After the crash, bank on Bengali travel bug
Tax gun trained on twin halls
Fake a heist to fund son’s tech dream
Confusing cab fares
The City Diary
Stitch that feeds six hundred families
Medical kit on return route
Blueprint for realtor rescue
Five men in search of video art
Girl dies in hospital after rape

 
 
AFTER THE CRASH, BANK ON BENGALI TRAVEL BUG 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
September 11, earthquake, flood, drought, riot, threat of war — nothing can keep the good ol’ Bengali home. And operators, desperate to get back on the tourism trail after being down in the dumps, are determined to cash in on the Calcutta wanderlust.

To provide Calcuttans with “affordable family holidays”, five travel operators in the eastern region — Discovery Travels and Tours, Gainwell Travel and Leisure, Marshall International, Vensimal World Travels and Victoria Travels — have joined hands to form Budget Tours.

Choosing collaboration over competition, they have come up with attractive foreign packages in group tours for the Puja and winter vacations . The deals, says the consortium, are as good as they get, covering Southeast and West Asia.

“Bengalis like to travel far, within a reasonable price range. Our Thailand holiday offer is actually cheaper than a few days in Mumbai,” says Satish Ramnani of Vensimal. “A Bengali is a dreamer and a wanderer. Even if he can’t go somewhere, he never gives up hope, believing he will get there some day,” says Manoj Saraf of Gainwell.

Tour operators are unanimous that Bengalis are some of the “widest-travelled people in the world”, second only to the Japanese, says Prashant Binnany of Discovery.

“But they are also price conscious, always on the lookout for cheap deals,” he adds.

The Travel and Tourism Fair (TTF) starts on Friday, and according to organisers, lack of visitors is the least of their concerns. In every other city — Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai — where TTF goes, entry is free to attract the crowds. But at Netaji Indoor Stadium, where “on-the-spot business generation is the highest in the country”, a Rs 20 gate fee is a must to “curb the crowds”, says Sanjiv Agarwal of Fairfest Media International.

The reason is obvious. “No one spends more time, energy and effort on planning a holiday than a Calcuttan. It is a 365-day-a-year occupation for most families here. Bengal generates the largest volume of travellers and the tourism industry knows that,” says Agarwal. Gujarat, “with its greater spending power”, used to be a prime target for operators, but now it’s the Bengali travel bug all the way.

Agarwal feels Bengalis, “having been there and seen it all in India”, are ready to go beyond the boundaries. Asian destinations — near home and affordable — are the obvious choice.

   

 
 
TAX GUN TRAINED ON TWIN HALLS 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
A showdown at midnight, followed by a battle of attrition all day. The property-tax tussle at Karnani Mansions, that saw 11 filtered water lines and one tubewell on the Park Street premises being disconnected late on Wednesday, was poised to hit New Empire and Lighthouse on Thursday night.

After punishing the Karnani Mansions landlord and tenants for the failure to clear dues to the tune of Rs 2.33 crore, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) cast its tax net over the last remaining New Market halls, threatening their very existence.

The proposed attack on the twin cinemas can be traced back to what transpired at Karnani Mansions on Wednesday night. When two truckloads of civic officials and policemen descended on Park Street to snap water supply, they met with resistance from residents and restaurateurs. Tempers were frayed, with Moulin Rouge owner Charles Mantosh leading the protests.

CMC chief engineer (water) Dibyendu Roy Chowdhury later filed an FIR, accusing Mantosh of assaulting him and P.K. Das, officer-in-charge of Park Street thana, of turning a blind eye.

“Only the four water connections to 25A and 25B, Park Street, were spared because of the court order,” confirmed Roy Chowdhury. During the operation, civic engineers detected several more “unauthorised” filtered water and drainage connections, including those of some restaurants that went dry on Thursday and were struggling to keep open with “alternate sources of water”.

Charles Mantosh remained belligerent: “We are not living in a jungle raj… A basic necessity cannot be stopped at such short notice.” Later in the day, the CMC swung the tax gun on Charles’ brother John Mantosh, owner of New Empire and Lighthouse. The twin halls were found to owe the CMC Rs 34 lakh and the civic body decided to cut off filtered water supply.

“There is no way the CMC can justify outstanding property tax of Rs 34 lakh. I have, in fact, sought a refund of Rs 74,000 against previous payments,” said John Mantosh, on Thursday evening. “If the CMC decides to snap water lines, I will be forced to shut the halls in a day or two. And if I have to cough up Rs 34 lakh, there is no way I can run the halls.” This is a rerun of what happened at Globe, forcing the hall shut.

Back at Karnani Mansions, the only respite was granted by the high court to an Allahabad Bank branch on the premises, against a payment of Rs 10 lakh to the CMC. Justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya ordered restoration of water supply to the bank.

But the five restaurants on Park Street were not sure how long they could keep their doors open. Noor Mohammad, secretary of the Calcutta Eating and Refreshment Establishment Workers’ Union, Park Street zone, expressed concern over the water crisis and warned of a “large-scale agitation” if any of the eateries was forced shut.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, meanwhile, said civic structural engineers and health inspectors would start an “intensive survey of Karnani Mansions” from Friday.

   

 
 
FAKE A HEIST TO FUND SON’S TECH DREAM 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
Desperation to get money for his graduate son’s computer education “forced” a 58-year-old shop assistant to fake a robbery and steal over Rs 2 lakh from his employer.

This is the explanation that Tarit Dey gave the police after his arrest on Thursday morning. Police are nevertheless crosschecking his version.

On Wednesday, Dey came to Hare Street police station, accompanied by four officials of Onkar Jeans Impex, a wholesale cloth store in Nandaram Market, where he worked, to report a snatching. He told the police that while he was walking down Brabourne Road around noon with a bag containing Rs 2.06 lakh, which he had been asked by the store’s owner to deposit in a bank, he was accosted by four persons, who asked him for the money. When he resisted, he was hit on the head with an iron rod. An hour later, when he had recovered his senses and had been given medical aid, he returned to his store and narrated the incident. The owner, Suresh Jalan, then sent him to the police to report the crime.

With a number of such crimes taking place in the Burrabazar area, the police at first believed Dey’s version. But as they started interrogating him, a few inconsistencies emerged, which aroused their suspicion.

Dey had said that the snatching had taken place at the busy crossing of Brabourne Road and Canning Street. The police took Dey to the spot of the crime.

Local shopkeepers, especially a paan-shop owner at the crossing, however, said that they had not witnessed any such incident. “This seemed strange,” said DC, central, Zulfiquar Hasan. “If a man has been mugged in broad daylight at such a busy place, then someone would have witnessed it.”

Then the grilling of Dey began. The more the police asked, the more Dey began to contradict himself. Initially, he had said four criminals accosted him, armed with revolvers. Later, he said only two of them were armed. As the interrogation proceeded, he said none of them was carrying firearms; one of them had an iron rod.

Dey again contradicted himself while describing the escape route of the criminals. First, he said they had fled down Canning Street. Later, he “corrected” himself and said that they made their way to Howrah via Brabourne Road.

He finally broke down and told the police he had faked the snatching, had hit himself on the head and had hidden the money in a friend’s house. The reason: with a salary of Rs 1,900 a month, he could not afford a computer education for his son. “My son is a science graduate and without computer training, he will remain unemployed,” Dey told the police. “With two more years left in service, I was desperate to secure my son’s future.”

Jalan said Dey had been in his employment for the past three years and his record had been clean. “He seemed an innocent kind of man, not one who would rob money,” Jalan said.

   

 
 
CONFUSING CAB FARES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
Confusion reigned over the new taxi fares, which were to have been implemented from Thursday in the city. The Bengal Taxi Association (BTA) has withheld its assent and the new fare charts, which were to be distributed among its 17,000 members, pending the receipt of the official circular and notification from the Regional Transport Authority (RTA).

But “unscrupulous elements have printed fare charts with wrong rates,” said BTA secretary Bimal Guha. “Passengers were asked to pay Rs 14 for the initial 2 km, after drivers showed them charts bearing the BTA name. Passengers should pay the increased fares only if the chart bears the RTA notification number. We are likely to receive the charts on Friday,” he said.

A complaint was lodged with Bhowanipore police station against those responsible. Guha, however, could not identify them.

According to the Progressive Taximen’s Association secretary Madan Mitra: “The official rates are Rs 12 for the first 2 km, and Re 1 for every additional km.”

   

 
 
THE CITY DIARY 
 
 
 
Aug. 1: 

Power partnership with South Africa

A technical team from the South African power department will visit West Bengal to explore possibilities of participating in joint-sector projects with its state counterpart. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who returned from his week-long trip in South Africa on Wednesday, told reporters at Writers’ Buildings on Thursday that his tour was “a success.” He visited a state-owned power company in South Africa on July 29 and held high-level discussions on investment possibilities in the power sector in West Bengal. Bhattacharjee, who visited South Africa at the invitation of the communist party there, said he had addressed various forums and took part in debates on several issues, including privatisation, unemployment and problems of casual workers.

CMC to replant uprooted trees

The Corporation will replant trees that have been uprooted by storms in the past few years. The replanting process will begin on Friday, following a function at Azad Hind Bagh. A special committee of the CMC will oversee the replanting work, sources said.

CESC raids shop

The Burrabazar police, in a joint raid with the CESC, on Thursday arrested the owner of a stationery goods shop from Kalakar Street. A CESC spokesperson said the owner was charged with tampering the electric meter. He will be produced in court on Friday. Meanwhile, the CESC in the last 15 days has disconnected 416 tampered with meters and snapped over 2,700 illegal connections during raids on various parts of the city and fringe areas.

Health meet

The week-long World Breast-feeding Week got underway on Thursday following a function organised by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) in the city. State minister for health Pratyush Mukherjee, while inaugurating a special interactive session, said mother’s health was the government’s top priority. BPNI members said only breast-feeding could ensure good health for the child and the mother.

Protest blockade

The women’s wing of the state Congress put up a blockade on Howrah bridge on Thursday to condemn the killing of one of its activists, Bimala De, in 1990. Workers paid tribute to De, who died in police action while protesting against a hike in bus fare.

Cancer plea

The Association for Protection of Cancer Patients’ Rights (APCPR) has opposed the state drug control and enforcement directorate’s moves of prosecuting a pharmaceutical company for not possessing a drug licence. The APCPR, comprising patients, has appealed to the drug control directorate to revoke the ban and guide the company, which manufactures anti-cancer drugs, to resume operations.

Singapore tourism

The Singapore Tourism Board held a meet with city travel agents to inform them about its latest initiatives. Indians head the island’s list of foreign visitors, and have the highest per capita spending as tourists at $1,574 (Singapore). Despite the global drop in tourism following the September 11 terror attacks, Singapore suffered only a 1.9 per cent drop in visitors. West Bengal has emerged as a “promising and significant market” for the country, officials said.

Weight check

The legal metrology department along with consumer guidance cells carried out surprise inspections in several city markets on Thursday, after receiving complaints that most shop owners were using wrong weights.

IA workers feted

The regional office of Indian Airlines on Thursday felicitated 31 employees who have worked for 25 years.    

 
 
STITCH THAT FEEDS SIX HUNDRED FAMILIES 
 
 
FROM NISHA LAHIRI
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
Baby Basu, 33, became pregnant soon after her marriage. Excited at the prospect of becoming a mother, she told her husband. He, however, didn’t want the child, and told her to get rid of it. She refused. He then threw her out. Helpless, she went back to her mother. Old, widowed, and with two younger sons to look after, she, too, couldn’t support her pregnant daughter. So, Baby began the hunt for a job, for herself and the unborn child. “Shikhadi told me about a kantha-stitching project. Since I’ve done it before, I agreed. Not only am I supporting my family now, but I love what I do,” she says.

Mallika’s Kantha Collection was started by Shamlu Dudeja 20 years ago with just six girls. Now, there are 600. Dudeja explains: “Kantha is Bengal’s rags-to-riches story. It used to be a poor man’s profession, with the idea of recycling fabrics. Now, it’s the ‘in’ thing to have a kantha product, be it a napkin or a sari. When I started, it was very hard to sell, although there were a number of well-known personalities trying to promote the art. People weren’t receptive. Although perceptions are changing, I still have to jazz up the designs to make them appeal to everyone.”

Sikha Kunda from Garia has been involved with the project for nearly a decade. She is the supervisor for 150 girls in her area. She points out: “Because the work is respectable, these girls get moral support from their families. My husband fetches finished products or delivers threads to the girls, and my son does the intricate drawings. Sometimes the women feed their children with one hand and stitch with the other. It’s hard work for us, to manage our families and do this job. Our only free time is when everyone goes to sleep at night. But it’s easier because we like doing it.”

Kanchan Halder, 24, used to tag along to Dudeja’s house with her older sister, Dipti Poddar, the only member of the original group still left, when she was just four years old. She has since learnt the art herself and is a supervisor of about 60 girls. She agrees: “There are some girls who pay for their education by doing this. But the best thing is that the whole family gets involved. My brothers do the legwork, while two other sisters have joined us.”

The designs range from geometric patters to intricate embroidery and copies of prints from books and fabrics. “I copy designs and colour combinations from just about everywhere,” laughs Dudeja. “Then I mix and match.”

Her products include tablecloths, napkins, cushion covers, saris, salwaar kurtas, dupattas, and “even spaghetti tops, to appeal to the younger, trendier generation”. From past exhibitions in Delhi, London, New York and even at Washington D.C. at the behest of then ambassador Siddhartha Shankar Ray, to her upcoming one near Venice and her bulk order to the Taj’s Khazana chain and the Oberoi’s Tijori, she fights on.

“We want to appeal to all ages, to prove that kantha is universal,” she points out.

   

 
 
MEDICAL KIT ON RETURN ROUTE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
After lying in a city warehouse for about two years, blood bank equipment worth over Rs 5 crore will be shipped back next month to Carter BloodCare, in the US, because the recipients could not raise the special duty demanded by the Customs authorities.

Carter had donated the equipment to Rotary Club of Calcutta Mahanagar to set up a state-of-the-art blood bank in the city. “We got the equipment to set up a 3,000 sq-ft, state-of-the-art blood bank in the Eastern India Rotary Medical Institute, in Salt Lake. It would have been the best-equipped blood bank in the eastern region,” said a member of Rotary Club of Calcutta Mahanagar.

The consignment contained sophisticated automatic blood-testing devices, like the Olympus PK7100 Blood Typing Systems, with capacity of testing over 80,000 units of blood every year. Besides, there were automatic cell processors, blast freezers, chemistry analysers and separators.

As part of the agreement, the consignment was shipped “free of cost” to Calcutta by Rotary International District 5790 in September 2000. But when Rotary Club of Calcutta Mahanagar members went to the Customs office at Calcutta port to take possession of the equipment in the last week of September 2000, they were asked to cough up around Rs 90 lakh.

“We were told that only the basic duty and surcharge was waived for the equipment, but we would have to pay additional and special additional duty. For the past two years, we have tried to obtain a waiver. But our efforts yielded nothing. The donors are very disappointed with the delay at our end. As we don’t have the resources, we have decided to return the equipment so that it can be used some where else,” said the Rotarian.

Though the tariff claim has shattered their dream of a modern blood bank, the association has spent over Rs 4 lakh as bonded warehouse charges and consultancy fees to set up the bank. “Now, we are in the midst of mobilising resources to ship back the consignment to the donor,” said another club member.

Though Rotarians admit the duty levied on the equipment is “legitimate”, they blame the finance ministry and the Customs department for the two-year ordeal and loss of face.

“Before signing the contract with Carter, we obtained the necessary permission from the ministry and Customs department. We were also assured that the consignment would not attract any Customs duty. They could have spelt out the details at the beginning to help us plan us better,” complained a member of Rotary Club of Calcutta Mahanagar.

   

 
 
BLUEPRINT FOR REALTOR RESCUE 
 
 
FROM SANJAY MANDAL
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
The Salt Lake administration has ordered a crackdown on the alleged extortion of developers and contractors in the satellite township. “We have drawn up a plan to pull up the miscreants, who are terrorising the builders,” said M. Harisena Verma, police superintendent, North 24-Parganas.

“We have already obtained some leads on the racket. One of the names figuring prominently in the reports is that of Minta. I have asked Bidhannagar (South) police station to take necessary action to net him,” Verma told Metro on Thursday.

The problem of forceful selling of building material at construction sites is becoming a major concern for the Salt Lake municipal authorities. “Recently, a developer of a factory lodged a complaint after he was forced to buy inferior material from an outsider. But when I asked him to lodge a written complaint, he decided against it,” said Dilip Gupta, chairman of the civic body. “Several developers are reluctant to lodge written complaints,” Gupta added.

Ashim Guha, CPM councillor, ward 23, in whose area a number of such cases was reported earlier, confirmed that developers are indeed wary of revealing the name of the goons. “This is making it difficult for us to trace the miscreants.”

Minta, operating in Sukantanagar, an added area of the township, is involved in most of these cases. Backed by a section of the ruling party, Minta is reportedly forcing developers to buy building material from him.

“Whenever we buy material from him, there are discrepancies in weight and quality. If we refuse to entertain him, he stalls work by threatening the labourers,” one of the developers said.

Sources said although Minta was arrested in 1990, no action had been taken against him since then. Police, however, allege that Minta owes allegiance to the local unit of the ruling party, which makes it difficult for them to round him up. CPM leaders, on the other hand, claim that the police are simply passing the buck. “Whenever there is pressure on the police, they ask us to take action against him. But it is their job to give protection to the developers,” said a senior CPM leader.

Sources said the practice of threatening realtors started in the early 1990s by youths who claimed links with the local CPM. They did not spare government projects like Paribesh Bhavan and Aranya Bhavan, too.

The Opposition Trinamul Congress, however, blames the police for the growing menace. “In spite of repeated complaints, the police have taken no action,” alleged Anupam Dutta, Trinamul leader in the municipality.

   

 
 
FIVE MEN IN SEARCH OF VIDEO ART 
 
 
FROM SOUMITRA DAS
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
Video art began as a reaction to the commercialisation of television. Its rawness and real-time immediacy sought to break the boundaries between real life and art, and high and low art. Equipped with a hand-held video camera, the intention of the video artist is to question social and cultural positions, or even explore the self.

Few, if any, Indian artists use the handycam as their medium of expression. It is only of late that some Indian artists have begun to make forays into this region. A Calcutta-based, five-member group of artists and filmmakers tried their hand at this medium late last year. The agenda of The Eclectic Crew was “to join forces, combining our creative and technical resources” “to create art outside (but drawing on) conventional mediums”. So they made five, three-and-a-half-minute-long, non-narrative video films.

The first is Encounter by Abhijit Gupta, where the camera only has eyes for the art work exhibited in a gallery. For anyone who has seen his work, these are obviously by Gupta. The paperwork is nicely textured and multifaceted. The soundtrack, however, records the conversation between a couple who have anything but art on their mind. Slick. Perhaps a little too slick, like the Gupta’s work.

The second, Aditya Basak’s Chronicles, records the constant shifts between the planes of fantasy and reality. A man sits at his desk with pigeons fluttering around him. The backdrop is a mysterious light. The next instant, Basak’s paintings are projected on a man’s torso. A figure in a Kali mask breaks into a dance. A woman makes hasty palm imprints on a wall. A burning pyre ascends heaven-ward.

In Odyssey, cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay explores the world of his childhood, juxtaposing shots of machinery, the innards of a clock and the face of a child holding a magnifying glass. Artist Prabhat Basu himself turns into zebra crossing and examines the tensions and anxieties of urban life in A Day in the Life of a City.

In a smart send-up of “instant” products in Painter’s Equilibrium, ad filmmaker Sanjeet Chowdhury hits upon the clever idea of an Art Tonic, which allows the consumer the instant gratification of painting like Van Gogh.

While the five work fine as art-house shorts, the spontaneity and straight-from-the-frying-pan-to-the-platter quality of video art is missing. It is, perhaps, difficult to adapt oneself to a totally new medium. The lures of one’s familiar world are too hard to resist.

   

 
 
GIRL DIES IN HOSPITAL AFTER RAPE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Aug. 1: 
An 11-year-old girl died at a city hospital on Wednesday, a fortnight after her uncle allegedly raped her. The 34-year-old rapist was arrested on Tuesday from his Maniktala residence.

Initially, the girl did not disclose the incident to her parents. A few days later, when her condition deteriorated and she was admitted to a hospital, she broke down and confessed.

Police said that on the afternoon of July 17, the girl had gone to her uncle’s house next door, to get a table-fan repaired. Seizing the opportunity, the man raped her. “When she returned after an hour, I noticed marks on her stomach, but she told me she had hurt herself,” said the girl’s mother.

Later, the girl developed a fever and started bleeding. On July 22, her father, employed at a private company, got her admitted to a private hospital. The girl’s condition, however, remained unchanged. It was then, the doctors informed the parents of their suspicion that the girl might have been raped.

On Sunday, the girl told her mother that her uncle had raped her. The next day, the parents lodged a case against him, following which the police arrested the rapist on Tuesday.

The condition of the girl deteriorated and she died late on Wednesday. The body was cremated on Thursday after a post-mortem.

   
 

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