Diwali miss for Afghan toehold gift
Unicef scheme put on hold
Digvijay scores over Jogi in Sonia report card
Kerala star rises in Cong
Secular backlash hint in JNU poll result
Satyagraha for education
BJP throws gauntlet to Opp.

New York, Nov. 13: 
By sacrificing Diwali at home, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh may have brought India a valuable gift.

Staying back in New York and not accompanying Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to London and back home, Singh enabled India to be part of important ministerial discussions here on a day the most visible symbol of the Taliban’s power crumbled before the Northern Alliance.

These discussions will be crucial in charting the future of Kabul at a time the “six plus two” group on Afghanistan is emerging as the only available institutional mechanism, howsoever inadequate, to create a successor to the Taliban regime.

India is not formally a part of the group under UN auspices. But Singh had intense interaction here after Vajpayee’s departure with the group’s foreign ministers. The group is made up of the US, Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbours China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

As the Northern Alliance marched into Kabul, the group met and called for a “broad-based, multi-ethnic, politically balanced, freely chosen Afghan administration”. The meeting, according to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Afghanistan, agreed to convene a representative sample of the Afghan population and see what kind of interim arrangement can work for Kabul.

Brahimi outlined a roadmap for a multi-ethnic two-year transitional government backed by a security force drawn from a variety of nations.

In what should gladden India’s heart, Brahimi said the “six plus two” group should be broadened to 21 nations to monitor the process of Afghanistan’s return to stability.

After the Prime Minister’s meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington, Singh had told reporters who accompanied Vajpayee on his three-nation tour that the “six plus two” group was neither an adequate nor an effective instrument.

Implicit in this assertion was India’s desire to be associated with this group or any other mechanism devised for deciding the future of Afghanistan. In his discussions here yesterday, Singh had a chance to press home this point.

In the past, when New Delhi broached this subject with Washington, the Americans had been ambivalent, arguing that other members of the “six plus two” group may object to India’s membership. They were primarily referring to Pakistan’s fierce opposition to India’s role.

However, there were indications yesterday that notwithstanding US support for Pervez Musharraf, the Bush administration’s attitude to salvaging Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan was changing. In an interview published in The New York Times today, secretary of state Colin Powell expressed signs of dissatisfaction with Pakistan. He said Islamabad could do more to undermine the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan.

Another factor helping India’s case is the desire of France, Britain and Japan to be associated with any post-conflict mechanism for Kabul. Significantly, Singh will leave New York for Paris on Wednesday night and the “six plus two” issue is certain to figure in any talks he may have there.

Perhaps reflecting Pakistan’s declining fortunes in Afghanistan, its foreign minister Abdus Sattar could not attend a crucial session of the “six plus two” talks by a quirk of fate. After yesterday’s crash of an American airliner, the UN headquarters was temporarily shut down and access to the building was stopped. Sattar, who was driving to the group’s morning meeting, could not get to the UN and was kept away from the pre-lunch session.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who attended the parleys, said: “As things are moving very fast, we need to bring the political aspects in line with the military development. We have to be nimble. We have to be able to move quickly and we have to be flexible and I think we are at the stage when the nimbleness is going to come into play.”

Singh could not agree with Annan more. While Pakistan’s original proposal that any peace-keeping or interim force in Afghanistan should be Islamic found favour at the talks, there was consensus within the group that Pakistan, as a partisan element in Afghanistan, should not be part of any such force.

It is understood that Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia would be approached to contribute soldiers for peacekeeping while efforts are made to create successor arrangements for the Taliban administration.


Nov. 13: 
Rattled by reports of thousands of children taking ill on being administered vitamin A supplements, the Tarun Gogoi government today suspended the Unicef-sponsored pulse vitamin A programme in Assam and ordered laboratory tests on samples of the medicines supplied by the global aid agency.

Only one death — that of a two-year-old in Cachar — has been officially reported, but the BJP claims four children have died and nearly 10,000 children are battling for survival.

Health minister Bhumidhar Barman said “unskilled paramedics” might have caused the tragedy by administering wrong doses of vitamin A, while Unicef official Carrie Auer vouched for the quality of the free medicines supplied by her organisation. Samples of vitamin A will be sent to Calcutta for the laboratory tests.

Barman said the government would fix responsibility for the fiasco after evaluating the experts’ report. “We should be ready with the laboratory and field reports in two weeks’ time. We will take steps, even against Unicef, if the samples do not conform to prescribed standards,” he said.

On the basis of a complaint lodged in Cachar, the police have registered a case under Sections 120(b), 274 and 304(a) of the IPC. Section 304 (a) pertains to “death by negligence”.

Barman said about 800 cases of poisoning had been reported from 12 districts, but the BJP said the situation was far worse. It said 10,000 children had taken ill, with the maximum number of cases being reported from Nagaon, Cachar and Karimganj.

The BJP demanded the chief minister’s resignation on moral grounds.

Auer, the Unicef representative for Bengal and Assam, denied that the vitamin A solution supplied by her organisation was responsible for the tragedy. “Unicef is taking the matter seriously and will thoroughly examine the causes in association with the Assam government. We have been implementing the programme in these parts for over a decade and it is really a surprise that such a tragedy has occurred,” she said.

Vitamin A prevents night blindness in children. Unicef has implemented its pulse vitamin A programme in Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

Auer displayed samples of the concentrated solution procured by Unicef from Nestor Pharmaceuticals and Nicholas Piramal India Ltd. The vitamin A solution procured from the first company is due to expire in February 2002, while the expiry date on the sample from Nicholas Piramal India Ltd is June 2003.


New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
Digvijay Singh continues to reign supreme with the “best chief minister” tag intact after a Sonia Gandhi-sponsored performance appraisal report showed him racing ahead of arch rival and neighbour Ajit Jogi.

The Congress high command today reviewed the performances of the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments and noted that Digvijay had implemented 86 per cent of the promises made in the party’s Madhya Pradesh election manifesto. The Chhattisgarh chief minister’s report card read 60 per cent.

Jogi, who promises to convert Chhattisgarh into a “herbal state”, “power hub” and “knowledge state”, was quick to point the difference in the starting blocks, which gave Digvijay the head start. “Chhattisgarh was created only last year,” he said, taking a dig at his Madhya Pradesh counterpart for virtually neglecting the tribal belt in the undivided state.

But even if Digvijay scored heavily in administration, Jogi earned a major concession from the party leadership on the political front. The leadership prevailed upon dissidents to end their campaign against the Chhattisgarh chief minister over his tribal status.

The BJP had alleged that Jogi had forged documents to get a tribal status. But things took a turn for the worse when a section of Jogi’s Cabinet, led by tribal Mahender Karma, backed the BJP charge.

Jogi retaliated by dropping Karma from his council of ministers. There was violence, too, when Jogi’s men tried to disrupt a tribal council meet ostensibly convened to declare him as a non-tribal. True to the Congress tradition, warring factions had rushed to Delhi seeking “justice” in the Sonia court.

AICC general secretary Mohsina Kidwai asked Jogi not to issue intimidating statements and called his baiters to her residence, asking them to observe restraint. Kidwai also agreed to look into the dissidents’ demand for action against those who disrupted the tribal meet.

On his part, Jogi played his cards well telling Sonia and Kidwai that “forward castes” were fomenting the trouble. He made a case for class war alleging that the Shukla brothers (Vidya Charan and Shyama Charan) were instigating the trouble mongers and creating division among “innocent” tribals to upstage him.

Brochures submitted to the AICC appraisal team said that Jogi intended to convert Chhattisgarh into a “seamless society with global opportunities where there will be no islands of elitism or conclaves of wisdom”.

In his “knowledge state”, access to information would be symmetric amongst all seekers and users, Jogi promised.

The state’s forest policy will convert forest villages in Bastar and Jagdalpur into revenue villages to project Chhattisgarh as a “herbal state”.

Protecting the rights of those living in the proximity of the forests, promotion of agricultural forestry and setting up of forest crime bureaus are part of his new forest policy, Jogi said.

Chhattisgarh has the potential of providing 50 per cent of the power requirements of the country, Jogi said, emphasising state’s surplus power generation capability. “It can serve as the power hub of India. Our policy would enable connection on demand for all sections of consumers across sectors,” he said.


New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
Emerging from the backwaters of Kerala, Ramesh Chennitala is the rising star in the Congress, bagging “independent” charge of Tamil Nadu, Goa, Pondicherry and four Union Territories.

In a minor reshuffle in the AICC secretariat, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has reduced the “workload” of Kamal Nath and Ghulam Nabi Azad, the two powerful general secretaries.

Normally, AICC secretaries work under general secretaries. But Sonia made an exception in Chennitala’s case, giving him “independent charge” of the three states and the four Union Territories. Earlier, Azad had been looking after Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, the Andamans and Lakshadweep. Nath was in charge of Goa, Daman, Diu and Dadar Nagar Haveli, which have now been given to Chennitala. Chennitala was earlier reporting to Azad.

Both Azad and Nath were quick to discount the idea that the reshuffle was directed against them. The Azad camp pointed out that he was preoccupied with the coming Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

Supporters of Nath gave the same logic, claiming that their leader was concentrating on the Assembly polls in Gujarat. Though the Gujarat polls are due after 14 months, the Congress’ assessment is that the new chief minister, Narendra Modi, may opt for snap polls along with the Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab and Manipur elections.

Sources say that apart from clipping the wings of Azad and Nath, Chennitala’s elevation is a signal to the A.K. Antony government in Kerala.

As the Karunakaran group, widely known as the “I-group” in the state, is weakening because of the octogenarian leader’s indifferent health, Chennitala’s rise is being seen as Sonia’s desire to strike a balance between the I-group and the “A-group” (Antony group). Chennitala had recently snapped ties with his mentor, K. Karunakaran, and propped up a third group.

In another development, the Congress has decided to lodge a protest with the Election Commission against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh. The Congress alleged that Rajnath had announced several financial concessions to state government employees with an eye on the polls.

AICC spokesman Jaipal Reddy said a party delegation would meet the election commissioner to apprise him of the alleged violation of the model code of conduct by the Uttar Pradesh government.


New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
The Left-affiliated combine of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the All-India Students’ Association (AISA) today swept the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students’ union, routing the RSS-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The SFI-AISA alliance won the posts of all the four office-bearers including the president, the vice-president, the general secretary and the joint secretary.

Albeena Shakeel defeated her nearest rival Sandeep Mahapatra of the ABVP by 589 votes to emerge as president of the new student body. Shakeel is the second woman to hold that position since 1971.

Mahapatra had wrested the president’s post from the SFI last year by just one vote.

The SFI-AISA also bagged 17 of the 25 councillors, while the ABVP trailed with seven. The Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) failed to register its presence.

Though a students’ union election, the JNU contest hinged on bigger issues. The dominant slogans on the campus this year were “Vote against communalism”, “Do not give a fractured mandate” and “Vote for nationalism”.

“The outcome reflects a strong secular backlash,” said the former president of the JNU teachers’ union, Kamal Mitra Chenoy.

The presidential debate, which brought down the curtains on campaigning last Saturday, focused mainly on the US attack on Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, the commercialisation and communalisation of JNU.

The ABVP’s poor performance at JNU comes in the wake of an equally dismal showing in the Delhi University students’ union elections where the NSUI finally wrested an ABVP stronghold.

Although the JNU elections were expected to witness a low turnout because of the Diwali holidays, the impending mid-semester exams in many centres and a month-end academic deadline for Ph.D. students, more than 60 per cent of the student body showed up to vote.


New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
Watch out for this mobilisation. It has nothing to do with war, politics or religion.

If the organisers can make good their promise, one lakh parents of first generation learners from across the country will stage a shiksha satyagraha in the heart of the capital on November 28, demanding changes in the Education Fundamental Right Bill.

The timing of the satyagraha is strategic. The Bill is likely to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament.

“We want the government to incorporate all that is beneficial for education,” said Sanjiv Kaura, coordinator of the National Alliance for Fundamental Right to Education — the prime mover behind the grassroots struggle for universalisation of elementary education and now for a better and a more wholesome education Bill.

The Alliance has listed four irritants in the Bill:

The government’s refusal to include the 1-6 age group

Its efforts to institutionalise informal and poor quality education,

Inadequate funds

The provision of parental compulsion.

The most sensitive among them is the age bracket issue. The education Bill, in its present form, includes only the 6-14 age group, but experts and non-governmental organisations have come down heavily on the government for overlooking the early childhood care component in the Bill.

At a news conference, police officer Kiran Bedi spoke in support of the Alliance: “Navjyoti has set up schools in the slum areas of Delhi and we know how crucial it is to take care of children between the 0-6 age group,” she said. Navjyoti is a non-governmental organisation run by Bedi.

The government, however, has been unyielding on age-limit. “We all know that this is what it ideally should be. What is the point of taking on something we will not be able to manage,” said primary education secretary B.K. Chaturvedi.

The Alliance does not agree that the government will face problems, especially financial ones. “It will only require 7 per cent of GDP and governments in succession have already made a commitment to allocate 6 per cent of GDP to education,” Kaura pointed out.

For his organisation heading an alliance of over 2,000 networks in the states, it is “now or never”.

The question of quality education has emerged equally important in the debate. Many state governments, including West Bengal, are running schools with the help of under-qualified teachers, some of them having dropped out after the eighth or the ninth standard.

China, which had tried the same experiment, was forced to withdraw it in 1991.

Criticising the Education Guarantee Scheme started by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh, a Nafre activist said: “These are characterised by under-qualified teachers, single school teachers and schools run in a single room.”


New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
The BJP has challenged the Opposition to come up with any existing law which deals with terrorism as “comprehensively” as the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance.

Speaking to newspersons, BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi said: “I challenge the Opposition parties which are against the anti-terrorism Ordinance to tell me which current law provides for preventing terrorist activities as the Ordinance, since for the first time it gives full details on how to deal with this menace. It is exhaustive and all countries, including the US, have introduced stringent laws to deal with terrorism.”

But Krishnamurthi said the Vajpayee government had an “open mind” on suggestions for amendments from the Opposition when a Bill to convert the anti-terror Ordinance into law is introduced in Parliament.

“Political considerations should not come in the way of national interest and the Opposition parties should support the passage of the necessary legislation,” he stressed.

Justifying the reasons for bringing the Ordinance, Krishnamurthi said: “Things have changed since September 11 and now that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden are being cornered, there is need for the country to face any kind of eventuality.”

“The state should be armed with power so that it would be in a position to deal with any contingency as one cannot rule out terrorist activity in the country,” the BJP chief added.


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