Ally sucks PMO into UTI scandal
Stream of surrenders in Phoolan murder
Sangh pressure derails labour law reform
Drama in and outside courtroom
Sushma slams door on downsize move
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, July 30: 
The Prime Minister’s Office and its key former official — N.K. Singh — today stood directly accused by an ally as the “hidden hands” that had influenced Unit Trust of India to make one of its biggest dud investments last year in Lucknow-based Cyberspace Infosys.

Mobile telephone records of sacked UTI chief P.S. Subramanyam, which were bandied about in Parliament by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam, indicated that someone from Singh’s residence spoke to the UTI chief at 2.19 pm on July 20 last year, a day before the Trust reversed its decision not to invest in Cyberspace.

Today’s revelations also appeared to confirm Subramanyam’s lawyer Satish Manishinde’s submission in a Mumbai court last week that “hidden hands” had influenced UTI investment decisions.

On July 17 last year, UTI had decided against investing in the company after its equity research cell counselled against it.

On the same day, Subramanyam spoke to someone using a mobile phone registered as belonging to the Prime Minister’s Office. A call was also made by the sacked UTI chief to this mobile number — 9810180481 — on July 20 at 2.38 pm. Finally, on July 21, UTI’s board of trustees agreed to invest Rs 32 crore to pick up 3.45 lakh shares of Cyberspace at Rs 930 per share. The stock is now quoting below Rs 9.

The Sena is an ally of the BJP and Nirupam was actually expected to come out in support of finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

Another BJP ally, the Telugu Desam, too, took the finance minister to task for the UTI scam. Its member, Ramachandraiah, bluntly referred to the scam and described the government’s response to it as “hoodwinking the public”.

Nirupam’s same-side attack caught many by surprise. The Sena MP stirred up a storm in the Rajya Sabha when he popped another cell number — 9811074666 — from which a call had been made to Subramanyam. The mobile, he claimed, belonged to “unke damad” (son-in-law).

Most, including treasury bench members, took this to mean the PM’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya and reacted angrily. Nirupam immediately changed his stance and said: “It could have been anyone’s son-in-law — even Subramanyam’s... they could have been discussing the weather.”

But the Sena leader knew damage had been done without any breach of parliamentary privilege. To add insult to injury, he then said the finance secretary had spoken to the sacked UTI chief on his mobile an hour before the budget was placed in the Lok Sabha. And he wondered aloud what could have been the reason for the call, especially when the finance ministry has been claiming it had little to do with the running of the mutual fund.

On budget day, the market had whooped in response to the finance minister’s fiscal announcements. Heavy buying by financial institutions was reported and Nirupam was trying to link this to the phone call earlier in the day to UTI. He also spoke of a letter that Subramanyam had written to Vajpayee and demanded that Sinha place it before the House. Nirupam later claimed he had no idea what the letter contained.

Both the cell numbers revealed have now been switched off and attempts to reach them throughout the evening proved futile. Singh too refused to take calls.


New Delhi, July 30: 
Investigations into Phoolan Devi’s murder got a fresh impetus after three accomplices of Pankaj alias Sher Singh Rana — the prime accused — surrendered before the Saharanpur district court today.

The trio of Rajbir, Ravinder and Shekhar were named by Pankaj as his accomplices during his interrogation at the capital’s Patiala Court. Ravinder is related to Pankaj; the other two are acquaintances.

This morning, the three had gone to surrender before chief judicial magistrate Umesh Chand Saxena, but were told that the case did not fall within his jurisdiction. But police, already tipped off about their whereabouts, arrested them as soon as they emerged from the court. A white car and a mobile phone with two SIM cards (mobile phone cards) were recovered from them.

The white car was used by one of the assailants as a back-up vehicle to escape from the murder site. Pankaj had allegedly escaped from the scene of the crime in a green Maruti-800, which was later found abandoned at Pandit Pant Marg, a couple of kilometres from Phoolan’s 44 Ashoka Road residence.

Delhi police have conducted raids in the capital’s satellite towns on the Uttar Pradesh border to try and fill in the gaps that have shown up in the course of investigations and to get a clearer picture of the conspiracy. Police sources said the slain bandit queen-turned-lawmaker’s family members were still being questioned to see if the murder was related to a property dispute or political aspirations.

Umedh Singh, Phoolan’s husband, who had alleged that she was a victim of political conspiracy, today met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani and demanded a high-level probe by the CBI or a joint parliamentary committee. Singh also asked for personal security cover. “Those who killed my wife are planning to kill me also,” he said, but did not name anybody. He added that he urged Vajpayee to convert Phoolan’s official residence into a memorial.

“My wife and myself were for years devoted to the cause of the backward castes and some sections did not consider it correct. It seems they wanted to stop this work,” Singh said he told the home minister.

Singh also claimed that some weapons were recovered from the garage of Phoolan’s Ashoka Road residence. He said a man called Lathiwallah, from Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh, had visited Phoolan’s house on July 25, the day she was killed. According to Singh, the visitor had probably dropped in the arms. The “discovery” of the arms, he said, had strengthened his suspicion that his life was in danger.


New Delhi, July 30: 
Yielding to pressure from the Sangh parivar, the Centre has decided not to change labour laws in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament. It will keep on hold the proposed amendments to the politically sensitive Industrial Disputes Act and the Contract Labour Act.

Top labour ministry sources said the amendments are still being drafted and the government was in no hurry to push them through. The finance ministry may want to rush through the changes as part of the second-generation economic reforms, but it will be the labour ministry which will have to draw up the changes and set the ball rolling.

While presenting this year’s budget, finance minister Yashwant Sinha had proposed amending the Industrial Disputes Act — a move that would make closures, lockouts and retrenchments easier. According to the Act, factories with not more than 100 workers can be shut down without prior permission from the state government. But the Centre, through an amendment, wants to raise the ceiling to 1,000.

The Centre plans to amend the Contract Labour Act to facilitate outsourcing of production activities and scrap the provision which aims to abolish contract labour.

In the last session of the Indian Labour Conference two months ago, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the thick of opposition from trade unions including those affiliated to his party, had declared that his government was committed to changing the labour laws in keeping with the economic situation.

Labour minister Satya Narain Jatiya, too, seemed ready to go along with the changes, and Sinha said the modifications would be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament. But the Centre appears to have been singed by the heat of the Sangh parivar’s opposition. BJP MPs have been raising the issue of labour laws at every meeting. The party’s trade union wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sabha, had also opposed the government’s policies.

Party MPs in Delhi were particularly upset with the BJP high command because modified labour laws could lead to rapid closures and lockouts of industrial units in the capital. Last week, trade unions of all political colours marched to Parliament to protest against a whole range of economic policies — but at the core of opposition was the proposed changes in labour laws.

“The government can now wait for the National Labour Commission to present its report on labour laws and pass the buck to them,” said a trade union leader, indicating that the commission is likely to back the government’s recommendations for changes in the two Acts. The commission has been tight-lipped so far.

The Centre seems to be caught in a bind over its decision to move ahead with liberalisation and, at the same time, not rub its voters the wrong way. With the Uttar Pradesh polls nearing, BJP leaders feel the Vajpayee government’s hard economic decisions are becoming a liability, with the middle class getting disenchanted with the Centre. The swadeshi hawks in the RSS are also finding it difficult to defend the Centre’s decisions.


Calcutta, July 30: 
Inside the courtroom, tears rolled down the cheeks of the Titan of Tiljala. Outside, terror roared on a convoy of motorbikes, matador vans and minibuses.

The might of Mohammed Taslim alias Chunnu was on full display at the Alipore court today as a huge caravan of footsoldiers formed human chains and taunted the law for daring to arrest him over the abduction of shoe magnate Parthapratim Roy Burman.

Chunnu was remanded in police custody till August 10 but not before his 6,000 supporters held the area to ransom and managed to delay his court appearance by almost two hours.

As the 100-strong fleet of vehicles gunned past the court gates, shopkeepers outside downed shutters and traffic screeched to a halt. Even the main gate of the zilla parishad was half-closed, apprehending an attack from the supporters of Chunnu.

The supporters were in the age group of five to 55 with a good mix of men and women. Some schoolchildren, too, had joined the bandwagon. Armed with placards, they raised slogans in favour of Chunnu and hurled invectives at the criminal investigation department, which carried out the arrest, and its chief.

The procession reached Bhabani Bhavan around noon. The supporters then entered the court premises and formed the human chains. Soon, a huge contingent of policemen, surrounded the court premises.

The police managed to force the drivers to take the vehicles out, but the raucous crowd remained inside. “More than 6,000 people have come and we are trying our best to control them,” Ranjit Pachnanda, deputy commissioner (south), said. “The processionists include both innocent people and criminals out on bail,” another officer added.

If Alipore was forced to suffer a bandh-like situation, Chunnu’s turf Tiljala went the whole hog. A bandh was “observed” in the Tiljala-Topsia areas by the Citizens’ Forum, whose general-secretary is Chunnu.

He was supposed to be produced before the magistrate around 2 pm. Lawyers turned restive at the delay and requested the magistrate to seek explanation from the police. Around 4.15 pm, Chunnu, clad in a T-shirt and trousers, was produced. As the slogan-shouting rose to a crescendo outside, a teary-eyed Chunnu stood inside in handcuffs.

Manu Chatterjee, one of the 12 lawyers representing Chunnu, said: “He is a social worker and he runs a number of social organisations and schools. He cannot be involved in such activities.” Baiswanar Chatterjee, another lawyer of Chunnu, said: “We have pleaded for medical assistance. We want to ensure that he is not tortured.”

However, public prosecutor Taj Mohammed said: “Chunnu was remanded in police custody for his involvement in criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, attempt to murder, wrongful confinement and possessing arms in the case of Parthapratim Roy Burman.”


New Delhi, July 30: 
Guarding her fief with gusto, Sushma Swaraj has virtually told the finance ministry that it might as well fling the recommendations to downsize her ministry into the Deep Blue.

Her ministry’s deadline to take action on the recommendations of the Expenditure Reforms Committee headed by K.P. Geethakrishnan ends tomorrow. The finance ministry has been breathing down her neck to hack the information and broadcasting ministry to a bare minimum.

Answering a written question by Ram Deo Bhandary in the Rajya Sabha today, Swaraj said: “The report of the Geethakrishnan Committee, pertaining to the ministry of information and broadcasting, has been considered in the ministry. However, no final decision has been taken in the matter.”

But a 150-page response sent to the finance ministry left little doubt what Swaraj thinks of the recommendations.

“You cannot expect any ministry to actually accept and implement such recommendations in toto,” a senior I&B official said. The recommendations are radical. The committee has suggested closing down the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Films Division, Children’s Film Society, song & drama division, directorate of audio-visual publicity, directorate of field publicity, disinvesting (or winding up) National Film Development Corporation and shutting four branches of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications (Kottayam, Jhabua, Dimapur and Dhenkanal) and abolishing senior posts in the ministry.

If its recommendations are accepted, the Expenditure Reforms Committee (ERC) pointed out in its report, the Centre’s wage bill for the I&B ministry — now Rs 726 crore for about 50,000 employees — will be slashed by half. Earlier this year, the consultative committee of the ministry had virtually rejected the recommendations.

“It appears from the recommendations of the ERC that the commission has proceeded to examine the role of various media units of this ministry without holding any consultations with the media heads and consequently has arrived at unrealistic appreciation of their functioning and significance,” the ministry said in its response to the finance ministry today.

“The commission also seems to have been excessively swayed by the power of television, so much so that in their view television could replace the other inter-personal media units too.”

The I&B ministry has pointed out that in any case it functions on a shoestring budget. It also has a social commitment that the ERC appears to have discounted while going about its study.

“It is felt that implementation of the recommendation of ERC will not lead to worthwhile, if at all any, results related to expenditure control. In fact, it is apprehended that what might be achieved is mere transfer of expenditure from the ministry of I&B to other ministries and departments with the accompanying loss of expertise acquired by the media units and introduction of inefficiencies. Even if marginal savings can be demonstrated through paper calculations, it may not be worthwhile in view of the guaranteed dislocations in performance that are bound to occur in the process of transfers. The collective cost for the government in such a case might be much more than what it is incurring today,” the ministry said.

What the ministry is likely to propose is a revamping of its media units — Press Information Bureau, research, reference and training division, publications division, Films Division, directorate of film festivals, the National Film Archives, the Central Board of Film Certification, etc. It will also point out that the autonomous Prasar Bharati has abolished 600 posts. These posts were lying vacant for a year in any case. The ministry will also suggest formation of a National Film Board that will synergise the work of all its wings dealing with films.

On Films Division, which the ERC said is not needed at all, the ministry flatly rejected the recommendation and said it would carry out changes within the outfit to make it leaner and more effective. The Children’s Film Society, too, was deemed necessary.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha had committed to Parliament while presenting the budget this year that the recommendations of the committee “will be implemented by July 31 and identified surplus staff transferred to the surplus pool”.

At the time of the budget, the ERC, set up last year, had presented reports on the downsizing of six ministries and departments — apart from I&B, these were the department of economic affairs, ministry of coal, department of heavy industry, department of public enterprises and the ministry of small-scale industries.




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