Short-circuit smoke rises from embers
Plan to shrink provident fund withdrawal options
Foreign media debate reopened
Heartbreak before the big hug
Riots storm brews in Britain
Cannes slot for Devdas
Home ministry glosses over Modi glitches
Jaya takes Buddha tip
Air marshal shunted out
Calcutta Weather

 
 
SHORT-CIRCUIT SMOKE RISES FROM EMBERS 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, April 24: 
Short-circuit appears to be emerging at the top of the heap of the list of suspected villains for the fire that destroyed the 150-year-old building which once housed Firpo’s, a restaurant that wound up many years ago but continued to give the building its name and identity till Tuesday night.

Preliminary investigations into the fire, which continued to smoulder through Wednesday, have led police to home in on the short-circuit angle.

A fresh wave of panic swept through the crowd of onlookers — mostly shopkeepers — when an inverter burst inside a shop in the building around 9 pm today. As the fire regained intensity in some sections, the spectators heckled the police and the firemen.

Though the simultaneous investigations by forensic experts and a committee set up by the fire services department have barely started, city police chief Sujoy Chakraborty said that “prima facie”, there was no hint of any sabotage.

“The electricity circuits — criss-crossing and going every which way — are a nightmare,” Chakraborty said. “Though initial investigations have revealed no sign of any sabotage, we will wait for the report of the forensic experts to be doubly sure on this count.”

Fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee — and his department — did not mince words about the presence of two CESC transformers inside the building. “The committee will find out whether their presence was sanctioned,” Chatterjee said.

A CESC spokesman, however, said that deciding on the location of the transformers was “entirely the responsibility” of the consumer.

Chatterjee said the team had also been told of a single shop that remained open on the ground floor for dressing up its interiors. “We have definite information that they were using fire inside the shop,” he added.

But Chatterjee said he would prefer to wait for the reports to be prepared separately by forensic experts and a five-member probe committee set up by the fire services department. The probe panel, headed by director-general (fire services) S.I.S. Ahmed, has been given a four-week deadline.

The committee will ascertain the cause of the fire, find out the extent of the damage, check whether the fire-alarm was adequate, rate the fire services’ response and verify whether the structural aspects of the building were in line with the CMC’s rules.

The panel has also been asked to find out whether any illegal businesses operated from the Firpo’s market. Mayor Subrata Mukherjee said “it was a completely illegal market”.

The panel will suggest remedial measures and can go into any other relevant factor.

The Central Forensic Science Laboratory team could not enter the market today due to the continuing flare-ups.

The preliminary report submitted by the fire services department to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee highlighted the chain of events that finally saw the fire brigade being engaged in its most high-profile — and unsuccessful — fight of the year.

According to the report, it was a call from a land line that first alerted the fire brigade headquarters on Free School Street. The first fire-tender — leading a batch of nine engines — arrived at the spot at 9.17 p.m.

Officials from five divisions and 300 fire-brigade personnel were pressed into service through the night, the report said. There were more than 200 shops in the three-storeyed building, the report added, before mentioning the stacks of “synthetic garments” and the “closed-down shutters” which impeded the fire-fighters’ progress.

   

 
 
PLAN TO SHRINK PROVIDENT FUND WITHDRAWAL OPTIONS 
 
 
FROM JAYANTA ROY CHOWDHURY
 
New Delhi, April 24: 
The Group of Ministers on pensions and provident funds plans to make withdrawals from Employees Provident Fund (EPF) more restrictive.

The group also proposes to take away powers of regulating the corpus from the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) and relax norms for investing the funds.

The new rules, which have been drawn up by the finance ministry, insist that premature withdrawals should only be allowed in the event of permanent disability or death.

Henceforth, provident fund contributors will find it increasingly difficult to withdraw money prematurely and, even if allowed, will have to replace the amount through annual repayments.

Employees can now withdraw up to 90 per cent of their accumulated contribution in the provident fund to pay for medical emergencies, education, marriage and house construction without any need to return the money once withdrawn.

While the proposed rule may cause consternation among employees who have been banking on the fund for emergencies, even more startling is that the note drawn up for the GoM (F.No 11/13/2001-Ins-VI) speaks of taking away the regulatory functions of the provident fund organisation. “Regulatory functions should be de-linked from the EPFO and vested in the pension regulator,” the note states.

The finance ministry has stated that the EPFO’s role as both fund manager and regulator results “either in dilution of regulatory functions or over-statement (of it)”.

The EPFO covers about 2.15 crore citizens employed with 3 lakh establishments and the funds at its disposal run to nearly Rs 1 lakh crore.

This move to strip the EPFO of its powers comes in the wake of a standoff between labour minister Sharad Yadav, who has demanded that the interest payout on EPF must remain at 9.5 per cent even though his counterpart in finance, Yashwant Sinha, has made it clear this is not financially feasible.

Officials say Yadav has used his control over the EPFO to ram through his decision, much to Sinha’s resentment and the BJP government’s consternation. Yadav had apparently bypassed a directive he had received from the Prime Minister’s Office on this score, they claimed.

Even the EPFO’s role as fund manager is sought to be diluted by the note for the GoM, with a proposal that it farm out this job to “professional fund managers”.

EPF funds are now invested in government securities to ensure highest safety of the investment. However, the note says the rules that require most of the funds to be parked in government securities should be changed to allow greater investment in private sector financial instruments that are floated to raise cash for infrastructure development. If the move comes through, it will channel sorely needed funds into the infrastructure sector.

   

 
 
FOREIGN MEDIA DEBATE REOPENED 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 24: 
The Union Cabinet today deferred a decision on allowing foreign direct investment in a section of the print media industry. It asked the information and broadcasting ministry to come up with a suggestion that can review the policy on foreign investment in the industry as a whole.

In effect, the Cabinet reopened the debate on FDI in print despite the Parliament standing committee on information technology categorically rejecting suggestions to allow foreign investment in the sector.

The I&B ministry’s proposal that was slated to be discussed by the Cabinet today envisaged allowing 75 per cent foreign direct investment in “non-news, non-current affairs and specialised” journals. This was partly in keeping with the recommendations of the standing committee.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said the I&B ministry’s proposal had not been rejected. A discussion on the issue has only been deferred, he pointed out.

“It does not call for any detailed paper or document. There is no media policy as such. There is the 1955 Cabinet resolution that debars foreign investment in the print media. It can take just a one-line proposal to revise that,” Mahajan said.

“The Cabinet’s view was that if we have to discuss the issue at all, then let us discuss the whole proposal,” he added.

The relevant portion of the September 13, 1955, resolution states: “The Cabinet considered the ministry of information and broadcasting’s note dated May 4, 1955, and was of the view that so far as the ownership of newspapers and periodicals by nationals of other countries was concerned, the problem was not a very serious one as there were only a few such newspapers and periodicals.”

“The Cabinet, therefore, felt that no action needs to be taken in regard to these newspapers and periodicals but that no foreign-owned newspaper or periodical should, in future, be permitted to be published in India. The Cabinet, however, agreed that the other recommendations of the commission that foreign newspapers and periodicals, which dealt mainly with news and current affairs, should not be allowed to bring out Indian editions, should be accepted in principle,” the resolution said.

Asked if the Cabinet can revise the policy despite the standing committee expressing itself against it, Mahajan said: “Even the standing committee report is not unanimous.”

   

 
 
HEARTBREAK BEFORE THE BIG HUG 
 
 
BY LOKENDRA PRATAP SAHI
 
Calcutta, April 24: 
“First reaction? Honestly, for that one moment when last man Cameron Cuffy was caught, I went blank…. It’s the next which was overwhelming,” acknowledged an on-cloud-nine Sourav Ganguly.

It was also a moment of vindication — courageously excluding Anil Kumble and playing Ashish Nehra, as the third seamer, paid off.

Speaking to The Telegraph (from the Trinidad Hilton), soon after becoming the third Indian captain to mastermind a Test victory in the West Indies, Sourav added: “Though it was a matter of time before we ended the defiance, it’s never quite the same till that last wicket has been claimed….”

Chasing 313 at the Queen’s Park Oval, the West Indies were stopped at 275. The win, however, wasn’t just India’s: Cricket itself couldn’t have had a more riveting promotion.

Asked whether, initially, relief was the dominant emotion, Sourav laughed: “Can’t recall…. All I remember is kissing the turf…. Hugging teammates, collecting the stumps as a souvenir, shouting hip-hip-hurray…. It’s been a while since I felt so happy.”

But did he also age in that gripping last hour or so?

“I’ve been ageing for the past two years, from the time I got the captaincy,” Sourav quipped.

[Incidentally, the ‘new look’ captain has “promised” wife Dona that he will return to being clean-shaven when the tour ends — early June.]

In much the same breath, Sourav continued: “Though I’ve been greying, the passion-level won’t change… It’s when one is so involved, so passionate (about the captaincy) that…”

Thankfully, (Chief) Match Referee Ranjan Madugalle didn’t book him for appearing to cross the line when third umpire Eddie Nicolls controversially ruled in Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s favour.

Talking about his most satisfying victories, Sourav said: “Personally, the level of satisfaction is the same as the two wins (Eden Gardens, Chepauk) against Australia… Traditionally, of course, overseas victories count for much more.”

Sourav now has four overseas wins (including the one in Dhaka 18 months ago) and while many will be tempted to rank last night’s at the top, the captain himself has a special place for the seven-wicket victory in Kandy (August 2001).

As he put it: “After all, we were then without Sachin Tendulkar, Jawagal Srinath, V.V.S.Laxman, Nehra and even Kumble… Beating Sri Lanka at home, that too with almost half the first XI not around, has got to be an achievement…”

Insisting India had only got a headstart, Sourav felt “everybody” must remember three Tests remain.

“In fact, that’s why I’m not dedicating our win to anybody special… We must first pocket this series…”

Even if the dedicating-bit was skipped, the team did dine together — personal invitations were declined — at Apsara, one of the more favoured restaurants in Port-of-Spain.

Yet another team dinner is on the cards once the touring side reaches St Lucia later today --- the occasion this time being Sachin’s 29th birthday.

Speaking exclusively, Sachin agreed he couldn’t have received a “more special” present. “I’m not going to forget our victory… Now, we must continue to remain in the winning-mode… This habit needs to be nurtured.”

Five years ago, in Bridgetown, Sachin had the chance of emulating Ajit Wadekar and Bishan Singh Bedi. Chasing 120, however, the Indians couldn’t even reach three-figures.

As captain, Sachin had cried.

Last night’s victory, though, has gone some way towards minimising the pain Sachin still feels.

   

 
 
RIOTS STORM BREWS IN BRITAIN 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, April 24: 
Imran Daud, a 19-year-old British Muslim who survived the communal killings in Gujarat, has returned to his home in Batley, Yorkshire, and will be a “valuable eyewitness” in legal cases being prepared against Narendra Modi and “other named persons”, his relatives said today.

They add they will not be satisfied with Modi’s dismissal as the chief minister of Gujarat but will pursue him and others for human rights violations and genocide in British, American and other courts, including the International Court of Justice.

Suleman Kazi, who described himself as the “legal representative” of friends and relatives of a group of British Muslims caught up in the Gujarat carnage, said that a writ would be issued in Britain within three to four weeks.

“We will be seeking Narendra Modi’s extradition,” Kazi said.

Whether a British court will entertain moves to extradite Indian nationals accused of being involved in — or being a silent spectator to, as in Modi’s case — the murders of other Indians on Indian territory remains to be seen. But what is not in doubt is the outrage felt by many Indian Muslims living in the Yorkshire area.

These Muslims have hitherto been loyal to India and kept themselves apart from the anti-India campaigns of Pakistani Muslims. But this may no longer be the case in the future if the Indian government is considered to be unsympathetic to their cause.

However, asked whether there was a risk of Pakistani-funded Islamic fundamentalist groups hijacking their campaign, Kazi gave this assurance: “We will not allow anyone to hijack our cause. Pakistan does not have any say since it has its own problems.”

Imran Daud, who was on holiday in India with friends and relatives, was in a car travelling from Agra to Ahmedabad. At Himmatnagar, 70 km from their destination, they hit a Hindu mob on the rampage, according to Kazi. It seems the victims were innocent Muslims caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. That their passports happened to be British made no difference.

The driver of their car was killed as was Mohammed Aswat, 43, a Batley resident who leaves behind a widow and five children, aged between 17 and seven. Two other residents of the car, Imran’s uncle and cousin, named as Saieed Daud and Shakeel, are still missing. Imran survived but is said to be “traumatised”.

This appears to be the first time British Muslims of Indian origin have suffered in communal clashes in India. Although the British government cannot intervene directly in the Gujarat killings, it will have to represent the interests of British nationals, who in this case happen to be Muslims of Indian origin.

Even if Modi and others do not face courts in Britain or elsewhere, his international reputation will be severely damaged. Atal Bihari Vajpayee may find that the task of backing Modi proves highly embarrassing.

Kazi drew a parallel with Henry Kissinger, the former American secretary of state, who is held by some of his critics in the West to be responsible for war crimes in Cambodia and elsewhere. “Even with all his eminence, Kissinger has been indicted for his activities in Chile. We will not stop our campaign even if Modi resigns.”

   

 
 
CANNES SLOT FOR DEVDAS 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, April 24: 
The Indian film industry’s most eagerly awaited film, Devdas, is to have a special screening at Cannes, the world’s most glamourous film festival, the organisers announced today.

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Devdas has been included in the official selection of films unveiled today in Paris. It will be shown out of competition in a special screening during the festival from May 15 to 26.

Cannes will also show a homage to one of Bollywood’s greats, Raj Kapoor, as well as a five-minute Indian movie, A Very Very Silent Film, by director Manish Sha, in its short film competition.

It is possible that some of the stars of Devdas, notably Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Jackie Shroff, may come to Cannes. If the Indian stars do turn up, they will be ranked alongside the big names of Hollywood who are expected to attend — Leonardo di Caprio, Cameron Diaz, Ralph Fiennes and Sandra Bullock, among others.

The decision to show Devdas has been warmly welcomed by film industry circles in the west.

Last year, India had put up a pavilion for the first time at Cannes. Those who visited the pavilion included Sushma Swaraj, the minister for information and broadcasting who promised government backing to help the Indian film industry achieve a higher international profile.

Avtar Panesar of Yashraj Films, who went to Cannes last year, said today: “I am glad Devdas is being shown at Cannes. What I said in my report last year was that we need to take festivals more seriously. If Cannes is in May, we should have a big film ready for this festival.”

Panesar said of Devdas, a classic which has been turned into a film more than once: “This is the biggest, most eagerly awaited film of the year, just as K3G was last year. The budget started at Rs 30 crores but it didn’t help that the financier (Bharat Shah) was inside. Because of the delays and other problems, the budget is now said to be Rs 50 crores.”

Panesar, who is well informed about the industry, told The Telegraph: “The makers have gone ballistic on set and costumes. K3G took £2.6 million in the UK. Devdas will have to do as well in the UK and elsewhere if it is to recover its money. I hope it does.”

Out of the list of 22 films in the main competition, three come from the United States: Punchdrunk Knuckle Love by Paul Thomas Anderson, About Schmidt by Alexander Payne and starring Jack Nicholson, and Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore. One — David Cronenberg’s Spider — comes from Canada.

Another three come from Britain: All or Nothing by Mike Leigh, 24 Hour Party People by Michael Winterbottom, and Sweet Sixteen by Ken Loach.

The opening film will be Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, which is being screened out of competition. The jury is presided over by US director David Lynch (who won the best director prize at Cannes last year for Mulholland Drive) and includes US star Sharon Stone on the panel.

   

 
 
HOME MINISTRY GLOSSES OVER MODI GLITCHES 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 25: 
The annual report of the home ministry predictably reflects the BJP line on the Gujarat riots and compliments the Centre and the state government for not allowing the violence to spread to the rest of the country.

Without directly defending chief minister Narendra Modi, the report tries to whitewash the Gujarat government’s failings and does not mention the delay in deployment of the army. Nor does it touch upon the role of the police, who have been accused of looking the other way as Muslims were being targeted.

The complete breakdown of law and order and the administration’s inability to control the violence find no mention in the report either.

This has sparked speculation about whether the report would have been more critical of the administration had Gujarat not been ruled by the BJP or if most of the victims were Hindus.

The report for the year 2001-2002 dubs as a “highly disturbing development”, the largescale communal violence in Gujarat following the Godhra carnage on February 27, in which 58 persons were burnt to death.

Following the Godhra attack, the violence spread to Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Anand, Mehsana, Panchmahal and Rajkot, the report says. It goes on to make the point that “...the state government immediately” deployed 18 columns of army, 28 columns of central paramilitary forces and 66 columns of the state reserve police force to control the riots. This is perhaps to convince the nation that the Gujarat administration had done its bit to control the blood-letting.

The report notes as “a positive development’’ the fact that violence did not spread to other states.

Riots were confined to Gujarat “due to the initiative taken by the Central and state governments, the alertness of the law-enforcing agencies and a rare sense of maturity and aversion to violence shown by people of all communities,’’ the report said.

Probe plea dismissed

L.K. Advani today dismissed in the Rajya Sabha the Opposition’s demand for a probe into the riots by a sitting member of the Supreme Court on the plea that the Modi government has already instituted a judicial probe.    

 
 
JAYA TAKES BUDDHA TIP 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, April 24: 
After Bengal, Tamil Nadu.

Jayalalithaa is contemplating a law along the lines of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s proposed Prevention of Organised Crime Act and the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999.

The chief minister told the Assembly today that this was to tackle the menace of organised crime which has for “quite some years now emerged as a very serious threat to our society”.

The proposed legislation is aimed at effectively tackling habitual offenders falling under 18 categories, Jayalalithaa said.

The list includes contract killings, kidnappings for ransom, extortion, gang activities like robbery, dacoity, organised drug smuggling, organised distillation and manufacturing of poisonous liquor, trafficking in women and children or kidnapping for purposes of begging or child labour, professional cheating by non-banking financial institutions, among others.

Veerappan can also be prosecuted under the proposed Act as smuggling of sandalwood will come under the purview of the legislation.

Illegal wealth generated by “organised crime” was very huge and had adverse impact on the economy. Organised criminal syndicates make common cause with terrorist gangs and foster narco-terrorism, Jayalalithaa said.

To make the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Eve-Teasing Act, 1998, more effective, Jayalalithaa said the government proposed to amend it to make punishment for eve-teasing more stringent.

   

 
 
AIR MARSHAL SHUNTED OUT 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, April 24: 
Air Marshal Vinod “Jimmy” Bhatia, the Western Air Command chief, indicted for flying into Pakistani airspace through the Kargil sector on January 19, is being transferred as inspector-general (IG) in the IAF headquarters.

Bhatia retains his rank and status as an air officer commanding-in-chief (AOC-in-C) but his new posting will mean a notional downgrading for the officer and a loss of prestige. But it also means an upgradation of the post of inspector-general. The IG’s main responsibility is flight safety.

The current inspector-general of the IAF, Air Marshal Bali, is not an AOC-in-C.

The Western Air Command is the air force’s most strategic operational command. His removal from that post after he was found to have erred on a maiden flight to Kargil airstrip on an An-32 means he is being divested of a responsibility that is often interpreted in IAF circles as the second-most important job after the air chief.

The command covers airspace over much of the border with Pakistan in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir. AOC-in-Cs are equivalent to the vice-chief of the IAF.

Defence ministry sources said the new posting of the current inspector-general, Air Marshal Bali, has not yet been confirmed. A comprehensive order on Bhatia’s transfer, and a new posting for Air Marshal Bali is expected later this week. The order may also name a new AOC-in-C for the Central Air Command where Air Marshal V.K. Verma is due to retire next month.

An inquiry carried out by the then Southern Air Command chief, Air Marshal Sekhon, found that Air Marshal Bhatia had flown 11 minutes into PoK airspace. Sekhon was later asked to leave the service after it was found that he had written to former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, seeking his political support to be posted as Western Air Command chief. Sekhon’s place in the Southern Air Command has been taken by Air Marshal Asthana.

Bhatia has actually been let off mildly, without so much as a censure because the air force headquarters took the view that the transgression was not deliberate.

It probably would have settled for just a verbal reprimand had it not been for the army’s annoyance with Bhatia who had alleged that his aircraft was fired at from within Indian territory.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 33.6°C (-2);
Minimum: 27.1°C (+2)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative Humidity

Max: 91%,
Min: 51%

Sunrise: 5.12 am

Sunset: 5.57 pm

Today

Generally cloudy sky, with possibility of light rain, accompanied by thunder, towards evening
   
 

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