Buddha backtracks on private tuition
Jilted mother slits newborn’s throat
Power row threatens districts
Sawmills sealed on border
Joshi shakes off remote control
India joins AIDS vaccine group
Channels chafe at set-tops
Unions grope for face-saver
Rebel who minced no words
Pay thy namesake neighbour’s bill

 
 
BUDDHA BACKTRACKS ON PRIVATE TUITION 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 10: 
The Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government today backpedalled on the issue of private tuitions, bowing to pressures from within the CPM and the formidable teachers’ lobbies.

The pointer to the climbdown was given by school education minister Kanti Biswas, who announced that the government would start releasing the salaries it had blocked from Monday.

The government had stopped paying salaries to force teachers in state-aided schools, colleges and universities to furnish undertakings that they would not take private tuitions, much to the anger of the heavily unionised teaching community, of which the most formidable section is the CPM-run All Bengal Teachers’ Association (ABTA).

Before announcing the climbdown at Writers’ Buildings, Biswas held a meeting with finance minister Asim Dasgupta. The finance minister is also believed to have come under severe pressure from state CPM secretary Anil Biswas because of the government’s tough stand.

The mood in the party headquarters on this issue was not lost on the government. The statements emanating from Alimuddin Street over the past 48 eight hours in praise of the teachers subtly asked the government to refashion its approach to the contentious issue.

“They (teachers) have made an enormous contribution to the making and continuation of the Left Front government in Bengal. They are our friends. I am sure that the government will not take any step that is insulting,” Biswas said, apparently in view of the approaching panchayat elections. The ABTA had also lobbied hard with other senior leaders like Left Front chairman Biman Bose.

Political parties are likely to field teachers as nominees in a huge number of seats in the three tier-Panchayat election. Many teachers will also be deployed to assist in the elections. A harsh decision like blocked pay may provoke the teachers into a collision course with the government and the parties before the elections.

Education minister Kanti Biswas also hinted that the government was going to water down the policy in more than one ways. “We will not even stop the salaries of those teachers who have not yet submitted undertaking regarding private tuition. But we will request them to furnish the undertakings within a month.”

Dasgupta, too, said he was in favour of a soft approach while dealing with the teachers. “I have no objection to clearing the salaries of teachers once the education department gives us the green signal,” the finance minister said.

   

 
 
JILTED MOTHER SLITS NEWBORN’S THROAT 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Barasat, May 10: 
A woman slit the throat of her newborn son last night in North 24-Parganas, fearing social ostracism when her Dum Dum-based paramour denied being the baby’s father.

Police arrested the woman, who confessed to cutting the baby’s throat with a shaving blade, in Chanditala near here, and then throwing the body into a pond. Her mother has been detained.

Shanti Haoladar has been staying with her mother at Chanditala since her husband Dilip left her a few years ago. A year ago, Shanti developed a relationship with Raju of Dum Dum. Her troubles started as soon as she became pregnant.

“Shanti murdered her son few hours after she gave birth, thinking it was the only way to avoid social ostracism,” said North 24-Parganas additional superintendent of police Rahul Srivastav. “We are looking for Raju,” he added.

Preliminary investigations reveal that it was a cold-blooded murder.

Shanti and her mother Malati hatched the plan together, police said. They also recovered the blade used to cut the baby’s throat.

Shanti gave birth to the male child around 3.30 am yesterday, according to the police. Residents of the area were surprised to hear the baby’s cries as they did not know that Shanti was pregnant.

“We were in dark because she had not come out of her house for the past five months. We felt something was wrong as soon as we heard a baby’s cries coming out from a house where a two-member family — Shanti and her mother — resides,” said a neighbour.

Residents of the area became suspicious when they found that the baby has stopped crying at night. The neighbours started assembling in front of the house and decided to enter it.

“We were sure something was wrong. We heard the baby’s cry throughout the day. But when we went close to the house it was absolutely silent,” said another resident of the area.

According to police, the neighbours, then, entered the house and saw Shanti and her mother sitting on the floor. “When we asked them about the baby, they were silent. We then started searching in and around the house,” said a neighbour.

After a one-and-half-hour-search, the locals found the body in a nearby pond. “The baby’s throat was slashed,” said another resident of the area.

“The family tried its best to keep the pregnancy under wraps from the beginning. Neither Shanti nor her mother contacted any physician even during the advanced stage of pregnancy. The woman gave birth to the boy in their own house,” pointed out a police official.

Enteric epidemic

The threat of an epidemic looms large over the Alipurduar subdivision in Jalpaiguri with gastroenteritis claiming two more lives in the Chuapara tea plantation in Dooars region, taking the toll to 18.

The malady, which was first detected in the Chuapara plantation in the first week of April, has since spread to the neighbouring Radharani and Mechpara tea plantations.

   

 
 
POWER ROW THREATENS DISTRICTS 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, May 10: 
Bengal districts reeled under power cuts today as the National Thermal Power Corporation drastically reduced generation to restrict its supply to Orissa’s Gridco.

Power department sources said NTPC shut down its units at Farakka and closed down three other units at Talcher and Kahalgaon over the past couple of days to stop supply to Gridco because of non-payment of power-purchase dues to the tune of Rs 875 crore.

Recently, NTPC had lifted restrictions on supply imposed on March 10 when Gridco promised to pay the current dues. However, the company defaulted and proposed that it would pay up through issue of bonds. This was rejected by NTPC at a meeting yesterday afternoon. A few hours later, the corporation shut down a major unit at Farakka.

Due to the sudden drop in power in the eastern grid, the frequency of supply fluctuated wildly. To prevent a grid collapse, the state electricity board resorted to “artificial” power cuts.

   

 
 
SAWMILLS SEALED ON BORDER 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, May 10: 
Police commandos and forest department officials today sealed eight illegal sawmills housed in as many godowns along the Indo-Bhutan border and seized mature timer worth more than Rs 20 lakh.

“Joint raids were conducted this morning by forest department personnel and police commandos on eight sawmills along the Indo-Bhutan border near Jaigoan today. We had got a tip-off that suspected militants of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland were running illegal sawmills in godowns,” said Coochbehar divisional forest officer Kalyan Das.

“Though no one was arrested from the sawmills on the outskirts in Jalpaiguri district, we seized 15 truckloads of matured Sal and Seghun timber valued at over Rs 20 lakh from eight godowns that housed the sawmills. More than 100 forest personnel and district police commandos raided the godowns,” said the forest officer.

   

 
 
JOSHI SHAKES OFF REMOTE CONTROL 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, May 10: 
Shiv Sena MP Manohar Joshi was elected Speaker of the 13th Lok Sabha without a contest today, becoming the fifth person to assume the Chair in the middle of a term.

All the Opposition parties backed Joshi, but expressed reservations over the choice of a Shiv Sena nominee by refusing to sign his nomination papers. The Opposition had left it to the government to make its choice.

CPM veteran Somnath Chatterjee sarcastically referred to the power wielded by Sena chief Bal Thackeray, telling Joshi: “I hope you will not surrender to the remote control.”

Taking a dig at Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Chatterjee said he hoped Joshi would not become a “pracharak first” (like Vajpayee) but be a true soldier of the House.

Soon after his election, Joshi, who quit the Union Cabinet yesterday as heavy industries minister, tried to dispel the apprehensions of the Opposition. “I will not be remote-controlled,” he told reporters. “The Sena chief has told me to be impartial and I would conduct the proceedings of the House in such a manner.”

Asked how he would strike a balance between the Sena’s hardline Hindutva ideology and his post, Joshi said: “Hindutva is no doubt our philosophy. (The) Party will not give up (the) Hindutva issue. But issues in the House are decided on merit. This is a constitutional post.”

On the Gujarat violence, which has repeatedly held up proceedings in the House, the new Speaker said it was “not the only issue” and there were others like “poverty” and “lack of drinking water”. Gujarat, he said, has already been discussed but added that he might allow a debate if something new crops up.

Joshi’s new innings began soon after noon. Vajpayee proposed Joshi’s name, home minister L.K. Advani seconded it and the motion was carried by voice vote with members, mostly of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, responding with a resounding “ayes”. Later, Vajpayee and leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi, as is the tradition, escorted him to the Speaker’s chair.

In the best parliamentary tradition, the 65-year-old Speaker was greeted and congratulated by the entire House once he was elected. “I thank you for electing me as Speaker,” a visibly moved Joshi told the members.

Chatterjee said: “Our hope is that you will not surrender yourself to any remote control and hold the balance even. I urge you to lean towards (the) Left... It is always (the) better and most dependent side.”

The CPM leader said parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan had raised a controversy over whether Joshi’s election should be unanimous because of the doubts over his political affiliation and the Sena’s programmes and policies. Even the Election Commission had to take action against the Sena chief, Chatterjee said, but added that “this is no reflection on you personally”.

The Prime Minister hailed his election, saying the tradition of electing the Speaker unopposed has been maintained. He expressed confidence that Joshi would do justice by upholding the Constitution and rules.

Congress chief Sonia, in her brief remarks, said a great responsibility has been thrust on Joshi to uphold the time-honoured traditions of Indian polity.

Referring to Chatterjee’s barbs, Joshi later said: “It was Thackeray who gave me an opportunity and it was he who brought me into politics…”

Joshi was diplomatic on the Opposition’s refusal to recognise George Fernandes as defence minister. “I think the Opposition has its own point of view but the matter can be resolved through debate and by asking questions and not by stalling proceedings,” he said.

Joshi said he would put behind him 32 years of experience in handling legislative and other businesses in his new role. The Speaker has to work in close co-operation with members and Opposition leaders, he said.

On the question of poor attendance in the House, Joshi said: “It is a serious problem. It is the responsibility of party leaders to ensure that members are present in the House during discussions on important issues.”

   

 
 
INDIA JOINS AIDS VACCINE GROUP 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 10: 
India is moving towards developing an AIDS vaccine as the Union health ministry today entered into an agreement with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) with the aim of pooling together their manufacturing know-how.

According to estimates, there are over three million Indians infected with HIV. Representatives of nine countries are going to meet here tomorrow to discuss the issue and for the first time, Indian political leaders seem to have taken an interest.

At a joint news conference with the Initiative, the National AIDS Control Organisation (Naco) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) this afternoon, Congress MP Kapil Sibal said: “There will be a Parliamentary committee that will be part of the exercise.”

Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi and the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra are scheduled to attend tomorrow’s meeting on AIDS.

The first project under India-IAVI includes the development of a vaccine by Therion Biologics, a US company, in co-operation with Indian researchers. ICMR chief N.K. Ganguly said the planning will focus on making a successful vaccine affordable and immediately available to anyone who needs it.

The policymakers were not able to spell out the price of the vaccine immediately but were certain that it would be kept within the reach of the majority. At present, drugs to combat AIDS are too expensive for the common man.

“The pricing will be negotiated between the manufacturing companies — the government, the ICMR and IAVI,” said Naco chief J.V.R. Prasada Rao.

The ICMR has identified Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and the Northeast as the “field sites” where they can carry out the experiments. The nodal agencies in charge of the project are the ICMR and the Naco. However, the committee to supervise the trials will also include members of women’s organisations and the National Human Rights Commission.

“There will be complete transparency in the trials and the people will be taken into full confidence,” said Ganguly.

Representatives of the International Initiative said AIDS vaccines have already entered stages II and III of trials in Thailand and the US and the first laboratory trials are expected to start by 2003. “Over 50 possible AIDS vaccines are now in some stage of clinical trial around the world,” said Dr Vijay Mehra.

The Naco chief said India has lost a lot of time by not going in for a vaccine and relying on drugs. “There are no cures — they can only improve the life of a patient,” said Rao.

The Initiative’s representatives said they are yet to find out how much of a success the vaccine will be but it is the only long-term answer to AIDS.

   

 
 
CHANNELS CHAFE AT SET-TOPS 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, May 10: 
Union information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj’s proposal to make set-top boxes mandatory for pay channels is likely to be stiffly opposed by broadcasters.

The government is slated to introduce a Bill in Parliament next week that will seek to amend the Cable Television Networks Act and allow for the conditional access system (CAS) to be introduced.

Major broadcasters, meeting today under the umbrella of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation here, said CAS “may in fact result in exploitation of customers in terms of prices of the services charged by the cable operators due to monopolies on the ground”.

The association claims to be the representative of the broadcasting industry and counts among its members, Star, TV Today, Sahara, Sony and Discovery.

It has said that the CAS issue should be considered by the parliamentary select committee headed by Somnath Chatterjee that is looking into the convergence Bill.

But sources in the ministry said the government was not very keen on such a move as i t could effectively lead to shelving of the CAS. The select committee’s report on the convergence Bill was due to be tabled in this session but it is not expected to come up before the monsoon session.

“It is expected that major broadcasters will not welcome CAS at once because it seeks to regulate the market. Also, they would be worried on the impact CAS could have on their advertisement revenue, which is based on claimed viewership. With CAS, the viewership of pay channels will be transparent,” an official said.

One survey puts the number of cable TV subscribers in the country at 40 million. But this is a figure that can’t be verified.

The Cabinet decided earlier this week in favour of amending the Cable Television Networks Act. However, crucial issues such as the procurement and financing of set-top boxes are yet unresolved.

There is also a possibility that CAS might force weak channels out of the market unless they turn from being “pay” channels to ‘free-to-air’ channels.

Broadcasters are opposed to the CAS right now. They say: “Only 20 per cent of the ground revenue collected from the consumers across the country comes back to the broadcasters.”

The association said there should be a planned and phased transition to switch over to CAS.

A ministry official said the amendment to the Bill would propose an enabling provision. It does not mean that CAS will be implemented immediately.

   

 
 
UNIONS GROPE FOR FACE-SAVER 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 10: 
Reacting to the Supreme Court’s judgment on bandhs, political parties and trade unions of all shades today claimed they neither used coercion nor damaged public property during strikes.

“The question of using force does not arise. Neither does the question of damaging public property,” said CPM leader Sitaram Yechuri.

On the other hand, the CPM politburo member asserted, the apex court’s judgment was a vindication of his party’s stand against the direction of Kerala High Court to the Election Commission to de-recognise parties which organise bandhs.

Citu, the CPM’s trade union wing, echoed Yechuri. “There is no question of using force,” the union said, but could not suppress its underlining resentment against the court’s “perspective” on strikes and hartals.

“…If there is any kind of damage to public property, we should also look into the reasons why it happened instead of blaming trade unions,” it added.

Citu blamed “agent provocateurs “ for “sabotaging” a bandh and triggering violence. “It is a question of our basic democratic right to association,” the union said.

Bandhs have been successful in Bengal and Kerala, two sates where Left trade unions are able to run their fiat.

For the Congress, the apex court judgment implied an effort to bring discipline in public life.

“If it can be implemented without police harassment, then it would be a step in promoting discipline in public life,” said party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi.

The spokesperson did not think the Supreme Court judgment impeded freedom of association. Rather, the verdict, Singhvi explained, could be interpreted as a move to minimise damage to public property.

Taking a leaf out of Citu’s response, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh also claimed that trade unions did not use coercion. But the BJP’s trade union wing added a rider. “It also depends on how you would define coercion,” union leader Uday Patwardhan said. “For instance, some may even think that mobilising workers for a strike is an act of coercion.”

Trade unions, the BMS leader emphasised, would never use coercion as a tool to implement a strike, nor would they ever abet damage to public property. “Sometimes, masses react instinctively without being aided or abetted by trade unions,” he said, adding a second rider.

   

 
 
REBEL WHO MINCED NO WORDS 
 
 
FROM CHANDRIMA BHATTACHARYA
 
Mumbai, May 10: 
Kaifi Azmi, poet, writer, socialist and rebel, died this morning. He was 82.

Azmi, who was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi award, was suffering from cardiac and respiratory infections and was admitted to Jaslok Hospital, where he breathed his last. He is survived by his wife, actress Shaukat Azmi, daughter, actress Shabana Azmi and his cinematographer son Baba Azmi.

The last rites were performed at a burial ground near Versova in the city this evening. Eminent Bollywood personalities attended the funeral.

In her condolence message from Delhi, information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj said Kaifi Azmi’s literary works would continue to motivate people. He was a poet of the masses who felt the pain and agony of the downtrodden, sensitised the society about their plight and motivated people to work for their uplift, she said.

“Kaifi Azmi’s voice rang loud and clear. He never minced his words,” says poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, Azmi’s son-in-law, adding that an era has passed away with his death. Azmi’s collections of poems, Jhankar, Akhir-e-Shab, Awara Sijde and Sarmaya have earned him a place of eminence in the world of poetry.

The ghazal Itna to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade that Kaifi Azmi wrote at the age of 11 was sung by Begum Akhtar.

But no less famous is his work in films, though Azmi, a committed communist throughout his life and one of the members of the charmed Progressive Writers’ circle, had entered the world of films out of necessity. He came to Mumbai in 1943 and worked as a trade union worker and with the CPI-run Urdu paper, Quami Jung.

But after getting married, he needed money and only for that reason started to write songs for Hindi films, the first one being Shaid Latif’s Buzdil in 1948.

He went on to write the songs of Pakeezah, Kagaz ka Phool, Anupama, Hanste Zakhm, Shola aur Shabnam, Haqeeqat. His later films include Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad Aayi and Arth.

Some of the all-time favourites from Hindi movies can be credited to Kaifi Azmi: Yeh duniya yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahin; Chalte chalte mujhe koi mil gaya tha; Chalo dildar chalo; Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho.

Azmi — who believed poetry that didn’t try to change the world was bad poetry — also became part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement that started in the thirties. Its circle in Mumbai included literary heavyweights like Ismat Chugtai, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and poet-writers like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar.

Together, they waged a war against a restrictive social system, conventional morality and India’s lack of independence.

But personally, Azmi had started on his rebellious course early in life.

He was born Akhtar Hussain Rizvi at Mijwan village in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district — the son of a landlord. But he rebelled against the religious education forced on him; started a student’s union at school and was duly expelled. At 19, he joined the Communist Party and started to work for textile workers in Kanpur. Kaifi Azmi later became the president of the Indian People’s Theatre Association.

His wife Shaukat met him when she was nine. She saw this shy but extremely good-looking poet at her maamu’s place in Hyderabad and fell in love with somebody “rich in thought”.

His daughter Shabana thought of him as a “pillar of strength” who always appeared different from “my friends’ fathers” when she was in school “because he not only looked different in a kurta and pyjama” but also “didn’t go to office to work”.

About himself, Kaifi Azmi said: “About myself I can only say this much with confidence that I was born in enslaved India, became old in independent India and would die in Socialist India.”

   

 
 
PAY THY NAMESAKE NEIGHBOUR’S BILL 
 
 
FROM M. RAJENDRAN
 
New Delhi, May 10: 
Mehra, Mehra and Mehra — three individuals and not a law firm — are having to pay for their namesake neighbour’s fault.

The trio, living in Mumbai, found their telephone lines cut last September though they had paid all their bills.

When they complained, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) officials in Mumbai refused to budge. Their lines had been cut because they stayed in the same building where a defaulter sharing their surname also lived.

“It’s crazy,” said Achintya Mukherjee of the Bombay Telephone Users’ Association, who found himself embroiled in the dispute that went through the bureaucratic labyrinth for settlement. The case travelled from MTNL to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) and then to the Telecom Commission and continued over a period of three months from October to December 2001 with no redress.

The case was finally taken up in Bombay High Court, which ordered MTNL in the last week of April to restore the lines and pay a compensation of Rs 1,000 each to the three Mehras — D.R. Mehra, S.L Mehra and Rajeev Mehra, who live in Santa Cruz North Avenue.

Various court rulings have given different interpretations to Rule 443 of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. The 117-year-old legislation has not been changed despite advancements in communications technology.

“If, on or before the due date, the rent or other charges in respect of the telephone service provided are not paid by the subscriber in accordance with these rules or bills for charges in respect of calls (local and trunk) or phonograms or other dues from the subscriber are not duly paid by him, any telephone or telephones or any telex service rented by him may be disconnected without notice. The telephone or telephones or the telex so disconnected may, if the Telegraph Authority thinks fit, be restored, if the defaulting subscriber pays the outstanding dues and the reconnection fee together with the rentals for such portion of the intervening period (during which the telephone or telex remains disconnected) as may be prescribed by the Telegraph Authority from time to time. The subscriber shall pay all the above charges within such period as may be prescribed by the Telegraph Authority from time to time,” the rule says.

There is nothing objectionable in the rule, but the word “subscriber” can be interpreted differently and has been.

First, a subscriber can be two or more persons. Second, if the telephone company disconnects the line of a subscriber for non-payment of dues and then suspects that this subscriber has been making calls from his neighbour’s phone to the same numbers that he used to call earlier, (and has reason to believe that there is some collusion or nexus between the two subscribers), then it can snip the lines of the second customer as well, even if he has paid all the bills.

And it doesn’t help at all if you are related and bear the same surname, as was the case with the Mehras.

“All that the telephone company will do is to try and establish whether the subscriber whose phone line has been cut is using a telephone registered in the name of his/her friend or family to make calls. If this can be established by the service provider, then that phone line can also be disconnected, “ said a senior advocate in Delhi who specialises in telecom-related cases.

However, Bombay High Court held that MTNL’s action was arbitrary and illegal and amounted to harassment. It observed that even if Rule 443 was held to be good and enforceable, it would not entitle MTNL to disconnect the telephone connection of one subscriber for the default of another.

Interestingly, while MTNL harassed the Mehras for no fault of theirs, it had no qualms about waiving bills amounting to Rs 264.06 lakh to more than 13,000 defaulters in Delhi and over 18,000 in Mumbai.

Presenting the statistics, minister of state for communications Tapan Sikdar told the Lok Sabha in a written reply on Wednesday: “In any business organisation, there are some defaulters who do not pay the bills. In cases where such defaulters are not traceable and where the amount due is not recoverable even after disconnection of telephones/associate telephone, referring the cases to revenue, police authorities and even deputing field staff for realisation of outstanding dues, they are referred to a high-powered committee or liquidation board for writing off the amount.”

   
 

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