Consensus on crisis, not calamity
Lifeline to Rajiv death-row mother
Delhi police drop Kishen catch
Sightless Sabhayi sifts sand of solitude
Basu�s house in power bill default
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, April 25 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was tonight non-committal in declaring the drought stalking four states as a national calamity, despite a consensus among the Opposition and the BJP�s allies for such a tag.

Briefing the press after an all-party meeting, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan conceded that there was a �consensus�across the political spectrum to label the drought a national calamity. But he parried further questions, saying: �There is no need for any technical debate on this issue.�

Though the Centre seemed reluctant to declare it a national calamity, Mahajan said the crisis would be treated as a �national problem affecting a large number of states�.

He said the Prime Minister assured those who attended the nearly two-hour-long meeting that the financial crunch in the affected states would not be allowed to hamper relief operations.

Vajpayee informed the meeting that finance minister Yashwant Sinha was monitoring the monetary status of the four states. If there was a marked shortfall, the Centre would �come into the picture�, he said.

The Prime Minister also promised to release advance payments from the grants and loans mechanism meant for states.

Sources said he said: �We will not see the colour of the drought-affected states because there will always be a different government at the Centre and the states. So we should not fight here.�

But the Opposition has begun to sniff politics in the relief mechanism. �All parties were unanimous in suggesting that the drought should be declared and treated like a national calamity but the Prime Minister kept silent and refused to accept the Opposition�s proposals,� the Rashtriya Janata Dal representative, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, said.

The BJP-led government�s refusal to declare the Orissa supercyclone as a national calamity, despite the enormity of the disaster and the erstwhile Congress government�s persistent demands, cast its shadow on the meeting.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi reportedly mentioned that the Centre had not given the state its �full dues� when the cyclone struck, to which Vajpayee replied: �Without declaring it a national calamity, we did everything.�

He added that �in the next two months, we should all agree to forget our differences to fight the drought.�

Despite his appeal to the Opposition to �rise above party lines and help the government cope with the crisis�, the BJP is likely to be accused of being �partisan� since two of the affected states are ruled by the Congress.

Vajpayee also refused to constitute a separate task force for the drought and claimed the present one, headed by the Cabinet secretary, was working well.    

Chennai, April 25 
Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi has commuted the death sentence on Nalini, convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, to a life term.

Nalini has a seven-year-old daughter who is being brought up by relatives abroad.

The Governor, however, refused to grant mercy to the child�s father Murugan, as also to Perarivalan and Chinna Santhan, the other convicts on death row.

The order, dated yesterday, was communicated to the four accused in Vellore prison today, jail superintendent Balachandra said.

Defence lawyer N. Chandrasekaran said he would go to Vellore tomorrow to obtain the three prisoners� signatures on mercy petitions addressed to President K.R. Narayanan. The Governor had rejected the clemency pleas of all four last year, but the order was set aside by Madras High Court on the ground that she had not taken the advice of the Cabinet.

The clemency debate made the headlines after Congress president Sonia Gandhi, prompted by her children Rahul and Priyanka, requested the President to commute the death sentence on Nalini as she was the mother of a small child.

Narayanan had passed on the issue to the government and also conveyed Sonia�s wishes to the Tamil Nadu Governor.

The power to grant mercy lies with the President but he usually acts on the advice of the Centre, especially the home ministry. With the Governor giving life to Nalini, it is now for home minister L.K. Advani to decide whether the mother of the child born in captivity can be given a presidential pardon.

By agreeing to spare Nalini�s life, the DMK government has bit the bullet and taken a decision that is likely to raise eyebrows in the Tamil nationalist lobby. The government feels that the Centre would take the cue and commute the death sentence on the other three as well.

Sympathisers of the Eelam cause in the state have been persistently campaigning for the commutation, with PMK leader S. Ramadoss and MDMK chief Vaiko � both allies of the Vajpayee government � joining the chorus. Nalini and the other accused were among the 26 sentenced to death by the Tada court in Poonamallee, near Chennai, in January 1998, nearly seven years after Rajiv Gandhi�s assassination by a human bomb in Sriperumbudur.

But 19 of them were acquitted by the Supreme Court and three others were sentenced to life, leaving the four to face the noose. Their review petitions were rejected by the apex court.

Justice K.T. Thomas, who wrote a dissenting judgment, had sought to speak up for Nalini and stressed that her daughter should be saved from �imposed orphanhood�.    

New Delhi, April 25 
It was Kishen Kumar�s day at Delhi High Court today. Kumar�s anticipatory bail plea was upheld and he filed a suit against Delhi police, saying his phone had been tapped.

The actor also found a surprise shield to ward off interrogators, insisting that he did not know English and that he had no comments to make on the notes taken by the Enforcement Directorate during questioning.

The bet-busters� blank scoresheet on Kumar has fuelled charges that while Delhi police blew the lid off the Hansie Cronje tapes, a clique within it gave the actor tips on how to play hide and seek with the law.

Officers of the anti-extortion cell in the crime branch are now pointing accusing fingers at colleagues in other wings, dropping hints that they might have advised Kumar to seek immediate medical attention when the scandal broke.

Kumar�s anticipatory bail has dealt the first big blow to Delhi police in the match-fixing case. The ruling means that the police can neither arrest nor interrogate him. But he will remain in judicial custody in Tihar jail for Fera violations alleged by the directorate.

Delhi police, fuming at Justice M.S.A. Siddique�s decision to grant anticipatory bail, have said they will move the Supreme Court. Though the police have done a splendid job in the initial stages of the case, they have slipped up by not preparing a foolproof case against Kumar and his associates. The same judge had severely criticised Delhi police and the CBI for letting off a police officer�s son in the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case.

The judge lauded Delhi police for uncovering the cricketer-bookie nexus, but questioned the provisions under which they sought to nail Kumar.

He ruled that the provisions of Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code did not strictly apply to the case.

�The question is whether betting and match-fixing falls within the mischief of Section 420 (cheating) of the IPC,� he said.

The judge asked Kumar to furnish a personal bond and surety of Rs 25,000 in the trial court. But he said that Kumar could not travel out of the country and would have to surrender his passport to the police within a week.

Kumar will remain in Tihar jail at least till May 9 when a division bench of the high court hears his bail plea in the Fera violation case.

Kumar�s petition accusing Delhi police of tapping his telephone contended that it was a violation of the Indian Telegraph Act. The case will be heard on May 11.

The directorate has appealed before a lower court to extend the judicial remands of Kumar and Rajesh Kalra so that they can be further interrogated in the Fera violation case.

Additional chief metropolitan magistrate S.D. Sehgal has ordered that Kumar be produced in court tomorrow.    

Nowhere (western Rajasthan), April 25 
We wandered about in the dunes looking for people and sundry signs of life and then the driver stopped, the jeep tilted on a sandbank, and said he did not know where we were. �Yeh kahan aa gaye hum,� he sang out breezily, venting his worry at being temporarily lost. But confident all the same he would work his way out. �Yeh kahan aa gaye hum... Yeh kahan aa gaye hum.�

We were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of sand and bush; the tracks the four-wheel drive had made behind had been swept away in the wind and ahead and all around was nothing but hot and ochre sameness. But then, nowhere was like everywhere in western Rajasthan: dry, deathly and depeopled. �We must go that way,� said the driver pointing in a vague direction and wheeled around and drove. �We will get somewhere, as long as we stay away from the Pakistan border, we�ll be fine.� His chosen direction was roughly northeast, away from the frontier. �Yeh kahan aa gaye hum...�

We reached a cluster of huts closed in by a boundary of dried up keekur branches. The well outside was filled over with sand and inside we found Sabhayi, 80 plus, nearly blind and all alone. �My sons and their families have all left because there was no water here and nothing to eat. I haven�t the energy to travel now... I have a nephew in a nearby village who sometimes brings me water. I can make a pitcher last a long time.�

How long? We asked her and she said a week, sometimes 10 days. �My needs are few you see, I cannot even see, I just sit.� Habit had made her pull her rancid pallu across her head to meet strangers but she had barely enough cloth to cover her wrinkled torso and she did not even realise. She was too wrapped in her solitude. She had no time to be asked questions about what she ate and how she would survive. �I haven�t too much time to go, I have seen many droughts, perhaps this will be my last.� In many more ways than one Sabhayi defined the line of poverty; she was barely hanging by it.

Further on in the hapless desert we came by another set of dwellings. A man sat there, lonesome, with not even flies to swat. He knew his name but had none for the place where his hut stood. �They call it Siddhi ki Dhani but Siddhi ki Dhani is a few hours walk away, they never gave their place a name,� Kaifmian said. His cattle were all dead or gone. The last of his two cows lay dead nearby under the claws of a brood of vultures, their wings fanning an air that reeked of something that must be called death. Four years ago, Kaifmian was the master of a hundred cows, several donkeys and four camels. He had a camelcart as well on which he would carry his family on excursions to village fairs.

His family has now all fled to Gujarat and the cattle are dead. �I was waiting here because some of my cattle were still there. I had no fodder to give them but I could not leave them behind.� He will leave now, though, and only his camelcart and his hut will stay behind in the place he has no name for. �Once my home was full of bajra stocks and feed for the cattle, now I have only debts. If I can manage never to come back, I will be able to run away from the debts at least.� Kaifmian too defines the line of poverty, which he is now set to stretch all the way into Gujarat.

The driver by now had a sense of where we were and he asked if we wanted to see some more or head back. What�s there to see? we asked and he said women. �Women, women without their husbands, there are such villages ... the men have all left, only the women remain, they fend for themselves.�

So we drove to the women. They were a blaze of flags from afar, their dazzling odhnis fluttering in the wind. Up close they were dead flowers wrapped in fluorescent paper. Their eyes were mute and they stood listlessly. They had been shovelling sand from one pit to another. This is what they call road building in the district, shovel sand, from here to there. And if you make the contractor happy, perhaps he will deliver daily wages � perhaps eight rupees a day � at the end of 15 days of shovelling. �We have nothing better to do,� said one of the women. �This is easy work, just push sand, and perhaps we�ll get money for it. What else is there? Our men haven�t sent any money, there isn�t even water in our homes, the children are eating raw bajra, a few rupees and at least we can buy more.�

Their contractor also runs the local fair price shop, the shop where there never are any stocks. But he has another outlet side by side, his own shop where he sells goods and grain at the market rate.

It would be a joke, a rather cruel one, to ask these women which side of the poverty line they lie on. And it would be ruthlessly unkind to inform them of the morning�s headlines of all the crisis management cries the newspapers are full of, of all the bleeding hearts in Jaipur and in New Delhi, of all the sentiments that are flowing for the drought hit, of all the grains and fodder that are rolling out of the government�s godowns for the dearest of the dear: Those below the poverty line. But perhaps mention of the morning�s headlines wouldn�t make a difference after all. What do they know about poverty lines and what those below it are supposed to get? The government does and its many agents do � contractors, fair price shop owners, bursars of poverty alleviation funds. Aren�t they the ones who really define that line called poverty?    

Calcutta, April 25 
Chandrababu Naidu is not the only chief minister with pending power bills. The West Bengal power board has slapped a tariff default notice on Indira Bhavan, the official residence of chief minister Jyoti Basu.

The house in Salt Lake�s DE block has run up dues of more than Rs 3.30 lakh on two power connections for various billing cycles from 1994 to 1999, according to a board notice.

The notice � dated April 12 and signed by P.S. Basu, superintending engineer, Bidhannagar (D) circle � has been sent to Sech Bhavan, the state irrigation department headquarters, which owns Indira Bhavan.

The notice says: �From the records, it has been observed that a huge outstanding is lying with the two service connections installed at Indira Bhavan where the honourable chief minister resides.�

The notice gives the bill break-up � one connection accounts for dues of Rs 3,23,100, while the other over Rs 7,000 � and signs off with a request: �make the payment immediately due to obvious reasons�.

Board officials are patting themselves on the back for managing to send the notice.

�I think the chief minister will be very happy if he knows that there is a notice against his residence for defaulting and will praise the official who posted it. Obviously, some divisional engineer in Sech Bhavan has slipped up and he should be straightened out,� a board official said.

Basu may be happy, but Naidu was not when the disclosure of pending bills on his farm rocked the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. Naidu soon paid up, but not before his power-reformer image lost some of its sheen.

In Uttar Pradesh, the power board had to threaten ministers with disconnection to clear the dues.

�These are routine notices send out. For instance, Bikash Bhavan has a lot of pending dues and several notices have been posted there. The notice on Indira Bhavan is a good sign and I hope it gets paid,� another official said.

For the lay consumer, the board gives 15 days from the last due date before issuing a disconnection notice.

Indira Bhavan was built during the Congress� plenary session in the early seventies when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was chief minister. It was originally constructed as a modern-day cottage with hay-roof for Indira Gandhi�s stay.

After the plenary, the property was returned to the state government and it lay unoccupied till the early nineties when Basu moved in from his house at Hindustan Park. Before Basu shifted, the cottage was renovated to its present status.    

Maximum: 33.4�C (-3)
Minimum: 20.8�C (-4)
RAINFALL: 2.6 mm
Relative humidity:
Maximum: 88%,
Minimum: 61%
Partly cloudy sky with possibility of a thundershower towards afternoon or evening.
Sunset: 5.58 pm
Sunrise: 5.09 am

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