Poll pull is stronger than budget
Digvijay threatens to sack staff
Forester killed in MCC court
Sony SET to do a STAR turn on cricket telecast
Security slip on defence minister
Cong, NCP strive to stall ‘divorce’
Apex court backs rights of foreign tenants

New Delhi, Feb. 16: 
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet is spending most of its time campaigning for votes, though there is less than a fortnight left before the budget is presented.

At least 10 Cabinet ministers and a couple of ministers of state have been zooming in and out of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Punjab in helicopters and planes, with little time to spare for the budget.

Jagdish Shettigar, in charge of the BJP’s economic cell, admits that the party’s priority at the moment is the Assembly elections, particularly those in Uttar Pradesh.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha remained in New Delhi to announce important pre-budget decisions. But most of the other senior Cabinet members, including the Prime Minister, are away canvassing for the BJP.

“It will be difficult to talk to the minister before the elections are over,” says an official in the information and broadcasting ministry, headed by Sushma Swaraj, who is on a whirlwind tour of Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

Swaraj is not the only one missing. Home minister L.K. Advani, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi are among the other star campaigners.

Joshi is, perhaps, most tireless of the lot, Shastri Bhavan sources said. The minister has invested most of his time and energy in Uttaranchal, his home state, and Uttar Pradesh, the state he represents in the Lok Sabha. “He has been camping in Uttaranchal for almost a week,” officials say.

Civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain has been canvassing in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. Agriculture minister Ajit Singh is also a key campaigner in western Uttar Pradesh, where he has the largest following among Jats.

Sports minister Uma Bharti is trying to split the Lodh vote bank of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh, who floated his own outfit after quitting the BJP.

C.P. Thakur, the Union health and family welfare minister, is the “odd” face among the campaigners. A Brahmin from Bihar, the health minister has no base in Uttar Pradesh that he can tap unlike Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who has been pulling crowds for the Congress.

Even disgruntled members of the Cabinet, such as coal and mines minister Ramvilas Paswan and labour minister Sharad Yadav, are slugging it out on the Uttar Pradesh battlefield.

Sharad’s junior, Muni Lall, who is not known for oratorical skills, has been pressed into the BJP’s service. “The point here is to field Muni Lall as a Dalit leader,” says a ministry official.

Satyanarain Jatiya, minister for social justice and empowerment, briefly toured Agra and Meerut.

Maneka Gandhi and B.C. Khanduri, ministers of state with independent charge, have also been missing from their offices, campaigning in Uttaranchal.

Ministers from the south, such as Murasoli Maran and T.R. Baalu, have remained behind in New Delhi — but only because they are not familiar with the Hindi heartland.


Bhopal, Feb. 16: 
Chief minister Digvijay Singh is in no mood to pamper obstinate trade unions and government employees going on strike. Madhya Pradesh has decided to sack any employee who has completed 20 years in service and is 50 years old going on strike from February 26 — the day when the state government staff have threatened to go on an indefinite strike from.

Demanding a 7 per cent hike in dearness allowance, more than 5.66 lakh state government employees backed by 17 trade unions took mass casual leave on January 31.

The government pleaded that it was in a fiscal crisis and sanctioned a 4 per cent DA instalment from February.

Since the 1990s, the pay bill of state government employees has increased by 14.22 per cent annually and the pension bill by 24.47 per cent while government revenue has gone up by just about 11 per cent. In 1994-95, the pay and pension package increased to 45.72 per cent of the state’s revenue. This fiscal, the state is spending 68 per cent of its revenue to pay salaries and pensions.

When the chief minister refused to grant any further hike in dearness allowance, the trade unions called a two-day strike on February 13 and 14. Union leaders claimed the strike was successful as more than 95 per cent employees, including hospital staff, did not report for work. Unions threatened that if the government did not pay up the entire seven per cent increase in dearness allowance, employees would go on an indefinite strike from February 26.

However, after a meeting with the chief minister late last evening, trade unions have fallen silent. The government has taken steps to ensure that employees pay a heavy price for going on strike and disrupting normal functioning of state departments.

After a Cabinet meeting, the chief minister declared a list of essential services. This include sanitation, water supply, hospitals, printing press, commercial taxes, excise, treasury and accounts, registration, transport, jail, electricity, milk supply, municipalities and municipal corporations.

These government departments become essential services from February 25, a day before the trade unions’ date to launch the indefinite strike.

Government employees going on strike from February 26 will face harsh actions equivalent to break-in-service. Punishment will be harsher for veteran employees.

In March 2000, the Digvijay Singh government amended the Madhya Pradesh Government Servant Superannuation Act which had a provision for sacking employees and officials with unsatisfactory job records once they completed 25 years in service and 55 years of age.


Rohtas, Feb. 16: 
A forest officer was executed by the Maoist Communist Centre in the jungles of the Kaimur range yesterday, swivelling focus on the bitter struggle between the authorities and stone quarry owners on the hills and its violent overtones since the involvement of the Naxalites.

Divisional forest officer Sanjay Singh, a 1991 batch IFS officer, was whisked away from a guesthouse near Nauhatta at 12 noon yesterday and handed a death sentence by a Naxalite kangaroo court at Rehal village. Policemen found his body in an open patch two hours after he was shot from close range.

The chief minister has ordered immediate action even as angry demonstrators today disrupted rail and road traffic at various places in Rohtas district to protest Singh’s killing by the banned outfit.

An official spokesman said the chief minister asked chief secretary S.N. Biswas and home secretary U.N. Panjiar to personally oversee the operation to apprehend the killers. However, no one has been arrested so far.

State police chief R.R. Prasad has sworn a “fitting and more violent retaliation” against militancy, but his words must have rung hollow to Sanjay’s family as they bade a touching farewell to the “brave officer”. For the past one year, the state government has stood mute witness to a series of incidents that showed how the forest department’s battle against the several illegal quarries within forest areas was being compounded by a combination of vested political interests and ultra Left militancy.

The illegal stone quarrying in Rohtas district, bordering Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district, was destroying the hill range and depleting the forest cover. State forest minister Jagtanand Singh, who called the quarry lobby a “mafia”, had launched a crusade against the deforestation. Sanjay Singh was his man on the ground.

The forest officer faced opposition from the quarry owners, the MCC and even the BJP. Eager not to antagonise the owners, part of its upper-caste votebank, the main Opposition party sought his removal. It accused the government of not taking any initiative on the owners’ demand to regularise the illegal quarries by denotifying the forest land — a move not permissible under a Supreme Court order.

The MCC, which had sided with the quarry labourers, charged Singh with persecuting the poor. The police, on the other hand, accused the Naxalites of taking a cut from the owners.

The minister refused to budge under pressure from the “stone mafia”. “Everybody looked at the problem from their own side without trying to offer a solution. Violence was inevitable,” said Tridev Chowdhary, a social worker at Bhabua.

For the last six months, Rohtas’ Karwandi block witnessed violent showdowns between the labourers and the police and forest forces. On February 6, the police opened fire when quarry workers, instigated by the owners, began pelting stones. A labourer, Dhaneswar Chowdhary, was killed.

The MCC, thirsting for revenge after two of its members were killed in a police raid, took this opportunity to join the battle.


New Delhi, Feb. 16: 
It’s the money, honey, Rupert Murdoch might well tell his own television channel, STAR Sports, after all but deciding to hand over to rival Sony Entertainment Television the Indian rights to telecast matches of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for six years.

Nothing sells on television in the subcontinent like cricket and if Sony clinches the deal, it will be the second biggest sports channel in the country. It is not known if Sony will telecast the matches on its SET channel or start a separate sports channel. So far, SET has been a bit player in sports broadcasting.

Global Cricket Corporation (GCC), half-owned by Murdoch’s Newscorp, and SET confirmed today that they were in “advanced negotiations to license SET the Indian television rights” to broadcast a six-year package of the ICC cricket championships.

These would include the ICC cricket World Cups in 2003 and 2007 and three ICC knockout tournaments. A possible 200 one-day internationals will be telecast on Sony if the deal goes through, placing the channel at par with ESPN STAR Sports in the run for cricket matches. ESPN STAR is a 50:50 venture between the American network and Murdoch’s STAR group.

The deal does not include matches other than those conducted by the ICC. The rights for other ODI series are vested with the cricket boards of the host countries.

Neither SET nor GCC sources were willing to go into the details of the negotiations but the industry grapevine has it that Sony bid a whopping $370 million for the rights, beating ESPN Star Sports and Prasar Bharati. One report had it that Sony’s bid was marginally more than what ESPN Star had offered, but a sports channel executive said he would not be surprised if the Sony bid was “nearer to twice the amount” of ESPN Star.

Television executives dread a situation in which channels earn telecast rights for whopping amounts that cannot be recouped from the market. An example executives cite is that of Doordarshan that had won rights to telecast matches hosted by the BCCI for five years beginning 2000 for over Rs 550 crore. Buddha Films, contracted by Doordarshan to market the matches, is said to be desperately trying to sell time to advertisers without much success.

The GCC-Worldsport Group (GCC-WSG) combine won the rights in 2000 to market six years of ICC events despite bidding lower than Zee. ICC justified its decision by saying the group was financially more sound. Subsequently, Zee’s Subhash Chandra hit the ceiling, cited bias and predicted a split in the cricket world.

It was presumed by the industry that since GCC-WSG had got the marketing rights, the awarding of the lucrative Indian telecasting rights to ESPN Star was a foregone conclusion. That, apparently, has been upset by the Sony bid.

While it is confirmed that SET is negotiating the cable and satellite rights, there is some confusion on the terrestrial telecasting rights. This is a highly sensitive issue because Doordarshan will be under intense pressure to show World Cup and other major matches featuring India.

In the past, ICC has awarded terrestrial telecasting rights to national broadcasters. Unless it does the same, or unless SET re-negotiates terrestrial rights with Doordarshan, the public service broadcaster will not be able to telecast the ICC matches.


Guwahati, Feb. 16: 
The Assam government today ordered a probe into the “lapses” which saw defence minister George Fernandes travel without security yesterday along the high-risk militant zone from Morigaon to the state capital.

Tarun Gogoi’s government was left with egg on its face after Fernandes suffered minor injuries when the vehicle he was travelling in met with an accident at the busy Fancy Bazar area of the city.

Official sources said the state home commissioner would conduct the probe and submit the report within 15 days. Assam police have also ordered their own investigation because of the seriousness of the lapse.

Though the report on the probe conducted by inspector general of police (security) Wati Ao was submitted to the government this evening, officials were tight-lipped about its contents.

Fernandes was in the state to campaign for Samata Party candidate Rashidul Haque for the February 21 Lok Sabha bypoll to the Kaliabor seat. He left for Manipur yesterday afternoon.

Sources said heads were likely to roll in the police department for the “serious goof-up”. In the line of fire, they said, were the Morigaon and city police chiefs who allegedly failed to ensure the pilot and escort vehicles for the defence minister.

A high-ranking police official — who has handled security for top politicians — said any Central leader has to be provided a “centralised security ring” by the state government from the point of origin of travel back to the point of departure from the state. This is apart from the district-wise security cover.


Mumbai, Feb. 16: 
In public, the ruling Congress and its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party, are daring each other to break their marriage of convenience. In private, they are doing everything they can — short of hugging each other — to prevent “a divorce”.

So different — and misleading — can the public and private faces of the politicians be at times.

A day after chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh declared that the Congress was ready to face a mid-term poll, NCP MP Praful Patel gave a “fitting” reply. “If the Congress is ready to face the mid-term poll, so are we.”

But then, it was all for public consumption, leaders of both sides said. With zilla parishad elections round the corner, where both parties are contesting as much against each other as against the BJP and the Shiv Sena, they “reserve” the right to call each other names.

But that’s that. Don’t expect a “divorce” too soon, as parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan predicted last week. Congress and NCP leaders insist that they don’t mean what they say in public.

“The democratic front government will not fall. These are mere political outbursts,” Maharashtra Congress president Govindrao Adik said, referring to the pot shots the parties were taking at each other.

Adik saw “nothing wrong” in the public posturing of the leaders on both sides.

“Ideological differences between the two parties are bound to crop up during electioneering,” he said.

In the run-up to the just-concluded municipal polls, Deshmukh publicly called the NCP opportunist, urging people to vote it out. At an Ahmednagar rally last week, he scoffed at Pawar’s ambition to become the Prime Minister one day, saying he had too few MPs to realise his dreams.

A Deshmukh aide said the chief minister had political compulsions to “target” Pawar, especially in areas where the NCP had a better chance of winning than the Congress.

The Congress leader justified Deshmukh’s fumings, saying Pawar had taken similar pot shots at Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the past.

Sure enough, NCP leaders said they understood why Deshmukh attacked Pawar at Congress rallies. “We never take such remarks personally. We know who they are aimed at,” a Pawar confidant said.

For all their public posturings, both parties know where they stand in the state, with the BJP and the Shiv Sena breathing down the government’s neck.

“The Congress knows as well as we do that it can never form a government on its own,” a senior NCP leader said.

Countered a Congress leader: “The NCP stood exposed in the municipal elections. It bagged only 11 seats in Mumbai compared to our 61 in Mumbai. Without an alliance, NCP is hardly a force to reckon with.”

The Congress and the NCP had an uneasy relationship from the start. They joined hands to form the coalition after the last Assembly elections largely to keep the Sena and the BJP out of power.

The relations soured when Deshmukh ordered a probe into the controversial Enron project, okayed by none other than Pawar as chief minister in the mid-nineties.

Despite a pullout threat by Pawar, the chief minister ordered a judicial inquiry, intensifying the feuds.

Pawar retaliated by supporting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the BJP-sponsored, controversial anti-terrorism Ordinance. He also invited Vajpayee to his birthday party, a political gesture the Prime Minister, in search of new allies, gracefully accepted.

Angry with the overt passes Pawar made at the BJP, the Congress high command said no to a NCP proposal for a municipal alliance, only to realise the mistake later.


New Delhi, Feb. 16: 
The Supreme Court has ruled that a foreign tenant of an Indian landlord has the same rights as an Indian tenant, though the foreigner might be staying “mostly away” from India.

The apex court today set aside a Madras High Court eviction order, which said the tenant in question was a foreigner and would not suffer hardship as she stayed “mostly away” from her rented accommodation in Chennai. “The approach adopted by the high court is perverse,” the court said.

A division bench of Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justice P. Venkatarama Reddy said: “The high court has clearly exceeded its revisional jurisdiction in interfering with the orders of the authorities below.”

Irene, a German citizen, was given accommodation on a monthly rent of Rs 200 by T.M.P. Mahadevan, a professor of philosophy at Madras University. Irene became Mahadevan’s “disciple”, the petition on her behalf argued. “Having seen her deep love in his philosophy”, Mahadevan, the petition said, vacated two tenants on the ground floor portions of the disputed premises and refused to take market rent from her.

After Mahadevan’s death, his associates became trustees of the Philosophy Trust of Mahadevan and wanted Irene to vacate the premises on the grounds that the Trust required more space.

Generally, in eviction cases, the arguments centre on illegal subletting by a tenant or of owners requiring more space. But in both cases there has to be conclusive proof. “Irene shares the accommodation with her associates like a care-taker, an assistant and other staff and hence there was no question of her subletting the premises,” her lawyer T. Raja argued.

Senior counsel M.N. Krishnamani, who also appeared for Irene, told the apex court the high court had erred in concluding that a foreigner would not suffer hardship if ordered to vacate rented premises.


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