‘Practical’ Bloc bottles up anti-reform lobby
Trinamul in no-trust payback
Citu stamp on coal blockade
Teacher aspirants in legal wrangle
Home or holiday, ministers bleed govt
Police eye on phone booths and NGOs
Kalam pays for ticket to Raisina Hill
Vice-President poll boost to BJP
Partial stay sting to Stalin
Hat kept out of Rumtek inventory

 
 
‘PRACTICAL’ BLOC BOTTLES UP ANTI-REFORM LOBBY 
 
 
BY TAMAL SENGUPTA
 
Calcutta, June 18: 
Tough talk last week, conciliatory this week.

The Forward Bloc, one of the Left Front’s smaller partners, had last week sought to launch a stir against the government’s planned reforms in the farm sector. Today, it began winding up the campaign even before it became operational.

MP Jayanta Roy, in a broad indication of the climbdown, said the party had dropped its earlier plans to design an “alternative” to the agriculture policy the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government formulated on the basis of recommendations of consultancy firm McKinsey.

“We are not talking about any alternative agriculture policy,” the member of the Bloc’s secretariat said. “What is of importance now is to frame a policy that bears the stamp of consensus and accommodates all relevant opinions regarding agriculture.”

Sources said the Bloc was compelled to change tack because of several reasons. While Big Brother CPM worked behind the scenes, a powerful lobby within the Bloc pressed the leadership to distance itself from the campaign for an alternative policy which, it believed, represented the position of agriculture minister Kamal Guha, leader of the other lobby.

It is learnt that the leadership indicated to Guha yesterday that it saw no merit in his proposal for an alternative farm policy in the prevailing economic and political situation in Bengal. This is the second time in one year that the Bloc had to act to bottle up Guha, who had caused a flutter by demanding the creation of the post of deputy chief minister — by implication, for himself — for assisting Bhattacharjee.

Another proof of the beginning of the end of the anti-reforms campaign was the identical letters the Bloc leadership wrote to Bhattacharjee and Front chairman Biman Bose, asking for a deferment of the agriculture policy in the Cabinet meeting on June 27.

The Bloc, especially Guha, had mounted an attack on the government which peaked last Friday in and outside the Assembly, encouraging smaller allies and the Congress and the Trinamul Congress to train their guns on the farm policy.

Today, the Bloc dropped the term “alternative” and used a different nomenclature — “practical proposals” — to give an impression of resistance to the policy while actually opting out of the anti-reforms campaign.

“We are going to put forward a number of practical proposals for incorporating into the policy that will finally be put into operation. There is no question of going into a confrontation with the government. All that we want them to do is examine the proposals and initiate wider discussions involving peasant lobbies and others. There is no need to rush, let the discussions continue till August,” Roy said. The current Assembly session comes to an end in July.

Offering a clue as to how the CPM blunted the anti-reforms campaign, Anil Biswas, state party secretary, said Bhattacharjee’s government and the CPM would initiate consultations for framing a “realistic” policy. “The chief minister has received proposals from various quarters. I am sure he will frame a policy that will address all the expressed concerns,” Biswas said.

Shifting positions of its allies also contributed to the Bloc’s climbdown. The RSP today softened its resistance, saying it saw merit in many of McKinsey’s recommendations.

“We will continue to oppose the government if it goes ahead and implements McKinsey’s recommendations regarding contract farming because it will hamper the interest of marginal and poor farmers. But we will not hesitate to say that some of Mckinsey’s recommendations are scientific and should be examined seriously,” RSP leader Kshiti Goswami said.

The CPI will meet tomorrow to finalise its stand. “We will have to discuss the implications of McKinsey’s recommendations. Nothing can be said definitively,” said Nandagopal Bhattacharjee, minister and state council member.

   

 
 
TRINAMUL IN NO-TRUST PAYBACK 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, June 18: 
A day after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee charmed the Trinamul Congress by accommodating several of its demands, the principal Opposition party returned the gesture in the Assembly. Trinamul lent the Left Front unsolicited support, ensuring that a Congress no-confidence motion fell through for want of numbers.

The Congress Legislature Party-sponsored motion could not be taken up for discussion this morning as it was not backed by the requisite number of legislators. In the 294-member House, a motion needs the support of at least 34 MLAs to be accepted for discussion.

The CLP with 27 members and three party-backed Independents tabled the motion, expecting Trinamul support. But Mamata Banerjee’s party, which had allied with the Congress for the last Assembly polls, abstained. Three Congress MLAs failed to turn up when the motion was tabled, much to the embarrassment of the CLP leaders.

Trinamul Congress chief whip Shovandeb Chattopadhyay justified his party’s move. “The Congress did not bother to discuss the proposed motion with us before tabling it in the House. We preferred to abstain to ensure that the motion was rejected.”

The CPM-Trinamul honeymoon continued with the chief minister keeping his promise to Trinamul and deferring the Haldia Municipality elections by a day to July 22. Minutes after a meeting with the chief minister, urban development minister Ashoke Bhattacharya announced the polls had been rescheduled. The Trinamul Congress has been observing July 21 as Martyrs’ Day since 1993 in memory of the death of 13 Congress workers in police firing.

“We had to reschedule the poll considering the Trinamul Congress’ sentiments,” said Bhattacharya. Chattopadhyay said tonight they were happy at the way the CPM had responded to an “emotive” issue of the principal Opposition party.

Chattopadhyay later refuted the Congress allegation that Trinamul had acted as the CPM’s ‘B’-team by helping it. “The Congress had to pay the price for trying to upstage the main Opposition party by hurriedly deciding to table a no-trust motion. This would not have fallen through if we had together tabled it towards the end of the session,” he added.

CLP chief Atish Sinha alleged that Trinamul had “stabbed the party on its back by entering into a secret understanding with the ruling CPM”. “We moved the motion on the presumption that Trinamul will support us as the party had earlier fought against the government’s misrule. But it is regrettable that they abstained when the motion was tabled,” complained Sinha.

   

 
 
CITU STAMP ON COAL BLOCKADE 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
June 18: 
A major power crisis stared Bengal in the face as Citu today endorsed the workers’ movement against Eastern Coalfields Limited, strengthening the blockade of coal despatch from four mines.

Workers at Pandaveswar, Jhanjra, Madaibani and Natunhat mines have stopped supply of coal from June 10 in protest against ECL’s decision to close down the Shamla colliery.

Citu state general secretary Chittabrata Majumdar today provided a shot in the arm of the protesters, saying their movement was justified. “The problems could have been solved earlier if the ECL authorities were a little flexible. The local Citu leaders have been trying to lift the blockade but the ECL management has remained adamant. It cannot be a one-sided decision. ECL is solely responsible for the impasse,’’ Majumdar told The Telegraph.

But the gravity of the situation has not escaped the labour organisation. The state Citu leadership today summoned the leader of the colliery belt and former MP, Haradhan Roy, to assess the situation.

Power minister Mrinal Banerjee, who has been urging the workers to withdraw the blockade, has warned chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and CPM state secretary Anil Biswas of an impending power disaster if supply of coal was not restored immediately.

West Bengal Power Development Corporation Limited, the only state-run agency monitoring power generation, has sent an SOS to ECL for resuming supply immediately. It has urged an alternative arrangement to ensure supply of coal.

ECL officials said one rake of coal has been despatched from Satgram mine last evening to Durgapur Projects Limited and two rakes have been supplied to Santaldih thermal power project from Sonepur Bazari and Parbellia.

“We know power plants will be in trouble. We don’t intend to put people in trouble but it is ECL, which has forced us to continue our movement. We are keen to lift the blockade but the ECL management will also have to come forward. If they stick to their decision, why shouldn’t we?’’ Majumdar asked.

He said ECL was incurring losses due to massive corruption. “It is the responsibility of the ECL management to reduce losses, but the workers will not pay for the losses. Why should the Shamla mine be closed despite having a huge quantity of A-grade coal reserve? ECL has closed many such mines citing losses. Let the management stop corruption and misuse of funds first, the losses will automatically reduce. We will not allow the management to close mines,” the Citu secretary said.

   

 
 
TEACHER ASPIRANTS IN LEGAL WRANGLE 
 
 
BY OUR LEGAL REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 18: 
Even after 19 years, the case about the appointment of 1,700 primary teachers in Midnapore is still doing the rounds of courts.

Midnapore, in the meantime, has been bifurcated and the candidates have crossed the maximum age limit.

In December 2000, a division bench of Calcutta High Court, presided over by Justice Samaresh Bannerjee, had ordered the single-judge bench to expedite hearing following a petition on behalf of the 163 candidates by advocate Siraj Gooptu. Still, the case came up for hearing before Justice D.P. Kundu after 18 months. The judge has fixed the date of hearing for June 20.

The legal battle started in 1983 after the Midnapore District Primary School Committee prepared a list of 1,700 candidates for appointment as assistant teachers in primary schools. Some aspirants not on the list moved the high court, stating that their qualifications were suitable for the posts. They complained that the committee did not call them for interviews before preparing the panel and alleged irregularities, like entertaining only the “cadre of the ruling party”, in drawing up the list.

The high court directed that the panel be cancelled. The government challenged the order in the Supreme Court, but the apex court upheld the order in 1991.

The aspirants moved high court again, alleging that the committee was not obeying the court’s verdict.

The high court appointed two special officers to inquire into the matter. Based on their report, the court directed the director of schools, Midnapore, to consider the matter afresh. The government again knocked on the apex court’s door, but was rebuffed.

In 1996, the candidates were called for interviews but the committee allegedly ignored certificates proving their higher qualification. Then Gooptu had filed his petition.

   

 
 
HOME OR HOLIDAY, MINISTERS BLEED GOVT 
 
 
BY UTPAL BANERJEE
 
Calcutta, June 18: 
While the cash-strapped “new-look” Left Front government is curtailing expenses by closing down loss-making undertakings and putting on hold fresh recruitment, some ministers are splurging on tours and on personal comfort.

The extravagance has not escaped the notice of the chief minister. At a recent Cabinet meeting, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee urged the ministers to “minimise avoidable expenditure”.

Sources said ministers often misuse “high official requisition” forms for their personal benefit. The form empowers a minister to take high officials requisitioned for any specific purpose on official tours.

But in practice, the ministers use the forms to take their family members and friends on official tours.

Government sources revealed that ministers from districts generally take relatives and friends along for weekend trips to their constituencies, cashing in on the official requisition provision, thereby putting an additional burden on the state exchequer.

A finance department official said that for ministers from north Bengal, the government has to bear the airfare between Calcutta and Siliguri every time they take their family members for a trip.

In comparison, he said, “ministers from the industrial belt of Burdwan, Bankura and Purulia usually board the Satabdi Express or travel by road with pilot vans”.

One glaring instance of misuse of government finances is borne out in a senior Cabinet rank minister’s travelling habits. Till recently, the minister had been flying to Mumbai at least once every month with his wife as “companion” to visit his daughter studying there, the official pointed out.

Now, the finance department is working on how to curtail the ministers’ expenditure when they make a beeline for other states to holiday during the Durga pujas. The department is even considering a proposal to do away with the provision that allows each minister to keep an “attendant”.

Two years ago, a minister was allowed to appoint two “attendants”. After a year’s service at the minister’s residence, the attendants were absorbed as Group D employees. That perk has been curtailed and ministers are entitled to one attendant.

“Now that the government has started thinking in terms of recruiting on contract basis, it is uncertain if all the attendants would be absorbed as permanent staff,” official sources said.

Apart from being forced to curb their travel expenses, ministers will soon be directed by the finance department to pay for gas cylinders, newspapers, books and journals from their own pockets. Till now, expenses on these heads were borne by the office.

There will also be restrictions on the unlimited supply of petrol and diesel for the ministers’ cars, their medical expenses and telephone calls.

   

 
 
POLICE EYE ON PHONE BOOTHS AND NGOS 
 
 
FROM ANUPAM DASGUPTA
 
Siliguri, June 18: 
Non-governmental organisations and private telephone booths in Siliguri, Bagdogra and adjoining areas have come under the police scanner following Intelligence Bureau reports that the Siliguri corridor is increasingly being used by militants to fan out to various parts of the state.

The state home department, too, has alerted the Darjeeling district administration and directed the police to take all steps to prevent militants from sneaking in. The police are, therefore, keeping tabs on “suspicious characters” who could use the “facilities” to indulge in anti-national activities.

IB sources questioned the activities of some foreign-funded NGOs. “We are preparing a list of the NGOs along with their fields of activity, sources of funds and main persons behind the organisations. We are keeping a watch on some NGOs whose activities are suspicious,” said an IB official.

A similar list of private phone booths will be prepared soon, senior district police officials said, mentioning that the mushrooming of booths across has made the task difficult.

“Police action was prompted by the fact that we have been receiving complaints against the unique nature of work of some NGOs,” said K. Jayaraman, Siliguri additional superintendent of police.

The activities of about 30 NGOs are being routinely monitored. The organisations operate mostly within the city and in areas like Gosaipur, Matigara and Bagdogra.

All STD booth owners in Siliguri have been asked to maintain a diary of all calls made abroad.

   

 
 
KALAM PAYS FOR TICKET TO RAISINA HILL 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, June 18: 
In keeping with the highest traditions of his future office, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam today began on a clean slate — refusing to accept Rs 15,000 as security deposit from the National Democratic Alliance government.

The NDA’s presidential candidate today entered the fray for the July 15 poll with major formations filing nominations on his behalf. The nuclear scientist, however, declined to accept the security amount from the government, insisting he would pay from his “own pocket”.

In the presence of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders, Kalam told Pramod Mahajan he had “enough money” in his bank account. He handed over the amount he had withdrawn from the State Bank of India, Khel Gaon branch, to the parliamentary affairs minister. “Had we paid, you (the media) would have made much out of it,” Mahajan told waiting reporters.

Kalam was scheduled to address a press conference but it was postponed till tomorrow. Ostensibly, it was shifted by a day so that the news focus on Kalam filing nomination papers is not lost. But informed sources said the it was postponed to give the Missile Man more time to formulate his response on contentious issues. Sources close to Kalam, however, exuded confidence that his interaction with the media would not spark off any controversy.

Vajpayee handed over the first set of papers. Home minister L.K. Advani, Telugu Desam Party chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayavati and Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee were among the 60 proposers and equal number of seconders.

Among the others were the ADMK’s O. Panneerselvam, Samata Party leader George Fernandes, the DMK’s Murasoli Maran, the Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi filed the second set of papers on behalf of her party. Kalam, however, did not insist on paying the security deposit on behalf of the main Opposition party. “Accepting money from the government would have sent a signal. Dr Kalam has avoided doing that,” said a scientist who worked with Kalam in the Defence Research and Development Organisation. AICC treasurer Motilal Vora said Kalam’s security deposit had been given from party funds.

From the Congress’ side, those who signed the papers included Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, K. Natwar Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Najma Heptullah, P.M. Sayeed, Shivraj Patil and Jaipal Reddy.

Kalam’s nomination was the first to be filed on behalf of any political party. Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal, who is being supported by the Left parties, is expected to file her nomination on June 21.

Congress spokesman Reddy said his party filed a separate set of papers for Kalam. “We have taken a positive decision favouring him independently as a party,” he said. “Therefore, we have signed the nomination separately.”

After reaching Parliament House, Kalam went to the Prime Minister’s office from where he was taken in a procession to the returning officer’s chamber.

   

 
 
VICE-PRESIDENT POLL BOOST TO BJP 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, June 18: 
Unlike the somersaults on the presidential nominee, the selection of the NDA’s candidate for Vice-President is likely to be a smooth affair with most allies deciding to back the BJP’s choice.

Allies such as the Telugu Desam Party, the Samata Party, the Biju Janata Dal, the Trinamul Congress and the Janata Dal (United) have assured Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of support to any candidate of his choice, sources said.

“After A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s nomination, it has to be a Hindu candidate for Vice-President,” said an NDA leader. He said the names doing the rounds were that of former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and incumbent Vice-President Krishan Kant, whose term expires in August.

Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, who arrived here to sign the nomination papers of Kalam, had a “two-minute” meeting with Vajpayee today. All that Naidu was willing to say after the meeting was that “we are discussing. The BJP has not revealed any name. At appropriate time, we will discuss.”

Asked if he would prefer a consensus on the new Vice-President, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister said the time was not ripe to discuss names. “At the appropriate time, I will talk to you. I am not shying away,” he said.

The chief minister did not comment when reminded that the Congress wanted a consensus candidate.

Naidu also had a meeting with NDA convener George Fernandes. He, however, maintained that only issues related to an airport project were discussed.

Apart from Shekhawat and Kant, other names doing the rounds are that of RSS veterans Vishnu Kant Shastri and Bhai Mahavir. Both are now Governors – Shastri in Uttar Pradesh and Mahavir in Madhya Pradesh.

NDA sources said the Prime Minister is disinclined to recommend the two as he feels that Shekhawat with a liberal image may have wider acceptability. Sources close to Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav said he has no objection to Shekhawat.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose support for Kalam proved instrumental in dividing the Opposition, is also understood to have communicated to the Prime Minister that he has no problem in backing Shekhawat.

The Samata will also endorse any candidate shortlisted by Vajpayee. The Vice-President will be the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha, and the BJP, which is in a minority in the Upper House, would like to have a say in his election.

Samata spokesperson Shambhu Shrivastava said that as the NDA has a majority in the electoral college, the Opposition should “facilitate a unanimous election”.

The Congress is working on Kant on the assumption that the Desam would back him as he is originally a Naidu nominee. But after having failed to get him elected as President, the Desam appears to be in no mood to play spoilsport.

   

 
 
PARTIAL STAY STING TO STALIN 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, June 18: 
In a ruling that could seal the fate of DMK youth leader and Chennai mayor M.K. Stalin, Madras High Court tonight declined to stay a recent government notification that prohibits MPs and MLAs from simultaneously holding posts in local bodies.

A high court bench of Chief Justice B. Subashan Reddy and Justice D. Murugesan, in its interim order on a public interest litigation challenging the Tamil Nadu Municipal Laws (Amendment) Act 2002, granted a “limited stay” of the impugned Act.

The court ruling went to the extent of “not notifying the election to the mayor’s post”. However, the order did not ensure Stalin’s continuity at the helm of the city’s civic body.

The judges acknowledged that substantial issues of constitutional law had been raised in the pubic interest litigation filed by advocate S. Udhyakumar.

However, considering the circumstances of the case, the judges declined to stay the operation of Section 6 of the Act “in its entirety”. This section seeks to give retrospective effect to the disqualification provision.

The state has been restrained only to the extent of “not treating the post of mayor of the Chennai Municipal Corporation as vacant”. Hence, no election to the post “can be held, pending disposal of the writ petition,” Justice Reddy said. The petition was scheduled for final hearing on August 5.

Referring to the notice served on the DMK leader to opt for either his MLA’s post or that of the mayor, the high court bench noted that Stalin himself did not challenge the validity of the Act. The petition admitted yesterday was filed by an advocate.

While rejecting the state’s contention that it had unlimited powers in enacting laws relating to the local bodies, the court held that any amendment will have to be within limits specified by the relevant constitutional provisions.

At the same time, the petition had raised several vital questions, including whether the disqualification of the mayor during the five-year tenure could “annul” the local body itself. “These vital aspects can only be gone into in the writ petition,” the judges said.

The court’s partial stay was interpreted as a “partial victory” for the Opposition DMK.

DMK president M. Karunanidhi had made it clear at a public meeting here last night that “we will do nothing as the Act itself is a colourable piece of legislation” targeted at one individual, namely Stalin.

The DMK was not opposed to the one-man-one-post principle.

But should Stalin be stripped of the mayor’s post, “it will only be a gain for the party,” said the DMK president.

   

 
 
HAT KEPT OUT OF RUMTEK INVENTORY 
 
 
FROM PEMA LEYDA
 
Gangtok, June 18: 
Days after Orgyen Trinley Dorjee, claimant to the Rumtek throne as head of Kagyu Buddhism, gave his consent to the inventorisation of the Rumtek monastery’s riches, the High Court of Sikkim issued new dates for the exercise.

Hearing a petition by the monks’ body and the joint action Committee of Buddhist organisations in the state, the high court gave five weeks from July 1 for the list of properties to be made.

A court-appointed commissioner will undertake the process.

The high court today also ordered that the black hat or the Vajra Mukut of the Karmapa should not be touched while preparing the inventory as it would hurt religious sentiments. This means that the hat wrapped in muslin inside a box will not be taken out for assessment.

As a result, rumours that the Mukut was missing from the box will not be quashed, despite the inventory.

Other properties bearing the seal and lock of the 16th Karmapa would also not be broken open, the court ordered. The inventory has to be made only on the movable properties listed under Schedule ‘A’.

The Mukut was gifted to the 5th Karmapa by Chinese emperor Yung Lo in the 15th century. It is studded with diamonds, rubies, gold and other precious stones. No one other than the Karmapa is supposed to touch the hat, which is believed to have magical powers.

Items belonging to the earlier Karmapas and dating over 1,000 years would be in the list of the monastery’s properties. Among other items under the Schedule ‘A’ are a precious thanka painting of Indian philosopher Atish Dipankar and a souvenir from Emperor Asoka.

The lower court had appointed V.K. Sharma, regional director of the Reserve Bank of India, as the commissioner to undertake the inventorisation in October 2001.

Though dates for the inventorisation were fixed, it could be taken up only after July 1 as pujas were on in the monastery till June end.

The high court proposed that three persons from both the monks’ body and the joint action committee had to be present during the proceedings. Six names agreeable to both the parties were proposed and passed in court.

A petition by Shamar Rinpoche, a former regent who wanted to be present during the making of the inventory, was rejected. He is one of the respondents and a party with the Karmapa Charitable Trust, which proposed the inventory in the first place.

Earlier, the commissioner had moved court citing his difficulties in undertaking the inventorisation. The state government, too, had apprehended law and order problems.

   
 

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