Govt cracks whip on panchayats
2 drown in Sundarbans boat capsize
Delhi debars Chinese scholars
Healthcare boost
Home away from home for Dalma elephants
57 booked for Godhra carnage
Sikh-riots judge joins probe panel
Gujarat and Pak on AICC agenda
Centre wakes up to Tigers’ cell in TN
Cross-legged Congmen move to chairs

 
 
GOVT CRACKS WHIP ON PANCHAYATS 
 
 
BY SHANKAR MUKHERJEE
 
Calcutta, May 23: 
Dissatisfied with the poor performance of several panchayats, rural development minister Suryakanta Mishra has given an ultimatum to all panchayat functionaries to abide by the rules or face the consequences.

Mishra has directed the district magistrates to monitor the activities of the rural bodies and submit a report within a month. The minister also asked the zilla parishad sabhadhipatis to make efforts to enthuse the panchayats and speed up implementation of different development projects.

Mishra expressed dissatisfaction while reviewing the progress of different rural development projects in a meeting last week with the senior officers of his department.

“I have information that many panchayats are working on their own without caring for the rules and guidelines. Reports of corruption and misappropriation of funds in several panchayats have also come in. I have given an ultimatum to all rural bodies to work as per the rules or face the consequences,” Mishra told The Telegraph.

He said the district magistrates have been asked to monitor and supervise panchayat activities and identify the errant or inactive bodies. “The government is spending several crores of rupees for the benefit of the rural people. We will not tolerate it if the amount is not utilised properly or used otherwise. The government will take stern measures against the corrupt functionaries,” the minister said.

The government has already punished at least 100 panchayat functionaries, including pradhans and sabhapatis, on charges of corruption and violation of rules. Even the saha-sabhadhipati of a zilla parishad was not spared.

The panchayat minister has been receiving reports that Central funds amounting to several crores were either lying unspent with several panchayat bodies or had to be returned due to non-utilisation for a long time. Besides, corruption, financial irregularities and gross mismanagement had been detected in several panchayats.

Moreover, progress in important schemes like housing for the rural poor, sanitation, employment-oriented projects, poverty-alleviation programmes and rural electrification has been disappointing.

Mishra, who is also a member of the CPM state secretariat, had also expressed anger and dissatisfaction in the CPM state committee meeting last week and urged the district party functionaries to pay attention to panchayat activities.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will meet the sabhadhipatis and district magistrates next month to hear their problems and monitor the progress of work.

The government’s crackdown on corruption and efforts to rejuvenate panchayats is significant in view of next year’s panchayat polls. The Left Front does not want to give the Opposition a chance to focus the campaign on corruption. The move will also maintain Bhattacharjee’s clean image.

All the 19 zilla parishads and over three-fourths of the panchayat samitis and gram panchayats in the state are controlled by the CPM.

   

 
 
2 DROWN IN SUNDARBANS BOAT CAPSIZE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Canning (South 24-Parganas), May 23: 
Two persons, including a seven-year-old boy, were drowned and at least 40 persons were missing when the mechanised boat ferrying them across the Matla off Sonakhali in the Sunderbans capsized today.

A search was on for the missing, many of whom were feared drowned. But Sunderbans development affairs minister Kanti Ganguly and district magistrate Alapan Bandopadhyay discounted the fears. They believe most of the locals know swimming well and might have swam to safety.

They said the search so far had turned up two bodies, those of a child and an adult. Apart from the minister and the district magistrate, superintendent of police Deb Kumar Ganguly and other senior officials are supervising the rescue efforts. A team of divers from Calcutta Port Trust has been pressed into service.

Deputy commissioner of police, headquarters, Shivaji Ghosh said a disaster management team from Calcutta has left for the area.

The incident occurred this afternoon when about a hundred villagers boarded a mechanised boat — bhutbhuti in local parlance — from Basanti after buying commodities at the weekly haat.

The boat, which was ferrying passengers from Dongrajore in Kultali to Bokrabani, sank at Purandarpur near Sonakhali. About sixty passengers swam ashore. Local youth and fishermen jumped into the river when they saw the boat overturn and dragged 20 passengers to the banks.

   

 
 
DELHI DEBARS CHINESE SCHOLARS 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, May 23: 
India recently refused permission to two Chinese scholars to attend a seminar in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

Professor Ren Jia and Professor Xu Xiaoning were to travel to Gangtok in the first week of May to attend a seminar, Northeast and its neighbours: Partnership in Development, organised by the Delhi-based Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), an apex body funded by the Centre to sponsor and promote social science research. “We had to send a note of apology and ask them not to come for the seminar,” said C.J. Thomas of ICSSR.

Prof. Jia of the Kunming-based Yunnan Academy for Social Science was invited to submit a paper on border trade. She played a pivotal role in the “Kunming Initiative”, an effort by China to bring together non-governmental organisations from neighbours like India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh for close cooperation independent of governmental participation.

After barring the entry of the Chinese duo, Delhi cancelled the entry permits of academics from Bangladesh and Nepal as well to avoid a diplomatic fallout, sources said. Surprisingly, Jia’s paper on “Reviving trade on the Sino-Indian border” found its way into the event.

“I did not understand why we should refuse to let a Chinese delegation go to Sikkim. China did not object to the idea and it would have been tantamount to China accepting Sikkim as a part of India. I do not understand how this could happened, it defied logic,” said C.V. Ranganathan, the former Indian ambassador to China and one of the participants at the seminar.

China refuses to acknowledge Sikkim as a part of India since the Himalayan Kingdom’s merger with the Indian Union in 1975. Analysts believe the move cost the country a chance to gain a diplomatic victory over China.

Veteran journalist and member of the Centre for Policy Research B.G. Verghese, who has participated in Track II initiatives to strengthen Sino-Indian ties, said: “There are fresh indications that China is willing to open the trade and pilgrimage route through Nathu La. Economic interest seems to be the major factor behind the policy shift. In a roundabout manner, this (Delhi’s move) will serve their commercial interest without effecting any change in their stand that Sikkim is not an integral part of India.”

   

 
 
HEALTHCARE BOOST 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Asansol, May 23: 
The Asansol Mines Board of Health has launched a new project — service through care and cure — to provide healthcare facilities to the people of the Asansol-Durgapur industrial and colliery belt.

The board, set up under the West Bengal Mining Settlement Act, 1964, works in association with the health department in several areas, including conservancy and sanitation, maternity, child welfare, leprosy, epidemic and malaria control.

The board’s services, generally restricted to Eastern Coalfields Limited employees and their wards, will now be extended to the common people.

Initially, a state of the art pathological laboratory will be set up. There will be 16 collection centres spread across the belt. The charges will be nominal, much less than the rates of the private laboratories.

District health officials said one pathological centre in the board office and two collection centres in Asansol and Jamuria have started functioning.

Asim loan sermon to banks

The state government will help expose the major defaulting business houses if the nationalised banks come out with all facts and figures against them, finance minister Asim Dasgupta today told all the major nationalised banks in West Bengal.

The minister, who met chiefs of most of the banks at Writers’ Buildings to review employment projects, expressed dissatisfaction “over the way the unemployed youths seeking loans under self-employed schemes from the banks are harassed”.

   

 
 
HOME AWAY FROM HOME FOR DALMA ELEPHANTS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Jhargram (Paschim Midnapore) May 23: 
The state government has decided to set up an exclusive Rs 100-crore habitat for elephants migrating from the Dalma hills of Jharkhand every year, bringing relief for the pachyderms and peace for the harried humans in their way.

Senior forest officials said the decision was taken to lure the elephants into the habitat so that the herds do not stray into villages and wreak havoc. The government has sent the proposal to the Centre for approval.

Additional divisional forest officer B.C. Sahu said the elephants troop down from Dalma because of a shortage of fodder and water there.

“We have seen that elephants which come down from the Dalma range like to graze on the greens of the Paschim Midnapore forests and the adjacent villages. Last year, about 40 elephants had come. This year, we found in the census that about 60 have arrived. So if we can recreate a natural habitat for them, they will head straight for the spot and will not disturb the human population,” he added.

The authorities have chosen the hilly Mayurjharna area near Kankrajhore that has several small waterfalls and rivulets meandering across the terrain. “Dams will be built on these rivulets to create a big waterbody. Also, banana trees and Saboi grass — the elephants’ favourite — and other leafy trees will be grown to provide the elephants with water and fodder,” said a forest official.

Forest officials feel the exclusive habitat will also save a substantial amount of money spent every year to pay compensation for deaths due to trampling by wild elephants. The forest department pays Rs 20,000, and already this year, elephants have been the cause of death of seven persons.

“The villagers will also heave a sigh of relief as their property will be spared the elephant menace,” Sahu added.

The census also threw up an interesting fact. “This year, movement of elephants in large numbers along the corridor has restricted the movement of PWG activists to a great extent,” district police officials said.

   

 
 
57 BOOKED FOR GODHRA CARNAGE 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, May 23: 
Police have filed chargesheets against 57 accused in the Godhra carnage of February 27, five days ahead of the 90-day deadline.

An investigating officer told The Telegraph that the chargesheets were filed yesterday evening in Godhra. At the railway court in Godhra, 54 chargesheets were filed, while three were filed at the juvenile court. The main charges are of rioting, murder, arson and conspiracy.

All 57 accused figure on the FIR on the burning of the S-6 coach of the ill-fated Sabarmati Express by a 2,000-strong mob near Signal Falia.

As many as 58 kar sevaks, on their way back from Ayodhya, were roasted alive when the mob attacked and set the coach on fire, triggering the worst-ever incidents of rioting that claimed more than 900 lives in Gujarat.

More than 60 people, including four councillors of the Godhra municipality, were arrested in connection with the attack on the train. While three children involved in the attack are out on bail, 54 are lodged in Sabarmati Jail in Ahmedabad and in the Baroda central jail. Another 44 accused of participating in the Godhra massacre, including prime accused Razzak Kurkur, are absconding.

The investigating officer said supplementary chargesheets would have to be filed once those absconding are apprehended.

While investigators are still looking into the “conspiracy angle”, so far the probe has not revealed “the involvement of the ISI and Simi”.

This may be embarrassing for chief minister Narendra Modi and defence minister George Fernandes as both had blamed the ISI for the Godhra carnage.

A top police officer supervising the investigation was quoted by a retired police officer as saying that the state government was pressuring them to “find out some conspiracy angle” to the train carnage.

When asked whether inquiries have revealed any deliberate plot behind the Godhra carnage, the investigating officer parried with the reply: “Who hatched the conspiracy is a matter of investigation and we are investigating it.”

Moreover, the probe has been hampered with several agencies handling the investigations. Had a special investigation team been appointed immediately for the probe, the chargesheets would have been filed much earlier, observed one officer who has been shuttling between Godhra and Ahmedabad for the past two-and-half months.

Initially, IG P.P. Aagja was put in charge of the case. But recently, the state government appointed DIG Rakesh Asthana to supervise the investigation.

After Asthana took over, his team “re-created” the whole incident twice last month and is said to have stumbled upon certain vital clues that had been previously overlooked.

One of these clues is that around 100 litre of inflammable liquid was used to burn the coach and there was no instance of the emergency chain being pulled.

Had the chain been pulled, the train would have stopped at least 1 km from the station. But here it stopped barely 500 metres away, which shows that there was a sudden drop in vacuum pressure, the investigator argued.

Asthana also does not agree with forensic test reports that ruled out the use of any other inflammable chemical but petrol. According to him, “what the forensic experts stated in their report was just a possibility. They have not conclusively ruled out the use of any other inflammable material”.

   

 
 
SIKH-RIOTS JUDGE JOINS PROBE PANEL 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, May 23: 
The Gujarat government has appointed a retired Supreme Court judge to the judicial commission constituted to probe the Godhra train carnage and the communal riots in the state, to pre-empt the apex court and the Centre from taking action against it.

Retired Supreme Court judge Justice G.T. Nanavati will now head the two-member commission, which has been reconstituted by the state government to “remove any doubts about the government’s intentions” behind the inquiry into the communal violence in the state.

A former Chief Justice of the Karnataka and Orissa high courts, before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Nanavati was appointed to probe the 1984 anti–Sikh riots in Delhi by the BJP-led NDA government after it came to power at the Centre. His name was also under consideration for the proposed Gujarat human rights commission two years ago.

The state government had on March 6 constituted the one-man judicial inquiry commission with Justice K.G. Shah, a retired judge of the Gujarat High Court. Justice Shah will now be a member, while Nanavati will head the reconstituted inquiry commission.

“Once he comes, he would be chairman of the commission,” said a commission official, adding, though, that the commission’s office at Shahibaug had not yet received any official communication about Justice Nanavati’s new appointment.

If the purpose of appointing another judge was to pacify the minority community and Opposition parties who had questioned the impartiality of the commission, then the state government has failed. The reason: Justice Nanavati’s appointment does not fulfil the basic demand.

“The basic demand was that the probe be conducted by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court who should be a non-Gujarati. Justice Nanavati is neither a sitting Supreme Court judge nor a non-Gujarati,” said leading advocate and human rights activist Girish Patel.

He also said the National Commission for Minorities had recommended that a sitting judge of the Supreme Court probe the communal riots.

   

 
 
GUJARAT AND PAK ON AICC AGENDA 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, May 23: 
In the backdrop of heightened tension on the Indo-Pak border, Sonia Gandhi is going ahead with showcasing the Congress as the “natural party of governance” and the All India Congress Committee is projecting her as the “Prime Minister-in-waiting”.

The AICC session beginning here tomorrow plans to focus on Gujarat. The venue, Talkatora Stadium, has been renamed Sadbhavna Nagar to highlight the party’s focus on secularism and the liberal-pluralistic face of India.

The Congress think-tank has decided to remind the nation about Indira Gandhi — her role in the triumph against Pakistan in 1971 — underlining that when it comes to national security, the Nehru-Gandhi family is second to none. The subtext of the message is that the legacy is now represented by Sonia.

In her address at the AICC meet, the theme for which will be “good governance”, Sonia plans to go all out against Pakistan for fomenting trouble in Jammu and Kashmir. She will also reiterate her party’s resolve to back the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime to the hilt.

In Sonia’s scheme of things, the Centre should explore all diplomatic tools before opting for more drastic action against Pakistan.

Though the Congress had earlier ruled out being part of coalitions, it plans to leave a door open this time, in case it fails to secure a majority on its own in the next general elections.

The pro and anti-coalition lobbies within the party have agreed to present a formulation that talks about primacy of the Congress.

The political resolution recognises the coalition era and emphasises the need for a “joint war against communalism”.

The resolution credits Sonia with all the good that has happened to the party, from the electoral successes in Assam, Punjab and Uttaranchal to the triumph in municipal polls in Shimla, parts of Punjab and Delhi. Under her, the Congress’ graph has not gone up at the national or international levels but there is a general sense of expectancy that “good old days” would return once the party regains its primacy in national polity.

On the economic front, the draft minces no words about finance minister Yashwant Sinha. According to the Congress think-tank, there is a qualitative difference between Manmohan Singh’s vision and the policies being pursued by Sinha.

Sonia salvo at BJP

Buoyed by a resurgent showing in state elections, Congress president Sonia Gandhi today lambasted the BJP, saying it lacked morality, ran partisan governments wherever elected to power and was busy making “efforts to spread hatred among different communities”, reports our special correspondent from Goa.

Sonia promised support to the Centre “in efforts made to deal with cross-border terrorism”. But she also warned against “unprincipled elements” who might try to take advantage of the Indo-Pakistan border tension to bring in more divisions among our people.

The Congress president charged the BJP with having a “misguided ethos”. She said the party was “capable only in one area and that is doublespeak”.

Her attack comes as the Congress desperately tries to outdo the BJP in Goa, a state where the latter ousted the Congress from power by encouraging defectors to cross over and called mid-term elections within three years of the last poll.

   

 
 
CENTRE WAKES UP TO TIGERS’ CELL IN TN 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, May 23: 
The Union home ministry has disclosed that the LTTE is operating a finance wing in Tamil Nadu.

The revelation came in a government order issued on May 14, extending the ban on the LTTE in the country for two years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

This states that the “finance wing module” along with, what it terms, the ‘sea Tiger module’ were “indulging in smuggling essential items from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka for the use of the LTTE”.

Ignoring a plea by Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to lift the ban on the Tamil Tigers before the June peace talks in Thailand, India maintained that the threat on the country persisted as long as the rebels propagated the divisive concept of a Tamil Eelam.

The group’s “objective for a homeland for Tamils disrupts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India”, the government’s order notes.

Certain organisations in Tamil Nadu firmly back the rebels in this objective and, the Centre’s notification underscored, “so long as Sri Lanka continued to be… torn by the demand for Tamil Eelam”, attempts will be made to enhance its support base in the state.

“The demands put forth by the forest brigand Veerappan for the release of Kannada Matinee idol Rajkumar (during 2000-01) and the contents of the website www.dalitstan.org/Tamil show that the LTTE supporters are waiting for a chance to de-stabilise India,” the order states.

   

 
 
CROSS-LEGGED CONGMEN MOVE TO CHAIRS 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, May 23: 
The Congress Working Committee took a historic step forward — a step that almost went unnoticed. For the first time yesterday in its 117-year history, its members sat on chairs instead of sitting Indian-style, cross-legged, leaning on masnads.

Welcome to Congress Inc. Under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the stereotype image of paan-chewing, khadi-clad Congressmen sitting cross-legged on chandni (white sheets) and reclining on masnads has changed.

For old timers, it was a painful departure from traditions dating back to the days of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.

Ironically, the old guard in the CWC — Motilal Vora, Arjun Singh, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Natwar Singh, J.B. Patnaik, Pranab Mukherjee, Shankarrao Chavan, Mohsina Kidwai, S.C. Jamir and S.M. Krishna — were most pleased with the new seating arrangements, saying it was a big relief from sitting cross-legged for hours. Most of them are in their 70s and suffer from joint-aches. Sitting cross-legged for over six hours puts a painful strain on their knees.

Arjun Singh’s detractors are quick to attribute the change to his clout over Sonia. They point out that he was particularly uncomfortable sitting cross-legged after a surgery.

Representatives from the Northeast are also happy with this development. “We must change with time. There is nothing wrong in a new seating arrangement,” a chief minister of a Congress-ruled state said after attending the CWC meet.

But the development has put the party’s exchequer in a spot. In anticipation of the meet, the party had purchased chandnis and masnads. Yesterday, however, it had to requisition 45 ergonomically-designed chairs from the Jain Tent House for the new-look CWC gathering. In keeping with tradition, white covers were placed over olive green chairs. Incidentally, olive green is the party chief’s favourite colour.

The winds of change were evident during the Guwahati conclave last month, when a boardroom-like seating arrangement was made, with chief ministers using Powerpoint and computer graphics to showcase their achievements to Sonia.

At Guwahati, not all chief ministers were comfortable with the emphasis on new technology. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot preferred to speak in Hindi and made his presentation with diagrams and charts. But his techno-savvy counterparts from Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Assam added glitz to their presentations.

In yesterday’s CWC meet, nobody was permitted to use cellphones or leave the meeting without the prior permission of the chair (read Sonia Gandhi).

Insiders said there was a new trend in the CWC that all facts and figures have to be substantiated and accounted for. If anyone comes unprepared or comments without doing his\her “home-work”, the seniors — namely, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khurshid — miss no opportunity to correct their formulations.

Four years ago, Sonia had appointed a task force under P.A. Sangma to suggest changes in the party’s work culture. His first suggestion was to change the seating arrangement in party meets.

   
 

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