Flames swallow Firpo’s
Tempers aflame, bricks stand in for gas-cutters
Grand old ladies at the Grand
Moral ruling goes against Vajpayee
Bengal also-ran in progress race
Sindhi plea for minority status
Chandrika clubs Tigers with al Qaida
CM steps up graft heat on Badal
Local scrutiny of NGO cash
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, April 23: 
Firpo’s Market on Chowringhee was reduced to a charred carcass as a devastating fire swept through the numerous clothes shops, a bank and novelty stores located in the building built almost a century ago.

An initial estimate suggested that the losses could run into crores of rupees.

The fire, which spread rapidly despite attempts to douse the flames, also engulfed parts of the upper floors of the adjacent Leslie House. By midnight, more than 40 fire engines had been rushed to the scene to try and control the blaze.

The fire flared up again around 1 am. The Rapid Action Force had to be called in to control the angry shopowners, who alleged that the first fire engine took a long time to reach after the distress call. The nearest fire brigade station is on Free School Street, a stone’s throw away.

The fire engine ran out of water and sped off after the shopowners turned restive. More engines arrived later but the hydraulic ladder could be put into operation only after 2 am — five hours after the blaze broke out. The reason for the delay: the ladder operator was not on duty.

The fire started small around 9 pm. Initial investigations failed to reveal the source though firemen said an electrical shortcircuit could not be ruled out.

The narrow corridors of Firpo’s Market and the after-shopping hours made sure that the fire remained undetected till it was too late.

Smoke was billowing from the ground floor even as the firemen started to arrive. The fire soon snowballed into huge plumes of bright red flames, swallowing a giant billboard on the roof. The billboard soon came crashing, pulling down the roof along with it.

The flames spread to the adjacent Leslie House, another old building, licking its topmost floors. However, within a short while, the flames that had spread to Leslie House were brought under control by the firefighters.

As water from the fire tenders ran out, firemen rushed to the nearby Manohar Das Tarag tank. This became their main source of water but eyewitnesses said it was not used for an hour initially.

The eyewitnesses said the firefighters could not tackle the blaze as they were blinded by the thick smoke coming out of the ground floor. For over an hour after the fire was detected, thick plumes of choking fumes were coming out of the first floor of the building.

Grand Hotel shut its gates as the crowds, eager to see the fire raging across the buildings, spilled across Chowringhee.

Traffic was diverted from the Esplanade crossing and the roads were cleared for the fire engines. As the crowds started to swell on the busy road, police called more forces and threw a cordon on Chowringhee, stopping traffic.

The fire brigade later brought in a couple of bulldozers to raze the front of Firpo’s Market to get to the blaze.

Fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee, who arrived at the scene, said the smoke was so dense that it was impossible for firemen to get in.

But Chatterjee had to confront an irate mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, and his member mayor-in-council Mala Roy, who insisted that the fire brigade bring in taller ladders to get to the top floors.

“They do not know what they are saying. What is burning is a nearly century-old building with old furniture. The fire cannot be controlled easily,” Chatterjee said.

The minister was confronted by shopowners who alleged that an “inefficient fire brigade” had failed to control the blaze in time.

“I do not want to say anything before I conduct an inquiry into the cause of the fire,” Chatterjee said. “My men are working efficiently and all resources and equipment are at hand to meet the situation,” the minister asserted.

The mayor said the Calcutta Municipal Corporation had nothing to do with the premises as it was a private property. “We are looking for the owner and we had not yet condemned the building,” said Mukherjee.

At the same time, the mayor said the building was in a state of deterioration.

Even as hundreds of curious onlookers rushed to see the flames destroying the building, a different sideshow was being played out in Leslie House where two women were trapped — one of them seriously ill.

While Firpo’s Market risked no danger of lives being lost, the scene was not quite the same in Leslie House. Firemen fought through the flames and rescued the women from the asphyxiating fumes.


Calcutta, April 23: 
The phones had started ringing at the newspaper office from around 9 pm. “Is there a fire at Tiger? Or is it New Empire?” The word had started to spread much before the fire did. And on its wings spread anger and disbelief.

In an hour, it was still more smoke than fire that caught the eye from the Esplanade crossing. Fire engines were zooming in at regular intervals and police had blocked the lane in front of Metro Cinema for vehicles. People, many of whom had their present and future stashed away in the Firpo’s shops, surged ahead on foot.

However, in half an hour, as the wind blew stronger, a glowing ball of flames appeared on the roof of the market building, causing people to back off in momentary panic. Some jumped across the divider to the safer side of the lane, disregarding the barbed wire.

Two firemen, drenched in sweat and water, were going back to the spot when they chanced upon two journalists carrying cellphones. “Can you please call 241-4545? We have run out of petrol and need to send word to the Central Avenue head office,” they pleaded.

Mohammed Khaled was furious at how the firemen had “fooled around”. “It’s two hours that they are here. The first lot that came had no gas masks. So they would not go up there. They did not have gas-cutters or machines to break the wooden doors. We went with bricks and helped them break in,” he said, voice choking with anger.

A couple of engines with ladders had reached, but the flames leaped higher.

The crowd, abuzz with murmurs of disbelief, was stunned into silence at the violence of the blaze. The sound of glass windows cracking in the flames could be heard from far off.

Ambauen Philip, a Swiss aeroplane engineer, was clicking away on his automatic camera. He had put up at the Oberoi and had come out to “see it all”. “Nothing can be made out from inside. But in the lobby and the elevator, you can smell the smoke,” he said, eyes rivetted on the devastation that grew bigger by the moment.

As he headed back towards the hotel to “catch some sleep”, the huge billboard on top of the building caught fire. The clock tolled 11.30 pm. And the streetlights went off.

“Is it safe? Can they handle this?” he asked. The burnt flakes of the vinyl board were flying all around and there was a mini-stampede in the dark.

Standing near the hotel gate, the only source of light around, Lagan Deo Singh, a garment-shop owner, was gasping for breath in the smoke. “They are the ones who let the fire spread,” the mustachioed, elderly man croaked, pointing at the firemen.

Fire minister Pratim Chatterjee was walking into the hotel just then escorted by securitymen. “Who’s this man?” Singh asked. Thankfully, he was safely inside by the time Lagan Deo and the dozens around him had got the answer.

The anger seething in the shopkeepers had by now turned to resignation. Sheikh Aftab, who sells lemon water, was trying to figure out if he could take his place on the pavement the next day. “Doesn’t look like they would let us go near tomorrow,” he rued.


Calcutta, April 23: 
Disasters as spectacular as the Firpo’s market blaze are often accompanied by scenes as dramatic as any created by the imaginations of film scriptwriters.

The Grand Hotel lobby was witness to such a human drama tonight, when two frail and old ladies were rescued from the ancient Leslie House that the fire had not spared.

Frightened and dumbstruck, the two women were bundled into the hotel by a large group of excited men in uniform and just ordinary people who were lending a helping hand.

Earlier, hotel managers, in black even at that hour, were out in full force giving instructions to employees to prepare for an emergency in case the tongues of flame leapt across the street and scorched the boundary walls of this establishment.

The burning market was too close for comfort, and they could be seen scurrying around the terrace, even after the power supply was cut off and the fire was the only source of light in Chowringhee.

One could smell the toxic fumes inside the Grand Hotel courtyard. The crowd was getting rowdy and to be on the safe side, they were about to shut the gate.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, there was an excited murmur outside. It turned into a roar as a TV crew trained their camera on somebody being brought in. Could it be some film star who had a bizarre idea of making a grand entrance?

It turned out to be one of the old ladies. In a blue dress, feet neatly shod, she must have been light as a feather. The TV crew would not let her go before they had grilled her. Her neatly brushed white hair trailed on the cushion as she was laid out on the huge sofa. She was like a rag doll.

In keeping with her dramatic entry, the muzak was Western classical. The anchor was shooed away as she pressed the mike to the old woman’s chest.

Somebody in the curious crowd that surrounded her said the fumes could have suffocated her.

She kept asking for her sister who lived with her at 19 Jawaharlal Nehru Road, she said. The picture of old-world grace, she thanked a Sengupta, who held her by her hand and assured her that she needn’t worry about her sibling.

As she smiled, she looked uncannily like Mrs Wouters, the neatly chignoned and powdered saleslady, who was a favourite of all music lovers before Harry’s Music in Firpo’s market had become a Lee showroom about five years ago.

Then it was the turn of the other lady to be brought in. Was she the sister, who was apparently a cancer patient?

The second woman looked even more thin and fragile than the first. She, too, was laid out on the second sofa. Her dress was rumpled and her feet were mucky. A slipper dangled from one of them.

The police said they were Alice Ritchie and Jane Reed. The crowd cleared out and the women were allowed to rest.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Dealing a moral blow to the Vajpayee government, deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed today admitted a censure motion on the Gujarat riots under Rule 184, which entails voting. The Opposition-sponsored motion will be taken up for discussion and voting next Tuesday.

Though there were red faces on the BJP benches, Sayeed’s ruling brought instant peace to the Lok Sabha, caught in a logjam since April 15.

Putting up a brave front, government managers and BJP leaders said they were confident the motion would be defeated. All allies, barring the Telugu Desam, have committed to voting it out, they added.

A senior Cabinet minister said the Trinamul Congress, the Indian National Lok Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party today pledged to support the government.

The Desam, sources said, might abstain from voting. But a final decision will be communicated by party chief Chandrababu Naidu on Tuesday after consultations with colleagues. The Desam parliamentary party, which took stock of the situation today, appeared divided.

Sayeed struck down the government’s opposition to a discussion under Rule 184. The Prime Minister was quoted in the evening as saying the ruling was “unfortunate” but his office issued a clarification later. A PMO spokesman said A.B. Vajpayee, while talking to reporters at Rashtrapati Bhavan, described as unfortunate only the wording of the motion.

Justifying the censure motion, the deputy Speaker said the “ground situation in Gujarat is that there have been serious incidents of violence even subsequent to the earlier discussion” in the House.

Sayeed described the Gujarat situation as a matter of “general public interest” within the meaning of Rule 184 and said the notices of motion “do raise a substantial and definite issue”.

His six-page ruling said:

These incidents have also been widespread in several districts of the state and hundreds have been killed or injured, thousands are in relief camps and properties have been extensively damaged.

The National Human Rights Commission, the Minorities Commission and independent women activists of national repute have commented on the gravity of the situation after visiting the state.

The gravity of the ground situation is also self-evident from the fact that the army has been called in to aid civil authorities. The army deployment continues.

In the circumstances, the Gujarat situation cannot be construed as an ordinary law and order matter which is a concern only of the state government.

More important, I would urge all the members of the House to remind themselves of Article 355 of the Constitution according to which it shall be the duty of the Union to protect every state, inter alia, against internal disturbance and ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.

Sayeed cited a 1997 precedent, when an adjournment motion on Bihar was converted into a motion under Rule 184.

The chair admitted the first of the 89 Opposition notices, which was given by the Samajwadi Party. “This House expresses its grave concern over the failure of the administration in ensuring the security of minority community in various parts of the country, especially in Gujarat, and urges upon the government to take effective steps to restore confidence of the minority communities and to protect them,” the notice said.

While the lower House resumed normal functioning, the Rajya Sabha was adjourned minutes after it assembled as the Opposition insisted on voting on the Gujarat issue. Chairman Krishan Kant is likely to give his ruling tomorrow.


New Delhi, April 23: 
The country’s first national human development report — a measure of the quality of life and the well-being of India’s 1 billion inhabitants — was a mixed bag of triumphs and travails on the long and arduous road to collective prosperity.

The good news first: overall human development as measured by the human development index (HDI) which spans three critical dimensions — longevity, education and command over resources (read the ability to enjoy a decent standard of living) — had improved significantly over the past two decades since 1981. At the national level, the index improved by nearly 26 per cent over the eighties and 24 per cent during the nineties.

The report, released here today by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, showed that the human development index during 1983 to 1993-94 improved by nearly 2.6 per cent per annum and by over 3 per cent per annum during 1993-94 to 2001, even though there were wide disparities among states.

The report has been prepared by the Planning Commission ahead of the 10th five-year plan. It recommends a re-look at the structure, composition, function and role of the civil administration in the development of the country. Planning Commission deputy chairman K.C. Pant told reporters: “Resources alone are not enough. What is really important for development is efficiency of the delivery system and effective governance. It is time we paid adequate attention to these areas.”

At the state level, there are wide disparities in the level of human development. In the early eighties, the BIMARU states — Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — had an HDI that was close to half that of Kerala’s. The situation has improved considerably since then, though Bihar and Uttar Pradesh continue to remain at the bottom of the HDI league table for 15 states for which sufficient data was available.

Assam — the only representative from the Northeast to make the HDI national league — dropped four places to 14. Andhra Pradesh was the only other state to drop a rung at number 10. Bengal was bang in the middle (ranked eighth) with an HDI value of 0.472 which was exactly the national average.

The second broad measure — the human poverty index (HPI) — also presented a pleasing picture with a considerable decline in poverty levels.The decline was nearly 47 per cent in the eighties and 39 per cent in the nineties. The HPI takes a value between 0 to 100 with a higher deprivation meaning a value closer to 100. Deprivation was measured on three factors — health and longevity, economic inability to access services, and educational deprivation.

The inter-state differences in the HPI were striking. The decline in HPI was significant in the case of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan the decline was marginal.

The third measure — the gender equality index (GEI) — left a lot to be desired. The GEI, which measures the attainments in human development indicators for females as a proportion of that of males, showed that the attainments of women was only two-thirds of men.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Sindhi is a recognised language under Schedule 8 of the Constitution, which recognises 18 other languages, but it isn’t an official language in any state.

Pointing out this peculiarity, an impassioned plea was made before an 11-judge bench of the Supreme Court that Sindhi language forums, educational institutions and other special bodies should be recognised as “minority institutions”.

Neither the Centre nor any state should interfere in the functioning of Sindhi institutions, which must enjoy the privileges and special status of other minority institutions, senior counsel Indira Jai Singh pleaded.

Appearing on behalf of several Sindhi institutions, Jai Singh argued that Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution were different and independent of each other.

Under 29, no person could be discriminated in the name of caste, region, religion or language. Article 30 gives minorities the “right” to “establish and administer educational institutions”.

State governments use Article 29 to control minority institutions saying they could not deny admission to students of different language, religion and region.

Institutions run by linguistic minorities — such as Tamil or Bengali or Assamese institutions in Delhi — enjoy “minority status” and state government aid as well. But in states where these are majority languages, they cannot claim “minority status”.

In its set of 10 questions to be answered in the case, the court asked “whether a minority in state A becomes majority in state B or continues to be minority”.

Jai Singh argued that Sindhi was taught in its “original Arabic medium known as the Sindhi script” and as the petitioner board promoted the “distinct and rich culture of Sindh”, it was a minority institution.

The counsel told the court that both aided and unaided bodies should be treated equally and simply because a government aided a minority institution it should not interfere in its affairs, especially admission of students and administration.

Several other counsel argued that “admission” in a minority institution was part of “administration”.

The bench has taken up issues like “minority”, “religion”, “language”, “minority institutions”, “what constitutes a minority institution”, “administration” in minority institutions, “admission” procedure and related issues.

The bench headed by Justice B.N. Kirpal had earlier expanded the scope of the question before the judiciary by including “non-minority” institutions and so what constitutes a “majority” will also be decided.

Jai Singh said the Constitution “does not use the word ‘national’ language and no such national language exists”.

Hindi in the “Devnagri script” was only an official language and use of the word “official” in article 343 of the Constitution was “deliberate and is meant only to indicate that official communications will be in Hindi”, she said.

Further, under Article 345, a state “may, by law,” adopt one or more language for official purposes, Jai Singh argued.

The “minority character of an institution is not dependent on the courses that are taught in the institution.

“The imparting of secular/technical education will not destroy the minority character of the institution. The minority character is determined by the fact that it gives preference in admission to students of its own community,” Jai Singh said.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga today cautioned India and the other countries to tread carefully while dealing with the LTTE, clubbing it with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida and describing the two as the “most dangerous, ruthless and efficient” terrorist outfits.

“South Asia today is riven by perhaps more armed conflicts than any other region in the world. Every one of the seven states of our region, except the Maldives, is facing challenges from armed, militant groups. The al Qaida operate and are headquartered in South Asia,” she said, while delivering the first Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture on Building a pluralist society: managing change and diversity.

Referring to the al Qaida and the LTTE, she said: “Is it not time that we stand up and ring loud the alarm bells? But that will not suffice.” Urging a joint campaign in South Asia against terrorism, Kumaratunga demanded the strictest action against all movements and individuals practising or condoning terrorism as a political strategy. But the Sri Lankan President made it clear that it was not sufficient to fight against terrorism alone, but causes that lead people to resort to terrorism should be addressed with equal importance.

She said the problem should be dealt with in its entirety even as she argued that the theory of the “ right to self-determination” was being abandoned by most rational observers.

Kumaratunga’s main political interaction with the Indian leadership will begin tomorrow when she meets Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the afternoon and President K.R. Narayanan in the evening. In between, she is also scheduled to interact with Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

She is the first Sri Lankan leader to come to India after LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran asked both Delhi and Colombo to lift the ban on his outfit and made peace overtures at the much-publicised press conference at Kilinochchi early this month.

Kumaratunga is perhaps the first Sinhalese leader to seriously try and being an end to the ethnic conflict on the island by proposing to give much more than what others had in the past to the Tamil minorities without jeopardising the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But this had not stopped the LTTE from carrying out a murderous attack on her, after which she appears to have adopted a much tougher stand against the Tamil Tigers.

“Oppression of one state by another, or of various communities within its territory by the state, through the abuse or misuse of power, has proved to be the fountain of discontent, despair and violence,” Kumaratunga said in her lecture this evening.


Chandigarh, April 23: 
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh today announced the setting up of a one-man commission to look into “irregularities, illegalities, corruption and other misdoings” under the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government led by Parkash Singh Badal.

The commission, to be headed by retired Punjab and Haryana High Court judge A.S. Garg, will submit its report “preferably within six months”.

The commission would “inquire into acts of omission and commission by the previous government”. Acts of “bias” which were “detrimental to public interest” and “adversely affected the exchequer” will also come within the ambit of the probe.

In his election campaign, Amarinder had promised that if voted to power, he would have the “rampant corruption” under Badal’s reign probed by a high court judge.

In the run-up to the polls, the Congress had alleged that Badal and his family had amassed wealth disproportionate to income. Now that the probe has been ordered, it remains to be seen how seriously the government takes the panel’s report. There are murmurs in Congress circles already that the anti-Badal tirade could be politically suicidal. The commission will probe allegations of corruption against the Badal government from February 1997 to February 2002. There is no mention of his earlier tenure.

The scope of the probe has been left open and Badal figures among the suspects. The inquiry will also include the conduct of Badal’s Cabinet, the chief parliamentary secretary, the Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP members of Parliament, and legislators.

Incidentally, the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine was voted to power in 1997 following its pledge to root out corruption and promise of free power to the agriculture sector. However, as chief minister, Badal had turned down demands by Akali leaders Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and Kanwaljit Singh to order a probe into alleged irregularities committed under the previous Congress governments and during President’s rule, saying “vindictiveness would ruin Punjab”.

A Cabinet meeting today decided on the appointment of the inquiry commission. The state’s advocate-general told the Cabinet that complaints from various quarters against the misdoings of the previous regime were pouring in and “people were ready to provide proof”, Amarinder said.

The Garg commission will work separately and will have nothing to do with any probe initiated by the Lok Pal, the chief minister said. “The Lok Pal will inquire into the allegations of corruption filed with it.”

One of the major Congress allegations has been that money had been exchanging hands for government jobs in the state. The charges got a boost after Punjab Public Service Commission chairman Ravi Inder Paul Singh Sidhu was arrested last month and cash and property worth Rs 25 crore was seized.

The vigilance bureau has claimed that a major part of the money seized had been sourced from bribes taken from candidates appearing for various examinations, including the elite Punjab Civil Service tests.


New Delhi, April 23: 
To keep a closer watch on foreign contributions to non-government organisations, including religious trusts, the home ministry proposes to allow district magistrates to monitor the inflow and spending.

The ministry wants to amend the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), projecting the move as a step towards decentralisation, but has met with criticism from minority organisations and NGOs. Voluntary Action Network India, an apex body of NGOs, has opposed the plan.

“It is a very bad move, as local politics influences local authorities, and the level of corruption in the districts is unimaginable,” said Anil Singh, speaking on behalf of NGOs. “We are not against a regulatory mechanism, but this spells trouble for those NGOs which refuse to act as chief government contractors,” Singh added.

The general feeling among NGOs is that the move will suppress the voice of genuine voluntary groups. They prefer to be guided by rules that are applied to the corporate sector when investments are made by foreign companies and believe that the Foreign Exchange Management Act can be effectively used to monitor funds inflow.

NGOs are pressing for abolition of the FCRA, a law that was used by the Congress during the Emergency to crack down on organisations working closely for Jaya Prakash Narayan’s pro-democracy movement.

The BJP led-government has long wanted to keep a watch on overseas funds sent to minority religious organisations. The home ministry and intelligence agencies have been complaining that funds going into these trusts have been used to set up religious schools and mosques all over the country. Many of these madarsas are not regulated by the authorities and some are allegedly being used as recruiting bases for militants.

The BJP has also accused Christian missionaries of using the foreign funds to convert Hindus. Missionaries have been burnt and killed for alleged conversion attempts.

The FCRA was amended two years ago, directing minority religious organisations to regularly report to the district administration about the source of their funds, the nature of the work for which the money is used and their past and current activities.

Having done this, the government now wants to take the process further and bring NGOs within the ambit of this law. The September 11 terrorist strikes and the attack on Parliament have given the ministry a valid reason to monitor all funds inflow from overseas.

The US government’s decision to look into the accounts of suspected organisations have made it easier for Delhi to initiate the move.

Aware that money is sent into and out of the country through hawala transactions by terrorists and criminals, no political party in Parliament can object to the government amending the FCRA to keep a watch on the finances of NGOs.




Maximum: 34.4°C (-2)
Minimum: 23.1°C (-2)


3.5 mm

Relative humidity

Max: 83%
Min: 50%

Sunrise: 5.12 am

Sunset: 5.57 pm


Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of light rain, accompanied by thunder, in some parts

Maintained by Web Development Company