Nitish collects Mamata dues
Survey signals cut in small savings rate
Raid on Mayavati goldmine
Advani to guard Ayodhya
Bollywood finds a hero in Shabnam
Iskcon humbles House of Fraser
Doctor springs book defence
Report rings girl dropout alarm
Sonia hands CM crown to Maharaja
Calcutta Weather

 
 
NITISH COLLECTS MAMATA DUES 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, Feb. 26: 

Subsidy slash with fare hike

In the space of one year, the entire economic philosophy behind the railway budget has changed under the same government, with the people in charge of the portfolio making the difference.

The lack of policy consistency is reflected in the U-turn railway minister Nitish Kumar has taken from the road followed by his predecessor, raising passenger fares by 12 to 40 per cent after a two-year freeze under Mamata Banerjee. This is one of the sharpest fare hikes in several years.

In an attack on cross-subsidisation of passenger fares through higher freight rates, Nitish has stepped up rates for second class ordinary, mail and express trains and monthly ticket prices. Freight rates are rising, too, but in the garb of “rationalisation”. The 2002-03 rail budget presented today intends to garner an additional revenue of Rs 1,360 crore a year.

In two previous budgets put together, Mamata had proposed — both times through freight increases — to raise additional revenues of Rs 1,100 crore.

That is not the only departure from the past. Most railway ministers have milked freight for extra cash and to subsidise passenger travel, but Nitish has done the opposite. He is collecting an additional Rs 910 crore through fare increase and Rs 450 crore from freight without any across-the-board rise by tinkering with the structure for “proper tariff rebalancing”.

Industry welcomed the attempt at reducing cross-subsidisation. “The move towards rationalisation of passenger and freight tariff was long overdue and is a positive measure,” the Confederation of Indian Industry said.

The budget does not raise fares of Rajdhani and Shatabdi express trains while airconditioned first class travel will become marginally cheaper in some cases to make it “competitive” with air travel. These areas have been the traditional sources of raising revenue in the past.

Explaining the rationale for the steps he has taken — touching politically sensitive passenger fares for most of his revenue mobilisation — the minister said the railways had not been passing on fully the cost of running the system to users.

“I feel that the time has now come that railways just cannot do without transferring at least some of the increase in the cost of operating the system,” he said, adding that in the last two years there had been no fare increase.

His fare-freeze predecessor was scathing. “This is a positive budget for the business class and a negative one for the common people,” Mamata Banerjee said.

She said the railway minister had chosen the “cheap” option of raising fare and freight. Mamata said as railway minister she had tried to generate revenue from non-traditional sources. The railway minister has reduced the fare of AC first class and hiked the fare of AC chair car, mostly used by students and common men, she added.

Mamata pointed out that unlike her, Nitish had received budgetary support from the government. But that is a reward Nitish has possibly received from the finance minister, who provides budgetary support, for attempting to clean up the railways’ balance sheet, which Yashwant Sinha could not get Mamata to do in the way he wanted.

He also paid a dividend to the government, of Rs 2,679 crore, which Mamata had not done at all. In return, the finance minister has provided Rs 5840 crore as budgetary support.

Again, in a departure from the past, none of this is triggering a quit threat from the mercurial Trinamul leader. “I will give my opinion to the NDA,” Mamata said.

Passenger fares have been calibrated in such a way that the rise increases with distance. The new rates come into effect from April 1. Monthly ticket prices will be equivalent to fares for 15 single journeys in second class irrespective of distance. First class season tickets will continue to be priced at four times the rate for a second class ticket.

Railway Board officials justified the rationalisation efforts, saying this is the first time such an exercise has been carried out to remove “distortions” in the fare structure. Railway Board chairman R.N. Malhotra said the main objective of this year’s budget was to chart a “route map” to improve the railways’ financial health. Officials parried questions about the average increase in each class of travel, saying the hike this time was not “across the board”.

The fares were “kinky” in certain slabs and the railways have tried to smoothen them out, they said. Nitish said freight rationalisation had wiped out cross-subsidies of Rs 4,000 crore.

A similar rationalisation, according to the minister, has taken place in freight rates. Freight has been raised marginally for commonly-used commodities like foodgrain, pulses, salt and groundnut oil, something that railway ministers in the past have avoided doing.

Rates will go up also for coal, iron ore, raw materials supplied to steel plants and urea. They will drop for cars, iron and steel, pig iron, cement, sugar and most petroleum products.

On the occasion of the railways completing 150 years on April 16, sixteen Jan Shatabdi express trains will be started, one from Howrah to Malda. The allocation of trains among states is fairly even-handed. Here, too, Nitish has broken from the past by cutting the bias railway ministers, including himself in 1998, have shown for their home states. Mamata, for instance, had given Bengal seven new trains.

   

 
 
SURVEY SIGNALS CUT IN SMALL SAVINGS RATE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
If anyone was looking for pointers to the budget just two days away, Yashwant Sinha provided them in the Economic Survey unveiled today: a small savings rate cut, removal of certain corporate and personal income-tax exemptions and deductions, a reduction in customs tariffs, a rollback of excise exemptions and extension of the 5 per cent service tax to more areas.

“The current signals indicate that a recovery is expected in 2002,” Sinha said. But he hedged his predictions by warning in the same breath of the dangers of a high fiscal deficit — where government spending outstrips its revenues and the hole has to be filled with borrowings — which is currently running at 5.1 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

He also spoke of an “external shock” by which he implied a possible surge in global oil prices that could derail the Great Indian Railroad Express.

Of real concern to the common man, however, was a warning that continued high administered real interest rates would not be tolerated. What this boils down to is that there could be a 1 per cent rate cut in small savings schemes like NSS, NSC, postal deposits, kisan vikas patra and the public provident fund (PPF).

Fixed interest rates on small savings schemes like the PPF and post office saving schemes currently stand at about 9.5 per cent, while interest on fixed deposit schemes run by banks range between 8 and 8.5 per cent.

Finance ministry mandarins argue that this will trigger further interest rate cuts in the financial market and boost sluggish industrial investment. But the real reason for the government wanting to cut this rate lies in its own huge outgo in interest payments which have hit an all-time high of Rs 1,12,300 crore.

The government’s need to go in for this measure has been made more pressing by what the survey calls “significant shortfalls in indirect taxes due to slowdown in industrial production and deceleration of imports... Direct tax collections too are likely to be below target in the current year.”

The ambitious target of mopping up Rs 12,000 crore by selling some of the crown jewels through disinvestment will not be met this year. The survey doesn’t acknowledge this — but it talks rather radiantly of a big selloff, including in Indian Airlines and Air-India — in the next fiscal year. It also talks about selling government stake in Maruti Udyog and nine other PSUs, including Jessop and Paradeep Phosphates, within the next month.

The finance minister based his otherwise upbeat survey on high farm and service sector growth. Farm sector growth in the current year is expected to reach a five-year high of 5.7 per cent compared with a negative growth last fiscal. Higher farm growth is expected to fuel consumption demand, which has fallen from 7.4 per cent in 1998-99 to 2.9 per cent.

If the rain gods have been merciful to Mother India, her teeming millions plying their trade in various services have also boosted the chances of an economic recovery. The service sector grew at 6.5 per cent during 2001-2002 compared with 4.8 per cent in the last fiscal.

The survey also indicates the path of the next round of taxation reforms by highlighting the need to bring down customs tariff rates from a current average of 35 per cent to 20 per cent within the next few years and says the way to compensate any giveaways will have to be through wholesale removal of excise exemptions and curbing leaks from exemptions granted to small-scale firms.

   

 
 
RAID ON MAYAVATI GOLDMINE 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Feb. 26: 
The formula that won Mayavati 98 seats is keeping Mulayam Singh Yadav’s hopes afloat in Uttar Pradesh.

Short of numbers even if Mulayam manages the support of the Congress, his Samajwadi Party is prowling around BSP legislators from the upper castes and the minority community.

In a radical experiment, Mayavati had given tickets to a large number of aspirants outside her traditional Dalit base. The formula struck gold at the hustings but it is now threatening to blow up in Mayavati’s face.

Most of her MLAs are new to the party and have no long-standing association either with her or the Bahujan ideology, leaving them prime targets for poachers.

The Samajwadi Party has established contact with Amarmani Tripathi, who joined the BSP after being expelled from the BJP-led government when police arrested a gang of abductors from his residence. Tripathi is now trying to wean away some of the 32 upper caste legislators in the BSP.

The BSP’s 15 legislators from the minority community and four Yadavs are also being targeted. A worried Mayavati has instructed her legislators to stay put in their constituencies and not come to Lucknow.

While Tripathi is working on the upper castes, underworld don Mukhtar Ansari, who won as an Independent from Mau after being expelled from the BSP, is focusing on legislators belonging to the minority community. The campaign is being coordinated by Naresh Aggarwal, who has proved his mettle in engineering defections and breaking up parties.

Ansari, with a long list of criminal cases against him and a formidable past as one of the most accurate shots in the underworld, is putting “everything” into his mission to thwart the BSP as he had vowed after he was expelled by Mayavati.

A supporter of Mulayam claimed that “many” BSP legislators are in touch with the Samajwadi Party.

“Earlier we were looking at Independent candidates and winners from other smaller parties, but we realised that it was not going to work as the numbers would not add up,’’ he added. He conceded that the only option is to wean away 33 legislators from the BSP so that they can circumvent the anti-defection Act.

Mulayam, who was elected leader of the legislature party, is expected to stake claim tomorrow.

   

 
 
ADVANI TO GUARD AYODHYA 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
L.K. Advani today said the Centre would take “full responsibility” to maintain law and order in Ayodhya on March 15 — the day the VHP has threatened to begin temple construction — as the new Uttar Pradesh government would have just been sworn in by then.

At an all-party meeting, he said: “We realise that there is an interim government in the state. Even if a new government is formed, it may not be in a position to handle the law and order situation that could obtain on March 15. Keeping the political fluidity in mind, the Centre takes full responsibility for maintaining law and order.”

Advani’s statement is significant in context of the perception that the VHP had upped the Ayodhya ante because the BJP had not returned to power in Uttar Pradesh and Mulayam Singh could become chief minister.

It was said the timing suited the BJP because by being out of power it was not duty-bound to restrain the VHP and could encash whatever incidental spin-offs there were from the agitation.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave a categorical assurance to the 37 leaders this evening that pending a court verdict, his government was fully committed to maintaining status quo ante both on the so-called disputed site and the acquired land under the Centre’s jurisdiction.

“Under no circumstance will permission be given to start construction either on the disputed or acquired land until the court gives its verdict,” he said.

Vajpayee’s statement comes in the backdrop of the VHP’s declaration to start construction of the Ram temple on the acquired portion of the Ayodhya land from March 15.

Its argument was that since the title deed of this part was not legally challenged it was within its “rights” to start construction.

The VHP has started the build-up for the final assault by holding a relay yagna daily attended by several thousand kar sevaks. By D-Day, its leaders claim over 10 lakh kar sevaks would congregate in Ayodhya in what threatens to be a repeat of December 6, 1992.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the home minister’s assurances cut ice with either the NDA allies or the Opposition. CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee said: “We cannot accept a mere assurance that nothing will happen. We could not have been more dissatisfied.”

Earlier, Vajpayee made it clear in the Lok Sabha that the Centre would not stop the VHP’s yagna.

   

 
 
BOLLYWOOD FINDS A HERO IN SHABNAM 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, Feb. 26: 
Shabnam Mausi, the country’s first eunuch MLA from Madhya Pradesh, is the latest role model for Bollywood.

Mausi is having a Hindi film made on her life, much the same way Phoolan Devi and Bhanwari Devi had their lives featured on celluloid.

“We are nobody’s children. We have no place in society. Society accepts a bandit or even a dog, but not us, eunuchs,” Mausi said, announcing the film on her life.

The “rejected” child of an IPS officer from Mumbai is back in the city, where Mausi said she belongs. She regards herself as the “daughter” of parents who gave her away.

In a clean break with his past roles as villain, actor Ashutosh Rana will play the lead role in the film, Shabnam Mausi.

Rana said he accepted the role without even reading the script. “I read so much about Mausi in newspapers, I did not need to read the script. She is not just a character, but a success story.”

Mausi broke with the eunuch traditions of singing, dancing and begging on streets to run for the Assembly elections and “change society”. “I want to do my bit. Given the chance, we hijras can do a lot for the country instead of singing, dancing and begging. We, too, can be useful citizens to the country,” Mausi said.

Rana said he was appalled that Indian society still looked down upon eunuchs. “What do they lack? Why can’t they lead a normal life like you and me? In any case, society has nothing to do with their sex.”

The actor said eunuchs are as strong as men and should be hired by police and other security agencies. “We can easily turn them into productive citizens. All you need to do that is a change in your outlook,” Rana Said.

Yogesh Bhardwaj, an assistant of director J.P. Dutta of Border fame, is trying his hand at direction in Shabnam Mausi.

He said the low-budget film will largely be shot in Madhya Pradesh, where the MLA is based. Shooting will begin on April 2. The film is expected to release at the end of this year.

“It’s going to be a different film, something that will make people look up to eunuchs, not look down upon them,” Bhardwaj said.

The film will trace Mausi’s early childhood in Mumbai, leading up to her victory in the Assembly elections.

“We want to show her as she is, an extraordinary person. We don’t want to delve into her life as a political leader,” Rana said. And for good reason. In her political life, Mausi is an ardent follower of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, something that may not go down well with all viewers.

“Bal Thackeray has done a lot for Maharashtra. I respect and admire him a lot. I always refer to him at my political rallies,” Mausi said.

Unlike Phoolan and Bhanwari, who had objected to the portrayal of their lives in films, Mausi said she had read the script and found nothing objectionable.

“The film is based on my life, which I would not curse even on my enemy. I always pray that no mother suffers the indignity of bearing a child like me, who has no parents, no brothers and no sisters,’’ Mausi said, blinking back tears.

   

 
 
ISKCON HUMBLES HOUSE OF FRASER 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, Feb. 26: 
The Hare Krishna movement in Britain has won what it describes as a “landmark” legal victory for Hindus after one of the country’s biggest department store groups had suggested its devotees were brainwashed members of a “dangerous and loony religious sect”.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) took The House of Fraser, which has large department stores in London, Birmingham, Glasgow and other big cities, to court after the company had run an advertisement campaign making fun of the way in which Hare Krishna followers were dressed.

The ad featured a photograph of a number of devotees, with a thought balloon containing the following words: “Linea Directions: wear it and pity those who can’t, exclusive to House of Fraser. If I wasn’t a chanting, cymbal banging easily led nutcase who’d been brain washed by some loony religious sect I could be wearing Linea Directions extra fine marino sweater and linen jeans.”

When The House of Fraser refused to apologise, insisting that the ad was intended at poking gentle fun, Iskcon, which is based at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Watford, Hertfordshire — this was the property donated to the movement by the late Beatle George Harrison — took the company to the high court in London.

In an out of court settlement, The House of Fraser has now been forced to make a humiliating climbdown and pay Ł17,500 in compensation. It has also been ordered to pay personal damages of Ł7,500 to Dhananjaya Das, a former Scotsman-turned-Hindu, who is linked with the thought balloon.

Since The House of Fraser has also been ordered to pay for legal costs, the total cost of the House of Fraser will probably come to Ł200,000. The offending ad appeared not only in two publications but also featured in 10-feet-by-10-feet billboards displayed in 20 stores.

That Iskcon was willing to pursue a legal action shows that Hindus are no longer willing to be submissive, as they have been in the past, according to the movement’s UK spokesman, Bimal Krishna Das.

“This is the first time the British Hindu community have a won a legal case against ridicule,” Jitesh Thakrar, Iskcon’s solicitor, pointed out.

Shivarama Swami, the head of the Hare Krishna movement in the UK, said: “This will set a standard for the future and be a warning to other companies not to use someone’s religious faith as a nasty and spiteful advertising campaign.”

Iskcon had received backing from pop singer Boy George, who had used Hare Krishna devotees and backdrop in his song, From Bombay to Bangalore.

He said: “On behalf of my Hindu chums, I must take great umbrage with The House of Fraser who have insulted the Hare Krishna movement in their latest attempt to sell their Linea knitwear brand. Imagine the uproar if they insulted Muslims or Christians. Excuse me but what is fashion all about if not some cynical attempt to brainwash fools to part with their hard earned cash for the promise of fitting in or being more cool?”

The ad was pulled after a ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority. And this Friday, the agreed apology will be read out in open court by counsel representing Iskcon.

   

 
 
DOCTOR SPRINGS BOOK DEFENCE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
Consultant dermatologist Baidyanath Haldar, an accused in the Anuradha Saha death case, today told the court that he had treated her according to textbook guidelines.

Haldar sprung his textbook defence while taking questions from the chief judicial magistrate of Alipore court, Ananda Raha.

Anuradha’s brother Moloy Ganguly and husband Kunal Saha had alleged medical negligence as the cause of her death.

Haldar said he had followed the guidelines on the treatment of TEN (toxic epidermal necrolysis) as laid down in the textbooks. Anuradha was diagnosed with TEN, a severe drug allergy with acute skin reactions, by Haldar on May 12, 1998.

Ganguly and Kunal had alleged that an overdose of steroid drugs led to her death. A similar charge, coupled with that of medical negligence, has been made against consultants in medicine Sukumar Mukherjee and Abani Roy Chowdhury.

Haldar had deposed before the magistrate earlier this month. He was re-examined today after the counsellor for the complainants moved an application that he needed to be questioned on certain “incriminating circumstances” that had not been raised earlier.

The “circumstances” included the statements of international experts on TEN, which Saha received over e-mail. Prof. J.C. Roujeau of France has written that the patient “was a victim of malpractice because of more (administration of) steroids and lack of supportive care”.

Haldar told the magistrate that he did not agree. Prof. Roujeau did not see the patient and cannot be cross-examined by “any of our lawyers”, he said. “Feedings on the computer are not all comprehensive,” he added.

On the observation of Prof. Peter Fritsch (of Austria) that the treatment did not conform to the advice given in his chapter on TEN in textbooks, Haldar said: “Prof. Fritsch did not examine the patient. But I have consulted the textbook on dermatology by Braun Falco, another English textbook, Principles and Practices of Dermatology, by Sams and Lilch, as well as the famous American textbook, Dermatology in General Medicine.”

   

 
 
REPORT RINGS GIRL DROPOUT ALARM 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
After reeling off a string of achievements, the government, in the latest Economic Survey report, has conceded its inability to stem the dropout rate, especially among girls, in primary and upper primary schools.

“Whereas the increasing enrolment in elementary schools is a source of satisfaction, there is concern about (the) number of students actually attending schools and those dropping out of the education system altogether,” the report says.

Forty-two per cent of girls at the primary level and 58 per cent at the upper primary level end up quitting school.

The Survey admits the government’s failure to tackle chronic problems that have dogged primary education. “Apart from worsening teacher-pupil ratio, problem areas to be addressed include non-attendance of teachers on a regular basis, presence of single-teacher schools, inefficient teaching methods and the general quality of education,” the Survey says.

The government has, however, set itself the goal of creating a situation in which all children will be in school by 2003 and would complete five years of education by 2007.

Though 2001 was declared the year of women’s empowerment, the Survey noted the declining male-female sex ratio as well as the marginalisation of women in the workforce. “There is an overall increase in the casualisation of the women workforce…,” it says, intoning the complaints of women’s organisations which have been saying that liberalisation has pushed more and more women from the organised to the unorganised sector.

The highest concentration of women workers is in the service sector with 55.6 per cent, followed by 21.4 per cent in the manufacturing sector. “Across the globe, women carry a disproportionately greater burden of work than men. This dual work is neither recognised in the data nor adequately considered in the framing of socio-economic policies,” says the Survey.

Women activists say the government has squandered money on functions celebrating women’s empowerment year. “But cases of rape, molestation and dowry deaths are going up by the day,” said an activist.

According to the Survey, the government’s expenditure on the entire social sector, including education, health, family welfare, rural development and housing, has gone up from Rs 9,608 crore in 1992-93 to Rs 40,205 crore in 20001-02. But ministers in charge of the departments say the main reason why there have been no positive results is the lack of will of state governments in utilising the funds.

Though Union health minister C.P Thakur has admitted to a collapse of the public health distribution system, the Survey glosses over the loopholes and highlights the government’s achievements, mostly in the form of a long catalogue of health and family welfare schemes.

   

 
 
SONIA HANDS CM CROWN TO MAHARAJA 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Chandigarh, Feb. 26: 
Lady Luck has finally smiled on Amrinder Singh. The Maharaja of Patiala was today “unanimously” elected leader of the Congress Legislature Party and will be sworn in as Punjab chief minister tomorrow.

Party president Sonia Gandhi took the decision three hours after legislators met to “elect” their leader at the jam-packed Congress Bhavan here. Central observer Ahmad Patel announced his name.

The meeting, scheduled to begin at 11.30 am, could start only at 12.30 pm as Amrinder arrived late. It was also attended by arch-rival and chief ministerial aspirant Rajinder Kaur Bhattal who was among the last to arrive and the first to leave. She sat on the stage, four seats away from Amrinder.

The meeting was attended by four Central Congress leaders, Motilal Vora, Ahmad Patel, Hari Prasad and Ambika Soni. Soni had rushed to Chandigarh from Uttaranchal after failing to get MLAs there to narrow down their choice of five candidates for the chief minister’s post.

Amrinder will be sworn in at the Punjab Raj Bhavan tomorrow. “I thank party legislators and all those who helped the Congress win the polls. I will not let the people of Punjab down. Punjab is in an economic mess and we intend to pull it out from the abyss soon. People wanted a secular party to come to power in Punjab and our win reflects the people’s wishes,” he said.

According to Vora, the Central team “heard each legislator individually before asking Soniaji to take the decision”. He denied there was any rift in the party, saying the legislators had left the decision to the Congress president. It took Sonia almost half-an-hour to name her choice on phone from Delhi after being told of the MLAs’ “wish”.

Bhattal said she welcomed the decision to elect Amrinder as the CLP leader and chief minister. “I will support the government,” she declared, but added that she would not be “part of the government by joining the ministry”. Bhattal is expected to accept Sonia’s reported offer that she become state party chief. “After being chief minister, how can I accept any post in the government?” she asked.

Amrinder was born on March 11, 1942. The son of Maharaja of Patiala Yadvindra Singh studied in Sanawar and Doon School and joined the National Defence Academy in 1959. Commissioned by the army in 1963, he resigned from the force in 1965 after his father was appointed ambassador to Italy and he was needed at home.

Elected MP on a Congress ticket in 1983, Amrinder resigned from the Lok Sabha in 1984 to protest Operation Bluestar. In 1985, he joined the Surjit Singh Barnala-led Shiromani Akali Dal government and was made Cabinet minister in charge of agriculture, forests, rural development and panchayats. A year later, he resigned from the government and party.

From 1986 to 1991, he remained in political wilderness before forming the Akali Dal (Panthic) in 1991. In 1997, he revived the Akali Dal (Panthic) and merged it with the Congress.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 30.3°C (-1)
Minimum: 20.8°C (+3)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative Humidity

Maximum: 82%,
Minimum: 47%

Sunrise: 6.05 am

Sunset: 5.34 pm

Today

Partly cloudy sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 22°C
   
 

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