IOC mulls stiff terms for Haldia
Consumer body takes a knock
Grid collapse looms as Gridco fails to pay
Token end to border row
CM war on communal forces
Taste of Goa for Govindacharya
Narayanan keeps close tabs on Gujarat
Samata exposes double face
Riot-hit gold market loses low-tax glow
Target Taliban for US emissaries

 
 
IOC MULLS STIFF TERMS FOR HALDIA 
 
 
BY SUTANUKA GHOSAL
 
Calcutta, April 8: 
Indian Oil Corporation is likely to take an in-principle decision to invest in Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd by this week.

“We will take a final view on HPL’s proposal this week and decide whether to invest in the project. By mid-April, the picture will become clearer,” top IOC sources said.

However, IOC has made it clear that it will lay down new — and stiff — conditions for its participation.

“We had decided to invest in July last year. It’s almost a year now. The business parameters have changed since then. We may have to see the investment in a different perspective, as a result of which we may have to set new terms and conditions,” an IOC source said.

The promoters of Haldia Petro — including Purnendu Chatterjee — had decided to hand over management control to the oil PSU at a board meeting late last month.

Under the agreed formula, IOC will have management control with a 26 per cent stake. In return, it will invest Rs 468 crore in the project.

The state government, sources say, has written to Indian Oil, asking it to invest in cash-strapped Haldia Petro as soon as possible. “HPL chairman Tarun Das had recently met us and requested us to expedite the process,” the sources said.

But before IOC brings in the money, it would first like to reach an agreement with the promoters — the Chatterjee Group, the Bengal government and the Tatas, who have expressed their willingness to quit the company.

“We have to see how Purnendu Chatterjee reacts to our set of conditions. He was the one who backed out last year when we submitted our proposal to participate in the project. Once that is known, it will be easier for us to make up our mind. All the same, we feel the promoters are slowly giving in,” an IOC source said.

Industry watchers feel Indian Oil will set tough conditions to get the highest returns on its investment.

Debt-restructuring of HPL hinges on the oil major’s participation in the company. Financial institutions led by the Industrial Development Bank of India are waiting for fresh capital infusion before recast.

Operations had come to a halt at the Haldia Petro plant due to non-availability of naphtha. The plant is expected to start functioning from tomorrow.

“ONGC’s naphtha will reach us today and the operations are expected to start from tomorrow. Another consignment should be here by the weekend,” a source said.

Citu calls off strike

Giving in to pressure from the CPM leadership, Citu today called off its strike at Indian Oil’s LPG bottling plant in Durgapur.

Citu had called the strike to demand a job for the spouse of Biren Roy who was killed by miscreants in Bankura. IOC, however, refused, saying Roy was not its staff but the employee of one of its contractors.

   

 
 
CONSUMER BODY TAKES A KNOCK 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, April 8: 
What happens when a court set up to redress your grievances as a consumer, already wronged once, decides to fleece you even more? Well, it gets a hard rap from the apex consumer court.

This is what has happened to the North 24-Parganas District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum. In what has come as a major embarrassment for the forum that functions from Barasat and looks into cases lodged by consumers who live in a vast area stretching from Dum Dum to Bongaon, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has categorically stated that forcing a harassed consumer — who comes to the forum seeking help — to pay court fees is illegal.

The directive of the apex consumer-affairs court, acting on a complaint lodged by a consumer-rights organisation based in Calcutta, has — besides coming as a relief to harassed consumers — come as a prod to the state government in its efforts to clean up consumer courts in the state.

“What the Barasat-based court was doing was patently illegal,” state consumer affairs department joint secretary Naser Waris admitted. “We are seriously looking into the possibility of taking the advantage of existent laws to improve matters in the district consumer fora,” he added.

According to departmental officials, the government is now looking at the last of the three clauses — determining the appointment of the presidents of the district consumer fora — to rein in the courts. “The first two clauses tell us to appoint a retired district judge or a sitting judge as president of a district consumer disputes redress forum,” a senior consumer affairs department official said. “But there remains a third provision which allows the government to appoint anyone qualified to be a district judge,” he added.

Consumers’ Unity and Guidance Forum lodged the complaint, which provided the basis for the commission directive. The state government, too, was told of the practice in February — of forcing every duped consumer to pay a court fee — prevalent at the court.

State consumer affairs department minister Naren De had ordered a probe after coming to know of the matter. “We will circulate the National Commission directive to every court,” a senior official of the department said today but added that no other forum in the state had such allegations levelled against it.

   

 
 
GRID COLLAPSE LOOMS AS GRIDCO FAILS TO PAY 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, April 8: 
Bengal girded up for a possible grid collapse after the National Thermal Power Corporation restricted supply to Orissa’s Gridco.

With NTPC rationing supply, there was a sharp drop in the frequency of the Bengal grid as its power supply to Orissa travels through the state’s network. A grid collapses if the power frequency drops below an accepted minimum.

The situation took a turn for the worse between 1.15 and 4.15 this afternoon when one unit of the Bakreswar thermal power station and CESC’s New Cossipore plant tripped because of technical faults. A low frequency in the state’s grid also affected CESC’s receiving station in Howrah which tripped at 3.08 pm.

Four feeder lines at BBD Bag and two feeder lines at Park Lane tripped soon after leading to widespread power cuts in the central business district of Calcutta. The lines were repaired by evening.

There was no power supply at Writers’ Buildings, Lalbazar, Raj Bhavan and the Reserve Bank for around 20 minutes this afternoon. At Writers’ Buildings, five visitors were trapped inside the main lift between the first and second floors. They were rescued by the security staff.

Massive power cuts were also reported from large parts of Burdwan, Birbhum and other south Bengal districts.

Expressing his annoyance at the tussle over non-payment of dues between NTPC and Gridco, power minister Mrinal Banerjee said he spoke to his Centre counterpart Suresh Prabhu this evening.

“This simply can’t go on. A battle is on between two agencies and it is West Bengal which is suffering,” said Banerjee.

He said Bengal’s power supplying agencies were struggling to cope with wild frequency fluctuations since March 10. “Now, with the onset of summer, demand for power is rising and a major blackout may occur any day,” Banerjee said.

In the city, the shortfall shot up to about 60 mw in the afternoon but dropped to about 35 mw in the evening peak hours. But the shortfall was higher in the districts.

A senior power department official said the normal frequency of power supply is about 50 cycles. The frequency is now fluctuating between 47.8 and 48.2.

   

 
 
TOKEN END TO BORDER ROW 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Behrampore, April 8: 
The BSF has decided to issue tokens to farmers and cowherds in the border areas of Murshidabad to put an end to their harassment in the hands of jawans and policemen.

The authorities have also decided to label cattle in the area.

The BSF took the decision after receiving several complaints from villagers that they were being harassed. Most of the allegations were about jawans seizing cattle, which were released only after verification — but this usually took a fortnight.

The tokens issued by the BSF will mention the names and addresses of the person concerned. The farmers will have to give back the tokens after they return from the fields.

“Cows are smuggled through some border points and to prevent it the BSF jawans had to take stern measures some times. But in the process, many blameless farmers were also harassed. The token system will put an end to this,” said Rajesh Kumar, the district superintendent of police.

He said incidents of harassment were the maximum in nine police station areas — Farakka, Suti, Samsergunj, Jangipur, Lalgola, Bhagabangola, Ranitala, Raninanagar and Jalangi.

“After holding a meeting with the BSF officials, we have found out some ways to ease it. We are holding regular coordination meetings with the jawans to solve problems related to the border,” he said. He assured that the police would intervene if any genuine farmer is denied a token. However, farmers and cowherds will need to provide some verification to get the tokens.

   

 
 
CM WAR ON COMMUNAL FORCES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 8: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today cautioned that the government would firmly deal with those trying to disturb law and order here by fomenting communal tension.

“It is unfortunate that communal forces are spreading its tentacles in Bengal these days. But we are determined to restore communal peace here at any cost,” he said.

Bhattacharjee was speaking at a rally convened by the Left Front on Rani Rashmoni Road to raise funds for riot victims in Gujarat. Bhattacharjee also accepted donations from those participating in the rally. Besides Bhattacharjee, actor Subhendu Chatterjee, academic Pabitra Sarkar, actress Kheyali Ghosh Dastidar and former finance minister Ashok Mitra attended the rally.

The chief minister referred to Friday’s incident at Telenipara in Hooghly district in which one person was killed in a clash between members of rival groups. Without naming those involved in the clash, he said: “Such forces also tried to disturb the communal harmony at Canning in South 24-Parganas about a month back. But our government has successfully stopped them from carrying out their mission.”

He, however, maintained that the administration had effectively tackled the situation on two occasions because it had the support of the people. “We are successful since the people here are very alert about communal forces. Moreover, they always cooperate with the state administration,” he added.

Bhattacharjee said he felt ashamed after seeing what his counterpart in Gujarat had done during recent communal disturbances in the state. “Narendra Modi played the fiddle as Gujarat burned. I want Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to remove him,” he said.

   

 
 
TASTE OF GOA FOR GOVINDACHARYA 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, April 8: 
Emerging out of a two-year self-exile, K.N. Govindacharya is set to attend the BJP’s national executive in Goa to test the waters for a comeback but a sulking Bangaru Laxman, another leader in disgrace, has decided to give the conclave a miss.

Govindacharya, who was sidelined because of his public differences with the Prime Minister — he had once called Atal Bihari Vajpayee the party’s mukhauta (mask) — appeared circumspect about what awaited him in Panaji.

But Laxman, the former party president who was eased out after the Tehelka scam erupted, made no bones about how hurt he was by the way the BJP brass had treated him. Laxman was denied a Rajya Sabha nomination this time and has promised to take up the matter with Vajpayee when he returns from Cambodia.

Govindacharya, one of the BJP’s best-known Hindutva proponents, was virtually hounded out of the party following his differences with Vajpayee.

In June 2000, he lost his job as party general secretary, the accommodation at its 11 Ashoka Road headquarters, a car and a cellphone. The only “concession” was that he was allowed to continue as a member of the national executive.

Govindacharya left without much ado, announcing that he was going on “adhyan avakash” (study leave) to introspect on the state of the Indian economy and the fallout of WTO and globalisation. He did not attend any national executive meetings after this, surfacing occasionally to air his views on swadeshi but staying out of active politics.

Sources close to Govindacharya said his presence at the Goa meet would help him judge the state of the BJP and whether it had space for an ideologue like him. But he did not intend to participate in the talks, not even those on the economic resolution. His sabbatical ends only next January, but Govindacharya’s aides were excited that his being in Goa would “send the right message to the rank-and-file at a time when the party is down and out”.

The man who willingly obliged Vajpayee in throwing Govindacharya out is himself on a limb today. Laxman, whose Rajya Sabha term has just ended, said his immediate worry was to secure a house in the capital to stay and attend the hearings of the Venkataswami Commission on the Tehelka scam.

He is reportedly banking on Ram Nath Kovind, who is likely to be made chairman of the Rajya Sabha House Committee, to solve his accommodation problem. Kovind, who heads the BJP’s SC/ST Morcha, is close to Laxman.

The former BJP chief said he would keep out of the national executive in protest against not being invited to other high-level meetings, such as those of the parliamentary board and the central election committee.

“The practice is to invite all ex-presidents to these meetings but when I was not called, I declined to attend the national executive too,” he said.

Laxman said there was a “lot of enthusiasm” among Dalits and Muslims when he took charge in September 2000.

   

 
 
NARAYANAN KEEPS CLOSE TABS ON GUJARAT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 8: 
The delicate relations between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President K.R. Narayanan have zoomed into focus again with legal luminaries asking the head of state to “advise” the nation’s chief executive to end the Gujarat violence.

The President is said to have conveyed to Vajpayee that he wants the government to act more effectively to restore normality in the state. Narayanan had expressed a deep sense of anguish in his message on Holi and, according to sources, to citizens’ groups that had called on him in connection with the riots.

The President has also forwarded reports and representations he received from private citizens and non-government organisations. He is credited with the view that the communal carnage has once again showed that the Gandhian movement has failed to penetrate into many parts of the country where social tension often manifests itself in ugly forms.

Rashtrapati Bhavan sources said the President is keeping close tabs on developments in Gujarat. They said Narayanan would wait and watch for “some time” before taking further steps.

Political observers are keenly watching what is going on between Raisina Hills and Rashtrapati Bhavan over the Gujarat situation. The presidential polls are due in July this year.

The electoral college that elects the President is badly fractured, with fence-sitters like the Telugu Desam Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the ADMK and the Nationalist Congress Party holding crucial votes.

If Narayanan seeks a second term, he would need the support of both the BJP and the Congress. But sources close to him said he would prefer to retire than turn a blind eye to what is happening in Gujarat in the quest for a second term.

Senior lawyer Rajiv Dhawan said the President is well within his rights to seek information under Article 78. Recalling the uneasy relations between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh over the postal Bill, Dhawan said the President can insist on being consulted on Gujarat.

Dhawan said the situation in Gujarat is much beyond the ordinary definition of “breakdown” of law and order, which was used to slap President’s rule on the state in 1974 and in Kerala in 1959.

Dhawan’s plea for presidential intervention came close on the heels of a similar demand by former Chief Justice of India A.M. Ahmadi, who said the President has the powers to counsel the Prime Minister on Gujarat.

Ahmadi said the role of the President has become more pertinent after the rap on the Narendra Modi regime by both the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities.

According to Ahmadi, under Article 356, the President can act on a report by the Governor or on the advice of the council of ministers. In case none of them comes, the President can himself counsel the Prime Minister, he said. Though he acknowledged that the President had some limitations, Ahmadi said it was within his powers to bring to the notice of the Prime Minister reports other than those received by the state machinery.

   

 
 
SAMATA EXPOSES DOUBLE FACE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 8: 
When Gujarat was bleeding, some National Democratic Alliance partners like the Samata Party had rushed to the defence of chief minister Narendra Modi. But a single incident of assault on reporters yesterday has provoked the party, one of the BJP’s most trusted allies, to dub the Modi government “incompetent”.

If the Samata has done a complete about-turn, another crucial NDA ally, the Telugu Desam Party, has become more jittery after yesterday’s incident.

Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu spoke to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last night and once again expressed his displeasure over the functioning of the Modi government. “This is one of the reasons we do not want to field a candidate for the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post,” said a Desam MP.

Vajpayee today deputed the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, Vijay Goel, to hold talks with Naidu. Goel later told reporters Naidu was satisfied with the steps taken by the Centre and the BJP regime in Gujarat to restore normality.

Goel assured the Desam boss that the relief package announced for the riot victims by Vajpayee during his recent visit would be implemented in full.

Sources said the Desam realises any closer association with the Vajpayee government would erode its votebank in Andhra. “It’s not just minorities. Even other communities will get suspicious of us,” said C. Ramachandraiah, a Desam MP.

Samata general secretary Shambhu Srivastava stuck to his condemnation of the Modi government. “We had expected the government to show greater administrative competence after the Prime Minister’s visit. Now that he has failed, he should go,” Srivastava said.

Not so long ago, Srivastava and his party chief Jaya Jaitly had addressed a joint news conference where they lauded the Modi government for bringing the riots under control within 72 hours. At that time, they did not feel that the Gujarat government had “crossed all limits”.

But after yesterday’s attack, they feel the state administration has crossed the Rubicon. “Our reaction, because it came after giving the Modi government such a long rope, will have more impact on the Vajpayee government,” Srivastava said.

The BJP, however, did not seem to feel the “impact” of the Samata’s delayed reaction. “In our opinion,” spokesperson Sunil Shastri said today, “the Modi government is trying its best to restore communal harmony.”

Shastri ticked off the allies, saying they had no business talking outside a “proper” forum — meaning the NDA coordination committee, which is scheduled to meet next Monday.

The NDA allies, on their part, realise they could lose much of their clout once the BJP secures a new ally — the Bahujan Samaj Party.

“The BJP will strengthen its position more in Parliament. And we will lose whatever clout we have,” said a Desam member.

The common perception in the party is that it is caught between the devil and the deep sea. “On the one side we have the BJP and on the other, the Congress,” said a Desam MP.

   

 
 
RIOT-HIT GOLD MARKET LOSES LOW-TAX GLOW 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, April 8: 
Ahmedabad’s gold market — the biggest in the country — reopened today after the riots amid fears that it was losing its competitive edge.

The Maharashtra government slashed sales tax to 0.5 per cent from April 1 to bring its tax structure on par with Gujarat. Though its full impact will be felt only after a few months, the decision is bad news for bullion traders already hit hard by the unabated violence over the past month.

“The Maharashtra government’s decision to lower tax from April 1 is going to cause about 50 per cent business loss to us,” said Soni Nanalal Bechardas, president of the Ahmedabad Sona Chandi Dagina Mahajan.

The gold market has suffered because of the riots and the long spell of curfew in Ahmedabad’s Manek Chowk, which had emerged as the country’s biggest bullion market in 1995, edging out Mumbai.

Ahmedabad was also the country’s cheapest bullion market, where a trader had to pay only 0.5 per cent tax (Rs 290 per biscuit). In Mumbai, the tax was much higher at 4 per cent — 2 per cent sales tax and 2 per cent octroi (Rs 2,320 per biscuit).

Last year, when the Gujarat government increased sales tax to 1 per cent and the Rajasthan government offered an attractive “green channel” scheme — Rs 1 crore a year sales tax, irrespective of volumes — Jaipur began to draw traders, posing a serious challenge to Ahmedabad. To lure the business back, Gujarat reduced the tax to 0.5 per cent.

Because of the tax advantages in Gujarat, nearly 70 per cent of the total gold imported was transacted at Manek Chowk.

Jewellers and bullion traders in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa used to buy their gold from Ahmedabad.

Jewellers from Rakjot, Surat and Anand in Gujarat, who are also dependent on the Ahmedabad supply, have suffered in the riots. Some have even been forced to source gold from Mumbai as Manek Chowk remained closed for over a month since February 28.

The gold market opened today “but there was virtually no transaction”, said Bechardas. A few traders had opened shop on Saturday but they downed shutters within hours, fearing trouble. “The situation is still not normal. Everyone is apprehensive,” Bechardas added.

However, finance minister Nitin Patel claimed that “despite the temporary setback”, Ahmedabad will remain the biggest gold market in the country.

He pointed out that Gujaratis control the market and “we will see to it that Gujarat maintains a competitive edge”.

Almost echoing him, gold traders in Ahmedabad vowed to stay put in the city.

“That is ruled out,” said a Manek Chowk trader, when asked if he would now shift to Mumbai.

   

 
 
TARGET TALIBAN FOR US EMISSARIES 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, April 8: 
The back-to-back visits of the CIA deputy director and the US assistant secretary of state to India have shifted the focus back on cooperation between the two sides on Afghanistan, particularly the possible infiltration of Taliban and al Qaida activists into Jammu and Kashmir.

The visits gather significance in the wake of reports from Pakistan that Osama bin Laden escaped hours before a joint operation by the FBI and Pakistani commandos at a hideout in Faisalabad last month. The Nation, a Pakistani daily, reported that Laden fled before the joint raid on March 28, in which his close associate and second-in-command Abu Zubaydah was injured and arrested.

The Pakistani foreign ministry dismissed the report, saying it was not based on facts. But in India, as possibly also in Washington, the denial is being seen as an attempt to play down the presence of Taliban and al Qaida activists in the heart of Pakistan. So far, the Pervez Musharraf regime has claimed that the activists were present only in the “tribal areas” bordering Afghanistan.

CIA deputy director John McLaughlin reached here today. He met Vikram Sood, the second-in-command in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Jayant Prasad, the joint secretary of the Americas division in the ministry of external affairs. Officials said the discussions centred on the presence of bin Laden’s supporters in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and their possible infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir.

Assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca, who arrives here tomorrow, is scheduled to meet Prasad and special envoy to Afghanistan Sati Lambah. She will also call on external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. The talks will focus on Afghanistan and bilateral relations between India and the US. Rocca had to cut short her visit to India last month after a militant strike on a church in Islamabad.

The CIA official’s meetings are part of the ongoing cooperation between India and the US on counter-terrorism. The FBI has opened an office here and regular interaction between the CIA and the Indian intelligence authorities will allow the two sides to share information and learn from each other’s experience.

Washington’s earlier request to have its Special Forces track down possible Taliban and al Qaida men in Jammu and Kashmir was turned down by New Delhi.

Though keen to cooperate, the Vajpayee government was afraid about how the presence of US forces on Indian soil would be taken by the domestic audience.

The possible regrouping of Taliban and al Qaida supporters is a common concern for the Indians as well as the Americans. The public stand of Washington notwithstanding, questions are being raised about the cooperation the Americans are getting from the Musharraf regime in tracking down militants.

Though the report about Laden’s escape last month is still being verified, the possibility that he was tipped off about the raid has worried Americans.

If the militants have been given refuge in PoK and Pakistan plans to push them into Jammu and Kashmir to sabotage the coming elections, it will serve the interests of both Delhi and Washington to cooperate with each other and thwart such attempts.

   
 

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