Corporate czars in reform council
Death, road rage at police doorstep
Subhas green signal to defy court
Economy wail in Congress clatter
Flying start to Branson-BA brawl

New Delhi, Dec. 11 
Tapping Corporate India for reform ideas, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today set up eight working groups of top tycoons to suggest policy changes in key economic areas within three to four months.

The groups, which have a mix of new-generation stars and warhorses, were formed by the Prime Minister at the end of a meeting of his advisory council on trade and industry.

Infosys chief N.R. Narayana Murthy and chemicals and textiles industry magnate Kumar Mangalam Birla have been asked to head a group on corporate governance.

Ratan Tata and Nusli Wadia will head a committee which will study what rules and procedures need to be removed to ?unshackle Indian industry?.

Another panel under scooter sultan Rahul Bajaj and N. Srinivasan of Indian Cement will go into the strategy for the next round of World Trade Organisation talks.

A committee under the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) president G.P. Goenka and Rajiv Chandrashekharan of BPL will advise on the disinvestment process.

Bajaj will join Sanjiv Goenka of CESC to advise on power policy, while Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries will head a group whose brief will be to work out ways of attracting NRI investment, especially into the infotech sector.

Ambani and A.C. Muthiah of Spic were also placed in charge of a committee to work out a policy framework for private investments in education and health.

?We will not study how to replace the role of government in education and health (that?s something we can?t do), but on ways the private sector, too, can be involved in this sphere,? Bajaj said after the meeting.

N.K. Singh, secretary in the Prime Minister?s Office, who briefed the press at the end of the two-and-half-hour-long meeting, also announced the setting up of an implementation review committee. The panel, headed by the finance minister, will have K.C. Pant, Planning Commission deputy chairman; and Murasoli Maran, industry minister; as members.

This committee will see whether reports submitted by the six groups of industrialists set up by the Prime Minister earlier had been fully evaluated and what portions of these reports could be implemented.

The groups had dealt with food and agro industries management policy, infrastructure, capital markets and financial sector initiatives, knowledge-based industries, service industries and administrative and legal simplifications.

Bajaj said industrialists had asked the Prime Minister to work with them to create a policy framework to help out core and traditional industries, like textiles and steel, which are not doing well but could be revived.

Vajpayee, however, made it clear the government would implement only those recommendations ?worthy of acceptance?.

The Prime Minister expressed the hope that by the time the next meeting was held, ?we would have an updated status report on the implementation of the recommendations.?

Vajpayee said he would give careful consideration to policy implementation and accountability as they must become the hallmark for assessing the success of the reforms strategy.    

Calcutta, Dec. 11 
A mob set ablaze a private bus, stoned fire tenders and passing vehicles and fought a pitched battle with the police after a man was run over outside the police station on Diamond Harbour Road.

Eyewitnesses said Netai Das, 50, was run over around 3.30 pm by a private bus bound for Noorpur, which was trying to overtake a minibus.

Das, a resident of Becharam Chatterjee Road, was returning home on his bicycle when he was knocked down. ?He was about to get down from his cycle to cross the road when the bus hit him. The cycle was crushed and he got entangled in the wheels,?? Anupam Sengupta, an eyewitness, said.

The bus driver accelerated and attempted to flee. But the vehicle rammed into a pillar on the footpath and came to a halt.

The accident site, which is a stone?s throw from the police station, was teeming with cinema-goers and shoppers when the incident occurred.

Residents converged on the bus from all directions. Sengupta said some of them pulled the driver from his seat and hauled him to the police station. Others took Das to Vidyasagar Hospital where he was declared dead.

News of the accident spread like wildfire. Within minutes, a 1,000-strong crowd gathered at the spot. The mob began to pelt stones at passing vehicles and set the errant bus on fire. Soon residents set up a roadblock.

An initial lathicharge by the police failed to disperse the mob. The police were showered with bricks and forced to beat a hasty retreat. Eyewitnesses said police fired six rounds of teargas in an attempt to control the crowd.

Officer-in-charge of Behala police station, Subir Chatterjee, was greeted with stones when he tried to approach the accident-site. Reinforcements led by additional superintendent of police, S.N. Gupta, arrived half-an-hour later and again lathicharged the mob.

After a second lathicharge, the crowd scattered, but bricks continued to be hurled at the police from lanes off the main road. The police retaliated by lobbing more teargas shells. The exchange continued for an hour before peace was restored.

Gupta later told reporters that the driver of the bus had been arrested. ?We are verifying the papers of the bus and whether it had a valid route permit,?? he said.

Residents alleged there were no police officers to man the congested stretch of Diamond Harbour Road from Taratolla to Thakurpukur.

?With no police, drivers speed and overtake on their own sweet will. The area is accident-prone, but the police are not doing anything about it,?? Bapi Pal, a resident, complained.    

Calcutta, Dec. 11 
Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty today asked his department to go ahead with the Gariahat flyover project even if it violates the Calcutta High Court order against cutting of trees.

?I am not bothered if I am jailed for committing contempt of court,? he said. ?But I have told my officers to continue cutting trees for constructing the flyover and widening Southern Avenue. If necessary, I shall be present when trees are felled. Then let?s see who will put a stop to it.?

The minister was speaking at a function to lay the foundation stone for a workshop for the South Bengal State Transport Corporation.

Chakraborty today publicly ordered Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners vice-chairman B.D. Mukherjee to ?defy the court order and carry on felling trees according to schedule?.

There was a ?conspiracy? to block development projects in the city, the minister said.

?We had been allowed to cut 450 trees provided we planted five times as many,? said Chakraborty. ?We have done more than that. So why should anyone object?? he asked.

?It is a huge project but the court has stopped the felling of trees merely on the basis of a petition by a few people,? he said. ?If the court continues to intervene like this, no project will be completed in this city,? he said.    

New Delhi, Dec. 11 
The Congress Working Committee meeting tonight became a free-for-all with members asking the leadership to spell out its economic policy, finding faults with party management and criticising the party?s stand on Kargil, Bihar and Haryana.

Taking a cue from the A.K. Antony panel report, which probed the causes for the Congress? poll debacle, the CWC urged party chief Sonia Gandhi to replace the ?coterie? with a formal and permanent decision-making body.

Some members criticised the leadership?s flip-flop on economic issues, wondering how it could have a ?pro-poor? image while playing second fiddle to the BJP on reforms.

?We have constantly been told that the Congress lacks pro-poor image. Will someone tell us how to achieve that? Should we go back to socialism or stay on course of economic reforms,? a member said.

The committee also urged Sonia to decentralise the party set-up and infuse fresh blood.

Sonia heard out every CWC member with rapt attention and took notes. She is now set to overhaul the organisation at national and state levels.

Some AICC general secretaries, CWC members and state unit chiefs are likely to be replaced. Sources close to Sonia said an action plan to revitalise the party would be released soon.

A section of the CWC ridiculed the Antony report, terming it an exercise of finding what was already known. Members even wondered what was the point of constituting the panel as its conclusions were on expected lines.

However, the CWC unanimously told Sonia to follow up the Antony panel?s recommendations. The committee sat till late tonight to take up 20 sets of recommendations.

A 30-page summary of the report was circulated among members. The summary had three parts: causes of defeat, the committee?s observations and the recommendations.

The party also tacitly acknowledged that the ?Atal factor? worked in the general elections and that the Congress? failure to project a prime ministerial candidate hurt its poll prospects.

There was criticism of the tea party with Jayalalitha and the Congress? inability to form an alternative after the fall of Vajpayee government. ?In public eye, we got the image of a spoiler or destabliser,? a CWC member said, agreeing with the Antony panel.

On the contentious issue of Sonia?s foreign origin, the CWC members accepted the Antony panel?s view that it did not play ?much of a role?. About seven per cent of partymen interviewed by the Antony committee had cited Sonia?s birth as a defeat factor.    

New Delhi, Dec. 11 
The dogfight has begun even before the first Virgin flight has taken off from India. After making a jumbo lunge for a share of India?s skies, Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson today accused British Airways of ??offloading?? him from a flight out of Delhi.

??I?m not welcome to fly by British Airways despite having a fully paid ticket. I thought they believed in competition... It?s churlish, to say the least,?? Branson, owner of the second-largest British airline, said.

British Airways, however, said Branson was confirmed on tonight?s flight to London. ??Mr Branson is confirmed on our flight to London following a call from his travel agent in India today,?? a spokesperson for the airline said.

She said the Virgin boss was booked to fly on December 12, 13 and 14. ??The booking for tonight?s flight (December 12) was cancelled following instructions from his travel agents in the UK who confirmed he would fly on the 14th and the seat he was holding for the 12th should be released. This looks like a genuine mistake by his travel agent in the UK,?? she said.

Branson will now fly Air-India, his latest ally in the war with British Airways. ??I spoke to him just now. He will fly on Flight 111 to London which leaves at 7 am tomorrow,?? Air-India managing director Michael Mascarenhas said. Mascarenhas, who was sipping piping black tea at the Ashoka while the slugfest was on, kept getting messages from his in-flight services chief, promising the ??very best?? for Branson.

The Virgin chief strode into the Press Club unannounced and held an impromptu news conference.

Waving a ??confirmed?? first class, fully paid (a little over ?4,500) round trip ticket to London by flight BA 142, the billionaire baron of 200 companies said: ??They rang our office in India and said you are wait-listed,?? he said. ??The general policy around the world is that in the first class, you don?t bump passengers. I hope Virgin will never do the same to the BA chairman.??

Branson said it was important for him to get to London tomorrow as one of his companies had to take a decision whether to bid for the national lottery. ??The foolish thing is that British Airways should see that I am out of India and not let me stay here,?? he said.

Branson yesterday clinched a deal with Air-India which will allow Virgin to fly London-Delhi thrice weekly and back, using the Indian carrier?s unutilised quota of flights to the UK.

Virgin and British Airways are locked in a running duel over market shares and routes. Branson said while he had friends in all rival companies, the only time he met people from British Airways was in the courts. In January 1993, Virgin won a libel settlement of ?610,000 plus legal costs from British Airways in what was known as the ??dirty tricks case??.

The 49-year-old billionaire arrived here on a British Airways flight a few days ago, a trip, he said, he made ??with my bag on my head and someone to taste my food before I ate it??. After announcing the pact with Air-India yesterday ? Branson rode to the news conference on an elephant ? he raised a toast ??to British Airways??.

Setting the stage for a cut-throat price war with his rival, Branson said: ??We will try to fill all our flights and that is the way for prices to take a nosedive.?? Virgin, he said, intended to charge bu-siness class fares for first class and offer a 30 to 50 per cent discount on the economy ticket compared with that of British Airways.

The bottomline: fares to London could plunge to Rs 24,000 one way.    


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