Bengal to pay for Bihar power default
Minority panel piles heat on cop
Salary blow to school teachers
Crackdown on militants
Pond pique erupts on minister
United on enemy, divided on Gujarat
Mayavati midnight coup jolts mandarins
Shoe mill fire claims 60 in Agra
Delhi boycotts Qazi exit bash
Parties stretch for tipplers in Andhra

Calcutta, May 24: 
A severe power crisis is threatening to hit Bengal from July 1, thanks to the National Thermal Power Corporation’s decision to cut generation.

The NTPC took the decision to restrict power supply to Bihar to force the state to pay up its huge outstanding of Rs 2,255 crore.

The decrease in generation will hit Bengal, too, as it will be deprived of its share of nearly 600 MW from the Central power sector.

Bengal had experienced deficits and wild fluctuations in the frequency of power supply in the last three months with the NTPC imposing a similar restriction on Orissa’s Gridco. At times, the frequency plummeted dangerously, taking Bengal to the brink of a grid collapse.

The normal frequency of power supply is around 50 cycles per second. The grid collapses if the frequency drops below an accepted minimum.

Power minister Mrinal Banerjee said today that Bengal was suffering because of problems of payments between NTPC and other states. “Earlier it was Orissa and now it is Bihar. The Centre should immediately intervene,” he said.

In preparation for stopping supply to Bihar, the NTPC has drawn up a schedule of shutting down its units at Farakka, Kahalgaon and Talcher. In the schedule, however, the NTPC has said that some units would be shut down for overhauling.

“The schedule drawn up by the NTPC has to be changed. The NTPC had not shown these shutdowns in its yearly overhauling programme. This is not a pre-planned shutdown. We will raise objections to this and take up the matter with the Union power ministry,” Banerjee said.

At a meeting with the power utilities — the CESC and the WBSEB — today, Banerjee asked the NTPC representative to revise the shutdown schedule.

Banerjee pointed out that several districts in Bengal have suffered frequent power cuts since March 10 following NTPC’s action against Orissa.

“The NTPC withdrew its restriction on Orissa’s Gridco this week following assurance of payment of dues. Now, the NTPC has trained its gun on Bihar and Bengal will suffer once again,” a power ministry official said.

Moreover, Bihar is not equipped with sophisticated isolation devices and the power units there cannot trip automatically if the frequency drops sharply. So, even if it overdraws power, there will not be any automatic tripping. Overdrawing will create an imbalance in the eastern grid and lead to its collapse.

“It was Bihar which had caused the first eastern grid failure in the early 1990s by overdrawing. We cannot allow another such thing to occur,” the power minister said.

During the NTPC-Gridco tussle, circuit-breakers in the isolation devices in Bengal’s transmission lines had worked overtime. “In order to cope with the fluctuations in frequency, the circuit-breakers often had switched on and off — on some days it was as many as 12 to 28 times — and they were severely damaged,” Banerjee said.

At the meeting, Banerjee also asked the power utilities to review the extent of damage that power equipment have suffered over the past three months.


Calcutta, May 24: 
The West Bengal Minority Commission has summoned the officer-in-charge of Bankura Sadar police station, Samir Basak, for alleged harassment of daily wage earners at Gobina Nagar in Bankura.

“I have asked Basak to be present before the commission on June 10 to reply to the charges brought against him by a member from the minority community,” commission chairman K.M. Yusuf said today.

He said the commission was forced to take cognisance of the case after it received written complaints about harassment and torture of several poor Muslim daily wage earners who had come from remote villages in Murshidabad district sometime ago.

“We have been informed that Basak had picked up the wage earners from Gobinda Nagar bus stand and physically tortured them inside the police station. He also asked them to submit two copies of photographs with their bio-data if they wanted to stay on in the district,” Yusuf said, adding that “it is unbecoming of an OC to behave in this manner”.

Yusuf said the commission is authorised to act as a civil court and summon any person to give evidence under Section 4 of the West Bengal Minorities’ Commission Act.

However, Bankura superintendent of police Basudeb Bag said some wage earners were arrested from Gobinda Nagar five months ago following a spate of robberies in the area. “Three wage earners were arrested on charges of burglary, but none of them was harassed or tortured,” Bag claimed.

Basak, too, denied the allegation, saying he had done nothing wrong by asking the wage earners to submit their photographs and other details to the police station.

“I had to do so in view of the spate of crimes in Bankura,” he said.


Calcutta, May 24: 
For nearly 400,000 school teachers in Bengal, the joy of getting salary cheques early every month will soon be a thing of the past.

The government, which forks out Rs 350 crore every month on account of the wage bill covering 60,000 primary and 12,000 state-aided secondary and higher secondary institutions, has decided to pay only after the twenty-first day.

School education minister Kanti Biswas said the government took the decision following an objection from the finance department.

Asim Dasgupta’s department has refused to spend Rs 350 crore in the beginning of every month on the ground that it leads to serious problems in meeting its other expenditures over the rest of the month.

In the present system, teachers of state-aided primary, secondary and higher secondary schools receive their salaries earliest by the 5th and latest by the 10th of every month.

“Since the funds for payment of teachers’ salaries are released by the finance department, we will have to follow its instructions. We apologise for the delay in paying salaries to the teachers. They will have to bear with us,” said Biswas.

The minister today met the leaders of several major teachers’ bodies at Bikash Bhavan and conveyed the decision.

Biswas also said that because of the present financial crisis, the government was unable to release the funds to clear the post-retirement benefits of the 43,000 school teachers who retired between April 1, 2001 and March 31, 2002.

After the meeting, the anti-Left teachers’ bodies — the Secondary Employees’ and Teachers’ Association and the West Bengal Headmasters’ Association — came down heavily on the decision to not pay teachers’ salaries in the beginning of the month. They also threatened to launch protests against the government.


Kumargramduar, (Alipurduar) May 24: 
Two extremists of the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation-United Liberation Front of Asom combine were killed in an encounter inside the dense Buxa Tiger Reserve bordering Bhutan.

It was well past midnight when a team of handpicked police commandos led by the officer-in-charge of Kumargramduar police station, B.D. Sarkar, swooped on the dozen-strong group.

Recounting the encounter that lasted about half-an-hour, Sarkar told reporters the commandos were acting on a tip-off that a core group of the Ulfa-KLO combine would be arriving at the forest reserve from their Khalikhola camp on a strike “mission”.

“We lay in wait for the militants at Hatinala forest, deep inside the Buxa Forest Reserve. This time, we were well prepared for an encounter. We took on the insurgents with a handpicked 18-member team comprising personnel of the district elite commando combat force. They were equipped with sophisticated weapons to match the militants’ firepower,” the police officer said.

“It was a long wait. The encounter finally took place at around 3 am. When we asked the militants to give themselves up, they rained bullets in reply. In retaliation, we fired around 20 rounds.

“After the encounter, the militants, taking advantage of the darkness, managed to disappear into the forest. They made their way to Kalikhola near the Bhutan border through the Buxa Tiger Reserve. However, two of them fell to our bullets,” Sarkar said.

“A sub-inspector sustained a bullet injury in his leg. The spot where the encounter took place is hardly 3 km from Kalikhola and about 14 km from Kumargramduar police station,” he added.

“We recovered several incriminating documents, personal dairies and a sophisticated 9-mm pistol of Chinese make with two live magazines from the slain militants,” the officer said, adding that the police also recovered two empty magazines of AK assault rifles.


Calcutta, May 24: 
Fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda and mayor Subrata Mukherjee faced the wrath of a crowd in Behala this morning over the filling up of a pond in James Long Sarani.

“Two-thirds of the eight-acre pond was filled with rubble while local complaints to the police fell on deaf ears,” Nanda said at Writers’ Buildings after returning from the spot.

“The mayor has promised me a list of all such waterbodies that fall under the Calcutta Municipal Corporation within a few days so that they can be protected,” the minister said.

Nanda said he had acted on a complaint by the former MLA of the area, Kumkum Chakraborty. “Three FIRs have also been lodged with the Behala police station. Despite this, the authorities went ahead with filling up the pond,” Nanda pointed out.

The minister and the mayor were surrounded by angry residents of the area when they went to the spot at about 10 am. “The people were very agitated as the police had done nothing to stop the filling up of the pond or apprehend the criminals,” Nanda said.

The minister withstood the drizzle this morning, trying to reason with the people and giving instructions to policemen and fisheries officials.

With such acts being cognisable non-bailable offences, Nanda has directed the police to immediately arrest the culprits. The minister said he wanted a full inquiry report from the police on the incident. “I have told the mayor he should ask the local councillor to take steps to re-excavate the pond. The fisheries department will bear the cost of the job,” Nanda said.

The incident comes at a time when the departments of fisheries and environment are locked in a battle, seeking to introduce contradictory laws for the protection of waterbodies. While the fisheries department wants a law to protect all waterbodies covering more than five cottahs, the environment department is seeking a legislation that may consider filling up ponds in urban areas where there is no scope for rearing fish.

Nanda said that once the Calcutta Municipal Corporation submits the list of ponds and waterbodies in the city, the fisheries department would provide employment to the youth by setting up fishermen’s cooperatives.


New Delhi, May 24: 
Sonia Gandhi today asked the Vajpayee regime to act responsibly and come up with a strategy against Pakistan that would stand the test of time instead of indulging in mere rhetoric.

On the domestic front, the Congress president charged the government with “monumental incompetence on all fronts” and announced that her party would raise a voluntary rapid action force — Sadbhavana ke Sipahi — to wage “war against communalism”.

Addressing the AICC session at Sadbhavana Nagar, Sonia declared that the country was one in its fight against terrorism. “…We want the world to realise that we are one in countering Pak-sponsored terrorism. We will continue to extend our support to the government in its fight against terrorism and in restoring peace in Jammu and Kashmir,” she said, but emphasised her party’s fundamental and unbridgeable differences with the BJP on social, political and economic issues.

As the delegates cheered, Sonia was hailed as the “Prime Minister-in-waiting”.

Desh ki neta kaisa ho (How should the leader of the country be)?” the cheerleaders raised the slogan. “Sonia Gandhi jaisi ho (Like Sonia Gandhi),” was the loud reply.

Three resolutions were passed during the day demanding President’s rule in Gujarat, job reservations for weaker sections in the private sector, continuing support to economic reforms, good governance, focus on secularism and a desire to explore all avenues for a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

Sonia said the situation on the border was “very delicate” and asked the government to “project our side” to the international community. “We should be ready for tougher times ahead. No such step should be taken that would not get results. We should conduct ourselves as two nuclear powers,” she said. “We should make diplomatic efforts to project our side to the international community. They should listen to us.”

India should categorically tell Pakistan that it would not tolerate cross-border terrorism, she asserted. “We should act with great responsibility. At ground level, the troops should be alert and such a situation has to be created to prevent infiltration,” Sonia said.

The Congress chief urged the Centre to review its policy towards Pakistan. She pointed out that despite deployment of troops along the western border, there has been no marked decrease in terrorist activities and no change in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. Neither has Pakistan handed over the 20 terrorists demanded by India nor has President Pervez Musharraf implemented the assurances given in his January 12 address to the nation, she said.

In a veiled criticism of Vajpayee, Sonia said: “Mere words cannot be a substitute for a strategy that would take into account ground realities and stand the test of time.”

The leader of the Opposition minced no words while referring to Gujarat. The orgy of violence had damaged the country’s secular foundations and tarnished India’s image, she said.

Articulating the Congress’ opposition to the Sangh parivar, she said: “We reject the politics of hate. We are with the politics that heals and not that wounds. We must defeat those who seek to destroy our heritage. For us, secularism is a matter of conviction and not compulsion. We believe in freedom of religion and not freedom from religion.”

Sonia directing the delegates to single-mindedly work to root out communalism of all kinds. “After what we have seen in Gujarat, we should take a resolve to fight communalism in all forms.” Sonia said she had given directions to chief ministers of Congress-ruled states that there must not be any compromise in dealing with organisations preaching politics of hate.

Spelling out the objective of setting up a rapid action force to fight communalism, Sonia said there was a need for the Sadbhavana ke Sipahi. Communal forces have gained ground as they are well funded and organised, she said, but added that the blame has to be shared by secular forces as “we ourselves have faltered.... Intimidated by false propaganda by our adversary”.


Lucknow, May 24: 
In a jolt to the bureaucracy, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayavati not only shunted out state chief secretary A.P. Verma, but virtually forced him to hand over charge to the new incumbent, D.S. Bagga, just before midnight yesterday.

A 1967 batch IAS officer, Bagga was the state’s investment commissioner in Delhi and now jumps half a dozen IAS officers for the post.

Reliable sources say that Verma had no inkling that he was being transferred till the moment Bagga entered his office to take charge late last evening.

It was only when Verma insisted on seeing the orders in writing that the necessary documentation appointing Bagga to the post was hurriedly prepared. Handing over of the charge took place around 11.30 pm.

The sudden change of guards — which reportedly was carried out on direct instructions of BSP supremo Kanshi Ram — has made the IAS lobby jittery.

“It’s not only Bagga’s junior standing but also the manner in which the chief secretary was shuffled just before midnight that rankles,” a senior official said.

Officers are already sore with Mayavati for effecting mass transfers of more than 300 IAS/IPS personnel and 600 PCS officers within the first three weeks of assuming power.

Yesterday, during a furore in the Assembly over mass transfer of bureaucrats, Mayavati offered to quit active politics if the opposition could prove its charge that she was shuffling officers to rake in money.

The chief minister went on to justify the transfers by pointing out that even in a small state like Punjab, chief minister Amarinder Singh had so far transferred more than 800 officers.

She also denied allegations of showing bias to Dalit IAS officers and appointing them in key posts.

As evidence, she pointed out that the state’s chief secretary Verma and director general of police R.K. Pandit both belonged to upper castes.

The new chief secretary, who belongs to Punjabi Khatri caste, had flown in to Lucknow only last evening to take his new charge.

This morning he flew back to Delhi to attend a meeting of chief secretaries called by the Union home secretary. As for outgoing chief secretary Verma, there was no announcement on his next posting till late tonight.


Lucknow, May 24: 
A major fire at a shoe factory in the Jeoni Mandi area in Agra claimed the lives of over 60 people, including children, this morning.

Agra police commissioner V.K. Sharma said over phone that 35 charred bodies had been recovered from the devastated factory premises till this afternoon, when rescue work had to be stopped due to a sandstorm.

“The toll is expected to rise once rescue work resumes, as more than 200 people were trapped inside the two-storeyed building when the fire broke out at 9.30 am,” he said.

Officials said fire tenders from the army and the air force have been deployed to control the fire, which raged for more than five hours.

Preliminary investigations have revealed that the fire broke out from a storage room in Shri Jee International, where highly inflammable adhesives and rubber solutions were stored.

It engulfed the two floors of the factory building and continued to rage till the entire stock of chemicals was exhausted.

“Unfortunately, the factory’s main gate was locked when the disaster struck and the trapped workers, desperate to get out, lost their lives or were grievously injured when they jumped from the second floor,” Sharma said. By the time firemen came to the rescue by breaking down the factory’s rear wall, almost every one on the first floor was burnt to death.


New Delhi, May 24: 
Not a single Indian official or Opposition leader attended the lunch or the reception hosted in the evening by Pakistani high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi at the Taj Man Singh today.

Qazi, who was ordered out of the country following the terrorist strike on the Kaluchak army camp, is leaving for home tomorrow.

Though the diplomatic community in the capital, including US ambassador Robert Blackwill, was in full attendance, Opposition politicians followed the government in giving Qazi’s reception a miss.

The Pakistani diplomats did not miss out on the significance but llmany of the guests at the reception felt it was rather ungracious of South Block not to send even a junior representative from its Pakistan division.

“Pakistan must realise that till they clean up their act and stop supporting terrorists we can set aside diplomatic niceties,” an Indian diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, said.

Qazi had sought appointments with foreign minister Jaswant Singh and foreign secretary Chokila Iyer before he left. “Iyer met him and read out the riot act, though this was meant to be a farewell call,” a Pakistani diplomat said. Singh refused to see him.

Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who is a regular at the high commission, was not there. He has, however, been indisposed for some time. Maverick politician Subramaniam Swamy was there, as was former election commissioner I.S. Gill. But the numerous out-of-work former foreign secretaries, who are part of Delhi’s diplomatic circuit, stayed away.

The Hurriyat Conference leaders — another set of regulars at the high commission — were also not there. They had all been invited but were busy with Abdul Gani Lone’s memorial service in Srinagar.

The attendance at today’s farewell bash was conspicuously thin compared to the normal dos by the high commission.

Qazi was a favourite with the capital’s chatterati, but they preferred to stay away today. The mild-mannered, sophisticated Qazi was well liked in South Block, in constrast to his abrasive predecessor, Riaz Khokkar.

The high commissioner and his wife will take a flight to Amritsar tomorrow morning and will drive down to Lahore from the airport.


Hyderabad, May 24: 
The spirits will now flow till the wee hours in Hyderabad. Liquor shops, bars and restaurants, as well as pan and cigarette shops in the city can now stay open till 1 am, according to police commissioner M.V. Krishna Rao.

The decision has ostensibly been taken to attract tourists and delegates to national and international conventions.

The announcement comes in the wake of poor tourist arrivals in Andhra Pradesh, despite the mega infrastructure projects and the large-scale privatisation of tourism circuits that is underway in the state.

Those opposed to the move, however, say tourism promotion is only a ruse and the real objective is to fill the coffers of the liquor lobby.

The Chandrababu Naidu government has gradually nullified the effect of the limited prohibition in force in Andhra Pradesh, they allege.

The number of retail shops have been increased to more than 11,000 and nearly 1,200 bars have been given licenses — 80 per cent of them in Hyderabad, Vishakapatnam, Tirupati, Vijayawada and other border towns.

The state government has refuted this charge. Andhra Pradesh had attracted only 90,000 foreign tourists in 2000-01 and tourism’s contribution to tax revenue was Rs 146 crore, it said.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had brought down the number of foreign tourists to 80,000 in 2001-02.

“We have set a target of 1 lakh foreign tourists in 2002-03,” said State Tourism Development Corporation chairman C. Anjaneya.

Revenue from tourism in the current fiscal is estimated at Rs 250 crore. “By the end of the plan period, we hope to reach the Rs 1,000 crore mark,” said tourism minister T. Srinivas Yadav.

“The Naidu government wants to make money from all quarters and it will not be surprising if the administration stop all kinds of moral policing soon,” said Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad activist B. Shanmugham.

The government might soon relax rules regarding the functioning of casinos and discotheques, he added.

Excise revenue collected by Andhra Pradesh had shot up to Rs 2,953 crore in 2000-01 and Rs 3,755 crore in 2001-02. The target this fiscal, according to an official in the chief minister’s office, is Rs 5,000 crore.


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