Absence cloud on medical officers
City doctors in arsenic drive
Allies back big brother’s Speaker bid
BJP pays back Naidu at home
‘Lion cub’ Paswan hits streets
Blood flows at wedding and 15 anniversaries
Debts drive youths to death in land of plenty
Disabled wake-up call to Centre
Damper on TN infotech ‘dream’
Children chained in cotton farms

 
 
ABSENCE CLOUD ON MEDICAL OFFICERS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Chinsurah, May 5: 
District magistrate Subrata Biswas has filed a written complaint with the state health department against the district’s chief medical officer of health and the Chinsurah Imambara hospital superintendent for attending work from Calcutta and not staying in the quarters allotted to them.

Residents of the area complain about the duo’s absence from the district during an emergency, Biswas said today. Doctors and other employees of district hospitals complain that they have to face wrath from patients’ relations because the two key health officials are not available, the district magistrate claimed.

“People are repeatedly complaining against these two officers. Though chief medical officer of health Abdul Mannan has been allotted a nice quarter at Chinsurah circuit house, he does not stay there. Mannan is supposed to stay here as the district chief medical officer,” Biswas observed.

The district magistrate also took strong exception to Chinsurah Imambara hospital superintendent Siddhartha Neogi not using his spacious quarters in the district. Like Mannan, he is also attending office from Calcutta despite several requests from patients, doctors and nurses of the Imambara hospital to use the quarters allotted to him in the hospital campus.

Mannan reaches office around 12 noon everyday from Calcutta by car and leaves around 4 pm, according to staff at his office. He also stays in Calcutta every weekend.

   

 
 
CITY DOCTORS IN ARSENIC DRIVE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 5: 
Critical care medicine took on a new role today when experts and doctors from the city visited Karimpur in Nadia to boost efforts for prevention and cure of arsenic poisoning.

The Calcutta branch of the Indian Society of Critical Care Medicine, in association with the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, organised a public awareness programme in an area where the incidence of arsenic poisoning is high and rising.

“The society, which is basically involved in the training of various sections of people in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other critical care delivery, has taken on arsenic poisoning because of its growing incidence in several districts of the state,” said branch secretary Saurabh Kole.

Arsenic poisoning is taking on alarming proportions, especially in a belt along the Bangladesh border. “Victims are not just falling ill and facing disfigurement because of arsenic affliction but dying as well,” said Kole.

The problem is compounded by the fact that even food items such as vegetables and cow’s milk were found containing arsenic after being cultivated or cooked in contaminated water, according to recent findings of the institute’s nutrition department.

More than 8 lakh people will be directly or indirectly affected by arsenic poisoning in Bengal by 2006.

“Since boiling deep tube-well water does not clear it of arsenic, other inexpensive and practical methods have to be adopted,” Kole said.

“During the programme, we demonstrated methods by which arsenic content could be minimised, including building cheap, multi-layer filters.”

   

 
 
ALLIES BACK BIG BROTHER’S SPEAKER BID 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 5: 
With the Telugu Desam Party declining to accept the Speaker’s post, it seems the BJP will stake claim. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee favoured a consensus last night in Gwalior while parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said in Mumbai today the NDA will meet soon to finalise a name.

The election for the Speaker’s post is slated for May 10. The NDA’s key allies, like the Trinamul Congress, the Janata Dal (United) and the DMK, have backed the BJP’s claim on the ground that it is the single largest constituent.

BJP sources said “informal” confabulations among the brass on the nominee will begin tomorrow after which NDA convener George Fernandes is expected to convene a meeting of its floor leaders. Among the names in circulation were those of petroleum minister Ram Naik, culture and tourism minister Jagmohan and BJP chief whip in the Lok Sabha and parliamentary party spokesman V.K. Malhotra.

However, a section of the BJP discounted the possibility of Jagmohan and Malhotra. Jagmohan was seen as “too rigid” and doubts were expressed on whether he would be able to carry the Opposition along with him.

Experience, the sources maintained, was not on Malhotra’s side as his earlier stints as MP ended prematurely before the House could complete its tenure.

Naik, a fifth-time MP, was said to have both “experience and the right temperament”. The sources said Naik as the petroleum minister had “accommodated” the Opposition’s “interests” whenever necessary.

The other name doing the rounds was Laxmi Narain Pandey, a veteran Madhya Pradesh MP who is also on the panel of the Lok Sabha’s presiding officers.

Sources said the much-awaited Cabinet reshuffle will take place in early June after Vajpayee’s Turkey visit. BJP sources were still unsure whether the exercise would be a “large-scale” one, involving the removal of certain heavyweights. “All we know is that the two yardsticks would be sprucing up the government’s image and getting rid of incompetent ministers,” said a member of the BJP national executive.

Although it looked like Yashwant Sinha was under threat till a month ago, his glitzy power-point presentation on his ministry at the Goa national executive apparently silenced critics. Even Vajpayee gave him a certificate of commendation in the recent CII plenary.

However, it seemed certain that as “reward” for backing the Centre on the censure motion, Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee would get a weighty portfolio while Dal(U) leader Sharad Yadav would be shifted from labour to a more “important” ministry.

   

 
 
BJP PAYS BACK NAIDU AT HOME 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, May 5: 
The BJP is doing in Hyderabad what Chandrababu Naidu is doing in Delhi. As the Telugu Desam chief displayed a capacity to become a constant headache for the NDA government with his dilly-dallying on the censure motion and yesterday’s Speaker snub, the state unit of the BJP is turning into a thorn in the side of Naidu’s government.

Hitherto forbidden to say anything that could ruffle relations with the NDA’s biggest sponsor, the Andhra BJP is gearing up for a vicious campaign against the state government.

Union junior urban development minister Bandaru Dattatreya fired the first salvo at Naidu yesterday by raising the issue of cotton farmers committing suicide, at a national seminar on the technology mission on cotton. He charged that though the Centre had agreed to a minimum support price of Rs 1,900, the farmers in Andhra Pradesh were getting only Rs 1,620 per quintal.

He also charged the state government with not having distributed surplus land as the BJP launched a “land to landless” programme, promising plots to the tribal, Dalit and backward class poor, much to the Desam’s discomfiture. “About 1.5 lakh acre surplus land surrendered under the land ceiling Act has still not been distributed to the poor in the state,” Dattatreya said while launching the programme yesterday.

Dattatreya has been a Naidu-baiter for long, but had veiled his attacks behind good-humoured jabs as long as the NDA honeymoon was on. He had recently told a local newspaper: “Chandrababu Naidu is not God’s gift to AP. He is only a good administrator.” Perhaps such a remark had angered the chief minister’s office that did not route one of his calls to Naidu.

The angry minister, accorded scant respect by the Naidu set-up, had refused to make any call to Naidu thereafter. But he was pacified by Union minister and BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu.

The souring of relations between Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Naidu became clear two days ago from their terse exchange. “We cannot wait forever for you to decide. Please hurry,” was Vajpayee’s brief message on the Speaker issue that shook up the Desam that once thought Naidu had a steel grip on Vajpayee.

Widow for bypoll

The Desam has decided to field Vijaya Kumari, widow of former Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, for byelection to Amalapuram seat to be held later this month.

   

 
 
‘LION CUB’ PASWAN HITS STREETS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, May 5: 
Having parted ways with the NDA over Gujarat, former Union coal minister Ram Vilas Paswan today took the first steps towards re-establishing his political credentials as a front-ranking Dalit leader from Bihar with a substantial support among the minorities.

While announcing escalation in his confrontation with the BJP on the one hand and “fake” Dalit outfits such as the BSP and the RJD on the other, Paswan vowed to work for the welfare of the minorities.

A host of minority leaders greeted Paswan as he hit the streets, squatting near the Income Tax Corner in protest against the ongoing pogrom in Gujarat. Over 20 front-ranking Muslim leaders of Bihar, sporting the white cap that symbolised peace, attended the Lok Janshakti Party protest rally. “It is time for the political parties to stand up and be counted on whether they were on the side of the killer or the killed,” he said.

Ridiculing the Prime Minister for his double standards on Gujarat, Paswan said it was easy to rule a government but difficult to rule a country with such a varied social composition.

Already, Paswan’s decision to break away from the NDA is paying political dividend. Shabbir Hyder, one of the Muslim leaders who attended the Lok Janshakti rally said Paswan used to be hated by the Muslims for joining the NDA fold. But he has washed himself clean of this stain now and clarified his position by his decision to resign from the NDA government, Hyder added.

Paswan said he would visit Gujarat on May 8 to launch a peace initiative. He would then travel to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states to launch Dalit-minority fronts.

Ridiculing the BSP-BJP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, particularly the elephant, the BSP symbol, Paswan said he would prove that he was the son of a lion. “Lion’s kids often maul elephants. Elephants run away when they see the advance of a lion,” he said, adding that the elephant was now in the control of the sadhus.

“I am back to my original ideology and my constant endeavour would be to integrate the minority with the mainstream, especially the Dalits and the tribals, who constitute 25 per cent of the entire population,” he said.

   

 
 
BLOOD FLOWS AT WEDDING AND 15 ANNIVERSARIES 
 
 
FROM SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Dashghara (Hooghly), May 5: 
He postponed his marriage by a few months to a day when he could donate blood. The invitation to his wedding reception noted that a blood donation camp would precede the ceremony. And he is the only person in Bengal, on the state health department’s map, who has organised a similar camp every wedding anniversary.

Meet Swarup Das. Now 45, a father of two and into 15 years of wedded life, he is still not ready to give up what he does best: add to the state-controlled blood bank’s kitty a few bottles of the precious liquid that helps save lives of people he has neither met nor would ever meet.

Health department officials have been coming to Das’ home every wedding anniversary for the past 15 years to take the blood donated to the Chinsurah Blood Bank. However, they don’t know that he is now jobless and was recently handed a voluntary retirement scheme slip by his employers.

They also don’t know that Das was living in Bhagalpur for the past three years and would come home in the morning for his anniversary before packing his bags to leave for his job the same evening.

But they are sure that there is no one else quite like him in the entire state when it comes to donating blood and goading others into doing the same.

Das married Sarbani on April 29, 1988. He could have married in February but did not: he had donated blood earlier that month and, as donors are not permitted to give blood again within three months, he waited till that three-month period was over.

His reception on May 1 began with a blood donation camp. Every year since, come outstation posting or VRS slip, he has been at it on the first Sunday of every May. The anniversary feast is a must — even during these jobless times — but is always preceded by a camp to donate blood.

Das’ first love, interestingly, wasn’t blood but football. The game introduced him to blood donation camps: he first donated blood at the Football-Lovers’ Day camp organised by the Association of Voluntary Blood Donors on August 16, 1982, at Eden Gardens. Soon the then unemployed youth came back to the association’s office at Sealdah to enrol himself for a diploma course in the science of blood donation.

“Ours is a blood-splattered house,” Das remarked jocularly today, pointing to the hand-stitched cover of the telephone or his children’s sweaters. All of them, knitted by his wife, ask you to “share blood and share life”. His first-born’s name (a son) is Sonitasroti, which means “flow of blood” in Bengali.

The first Sunday in May this year, just like other Sundays of May for one-and-a-half decades, began early for the Das household.

Wedding anniversaries for the Das couple start with cleaning up the naat mandir of the local zamindar’s house at nearby Biswaspara where the camps are held. The camps had started in their own courtyard but have now outgrown it.

This year, 65 people responded to the couple’s call to “share blood and share life”. Some came all the way from Calcutta’s Rashbehari Avenue and urban fringes like Konnagar.

“We began with 25,” Sarbani said.

“Having a hundred donors some May would be quite an achievement, wouldn’t it?” she asked, a little unsure, before turning her mind back to the preparations for the anniversary feast.

   

 
 
DEBTS DRIVE YOUTHS TO DEATH IN LAND OF PLENTY 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Chandigarh, May 5: 
They harboured dreams of making it rich abroad to pay off their parents’ debts back home.

The deaths of two dozen youths, who drowned off the coast of Greece on April 16 while travelling illegally to the country, have brought into focus the problem of unemployment in one of India’s richest states.

Jatinder Kumar, Mukhtiar Singh, Bhajan Singh, Rachhpal Singh and Surinder Kumar, five youths who are missing, were not only unemployed but had at some time or the other, even contemplated suicide after learning of the debt-burden on their parents.

Police sources in Nawanshahr, where the victims belonged, said all of them came from families of marginal farmers, with less than seven acres, or small traders. Their aim was to earn money to supplement the families’ plummeting income here.

“Punjab is faced with two major problems. One is unemployment and the other is debt. There is no district where marginal farmers have not resorted to taking loans from various agencies either to meet the expenses of farm inputs or for the marriage of their children.

With income from farm produce dwindling, they take the risk of going abroad illegally with support from their parents,” a senior district police officer said.

A survey conducted by the Parkash Singh Badal government on rural credit and indebtedness in the state revealed that 89.29 per cent of farmers took short-term loans from different credit agencies to carry out their crop production operations.

The amount borrowed per acre was the highest among small farmers and the lowest among big farmers.

As many as 34.43 per cent of the farmers failed to repay their loans even after selling their crops, while 70 per cent of the small farmers fell into the debt-burden by not being able to pay the interest.

The increasing number of farmers failing to repay loans has forced many to commit suicide but also resort to sending their children abroad through illegal means.

The rich farmers — not many in Punjab according to chief minister Amarinder Singh — have the means to send their children abroad through legal channels, but not the marginal ones.

Having someone abroad to supplement the family’s income so that debt can be wiped off has become the “in” thing in the state.

“It is like a status symbol,” says Mohinder Kaur of Musapur and mother of Mukhtiar, a passenger of the ill-fated boat. Kaur fears Mukhtiar might have drowned in the capsize.

She has been visiting tantriks and astrologers to seek “divine” intervention for her son’s safe return. The debt-burden, for the time being, has been forgotten.

Jatinder’s father, Om Parkash, who has been visiting the Nawanshahr’s deputy commissioner’s office regularly, rued that the Green revolution, which turned Punjab into a land of plenty, had failed to create sufficient employment opportunities in the state.

He said unemployment was concentrated in the low-income group and it added to illiteracy. “Not many of us who send our children abroad can educate them. That is the bigger problem,” Parkash added.

Feigning ignorance, both Kaur and Parkash refused to reveal the modus operandi employed by their sons to leave for Lebanon and then onwards to Turkey before boarding the boat to Greece.

Both said their sons never told them and refused to comment on whether any loans were taken to pay human traffickers for the journey. Satwinder Singh yesterday called up his father Bakshi Ram of Mithapur village to say that he had survived the capsize and had been admitted to hospital. According to the Nawanshahr police, four more families were still in the dark over the fate of their children.

Only six families have so far informed the police about their missing children. The youths had left New Delhi on the night of December 29-30.

   

 
 
DISABLED WAKE-UP CALL TO CENTRE 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, May 5: 
Seventy million people in India suffer from disability. But the Central government has little time to pay heed to their woes.

Pushed into a corner by the government’s persisting apathy, Javed Abidi, convener of Disabled Rights Group (DRG), an advocacy group for the rights of the disabled, will go on an indefinite hunger strike from next Tuesday.

“Completely frustrated, angry and hurt, the DRG convener has decided to take this drastic step,” said the advocacy group.

They had created a lot of pressure on the eve of Union budget 2002, hoping to get finance minister Yashwant Sinha’s attention. The DRG held a sit-in outside Shastri Bhawan and sent numerous petitions to the ministry of social welfare, Sinha and the Prime Minister. They had knocked on the doors of Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, too.

The DRG wants the finance minister to raise the income tax exemption limit from Rs 40,000 to Rs 1,00,000 for the disabled, exempt wheelchairs, hearing aids, Braille from import duties and taxes and to get the private sector to employ disabled people.

These are the immediate demands. There are also long-term demands, but the government pretends to see none. The finance minister, in his latest amendments to the budget, has slashed customs duty on butter but wheelchairs or braille equipment has failed to catch his slightest attention. After waiting for months to get some positive feedback, the DRG is now ready to go to any lengths to draw the government’s attention.

The Disability Act was passed in 1995. Six years down the line, the people supposed to benefit from the legislation have nothing to celebrate. They are angry at the callousness of both the Centre and the state. “The law has fantastic provisions and the future of the disabled people will begin to change if only 10 per cent of these were implemented on ground,” says Abidi.

It guarantees 3 per cent reservation in educational institutions but till date, there is not a single college or university in the country that has implemented it. On paper, the law also ensures 3 per cent reservation in jobs in all government offices and public sector undertakings. But hardly any such individual has managed to land a job for the last 6 years.

The law even has incentives for private sector employers if they employ more than 5 per cent of disabled people in their workforce. But what these incentives are have not been spelt out till date.

“The law also directs that all public places be made accessible for the disabled”, says Abidi. The reality is, however, radically different. The central co-ordination committee, the law directs, should meet every six months. But instead of meeting 12 times in the last six years, the committee has met thrice. Hardly five states have appointed Disability Commissioners, as per law.

   

 
 
DAMPER ON TN INFOTECH ‘DREAM’ 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, May 5: 
A “dream” project kickstarted by the DMK regime headed by M. Karunanidhi has got a quiet burial under the ADMK government. But this time, it isn’t politics.

Tamilnadu Institute of Information Technology (Tanitec), which took off amid much fanfare under the guidance of N. Vittal in 1998, is now being merged with the Anna University. The process is already under way, confirmed sources.

Tanitec will now be one of the centres in the university for higher-level research in IT, a far cry from the institute of excellence matching world-class standards that it was meant to be.

Modelled on the lines of the IITs in terms of quality of education and infrastructure, Tanitec was Vittal’s “big dream”, sources said. The “wizard” had earlier transformed the industrial scene in Gujarat.

Infotech and its applications in various fields, including biotech, were supposed to be the focus of the institute, which would have become a deemed university in course of time.

Karunanidhi had inaugurated Tanitec on September 11, 1998, at the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu premises in Perungudi in the presence of Union commerce minister Murasoli Maran.

Though constituted as a non-profit company, Tanitec was to attract the best talent among staff and students and even if initially supported by the Tamil Nadu government, was planned to become a self-sustaining professional institution.

An outstanding academic, Prof Venkatramani was chosen to head the Institute. Initially, a memorandum of understanding had been signed with the Anna University to start a post-graduate diploma in IT from 1998-99.

Even as there arose difficulties in Venkatramani taking charge, Vittal was made the chief vigilance commissioner. He had to relinquish the chairmanship of Tanitec and head for Delhi. Venkatramani, too, dropped out.

And there began the slide.

“I do not think there was any political interference after the change of government last year but Tanitec did not serve the purpose for which it was designed,” sources said.

Tanitec lacked the “big push” in the absence of leading scholars from abroad at the top and its faculty lacked the sheen of a world-class institute of higher learning.

Teachers from schools like the Madras Institute of Technology were filling in and the Anna University, which diluted Tanitec’s standing as an autonomous institute, issued the diplomas. Operating under the “academic control” of the university, the institute failed to carve a niche for itself and became just another of its kind in the mushrooming sector.

Vittal’s “big dream” in developing Tanitec and the profile that he wanted to give the institute came a cropper as it failed to get the “right people at the helm”, the sources said.

The state government had sanctioned Rs 10 crore for the project but it became another slot in the normal academic stream under the government fold.

The transfer of the staff and assets of Tanitec to the Anna University is expected to be complete by July, the sources added.

   

 
 
CHILDREN CHAINED IN COTTON FARMS 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, May 5: 
Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, which made headlines last month for an acute shortage of drinking water, is again in the news. This time for an alarming increase in child labour.

According to a recent survey, the district’s bidi industry, cotton and chilli farms employed nearly 1.5 lakh child labourers. Almost 20-30 per cent of them were kept chained throughout the day to prevent them from running away.

More alarming was the inhuman treatment meted out to the child labour employed by the big landlords of the district. Some of them were chained when they retired for the day, while the younger ones were chained throughout the day to prevent them from running away.

According to police officials, child labour had been around for generations, but the incidence had shot up alarmingly in the last one decade due to a paucity of farm labour. “Either faction politics or poor wages had driven them away to neighbouring districts or states,” said C.Y. Reddy of a local NGO.

In Lakshmyapur village in Pagidyal mandal, chained bidi labourers were found following a tussle between the CPM and the local landlords, supporters of the Telugu Desam. There were 22 child labourers working in the bidi units of the village.

According to Kurnool district collector G. Sai Prasad, the prime cause of growing child labour was the menace of moneylenders in the villages. “Parents who could not return loans had to leave their children, even minor daughters, for work. Such practice was evident even in the houses of prominent politicians and faction leaders of the district,” Prasad said.

In Lakshmyapur village, 12-year-old Bhuvaneswari was left with bidi contractor Krishna four years ago. She had been traded for interest on Rs 4,000, borrowed by her mother.

Bhuvaneswari was keen on studies but the merchant made her work over 12 hours a day. Five months ago, he chained her after she tried to run away. Srinivas, 8, was left by his parents with bidi merchant Naganna against a loan of Rs 2,000.

According to an NGO’s report, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s erstwhile parliamentary constituency Nandyal, too, had a high incidence of child labour toiling in its slate-stone mines.

The mines were particularly notorious for exploiting children weighing less than 35 kg.

   
 

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