Women’s panel pitches for triple talaq ban
Thakre holds firefight meet with Samata
Pitfalls in proactive policy
Miffed Cong stays away from Rabri
Bigwigs share dues spotlight with Naidu
Naidu surprise ploy to check Naxal menace
Big catch for cellphones
High and mighty, atop a tree
Lichis face transit bligh

New Delhi, April 3 
Stoking the debate on Muslim Personal Law, the National Commission for Women (NCW) today demanded a banning of verbal talaq that leads to instant divorce. “This is the commission’s first report on a minority community and our public hearings revealed that Muslim women are suffering because of the practice of triple talaq,” NCW chairperson Vibha Parthasarathy said. The commission today released two reports — one on rape laws and the other on the minority community. In its recommendations, the NCW demanded that marital rape be recognised as an offence and vetoed the proposal for death sentence for rapists. Since the NCW does not have any statutory power to make its recommendations binding, the reports will only succeed in sharpening the debate on Muslim Personal Law, marital rape and capital punishment for rapists.

The report — “Voice of the voiceless” — is rooted in 13 public hearings spread over 18 months in different parts of the country. Women in Chennai, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Tezpur spoke about their sufferings before a bench of retired judges and social workers.

The Muslim Personal Law is already a sensitive subject and a large chunk of the community is against any tampering with its Personal Law. The BJP has been the only party to squarely put on its agenda the demand for a repeal of the Muslim Personal Law. Its partners in the NDA are doggedly opposed to it.

The NCW report said Muslim intellectuals, theologians and scholars must look for a way to scrap “outdated” laws and the solution could be found within the framework of the shariat. Sayeeda Hameed, NCW member who authored the report on the Muslim community, said there has been substantive reforms within the Muslim Personal Law and India is lagging behind.

“There is unstated abolition of verbal talaq in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan and Morocco. There are others like Turkey, Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Indonesia which have slapped restrictions on extra-judicial and unilateral divorces,” said Hameed. The report rues that the Muslim community in India has “refused” to take note of the strides made by women all over the world.

Parthasarathy said she was surprised at the approval from many Muslim women for banning triple talaq. “It is amazing how many of them want change,” she said. She said the government cannot intervene in this. “The changes have to come from within the community and there was a need to codify laws governing marriage, inheritance and divorce,” she added. The report is a revelation on the state of Muslim women saying that there is an alarming rise in backwardness among 60 million Muslim women. Two thirds of them are illiterates at the national level and they have practically no employment opportunities, it says.

The report dealing with rape laws strongly argued against death penalty for rapists. “One of our main arguments is that a death penalty will further slash the already feeble 4 per cent conviction cases,” said Parthasarathy.    

April 3 
To improve relations with its Bihar allies and project the NDA as a more cohesive front, BJP president Kushabhau Thakre today held a meeting with Samata Party leaders, including Jaya Jaitley, defence minister George Fernandes and minister of state for railways Digvijay Singh.

The high-level session was a sequel to a letter written by Jaitley to Thakre two weeks ago in which the Samata president had stressed the importance of “better coordination” among the allies and the need to sort out differences mutually instead of articulating them through the press.

Samata sources claimed that the leadership, peeved with a senior BJP general secretary for making “pejorative” remarks against them in public, had conveyed their “hurt feelings” to Thakre.

In turn, BJP sources alleged that Samata functionaries were “frank and free” in attacking their leaders during the recent election campaign.

BJP spokesman M. Venkaiah Naidu also hinted that the NDA’s failure to cement an unified front in Bihar helped Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal retain power.

“The bilateral meeting enables us to have a free exchange of views and help better understanding among the partners,” Naidu told reporters, adding that more such sessions were in the offing to help counter the “disinformation campaign against the NDA”.

Such meetings were “imperative” because of the “inability of the NDA to come to a timely understanding in Bihar”, Naidu emphasised.

The BJP is also pondering how to re-craft an anti-Laloo strategy after the fodder scam campaign came a cropper and the issue of corruption failed to sway not just core supporters of the RJD but also the backward castes.

Laloo’s softening on Vananchal also means that the BJP is now bereft of the one issue it had flogged successfully over the last three elections in south Bihar. If Vananchal does become a reality, it is the RJD which stands to gain.

In the reconstituted Assembly, given the present seat distribution, it would be just eight short of majority. But the BJP, which never had a solid base in north and central Bihar, would be more dependent on its allies, the Samata and the Janata Dal (United).

NDA sources admitted that after failing to clinch a majority, they have not been able to get their act together in the state. Then the success of the RJD candidate in the one seat that was contested in the Rajya Sabha biennial election was yet another reflection of the “in-house” problems within the NDA, BJP sources said.

According to them, the NDA’s only “hope” now rests on differences cropping up between the RJD and the Congress over sharing of power.    

New Delhi, April 3 
The Anantnag incidents prove that the government’s emphasis on a “pro-active” policy against militants has the danger of alienating large sections of Kashmiris as security forces have been given a “virtual licence” to “do things their way” with scant regard for “human rights”.

A section of security strategists feels the government ought to have chalked out the plan with a judicious mix of “tough” and “soft” measures.

Kashmir observers said the Centre should also have taken some steps to start a dialogue with “pressure groups” such as the All-Party Hurriyat Conference and Panun Kashmir opposed to the pro-Pakistan outfits.

“A beginning in that direction would have sent across the signal that the Centre was at least trying to make a genuine attempt to redress their grievances,” an analyst said.

The observers added that the Centre should have sent a stern message to the not-too-popular Farooq Abdullah regime to initiate long-pending development projects without further delay.

The incidents in Anantnag over the past week is a pointer to this trend of alienation. After the massacre of Sikhs in Chatti Singhpora, the security forces claimed to have killed 11 foreign mercenaries involved in the carnage.

But apart from the government’s version, there is hardly any evidence to prove the “mercenary” credentials of those slain in the two encounters.

Reports from Anantnag appear to suggest that six of the 11 militants killed in the second gunbattle may have been foreign militants, but the five who were gunned down earlier were “local civilians”. These five men may have provided just infrastructural support to the killers. Local residents provide such assistance to militants under pressure or because of monetary incentives and ideological commitment.

The deaths of seven people in the Anantnag firing today indicates a “degree of vindictiveness” and “trigger-happiness” that have taken hold of the security forces.

These questions were raised at a meeting chaired by home secretary Kamal Pande this evening.

Home ministry officials described the firing as an “aberration”. The Unified Headquarters in Srinagar will be asked to respect human and civil rights and not allow a repeat of the situation of the early Nineties when glaring rights violations were committed by the security forces. “If that happens, all the goodwill gained after Kargil will be lost,” an observer said.

The firing by security forces coincided with the army’s call to “hit hard” at foreign mercenaries and destroy their hideouts.

Since the end of the Kargil war, the army and paramilitary forces have been targeted on several occasions by terrorist “suicide squads”. Though the state was divided into 49 military sectors to effectively carry out “seek-and-destroy” missions, militant raids have continued unabated, firming the government’s resolve to allow security forces the freedom to operate.    

Patna, April 3 
Unhappy with the portfolio distribution yesterday, the Congress ministers have refused to join the Rabri Devi government.

In a show of “solidarity”, the Congress leaders said they will stay away from the government till the problem was sorted out between the party high command and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Facing the Congress outburst in the House, Laloo sought the help of Speaker Sadanand Singh. But it did not work.

A delegation of the Congress ministers met state party chief Chandan Bagchi and expressed their disappointment. Bagchi, who met Laloo, also spoke to the AICC.

V.S. Dubey, Bagan Sumrai and Beena Shahi were protesting vociferously over their portfolios.

Sumrai left for Chaibasa yesterday evening before taking charge. V.S. Dubey did not meet the chief minister to complete the formalities to join his department. Ansari, who was given a key portfolio, road construction, said he would stay away from the ministry “till it was spelled out that the finance ministry would come to the Congress”. Shahi, who was given cooperatives, sounded disillusioned. Asked if she would join soon, she retorted: “What is the responsibility?”

The Congress ministers said only three major departments were given to them, but even some of these some were divested of important areas. Vishwamohan Sharma was given industry, but Laloo took away handloom, cottage and small industries from it. “Without these three, there is very little to do for industries in Bihar. Where is big industry in Bihar?” asked a Congress minister. Chandrasekhar Dubey, who was given tourism, said he would prefer to be without the portfolio.

The Congress minister’s unanimous decision of not joining the government caused panic at 1 Anne Marg. Laloo today tried to convince the Bihar Congress chief that he was under tremendous pressure. “If you have problems with 23 MLAs, I have 123 to handle,” Laloo said, referring to the RJD legislators.

Bagchi later said he would try to sort out the problem.

“My party’s first aim is to ensure the implementation of the Common Minimum Programme and provide a corruption-free government. We would want our ministers to ensure this. The portfolios are not that important,” he said.    

Hyderabad, April 3 
The Andhra Pradesh Transmission Corporation (APTransco), to which Chandrababu Naidu owed a whopping sum as electricity bills, is working overtime to prove that the chief minister is not the only VIP who forgot to pay his dues. The power corporation said there were 45 other MLAs, cutting across party lines, who had not paid up.

Congress MLAs are prominent on the defaulters’ list issued by APTransco. The corporation has a liability of Rs 1471 crore from unpaid bills, the list says.

Congress legislator from Khammam P. Yunus Sultan owes Rs 1.72 lakh, while party MLA G. Aruna Kumari, who defeated Ramamurthy Naidu, the chief minister’s brother, is listed with a due of Rs 53,263.

Congress MLA Jeevan Reddy of Jagtial owes Rs 16,246. Prominent Desam dissident from Anantpur district Peritala Ravi owes Rs 23,560.

The unpaid bills of some prominent Congress leaders, including former chief minister N. Janardhan Reddy and education minister P.V. Ranga Rao (P.V. Narasimha Rao’s son), were also huge, sources said.

The dues of some other Congressmen, including leader of Opposition Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and former home minister M.V. Mysora Reddy, were paid a few days before the party took up the issue in the Assembly, APTransco sources said.

State law and courts minister P. Chandrasekhar owes Rs 41,197 and the BJP MP from Medak A. Narendra Rs 66,174 to the power board, the list said. BJP legislator from Hyderabad Indrasena Reddy owes Rs 66,174 while the Desam MLA from Pileru has a bill of Rs 14,000.

Official sources said power dues of nearly 65 Desam leaders who were not re-elected in 1999 were to the tune of Rs 1.7 crore. The dues of prominent MPs and legislators in the AP Bhavan, Delhi, was said to be around Rs 7.5 crore.

Around 40 of former Left legislators and MPs owed nearly Rs 11.56 lakh, sources said.

Out of its total arrears from dues, around Rs 600 crore could become “bad debt”, APTransco said.

The arrears from litigation were around Rs 120 crore, dues from other local bodies and government departments were Rs 200 crore and another Rs 270 crore was due from disconnected power lines.

According to a senior official in the General Administration Department here, power dues, hospital bills and transport and other costs of all Desam, Congress, CPM, CPI and BJP legislators added up from 1995 would cost the state treasury Rs 12.6 crore.    

Hyderabad, April 3 
Taking a sharp turn on its extremist policy, the Andhra Pradesh government has chosen two prominent extremist poet-leaders — P. Varavara Rao and balladeer Gaddar — to mediate at the talks with Naxalites.

Today’s decision came as a shock to the state police who were gearing up to catch Varavara Rao as soon as he returned from Delhi.

Two days back, the Nizamabad police registered a case of links with the PWG against the poet, involved in several other cases.

The statement, which came after Varavara Rao expressed his readiness to mediate with the extremists, is part of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s effort to achieve consensus on extremist policy.

“We will accept assistance from any quarter as we are keen to end the violence and killing of poor villagers,” Naidu told the Assembly.

Some civil liberty activists welcomed the decision, though they were sceptical about its implementation. “I welcome the decision. But it is to be seen how far it will pave the way for breaking the ice,” said K.G. Kannabiran, president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties.

The decision to invite the well-known extremist sympathisers for official meetings displayed the Naidu government’s changed attitude towards extremists after the recent killing of state minister A. Madhav Reddy on March 6. Thestate police, however, let loose a spate of revenge “encounter” killings.

The dialogue between the extremist sympathisers and the state government had entered a deadlock following the extreme stands taken by both the government and the PWG.

The Committee of Concerned Citizens led by former Social Welfare secretary S.R. Sankaran had failed to break the ice. Both Varavara Rao and Gaddar were taboo for the police for their involvement at every “encounter” site.

Only this year, 16 policemen and 33 extremists have been killed in the state. Since 1996, 174 policemen and 55 civilians were killed in 109 incidents of landmines and 508 civilians and 185 policemen have been killed by the PWG.

Among the parties, the Congress took the brunt of Naxalite wrath with 67 of its workers having been killed by the PWG, as against 48 of the ruling Telugu Desam Party, 20 of the BJP, 12 of the CPM and nine activists of the CPI.    

Kochi, April 3 
Call it celling fish.

The fishsellers’ trade is no longer the same in Kerala. Fishermen are catching fish as much with the hook, line and sinker as with Nokias and Motorolas.

Once Mohandas — the mobile-toting man in a lungi and shirt is not everyone’s idea of a fisherman — would send out his men to the sea in vanchis (boats) and keep his fingers tightly crossed. Back in his Munambham harbour, he would have no idea about the day’s catch till the men came back. Their return would start another headache: the fish, depending on both the variety and the quantity, would have to be sent to the right markets.

But the cellphone changed it all. Now a techie Mohandas sends his men into the sea all right, but arms them with cellphones too. If there is a big catch, they get back to him immediately. “Whenever the catch is big, I divert it to Kollam where I get Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 more though my diesel cost may go up by about Rs 3,000,” says the soft-spoken 50-year-old, his Nokia peeping from his shirt pocket.

When he is not directing his men to markets, Mohandas is contacting markets along the coast — in Kozhikode, Kannur, Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam or Ponnani — and sending his boats to where the best price is being offered.

Mohandas is not alone. Fisherman alone account for 5,000 BPL Mobile cellphone connections.

The new technology has paid rich dividends, literally. The cellphone-brigade makes sure the fish fetches the right price, sounding a warning to the middlemen.

Says Sudhish Kumar, a trader in marine products: “Now it is not possible to exploit the mobile-savvy fishermen as they contact markets across Kerala and even Mangalore or Goa to find out the prevailing price and divert the boats from midsea.

“Seer fish, for instance, which earlier used to fetch only Rs 70, now gets Rs 100 to Rs 110 per kg and it makes a huge difference to them,” Kumar explains.

Cellphones also mean that fishermen are venturing deeper into the sea. Fishing parties, which spend four to five days on high seas, can keep in touch with their families now, besides being able to alert rescue teams during trouble.

Rajesh, who owns two vanchis, says since each foray into the deep sea costs Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000, communication among boats via cellphones helps to lead one another to big catches.

“Earlier, we had no option. It was like trading blind-folded and we had to take whatever was being offered at the local market. Now, we are more or less able to control the trade, eliminating the middlemen. Unlike in the past, all grades of fish, shrimp or prawn, get a price and there is no wastage,” says Rajesh.

Smaller fishermen like Sulaiman and M.A. Rafi, who have also acquired cellphones but use them only during chaakara (the big catch season), agree wholeheartedly that the wireless handset has made a difference.

That leaves cellphone companies fishing for more fishermen. In fact, the credit of hooking fishermen to cellphones goes to BPL Mobile business operations head K.A. Mohammed Saleem. He had driven home to the fishermen in the utility of the mobile phone, which was at first dismissed as a luxury.

While BPL Mobile already boasts of 5,000 fishermen-customers, its regional rival, Escotel, is also eyeing the fishing community wistfully.

Saleem is still marketing his ware aggressively among fishermen. “We are negotiating with a fishermen’s federation to offer 10,000 mobile phones on most competitive rates so that we can reach out to small and marginal fishermen as well,” says Saleem.

BPL Mobile has already put in place the infrastructure to cover the entire 700 km coastal belt of Kerala, reaching 77 towns and almost 70 per cent of the population.

So the high seas promise to keep ringing: with the sound of cellphones.    

Lucknow, April 3 
She walks tall. At 80 feet, on top of trees.

Tarannum the “tree girl” also requires the fire brigade and policemen to bring her down from her vertical treks.

Last Sunday afternoon was not dull for the residents of Garhi ka Nauwra anymore when they woke up to the antics of the 15-year-old. Tarannum had perched herself atop an 80 feet khinni tree and was refusing to climb down.

High drama followed. The fire brigade and the police were summoned. Struggling hard to maintain their composure, the men in uniform battled for nearly five hours even as Tarannum refused to entertain any plea.

The firemen were not helped by the fact that their ladder was 50 feet short.

“We didn’t realise that the tree was so tall. We usually don’t keep ladders which are more than 30 feet in height,” said fireman Mukesh Singh sheepishly.

Sure that her daughter was being “ruled by an evil spirit”, an anxious Jameela Siddiqui, Tarannum’s mother, solicited a maulana’s help. The maulana too failed to bring Tarannum down.

“The tree is too high and the fumes of my lobaan have failed to reach there,” said the maulana. “Had the tree been shorter my powers would have brought her down,” he added.

The Alambagh police, however, were prepared in case Tarannum changed her mind and decided to jump down. A team of doctors stood near the tree alongside an ambulance with their fingers crossed.

There was also a 15 sq metre tarpaulin sheet spread at a height above the ground to break Tarannum’s fall.

As hundreds of spectators became restive and started abusing the police, two firemen, Abid Ali and Ehsan, decided to go for it. After a half-hour climb, Ali managed to reach the girl and tie her feet to a rope he was carrying even as the officers below followed developments with a binocular.

A loud applause erupted as relieved bystanders saw Tarannum being hauled down, tied to Ali’s back.

Tarannum, who refused to offer any explanation, was taken to the nearby Balrampur hospital to be treated for her “unreasonable conduct”.

Her weepy mother was still under the impression that Tarannum was under an evil spell.

“Otherwise, why would she suddenly think of climbing such a tall tree when she had only gone to the market to buy some kerosene?” she lamented.    

Muzaffarpur, April 3 
Muzaffarpur — the lichi capital of India — is expecting a bumper crop this summer. But farmers are afraid the additional tonnes of the luscious fruit will not reach dining tables across the country. Like every year, they fear, the lichis will be lost in transit.

Orchards lining Samastipur Road are completely covered in pale yellow flowers, the sign of a good lichi harvest. “Unless something goes drastically wrong with the weather, this is going to be a record crop,” predicts Biswanath Jha, a lichi-grower in Muzaffarpur.

“We expect the lichi crop to be at least 20 per cent more than in the previous year,” affirms K.P.S. Keshri, an entrepreneur.

Instead of rejoicing, the farmers are worried about how much of the produce will reach the marketplace. Out of an approximate annual lichi produce of 2 lakh tonnes, almost 60,000 tonnes is lost during transportation and processing. Crop worth Rs 250 crore (international market price) — an amount that could make a big difference to the fortunes of the poverty-stricken farmers here — is allowed to rot.

Muzaffarpur produces the best quality lichis in the country and in the largest quantity. But its marketing is dismal. Madagascar, a French colony, manages to sell its entire produce of 18,000 thousand tonnes though the crop comes in winter when the demand for lichi as a thirst-quencher is less.

In India, the crop is harvested in the second week of May, when its demand is the highest. Yet the produce is allowed to go waste, market researchers said.

For farmers to save the loss of 60,000 tonnes, they would need about 100 airconditioned pack houses. Bihar has only four. Besides, the entrepreneurs need finance to buy orchards and employ agricultural scientists to protect the produce from mite menace. They also require irrigation facilities.

At election time, every political party promises lichi-growers the moon. Before the last Lok Sabha polls, former Union commerce minister Ramakrishna Hegde visited all the lichi-producing centres and formed a task force to handle their problems. “The task force had two sittings but nothing concrete could be evolved,” a member said.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee also pledged financial and technical assistance.

Not to be left behind, the Rashtriya Janata Dal government’s horticulture department jumped on the lichi bandwagon.

Shahnawaj Hossain, union minister for food processing, claimed the Centre was ready with financial and technical assistance but there had been little response from the entrepreneurs. “We cannot directly go out to invest,” he said.

However, the lichi processors said the Centre’s open offer did not make much sense. “Once we send the proposal, the central government departments want us to ensure bank guarantees in addition to a dozen other formalities. This is not possible to fulfil,” said Keshri, who owns a processing company.

Some lichi processors also blame a section of entrepreneurs for using their political clout to retain control over the trade.

“No one is ready to promote lichi in the way tea was promoted. While the politicians are half-hearted and the governments is unable to figure out where to invest, entrepreneurs in north Bihar look upon this as a mere six-week-long business,” said one.

“In a state thrown in a social, political and administrative anarchy, one cannot expect anything better,” concluded Khaled Chowdhary, a lichi-grower from Kanti in Muzaffarpur.    


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