Delicacy with death in its kernel
Reshuffle rage simmers among BJP’s allies
Phone crorepati through default
Libraries in web of extinction
Calcutta Weather

Kashipur (Raygada), Sept. 2: 
When he was Orissa’s chief minister, J.B. Patnaik would call mango kernels “tribal delicacies’’. A decade later, the same mango kernel has become an indicator of “starvation deaths” for the Congress headed by Patnaik.

That is about all that has changed in Kashipur, where 19 tribals have died recently after eating mango kernels. Initial medical reports say they died of food poisoning from the fungus and toxin that had grown on the kernels.

For the 1.5 lakh people of Kashipur block, the debate is not whether mango kernels are a delicacy, or “nutritious food”, as Orissa chief secretary D.P. Bagchi describes them.

Tribals — who constitute over 60 per cent of the population here — have traditionally eaten mango kernels. They have been at the core of their existence for years, decades, perhaps centuries.

Panasguda village, where seven people died of food poisoning after they had lunch consisting of mango kernel, lies at the foot of the Indramali Hills.

Of the 95 families in the village, 45 get 16 kg of rice at Rs 4.75 a kg using their below-poverty-line ration cards. Families are often large and rice is not enough. Neither is the harvest from the few patches of land villagers such as Biswanath Majhi — who lost his mother, wife and daughter in the food poisoning tragedy – possess on the slopes of the Indramali Hills.

So the women climb the hills and walk miles to collect firewood and minor forest produce to sell them at the local market. “I get hardly Rs 15 a day. That is not enough to buy rice, oil and salt. But what can we do as there is no work?” asked Tilai Majhi.

At nearby Badamaribhatta village, an aging Saibati Jhadiani has to keep eight members of her family alive.

“It’s like this here. There is no work for us for years. Nobody even remembers us,” she said.

Work should have been there in plenty. The Orissa Tribal Development Project, which was started in May 1988 after the much-publicised visit of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Kashipur, was the largest ever taken up in the region.

The Rs 60-crore project, spread between 1988 and 1997, was intended to increase the income levels of the tribals. During the period, the number of families below the poverty line has swelled from 15,000 to 24,000.

It created a large number of contractors, though, who were often paid for work not done.

In one of the projects, the road was not built, though the contractors had been paid.

A review has shown how Rs 6.11 crore was paid in the last week of the project in December 27-31, 1997. Of the eight jobs for which payment was made, only three were completed.

The review found 11 officials, including then collector U.K. Mishra and project manager H.S. Behera, guilty.

A disgusted Hrusikesh Panda, who, as deputy chief administrator of the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput projects, conducted the review in 1999, wrote: “Although the contractors were handpicked by the project management unit, at least a few tribals could have been picked.”

That is not the only ironic twist in the tragedy of Panasguda and neighbouring villages. The block, though caught in a long dry spell, does not qualify to be declared “drought-affected” by the official machinery as the estimated crop loss is less than 50 per cent. As a result, food-for-work programmes were not launched here.

There is everything and there is nothing in Kashipur. The block has six primary health centres. But when the tragedy struck, not a single doctor, except the lone one at the community health centre, was posted there to give the victims of food poisoning medical care.

Bishnupada Sethi, the collector, wrote several letters to the state secretariat to appoint doctors, but no heed was paid to his missives.

In the entire district, there are 38 vacancies in several hospitals for the past three years. Malaria — that sad and unexciting disease — takes more lives than “starvation deaths” here.

On Saturday, a group of Congress workers had organised a free kitchen for the people of Panasguda village, where Patnaik was supposed to come later in the day. As the villagers huddled around the rice pot in anticipation of “free meals”, the last thing on their mind was to ask Patnaik how — between power and out of power — a “tribal delicacy” turned into a purveyor of death.


New Delhi, Sept. 2: 
Waking up to the loss of key ministries, furious allies of the BJP have started accusing “the big brother” of fortifying its position at the expense of its partners.

The demotion from civil aviation to labour drove Janata Dal United’s Sharad Yadav to the Prime Minister’s doorstep today. Yadav sought an additional ministry and “justice” from Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

As some of the promoted ministers slipped into their Sunday bests and reached their new offices with wives in tow, Yadav refused to join the rush.

The labour secretary got a taste of his new minister’s mood when the bureaucrat called on Yadav this evening. The former civil aviation minister told the official that he was in no hurry to take charge and would meet him in a day or two.

Equally unhappy at the reshuffle is Yadav’s Cabinet colleague, Ram Vilas Paswan, who has been shifted from communications to coal and mines. Like Yadav, Paswan, too, is publicly maintaining that it is the Prime Minister’s “prerogative” to decide Cabinet berths. But underneath, both are seething.

New communications minister Pramod Mahajan went to his predecessor’s house to placate him. A reluctant Paswan said he would take charge of his new ministry tomorrow but not before one of his aides issued a statement terming the transfer “an insult to Dalits and backwards”.

None of the restive ministers has enough MPs to armtwist the government. However, the reshuffle has ensured that almost every ally now has a disgruntled leader biding his time to settle scores with the BJP.

Despite their limitations, the belligerent leaders hold tactical significance for the BJP, which is using them as political conduits to widen its base in states such as Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir.

The National Conference hit out at the BJP for “ignoring” its representative, Omar Abdullah. The promotion of Chaman Lal, a BJP member and a National Conference-basher from Jammu, to minister of state with independent charge also rubbed salt into the wound of Farooq Abdullah’s party.

Another disenchanted minister, Jagmohan, who has been shifted out of urban development, phoned Yadav to share bitter feelings about the BJP. Maneka Gandhi, who had been keeping the bureaucrats in her ministry on their toes, is also angry at being moved out of the social justice ministry.

The perception among the allies is that performance alone was not the yardstick in yesterday’s exercise and the BJP was slowly but surely clipping their wings. The allies pointed out that they are left with only two key ministries —- power headed by the Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu and railways under the Samata Party’s Nitish Kumar.


Ranaghat (Nadia), Sept. 2: 
Name: Biswajit Roy.

Address: Old Behrampore Road (National Highway-34), Ranaghat, Nadia.

Claim to fame: The only person in India who owes an eight-figure amount to Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd after running up a telephone bill of Rs 1.2 crore in less than five months.

The amount remains unpaid three years after the bills were despatched in 1998, giving Roy the unenviable sobriquet of the only individual who owes around Rs 3 crore — the amount is approaching that figure, say officials, if the intervening period’s interest is added to the principal — to BSNL.

After notching up the eight-figure amount unobtrusively, he is nowhere to be found. A “thorough” — but unsuccessful — search by the local exchange later, the case was handed over to the Delhi-based vigilance cell of the telecommunications department; the vigilance cell in Calcutta was not involved because of the “sensitive nature” of the case, officials said.

The internal vigilance probe, however, was as ‘successful’ as the first search; Roy, apparently, had just vanished into thin air. So the case was handed over to the CBI. But Roy still remains untraced.

An investigation into Roy’s modus operandi — and the address which has become infamous in BSNL echelons — indicates that a section of lower-level telecom department employees and public works department staff were partly responsible for the dues that officials now consider ‘bad debts’.

The address where he set up his establishment — the land belongs to the PWD in one of the busiest parts of the town — should have raised the eyebrows of lower-level telecom employees who physically verified the spot before installing the lines.

PWD staff cannot absolve themselves of wrongdoing either, feel officials. The land belongs to the state government — the car of the sub-divisional land and land reforms officer was parked there this Thursday — and Roy must have bribed PWD staff who allowed him to construct a makeshift hut there, they reasoned.

Roy had asked for two separate lines. He got both — 58606 and 58611 — in January 1998, a few weeks after he applied for the connection. By May 1998, the 58606 number had notched up a bill of more than Rs 65,000. The figure clocked by the other number was equally impressive: more than Rs 55,000 after less than five months of use.

It was a month before the bills were actually sent that telecom officials got wind of what was going on. Ranaghat billing-section officials told their superiors that two particular numbers were giving the ‘flash’ on computer screens. “It’s a system where the software automatically gives us a message when the amount is abnormally high,” a senior BSNL official explained in Calcutta.

Outgoing calls from the phones were stopped on May 23, 1998, and incoming calls were barred in August 1998. But the line was “officially” snapped only in June 2000, sources said. Almost all calls were made after midnight and most were simultaneously made from the two lines to numbers in West Asia and the US.

Officials suspect Roy used to call up the two numbers and link them up for conferencing. “That meant the calls were being billed here, though two other users from two other countries were actually speaking,” an official said.


Washington, Sept 2: 
Libraries, a prized heritage of civilisation for the human race, may become redundant for coming generations of children, if a study released here yesterday is any guide.

The survey conducted on middle and high school children with Internet access by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that 71 per cent of these children relied on the world wide web for completing their homework.

A mere 24 per cent relied on libraries, which used to play a huge role in the lives of students for as long as anyone can remember.

With America increasingly becoming a role model for higher education and attempts to introduce computers in schools in India and other developing countries, fear for the library as a redundant institution may well be justified, however regrettable, in the long run.

But because of the Internet, “homework” is now truly work-at-home for most American children. They are doing projects and assignments at home, online, instead of going to libraries for research material and books.

The response of a 15-year-old boy quoted in the survey is typical of the attitude of America’s new generation: “Without the Internet, you need to go to the library and walk around looking for books. In today’s world, you can just go home and get into the Internet and type in your search term.”

While the spectre of a slow death for libraries is in the realm of the possible in the US, it will take much, much longer in developing countries. This is because unlike in countries like India, the survey found that 73 per cent of students in the US aged 12-17 — a total of 17 million — already have Internet access. The study covered 754 of those students. As many as 94 per cent of these children use the Internet for school research: 78 per cent said the Internet helped them with their homework.

If the study is any guide, the role of parents in homework will also increasingly diminish with the growth of the Internet. Children are less likely to turn to elders in solving problems which stump them as they attempt projects.

The study said 41 per cent of children already resort to e-mailing and instant messaging to contact their teachers or classmates regarding their homework instead of asking older siblings or parents.

A typical response from a 17-year-old who was quoted in the American study said: “If we need help on homework, it’s great because you can get three or four people working on a really tough problem together” on the Internet.

The increasing importance of the Internet to teens for homework and research has spawned the growth of hundreds of web sites calling themselves “homework help sites”.

Pew Internet and American Life Project found these sites simply by querying search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Lycos with the phrase “homework help”.

These sites offered online tutoring to term papers written by other students. They varied in price, in scope, and in the age group of students to whom they cater.

For those in Uttar Pradesh, who lent muscle to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s successful campaign some years ago to scrap the Kalyan Singh government’s Anti-Copying Ordinance, the findings of the study should come as a boon.

There is no way any legislation can deter students from copying while using the Internet for homework.

The study said “cutting and pasting text from a web site and into a (project or) paper is effortless”.

“So is wholesale copying or purchasing finished essays or reports,” it added.

It said 18 per cent of students knew of others who had cheated on a research paper or a test via the Internet.

Notwithstanding all this, American parents are encouraging their kids to embrace the Internet.

Ninety-three per cent of parents cited in the study believe the Internet “helps children learn new things” and 87 per cent said the Internet helps them with their schoolwork.

As many as 96 per cent of teachers also said the Internet is an “essential” aspect of education, according to the study.




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