Damper on plan to hire and fire
Mamata runs into Cabinet railblock
Jana junks poll penalty plank
Gandhi’s Gujarat stuns Sahgal
Sparks over Speaker quiz
Sonia missive

New Delhi, June 29: 
The Centre’s move to rationalise labour laws suffered a moral setback today with the National Labour Commission indicating that it would not support a hire-and-fire policy in a situation where the majority of workers do not have access to social security.

Commission head Ravindra Verma today submitted his report to the Prime Minister. The report, which made a comprehensive assessment of labour issues, also looked into sensitive labour laws that have been the topic of a heated political debate. The BJP’s trade union arm, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has been opposing proposals that could pave the way for a hire-and-fire policy.

The government is not bound to implement the commission’s recommendations. But in an attempt to buy time, the Centre had swivelled the spotlight on the panel, saying it would “wait” for its report before moving ahead with reforms. The report is likely to be placed in Parliament for a debate.

“We have tried to balance the needs of industry and the interests of workers. There has to be competitiveness but it will be based on justice and fairness,” Verma said.

He did not give details of the report, but made it clear he would not support a move which would deny the workers the right to seek legal redress if sacked.

At the heart of the labour reform row has been the government’s proposal to amend the Industrial Disputes Act, which will make it easier to retrench workers and close down non-viable units. At present, the Act lays down that owners of units employing not more than 100 persons can shut shop without permission from state governments. The proposed amendment, which has been approved by the Cabinet in principle, seeks to increase this number to 1,000.

The commission, however, has recommended that the limit be lowered from 1,000. Its report has suggested a ceiling of 200-300 workers. The same proposal was mooted earlier by labour minister Sharad Yadav.

The report makes it clear that a hire-and-fire system exists only in countries with a strong social security system, and India is far from achieving that status. The commission has focused on the state of unorganised workers who have virtually no social security network. The report said a hire-and-fire system will prove costly for these workers.

The Centre also does not have much to rejoice over the commission’s observations on amendments to the Contract Labour Act. The government has suggested a shift from permanent to contractual employment but the commission report recommends a “holistic, rather than a piecemeal, approach”.

After receiving the report, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee said: “Unfortunately, there is an impression that the government is not interested in workers’ welfare. But that is not true.”

He said the Centre would implement most of the recommendations in the shortest time possible. But he added that the changed global scenario must be kept in mind while formulating policies on labour.


New Delhi, June 29: 
Mamata Banerjee’s insistence on the railway portfolio has lent a jarring note to the Prime Minister’s move for a smooth Cabinet shuffle on Monday evening.

While the Trinamul Congress chief has made it a prestige issue, sources said the Prime Minister has decided not to shift incumbent minister Nitish Kumar under pressure from his supporters, including L.K. Advani.

“It has been made clear to Mamata that the railway ministry will remain with Kumar,” said an NDA leader. For Mamata, fighting a turf war with Kumar over bifurcation of Eastern Railway, the denial could not have come at a worse time.

Trinamul leaders are at a loss why Atal Bihari Vajpayee cannot be assertive and shift Kumar. “After all, the Prime Minister has announced that he is going in for a major shake-up”, said a party leader.

Sources said NDA convener George Fernandes had spoken to Mamata to persuade her to accept an alternative ministry, but she did not relent.

While the Trinamul chief continued to sulk, worried aides of the Prime Minister also spoke to her several times today. Fernandes, who was backing Mamata’s return to the railway ministry, made an about-turn, fearing that Kumar, a party colleague, could create trouble for him in the Samata Party.

There were suggestions that Mamata could either be offered the rural development ministry, which will be vacated by Venkaiah Naidu when he takes over as BJP president, or civil aviation held by Shahnawaz Hussain.

Mamata was set to arrive here tonight, but now may land tomorrow. She quit the railway ministry in March last year in the wake of the Tehelka exposé.

The sources said the Trinamul chief was under pressure from party colleagues to join the Cabinet, irrespective of portfolio. If there is no let-up in the pressure, she may yield and accept an alternative ministry.

Mamata is also seeking berths for two Trinamul MPs. PMO sources said Mamata had earlier given the impression that she would allow her colleagues to join the Cabinet but opt out herself if the railway ministry was not given to her. “We are now worried that she may also force them to stay out,” they added.

A source close to Mamata said she had communicated to Vajpayee that she wanted the railway portfolio. “Mamata said she is okay without a ministry. She resigned from the railway ministry over an issue, not because of inefficiency or any other reason. All persons who quit following Tehelka have been rehabilitated (read George Fernandes and Bangaru Laxman),” the Trinamul source said.

“She never hankered after any berth. The Prime Minister himself said the Trinamul chief would be inducted. If they want Trinamul in the Cabinet, then the ball is in their court,” said the source. He added that Mamata never “used” or “misused” her position as a minister. “She always travelled in the economy class even as a minister.”

BJP leaders who did not want to be named said they were opposed to rehabilitating her. “She is a loose cannon who ditched Vajpayee once. Why invest so much in her especially at a time when there is no election in West Bengal in the near future? Food and civil supplies minister Shanta Kumar who will be shifted is not disturbed because of elections in Himachal Pradesh,” said a senior party leader.


Chennai, June 29: 
Jana Krishnamurthi today rejected the view that the BJP’s top leadership was “kicking him upstairs” for the party’s poll debacle in Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

“In our party nobody gets kicked up or kicked down,” Krishnamurthi said at a packed news conference at the BJP state headquarters this evening, asserting it was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “desire that I should join the Cabinet”.

Denying an earlier report that he had “sent in his resignation letter to the Prime Minister late last night before leaving New Delhi for Chennai”, Krishnamurthi said, given the party’s traditional way of functioning, there was “no need to submit my resignation and the news is without any basis”.

It was a matter of interpretation. “You say I am being removed, but my organisation says I am being taken to the Cabinet,” Krishnamurthi said, citing the analogy of a tumbler of water that was either “half full or half empty”. “It all depends on how you look at it,” he said, emphatically adding: “But I do not accept the party has failed.”

“I am addressing you as BJP president now,” said the mild-mannered Krishnamurthi. However, he would “automatically cease” to be party president if his name figured in the Cabinet reshuffle on Monday.

Krishnamurthi had asked the BJP general secretary in-charge of organisational affairs to convene a meeting of the party’s central office-bearers in Delhi at 10 am on Monday, to take note of the political developments of the last four days and, should his name figure in Vajpayee’s new Cabinet, also discuss the “consequential developments of that in the party”, he explained.

That was how the BJP worked and this situation could not be compared with the developments that led to his predecessor, Bangaru Laxman’s, resignation (in the wake of the Tehelka exposé), Krishnamurthi said.

Krishnamurthi said when he met the Prime Minister on June 25 in the presence of L.K. Advani, both said “I should join the Cabinet”. The Prime Minister had decided that “I should come into the Cabinet”, he said.

Krishnamurthi said he had been ready to step down as the BJP president as early as four months ago. But never once “till this moment, either the Prime Minister or the home minister told me that they want me to step down”, said the BJP chief. Until now, there was no possibility of “me stepping down from the party post in lieu of an accommodation in the Cabinet”.

But when the Prime Minister was going in for a “major Cabinet reshuffle” as a result of a mid-term appraisal, “their approach was that I should get into the Cabinet to strengthen it”, Krishnamurthi said. He said he had initially declined the offer, but the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, persuaded him.


Ahmedabad, June 29: 
Moved by what she described as the “very painful and shocking” condition of thousands of riot victims living in relief camps, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, the Left Front’s presidential nominee, said she was highly disillusioned to see the pathetic condition of Mahatma Gandhi’s Gujarat after more than 50 years of Independence.

A legendary freedom fighter and commander of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj, Sahgal, who visited the Shah-e-Alam and Chamanpura camps in Bapunagar today, said the recent communal violence in Gujarat had shaken the secular foundations of the country. There was a need to wage another freedom struggle as the issue of secularism was yet to be resolved, she added.

It was raining at 10.45am when Sahgal arrived at the Shah-e-Alam camp, where she stayed for about an hour, listening to the sufferings of the inmates.

As she patiently heard out the woes of the inmates, her daughter, former CPI MP Subhasini Ali, spoke to the riot widows and handed over cheques for Rs 10,000 to all 34 widows in the Shah-e-Alam camp on behalf of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Assuring them that they were not alone in their fight against injustice, the 87-year-old Sahgal said she was ready to make any sacrifice to see that the perpetrators of the riots were punished.

She, however, clarified that she was visiting the camps not to kickstart her campaign for the presidential election but to see the condition of the camps as she had read in the newspapers that they were being shut down. “I wanted to see why (the) camps were being closed without rehabilitating inmates. Now that I have visited the camps, we will highlight throughout the country the condition of relief camps,” she said.


Patna, June 29: 
Rameshwar Prasad Chowrasia, who has lodged a complaint that his shops were allegedly ransacked by Laloo Prasad Yadav’s brother Sukhdeo Rai, was brought to Speaker Sadanand Singh’s chamber yesterday by the police to brief him about the Raja Bazaar incident, sparking a row. Opposition leaders took strong exception and said the Speaker had set a wrong precedent.

Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, Samata legislature party leader Uma Shankar Singh and Janata Dal (United) legislature party leader Ganesh Prasad Yadav today held a joint news conference here to castigate the Speaker. “Why was Rameshwar Chowrasia brought to the Speaker’s chamber in the Assembly? Has the Speaker the right to get any complainant arrested to make his presence available in his chamber? Then all the complainants in Bihar should be brought to the Assembly premises for details of their FIRs. The Speaker has initiated a wrong tradition. Can an ordinary businessman, who has been terrorised so much, dare speak the truth?” they asked.

Chowrasia had filed the complaint stating that Rai, one of Laloo’s four brothers, looted his Ranawar Market complex in Patna, beat him up and fired in the air to terrorise him on June 24.

Modi warned that Laloo’s intervention in the meetings of the Opposition leaders with the Speaker would not be tolerated. Laloo had walked into the Speaker’s chamber yesterday when the Opposition leaders were holding talks over the Raja Bazaar issue.

Laloo might visit the Vidhan Sabha as an honourable member of the Rajya Sabha, but the Opposition will not tolerate his intervention in the affairs of the Assembly, Modi added.

Stating that Laloo’s brothers and nephews were now following in the footsteps of Rabri Devi’s notorious brothers, the Opposition leaders slammed the state police for allegedly shielding the erring kin of Bihar’s First Couple.


New Delhi, June 29: 
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi today shot off a missive to the Prime Minister, asking him to restrain Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi from going ahead with a “gaurav rath yatra”, reports our special correspondent.

Sonia expressed fears that Modi’s yatra would further damage the fragile fabric of communal harmony in the state.


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