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Maneka loses last charge

New Delhi, Dec. 23: After being stripped of all portfolios, Maneka Gandhi was divested last week of her last charge — one that was dear to her heart: Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals.

A government order stated Maneka was being relieved of her charge because, according to existing rules, a member of the Lok Sabha cannot occupy a position in an “office of profit”. The place will be taken by V.K. Duggal, special secretary in the environment ministry.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did not lose much sleep over getting rid of a political lightweight such as Maneka, who was not of much help to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

Maneka’s spat with the government and the then Union health minister, C.P. Thakur, began on the issue of conducting experiments on animals. She sent teams of experts to different research institutions that conducted experiments on animals throughout the country.

The reports were critical about the conditions in which experiments were being carried out and Maneka insisted that the institutions undertake a thorough overhaul to ensure that the animals were kept in a safe and clean environment.

The controversy was triggered by the National Institute of Nutrition — one of the oldest research institutions in Hyderabad. The committee alleged that the institute did not keep the animals — monkeys — in hygienic conditions. Soon afterwards, it threatened B.N. Malik, a research professor in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, with imprisonment because he was not complying with its guidelines.

A strong lobby of doctors and medical researchers flocked to Thakur and petitioned him against Maneka who insisted on a strict compliance with the committee’s guidelines. They pleaded financial difficulty in sticking to the guidelines and said they were doing their best to keep the conditions of experimentation as hygienic as possible.

The row spiralled to a pitch requiring Vajpayee intervention. He summoned a meeting of the committee that was also attended by human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi. Maneka and committee members had to make a presentation defending their stand.

Maneka mobilised the members and animal lovers to tick off Thakur. But the government had its way. Maneka was shunted out of the culture and social welfare ministry and left only with the committee that no minister was keen to take charge of.

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