Vitamin toll rips Assam govt veil
ICE skating, hand in hand
Naxalites loot food from minister’s house, gift booty to drought-hit
Experts seek stop to vitamin campaign
Soldiers struck in Lashkar lunchtime burst
Khajuraho, Kanha in tourism mart

Guwahati, Nov. 18: 
The Assam government today aborted its week-long bid to cover up deaths in the pulse vitamin A programme by disclosing that 15 children had lost their lives.

Hundreds of children all over Assam were taken ill a week ago after being administered vitamin A under a Unicef-sponsored programme. Until yesterday, the state health department was claiming that only a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, Asha Bagdi, had died in Cachar district on November 12. Unofficial reports had put the toll at six.

The state health minister, Bhumidhar Burman, today conceded that infant-recipients of vitamin A had died in seven districts. Of the 15 children who died, six were from Nagaon alone.

Since the state government and the Unicef came under a cloud following disclosure of the life-threatening after-effects of vitamin A feeding, Burman has been insisting that paramedics in charge of administering the nutritional supplement had given an “overdose”.

This also happened to be Unicef’s initial diagnosis. But, at an afternoon meeting today, they told Burman the “paramedics had sufficient training and cannot make the mistake of administering an overdose”.

A three-member Unicef fact-finding team, which included a representative from an “independent agency”, met Burman after a trip to the affected areas.

They told the minister that in the latest round of pulse vitamin A feeding programme, instead of the usual 2-ml spoon, 5-ml cups were used. This gave rise to fears that “untrained” paramedics had administered “overdoses”.

The team cleared the paramedics after field visits and talks with senior health officials. It will formally submit its findings to the “authorities concerned” in Delhi tomorrow. A copy of the report will be sent to the state government.

Disclosing the official death toll today, the state director for family welfare, S.N. Thakuria, said since Asha’s death in Cachar, infants had lost their lives in six more districts.

Thakuria said with six deaths, Nagaon was the worst sufferer, followed by three in Kokrajhar and two in Karimganj. Besides Cachar, a death each has been reported from Sonitpur, Morigaon and Nalbari.

The government has been extremely cautious in arriving at the official toll. It refused to take into account the death of another one-year-old, Lucky Begum, under Sonai police station in Cachar district. Burman said forensic reports to ascertain the cause of her death were awaited.


Calcutta, Nov. 18: 
One was in a black bandhgala suit, the other in customary white dhoti and panjabi. One is BJP, the other is CPM. One represents the Centre, the other rules the state.

So, what’s common between Pramod Mahajan and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee? They spoke the same language today.

From the opening of an earth station of the Software Technology Parks of India in the morning to the ICE (information, communication, entertainment) summit late afternoon, Centre and state networked for the benefit of Bengal.

“The Central government will extend its full support to set up two more software technology parks in Bengal,” pledged Mahajan, minister for communications and information technology, twice during the day.

Responding to the chief minister’s request for central assistance for such parks in Durgapur and Kharagpur, Mahajan even set a deadline for the project. “I can assure you that they will be ready before all of us go for the Puja holidays next year.”

Bhattacharjee, who spoke before Mahajan in the morning, got the opportunity to thank the Central minister at the ICE summit, organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry.

“We thank the minister for giving in to our demand,” he said with a smile.

Politics is out, IT is in – at least latecomer Bhattacharjee is trying. “We have started late,” he admitted more than once, “and have a lot of catching up to do.”

Mahajan promised help, the same as any other state would get, no political considerations attached to the business of communications or information technology.

The assurance, of course had “nothing to do” with Bhattacharjee’s backing of the Centre’s position on fighting terrorism that he voiced at the recent Inter-State Council meeting. Stealing a glance at the chief minister, Mahajan smiled: “It’s just because of the name Buddhadeb. We can’t say no to Buddhadeb. Taliban have done it and are now facing the consequences.”

There weren’t too many ICE-stars around – Sunil Mittal of the Bharti group was there, of course, and thanked Bengal for clearing his optical fibre project – but the chief minister made a serious attempt to showcase Bengal’s potential. No, no power-point presentation like CEO Chandrababu Naidu, but Bhattacharjee was full of information.

“Today, the Salt Lake Electronics Complex, spread over 155 acres, houses around 170 companies and employs around 13,000 people.”

The ICE summit is the biggest business bash in this part of the country on the subject. Sanjiv Goenka, CII chairman, listed the issues for the meet: IT hardware, telecom, convergence, entertainment and IT education.

Some industry watchers were sceptical about the summit attaining its proclaimed aim: “to break the ice and bring people, ideas and technologies together”.

“The inaugural ceremony seemed to drive home the point that it will be yet another all-talk meet where everyone will just be happy going round and round the mulberry bush in true Calcutta style,” said one.


Ranchi, Nov. 18: 
Seeking instant justice, around 30 suspected extremists of the People’s War looted several quintals of foodgrain stockpiled at the ancestral house of water resources minister Ramchandra Kesri in the drought-hit Garhwa district last night.

The rebels also tried to set the house on fire. A relative of the minister claimed the rebels damaged a huge portion of the house while police said the impact was negligible. No casualties were reported.

The house was located in Paraspani village in Durki, about 60 km from Garhwa. The “booty” was later distributed “equally” among the poor farmers of the area.

Kesri, incidentally, holds the charge of drought-relief operations. At least five districts have been declared drought-prone while unofficial figures put the figure at 10.

“A mob of PW activists stormed the minister’s house around 10 last night. They looted foodgrain and other household items and even tried to set the house ablaze.

The extremists also ransacked and looted the Karpoori Thakur Paryatan Sthal, a tourist bungalow nearby,” DIG (Palamau) Parvez Hayat said.

Sources close to the minister said hundreds of tonnes of foodgrain, including pulses and kharif crops, were stocked in the godown of the house after his family reaped a good harvest this season.

“Except for the minister’s farms and irrigated land, the entire district is reeling under severe drought due to lack of adequate water,” they added.

The sources said the underground outfit had issued an ultimatum to Kesri about its impending action.

The minister, who was in Ranchi, rushed to his village and shifted his mother and daughter from the ancestral house a couple of hours before the “attack”.

“Tractors and other costly items were shifted to Chatra. But several quintals of the stockpiled foodgrain at the godown could not be immediately shifted,” said the relative. The minister could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.

Kesri’s son Rajeev said the family had feared such a strike. “My father had the apprehension. So he made my elder sister and grandmother shift from there.”

Sources in Garhwa said there was jubilation in and around the village after the People’s War cadre distributed the “booty” in every house during the night.

The outfit’s action comes barely 24 hours after it extended support to the Jharkhand bandh called by the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) on November 26. Members of the extremist group also damaged a tourist inspection bungalow on the banks of the Sukhandari river.

The office of the director-general of police did not have any information even 18 hours after the incident. The officer manning the DGP’s control-room in Ranchi said: “There is no information from Garhwa. The last news we received from the district control-room said everything was peaceful.”

The Marandi government has declared that information about every incident would be available at the control-room “as soon as possible”.

DGP T.P. Sinha, however, said he knew that “something has happened in Garhwa”.

In another incident, Giridih police blew up two MCC bunkers in the Parasnath hills today.


New Delhi, Nov. 18: 
Nutrition experts in the country have now joined the controversy over vitamin A, with the Nutrition Society of India urging the Centre to ban the “campaign approach” for administering the vitamin till the inquiry into the deaths of children in Assam is complete.

“According to the Centre’s recommendation, vitamin A should be administered as part of primary healthcare. When there was no evidence of vitamin A deficiency in Assam, why was a campaign mode adopted for administering it?” asked the society.

A recent survey conducted by the Indian Council for Medical Research showed that in Dibrugarh and Nagaon districts of Assam, where more than 11,000 children were administered vitamin A drops, only 0.3 per cent were suffering from Bitot’s Spot, a symptom of deficiency in the vitamin.

Criticising the Unicef for giving an overdose, the society said “its functionaries were most probably not trained” in administering drops from a cup.

The functioning of some of the international voluntary organisations have come under the scanner, following the deaths of children in Assam. Some organisations have even been accused by critics of using medical campaigns unnecessarily.

According to sources in the health ministry department, some years ago the Centre had described the administering of vitamin A in a campaign mode as unnecessary.

They say that profit is the main motive for administering the vitamin to a large portion of the populace. Vitamin A, according to nutrition experts, is manufactured only by Roche International.

“The NSI is of the opinion that international and bilateral voluntary agencies in the country are actively promoting universal distribution of vitamin A, although the problem of its deficiency exists only in selected pockets,” said functionaries of the organisation.

The nutrition society had also warned that the “vitamin A episode would lead to an erosion of faith of people in the public healthcare system and also cause a setback to the Pulse Polio campaign in Assam”.


Srinagar, Nov. 18: 

13 die in hit on highway camp

Suicide squad militants attacked a heavily-guarded transit camp on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway late this afternoon killing at least 13 persons, including 10 army personnel.

The Lashkar-e-Toiba has claimed responsibility for the incident. The government tonight termed the attack “an act of desperation”.

A senior police officer said two fidayeen militants in army fatigues hurled grenades and rained bullets on the camp near Maitre Bridge Ramban. Nine soldiers were killed on the spot and 31 seriously injured. One soldier succumbed to injuries while being shifted to the Northern Command Hospital in Udhampur.

“The militants fired on the camp from a close range. They hurled several grenades on the transit camp where the soldiers were busy having lunch,” said the officer on condition of anonymity.

The soldiers, who were on way to Jammu in buses from Srinagar, had halted at the camp for lunch, sources said.

One report said the two militants were killed by the security forces.

However, a Lashkar spokesman, while admitting responsibility for the attack, told in Srinagar that two fidayeens of the outfit, Abu Sufyan and Saiful Islam, attacked the camp with grenades and light machine guns. Both of them managed to flee, the outfit claimed.

This is the first major attack on the heavily-guarded highway in the past year. Militants had earlier used improvised explosive devices to ambush security forces on highways.

Police sources did not specify the number of militants involved in the attack. Two to three, they said. As the extremists hurled grenades and opened fire, security guards at the camp took positions and retaliated.

Sources said three civilians, including a child, died in the firing. Four civilians, who were allegedly injured in firing by the security forces, were shifted to hospital. The condition of two of the civilians was said to be critical.

Tension gripped the area as passersby ran for cover. Traffic on the highway came to a halt and hundreds of vehicles remained stranded. They were only allowed to pass in the evening.

Udhampur DIG, Doda range, Shiekh Owais Ahmed rushed to the spot with reinforcements and ordered searches in the area.

Sources said army reinforcements were also moved in. The area was cordoned off as the searches continued.

Authorities have ordered a massive security beef-up on and around the highway. Sources said more troops would be deployed in vulnerable areas along the highway. Night movement along the road was suspended by the state administration last year after militants attacked truck drivers.


Bhopal, Nov. 18: 
Madhya Pradesh found a place on the international tourism map after it entered into a partnership with the World Travel and Trade Council (WTTC). It has become only the third state after Kerala and Rajasthan to do so.

While Kerala sells its ayurveda and backwaters to the world, Rajasthan emphasises on its heritage. Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, will seduce tourists with the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho and the wilds of Bandhavgarh and Kanha.

State tourism minister Ajay Singh had signed the MoU on Tuesday in London. He had gone to participate in the four-day World Tourism Mart held there from November 12 to 15 and returned with WTTC chairman Jean Claude Baumgarten’s signature on the dotted line.

An ecstatic state government is now gearing up to have tourist attractions prim and proper by October 2002, the next tourism season. The state has already spoken with the aviation ministry for an international airport. The tourism minister claimed that the issue of an international airport was “progressing well”.

The railway ministry has also been contacted for a Palace on Wheels in the state. “We have suggested that it should be a five-day trip on the Palace on Wheels. Starting from New Delhi, it could travel through Agra to enter Madhya Pradesh at Gwalior, go into Uttar Pradesh at Jhansi and then come back to the state at Khajuraho. Khajuraho has to get connected,” the tourism minister said.

The process will take another six to eight months before the wheels start chugging, he added.

“We are being very level-headed right now. If there are 0.5 million foreign tourists coming to India, there are 1.5 million from our country going abroad for holidays. We first want to trap this brand of class one domestic tourists. So the things to make sure are trains that arrive at decent hours and flights that reach us from various parts of the country. This state will have to become accessible,” Singh said.

Asked on the trade agreement with WTTC, the tourism minister said: “There are no financial obligations, but the understanding is that they will promote Madhya Pradesh globally as a potential tourist destination, the same way as they have helped Rajasthan and Kerala. The WTTC are the global leaders in the tourism business and they have agreed to sell us for wildlife tourism, especially our tigers at Bandhavgarh and Kanha.”

Two other places — Khajuraho and Mandu — have been earmarked for heritage.

The state aims to get the infrastructure in place in the next 10 months. The terrible roads or sometimes the lack of roads will have to be tackled first, the tourism minister agreed.

“We hope roads to those places will be operational by October next year,” Singh said.


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