Govt handshake for surplus staff
Food and drug controls fall
Back to freedom fatigue
Two-pronged madarsa strategy
Delhi pins hope on seer for breather
Family, cyber link in attack
Prem purdah for Valentine’s Day
Supersonic missile test-fire in May
Terror speeds up official seal for cyber police
Calcutta Weather

 
 
GOVT HANDSHAKE FOR SURPLUS STAFF 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, Feb. 5: 
In possibly its biggest economic decision-making exercise outside the budget since taking power, the BJP-led government today tackled tasks it had left undone and set about fulfilling promises it had not met.

A voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for government employees stood out in the band of blockbuster decisions because of its potentially unpopular nature and the surprising timing of just days before the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and three other states.

In an explosive burst of activity for a government accused of being generous with intention and miserly with implementation, two full Cabinet meetings and smaller conclaves of the committees on disinvestment and economic affairs were held to decide on the VRS, award controlling interests in Videsh Sanchar Nigam to the Tatas and in Calcutta-based IBP Ltd to Indian Oil, remove restrictions on foodgrain movement and storage and proceed towards a control-free market for drugs, sugar and cement.

Many of the decisions had been made earlier, but not put into practice. None of the measures directly concerns the poll-bound states and has not so far attracted the Election Commission’s notice, but the decisions on grain movement and sugar decontrol combined with the dismantling of restrictions on export of wheat and wheat products will help farmers in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in a year of glut.

Downsizing of government is a promise finance minister Yashwant Sinha has been making for some time, including in his budgets. Today, the government took the bull by the horn, offering VRS to employees identified as surplus by the Geethakrishnan Committee on expenditure reforms.

In a mid-afternoon announcement, a notification said employees who have been identified as surplus, but refuse to accept the VRS package in a year, will be retrenched.

Late tonight, the government scrambled to set the record straight: there will be no retrenchments. It was not known if there was some backroom bumbling over the wording of the notification or some hectic lobbying to remove the offending clause.

The government employs 35 lakh people and the objective is to shed about 5 per cent of the workforce in two years.

Trade unions declared they would oppose the move since VRS is not a solution. “Our organisation has been opposed to VRS in any sector. Instead of launching VRS, the government should cut its wasteful expenditure,” said Laxman Reddy, leader of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which is an RSS outfit.

The VRS proposal put up before the Cabinet offers an ex gratia equivalent to 35 days of emoluments for each completed year of service and 25 days for each year of service left before superannuation.

The total number of years for calculating the golden handshake, however, cannot be more than 33, excluding any weightage that may be allowed for pension, commutation of pension and gratuity. The emoluments to be taken into account include basic pay plus dearness allowance (DA).

To goad employees into taking VRS, the government has made the proposal as attractive as possible. Out of the total ex gratia, Rs 5 lakh will be exempt from income-tax.

The ex gratia amount is subject to a minimum of Rs 25,000 and 250 days of emoluments, whichever is higher. However, the amount should not exceed the sum of emoluments that the employee would draw at the prevailing level of salary in the period left before superannuation.

In addition to ex gratia, the employees will be eligible for normal retirement benefits like pension. Surplus employees who do not opt for VRS will be re-trained and re-deployed. There is bad news for those who neither opt for VRS nor can be re-deployed. They will be axed within a year from the time they are identified as surplus.

“This is not VRS — this is CRS (compulsory retirement scheme),” complained Citu leader Tapan Sinha. “There is little hope of redeployment — the surplus manpower will be put in a common pool,” he added.

Intuc secretary Chandidas Sinha agreed. “We are totally opposed to the scheme. This will only aggravate unemployment.”

The Geethakrishnan Committee has recommended several measures, including the closure of several departments in ministries like information and broadcasting, commerce, and supplies, which will automatically render employees redundant.

   

 
 
FOOD AND DRUG CONTROLS FALL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 5: 
The government has removed controls on movement and storage of many commodities used by the common man and freed several drugs and cement of price ceilings.

Foodgrain such as rice, wheat and coarse grain, sugar, edible oils and oilseeds can be moved freely from one place to another within the country.

A decision on dismantling the administered pricing mechanism for petroleum products has been left to the Prime Minister.

The controls had been imposed in 1955 to try and halt hoarding and profiteering by traders. The abundance of grain stocks, expected to exceed 75 million tonnes by April, will pre-empt the need for such tactics in the immediate future.

But the move to free the market may well boomerang the next time a wheat or rice crop fails and traders decide to take advantage of this.

Another policy decision does away with the requirement on sugar mill owners to sell part of their produce, called levy sugar, compulsorily to the government at a fixed price. This is now sold through PDS shops and its price used as a tool to keep sugar prices in check. The move will come into effect sometime later this year.

Sugar shortages were endemic in the country in the eighties. But now, like paddy and wheat farmers, sugar producers are facing a glut at 180 lakh tonnes.

The Cabinet decision to prune by half the list of 74 drugs on which there are price controls means that the retail prices of commonly used drugs like combiflam, avil, becosule, ciprofloxacin and soframycin could go up.

Ciprofloxacin was in the news late last year after an anthrax scare in the US led to the export of the drug from India.

At the recent World Trade Organisation meeting, the US and the European Union agreed to introduce some form of drug price controls to lower healthcare costs in the West.

In India, companies which manufacture the drugs that have now been freed from price controls will be free to raise prices.

“Over the last few years, the government has been regularly pruning the list of regulated drugs — this has seen prices of previously cheap drugs going up ... we fear this will be repeated in a bigger way now,” said Amit Sengupta of the Delhi Science Forum, an NGO.

Cement, along with a host of innocuous items like knitting machines and lamps, has been taken off the list of goods declared essential items on which there are price or hoarding restrictions. With large players dominating the market, most analysts believe cartelisation and the inevitable price push will come in sooner than later.

Export restrictions on wheat and wheat products and butter have been lifted. But quantitative export controls on onion —the price rise of which cost the BJP dear in the Assembly elections a few years ago — will stay.

   

 
 
BACK TO FREEDOM FATIGUE 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 5: 
Chances of an early end to the border standoff with Pakistan suffered a setback today after Pervez Musharraf described terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir as a “freedom struggle”.

The Pakistan President said his government would continue its “moral, political and diplomatic” support to this “struggle”. The Indian leadership responded by saying the state was an “integral and inalienable” part of the country that was not open to negotiation.

The US also stepped up pressure on Musharraf with secretary of state Colin Powell saying the general should crack down on cross-border terrorism in a way that will give India confidence.

Musharraf’s return to the expression “freedom struggle” is seen as a shift from his January 12 address to the nation where he had left out the words. But addressing the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir Assembly to mark Kashmir Solidarity Day, he went back to Islamabad’s familiar line -- a sticking point with India.

Musharraf said the “core issue of dispute” between the neighbours was Kashmir and relations could not improve unless it was resolved.

Dressed in army fatigue in place of the civilian suit he wore during last month’s address, Musharraf emphasised that Pakistan had not shifted from its position on Kashmir.

Delhi saw the remarks as the emergence of the “old and hostile Musharraf” and said it could not be forced to return to the negotiating table at gun-point. “Regrettably, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has, in his comments today, reverted to time-worn and untenable positions on terrorism,” foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said.

“Comments about the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir amount to interference in the internal affairs of India and we reject them outright.”

India interprets Musharraf’s speech as an attempt to appease his domestic audience in much the same manner as he had tried to reach the West in his national address last month.

“Musharraf appears to be walking two parallel ropes simultaneously. But as happens in most such cases, the walker fails to walk either and ends up dropping between the two ropes,” a South Block official said.

Spokesperson Rao said: “We had rather hoped that Gen. Musharraf would utilise this opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to end cross-border terrorism, also about not supporting terrorism in any form. His formulations, unfortunately, have reverted to yesterday’s cliches confirming the apprehensions voiced earlier by us.”

Rao made it clear that India, being the initiator of the dialogue, is always committed to settling differences through talks, but only in a “conducive atmosphere”.

   

 
 
TWO-PRONGED MADARSA STRATEGY 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
Calcutta, Feb. 5: 
Anisur Rahman, Bengal’s animal resources minister and important CPM leader from Murshidabad, thought he knew enough about the Muslim comrades of his party, at least in his native district. One afternoon last month, he realised his mistake.

He went to Rasulpur village on the eastern fringe of the district bordering Bangladesh to address a party meeting. Comrades accompanying him told Rahman his meeting might be delayed because the village, inhabited almost exclusively by Muslims, was observing roja. The Marxist minister was intrigued because this was long after Ramazan. He was shocked when he came to know that the roja had been organised “to pray for the safety of bin Laden”.

Rahman went through his meeting thereafter but came back with a new “lesson” learnt — of some “disturbing” developments among some sections of the Muslims. He persuaded the party leadership that his was an important lesson, which comrades everywhere should learn. They had Rahman’s story — and the lessons from it — in an article on the editorial page of the party organ, Ganashakti, on January 31.

That the party paper gave such importance to Rahman’s finding indicated a change. So far, it was not politically correct to talk about such tendencies, even if these were restricted to very small groups. This change of approach was soon reflected in Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s warnings against unauthorised madarsas. The chief minister was supported publicly by state party secretary Anil Biswas and even the other member of the Bengal leadership troika, Biman Bose, who had not hesitated to publicly express his reservations about some other steps taken by Bhattacharjee.

Neither Bhattacharjee nor his party colleagues could have made the remarks about such madarsas without weighing possible fall-outs. The reactions were predictable — not only Mamata Banerjee and the Congress but Left Front partners like the RSP and Forward Bloc also criticised the chief minister. And many Muslim organisations were out in the streets, some asking the Muslim members of the Cabinet to resign and others demanding an apology from the chief minister.

For Bhattacharjee and his party leaders, however, an equally big challenge has come from within the party. At different levels of the party leadership, Bhattacharjee’s move to open the madarsa box has stirred nervous debates. It will send a wrong signal to the entire Muslim community, say the critics, and upset not only communal harmony, but the Muslims’ faith in the Left.

Many party leaders are also uncomfortable that Bhattacharjee’s madarsa moves have been hailed by the BJP.

Both Bhattacharjee and his party seem to have decided on a two-pronged strategy to meet the challenge. The party wants to launch a damage-control exercise by highlighting that the chief minister’s warnings were aimed at only those madarsas which were allegedly involved in questionable activities. At the same time, the government and the party would like to put pressure on all madarsas to have secular curricula and put rigorous checks on the funding of the unregistered ones.

Bhattacharjee will directly interact with madarsa teachers and leaders of the community, while the party organisation will be used to counter attempts by political or religious groups to exploit the controversy to rouse communal passions. The idea is to softpedal the issue so that the controversy runs out of steam.

Bhattacharjee and his senior party colleagues are convinced that certain aspects of not just these madarsas but the entire madarsa education needed immediate attention. Several reports are available with the state government — from state as well as central agencies — ringing warning bells about some madarsas, their funding patterns, curriculum and, most important, their links with foreign sponsors. One “comprehensive” report, as a senior police official put it, was compiled by a former inspector-general of police (south Bengal) of the Border Security Force, now serving in Gujarat.

Not many of his critics are asking Bhattacharjee questions that could have embarrassed him even more. Why did the government not act earlier on the information he claims to have had? And, what did his party do to those members who not only know about such madarsas, but actually are associated with them?

Bhattacharjee’s supporters in the party say he has made a beginning that was long overdue. The recent concerns about terrorism and the attack on policemen outside the American Center finally forced Bhattacharjee and his party to sit up and speak out about dangers which it was always politically expedient not to talk about. He may backtrack on the methods, but it is unlikely he will back down from his message.

   

 
 
DELHI PINS HOPE ON SEER FOR BREATHER 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 5: 
In an attempt to relieve the pressure on the Vajpayee government, the Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram Math, Swami Jayendra Saraswati, is expected to appeal to Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Ashok Singhal not to insist on the March 12 deadline set by the sant samaj to start construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Singhal will call on the Kanchi seer tomorrow.

Sources in the Kanchi math said that in the hour-long hush-hush meeting with the Sankaracharya last Sunday, defence minister and NDA convener George Fernandes spoke candidly about the government being in a bind on the temple issue.

The sources said that while Fernandes stressed that the Centre would do its best to expedite the hearing in the Ayodhya litigation, there was no guarantee that the “undisputed” site could be handed over for temple construction before March 12, as the VHP has demanded.

Home minister L.K. Advani, however, said today he did not recognise the date set by the VHP as a deadline.

“I do not consider March 12 as the deadline....This problem has been there for years and it would take its own time,” Advani told reporters when asked whether the government would be able to find a solution before the deadline.

On whether the VHP’s announcement that it would construct a temple in Ayodhya after March 12 could lead to communal dispute, Advani said: “I don’t think there would be any problem.”

Fernandes tried to impress upon the Sankaracharya that the government could not afford to “fight battles on too many fronts”.

“He spoke of tension on the border and in Kashmir and admitted that the government could not figure out Pakistan’s intentions,” the sources added.

“With so many problems, we have to be careful that the VHP is not allowed to go out of hand,” the sources quoted Fernandes as telling the seer.

Fernandes had met the seer in similar circumstances in 1990 when the V.P. Singh government, in which he was railway minister, was in the throes of a VHP-created crisis.

The Sankaracharya is expected to reveal his mind to Singhal. The sources said while the seer was aware of the Centre’s problems, he could not afford to ignore Hindu “sentiments”.

Therefore, it is thought he will walk a tightrope: not push the VHP to put the issue in the deep freeze and ensure the Centre is not embarrassed or destabilised.

Sources said the BJP leaders are trying to tell Singhal if the “undisputed” land is handed over to Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, the VHP should give up its claim to the other two “disputed” mosques: Mathura’s Krishnajanmasthan and Varanasi’s Gyan Vapi.

The sources said since the Centre can no longer enact a law to turn over the land to the Nyas, as was done in Somnath — given the sharp political battlelines on Ayodhya — it is “seriously” examining whether it can request the Court to expedite the hearing.

BJP sources said they were “reasonably sure” of a verdict going in favour of a temple.

   

 
 
FAMILY, CYBER LINK IN ATTACK 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 5: 
A “chain” of Jamaluddin Nasir’s family members and a “hidden” cybercafe in his Darga Road home are turning out to be key pieces in the American Center shootout jigsaw.

Two persons picked up in Hazaribagh late last night told police they were the relatives of Nasir, the prime facilitator of the assailants in the city, and that a “chain of Nasir’s relatives” was directly or indirectly involved in the January 22 strike.

Sadar police station officials said Monti and Adil — who threw light on the “family involvement” angle — had themselves sheltered the motorbike riders, Mohammad Idris and Sadaqat. They had been asked by Hasan Imam, another suspect who helped Nasir rent the Hazaribagh house, to escort the assailants from Koderma to Hazaribagh, sources said.

“The duo came to Koderma railway station to receive Idris and Sadaqat in the white Mahindra Marshal jeep seized by police earlier. They drove the car to the Hazaribagh house where Idris was shot in the police raid on January 28,” a Hazaribagh police officer said.

A Calcutta detective department officer said the connection of Nasir’s family to the incident appeared strong.

“Hasan Imam is a distant relative. Adil and Monti are also relatives of Hasan. The duo is related to Hasan’s in-laws,” he said.

But Soumen Mitra, deputy commissioner, detective department, declined further comment.

“Our officers, who are right now camping in Hazaribagh, have not interrogated Monti and Adil. Our officers are working there and collecting information,” he said.

Apart from the family connection, the shootout plot has thrown up a cyber link as well. Nasir himself told police officers at Lalbazar that he exchanged mail with Idris, Md Salim and alleged strike mastermind Aftab Ansari from Cyberdotcom, a cybercafe in his house.

Nasir also revealed that along with Asadullah Malik and a “few other associates”, he used the computers to transact business. He said he was taught “how to send e-mail and coded messages by Idris and Asif Reza”.

Late last night, detectives raided Nasir’s house and seized several computers and the server used for “a profiting business”. Police are trying to decode the mailed messages, several of which have been deleted.

“The cybercafe provided a perfect camouflage for Nasir to carry out his business of planning the operations in Calcutta through junk mail…. Most of the local residents did not have a clue that Nasir’s cybercafe was actually used for such nefarious designs,” a senior police officer said. Police believe that mail was sent to Pakistan and Dubai.

The owners of both the Maruti and the motorcycle used to carry out the strike have been traced to Hazaribagh. Both vehicles had changed ownership several times and were not stolen.

   

 
 
PREM PURDAH FOR VALENTINE’S DAY 
 
 
FROM CHANDRIMA BHATTACHARYA
 
Mumbai, Feb. 5: 
Come February 14, and the birds will be singing, and love will be in the air, but few Valentine’s Day cards. Instead there will be cries from card galleries to celebrate the day as “Prem Din”.

Under threat from the Shiv Sena, card manufacturers and retailers in Mumbai have decided not to sell Valentine’s Day cards this year. Since Cupid will be on the prowl anyway, “love” cards will be up for sale — but without the V-word. So there will be rows and rows of the bleeding hearts and the roses and the poetry, but no mention of the foreign saint to whom the lovers’ day is dedicated.

“We will sell general love cards. But the word Valentine will not be mentioned,” said Kalyanji Chheda, vice-president of the Mumbai-based Card Manufacturers’ and Dealers’ Association.

The marketing will also be “Indi”genised. “We will advertise the day as “Celebrate Prem Din Utsav — a day of love,” Chheda said. “After all, this is springtime, the time for the ancient Indian custom of vasantotsav, and Prem Din could stand for that as well.”

“We want to avoid trouble at any cost from you know who,” he said.

Damaging shops selling Valentine’s cards and gifts has become an annual sport for the Sena. It feels Indian lovers celebrating in the name of a firang saint is unacceptable.

Over the past three years, the Sena has regularly staged violent protests on Valentine’s Day. “Last year our sales suffered by 25 per cent because of the threats and the damages. We don’t want to take any chance this year,” said Shirish Gor of the Archies’ Gallery.

About 130 manufacturers, dealers and retailers are part of the association. Almost all of them, including major card companies like Archies and Hallmark, will not sell Valentine’s cards in Mumbai.

“About 80 per cent the cards will omit the word Valentine,” Gor said.

But the manufacturers’ self-imposed ban is not enough to impress the Sena.

Sena leader Pramod Nawalkar, who said he was not aware of the card manufacturers’ decision, felt it was foolish to just omit the name and expect that it would be acceptable. “The event remains the same, even if they don’t call it by that name,” he said.

“Prem Din or not, celebrating 14th February is un-Indian. If Prem Din is really vasantotsav, then why choose this time in particular?” he asked.

The Sena will protest anywhere it sees Valentine’s Day celebrations are on, Nawalkar added. “Balasaheb (Bal Thackeray) announced on his birthday that Valentine’s Day celebrations will have the Sena protesting,” the Sena leader said.

But the Valentine spirit seems undeterred. “It is stupid of the Sena to say all this because it is stupid if no Valentine Day card has the word Valentine on it,” said Jyotsna, a student. She was echoed by other would-be Valentines.

   

 
 
SUPERSONIC MISSILE TEST-FIRE IN MAY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Bangalore, Feb. 5: 
India is preparing to test-fire the upgraded version of Brahmos, the supersonic cruise missile jointly developed with Russia.

“The next test would be conducted in May,” said V.K. Aatre, scientific adviser to the defence minister, on the sidelines of a conference at the Indian Institute of Aviation Medicine.

The first Brahmos missile was successfully test-fired from the Chandipur test range in Orissa last year. The missiles can be launched from land, sea and air.

“One flight has shown that the system works. Unless I have a few more flights, I cannot say that we have achieved a mature stage,” Aatre said. “Somewhere in May, we are going for another test and later we can declare when it can go for production,” he added.

The missile, expected to be inducted into the armed forces of both India and Russia in two years, uses a Russian propulsion and an Indian guidance system, and is named after the joint venture company which is developing it.

The company, set up in 1999, symbolises the confluence of two great rivers -- the Brahmaputra and Moskva, which flows by Moscow.

Once it becomes operational, the missile will be far superior to the US Tomahawk and the Russian Moskit. It can deliver a warhead weighing up to 300 kg to a distance of over 300 kilometres. The plan is to market Brahmos to friendly countries, which would be identified with the mutual consent of India and Russia.

On Tuesday, Indian air chief marshal S. Krishnaswamy said his boys were ready to take on Pakistan in case of hostilities on the border.

On his first visit to the city after he took over, Krishnaswamy said India was a big and powerful country and there was no need for alarm or anxiety.

“Of course, we are confident, we are a big and powerful country. However, the final decision-making is left to the government,” Krishnaswamy said while talking about the war clouds hovering over the subcontinent ever since the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament.

The air force was operationally deployed in the border front, he said, indicating that there has been no let-up in the battle preparedness. “Our air force is on a high alert,” Krishnaswamy said after inaugurating the conference of the Indian Society of Aerospace Medicine.

The air chief marshal said India did not attach much significance to Pakistan air force pilots’ training to land fighter aircraft on national highways as a tactical measure.

“We are not alarmed or attach any significance to it. There is nothing new about it. Sweden has been doing that for years,” he said.

On the long-pending deal to buy advance jet trainers, the air chief marshal said the process was on to acquire the aircraft.

“We are hopeful it will happen soon,” he said.

Agni range

India is planning to increase the strike range of Agni ballistic missile, Aatre said today. “We always have plans to increase the range.... Reduce the weight and get better systems.... It’s part of the development.”

Aatre, however, declined to say how far the strike range would be increased, adds PTI.

   

 
 
TERROR SPEEDS UP OFFICIAL SEAL FOR CYBER POLICE 
 
 
FROM R.VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 5: 
Sending an e-mail? Beware, the Big Brother is watching.

Cyber police marched out with official sanction today with the government empowering “any” of its agencies to invoke provisions of the Information Technology Act to intercept “any information transmitted through any computer resource”.

“The Controller under the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the rules framed thereunder, by order, directs any agency of the government to intercept any information transmitted through any computer resource if he is satisfied that such a measure is necessary in the interest of national security,” an official note said.

The necessary provision has been incorporated under Section 69 of the Act, the note added.

Section 70 of the Act empowers the Centre and all states and Union Territories to declare any computer, computer system or a network as a protected system. Any attempt to interfere with or access systems may be punished with imprisonment for 10 years.

For persons acquiring false identities to be used in cyberspace, Section 71 of the Act imposes a punishment which “may extend up to two years” (of imprisonment) for making misrepresentation to the Certifying Authority.

The statement coincided with repeated claims by security agencies that most suspects involved in recent attacks, including the one outside the American Center in Calcutta, have been exchanging their plans over the Internet. Official sources said the statement was part of the measures to counter terrorism.

After the September 11 strikes, an amendment was made in the US to intercept even the conversation between a lawyer and his client to establish whether a crime had been committed.

The controller can also order in writing to intercept any electronic information transmitted through any computer resource if the official “is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state and friendly relations with foreign countries…”.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 27.8°C (-1)
Minimum: 13.0°C (-3)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Max: 90%
Min: 32%

Sunrise: 6.19 am

Sunset: 5.22 pm

Today

Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 14°C
   
 

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