Nitish red signal for new trains
Decks cleared for factory sale
Memo grounds babus
Suspended MP let off with censure
Teachers in certificate forgery net
Hai Ram for BJP in the east
Party trashes forecast, scents clear victory
Ministers in voter firing line
Sonia plots post-poll gambit
Hawala link found in Ansari trail

Feb. 14: 
With Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee out of the rail ministry, Bengal will have to do without any new train this year. Railway minister Nitish Kumar today said there was no provision for introduction of any new train in Bengal in the coming railway budget.

He, however, maintained that the projects announced by Mamata during her tenure as railway minister would be honoured. “All projects announced by my predecessor Mamata Banerjee will be honoured and the projects will be completed in due course,” he said.

Kumar was inaugurating an 87-km gauge conversion on the Katihar-Barsoi-Radhikapur sector at Raiganj railway station this afternoon. The project cost has been estimated at Rs 216.35 crore.

Though Mamata was not available for comment — she was busy holding a meeting at Hazra — her close aides said she mentioned in her speech that she was still in touch with the authorities concerned in Delhi to pursue the railway projects she had announced during her tenure.

Trinamul officials said their chief, after becoming railway minister, had cleared many projects for the state, but some like the Digha-Tamluk, Asansol-Haldia and Balurghat-Eklakhi lines were still hanging fire.

“The people of Bengal will be ever grateful to Mamata for the initiative she took to introduce a number of new trains. She started a Rajdhani Express to Delhi from Sealdah. Other new trains include the Rupasi Bangla Express, Ganadevata Express and Kanchankanya Express. After A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Bengal had been deprived for a long time of new railway projects,” a Trinamul leader said.

But Kumar said care has been taken in the next budget to serve every part of the country — a dig at Mamata, who many said had made a rail budget for Bengal last year.

“In Bengal, special attention will be given to Uttar Dinajpur and Malda districts, which we consider as backward in terms of railway facilities and infrastructure. The conversion from meter to broad gauge in Katihar in Bihar to Rakdikapur on the Indo-Bangla border would go a long way in making the region more prosperous,” the minister said.

Responding to a proposal by Congress MP from Raiganj Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Kumar said people carrying out business from occupied railway land should form co-operative societies and pay an annual fee to the railways. Das Munshi had appealed to Kumar that people occupying railway land and carrying on business be regularised in such a way that they are not deprived of their earnings, and the railways of revenue.

Referring to the Congress MP’s proposal for introduction of a Shatabdi Express between New Jalpaiguri and Sealdah, the Union minister said it was not possible at the moment due to lack of proper infrastructure. The railway minister, however, accepted the MP’s demand to create new halts for two express trains at Samshi and Harischandrapur stations. While the Kanchenjunga Express will stop at Samshi, the Kanchankanya Express will halt at Harischandrapur from February 19, Kumar said.

The minister said the next railway budget will be “reasonable and people-friendly”, but added that free-trippers would be dealt with severely.


Calcutta, Feb. 14: 
The decks, it appears, have been cleared to sell the Siemens India factory at Joka, with the company suspending operations there yesterday.

The factory stands on 1,200 cottahs (roughly 8,64,000 square feet).

Sources close to the company’s top brass said: “Siemens intends to sell the plant as a going concern — that is, along with the manufacturing facility. Otherwise, they will sell off the huge plot to people interested in real estate.”

But the chances of selling the factory as a “going concern” are not very bright. “There is tremendous competition from the small-scale sector in the business of low-voltage switchboards — what Siemens used to make at the Joka factory,” an industry observer said.

Sources said Siemens officials had held talks with real estate brokers. “The company has been planning this for a while, but it took some time to clear the decks,” they added. Though Siemens India is a profitable concern, the Joka factory had been making losses.

But a Siemens spokesperson did not respond to a faxed questionnaire on whether it would sell the Joka property. In the evening, the company issued a press statement, saying: “The low-voltage business posted huge losses arising from the weak market demand. We initiated several actions to restructure the business to regain competitiveness. However, we could not achieve this.” Siemens has been unable to provide any work to its workers at the Joka plant since October.

The company told its employees through a notice: “There appears to be no reasonable prospects of any resumption of manufacturing and other operations at our Joka factory in the foreseeable future. The management is in the process of making an application to the West Bengal government for permission to close the Joka factory.”

There are some 80 workers at the plant. They have been promised salary for the next 10 months.

Siemens said, to protect the interest of the employees, “we offered alternative employment and a voluntary retirement scheme, amongst the best so far offered not only by Siemens, but also by industry norms”.

The options of accepting the voluntary retirement scheme and redeployment for some, remained open for the 80 employees of the Joka plant, Siemens said in its statement.


Calcutta, Feb. 14: 
Bengal has put a curb on foreign tours by bureaucrats after the Centre pointed out that some of them were violating regulations.

Chief secretary Sourin Roy today issued an official memorandum that seeks virtually every detail on foreign trips and the past and current conduct records of officials.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee expedited the release of the order after receiving serious complaints against some officials who had apparently “blatantly violated legal norms” before undertaking trips abroad.

Roy’s office memorandum mentions “some” visits abroad that did not have any clearance from either the state or the Centre. These trips had caused “avoidable embarrassment” for the state government, the memorandum noted.

A senior official, without taking names, said some officials had gone abroad without the mandatory clearance under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA).

“It is mandatory to take clearance under the FCRA even if the visit is to the United Nations or the World Bank,” the official said. He added that the chief secretary’s memorandum was a reminder that the bureaucracy should follow the norms in existence.

“The chief minister has hauled up his senior staff members and issued orders to see to it that the bureaucracy does not cause itself and the government any further embarrassment,” another official said.

An official said Bhattacharjee had specifically asked Roy to give instructions so that no proposals for foreign tours are sent directly to the Centre for clearance. “The chief secretary is the sole decision-maker in this regard as far as the chief minister is concerned,” the official said.

Only those trips that are of prime importance for the state’s productivity, industrial environment or have tourism prospects will be considered.

Care will also be taken that the delegations going abroad are compact and include persons directly related to the visit. The names of those proposed by the foreign host should be sent to the chief secretary for clearance at least six weeks before the delegation leaves India.


Calcutta, Feb. 14: 
The CPM state leadership today publicly reprimanded party MP from Mathurapur Radhika Ranjan Pramanik for questioning its decision to drop him from the South 24-Parganas district committee.

Pramanik, who had been made a permanent invitee to the unit, had reacted sharply to the party’s decision in both the print and electronic media. He alleged that the recent decision to drop him from the district committee was a result of inner-party rivalry.

CPM state secretary Anil Biswas today said the decision to drop Pramanik was taken during the party’s South 24-Parganas district conference. “Pramanik had made the issue public by giving statements in the media, which is not permitted in our party. The party, therefore, decided to reprimand him publicly,” Biswas said.

The state leadership did not take drastic action against Pramanik considering his contribution to the organisation and because he is still an MP. Besides, stern action might have helped the suspended Marxist join the Party for Democratic Socialism, with which he maintains a close link.


Asansol, Feb. 14: 
The Burdwan district primary school council has suspended, in the last two days, 16 primary school teachers in the Asansol-Raniganj circle for obtaining jobs through fake marksheets and forged certificates. Council chairman Saidul Haque said an investigation had been started to ascertain whether other teachers had got appointments through similar means.

“We started an inquiry after receiving complaints that some teachers employed by primary schools in Raina, Jamalpur, Kalna, Baraboni, Purbostholi and Asansol had got these appointments by producing fake marksheets and junior basic training certificates. On checking with the Board of Secondary Education, we found that the certificates of 16 of the teachers, who were employed in these schools since July 2000, were forged,” he said.

In December, the council had suspended 23 primary school teachers in Burdwan district for getting jobs by producing fake certificates of junior basic training. “We then decided to verify the certificates and marksheets of about 1,500 teachers appointed in 1998. We sent all the marksheets to the board for verification, which is still going on,” council officials said.

The council has referred the matter to the district police, which has started an inquiry. Police and education department officials interrogated some of the suspended teachers. Preliminary inquiries revealed a racket in supplying fake marksheets and certificates of different vocational examinations, including teachers training, which is essential to get a teacher’s job.


Allahabad, Feb. 14: 
East Uttar Pradesh — which accounts for 166 of the state’s 403 Assembly seats — does not have good news for the BJP. The party had won over 55 seats from this region in the 1996 elections. But, this time, the Samajwadi Party — which got 40 seats in the last polls — is giving the BJP a run for its money.

Even in the erstwhile strongholds of Allahabad and Varanasi — it had four of the 14 seats in the first and five of the eight in the other — the BJP has been seriously challenged for the first time since the “Ram wave” of 1991.

The reasons: The fast-diminishing appeal of Ram and the failure of the anti-terrorism and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. A section of the intelligentsia, which BJP strategists banked on to mould popular opinion in its favour, seem unmoved by these issues. As Rajendra Kumar, who heads Allahabad University’s Hindi department, said: “Those who blindly believed the BJP would build the Ram temple with a government at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh feel cheated. They say the whole thing was a farce.”

As for the fire and brimstone against Islamabad, the response of an avowed BJP backer like S.P. Singh, general secretary of the Allahabad High Court Bar Association was: “If the government had recaptured parts of PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), we would have given a huge mandate for its success. That’s not happening.”

The reaction in the rural areas was even stronger. “Our vote will be for a government which has the guts to build a hundred houses for the poor instead of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya,” said Roop Narain Bhind, a peasant of Jogapur village in Handia.

If Ram and terrorism left most Hindus cold, the issues have consolidated the Muslim votes in a big way for the first time since the 1993 elections held in the shadow of the Babri masjid demolition. Mehmood Hassan, a madarsa teacher in Baraisa village of the Soraon Assembly seat, reflected this sentiment when he said: “Development is not an issue for us. Security, peace and harmony are all that matter. We want to see that our masjids and madarsas are safe and that’s not possible when the BJP is around.”

The absence of an emotive issue has accentuated the anti-incumbency mood against the Rajnath Singh government even more sharply. Even the much-touted policy of giving a separate reservation quota for the most backward castes and Dalits has had little impact. “It was a gimmick,” said S.K. Pande, an English professor in Pratapgarh’s MB Post-Graduate College. The Rajnath hype is seen as just that, but there is admission of the fact that had Ram Prakash Gupta continued as the chief minister, the BJP might have been wiped out.

“At least Rajnath has contained the rot. But one year is too short a period for him to have proved himself. By making far too many announcements, he has been nicknamed Ghoshnanath (master of announcements) Singh,” said Surya Mani Choubey, a Jaunpur-based lawyer.

What people are talking about is how students are losing academic years, thanks to papers being leaked and exams being arbitrarily postponed, as in Allahabad, how teachers are not paid their wages for months and how government employees are forced to “bribe” their accountants to get their salary.

“The usual excuse is the state exchequer in empty but if you say you are willing to give a cut, the salary is promptly paid,” a patwari in Jaunpur’s revenue records department said.

Though it was said that Rajnath’s only “achievement” is containing the flow of Thakur votes to the Samajwadi Party, in several constituencies this is not happening, especially in those where Mulayam Singh has put up Thakurs.


New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
Dumping all pre-poll forecasts that project the Samajwadi Party as the frontrunner in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has come out with a survey giving itself a clear majority in the Assembly.

The survey said the BJP and its allies are poised to win 228 of the state’s 403 seats. It gave 193 seats to the party and 35 to its allies — the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Shakti Dal, the Samata Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janashakti Party.

Releasing the BJP forecast, party general secretary Pyarelal Khandelwal said: “The corporation elections in Maharashtra are a clear indication that the voters are proving survey reports wrong. It is believed that the same will apply in the case of Uttar Pradesh. The survey reports are not clearly indicating the voters’ trend.”

The party also unwittingly exposed its desire for polarisation of its traditional vote bank. Khandelwal condemned the All-India Muslim Milli Council for “trying to vitiate the atmosphere of communal harmony”. The council had recently issued a fiat that the community should vote to defeat the BJP.

“The wiser Muslims are opposed to this dangerous game of thinking of the council and they are of the view that this would completely polarise the majority community,” he said, betraying his anxiety for a reverse polarisation for the BJP.

To drive his point home, Khandelwal said: “At the same time the majority community has been forced to think whether the Milli council has any connection with the ISI and Simi.”

Khandelwal, who is also in charge of national election management, and Ramji Singh, election management president of Uttar Pradesh, had come up with the survey after touring 3,070 km across the state.

The party divided the state into six organisational zones. The forecast break-up is:

n Out of the 65 seats in the western zone, the BJP will get 33 against the 32 it won in 1996. The allies get 14 against the previous 11.

n In Braj, the party is predicted to get 31 out of 69 seats, the same as in 1996. The allies will get 6 against 7 in the last elections.

Of the 55 seats in Kanpur, the BJP is counting on 26. It had won 21 in the last election. Allies will get 1. They bagged 10 last time.

In Awadh, the party will get 40 out of 83, against 26 in 1996. Allies will win 3, against the previous 7.

In Gorakhpur, the BJP expects to win 28 out of 64 seats. It had won 18 in the last election. Allies will get 5, against 16 in 1996.

Out of 67 seats in Kashi, the BJP is expecting to win 35. It had got 30 in 1996. Allies will get 6. They had secured 8 in 1996.

Though the BJP tally has increased from 158 in 1996 to 193 this year, that of the allies has come down from 59 to 35. But the additional 35 seats projected for the BJP make up the loss from the allies.

Khandelwal said he toured 23 places in 403 constituencies between February 1 and 11, and his forecast was based on reports of workers engaged in polling duties in villages. He pointed out that the BJP had only one ally - Samata Party - in 1996.

The BJP leader said the position will improve further in the second and third phase of polling after the campaigns of Vajpayee, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Kalraj Mishra and chief minister Rajnath Singh.

Khadelwal claimed that the Samajwadi Party base was cracking in pockets like Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Etawah, Etah and Farrukhabad and that “the extremely backward classes and Dalits are extending considerable support in favour of the BJP.”


Varanasi, Feb. 14: 
Harish Chandra Shrivastava must have rued the day he decided to go public on how he spent the sum of Rs 75 lakh an Uttar Pradesh legislator gets every year as constituency fund. Voters ofVaranasi Cantonment spoke of how Shrivastava raised the issue when he went campaigning, claiming to have done a lot of vikas. But he couldn’t account for more than Rs 10 lakh of the amount spent. The embarrassment was acute because he happens to be the Uttar Pradesh finance minister and a confidant of chief minister Rajnath Singh.

As questions were hurled at Shrivastava, he mumbled out a half-baked explanation and ran for cover before the irate public could heckle him. His gaffe has become a big issue in this otherwise sure-fire BJP seat.

“Serves him right,” said cantonment resident Rajesh Gupta. “Development was not an issue with us until Shrivastava raised it himself. But now that he has, we are not going to let him get away scot-free.”

Residents also alleged that beneath his genteel veneer, the minister had the policemen wrapped around his little finger.

Shrivastava wasn’t the only minister in east Uttar Pradesh to face popular ire. In Azamgarh, adjacent to Varanasi, lawyer Sripad Mishra spoke of how his district accounted for three of the 100 ministers in the Cabinet — Shri Ram Sonkar from Mohammadabad, Yashwant Singh from Mubarakpur and Phagu Chauhan from Ghosi— but not one of them had done anything. “Fifteen days they spent roaming around their constituencies in their official cars, which flash the red-light and go beep-beep. If they think people are impressed, they are mistaken.”

Two ministers from the Pratapgarh district, Shivakant Ojha and Rajaram Pande (Janata Dal-United), were in the firing line for the same reason. “Power supply is very bad, four-hour cuts are usual and in between there are frequent breakdowns. Worse, there is a unique form of terrorism here. It is sarkari terrorism inflicted by the ministers, who use the police to harass people, especially those who are opposed to the BJP,” said Shyama Pratap Singh, a sociology professor.

Singh alleged that while one minister had used the police to coerce votes for himself, the other did development work but for a “huge commission”. In Dehlupur village, which comes within Ojha’s Birapur constituency, Nageshwar Prasad Mishra, a school teacher, spoke of how the locals scuttled the minister’s plan to set up a medical college but because he allegedly tried to purchase land for the college and create a trust to run it in a relative’s name.


New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
Sonia Gandhi has begun working on the post-Assembly polls scenario to project her and the Congress as the “government-in-waiting”.

Sonia believes the NDA would emerge badly bruised after the latest round of Assembly polls, and defeat in Punjab, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh would jolt the Vajpayee regime even if it does not pose any immediate threat to the Centre.

The Congress president has told senior party functionaries that the outcome would be significant on two counts. First, the fall of the BJP in a state like Uttar Pradesh would “psychologically cripple” the Vajpayee regime. Second, it would boost the Congress position as the “government-in- waiting” on account of its hold over a dozen states.

In the budget session scheduled later this month, the Congress wants to avoid stalling Parliament over coffingate and other issues over which the last 10 days of the winter session were lost. Instead, it wants to force a debate on economic and political questions with the hope of widening divisions within the NDA.

For the first time, Sonia plans to intervene impromptu during discussions and cut down her dependence on prepared speeches. She is convinced that unless she is seen leading from the front, the Congress MPs would not go on the offensive. On floor coordination, the leader of the Opposition is optimistic that the constant one-upmanship with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party would recede after the polls.

Sonia has made it clear that she has no “magic wand” to bring the Congress back on centrestage. Her party’s fightback USP should be showcasing good governance in party-ruled states, she feels. “The voters must be convinced that we are well-versed in practising statecraft without upsetting the social fabric,” Sonia observed in a high-level party meet.

Senior leaders like Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni, Kamal Nath, Ahmad Patel and R.K. Dhawan endorse Sonia’s point of view. Manmohan believes that the performance of the party-ruled states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam and Delhi would go a long way in winning voters’ confidence.

These states are well-governed and have avoided unsavoury incidents or controversies, he said.

On the organisational front, Sonia is convinced the party needs to project younger faces in Punjab and Uttaranchal, where it is likely to form the government. Going by that criterion, Amrinder Singh seems set to be the chief minister of Punjab.


Calcutta, Feb. 14: 
A routine investigation into a hawala racket in Jaipur has provided the police with one more lead to Aftab Ansari’s operations in India.

Two of the four persons arrested in this connection were transferring money through the hawala route on behalf of the arrested Dubai-based don.

The two hawala operators have been handed over to a Calcutta police team that was in the Rajasthan capital to investigate some leads in the American Center attack case.

They are now being brought to Calcutta on transit remand. The team has also gathered evidence about an arms shipment sent by Ansari through Jaipur, Barmer and Jaisalmer.

Police sources said one of the hawala operators is a relative of Jamaluddin Nasir, the chief facilitator of the January 22 strike in Calcutta.

Investigators have established two hawala routes originating from Hyderabad and going via Jaipur to Karachi and Dubai. The first route was used to send $1,000 to Ansari in December, about a month before the Chowringhee raid.

Rajasthan inspector-general, crime, M.L. Sharma said investigators “stumbled” on the chain during routine investigations.

Four local hawala operators were rounded up in Jaipur on Monday, who, in turn, led the police to two others operating on behalf of Ansari.

Shakil Ahmed, a relative of Nasir, and Dilip Patel confessed that they had transferred money through the hawala channel on Ansari’s behalf.

Ahmed told the sleuths that Nasir had visited him in Jaisalmer in November last year and he introduced him to Patel, who ran a watch shop and a courier company in Jaipur and Jaisalmer.

“We have evidence that Ahmed has been transferring money through the hawala channel for the last two years. There are telephone numbers which indicate that Ahmed spoke to Ansari and transferred money through the hawala channel,’’ Sharma said.


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