Fare hike gift on Mamata return
Atal reshuffle gun on BJP
Sanctions jostling before Atal-Bush meet
Business sings Buddha’s tune
Night phone tariff relief lined up
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Aug. 29: 
Two days after stonewaller Mamata Banerjee rejoined the NDA coalition, the railways raised passenger fares across the board by tacking on a distance-cum-class-linked safety surcharge ranging from Re 1 to Rs 100.

The new fares will come into effect from October 1 .

The proceeds from the surcharge — expected to garner Rs 5,000 crore over six years — will be used to replace the ageing assets of the railways, which has a blighted record of safety.

As railway minister, Mamata had resisted pressure from the finance ministry to raise fares when she presented her second railway budget in February this year. The political compulsions of fighting a state election in May had prompted Mamata to cobble a populist budget that had no fare hikes.

But successor Nitish Kumar — appalled by the gaping hole in railway finances — has been less squeamish about a fare hike.

Mamata, who has a penchant for resigning on price increases, was not present in the House today and her party reluctantly indicated that it had little option but to accept Nitish’s surcharge. The Trinamul Congress, however, said it would have been better if the hike were avoided at this stage.

But the CPM, which was unable to criticise Mamata’s soft budget in an election year, made up for the lost opportunity today. “This NDA government gave time to its partner to participate in the West Bengal polls with a popular move and then allowed her to crawl back into its fold,” Dipankar Mukherjee of the CPM said.

Nitish told the Lok Sabha that the Cabinet had decided to set up a Rs 17,000-crore non-lapsable fund “to promote safety of travelling with the railways in a big way”.

The surcharge will contribute Rs 5,000 crore to the safety fund — the remaining Rs 12,000 crore will come in the form of additional assistance from the finance ministry. “Only the replacement arrears, as approved by the expanded Railway Board, will be charged to this fund and will be incorporated in a separate book of sanctioned projects called the Green Book,” Kumar said.

During the standoff between Mamata and finance minister Yashwant Sinha in the run-up to the railway budget, the finance minister had suggested that the railways should introduce a safety cess to raise additional resources because the government was strapped for cash.

Mamata had rejected Sinha’s suggestion and used a little financial legerdemain to create a Rs 831-crore surplus budget through the expedience of deferring payment of Rs 1,000 crore dividend to the government — a ploy she had used the previous year too.

Sinha had rejected Mamata’s demand for cash to bail her out of a tough situation. So it seems a little odd that when Kumar has bitten the bullet, Sinha should suddenly dip into his coffers to provide a Rs 12,000 crore largesse to the railways.


New Delhi, Aug. 29: 
With the possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle or expansion taking place immediately after the monsoon session and not on the Prime Minister’s return from his UN visit, as was earlier said, there is nervousness in the BJP camp.

Government sources said the exercise of a reshuffle or an expansion would be confined only to the BJP ministers and members and not those of the NDA, which means that both George Fernandes and Mamata Banerjee as well as Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) aspirants would have to cool their heels for a while.

BJP sources said the possibility of an expansion being effected is subject to the health of President K.R. Narayanan, who has been advised a two-week rest by his physician. For inductions, the President has to be present. But if only a reshuffle of portfolios is carried out, he would merely have to sign the executive’s order.

BJP and official sources said that ideally Atal Bihari Vajpayee would like to be over and done with the job on September 1 for reasons astrological and political. After that date the inauspicious period of pitrapaksha begins for a fortnight. It ends on September 16, but that leaves Vajpayee with just three days before he leaves for New York. Still, the sources did not rule out the chance of a reshuffle or expansion on October 18.

The second reason is that, having fortified his position which was a little shaky after the Agra summit, reorganising his ministerial team is just the move which will put the final seal of ratification on Vajpayee’s supremacy in the government and the party, BJP sources said.

This is why he is apparently restricting the exercise to just the BJP, which had covertly attacked him after the summit. It was said the endeavour would be “wholly the PM’s, from first to last”.

BJP sources said that while rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu is likely to return to the party and act as its interface with the government, those who may be axed are Sunderlal Patwa and Satyanarain Jatiya.

Those lined up for induction include the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief, Kalraj Mishra, also a Rajya Sabha MP. “The move is intended to send a positive signal to the Brahmins,” said the sources. Other names mentioned are those of Rajasthan MP Raghuveer Singh Kaushal and A. Narendra, an MP from Andhra, in place of Naidu.

But the question exercising the minds of almost everybody in the BJP is: would finance minister Yashwant Sinha be dropped?


Washington, Aug. 29: 
With less than a month to go for the first face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President George W. Bush in New York, non-proliferation hawks and realists here are both preparing for a battle of attrition on the issue of US sanctions against India.

The stage for the battle has been set with Senators and Members of the House of Representatives packing their bags in America’s 50 states to reconvene here next week as the US Congress ends its summer recess.

Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this week added his voice to the chorus for ending the sanctions by writing to Bush on the subject.

Biden’s letter, however, reflects the pulls and pressures here on the emotive issue of non-proliferation and gives an insight into the difficulties which stand in the way of repealing the sanctions, howsoever redundant they may have become.

Although Bush has the Congressional authority to waive the sanctions and is not required to consult Congress, it is inconceivable that he would do so without agreement from Biden and others.

Biden’s name has been circulating here as a Democratic presidential aspirant in 2004. Even otherwise, without a consensus from him and the committee he heads, Bush would find it difficult to pursue not only his larger foreign policy agenda, but even his ambassadorial and other appointments in the state department.

In his letter to Bush, the Senator from Delaware recalled that he had voiced his reservations about the efficacy of the sanctions within two months of their imposition.

“These measures have outlived their usefulness and may paradoxically be impeding non-proliferation efforts rather than aiding them. I urge you to use the waiver authority granted by Congress,” Biden wrote.

Recalling his discussions with Indian leaders, including Vajpayee, “over the past year”, Biden asserted that “a lifting of sanctions may result in a more cooperative relationship between India and the US”.

But Biden made a clear distinction between waiving the sanctions — as proposed now — and repealing them altogether. He also placed riders on the proposal that the sanctions must go.

“I hope that if we show our goodwill by removing this irritant (of sanctions), India will respond with reciprocal acts of goodwill in the non-proliferation and other arenas. As India responds with further positive, concrete steps of its own, Congress will be more likely to look with favour on the repeal, rather than merely the waiver, of the 1998 sanctions,” Bidden told Bush.

In a significant articulation of the views of non-proliferation hawks here who want pressure to be kept up on India, Biden wrote: “The use of Congressionally-granted waiver authority should not imply a weakening of American commitment to the cause of non-proliferation. Existing US export control measures, which prevent the spread of technology for weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery, should remain in place, and even be strengthened where necessary or appropriate.”

He added: “There should also be room for a reduction of the “entities list” without jeopardising our non-proliferation efforts, but we must remain clear about the ultimate purpose of our actions: the goal of US policy in this regard is to decrease the danger that nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles pose to South Asia and to the rest of the world.”

The Senator, who co-authored the so-called Biden-McConnell legislation in July 1998 exempting credits for agricultural exports to India and Pakistan thereby laying the foundation for later Congressional sanctions relief, said he proposed to discuss with Bush the issue of cooperation between China and Pakistan on missile development.

“I raised (the issue) recently with Chinese President Jiang Zemin” during a visit to Beijing.

Biden said “a case can be made for the use of waiver authority to lift Glenn sanctions on Pakistan as well”.

But these are twin issues which could complicate the withdrawal of sanctions on India if the Congress decides to look at the whole issue as a single package.

Meanwhile, Tom Lantos, a Democrat in the House of Representatives International Relations Committee said he plans to initiate legislation to permanently lift economic sanctions on India.

In a letter to Bush, Lantos urged the president not to let nuclear non-proliferation come in the way of greater scientific and defence cooperation with India.


Calcutta, Aug. 29: 
After taking the Right route, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had industrialists breaking out into songs.

Often the target of barbs for his affinity with Bengali culture, Bhattacharjee, in his new avatar as the do-it-now chief minister, had sought to mask his literary face. But it was his turn to be surprised today.

Apparently to welcome the beginning of a new era, tea baron and outgoing Indian Chamber of Commerce president C.K. Dhanuka treated the chief minister to a morning of Rabindrasangeet at the business body’s 74th annual general meeting.

While the sudden Alo amar alo drew a broad smile from Bhattacharjee, it left those in the audience expecting a dose of business hardsell flummoxed. “He (Dhanuka) did not want to lose the opportunity to impress the culturally-inclined chief minister,” said one of them.

Bhattacharjee had left his Dushshomoi days behind when he promised an industrial resurgence for Bengal. Today, he started in the same mode, walking to the podium from the right, taking industrialists waiting at the other end by surprise. Explained a chamber veteran: “In the history of the chamber, the chief minister was the first guest who went up the podium from the right, instead of from the left.”

Having promised to turn Calcutta into the knowledge-based capital, Bhattacharjee emphasised that his government was committed to the development of information technology.

He said Microsoft and McKinsey had been chosen to power the state’s economic resurgence.

While Microsoft will draw the roadmap for the plunge into IT, consultant McKinsey will help bring the “new economy” closer to the vast rural areas.

The chief minister said McKinsey has been ‘requested” to study two specific areas — information and communication technology and agro-processing.

Bhattacharjee, however, did not forget to mention the tough time conventional industry, including tea and jute, was going through. “The state government is aware of the problem and is keen to see that both these industries recover from the lean patches,” he said.

But he was in for yet another surprise from Dhanuka. Referring to the superiority of Chinese products — notwithstanding the tariff wall built by the government — the industrialist whipped out a pair of spectacles and said: “This costs just Rs 100, but it can match the best ones in our country.” He handed it over to the chief minister and told him: “This is the standard we must achieve to take on the Chinese challenge.”


New Delhi, Aug. 29: 
The government today promised telephone tariff concessions during non-peak hours for calls up to 200 km.

“We have allowed local calls up to 200 km to benefit subscribers. But the call charges are same for day and night. Now we are considering to reduce charges during the night (by increasing the pulse rate),” communication minister Ram Vilas Paswan told the Lok Sabha.

He said the target of phone-on-demand by 2002 was “attainable” and declared that the policy of liberalisation was “irrevocable”.

The House also witnessed a confrontation over allegations of a fresh telecom scam. The Congress’ Mani Shankar Aiyar charged minister of state for communications Tapan Sikdar with seeking to influence the MTNL board in awarding a contract.

Aiyar said a decision on giving the contract for managed lease lines network to Alcatel was sent back after arranging for revision of tender quotes by the second lowest bidder, ITI.

However, Sikdar challenged Aiyar to prove the charge that he had interfered in the tendering process. “If the charges levelled by Aiyar are proven right, I will resign from the ministry. Or else, the Speaker should take stern action,” Sikdar said.




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