Damages for toy train ride cut
Govt ultimatum to banks
Fast-track PF cheques
Eye camp
Dove in Delhi, hawk in poll hub
Allies sleepless over BJP war cry
Maneka tests waters for Varun debut
Jaish heads for Kashmir
Pak strike corps near soft spots
Shell scare for tourists

 
 
DAMAGES FOR TOY TRAIN RIDE CUT 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Jan. 2: 
A consumer court has ordered the railways to pay compensation for a toy train ride cut short without notice.

It was destination Darjeeling for the Haques in the autumn of 1999. The crowning glory of the vacation was to be the toy train ride.

Naushad Haque, a resident of Serampore, booked the family’s passage to Darjeeling from New Jalpaiguri by the century-old World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway-run train on October 23.

The journey began on a perfect note with the train chugging its way up winding slopes and toot-tooting through quaint settlements. But Haque and his family, like hordes of other Puja holidaymakers, were in for a rude shock when the journey was terminated at Kurseong station. It was 5 pm, the light was fading and the train was already several hours late.

Haque and the other passengers looked for the train’s driver and guard and the Kurseong station master to seek an explanation. But none of the railwaymen was to be found.

Haque tried to arrange an alternative means of transport to Darjeeling. But put off by the exorbitant fares being quoted, the family finally spent the night in the picturesque hill town, paying through their noses for accommodation during the peak tourist season.

The next morning, Haque forked out a hefty sum to hire a taxi to Darjeeling because the train also failed to run that day.

Haque filed a case with the Darjeeling District Consumers’ Dispute Redressal Forum, complaining of “deficiency of services rendered to him and his family by the North-eastern Frontier Railway authorities”.

The consumer forum recently ruled in his favour, granting him Rs 2,000 as compensation and a refund of the balance fare from Kurseong to Darjeeling with interest. The forum has also asked the railway authorities to pay Haque Rs 1,000 for legal expenses.

   

 
 
GOVT ULTIMATUM TO BANKS 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAKRABORTY
 
Calcutta, Jan. 2: 
The West Bengal government has decided to boycott those public sector commercial banks which fail to improve their credit-deposit ratio in the state from 41 per cent to the national average of 56 per cent.

After years of bickering, the government has set a March 31, 2002, deadline for banks to improve their credit exposure. The state government’s decision would be communicated to the banks soon.

Various government departments, including state-owned public sector undertakings, would be asked to withdraw deposits from banks that fail to respond.

The salary accounts of school and college teachers in such banks would also be closed and shifted to the banks that do improve their credit-deposit ratio.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta said public sector banks were supposed to disburse between Rs 550 and Rs 600 crore under the self-employment programme in the current fiscal. But disbursement till the end of December was just Rs 300 crore. He said the banks would be asked to pay the rest of the money within the remaining three months.

   

 
 
FAST-TRACK PF CHEQUES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 2: 
Provident Fund cheques can be handed over to employees on the day of retirement if the employer deposits one month’s contribution in advance and the claim is submitted 20 days ahead.

Additional Central Provident Fund commissioner (East Zone), Calcutta, M.L. Meena said all offices of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation were now handing over cheques to retiring employees, a practice that he had started.

Meena added that accounts slips will be given to employers on April 1, 2002, if the annual returns are filed by March 31.

   

 
 
EYE CAMP 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 2: 
Burnpur Cement Limited, in collaboration with an Indo-Japanese Foundation, Project Operation Sight For All, has organised a screening camp at Tarapur in Murshidabad.

Around 700 patients have been checked. Those found fit for surgery will be operated upon using the micro surgery lens implantation method between January 3 and January 6. Five more camps will be held at Raghunathgunj, Jibanti, Karimpur, Bhagabangola and Domkol.

   

 
 
DOVE IN DELHI, HAWK IN POLL HUB 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Jan. 2: 
Rolling back diplomatic compulsions for a brief while, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today told election-bound Uttar Pradesh what the BJP wanted to hear.

Launching a broadside against Pakistan and an occasional potshot at the US, Vajpayee ridiculed Islamabad’s demand for evidence to hand over suspects wanted in India.

“The bullet marks on the Parliament building and the bodies littered around it are enough evidence. What more evidence do they want?’’ Vajpayee asked at a meeting of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha.

“We have tolerated enough, now we have to retaliate. This madness has to be fought. This time, it will be decisive and final,” Vajpayee, who had held out an olive branch to Pakistan in his New Year musings, told a sea of silent samajis.

He added that the terrorists “certainly” came from Pakistan. “We also know why they came and who sent them. We have recovered enough documents from them to tell us who was behind the gory act. Dimag kiska tha, organisation tha ya desh tha, humko sab pata chal chuka hai,’’ Vajpayee added.

Referring to the US, the Prime Minister said: “They thought nobody could touch them, but the World Trade Center attack demolished the confidence. The West has understood religious terrorism only now. They used to say earlier that terrorism in India was a territorial problem. It is not, and now they know.’’

Vajpayee added that the fight against terrorism has to begin in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Prime Minister’s comments came at a time when the BJP has turned restive over the conciliatory gestures from both India and Pakistan in the last few days. The party feels that any sign of accommodation now will backfire during the February polls, especially since it had raised the war tempo initially.

However, Vajpayee, who is under international pressure to calm tempers on the border, was quick to add that America’s efforts have united the world against terrorism.

He pointed out that while India supported the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, “another country” was backing the Taliban. “See, now the face of Afghanistan has changed. Pakistan, too, will change.”

   

 
 
ALLIES SLEEPLESS OVER BJP WAR CRY 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 2: 
NDA allies are upset with the BJP leadership and the Sangh parivar for whipping up the war hysteria in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament.

The Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janashakti Party — which are contesting the coming Uttar Pradesh elections in alliance with the BJP — feel the high-pitched rhetoric could boomerang on them.

Though the government is now exploring diplomatic options to defuse the tension with Pakistan, the turnaround came not before continuous war mongering for a fortnight by the BJP and the RSS after the Parliament attack.

A Samata leader said it was a monumental blunder on the part of senior BJP leaders to have upped the ante on television channels and elsewhere without realising the ground realities. Even defence minister George Fernandes did not at any time raise the war-pitch, he said.

“We have been telling that war should be the last option,” Dal (U) spokesperson Mohan Prakash said, criticising the BJP and parivar hawks. “The door for a meaningful dialogue should always be open.”

Prakash, who recently visited Rajasthan, said hundreds of Taliban fighters are rumoured to have sneaked into the state as well as Punjab after the US strikeback in Afghanistan.

He said it was possible that Pakistan had relocated some of these fighters in the Punjab and Rajasthan borders. As Kashmir has come under tight vigil, the fighters would have been easily noticed if they had sneaked in there, Prakash said. But in Punjab, they could mix with the local population, making detection difficult.

The Lok Janashakti Party, which is planning to contest over two dozen seats in Uttar Pradesh, feels that instead of whipping up “nationalist” sentiments in the hope of garnering votes, the NDA should have concentrated on developmental issues, corruption and criminalisation of politics

An LJP leader said though the attack on Parliament and the brewing cross-border tension may result in a mild polarisation of Hindu votes, the war rhetoric and the subsequent climbdown by the government will be exploited by the Opposition.

The allies are also unhappy with the seat-sharing arrangement. Of the 400-odd seats, the BJP is planning to contest 302, leaving just about 100 for the half-a-dozen allies. Apart from the Dal (U), the Samata and the LJP, Union agriculture minister Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Loktantrik Congress and the Jantantrik Bahujan Samaj Party are also part of the alliance.

Dal (U) sources said they would start seat-sharing talks with the Uttar Pradesh BJP leadership from this weekend. Yesterday, Samata president Krishna Rao had a preliminary round of talks with chief minister Rajnath Singh in Lucknow. Samata sources said they expect to contest at least 15 seats.

   

 
 
MANEKA TESTS WATERS FOR VARUN DEBUT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 2: 
Maneka Gandhi is known more for her love for animals than politics. But the minister of state for statistics and programme implementation has decided to wade through the murky political waters of Uttar Pradesh — the state which can turn out to be a mascot for political parties.

Recently “her supporters” in Pilibhit, the constituency she represents in the Lok Sabha, floated the Jan Shakti — a group yet to publicly align with a political party. There is speculation that Maneka would like her son Varun to take the plunge into politics. With Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls round the corner, it could be a good testing ground for a budding political leader.

For the time being, the minister is playing down the event. In fact, Maneka is not even an office-bearer in the new organisation though there is no doubt that she is the main catalyst behind the Jan Shakti. Known for being the “non-conformist” bahu in the Gandhi-Nehru family, Maneka could zero in on the Uttar Pradesh elections to join political issue with her sister-in-law Sonia Gandhi.

Maneka has been waiting in the wings a long time — picking her way carefully between politics and her crusade for animal rights. But according to sources, the “outlaw” from the Gandhi-Nehru family had never jettisoned political ambitions. It was more a question of pitching in at the right time than attaining political “nirvana”.

If Sonia was dismissed as a political novice when she took charge of the Congress, Maneka’s profile as a political leader will also need to be honed. Her reputation now rests on her work for a cleaner environment, animal rights and on being an efficient minister.

Her latest barb has been directed at the International Olympics Committee which is planning to introduce rodeo in the games. In a letter to committee director Jacques Rogge, Maneka said: “The introduction of rodeo will lead to resentment and reaction in most countries.”

She argued that rodeo is a “confrontation” between man and animal where the “objective is to highlight the superiority of man in controlling an animal”.

Most NGOs have recognised Maneka’s contribution as an environment minister. Of late, she has had a rough time with the government — shunted out of ministries that were more up her alley than the present portfolio.

   

 
 
JAISH HEADS FOR KASHMIR 
 
 
FROM IDREES BAKHTIAR AND AGENCIES
 
Islamabad, Jan. 2: 
The Jaish-e-Mohammad, one of the outfits blamed for the attack on the Indian Parliament, has said it is moving its offices to Kashmir to escape a Pakistani crackdown.

Jaish is following in the footsteps of co-accused Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lashkar has also announced the transfer of its headquarters to Kashmir and changed its leader.

A Jaish official said its leaders will infiltrate Kashmir despite heavy Indian security. “We have decided to shift offices to occupied Kashmir,” the group official, Mohammad Abdullah, told Reuters. “We will open offices on the mountains of Kashmir and no one can stop us from doing so,” he added. Jaish leader Masood Azhar and several activists were detained by Pakistani authorities late last month. Its offices in Karachi have been sealed, too.

The United Jihad Council, an umbrella organisation of Pakistan-based militant outfits, has said Islamabad should not hand over suspects wanted by India.

“If it happens, everything will be finished,” council chairman and Hizb-ul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin said and hoped Pakistan would not go to such an extent.

He said the council would re-evolve its strategy in the next few days following Islamabad’s crackdown on militants and termed the government action “disappointing”.

Salahuddin condemned the arrest of Lashkar founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed and Azhar. He said he understood Pakistan’s compulsions but, in general, the government’s actions had disappointed him.

China plane for Pervez

China today said Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf would transit through China and hire a Chinese aircraft to reach Kathmandu to attend the 11th Saarc summit from January 4-6.

“Very recently, Pakistan us that in view of the present India-Pakistan relations, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will like to proceed to the Saarc summit in Nepal through China,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said.

   

 
 
PAK STRIKE CORPS NEAR SOFT SPOTS 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Jammu, Jan. 2: 
Mounting build-up of Pakistani forces near border areas it had “captured” during the 1965 and 1971 wars has triggered concern among Indian army officers.

A senior defence source said the Pakistani army’s decision to station 150,000 troops in the Jammu-Poonch belt — from Chicken Neck on the international border to Rajouri on the LoC — indicated that if war broke out, the enemy’s major thrust would be from Jammu.

“We have noted the build-up seriously and have taken steps accordingly. This build-up is contrary to the statements emanating from Islamabad that Pakistan is not heading for war and does not want to enter into hostilities with India,” the source said.

The amassing of forces includes one “strike corps” capable of surprise attacks and executing special operations deep inside Indian territory. A tank and an artillery division have been stationed to provide covering fire to the strike corps if there is a surprise raid.

Soldiers from Pakistan’s 1 Corps, located in Khariyan-Mangla, Gujranwala’s 30 Corps and Rawalpindi’s 10 Corps have also been asked to move at short notice.

Defence sources said the troop build-up was a clear sign that if there is an outbreak of hostilities Pakistan would like to attack and capture the Akhnoor-Pallanwala sector. In 1965, Pakistan had captured Chhamb. Then in 1971, it had notched up a big success in Jayorian but had to beat a retreat after a fierce face-off with Indian forces. According to military strategists in Pakistan, the Indian army is weak in the Chicken Neck and Pallanwala sectors.

Sources said the heavy Pakistani build-up alongside Jammu also indicated that Pakistan wants to cut off the Rajouri-Poonch Highway by capturing Akhnoor-Pallanwalla and Jayorian. If Pakistan manages to capture the three towns, Uri, too, could come under its control.

Over the last few years, Pakistan has been eyeing two major highways in Jammu and Kashmir. The 10-km stretch of the Srinagar-Kargil Highway, which falls in the range of Pakistani artillery, has been shelled continuously. The recent build-up, sources said, indicated that Pakistan was also eyeing the Jammu-Poonch Highway.

Defence sources said the daily shelling of villages in the Jammu and Poonch sectors was a clear indicator of Pakistan’s designs. The Pakistani army also has its eyes on the Jammu-Pathankot Highway, which lies just five kilometres from the international border in Ghagwal-Supwal.

Yesterday’s early attack on army personnel at Damtal on the Jammu-Pathankot Highway in Himachal Pradesh is being seen as an attempt by Pakistan to divert the attention of Indian forces.

“Pakistan is playing a double game at the moment. While continuing to build up its forces on the border, it has been telling terrorists to strike deep inside Indian territory. But their game plan will not succeed,” a senior officer said.

   

 
 
SHELL SCARE FOR TOURISTS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Jammu, Jan. 2: 
Last year, it was the earthquake in Gujarat that crippled the tourism industry here. This time, the continuous shelling by Pakistani forces is keeping tourists away.

Half-empty trains have been arriving at Jammu station everyday and tickets, otherwise difficult to book during this time of the year, can be purchased easily from counters that most of the time remain deserted.

Railway officials said the fall in the number of passengers arriving in the city from various destinations in the country has come down to 50 per cent. “If the present condition at the border continues, we may see a further fall in the number of people arriving in the city daily,” a senior railway official said. According to station manager A.K. Mittoo, passenger traffic to the city of temples remains thin during winter “but this time it has been lower due to the tension at the border. But it will pick up as the tension eases.”

Hoteliers, too, are feeling the pinch. “We are passing through a bad phase. Last year, the Gujarat earthquake literally demolished the industry. This time, war clouds are keeping tourists away. Those wishing to pray at the Vaishno Devi shrine from other parts of India are keeping away, too. We have received a number of cancellations from Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta,” a hotel owner lamented.

Hoteliers, however, are of the opinion that war should be avoided but “something” should be done to stamp out terrorism. “If it cannot be avoided, then so be it. But terrorism should now end. With so many army personnel in the region, intrusions must have become difficult. The army should remain here for a long time to finish Pakistan-sponsored terrorism,” said Ravi Mahajan, president of the Jammu Hoteliers’ Welfare Association.

   
 

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