 4: 
Asoke Jana and Manas Das fell in love with the same girl: 17-year-old Parvati Patar.

For long they wooed her, but she couldn’t make up her mind. A year ago, she left her village under Keshiary police station. After that, the two sworn enemies, Asoke and Manas, became good friends.

But then Parvati came home in the first week of June and the old wounds opened. Asoke and Manas, certain now that Parvati would never be theirs, decided to join hands. On June 7, they met Parvati at a market. Parvati never came home after that.

Today, her decomposing body was found from a forest near Khajira. The girl’s father could identify her from her saree and other garments.

The two have confessed to the crime, officer in charge of Keshiary police station, Ashis Ray, said. Police also arrested one Chandan Jana, who helped the two kill Parvati and bury her in the forest.

The area was tense today after villagers who had entered the forest, stumbled upon the body of Parvati. Some dogs had dug up the grave and unearthed the body, that was already part-skeleton.

Kalaikunda ransack

For the first time ever, miscreants dodged armed guards patrolling the Kalaikunda Air Base complex at night to ransack the house of a squadron leader.

Sambhu Nath Sen, the inspector-in-charge of the Kalaikunda Beat House, said this was a mysterious incident as nothing was stolen but furniture and gadgets were smashed and obscene posters pasted on the walls.

Squadron leader Ashok Nigam and his wife had left for a holiday in Malaysia a week ago, leaving a servant and a caretaker to take care of the apartment. The two have been arrested.

The miscreants entered by breaking open the back door and smashed a computer, a digital camera, a colour TV, a VCD player, and an audio system.

   

 
 
DELHI DID CALL, INSISTS JAYA CAMP 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, July 4: 
A day after the stand-off over the ministers’ release ended, the ADMK continued flexing its muscles and insisted that someone on behalf of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intervened to get the charges against the two Central Cabinet members dropped.

The ADMK dismissed the warning from the Union home ministry as “routine” and not under Articles 355, 357, 257 or 256, all of which are binding on the state.

The party disagreed with the Cabinet’s contention that some police officials committed excesses while arresting the ministers. “On the other hand,” Tamil Nadu education minister Thambi Durai alleged, “Central ministers Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu took the law into their hands and they are liable for punishment.”

Referring to the Cabinet’s directive that the state government identify and take strong action against the police officials who allegedly roughed up the ministers, Thambi Durai said: “We deny the allegation. The police officials have only done their duty.”

Thambi Durai said it was at the behest of Vajpayee that the charges were withdrawn, but did not disclose who had called up to put in a word. If no request was made, he reasoned, why should the government drop the charges? The Centre had yesterday denied that any request was made to the state to get the ministers off the hook.

A statement issued by the state government yesterday had said: “The government of India and the Prime Minister have conveyed the request to the state government to consider dropping the charges against the Central ministers.”

The statement said while the government reiterated that the “charging of the Central ministers was for explicit offences committed by them, considering the need to maintain the cordial relationship with the government of India and out of deference to the views expressed by the government of India, and more specifically the Prime Minister of India, the government of Tamil Nadu has decided to drop the cases against the two Central ministers”.

Though Jayalalitha issued the statement in the morning, the Centre denied the Prime Minister’s involvement at 8.30 in the night. A brief statement read out just before the news conference after the Cabinet meeting said: “The Central government’s attention has been drawn to a Tamil Nadu government press release on July 3, 2001, stating that the Prime Minister requested the state government to consider dropping the charges against the Central ministers.

“It is clarified that this incorrect. The Prime Minister never made any request to the state to consider dropping the charges against the Central ministers.”

ADMK sources said the denial was an afterthought as the Centre may have realised the implications of the request, which did not have any constitutional sanctity.

   

 
 
CENTRE SENDS WARNING 
 
 
FROM OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, July 4: 
The Centre tonight warned the Tamil Nadu government against the recurrence of the recent “unfortunate events” and asked it bring to book police officers responsible for committing “high-handedness” while arresting former chief minister M. Karunanidhi and the two Union ministers.

“The Centre will keep a close watch over the manner in which the affairs of the state government of Tamil Nadu are carried out in the near future,” the home ministry said in a four-page warning to the state government as directed by the Union Cabinet last night.

Accusing the Jayalalitha ministry of having “flouted” the principles and conventions of responsible government, the Centre directed it to remedy the situation and exhibit through actions and statements that the state was being run strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. “The state government should also take suitable measures to show that it is not deliberately creating a situation of conflict with the Central government, leading thereby to a Constitutional crisis at a future date,” it said.

The Centre sought the release of DMK workers taken into custody in the wake of Karunanidhi’s arrest, ostensibly to maintain order. It asked the state government to immediately withdraw curbs on freedom of press and electronic media and proceed against those responsible for imposing such restrictions. The Tamil Nadu police commissioner’s notice to Sun TV should be revoked forthwith, the home ministry said.

   

 
 
DMK DEMANDS USE OF ‘N-WEAPON’ 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
Chennai, July 4: 
The Centre’s warning to the Jayalalitha government in Tamil Nadu has failed to mollify the DMK, which still wants the state government to be dismissed and Article 356 invoked.

“It is not a question of satisfaction,” Maran said outside Chennai Central Prison at noon today in the first reaction from the party on the Central warning. The Union commerce and industry minister, who was discharged from Apollo Hospitals in the morning, was talking after a meeting with Karunanidhi. He was accompanied by T.R. Baalu, Union environment and forests minister, who was released from Vellore prison last evening, and the DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan.

“Any sensible person will have to listen to this warning. But I doubt how a sadist and a maniac can understand the language,” the Central commerce minister said.

Maran, Baalu and Anbazhagan discussed the fallout of the Union Cabinet decision and crafted their response to it. It is also clear the DMK has decided that it will continue to milk the state administration’s perceived failings to make political capital.

Maran said though the DMK continued to be against Article 356 in principle, Tamil Nadu’s was an exceptional case.

“It is an extraordinary situation and it needs an extraordinary remedy. Under the circumstances, we are requesting imposition of President’s rule under Article 356. Here is an instance of a person disqualified by law (Jayalalitha) who has been sworn-in chief minister and the Governor who swore her in has been dismissed. Article 356 is like a nuclear weapon. You use it when it is necessary,” he said.

The minister said the ground for imposition of Central rule was the transgression of Central authority in the federal set-up. “The law minister (of Tamil Nadu) has said even the Prime Minister can be arrested. This is a threat and an insult to one billion Indians. I am the minister is charge of foreign investment. I have secured four billion dollars for the country. And if the world sees a commerce minister being assaulted and taken into custody, it will affect investment in India.”

Pressure on Jayalalitha is building up in the courts, too. The high court today admitted a petition by a DMK activist to transfer all cases of corruption filed against Jayalalitha during the Karunanidhi regime from the crime branch, CID, to the CBI. The petitioner argued that as chief minister of the state government, Jayalalitha could not remain prosecutor as well as accused.

   

 
 
CONG COOLS OFF TO MAMATA 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi & Calcutta, July 4: 
The Congress today claimed its tie-up with Mamata Banerjee was on, but conceded in private it would come unstuck unless Sonia Gandhi personally stepped in. The Congress chief is returning from abroad tonight.

An aggressive Mamata put the onus of saving the alliance on the AICC, reiterating in Calcutta that the Bengal Congress was not serious about continuing it. She made it clear she was not “bound to clarify” her stand as demanded by AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal, Kamal Nath.

“If the alliance is broken, the responsibility will lie with the Congress, not with us,” Mamata said.

In Delhi, the Congress officially maintained that the pact was intact as Trinamul had not returned to the NDA yet. Papering over the differences, Bengal chief Pranab Mukherjee and party spokesman Jaipal Reddy said: “The two parties should try to expand organisational penetration in Bengal. If Trinamul does not forge links with the NDA, we will continue to treat it as an ally,” he said.

But he conceded there was no communication between the parties.

In Calcutta, Mamata told her aides that despite her differences with the Bengal leadership, she had no plans to return to the NDA. Her strategy was to maintain floor coordination with the Congress in the Assembly and go it alone outside, she said.

“I have nothing against the Congress central leadership. But I am pained at the way two senior leaders, Pranab Mukherjee and Somen Mitra, allowed Independent candidates to contest against our nominees in the Assembly polls. Even after the elections, the PCC has taken them back instead of initiating disciplinary action against them,” she said.

Congress leaders in Delhi wondered whether this was provocation enough to call off the alliance. Some claimed the Independents’ return was part of a broad understanding with Mamata.

“If she is looking for an excuse to pull out, it is fine. Otherwise, there is nothing that should warrant such an action,” a leader said.

The mood at 24 Akbar Road has turned rather hostile towards Mamata. Senior leaders who used to praise her leadership qualities are no longer for her. Many uncharitable remarks are doing the rounds: “You know how she is. Can she predict what she is going to do next?”

   

 
 
ATAL PLAYS ON PEOPLE BEFORE PRESIDENT 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, July 4: 
With little over a week left for his summit with President Pervez Musharraf in Agra, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today announced a series of confidence-building measures that attempts to create not only the right atmosphere for the talks but also reaffirms the Indian leadership’s desire to live in peace with Pakistan.

The Prime Minister’s set of measures stresses on strengthening people-to-people contact between the two neighbours. It sweeps across a wide spectrum of areas, from the immediate release of Pakistani fishermen and civilian prisoners to offering seats to Pakistani students to premier Indian institutions and inviting artistes from across the border.

Vajpayee has also asked the commerce ministry to “reduce or eliminate” tariff on certain items to encourage Pakistani imports into India.

During the Lahore peace process two years ago, Vajpayee and then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had tried the sugar route to improve relations. It was agreed that India would import sugar from Pakistan to meet its domestic demand instead of procuring it from far away countries. But this arrangement came to an abrupt halt after relations between the two countries soured following the Kargil conflict.

Vajpayee seems to be adopting a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, the Prime Minister’s current move may be aimed at keeping a step ahead of the release of Vikas Singh — an Indian peacenik who has been languishing in Pakistani prisons. He will be handed over tomorrow at Wagah. On the other, it is also an attempt to force Pakistan to come out with a similar gesture which will contribute in strengthening people-to-people contact.

The Prime Minister has instructed the Coast Guard not to take into custody fishermen from across the border who “inadvertently transgress into Indian waters”. Perhaps, Pakistan, too, will respond with a similar gesture.

Though many civilian prisoners are innocent people who are unaware of travel regulations between the two countries, at times these groups or individuals are used by smugglers or terrorist outfits. The home ministry will, therefore, have to go through the list of charges framed against these prisoners, before they can be released.

Sports minister Uma Bharti said today she would not oppose the revival of cricket ties with Pakistan but demanded a reciprocal gesture from that country regarding hockey, adds PTI.

“If cricket figures in the proposed talks with Musharraf and if it is felt that it is necessary to revive cricket ties to boost relations, I would not oppose it,” Bharti told reporters in Lucknow.

India and Pakistan have in the past taken either unilateral or reciprocal gestures to release fishermen or civilian prisoners but have not been able to come to an agreement by which they could avoid taking them into custody.

Sports minister Uma Bharti said today she would not oppose the revival of cricket ties with Pakistan but demanded a reciprocal gesture from that country regarding hockey, adds PTI.

“If cricket figures in the proposed talks with Musharraf and if it is felt that it is necessary to revive cricket ties to boost relations, I would not oppose it,” Bharti told reporters in Lucknow.

“But if we revive cricket ties, Pakistan should initiate revival of hockey ties as a goodwill gesture and request the International Hockey Federation to change the dates of Champions Trophy that clash with the Afro-Asian Games being hosted by India,” she added.

   

 
 
TURKEY TERROR TREATY COUP STUNS PAKISTAN 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, July 4: 
In the pre-summit diplomatic chess-game being played by India and Pakistan to garner international support for their positions after July 14, New Delhi has won the first round hands down.

According to sources who have a finger on the pulse of General Pervez Musharraf’s military junta, Pakistan has been shocked and surprised by home minister L.K. Advani’s diplomatic coup last week in signing an anti-terrorism agreement with Turkey, one of Pakistan’s most important backers in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

Pakistan’s discomfiture over the potential loss of a trusted ally was compounded yesterday when US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage issued a veiled

warning to Musharraf to be constructive in Agra this month if he wanted American sanctions against Islamabad to be lifted any time soon.

In yet another interview, this time to the Reuters news agency, Armitage expressed hope that the Agra summit “leads to some sort of process of discussion between India and Pakistan and obviously something like that could have an effect” on US sanctions against Islamabad.

Armitage said that compared to Pakistan, there was broad backing in the US Congress in favour of lifting sanctions against India, which he described as a democracy and a rising regional power.

Advani crowned his coup in Ankara by impressing upon a cross-section of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates of the BJP-led government’s concerns about terrorism and sharing its views on the Agra summit.

The UAE is one of only three countries which recognised the Taliban after it acquired virtual control of Afghanistan.

The anti-terrorism agreement Advani signed with Turkish interior minister Rustu Kazim Yucelen was a closely-guarded secret and was announced only after the home minister arrived in Ankara. He was presumed to be visiting Turkey for signing an extradition treaty.

The joint agreement against terror envisages coordination by intelligence agencies of the two countries and rapid sharing of information.

During his 40-minute meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Advani is understood to have won Turkish endorsement of his view that a clear distinction needs to be made between individual acts of terror and those sponsored by states.

The two leaders agreed to work together for furthering democracy in Asia, an idea which received enthusiastic support from Turkish MPs at a lunch hosted for the Indian minister.

The support Advani received in Ankara for democracy and against state-sponsored terrorism will send powerful signals to Musharraf as he considers his options in Agra. Turkey, one of Pakistan’s staunchest supporters, has also been a member of the OIC Contact Group on Kashmir, along with Saudi Arabia.

Advani’s efforts to lobby support for India among Muslim states comes close on the heels of intense meetings in Washington last week by national security adviser Brajesh Mishra.

Mishra met US Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been dubbed “prime minister” of the Bush Administration because of the widely-held belief that Cheney virtually runs the country. Mishra is the first Indian in government to meet Cheney.

He also met defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, US trade representative Robert Zoellick, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Armitage and an array of Congressional leaders during his three-day stay here.

Advani’s meeting in Abu Dhabi with UAE President Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is extremely significant because the ailing President has met only visiting heads of state in the last two years.

At a meeting with Dubai’s Crown Prince, Shaikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Advani is said to have sought the operationalisation of an extradition treaty signed between India and the UAE in 1999.

These pre-summit diplomatic forays by Indian leaders and officials stand out in comparison to those made by Pakistan’s foreign minister Abdul Sattar.

Sattar’s visit to the US last month was marred by Musharraf’s dismissal of President Rafiq Tarar. His subsequent trip to the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting in Mali did not make waves either.

   

 
 
JNU STUDENTS JAILED IN IRAN 
 
 
FROM AMBEREEN ALI SHAH
 
New Delhi, July 4: 
When Jawaharlal Nehru University reopens after a two-and-a-half-month summer break, two foreign students will not return.

Massoud Pedram and Mohammed Ali Hashmi Raz went back to their homes in Iran at the beginning of the holiday, but were arrested.

“Pedram and Raz were political activists in Tehran. They were arrested with 40 others who are part of the Democratic Forces, a coalition of eight political groups that has been fighting for democracy in Iran,” said an Iranian student. “It was a pre-election crackdown on intellectuals.”

Raz was released after three days in prison, but his passport was withheld. Pedram was not as lucky: he’s still behind bars.

“We are worried about Pedram. He has been kept in solitary confinement. Generally, prisoners are allowed to make a phone call once a week. But for the past three weeks, we have received no news from Pedram,” said a fellow Iranian student from JNU.

“I was watching the BBC news in Persian when I first heard about the crackdown. It came as a jolt to me. I called Pedram’s wife in Tehran, and she confirmed the news of the arrest,” said another Iranian student.

Four hundred and twenty four students from JNU, cutting across party lines, sent a joint appeal to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Another petition was sent by 74 professors of the university.

Said Girijesh Pant, a professor of West Asian studies in JNU: “We did not approve of the arrests. They were only involved in political activism and not any form of criminal activity. Our appeal to the Iranian President is on humanitarian grounds, as these students were protesting within the framework of Iranian constitutional norms.” Pedram and Raz were Pant’s students.

Pedram had earlier been arrested in 1994. The same year he came to India to study. Just before his arrest this time, Pedram had submitted his Ph.D. thesis at the School of Social Sciences in JNU. He was waiting for his viva voce.

   
 

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