Purnendu misses deadline
Opposition sulks at Bill to beat power thieves
Minister spat with Mission
King George grip on kingdom eases
PMO builds Fernandes case
House clamour for action
Jaitley to the defence
Hizb cracks spill out with terror disclosure
‘Silent protest’ at big brother
Mamata dodges coffin cloud

Dec. 12: 
After the naphtha blow, it was the turn of Purnendu Chatterjee to stun Haldia Petrochemicals when he failed to meet today’s deadline of bringing in Rs 107 crore for the tottering project.

The amount would have been used to retire a part of the company’s huge debts. But with Chatterjee failing to pump in the money, HPL’s debt restructuring will suffer a major setback. Financial institutions had set debt recast as a condition for lending more money to the beleaguered company.

“Till 5 pm, we have not received any money from Purnendu Chatterjee,” commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen told reporters. “We have not yet kept a fresh deadline for them (The Chatterjee Group). The board will have to decide the future course of action.”

There was no comment from TCG. Efforts to reach Chatterjee at his New York office proved futile. TCG holds a 43 per cent stake in HPL.

Sen said the naphtha cracker unit would restart operations on Friday when Indian Oil Corporation resumes supplies.

IOC had stopped naphtha supply to HPL two weeks ago due to non-payment of dues. But IOC today assured the state government that it would resume supplies “with immediate effect”.

CPM MP Lakshman Seth, who also heads the Haldia Development Council, said: “They assured me at a meeting that supplies will be resumed with immediate effect. The stoppage was a mere aberration.”

Even Sen claimed the stoppage was due to a “technical snag”.

The HPL management led by managing director Richard B. Saldanha today met Sen to brief him about the situation at Haldia Petrochemicals.

Saldanha said: “On Monday morning, during isolation of one transformer feeding the cracker, the entire plant tripped, forcing the company to shut down the cracker unit.After that the management took a decision to undertake inspection-plus-repair of various technical snags that were noticed during operations but could only be attended to after the plant shutdown.”

He said the decision to take advantage of this unplanned shutdown was justified because there was a “reasonably high” stock of finished products, so sales could continue uninterrupted.

Saldanha was silent about his quitting the company. Sources, however, said he had put in his papers and would join a media house in January. “As long as I am adding value to HPL, I will not leave the company,” he said.


Calcutta, Dec. 12: 
The Opposition today walked out of the Assembly as the state government passed the Indian Electricity (West Bengal Amendment) Bill, 2001, which tackles power theft with a heavy hand.

Those caught stealing power can now be jailed for five years and fined up to Rs 50,000. They will be tried in special courts.

The Bill advocates raising an Electricity Utility Protection Force for “expeditious disposal of cases and to combat theft of energy”.

But Opposition members said the “draconian” Bill was aimed at “serving vested interests”.

Sougata Roy and Arunabha Ghosh of the Trinamul Congress claimed the Left Front had made a scapegoat out of power minister Mrinal Banerjee. “They tried to get one such Bill passed during the tenure of his predecessor, Sankar Sen, but he resisted. So, he had to leave. But Banerjee got such a Bill passed to serve the interests of CESC,” the leaders alleged.

Kalyan Banerjee of Trinamul said the Bill impinges upon the concept of natural justice. “How can one disconnect a line without giving notice? It will not be viable in court. The most objectionable part of the Bill is that the onus of proving innocence lies with the punished.”

Debprasad Sarkar of the SUCI said: “How can an assistant engineer be authorised to disconnect one’s electric lines in absence of any witnesses. Who can guarantee that this would not encourage corruption?” he asked.

But the minister said power thieves should be strongly punished as they were part of an organised crime racket.

Transmission and distribution losses, he added, were around 40 per cent of total electricity generation, resulting in higher tariff which affected the common man.

He argued that the existing Indian Electricity Act was not adequate to cope with the present day situation.

Banerjee said it was necessary to have a separate force to tackle power theft as the police could not deal with the problem.


Calcutta, Dec. 12: 
The Ramakrishna Mission has notified the ruling Leftists of its decision to dispense with state assistance and teachers recommended by the state school service commission for filling the vacant posts in its schools.

State school education minister Kanti Biswas said today the Mission’s decision was conveyed to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee by a group of its senior monks during a meeting on Tuesday .

Biswas said while the Mission rejected the school panel recommendations, it did not find it difficult to accept the college service commission suggestions for the colleges run by it. “If this is not a case of having double standards, then what is?’’ he asked.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 

Shadow on Mamata hope

The coffin scam has cast a shadow over Mamata Banerjee’s bid to recapture the railway ministry as George Fernandes’ clout in the Samata Party and the NDA has gone for a six.

The Trinamul Congress chief was lobbying for reinduction as railway minister with active support from Fernandes, much to the chagrin of incumbent Nitish Kumar. The Nitish camp is happy that Fernandes is once again enmeshed in a controversy even before the Tehelka commission has completed its inquiry.

Samata Party sources said Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was drawing flak even from within the BJP for shouldering a “liability” like Fernandes, particularly when elections are round the corner in Uttar Pradesh and Fernandes’ continuance in the government was snowballing into an election issue.

Fernandes had engineered his reinduction into the defence ministry by sending out signals that “an unemployed George” outside the government was dangerous for the NDA government.

Among his tactics was using the Swadeshi Jagran Manch platform to criticise the Vajpayee government’s economic policies. There were also rumours that the 12 Samata MPs were planning to quit the NDA.

Vajpayee gave in and reinducted Fernandes despite drawing considerable flak from the Opposition. Throughout the winter session beginning on November 19, the Opposition has kept up its campaign by questioning Vajpayee’s rationale in reinducting the “Tehelka-tainted” Fernandes and embarrassed the Prime Minister by enforcing a boycott of Fernandes in Parliament by not putting any questions to him.

In private, Samata MPs said they were happy to get rid of the Fernandes-Jaya Jaitly stranglehold over their party. Several of the 12 Samata MPs had switched allegiance to Nitish following the aborted income-tax raid at Jaitly’s house after Ajay Jadeja was allegedly accused of match fixing and the Tehelka expose.

Now a serious move is on for the merger of the Samata Party and the Lok Jan Shakti with the Janata Dal (United). While Nitish and JDU president Sharad Yadav have been keen on the merger, the Fernandes camp had been cool to the proposition till last month as it felt that the merger was aimed at marginalising the defence minister.

Fernandes fell in line after 14 MPs of the Samata, the JDU and the Lok Jan Shakti ratified the merger move.

Sources said 17 MPs signed for the merger at a meeting of MPs of all the three parties last night.

Of the 22 MPs belonging to the three parties, all six ministers have endorsed the merger. They are Fernandes, Nitish, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav, Digvijay Singh and Sreenivas Prasad.

The committee had already held individual meetings with the ministers and a joint meeting is likely to be held next week to work out the modalities of the merger.

But a major hitch to the merger move would be the choice of president of the unified party. So far, the three parties have not arrived at any consensus.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
Counting the costs of the coffin controversy, the Prime Minister and his advisers are convinced that key trouble-shooter and defence minister George Fernandes has done nothing wrong.

Officials conceded that the “mess” is an embarrassment and it could cost the party dear in the coming Uttar Pradesh elections. But the word from the PMO is that Fernandes cannot be blamed.

“Anyone who has any idea of how the government functions should know that the minister cannot be blamed. The minister in this case was totally unaware of the money spent on the coffins. Leave alone the minister, the defence secretary may have no knowledge of this. Every paisa spent by the department is not approved by the minister,” an aide to the Prime Minister told The Telegraph.

“It is a storm in a teacup raked up by the opposition because of the Uttar Pradesh elections,” the aide added.

The PMO believes that the Opposition, smarting at Fernandes’ reinduction into the Cabinet, is now trying to force the issue.

“But the Prime Minister is very clear on this. Fernandes will not be dropped just because the Opposition wants him to go,” the senior official explained.

However, beneath the brave front, the Prime Minister and his team are aware of the damage-potential of the CAG report that has put under strain the BJP’s most favourite selling-points: national pride and Kargil.

Though the PMO and the BJP have closed ranks to defend Fernandes, there has been some criticism about the government’s handling of this emotive issue.

Fernandes’ critics believe that much of this could have been avoided by timely action. Instead of going on the defensive, Fernandes could have ordered an inquiry to get to the bottom of the controversy.

The defence minister has now offered to do so, but not before considerable damage has been done.

Fernandes today made a qualified offer of an inquiry into any of the specific transactions covered by CAG.

“Whatever the findings of the CAG, the defence ministry will respond to them both through its action taken report and whatever other action that may be necessary in specific cases,” he told PTI.

Asked if his ministry would order an inquiry, Fernandes said: “Yes, in specific transactions if necessary”.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
The Opposition today upped the ante on the “coffin scam”, saying it would not settle for discussion in Parliament without any “action” against defence minister George Fernandes.

The Opposition’s game plan is to block introduction of the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance Bill. If the Bill is not passed by the end of the winter session, the Ordinance will lapse.

The Congress and the Samajwadi Party plan to make the coffin scam an election issue in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. Mulayam Singh today said he would be making a symbolic display of a coffin across the state to highlight the BJP’s insensitivity.

The Congress will hold a demonstration in Delhi tomorrow. The Youth Congress has organised a protest rally on Friday.

For the second consecutive day, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned without transacting any business. Vociferous Opposition members stalled proceedings by shouting slogans. “Kafan chor, gaddi chhod”, they demanded.

In the Lok Sabha, trouble began as soon as the Houses met. Members raised the issue of the CAG findings on irregularities in defence procurement, including coffins for Kargil martyrs.

Opposition MPs displayed the CAG report and demanded the immediate resignation of Fernandes.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was present in the House but made no effort to intervene. Union home minister L.K. Advani also did not get a chance to introduce the anti-terror Ordinance Bill in the Lok Sabha.

House proceedings were halted twice before it was finally adjourned shortly after 2.30 pm.

The Rajya Sabha was adjourned at noon.


New Delhi, Dec. 12: 
Law minister Arun Jaitley today launched a political and technical counter-offensive on the Kargil coffin controversy.

The main points that emerged from his case:

Under Rule 308 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, a CAG report, once tabled in Parliament, would be discussed by the Public Accounts Committee. Until that was done, no action was possible.

As defence minister, it was Fernandes who referred all Kargil-related transactions voluntarily to the CAG.

When the coffin purchase transactions were done, Fernandes was not the minister.

The US-firm, mentioned in the CAG report as quoting a lower price than the one from which the caskets were purchased, was reported as non-existent back in 1997 when the defence minister of the day, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had made enquiries from the military attache at the Indian embassy in Washington.


Srinagar, Dec. 12: 
Differences among militant outfits operating in Kashmir surfaced today after the Hizb-ul Mujahideen accused Pakistan-based groups of harbouring “terrorist elements” in their ranks and warning of retaliation if no action is taken against them.

In a statement to a local news agency, Hizb divisional commander for north Kashmir Abu Ubaidah said “exploiters with terrorist designs” were active in the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-e-Jihadi-Islami, Harkat-ul Mujahideen and Al Badr — all foreign militant groups.

“These elements are involved in the killing of two Hizb-ul Mujahideen activists and two girls, ” the Hizb commander said. He also accused them of being involved in several “anti-people activities”. The pro-Pakistan Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the most prominent local militant outfit, had recently replaced its Valley chief Abdul Majid Dar.

“Our struggle is furtherance of Islam in its true form,” Ubaidah said. “Our struggle will continue till complete withdrawal of Indian troops from Kashmir.”

Ubaidah even identified the “exploiters” as Hatif and Bilali of the Harkat-ul Mujahideen, Sajad and Saidullah of the Harkat-e-Jihadi-Islami, and Jibran and Khalid of the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

The Hizb commander appealed to the heads of foreign militant outfits active in the state to correct their rank and file. “If they fail to do so, Hizb-ul Mujahideen has the capacity and strength to give a befitting answer,” he warned.

Ubaidah accused these elements of “torturing” a prominent Hizb commander, Muhammad Sidiq Bhat alias Yunis, a resident of Kandi Khas in the frontier district of Kupwara, and later beheading him.

He said they were also involved in the killing of a released Hizb militant, Mushtaq Ahmed of Devas-Magam, and the two girls.

“These elements are writing threatening letters to Hizb-ul Mujahideen activists,” the commander said.

He claimed his organisation was in possession of solid proof to establish these charges.

The Hizb warning coincided with an appeal by Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front president Mohammad Yasin Malik to Pakistan and India to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Malik said both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf were genuinely interested in peace and stability in the region.

“The international focus is on Kashmir and both countries should realise that it is the time to resolve this bloody conflict,” Malik said, addressing a news conference after his return from the US.


Calcutta, Dec. 12: 
For the first time in 24 years, the sharp differences between the CPM and its allies spilled into the Assembly with the RSP and Forward Bloc refusing to participate in a discussion during mention hour.

They were protesting against the CPM’s decision to keep their legislators out of the state primary education council.

The “silent protest” against the CPM’s “high-handedness” embarrassed Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim and Left Front chief whip Lakshmi De, but gave Trinamul and Congress legislators a stick to beat the CPM with.

They claimed the RSP and Bloc MLAs’ actions spoke volumes about the CPM’s “dictatorship”.

To end the impasse, the Speaker hurriedly called a meeting which was attended by RSP and Bloc members besides De and parliamentary affairs minister Probodh Sinha. But sources in the House said the meeting remained inconclusive.

“I have nothing to say in this regard as it is beyond my jurisdiction,” the Speaker said.

The state primary council comprises six MLAs and some other members. The panel of Left Front legislators included in the team of MLAs is decided at a Front meeting. The Front then forwards the panel to the chief whip and the parliamentary affairs minister.

But RSP and Bloc sources claimed the CPM had prepared a panel which had no mention of MLAs of three major Left Front partners — RSP, Bloc and CPI.

The panel that has been prepared by the CPM reportedly included one MLA each from the Congress, Trinamul, CPM, Samajwadi Party, Biplabi Bangla Congress and Democratic Socialist Party.

During mention hour, legislators are given the opportunity to speak on specific problems about their constituencies. But none of the 22 RSP and Bloc MLAs present in the House spoke even though they had enlisted their names to participate in today’s proceedings.

When Halim called their names, each of the RSP and Bloc MLAs said, “Sir I don’t want to speak today,” and sat down.


Calcutta, Dec. 12: 
A day after the coffin controversy stalled Parliament, Mamata Banerjee hastily cancelled her Delhi trip that she was scheduled to make to take part in the Lok Sabha discussions of the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance.

Mamata said she would stay back as it was pointless to attend the session with the Opposition parties determined to stall it.

Sources, however, said the Trinamul leader, who had strongly pleaded for Fernandes’ reinduction to the Vajpayee Cabinet, wanted to keep out of any controversy before the Prime Minister undertook a ministry reshuffle after the winter session.

State CPM secretary Anil Biswas, however, seized the opportunity to launch a fresh offensive against defence minister George Fernandes, saying he deserved “his place in a coffin”. “Those who take bribes to purchase coffins for martyrs, are the worst offenders,” he observed.

As the coffin controversy raged, suspended Trinamul MP Ajit Panja tried to upstage Mamata on the question of supporting the anti-terror Ordinance with an eye on the proposed Union Cabinet reshuffle.

Both Mamata and Panja are aspirants for berths in the re-constituted NDA ministry. However, while the Trinamul chief is believed to have received an assurance from Vajpayee about her reinduction, Panja’s fate is uncertain.

Panja, unlike Mamata, has decided to extend his full support to the anti-terror Ordinance in its present form, perhaps to reiterate his loyalty to Vajpayee and ensure his Cabinet return.

The Trinamul leader, however, has insisted on suitable modifications to some provisions of the Ordinance to make it acceptable to major political parties.

“The existing laws are not foolproof to deal with the terrorists who killed 61,000 people during the past 15 years,” Panja said. “The anti-terror Ordinance has been brought to plug the loopholes in the existing legislation,” he said.

“Unfortunately,” Panja said in a statement, “wrong ideas and theories are being spread about the Ordinance by interested quarters to serve their political purpose. How can the government remain a silent spectator when national security as well as lives and properties of common people are in danger?”

Panja has urged the BJP to give him a berth in the reshuffled Cabinet. He feels it will be his victory if he can stop Mamata from having her way and inducting some other Trinamul MP.


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