Academic excellence produced out of the corner pan shop
Mob defiles ashram
Atal weighs Sinha’s sacking
Rethink time for investors in Gujarat
CIA official arrives for terror talks
Tax breather for World Bank
Digvijay grants grain for green
BJP union smells govt-Cong nexus
Health is wealth for Chautala’s Haryana
Calcutta Weather

 
 
ACADEMIC EXCELLENCE PRODUCED OUT OF THE CORNER PAN SHOP 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, April 7: 
It’s just another small shop — carved out of just another grimy Calcutta wall — that sells pan, bidi and cigarettes on Hazra Road.

One vacant plot, vacant except for some shanties without electricity, and a little ahead another similar one — that had something else a few months ago but is now waiting for a multi-storeyed building to come up — have together spawned a success story.

Mohan Kumar Kanti, co-owner of the pan-shop and uncertain co-occupant of the shanties, is also the father of two sons. One of them, after graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, is now doing his post-graduation from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. The other, after finishing near the top of the heap of the joint entrance examination, is now studying for his MBBS degree in Medical College and Hospital, Calcutta.

Meet Madan (IIT, IIM) and Shravan (CMC), who return to their family’s sole source of income, the humble pan-shop, every weekend to help their father and uncles earn bread the old-fashioned way.

They recognise what they have done — together, they are perhaps the only panwallah’s sons who have scripted, not one but two success stories remarkable for their improbability.

Madan came to Calcutta from Bihar’s Madhubani district when he was four. Shravan was born a few years later. Both of them have seen their home in the city — the staff-quarters of a nursing home where their father worked — being razed to the ground and still come back from their hostels to spend the weekend inside the shanties which do not have even a fan.

Both remember the time they went around the neighbourhood, requesting their richer neighbours for a room to study in. “The reverses just steeled our resolve,” they said.

“I have seen them grow up. They always appeared to have something different in them,” Arup Sen, a retired Calcutta Port Trust official and one of the few helpful neighbours, said.

Madan’s all-India rank in the IIT-JEE exam (1992) was 774 and he was selected in two IIMs (Calcutta and Bangalore) in 2001 after a brief stint as operations officer in Indian Oil. Shravan ranked 105 in the state-level JEE in 2000 after studying chemistry for a year in a south Calcutta college.

But their mother’s death in 1999 — she was the brain behind the move to Calcutta in 1977 and saved to buy the space for the shop — still rankles them. “We would like to do something to dedicate to her,” Madan said, becoming a little emotional. The CAT-cracker, however, broke through immediately: “Let’s see how we can optimise our resources and use them.”

But, for now, it’s still the 10-square-foot shop that sustains the family.

   

 
 
MOB DEFILES ASHRAM 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Ahmedabad, April 7: 
Such is Gujarat today that a peace meeting cannot be held even in Gandhi Ashram.

Set up by the Mahatma in 1917, the Sabarmati Ashram was to host a meeting organised by dancer Mallika Sarabhai. But the plan had to be abandoned after a mob, this time organised not by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, but by leaders of the BJP and the Congress, descended on it, protesting against the participation of environment activist Medha Patkar.

As the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader arrived around 12.30 pm, a mob turned up from nowhere, barged into the hall where the meeting was going on and, shouting slogans against the “enemy of Gujarat”, demanded that Patkar be thrown out and sent to Sabarmati jail, eyewitness Chunni Vaidya said.

Sarabhai pleaded with the group, led by BJP youth wing chief Amit Thakkar, Youth Congress leader Hemant Chauhan and Congress corporator Rambai Patel, not to disrupt the meeting, promising that she would ask Patkar to leave.

“I told this group that this is much too important a meeting to be hijacked by NBA. We are discussing a very important issue: how to bring peace. But they were undeterred and started manhandling her,” Sarabhai said.

“After denying us water, she has come to bring peace,” Thakkar screamed, referring to NBA’s opposition to the Narmada dam, as he moved towards Patkar and grabbed her by the shoulder.

After asking Patkar to go away, Sarabhai left the venue and the meeting was called off. “I do not know what happened after that,” she added. Patkar tried to explain to the mob that she was prepared to leave, but they should allow the meeting — of mostly NGO representatives and Gandhians — to go on. But the crowd did not listen.

Other peace activists had to form a human chain to protect Patkar, who had to stay locked inside a room for more than an hour. The mob did not disperse despite requests from police, who had to use force to push it away and escort Patkar out.

In the process, 12 journalists were injured and this — rather than the forced cancellation of the peace meeting — became the focus of protests.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi condemned the “unprovoked and diabolical” police attack on journalists and violation of the sanctity of the ashram, blaming the “autocratic” Gujarat government for the incident. There was complete silence on the presence of Congress leaders in the mob that disrupted the peace meeting.

Chief minister Narendra Modi, too, referred only to the assault on journalists, describing it as “very sad and distasteful”. Later, the Gujarat government denied there had been any such attack, but still transferred two IPS officers, suspended an inspector and ordered a judicial probe into the incident. It said some journalists were injured while the police were trying to rescue Patkar.

Gandhian Prakash Shah said that Patkar’s presence was merely a pretext to create a disturbance and that the meeting would have been disrupted even if she was not there. “There are some people, including Congressmen, as we saw today, who do not want peace in the state. They have been threatening the ashram secretary,” he added.

Anticipating trouble, the ashram secretary had sought police protection yesterday after he received threat calls for allowing NGOs to meet on the premises.

Along with his associates, Hemant Chauhan, who lives in the ashram itself, had pressured authorities of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth to decline permission to Sarabhai, who had intended to hold the meeting there first but was forced to change the venue to the ashram.

Two meetings — one called by the Sarvodaya Mandal and the other by Sarabhai — were to be held in the ashram today. But no one, including ashram secretary Amrut Modi, had any idea that Patkar would attend.

Sarabhai said she had not invited Patkar who had decided to come on her own, but added that the meeting was open to anyone wishing to participate. But a Mumbai-based member of the NBA, Vijaya Chauhan, said Patkar had received an e-mail asking her to attend the meeting.

   

 
 
ATAL WEIGHS SINHA’S SACKING 
 
 
FORM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 7: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is believed to have made up his mind to change his finance minister. While a Cabinet reshuffle was expected in May after the budget session of Parliament, sources close to the government suggest that Yashwant Sinha may go before that.

There is no precedence for changing horses mid-stream in this manner when the finance Bill has not yet been passed. It is expected, however, that a change of portfolios may be effected while leaving the overall reshuffle in the council of ministers till the end of the budget session.

The frontrunner for the finance minister’s post is disinvestment minister Arun Shourie. He is considered efficient and enjoys the support of many in the party, including that of home minister L.K. Advani. He has a doctorate in economics from Syracuse University and has worked for the World Bank.

It is unlikely that the Prime Minister will disturb external affairs minister Jaswant Singh at this stage. Singh had a brief stint as the finance minister in Vajpayee’s 13-day government.

One possibility is that Sinha might be accommodated in an ambassadorial position. However, informed sources say it is unlikely that he would be sent to the US, Russia, China or the UK.

In these countries, not only are the incumbent ambassadors performing well, these are among India’s important trade and investment partners. The appointment of an ousted finance minister may send a wrong signal as he would be seen to have little influence on economic policy back home.

Sinha, these sources say, may be offered an ambassadorial appointment in a country like Canada or Australia.

The finance minister has been under attack for the packaging of his budget. Leaders of the Delhi BJP have blamed the budget for the party’s debacle in the municipal corporation elections. Party MPs from Bihar have also been unhappy with him.

Within the Sangh family, Sinha is neither liked by the RSS nor by the trade union wing of the BJP, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS). The Swadeshi Jagran Manch has been his bitterest critic and the BMS chief, Dattopant Thengadi, loses no opportunity to lambast him.

The reshuffle plan is believed to have been discussed by the Prime Minister with his close advisers while on holiday in Nainital. At that point, it was apparently decided that a total overhaul of the council of ministers would take place in May when the budget session got over.

It is expected that in such a reshuffle, Munilal Verma, a minister of state, may be dropped and Shatrughan Sinha included. The over-representation of Bihar in the council of ministers may also be addressed at that time.

   

 
 
RETHINK TIME FOR INVESTORS IN GUJARAT 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, April 7: 
Three weeks before the budget, industrialists gathered for a three-day meet — Resurgent Gujarat. Most decided Gujarat was a great investment destination.

Three weeks later, a lot of people were having second thoughts as Gujarat burned, post-Godhra.

A German manufacturing company was in the final stages of setting up shop in south Gujarat. News of the riots reached the German headquarters. Promptly came the message: pack up and relocate to some other state.

Around the same time, an American biotech firm was planning to set up a clinical research unit in Gujarat. It followed in the footsteps of the German company.

A pharmaceutical firm headquartered in Calcutta was in the final stages of shifting base to Ahmedabad. It has shelved its plan. So did a number of companies which were planning to move out of expensive Mumbai to low-cost Ahmedabad.

If this was one blow to Gujarati business, the other was the production and sales slump in the days of curfew and rioting. Gujarat is still adding up its losses. The figures vary wildly — from unofficial estimates of Rs 500 crore a day since the riots started on budget day to a more modest production loss of Rs 1,200 crore — but no one is disputing the fact that industry has been badly mauled.

What industry is trying to do is pressure the state administration into bringing about normality in still-smouldering Gujarat.

Without mincing words, CII senior director Sunil Parekh told chief minister Narendra Modi that “unless (the) law and order situation improves, foreign investors are not going to invest in Gujarat”.

Ficci representative Girish Dani echoed Parekh. He told Modi that “if the present situation continues, no investor is going to invest in the state for another 10 years”.

Dani referred to Azim Premji’s recent Gujarat visit. When someone asked the Wipro chief why he was not investing in Gujarat, he shot back: “Does your chief minister require me in Gujarat?”

The message has been driven home. Alarmed at the prospect of losing more business, the state has announced a 4 per cent subsidy on interest on new borrowing for a period of three years and directed insurance companies to settle claims speedily.

Dani, however, is not convinced. “Even this subsidy will not help unless the atmosphere improves,” he said. “Today, everyone is apprehensive. The situation is still far from normal. In some parts of the city, shopkeepers do not open their shutters. The entire business cycle has broken down. In one month, Gujarat lost Rs 8,750 crore.”

That’s another estimate.

No one knows for sure yet how much Gujarat lost. Besides, the loss is mounting. Finance secretary Sudhir Makad said he was in the process of calculating the total loss the state suffered.

Parekh of CII has hired a team of professionals from IIM to tot up the losses.

On a normal working day, Ahmedabad’s daily turnover is estimated at Rs 700 crore. This dipped to Rs 300 crore during the worst days of communal violence, but on an average, daily turnover was in the region of Rs 500 crore, according to a Reserve Bank estimate.

But what Gujarat is more worried about is not so much the figures as what the future holds. The signals that have emerged are far from encouraging.

One of the booming new businesses in the state was in call centres which catered to overseas clients. Because of the time difference with the West, these centres function mainly at night. But the riots ensured that a large number of these centres remained closed. Their American owners were not impressed.

Nor were Gujarati businessmen. But a large section of them believes all is not lost. True, the state has burned and business has bled, but they feel Gujarat can bounce back — just like after the earthquake.

   

 
 
CIA OFFICIAL ARRIVES FOR TERROR TALKS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 7: 
CIA deputy director John McLaughlin arrives here on Monday for consultations with his Indian counterparts in the Research and Analysis Wing as part of the ongoing cooperation between India and the US in the fight against terrorism.

India had turned down a request from Washington earlier this year to allow access to US Special Forces to track down al Qaida and Taliban fighters who may have slipped into Kashmir. India turned down the suggestion, fearing that the presence of US troops could lead to a public outcry and raise sensitive questions on sovereignty.

While the joint operations with US troops did not materialise, intelligence sharing and keeping each other abreast of new clues and findings on terrorist operations have gathered momentum. The FBI chief was in India a few months ago, talking to CBI director P.C. Sharma.

During his one-day stopover in New Delhi, McLaughlin will call on home minister L.K. Advani, who is likely to raise the issue of Pakistan’s refusal to hand over the 20 wanted criminals to India.

The situation in Afghanistan, particularly the fear of the Taliban and al Qaida regrouping, is of interest to both India and the US.

The recent attack on US forces in Shah-i-Kot by a band of possible al Qaida and Taliban fighters is an indication that American air strikes have not fully succeeded in dismantling Osama bin Laden’s network.

India will be keen to share US perceptions on the current state of the al Qaida forces because of fears that its recruits may cross into Kashmir with the advent of spring, when the snow melts from the mountain passes. At a time when New Delhi is planning to hold elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the government would want to make sure that al Qaida and Taliban fighters are kept out of the Valley.

There is also the fear that Islamist hotheads may activate their cells in India and try to carry out sensational attacks following the Gujarat riots. New Delhi wants from Washington as much information as possible on al Qaida cells and their method of operation.

Intelligence agencies here believe there could be a number of al Qaida cells in India. They point to the fact that Osama bin Laden had, in two interviews, named the US, Israel and India as enemies of Islam.

   

 
 
TAX BREATHER FOR WORLD BANK 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, April 7: 
The World Bank, which strongly opposes subsidies while offering help to governments to sort out their fiscal mess, seems to have a way of quietly getting concessions for itself.

The bank, which last month opened its first off-shore “accounting back-office” in Chennai, has been exempt from payment of sales tax and tax on works contract on objects that went into the setting up of the plush office on the arterial Anna Salai here.

A state government notification was issued, saying the above taxes payable by any dealer on the “sale of electrical items and goods involved in the execution of the works contract” at the World Bank office have been waived.

The value of the electrical items and other civil works paraphernalia that have gone into furnishing the new office of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), as World Bank is officially known, comes to over Rs 69.78 lakh.

The exempted list includes a wide range of items, from copper wires and cables to false flooring, roller blinds, stainless steel sinks and ceramic tiles.

Justifying the waiver, the notification said the establishment of the accounting back-office in Chennai is “expected to increase the competitiveness of Tamil Nadu in attracting investments in information technology services”, an area with a large employment potential.

The notification added that the World Bank had requested the exemption on the ground that, as a “special agency of the United Nations”, it is eligible for exemption from taxes and duties under the United Nations Convention on Immunities and Privileges of Specialised Agencies. India is a signatory to the convention, the notification said.

The government accepted the request and issued a notification under Section 17(1) of the Tamil Nadu General Sales Tax Act, 1959, to give effect to the tax waiver.

It was not just the Tamil Nadu government which immediately extended all facilities requested by the World Bank to set up shop here, but also the government of India.

The customs and central excise departments of the Union government have also pitched in for the back-office project in Chennai, which was picked after a worldwide search.

   

 
 
DIGVIJAY GRANTS GRAIN FOR GREEN 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Bhopal, April 7: 
It’s a green card — a poor man’s green card that, however, has nothing to do with the United States.

The Madhya Pradesh government will hand over the first tranche of these cards to the state’s poor in less than two weeks from now. Each green card will entitle an impoverished family to six quintals of grain. In return, the cardholder will have to work towards a greener Madhya Pradesh, improving wastelands and degraded forests.

Chief minister Digvijay Singh calls this a “grain for green exchange”. The grain will come from the surplus at the Union government’s overflowing granaries.

It was the chief minister’s idea to use “food” to pay the workers — a proposal he had put across to the Centre ever since the granaries started brimming over.

Sources close to the chief minister said Digvijay has worked out the practical details of the Green Card Yojana with the Centre through the ministry of tribal affairs.

The state government will use the foodgrain sent by the Centre specifically for land improvement in three phases. In the first phase starting the third week of April, green cards will be issued to all landless Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families who were recently allotted land by the state government. There are one lakh such families.

The state has given land to over one lakh such families. through a special programme undertaken to ensure that no Dalit family in Madhya Pradesh remains landless.

According to R. Gopalkrishna, secretary to the chief minister, the green card will provide a household immediate food security. They can fall back on the six quintals while they develop their land.

With the six quintals of government grains to depend on, the family can sustain while they improve on the land given to them. Once the land becomes productive and cultivable, the family will be able to sustain by itself.

In the second phase, green cards will be given to people living below the poverty line in the forest areas of the state. Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest area in the country.

The needy will be identified by gram panchayats which will send their recommendations to the sub-divisional officers. Green cardholders will be engaged in the greening of degraded forest land.

   

 
 
BJP UNION SMELLS GOVT-CONG NEXUS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 7: 
The BJP and the Congress are not slugging it out merely on the floor of Parliament. Their trade unions — the BMS and the Intuc — are fighting their own war outside the House and putting paid to fond hopes of a grand trade union alliance.

After Intuc president Sanjeeva Reddy announced his organisation’s decision to stay away from the one-day all-India strike next week, a senior BMS leader accused him of “colluding” with the higher-ups in the Vajpayee government. “He has met the Prime Minister twice. The Intuc president favours disinvestment and other policies of the government,” said the BMS leader.

Intuc secretary Chandidas Sinha admitted to the meeting, but shrugged off the charge. “Our president met the Prime Minister to urge him to reconsider certain amendments of the Industrial Disputes Act,” he said.

According to the voluntary retirement scheme announced by the government, a retired employee will be entitled to 60 days’ compensation. The Industrial Disputes Act proposes to raise the compensation for retrenched workers from 15 to 45 days.

Reddy believes this to be insufficient. He has urged Vajpayee to make it 90 days of compensation for all categories of employees and workers. “The Prime Minister has assured him that he will look into the matter,” said Sinha.

BMS general secretary Hansubhai Dave has petitioned the Prime minister, seeking a meeting in order to discuss the contentious issue before the strike. But he is not hopeful.

“The Prime Minister’s schedule is hectic and he will have no time,” said Dave. He met labour minister Sharad Yadav who refused to intervene, saying the issues in contention related to the financial sector and its ministries.

At the moment, the BMS seems more concerned than the Intuc about the economic policies pursued by the government. But the Intuc leadership is not bothered by its isolation in the trade union movement — on the other hand, it is ready to fling back darker charges at its rival trade union.

“Last time, they manipulated the records of membership and showed a larger membership than ours,” said Sinha. He claims his organisation has more than 78 lakh members. The BMS may not have much of a presence in the industrial sector, but has clout in the financial sector.

Dave had planned a meeting with Reddy to convince him about the April 16 strike. But the Intuc is not in a conciliatory mood towards the BMS or the Left trade unions.

“There is no question of our going for any kind of protest action with the communists,” said Sinha. Paradoxically, the red and saffron trade unions, regardless of their ideological differences, have been moving together in the face of the Vajpayee government’s liberalisation policies.

They have carried out joint strikes with the trade union outfit of the Shiv Sena, though they have been engaged in bloody battles in Maharashtra.

The Intuc’s seems to be a lone voice of dissent in trade union unity — a voice that even some of its own rank and file prefer not to listen to.

The Intuc-sponsored associations of workers in the coal sector have chosen to participate in next week’s action, though the high command has dissociated itself from the strike.

“We are talking to our coal association, urging them to reconsider their decision,” said Sinha.

   

 
 
HEALTH IS WEALTH FOR CHAUTALA’S HARYANA 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Chandigarh, April 7: 
If the state’s health needs a boost, what better fillip than a medicity?

After the yearly brouhaha over “record production” of crops, Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala is now looking at pastures beyond agriculture to shore up the state’s economy. The new mantra is healthcare for all, and the grandiose plans include a 53-acre “medicity” in Gurgaon.

Chautala has been under pressure from his party to ensure for Haryana a separate identity from Punjab, from which it was carved out. But Haryana failed to break away from its parent state’s farm-driven economy. Indian National Lok Dal leaders feel the state has to look at areas other than agriculture to keep afloat. And there is no better way than healthcare, they say.

The medicity, in all probability to be named after late deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, would have super-speciality hospitals of international standard and institutions related to medical care and research. There are also plans to provide ancillary facilities in the form of a commercial centre, a shopping mall and a yatri niwas in the complex.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 34.9°C (-1)
Minimum: 25.6°C (+2)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Max: 93%
Min: 59%

Sunrise: 5.27 am

Sunset: 5.50 pm

Today:

Partly cloudy sky, with possibility of development of thunderclouds towards afternoon or evening.
   
 

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