Cong welcome to defectors
Xavier’s on collision course
Minister notice on NRS eviction
Sena to remain protesting partner
Naidu hops from minister to minister
BJP sees twin gains in Naresh sack
Alone to nurse shattered dreams
Celebs stick ‘bad fashion’ label on toosh
Privilege move against Sinha
Chains on asylum doors

Calcutta, Aug. 10: 
A day after Mamata Banerjee paved the way for her return to the NDA, the state Congress today gave a “home-coming” call to all those who had defected from the party — during the last Assembly elections and earlier.

“Hundreds of disillusioned Congress leaders, who had joined the Trinamul for value-based politics, are today making a beeline for the PCC office to rejoin the mainstream,” former state Congress president Somen Mitra told a news conference this afternoon. “Our doors are open for the misguided party workers who regret their association with the Trinamul.”

Reacting to yesterday’s rally in which Mamata shared the dais with NDA convener George Fernandes, Mitra said Mamata had resigned from the Union Cabinet to protest against his (Fernandes’) alleged involvement in the Tehelka issue, but now she has forgotten everything and is desperate to join forces with him. “That Mamata’s value-based politics is a sham is proved by the manner in which she has teamed up with Fernandes, a person she had dubbed corrupt only five months ago,” he said.

Mitra claimed all members of the Trinamul-controlled Serampore municipality in Hooghly rejoined the Congress en bloc today. Besides, he added, those who had joined the Trinamul when it was formed in 1997, had called the state Congress office from across the state — Midnapore, Howrah, Purulia and Bankura — and expressed their willingness to rejoin the party.

State Congress vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya claimed he had received feelers from some Trinamul MLAs, who had expressed their desire to return to the party. “We are much relieved after Mamata snapped her ties with the Congress and decided to return to the NDA. We can now afford to go it alone in Bengal and fight the ruling CPM independently,” Mitra said, adding that his party had lined up a statewide agitation programme from next week. The party has worked out a strategy to revamp the organisation by replacing its district presidents across the state with freshers by this month-end.

In another development, the state BJP today faxed a note to the party’s central leadership enquiring about Mamata’s decision to go it alone in Bengal despite her announcement to associate herself with the NDA.

State BJP vice-president Muzaffar Khan said the issue will be raised when party president Jana Krishnamurti arrives here on August 18 to address a two-day executive committee meeting.


Burdwan, Aug. 10: 
The Burdwan district magistrate’s daughter did not get admission to the St Xavier’s school here. After that, the transport authorities seized three of the school’s five buses.

It could be pure coincidence, but the angry parents of children who study at St Xavier’s do not think so.

They gheraoed district magistrate Manoj Agarwal today, demanding an explanation. They carried a signature campaign against Agarwal and decided to seek the intervention of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Agarwal, however, denied his involvement. “It could be that the regional transport authority found some faults with the papers of the buses and seized them. I shall verify,” he said.

But Agarwal is also the chairman of the regional transport authority.

He rubbished the principal’s charges, saying he had never approached the school for admission for his daughter. He described the principal’s charges as “false and motivated” and threatened to sue him.

The regional transport authority, Burdwan, seized three of the school’s five buses. The school’s principal, Father S. Nallail, wrote to the guardians yesterday, saying the transport authority had been vindictive and seized the school buses as he had denied the district magistrate’s under-aged daughter admission to upper kindergarten.

Father Nallail sought the guardians’ help “to deal with the unethical demand of the district administration officials”. He said an official from the district magistrate’s office had met him in early July and asked him to admit Agarwal’s daughter — who was then studying in Lower KG in some other school — to Upper KG. The girl was three-and-a-half years old.

The principal told the official that his school only admitted children who had attained four years of age in Upper KG and there was no Lower KG in his school. “But the very next day, the ADM(G), Manish Jain, rang me up and asked me to get the district magistrate’s daughter admitted to Upper KG. I repeated the same answer,” the letter said.

Two days later, Jain and the transport official came to the school and insisted on getting the under-aged girl admitted to the school, the principal said.

Then, on July 20, he was suddenly asked to produce all the school buses at the court compound for “special inspection”. The principal complied. Ever since, the authorities had been slapping fines on the buses and detaining them on one pretext or the other, the principal alleged.

Managing committee member and guardian’s representative, Prem Agarwal, said they will seek the chief minister’s intervention, so that the students are not held hostage to “anybody’s whims”.

“I was astonished to read the principal’s letter. I immediately got in touch with the principal who narrated the whole story and pleaded helplessness,” said Nasima Khandekar, whose ward studies in the school.


Calcutta, Aug. 10: 
Health minister Surya Kanta Mishra has ordered over 2,000 illegal settlers inside the NRS Medical College and Hospital to leave immediately or face eviction.

NRS will be a message to those settled inside RG Kar Medical College, SSKM Hospital, Sambhunath Pandit Hospital and the rest, the minister added.

The encroachments inside the hospital are a great hindrance to people who come to receive medical attention as well as to students. “They are using water as well as tapping power,” Mishra commented.

He said that gambling dens, shanties selling drugs and hooch also thrived on the hospital campus.

“Former hospital staff, relatives of present staff as well as rank outsiders have made their home inside NRS hospital,” Mishra said.

“We have served them notices several times but this time we want to show we mean what we say,” he reiterated.


Mumbai, Aug. 10: 
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray today decided in a meeting with his MPs to “go on” with the National Democratic Alliance, but not to go along with it.

The Sena boss told Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Nirupam, who was strafed by the attending MPs for “acting like an Opposition” member, to restrain himself. But he also asked the 15 Lok Sabha and four Rajya Sabha Sena MPs — Nirupam included — to “break their silence” in Parliament on Monday.

The MPs, who had been asked not to “open their mouth” since Nirupam’s remarks prompted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to offer his resignation, were today told to raise their voices for small investors, farmers and Hindutva.

Thackeray told the MPs categorically that they should air their views “critically” on government policies and decisions whenever necessary. But their criticism should have a basis.

Brushing aside the Sena MPs’ criticism of Nirupam, Thackeray accused the BJP meting out “step-motherly” treatment to the Sena, sources present at the meeting said.

Without naming the Prime Minister, the Sena chief grumbled that the BJP had repeatedly turned down the Sena’s requests for top positions in public sector undertakings. He accused the BJP of not letting the Sena have “a share in power”.

Prakash Paranjpe, the Lok Sabha MP from Thane and Adhik Shirodkhar, a Rajya Sabha member, led the attack on Nirupam, who they said was “behaving like a CPM member” in Parliament.

Instead of being a “responsible” member of the ruling alliance, they said Nirupam, who was at the meeting, was proving fodder to the Opposition canon. They dubbed Nirupam’s allegations against the PMO in connection with the UTI scam as “irresponsible” and censured him for plunging the government into a crisis.

Thackeray asked him not to speak to the media or make adverse comments against the government. The Rajya Sabha MP was also asked to maintain a low profile, at least for the time being.

“We have no differences left with the BJP,’’ Sena leader Anant Geete said at the end of the meeting at Thackeray’s heavily-guarded Bandra residence.

Geete’s assertion came with a rider. The Sena chief will unveil the “official position” on the alliance “at the right time”, he said.

Geete said Thackeray had asked them to “take part in parliamentary proceedings from Monday. We will also continue to air our views on issues concerning small investors, farmers and so on.”

Union heavy industries minister Manohar Joshi refused to comment on whether the Sena’s relationship with the BJP was still under strain.

Sena sources said the meeting discussed the snapping of ties in the meeting, but all the MPs decided against it. Thackeray said he wanted the government to continue “in the interest of the country because its fall would help anti-national forces and plunge the country into chaos”.

Most of the MPs felt that leaving the government at this stage would not help the party either.

Sources said that though the Sena chief wanted the alliance to continue, he could change his mind all of a sudden if the BJP did not “respond positively” to the Sena gesture.

The BJP has upped the ante since Nirupam’s attack on the PMO, almost snapping contacts with the warring ally. Sources said Union parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, who usually liase between the Prime Minister and the Sena chief, has not phoned Thackeray since the attack on the PMO.

Thackeray reportedly indicated that he would not hesitate to upset the BJP apple cart in Delhi if he was pushed against the wall.

Sources said the Sena chief was in no mood to accept a BJP-imposed code of conduct on the coalition partners. He was almost certain to veto the proposal whenever the BJP brought it up, they said. “We will decide on the code of conduct only when it is proposed,” Joshi said.


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
Yet to recover from the drubbing the Telugu Desam got in the panchayat polls a month ago, Chandrababu Naidu appears to have got into “hyper” mode.

Landing in the capital yesterday, the chief minister called on a record 15 Union ministers, including Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani, as well as planning commission deputy chairman K.C. Pant in the space of two days. While the meetings with Cabinet ministers were set up to discuss pending state projects, he met NDA convener George Fernandes to take stock of the political situation.

But there were a few callers for Naidu, too. Among them were Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah, who has begun subtly lobbying for President with K.R. Narayanan due to retire next year; Naga talks interlocutor K. Padmanabhaiah, who had come under a cloud following the extension of the Naga ceasefire; and Central Vigilance Commission member V.S. Mathur.

Naidu dismissed suggestions that Heptullah had met him to lobby support for her presidential mission. “All negative ideas. She came here to request me to deliver the keynote address at an IT seminar by the International Parliamentary Union....” he said.

In between his whirlwind schedule, Naidu today held a meeting of the TDP parliamentary party and gave a pep talk in the backdrop of the panchayat polls. He also impressed upon the members the need to aggressively follow up development projects awaiting Central clearance.

Naidu set up eight committees, comprising five Desam MPs each, to expedite pending projects and ensure better liaison between the Centre and state ministers. The committees are subject-specific and only MPs on such panels will be allowed to speak on a particular subject in the Lok Sabha.

The chief minister brushed off a proposal from MPs that the Desam should join the Centre as they had little to do. Any such plans would set off a scramble for ministerial berths, he said. Naidu declined to talk about the 20-minute one-to-one he held with the Prime Minister yesterday. The leaders are believed to discussed the post-Agra situation, violence in Kashmir and the UTI scam.


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
The BJP feels the dismissal of Uttar Pradesh power minister Naresh Aggarwal was both a “tactical coup” and an “assertion of our commitment to principled politics”.

The Central high command’s feedback was that Aggarwal, who heads the Loktantrik Congress Party (LCP) — a breakaway group of the Congress — had “plotted” to wean away 30 legislators of the ruling coalition in the state shortly before the Assembly polls and strike an alliance with the Samajwadi Party.

“If his gameplan had succeeded, it would have struck a body blow to the BJP and greatly undermined the chief minister’s position. Luckily, we got wind of it and were able to nip his scheme in the bud,” BJP sources said.

Sources said chief minister Rajnath Singh’s skill in manipulative politics was re-established today. Rajnath was earlier credited with managing the numbers to enable the BJP to stake claim to form a government after the Bahujan Samaj Party had withdrawn support in 1998.

An Uttar Pradesh MP said the BJP had learnt that Aggarwal was in “constant touch” with Mulayam Singh Yadav to forge an alternative front but his plans went awry when the Samajwadi Party chief refused to oblige all his 19 MLAs with Assembly tickets. “He was ready to take only four or five,” the MP said.

Rajnath was reportedly upset with Aggarwal for other reasons too. “When UP was beset with one of its worst power crises, he was on an extended holiday in the UK. Even otherwise, he was diverting all the power to his constituency, Hardoi, at the expense of other cities and towns. While Hardoi got uninterrupted power, UP’s biggest industrial centre, Kanpur, went without it for as long as 18 hours,” a BJP office-bearer said.

Corruption allegations also flew thick and fast against the LCP leader. Although the BJP had no qualms about inducting MLAs with dubious antecedents when it had to rustle up a majority for its government three years ago, its past was fast catching up with it. That most of these legislators were also made ministers did not send the desired message to the grassroots, admitted sources.

Even the BJP’s hardcore Hindutva supporters — already peeved with the leaders for jettisoning Ram mandir from the NDA agenda — were upset with reports of how Rajnath’s Cabinet was “looting” the state exchequer. “A strong signal had to be sent to show our voters that we are still a party with a difference,” sources said. “As the education minister in 1991-92, Singh was responsible for bringing an ordinance against cheating. Such a leader has shown that he will not compromise on corruption either,” said general secretary Maya Singh.

Before deciding to sack Aggarwal, sources said Rajnath sought the advice of BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi, who asked him to go ahead. But the sources made it clear that no more ministers would be axed for the moment, though till this morning there was speculation that minister of state for tourism Ashok Yadav, who is from the BJP, was also on his way out for openly criticising Rajnath’s reservation policy for the most backward castes.

But Rajnath’s biggest triumph, sources said, was his ability to retain his majority even after getting rid of a “heavyweight” like Aggarwal.


Lucknow, Aug. 10: 
Standing at a fraction over six feet, Naresh Aggarwal’s dreams were as big as the man himself. But he was taught today by a wily Rajnath Singh that big dreams sometimes die bigger deaths.

Abandoned by most of his partymen, Aggarwal learnt that in the hotbed of heartland politics, there are no friends or enemies — every politician works for himself and chases personal dreams.

Aggarwal, however, is a victim not of circumstances, but himself. A colourful man fond of his own image, Aggarwal — who quit the Congress in a rage when Pramod Tiwari was appointed state unit chief — has been a nightmare to the BJP since he joined the ruling party three years ago.

“No one has troubled the BJP more than Naresh Aggarwal. He has been the most difficult of allies and, till today, we have not been able to say whether he was a friend or a foe. He must have threatened us around 2,000 times,’’ a beaming BJP minister said after hearing that Aggarwal had been dumped.

Through his three-year “friendship’’ with the BJP, Aggarwal and his 19-MLA Loktantrik Congress Party has repeatedly threatened to pull the rug from under the ruling party’s feet. His most famous refrain was: “I am keeping my options open, I am an independent man, the LCP’s support to the BJP is being scrutinised.’’

With a wafer-thin majority, no chief minister dared to rub Aggarwal the wrong way. He was made energy minister with Cabinet rank. He was always heard with fear and he almost always had his way. Till the sack came this morning.

A furious Aggarwal said soon after that he would wipe out the BJP, little realising that his “friends’’ in the LCP had turned against him. Many of his 19 ministers did not even give him a chance to speak to them.

“Of course, we are not resigning,’’ senior LCP minister Fateh Bahadur Singh said, adding: “Why should I quit, he can go where he wants.’’

Diwakar Singh was more scathing: “Aggarwal treated the LCP like his fief. Are we his slaves? He is welcome to ruin his life. There’s no question of supporting him.’’

The BJP has played its cards well. With the state averaging about 16 hours of power-cuts daily, the party’s bleak poll prospects had turned bleaker. Rajnath was worried that industrialists — who had run up losses to the tune of Rs 200 crore —- would ditch him at election time. Today he sent out the message that he was “doing something’’ about the power situation.

The chief minister has also hinted that corruption is at the root of the power crisis and his government was determined to weed it out. It might be too little too late but Rajnath has taken the chance. In the process, he has made a scapegoat of an ally who was more a liability than anything else.


Mumbai, Aug. 10: 
Kill with your looks, not with your clothes! Please say no to toosh, scribbled Ruby Bhatia, celeb compere.

The beautiful people of the fashion capital have risen together to save the chiru, the small Tibetan antelope from whose wool the precious shahtoosh shawl is made.

The chiru — there are only about 20,000 of them remaining — is killed for the wool to make the shawl which can keep one warm in a Kashmiri winter, yet is delicate enough to be slipped through a small bangle, and is handed down through generations as an heirloom.

But the reason not to wear the toosh — it’s bad fashion. Because the story of how a toosh is woven is well-known now, says designer Ritu Kumar.

“How can a shawl, to weave which about 20-21 chiru have to killed, be fashionable?” asked Kumar. She added that the demand for shahtoosh, which had shot up in the last four to five years following a lot of interest from abroad, seems to be on the decline now.

She gave yet another reason against toosh — there are alternatives, made of pashmina, available in the market. As opposed to a shahtoosh that may cost anything between Rs 20,000 to a lakh, the lookalike will cost Rs 1,200. Kumar, who has been accredited with recreating ancient Indian fabrics and styles, makes some of these herself.

Kumar was speaking at the seminar “Say No to Toosh” at the Lakme India Fashion Week here.

A host of other celebs — actress Kitu Gidwani, fashion designer Gitanjali Kashyap, socialite Arti Surendranath, actor Dalip Tahil — were present at the seminar to make it clear that they don’t like blood on their shawls. Donning T-shirts which said “Say No To Toosh”, they lined up before the camera for posterity.

The seminar was addressed by activists from the Wildlife Trust of India. Aniruddha Mookherjee from the trust had followed the shahtoosh’s trail with a hidden camera from China where the chiru are found.

About 5,000 of the animals are poached every year in Chinese territory and the skins are brought to Kashmir to be woven. About 30,000 people are involved in the trade.

The Chinese authorities, however, have clamped down severely on the poaching, Mookherjee said. In India, the authorities are yet to launch an anti-toosh drive, but wearing the shawl has been illegal here since 1976.

So one more reason not to wear the toosh — it can land one in jail. A well-known person from Delhi had to spend five days in Tihar for wearing a shahtoosh shawl. “If you have a toosh, keep it hidden in your wardrobe, do not wear it,” said Vivek from the trust.

The final reason not to buy a toosh — the market is full of fakes that look exactly like the original.

“They are mixes of silk and pashmina that can’t be made apart from the real toosh,” said Mookherjee.


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
Both Houses of Parliament today witnessed sharp exchanges between the government and the Opposition over the UTI scam with the Congress renewing its demand for Yashwant Sinha’s resignation.

The Congress plans to move a privilege motion against Sinha for allegedly “misleading” the House over his meeting with former UTI chairman P.S. Subramanyam on July 2.

In the Lok Sabha, both treasury benches and the Opposition rushed to the well, forcing Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to adjourn the House. Congress leaders said they would raise the matter again on Monday. BJP members retaliated by questioning the conduct of Congress MP Satish Sharma for allegedly giving instructions to a foreign bank to transfer certain amount of money to another bank in violation of foreign exchange regulations. BJP spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra wondered if it was a coincidence that close associates of Sonia Gandhi — Vincent George, Ottavio Quattrocchi and Satish Sharma — have all been accused of “acquisition of money outside India”.

Sharma, a close associate of Rajiv Gandhi, denied the charge outside Parliament, claiming that he had nothing to do with S.K. Ziegers, who was described as his father-in-law in some newspapers. “The whole case is fabricated and motivated,” Sharma said.

BJP members displayed photocopies of the news report in the Lok Sabha. Congress MPs, on their part, quoted reports of Subramanyam’s bail application where he had said the US-64 scheme was frozen on July 2 on Sinha’s advice.

Sinha, who was present in the Lok Sabha, accused the Opposition of being “extremely unfair”. He pointed that he was not allowed to reply to the adjournment motion on the issue in the House last week. Sinha said if he was allowed to speak, he would have had the opportunity to explain the exact position. The remarks led to an uproar, forcing Balayogi to wrap up proceedings.

The matter figured in the Upper House, too. Congress MP Kapil Sibal referred to contradictory statements made by Sinha and Subramanyam and demanded a response from the government.

Sibal said Sinha had informed the House that he and his ministry were kept in the dark by the former UTI chairman and that the finance minister would have come out with remedial measures if Subramanyam had shared with him the “difficulties”.


Chennai, Aug. 10: 
The Tamil Nadu government today decided to immediately close down the 15 private homes for the mentally ill at Erwadi in Ramanathapuram district, where a killer fire on Monday had charred to death 28 patients who had been chained to their benches in one such centre.

All mental asylums located in thatched sheds in other parts of the state will also be closed down immediately, chief minister Jayalalitha announced here after a meeting called to discuss measures to regulate the functioning of homes for the mentally retarded in the aftermath of the tragedy.

In future, all such homes will be required to obtain a licence from the government. Existing homes will be given a month to get to get the licence, she said. Inmates of the 15 asylums who have not left for their respective residences will be taken into the care of the state.

The chief minister also set up a commission headed by a retired district judge to inquire into the blaze.

Speaking to reporters at the secretariat, Jayalalitha said inmates of the 15 asylums in Erwadi who are “actually mentally ill” and patients with “violent tendencies” will be admitted to healthcare institutions run by the government.

However, those feigning illness “will be returned to their families”, she added. A medical camp, with the help of psychologists, has been functioning at Erwadi since yesterday to separate the “really mentally ill” from the non-ill inmates.

As it was the iron fetters that were mainly responsible for the inmates of the Badusha home at Erwadi to get trapped in the flames, Jayalalitha made it clear that wherever mentally-ill patients are found to tied up, they will be unchained immediately.

State ministers for health, labour and social welfare, S. Semmalai, A. Anwar Rhazza and B. Valarmathi respectively, chief secretary P. Shankar and other top officials participated in the nearly three-hour meeting.

All district collectors will make an immediate inspection of all such homes in their respective districts, Jayalalitha said. The collector will also head a “monitoring committee”, to be set up in each district, which will include the joint director (health), a trained psychiatrist and other medical personnel.

Regarding inmates not found to be mentally ill but who have been abandoned by their families, Jayalalitha said the district collectors concerned will sanction them old-age pension under the category of destitute persons. Those among them who do not even have a home to return to will be admitted to old-age or destitute centre run by the state and “reputed NGOs”.

Stating that the district mental health programme, with an outlay of Rs 2 crore, will be implemented soon in Ramanathapuram and Madurai districts, Jayalalitha said of the 25 hospitals in district headquarters, only 11 had psychiatrists now. Psychiatrists will now be appointed in the remaining 14 district hospitals also, she added.

The chief minister said all recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission and the State Human Rights Commission vis-à-vis running of mental asylums will be “implemented scrupulously”.

The decisions come in the wake of demands by almost all political parties that the government take over the functioning of the mental asylums. The BJP’s state unit in particular was vociferous in demanding the closure of the homes at Erwadi after one of its senior functionaries, K.N. Lakshmanan, had visited the mishap site. Former chief minister M. Karunanidhi, too, has demanded the closure of the homes.


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