Defence deal minus carrier
Aamir passes up London role
Rail rolls on privatisation track
Press button or face bullet
Tech talk to trade titan
Ad war for tourists
Comic in hand, Oscar glitter in eyes
Vaz punished for Hinduja link
Weighed under gifts, village roots for CM
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Feb. 8: 
After six years of negotiations and another three-day round ending today, India and Russia failed to clinch a deal on the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier but worked around it to chart a roadmap for future arms transfer and technology programmes.

The Gorshkov deal has not been written off. Russian deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said he hoped that a contract could be signed by the summer for the 44,000-tonne carrier the Indian navy desperately wants.

Defence minister George Fernandes and Klebanov emerged from the meeting on military-technical co-operation with plenty of paperwork to show. The one deal that has gone through, with a contract being signed with KBP Tula Russia, is an outright purchase by India of Krasnopol “terminally guided projectiles”.

No official word was available on the size of the contract. Unofficial sources said it could be 4,000 rounds of ammunition for the 155 mm Bofors Howitzers and might be worth Rs 800 crore.

Several rounds of the talks of the sub-group negotiating the Gorshkov were actually hard bargaining by both sides. Fernandes said “the price is yet to be fixed”. He also did not give a time limit for the negotiations.

The Russians have offered the Gorshkov for the price of its refit and have reportedly linked it to the sale/purchase of MiG 29K aircraft and also the TU-22M “backfire bombers”. They are asking around $750 million for the whole package. India is looking to secure the deal for $650 million minus some of the trappings the Russians want to sell. “Negotiations have progressed and if Mr Fernandes does not mind, we will hope to sign a contract by the summer,” said Klebanov.

Fernandes said India and Russia would collaborate to develop a global satellite surveillance system. No detail on the project was given out. This is the first time it was even mentioned.

Moscow agreed to a request from New Delhi to supply an additional lot of T-90 tanks by March 31. Forty of 310 tanks were delivered in early January under a contract now under implementation.

Fernandes said trials for the SMERCH multiple launch rocket system — a possible acquisition for the army — will be held in May this year. On a fifth-generation combat aircraft, the Russians will be sending a “concept” paper, after which an Indian delegation will visit Moscow.

The two sides also signed three protocols that will govern future arms transfer and technology programmes.

An official statement said: “With the current agreements, which have now been reached between the two countries relating to joint co-operation for developing a fifth-generation combat aircraft and the development and production of a multi-role transport aircraft, the military relationship between Russia and India has matured from a buyer-seller relationship to transfer of technology and now to that of collaboration in R & D.”


London, Feb. 8: 
After going through extensive voice training and being prepared to commit himself for six months to work on the London stage, Aamir Khan rejected the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams because he didn’t like the script.

“Aamir was very keen to do the role. He went through the process of voice training, but rejected it because he was uncomfortable with the script,” Nisha Paul, daughter-in-law of Swraj Paul and a close friend of the Bollywood star, said.

“Aamir is very careful about the roles he picks. But he said he was uncomfortable with the script and didn’t like some parts of it. He said the script didn’t have a heart, it wasn’t the real Mumbai and that it was a British look at Mumbai,” said Nisha Paul, who learnt about the refusal at a private dinner at her house for Aamir and his wife Reena.

“We were just four of us for dinner, and he was really upset about it. But then he said if he wasn’t comfortable with the script, he couldn’t do it. He’s that sort of person.”

Aamir rejected the role in the third week of January after spending nearly two weeks on voice training. Auditions were then held with actors coming from both the UK and the US to try for the role. The role finally went to 28-year-old Londoner Raza Jaffrey, who is now acting in Mamma Mia, a play at the West End.

Bollywood actor Rahul Khanna, who starred in Deepa Mehta’s Earth, auditioned for the role but didn’t get it.

After Aamir rejected the role, Bollywood colleague Anupam Kher, who was supposed to play the girl’s father, also stood down. He would have played his usual role of the villainous dad, a corrupt movie mogul who didn’t approve of his daughter’s romance with Akash, the boy from the slums.

“I know for a fact that both A.R. Rahman and Andrew Lloyd Webber were very disappointed that Aamir didn’t do the role,” said Nisha. “Rahman was positively dejected as he had really been looking forward to it. Also they wanted a big name for the role, rather than an unknown face.”

Yesterday, at the glittering launch, Rahman was putting a brave face forward. “Yes, I would have liked Aamir to play the role,” he said.

“But I’m glad we went through the whole process otherwise we wouldn’t have been satisfied. We did try his voice and everything. It was impossible for him to commit so much time to the West End, so it wouldn’t work. But I’m glad we went through the process.”

Casting for the role of Priya was finished last year. Aamir had apparently met Preeya Kalidas, chosen to play the role, and agreed to work opposite her before he saw the script.

Sir Andrew himself was all praise yesterday for scriptwriter Meera Syal, who, he said, had done “a wonderful job”. He was exuberant about Steven Pimlott, a former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who is directing the musical.

“He has made it a genuine mixture of two cultures,” said Sir Andrew. “Between them they have turned out this wonderful sweeping epic. It is full of wonderful passionate stories with a beautiful love story at the core.”

“When you’re doing an Indian story on this scale, you have to go through the whole cycle of birth, death and rebirth,” said Syal. “The story charts the boy’s journey from the slums of Mumbai to the film world with numerous sub-plots in between. At the heart is a love story, but there are numerous sub-plots, lots of tears and lots of laughs as well.”

Asked why Bollywood stars weren’t chosen for the roles, she said: “They have 52 films to complete a year, so it’s really impossible to get commitment from them. Besides, there is no way you can go on stage eight times a week if you are not a professionally-trained singer.”

Nobody said Aamir is one.


New Delhi, Feb. 8: 
The railways are planning to privatise unremunerative lines — kickstarting a process that was initiated by the Rakesh Mohan committee report in July last year. The report had drawn up a blueprint for placing a large number of railway assets in private hands.

The railway ministry today offered for “private participation” in the operation of and investment in “unremunerative branch lines” where the railways have been steadily losing money.

Indian Railway officials said 10 lines had been identified but refused to spell out where these were. They added that the modalities for the privatisation exercise would be ready by March.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar said the “identified” lines could be operated under different models that are being worked out.

The Rakesh Mohan panel has recommended major administrative and financial restructuring of the railways, including its corporatisation and replacement of the railway board by a high-powered executive board.

Last September, a meeting held in Vadodara to debate the contents of the report turned into a major slanging match with Rakesh Mohan drawing sharp criticism for his recommendations.

Experts have now slammed the track privatisation plan, saying that it could set the government’s gravy train on a dangerous course, mirroring some of the mistakes that were made when the Tories under John Major carved up the British Rail network in 1996.

The bulk of British Rail’s assets — track and signalling equipment — had been farmed out to Railtrack while three rolling stock companies and 25 train operating companies were formed.

The plans of Indian Railways, which is the world’s largest rail network under a single management, are nowhere as ambitious.

However, the move to privatise a part of its 107,360 km of tracks is certain to raise a storm of protest within the country which is already uneasy about the poor accident record of the railways.

The British Rail privatisation came in for harsh criticism, especially after a major accident in Hatfield in 2000 when the private players squabbled among each other about who was to take the rap for the mishaps.

The British experience could send the Indian Railway’s plans into a dark tunnel of uncertainty with commuters already spooked by two accidents last year — one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Kerala — in which 90 people died.

Kumar said there would be no retrenchment of staff, though the process of “right-sizing” manpower had been going on for years.

Over the last decade, the railways’ new recruitments have been restricted to just 1 per cent of the workforce against the retirement of about 3 per cent. Kumar claimed the railways were the first government department to start this practice.


Karchana (Allahabad), Feb. 8: 
Button dabega hathi par, nahi to goli padegi chhati par, aur laash milegi ghati par. (Vote for the elephant or a bullet will pierce your chest and your body will be thrown into the ravines.)’’

This slogan coined — and often executed with chilling consequences — by one of Uttar Pradesh’s most dreaded dacoits signals the death of choice for voters in the ravines of Chitrakoot, Banda, Kervi and Baberu.

Wanted in more than 75 cases and with a reward of Rs 2 lakh on his head, Dadua — he likes to call himself Daku Samrat — is campaigning freely for candidates of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party.

Still “absconding” in police records, Dadua, who killed 16 Brahmins in a bloody act of vengeance in 1986 and was miffed with the media for not giving it as much publicity as Phoolan Devi’s massacre in Behmai, has issued the diabolic diktat: vote for my candidates or get killed.

He is rooting for his brother, Bal Kumar, who is fighting from Karchana, Dadu Prasad contesting from Manikpur and R.K. Patel from Kervi. The robber has met all the village pradhans and asked them to do his bidding. From Lakhi, Ahiranpur, Simaria, Khandeha, Kurmian, Hiraini, Dadri and adjoining villages, Dadua has “covered” most of the constituencies, canvassing for his candidates.

“We have been asked by Dadua to vote for these candidates. He makes fleeting appearances with his henchmen once in a while to put his point across,’’ says Sonelal as he looks around furtively. There are whispers that a village pradhan supporting another party has “disappeared” with his whole family.

A larger-than-life figure in these parts, Dadua holds the people in a terror thrall. The police have failed to catch him despite an “Operation Dadua” in the late 80s, early 90’s and in 1998-99.

Kamal Pandey, the BJP district general secretary of Karchana, says Dadua intimidates villagers and there is a good chance of “his candidates’’ winning.

“It is difficult to thwart him because he has a large following among the Kurmis and backwards here and they do their best to keep him out of trouble,’’ says Pandey with an air of resignation.

There are few who dare to oppose the Daku Samrat. But in a strange twist of fate, Bal Kumar, a first-timer in politics, is suffering as much from his brother’s bloody legacy as he is gaining from the deadly diktat. People often flee rather than gather during his meetings.

“It is a big problem,” Bal Kumar’s campaign manager Gyan Singh says, adding: “He is walking on a double-edged sword.”

The police, too, haven’t taken kindly to Bal Kumar’s campaign. Villagers say his posters have been torn and his supporters manhandled by the police.

Bal Kumar is up against the senior Samajwadi Party leader and sitting MLA from Karchana, Revati Raman Singh, who is using his political skills to drive home the point that “a daku’s brother can only be a daku”.

As Bal Kumar says: “It is not easy being Dadua’s brother and fighting elections at the same time.’’


Ahmedabad, Feb. 8: 
Who knows better than a Gujarati how to run a business? But Pramod Mahajan wants to know why Gujarat is not in the running for the top slot in his fief, information technology.

All the more because this century will be shaped by the knowledge-based industry, just as the last one had belonged to trade and manufacturing — areas that Gujarat had excelled in.

“Unfortunately, Gujarat, like Kerala, has lagged behind (in the IT sector), which is quite surprising considering the high literacy in Kerala and good infrastructure in Gujarat,” the IT minister told a three-day international business partnership meet, “Resurgent Gujarat”.

This was organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and the foreign, commerce and industry ministries.

The BJP leader admitted that politicians and bureaucrats were a “bottleneck” — they get in the way of speedy decisions. The cure, Mahajan suggested, was training top officials to take quick decisions and punishing those who do not act fast.

Chief minister Narendra Modi agreed that Gujarat had been a late-starter, but mentioned that a year ago the state was the epicentre of a devastating earthquake.

“We are still the epicentre — not of earthquake but of progress and development, which is visible from this international meet,” Modi added.


New Delhi, Feb. 8: 
It’s that time of the year when the big league package tour operators slug it out on the pages of newspapers for a bigger share of the market for outbound tours.

After a lull last year following the devastations caused by the Gujarat earthquake and a marked downturn in the economy, interest in the outbound market seems to be on the rise again. No wonder, the advertisement war has started — to grab the highest number of bookings during the annual summer exodus.

Last year, the claims and counterclaims had turned acrimonious when SOTC appealed to the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission to restrain Thomas Cook from issuing package tour ads. MRTPC had issued a stay on the ads.

This year, SOTC, the market leader in package tours abroad, is scrutinising ads by Cox & Kings. If its legal department finds anything objectionable, it will move the MRTPC once again.

SOTC, run by Kuoni India, started the marketing war this year. In a full-page advertisement in a national daily, SOTC offered a Grand Tour of Europe for US$ 1,699, which amounts to roughly Rs 83,000. The slug-line reads: 2 for the price of 1 and children under 12 free.

Thomas Cook followed with a full-page ad in the same paper. It advertised a European Extravaganza, with a stop at Dubai, for an all-inclusive price of Rs 1,15,000. Both SOTC and Thomas Cook have issued ads through January and early February. Cox & Kings struck back with a full-page advertisement in a rival daily a few days ago. It called its package Europe Tours and compared its rates with the other two, claiming its offer was Rs 14,004 cheaper than the SOTC price.

Smaller players like Club 7 and Dewan Worldwide Tours have also joined the marketing blitz. Travel Corporation of India and Raj Travels are also significant players. “It is a high growth market going up by 20 per cent annually,” says Conference of Tourism Professionals president and chairman of Stic Travels, Subhash Goyal.


Mumbai, Feb. 8: 
Is Lagaan inching towards the Oscars? Aamir Khan hopes it is.

Khan, the actor and producer of the film, said Lagaan had already made it to the top eight films nominated for the coveted award this year. He said the film had gone down well with the jury.

“When it was officially screened on January 27, the jury highly appreciated it,” a beaming Khan said, launching a comic on his film at his alma mater St Annes in Bandra. “We have received good feedback.”

The comic is the first Lagaan merchandise to hit the market. A stream of other goods, including an animation film, is expected to follow.

Khan has been waging a publicity war, especially in the US, to highlight his film since it was nominated for the Oscars. “I am happy that our efforts have paid off,” he said.

The actor said he wanted to share the “success” of the film with its director, Ashutosh Gowarikar, “who teamed up with me during the campaign in America”.

Khan said a French film called Amilie had posed a strong challenge to Lagaan in the race for the award, but hoped his film would come through.

The actor said he would not dub Lagaan as a “patriotic” film, but a film that depicts “universal human spirit”.

To keep the film in the spotlight, Khan and his team of actors toured through the US and Canada last year, playing cricket matches. They played a similar match in Mumbai, too, last month.

The launch of a comic is part of the strategy to keep the memories of Lagaan alive. The book was published by Egmont, which is merchandising the film.

Khan said they were planning other Lagaan products, including an animation film based on the film’s script.

Just because Khan is “chasing” the Oscars does not mean that he does not crave Indian awards. “The national award is something I hold close to my heart and I will be honoured to accept it,” he said.

The actor said the comic, in English, captured the essence of his film with texts based on the film’s dialogue. The Hindi version of the book is expected soon.

Khan said the idea of the comic struck the unit when they were shooting for Lagaan. “Ashutosh and I were actually more excited about the comic than doing the film.”

“It is really fun looking at yourself on the pages of a comic as if you were a superman or Tarzan,” he said.

Standing on the dais of his school transported him back to his school days. “As a student of class IV, I once danced here with a girl who studied with me. She was very fair, but I don’t remember her name,” he said, wistfully.


London, Feb 8: 
Keith Vaz, former minister of Europe and the first Asian MP in the House of Commons, has been suspended for a month over his family’s financial links with the Hinduja brothers.

The decision was taken after a recommendation by the committee for standards and privileges. The Commons committee said Vaz breached the MP’s code of conduct and was guilty of contempt of the House.

The parliamentary standards watchdog, Elizabeth Filkin, also accused Vaz of obstructing her inquiry into his conduct.

The inquiry lasted two years. The commission was looking into allegations of financial links between Vaz and the Hinduja brothers.

It found links through Keith Vaz’s wife, Maria, and her solicitor’s company. The commission also pointed out that Vaz had provided misleading facts about his family and the links with the Hindujas.

Vaz himself has described the punishment as “disproportionate”. He attacked Filkin for not going about the inquiry properly and leaking parts of the report to the media before the conclusions had been arrived at.

In the last elections, Vaz was re-elected from his Leicester East constituency with a large majority.

He said he would continue to remain MP. He resigned from his post as junior minister last year on grounds of ill health.


Badal (Muktsar), Feb. 8: 
From a distance it looks like a town. But a neon sign christens the cluster of houses as “Badal village”. Draw closer and you find police pickets. Further ahead is a small roundabout and a picket on its left signals that a VVIP area is being approached.

The lane to the left of the roundabout is dirty. There are mud huts to the right of the lane and a pond to the left. Further 100 metres ahead, two CRPF jawans sit behind sandbags indicating the importance of the small stretch: the house of Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.

Enter the compound and you are greeted with locked doors. “Everyone is away campaigning,” a maid said.

The village, falling under Lambi constituency in backward Muktsar, was a hamlet a few years ago with just two bungalows — one belonging to the present chief minister and the other to his cousin, Mahesh Inder Singh. Today, it is perhaps one of the finest villages in the country — a witness to the practice among politicians to pamper their home districts and resort to lopsided development.

With a population of barely 2,500, the village boasts of a two-lane metalled road, a super-speciality hospital with doctors available round-the-clock, a training centre for nurses, a women’s college and a Sports Authority of India academy. Besides, the village, located near Haryana’s Sirsa district, has 24-hour electricity, cement houses with dish antennae, a canal distributary criss-crossing verdant fields and a four-lane approach road from National Highway 10 connecting the village with Bathinda. The “village” appendage appears a misnomer.

Residents feel that Badal’s gift to his village after becoming chief minister five years ago is nothing short of revolution. “We have everything here. We have got whatever we sought from the chief minister. Pucca houses, metalled roads and lanes, colleges and schools. We have no choice but to vote for Badal saab,” said Balraj Singh, a resident, outside the Shiromani Akali Dal office.

Asked why no campaigning was taking place in the village, he added: “The Shiromani Akali Dal is supreme here. That is why there is no reason for Badal to seek votes here.”

However, the benefits of development has not percolated to those other than the Jats. There were homes in the village where people used wicks to see their way through the night. Rumours of bonded labour in the constituency could not be confirmed.

In the forthcoming elections, the chief minister is pitted against his own cousin and neighbour Mahesh Inder Singh, who is contesting as an Independent with support from the Panthic Morcha. A landlord owning over 500 acre in the area, Mahesh Inder jumped into the fray because he felt that the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal had deviated from its path and become “similar to other parties”. He is also aggrieved that Badal is only patronising his son Sukhbir.

“I have no personal enmity with Parkashji Personal relations with him are still good,” he said, pointing to an election poster that had a photograph of his father and Badal’s mentor Teja Singh.

“My father wanted the Shiromani Akali Dal to stand for the downtrodden and serve the masses. But the party has deviated from the goals it had set out to achieve.”




Maximum: 29.4°C (0)
Minimum: 18.7°C (+3)



Relative humidity

Maximum: 94%,
Minimum: 47%

Sunrise: 6.17 am

Sunset: 5.24 pm


Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of light rain in some areas. Minimum temperature likely to be around 19°C

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