Jute mill PF dues swell to Rs 1000 crore
Green signal for wildlife school
Police recover Bhutan Buddha
Saffron tint in Red victory
Defence drops eviction bomb
Modern farming pill for falling mango yield
Veil on nuke survival plan
Stubborn Delhi stand in question
Drill and darkness shock for Jammu
Joint patrolling difficult, not impossible

 
 
JUTE MILL PF DUES SWELL TO RS 1000 CRORE 
 
 
BY ANIEK PAUL AND DEVADEEP PUROHIT
 
Calcutta, June 5: 
The jute industry is arguably the worst provident fund defaulter in the state, and the combined dues of 26 jute mills stand at over Rs 1,000 crore. The defaulters include mills owned not just by private companies, but also the state and Central governments.

Senior PF officials in the state said: “The Rs 1,000 crore figure includes penalty and accrued interest on the outstanding amount. The recovery of the dues is doubtful, as in most cases the owners have distanced themselves from the mills.”

Many of them are being run by workers under management licence obtained from a now defunct management. It is impossible to determine the true ownership of most jute mills in the state.

In more ways than one, it is true for the mills owned by Azmara Plc — formerly Titaghur Plc — which is at the centre of an unfolding scam involving a local jute merchant and senior provident fund officials.

The promoters distance themselves to disown responsibilities. The provident fund department can initiate criminal proceedings against the owners of the mills for non-payment of PF dues, and can even detain them without producing them in court.

Executive chairman of Azmara Graham Avery has alleged that the three mills of Azmara — Samnuggur, Angus and Victoria — the PF office in Calcutta auctioned off, were acquired by Ravindra Kumar Poddar.

Poddar, the chairman of the Indian Jute Mills Association, denied the allegation. He said he had nothing to do with the mills and was in no way connected to the three firms — Chik Commodities, Smart Technologies and York Holdings — that acquired the shares of the three mills.

The fourth mill owned by Azmara — Titaghur — was spared. Even that is run under a management contract, and the true beneficiary maintains an arm’s length from the legal entity that has management control of the mill.

The jute baron who has effective control of Titaghur has now filed a case offering Rs 10 crore for the three mills that were auctioned off by the PF department, but again through an investment firm with which he has no direct contact.

Azmara’s past owner — R.J. Brealey — had played the same game. He had distanced himself from the mills after being apprehended by the PF office. He sold the firm to Avery four years ago.

Avery, however, absorbed the liabilities of the company, including the accumulated dues to statutory authorities, banks and financial institutions. The PF department said Azamara’s dues to them stand at Rs 100 crore, including penalties and interest.

Avery, however, said: “We have never been allowed by the PF department to reconcile our records with the department’s claims. Hence, we could not determine the actual amount owed by the company to the PF office.” Avery had been apprehended by the PF department and put in Alipore Jail on his last visit to Calcutta.

The dues of Azmara Plc originate from the times the Mehtas owned and managed the company— then known as Titaghur Plc. They had acquired Titaghur, then listed on the London and Dundee stock exchanges, in the mid-fifties from British owners.

   

 
 
GREEN SIGNAL FOR WILDLIFE SCHOOL 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, June 5: 
The forest department will open a post-graduate diploma institute to impart training in bio-diversity and wildlife to people active in the sphere.

“We have a lot of work ahead in the Sunderbans and its hinterland and our NGOs need trained personnel to implement the schemes effectively,” said Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The chief minister, who unveiled Bengal’s bio-diversity strategy and action plan at the state pollution control board’s headquarters in Salt Lake on the occasion of World Environment Day, said he had given the forest department the go-ahead.

“There is a dearth of such institutes and only one exists in Dehradun. Ours will be a centre of excellence,” the chief minister pointed out.

The action plan was drawn up jointly by the environment department and the Ramakrishna Mission. The study lists the flora and fauna of Bengal, their state of health and spells out guidelines for their protection.

Environment minister Manab Mukherjee, speaking at the same venue, said a state bio-diversity board would be set up to implement the policy. “We have to think beyond the urban sprawl and protect the environment in the rural areas where the rich bio-diversity lies,” Mukherjee pointed out.

The chief minister pointed out that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had undertaken a project in the Sunderbans spanning both India and Bangladesh. “I am happy with the good news that the diverse flora and fauna of the fragile Sunderbans would be conserved without dislodging the people who have encroached on many of its islands,” the chief minister said.

Bhattacharjee, who chairs a committee that monitors the trans-border project, said it was the state’s policy to preserve bio-diversity keeping in mind the interests of the population in the particular geo-political zones.

The state, which had a green cover of about 16 per cent, was working towards achieving an ideal figure of 23 per cent. “We have cracked down on illegal felling of trees in the forest tracts of north Bengal and the drive will not be relaxed,” the chief minister promised.

“I am happy to say that noted agronomist M.S. Swaminathan is working closely with us,” the chief minister noted. Bhattacharjee was pleased that the Asian Development Bank was showing an interest in the Sunderbans project.

The environment minister said the action plan was framed keeping in mind the agricultural policy so that both went hand-in-hand without harming the environment.

   

 
 
POLICE RECOVER BHUTAN BUDDHA 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, June 5: 
The Naxalbari police have seized a priceless 15th century emerald Buddha idol near the Indo-Nepal border, bringing into focus again the rampant smuggling of antiques in the region. Two members of an international gang and two goldsmiths, acting as middlemen, have been arrested.

The idol, five inches high and weighing 500 gm, was recovered on Tuesday evening when the police trapped the four as they were trying to cut a deal with a prospective buyer near the Kiron Chandra tea estate.

Ganesh Pandit, the Nepalese kingpin of the gang, and Gobind Kanti, a resident of Samastipur in Bihar, were arrested along with two goldsmiths from Siliguri, Ashoke Agarwal and Balaji Yadav, who were brokering the deal. The buyer managed to give the police the slip.

“During interrogation, the two smugglers said the rare statuette had been stolen and smuggled out of Bhutan by an organised gang of trans-border antique smugglers. Pandit had demanded Rs 7 lakh from the goldsmiths, who, in turn, located a prospective buyer in Siliguri willing to pay Rs 11 lakh. The idol would possibly fetch over Rs 25 lakh from international collectors,” the police said.

The gang confessed that they stole antiques from Buddhist monasteries and houses in Bhutan, which often have collections of rare religious artefacts.

The gang then uses carriers to smuggle out the relics to Nepal and then India. Some of the artefacts are sold off to buyers within India and some are shipped out to Kathmandu or to the West, where there is a ready market for stolen idols and artefacts, police added.

   

 
 
SAFFRON TINT IN RED VICTORY 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Rampurhat (Birbhum), June 5: 
If Mamata Banerjee is scorned by the CPM for her alliance with the BJP, it is time the ruling communists did some soul-searching.

For, today it managed to regain control of an important municipality with help from the saffron party.

After staying out of the local power grid for two years, the CPM regained the prestigious Rampurhat Municipality by winning the no-confidence vote against the Congress chairman with help from two BJP councillors.

In a way, the CPM avenged the blow the Congress had dealt by weaning away from it one Independent who had originally enabled the communists to capture the municipality after winning eight of the 17 seas in the municipal elections two years ago.

The Congress-Trinamul-BJP combine, controlling six seats and two Independents, had taken the municipality from under the CPM’s nose after securing the third Independent.

On Wednesday, the CPM drew level with the rival combine when it managed to influence the two BJP councillors, Shyamali Das and Subhasis Chowdhury, into supporting the no-confidence motion it brought against Congress chairman Syeed Jimmy.

With the BJP supporters coming to its aid, the CPM-sponsored motion, notice for which was given in May, sailed through by 10 to 7 votes. The BJP’s act, according to observers, is a telling commentary on the state of the alliance between Trinamul and the BJP.

Badal Behari Mitra and Sanjib Ghosh of CPM have been elected chairman and vice-chairman respectively. After the victory, the CPM supporters took out a rally in the area.

   

 
 
DEFENCE DROPS EVICTION BOMB 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Rampurhat (Birbhum), June 5: 
Over 500 families of Suruchia village in Rampurhat sub-division face an uncertain future with the ministry of defence set to acquire the 800 acres of land where they — nearly 2,500 men, women and children — have been residing for decades.

Defence officials claim that the land belongs to the Indian Air Force and has asked the district administration to relocate the families.

After residents appealed to the district administration to save their homes, district land and land reforms officials asked IAF authorities to submit evidence in support of their claim.

The land falls under wards 1 and 13 of Rampurhat Municipality and the civic body approved plans for buildings that have come up here.

Fearing eviction, people of these two wards have submitted a mass-petition to the municipality authorities. They have also approached local leaders.

“The municipal authorities had sanctioned my housing plan. I was also granted loan from a local bank. If there was any dispute with my land, I would not have been granted loan,” said Apurba Mukherjee, a resident of ward 1.

According to current settlement records, the British government used the 794.55 acres as their air base during World War II in 1943. The base was used till 1947.

Now IAF authorities are pressing their claim as the defence ministry plans to set up a training camp for the Border Security Force here.

District magistrate Amit Das said: “After 1954, a review settlement was made by the land and land reforms department. We are looking for the review record as it can only sort out the problem. But it is clear that one authority must at fault.”

The family of Dharmendra Sharma has been living in ward 13 for the past three decades. “My father bought the land. We have all documents that will prove our ownership. How can the defence authorities claim the land as theirs?” Sharma asked.

Another resident, Chandan Mukherjee, said: “We have built houses and shops here. And above all, we have valid documents. If now the defence authorities claim their possession, what we will do?”

Lightning deaths

A man and a child were struck dead by lightning at Kalinagore village in Kakdwip of South 24-Parganas late on Wednesday night. They were identified as Narendra Das, 35, and Rani Das, 13.    

 
 
MODERN FARMING PILL FOR FALLING MANGO YIELD 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Malda, June 5: 
There’s been little succour for Bengalis as a heat wave swept through the plains, making an already scorching summer unbearable. Even mangoes, a reason many believe is good enough to suffer the summer, have brought no cheer.

Supply of Himsagar, Langra, Gopalbhog, the local favourites, has thinned to a trickle and the few that are available come for a king’s ransom. Worse, this could become a trend, say experts, if mango farming is not modernised.

The dearth of mangoes has been primarily blamed on the savage storms that ripped through the districts, particularly Malda and Murshidabad, tearing the unripe fruits from the trees and shattering the dreams of mango merchants.

Low production has jacked up the prices beyond the reach of many. The common Himsagar now comes for Rs 30-40 per kg as against Rs 15 last year, when the farmers were blessed with a bumper crop.

“The mango traders have not faced such a tough time in the last 20 years. As there was a bumper production in Malda last year, the traders invested a lot of money to purchase mango gardens, expecting a repeat. But we are disheartened and not sure whether we can cover the capital,’’ said Prakash Mondal, a mango trader of Malda town.

In Malda district alone last year, 2.5 lakh tonne mangoes were produced — a record. This year, production hasn’t crossed the one lakh-tonne mark. Officials from the district mango development and research department said mango buds sprouted in plenty at Kaliachak, Englishbazar, Manikchak and Malda. But storms snipped off more than half of the fruits before they could mature.

The director of the Malda mango research unit, Mewaram, echoed them. He said over 50 per cent green mangoes were nipped in the storms. So people are having to buy the ripe fruits at double the usual price.

He set the alarm bells ringing, saying production will continue to fall if farmers do not adopt modern methods and nourish the trees properly. “The tree owners are using high doses of pesticides, which affect the trees and its fruit. Besides, most of the trees in Malda are 60 to 70 years old, which is a major cause behind falling production. It is necessary to start mango farming in a planned way using scientific methods. Otherwise, the popular fruit will be vanishing gradually,’’ he said.

“We had planned to cut down some old trees for replantation, but the district authorities, especially the environment department, did not allow us. If the administration does not help us, what can we do?’’ said a mango farmer of Manikchak, throwing up his hands.

District land and land reforms officer Sudhir Chakraborty said: “We had given permission to fell trees to some mango garden owners. Later we found that the owners are building housing complexes instead of replantation. So we have become rigid in granting permission for felling trees.”

   

 
 
VEIL ON NUKE SURVIVAL PLAN 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA
 
New Delhi, June 5: 
If the director-general of civil defence, Dibakar Prasad, is to be believed, India has well-formulated contingency plans to deal with the after-effects of a nuclear strike.

But these plans are “top secret” and kept under wraps to prevent India’s one billion people from going into a panic. Prasad refuses to part with information such as which cities and towns and what installations are the “most vulnerable” to nuclear attacks. “We don’t want to give out these details because the other side will then pick up the information,” said Prasad. “The press should understand this.”

He was confident the government was cranked up to deal with any contingency arising from a nuclear strike or any form of chemical or biological attack launched by Pakistan. “We will know 24 four hours before such a strike occurs,” said Prasad. He did not explain how he would be privy to advance information.

The civil defence chief said it would take 24 hours to get the government’s plan into operation. “When we find an attack is imminent, we shall tell people what they should do,” he said, trying to explain why the government is not putting out the dos and don’ts to guide the public. “There will be plenty of time for all people to know what they must do,” Prasad added.

His confidence is not shared by people who have studied the effects of a nuclear explosion. There will be a complete breakdown of medical services. Some years ago, the International Association of Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons came out with a poster that showed a telephone hanging from its cradle after a nuclear strike. It had a message: “Don’t bother to contact your physician.”

States have finalised their programme of action, Prasad said. Everyone involved with civil defence knows exactly what the line of action should be and it will not take time for emergency and civil defence services to roll.

All this was finalised last month when Cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad held a meeting of state chief secretaries and briefed them on the contingency plans. State directors-general of police were also called. Special provisions have to be made for border states like Gujarat which are more vulnerable to attack.

Critics say little planning has gone into dealing with the aftermath of either a nuclear or biological or a chemical attack. “Everything is very preliminary, no serious effort has gone into this. We are hoping to rely on the expertise we have gathered in managing our nuclear plants,” said a civil defence official

“We can merely take off from the safety drills in place there and apply it to a larger canvas,” said a civil defence official who did not wish to be identified.

While there is no escape for those who are at ground zero — the point directly under an aerial burst and the surrounding three miles — the extent of damage dissipates with distance, civil defence officials said. The first 96 hours after an explosion are the most dangerous.

In vulnerable areas, evacuation is the only option. Failing this, people need to get into basements of homes or into underground railways in cities that have one. Only Calcutta does.

The authorities have already evaluated the high-risk points and divided the country into 225 categories. Atomic power stations and Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Gujarat are high-danger centres.

   

 
 
STUBBORN DELHI STAND IN QUESTION 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, June 5: 
India’s tough stand on resuming dialogue with Pakistan has raised doubts if the Vajpayee government is taking the diplomatic freeze a bit too far.

The world was hoping for a breakthrough at the Almaty summit. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rebuffed Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s talks overture.

“Coercive diplomacy may be fine to a certain extent. But how far can you maintain this stand without going to war?” asked a diplomat in South Block. “It is about time India broke the status quo in agreeing to a dialogue with Pakistan.”

There has been no dialogue between the neighbours since the Agra summit flopped nearly a year ago. Early this year, Musharraf’s famous handshake with Vajpayee at the Saarc summit in Kathmandu only led to informal consultations between the two sides. But despite hopes in various quarters of a diplomatic breakthrough, there was no substantial progress.

US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage arrives in Islamabad tonight to ease tensions between India and Pakistan. He will have talks with the Pakistani leadership tomorrow on bringing the temperature down in South Asia. When he arrives here on Friday, he will hold a similar dialogue with the Indians.

Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld will follow Armitage within a few days. He is scheduled to arrive in Delhi on Sunday and then move on to Islamabad.

In diplomatic circles, the twin visits are seen as a make-or-break diplomatic effort by Washington. The international concern about a possible war between the South Asian nuclear neighbours is likely to rise several fold if the mission of the two US officials ends in failure.

India has won the first round of the diplomatic battle by getting the US and others to pressure Pakistan to stop infiltration.

The worry in the minds of the section favouring resumption of talks is what India will do if the US concludes in the next few weeks that infiltration has stopped.

World opinion, which is behind India now, is likely to change and more and more countries will start asking Delhi to de-escalate.

The argument is, therefore, to return to talks and push the proposals on confidence-building measures to put the pressure back on Pakistan. If Islamabad fails to deliver, India can once again take the high moral ground and rally the world behind it.

   

 
 
DRILL AND DARKNESS SHOCK FOR JAMMU 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar June 5: 
An hour-long blackout and a massive civil defence drill in winter capital Jammu today sent a wave of panic through the city which, according to security experts, is “well within Pakistani artillery range”.

“Blackouts and civil defence drill are not new to the people of Jammu who have seen them happen during previous wars with Pakistan. But this time the nuclear capabilities of the two countries and the reported deployment of missiles have made the thought of war horrifying,” said a civil defence officer.

Over 20,000 residents living in villages near the International Border and the Line of Control have already migrated to safer places to escape the shelling that has been going on for nearly a month now in Jammu and Kashmir.

As sirens fitted on police stations in Jammu wailed, the entire city plunged into darkness and traffic on the roads ground to an abrupt halt. The drill lasted an hour.

Civil defence volunteers made rounds of the city, which had been divided into six zones, training people how to save themselves during a Pakistani air raid.

“The exercise was a success. Our purpose was to train people in Jammu about how they should react during a sudden Pakistani air strike,” said Sheikh Owais, the deputy inspector general of home guards and civil defence.

Similar exercises will be held in Srinagar and other towns, sources said. The state government is also planning to train people living in towns and villages near the border. However, residents of some Jammu areas said they were not informed about the drill.

Professor Abdul Gani Bhat, the chairman of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, articulated the fear that is on everybody’s mind, saying if India and Pakistan go to war, it would spell disaster. “Both have nuclear weapons,” Bhat told a news conference here this morning.

The Hurriyat leader denied that infiltration was still continuing across the LoC. “We outrightly reject this allegation. It is a people’s indigenous movement in form and content. There is no border existing in Jammu and Kashmir. There is a Line of Control and no question of cross border terrorism. We condemn terrorism in all forms, be it at the individual level or a group and the state terrorism,” he said.

Bhat said India should accept Pakistan’s proposal of deploying observers from the United Nations all along the Line of Control.

The Hurriyat chief praised the Almaty declaration, which, he said, was balanced and “seeks to accommodate view points of parties involved and impresses effectively on member states to settle disputes peacefully and quickly”.

“The Almaty declaration has recognised the people’s right to self-determination,” Bhat added.

Firebrand Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, while addressing the news conference, expressed concern over the condition of separatist leaders lodged in different jails.

   

 
 
JOINT PATROLLING DIFFICULT, NOT IMPOSSIBLE 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, June 5: 
Prime Minister Vajpayee’s proposal for joint patrolling by Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control to determine if there are infiltrations into India from PoK is technically feasible but still a long way off, say sources in the security establishment.

The proposal, not the first of its kind, is based on considerations that can reshape politics in the Valley. Some of these are diplomatic; others military. The primary objective is to thwart any possibility of a third party intervening in the Kashmir issue, something the government is keen on restricting within the framework of bilateralism.

The Prime Minister’s offer comes even as US deputy secretary for defence Richard Armitage, setting off for the sub-continent, declared yesterday that the US was in favour of the Kashmir dispute being settled as per the Simla Accord. Armitage is expected in New Delhi on Friday.

Given the US stance, there is not much optimism in India that Musharraf would agree to the proposal. Defence sources said: “There is an Unmogip (United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan) office in New Delhi and Srinagar. But we do not recognise it. The observer group has access to the LoC only through the PoK side.”

Joint patrols by India and Pakistan would also buttress the opinion aired by some political observers in India, notably Farooq Abdullah, that the Line of Control should be converted into the International Boundary. Technically, the Indian government’s stated position goes against this. It, instead, demands the accession of the whole of Jammu and Kashmir — including what is now PoK — into India. But over the years, the government is seen to have wavered on its stand.

This is also not the first time that such a proposal has been mooted. Around 1998-1999, India had tabled a similar offer of joint patrolling along the International Boundary in Punjab. At that time, Punjab was being terrorised by Khalistani militants slipping through the porous border. (Since then, the border has been fenced). Pakistan had then turned down the suggestion.

Again, in 1991, India had suggested that joint patrols be carried out not only in Punjab but also in Jammu and Kashmir. Then, too, Pakistan backed out though it had initially shown enthusiasm for what it called “coordinated patrolling”.

The implementation of Vajpayee’s proposal — if Musharraf were to agree to it — would involve a tedious process. The military personnel of both the nations would have to first undergo a series of confidence building measures before their patrols can be entrusted with the task of determining if the gaps in the LoC have been plugged.

Explaining the rationale behind these measures, sources point out: “You cannot ask two armies, that are eyeball-to-eyeball for months now and firing away at each other, to suddenly stop shooting and carry out a joint exercise. You first have to work out the modalities. These cannot be done overnight.”

The rough terrain flanking both sides of the LoC is peppered with landmines. According to army sources, infiltrators are guided through these minefields by Pakistani scouts and under cover of Pakistani firing. Under these circumstances, not just suspicion but also animosity runs high. Moreover, each side is determined to retain its posts, often perched on isolated hilltops, and, therefore, treats every small but significant manoeuvre of the enemy with total distrust.

But there are ways to overcome these hurdles and actually establish joint patrols, one positive aspect being regular interaction between the army brass.

Every Tuesday, the directors general of military operations (DGMOs) converse under an institutionalised confidence building measure. Even at the height of the Kargil war, not only did they talk, but the Indian army also handed over bodies to the Pakistani army at a point on the LoC. It continues to do so even now.

Defence sources do not rule out a minimum level of communication and understanding between the two militaries even in the backdrop of the recent artillery firing and shelling in sectors that had so far been relatively calm. (One such firing incident was reported from Tangdhar today.) “It is not that we (Indian and Pakistani armies) have no interaction apart from the firing and the shelling,” sources in the military said.

Radical confidence-building measures would involve flag meetings, in which commanding officers of army units would get together at specific posts, an exercise similar to that carried out by the Border Security Force and the army on other borders. For instance, on the western borders, the BSF and the Pakistani Rangers hold flag meetings; in the east, the BSF holds flag meetings with the Bangladesh Rifles and on the border with China, the armies exchange mail. In Sikkim, at least on one occasion, a soldier who had lost his way was returned to his home base through the Nathu La border point.

Joint patrolling on the India-Pakistan border was also considered when relations between Delhi and Islamabad were perceived as being on the upswing, as in the run-up to the Agra Summit last year and Vajpayee’s Lahore visit.

   
 

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