Govt heads back to talks table for hotel sell-off
Dipping quality sours manohara magic
Govt panel on closed factories
Vajpayee goes one up as Pervez bites bait
CMs force promises out of Sinha
Sangh pat with riders
Trimmer team for Mission Kashmir
Ministers mull arrest procedure
Taj tourists choke on security
Raped bride in justice fight

 
 
GOVT HEADS BACK TO TALKS TABLE FOR HOTEL SELL-OFF 
 
 
BY SUTANUKA GHOSAL
 
Calcutta, July 10: 
The state government is trying to renegotiate the Great Eastern sell-off deal with Accor Asia Pacific even as the management has drawn up measures to improve work culture at the loss-laden hotel.

The government has decided to hold fresh talks for the hotel’s handover with Accor’s top brass in Bangkok or in Manila. According to a senior official in the tourism ministry, the French hospitality major has not formally turned down the sale offer, but has raised a “few objections” which are being sorted out.

Accor, the official said, has informed the government that there are too many sticking points in the deal — wages being the biggest of them. The company insists that the deals have to be negotiated on the wages last drawn, not on the basis of a rising compensation.

It is also chafing at “hidden factors” such as a barrage of lawsuits pending against the state-run hotel.

The government revised the wages of employees in October in a move that pushed up the monthly salary bill — which is now Rs 22 lakh — by Rs 4 lakh and upset the suitor.

Accor had said in its original scheme that it will spend Rs 15 crore on a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) and up to Rs 5 crore to meet outstanding liabilities. However, the wage revision made by the government means a VRS will cost more.

As the government works on the sell-off deal, the tourism ministry has accepted a recommendation from the hotel’s new member-secretary to introduce swipe cards for officers — workers already have them — to keep tabs on the time they arrive for work and leave .

The move comes after member secretary K.P. Sinha arrived at the hotel at 10 am one day to find some of the officers missing.

The management has also drawn up a plan to renovate the hotel under a contract that will be awarded to the public works department. Sinha replaced Uday Chand Sen as the member-secretary, while Pranab Roy, the tourism secretary, has taken charge as the chairman of the hotel from Subir Ghosh.

Employees said they are ready to co-operate in the attempts to improve the hotel. “We are eager to see business rebound. We have told the member secretary about it. However, we feel the management should set business targets for its top officials too,” Intuc secretary Atiar Rahman said.

The efforts to tone up work-ethos come at a time when business at the hotel has picked up substantially: the banquets are booked while the occupancy rate has shot up to 200 rooms in July from around 60 in April. The hotel has 250 rooms.

   

 
 
DIPPING QUALITY SOURS MANOHARA MAGIC 
 
 
FROM TARAKNATH DEY
 
Janai (Hooghly), July 10: 
The manohara of Janai might soon be reduced to just a sweet memory.

Once mentioned in the same breath as the rosogolla of Calcutta, the langcha of Shaktigarh and the sitabhog of Burdwan, the sweet introduced by local landlords and brothers Janai and Anai about 200 years ago and relished by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is dying unsung.

The mouth-watering sweet often drew Vidyasagar all the way to Janai, the 3-square kilometre town named after its zamindar and located 45 km away from Calcutta. Years later, filmstars Chhabi Biswas, Uttam Kumar and Chhaya Devi would park their cars outside the sweet shops while returning from an outdoor shoot.

The manohara’s fame spread by word of mouth and even crossed the geographical boundaries of Bengal in the pre-Independence days. Indian and British aristocrats placed orders with shops in Janai when they had guests over. The sweet even found a market in Britain and later it travelled to the US, Germany and France. But now the export has stopped. Even the local sale has dropped alarmingly as the sweet’s quality has fallen.

To make the manohara, you have to prepare a paste of chhana and finely ground sugar, make sandesh and coat it with elach and pesta. Thereafter, it is doused in a thick syrup of sugar. To make it tastier, a special outer coating of the kernel of green coconut is given.

But most of the 50 manohara-makers that now remain do not use the mixture of pesta and elach. The quantity of chhana has been reduced. The moiras (confectioners) also no longer use the kernel of green coconut for the outer coating.

Kamal Moira and Sahadeb Samanta, among the few manohara-makers of the old stock, feel the lack of experience of the moiras these days and absence of proper communication with Calcutta are ruining the trade.

“The state government did not take any step to make it popular and failed to utilise its potential. Even local MLAs never raised the issue in the Assembly. So none of our successors are interested in making manoharas and they are looking for other vocations to earn their bread,” said Moira.

According to Samanta, a section of moiras are making low-grade manohara and selling it at a cheap rate of Rs 40 per kg. “But selling the sweet at such a low price will only degrade its image and tradition.If you want to buy good manohara, you will have to pay at least Rs 100 a kg. Exclusive counters must be opened in Calcutta and other cities to create awareness about the legendary sweet which once catered to both landlords and foreigners,” said Samanta.

“Even 20 years ago, shops in Janai sold around 200 to 250 kg of manohara daily. Now, I doubt if people buy 40 kg a day,” he said. “Perhaps the next generation will never know that the sweet ever existed.”

   

 
 
GOVT PANEL ON CLOSED FACTORIES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, July 10: 
The government has set up a committee to look into the problems of closed industrial units in West Bengal.

Labour minister Mohammad Amin today told the Assembly that the 11-member committee comprises four representatives each of the owners of closed industrial units and trade unions and three of the government. Amin was replying to questions raised by Trinamul Congress MLA Nirmal Ghosh.

The minister faced an embarrassing moment as he could not tell the number of closed units and asked a member, who raised a supplementary question, to give notice.

Apart from working for the reopening of the units, the state is paying a monthly allowance of Rs 500 to each of the 40,000 workers of the closed factories.

The minister added that the new committee will look into the allegations by trade unions that the bipartite agreement with the owners was being violated.

He, however, denied Ghosh’s allegation of such violations. “I have no specific information regarding violation of agreement by the factory owners,” he said.

Amin was again caught on the wrong foot when the Congress’ Abdul Mannan wanted the number of tripartite agreements that had been signed. The minister asked for a notice.

Replying to another question, Amin said he hoped the jute mills would be able to overcome their crisis by the end of this month.

“Most of the jute mill workers hail from states outside Bengal. They go home towards the end of May and return in July. Also, raw jute costs more during this time. As a result, jute mill owners are reluctant to buy raw jute and the business temporarily suffers. I think the problems faced by the jute industry will be solved by the end of this month,” Amin said.

Malaria drive

The civic health department has decided to convert 52 malaria clinics into fever treatment centres to bring more people under malaria surveillance. Inaugurating a seminar on malaria, health minister Suryakanta Mishra appreciated the Trinamul Congress-led CMC’s efforts to control malaria.    

 
 
VAJPAYEE GOES ONE UP AS PERVEZ BITES BAIT 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, July 10: 
The script is India’s. And all the dramatis personae are faithfully following the script.

With only five days left for the summit, there is quiet satisfaction in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the ministry of external affairs that India has regained the initiative for the Agra talks.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee now hopes to set the unwritten agenda for his meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, just as he dictated the course of his three talks with Nawaz Sharif in 1998 and 1999.

At the highest levels of the Indian leadership, it was secretly hoped that Delhi’s unilateral gestures of friendship announced in two instalments this month would have the exact opposite result in Pakistan.

Just as Madan Lal Khurana’s talk of a “fourth war” with Pakistan in May 1998 and L.K. Advani’s threats of “hot pursuit” after Pokhran II sent Pakistan into a panic and forced Islamabad out of its nuclear closet!

Without Chagai, it is now acknowledged, India would have been the world’s villain and it would have been hard put to overcome the negative international reaction to Pokhran II. A top PMO official today said: “You have to concede that we are at least good at reading Pakistan’s mind.”

The historic lifting of barriers along the Line of Control for family reunions, the offer to reopen the Rajasthan-Sindh rail link, the selective reduction of duty on Pakistani imports and scholarships for Pakistani students were all designed with a solitary purpose: to widen the agenda for the Agra summit, and in the teeth of Pakistan’s opposition, move it beyond just Kashmir.

When the first package of unilateral concessions such as scholarships in Indian institutes of higher learning were announced, Musharraf was holding the high moral ground, having counselled Vajpayee a few days earlier to avoid inflammatory rhetoric. He also effectively used the platform of the Indian media through selective interviews.

But India’s first package threw Musharraf’s junta off balance, just as the Indian leadership had hoped. Musharraf was forced to eat his own words about inflammatory rhetoric and go to town about Indian acts of repression and oppression in Kashmir. According to sources in Pakistan, Musharraf personally cleared the foreign office statement that day about “rising (Indian) atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir”.

In the media, and among the public, the Pakistani statement may have dampened enthusiasm about Agra, but in South Block, there was elation. It showed that Musharraf, the uniformed General with little experience of diplomacy, was not beyond manipulation by a politician as seasoned as Vajpayee. So, package two of unilateral concessions, which included travel liberalisation and the opening of new border checkpoints was put in motion.

Once again, Pakistan has reacted predictably. Within hours, information secretary Anwar Mahmood and Musharraf’s chief spin doctor Major-General Rashid Quereshi announced at a press conference that Musharraf will take only a small delegation with him. Abdul Sattar, the foreign minister, Inam-ul-Haq, the foreign secretary and officials dealing with Kashmir and Indo-Pakistan relations are the only ones who would go to Agra.

Once again, as the Indian leadership had hoped, Musharraf rose to the bait. As of now, in the eyes of the world, Vajpayee is the good man, bending over backwards to have better ties with Pakistan, something he has aspired for since his stint as foreign minister in 1978, the Prime Minister’s spin doctors assert.

On the other side is Musharraf, as it is lacking legitimacy, pursuing his sole agenda of Kashmir. No wonder, the more independent Pakistani newspapers are cautioning that if it goes on like this, the post-Agra state of the Kashmir issue will be that “Kashmir will remain with India and the issue with Pakistan”.

   

 
 
CMS FORCE PROMISES OUT OF SINHA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, July 10: 
BJP chief ministers today succeeded in wangling a series of promises from finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

Though the much-awaited meeting between Sinha and the BJP chief ministers and office-bearers remained inconclusive, sources said the finance minister was forced to give a number of assurances like hiking the excise duty on imported goods freed from quantitative restrictions, not reducing the subsidy margin on fertilisers and other agricultural inputs even if the Centre was not in a position to restore the original rate, ensuring a “fair” procurement price for paddy after the next harvest and releasing more funds to help states speed up their infrastructure schemes.

Faced with a barrage of questions on what the Centre would do to alleviate the power shortage in Uttar Pradesh — whose chief minister Rajnath Singh was present — and redress the lot of farmers affected by the WTO, BJP sources quoted Sinha as saying: “I understand very well the concerns of states going to polls. The Centre will go out of its way to help the BJP-ruled states.”

Sinha, however, emphasised the need for better Centre-party coordination. He was quoted as saying: “Our economic policies are in the national interest, but that message is not going down.” He pointed out that RSS constituents like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad gave their “own perceptions”, which confused the cadre and supporters alike.

There was a suggestion from the BJP that the SJM should be invited to the meeting as an interaction was “long overdue”. But the proposal was shot down because most partymen felt Sinha should explain the economic situation to the party before “facing” the SJM.

BJP spokesman Sunil Shastri said the finance minister, who had to leave today as he has a prior engagement with the Prime Minister, would brief his party colleagues again before the next national executive. The party’s economic cell is meeting tomorrow to identify the issues which would be highlighted in the executive slated for early August in Amritsar.

Sources said the UTI debacle did not figure in the four-hour meeting attended by the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand. The Goa chief minister did not turn up as he was preoccupied with the Assembly session. Only former BJP president Kushabhau Thakre sought a clarification on UTI from Sinha, who dismissed it saying a probe had been ordered. When Thakre persisted, Sinha “vaguely” indicated that “some arrangement” would be made to bail out the small investors.

   

 
 
SANGH PAT WITH RIDERS 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, July 10: 
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has welcomed the Indo-Pak summit with a slew of riders. The gamut of opinions expressed in the latest issues of the RSS mouthpieces, Organiser and Panchajanya, reflects differences within the parivar despite the official stand taken at a recent meeting in Kanpur.

A resolution adopted by RSS arm Akhil Bharatiya Karyakari Mandal (ABKM) stated: “Despite the doubts about the legitimacy of the present military government in Pakistan, the ABKM welcomes the Vajpayee-Musharraf talks with the hope that Pakistan will positively respond to another opportunity for ensuring peace between the two countries.”

However, Panchajanya columnist and Sangh veteran Devendra Swaroop was quick to cast a damper on the Agra meeting by likening it to a doomed marriage. In an article What’s new about the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit, Swaroop wrote: “The hype created by the media is both unnatural and illusionary. Weeks before, we have started playing the shehnai to simulate an ambience in which it seems as though two besotted lovers are about to tie the knot. But it is a marriage which is doomed to failure.

“Musharraf himself is partially responsible for whipping up the hype. He keeps saying if India cooperates the two countries can rewrite history. But simultaneously he has reiterated that Kashmir will be the core issue in the meeting. If Kashmir is indeed the main issue, how does he expect to rewrite history? Can history be rewritten without redefining Kashmir’s geographical boundaries?”

But Swaroop’s reservations were not merely ideological or political. He sounded miffed at the attention being bestowed on Musharraf’s ancestral haveli in Old Delhi and the reception planned for him by its present owners and tenants.

However, not every writer sounds churlish. The Organiser was replete with dos and don’ts for the Vajpayee government.

VHP opposes summit

Barely 24 hours after India eased visa restrictions for Pakistani travellers as part of pre-summit confidence building measures, the the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has opposed them and threatened to hit the streets.

VHP leader Archarya Dharmendra said there was no need to be friendly with Pakistan, “the country we have always treated as an enemy.” The sadhus and sants will oppose the summit which should be cancelled, he added .

   

 
 
TRIMMER TEAM FOR MISSION KASHMIR 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, July 10: 
President Pervez Musharraf has decided to trim the flab of his delegation and fly in for the summit with a 19-member team led by foreign minister Abdul Sattar. The message is loud and clear: Islamabad wants little digression from the core issue of Kashmir during the talks.

The Pakistani establishment’s reluctance to take up other issues unless there is progress on Kashmir is evident from the fact that interior minister Moinuddin Haidar and commerce minister Razzak Dawood were dropped and Sattar, widely regarded in Indian diplomatic circles as a “hawk”, was installed as delegation leader.

In another strong signal, Islamabad has made it clear that it will keep in abeyance a response to the unilateral confidence-building-measures (CBMs) announced by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to stabilise the Line of Control and strengthen friendly relations between the neighbours.

While Sattar is the only Cabinet minister in Musharraf’s delegation, the other important members are foreign secretary Inamul Haq and government spokesman Major-General Rashid Qureshi. Foreign office mandarins dealing with Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations will also be on the team.

The omissions of Haidar and Dawood at the last minute is in keeping with the tough line Pakistan has been taking on Kashmir over the past one week. Not only has the Pakistani foreign office made it clear through remarks and statements that Kashmir will be the focus of discussions, it has also launched a diatribe against Delhi, accusing its security forces of repression in the Valley.

Earlier, indications were that Musharraf would also talk about other issues like enhancing bilateral trade and Delhi’s concern about terrorism. But the absence of the commerce and the interior ministers from the delegation is ample proof of the stand Musharraf is likely to take despite talk of “flexibility” and “open-mindedness”.

The Pakistani Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) today got in touch with his Indian counterpart over the hotline and discussed the latter’s proposed visit to Islamabad to hold talks on CBMs in the conventional as well as the nuclear weapons fields. He made it clear that the visit would not be possible before the summit as suggested by India.

But Delhi chose to ignore the negative signal. Foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao described the Pakistani officer’s response as “positive” while maintaining that no dates had been fixed for the Indian DGMO’s visit.

Responding to the Prime Minister’s decision yesterday to push for a soft border between the two Kashmirs and opening up the border to facilitate visits by Pakistanis, Rao said the move should not be seen as an attempt to recognise the LoC as the de facto border in violation of the Parliament’s resolution.

The Lok Sabha in 1994 made it clear that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir — including the areas under Pakistani occupation — are an integral part of India. “We are not conferring on the LoC any other title other than what has been agreed,” she said, pointing out that the steps announced by Delhi were for “administrative convenience”.

Reports from Islamabad said Pakistan has dismissed as “peripheral” the easing of visa restrictions by India and insisted that the Agra summit should focus on Kashmir.

Husain for Musharraf

M.F. Husain has done an exclusive painting depicting his pet theme of horses and highlighting a peace message to be presented by Vajpayee to Musharraf, adds PTI.

“The Prime Minister asked me to do a painting for the Pakistani President and so I did it,” Husain has said.

   

 
 
MINISTERS MULL ARREST PROCEDURE 
 
 
FROM R. VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, July 10: 
Miffed with the way Central Cabinet members were put behind bars in Tamil Nadu, Union law minister Arun Jaitley, in consultation with his counterpart in the home ministry L.K. Advani, will shortly formulate a “procedure” for arresting Union ministers.

DMK ministers Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu, who were arrested along with former chief minister M. Karunanidhi, took up the matter at an “informal” Cabinet discussion today, one of their senior colleagues said, adding that the matter was “of course” not on the agenda.

Confirming that the issue was discussed, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, who briefed reporters after the Cabinet meeting, said: “I apologise for the delay... there was a sudden discussion on the Tamil Nadu situation.”

The Cabinet source said that Maran and Baalu were agitated at the meeting and insisted on a discussion. Baalu, according to the source, said that the issue, though not on the agenda, should be taken up as it was not just about “Jayalalitha versus Baalu or Maran”, but involved the whole system.

A senior BJP minister said it was decided that a “screening procedure” should be worked out by the law minister in consultation with the home minister. The Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) is dealt with by the home ministry.

“What we want is not immunity. For example, I can’t say I should not be arrested by the Mumbai police if I go there and commit a crime. But what we want is a sort of a procedure. Lest a policeman can just come, without even the knowledge of the state’s chief minister or home minister, and say you are under arrest,” he said.

The minister pointed to the FIR filed against Indira Gandhi in 1977 in an Uttar Pradesh court, charging her with stealing 12 chicken. The FIR was, however, rejected as frivolous and the man who had filed it was punished as per provisions in the criminal law.

The minister said safeguards were necessary given the threats issued by different chief ministers against Opposition leaders. For example, he said, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh had warned Union minister Uma Bharti that she would be arrested if she was charged with any crime in her home state.

   

 
 
TAJ TOURISTS CHOKE ON SECURITY 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Agra, July 10: 
Silence shrouds the Taj, almost in anticipation of the diplomatic storm that would accompany President Pervez Musharraf when he comes here on Sunday. Tourist flow has reduced to a trickle as most of them have decided to stay away from Agra, changing their programmes at the last moment and taking a detour someplace else.

Hurting the tourist flow is also rumours of police high-handedness that, hotel owners say, “have reached all international airports”.

Photographers huddle together under trees inside the Taj, clicking one another’s photographs in mock seriousness. The ticket counter at the entrance is mostly without the long lines of excited faces: white, brown and black. Chandra Bora, a security officer at the Taj, says he has never seen the monument so deserted.

“It is really weird,” he says. “There is almost a fear psychosis. People ask me all sorts of things, like whether tourists are being harassed by intelligence sleuths, if they are being frisked. There are a lot of exaggerated rumours doing the rounds.”

The sudden stop in tourist flow has taken even lapaks — touts who are perceived to charge at tourists — by surprise. Rajesh, a 16-year-old lapak, says: “There is no one to charge at now, they shouldn’t call us lapaks anymore.”

Says D.K. Burman, joint director, tourism: “The Musharraf visit will help Agra in the long run, but as of now, tourists are staying away. They don’t know what is happening here.”

Mukesh Jain, who runs an art emporium, says tourists landing in Delhi and Mumbai are being told by their travel agents not to come to Agra until July 20, “when everything is absolutely normal”.

There are cancellations in almost every well-known hotel. Dinesh Srivastava, a hotel-owner, has an explanation. “Whenever people think India-Pakistan, they think tension and frayed nerves,” he says. “The way the security arrangements are being made here, they can’t be blamed for thinking that.”

The Hotel and Restaurant Association has given a strict guideline to its 118 members not to accommodate Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Kashmiri tourists. In case they do, they should intimate the police within half-an-hour of the tourists checking in. It has also asked all hotel-owners to be personally present at the counters so they know exactly who is staying and where they are from.

But even after all this, police and intelligence agencies are not taking any chances. Hotel-owners, especially in the budget category, report of cops barging in at 3 am and interrogating guests. The police and the local administration have even gone to the extent of booking two to three rooms in each of the more well-known hotels.

“Word usually gets around,” Srivastava says. “In such a scenario, tourists would rather wait until all this is over and so would we.”

But as SSP Agra, A.K.D. Dwivedi, says: “It is not every day that India and Pakistan sit together at a table to sort things out. We are trying our best to minimise the inconvenience to visitors, but certain things have to be done.”

   

 
 
RAPED BRIDE IN JUSTICE FIGHT 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Danapur, July 10: 
Her world crumbled round her in five horrifying minutes as her fresh-sindoor-smeared forehead was smudged with blood. A month later, 16-year-old Urmila Majhi is still recovering from the trauma but has summoned enough courage to challenge her tormentors to a battle for justice.

Urmila, the terror still palpable in her eyes, convulses as she relives her nightmare. The newly-wed girl was going to her in-laws’ residence in Gonwa village early last month when she was gangraped by a bunch of youths from the powerful Yadav caste.

The incident has dealt a blow to Laloo Yadav’s attempts at building a unified backward classes group to take on the hegemony of the upper castes. Urmila belongs to the downtrodden Mushahar community of rodent trappers.

Even a month after the assault, the main accused are at large and have twice tried to kidnap the girl. “If you don’t withdraw the case against us, we will forcibly take her out of the colony and no one will come to your rescue” was the threat given by the six gangsters who raided Shikanderpur and Chanwari villages in Danapur last week. “But I am not afraid of them. I am ready to face them in court,” says Urmila. Her outburst has taken the others by surprise as the Mushahars had almost accepted suffering in silence.

Shikanderpur village, located on a flat, low land, is a study in contrast. On one side of the unmetalled road stand concrete buildings owned by the relatively well-off Yadavs. The other side is dotted with the thatched huts of the Mushahars. The tension, previously latent, between the two communities, spilled over after the gang-rape.

Asha Devi, mother-in-law of the victim, says Urmila left for her in-law’s house at Gonwa the day after her marriage on June 1. She was on her way to Danapur station along with her husband, Prem. When she reached a desolate village road around 9 am, six men, who were drinking toddy, stopped her husband. Two of them held him, while the others dragged Urmila into a nearby jungle and raped her. “I was screaming at the top of my voice but two men stifled me and the others took turns in raping me,” says the teenager, her eyes welling up.

Soon after the gangsters fled, Prem cried out for help when they reached the nearest village. They were taken to Naubatpur police station where the officer refused to accept an FIR. The police station initially lodged a case of molestation. No one was arrested. “Even some policemen complained that the charges were frivolous,” said Prem.

About two weeks later, Danapur subdivisional police officer Arshad Zaman stepped in and directed the Naubatpur police station to record Urmila’s statement and begin a case. Zaman said all the six accused named in the FIR were Yadavs. One of them, Nathu Chowdhary, has been held but the others are absconding.

   
 

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