PM grabs idle file from Joshi
Basu in strike step-in call to Atal
Somersault on telecom regulator
Delhi blinks at Clinton Pak wink
Brake on kidnap CEO’s life in fast lane
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Jan. 20 
After stepping into home minister L.K. Advani’s domain, Atal Behari Vajpayee has intervened in the functioning of the human resources development ministry manned by another BJP heavyweight, Murli Manohar Joshi.

In his first Red Fort address in 1998, the Prime Minister had promised free education for girls till graduation. But 16 months after the announcement, his aides pointed out, the education department was yet to draw up a plan for implementing the scheme.

Without raising much furore — as was done when he held a meeting on Kashmir at his residence last week — Vajpayee had the file concerning his pet project brought over to his office to find out why the ministry was taking such a long time to set the ball rolling. In the 20 months that he has been in power, the Prime Minister has seldom interfered in the functioning of Joshi’s ministry.

Over the past year, several states had shown interest in the proposed project. What irked Vajpayee was that the plan drawn up by the education department was not only sketchy but the bureaucrats had not even decided on a name for the programme.

Vajpayee was all the more irritated by the shoddy handling because he has long been speaking out against gender bias. Even within the party, he has pleaded for more tickets to women.

Finishing touches were given to the project over the past two days, not at Shastri Bhavan housing the HRD ministry, but at the Prime Minister’s Office in South Block.

The scheme, which will take off shortly, will spread over the next Five-Year Plan and entail an expenditure of Rs 674 crore, with the Centre pitching in with the majority share. A sum of Rs 225 crore will be spent during the remaining two years of the plan.

The project has been tentatively named National Female Education Programme. Meant for the girl child, the scheme will also cover higher studies for women and women teachers’ retraining programme.

As rural parents tend to send their sons to school to avail of the mid-day meal scheme and would prefer their daughters to stay at home, Vajpayee suggested various changes in the existing programmes to promote girls’ education. Henceforth, below-poverty-line parents sending their daughters to schools would be provided free foodgrain and vegetables through the public distribution system.

Though the modalities of the project are being worked out, it will not interfere with the adult literacy programme under which illiterate women over 21 women have access to free education. The government is looking into suggestions that fees be waived for economically backward girls making it to the IITs.    

Calcutta, Jan. 20 
Frowning at the manner in which the Centre is handling the port strike, chief minister Jyoti Basu today requested Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to step in.

Official sources said in New Delhi tonight talks would resume tomorrow between the Centre and port workers.

During a brief meeting at the airport where Basu had gone to receive Vajpayee, the chief minister urged him to personally address the issues at the root of the three-day-old strike.

Vajpayee arrived here this afternoon to inaugurate the World Congress of Sustainable Development at Science City. He stayed overnight at Raj Bhavan on his way to Guwahati tomorrow morning.

Basu felt that Central ministers should have negotiated with the striking port workers for an early settlement.

“Your ministers are new to the job and do not appear to have the skills or experience to handle a port strike,” Basu told the Prime Minister.

Basu told The Telegraph later that Vajpayee had given a positive response to his suggestion to convene a reconciliation meeting.

“Vajpayee said he would do so only after his return from Guwahati. But I feel this should be taken care of on an emergency basis since this involves one lakh people,” Basu said.

The chief minister said he had telephoned Vajpayee in New Delhi yesterday to enquire about the steps the Centre had initiated to end the strike. “But the Prime Minister was not available at his office,” he added.

Basu said no one from Delhi had contacted him after he failed to get in touch with the Prime Minister.

Asked if he was scheduled to meet Vajpayee at Raj Bhavan, Basu said: “This is not on the agenda.”

In Delhi, officials said the surface transport ministry invited the unions to resume the dialogue at 11 am after minister Rajnath Singh received a letter from a leader of one of the five federations, which gave a call for indefinite strike at 11 major ports on Tuesday.

Power strike

The power strike deadlock in Uttar Pradesh continued but the government has kept open communication lines with the unions.

The All-India Power Engineers’ Federation said it would observe a 24-hour strike from the midnight of January 23. If no solution is reached by then, the federation would call an all-India strike.

The power staff in West Bengal have been urged by the Electricity Employees’ Federation of India to observe a token strike on Monday.    

New Delhi, Jan. 20 
In a volte face as sudden as its decision last night to reconstitute the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the government today announced that it was not bound to accept the recommendations of the new five-member body for setting policy and tariff.

Minister for information technology Pramod Mahajan clarified: “While it will be mandatory on the government’s part to seek Trai’s recommendations, the government will not be bound to accept them.”

The minister said: “I made a mistake while announcing the Trai Ordinance after the Cabinet meeting last night and I wish to issue this clarification.”

However, Trai chairman S.S. Sodhi said: “Our tariff recommendations will be binding on all — the government and the operators. While it will be mandatory for the government to seek our recommendations on licensing conditions and other policy matters, it will not be binding on the government to accept them.”

Welcoming the government’s proposed Ordinance, which he felt would strengthen Trai, Sodhi said: “Even when the government does not accept our recommendations, it will still have to provide us the reasons for not accepting them.”

While addressing the Internet service providers’ ISP 2000 summit here today, Mahajan said the telecom authority would be reconstituted after the promulgation of the ‘TRAI (Amendment) Ordinance 2000’.

The Ordinance, he said, was awaiting the President’s approval and the government would introduce it in the budget session of Parliament.

The new telecom regulator will be shorn of its quasi-judicial powers which will be transferred to a new telecom dispute settlement and appellate tribunal.

Mahajan said the separate tribunal was aimed at bringing transparency and ending the confusion over Trai’s role.

“We are in a peculiar situation where government is both a licenser as well as a licensee. We want an independent regulator to bring in transparency in the telecom sector,” Mahajan said.

The three-member appellate tribunal will perform like a one-judge high court bench. It will headed by a high court chief justice or a Supreme Court judge. Any appeal against the tribunal’s order can be made only in the Supreme Court. The tribunal chairman will be selected after consulting the Chief Justice.

Mahajan said the Ordinance was a step towards better interaction between the various parties involved — the licenser, the licensee, the service provider and ultimately the consumer.    

New Delhi, Jan. 20 
Officials of the US administration are looking for a face-saver to enable President Bill Clinton to visit Islamabad during his trip to South Asia in March, contrary to the well-planned disinformation campaign by spin doctors of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government.

Officials in Washington hope that a visit to Pakistan by US assistant secretary of state Karl Inderfurth and coordinator on counter-terrorism Michael Sheehan from today will pave the way for such a formula.

Helping the Americans in the efforts for a face-saver are their allies-in-need, Britain’s Labour government. A visit to Islamabad last week by Britain’s chief of defence staff General Charles Guthrie was aimed at nudging Pakistan to be flexible in accommodating US concerns.

This is in complete contrast to the impression created by South Block’s spin doctors that General Guthrie’s brief was to chastise Pakistan’s ruler Pervez Musharraf for the army coup last October.

Actually, General Guthrie prevailed upon Musharraf not to cancel any orders for British arms. About 80 applications by British firms for arms export licences to Pakistan are pending with the Labour government since the coup.

In his effort to protect British defence exports to Pakistan, General Guthrie made a public announcement in Islamabad that there was no embargo by the UK on arms sales to Pakistan. In private, he counselled Musharraf to be patient while Whitehall found a way to resume the arms sales.

What should be more alarming to the Vajpayee government than these developments, however, is the information trickling out of Islamabad and Washington that in any interaction with their Pakistani counterparts, no US official has so far even hinted at a role by Islamabad in the Kandahar hijacking — let alone blame Pakistan for the terrorist act.

This is in complete contrast to Washington’s attitude to Islamabad during the Kargil war: at that time, US officials were critical of their Pakistani counterparts during closed door meetings in Washington and Islamabad.

According to knowledgeable Western sources, Inderfurth will try to persuade the Musharraf junta to announce a time-frame for restoring civilian rule. He will also seek a commitment by Islamabad on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

If the military regime is able to meet Washington’s demands on these two issues in the coming weeks, the groundwork will then begin for adding a Pakistan itinerary to Clinton’s South Asia trip.

Sheehan, who is accompanying Inderfurth, will urge the junta to reduce its support for the Taliban. He will also seek assurances that Islamabad will tighten the leash on religious fundamentalist organisations which are suspected of exporting terror from Pakistan. But this will be done in general terms since these organisations are accused of patronising terrorist acts in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya and the Balkans, in addition to India.

Pertinently for the Vajpayee government, Sheehan will not specifically haul the Musharraf junta over the coals for exporting terror to India, sources said.    

Patna, Jan. 20 
In his Monte Carlos and Wranglers, hands deftly manoeuvring the fast cars as he issued orders on the mobile in clipped English, Ajay Singh could easily pass off as the yuppie who has made it big. Except that the suave, 27-year-old earned his millions running a sprawling kidnap industry.

Ajay, who owns a couple of hotels and a glass factory in Aurangabad, has confessed to the police that he and his crack team abducted a number of businessmen in Calcutta, Dhanbad, Bokaro, Delhi and Surat. His statement has led the police onto the trail of a jumbo gang which has used the ransom money to fund their businesses.

Fond of the good life, Ajay would have his lunch ordered from one of Patna’s top restaurants and his evenings would be spent in the company of socialites, sipping Scotch in a swanky club. His relatives described him as a ‘‘mild-mannered’’ post-graduate in history who has suddenly discovered his business acumen.

The Calcutta police had been on Ajay’s trail since early 1999. A team from the city had raided his huge house on Bailey Road. But the don managed to give them the slip.

Ajay’s luck ran out on Sunday evening. Zipping through Jawaharlal Nehru Road in his Zen, the don, cellphone glued to his ear, was oblivious to the plainclothesmen tailing him.

When the cops surrounded his car, Ajay thought it was another routine traffic check and he whipped out his papers, which happened to be fake ones. As the policemen talked tough, Ajay tried to wriggle his way through by dropping names and saying he was the son of a Samajwadi Janata Party leader and former additional superintendent of police, Mangal Singh. But the police were determined not to let their prey escape.

A digital diary lying on the seat gave the police vital clues on his associates, who would address one another using pseudonyms — usually names of cricketers. For instance, ‘‘Rose Bird’’, an agent in Calcutta, had a phone number listed in the name of a transporter. ‘‘Azhar’’ had a cellphone number which belongs to a hotel employee, also in Calcutta. The police are trying to trace the hotel staffer.

Ajay has been plotting extortions since his school days. He would wear his father’s police uniform and, along with his cronies, raid shops and market centres in Aurangabad to raise funds for his group. Before taking up kidnapping as a profession, Ajay had briefly flirted with politics, using his father’s connections to grab the post of the SJP’s youth wing chief. He had even contested the 1996 Lok Sabha polls from Chhatra.

Ajay was an above-average student who went to one of Patna’s best public schools before completing his master’s degree in 1991. ‘‘He could have been a successful politician with his cool head and smoothtalk,’’ said Rajan Tiwari, who was in the same class as Ajay.

He got a glimpse of the underworld during a visit to Bokaro in the eighties. There he met one Virendra Pratap Singh, member of an Uttar Pradesh gang involved in illegal coal mining and arms smuggling.

Ajay formed his own gang in 1994, but he had set himself greater goals and decided that kidnap-for-ransom was a sure way of making megabucks. In a year, Ajay had five gangs under him operating in Asansol, Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Bokaro and Dhanbad.

Emboldened by success, Ajay launched his Calcutta operations in 1996 and in three years, he had carried out five abductions, including those of Exide chief S.B. Ganguly and businessman Sajjan Jalan. The victims were mostly taken to remote areas in Koderma, Loherdaga and Nawada. The ransom varied from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 2 crore.

For every operation, Ajay employed three teams of seven members each. While one group — dressed as policemen — would carry out the kidnapping, another would be responsible for guarding the hostage. A third team, stationed in either Kanpur or Mughalsarai, would negotiate with the victim’s family.

The ransom was handed over either in running trains or at remote stations where ‘‘an old man with a red cloth would wait sitting on a log’’. Once the money was paid, the captives were released — often, they were sent by air.

Ajay carried out the operations either from his Bailey Road residence or from Gaya. He depended on ‘‘unskilled new entrants’’ as they would be satisfied with a small share of the ransom. The team members were changed every month and transferred to other gangs.    

Temperature: Maximum: 29.5°C (+2) Minimum: 14.1°C (normal) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 93%, Minimum: 28% Today: Mainly clear sky forecast for the day. Not much change in night temperature Sunset: 5.10 pm Sunrise: 6.25 am    

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