Students quit over fee fracas
Levy loophole plug plan
Consumers sign up to sue holiday resort firm
Car curbs for king visit
Topping the tastebud charts
The City Diary
When in Dire Straits, rock together
ER launches new trains
By the river,off the river
Free-trippers turn violent, five injured

 
 
STUDENTS QUIT OVER FEE FRACAS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
After the fee-hike, the agitation. After the agitation, the exodus.

A large number of guardians have started removing their wards from St Thomas Church School, Howrah. They are protesting “deterioration of academic standards” following the recent fee hike and the subsequent agitation.

Nearly 150 students from the school, which is controlled by the Church of North India (CNI), have taken admission in other institutions. Many more are planning to follow suit, as the agitation by guardians has “failed to evoke any positive response from the management” over lowering of fees and “disrupted the academic schedule”.

All CNI schools have hiked their fees this year, following a government missive that it would curtail financial assistance to Anglo-Indian institutions. And the dramatic turn of events at Howrah has prompted two CNI institutions — St Thomas School for Boys and St Thomas School for Girls, both in Kidderpore — to put part of its fee-hike plan on hold.

The school authorities put up a notice on the gates on Saturday, announcing that their recent decision to slap sports and electricity fees on students would be “kept in abeyance till further notice”. With the exclusion of the fees under these two heads, the total fees would be slashed by around Rs 90 per month.

Guardians from St Thomas Church School, Howrah, meanwhile, are “desperately petitioning” authorities of local English medium schools, seeking admission for their wards. “A number of parents of St Thomas’ students are approaching us every day for admission of their children. But we are helpless, as the admission procedure ended quite a while back,” said the principal of Maria’s Day school, in the Howrah Maidan area.

“We wanted to educate our children in an old and reputed school like St Thomas Church with the hope that they would get quality education. But now it seems that it is not possible for the school to impart quality education amidst the disruption caused by the guardians’ agitation. We don’t expect the situation to improve, as the management will increase the fees after every one or two years and the trouble will persist,” said Ujjal Santra, a guardian and an ex-student of the school. Santra has been able to get his son admitted to Nava Nalanda, a school in south Calcutta.

Sanjay Pandey, too, has been able to get his child out of St Thomas. He has transferred his daughter to Jain Vidyalaya, a local “English-medium but not missionary school”, in the wake of the fee-hike. “When I admitted my daughter in St Thomas, her fees were Rs 180 per month. This year, it has shot up to Rs 725 per month. I don’t think I will be able to bear the expenses if the fees keep increasing at this rate,” admitted Pandey.

But for Manoj Prasad, the decision to remove his two children from St Thomas Church School, Howrah, had more to do with the disruption caused to the academic activities on campus during the past few months. “I don’t want to educate my children in an institution where there is trouble every now and then,” he said on Tuesday.

The authorities of St Thomas Church School, Howrah, are, however, not showing any signs of backing down. L. Mirza, acting principal, St Thomas Church School, Howrah, was not available for comment on Tuesday. But guardians feared that the attitude of the authorities would force students out of the school, “either on financial or on academic grounds”.

   

 
 
LEVY LOOPHOLE PLUG PLAN 
 
 
BY DEEPANKAR GANGULY
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Only one of three Calcuttans in the civic tax bracket — 400,000 of the 1.2 million who should be shelling out — pay their tax regularly to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC), leaving it to fork out a huge sum from its own pocket to pay for the services (water, conservancy and drainage) provided to the Non-Paying Calcuttans (NPCs).

But the freeloaders’ run may end soon. Mayor Subrata Mukherjee will propose an amendment to the 1980 CMC Act, which will make it mandatory for the NPCs to pay “user tax” to state municipal affairs minister Asok Bhattacharya.

Once the amendment is incorporated — CMC officials say it is likely to happen very soon — every family living in Calcutta will have to pay up if it wants to go on enjoying filtered drinking water, metalled roads, well-lit streets, pucca drains, garbage collection and public healthcare facilities.

The proposed change in tenancy rules — to make a tenant share a portion of property tax with the landlord — will only benefit landlords and not increase the income of the government agencies, the mayor feels.

According to the present set of rules, only about six per cent of Calcuttans, who have their own houses or flats, are liable to pay all the civic taxes.

Tenants, slum dwellers, owners of illegally-constructed buildings and even owners of houses built in the erstwhile colony areas (for refugees from Bangladesh) don’t pay any tax right now. But these differences are not taken into consideration when the CMC provides services, says the mayor.

If the government was serious about making the civic bodies self-sustaining, then the introduction of the user-tax clause was essential, he added.

Quite a large number of councillors, and even members of the mayor-in-council, are not on the tax-payers’ list.

   

 
 
CONSUMERS SIGN UP TO SUE HOLIDAY RESORT FIRM 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Calcutta, very soon, will see its first class-action suit, with more than 40 citizens banding together to form a consumers’ association against a reputed holiday and time-share firm.

The Rudras, the Chakrabortys and the Ghoshes have united in a fight against Toshali Resorts International which, they claim, has “robbed” them by making “false promises”.

“There’s no denying that it was Toshali that brought us together,” says Malay Rudra, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation official and secretary of the Toshali Members’ Association. The members met for the first time in a south Calcutta apartment on Sunday and decided to move court.

“Most of the members have already lodged complaints with the police but we decided it was time to act together,” says Rudra, adding that a few more meetings would be needed to decide on the details of the lawsuit.

Rudra’s tryst with Toshali came about after Moumita Rudra, his niece, was approached while on her way to college by an agent of the firm. “You have won a grand lottery,” the youth told her before asking her to come with a relative to a south Calcutta office to claim her “prize”. A few days later, her uncle had invested more than Rs 1 lakh in a time-share programme.

S. Chakraborty, another ‘victim’, is a senior consultant physician at Kankurgachhi. He received a call from Toshali and was asked to collect “attractive prizes” from a south Calcutta office. He ended up depositing Rs 1.33 lakh, not realising he had been “taken for a ride”.

Consumers’ organisations say this is not a one-off incident. “We receive several complaints from consumers about being duped by holiday agents and time-share firms,” says Consumers’ Unity and Guidance Forum spokesperson Anjan Datta.

But the consumer forum is not the proper place to get justice, claims Mala Banerjee, president, Federation of Consumer Associations (West Bengal). “Time-share is not a service. We receive numerous complaints and help consumers get justice in the proper forum,” she adds.

Consumer Lawyers’ Association president Prabir Basu advises ‘victims’ to haul errant time-share managers to the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, New Delhi, which, while delivering a verdict in a 1999 case, emphasised that “forfeiture of the deposited amount implied indulging in unfair trade practices”.

Metro tried to contact Toshali spokespersons in Puri and at their Purna Das Road office. The telephones at Puri were “out of order”, while the south Calcutta office was “closed since the beginning of this month”, securitymen posted there said.

   

 
 
CAR CURBS FOR KING VISIT 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Police on Tuesday advised air passengers to reach Dum Dum airport well in advance on Wednesday, as vehicular movement on all major roads leading to the airport will be restricted, in view of Nepal’s King Gyanendra’s three-day visit to the city.

Pijush Pandey, deputy commissioner, detective department, special, said no vehicles would be allowed to ply on the flanks towards the airport. “We will have to block traffic for over an hour from 5 pm on the opposite flanks from the airport to Oberoi Grand, in Esplanade. We advise air passengers to reach the airport before 5 pm,” he said.

The entire stretch of VIP Road, the Bypass up to Science City, Shakespeare Sarani (partially) and J.L. Nehru Road is going to be cordoned off for the king’s visit. “Security has been stepped up in the wake of recent terrorist activities in the city,” said an officer at Lalbazar.

   

 
 
TOPPING THE TASTEBUD CHARTS 
 
 
BY SUBHRO SAHA
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Twenty-five thousand and fast losing count —that’s the foodie footfall figure at 10-day-old Pizza Hut.

The “largest Indian outlet” of the international pizza major has tickled the Calcutta tastebud just right. More than 6,000 pizza patrons trooped into the 5,400-square-foot, 170-seater restaurant in the first three days of its launch on June 14. And the serpentine queues outside the restaurant, even on week-nights, are only growing longer.

“We were certainly expecting a good response. Hence, the decision to open the country’s largest restaurant in Calcutta. But the level of excitement and positive feedback from customers have been a delightful surprise,” admits Pankaj Batra, director-marketing (Indian Subcontinent), Tricon Restaurants International, which owns the Pizza Hut brand.

This “overwhelming opening” has catapulted the 22, Camac Street store to the top of the heap among Pizza Huts in the country. Was there any secret recipe for success in Calcutta? “Not really. Well, the Calcuttans seem to love everything! But the firm favourites are the garlic bread, our world-famous pan pizzas and the salad bar. We will certainly add more items on the menu from time to time, to broaden the brand appeal,” promises Batra, from his Saket office.

Pizza Hut, with 14,000 outlets worldwide and 31 in 15 cities of northern, western and southern India, is planning “two to three more outlets” in various parts of Calcutta, within a year.

In the face of the Pizza Hut big bite, the competition is putting up a brave front. “Yes, we know Pizza Hut’s dining restaurant has been a big hit, but then, that is their marketing strategy,” says Shibaji Hazra, regional manager, Domino’s Pizza. “They are more into dining, and we are more into delivery and we would like to stay that way.”

The Pizza Hut entry into the Calcutta food mart comes at a critical time, just when the Domino’s and Don Giovanni’s pizza push was slowing down. And so, Hazra feels that all other players in this segment will benefit from Pizza Hut’s presence. “They will expand the market and the ripple effect will suit everybody. We have grown by 37 per cent in the two years we have been in Calcutta and I expect growth to be faster this year.”

Domino’s, which boasts of a “very cosmopolitan clientele”, is not planning any regional shift in flavours or toppings. “We have tried fish and prawn toppings before, but the response wasn’t encouraging. So we have again laid store by our perennial favourites, Cheese ‘n’ Pepperoni Pizza, Non-Veg Extravaganza and the Deluxe Veggie,” says Hazra.

Home-grown Don Giovanni’s, the pioneer in pizza delivery in Calcutta, however, believes it pays to respect local tastes. “We had introduced dhania paneer tikka and some special fish toppings to suit the Calcutta palate, which have become extremely popular,” says Indranil Banerjee, general manager of the company, who feels Pizza Hut will usher in “healthy competition”.

Banerjee feels eating habits in Calcutta are changing fast. “Pizzas, burgers and pastas are gaining ground. The market may not be as bullish as in Mumbai or Delhi, but Calcutta is getting there.”

Be it the Pizza Hut Personal Pan, Domino’s Extravaganza or DG’s Quattro, the pizza players are unanimous on one count: “The Calcutta market has changed its essential character. From being fiercely price-conscious, it has become very very quality-conscious.”

   

 
 
THE CITY DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Three arrested for godown heist

In a dawn raid on Tuesday, three persons were arrested for looting Rs 1.98 lakh from a footwear godown in Beniapukur. The stolen money was recovered from a house on Mafidul Islam Lane in the area. Sanjoy Mukherjee, deputy commissioner of police, eastern suburban division, said three persons — identified as Mohammed Jamil, Mohammed Jagangir and Mohammed Kamal — broke open the door and took away the cash-box kept in the godown on Syed Amir Ali Avenue. Acting on a tip-off, the police first picked up Jamil. After interrogating him, police netted two of his accomplices involved in the dacoity.

Cops hurt in road mishap

Two police officers were injured when an Ambassador crashed into their jeep on Diamond Harbour Road on Tuesday. Both the injured officers were admitted to hospital. The driver of the Ambassador managed to flee.

Tenant law revision

The Federation of West Bengal Trade Associations on Tuesday demanded amendments to the clauses of the existing West Bengal Premises Tenancy Act, 1997, for “making a balanced law” before the Bill is placed in the Assembly. Mahesh Kumar Singhania, association chairman, threatened on Tuesday that he would launch a “fast-unto-death” agitation if the government did not comply with the demand.

Wakf protest

The state BJP unit will hold a demonstration in front of the wakf board’s office on Madan Street at 2 pm, on Wednesday. Bengal unit president Asim Ghosh and vice-president Muzaffer Khan will be present. This could lead to traffic disruption in central Calcutta.

Held for murder

Three persons were arrested from Jagatdal, in North 24-Parganas, on Tuesday in connection with the murder of a youth. Officials said a woman was also arrested earlier. The subsequent arrests were made after interrogating the woman. Unidentified assailants had shot the youth last week over a long-standing rivalry, police said.

Police station plea

Councillor from the Chetla area in south Calcutta, Firhad Hakim, in a memorandum on Tuesday, urged chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to bifurcate the New Alipore police station for the benefit of the residents of Chetla. Member, mayor-in-council, health, Javed Ahmed Khan has agreed to offer the premises of the defunct civic maternity home on Peary Mohan Roy Road for the purpose of setting up the new police station.

Nursing numbers

Over 200 nurses affiliated to the All-Bengal Nurses’ Action Forum on Tuesday marched to the office of the deputy director, health services, nursing, and presented a memorandum seeking employment in government hospitals. They pointed out that according to Indian Nursing Council guidelines, one nurse should be appointed for every five patients in the general ward, every three patients in the special units and each patient in the ICCU and ITU. But this was not being maintained in Bengal, they alleged. The deputy director will meet them on July 24.    

 
 
WHEN IN DIRE STRAITS, ROCK TOGETHER 
 
 
BY SAMARJIT GUHA
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Guess who was waiting for Alipore’s Rana Banerjee at the Newcastle station? Former Dire Straits keyboard maestro Alan Clark. The result of the meeting — a stirring video entitled Skin, made by Banerjee, with Clark’s distinctive touch. The music video is slated to debut on MTV Asia early next month.

Rewinding the chain of events that led to the meeting with his idol, Rana says: “I grew up on Dire Straits… And the passion for their music peaked by the time I was playing for Extinct (a two-member band in the city). Much later, of course, I mustered the courage to write to Clark, wanting to meet him in London. And pronto came the reply.” Sometime in 2000, as Rana hugged his favourite Peavey guitar, waiting in anticipation at the Newcastle station, his idol appeared in blue checks and yellow cap (as promised) and the doors opened for the Calcutta lad.

For the La Martienere student, aspiring for a career in medicine after completing almost two years at Calcutta National Medical College, the switchover to music shocked parents and friends alike. “It was like one moment I was into cardio-thoracic surgery, and the next I was holding a stylish guitar strumming hep music,” recounts Rana. With friend Sanjay Sengupta, he formed Extinct, the youngest Asian band to feature on MTV Asia. Their maiden venture Ophelia, featuring Madhu Sapre, was filmed by Rajan Kothari (the man who shot Ghayal and Dil Kya Kare) and had art direction by Sharmistha Roy. The video made its debut in 1993, followed by a plethora of recordings and performances, including one at Rock Garden in London.

When Extinct broke up, with Sanjay migrating to Australia, Rana decided to get in touch with Clark at his Northumberland residence. The association is now almost two years old. “Initially, Clark took me to be just another fan but when he saw I was playing all the Dire Straits numbers, he started taking me seriously. From then on, it has been a one huge learning process with Clark teaching me sequencing (read: music programming), song writing and stage performance.”

When they were not making music, the two would be busy cooking or exchanging anecdotes and souvenirs. For example, Rana is now the proud owner of a red Dire Straits jacket that was made exclusively for the group during a performance at Vancouver. “When I decided to make Skin, Clark guided me like an elder brother, while choosing to remain on the sidelines.” The duo is also working on Rana’s next album, Infinity.

A peek at Skin reveals Rana’s music — what he calls Liquid Audio — gliding through locations in Soho, Regent Park and Denmark Street and underlining the theme of apartheid. Also on the cards is a video titled Fluid, for which Rana has set up a virtual seabed at his Alipore apartment. An artificial tank has chunks of the Great Barrier Reef, the rare and venomous Lion Fish, the Pakistani Butterfly...

What next? A brief vacation with Clark? Rana is suddenly tightlipped.

   

 
 
ER LAUNCHES NEW TRAINS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Four long distance trains will be introduced from Howrah and Sealdah stations in the Eastern Railway’s new time-table to be in force from July 1.

The four trains are Howrah-Bhopal weekly express via Dhanbad, Barkakhano, Chopan, Kalini, Sagar and Bina, providing direct rail link to Bhopal from Howrah, Howrah-New Delhi bi-weekly superfast express via Dhanbad, Gaya, Mughalsarai, Howrah-Gorakhpur weekly express via Barauni, Muzaffarpur, Narkatiagunge and Howrah-Malda Jan Shatabdi Express via Katwa and Azimgunge.

Apart from these, the frequency of the existing Howrah-Gorakhpur Express will be increased to twice from once a week.

SER collection: South Eastern Railway collected Rs 1.24 crore in fares and penalties from travellers without tickets or with improper tickets, in May. There were 94,567 cases detected during this period. An amount of Rs 27.4 lakh was realised from 77,690 unbooked luggage cases.

   

 
 
BY THE RIVER,OFF THE RIVER 
 
 
BY SANKAR SRIDHAR
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Families flourish on Hooghly bounty Every day, thousands make their way to the banks of the river. So many among them throw petty change into the murky waters to appease the gods. But where does it all go?

To the Gangaputras — 11 families on the riverfront, who tap “the treasure trove” in the Hooghly waters to sustain themselves through the year. They live in the shanties lining the Eden Gardens Circular Railway platform and make a living by fishing out the cornucopia of coins, ornaments and other offerings.

Take Kalpana Shyamal. The 36-year-old widow and a mother of three can afford three square meals a day for her family. And there is mutton on the steel plate at least three days of the week. “It’s a lot of hard work,” says Kalpana, “but the rewards are worth the toil.”

Spending up to six hours in the water every day, all through the year, each family lays claim to a portion of the bank where the children sift through the bed in ankle-deep water, while the men dive in deeper. The women wash, strain and sieve the wet clay retrieved from the river, in wicker baskets, to collect the valuables. “Even on the worst of days, we make around Rs 150,” says Rashid, 24.

If the monsoons are a struggle, then the Pujas herald the period of plenty. During the festive season, they make as much as Rs 12,000 in a month — and not all of it in coins. Earrings, rings, lockets and pendants in gold and silver are all fair game.

“We sell off the ornaments to agents who come to us periodically to collect them,” says Siraj, another ‘hunter’. “But if the designs are really beautiful, we let our wives keep them.” The coins change hands at the panwallah’s or the bus gumtis. “But this is by no means an easy task,” they reiterate. The labyrinthine chains that hold the jetties in place are veritable death traps. Dysentery, cold and fever are phenomena they have learnt to live with. But yet, they find themselves drawn to it every day. After all, they say defensively, every occupation comes with its share of “hazards”.

Though how or when this strange profession came into existence they cannot remember, the Gangaputras of today recall being brought up by their parents and trained in this ‘art’ from a very young age, just as they now teach their children.

“The Ganga is the cleanser of souls, the Mecca for believers, provider of a means of transport for many and the provider of sustenance for countless more. But few, other than the handful of families who fringe the stretch from Babughat to Prinsep Ghat can lay claim to the Ganges as ‘Ma’, for like a mother she has never failed us,” asserts Rakhi Singh.

   

 
 
FREE-TRIPPERS TURN VIOLENT, FIVE INJURED 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 25: 
Train services on Sealdah’s South section were disrupted for half-an-hour on Tuesday after a clash broke out between passengers and railway employees over mobile ticket checking.

At least five people, including railway employees, were injured in the clash. Two passengers were handed over to the Government Railway Police, but were freed later by co-passengers.

Divisional railway manager, Sealdah division, Dulal Chandra Mitra, said on Tuesday that mobile checking was being carried out at Sonarpur and Baruipur stations. Sources said there had been several complaints about passengers travelling without tickets. At least 980 people, including 50 women, have been rounded up over the past two days.

On Tuesday, trouble started at 7.30 am as soon as the Sealdah-bound Diamond Harbour local halted at Sonarpur station.

The railway staff started its rounds of checking tickets. An errant passenger was pulled up when he failed to produce his ticket. The ticket examiner asked him to get off the train, rounded up some more free-trippers and ordered them off the train too.

At this, one passenger grabbed hold of the ticket examiner. An argument started, resulting in fisticuffs. A few people were injured in the melee.

Hawkers, who had started heckling the railway staff, joined the angry passengers.

Sensing trouble, the ticket examiners escaped to the station superintendent’s room. The passengers and hawkers followed them there, breaking down the collapsible gates of the room. They damaged furniture on the platform, meant to beautify the station, as well as the vehicle (Lal Gari) that picks up passengers travelling without tickets.

Divisional manager Mitra said: “At the time of the incident, I was at Baruipur station. I rushed to Sonarpur as soon as I got the news. Thankfully, today we could deal with the situation quickly. In fact, there were simultaneous raids being carried out at other stations. Such raids will continue for some time, although we are slightly handicapped by a shortage of staff. The next drive is at Dum Dum on Wednesday.”

According to a senior railway official, Tuesday’s incident proved that hawkers needed to be dealt with strictly to avert trouble. “Most of these hawkers travel without tickets, but when asked to produce one, they start harassing our staff,” he said.

Following the incident, some passengers held a sit-in on the railway tracks at Sonarpur station for half-an-hour, demanding immediate arrest of the culprits.

The blockade inconvenienced office-goers and students at rush hour. It was finally lifted after 9 am, when railway officials assured the passengers that they would arrest those involved in the incident.

   
 

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