Environment guardian’s family pays for pollution
Wounded RSS seeks Modi balm
Seer keeps talks hopes alive
Thakur babu steals show at shila daan
Togadia twist to VHP climbdown
Gujarat back on the boil
Two stones to kill three birds
Atal caved in to blackmail, cries Sonia
Hard rollback choice for Atal
Rao acquitted in JMM case

 
 
ENVIRONMENT GUARDIAN’S FAMILY PAYS FOR POLLUTION 
 
 
FROM R. VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
The Supreme Court today imposed an “exemplary damage” of Rs 10 lakh on Span Motels Pvt Ltd, a resort owned by former Union environment minister Kamal Nath’s family, for causing damage to the environment.

The resort was constructed on Kulu-Manali road in Himachal Pradesh on the banks of the Beas.

The apex court has also charged the Himachal government with “patent breach of trust” for leasing out the land to the motel.

A division bench of Justice M.B. Shah and Justice Doraiswamy Raju said the fine is only temporary as exemplary damages and the actual quantum will be fixed when the damages are assessed.

“It would be both in public interest, as well as in the interest of justice, to fix the quantum of exemplary damages payable by Span Motels Pvt Ltd at Rs 10 lakh only,” the bench said.

Asked to comment on the judgment, Kamal Nath said: “I have no comments to offer as I am neither a director nor a member of the motel.”

The apex court said it was limiting the exemplary damages as the company has promised to bear a fair share of the cost of ecological restoration, which would be “quite separate and apart from their liability for the exemplary damages”.

On the question of application of the “polluter pays principle”, Justice Raju, writing the judgment for the bench, said the quantum of damages on that aspect would be determined separately and was being left open.

The court directed that the money be deposited with the state government to be “utilised only for flood protection work in the area of Beas river affected by the action of Span Motels Pvt Ltd”.

Justice Raju said: “Equally, the Himachal Pradesh government also was held to have committed patent breach of public trust by leasing the ecologically fragile land to the motel.”

The motel, in which Kamal Nath’s wife Leela is a major shareholder, had got prior approval from the Union environment ministry on November 24, 1993, when Kamal Nath was heading the ministry.

But, on December 13, 1996, the Supreme Court quashed the approval and cancelled the land leased to the motel, saying it “interfered with the natural flow of the river by trying to block the natural relief/spill channel of the river”.

The court also directed the Himachal Pradesh government to take over the area and restore it to its original conditions.

The National Environment and Engineering Research Institute was asked to assess the damage and submit a report to the court.

The court had also directed the state government to dismantle all structures erected around the motel and also ordered shifting of its boundary wall to a spot four metres away from the river bed.

The bench today said it was impermissible for the counsel of the motel or anyone else to claim for a reversal of the earlier findings of the court or even reconsideration of the same as the earlier ruling has attained finality.

It said the object and purpose of such levy of exemplary damages, as indicated in the earlier judgment, was to serve as “a deterrent for others not to cause pollution in any manner”.

“The basis for their liability to be saddled with the exemplary costs has been firmly and irreversibly already laid down in the main judgment itself and there is no escape for Span Motels Pvt Ltd in this regard,” the bench said. “We have to necessarily proceed further only on those bases of facts and position of law, found and declared,” it added.

   

 
 
WOUNDED RSS SEEKS MODI BALM 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
Bangalore, March 15: 
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, “guardian angel” of the BJP and patriarch of the Sangh parivar, does not have much to rejoice at its annual meeting but for what it describes as the post-Godhra “upsurge” among Hindus.

Its “own” government has been forced to brandish the whip at Ram bhakts — the same bhakts whom the BJP had led to Ayodhya with RSS blessings when it was in Opposition. Now, the Vajpayee government is being forced to distance itself from a movement that the BJP had started.

The RSS, seething inside, is managing to keep the lid from blowing off. The Supreme Court judgment forced RSS leaders to temper down the rhetoric and talk to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

“But sentiments of millions of Hindus are now grievously hurt,” said an RSS resolution. And though the Sangh leaders have not ditched the harassed Prime Minister by goading the VHP to its goal, they are feeling more betrayed.

“We have no connection with the government. There are only some swayamsevaks in the government,” said RSS spokesperson M.G. Vaidya. An RSS functionary was nevertheless rushed to Delhi to talk to the adamant VHP.

“Whatever information we have got, I am confident that the crisis has been defused,” Vaidya said after the RSS meeting began here. He, however, urged the government to stick to the 1994 order which allowed puja on the land acquired by the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas. “The government has saved itself in this crisis,” was Vaidya’s cryptic comment.

The RSS is not keen on Vajpayee continuing as Prime Minister — not just because of the temple tangle but also because of his government’s liberalisation policies.

At the same time, it realises that this is not the ideal juncture for a hardliner to “take over”. No other leader other than Vajpayee seems to be able to carry the allies with him. That the RSS is far from happy at the way the government is managing its contradictions was clear from Vaidya’s statements. “The allies are more concerned with electoral considerations.”

But for all their complaints, the RSS does not seem keen on pulling down this government. Last month, when the Centre gave the go-ahead to a series of drastic liberalisation measures, including VRS to its employees and amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act, the RSS had preferred not to comment.

If Vajpayee has become a “pariah”, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is the man who the RSS would gladly own as “apna (its own)”.

“No government could have prevented the post-Godhra riots. There was an upsurge among Hindus who came together overcoming barriers of caste and class,” said Vaidya. If the Sangh failed in Ayodhya, it succeeded in Gujarat.

Yesterday, the RSS national executive decided to sanction the drafts of three resolutions — one on Ayodhya, demanding a temple on the government-acquired land, the second condemning the Godhra violence and the last on displaced Bangladeshi Hindus.

“Neither the West Bengal government nor the Centre has agreed to even recognise them as refugees,” Vaidya said.

According to the RSS, it is Modi who has “done his duty as a Hindu”. The national executive refused to sanction a resolution denouncing not the bloodbath that followed Godhra.

“The whole Hindu community reacted violently and I would not like to pin the blame on any particular person or administrative organisation,” said Vaidya. Gujarat will be discussed at the meeting. “But there is no reason to link Gujarat with Ayodhya.”

   

 
 
SEER KEEPS TALKS HOPES ALIVE 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Kancheepuram, March 15: 
The Kancheepuram Math went about its rituals, unruffled by the air of uncertainty outside. But at noon, when word reached from Delhi of the face-saver formula in Ayodhya, the math did pause to heave a sigh of relief.

“It’s a welcome move. We are in full agreement with Sri Ramchandra Paramhans’ decision, which is in accordance with law,” the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswathi, told The Telegraph.

Asked if he had played a role in last night’s discussions to convince Paramhans to step back, Saraswathi said: “It is a mature decision they have arrived at by themselves.”

The seer, who had burnt midnight oil to find a formula to break the Ayodhya impasse, said “people in Delhi will continue to have dialogues with Muslim organisations” but ruled himself out of the talks.

“The day I returned from Delhi, I turned detached over this issue,” the Sankaracharya said. He has not spoken to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee since.

“My role is over,” Saraswathi said but refused to write off the utility of his three-point formula, which, he said, had helped bridge differences between the VHP and Muslim bodies for the first time since the Babri masjid demolition.

An optimistic Sankaracharya added: “We have sown the seed. How it grows into a plant, blossoms into a tree and begins to bear fruits, only time can tell.”

Asked what he would advise the VHP now, the seer said: “Whatever is to happen, will happen.” Only negotiations can resolve the issue, he added.

He declined to comment on his suggestion that the process of handing over the undisputed part of the land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas should begin by June 2.

Asked if he was satisfied with the turn of events since the apex court prohibited any religious activity on the acquired land, Saraswathi said: “Whether it satisfies us or not, we have been pushed to a situation to accept it.”

   

 
 
THAKUR BABU STEALS SHOW AT SHILA DAAN 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
Shatrughan Singh, a 1983-batch IAS officer of the Uttar Pradesh cadre, played a major role in the unfolding drama at Ayodhya.

Singh, who broke the Ayodhya impasse today. accepted two “shilas” from Paramhans marking the end of the first phase of the VHP campaign for a Ram temple.

However, political circles are abuzz with questions on the legitimacy of a government servant accepting shilas and reciting “shlokas” with Paramhans in the full of view of television cameras. “Should a serving IAS officer be party to a puja?”

The unassuming officer, a joint secretary in the Cabinet secretariat, was made in-charge of the Ayodhya cell set up by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last year in the wake of mounting pressure from VHP hawks to hand over the undisputed land to the Ramjanbhoomi Nyas.

Official sources neither denied nor confirmed if a written order was issued to Singh to participate in the “shila daan”. Even a verbal order would have sufficed, they said.

But those familiar with service rules said an IAS officer would not have taken the risk without a written permission. Some other government at some other time could use the issue against him. With a written order, the officer could also establish his position in court.

Despite being in the sensitive Ayodhya cell, Singh kept a low profile. A B. Tech in electrical engineering from Singbhum, he started as district magistrate of Muzaffarnagar, Jhansi and Sultanpur. Singh was also commissioner of Faizabad before Babri masjid demolition. When Uttaranchal was carved out of heartland, he opted for the new state.

The questions being asked now include why Singh was sent to Ayodhya as the Prime Minister’s emissary. Is it because as Faizabad commissioner he was familiar with the area and the controversy? But there are many IAS officers who were posted there and can claim the same.

Political circles feel his Thakur lineage clinched the role. Sources said caretaker Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh and Paramhans, both Thakurs, played key roles in getting Singh to accept the “shilas”.

As Singh reached the town today, the Faizabad district magistrate made himself scarce. The official explanation is that the commissioner could not receive the shilas as he is the receiver of the government-acquired land and his being party to the shila daan would have incurred the apex court’s wrath.

Official sources, however, overlooked the fact that yesterday Paramhans had announced that he would not offer the shilas to the Faizabad district magistrate and that a high-ranking officer from Delhi had to be present.

Asked why the officer recited shlokas with Paramhans, an official source said: “Everything and anything should be done to bring peace.”

Singh went there “to maintain law and order” and “it was not a religious assignment”, he added.

Congress objects

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy today sought to make a distinction between being present and participating in a religious activity.

Reddy objected to the manner in which Shatrughan Singh, an IAS officer in the Prime Minister’s Office, received shilas from Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas chief Ramchandra Das Paramhans in Ayodhya today. He, however, gave a clean chit to then Uttar Pradesh chief minister N.D. Tiwari and Union home minister Buta Singh, the Congress leaders who had participated in a “shilanyas” near the disputed site 13 years ago.

   

 
 
TOGADIA TWIST TO VHP CLIMBDOWN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
The VHP today claimed that the acceptance of a carved pillar by the Centre’s emissary, Shatrughan Singh, during the shila daan was a clear indication of the government’s acknowledgement of the “principle” of the Ram temple’s construction on the disputed site.

Addressing reporters this evening, VHP general secretary Pravin Togadia said the shila daan was the culmination of the movement for construction of the temple, which included unlocking the Babri mosque, performance of shilanyas and demolition of the mosque. “This is a major achievement in our efforts to construct the temple,” he said.

The VHP’s spin on what was clearly a climb-down was apparently an effort to placate restive cadre baying for action in Ayodhya. Sangh sources said after today’s “compromise”, it was unlikely that the VHP would revive its agitation for some time.

“Their leaders will probably spend the next year or so explaining to the cadre why they retracted from their original stand in which they had pitched their demands sky high. Going by the cadre mood, it doesn’t seem as if any of them would respond to the VHP’s call again,” these sources said.

   

 
 
GUJARAT BACK ON THE BOIL 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, March 15: 
The nephew of a Congress member of Parliament was killed in the city today as thousands performed Ramdhun across Gujarat to mark the Ayodhya shila daan.

Sporadic clashes brought curfew back to the walled area of the city two days after it was declared free of the dreaded word.

Indefinite curfew had to be clamped in Ahmedabad, Bharuch and Baroda towns, half-an-hour after hundreds of VHP activists performed Ramdhun at the organisation’s headquarters, a picture of the torched train proclaiming “even smoke from the train cries victory to Lord Ram” in the background.

Nitish Kumar Parmar, nephew of sitting Congress MP Pravin Rashtrapal, was stabbed in the sensitive Shahpur area of the city, police said. The 20-year-old student was rushed to the civil hospital where he was “declared brought dead”, the police said.

Nine people, including three women, were injured in clashes elsewhere. A 17-year-old youth, who was beaten up near a cinema, was in critical condition, hospital sources said.

Mischief-makers on the prowl sparked flare-ups in various parts of the city, forcing police to open fire, wield the lathi and burst teargas shells.

Curfew had to be clamped in the Karanj, Kalupur and Shahpur areas after six persons were injured in stone-throwing, stabbing and firing, police said. As tension spiralled, army and paramilitary personnel staged flag marches in the city.

In Bharuch, curfew was imposed as a precautionary measure after mobs pelted stones.

Ahmedabad police commissioner P.C. Pande said flare-ups were expected given the charged atmosphere in the city. People had only a two-day breather before curfew had to be reimposed “as a precautionary measure after violence in the Shahpur, Karanj and Kalupur areas”, he said.

The commissioner said authorities began to think of clamping curfew after flare-ups were reported from parts of the old city. While two persons were stabbed near Shahpur bus stand, a two-wheeler was torched in Khanpur Darwaja.

Even after curfew was clamped at 3 pm, a 40-year-old man was attacked with an iron rod and sharp-edged weapons in Kalupur area, the police said.

Rumours of clashes in various parts of the city flew thick and fast. There were reports that vehicles had been torched in Narayanpura area. But they turned out to be baseless.

Others offered prayers inside their homes. In some places, women were seen on the streets with aarti thaalis in their hands. Some enthusiastic people in the Satellite area chanted hymns from their rooftops.

   

 
 
TWO STONES TO KILL THREE BIRDS 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
Ayodhya, March 15: 
Where does the temple movement stand after the events in Ayodhya today?

Now that the immediate urgency of dealing with the dispute appears to be past, a quick assessment of the VHP’s programme since January 27 leads to three conclusions.

First, and most important, the VHP’s agitation is an exorbitant burden in terms of lives lost — as in Gujarat — and in time spent.

Second, in Ayodhya, the only place where Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri masjid is a local issue, the citizenry wants an immediate settlement because it is too poor to cope with its demands on their daily lives.

Third, the fervour and frenzy that led to the demolition of the Babri masjid on December 6, 1992, has waned in 10 years.

However, these are not the concerns that have guided events in Ayodhya today.

The Centre’s objectives are more short-term, its reactions knee-jerk. It has deliberately adopted ambiguity as a strategy and a tactic in dealing with the pre-announced VHP programme.

If the success or failure of the VHP today is to be measured with the yardstick of its original programme — shila daan and shila pujan at the disputed site — this phase of the movement has been disastrous for it.

The movement’s ardent supporters feel that the leadership has kow-towed. No surprise, then, that Ashok Singhal was loudly and publicly booed.

On its part, the Vajpayee government — by sending an emissary from the PMO — not only gave the VHP and its mascot, Ramchandra Das Paramhans, a lifeline after he threatened to commit suicide, it also accorded the agitation state sanction and a modicum of political legitimacy. It is rare for the Prime Minister to send his representative to placate public heartburn. It is difficult to imagine Vajpayee taking such a step if it were a quarrel with an outfit outside the Sangh parivar.

But the Centre has tactfully refrained from asking Faizabad divisional commissioner A.K. Gupta from formally accepting the stones.

In his official capacity, Gupta is the court-appointed receiver for what is clearly the country’s hottest piece of real estate, because the Centre is its custodian. By not asking Gupta to accept the stones, the Centre is legally in the clear even though the Prime Minister’s emissary said he has entrusted the stones to the local administration for safekeeping.

Such a strategy is calculated to kill three birds with one (or, should it be ‘two’?) stone(s):

The Centre can tell the courts it has executed orders to the T

Vajpayee can assure the VHP and its friends that he is not a turncoat

The VHP can tell its followers that it could go ahead with its programme, albeit diluted, only because of a friendly Centre.

Asked if the Ram temple can be built without state patronage, Singhal was emphatically non-committal. “I don’t want to talk about that. Let us see,” he said.

   

 
 
ATAL CAVED IN TO BLACKMAIL, CRIES SONIA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
A confident Sonia Gandhi today launched a tirade against the Vajpayee regime, accusing it of collaborating with the VHP in the wake of threats by BJP MPs over the Ayodhya tangle.

The Opposition leader said while there was no substitute for firm and resolute action on the issue, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ministerial colleagues had “neither the will nor the capacity to deal with the VHP blackmail”.

In her 25-minute Motion of Thanks to the President’s address, the Congress president accused the BJP of taking a “U-turn” and sought an explanation. She claimed that Vajpayee had succumbed to pressure from BJP leaders who had written to him on March 7 threatening “dire consequences.”

She said the “U-turn” was also evident when the Centre first asked state governments to stop all volunteers from going to Ayodhya but later assured them police protection.

Sonia alleged that the NDA coalition was “caving in” to communal forces and giving in to factional pressures, overlooking national interests.

The Congress president said people of the country had expected Vajpayee and his government to be “neutral” to the VHP’s plan till the Prime Minister instructed attorney-general Soli Sorabjee to plead for this plan in court. “What happened in the apex court on March 13 shocked the nation about the duplicity of the government agenda,” she said, adding that the government’s acts of omission and commission on Ayodhya were “shameful to say the least”.

Sonia blamed chief minister Narendra Modi for the escalating violence in Gujarat, saying the “complicity” of the government in the incidents stood “thoroughly exposed”. She also picked on home minister L.K. Advani for giving a “clean chit” to Modi and his government.

The Congress chief said the Vajpayee government’s “irresponsible and callous” attitude was continuing. “It is an affront to the country’s secular polity,” she said, reiterating the demand for a judicial probe into the Gujarat violence by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.

Sonia said there was no evidence of a clear-cut strategy on national security, particularly on matters relating to Jammu and Kashmir, and added that people in the state continue to suffer while security forces face grave risks.

She wondered why the government was shying away from a debate on the Subrahmanyan Committee report on the Kargil conflict. “What about its implementation?” the AICC chief asked.

Mulayam sees poll

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav lashed out at the Vajpayee government for deputing a representative to Ayodhya for receiving shilas, saying this exposed its plan to force mid-term general elections.

   

 
 
HARD ROLLBACK CHOICE FOR ATAL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today held a review meeting on plans for a possible rollback in the recent increase in cooking gas and kerosene prices following a hike in global crude prices.

Giving in to pressure from allies, Vajpayee had earlier assured that he would have a re-think on the issue. However, a $3-a-barrel hike in prices — which translates to Rs 20 a cylinder in the price of cooking gas and Rs 1.35 a litre for kerosene — left him with very little choice.

There had been talks earlier of rolling back the Rs 40-a-cylinder price increase effected during this year’s budget by as much as half. But with the recent increase in prices, the quantum of price rollback has to be far lower.

The government will, however, have to stick to its decision of raising kerosene prices by as much as Rs 1.50 as kerosene prices are anyway going up as a result of the global crude price hike.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha and petroleum minister Ram Naik made presentations at the meeting on the impact of the price hike. While the increase translates into a higher subsidy spend for the government, it also means more tax revenue by way of increased customs and excise collections, they said.

Naik, who held a separate meeting with Sinha later, refused to comment on the issue.

   

 
 
RAO ACQUITTED IN JMM CASE 
 
 
FROM R. VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
The Delhi High Court today acquitted former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his Cabinet colleague Buta Singh in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery case for want of “corroborative evidence”.

Trial court judge Ajit Bharihoke had convicted Rao and Singh on the basis of approver Suraj Mandal’s evidence but Justice R.S. Sodhi today said the proof was not sufficient to corroborate Mandal’s statements.

The money that Mandal had received for voting for the Rao-led Congress government in a July 1993 no-confidence motion, thus, could not be linked to the accused.

Four JMM Lok Sabha members — Shibu Soren, Shailendra Mahato, Simon Marandi and Mandal — were allegedly bribed to vote against the no-confidence motion.

The CBI and the prosecution had charged that the MPs had received Rs 50 lakh each and the money was deposited in a Punjab National Bank branch in Delhi.

The prosecution failed to prove in the high court that Rao had personally handed over the money or manage to bribe the MPs to save his government.

Sodhi rejected a revision petition by the complainant, the Rashtriya Mukti Morcha, which challenged the acquittal of all the accused in the case other than Rao and Singh. Union ministers Ajit Singh and Satish Sharma, former chief ministers of Haryana and Karnataka, Bhajan Lal and Veerappa Moily, two of Moily’s ministers, Rama Linga Reddy and M. Thime Gowda, former Congress Rajya Sabha member V. Rajeshwar Rao and two liquor barons had also been acquitted earlier.

The high court said there was no merit in the petition in the absence of any evidence against the persons accused.

Bharihoke’s verdict was the first judgment in the country convicting a Union minister in a corruption case.

   
 

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