Court dissonance: Govt proposes, attorney-general opposes
Modi faces poll panel ground test
Samata salt on Mamata cut
Melanie checks in as Martin did
Delhi doors to open for Belarus minister
Kerala planter cultivates jumbo agri-business site
Amar hope for Sushma’s stranded set-top box Bill
Singh spikes Bihar project
Surrogate ads beware, big brother is counting the pegs
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, July 25: 
Attorney-general Soli J. Sorabjee today differed with the Centre and the solicitor-general on the minority institutions case and told an 11-judge Constitution bench that the institutions had “absolute” management rights.

Sorabjee’s opinion came amid reports that he was sore with the Centre for its apparent attempts to oust him. Sorabjee was reportedly offered the Karnataka Governor’s office, which he is believed to have declined.

The largest-ever Constitution bench is hearing over 200 petitions for and against the “absolute” right of minority institutions to administer their schools. The issues involved are, by and large, admission of students, appointment of teachers and other staff, and the salary structure.

Before and after his court appearance, Sorabjee denied that there was any difference between him and the Centre. “There is no question of any confrontation with the Government of India nor any rift between the attorney-general and the solicitor-general,” he said.

Commencing his submission as attorney-general and not as counsel for the Centre, Sorabjee told the bench presided over by Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal that “the fundamental right of administration of a minority educational institution under Article 30 of the Constitution, on its terms and language, is absolute”.

As attorney-general, Sorabjee usually represents the Union government and was in the limelight a few months ago when he told the Supreme Court that a “limited” puja or shila daan by the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas in Ayodhya would not contravene any law.

Appearing for the Centre, solicitor-general Harish Salve had asserted last week that “no right is absolute and, for that matter, every right, including the fundamental rights, is regulated”. So, he contended, the right of the minorities to establish and administer institutions could also be regulated.

Although there have been instances of an attorney-general expressing views in contrast to those of the government, this is the first time that the attorney-general and the solicitor-general have differed in their interpretation of the law and Constitution in the same case.

Senior counsel K. Parasaran had differed with the Centre before Calcutta High Court in a case, saying that an “A-G is A-G of India, and not of the government. So he has to express, in all fairness, the actual position of the Constitution and the law, although it might not be convenient for the government of the day”.

Sorabjee agreed with the legal position that “no right could be absolute”, but emphasised that in the case of minority institutions, “it should not be tinkered (with) by an outside agency”, including the government.

Making it clear he was “neither for the government nor against it”, Sorabjee said the “reasonable restrictions” applicable to the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(g) “would not be applicable to Article 30” that guarantees the right to minorities to set up and runs schools.

But Salve contended that “secular laws (were) designed to obtain secular objects and not be violative of Article 30”, though some laws enacted to regulate a right “tended” to encroach upon certain aspects of the management of minority schools.

No one in the government was willing to react to Sorabjee’s submission.


New Delhi, July 25: 
After hearing out a steady stream of politicians and citizens, the Election Commission has decided to send a team of observers to Gujarat to assess the ground situation and decide when polls should be held.

“Chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh told us that a team of observers will leave for Gujarat in four to five days,” said CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. A delegation of Left leaders and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda had called on the commission this afternoon.

The third front leaders and Sahmat, a cultural organisation, today picked up from where the Congress left off and made out a case against early polls in Gujarat before the panel.

CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Bardhan reminded Lyngdoh of instances when the Narendra Modi government had not allowed representatives of various organisations, including the National Human Rights Commission, to tour some of the sensitive pockets in Gujarat.

The commission, however, felt that the state would not be in a position to bar its emissaries as the panel is empowered to send observers before polling.

Sources said Lyngdoh stressed that the decision on early polls could not be taken by “bureaucrats” — an oblique reference to K.P.S. Gill who recently completed his assignment as the Gujarat security adviser and has favoured early polls.

In an interview to a magazine, the chief election commissioner had taken a swipe at Gill, saying no sensible person would demand immediate polls.

When the Sahmat team met the commission this evening, it was requested to provide information on the situation in Gujarat. Sahmat submitted a report prepared by a two-member team that had toured two districts in Gujarat earlier this month and underscored the signs of largescale devastation and terror still visible in the state.

“The Election Commission asked us for specific information on three issues — the whereabouts of the refugees who have been forced to leave Gujarat, the pending criminal cases and the relief and rehabilitation measures taken by the government,” said economist Prabhat Patnaik.

“The commission gave us a patient hearing. It wanted to know what each of us had seen in the relief camps, about the FIRs, the social and economic boycott,” said actress Sharmila Tagore, who was part of the Sahmat delegation.

Petitions are pouring into the commission. The Gujarat-based People’s Union for Civil Liberties urged the commission not to go for early elections.

A group of citizens from Gujarat, including Mrinalini and Mallika Sarabhai, also urged Lyngdoh not to hold elections even “a day before the schedule”. “We have no party affiliation, political ambition or personal interest. But we feel that if elections are held now they would be far from free and fair,” they said.


New Delhi, July 25: 
Even as the Union Cabinet ignored Mamata Banerjee’s ultimatum and decided to meet only on Monday, Samata Party MPs demanded that the headquarters of South-Eastern Railway be shifted to Ranchi from Calcutta.

Lok Sabha MP Prabhunath Singh and Rajya Sabha MP Rajiv Ranjan Singh, who are close to railway minister Nitish Kumar, said if Mamata was so agitated about the proposed bifurcation of Eastern Railway, she could quit the NDA.

“We cannot trust her. She deserted the NDA on the Tehelka issue and later apologised to George Fernandes and came back. Now what happened to the 72-hour bandh threat? Why can’t she straight go to the Prime Minister (and say) that ‘I want to take oath’. If she is so sincere about this bifurcation business, she should quit the NDA instead of enacting drama,” they said.

Mamata had threatened to call a 72-hour bandh if the decision was not reviewed by July 24, but kept it on hold when the Prime Minister said the Cabinet would discuss the issue.

The Samata MPs said they would raise the demand for shifting the head offices of Coal India and DVC to Patna if “she did not mend her ways”. The big coal mines were in Bihar and Jharkhand and there was no rationale for Coal India to have its headquarters in Calcutta, they said.

Reacting to the demand of a group of Jharkhand MPs for a new railway zone, including Dhanbad, at Ranchi, the Samata MPs said the South-Eastern Railway headquarters could be shifted to Ranchi instead.

They ruled out any compromise on the Eastern Railway bifurcation, making it clear that Monday’s meeting is unlikely to come up with a solution to the tangle.

Government sources said Cabinet meetings will henceforth be held on Mondays and Wednesdays instead of Tuesdays and Thursdays/Fridays during Parliament sessions. The move is aimed at easing the pressure on the Prime Minister.


Calcutta, July 25: 
California is where her home is; Kalitala is where her heart is.

Melanie Griffith had been planning a trip to the Sabera Foundation home “since last September”. The actress finally made it this week, met ‘her girls’, recorded for an album — and Calcutta didn’t have a clue.

The visit of Sabera’s “most ardent supporter” — she runs the LA office of the Calcutta-based NGO — was shrouded in secrecy, even more so than the Ricky Martin breeze-through in June. She arrived without fanfare and is about to leave without a farewell.

The official line from Sabera was that the wife of Antonio Banderas left town on Wednesday. But sources at The Park — where Melanie and her six-member team had holed up, refusing to step out of their rooms and sticking to “light Continental cuisine” — maintained that she would check out “any time on Friday”.

Hush-hush is how most of Sabera’s star guests to its Kalitala girls’ home, beyond Thakurpukur, prefer it. And for the children “it’s always a delightful experience, because they are the centre of attention”, says Carlos Duran San Roman, the man who started it all from a Golf Green flat, with the help of Nacho Cano, a friend of Penelope Cruz.

Not only does Melanie sponsor one of the girls at the home, she has also set up an office in LA to raise funds and awareness for Sabera. She and Antonio ‘Zorro’ Banderas are set to host a charity dinner at their LA home on October 10 for the release of Sabera’s maiden album.

Recording for that album was the main reason for Melanie’s visit.

Among those who have lent their voices are Mick Jagger, Sting, Antonio Banderas and Ricky Martin, who has sung a Bengali number, composed and written by him (although translated), with some of the Kalitala girls. Martin had done the recording at Sabera’s state-of-the-art Universal Studios-sponsored set-up, at their new premises under construction at Gazipur.

The star of Working Girl and a host of Hollywood hits spent quite a while in the recording room, singing with some of the girls. “Melanie was permanently teary-eyed while she was here,” says Carlos.

“She is a very sensitive person and she was overwhelmed by the love of the girls. So far, she has done all her work for us from LA. This was the first time she got an opportunity to see the kind of work we do, first-hand. She loved every moment of it.”

Melanie was here with sister Tracy, a country singer who’s not only sung, but also scored some music for the album. “They spent a lot of time chatting with the girls and playing with them and even ate their meals with them. Melanie has promised to come back and see the children again soon. They miss her already,” added Carlos.

The charity dinner, to be hosted by the star couple, will also serve as a platform for Sabera’s sewing class to showcase its work internationally. A fashion show will feature their creations for the first time. Ten girls from Kalitala will have the chance to display their dancing talents to the celebrity audience.

The album will be distributed worldwide by Universal Studios, with most of the profits from the sales going to Sabera. “We want to encourage young talent, like the girls at this home, who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. We plan to make the album, with mostly amateur voices, an annual affair,” concludes Carlos.

So, who’s next on the Sabera dream list of Kalitala callers? The guessing game is on again, but Ricky Martin is billed to beat Penelope Cruz, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas and Raul for his second trip to town — for some fun, football and foot-tapping music.


New Delhi, July 25: 
Hounded by the US and other western nations, Belarus President Lukashanko has decided to despatch foreign minister Mikahil Khvostov to India to seek political legitimacy and support.

Khvostov will arrive on July 31 on a three-day visit.During his stay here, Khvostov will try to strengthen political ties between the two sides while broad-basing bilateral relations through cooperation in important areas like defence exports, science and technology and trade.

On its part, India has decided to roll out the red carpet for Khvostov and give him the highest political access, usually reserved for foreign ministers of key countries.

The Belarus foreign minister will have a detailed discussion with his Indian counterpart, Yashwant Sinha, on August 2. Khvostov will call on President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He will also meet defence minister George Fernandes, human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Vice-President Krishan Kant.

This apart, Khvostov will interact with captains of Indian business and industry at a function organised in his honour by Ficci in the capital.

Belarus considers India, Russia and China the three most important countries in the world. But President Lukashanko, who has been ruling the country for many years with an iron hand, has run into trouble with the West, particularly the US. The charge d’affaires of the American embassy in Minsk is not recognised by Lukashanko, and, in turn, Washington does not recognise the President of Belarus.

Trouble started a few years ago when the Americans and some of its allies raised questions about the fairness of the last election in Belarus, which had brought Lukashanko to power again. Faced with serious charges from the US, the Belarus President decided to go on the offensive by not recognising the American envoy and blocking his access to his government.

Despite Belarus’ closeness with Russia, its recent proposal of a Belarus-Russian Union — which is supposed to put in place the arrangement of an open border, free labour movement between the two sides and a common customs union — appears to have run into rough weather.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who was once keen on the proposal, seems to be stalling the merger, possibly because of his closeness with the US.

It wants to strengthen its ties with India. Since the Soviet days, several important institutions for the development of science and technology and defence factories were set up in Belarus. They continue to be its strength and Belarus wants to collaborate with India in these fields.


Kalpetta (Kerala), July 25: 
Asia’s largest database on agri-business will be launched soon on the World Wide Web, thanks to the efforts of a planter at Kalpetta in Wayanad.

The database, at present, contains more than 1,50,000 pages, or more than 1 gigabyte in digital terms. It has been organised in over 300 modules and covers issues relevant to global agri-business. The subjects include details of world trade, its current systems and practices and the details of about 1,500 varieties of plants and their products.

This Herculean task of gathering information on all aspects of agriculture in this globalised economy and digitalising them has been carried out almost single-handedly by 45-year-old A.V. Narayanaswamy.

Narayanaswamy, for whom gathering information on farming has been a passion, has worked 12 to 16 hours a day for the last five years to put together this mammoth database. Now, he and six of his engineer friends have set themselves a punishing work schedule to adapt the database to be launched on the Net.

The information Narayanaswamy has in his database covers the role of associated technical assistance-providers in WTO-related subjects like the International Genetic Resources Institute, the World Customs Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the International Grains Council, the International Standards Organisation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Narayanaswamy’s endeavour, however, is to transform his database into an information technology-enabled service for the farmers of Kerala. He proposes to offer web services through an e-com portal that will look into the entire supply chain to a farm and act as a link between farmers and trade.

The portal, Narayanaswamy says, would provide near-comprehensive information on the various aspects of agri-business. This would include tips on how to cultivate, a calendar of operations, the maximum residue limits of chemicals, photo-sanitary standards, post-harvest processing, information on prices and trade leads, automated record keeping, legal advice on contract farming and information on commodity market derivatives.

Narayanaswamy plans to translate this voluminous database into Malayalam so that it is accessible to Kerala’s farmers.

The brain behind this agri-database says though farmers and their associations are segmented on the lines of the crops they grow, they would need to diversify in the near future. “It is here,” he points out, “(that) this database becomes significant.”

It was in 1997 that Narayanaswamy realised the need for putting up this database. The impending changes in the agriculture sector were apparent to him from that stage. His family has been coffee-growers by profession but later diversified into nursery operations under low-cost greenhouses in floriculture, horticulture, plantation crops and medicinal and aromatic plants.

Narayanaswamy’s efforts have been noticed by the Kerala government. He has held meetings with various state agencies. By all indications, this could lead to some government involvement in advancing the database.


New Delhi, July 25: 
Union information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj is relying largely on Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh’s troubleshooting skills to thrash out a compromise on the conditional access system (CAS) for cable television.

The amendment to the Cable Television Networks Act, that will allow implementation of CAS to enable viewers to pick and choose pay channels, was passed by the Lok Sabha in the last session. It is now pending in the Rajya Sabha and was taken out of the business schedule of the House last week as major Opposition parties started giving it a rethink despite passing it in the Lok Sabha.

The ministry has clarified that the Bill has not been withdrawn by the government, but has been temporarily de-listed from the business of the Rajya Sabha and the reason for this is that the government “is seeking to evolve a general consensus on this consumer-friendly legislation. It will be recalled that this Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha with the support of all parties. The minister is meeting leaders of various political parties to clarify doubts or apprehensions, if any, that they might have against any provision of the Bill”.

Swaraj has also appealed to cable operators to refrain from being confrontationists.

Through this week, Swaraj has been meeting Opposition leaders — she has met Amar Singh twice and yesterday talked to the CPM’s Nilotpal Basu and the Congress’ Kapil Sibal — but a compromise continues to elude her.

Today, however, there were signals that the Congress — without whose support the Rajya Sabha cannot pass the Bill —may soften. Congress spokesman Anand Sharma pointed out that the party did not make an issue out of it in the Lok Sabha. “We are not having second thoughts on CAS,” he said. But the party is saying that MPs must discuss the Bill clause by clause.

Clearly, in the weeks between the last session and this one, lobbies have been activated to campaign against the Bill. While cable operators vehemently support the Bill — having also gone on a strike yesterday demanding its passing by the Rajya Sabha — broadcasters are either against it or are ambivalent.

One of the major grouses against the Bill in its present shape is that it does not provide for a regulator to oversee the implementation of the conditional access system. The cable television industry is still undecided on who will foot the bill for set-top boxes — consumers, cable operators and multisystem operators or broadcasters. Suggestions have varied from putting up a “head-end in the sky” — a mother connection to which cable operators will have to link — to arranging for hire-purchase so that funding of set-top boxes can be shared.

Broadcasters fear that the use of set-top boxes — prices for which can range between Rs 3,000 and 15,000 — that will allow access to channels, will force a beating down of subscription revenues. Though advertisements are still a major revenue source, subscription revenues are substantial. Zee, for instance, has reported raking in more than Rs 100 crore from subscription revenues.

Angry protests by cable operators have also contributed to making Opposition MPs angry. They have taken umbrage over threats to disconnect cable connections to MPs opposing CAS or to blank out their coverage.

Cable service providers themselves are divided over their reaction to the stalling of the Bill thus far. “It is really shameful that some cable operators have been going on strike and issuing threats. On one side we claim to advocate the cause of consumers and on the other we are denying them Cable tv — as during the strike (in New Delhi) yesterday,” said Vikki Choudhary, chief of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

“We do not want to put unnecessary pressure on the minister,” said Choudhary. “We take her word that CAS will be implemented.”

Cable Operators’ United Front president Virendra Gaur said CAS was a “universally-accepted methodology to control payments of pay channels world over and builds transparency in the broadcaster-cable-operator- subscriber relationships”.

He alleged that satellite broadcasters had been lobbying hard and “successfully” to ensure that “no effective legislation is enacted to regulate private broadcasting, so as to allow them to carry on their hegemonistic, monopolistic and arbitrary practices in respect of the distribution of pay channels in the country”.


New Delhi, July 25: 
Finance minister Jaswant Singh has virtually torpedoed a Rs 12,500-crore plan, dubbed Development and Reform Facility, meant as a package for the two most backward states in the country — Bihar and Orissa.

The five-year package that was to start this year had been conceived as a compensation to Bihar for the loss of Jharkhand. The first year component of Rs 2,500 crore was announced by Singh’s predecessor in North Block as part of the Union budget for 2002.

The fund was dreamt up by Planning Commission head K.C. Pant and Singh’s predecessor Yashwant Sinha after Bihar MPs, led by chief minister Rabri Devi, protested that the creation of Jharkhand would leave them with “just poverty and floods”.

Jharkhand, with its mineral royalty earnings and sales tax and excise earnings from industrial units located around Ranchi and Jamshedpur, had always been the main source of revenue for Bihar. But this was never described as such in any official document.

In fact, Bihar was to receive the lion’s share of Rs 4,000 crore spread over five years from this fund, which was to help the state build the infrastructure which, it said, it had lost to Jharkhand.

This year alone Bihar was to get Rs 800 crore while Orissa’s three most backward districts — Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput — were to get about Rs 200 crore.

About 100 backward districts spread all over the country were to get another Rs 1,500 crore.

Instead, the finance ministry now wants the facility to be limited to a few districts as a pilot project with no specific funds for Bihar or Orissa. The ministry’s logic has rationale behind it.

“The plan panel’s draft seems like another poverty alleviation programme and not what we had set it out to be — a tied fund programme that would provoke states to implement much-needed economic reforms,” said top officials in the ministry.

Singh took this decision despite deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s specific demand that the fund should cover Naxalite-affected districts — which would come under the third element of the plan to help backward districts — so that youth there could be weaned away from violence.

The bonanza for the two eastern states as well as Andhra Pradesh and eastern Uttar Pradesh, which were to benefit in a large measure from the funds as these were considered Naxalite infested, was that the money would have been doled out as a 100 per cent grant.

The added benefit was that these funds would have helped key BJP allies running states other than Bihar.

The plan funds were of course to be tied to a reform agenda which asked states to agree to a series of fiscal reforms, plans to devolve funds and powers to local bodies, economic reform plans such as raising power user charges, corporatisation of public transport and limiting mining of underground water.

Both the finance ministry and the Planning Commission felt that this was the best way to hasten growth “by relating it to a menu of reforms”, which would help create substantive long-term infrastructure for these states.

Time-bound schemes were to be picked up and designed to show quick results on the ground.

Naturally, no one is exactly happy with the latest turn of events. Neither the home ministry headed by Advani nor the Planning Commission and its head Pant is particularly happy with what they consider an “obstructionist approach” of the new set-up in the finance ministry.

The states are not even aware as yet of the new twist in the tale, otherwise there would have been howls of protests from both states, especially from Bihar, which sees the fund as its legitimate right.


July 25: 
Be what you want to be… sipping on Bacardi Rum can smoothly go down as “swinging to Bacardi Blast”; But an amber fluid masquerading as apple juice and gulped with gusto cannot have the power to undress.

A committee has been set up to decide whether either of these ads, and several others issued by liquor and tobacco companies, should stay on air.

Seema Bisht, deputy secretary in the information and broadcasting ministry, is to coordinate the committee that will “monitor and weigh the value of surrogate ads”. Those that are found to overstep the thin line separating alternative brand promotion from surrogate advertising will be scrapped.

The panel, which is holding its first meeting on August 5, has representatives from the ministries of health and family welfare, women and child welfare and law, justice and company affairs as well the advertising industry.

While Bisht was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, Dorab Sopariwala, president of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which represents the advertising world on the committee, confirmed that the group has been formed.

Bhavani Thyagarajan, joint secretary in the department of health, Roli Srivastava, joint secretary in the ministry of women and child welfare, and A. Sinha, joint secretary and legal adviser in department of legal affairs, are the others on the panel.

Direct advertising of liquor is illegal, while tobacco ads are prohibited on television. “There is a feeling that many companies are flouting the law with regard to control of advertising for liquor and tobacco. The minister is clearly under some pressure to control it,” Sopariwala said.

Companies like Smirnoff (Zone), Bacardi (Blast) and Wills (Sport) have created alternative brands that get across their message to consumers. Smirnoff from UDV and Bacardi have both gone the music way. Bacardi Blast and Smirnoff Zone are the party and album concepts that the white-spirit brands are using.

As Anupam Dutta, general manager, marketing, UDV, put it: “Any alternative brand has to fit the original proposition. Both our product and the parties and music we are promoting allow consumers to release the ‘super-me’.”

Music can get you in the party mood, just like a peg or two, but apple juice is just apple juice, despite Aristocrat’s assurances to the contrary on the small screen.

That could be the difference between alternative brand advertising and surrogate ads that the committee will be looking for.

“The committee, we are told, will look into whether the brands advertised are legitimate products. It may also look into the amount of revenue invested into promotion of a brand vis-à-vis the percentage of revenue it brings in to a company,” said Ramesh Narayan, ex-president, Advertising Agencies’ Association of India.

But this is tantamount to saying the government is entitled to decide a company’s ad-spend for a non-restricted product. “Who are they to decide this?” asked Narayan.

Though it remains unclear how far the surrogate ad ban will go, the ASCI already has a basic guideline.

The Code for Self-Regulation states: “Advertisements for products whose advertising is prohibited or restricted by law or this code must not circumvent such restrictions by purporting to be advertisements for other products”.

The product being advertised has to be “distributed in sufficient quantities” and there should not be any “direct or indirect clues” about the restricted product. So far, promotion of a brand name in itself is not restricted.

Bacardi kicked off the “Blast” concept around four years ago — which pre-dates surrogate advertising — with music events in the metros in conjunction with Channel V.

The ad-jingle that made Bacardi a household name was switched in April, from sipping on Bacardi Rum to swinging to Bacardi Blast.

But anyone old enough to drink will also surely recall the old words as soon as the tune comes on the telly. That is the brand recall and value advertisers will sorely miss, if the clampdown is complete.




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