BJP enforces budget rollback at gunpoint
Rabbits there, tigers here
Pushed, Atal razes VHP claim
Water to games, pay more
Rushdie too hot to fly
Calcutta Weather

 
 
BJP ENFORCES BUDGET ROLLBACK AT GUNPOINT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 16: 
The government today rolled back cooking gas prices by an average of Rs 20 per cylinder, caving in to intense pressure from the BJP and its partners to moderate the fallout of the budget.

Finance minister Yashwant Sinha had announced a price increase of Rs 40 per cylinder in his budget speech while trying to lay the ground for the removal of cross-subsidies in the petroleum sector where pricing restrictions are scheduled to be relaxed from April 1.

Sinha tried to live down the moniker of Rollback Sinha, which he earned when he was forced to back down on a proposal to raise urea prices and slap a cess on diesel in his first budget in 1998, but he wilted again under heat from the BJP’s members.

The BJP, still licking the wounds of the Assembly polls and staring at a difficult contest for the prestigious Delhi Municipal Corporation, went as far as it could to publicly proclaim its role in hijacking the budget and its prowess to repeat the feat.

“We are happy to hear the rollback in LPG prices. An announcement regarding rollback in levying of surcharge on income-tax and also on the reduction in incentives for savings is in the offing,” BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra told reporters in the evening.

Malhotra, who made no mention of the approaching civic polls, saw the relief as part of the steps being taken against “anti-middle-class” measures.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes drama over the rollback. Petroleum minister Ram Naik, who discussed the issue at a meeting last night with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sinha, had apparently decided on a rollback of Rs 15 per cylinder, which would have cost the exchequer Rs 600 crore.

However, last-minute lobbying by BJP’s own MPs led to a fresh cut, which took the total reduction to Rs 20 per cylinder. The relief will cost the exchequer Rs 700 crore.

Minutes before Naik made his statement in Parliament, the petroleum minister had circulated a written note on the issue indicating the rollback would be to the extent of Rs 15. Naik admitted that the change had been prompted by the representations the “Prime Minister (had) received from various sections of society, including political parties and consumer groups”.

There was a mild uproar in the House with the MPs demanding an explanation for the sudden change. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan had to intervene to explain that Naik had planned initially to reduce the price by Rs 15 a cylinder but later “while coming to Parliament”, and being of a “liberal” disposition, had slashed it to Rs 20.

Sinha, however, resisted pressure to bring down the price of kerosene which was raised by Rs 1.50 per litre in the budget. The government argued that the recent increase in global crude prices by about $3 to $23 a barrel left it with little scope to cut kerosene prices.

While raising cooking gas and diesel prices, the government had cut petrol and diesel prices by almost a rupee. Even though the subsidy on cooking gas went up after today’s rollback, the government appears determined to cap petrol prices at current levels, at least for the next two months.

The 50 per cent rollback, however, did not satisfy either the BJP’s key ally Telugu Desam or Opposition parties — the Congress and the Left — all of whom protested that the rollback should be total and extended to kerosene, too.

Naik pointed out that the rollback was despite the global price hike and further relief would have been tough.

Sinha, who had resolutely set his face against a rollback, defended the cut later.

“You may call me Rollback Sinha, but it is not unusual for a finance minister to bring amendments to the Finance Bill,” he said.

   

 
 
RABBITS THERE, TIGERS HERE 
 
 
FROM DEBABRATA MOHANTY
 
Bhubaneswar, March 16: 
What the temple troops could not do in Ayodhya yesterday, they managed to do in Bhubaneswar today.

Hundreds of activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini stormed the Orissa Assembly complex this afternoon, vandalising the premises for more than 25 minutes.

A large posse of armed policemen ringing the building turned into spectators as hordes of men and women roared in through the main gate of the Assembly, wielding tridents and batons and hurling stones.

A few minutes earlier, the crowd was squatting nearby to press a list of demands, including release of VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore, who was held yesterday near Lucknow on his way to Ayodhya. The activists also wanted the disputed land at Ayodhya to be handed over to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas and the withdrawal of anti-VHP remarks by some legislators in the Orissa Assembly.

Before the stunned policemen could regain their composure, the mob vandalised everything that came its way. The activists smashed flower vases lining the circular corridor, shattered window panes of ministers’ chambers, plucked out signboards and tossed around chairs.

Chief minister Naveen Patnaik had left two hours ago, but a meeting of the BJP legislature party was in progress in a section of the Assembly, which had adjourned for lunch.

The mob, which sported saffron headbands and shouted slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, kept throwing stones as they hunted for a passage into the main House. Biju Janata Dal legislator Ashok Panigrahi was injured.

Finding the door to the main House bolted, the mob unleashed its fury on the Assembly library.

The policemen, whose ranks had been beefed up after the December 13 attack on Parliament, stirred out of their sandbagged positions after the mob left at its own will. A mild lathicharge followed outside and around 50 activists were arrested.

Orissa VHP president Bipin Bihari Rath, who was arrested outside the main gate while waiting with a charter of the demands, denied that the “hoodlums” belonged to his organisation.

   

 
 
PUSHED, ATAL RAZES VHP CLAIM 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, March16: 
The Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam tonight forced the Prime Minister to debunk the VHP’s claim that the government had agreed in principle to the construction of a Ram temple by sending its emissary to accept the shilas.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who today admitted for the first time that he had faced stiff challenge from a section of BJP MPs and VHP-backed sadhus in his effort to uphold the rule of law in Ayodhya, told the Lok Sabha: “We have made our position very clear…. The issue of temple construction is pending before the court. If the verdict goes in favour of Hindus, then temple construction will begin. Otherwise not.”

Vajpayee’s statement came after the allies warned the government against flouting the agenda of the NDA. “That agenda should not be broken. You cannot take us for granted for anything you do,” Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee said. Desam’s K. Yerran Naidu also demanded a clarification.

The Prime Minister emphasised that the Ayodhya tangle should not be allowed to develop into “a sore wound” as it affected communal harmony. “Efforts are on to resolve the vexed issue and we are prepared to contribute to it,” he said.

Vajpayee said a pamphlet accusing him of “Hitlershahi” (Hitler’s tyranny) was circulated inside and outside Parliament.

He referred to a letter sent to him by 14 Uttar Pradesh MPs who compared his government with the Fuehrer’s “tyranny” and demanded that the curbs in Ayodhya be lifted immediately.

Though most of these MPs were supposed to have participated in the shila daan, they backed out once it appeared that VHP leader Ashok Singhal and Mahant Ramchandra Das Paramhans were in a conciliatory mood.

Vajpayee said Paramhans, the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas chairman, was so annoyed with him initially that he refused to take calls from him. “However, he later blessed me, saying my government will continue for years together,” the Prime Minister said, replying to the motion of thanks on the President’s address.

He also took a dig at Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. “I don’t know what effect the blessings will have. But when I saw Soniaji bowing before the Sankaracharya, I felt that I should also not be left behind,” he said.

Vajpayee defended Shatrughan Singh, head of the Ayodhya cell in the Cabinet secretariat, who accepted the consecrated shilas from Paramhans yesterday. “When you go to a temple, you offer gold, silver, flower or fruits,” the Prime Minister said. “Likewise, if a shila is offered, you accept it.”

   

 
 
WATER TO GAMES, PAY MORE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 16: 
A visit to the cyber café will now cost more, so will a night at the disco — if their owners pass on the new civic charges slapped on them.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee today raised the cost of living in Calcutta from April 1, imposing or raising civic charges on a host of services, including water supply.

But he has taken a leaf out of the Marxist book and targeted the affluent and their hangouts like clubs and pool parlours in the civic budget for 2002-03

Those with high-end water connections — houses with 25-mm ferrules — will pay the most: Rs 250 every three months. For those with 20-mm ferrules, the quarterly fee is Rs 150. People in these two categories — some 70,000 houseowners — now pay around Rs 50 a quarter. The new charges will not affect 1.8 lakh owners as their connections come under either 15-mm or 10-mm ferrules, but they may be drawn in later.

Mukherjee, however, surprised many when despite the higher charges he scaled down next financial year’s income projections by Rs 180 crore compared with the estimates for this fiscal. This was a first of its kind, which the mayor explained as an attempt to present a “realistic” picture.

In another first, Mukherjee targeted cricket. The corporation will charge Rs 2 per ticket for every four hours of a match. This effectively would earn the civic body Rs 4 per ticket in one-day internationals — as they usually stretch for eight hours — and Rs 20 for five-day Tests.

But the mayor’s biggest blow fell on cyber cafés, clubs, discos and bowling alleys. He has also raised the amusement fee on cinema tickets by 50 paise, partly offsetting some of the advantages finance minister Asim Dasgupta granted to the sector in his state budget.

He has also raised fees by between Rs 1,500 and Rs 5,000 a year on polyclinics and nursing homes.

Like life, death will also cost more. Burial and cremation charges have been raised by 20 per cent — for all.

   

 
 
RUSHDIE TOO HOT TO FLY 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, March 16: 
If Ayatollah Khomeini sought to kill Salman Rushdie with religious zeal, the Canadians are now killing the Booker Prize-winning author with love.

For Rushdie’s own security, Canada’s virtual monopoly airline, Air Canada, has decided that it will not fly him on any of its routes.

As a consequence, Rushdie, whose speaking engagement in Toronto has been in a limbo for some months now, finds that he is unable, for all practical purposes, to visit Canada.

The Canadian Press, Canada’s leading media conglomerate, has revealed an e-mail sent by Air Canada to its sales agencies and airport ticket counters this month that prohibits Rushdie from being accepted as a passenger.

“Should author Salman Rushdie attempt a reservation or present himself at an airport, he is not, repeat not, to be accepted for carriage,” the e-mail said.

The airline asked its agents and sales clerks to immediately report to Air Canada’s legal department any attempt by Rushdie to board its planes.

The e-mail is a sequel to strict security measures called for by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) on flights carrying Rushdie both on American airlines and on any flights entering US air space.

Air Canada decided that if the US authorities felt that such measures were prudent, the same yardstick would apply to its flights.

An airline spokesperson told the media that “we are following an FAA directive and generally presume that if there is a security risk in the US there is one domestically for us.”

However, the problem was that, if Air Canada enforces these measures, any flight carrying the author of The Satanic Verses could be delayed for up to three hours.

Rather than inconvenience its regular fare-paying passengers, the airline decided that a better option was to bump Rushdie off its aircraft.

British Airways is the only other airline that is known to have enforced a ban on Rushdie for security reasons.

But four years ago, the airlines lifted the ban, applied in the wake of an Iranian fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death for blasphemy against Islam.

Smaller Canadian airlines, such as WestJet and Air Transat, have offered to ferry Rushdie. But, unlike Air Canada, these airlines either operate only domestic routes or have a nominal international service.

It is certain that US and Canadian security will be in a tizzy if Rushdie was to fly to, say, Mexico and travel overland all the way through the US and Canada to fulfil his speaking engagement.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 34.5°C (+1)
Minimum: 22.9°C (+2)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 72%,
Minimum: 32%

Sunrise: 5.48 am

Sunset: 5.42 pm

Today

Partly cloudy sky with possibility of thunder clouds towards the afternoon
   
 

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