Haldia shudders to a halt
Gabbar in net after countless slips
Kargil coffin politics returns to haunt BJP
Gender test crackdown on states, companies
Zee zooms in on Turner tieup
PM stands ground on Pervez talks
Congress ready for Misa if Rabri goes
Conduct code in coffin crush
Fernandes and firni on Sonia iftar menu
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, Dec. 11: 
Production has to come to a halt in Bengal’s showcase project, Haldia Petrochemicals.

A company spokesperson said: “Some technical snag took place last night and we are trying to resume operation by tomorrow latest or maybe on Thursday.”

Sources said production in the mother plant – the naphtha cracker – had stopped because there was no raw material. Technical snags in the past have been taken care of in a few hours.

Indian Oil, which supplies naphtha, the raw material, agreed with this version. Its officials in Delhi said: “We had stopped naphtha supply to HPL due to payment problem. But they can take naphtha under the cash-and-carry system. They are negotiating with us for naphtha supply. Let’s see what happens.”

Haldia Petro had defaulted in paying Indian Oil Rs 39 crore for naphtha.

The Haldia spokesperson, however, ruled out that the sudden halt was caused by the naphtha supply line going dry.

“We will need naphtha by the end of this week. We are in talks with Indian Oil. It is expected that naphtha supply will be resumed soon,” he said.

Company officials feel that with the financial crisis becoming severe and debt restructuring not in sight, it will be difficult to buy naphtha with cash.

None of the promoters of the company is ready to go on record on the crisis. Officials of the Bengal government, a major stakeholder, refused to comment.

“We are not aware of such an incident. The plant is running smoothly,” they said. Commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen was not available for comment.

Writers’ Buildings sources said Sen had called a meeting with officials of his ministry to resolve the crisis.

The Chatterjee Group, which holds an equal stake (43 per cent) as the government in the company, also declined to speak. Group head Purnendu Chatterjee’s deadline for paying Rs 107 crore as advance against equity expires on December 12.

R.B. Saldanha, managing director of Haldia Petro, did not take telephone calls. He had, however, called an emergency meeting of the executive committee.

The company needs about 120,000-130,000 tonnes of naphtha per month for running the plant at full capacity. But its sales of the product, polymer, have dwindled, forcing a production scaleback.

“Things have to be sorted out within a few days,” Haldia Petro officials said.


Calcutta, Dec. 11: 
Nearly 15 hours after his arrest last night, a Calcutta court today remanded Md Rashid Alam alias Gabbar, one of Bengal’s most wanted criminals, in police custody for a fortnight.

Gabbar, 26, was arrested last night from a Kankurgachhi club frequented by relatives and close associates of the local Trinamul Congress MLA.

For close to a month, the dreaded killer spent his nights unhindered at Gold Star club.

Moments before his arrest, the criminal, who had evaded at least 30 police raids throughout India, pulled out his revolver to battle the seven-member police team.

But he was pinned down before he could fire a single shot. Police claimed that another person picked up with Gabbar was a local Trinamul Congress activist, Bablu Sengupta. The entire operation last night took only about three minutes.

Half a year of hard work paid off for the police early this month when they learnt about Gabbar’s hideout at the Kankurgachhi club.

Produced at Bankshall Court today, Gabbar was charged on two counts of dacoity and possessing arms. He has 22 cases pending against him.

Gabbar began life as a criminal in 1994 when he was charged with disorderly conduct and violence. In May this year, he struck terror in the heart of the city after allegedly murdering Bunty, a friend who had turned a competitor in love, in a moving car and pushed the body off on Eastern Metropolitan Bypass.

The police sent detectives to several cities — Delhi, Ajmer, Bangalore, Patna, and Hyderabad, besides Siliguri. On every occasion, Gabbar fled at the last moment.

Suspecting sabotage from inside, senior officials formed a core team with four members. The team’s existence was not known to many in the police headquarters.

The move started yielding results by mid-November. Four close associates — Khoka, Bangshi, Bablu and Saleh — blurted out many of his secrets after arrest.

At least 30 hideouts were raided in the past 25 days, deputy commissioner (central) Zulfiquar Hasan said. “On at least 20 occasions, he escaped by a whisker.”

The arrest found its echo in the Assembly today with CPM MLA Rabin Deb — attacked for his alleged association with Tiljala gangster Chunnu, alleging that a “Trinamul MLA from the Phulbagan area” had provided Gabbar refuge.


New Delhi, Dec. 11: 
The chickens have come home to roost. In 1999, the BJP and the Sangh parivar chanced on a “novel” strategy of squeezing the emotive value of the Kargil war by making elaborate arrangements to send the bodies of the slain soldiers in decorated caskets to their families instead of a funeral in the war zone, as was the practice.

Five months later when the country went to polls, the BJP’s Kargil strategy paid dividends in some seats and helped its alliance reach the magic figure that brought Atal Bihari Vajpayee to power.

Two years later, the same coffins have come to haunt the NDA government, thanks to a special report prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of India on the Kargil-era procurement. The report detected gross irregularities in the purchase of coffins by the army. It brought Parliament to a standstill today and had the BJP at its wit’s end on how to evolve a counter-offensive.

According to the CAG, an inflated amount was paid for the aluminium caskets bought to send the bodies. Many of these caskets were found to be oversized and useless. Now the army is left with caskets valued at Rs 1.47 crore but too heavy to be used.

The Opposition was quickly off the mark to turn the BJP’s coffin strategy on its head. Just as home minister L.K. Advani rose to introduce the anti-terror Ordinance in the Lok Sabha, members defied the newly-adopted code of conduct, marched into the well of the House and raised slogans: “Coffin <>chor, gaddi chhodo” (Coffin thief, give up your post). Another MP shouted: “This government is a thief. While the soldiers were shedding their blood, the government was busy making money.

Defence minister George Fernandes, who was reinducted into the Cabinet only last month after the Tehelka disclosures, was the target of the combined ire. Opposition leaders of the Upper House have threatened to force adjournments unless he was sacked.

Fernandes, who was brought to a BJP press briefing to narrate his version, fumbled all the way through. A press note prepared by his ministry was full of mistakes and the corrections were personally put out by him. All that he said in defence was he had quit as the defence minister when the coffins were actually delivered and by implication could not be made accountable.

Fernandes said no inquiry would be ordered and the matter would be left to the public accounts committee of Parliament. He blamed the CAG for basing its report on “hearsay”.

So far, the government seems inclined to back Fernandes. However, BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, which will go to polls next February, were worried about the fallout. Uttar Pradesh BJP president Kalraj Mishra was seen in Parliament anxiously eliciting the details from MPs. Uttar Pradesh had the largest number of martyred soldiers in 1999 and most of them came from Uttaranchal, which was then part of the state.

“The issue is not just about corruption, it is linked to national pride. We went on an emotional high after the Kargil war and it helped us. We fear that this episode may pull us down equally swiftly because the very word kafan (coffin) is emotionally fraught with memories of Kargil,” an MP said.


New Delhi, Dec. 11: 
The Supreme Court today ordered health secretaries of 11 states, including West Bengal, to be present in person before it on January 29 for their alleged failure to implement the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act.

On the suggestion of solicitor-general Harish Salve, the court also served notices on five multinational companies — Philips, Symonds, Toshiba, Larsen & Toubro and Wipro GE — which manufacture and sell ultrasound equipment.

The companies were asked to furnish the names and addresses of firms, clinics and individuals to whom they have sold ultrasound machines in the last five years.

A three-judge bench of Justices M.B. Shah, B.N. Aggarwal and Arijit Pasayat issued the summons and the notices on a public interest litigation filed by the Centre for Enquiry into Health Themes (Cehat).

The petition alleged that illegal sex-determination tests were being conducted throughout the country, especially in these 11 states, and that the court’s earlier orders in the matter have not been complied with.

Besides Bengal, the other states are Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Rajasthan.

It is now mandatory for the health secretaries of these states to be present in person before the court on January 29, lest they are charged with contempt of court.

The apex court’s order said: “For non-compliance of the court orders, the health secretaries are hereby directed to be present before the court” on the next date of hearing fixed for January 29.

Cehat, a non-government organisation, contended that illegal sex-determination tests were taking place throughout the country leading to rampant female foeticide, which has skewed the male-female sex ratio in the country.


Mumbai, Dec 11: 
Media mogul Subhash Chandra has pulled off a coup by snaring the world’s largest media company — AOL Time Warner — into a joint venture agreement. Under the deal, they will market and distribute channels of Zee and Turner International (an AOL Time Warner subsidiary) as well as those of independent distributors.

The deal will create the largest television network in India with 14 Zee channels and three of Turner — CNN, Cartoon Network, and HBO. STAR, the closest competitor, has less than half the number of channels of the combine.

The details are sketchy and will be known only after the board of directors of Zee Telefilms — Subhash Chandra’s flagship company — meets on December 13 to approve the deal.

While Zee officials declined to provide details, including the possibility of a stake sale, a section of the market reckons that the promoters could give a 10 per cent stake to AOL Time Warner, which could easily fetch a few hundred crores. The promoters currently hold close to 60 per cent in Zee Telefilms.

There has been speculation about a deal, under which AOL Time Warner will pick up from Zee Telefilms warrants that are convertible after 18 months into shares. If AOL likes the way things pan out, it will convert the warrants into shares that could give it a 10 per cent stake. If it doesn’t, it can cut its losses and run.

However, an analyst with a European brokerage said it was still too early to say anything about what shape the agreement would take. “It could only be a distribution agreement. Let’s wait till December 13,” he said.

The new combine will give Chandra’s biggest bugbear — Rupert Murdoch-owned STAR Television — a run for its money and signals the start of a wave of consolidation in an industry that has been struggling to ride out its losses. It will almost certainly lead to a shakeout among the small independent channels which may come under intense pressure to gravitate towards the three big channels — STAR, Zee or Sony, which is now lying a distant third in the channel war stakes.

Zee today issued a notice to the Bombay Stock Exchange informing it of Thursday’s board meeting. Analysts predict that this will be a win-win deal for the two partners, who will be able to leverage their respective strengths to distribute the other’s channels in their respective fiefs.

Thus, Zee can now hope to bite into a larger slice of the Indian diaspora in developed countries by piggy-backing on Turner’s distribution network. For Turner, it could mean a wider reach in India through Zee. Turner’s channels have so far been largely confined to the metros and a few large cities.

The biggest gain for the two partners is that they will carry a great deal of appeal with big-ticket advertisers. Television accounts for over 55 per cent of all advertising in the country but the field is fragmented with over 80 channels competing for a portion of the ad pie.

The combine will now be able to drive a better bargain with advertisers and, if the consolidation in the industry happens — and it must sooner or later — the big boys stand to rake in the moolah. In May, Zee had said it was planning to rope in a global media major as a partner. Chairman Subhash Chandra had then told reporters that the partner would be offered an equity stake and board representation on Zee Telefilms.

The stock markets have whipped themselves into a frenzy of excitement ever since with talk about the mega deal. The Zee scrip opened today at Rs 139.50, shot up to a day’s high of Rs 151.45 before dipping at the close of trading to Rs 146.10, a 6 per cent rise over the previous close. The share price has seen a remarkable surge in the past few weeks from its recent low of Rs 68.


New Delhi, Dec. 11: 

Plea not to put up poll hurdle

In an apparent effort to keep Pakistan on tenterhooks, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said the atmosphere was not “congenial” for his return to the talks table with General Pervez Musharraf.

Vajpayee also asked Islamabad not to put “hurdles” in the way of elections in Jammu and Kashmir which the government is planning to hold early next year.

“Pakistan should not create hurdles in the way of holding polls in Jammu and Kashmir. Let the people of the state freely come out (and) participate in the elections without fear,” Vajpayee told reporters in Tokyo before leaving for New Delhi after completing his five-day official tour of Japan.

Resumption of India-Pakistan talks had come up during Vajpayee’s discussions with his Japanese counterpart. But the Prime Minister told Junichiro Koizumi that the atmosphere for doing so was not yet “congenial”.

Musharraf, in an interview to a Russian daily, had expressed his readiness for a “sustained, meaningful and result-oriented” dialogue with India to resolve the Kashmir dispute on the basis of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Reports from Islamabad quoted the Pakistan President as saying that India and Pakistan were bound by their commitment to the international community and to the Kashmiri people to resolve the dispute according to the UN resolutions.

Vajpayee’s remarks in Tokyo should not be seen as a rejection of the dialogue process, but only as an attempt to keep Musharraf guessing about New Delhi’s intentions.

The two are likely to meet on the sidelines of the Saarc summit in Kathmandu, from January 4 to 6. However, the recent Maoist violence may give Vajpayee another opportunity to avoid meeting Musharraf as the situation in Nepal has raised doubts among some member countries whether the summit can be held early next month.

If the summit is held, Vajpayee would find it difficult to avoid a bilateral meeting with Musharraf. It is a Saarc convention that whenever heads of governments meet for the summit, they also meet each other separately. If he meets others and leaves out Musharraf, it will reveal to the outside world that the nuclear neighbours cannot sort out their problems on their own.

So even if he meets Musharraf, Vajpayee is trying to indicate that it should be seen as a courtesy call and not as a formal resumption of talks.

Vajpayee wants to delay a formal return to the negotiating table for two reasons. The first has to do with the coming elections in a number of states, including the crucial one in Uttar Pradesh. With the Agra talks making no headway, the Prime Minister is in no position to show his eagerness in resuming the stalled dialogue.

The second reason relates to the proposed elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Vajpayee wants to ensure that the elections are not only free and fair but also meaningful and acceptable to both Kashmiris and the outside world.

By keeping the proposed dialogue with Pakistan in abeyance, Vajpayee is making it clear that talks between the two sides would depend to a large extent on whether the military regime allows the political process in Kashmir to be completed.


Ranchi, Dec. 11: 
After Rabri Devi, it is Misa Bharati. The new chief minister is waiting in the wings.

The Yadav dynasty came a full circle today with the Congress conceding that if Rabri Devi is convicted by the Patna trial court in the Rs 50-lakh disproportionate assets case, in which she is a co-accused with her husband Laloo Prasad Yadav, the party would accept their eldest daughter, Misa , as the next chief minister of Bihar.

Emerging from the Ranchi camp jail after meeting Laloo, senior Congress leader and Intuc national general secretary Rajinder Singh said the jailed Rashtriya Janata Dal chief was still powerful and was entitled to rule Bihar the way he wished to.

Singh added that despite criticism that the RJD and the Congress were perpetuating dynastic rule in their parties, in Bihar, Laloo would always have the final say and the Congress would go along with the RJD if Sonia Gandhi approved of it.

In 1997, when the CBI had filed another chargesheet against Laloo, he had installed his wife Rabri Devi as the chief minister barely 48 hours before his arrest.

Though Rabri Devi was a novice, Laloo managed to run the government from Patna’s Beur jail. However, Misa is a qualified doctor and is acquainted with the kind of life the job demands.

Referring to the RJD-JMM “topple bid” to oust the Babulal Marandi government in Jharkhand, Singh said winning over five or six legislators was not difficult, but the time was not ripe for such a move.

Singh said it was difficult to topple the government at this juncture as there was no consensus in the Opposition over the choice of leader. “The mad rush among the Opposition parties for ministerial berths also poses another hurdle,’’ he claimed.

However, Singh clarified that his visit to the camp jail was more personal than political as he had held the energy portfolio in the Rabri Devi government in undivided Bihar last year.

Singh’s visit to the jail comes in the wake of the JMM’s revelation that it was in touch with disgruntled NDA allies to explore the possibility of a viable “alternative”.

As the flow of visitors to the camp jail dwindled, the RJD chief today instructed his cadre to make preparations for a quick ouster of the Marandi government.

Word was sent out by the RJD chief that he had called upon all secular forces to join ranks “as the reign of the Taliban was about to end in Jharkhand”.


New Delhi, Dec. 11: 
An agitated but determined Opposition today stalled both Houses of Parliament alleging a scam in the purchase of coffins for the martyrs of Kargil as mentioned in a CAG report.

The controversial Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and the code of conduct for legislators became instant casualties of the Opposition action.

Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi was caught in a dilemma over whether to take action against the 40-odd members who rushed to the well to demand the resignation of defence minister George Fernandes and prevent home minister L.K. Advani from tabling the anti-terror Bill.

Sources close to the Speaker said Balayogi was unlikely to suspend the members as the situation was “extraordinary” with the entire Opposition united on the issue.

“It is entirely at the discretion of the Speaker. If he wants to suspend the entire Opposition, he is welcome,” senior CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee said outside the House.

The impasse is likely to continue tomorrow as separate meetings Balayogi and Rajya Sabha vice-chairman Krishan Kant held with Opposition leaders failed to arrive at a solution. The Opposition stuck to its stand on Fernandes’ resignation.

According to the code of conduct adopted by Parliament last week, members rushing to the well of the House would invite a week’s automatic suspension (five working days).

The BJP’s Kirti Azad, Prabhunath Singh of the Samata Party and Nagmani of the RJD-Democratic were heard pleading with the chair that the names of the members who had rushed to the well be noted and action taken against them. Samajwadi Party member Akhilesh Singh was seen tearing papers and throwing them into the well.

“If a small number troops into the well we could think of some action,” said a source in the Speaker’s secretariat. “How can we suspend the entire Opposition?”

With Opposition members shouting slogans like kafan chor, gaddi chhod (coffin thief, quit), government chor hai (government is a swindler), sena khoon bahati hai, sarkar commission khati hai (soldiers shed blood while the government takes commission), the presiding officers adjourned both Houses without transacting any business.

“It is amazing that while our jawans were sacrificing their lives, they were making money on the bodies of our heroes. Therefore, we feel it is the duty of the Prime Minister to get rid of Fernandes,” Chatterjee said, adding that the defence minister had been indicted twice, by Tehelka and the CAG.


New Delhi, Dec. 11: 

Tongues wag on missing Mamata

Sonia Gandhi used the iftar at her residence not to strike a new alliance but to launch a no-holds barred attack on defence minister George Fernandes. Calling for Fernandes’ resignation over irregularities in casket procurements, Sonia said: “They (the BJP and the NDA) are doing business with the coffins of our matryrs, we would not accept that.”

Even while entertaining guests with kebabs, firni, biryani, korma and an assortment of sherbets, Sonia made strong statements on the latest scam to rock the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre.

She made it clear the government will not be allowed to get away after its indictment in the CAG report. “I feel astounded by the scam.... That they can do this to martyrs. First, it was Tehelka and now another scam has surfaced. This is totally unacceptable,” Sonia said. Congress MPs have refused to recognise Fernandes’ return to the Cabinet, she said. “We were not even posing questions to him.”

The Congress chief saw nothing wrong in the main Opposition party rushing to the well of the House despite the recently enforced code of conduct for legislators.

This afternoon, she allayed fears voiced by some MPs of automatic suspension of those who descended on the well. “Let it be,” Sonia said curtly.

The iftar was dominated by conversations revolving round Fernandes and the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. Sonia said she had not heard anything about the Centre’s move to push through the Ordinance in a joint session of Parliament.

On the political level, the iftar sought to send out a signal. In case of a vacancy at the Centre, after the Uttar Pradesh polls, the Opposition would not hesitate to come together. Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Chandra Shekhar, A.B. Bardhan, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Amar Singh, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, I.K. Gujral and P.V. Narasimha Rao were all present this evening.

Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav and Shatrughan Sinha from the NDA were also there.

Shatrughan parried questions about the possibility of his joining the Congress. The BJP MP, of late, is not getting along well with the party establishment.

“You will see me at all iftars,” Shatrughan said, even while praising Sonia as a mature politician. About his future, he said he had an open mind.

There was considerable speculation over the absence of Mamata Banerjee. The Trinamul Congress chief was in Calcutta. Some of her party MPs said she was not even invited.

Last year, Mamata was the main attraction when the Assembly polls were round the corner in Bengal.

For Congressmen, Priyanka Vadra Gandhi was the main draw today. She was seen attending to guests from Amethi and Uttar Pradesh.

Priyanka walked up to a table and told Amethi partymen: “I have not been to Amethi for some time. I hope to be there after Id.”

Sonia spent most of her time attending to ambassadors from the Arab nations while Priyanka took rounds to look after other guests with husband Robert Vadra.




Maximum: 28.8°C (+2)
Minimum: 17.1°C (+2)



Relative humidity

Maximum: 96%,
Minimum: 49%

Sunrise: 6.12 am

Sunset: 4.49 pm


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 16°C

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