Dark secret comes to light
Agony uncles in uniform
Damages rap for tourist bureau
By default, they’ll get it from you
Buddha yen to save wetlands
Cops see ISI link in forgery
The City Diary
Writers’ still in state of alert
Howrah sits up on damage to heritage
Alert on monsoon pirate attack

 
 
DARK SECRET COMES TO LIGHT 
 
 
BY BAPPA MAJUMDAR
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
In a big city, amidst the bright lights, lies Tapuriaghata. Just off the glosign-splattered E.M. Bypass, darkness descends here at dusk. That’s the way it’s been for the past 125 years.

For the 3,000-odd residents of this shadowy pocket of south Calcutta, lights are meant to be gazed at from a distance, fans envied from far. Electricity has bypassed what is known in local parlance as the “no-light zone”, near the Bypass.

Their representative in Parliament, Trinamul Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee, says she is “completely in the dark” about this corner of her south Calcutta constituency. “No one has ever told me in detail about the sufferings of the people of Tapuriaghata,” she said from her New Delhi residence a few days ago, adding that she would “definitely organise some funds to alleviate their problems”.

But the residents of Tapuriaghata, mostly from the fishing community, see no ray of hope in Mamata’s words. “We don’t have any faith in any leader… We had even organised a plot for the CESC transformer to be installed but didi (Mamata) did not release any money then,” one of them recounts. They are equally “disappointed and disgusted” with their councillor Pankaj Makal and MLA Nirmal Mandal, who “rarely come here and are just not bothered”.

Now, they are chalking out protest plans — taking to the streets to be noticed, to be heard and, maybe, to spark a change. Some have even resorted to hooking electricity from the neighbouring West Bengal State Electricity Board unit, within the jurisdiction of Bidhannagar Municipality.

A cramped ‘club room’ with a small television is the site for some rare excitement in the evening — the ‘hooking’ has allowed a group of die-hard football fans to tune into the World Cup craze. “We have got the TV and the cable connection to watch the football and cheer Brazil. It’s breathed life into our dark, dreary lives,” says one of them.

The residents’ recent struggle to bring electricity lines to their homes dates back to 1990, when Tapuriaghata ceased to be a Jadavpur municipality area. The CESC responded in 1996, telling them that they would have to cough up Rs 7 lakh for the installation of a transformer. The land for the transformer was arranged, but where would the funds come from? “Local politicians were asked to contribute something but they told us to fend for ourselves,” residents alleged.

A year before that, in 1995, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation installed a few lampposts but they stopped functioning after a few months. Residents approached the WBSEB earlier this year for installation of a transformer. But they have no idea where the Rs 6.76 lakh will come from.

With the hope of switching on a light or a fan in their lifetimes fading fast, a sense of desperation is creeping into the residents of Tapuriaghata. “We have to make a final concerted effort to bring light into our children’s lives. How long can this mockery of an urban existence carry on?” they demand.

The answer lies buried in political apathy and civic neglect.

   

 
 
AGONY UNCLES IN UNIFORM 
 
 
BY PRONAB MONDAL
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
The setting: a small, spartan room in a police station.

The protagonists: policemen acting as therapists

The aim: to check the rising cases of suicide on the riverfront.

Seated in heavy wooden chairs around a table, about half-a-dozen cops of the North Port police station spend hours every month counselling 10 to 15 men and women rescued after attempts to kill themselves, either by jumping off Howrah bridge or drowning in the Hooghly at Babughat.

“No other police station in the city has to do such a job. We have gained considerable knowledge of human psychology to deal with the situation,” said a North Port police officer.

Why this thana? “Howrah bridge has become something of a suicide point for people from the city and the suburbs desperate to end their lives. The river traffic police carry out the rescue operations and hand them over to us. A long stretch of the Hooghly, from Kashi Mitra ghat to Babughat, falls under our jurisdiction,” explains the officer.

But the “success rate” of suicide attempts by jumping off Howrah bridge is very low, say the police. In course of counselling, cops have discovered various reasons for these people choosing the river to end their lives. “One seems to be the fact that this is a holy river and so people seek salvation,” says an officer.

Then, there was this 16-year-old girl who was stopped from jumping off the railings by a pedestrian. “She had failed Madhyamik 2002 and came straight to Howrah bridge after collecting her marksheet from school. She was hell-bent on killing herself, but we gradually talked her out of it and called her family in Behala,” say the police.

An employee of a library in the Rashbehari area jumped into the river at Kashi Mitra ghat after consuming sleeping pills, earlier this month. She was rescued and told the police how her father was suffering from a fatal disease.

Another woman, married four years ago, jumped into the river from Howrah bridge a few days ago. She was rescued by a boatman. During counselling, she told the police she did not have a child and was, therefore, being tortured by her in-laws in Shibpur.

“We are not experts in handling such cases. But we try to console them as much as possible. We take them to a silent room, serve them tea and snacks and start talking to them, gently and sympathetically. We even call in their family members and ask them to address the problem that drove this person to attempt suicide,” said an officer.

Shibaji Ghosh, deputy commisioner of police (headquarters), said: “Without taking help from psychologists, counselling is a difficult job. But officers of North Port police station are trying their best. Given our resource constraints, it is not possible for us to engage any psychologist with this particular police station.”

For the officers — who have also stepped up vigil on the riverfront to stop suicide attempts — this novel aspect of their ‘thana’ duty often ends in disappointment. “Some people have killed themselves within hours, days or months of their first attempt. What we have experienced through our counselling sessions is that if someone is determined to commit suicide, it is very difficult to save him or her. A woman we rescued and counselled committed suicide after six months… All we can do is try our best. The rest is up to the individual and the family,” concluded an officer.

   

 
 
DAMAGES RAP FOR TOURIST BUREAU 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
It was to be a two-day sabbatical on the banks of the Subarnarekha, at Ghatsila, for the Dasguptas during the Pujas. Two hotel rooms had been booked well in advance through the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC).

But the family was headed back home within hours of reaching their holiday destination — Hotel Anandita told them that no room had been booked for them.

Unlike many others who’ve suffered such a fate at the hand of tour operators, the Dasgupta decided to take up the matter.

They approached the Calcutta District Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum which, in a landmark judgment, awarded a compensation of Rs 8,000.

But the WBTDC has appealed against the verdict in the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, arguing that it was another government agency — the department of posts and telegraph — that was to blame for the goof-up and obtaining a stay against the lower court’s order.

The Dasguptas’ travail dates back to October 22, 2000, when they reached Ghatsila. Despite a “valid receipt” showing they had, on August 24, paid Rs 250 to book two rooms for two days, the hotel staff refused to pay any heed, Deshabrata Dasgupta’s legal representative Pranab Kumar Chatterjee told the court. Hotel Anandita representatives claimed that they were not at fault; they had not received any intimation from the WBTDC office in Calcutta about the booking.

According to Dasgupta’s complaint, no room was vacant and he — along with his wife and children — had to come back to Calcutta the same day. He asked the WBTDC for a refund, plus compensation of Rs 10,000 for the “harassment and mental agony” caused to his family and the “negligence and deficiency in service”. But there was no response till late-2000.

WBTDC’s legal representatives, however, blamed it all on the postal department’s failure to deliver the intimation to Hotel Anandita.

“It was really very unfortunate,” WBTDC told the forum, adding that it has not had any such complaint from Hotel Anandita since 1997. The hotel authorities did try to search for an alternative accommodation for the Dasguptas but they refused it, the WBTDC added in its defence. The consumer redressal forum, however, asked the tourism corporation to refund the Rs 250 and cough up Rs 8,000 as compensation.

The case has been taken up by the state commission following an appeal by WBTDC and comes up for hearing on Monday.

   

 
 
BY DEFAULT, THEY’LL GET IT FROM YOU 
 
 
BY DEVADEEP PUROHIT
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
Time: 7.30 am

Q: Gadi mein memsahab aur ek bachha hai. Taan le gadi (There is a lady and a kid in the car. Should we make our move)?

A: Nahin. Abhi intezaar karo (No. Wait).

Two hours later

Q: Pichhewali seat pe ek saab baitha hai. Kya karen, sir (There is a gentleman in the backseat. What should we do)?

A: Pichha karte raho (Keep following them).

One hour later

Q: Sir, abhi sirf driver hai (Now, there is only the chauffeur).

A: Taan lo (Snatch the car).

Two Tata Sumos close in from two sides, bringing the speeding Mercedes — bought by a city businessman on car finance — to a halt. Six well-built young men jump out of the Sumos. One of them approaches the driver and barks: “Bahar nikal (Get out)”. The chauffeur gets out of the car. A mobile-toting man pushes him aside, takes the wheel. “Saab ko bolna gadi ke liye bank mein jake paisa jama karey (Tell your saab to go to the bank and deposit the money to get the car back),” instructs the man, banging the door on the driver’s bewildered face. The car is taken to a secret destination that night. Morning after, the businessman sends an emissary to the bank, clears the instalment dues for five months and gets back his precious Merc.

All in a day’s work for ‘AK’ and a gang of ‘recovery agents’, armed with nothing but a don’t-mess-with-us attitude. Following the spurt in bank finances — from computers to cars — the city now has around 20 agencies specialising in recovery of instalment backlogs and credit-card dues. “The banks approach us when they fail to recover the outstanding amount from defaulters,” says AK, founder of one of the city’s oldest ‘recovery agencies’.

The first step, explains AK, whipping out a Zippo lighter from his Lee jeans to light a Benson & Hedges, is to cajole, rather than coerce. “We call up the customers and ask them politely to cough up their dues. But once the cute voices fail, we use other techniques,” he smiles. The ‘techniques’ range from “peer pressure” through regular visits by collectors to the defaulter’s home and office to finally reclaiming the bank’s property with their brand of ‘no-contact’ coercion.

“We are not criminals,” says the middle-aged, clean-shaven man. “Most of us come from reasonably decent backgrounds. I am a graduate. I worked in the corporate sector for around eight years before setting up this business. I am loyal to my work, but never forget that I am first a human being.”

What if there is a clash of interest? AK lights another B&H and recounts: “I had turned up to collect dues from a Bucket 5 customer (one who has defaulted for five loan cycles). I entered the house, poore josh ke saath, ready to intimidate him… I was taken to a room where the defaulter, paralysed following a heart attack, was lying unconscious. The family had lost everything. I could not utter a single word.”

That compassion he strives to inculcate in his boys. “We look for clean guys who know the city like the back of their hands. They need to be tough, but most importantly, awaaz mein bulandi honi chahiye (the voice must carry authority).” The salary structure for AK’s men of action is simple: a fixed remuneration of Rs 1,500, plus conveyance allowance and performance-linked incentives, with a “good guy” earning up to Rs 10,000 per month.

“This is like any other job, with an element of risk and…,” AK is cut short by an urgent call on his black Nokia 5110. It’s pay-up time for yet another defaulter.

   

 
 
BUDDHA YEN TO SAVE WETLANDS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
Calcutta’s wetlands may yet survive the land-sharks. With Japanese help, if the Left Front government has its way.

The government has embarked on an ambitious programme, called the East Calcutta Wetlands Project, to save the city’s fast-shrinking wetlands.

Preliminary discussions with the Japanese financier were held during chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s last Japan visit. There had been some hitch over the loan amount, but the project should be a reality soon.

Bhattacharjee, speaking at Garden Reach’s Mudiali Fishermen’s Cooperative Society on Wetlands Day, said the government had other plans, too, to deal with unscrupulous realtors.

One of them is a Bill that, when passed, will arm the government with powers to take over any waterbody being filled by realtors.

“The government will take over a waterbody even if a pail of earth is dumped into it,” the chief minister said, referring to the manner in which most waterbodies had been filled up in the recent past.

The present rules were not enough to check land sharks, Bhattacharjee admitted.

Though the rules now — Rs 2 lakh as fine and two years’ imprisonment — looked quite formidable on paper, problems in implementing them arose because, almost always, the real brains behind the landfill racket managed to escape police clutches, state fisheries department minister Kiranmoy Nanda said.

   

 
 
COPS SEE ISI LINK IN FORGERY 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
The forgery racket brought to light at Hatiara, near Baguiati, on Friday night, extends to Rajabazar and even further to Delhi. Those involved may have “strong ISI links”. “We can’t rule out the involvement of some of the arrested men in a larger conspiracy,” said deputy inspector-general (headquarters) Narayan Ghosh. “The case doesn’t look like a simple forgery racket,” North 24-Parganas additional superintendent of police (Barasat) Rahul Srivastava added.

Shahid Mian, held on Friday, was taken to Delhi on Saturday. The kingpin is believed to be in Delhi. Another arrested man, Md Ishaq, admitted he helped Shahid and Prabir Naskar, the “brains behind the racket”.

   

 
 
THE CITY DIARY 
 
 
 
June 16: 

Brother identified as killer’s accomplice

Police on Sunday claimed that Chandan Bermecha’s brother, Raju, had accompanied him to Sukriti Apartment, on Park Side Road, to murder Sushila Samsukha and her daughter, Pragati, last week. Chandan and Raju are distant relatives of the Samsukhas. A police team camping in Barabanki, in UP, has identified Chandan’s associate as his brother Raju. “Investigations carried out so far confirm that some dispute in the family led to the murder. Chandan and Raju are missing from their Barabanki house,’’ police said.

Death sparks hospital gherao

Around 100 Class IV staff of the Infectious Diseases (ID) Hospital at Beleghata gheraoed superintendent Samir Das on Sunday for over two hours to protest the death of Ramlal Hela. Hela, 50, died after a portion of the staff quarters caved in on him. Three others were seriously injured. The agitators demanded the arrest of the PWD engineer assigned to look after the upkeep of the building. They also demanded compensation to the victim’s kin.

Criminals held

Eight criminals were held at Thakurpukur on charges of rioting and trying to commit dacoities on Sunday.

Equipment for cops

Fluorescent torches, gloves and jackets to be used by policemen manning the streets were introduced on Sunday. Deputy commissioner of police, traffic, M.K. Singh said 30 torches, gloves and jackets were handed over to policemen. The equipment will be used at dimly-lit intersections in the evenings.

Bus mishap

At least a dozen passengers were injured, some of them seriously, when a private bus skidded off the road at Behala’s Bakultala, and fell into a ditch. The injured were taken to hospital. The driver fled the spot.

Knocked down

A private bus knocked down a cyclist on Aurobindo Setu, in north Calcutta, on Sunday morning. He was taken to hospital, where his condition is stated to be critical. The driver escaped.    

 
 
WRITERS’ STILL IN STATE OF ALERT 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
June 15 has come and gone. But Writers’ Buildings is set to remain in a state of alert for an undisclosed period.

It was late last Friday night that the Central intelligence bureau had notified the Bengal government that Pakistani ISI-backed operatives were planning to set off an explosion in its secretariat between June 10 and 15. Other important buildings in the BBD Bag area, too, could be attacked, the communiqué stated.

“We have no plans to scale down the security arrangements in the area,” said Amit Kiran Deb, state home secretary on Saturday. The level of alert and the number of security men on duty will remain the same.

An invisible security shroud has been thrown around Writers’ Buildings. However, the only apparent sign of the area still being in a state of alert is the two piles of sandbags in front of the central gate of the buildings.

State police commandos, armed with assault rifles and wearing bullet-proof vests, guard the main entrance, which is used by VIPs and senior bureaucrats. Vigilance has been increased at the other gates and metal detectors have been installed in each of them.

Sniffer dogs, which used to make a single trip to the secretariat, are now being brought in at random at least twice a day.

The dogs, belonging to the city police, carry out checks not only inside the buildings but also inspect parked cars for explosive devices.

During the past week, before the deadline expired, policemen on duty carried out regular drills, shutting off all entry and exit points to Writers’ Buildings within minutes. “This is a procedure that has to be perfected in case of any attack on the buildings,” police said.

The police have put a stop to holding functions inside the auditorium of the secretariat. The home secretary recently told a delegation of the state employees’ coordination committee that such gatherings would be discontinued till further notice.

The police are issuing identity cards to the staff of several privately-run canteens and snack shops inside the buildings. About 80-odd staff of the PWD’s maintenance wing who stay overnight have been given special permits to do so.

The state police are conducting joint training exercises with the CRPF and the BSF. The state police have acquired highly sophisticated bomb detection and defusing equipment.

The state and the city police now are adequately equipped with assault rifles of the AK-56, AK-47 and INSAS types to deal with emergencies.

   

 
 
HOWRAH SITS UP ON DAMAGE TO HERITAGE 
 
 
BY A CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
The large pile of bricks that was once a Buddhist temple at Bhotbagan, in Ghusuri, near Salkia, dates back to the time of Warren Hastings. Now it is in ruins.

And it will soon become a memory if the Howrah civic body does not sit up.

A number of houses along Foreshore Road still bear traces of the best of colonial architecture. But like the looming mills and sprawling factories along the riverside belonging to the same era, they are in a state of dereliction.

There are over 100 heritage buildings in the 500-year-old town of Howrah and they have become victims of apathy and neglect. Some of the better-known structures are the Howrah Town Hall; the clocktower at B.E. College, Shibpur; the residence of Rani Rashmoni near Vidyasagar Setu; Howrah Telegraph office; Colvin Court, near Howrah Maidan; the old Collectorate building and Roxburg Building inside Botanical Gardens, named after the German botanist who founded the garden, and these are crying out to be preserved.

Dilip Sen, deputy mayor of Howrah, gave the assurance that the civic body will do its best to try and preserve them and the heritage committee will get full cooperation from him.

“Despite a funds crunch, we shall do everything to preserve the historic buildings. We have already approached the state government for the purpose,” Sen added.

Chief architect of the civic body Basudeb Mukherjee has set up a heritage committee comprising historian Nemai Sadhan Bose, architect of B.E. College Manju Halder and artist Bijon Chowdhury. The committee has seven members, with municipal commissioner Chanchal Bandopadhyay as its chairman, Mukherjee as convener, and a representative of the CMDA as an expert.

Mukherjee said on Sunday promoters are bent on converting these heritage structures into high rise buildings.

“A number of heritage buildings has either been destroyed or taken over by promoters, who get hold of them through unfair means. It has to be stopped and this heritage committee will take all necessary steps to preserve them,” he added.

He said they would seek help from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and request them to visit the heritage buildings and perhaps take charge of some of them. Mukherjee, along with other members, will meet Kasturi Gupta Menon, director-general of ASI, to seek help from the ASI for their maintenance and conservation.

“These heritage buildings act as a link between the past and the future. So they should be preserved,” said Bijon Chowdhury.

“Rapid technological advances are bound to make their impact on these buildings. But we have to preserve them for future generations and make efforts to save them from environmental degradation. Chemical reaction and environmental change due to pollution can cause immense damage to them. So environmentalists, too, should come forward to highlight these issues,” observed architect Manju Halder.

   

 
 
ALERT ON MONSOON PIRATE ATTACK 
 
 
BY DEBASISH CHATTOPADHYAY
 
Calcutta, June 16: 
South 24-Parganas police are preparing to tackle piracy on rivers and areas close to Bangladesh by setting up at least four camps at strategic places.

With the approach of monsoon, pirates become active, raiding fishermen’s boats to collect ransom and robbing homes close to the riverbanks.

Unlike previous years, the police are worried because Bachhu Sardar, a notorious pirate on bail, is on the rampage.

But though he was behind bars last year, Sardar’s wife had led a pirate team on rivers and even on the rough seas.

Bhagabati is said to be apt at using arms and rowing boats at the same time. The police fear that with Bhagabati’s husband joining her, piracy will be even more rampant.

The four new police camps are being set up at Gosaba, Basanti, Patharpratima and Raidighi.

“We hope that if these police stations become active, then piracy can be controlled quite easily,” said additional forest officer M. Rahaman

An officer of Canning police station said the pirates no longer looted fish only. “Now they are more interested to get arms from Bangladesh. They sell these to different gangs involved in dacoity almost throughout the district.”

Moreover, the pirates are also eager to loot gold and silver from houses as it brings in more money, the officer added.

   
 

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