Sinha deflects price fire to Vajpayee
House panel pulls up govt for subsidy cut
Trinamul worker shot
Lathicharge tremors
Mamata faces Bihar flak for Bengal bias
Cricket clean-up unites LS
Rajmata returns to echoes of the past

New Delhi, April 20 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha refused to give an assurance on whether the Centre would roll back the price hike and the cut on subsidies, or even consider partial relief, despite the overwhelming sentiment of the MPs at a BJP parliamentary party meeting that the government should retract both the decisions or at least �mitigate their severe impact�.

Briefing the press, BJP chief whip in Lok Sabha B.C. Khanduri said: �Some MPs were satisfied and others were not. We were not able to satisfy each and every doubt that was raised.� Some MPs insisted that the government should not make it a prestige issue and refuse to reconsider its decisions. �It was pointed out that the Congress governments took back crucial decisions even though they had an absolute majority, so why should we care for prestige?� asked a central minister.

The BJP�s allies, who have also upped their ante on the government, keenly awaited Sinha�s response at today�s meeting after which they are likely to formulate their next strategy. They said they �looked forward� to a �positive announcement� from the finance minister.

BJP sources said Sinha played it safe � despite being grilled by the MPs in the marathon three-and-a-half hour session in the Parliament Annexe this evening � and went only as far as promising to �convey� their �feelings and reactions� to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

�There was absolutely no assurance of a rollback or even a slight reduction of the price rise from the finance minister. He only said he would convey our feelings to the Prime Minister. After that it is up to him and the Cabinet to take whatever decision they want,� said a member from Rajasthan.

This was Sinha�s first interaction with BJP MPs after the government slashed the subsidies on fertilisers, kerosene and LPG, although the matter was discussed in as many as three parliamentary party meetings, in which other senior ministers, including Vajpayee himself, tried to explain and justify the move.

Party sources, however, admitted that the �explanations� did not convince them. Sinha was called in as soon as he got back from the US to mollify the members and ensure that they did not corner the government in the House by raising embarrassing questions, as some did in the first half of the budget session.

Of the 80 MPs who attended the meeting, 23 spoke on a range of subjects, apart from the subsidies� reduction and the resultant price hike. The drop in the interest on bank saving schemes and Provident Fund, the disinvestment in public sector units and creating a level-playing field for Indian industries were brought up.

�The interest rate cut has hit the poor sections the most. They will have no incentive to save,� said an Uttar Pradesh MP. �The 20 per cent tax on venture capitalists should be extended to FIIs as well,� a Mumbai MP said.

The argument given by both Sinha and public distribution and consumer affairs minister Shanta Kumar that the government had offset the subsidies� slash by doubling the quantum of PDS foodgrains did not cut ice with members like the former Delhi chief minister Sahib Singh Verma who reportedly stressed it had no effect. �All members demanded that while increasing the quantum of rations supplied under the PDS is good, the price should remain the same,� Verma told the press.    

New Delhi, April 20 
The standing committee on food, civil supplies and public distribution today blasted the government for hiking the price of foodgrain for the poor and recommended a rollback.

It also pulled up the Centre for allowing huge stocks of foodgrain to rot in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns. The grain produced by the farmers with their �sweat� to make the country self-sufficient should not be wasted in such a manner, the report said. The committee said some foodgrain is �still lying in FCI godowns for the last five years�.

The report said the hike in the price of rice and wheat had hit the poor sections of society and the very purpose of increasing ration quota from 10 kg to 20 kg has been defeated �due to exorbitant hike�.

Committee chairman Devindra Prasad Yadav, the Janata Dal (United) MP who was food minister in the United Front government, told reporters that the price hike had defeated the basic concept of TPDS (Targeted Public Distribution System). He said till economic disparity is not narrowed down, subsidy meant for poor peoples� welfare programmes should not be done away with.

Yadav said the government should adhere to recommendations of the committee to roll back hike in the prices of foodgrain supplied through the Public Distribution System (PDS).

He said the PDS prices for people living below the poverty line had increased by more than 60 per cent after the recent hike.

�In the opinion of the committee the government has not been able to successfully launch the poverty alleviation programme, thereby increasing the economic disparity between the rich and the poor,� he said.

The committee said the hike in the price will negate the government�s efforts to uplift the weaker section of the society consisting of nearly 35 crores people, about one-third of the total population of the country. It regretted that the economic disparity between the rich and the poor could not be narrowed down even after the lapse of 51 years of independence.

The committee noted that the benefit of TPDS has not percolated down to the right people due to massive irregularities in identification of families living below the poverty line. The actual beneficiaries have been deprived of the benefit, the panel said.

Asked whether the committee could expect a rollback in the wake of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ruling out such a move, Yadav said the committee, comprising MPs, felt the government would agree to its recommendations to roll back the hike in prices.

�We are hopeful this will be done,� he said.

On the TPDS, introduced in 1997 by the United Front government, he said the states which had a strong infrastructure had implemented it while others like Bihar could not do so properly.    

Kanksa (Durgapur), April 20 
Less than a day after a Trinamul Congress activist and a CPM worker were killed by unknown assailants, the bullet-ridden body of another Trinamul worker was found today on the bank of Ajoy river in this Durgapur subdivision of Burdwan district, sending residents into panic.

Naba Kumar Dom was abducted by a gang of 10 to 15 armed men while he was on his way to the plot of land he owned in Sasipur village. His brother Sanjoy, who chased the abductors, is still untraced.

While terror-stricken local youth are fleeing their villages, the police, unnerved by the series of political killings � the fifth in 40 days � are trying desperately to bring the situation under control.

Deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, who will be in Burdwan tomorrow to inaugurate the state conference of the coordination committee, will hold a meeting with district authorities in the circuit house, an official spokesman said.

Sasipur is adjacent to Sibpur village where Trinamul leader Amar Goswami had been hacked to death allegedly by CPM activists yesterday afternoon. Less than an hour later, a Trinamul-BJP group raided the house of Naba Kumar Ghosh, dragged him out and beat him to death in a field closeby. Senior police officials, including police superintendent Rajiv Kumar and Durgapur ASP Ramkalyan Adhikari are camping in the area. Prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC has also been imposed.

Recalling today�s incident, Manik Dom, the 65-year-old father of Naba Kumar, said: �My son left home at 5.30 am to water the potato field, followed by Sanjoy. Soon after, news reached me that a gang of 15 had abducted him, Within an hour, Naba�s body was found on the river bank.�    

New Delhi, April 20 
Lok Sabha was adjourned today ahead of schedule after Trinamul Congress members clashed with CPM MPs over yesterday�s police lathicharge in Calcutta.

Raising the issue during Zero Hour, Trinamul leader Sudip Bandopadhyay accused the ruling Left Front of resorting to fascist methods and sought home minister L.K. Advani�s intervention.

Bandopadhyay said Trinamul and BJP workers had been arrested by the state police without justification.

�This is a fascist government. It should go,� he said, drawing an angry response from CPM members. Those arrested had taken the law into their own hands, prompting police retaliation, CPM leader Basudev Acharya countered.    

New Delhi, April 20 
Trouble is brewing for Mamata Banerjee, not from the CPM this time, but MPs from Bihar.

Forty-two Bihar MPs, including civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav, met at communication minister Ram Vilas Paswan�s residence yesterday over dinner with a litany of complaints against the railway minister. Mamata, they said, had completely ignored Bihar while pampering Bengal in the railway budget.

Overlooking their rivalries, political opponents from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the BJP, the Congress, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) signed a memorandum detailing the �step-motherly� treatment to Bihar. The memorandum will be submitted to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. �Our delegation will meet him soon to demand justice for Bihar,� a source said.

The MPs said Mamata had sanctioned a number of new rail lines and trains for West Bengal, while completely ignoring Bihar. They warned of an agitation in Bihar unless Vajpayee intervened. �We fear that unless this problem is resolved with your timely intervention, there is a likelihood of an agitation,� the memorandum said.

Samata leaders George Fernandes, Nitish Kumar and Digvijay Singh were conspicuously absent at the dinner, though party MPs Prabhunath Singh and J.P. Nishad attended it. Asked why junior railway minister Digvijay Singh, who is from Bihar, was absent, a source said he was also party to the move against Trinamul Congress, but does not want to be identified with the group.    

New Delhi, April 20 
Lok Sabha members, cutting across party lines, today kept up the heat on the government for a thorough investigation into the match-fixing allegations, even after sports minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa made a statement on the floor of the House.

As soon as Dhindsa finished reading out his statement, Lok Sabha members let loose a fusillade of questions, demanding a CBI probe. Since the minister sought more time before making such a move, the MPs pointed out that the issue was still hanging fire.

Though Congress MPs were the most vocal, members from each party pitched in with their comments as the discussion continued for almost an hour. �Cricket is about batting and not betting,� said Congress� Madhavrao Scindia.

�Earlier it was politicians who were believed to be corrupt. Now cricketers have joined them. Since I belong to both categories, I am doubly worried,� said BJP MP and former India cricketer Kirti Azad.

Former cricket board chief Inderjit Singh Bindra�s charge that everybody associated with international cricket was mired in match-fixing scams further heightened the pitch of the debate.

�It would be wrong to point a finger at each and every cricketer. The innocent have nothing to fear, but the guilty should watch out,� said Scindia.

For once, Shiv Sena members echoed their Congress counterparts, proving that the controversy had become a collective problem. However, the House believed that there were also cricketers who were both honest and committed to the game.

�I remember one cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, who performed a grand innings after his father�s death,� said a Congress MP.

Treasury bench members came down heavily on those who had corrupted the game, charging them with �sedition.�

�Those who are fixing matches are nothing but anti-nationals. They are selling our country, while the jawans are fighting with the last drop of their blood,� said BJP members.

The MPs also pointed out that it was only cricket that attracted so much of attention, while all other sports were shabbily treated. �How often do we remember which Indian won the Olympics?� asked an MP. There were also suggestions that a separate fund be created from the revenue earned from the game to �nourish� other sports which never attracted national attention.

The MPs also expressed concern about the �pitiable� state of sports bodies. �We all know the state of these bodies.

The sports ministry should assert its right and make these bodies more accountable,� said Congress MP Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

However, not all Congressmen insisted on a CBI inquiry. Leaders like K.P. Singh Deo felt that any inquiry, which gets to the bottom of the mess, could cleanse the system.

Dhindsa�s statement comes a day after home minister L.K. Advani promised that the government would get to the bottom of the match-fixing allegations, and the investigations would extend to any possible involvement of Indian cricketers.    

Raja Rammohanpur, April 20 
Sixty years ago she left her native Cooch Behar to become the Rajmata of Jaipur. Yet, her fascination for her family�s �Ram rajya� in the tiny north Bengal district, now a part of �bam rajya� (Left rule), has remained as strong as ever.

�There was a Ram rajya in Cooch Behar before. What we�ve today is just opposite to that,� rued the former princess of Cooch Behar after she released a North Bengal University-published compilation titled The Kingdom of Kamata Koch Behar in Historical Perspective here this afternoon.

The former Jaipur queen remarked: �Nobody is interested in the development of Cooch Behar. Even the people living there are also not doing much for the place.� She sounded a bit upset when asked whether she has ever taken up the issue with the state government. She answered: �We approached them many times. But you know how governments work. Anyway, I don�t want to get into any controversy with the government.�

Nevertheless, she did not stop herself from citing some examples of inept government handling. She said: �Look at the condition of Jitendra Narayan Hospital and Sagardighi where one finds statues here and there. Why did the state government stop cultivation of tobacco which is one of the best in the world?�

On the contrary, she showered praise on her family�s, particularly her brother Jagat Dipendra Narayan�s rule. She recalled: �There was a perfect understanding between the raja and his praja. There was security for all. The raja could meet his praja without fear. Now, public representatives cannot visit their own houses.�

She described Cooch Behar, which was merged into the Indian Union half-a-century ago, as the �only planned town in the region with trees, roads, ponds and places of worship�. There was no communal disharmony, she added.

She expressed her desire to have the �same old neat and clean Cooch Behar�. She remarked: �We are trying our bit to develop Cooch Behar. We had allotted a crore rupees to the Cooch Behar Development Fund. We do not know how much work was done by the state government with the help of the fund.�

Despite her immense love and concern for Cooch Behar, the former princess may in future find her homecoming a bit controversial because of the growing demand for a Kamtapur state by a section of former subjects of Cooch Behar.

Some of them even tried to dissuade her from attending the book release ceremony at the university where most academicians refute Kamtapur activists� claims that Kamtapuris and Bengalis are different people speaking different languages.

The Rajmata said: �I got telephone calls asking me not to come here. But I have attended several of their (Koch Rajbanshis) programmes in Shibsagar and many other places.� But she was cautious enough not to get into any controversy about the issues of the Kamtapur language and the state.

Asked whether she considers Kamtapuri and Bengali as different languages, she quipped: �I�ve nothing to say whether it is Bengali, German, French or any other language.�

She also evaded questions about the Kamtapur state by saying: �Why politics? Anyway, though we�ve a history of our own, we�ve to move ahead with changing times.� Interestingly, she switched between Bengali and English on and off in her speech at the function and her conversation with media persons.

She ruled out the possibility of turning the magnificent Cooch Behar palace into a hotel. Earlier, the Archaeological Survey of India had asked for some rooms for constructing a hotel. The last time she visited her native place was November 1999.

On the opening of the palace armoury to public last year, she a bit sarcastically said: �It was closed down earlier because Indira Gandhi thought its guns and weapons would pose a threat to the country.�    


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