Buddha twin pledges to woo Panskura
Rush to clean Tarakeswar
Watchtower vigil to track militant trail
Drought cloud on Asansol
Eye for an eye on Delhi’s radar
War clouds lengthen Mamata ministry wait
Turkey knocked off Atal tour roster
Left smug after Vajpayee meet
Cong sends feelers for Narayanan deal
PM set for signal tour

 
 
BUDDHA TWIN PLEDGES TO WOO PANSKURA 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Panskura, May 20: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today kicked off his campaign for the Panskura municipality poll with the twin promises of bringing electricity and literacy.

Addressing a rally at Rupdoypur More, Bhattacharjee said his one-year-old government has failed on two fronts: rural electrification and literacy expansion. “The literacy rate in Kerala is higher than West Bengal and we have to work hard to achieve 100 per cent literacy,” he said.

Civic polls will be held here for the first time on May 26.

“Though the municipalities are supposed to provide basic civic amenities like drinking water, they will have to run primary schools in order to help the government wipe out illiteracy. I want to see that the Panskura municipality works in this respect,” Bhattacharjee said.

Among the seven municipalities going for polls on the same day, Bhattacharjee has chosen to visit only Panskura.

Political observers feel that the victory of Trinamul Congress candidate Bikram Sarkar in the last Lok Sabha elections prompted the chief minister to pick Panskura over the other municipalities.

Sarkar was the first non-Left candidate to be elected from the area that has been a red bastion for decades.

Bhattacharjee assured the voters that his government would not discriminate between municipalities in and around Calcutta and those in districts with regard to disbursement of funds.

“The government expenditure per head in your municipality will be the same as that of the 48 municipalities adjacent to Calcutta,” he announced amid loud cheers from the audience.

The chief minister also underlined the need for formation of self-help groups to solve the problem of unemployment.

“In Midnapore district, there are 27,000 such groups which have created assets worth Rs 11 crore and provided employment to about 30,000 youths. We have to encourage such groups and provide them with financial assistance and administrative support so that they can work freely,” he said.

Bhattacharjee also said that his government would take special care to protect the interests of farmers next year. “This year, they have produced 140 lakh metric tons of rice. But they are not getting the price for that. We will work hard to help farmers get the right price for their products from next year,” he promised.

About the increasing menace of Left extremist forces like the PWG and the MCC, the chief minister said an operation has been launched against such forces in the districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia.

“We have deployed the State Armed Police, the EFR and the Rapid Action Force and we are determined not to allow a single MCC or PWG activist to stay here,” he said.

   

 
 
RUSH TO CLEAN TARAKESWAR 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Hooghly, May 20: 
The district administration is set to launch a beautification drive to woo back tourists to Tarakeswar.

District magistrate Subrata Biswas today said the administration would take steps to clear Dudhpukur, the pond adjoining Tarakeshwar temple. Reports about its pollution have driven tourists away from the temple.

Biswas today held a meeting with the chairman of the Tarakeswar municipality, Asis Rana, members of the temple committee and representatives of the local traders who urged the district magistrate to speed up the project as the number of tourists has dropped drastically after the Dudhpukur water controversy.

Besides the high court’s observation that the Dudhpukur water is highly contaminated, several NGOs and local clubs had also organised campaigns and advised people to stay away from the pond.

“After the news of pollution in Dudhpukur spread, the number of tourists have become half.... After the NGOs’ campaign, people are hesitating to visit Tarakeswar. If the pond is not cleaned, the entire economy here will suffer,’’ the chairman said.

The administration should propagate now that the water of Dudhpukur is safe.

Following the high court order, the public health engineering department has taken up the job of filling Dudhpukur with fresh water. The court had also directed that a report on the new water be submitted.

According to public health engineering officials, water from about 10 feet has already been removed out of the 18-feet pond.

However, the project had to be suspended recently following complaints from people residing in the adjoining areas that cracks have developed in their houses.

“We have suspended removing water from the pond for the time being. We shall test the quality of the remaining water,” Biswas said.

The district magistrate said engineers are looking into the complaints and action would be taken based on their observation.

   

 
 
WATCHTOWER VIGIL TO TRACK MILITANT TRAIL 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, May 20: 
The state police administration has decided to set up specially equipped watchtowers to keep track of extremist movement in the dense forests of the Kumargramduar-Kalikhola-Barobisha corridor in the militant infested Assam-Bengal-Bhutan tri-junction.

These observation posts will help keep tabs on the movement of extremists belonging to the Bhutan-based United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), its comrades-in-arms in the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

Senior police officials based in Alipurduar in Jalpaiguri recently carried out an extensive recce of the region and said the watchtowers had become necessary because of the growing incidence of extremist activities in the KLO-Ulfa hub.

“Mere foot patrolling by the security personnel, including the Eastern Frontier Rifles, the Central Reserve Police Force and the district combat commando force was not enough to deter ultras from using the Kumargramduar-Kalikhola-Barobisha corridor as a transit route from their Bhutan-based camps to Assam and Bangladesh,” said Alipurduar additional superintendent of police R. Shivkumar.

The observation posts will also help check rampant timber smuggling from the two reserve forests and wildlife sanctuary in the region, Shivkumar added. The corridor comes under the Buxa Tiger Reserve and the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Militants belonging to the Ulfa-KLO-NDFB combine use the foot-routes inside the dense jungle with impunity,” Shivkumar said.

Each watchtower will have an aerial view of more than 10-km radius. The observation towers will be located in Kumargramduar, Bittibari, Newland, Balapara, Sukhanala, Narranathil and Jaydebpur.

Besides being equipped with the latest state-of-the-art surveillance and communication gadgets, the watchtowers will be manned by security personnel armed with sophisticated weapons.

As soon as any extremist movement is detected by an observation post, the information will be immediately conveyed to the other security posts and camps in the areas to help launch a search and combing operation. The project will be partly funded by the local MP fund.

The local administration has also undertaken a project to widen the existing road network in the region.

Militant activities have been on the rise despite the state government’s efforts to counter insurgency. Suspected militants of the KLO-Ulfa combine have assassinated three Left Front leaders of the region in the last two years.

Police sources said the Bhutan-based extremists use the Kumargramduar corridor to enter Assam.

“One has to just cross the Sankosh river on the tri-junction to cross over to Assam from their camps in Bhutan,” the sources said.

“Militants also find it easy to wade through the Raidak river to enter into militant strongholds like Uttar and Dakshin Haldibari villages. While, they can cross the Raidak river from Madhaya Haldibari village and enter the Buxa Tiger Reserve at ease,” the sources added.

   

 
 
DROUGHT CLOUD ON ASANSOL 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Asansol May 20: 
The shadow of a drought-like situation looms large over the Asansol sub-division with all tube-wells in the area drying up. The surface water-level has also dropped alarmingly making even deep tube-wells defunct.

The district administration and the Asansol Municipal Corporation (AMC) have drawn up an emergency action plan which has been sent to the state government for approval.

The Rs 20-crore project, proposed by the AMC, includes installation of 33 tube-wells with high-capacity pumps on the Damodar riverbed. The public health department is also planning to instal eight tube-wells. Besides, engineers are trying to re-instal dry tube-wells by increasing their pipe length.

AMC officials said the five-lakh population of the corporation command area require 17 million gallons of drinking water every day. But the availability at the moment is only nine million gallons.

The AMC has started supplying drinking water to different areas as a temporary measure.

   

 
 
EYE FOR AN EYE ON DELHI’S RADAR 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
India is exploring new ways to counter Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and officials say Islamabad will be made to pay for its proxy aggression.

The government has conceded that its fight against terrorism has so far not had the desired results.

“The government is of the firm belief that the way we are retaliating will have to be changed,” home minister L.K. Advani publicly declared today. By retaliation, it is understood, the home minister did not mean only military option.

The plan to counter Pakistan-backed terrorism was discussed at a high-level meeting called by the home minister a day after a suicide squad killed over 30 people, including women and children in the Kaluchak army camp in Jammu.

Though details of the new plans are being kept under wraps, Advani said a strategy is being worked out in consultation with security forces.

Indian officials are, however willing, to concede this much: “We want to make terrorism costly for Pakistan. They must realise they cannot continue to hit us with impunity,” a senior official, who did not want to be named, said.

The strategy could be on the lines of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, as was suggested by disinvestment minister Arun Shourie after the attack on the army camp.

This could even mean commando operations across the Line of Control with a specific target in mind. However, there are those in the government who feel that India cannot indulge in any covert or terrorist operation in Pakistani territory.

“After taking the moral high ground against terrorism, India cannot stoop to Pakistan’s level,” one official explained.

“We are not (like) General (Pervez) Musharraf who says one thing and does another,” he added in a clear reference to the Pakistan President’s January 12 televised address to the nation where he called for moderation and promised to cleanse his country of fundamentalist elements.

But since then, the President has gone back on his word and released a large number of militants, especially those involved in Kashmir. According to Delhi, at least 2,000 militants were released ahead of last month’s referendum.

Masood Azhar, the man India says heads the Jaish-e-Mohammed, was initially put under house arrest and released for sometime before being re arrested again. Nobody is certain of his whereabouts.

Delhi wants to push the point that Azhar is close to the British-born Omar Sheikh, now under arrest for the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

India is hoping Washington would wake up to Musharraf’s double standards and force him to rein in terrorists operating from Pakistani soil.

Militants killed

The army tonight gunned down five terrorists belonging to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, including an Afghan war veteran, in Doda and Poonch sectors in Jammu. Three AK-47 rifles, one pistol and one hand grenade have been recovered.

   

 
 
WAR CLOUDS LENGTHEN MAMATA MINISTRY WAIT 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
The war-like situation in the subcontinent has come as a blessing in disguise for Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha but soured Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s dream of entering the Union Cabinet.

The former railway minister was hoping for a recall after Parliament’s budget session.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to expand and shuffle his council of ministers after the session, which concluded on May 17.

But the suicide strike by militants on a passenger bus and an army camp near Jammu that killed more than 30 people drastically changed the political climate, pushing the country to the brink of a war. It may take at least a month for the clouds to clear and, thereafter, it will be time to elect a new President. K.R. Narayanan’s tenure in the country’s top post ends on July 24.

According to highly placed sources, the Prime Minister has deferred his shuffle plans till the presidential elections slated for mid-July.

At a time when a war-like situation is prevailing in the country, the last thing the Prime Minister will do is to expand and shuffle his Cabinet, which is bound to upset the ministers on the chopping block.

In view of its wafer-thin majority and the sensitivity of some allies over the choice of candidate for the post of President, the government would not want to do anything that could upset the allies.

Ironically, ministers who were likely to be dropped or shunted to insignificant posts are happy at the prevailing situation. They can breathe easy till mid-July, at least. Only Mamata and senior BJP leader V.K. Malhotra are worried over the border tension.

While Mamata was certain to be inducted into the Cabinet, Malhotra had declined to become Lok Sabha Speaker hoping for a Cabinet berth. He was even lobbying for the urban development ministry.

Apart from Sinha, others facing the axe were health minister C.P. Thakur, Muni Lal (labour), Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav (shipping) and Satyanarayan Jatiya (social justice and empowerment).

Urban development minister Ananth Kumar was also on the hit-list. But he managed to wangle a promise that he would only be shifted and not dropped.

Labour minister Sharad Yadav was to be shifted to a more lucrative portfolio, partially to help carry out reforms in the sector with a more pro-change minister and, partially, to reward him for sticking with the NDA when the allies were gunning for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Others like rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu were to be drafted into the party fold for organisational work.

Names of information technology and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, law and justice minister Arun Jaitley and information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj were also doing the rounds for organisational posts to refurbish the BJP’s image after the recent electoral rout.

With the NDA coalition comprising about 24 parties and some having barely four to six MPs, any one of the smaller parties getting a berth in the council of ministers could upset others that had been left out, the sources said.

“It is felt that at this stage, it is not advisable to do anything to upset the balance, especially when there does not appear to be a consensus on the presidential candidate,” they said.

Though a whip is issued to support the party candidate for presidential elections, there is no guarantee that in the event of a Cabinet shuffle, disgruntled MPs or their groups would abide by it, the sources said.

   

 
 
TURKEY KNOCKED OFF ATAL TOUR ROSTER 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
With war clouds looming, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to knock Turkey off his two-nation visit later this month even as key European countries urged him to be restrained and asked Pakistan to bring to a halt the “murderous attacks” in India.

Vajpayee may also call off his visit to Kazakhstan if the situation escalates. If not, he still has the opportunity of sharing the dais with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf at the Asian Security meeting in Almaty and keep alive the hope of a diplomatic solution to the South Asian standoff.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have written to Vajpayee, asking him to show restraint and rely on the persuasive powers of global players to prevail upon Musharraf to end cross-border terrorism in India.

“The Government of Pakistan has to do everything within its powers to stop the murderous attacks which take place on the Indian side,” German foreign minister Joschka Fischer said in a public statement from Berlin that was released to the media here by its embassy. “All cross-border activities of terrorists must be prevented,” he added.

Fischer also urged the neighbours to sort out the “political causes” of the tension through dialogue. The US, which has been in touch with leaders in both Delhi and Islamabad, has been saying much the same thing to the Vajpayee government.

For India, the primary thrust at the moment appears to be on launching a diplomatic offensive against Pakistan. Delhi has already instructed its ambassadors and heads of missions in key world capitals to explain to their hosts India’s concerns and its approach to deal with the worsening situation, especially after last Tuesday’s militant strike in Jammu.

That the diplomatic offensive has begun working was evident from the German leader’s statement. Fischer not only asked Pakistan to stop the violence in Kashmir but also held it responsible for cross-border activities of terrorists.

The Indus Water Treaty is another area where India could put pressure on Pakistan by scrapping it outright or calling for a review. The two sides are scheduled to begin talks on the pact from May 29. India can also withdraw the most-favoured-nation status it had extended to Pakistan. Despite Delhi’s gesture, Islamabad has so far not reciprocated it.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao maintained that India is prepared for any eventuality and was not foreclosing its options on anything in the fight against terrorism.

The ostensible reason for curtailing Vajpayee’s scheduled two-nation visit has been attributed to the Turkish side. South Block officials said Ankara sought to postpone Vajpayee’s trip as his Turkish counterpart Bulent Ecevit is indisposed.

The other reason, though not being stated officially, has to do with the state of preparedness of the Indian armed forces and the fast-paced developments in South Asia following the terror attack in Jammu. Vajpayee was scheduled to leave for Turkey on May 30. After spending three days there, he was due to be in Kazakhstan for bilateral meetings as well as for the Asian Security meeting.

   

 
 
LEFT SMUG AFTER VAJPAYEE MEET 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
The Left leadership believes that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee shares its assessment that talk of a “limited war” with Pakistan is highly unrealistic.

Any action against Pakistan, the Left underlines, is bound to escalate into a full-fledged war.

In a 45-minute one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister today, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan told Vajpayee that India and Pakistan shared a common border and that there could be no such thing as limited action against Pakistan. War, the CPI leader told the Prime Minister, is “not a solution”.

The Left’s anti-war stand was made clear in the Parliament debate on the Jammu killings the day the budget session ended.

After meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Prime Minister today met the CPI general secretary to sound out the Left’s views on the present Indo-Pak tension. CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet will meet Vajpayee tomorrow.

Bardhan asked the Prime Minister to jettison plans, if any, of a possible war with Pakistan and instead, step up the diplomatic offensive. For instance, he suggested an economic action like mobilising international support to strip Pakistan of trade concessions.

The government’s decision to recall the Islamabad envoy, Bardhan told the Prime Minister, was a “step in the right direction —- but not enough”.

It is understood that the Left has struck a chord of agreement with the Prime Minister on the impossibility of a “limited” Indo-Pak war. “A war with Pakistan cannot be like a war between the US and Afghanistan. We share a common border,” Bardhan later said.

Another area where the government and the Left seem to agree is the inadequate pressure put by the US on Pakistan. Bardhan told the Prime Minister that the US must pressure Pakistan to disband all terrorist training camps and cut off economic assistance to them.

“The government keeps telling us that the US is a natural ally in the fight against terrorism. But they are indulging in double-speak,” Bardhan said.

   

 
 
CONG SENDS FEELERS FOR NARAYANAN DEAL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
Hectic lobbying has begun to ensure a second term for President K.R. Narayanan. The Congress, the Left and other parties outside the National Democratic Alliance have all indicated they would back him if he opts for another stint at Raisina Hills.

The Congress has sent feelers to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, saying it would be willing to accept a BJP nominee as a consensus vice-presidential candidate in return for Narayanan’s re-election. The carrot being dangled before the BJP is that next time round it can push the Vice-President for the country’s top constitutional post.

The Congress claims it is upbeat about the fact that some NDA allies are reluctant to openly oppose another term for Narayanan, who hails from the weaker sections of society. “It would lead to social and political convulsion if a contest against Narayanan is forced,” a senior Congress leader said.

The party has also asked Kerala chief minister A.K. Antony to sound Narayanan out if he is willing to contest as an Opposition-sponsored nominee. Antony had recently met Union home minister L.K. Advani to suggest Narayanan’s name for a second term.

According to the feedback from the Congress, Narayanan has not yet indicated if he is willing to contest as a nominee of the combined Opposition. Sources close to the President say he is insisting that, having served the nation for five years, he should represent all sections of the political and social class.

A number of Congress and Left leaders have sought appointment with Narayanan, who is returning to the capital on Wednesday night from Tamil Nadu, to request him to run for a second term. Some non-government organisations and political activists have also sought time with the President.

The CPI today asked Vajpayee to try to evolve a consensus for the top post. General secretary A.B. Bardhan, who met the Prime Minister, said: “In today’s context and with the happenings in Gujarat, a contest for the President’s post is not advisable.”

Bardhan, who made it clear that his party would not support the NDA’s probable nominee P.C. Alexendar, said he had suggested to Vajpayee that he should try to evolve a consensus on Narayanan.

He claimed that the Prime Minister did not tell him that Alexander was the ruling alliance’s official candidate. The meeting was part of the consultation process the Prime Minister is having with Opposition leaders.

Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and Lok Jan Shakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan have already declared their support for Narayanan.

   

 
 
PM SET FOR SIGNAL TOUR 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 20: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is slated to visited the military hospital in Jammu tomorrow and meet with survivors of last week’s suicide strike on the Kaluchak army camp.

Vajpayee is likely to be accompanied by defence minister George Fernandes. The Prime Minister’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir is meant to send out the message that the Centre’s tolerance threshold for attacks on the armed forces’ rear is low.

Vajpayee will be briefed in Jammu by civil and defence officials, including the operations commanders in the 15 and 16 Corps area. The 16 Corps is mostly in Jammu and the 15 Corps in the Valley.

Vajpayee flies to Srinagar by helicopter the day after en route to Kupwara, an army divisional headquarter, where he will address troops. In Srinagar, he is also expected to be briefed by the unified command. It is not yet clear if Vajpayee will stay overnight in Srinagar.

Vajpayee had toured Kashmir during the Kargil war but his visit was cut short by Pakistani shelling in the sector.

   
 

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