Buddha cries war on anthrax hoax
Forsaken state plans youth hostels to ease transit woes
Legal drive for Naxalites
Security veil on Farakka after terror warning
Women’s panel gets new chief
Phobia stalks British cricket
India misses Russia bus
Amitabh atones for Allahabad ‘disaster’
Sushma unveils showbiz strategy
Atal in alliance tune, Advani temple

Calcutta, Oct. 21: 
Laboratory tests have linked itching or bleaching powder to most of the suspected anthrax envelopes in the state, prompting chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to direct the police to take “tactful” measures to check the spreading panic.

“The tests — and the needless panic — have confirmed that someone is out to disturb the administration,” health minister Suryakanta Mishra said. “There is a campaign on to needle the government,” he added.

“We have tested at least 10 samples of the white powder recipients got in stamped envelopes,” Mishra said. Let alone anthrax, nothing more harmful than bleaching or itching powder or gamaxine was found in the tests, he disclosed.

Senior health department officials said the “white powder” mailed to addresses in Salboni (Midnapore) and Ratua (Malda) were found to be a mixture of a pungent chemical and bleaching powder after tests at the School of Tropical Medicine here.

Three other samples were tested at a Burdwan laboratory — two were bleaching powder and the third was itching powder. Another suspicious envelope found at Katiahat in North 24-Parganas contained a mixture of chalk and a pungent chemical.

Armed with the test results, the chief minister has directed the police superintendents to work at checking the spreading panic. He recently met senior officials, including the home secretary and the director-general of police, to take stock of the situation and asked them to use “tact” instead of force in dealing with the panic.

But it’s easier said than done, complained officials. North 24-Parganas additional superintendent of police Rahul Srivastava had a harrowing time yesterday convincing post-office staff that a parcel delivered there had nothing to do with anthrax. “We opened the envelope and it yielded some gift coupons,” Srivastava said. If that’s the case with relatively better-educated post-office staff, it can be imagined what the reaction of ordinary villagers would be, officials bemoaned.

Nevertheless, following Bhattacharjee’s directive, the police have chalked out an elaborate plan to trap the brain behind the campaign. The intelligence branch will be involved in tracking down the culprits, officials said. Panchayats, local clubs and mass organisations have been asked to keep watch on post offices.

Plain-clothed policemen will keep vigil at post offices and mail-boxes. Constables have been directed to frisk any dubious person near mail-boxes or post offices. Postmasters have been authorised to seize suspicious mail.

With the all-pervading cable channels beaming pictures and stories of the anthrax victims and the bio-war from America and around the globe into drawing rooms, fear is riding high. Most of the hoax have been reported from places way off urban centres; it is easier to spread rumours in rural areas, explained officials.

However, Calcutta has not been proof to the panic. Late on Friday evening, a taxi-driver noticed a packet of “white powder” lying at a corner of the taxi-stand near the domestic lounge of the airport and immediately informed the authorities. It was not anthrax, officials found.

A Taltala businessman yesterday received a call that the mail he received had anthrax spores smeared on it. After an SOS to the police and lab testing, the mail was cleared. Police said it was a “hoax” call.

Officials say they suspect that the campaign is the handiwork of one or two groups. “They are posting the powder-filled envelopes from rural post offices. We have alerted all district administrations,” deputy inspector-general Narayan Ghosh said.

Police have seized some envelopes which arrived at post offices in Murshidabad, Malda and Burdwan. Officials would not say anything except that they were on the verge of tracing the miscreants.


Calcutta, Oct. 21: 
The government has decided to open youth hostels in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad to provide economical accommodation to youths travelling to these cities on work.

The government’s move comes as a tacit acknowledgement of the exodus of youths from Bengal to these cities, be it for education or jobs. There’s another steady stream out of Bengal to these major cities to seek quality healthcare.

“Our objective is to provide accommodation to the thousands of youths at inexpensive rates in these cities. A large number of those who visit Mumbai or Bangalore either for job interviews or admission tests cannot afford a hotel. They can avail of the proposed youth hostels,” said youth services minister Mohammad Selim.

He said he has urged his counterparts in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi to set up youth hostels in Bengal. “There should be an inter-state co-operation. We will seek land from these governments for our youth hostels and we would like to provide them land in return to set up their hostels in Bengal,” an official said.

The state youth department runs 12 youth hostels now. Of these, only three are located outside Bengal — Puri, Chennai and Rajgir. While the rooms come at very reasonable rates, a nominal charge is levied for dormitory beds.

The hostels at Puri, Chennai and Rajgir were constructed to accommodate tourists. The government has realised that youth hostels should be constructed on the basis of need.

Every year, over 10,000 youths go to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, mostly to appear for job interviews or college admission tests. Last year, a huge rush from Bengal to Bangalore for the joint entrance examination had prompted a special train and a special flight.

“It was found that a large number of those who could not put up with friends or relatives had to spend the night in the station waiting rooms. We think it is our moral responsibility to provide these youths with some relief,” said Selim. “We hope to set up a youth hostel in every major city,” he added.


Midnapore, Oct. 21: 
The Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) has claimed that PWG-MCC sympathisers were unjustly treated by the district administration and the CPM cadre even as the Naxalites threatened to blow up a police station if their leader was not released.

Hearing allegations of random arrest of PWG-MCC activists and torture by the CPM cadre, APDR state unit vice-president Arup Dasgupta said: “If necessary, we will move Calcutta High Court to get justice for the victims, who are being treated unfairly by the local administration.”

Earlier, the Nari Mukti Bahini and the Majdoor Kishan Sangram Samiti, fronts of the PWG-MCC, told the APDR how CPM workers allegedly murdered five of their colleagues. The CID made several fruitless inquiries, but even the bodies could not be traced.

“The most gruesome incident took place a few months ago,” said Dasgupta. “A 76-year-old man, Bidhubhusan Mahato, and two girls were allegedly beaten up in police custody as they were found distributing PWG leaflets in a market. They were not chargesheeted for three months. Later, fearing that they might be freed, a false murder case was slapped on Mahato.”

District superintendent of police K.C. Meena brushed aside the allegations, saying: “We have information that these outfits are gearing up to create trouble after the pujas. But our special forces are ready to deal with them.”

But the APDR has decided to hold its annual general meeting here next year to give moral support to the victims.

The Naxalites have decided to bring out processions at Bhulabheda and Banspahari to protest against the arrest of their leader, Pelaram Mahato on Thursday. The rebels have also threatened to blow up the Jhargram police station if Mahato was not released.

Villagers in the Belpahari police station area, however, spoke out against the rebels. They alleged that PWG supporters were threatening them and robbing their grain. The Naxalites, on the other hand, accused the villagers of occupying government land.


Behrampore, Oct. 21: 
The state government has thrown a security ring around the Farakka barrage after intelligence reports that ISI-trained terrorists might target key installations.

District administration sources said visitors throng the barrage during the pujas. “It is an attractive tourist spot and we have hundreds of people coming here during and after the pujas,” a senior official said. “We have reports suggesting that taking advantage of the puja rush, terrorists might try to sneak in and cause extensive damage,” he added.

As part of the tightened security, commuters crossing the barrage are being frisked by both district police and Central Industrial Security Force personnel. Machine gun-toting policemen have been posted every 500 metres.

The intelligence report has confirmed infiltration by ISI-backed miscreants into Murshidabad from Bangladesh. “One of their prime targets in the district is the barrage,” a home department official told The Telegraph. “Another probable target is the National Thermal Power Corporation set-up, also at Farakka,” he added.

Officials said the terrorists are using Murshidabad as a transit point. “It has been found that the terrorists, probably trained in Pakistan and then sent to Bangladesh, are increasingly using this district as their entry point into India,” the source said.

Police said they have detained more than two dozen people for helping Bangladeshis cross over. “They provide the gateway to the ISI-backed terrorists. We have informed the home department and requested it to take up the matter with the Centre,” a policeman said.


Calcutta, Oct. 21: 
A comprehensive report on the status of women in West Bengal tops the list of priorities for Jashodhara Bagchi, who takes over as chairperson of the state women’s commission tomorrow.

Bagchi today said she would strive to complete the status report, the first of its kind, by next year. She has been associated with the expert committee since it was constituted to identify the status of Bengali women in different fields.

“This is a first-ever serious work to ascertain the social, political and economic status of women in the state,” she said

Bagchi is replacing Bela Duttagupta, who resigned on health grounds after serving for two consecutive terms as chairperson. The 11-member commission was constituted in February 1993 as a statutory body after a Bill. Its tenure first expired in 1996 and was extended for three years. Duttagupta was asked to serve for another two years as the government was unable to reconstitute the commission in 1999.


London, Oct. 21: 
The gathering political row over whether England’s winter tour of India goes ahead is being built up by elements of the British press as a stand-off between Jagmohan Dalmiya, the BCCI president, and the English cricket authorities.

Dalmiya is not a favourite with some British journalists, who also believe that the tour should be called off on security grounds.

In The Sunday Telegraph today, cricket writer Scyld Berry quotes the foreign office in London as saying: “All British nationals are strongly advised to keep a low profile. We believe that India is one of a number of countries where there is an increased risk to British interests from global terrorism.”

However, when contacted the foreign office said something rather different. The spokesman agreed that British nationals had been advised to keep a low profile but added “there is no evidence of a specific threat to British interests”. In other words, it was safe for the tour to go ahead, though the final decision would have to be taken by the England Cricket Board.

Berry’s report claims that if the ECB cancels the tour, it could be bankrupted by having to pay up to $10 million in fines, under new rules recently drawn up the International Cricket Conference.

According to Berry, Dalmiya — described as “the highly controversial Indian Board president and an old adversary (of ECB chairman Lord MacLaurin) — has “threatened to cancel India’s tour of England next summer — four lucrative Tests starring Sachin Tendulkar, and participation in the tri-nation one-day series — if England cancelled their tour of India.”

The truth is probably a lot simpler. Some members of the England side, especially those from the “fish and chip” culture, are scared of going on tour.

Even captain Nasser Hussain, despite being born in Chennai of an Indian father and an English mother, has been demonstrating the less attractive qualities of the Essex man — introverted and slightly apprehensive of phoren. This might explain why Indians in England do not warm to him as much as he would like them to.

On Tuesday, British high commissioner in Delhi Sir Rob Young who is on holiday, is expected to give a reassuring talk to England players and management.

A poll conducted by The Sunday Telegraph indicated that out of 16 players selected for the tour, “six or seven are either definitely or provisionally set against going. All of them are senior players, with wives or fiancees, and all but one of them with children”.

Nasser Hussain sounded a trifle pathetic when he told the paper: “I’m getting worried about the state of mind my team’s going to be in. It’s going to be very difficult for Duncan (Fletcher, the coach) and me to sit down and decide how we’re going to get the players out of their rooms and not to have a siege mentality.”

He added: “On every flight people are going to be clinging to their seats and thinking ‘God’. Every time they have a meal there’s going to be uncertainty, and every time they leave the hotel and thousands of people are out there waiting for you saying ‘autograph, autograph’. India’s a beautiful place but it’s hard enough to tour without these things going on.”

The paper said that “given Dalmiya’s mood”, a team stripped of senior players would not be acceptable to the Indian authorities.


Moscow, Oct. 21: 
At Shermyetov I airport in Moscow, a marketing manager waiting for his flight to Irkutsk says in fluent English: “There are three things I can’t do without: my laptop, my mobile and my credit card.”

Clearly, apart from his Gucci attaché, he does not carry any baggage, ideological or otherwise. The young man is not alone. There are thousands coming to terms with a fast-changing Russia integrating very fast with a market economy.

The streets are full of well-dressed young people — women with legs as long as stretch limos exquisitely clad and shod, men driving Mercedes 600s, BMWs, Audis, Toyotas. The supermarkets are spilling over with goods and crowds. Stylish show windows of Versace, Armani or Kenzo add an extra dash of style to the streets.

Russia today is shaking off the stereotypes of a grey, strait-jacketed society that used to dominate outside imagination. Even the stories of a crashing economy scarring a long-suffering society heard five years ago are belied by the appearance of a feel-good dynamism.

Confirms Andrey V. Ryabov, scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Foundation in Moscow: “Russia is experiencing a boom.” Observes Mohan Guruswamy, former adviser to the Union minister for finance: “The Russian growth rate will be on the same trajectory as China.”

Figures available from government sources show that the GDP growth has been 7.7 per cent compared to 6.4 last year. The industrial growth has been 9 per cent compared to 7.7 per cent. Export has tripled in a year.

However, both Ryabov and Volkhansky stress that Russia is walking a tightrope. Much of the well being of the economy is related to oil prices. People have lost confidence in the Russian banking system after the 1997-98 crash.

But even these insecurities are blowing away. At the moment, 20 to 25 big-league foreign banks are waiting to open branches in Russia. Even State Bank of India and Canara Bank have formed a joint stock banking operation and are all set to open a branch within a couple of months.

But Indians have been slow to join the Russian bandwagon. Compared to the Germans, Americans and even Koreans, Indian business is missing out on the frenetic business activity.

CII is restarting its operations in Moscow after a gap of 10 years. It has signed an MoU with the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists and is set to open an office in Moscow before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s visit to Moscow in November.


Allahabad, Oct. 21: 
Fourteen summers ago, he had walked out on them, leaving them in the “middle of nowhere”. Today, Amitabh Bachchan returned to Allahabad to tell the people he was sorry for what he had done.

“If I don’t do this today, I will never forgive myself. I have a lot of explaining to do to you,” Bachchan said, in a voice quivering with emotion. “Allahabad must forgive me for leaving them in the lurch. I have let my people down.”

The superstar was in his one-time constituency ostensibly for a felicitation organised by the Samajwadi Party, but by the end of the day, he had rid himself of a cross he had been carrying for over a decade.

If Mulayam Singh Yadav had hopes that the star would campaign for the Samajwadi Party, they were quickly dashed. As the jampacked K.P. College stadium waited to hear him spellbound, Bachchan began talking about why he had contested elections in 1984.

“It was an emotional decision to join politics. Indira Gandhi had been killed and I felt my childhood friend, Rajiv, needed me by his side. He sent me here to fight elections and I plunged into politics without knowing what I was doing. But then, I was an absolute failure,’’ he said.

Insisting he didn’t regret quitting politics as much as dumping the people of Allahabad, he said: “I ask forgiveness for not living up to your expectations. If I don’t say this now, I will never find peace. Today I have to clarify a lot of things.’’

As the people listened, some wiping a tear, others screaming “amar raho, amar raho”, the star continued: “My family and I have been through a lot during the Bofors scandal. Our names were dragged in and people hurled all kinds of allegations at us. I fought cases everywhere and finally silenced my critics, but by that time I realised politics was not for me. I had to quit. It had been a disaster.’’

Having unburdened himself, Bachchan switched to thanksgiving mode. He said he was in Allahabad to repay his debt to his old friend, Amar Singh, and had a good word for Mulayam as well, but did not as much as mention the Samajwadi Party.

“Mulayamji,’’ he said, “is a great leader and I have to thank him for all that he has done for my family. All I can say is that when he holds someone’s hands, he holds it for life. I keep reading in newspapers that he is fighting for the downtrodden and against corruption. I appreciate and respect it, I hope you all do, too.’’

The biggest thanks were, however, saved up for chota bhai Amar Singh, who had once talked Sahara chief Subrata Roy into bailing the superstar and the heavily-in-the-red ABCL out.

Bachchan reserved a special pat for scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, who was present on the dais along with the actor’s wife, Jaya. “I was like a puppet in his hands,’’ he said. “I am where I am because of him. The day Javedji stopped writing for me, my graph started going downwards. I hope he starts writing again so that small actors like me get good roles again. There would have been no Amitabh had there been no Javed.’’ Bachchan —- who Mulayam said was “like Ram coming to Allahabad with Sita after 14 years of banvas” —- promised to come again to his people, but said it would just be to take a quiet break and smell the roses.


New Delhi, Oct. 21: 
A film school —- preferably two — in every state, institutes on cinematography and communications, developed shooting locales to woo foreign filmmakers, a complete film complex in Mumbai for the government’s media units — Sushma Swaraj is unspooling plans hot off the blocks for the celluloid industry.

And along with the plans, is advice to filmmakers on how to tap and expand the market for Indian film exports — cut down on the song-and-dance routines, focus on the story and the mounting.

“We have a vision and that will be showing in the way we work,” she told The Telegraph in the course of an interview.

With broadcasting set to go under the Communications Commission once the super-regulator comes into being, Swaraj is finding new pastures for her ministry. She admits that authority over “a large part of broadcasting” will be taken away after the commission — the Bill is now with a select group of Parliament — is constituted.

“But I do not agree that it will make the ministry redundant. Many of these powers were in any case going under the broadcasting Act. My ministry does not comprise broadcasting alone — the whole of films and entertainment, the whole of propaganda and all publicity units are under it. Other than All India Radio and Doordarshan, there are about 15 media units under it,” she says.

The mantle of “entertainment minister” does not sit easily on her usually severe demeanour but much of the minister’s work these days is taken up in charting a course for those in the serious business of being funny and amusing.

For starters, Swaraj is proposing to the Union human resources development ministry that it rope in at least one university in each state to introduce film training courses. Her ministry will establish a council on the lines of the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) — that recognises institutions of management like IIMs and hotel management — that will set the parameters for recognition of these courses. The council will grant recognition and frame rules for private as well as state institutions.

“At the moment, there are only two institutes — the Film and Television Institute in Pune and the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Calcutta — that cannot cope with the demand that will be generated. Arthur Anderson has predicted the sector will grow from Rs 15,000 crore to Rs 60,000 crore by 2005. There will be a tremendous demand for cameramen, directors, technicians and other skilled manpower. We can hope to meet this demand only if we turn out trained people in adequate numbers. This is an exercise comparable to the way be set up management and engineering institutes. There are now as many MBAs and engineers as we require,” explains Swaraj.

Agenda No.2 on Swaraj’s plan of action is development of shooting locales. A preliminary shortlist of places in Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Sikkim has been made. “I told John Mathew (producer of Sarfarosh) about it and he went to Uttaranchal and had a look and came back and told me his next film will be shot there,” says Swaraj.

“People are tiring of the same views of Switzerland and Paris. They are beginning to discover the variety that India offers — deserts, hills, forests. This idea was actually put to me by a lady in Cannes earlier this year during the reception held for me by the Indian ambassador. We have already allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the film sector. Foreign filmmakers are beginning to look to India and they would need not only the manpower but also the infrastructure.”

The Cannes visit has left a lasting impression on the minister and has emboldened her to suggest to Bollywood that they should ensure their films are “tailor-made” for markets in Latin America, China, Japan and of course the West.

“In 1999 our film exports were in the region of Rs 250 crore. In a year it jumped to Rs 450 crore. This year, it will touch Rs 900 crore,” she said.

When she asked the Cannes festival director earlier this year how to market Indian films better, he said there are too many songs, too many dances, too much running around the trees.


New Delhi, Oct. 21: 
The golden jubilee celebrations of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh-BJP provided the perfect backdrop for leaders to articulate the importance of balancing the party’s commitment to “Hindutva” with compulsions of governance.

If home minister L.K. Advani waxed eloquent on the Ram temple, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee dwelt on stability of the 24-party NDA experiment at the Centre.

Seated on a dais displaying huge cut-outs of the lamp and the lotus - the Jan Sangh and the BJP’s election symbols - Vajpayee asserted that a stable government was essential to countenance both internal and external challenges. The NDA is “marching ahead” to tackle both, he added.

“Two or three years ago, I was asked by foreign visitors how long will your government continue? I was fed up of answering them. Today, nobody poses this question any more because they know the government is here to stay,” Vajpayee said.

Vajpayee referred to US secretary of state Colin Powell’s visit and said he informed him he was leading a coalition in which he had to “take everybody along”. “He asked me how many parties were there and when I said 24 he could not believe. He said in the US ‘we have only two parties but even that has created so much of a headache, so how do you run this coalition’? I told him there’s no great secret because we have learnt to take everyone along,” said Vajpayee.

If consensus was the liet motif in the Prime Minister’s address, Advani reverted to the BJP ideology. “The BJP was catapulted to its present position thanks to the Ramjanmabhoomi issue,” he said, adding that it was inextricably linked to the party’s cultural nationalism.

Advani stressed there was need to project the temple issue “in the right perspective and carry it forward” - a point echoed in a resolution adopted today.

Referring to the party’s decision to pull out support to the V.P. Singh government in 1990, the resolution said: “The Ayodhya movement became reflective of India’s cultural personality, It convinced the people of the certain and sharp distinction between positive secularism and pseudo secularism. Symbols of India’s cultural personality are not consistent with secularism.”

It went on to claim that the movement “created a massive national impact and changed the mindset of millions of Indians. Our acceptability grew. We spread into those areas of the country where we earlier had little presence. We found legislative representatives in almost every major state”.

Both the leaders had words of advice for partymen. “It is not enough that the government should continue running. Some more speed is required and the organisation can also play its part. It should be strong, take each and every community along, face every challenge and crisis and win over people’s trust,” Vajpayee said.

Stating that the government and the party were complimentary, Vajpayee said: “Every party in the coalition has given up a small share of its ideology. So has the BJP in order to build the NDA and run it successfully. But that should not dishearten anyone, nor hinder the growth of the BJP. Although we are in power and have no experience of its limits, we are moving in the right direction and I see no reason why we cannot attain our goal.”

Advani asked party members not to take their problems to the press. “If somebody is denied a post or a ticket he should not go complaining to the press. This is an unwelcome trend and let us take a pledge to abstain from this practice,” he said.


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