Buyers stay off prime property
Trio fakes abduction to escape exam jitters
Govinda’s goals, Sourav’s strikes
Former minister under CBI cloud
Truth triumphs for kidnap witch-hunt victim
Rescued boy plays cricket with friends
Missing persons’ kin see ray of light at tunnel en
Abhishek’s return fuels hope in many

Calcutta, April 2 
It’s big. It’s beautiful and it’s in the heart of town. Welcome to Metro Plaza, the latest plush commercial complex on Ho Chi Minh Sarani.

Welcome? Thanks, but no thanks. It’s big and beautiful, but it’s also desolate. More than 10 lakh sq ft of prime commercial space in Calcutta’s central business district is lying vacant because there are no takers.

But realtors are still not bringing down prices in the hope that corporate buyers will fork out the hefty amounts as investment in the city picks up. Moreover, some of the developers have put so much money into their projects that any lowering of prices will be read as a sign of distress sale.

“The commercial market (for real estate) in Calcutta is weak,” the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) has reported in its latest periodical study. Noting that there have been some inquiries from multinationals, the HDFC study says that property owners are hoping for demand to come in from domestic and international retail chains to set an upward trend in the commercial real estate market.

In a critical observation, the HDFC study also indicates, contrary to official propaganda, that there might actually have been a shrinkage of some business operations in the city. “However, supply (of commercial property) still remains large mainly due to the downsizing of operations of many corporates and, second, due to an increased activity in commercial construction by corporates and private developers.”

This is the situation — of supply outstripping demand by a long margin — that realtors dread most. There were even signs of some developers panicking and selling property at less than the cost it has taken them to develop or buy it.

The real estate market in the city turned nervous after one such distress sale recently. The property used to be one of the hottest in town — on Shakespeare Sarani — and used to house the former headquarters of Bata. The property has undergone another transaction at a price less than the amount at which Bata sold it.

But shortly afterwards, a construction company helped conclude the transaction of what is probably the costliest single plot in Calcutta — 42, Chowringhee Road — that used to belong to the former Maharaja of Darbhanga.

The plot was sold to Hyatt, which is planning to build a five star hotel on it.

The Hyatt deal is the brightest instance of a large corporate buyout of real estate in the central business district.

Corporate buying of real estate increased in the last quarter of 1999-2000 in the Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad property markets after months of stagnation. But Calcutta has barely felt its ripple effect.

So thin are transactions in Calcutta that Colliers Jardine, the international real estate business surveyor that studies property markets in India in association with the Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services and Indian Public Affairs Network, has ignored the city in its latest report published last week.

The report noted that a major chunk of the transactions are initiated by buyers in the ICE — Infotech, Communications and Entertainment. Unlike Hyderabad and Chennai, Calcutta has so far failed to lever its position as a potential destination for corporates in this sector — a sector that continues to give Calcutta the slip, despite Writers’ promises of rolling out a red carpet.

Calcutta realtors are now expecting major retail shopping chains, some of whom have been making inquiries, to make a foray into the city. “Inquiries have been increasing but that’s it. I think potential buyers are waiting and watching to see if there really is enough interest in the city. Businesses like retail shopping and entertainment centres are heavily dependent on other sectors that will generate demand,” admits Prabir Sen, coordinator of the City Developers’ Forum, an organisation of builders.

The enthusiasm picked up after Landmark, the book-cum-music store from Chennai, took up an entire floor on 1, Lord Sinha Road, in association with the Emami Group that promoted the building.

But even here, property dealers have had uncomfortable news. In January, representatives from Shoppers’ Stop, the retail network of the Mumbai-based Rahejas (the group is itself among the country’s largest realtors) scouted Calcutta for “exclusive and showy space”.

They even homed in on one just off Park Street. Then somebody in the company commissioned a market survey on how a retail house like Shoppers’ Stop will be accepted in Calcutta.

“They told the developer that they wanted to give their plans a rethink and said they’ll come back later,” said one commercial property broker who was sounded. “The survey pointed out that there just wasn’t enough demand in Calcutta to accommodate another, larger shopping centre.”

But, developers in the city are still betting on the future. “It is only a question of time. Business has to pick up in Calcutta in its quest for newer markets. It is just that it is slow,” says Sushil Mohta, of Merlin Projects, one of the largest housing developers.

“What is heartening about the Calcutta market is that it does not go through dramatic upswings and downswings unlike Mumbai.”    

Calcutta, April 2 
The police on Sunday began to ascertain the scope of legal action against three students who pretended they had been kidnapped to get promoted without sitting for examinations.

In two incidents, two Class IX boys of the same school and a Class XII girl claimed they had been kidnapped just before the exams were to be held last month.

Closing the investigation into the parents’ “complaints” that their children had been abducted, the police told the authorities of the two prominent south Calcutta schools that the students had invented the “abductions” stories to avoid sitting for the examinations.

“The students are from well-to-do families. We detected holes in their stories and widened our investigations,” said Ranjit Pachnanda, deputy commissioner of police, south.

The students not only returned on their own, telling the police they had given the kidnappers the slip, but they also urged the police to inform their respective institutions about the abductions. All of them, however, cracked during interrogation and confessed they had faked the kidnappings.

The girl arrived with her parents at the police station in mid-March to say she was kidnapped by three girls at the crossing of Rawdon Street and AJC Bose Road. She was to write her philosophy examination the next day.

She told the police the girls in a taxi offered her a lift while she was waiting for a bus home to Jadavpur. “Suddenly, one of the girls pressed a handkerchief to my face and I became unconscious. When I came around, I was still in the taxi. The girls demanded that I call my father for the ransom. When I refused, they slashed my wrists,” the girl told the police.

The daughter of a middle-class businessman, the girl actually had slash marks on her wrists, the police said. “But there were many loopholes. Three police officers interrogated her for more than two hours. She broke down and confessed that she did not have the confidence to sit for her exam,’’ a police officer said.

On the other hand, the two boys said they ran away from home on March 5 and telephoned their parents, saying they had been kidnapped. They actually were hiding at a family farmhouse at Bishnupur, South 24-Parganas.

One’s father is a rich businessman, the other’s a government officer. The two boys surfaced at their respective residences three days later after their final exams were over, telling their parents how they managed to escape.

The parents contacted the DC (south) through a friend. When the boys returned, the parents took them to the office of DC on Park Street and requested policemen to inform the school authorities. But as the boys finally owned up, no abduction complaint was registered and they were released after a severe scolding.

The revelations have shocked education circles. Principals expressed disgust and dismay at the students’ behaviour. “Where do they get these ideas from?’’ wondered Rosita Chriestan, principal of St Johns’ Diocesan School.

For Richard Flynn of La Martiniere for Boys and L.W. Hartnett of Assembly of God Church School, the “bizarre incidents” were nothing but a kind of emotional blackmail. “It is what people do in desperation,” said Hartnett.    

Calcutta, April 2 

The floodlights at the Salt Lake Stadium were shining bright for the first time this soccer season. There were 135,000 spectators packed into the stands, erupting into applause every time their favourite stars kicked, or missed, the ball.

The loudest cheers were reserved for Govinda’s goals, Sourav’s strikes, Akshay Kumar’s handstand, Kapil’s ball control, Gulshan Grover’s two-minute kickabout...

After all, this was a football match with a big difference. A bunch of current and former Indian cricketers versus a Bollywood-Tollywood XI, to raise funds for Aamra, a trust run by Mithun Chakraborty, of course.

It was the cricketers, led by Sourav Ganguly, who stole the show from the heroes of the silver screen, with a convincing 5-2 win.

Three goals from Sourav and one each from all-rounders Robin Singh and Laxmi Ratan Shukla shut out the filmi heroes. For the team from tinseltown, even the bubbly presence of Rani Mukherjee failed to inspire. A Govinda brace helped them salvage some pride.

Current cricketers like Venkatesh Prasad, Sunil Joshi and Nikhil Chopra lined up alongside former stars including Srikkanth and Maninder Singh. From Tollywood, Sabyasachi Chakraborty in goal and comedian Chinmoy Roy were top draws.

The 50-minute tamasha match drew in crowds never seen for football matches at the Stadium these days. Most of the tickets were priced at a moderate Rs 10 and 20 with 1,135 VIP cards being sold at Rs 1,000 each. About 14,000 tickets went at Rs 7,000 each and all spectators, including the stadium staff, had to pay from their pockets.

“I can’t recollect any other match after a Federation Cup showdown between East Bengal against Mohun Bagan on July 13, 1997, that has witnessed so many people filling the stadium. This is certainly a record of sorts,” said stadium chief executive colonel (retd) Saumitra Ray.

“While the turnout is heavy for musical events featuring stars from the glamour world, the stadium built for football is rarely packed even when the biggest clubs in Indian soccer square off in premier tournaments,” rued Ray.

Another first was the use of floodlights for a football match this season. Ironically, floodlights installed with the prime intention of sparing players the punishment of battling it out under the cruel afternoon sun, are used for glamour, not the game. “We charge Rs 1,200 for the ground and Rs 50,000 for the lights,” said Ray. The Indian Football Association (IFA) and the All India Football Federation (AIFF), obviously, can’t afford that even for crunch matches.

After the match, the madness spilled out on to the streets. The EM Bypass was a picture of chaos, with thousands staying back to catch a glimpse of the departing stars. Traffic was thrown out of gear for hours.

If the Sunday night fever at the Salt Lake stadium was anything to go by, it’s time our football federations picked up a trick or two about marketing the game from Mithunda.    

Guwahati, April 2 
Contrary to claims by former Assam transport minister Sheo Shambhu Ojha that his ties with P.P. Verma had “never turned sour” and he had extended “full co-operation in the search for his lost son,” a document from the CBI files, which is in possession of The Telegraph, suggested otherwise.

The CBI was handed over the case in 1996 after the Assam police failed to achieve any breakthrough. CBI sources said they proceeded on with the case after P.P. Verma recorded in his confession that the minister had once threatened to teach him a lesson following serious differences over the signing of a money receipt.

Ojha had allegedly asked Verma in 1994 “to clear a whopping payment of Rs 27 lakh to a Mumbai-based contractor as construction charges for state-owned deluxe buses.’’ Verma, however, had refused to clear the payment saying he could not do so without “actually verifying the works.’’

On May 24, 1999, superintendent of police, CBI (special crime branch) Loknath Behera wrote a letter (number 600 DP/CAS/1999) to Ojha accusing him of “non-cooperation” in the Abhishek Verma case.

The letter said, “For the past few months, you have not appeared despite receiving various notices. You have always made one plea or the other which are not at all convincing. It has also come to our notice that when you are making the plea of ill health, you are travelling to different places and participating in political activities. This itself shows your non-cooperating attitude in the investigation...We will be constrained to procure your presence for examination through legal process...This letter may be treated as a notice under Section 160 CrPC.”

Ojha admitted having received Behera’s notice in May 1999 for appearing before the investigating officer. “The CBI had to issue this notice because I could not appear on certain dates owing to the illness of my daughter, who was undergoing treatment at Chennai at that period of time.

“In June last year, I answered all the CBI queries to their full sa