Cricket pullout chorus unites politicians of all teams
Silence gives way to strong words
VHP furious, BJP covers up
Singh swallows reform mantra
Crash blame on driver
Benazir bait to pinch Pervez
Net cast for zoo samaritans
Dream sellers down shutters in cyber city
Poverty data deadline
Jaish rebel spills milk can plot

New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
If it’s cricket, politics can take a backseat.

Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee today talked only cricket — her fiery outbursts, usually reserved for rival Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, flaring out at a new target.

Mamata today lashed out at Mike Denness for singling out Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and the others. Denness, she thundered, “should not be allowed to get away at any cost”.

She also supported any move to withdraw the team. “Either our prestige be maintained or the team should come back,” she said.

Mamata found support from cricketer-turned-MP Kirti Azad, who has requested the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to allow a discussion. Azad, a BJP member, has submitted a notice to the Speaker with the signature of over 40 MPs, who want India to pull out of the South Africa series. “There are at least 40 to 50 MPs who support me. It’s wrong to punish Sachin for cleaning the ball under conditions where the ground was wet and muddy,” Azad said.

Mamata demanded an emergency meeting of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and said the board should seek the government’s cooperation in taking “strong measures against this injustice”.

“Though the BCCI is an autonomous body, it should, given the seriousness of the situation, in coordination with the government, take strong action so that there is no repetition of such insults,” the Trinamul chief told reporters here today.

Mamata said Sachin’s image “will be tainted forever” by the unilateral action of the match referee. Sachin was hauled up for tampering with the ball, while four others were penalised for excessive appealing. Captain Sourav was punished for not controlling his team.

Mamata said that while the match referee’s action was prompt against the Indians, South African captain Shaun Pollock was allowed to get away despite aggressive appealing.

Referring to the charge against Sourav, Mamata said he has been a captain for a long time and the action against him was unfair. The BJP termed Denness’ action “racist”. Party spokesperson Vijay Kumar Malhotra said it was a case of racial discrimination which was “very unfortunate” and added that it was “a manifestation of apartheid”.

The Congress also reacted with anger, saying it would “stand by” any decision of the cricket board, including calling back the team. “The action has come as a shock to the sports-loving people of India. It is totally unfair, uncalled for and unacceptable,” spokesman Anand Sharma said.

The Bhartiya Janta Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, described the action as “not only an insult of the Indian cricket team but also of the nation”. The Morcha said it would organise demonstrations and burn effigies of Denness from November 22 to 24.

Sports minister Uma Bharti said in Kanpur she had sought a report from the cricket board on the matter.


New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
Home minister L.K. Advani was not in the least apologetic about the Ayodhya break-in when he made a statement in the Rajya Sabha this morning, but by the end of the day he was singing a different tune.

“I want to condemn the incident in no uncertain terms and am not prepared to condone any act by the VHP which will disrupt public life. The incident should never have taken place,” said the home minister in his reply, after hearing out both the Opposition and belligerent partymen.

Advani added that the Uttar Pradesh government would take action against those who have violated the law.

VHP activists had stormed into the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri masjid site on October 17 to offer puja, breaching a Supreme Court order.

Hoping that the Ayodhya tangle would be solved through talks between Hindus and Muslims, Advani said: “There is also another way of solving the problem —- legally —- but that seems difficult. It may take years.”

It seemed Advani was embarrassed by the unqualified and aggressive defence of the break-in by some BJP MPs. Narendra Mohan, an MP from Uttar Pradesh, had pitched his defence high, saying: “Nobody can take away our right to do puja at Ayodhya”.

The home minister’s confident statement on the incident in the morning did not have a word of condemnation. But his reply at the end of the acrimonious daylong discussion was laced with regret, platitudes on the country’s secular Constitution and a thinly-veiled warning to VHP chief Ashok Singhal and his own partymen who had justified overturning the Supreme Court order.

“Singhal has tried to justify the incident by citing a high court order which had said that the circumstances at Ayodhya were not conducive to offering puja. But the Supreme Court had not upheld this observation —— in which case Singhal has to abide with the order of the Supreme Court,” Advani said.

“I have told the VHP that ‘you have no right to violate a Supreme Court order when it has overruled the high court order’,” he added.

Advani also cut his party colleague to size and said: “I do not agree with Narendra Mohan that it is within anybody’s right to offer puja at Ayodhya. It is wrong to disrupt peace in public life and create a law and order situation.”

To add a “healing” touch, the home minister said: “It is indeed a cause of concern if minorities begin to feel insecure. India’s biggest strength is its secular Constitution.”

Earlier, a united Opposition hit out at the government for not taking action against the VHP culprits. It charged the BJP-led governments in the state and at the Centre with playing a communal card ahead of the Uttar Pradesh polls.

Tempers ran high with BJP members cutting short speeches of Opposition members, forcing the chairperson to briefly adjourn the House.


New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
Home minister L.K. Advani’s condemnation of the VHP in the Rajya Sabha for forcibly entering the Ayodhya makeshift temple on October 17 has ruffled the outfit’s feathers, but a defensive BJP said his criticism was a “tactical retreat”.

VHP general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore insisted they had flouted no order when they forced their way in. Kishore, working president Ashok Singhal and some others had barged in despite a Central Ordinance directing that worship and other rituals has to be performed at a distance of 15 metres from the sanctum sanctorum.

Kishore invoked a January 1, 1993 ruling by the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court to justify his claim. The ruling stated that a “reasonable” distance would have to be maintained from the idol but did not specify a distance.

However, the factual position is different from what was put out by the VHP.

First, the Central Ordinance, called the Ayodhya Special Area Acquisition Ordinance issued on January 7, 1993, nullified the high court ruling. The apex court then upheld the Ordinance twice — on October 24, 1994 and May 10, 1996 – saying categorically that status quo ante, as on January 7, 1993, would prevail at the disputed site.

But the VHP today gave enough indication that it would pay no attention to the apex court’s orders. International general secretary Praveen Togadia was quoted by agencies as saying in Bangalore that he was ready to face any legal action in his “pursuit” of building the Ram temple.

Togadia also said the VHP would hold a meeting in Delhi on January 27 and serve a final warning to the Centre to either hand over the disputed land or face a “mass agitation”.

The VHP leader said his organisation was “not hopeful” of a solution from the Centre, although government sources said the specially constituted cell on Ayodhya would have its official head from Monday. Shatrughan Singh, the Uttaranchal cadre IAS official who was appointed for the job, will be relieved this week. But the sources were clueless about who Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee intended to talk to in a bid to resolve the mandir-masjid issue.

BJP sources said one reason why the government was dragging its feet on Ayodhya was the feedback that it would not have much of an impact on the Uttar Pradesh elections. Vajpayee’s contradictory statements last year — describing the temple as an “expression of nationalist sentiments” and then waxing eloquent on religious tolerance and plurality in his Kumarakom musings — were apparently a “trial balloon” to test whether Ayodhya would click as a poll issue.

Much of the BJP’s present disregard for the VHP stems from the trust and confidence the RSS has in Vajpayee’s leadership. Even the last thorns in his flesh like K.S. Sudarshan and Dattopant Thengadi have been neutralised.


New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
The good doctor has been forced to hardsell free water and electricity to farmers in Punjab — a sop he considers injurious to the financial health of the infrastructure sector.

The Congress election manifesto for Punjab reads contrary to almost everything that Manmohan Singh has been saying all along. It promises free power and water to farmers in addition to a number of other sops.

These “non-merit” subsidies have been vetted and approved by the reforms guru. Manmohan is chairman of the AICC coordination panel on Punjab, responsible for framing and designing the party’s campaign.

The promises made in the Punjab manifesto ridicule the central leadership’s focus on management of infrastructure, as stated in the party’s economic resolution adopted at the Bangalore plenary on March 18 this year.

The paragraph on page 22 of the resolution, painstakingly prepared by Manmohan, Pranab Mukherjee and Jairam Ramesh, reads: “The management of infrastructure organisations and agencies, be in power, railways, highways, roads or water supply, has to be improved a great deal. Public utilities must also be allowed to operate in a commercial manner, with all subsidies for the poor being made explicit and provided for through the budget. Fundamental reform of the power sector is needed to restore it to financial health, managerial strength and technological dynamism.”

Amrinder Singh, the party’s chief ministerial candidate for Punjab, is unfazed by the stated policy.

“I do not know what the central policies are. I know what the people of Punjab need. How can we talk of cutting subsidies when more than 600 farmers in Punjab have been forced to commit suicide?” asked Amrinder, reeling out statistics which said more than a hundred farmers have committed suicide every year since the Badal government took over in 1996.

“These suicides are all accounted for by the state government and human rights organisations,” he added.

Amrinder said the Congress had no qualms about offering sops such as free power and electricity till the situation “normalises”. The former Maharaja of Patiala said 52 per cent of the farmers in the state owned less than 2.5 acre. “How can we ignore such stark realities?” he asked, asserting that the objective of all Congress policies was social good.

As coordination panel chief, Manmohan will have to hardsell the Congress’ offer of free power and water. He will be the party’s main campaigner in the state along with chief ministers Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot, who are strong votaries of “right sizing” and power sector reforms.

The Punjab Assembly polls are likely to be held in February next year. The party will launch its campaign on December 1 and cover 117 Assembly segments by December 31.

In an unprecedented development, the Congress and the Left are within striking distance of an alliance in Punjab. Though the Left is demanding many more seats than the Congress is willing to offer, senior Congress leaders said the CPI and CPM had agreed on the need for an alliance.

The Congress is ready to give five seats to the CPI and two to the CPM. The Left parties are seeking 10 seats for the CPI and five for the CPM. But Amrinder said everything will work out smoothly.

If the Congress and the Left agree to forge an alliance, this will be the first time that the two streams of political thought come together.

In 1996, the Congress had left some seats for the CPI in Punjab but it was not termed an alliance because the parties fought each other in other constituencies. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu Assembly polls this year, the Congress and the Left had left a few seats for each other as part of an “indirect understanding” under the ADMK-led front.


Patna, Nov. 21: 
Railway minister Nitish Kumar today ran into a hostile crowd that blamed security lapses for last night’s Mokama-Howrah train crash.

The railway minister conceded that preliminary inquiry showed the driver was responsible, but insisted that nothing could be said for certain till the probe was over.

At least 10 persons were killed and over 15 injured when a pilot engine rammed into the Howrah-bound train near Patna-Kiul railway station. The victims — many of them railway employees — were in the pilot engine.

The train, running two hours late, reached Dumri Halt station around 5.50 pm when its engine broke down. The pilot engine coming to the rescue of the stranded train rammed into it instead.

Securitymen dispersed protesters demanding that Dumri be converted into a station.


New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
The world is toasting Pervez Musharraf for his wise decision to join the international effort against terrorism, but India has decided to signal that the military dictator is not the only hope for Pakistan by inviting Benazir Bhutto to Delhi next week.

Ostensibly, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader is coming to participate in a CII seminar on women’s empowerment on Tuesday. But it does not take much to gauge that the visit has the Vajpayee government’s blessings.

The former Pakistani Prime Minister, who is scheduled to arrive here on Monday, will stay for five days. Apart from addressing the seminar, she will meet top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and members of his government.

Benazir was keen on a trip to India a few weeks before the Agra summit. But Delhi, sensitive to what message her summit-eve visit would send to Musharraf, decided to convince her otherwise.

After the failure of the Agra talks, which, according to India, was due to the obstinacy of the military ruler, South Block again thought of bringing over Benazir. The hunt was on for convenient dates, when Terror Tuesday happened, forcing the proposal to be shelved for a few more weeks.

With the bonhomie between Musharraf and the West, particularly the US, growing by the day, the Indian leadership believes it is about time that Delhi highlighted Benazir and made it clear to those who think the military dictator is the only answer to Pakistan’s problems that there are other options available in that country.

Policy-makers in India and the Prime Minister’s advisers feel if Musharraf could ignore Indian sensitivity on Indian soil and insist on having tea with the Hurriyat leaders during his visit in July, Delhi should invite Benazir. “What is the legitimacy of the Hurriyat leaders? After all, Benazir Bhutto is part of the legitimate political process in Pakistan. Why shouldn’t we invite her?” a official in South Block argued.

Benazir has criticised Musharraf’s handling of the Agra talks and argued that had there been a civilian leader, he would have known how important it was to return to Islamabad with a document rather than empty-handed.

Irrespective of the outcome of the talks with the PPP chairperson, India wants to send a clear signal: there is a large space in Pakistan that exists outside of Musharraf and, if need be, that space will be utilised.

By hosting Benazir, India could tell Musharraf that though Delhi is dealing with him at the moment, it would not hesitate to open channels with a democratic leader and strengthen them if the military regime continued to show obduracy in addressing one of Delhi’s main concerns — cross-border terrorism — and insist on resolution of the Kashmir issue as a pre-requisite for improving bilateral ties.


Mumbai, Nov. 21: 
They may call their heroes lions, but Afghans have scant respect for the originals.

Kabul zoo is in an awful state. The animals are dying of starvation. Their keeper is going around with a begging bowl asking shopkeepers for food for the animals.

But that’s not the worst. People from all over the world are ready with money and food for the zoo, but have no way to reach them.

“I have people and organisations ready with money and food to give to the animals at the zoo but they don’t know where to send these. This includes very large organisations with plenty of money and contacts with animal food companies,” says Sally Walker, involved in the drive to reach out to the zoo.

“I have letters and e-mails from zookeepers and zoo associations over several continents who want to give money. Animal welfare organisations will also help. But we are just cut off. I just had some Indian zoo directors writing to me that they would like to donate money personally. But we can’t get it to the right place.”

The Coimbatore-based Walker, who works with the South Asian Zoo Association for Regional Cooperation, has started an e-campaign to catch the eye of someone in the US government or the UK or some aid agency which has access to the Kabul zoo.

“I came to read a newspaper article that said the zoo director is now getting credit from some traders and buying food for the animals. But for how long? The animals need food, veterinary care, clean up and fix up of damaged enclosures,” Walker says.

“America, leading the war, has military going over all the time and they have veterinary doctors they could send. They would be in touch with the big aid NGOs like Red Cross who could possibly effect a contact with the new government,” she hopes.

Kabul zoo was once a grand affair. It was inaugurated in 1967 with the help of German zoo experts.

In the 90’s, it was still supported by the Kabul municipal authority but the war and political instability as well as social and economic difficulties had taken a toll. Apart from that, the Taliban liked to torture the animals.

The Taliban soldiers apparently visited the zoo frequently on weekends and enjoyed baiting the animals, claiming they were government property and thus theirs to enjoy.

There was a pair of lions. The male lion was blinded by a grenade thrown by Taliban soldiers in retaliation to the lion mauling their colleague who went into the cage on a dare. The lion’s keeper said after the animal was blinded, his mate died of an unknown illness.

In April 2000, a report from the Associated Press listed the animals as a blind lion, two mangy monkeys, a clubfooted bear and two emaciated wolves. The cages smelled and were full of garbage standing in tall grass and even an occasional land mine. The administration building was destroyed.

Yet, for the remaining Afghans in the city, people who were too poor or weak to run away, the zoo was a last resort of entertainment, the Taliban having banned movies, television, music or any recreational activity, even sports.

The new powers apparently have promised the director of the zoo that they will give him money. “But you know how it is,” says Walker. “Even in peace and stability, it takes forever!”

Sally Walker’s e-mail address is [email protected]


Hyderabad, Nov. 21: 
The chill is unmistakable in Cyberabad, Chandrababu Naidu’s infotech hub. The winter of recession is setting in fast here after the short-lived summer of opportunities, taking a toll of more than 35 per cent jobs in the software sector.

The statistics culled from a recent survey by the Hyderabad Software Exporters Association tell their own tale: as many as 150 dotcoms and 75 IT-enabled services have downed shutters. Not long ago, 540 units were selling dreams and minting money. Six thousand software engineers have been handed pink slips. Not long ago, the sky was the limit for 16,000 of them.

A majority of software teaching and training institutes like Peoples’ Soft and Wintech and MNCs offering IT-enabled services like Baan,, Intelli and Silverline have gone in for extensive lay-offs. Companies in the financial services sector like Wilco and GE Capital, too, had retrenched several hundred geeks.

The software slide that began late last year has left its mark on the flow of H-IB visas, too. While 2000 saw a record 90,000 H-IBs being issued, there were barely 22,000 takers from Andhra Pradesh this year. A rough estimate puts the state’s IT-revenue loss at around Rs 400 crore in exports and another Rs 120 crore in earnings of software personnel.

The slowdown signs were there for all to see. Many of the infotech torch-bearers in the state, including Satyam, Visualsoft, Infotech, Wipro, and Intelli, had stayed away from campus recruitment drives for the past two years, sending wrong signals to budding technos. As a result, although the state has started nearly 140 engineering colleges creating a record 45,000 seats, hardly half of them are taken up.

Most of the IT companies have published “profit-warning” statements and sounded out staff on reduction in salaries and perks. Visualsoft and Satyam have reduced earnings by 24 per cent and slashed another 20 per cent off perks like weekend parties, paid picnics, health club memberships and foreign jaunts.

The hopes of the state government and the software exporters’ association that the recession could be offset with offshore assignments were dashed as the planes slammed into World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“A cold diplomatic relation between India and the US will mean doom for the budding IT sector in the country and particularly in Andhra Pradesh,” said IT secretary J. Satyanarayana.

The nascent boom received a further blow as Naidu, the father figure of the infotech push, shifted his focus from IT to the services sector after setting in motion World Bank-funded administrative and economic reforms. He is now gearing up for the second phase of privatisation of sick state undertakings.

The smooth operator in politics has pushed the sinking sector to the backseat — and the ubiquitous laptop out of view — and is back to his anti-poor and anti-caste programmes.

The government is privatising all services and has recently handed over management of an industrial estate near Hyderabad to a private contractor. The government’s dipping interest in Naidu’s crowning glory, Hi-tech city, was evident as its joint venture partner, L&T Infocity, has had to bring in another partner from Singapore — Ascendas — to implement the third phase of the project.


New Delhi, Nov. 21: 
The Supreme Court today directed the Centre to report within a week the steps taken to implement various poverty alleviation programmes and pro-poor schemes.

A division bench of Justices B.N. Kirpal and K.G. Balakrishnan also directed the Centre to “indicate” how it would ensure implementation of the pro-poor schemes in letter and spirit so that the fruits reach those intended to benefit by these schemes.

The direction came on a public interest litigation filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties seeking a direction from the apex court to the government that steps be taken to eradicate the social stigma of starvation deaths.

While Orissa tops the list, several other states too have reported starvation deaths.

The PIL also sought a direction to the government to implement the “food for work” scheme in the drought-affected areas, contending that the “right to food” was a fundamental right.

While directing the government to detail the implementation of the schemes to the court, the judges observed: “Don’t leave the governance to the court.”

Earlier, the court had directed that foodgrain, particularly wheat and rice, rotting in government godowns be distributed to the poor and the needy free of cost as “millions go hungry every night, when foodgrain rot in government godowns.”

Arguing for the PIL, counsel Cecil Gonsalves and Aparna Bhatt said many states had not lifted their foodgrain quota, blaming the Centre instead for not meeting the transportation costs.

The mid-day meal scheme was quite successful in some states that also accounted for a higher rate of attendance in schools of poor and below poverty line children, the counsel told the court. But many states had either abolished the scheme or not bothered to implement it.

Orissa, for example, had allocated five paise per child per day, yet the scheme was hardly implemented even if it meant one mid-day meal a week.

“What is the purpose of proclaiming the schemes from public platform without knowing the manner in which it will be implemented,” the judges observed.

The apex court had, on September 17, directed 13 states and Union territories to identify within three weeks below poverty line families and immediately lift their foodgrain quota from the Central pool.


Srinagar Nov. 21: 
Police today claimed to have arrested a key militant of the banned Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad who unravelled the plan behind the strike on the Assembly on October 1, which killed 35 people.

Director-general of police A.K. Suri said Firdaus Ahmad Shah was arrested by the special operations group from Srinagar.

According to Shah’s statement, a top Jaish militant, Qasim Bhai, had brought an empty milk can to Shah’s residence where it was fitted with an improvised explosive device.

“Four foreign militants and one local activist drove the Sumo with the IED-fitted milk can to Jehangir Chowk where they dropped the driver of the Sumo and the local member of the Jaish,” the police chief said, quoting the statement.

“The four foreign militants later proceeded towards the gate of the Assembly. Three militants in police uniforms got down near the gate while the fourth militant identified as Wajahat Hussain rammed the Sumo laden with explosive to the gate.”

“In the confusion following the massive explosion the three militants in police uniforms managed their entry inside the complex and fired indiscriminately killing the employees of the Assembly and the security forces,” the statement said.


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