Silent scream for solace
Blast leaves child deaf
Pickpocket drive on Metro nets six women
‘Extremist’ on the social scene
Not a crore or a lakh, but gifts for a lucky pati
63 wetlands ‘missing’ in Howrah town
Mamata buys time to return with ‘honour’
Biman gets Left top post
Govt rules out power board sell-off
UN appeal to unlock AIDS funds

 
 
SILENT SCREAM FOR SOLACE 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
It’s the night before the HS results. An anxious examinee waits for his parents to go out for a business dinner before picking up the phone and dialling a helpline. “What will I do? I won’t come back home if I do badly,” he mumbles.

It’s anytime, anyday. A teenager, ‘devastated’ after discovering that her boyfriend has been two-timing her, reaches out to call a counsellor. “I don’t want to tell my friends about this, I can’t possibly tell my parents... What do I do?” she cries.

With competition and stress defining the pressure-cooker world of the teenager today, Dial H for Helplines is fast becoming an everyday reality. A punishing examination regime; pressure to perform from parents; keeping pace with peers — from grades to the guy/girl on your arm. It all adds up to a situation where the anonymity of a patient voice is the lone source of solace, the sole safety valve.

“There is still a stigma attached to the idea of seeing a shrink. The helplines allow us to give vent to our feelings without going ‘public’ with our problems,” explain two 16-year-olds.

But the alarming fact remains that West Bengal, according to 1997 National Crime Records Bureau figures, has “the highest suicide rate” in India, at 39 deaths per day. And the “biggest risk group” is the 16 to 30 segment.

Sixty-three per cent of the calls to Lifeline Foundation, a helpline for the distressed and suicidal since 1997, come from this age-group. “Only between two and five per cent of distress calls are triggered by academic pressure alone. Relationships, at home and in peer groups, form around 30 per cent of the 25 calls received at Lifeline per day,” says centre coordinator Debadideb Datta.

It’s not just the number of calls that’s been rising. The Society for Nature, Education and Health, or Sneh, running “result helplines” since 1995, has detected a “gradual improvement” in attitude towards bad marks among callers.

“Kids are more aware of their options nowadays, and seek career advice,” says Subarna Ghosh, president, Sneh. The night before results are due, there are cries for help, but the attitude is “less fatalistic now”.

Ghosh admits, however, that many ‘listeners’ working for some helplines are “unqualified”, and run the risk of doing “more harm than good”.

Schools are finally waking up to the need for “talks with students”. For example, after the release of Kaho Na... Pyar Hai, Sneh was called into one south Calcutta school. “The principal was very concerned that her girls, bowled over by Hrithik, would follow him to Mumbai,” said counsellor Sheena Misra Ghosh, who went in to speak to the Class VII and VIII girls about “the difference between infatuation and love”.

While these girls did not take the mail train to Mumbai, the Hrithik-mania that swept the teen brigade was a clear cry for help.

A reputed college, having introduced a counselling cell three years ago, has seen the number of students seeking help double annually. “In 1998, we had around 30 students. The next year, 75 boys and girls turned up. In 2000, 150 kids came in,” said one of the counsellors, not wishing to be named. Being a co-ed college, “love-related problems were fewer, but problems in class and at home abound”.

At Serve, around 25 per cent of the calls received by each telecounsellor is about academic complaints, while the rest revolve around “relationships”.

“It’s a shame that these children cannot turn to their parents or teachers when they need them most, so it’s up to us to try and do what we can,” says CEO Brendan MacCarthaigh.

Samikhshani, a reputed clinic offering psychiatric treatment and therapy, is being approached with an increasing number of social, not psychiatric, problems these days. “Torn between spending time with friends and their parents’ reservations about mingling with the opposite sex, instead of spending time with books, there is a huge level of guilt at work with young adults,” explains Jolly Laha, psychotherapist. While she is pleased to note the “gradually changing attitude” towards seeking help, there are very few “pillars of support” in town, she warns.

Till those “pillars” are in place in an apathetic system, GenX’s muffled cries of confusion and silent screams for empathy will continue to be heard only at the other end of a helpline.

   

 
 
BLAST LEAVES CHILD DEAF 
 
 
BY DEBASISH CHATTOPADHYAY
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
Victor Mukherjee is all of 19 months old. Till the other day, he was a perfectly normal, happy child. But following a bomb blast in front of their Chetla home on Thursday afternoon, his parents have been living in fear that the boy has lost his hearing forever.

At around 2 pm on Thursday, Victor and brother Pradipto, 8, were playing in the passage leading up to the iron gate. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion just outside the gate, on Rakhaldas Auddy Road, and the passage was filled with smoke. Witnesses spotted two young men fleeing towards the New Alipore railway station.

There was panic in the Mukherjee home. While Pradipto ran inside, mother Mita fell down and hurt her ribs badly. Victor, meanwhile, sat dazed in the passage, till his grandmother came and led him inside the house.

A while later, when things were returning to normal, Victor’s parents noticed that the boy was “not responding” to what they were saying.

“It was then that we realised, to our horror, that he had lost his hearing,” said father Tulu.

Victor was rushed to SSKM Hospital, where the doctors checked the child and prescribed a host of medicines to try and revive his hearing.

“We have been asked to keep a close watch on Victor. If he does not start responding to sound within seven days, he will have to undergo an audiometry test to determine the extent of damage,” said his parents.

According to Tulu Mukherjee, a local Trinamul Congress leader, the bomb attack had been aimed at him. “Some goons have been threatening me and my family ever since I had complained against them following the murder of Gule, a neighbour of ours.”

To protest Thursday’s blast, residents, led by Trinamul councillor Ruby Dutta, held a demonstration on Chetla Central Road, demanding the “immediate arrest of the goons who have unleashed a reign of terror in the area”.

   

 
 
PICKPOCKET DRIVE ON METRO NETS SIX WOMEN 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
Six young women were arrested from the Esplanade Metro station on Friday on charges of picking the pockets of passengers. According to deputy commissioner of police, south, Ranjit Pachnanda, policewomen had been posted at Esplanade following reports of snatching and picking of pockets at Metro stations.

On Thursday, passenger Chameli Sur had complained that a woman on the platform had snatched her purse, containing Rs 1,040, a gold watch and a chain. According to statistics available with the detective department, more than a dozen cases of snatching have been reported on Metro stations in the past few weeks.

Police said Parveen Bibi, Tumpa Das and Gita Das were caught while trying to pick the pocket of a man at Esplanade station on Friday morning. “These women, all in their mid-30s, first crowd around the passenger before one of them moves in for the kill,’’ the cops said.

During interrogation, the trio said they were from Hanskhali, in Nadia, and Sankrail, in Howrah, and named three other gang members. “We laid a trap in the evening and arrested the other three from Esplanade. One of the women arrested earlier in the day identified the associates,’’ police said.

   

 
 
‘EXTREMIST’ ON THE SOCIAL SCENE 
 
 
BY SOUMITRA DAS
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
What does a socialite evening have to do with the monsoon? Nothing, except that a team of British filmmakers is producing Going to Extremes, a series on the hottest, wettest, driest and coldest places on earth. A vignette of Calcuttans partying during the rains is to be included as the camera follows a travel writer, who drops by at the four spots where extreme climatic conditions prevail.

Socialite Moina Jhala’s huge living room on Loudon Street was dressed for the occasion on Wednesday evening. Several Chinese lanterns were hanging from the ceiling, bathing the three sets of sofas, paintings, fireplace and gewgaws with a soft light. Drinks in hand, a small group of people was gathered there, and director David Tibballs and the writer, Nick Middleton, who is also a professor of geography at St Anne’s College, Oxford, were chatting up the guests. To be on the safe side, Middleton was wearing plastic sandals. Cinematographer Ali Kazimi seemed to be pursuing them, lugging the camera around.

Kishore Kumar was humming Rabindrasangeet on the sound system. Snatches of conversation were being punctiliously recorded. Dinner was announced. It was a Bengali meal. The piece de resistance was the ilish — silver harvest of the rains.

Moina Jhala was in a naughty mood. She talked untiringly about love in the times of rain. Middleton was all ears. For so much footage, Calcutta won’t last longer than three minutes on screen.

Middleton has written four travelogues and books for children too. His next book will be in association with the series being made for Channel Four of BBC and National Geographic.

Tibballs describes Middleton as a “typical English chap” who is “used to a mid-latitude life, average temperatures, average sunshine”, average everything, in fact. A climatologist, he goes to see if he “can withstand the climates he teaches about.”

So in the four parts of the series of an hour each, he visits Oymyakon in Siberia, where the temperature plummets to -50 degree, the Dallol Depression, where nobody gets hot under the collar when the barometer shows +50 degree, and desiccated Arica, in the Atacama desert in Chile.

Middleton, who specialises in deserts, slept out in the desert on a ration of a litre of water a day with Chilean commandos.

He begins his journey to Mawsynram in Meghalaya from Calcutta, where he meets people. Hence, the party scene.

He will follow the direction of the monsoon winds up the flooded plains of Bangladesh and will finally reach the Khasi Hills. As he finishes his trip, he renounces all technological advances and lives in a “basic way” at Kaziranga for two to three weeks.

Middleton says he had mulled over his “extremist” idea for 18 months and eventually got the finance. The shoots were planned when weather conditions were at their “mostest.”

After surviving that ordeal, he says human beings make physiological adaptations that help them cope with severe climatic conditions. He adds a dash of humour: “Of course, I don’t expect them to grow webbed feet if it is very wet.” But they do build houses that can cope with such conditions.

This is Middleton’s third visit to India and his first to Calcutta. Surprisingly, he found the drivers of Calcutta both “calm and polite”, unlike their counterparts in London and Rome.

“There they would be parping their horns too, but they would go bonkers,” he says.

Filming Going to Extremes will be over in October and it is scheduled to be aired in November.

   

 
 
NOT A CRORE OR A LAKH, BUT GIFTS FOR A LUCKY PA 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
This Sunday, there will be competition for Amitabh Sir’s class on Star Plus at 10 am. While Amitabh Bachchan weaves his special brand of magic on the small screen, a section of the city’s Jain community — inspired by their favourite actor and their favourite gameshow — will be setting off on a Kaun Banega Crorepati?-like voyage to find out who’s the luckiest pati of them all.

Twenty Jain couples will face Manish Seth in the hot seat. Seth is also vice-president of the Jain Social Group Calcutta Downtown, which is organising the show. There will be lifelines and four options per question, but the pot at the end of this rainbow will contain prizes, not moolah.

“We can’t make crorepatis or lakhpatis of people,” says Seth. “We are not Amitabh Bachchans.” But they plan to bring smiles to the patnis’ faces, he adds, by making a few patis lucky enough to win prizes for them.

The concept is simple. Seth will invite 20 lucky couples to play Kaun Banega Luckypati with him. But on one condition: It will be the husband who will have to do the answering, with help from the better, but in this case silent, half. The prize that each right answer will bring goes to the wife; each gift — ranging from cosmetics worth Rs 150 to diamond rings worth Rs 7,000 — is geared towards the woman of the team.

The response, says Seth, has been “electrifying”. All the 180 forms which were distributed were lapped up. Then came the preliminary round which, again, like KBC, was conducted over phone. Questions were prepared by a five-member research team comprising Seth, group president Atul Hemani, Jignesh Matalia, Chetan Shah and Ketan Vora.

The 120 couples who responded correctly will head for a lucky draw at Taj Bengal on Sunday; 20 of them will finally get to play KBL. There will be 10 questions for each husband-and-wife team. Each correct answer will get the winners a prize; the winners will test their luck by picking slips which will guide them to their gifts.

A wrong answer will disqualify a team — but not before using two lifelines to bail them out. One of them will be the anchor himself — he will guide the team to the correct answer, so that each couple gets at least one prize — and another will be a friend from the audience.

The anchor promises not to deviate from the original. “Amitji, I think, won’t mind if his fan imitates him,” says Seth. “And the more you imitate Amitabh Bachchan, the longer he lives... In your heart,” he adds, explaining why he feels his idol won’t mind a little bit of mimesis.

   

 
 
63 WETLANDS ‘MISSING’ IN HOWRAH TOWN 
 
 
BY OUR LEGAL REPORTER
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
At least 63 ponds and wetlands in Howrah town are “missing”, according to a report placed before Calcutta High Court on Friday by the municipal authorities.

Earlier, the green bench of Calcutta High Court had directed the Howrah Municipal Corporation to furnish a report, stating the condition of 188 wetlands and ponds in the town area. The civic body’s report details the condition of 125 ponds and wetlands. The green bench, comprising Chief Justice A.K. Mathur and Justice G. Gupta, directed the Corporation to file another report on the other 63 ponds.

On behalf of Howrah Ganatantrik Nagarik Samity, general secretary Subhas Dutta had filed a petition before the green bench, alleging that the Howrah civic body was “indirectly helping promoters fill up ponds in Howrah”. The bench had directed Dutta to file a report on the wetlands. Dutta, in his report, said there were 188 ponds and wetlands in the municipal area.

During the hearing of the case on Friday, Dutta alleged that a pond in Dumurjala, under the municipal area, was filled up recently though the high court had already passed an order directing the authorities not to fill up any wetland. Dutta added that a group of promoters, in connivance of the councillors, had arranged the filling of the ponds. The court had allowed the authorities to fill up two ponds for the construction of Kona Expressway, off the second Hooghly bridge.

   

 
 
MAMATA BUYS TIME TO RETURN WITH ‘HONOUR’ 
 
 
BY BARUN GHOSH
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
Mamata Banerjee has ruled out rejoining the NDA just yet while agreeing to offer issue-based support to the Central coalition.

Mamata conveyed this to her MPs hours after they authorised her to take a decision on the issue last night. Trinamul sources said Mamata will convene a meeting of her MPs by the weekend to get her decision ratified. The MPs also requested her to inform NDA convener George Fernandes of the party’s stand at the earliest since Parliament’s monsoon session begins from July 23. She has also been asked to speak to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But the party was faced with another crisis with its MP from Panskura, Bikram Sarkar, tonight threatening to resign in protest against what he said was the humiliation meted out to him. Reacting to the party’s decision to ask him to head the one-man committee to recommend the mode of punishment for rebel MP Ajit Panja, Sarkar said he was not aware of any such panel.

Sarkar, known in Trinamul circles as being close to Panja, said the news was given in an effort to create bad-blood among the leaders. “The formation of such a committee was never discussed at last night’s meeting and that is why I was surprised to see the news concerning the committee in today’s editions,” he said. “Mamata is coming to my residence and I shall complain to her against those spreading canards against me,” Sarkar added.

Asked whether party MP Sudip Bandopadhaya had briefed newspersons about it, an enraged Sarkar said: “How could he (Bandopadhaya) brief you about the matter that was never discussed? This is an attempt to malign me.”

Trinamul sources said five of the eight MPs present yesterday felt that the party might have to swallow its pride if it was seen as being in a hurry to rejoin the coalition. “Instead, we should wait till the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are over. If the BJP does not perform well, we can rejoin the NDA with honour and even bargain over allocation of portfolios,” they said.

They also pointed out that any hurried decision would give a handle to Panja to reiterate his demand for a berth in the government. “If we get enough time and allow Panja to get involved in anti-party activities, then we can impress upon the BJP leadership that Panja is more a betrayer than a trustworthy politician,” the MPs said. Another reason why Trinamul is delaying its re-entry is its alliance with the Congress. “If the Congress ties up with the Left in Punjab, then we will have proper ground to break the alliance here. We cannot go along with the Congress in Bengal which is ready to join hands with the Left at the national level,” said an MP.

But some MPs like Sarkar, Anando Mohan Biswas and Akbar Ali Khondakar were learnt to have argued that it was necessary to return to the NDA to protect the party workers. “At least, we can have a say on district magistrates and senior police officials if we are in the government,” they said.

Undeterred by the pleas, Mamata appeared determined to follow the “wait-and-watch policy”. “We will not bow to any pressure. Instead, we will rejoin the NDA holding our heads high,” Bandopadhaya said.

   

 
 
BIMAN GETS LEFT TOP POST 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
CPM politburo member Biman Bose was today elected the fourth chairman of the ruling Left Front.

The Front met this morning at the CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street and elected Bose as chairman. The post had fallen vacant after Sailen Dasgupta’s death. CPM state secretary Anil Biswas said his Forward Bloc counterpart, Ashok Ghosh, proposed Bose’s name and all the Front’s constituents gave their assent. Jyoti Basu presided over the meeting. Biswas pointed out that Bose had been a member of the Left Front committee constituted in 1977. Other members of that committee were Saroj Mukherjee, Abdullah Rasul and Jyoti Basu. “We took only a minute to elect Bose our new chairman,” he said.

Bose became a member of the undivided Communist Party in 1958 and functioned as president and vice-president of the Bengal Provincial Students’ Federation, the students’ wing of the undivided party. He was inducted into the CPM state committee in 1971 and was taken into the state secretariat in 1978. In 1985, he was included in the CPM’s central committee. Bose joined the politburo in 1998.

The new chairman told reporters that his primary job would be to strengthen the Front. “I will try my level best to run those booth committees of the ruling Front which were set up during the elections. Though it might be difficult to run such Front committees at the grassroots level, I will work hard to run them,” he said.

The first Left Front chairman was Promode Dasgupta, who was succeeded by Saroj Mukherjee.

All the three previous chairmen also held the post of CPM state secretary. Bose is an exception. But Biswas said there is no rule that the Front chairman will have to be the secretary of the state CPM.

Bose said he and other Front leaders will meet all Front MPs in Delhi on July 21. “The meeting with the MPs was supposed to be held in Calcutta on Wednesday but we had to cancel it due to the death of Sailen Dasgupta. Now the meeting will be held in Delhi and our MPs will be given a guideline to oppose the anti-people policies of the Centre jointly in Parliament,” he added.

The state secretariat reallocated the functions of its members. “Sailen Dasgupta used to perform a number of important party jobs. Since he is no more, all our secretariat members have taken responsibility of the jobs looked after by Dasgupta. I have to function as editor of Marxbadi Path, a CPM mouthpiece, apart from my heavy schedule as party secretary,” Biswas said.

   

 
 
GOVT RULES OUT POWER BOARD SELL-OFF 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
Power minister Mrinal Banerjee today said the state government had no plan to privatise the state electricity board (SEB).

Replying to a question in the Assembly, Banerjee said the government was opposed to privatising the SEB as it feared the power tariff accompanying such a move would be beyond the reach of not only the rural people, but also those living in urban areas.

Banerjee said power tariff was last revised in 1999. He said in the two years since, production costs had spiralled following an increase in the price of coal and oil. Salary bills of employees had also increased, he added.

However, the final decision on tariff revision would be taken by the State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC).

Power department sources said it was not easy to privatise the SEB as it is protected by the Indian Electricity (Supply) Act, 1948. “If the SEB is to be given away to the private sector, it has to be dismantled into two separate companies under the Companies Act, controlling the transmission and distribution. The thermal generation is already being controlled by the Power Development Corporation Development Limited (PDCL) completely after the Bandel and Santaldih plants were handed over to it,” an official said.

The hand-over of the Bandel and Santaldih plants to the PDCL, with effect from July 1, was in accordance with the recommendations of the N.C. Bose committee set up in 1996 to suggest ways to restructure the power sector in the state, sources said. The committee submitted its report in 1997 and the recommendations were accepted by the state Cabinet. However, the hand-over of the Bandel and Santaldih plants from the SEB to the PDCL does not necessarily mean a transfer of employees as well. “We have given an option to the SEB employees and asked them to let the authorities know of their decision by August 31. Though the pay structure in the two agencies is almost the same, the scope of promotion in PDCL is better,” an official said.

It is learnt that SERC, which has already heard out both SEB and CESC on their demands for a tariff hike, is likely to announce its decision next month. The CESC has demanded a 28 per cent hike in the tariff while the SEB has demanded a 22 per cent increase.

“However, we know that the SERC will not concede to their demands. It will settle for less. We expect the power tariff in the state to go up before the Pujas,” an official said.

   

 
 
UN APPEAL TO UNLOCK AIDS FUNDS 
 
 
BY AMIT UKIL
 
Calcutta, July 13: 
The UNAIDS today requested chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to pave the way for the release of funds to non-government organisations through the West Bengal State AIDS Society.

About Rs 1 crore in funds, handed over to the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco) by the British Department for International Development (DfID) for disbursement through the state AIDS society, has been held up since April. The DfID-run West Bengal Sexual Health Project was winded up last year. Its ongoing projects under 17 partners were handed over to the government for continuation. The funding would also continue.

David Miller, country representative of UNAIDS, which is a joint organisation of UN bodies — WHO, the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation — met Bhattacharjee today and told him that the projects were suffering because of fund paucity.

Among them, he said, were the Sonagachhi HIV/AIDS intervention project, which has gained international recognition following its reported success in containing HIV spread among sex workers through their empowerment.

This success, to a large extent, has been possible because of the continued support from the Left Front government and the CPM leadership. Ministers, as well as CPM office-bearers, have patronised several initiatives of the project since 1994.

A state AIDS society official said the delay was primarily due to the slow transition of papers from the DfID to the society. “The Sonagachhi project has sought additional funds for which we need DfID and Naco approval,” he said.

But when that comes through, the society will still not be able to disburse funds as director Trilochan Singh is on an assignment with WHO in Delhi. “The society’s committee will meet on his return and finalise this issue,” the official added. Singh is expected back in the first week of August.

The official also pointed out that DfID disbursement was need-based, while Naco has specific guidelines that have to be met before funds are sanctioned to an NGO. “These will now have to be met before the cheques are issued,” he added.

The chief minister asked Miller whether UNAIDS could provide the state with some good practice examples from other parts of the country which would be examined and, if possible, implemented in Bengal as well.

The UNAIDS official agreed and said that his meeting with Bhattacharjee was fruitful. “Even though the HIV/AIDS prevalence in Bengal is not that alarming compared to other states, the interest that he (Bhattacharjee) showed was promising,” Miller said. Naco and UNAIDS is now concentrating prevention efforts on the 25-odd low-prevalence states to ensure that there is no repetition of the situation as in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Manipur and Andhra Pradesh.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has called a meeting of chief ministers from low-prevalence states on July 24 to encourage them to intensify AIDS awareness and prevention efforts. As far as political commitment goes, all parties are concerned about this incurable infection. Trinamul Congress state general secretary Gautam Basu is in New York to meet UN officials on the subject.

   
 

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