Durgapur alert
Sinha rejects Sangh arm’s plea on labour laws
Tokyo echoes Delhi on militancy
Cong agrees to join global terror mission
Fuel prices slashed, excise hiked
Naidu salve for shehnai maestro
Boost in tourism funds sought
Exam delayed
If bullets won’t break Pakistan, bankruptcy will
Bridge yesterday, breach today

 
 
DURGAPUR ALERT 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Durgapur, Jan. 11: 
The district administration is aflutter over the robbery of over 30,000 detonators from a godown on the eve of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s visit to the steel city.

Police suspect that terrorists and the Inter-Services Intelligence are involved in the theft. Security for Z-plus category persons has been tightened and police superintendents of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia have been alerted.

The chief minister is scheduled to inaugurate a Larsen and Toubro cement factory and a steel plant of the SPS group tomorrow. He will also open a private engineering college.

The detonators have been burgled from the Eastern Coalfields’ Limited godown, hardly 30 km from Durgapur where Bhattacharjee will spend a few hours. This is eighth case of detonator theft.

   

 
 
SINHA REJECTS SANGH ARM’S PLEA ON LABOUR LAWS 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, Jan. 11: 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha has rejected the trade unions’ plea for a rethink on amending labour laws.

At a pre-budget meeting yesterday, labour leaders across political lines had told Sinha that the budget should be geared towards generating employment and that any move to “rationalise” labour laws would only mean mass retrenchment and more unemployment.

“The finance minister told us we no longer have a controlled economy and that labour law reforms are an essential part of liberalisation — the path we are treading. This means the government is not going to change its stand on labour law reforms,” said Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh general secretary Hanusbhai Dave.

In a way, the trade unions also seem reconciled to the “inevitable” — changing labour laws — to facilitate easy retrenchments and closures in an era of liberalisation. For this, the Centre will have to change the Industrial Disputes Act. The government is also planning to change the Contract Labour Act to make all jobs contractual and not permanent.

The unions are opposed to both but a Group of Ministers has already approved the amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act — the Contract Labour Act is still hanging fire.

Previous labour minister Satyanarain Jatiya was opposed to changing the laws without enough safeguards for the workers. But the finance minister did not give the labour leaders any assurance about bringing in a safety net to protect jobless workers.

Faced with Sinha’s firm stand, the leaders urged him to wait till the National Labour Commission submitted its report with recommendations on the tickling issue of the labour law reforms. The trade unions, from the very beginning, had been pleading with the Centre to not rush through with the reforms, at least till the commission came up with its recommendations.

The Unions have drawn up a list of 7 demands and submitted them to Sinha. On March 14, they will observe a national protest day to draw the government’s attention to the demands.

At the top of the list is their opposition to privatisation, disinvestment and labour law changes. A tripartite disinvestment commission should be set with an equal labour representation, the y have suggested.

They have also urged for a relaxation in the income-tax limit by upward revision, a hike in the pate of anganwadi workers and multiple rural health workers, the removal of ceiling on bonus and a comprehensive legislation for workers in the unorganised sector, particularly in the agriculture.

   

 
 
TOKYO ECHOES DELHI ON MILITANCY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 11: 
The BJP’s offensive against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism got a little boost today after a Japanese delegation, led by Hatoyami Yukio, the leader of the Opposition who is from the Democratic Party of Japan, said terrorism in any form or manifestation was “hateful” and had to be eliminated.

Yukio, who had separate meetings today with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi, condemned the attacks on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly — he visited the site in Srinagar yesterday — and Parliament. Addressing the press at the BJP headquarters, Yukio said he expected President Pervez Musharraf to take action against the terrorists in Pakistan and curb their activities at all levels.

The Japanese dignitary said the former Prime Minister of Japan, who is from his party, is expected to call on Musharraf tomorrow in Islamabad and request him to “maintain self-restraint and curb terrorist activities more strongly” and stressed that “obviously Pakistan needs to take strong action”.

“Japan does not possess nuclear arms and the reasons are well known. Countries with nuclear arms should be extra cautious and under no circumstances they should be used again,” Yukio said.

On his meeting with Vajpayee, Yukio said while the Prime Minister said he wanted to have talks with Pakistan “he made it clear that talks on one hand and terrorism on the other don’t go together”.

When the leader of the Opposition sought to know from Vajpayee what his pre-condition was for resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, the Prime Minister’s reply was: “As long as terrorist activity is dubbed freedom struggle talks cannot take place.”

Vajpayee also informed him that one-third of Jammu and Kashmir was occupied by Pakistan. The remaining two-thirds had merged with India, constitutionally and legally. He also said elections would be held there by the end of the year but added, “Pakistan does not believe strongly in elections.”

Asked if he held Pakistan responsible for cross-border terrorism, Yukio sounded cautious: “At least to the extent we have been told in meetings and discussions that people cross over from Pakistan and do terrorist activities. If Pakistan is responsible for terrorist activities, it needs to be curbed strongly.” He said the objective of their visit was “to find out the truth and confirm things with our eyes”.

   

 
 
CONG AGREES TO JOIN GLOBAL TERROR MISSION 
 
 
OUR BUREAU AND AGENCIES
 
New Delhi, Jan. 11: 
The controversy over the composition of all-party delegations to be sent abroad to mobilise world opinion against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism blew over tonight with Congress president Sonia Gandhi agreeing that her party would participate in the exercise.

Sonia met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and conveyed her party’s willingness to join the delegations, a spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office said.

He said details of the delegations would be announced soon by the ministry of external affairs.

Asked whether Sonia submitted names of party leaders to the Prime Minister, he merely said names were discussed.

Vajpayee, he added, briefed her on the deliberations at the just concluded Saarc summit in Kathmandu.

Before Sonia met Vajpayee, the Congress and the government were locked in a confrontation over the composition and destinations of the delegations. While the main Opposition party was insisting on consultations with Sonia, the BJP accused it of over-reaction and improper behaviour.

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy had accused the government of not interacting “seriously or meaningfully” with his party on the issue. “Nothing has happened since yesterday to warrant a change in the attitude of the Congress on joining the delegation,” he had said, asserting that no contact had been made by anyone from the government.

BJP spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra spoke to senior Congress leader Manmohan Singh but the conversation was restricted to Malhotra clarifying that he had neither given names nor destinations to the press.

Jaipal wondered why the BJP was violating the consensus worked out regarding the diplomatic offensive against Pakistan. “We have not asked for anything. We are not ruling out anything,” he said.

There was talk that the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan had spoken to Manmohan today but Jaipal denied it. Mahajan was apparently out of town.

BJP sources said Vajpayee had authorised Mahajan to hold talks with the Congress.

The Congress wanted the government to get in touch with Sonia or Manmohan for names of those the party could send as delegates. It also wanted Manmohan’s status to be upgraded in the sense that he should be sent to some important country instead of Morocco, Tunisa or Algeria.

The Congress also had reservations about inclusion of non-MPs in the delegation.

   

 
 
FUEL PRICES SLASHED, EXCISE HIKED 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan 11: 
The government today slashed petrol prices by 93 paise to Rs 1.39 a litre and diesel prices by 5 to 8 paise even as it increased the excise duty on them.

Petrol will cost Rs 27.99 a litre in Calcutta from midnight tonight, a drop of Rs 1.22. Diesel will sell at Rs 17.47 a litre, 7 paise cheaper than before.

In Delhi, petrol will be cheaper by Rs 1.39 and sell at Rs 27.54 a litre. Diesel will cost Rs 17.09, lower by 8 paise. Petrol will sell at Rs 30.79 in Mumbai, cheaper by Rs 1.11 and diesel will retail at Rs 20.71, a fall of eight paise. In Chennai, petrol will be cheaper by 93 paise and sell at Rs 29.74, while diesel will retail at Rs 18.60, a decrease of 5 paise.

The price cuts will come about despite the near three-fold hike in excise duty on petrol from 32 per cent to 90 per cent and a 25 per cent increase in duty on diesel. The new rates would come into effect from January 12 and will be valid till April 1, states to a finance ministry notification.

Petroleum and diesel prices have come down despite the tax hike as international oil prices have declined to about $21 a barrel from last year’s average cost of $26.

The Centre aims to mop up much of the difference between the global prices and the still high domestic retail prices through this short-term tax. The excess will be used to part-bridge the deficit in the oil pool account, a notional one kept to cross-subsidise petro-goods like cooking gas and kerosene. It is because of the subsidies on LPG and kerosene that petrol in India is priced at a rate higher than the global market. The oil pool deficit currently stands at Rs 12,000 crore.

Petroleum minister Ram Naik said the government would earn about Rs 1,600 crore through the move. “Some Rs 1,200 crore from the excise hike on petrol and Rs 400 crore through the excise increase on diesel.”

Excise levies on cooking gas and kerosene will be untouched. The decisions came in the wake of a two-hour meeting between finance minister Yashwant Sinha and Naik.

The petroleum minister said he had asked Sinha to “retain the increased excise rates only till the end of this fiscal”. This is a temporary measure designed merely to mop up the difference between international oil prices which have come down in recent days compared to last year’s average, Naik stressed.

A notification effecting the hike was issued tonight, two days after an Ordinance was issued giving the finance ministry emergency powers to raise excise duties without going through the budgetary process. However, the government did not explain the “emergency situation” behind the move that will help cover about 20 per cent of the oil pool deficit.

The rest of the deficit is to be bridged through the issue of 7-year bonds carrying a 7 per cent rate of interest by the state-run oil companies, Naik said.

   

 
 
NAIDU SALVE FOR SHEHNAI MAESTRO 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, Jan.11: 
Chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu today changed his travel plans to apologise to shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan for the controversy over payment of fees for a recital last night.

Naidu, who was scheduled to visit Cuddapah and Kurnool districts for the ongoing janmabhoomi programme, suddenly drove to Hotel Deccan Continental where the ustad was staying with his entourage.

The visit followed reports that the musician was annoyed by the ill-treatment he received from the state tourism department, which had allegedly refused to pay him the honourarium it had earlier agreed to.

A local cultural organisation — Kalavedika — had negotiated with the maestro to perform at the week-long cultural festival in the state capital. But later, the organisers developed cold feet after the tourism department refused to cough up the full payment of Rs 3 lakh, saying it wanted the ustad to accept Rs 2 lakh.

The controversy turned ugly following a verbal duel between the tourism director and the secretary of Kalavedika hours before the recital at the Necklace Road Open Theatre. While the government official said they had not invited the ustad, the Kalavedika secretary argued that the Bharat Ratna winner’s name had been officially included in the festival programme.

The maestro said he had been invited by the organisation on behalf of the government.

But the ustad — who yesterday said “I will perform anyway as I have come all the way to Hyderabad at their (the government’s) cost” — put behind him the bitterness the controversy had generated with a sterling performance last night.

Khan had told his troupe that he wished he had never accepted the invitation. “My bondage with the audience of Hyderabad made me accept the invitation. But my memories of this visit will remain very bitter,” he had said yesterday.

He also felt there were very few people in the audience who really understood or appreciated his music.

   

 
 
BOOST IN TOURISM FUNDS SOUGHT 
 
 
FROM ELLA DATTA
 
New Delhi, Jan. 11: 
The Union ministry of tourism has sought a nine-time increase in its allocation in the 10th plan, beginning 2002. The ministry feels the increase, from Rs 600 crore in the last plan to Rs 5,500 crore, is essential to translate its new strategy for tourism development from the drawing board to a concrete shape.

The tourism ministry feels the new blueprint hammered out by the department deserves the increase. The first priority for the ministry is a focus on the development of tourism circuits instead of concentration on small, isolated projects. Bodhgaya and the Ajanta-Ellora circuits have already been taken up as top priorities.

Union minister of tourism Jagmohan has been travelling to Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat to identify new circuits that can be developed urgently. He has already initiated the development plans for Kanyakumari and is now travelling through Gujarat to decide on more possible circuits. Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace Porbandar could be the centre of one such circle. The entire tourism department is being shaken up so that the projects in these areas are expedited.

Also on the cards is an integrated development plan for products and destinations. For instance, Hudco has been appointed as a consultant for an urban plan for Bodhgaya, which will include planning of roads and other infrastructure, solid waste management and other civic services. The improvement of the urban environment will automatically have an impact on tourist arrivals.

As an extension of tourism products, emphasis is being given to rural tourism, heritage cities, towns and monuments, health and ecotourism.

   

 
 
EXAM DELAYED 
 
 
FROM M.R.VENKATESH
 
Chennai, Jan. 11: 
Politics seems to be impinging even on educational reform. In a sudden volte-face, the ADMK government in Tamil Nadu today dropped its move to hold public examinations for classes five to nine, besides standard 11, till the next academic year.

Just two days after defending the government’s decision as aimed at standardising the examination system and upgrading quality, education minister M. Thambidurai today announced that the move was being deferred, possibly to the academic year 2003-04.

   

 
 
IF BULLETS WON’T BREAK PAKISTAN, BANKRUPTCY WILL 
 
 
FROM JAYANTA ROY CHOWDHURY
 
New Delhi, Jan. 11: 
A study by the Cabinet Secretariat, which has been sent to the Prime Minister, feels that any prolonged border war with Pakistan will see India’s western neighbour going bankrupt.

The study points out that Pakistan is burdened by a huge debt, which amounts to nearly 90 per cent of its GDP, and the lion’s share of this is denominated in foreign currency loans. A precarious situation to be in even at the best of times.

“Pakistan’s debt basket will bloat the moment it starts fighting ... every week of war will cost it at least Rs 400 crore, much of it in hard foreign exchange. It will not be able to sustain the cost,” officials involved in drafting the document said.

Most global arms dealers may well shun Pakistan unless they pay hard cash, the study says. Of course, political considerations will see China continuing arms supplies to Pakistan on credit at any time.

But what could makes things critically difficult is that the junta has to repay nearly $ 11 billion of its total foreign debt of $ 40 billion within the next two years to global creditors. This has happened despite rescheduling some $ 12 billion in debt with the Paris Club and an arrangement with the IMF for $ 1.3 billion in poverty reduction assistance.

Involvement in a war, which the global community does not support, combined with failure to pay back money could stop flow of foreign currency loans and grants, which make up approximately a quarter of the Pakistan government’s revenues, the study feels.

The already weak Pakistani currency is expected to depreciate by some 10-15 per cent in the event of a war, crossing the Rs 70 to a dollar mark. This, in turn, would make repayments costlier for Pakistan.

Already, the Afghan conflict has taken a toll on trade, production and government revenues, with an estimated loss of $ 2 billion or Rs 10,000 crore in Indian currency.

Export earnings, mainly from textiles, farm goods, paper, construction works and remittances — which accounts for about $ 8 billion and helps Pakistan pay back its debt as well pay for its military hardware — is expected to be badly hit.

Pakistan’s GDP, approximately 15 per cent of India’s, has been growing but poorly through the current fiscal at just 3.1 per cent.

The increase expected due to the inflow of aid can well be reversed with a war, the document says. Growth could slow down to about 2 per cent, while inflation would steadily rise from about 6-7 per cent to double digits.

   

 
 
BRIDGE YESTERDAY, BREACH TODAY 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Pallanwala (on the Line of Control in Akhnoor sector), Jan. 11: 
The bridge across Mawa river, with its ends lopped off, symbolises the gulf between India and Pakistan.

Once a busy trade route in the Chhamb-Pallanwala sector, all that remains of the bridge after 30 years of hostilities between the neighbours is the centre span and its two pillars.

Built in the early 1900s by the then ruling Dogras, the Mawa bridge was a busy link between Chhamb and Pallanwala. After a trading centre was set up at Ranbir Singh Pura, the bridge also became the main transport link between Sialkot and Akhnoor.

Before the 1965 war, the Mawa bridge continued to unite the two parts of Chhamb. But when Pakistan captured the Chhamb border belt after the 1971 war, its troops destroyed their side of the bridge to prevent Indian troops from moving to Sialkot.

However, the Simla Agreement restored a substantial portion of Chhamb up the river to India. Today, the bridge stands witness to exchange of shells and medium-to-heavy firing along the Line of Control (LoC).

“The bridge, when it existed, was strategically important for both Pakistan and India and had to be destroyed. While the Pakistani soldiers destroyed their portion, we ensured that the span linking our area, too, had to go,” an army officer said.

“What remains now is the just one span in the middle of the river and that is being used for target practice by soldiers from both countries. It won’t last long if the shelling and firing from the Pakistani side continues for long,” he added amid the explosion of shells.

The bridge falls in the area now known as the “weak” Chicken Neck where Indian forces are surrounded by the Pakistani army on three sides. A major Islamabad onslaught will not only force the Indians to retreat but also harvest thousands of prisoners of war for Pakistan.

The army is not taking any chances in the area. Most of the villages like Budwal near the LoC have been evacuated and residents sent to camps in “safer” Devipur. Mines have been planted not only along the border but also in village fields further away.

Even a shrine venerated by people of both nations has not escaped the wrath of patriotism. The Baba Chibiliyal shrine on the zero line along the international border in Ramgarh sector is another epicentre of Indo-Pak hostility.

Prior to the 1965 conflict, the shrine was the centre of numerous fairs and religious festivals thronged by lakhs of pilgrims from both sides of the border. Lying 200 metres inside the Indian territory, today the shrine stands deserted by all pilgrims, except for a few chaddars (intricately woven silk cloth) sent by Pakistanis to be laid across the saint’s tomb.

But trolleys and containers continue to carry shakar (mud around the shrine) and sherbat (water from near the shrine) to Pakistan for they are believed to possess curative properties for skin diseases.

But Pakistan soldiers today fired intermittently at the shrine.

High court blast

A powerful grenade, targeted at a security vehicle, missed its mark and exploded in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court premises, reports PTI. Though no one was killed in the incident, nine militants and two securitymen were among twelve people killed in the Valley today.

Militants hurled a grenade towards a security vehicle parked outside the boundary wall of the high court near the busy Jehangir Chowk. The grenade exploded in the court compound.

Police and BSF personnel searched vehicles. Even army and VIP vehicles were not spared. Identity cards of the jawans were also checked and their belonging frisked, official sources said. The step was taken to counter the militants’ tactics of dressing up in military fatigues. The militants also hurled a grenade towards a security picket at Karan Nagar in downtown Srinagar today.

   
 

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