Tales of bravery scripted in snow and storm
Founded on resolve, fistfuls of rice
October date for panel poll
Councillor clue in Dum Dum puzzle
Centre sops for Mission
Khadim’s rerun for Siliguri businessman

Calcutta, Aug. 25: 
Ashok was five when he lost his parents and his home to the Orissa cyclone. He spent 14 days on a makeshift raft without food and water, clinging on for dear life. Now, Ashok lives in Calcutta, goes to a Bhowanipore school, is learning to read and write, draw and sing. The little braveheart wants to “go abroad and study to be a pilot”. But above all, Ashok wants to set up a “small home, nice and cosy,” with a “nice girl”.

Snehal Sidhu was 11 when she was trekking with friends in Manali and was caught in an avalanche. She could have escaped, if she wasn’t busy trying to save a friend. Snehal had to be dug out from under the snow – not before her spinal chord had been severed. Today Snehal, having completed her ‘A’ Levels at Calcutta International School, is confined to a wheelchair. But after receiving offers from every foreign university she applied to, she is on her way to realising her academic dream — studying genetics in Cambridge.

Brought together by inspiring feats of bravery, Ashok and Snehal shared the stage at The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence on Saturday. The seven-year-old cyclone survivor handed over the Surrendra Paul Memorial Award for Courage to the 18-year-old who braved an avalanche.

For Snehal, the award ceremony felt like “a night at the Oscars”. “To be chosen from so many amazing people is an incredible honour,” she gushed. The big surprise was “tiny, adorable” Ashok. “After all I’d heard about him, I definitely expected someone much bigger.”

Ashok remembers little of his two-week long ordeal. He came to Calcutta in November 1999, to stay with a family on Elgin Road. Though his teeth disintegrated during the Orissa ordeal, his smile is as cheeky as the twinkle in his eye, especially when he talks about “girlfriends, Lili and Julia”. He’s in KG-II now, is afraid of ghosts, and completely “obsessed” with the family car.

Snehal, too, has shut out the traumatic experience. “I remember hearing a rumble, and then I realised that an avalanche was approaching,” she relived, on the eve of the award ceremony. A student of St Lawrence School, Sanawar, at the time, she and her classmates were on a field trip to Kulu and Manali. After a long trek up a Manali hill, they were taking a pause to play in the snow when the avalanche buried her.

Snehal was trying to shield a friend from the brunt of the avalanche. The rush of snow that broke her friend’s arm, left the brave young girl confined to a wheelchair.

But she refused to even miss a year, studying for Classes VI and VII together to make up for lost time and ended up topping her school in Class X.

“Had it not been for the accident, I would not have pushed myself so hard,” admitted Snehal. “I had to prove to myself and everyone else around that I could do it.” Snehal hasn’t shied away from anything. Oxford bookstore and MusicWorld, discos and restaurants are just some of her favourite hangouts in town.

“We have been through some tough times together, but it was all made so simple by Snehal’s positive and aggressive attitude,” summed up mother Rupa and father Harkirat.


Calcutta, Aug. 25: 
Sukai Chacha has never attended a day of school in his life. But the 80-year-old who lives in a tiny hut has just one aim in life: To build a school for the kids of Kapasharia.

Chacha, or Sheikh Sukurani, has gone from home to impoverished home in his village, near Dankuni, for the last four years, begging for “ek mutho chal” (a fistful of rice) every week. He would then sell it all while often going hungry himself, painfully collecting Rs 5,000 or Rs 10,000 before starting a fresh round of construction, brick by brick.

When The Telegraph Education Foundation heard of this extraordinary man’s labour of love, it approached Chacha with an offer to construct a tin roof for the school overgrown with vines, creepers and weeds. But Chacha, who lives in a mud-hut with a tile cover, turned it down. “What will happen if the makeshift roof is blown away or damaged in a storm?”

Instead of the tin roof, on Saturday, Chacha was handed Rs 25,000 as prize money for the Dr Mrs N. B. O’Brien Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award for a Teacher.

“I was told that I will not be allowed to enter the big hall if I am not wearing a suit. What will I do?” Chacha had wondered before making the trip to town. On Saturday morning, Science City rose to salute the village hero in soiled white shirt and blue-and-green lungi.

Chacha’s village, a mere 30 kilometres from Calcutta, has only one public school for its 400 families. “I am completely ignorant, as are all my sons,” admits Chacha.

After one of his sons died, leaving a widow and three young children behind, it dawned on the frail old man that “only education” could improve the lives of the village children. The man, who had done his best to lend a helping hand to those in need all his life, had found his fire.

Informal classes first started at the local masjid. Officially, it’s called Taliman Khuraniya madrasah. But to the people of Kapasharia, it’s simply Chacha’s School. Collecting up to 36 kg of rice a week, he would pay the mastermoshai and buy the “slates and chalk”.

The rest, he put aside for “his school”. Now, slowly but sincerely, the foundation and the walls are up.

Around 125 girls and boys are currently learning the basics of Bengali and Urdu and fundamental social graces at the masjid.

“We are all waiting for the school to be completed, so we can have a proper place to study,” said the shy 12-year-old Rakhia. Chacha’s never-say-die spirit has proved contagious. Even village teens are dropping by for evening classes. “There’s no stopping this now,” stresses Chacha.

But he knows he still has a long way to go. “I will need at least Rs 1 lakh to finish the school. I will collect rice for the rest of my life, if that is what it takes to get this school made,” says the soft-spoken old man with resolve of steel.


Calcutta, Aug. 25: 
The election for constituting the 40-member Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), which will oversee all projects implemented in the Calcutta Metropolitan Area (CMA), will take place on October 7.

Nominations will be accepted from councillors and panchayat members from September 18 to 24.

The composition of the committee has been determined by the population density of areas under the CMA.Of the 40 members, 14 will be elected from the Calcutta Municipal Corporation area itself. The rest will be elected from the 20 municipalities and six panchayat areas that fall within the 1,800 sq km CMA.

The voters comprise elected members of the civic bodies and the pradhans of gram panchayats and panchayat samities and zilla parishad chairmen. The MPC chairman and vice-chairmen will be nominated by the state government within 15 days after the election.

The MPC will centralise all modes of urban planning, fund distribution and development work. Every municipality and corporation in the CMA will have to get the MPC’s approval for executing its projects.

The MPC is likely to be headed by municipal affairs minister Asok Bhattacharya. Sources said chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who had been approached to chair the MPC, would rather have his minister head the body.

A World Bank body, called the Public Private Administrational Finance (PPAF), will hold a workshop in September. The aim of the workshop will be to show how public infrastructure can be developed with private finance. The PPAF workshop should be useful for the nascent body, which has been entrusted with developing urban infrastructure. According to Bhattacharya, states like Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat have amended its laws to smoothen the involvement of private finance in public work.

Bhattacharya said the chief minister approved of the proposal and the West Bengal Infrastructure Development Act would be amended to facilitate the use of private funds. “The chief minister is not against investment of private finance in improving infrastructure,” Bhattacharya said.


Calcutta, Aug. 25: 
Three CPM councillors of the Dum Dum municipality, close to an influential minister from North 24-Parganas, had promised to help reinstal Sudhir Bhattacharya — now in police custody — as chairman of the civic body after his party lost in the 1999 municipal polls, CPM insiders said this afternoon.

Yesterday, the police had said that one of the reasons why Bhattacharya had plotted the murder of Sailen Das was to become the chairman of the municipality once again. This would have helped in furthering his promoter-son’s business interests. However, his supporters had claimed that even with the support of all non-CPM parties, Bhattacharya would not have the numbers to get the civic body’s top job.

But the revelation that three councillors had promised him support throws new light on the numbers game at the municipality.

In another development, former chief minister Jyoti Basu today expressed surprise over Bhattacharya’s arrest. “I was really surprised when I came to learn about Bhattacharya’s arrest. We were together in the Dum Dum jail for a few days during the Food Movement,” he said.

Basu, however, refused to comment on police action against Bhattacharya. “The police are investigating the case and it is unfair to comment on the matter,” he said.

CPM sources said Bhattacharya was apparently convinced that he would regain the key post in the civic body if he managed to rope in those three councillors, elected on CPM tickets during the 1999 municipal polls. This apart, he even tried his best to get the support of four Congress councillors and one Trinamul Congress councillor. In desperation, he had initiated a dialogue with all those, including the dissident CPM councillors, who promised him support.

Though Bhattacharya was expelled by the CPM leadership in 1974, the party could not prevent him from becoming the chairman of the civic body because the CPM had never got absolute majority in the municipality as Bhattacharya contested the polls each time and bagged a number of seats.

Against this, the CPM too, had to lend support to Bhattacharya sometimes to prevent the Congress from capturing the board. In this way, he ran the municipality for 32 years.

The debacle came only during the 1999 civic polls when he and his son Chandan were elected under the banner of the Dum Dum Poura Unnayan Samastha.


New Delhi, Aug. 25: 
The Centre today announced that it would exempt all hospitals and educational institutions owned and managed by the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Mission from the purview of the Employees Provident Fund Act. The decision comes in the wake of repeated appeals by the Mission for exemption under the Provident Fund Act.

On August 12, Swami Smaranananda, general secretary of the Mission, wrote to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seeking his personal intervention to solve what he described as a problem “which has been worrying us for the last 10 years”.

Detailing the background of the problem, Swami Smaranananda said the issue of excluding the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission from the Provident Fund Act was settled by the labour ministry’s legal adviser in 1982. It was reopened in 1991 by the central provident fund commissioner on the basis of a Supreme Court judgment.

Ever since, he wrote, the Mission had sent numerous appeals to the Centre, backed by legal opinion in their favour.

“Shri K. Parasharan, former attorney-general of India, gave a categorical opinion saying that the status of exclusion granted to us continues to be valid and is binding on all concerned. Still, the matter was not getting resolved,” he wrote.

“It was mutually agreed by us and the labour ministry that the matter would be referred to the present attorney-general of India and his verdict will be accepted. We have been informed that the attorney-general has given a categorical opinion in our favour and the same has also been endorsed by Shri Arun Jaitley, the hon’ble law minister.”


Siliguri, Aug. 25: 
The script was something straight out of the Khadim’s kidnap drama. Only, this kidnap was in Siliguri.

Last night, around 10.45 pm, armed miscreants kidnapped 21-year-old Mukesh Agarwal, the owner of a popular amusement centre, when he was about to return home from Millennium Paradise on 2nd Mile, Sevoke Road.

Agarwal came out of his office accompanied by Sanju Nayak, the manager of his centre. A white Tata Sumo was parked nearby. As Agarwal tried to start his motorcycle, four miscreants pounced on him and dragged him into the Sumo and sped away.

His relatives claimed they have not received any ransom call yet. Police have, however, tapped Agarwal’s telephone lines to monitor calls.

“Around 11 pm last night we received a complaint over the telephone that Agarwal had been kidnapped,” said an official of the Bhaktinagar police station.

“Though the place was nearly empty, there were a few eyewitnesses. They said the miscreants took the Fulbari-Jalpaiguri bypass. The abductors had been waiting in their vehicle a short distance away and when they saw the victim come out from the centre, they took him away at gun-point,” the official said.

“From the eyewitness accounts, we have figured out that the abductors were carrying sophisticated weapons like 9 mm pistols. This morning, the Agarwal family formally lodged an FIR with the Bhaktinagar police. Though, we are not ruling out business rivalry behind the abduction, we are open to the idea that ransom could be motive. So far, the Agarwal family maintains they have not received any ransom calls,” an official investigating the case said. Police are interrogating centre manager Nayak (32) and another employee, Rohit Pradhan, who were present during the abduction.

Recalling the incident, Nayak told The Telegraph that as usual his employer and another employee, after shutting down the centre, were on their way home when in a span of barely three minutes Agarwal was dragged into a waiting white Tata Sumo which sped towards the National Highway 31.

“We had just closed the centre, and Agarwal was about to start his bike, when all of a sudden three or four armed men carrying automatic weapons surrounded him and started dragging him. Agarwal fell down, and was picked up by his abductors and dragged into the waiting vehicle. By the time we realised what was happening, he had been whisked away. Rohit and I rushed to Agarwal’s residence which is barely half a kilometre away and informed the family about the abduction,” said Nayak, who had joined the amusement centre only a month back.

Agarwal’s father, Bisseshar Lal, is one of the biggest bricks and building material traders in the town. None of his family members agreed to speak to the press.


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