The incomplete Sharjah connection
Easter return for fisherfolk in Pak net
George U-turn on Samata
VP hope for rag-tag army
Farmers turn shopkeepers as profits dry up

New Delhi, April 23: 
It was the last conversation between the then South African skipper, Hansie Cronje, and the London-based bookmaker, Sanjeev Chawla, recorded by Delhi police. Chawla was calling from London, having left the country about four days ago. He had finished discussing the next day�s game in Nagpur. Just before putting down his receiver, he told Cronje: �We shall continue the discussion in Sharjah.�

Delhi police have not made public this line in the transcripts of conversations between Cronje and Chawla in their possession. But the sentence does raise suspicions about a continuing nexus between players and bookies in the Sharjah tri-series among India, Pakistan and South Africa.

The tournament saw upsets in the last league match and in the final, both of which South Africa lost after defeating every team in the previous games. Cronje sat out the last league match, letting his successor Shaun Pollock lead the team, since South Africa had already made it to the final.

Delhi police claim to have analysed the matches and spotted some curious twists and turns.

In the final against Pakistan, Cronje played a heroic knock of 79, hitting sixes and fours all around the field. Until he got out, South Africa had looked like winning the match. But his allegedly �pliable� tea-mmates, as he described them to Chawla in the police transcripts, such as Hersc-helle Gibbs and Nicky Boje, contributed little. The transcripts suggest Cronje had some influence on Gibbs, Boje, Henry Williams and Pieter Strydom, all of whom have denied involvement.

The result was close. South Africa lost to Pakistan by only 16 runs. Gibbs scored five, Boje was not used as a bowler and scored a duck. Williams and Strydom did not play.

Derek Crookes, who was asked to open the bowling apparently for the benefit of bookmakers by Cronje in the Nagpur one-dayer, came out the most accomplished batsmen in the South African camp. Crookes batted at number five, ahead of more established batsmen like Mark Boucher, Lance Klusener, Pollock and Boje. In the previous match, Crookes was the ninth batsman.

If the transcripts with Delhi police are real, Crookes had already been exploited by Cronje once for �partial betting� � gambling on portions of the match � when he was asked to open the bowling. There is suspicion now that Cronje may have promoted him in the batting order in the final under a similar understanding with bookmakers.

Delhi police are also wondering why Neil McKenzie played a slow innings in the final, even though he is a newcomer in the international arena. He left Cronje and Boucher (another major run-getter that evening) with too few overs to overtake the Pakistan total.

Cronje may have been a fighter with the bat in the Sharjah final but he did not bowl too well. He used himself sparingly, conceding 22 runs in the three overs he chose to bowl. Of course, other bowlers like Nantie Hayward, Steve Elworthy and Jacques Kallis also got hammered by the Pakistanis but Cronje himself is a very mean bowler and has often succeeded in keeping the run rate down in the crucial middle overs. Often, he takes the risk of bowling himself in the slog overs.

All these will remain unanswered questions unless Sharjah police decide to launch a probe.    

Chennai, April 23: 
Even as Christ�s resurrection was being celebrated the world over, 19 Tamil Nadu fishermen, mainly Christians from the southern part of the state, had an emotional reunion with their families after languishing in Iranian and Pakistani jails for 14 months.

They arrived here today on the Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai at 11.10 am. They were received by fisheries minister Jennifer Chandran, BJP state unit general secretary L. Ganesan, MDMK general secretary Vaiko and Puthiya Tamizhagham leader K. Krishnaswamy, indicating, perhaps, the political significance of the occasion.

The fishermen had strayed into Iranian waters while fishing for a Saudi Arabian firm last February. Subsequently, they were believed to have been left to fend for themselves on the Pak-Afghan border, where they were arrested by the Pakistan police.

They kept their families informed about their plight as they were shuttled from one prison to another. Their cause was first taken up by fishermen�s organisations, who held several protests to demand their release. However, hopes of their release dimmed after the Kargil war and the deterioration in Indo-Pak relations.

Finally, the fishermen walked free after negotiations at the highest level, which came about as all major parties in Tamil Nadu sent a deputation to the Centre.

The fishermen told reporters that contrary to general perception, they were treated well by the Pakistan authorities. One said some Pakistanis were kind, and had said: �We understand your plight. We�ve nothing against you. Our own men are languishing in your prisons. Only diplomatic and bureaucratic hassles stand in the way of your release.�

But life in Iran for nearly three-and-a-half months was hell, a fisherman said. The food was despicable and they were hardly allowed a glass of water on certain days. They were held in such a black-hole that they could not even distinguish between day and night.

After thanking all those who had worked hard for their release, the fishermen left for their homes, eager to meet up with their families.

Chandran said of the 19 fishermen, 15 were from Kanyakumari, two from Tirunelveli, while the other two were from Cuddalore and Ramanathapuram.

The minister announced a solatium of Rs 5,000 each, but the fishermen demanded at least Rs 1 lakh since they had run up huge debts to land the job and had not worked long enough to pay off. They had gone to Saudi Arabia in February 1998 to work on a contract basis.

Chandran felt that it would have been better if they had provided all the relevant information to the government when they took up such assignments abroad.

Trying to secure maximum mileage, MDMK leader Vaiko claimed the fishermen�s release had been secured thanks to the efforts of the Prime Minister and the Tamil Nadu chief minister. But in keeping with the Easter spirit, he said credit should also go to all the parties which supported the cause of the fishermen.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Sensing trouble in the Samata Party, George Fernandes has reportedly asked Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to ignore his urgent request to recognise it as a separate entity.

On January 20, the defence minister was in a tearing hurry to separate the Samata from the Janata Dal (United) in the Lok Sabha. With the Election Commission derecognising Samata as a national party, he had knocked on Balayogi�s door, urging him to recognise the 12-member group as a separate party.

Three months later, Fernandes does not want the Speaker to act fast. Sources said he has advised Balayogi to keep his request in abeyance.

His move comes as several disgruntled MPs are negotiating with Dal(U) leader and communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Paswan has set about converting his Dalit Sena into a political party. Several of the 22 Dal(U) MPs, including those owing allegiance to Fernandes, are in touch with him.

Another Samata stalwart, Nitish Kumar, whose meeting with former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar at the latter�s Bhondsi ashram on April 17 created ripples both in the Samata and BJP, is trying to chart another course as he lost out after the shoddy handling of Bihar affairs by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) top brass, including Fernandes and L.K. Advani.

With help hand from the government and a little cooperation from the Speaker, the Samata has not yet been recognised as a separate group or party. The Samata contested the Bihar elections on its symbol, the flaming torch, as it backtracked from its merger promise with the Dal(U). However, according to the Election Commission ruling, there is no Samata in the Lok Sabha, but the 22-member Dal(U). Party general secretary Jaya Jaitley, who was not an MP, was hastily elected president the next day to enable her to sign the nominations of party candidates.

If the 12 Samata MPs in the Lok Sabha are recognised as a separate party, just four members could split it, while it will be difficult to carve out the Dal(U) as a split will then need eight MPs.

Apart from Nitish, other MPs who are sore with Fernandes are Prabhunath Singh, Raghunath Jha, Jainarain Prasad Nishad, Mahendra Baitha and Manjay Lal. Nishad has already started hobnobbing with Dal(U) leaders. He even sent a signal to Laloo Yadav recently when he said that the �jungle raj� in Bihar is being replaced by the �Chambal raj� (of the NDA). Among the disgruntled MPs, Nitish has the support of only Raghunath Jha.

Others, all aspirants to ministerial berths at the Centre, have warned Fernandes that if Nitish is brought back to the Union Cabinet, they would quit the party, sources said.    

New Delhi, April 23: 
For five years, the Raja of Manda was in the shadow of active politics. Now that he is back in the limelight, V.P. Singh, the purveyor of Mandal politics, is becoming a rallying point for the third front diaspora. Senior Left Front leaders have begun saying �VP� can easily become the centre point of a restructured third front.

Pushed more and more to the sidelines, the Left is now looking for a �credible face� to put the wrecked third front into some kind of a shape. Who better than the former Prime Minister, once an aggressive crusader against corruption and a leading light of social justice, to lead the ragged band of third front leaders?

Two weeks ago, Singh ended his five-year pledge of �political sanyas� and started a campaign in the slums of Delhi. He was accompanied by the general secretaries of the CPM and the CPI � Singh�s �natural allies�. His relationship with the Left has goes back to the days when the Congress finance minister was creating waves with the Bofors scandal.

The Left weighed in behind Singh when he unleashed the Mandal Commission report, sparking a �social war� on the streets. In 1996, when third front leaders were searching high and low for a prime ministerial candidate and Jyoti Basu�s party had shut the door on his prospects, the leaders thronged Singh�s residence at Teen Murti Lane, pleading with him to wear the mantle. But Singh was still sitting out his term of sanyas.

The day he completed his five-year exile, Singh plunged into active politics. He declared that he will work in Delhi�s slums. Soon Singh was protesting the eviction of slum dwellers, camping at the site and refusing to allow bulldozers to trample their huts.

Though it is too early, the Left is hoping Singh will stitch together the tattered third front and re-create political space for a alternative to the Congress and the BJP. Singh�s former rival Mulayam Singh Yadav is out of the third front and Laloo Prasad Yadav will not mind his leadership.    

Jalandhar, April 23: 
Farmers have found greener pastures in Punjab, mostly in shops.

With agriculture no more as profitable due to rising costs, many farmers have become shop-owners. They are running ready-made garment showrooms, petrol pumps, general merchandise stores and even marble mining. Half the shops in Asia�s largest grain market in Khanna are now in the hands of farmers.

�Earlier, agriculture was my main business. Now it is just one of the many I run. Perhaps tomorrow I may quit agriculture if the other things that I am doing fetch good returns,� said Balbir Singh, who owns over 150 acres in Faridkot and was here to make purchases for his new garments showroom.

Like Balbir Singh, there are thousands of farmers who have either opened showrooms selling a variety of things or have sold the major part of their land to send their children abroad.

�Farming is no longer lucrative. It has become a high-risk, low-return profession with rising costs of inputs. Look at the prices of diesel and fertilisers. They are going to go out of reach for most farmers in the next 25 years. Labour, too, has become very expensive. It is better to put your money in the banks as the returns there are higher,� said Prithpal Singh, who had come to see off his two sons who are settled in Canada.

There are reasons why farmers are abandoning their business of generations. While land prices continue to soar, the returns from agriculture do not. Most farmers in Sangrur insist that returns are a mere Rs 15,000 per acre. The market rate for an acre of land in the area is reported to be Rs 50 lakh. Some farmers in the area have not only sold their land but have also moved to cities like Chandigarh and Ludhiana to invest in commercial property, which brings returns much higher than agriculture.

While the government thrust to usher in the second green revolution by promoting farm-related activities like bee keeping, dairy farming and agro-processing has been welcomed, most farmers in the state feel that agriculture and allied activities cannot sustain them in the years to come.

�The government had earlier spoken of poultry-farming and many of us even plunged into the business, thinking it would add to our dwindling incomes. But nothing happened. Most poultry farms in the state are closed. We have to diversify to fields not linked to agriculture. Or we perish,� said Pritam Singh of Faridkot, unhappy with 80 acres.

According to Punjab Agricultural University vice-chancellor G.S. Kalkat, farmers in the state are going through a rough period. �There are no super-rich farmers anymore. Those who sport swanky cars and expensive clothes are into some other business. Look at the countryside. Look at the number of buildings that are built with marble. No farmer today can afford that if he does not have a roaring side business or has relatives abroad who send him money,� he said.

While rising input costs are being touted as a major reason for farmers to switch over to other fields, the growth in debt-related suicides, too, has added to the fear that agriculture alone cannot provide two meals a day.

While the small farmer has no alternative but to perish for not being able to get out of the debt trap, even those with 30 to 40 acres are struggling.

Most farmers also are forced to sell their products through middlemen at a very low cost. �At times the market price is six to seven times the cost sold by the farmers. The farmer does not make money as is generally believed. Had it been so, most farmers would not have given their land to others on yearly contracts,� said Balbir.    


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