Consumer court opens to 2000-case backlog
Police seek shelter in ricochet, suspension
Bars no bar for extortion kingpin
Protest rally programme by parties to cripple city
Rapid action force in hospitals
Black hole assets: MLA on poster, school on paper

Calcutta, Feb. 13: 

Egged on by the threat of litigation, the West Bengal government has finally appointed a judge and members to the state consumer redressal commission. It is to resume functioning from Monday.

In Maharashtra, similar vacancies were recently filled after the high court there ordered that the appointments be made.

The almost year-long closure of the West Bengal state commission has resulted in the accumulation of about 2,000 cases, more than half of them relating to consumer grievances and complaints by consumers in Calcutta.

The absence of first a president and then at least one of two members put work on hold at the forum, which is a quasi-court set up under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

The Federation of Consumer Organisations, West Bengal, had written to the new ministry of consumer affairs that it would file a public interest litigation in Calcutta High Court if the vacancies in the state and two district commissions were not filled.

�Consumers in Calcutta and the districts have been deprived of justice for too long,� said Mala Banerjee, federation president. The accumulated cases relate to both appeals and original cases with a value of Rs 5 lakh and above.

According to the Act, each consumer redressal commission has to have a judge/retired judge as its president and at least one of two members in order to deal with cases. The state commission takes up the appeals made against decisions passed in the district commissions, including the two that Calcutta have.

State commission president Justice Shambhu Charan Dutta and two non-judicial members, Shilpi Majumdar and Debabrata Karforma (the latter two were appointed recently), will have to dispose of the piled-up cases.

The Act stipulates that ordinary complaints that do not involve testing the product have to be disposed of within 90 days. Cases where testing is involved should be cleared in 150 days� time.

The department of consumer affairs, headed by minister Naren De, has assured all logistical and other support for the speedy disposal of cases, assured department secretary A.K. Chanda.

�About 65 per cent of the complaints relate to telephone or electricity services,� Banerjee said.

The remaining relate to Mediclaim and medical problems, shares and real estate.    

Calcutta, Feb. 13 

A day after trigger-happy constables fired at a fleeing lorry but killed a bus conductor in Nager Bazar, the police have claimed they are not poor shots.

A preliminary report on the incident has suggested that bus conductor Amarjit Singh might have been killed by a police bullet that ricocheted off the lorry�s tyres.

The report also hints at the possibility of Singh having been shot by one of the three men inside the truck.

The fleeing lorry also hit a cyclist, Shovan Adhikary, at Shyamnagar, near Bangur. Adhikary succumbed to his injuries on Sunday.

The initial report prepared by the North 24-Parganas district superintendent of police, Kuldeep Singh, said one of the three men sitting inside the truck had probably fired at the police jeep chasing them but there was as yet no conclusive evidence of this.

Singh later said four police officers were suspended. �They did not inform senior officers over the wireless while chasing the lorry. The constables opened fire on their own,�� he added.

Recounting the circumstances that led to the incident, police sources said the owner of the lorry, Jarnail Singh, had borrowed Rs 2 lakh from Gurdev Singh in the Airport police station area to buy the lorry. Jarnail was not repaying the loan.

Police said Gurdev sent his men to Jarnail�s office on Friday urging him to return the amount. An argument broke out and an infuriated Jarnail sent his brother and two others to Gurdev�s office on Saturday evening. Police said Jarnail�s brother and his associate threatened Gurdev Singh and even fired two rounds from their revolver.

Gurdev Singh sought the protection of the Airport police station and registered a complaint. A police team was sent with Gurdev and his men to look for the lorry on the National Highway.

Police said Gurdev Singh identified the truck which was coming towards Calcutta from Barasat. The officers directed the driver to stop but he tried to flee. The police pursued the lorry in their jeep.

According to Kuldeep Singh�s report, the lorry entered the Nager Bazar area at high speed, with the police jeep in hot pursuit. The area was congested on Saturday evening. The crowd was on edge because of a rumour that the vehicle had crushed a man and was escaping.

Two police constables were on duty at Nager Bazar. According to the police report, the crowd urged the two constables to fire and puncture the tyres. Kuldeep Singh says in the report that there was an exchange of fire. Although witnesses confirmed that a bullet from a policeman�s rifle hit Amarjit Singh who was standing on the footboard of the bus, police officers refuse to accept that one of their men aimed badly.

�Jarnail Singh�s brother fired one round and the police retaliated by firing two rounds. Investigations by ballistic experts will reveal whose bullet killed Singh,�� Kuldeep Singh said.

Nager Bazar was tense on Sunday but relatively trouble-free after Saturday night�s mob violence. Jessore Road was blocked in the morning for about two hours by protesters.

In street-corner meetings, CPM and Citu leaders accused the police of acting in haste. �They can�t aim properly. Why are they working in police?�� asked Rabi Sarkar, a senior CPM leader.

Buses on route 219 did not ply on Sunday in protest against the killing.    

Calcutta, Feb. 13: 

This Gabbar does not have the rasping baritone that made Bollywood baddie Amjad Khan a cult figure. But this Gabbar�s voice delivers commands with an authority that makes his victims tremble and his jailers genuflect. And he only needs to pick up a mobile handset at Alipore Central Jail to do so.

Rashid Alam, alias Gabbar, has been running extortion rackets from his cell in the south Calcutta jail. Like Babloo Srivastava, the don who is now in an Uttar Pradesh jail, Gabbar is never far from his cellular phone.

The history-sheeter with 19 cases against him controls much of the underworld in south and east Calcutta. He has been in jail since 1998 on charges of having killed an erstwhile accomplice.

Yet, when his cell was raided recently, the searchers did not find the handset. He had been tipped off, police suspect, by his men among the jail staff.

Gabbar runs his rackets by winning friends and influencing people. One Alipore jail employee talks of Gabbar�s �friends� in the right places, including the son of a senior police officer. Since the mobile phone was �gifted� to him, he has tightened his control and expanded his network.

He had become too brazen in recent months and the inspector-general of prisons, Balkar Singh, ordered a probe. �We have to break this nexus between criminals in jail and their henchmen outside,� Singh said. �Gabbar is a dreaded criminal and we can�t allow this to continue. We are investigating.�

DIG (Prisons) P.K. Moitra was worried about the �liaison� between Gabbar and the jail staff. It was he who conducted the raid in Gabbar�s cell last week. �We had a watertight case against him. We knew he was using a mobile phone,� said another officer.

�Gabbar may have roped in some jail staff to maintain his contacts with his accomplices outside,� admitted jail superintendent Ramapada Bhattacharya.

Security officers suspect that two key members of the CPM-controlled Kararakshi Samity (West Bengal), a powerful warders� association, helped Gabbar �access� the outside world.

One of Gabbar�s accomplices, Rocky Brown, who regularly meets him in jail, told this correspondent during a visit: �I meet Gabbar here at least once a week; the jail staff are extremely cooperative with us. But even if I did not meet him, it would not have been a problem for Gabbar, for he has other ways of controlling everything from behind bars.�

Gabbar uses the logistics he has been provided with mainly to extort money from builders. His area of operations stretch from Tiljala-Topsia on the eastern fringes of the city to Park Street.

The City Developers� Forum, an association of realtors, last week complained to the police that Gabbar is still very �active� despite being in jail and that his men have been threatening them regularly. �We have been pleading with the police to do something about this,� said an association spokesman. �How can we do business here if crooks from jail threaten us and get away with it?�

But an Alipore jail warder, opposed to the CPM-controlled union, said they were �helpless� against Gabbar. �When jailers and their deputies compete with each other to gain his favour, there is nothing we can do,� he said.

�This criminal enjoys the lifestyle of a VIP. During the last Pujas, he bought new clothes and shoes for each and every member of the jail staff. Even the booty collected from his extortion rackets is handed over to him in jail.�

The warder said Gabbar�s cell is his palace. �He even entertains his friends lavishly inside jail,� said a life convict posted at the jail gate. �On such days, liquor flows like water late into the night.�    

Calcutta, Feb. 13: 
Protest rallies by two mainline opposition parties and a Left Front constituent are expected to cripple the city from Monday. Of these, the rallies by the Congress and the Trinamul Congress are on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

The Congress will take out three processions on Monday to converge on Rani Rashmoni Avenue around 1 pm in protest against the alleged deterioration in the law and order situation and the failure of home minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya to effectively control the police force. The demonstrators plan to violate prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC and court arrest.

Traffic in Howrah too is expected to be paralysed on Monday as the state Congress working president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi will lead another group of protesters to court arrest in front of Howrah court in the afternoon.

The three processions by the Congress will start from Hedua in north Calcutta, Raja Subodh Mullick Square in central Calcutta, and Hazra in south Calcutta. Legislators like Sougata Roy, Tapas Roy and Sultan Ahmed will lead the law-violation programme.

On Tuesday, traffic along Bidhan Sarani will be crippled for hours as CPI students� wing marches to Calcutta University to submit a memorandum to higher education minister Satya Sadhan Chakraborty demanding improvement of the education system.

The Trinamul�s youth wing on Wednesday plans a long march by party workers and supporters to Raj Bhavan at 1 pm. Trinamul youth wing president Sanjoy Bakshi said it was important for them to make the programme a �success� as there is an impression that Trinamul programmes without Mamata Banerjee fizzle out.

To prove their point, Trinamul youth leaders have been in touch with their counterparts in the districts to muster a mammoth gathering. At a meeting held at Nizam Palace last week, Bakshi delivered a virtual whip on attendance of youth workers at the rally.

Trinamul rallies will march towards Raj Bhavan from Girish Park, Shyambazar, Burrabazar and Birla Planetarium from noon. Later, a memorandum will be submitted to Governor Viren Shah.    

Calcutta, Feb. 13: 

After trying out various crisis-management measures to stem the rot in state-run hospitals, the government has finally decided to call in a rapid action force (RAF).

This special outfit � comprising doctors and other eminent personalities � will be entrusted with the task of �health policing�. The vigilantes, with authority to take on-the-spot decisions and punitive action, will be engaged in improving the overall condition and image of state-run hospitals.

�As the RAF is deployed by the police to tackle serious law-and-order problems, we shall deploy the �health RAF� in city hospitals to streamline hospital administration and monitor the services provided to patients. The RAF will be given the authority to look into all aspects of hospital management, including implementation of government policies,�� said Shyamal Bandopadhyay, director of medical education in the state.

According to health department officials, the health RAF will monitor daily functioning, ensure implementation of all programmes, act as liaison agents between various departments, keep a check on duty registers and daily diaries, interact with relatives of patients for an honest feedback and hold regular meetings with members of the hospital administration.

Members of the RAF will not only make suggestions and recommendations, they will also be authorised to take immediate action against errant hospital staff. This move comes in the wake of growing criticism from various quarters � especially the Opposition Trinamul Congress camp � over allegations of �mismanagement and lack of work culture�.

Following the mysterious death of a patient in SSKM Hospital, the Trinamul Congress has even threatened to set up a �booth� on the hospital premises to keep vigil.

The flak that the health sector has drawn has annoyed chief minister Jyoti Basu. He has instructed his beleaguered health minister Partha De to be more strict and draw up plans of action to improve work culture and ensure that people are provided proper treatment in the hospitals.

�There is a lot of scope to improve services in the hospitals. We have qualified doctors, nurses, modern equipment and sufficient manpower in the hospitals. If everyone performs his or her own duties honestly, there should be no scope for complaint. We are determined to restore work culture in the hospitals and provide better services to the patients and for that we shall not hesitate to be more strict and vigilant,�� said the health minister.

De has also made it clear to all concerned that duty in a hospital is quite different from any other government office.

�Here, it�s a matter of life and death. Doctors and all other employees will have to ensure that a patient is properly treated, with all facilities available and with the right attitude,�� he said.    

Thuamulrampur (Kalahandi), Feb. 13: 

Time stands still in Thuamulrampur, one of the poorest and the most neglected blocks in the country.

Split into three Assembly constituencies, the tribal-dominated block, barely 75 km from Bhawanipatna, the district headquarters of Kalahandi, is a political orphan. No leader has ever sought to nurture this constituency because it yields little in return.

Very few candidates visit the block, parts of Koksora, Junagarh and Narla constituencies, before the elections. Residents do not recall any of the three sitting MLAs visiting their villages over the past five years.

�We want to see Balbhadra Majhi, the Biju Janata Dal candidate, in flesh and blood. So far we have seen him only on posters,� said Baikunta Naik, a resident of Mordiguda. Majhi is seeking re-election from Narla.

With politicians paying scant attention to the block�s development, Thuamulrampur has slipped into a �black hole�� with social and economic indicators pointing to a downward spiral.

More than 90 per cent of the block�s 55,000 people live below the poverty line. Infant mortality is as high as 185 per 1,000 births and the literacy rate an abysmal low of 14 per cent.

Two rickety minibuses, with holes for windows, are the only links between Bhawanipatna and Thuamulrampur. These overcrowded vehicles are virtual killing machines crushing unsuspecting pedestrians to death almost every day. Most of the 12 panchayat headquarters have no roads to speak of, but they possess �licensed� country liquor breweries. Malaria and diarrhoea stalk the block, which has no hospital. The block headquarters has an understaffed, ill-equipped health centre, but the doctors are rarely around. The block has no telephone and the power supply is erratic. �The 100 watt bulb burns like a night bulb in the evening, because of low voltage,� said block development officer S.K. Mishra.

Of the 264 villages, only seven have been electrified since Independence. The government runs 64 primary schools, but mostly on paper. Assistant collector Munish Mudgil said he caught two teachers drawing 10 years� arrears last month claiming that they taught in a school at Badasuli village, which existed only on paper.

�I was shocked to discover that the school did not exist. I froze their salaries. I suspect there are many more such bogus schools in the block,� the young IAS officer said.

Mudgil said most of the teachers stayed home and drew their salaries in connivance with unscrupulous education department officials. Corruption is endemic to the block. Contractors are paid for ponds that are never dug and for culverts that are never built.

The rich and the powerful figured in the list of people below poverty line and purchased subsidised rice at Rs 2 a kg, while the tribals starved. The assistant collector filed 12 complaints with the police last month against dishonest government staff and contractors.

Of the 37 posts at the block office, 12 are vacant including those of the head clerk and the junior engineer. None of the three MLAs is a local resident and they often bicker over funds and development projects.

Non-governmental organisations have been demanding amalgamation of the blocks into a single constituency. �There should be one MLA who should be held accountable to the people and punished if he fails to live up to expectations,�� said Urmila Senapati of Gram Vikas, a voluntary outfit working here for a decade.

She said the tribals were not aware of their rights because of illiteracy. �You cannot take them for a ride if they are provided basic education,� she added. The organisation runs a number of primary and non-formal schools for children and adults in the block. Former panchayat samity chairman Banamali Naik said the public representatives were apathetic because the people were not politically conscious.

�Why should politicians bother about development because they know money buys votes here,�� said former Gunpur sarpanch Durga Madhab Singh.    


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