Shell-storm in war without enemy
Radical reform roster
Christian marriage law sparks disquiet

Bharatpur, April 29 
Acres after acres of charred, singed vegetation greets you in this drought-free district of parched Rajasthan. It seems a scene straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster on the Vietnam war.

The place appears to have been napalmed after 8,000 tonnes of ammunition in an Indian army dump blew up yesterday, feeding a blaze that raged into the night. Sporadic bursts could be heard through this afternoon.

Army sources said the loss to the Indian government was hundreds of crores. But though the army is whispering sabotage, anyone not in olive greens here says it has more to do with callousness, if not negligence.

Defence minister George Fernandes’ chopper hovered over the smouldering zone, far above the smell of burning cordite that has enveloped the area. A high-level probe — “staff inquiry” in military jargon — has been ordered, headed by a major-general.

The death toll would have been higher — two people died and three were injured — if the burning shells had penetrated the underground magazine and stockpiles of ammunition where, some say, even long-range missiles had been kept.

It was only the tonnes and tonnes of artillery, mortar and small-arms ammunition stockpiled above the ground, protected by only asbestos sheets or tarpaulin, that had gone up in an orgy of fireworks.

Eyewitnesses said the scene was like an unseasonal Diwali, only many times more destructive. One police officer — who was in the over 12-hour madness within the dump since last afternoon — said he heard army officers saying “only God can help now”.

The extent of the destruction could be seen from the top of a temple, east of the ammunition depot: a vast, undulating expanse of the roughly 40-sq-km arsenal lying in utter waste. Small craters had formed where the heavier shells had landed, helped by strong winds. A sweeping brush fire had engulfed the whole depot, singing the grass, shrubs and trees, leaving only the burnt-out hollow shells of once-concrete structures.

Six-foot-long rockets, used in multi-barrel rocket launchers, flew in different directions thudding against buildings and blowing holes through them, striking down trees and ricocheting off to land anywhere. Half-a-dozen landed in Bharatpur town, about 10 km away.

A countless number of 155mm, 130mm and 105 mm shells — used in heavy guns — boomed out like spinning balls of fire, destroying fields with their stubble of just-harvested paddy and maize. Several hundred tonnes of fodder and foodgrain, stored by farmers, are still smouldering.

“It started around 3 last afternoon when some cables caught fire. Most armymen were relaxing or nobody noticed the fire even as the livewires sparked and crackled. Within seconds, all hell broke loose,” said deputy superintendent of police Jyoti Swarup.

“Within seconds,” he said, “the fire spread to the open plinth depots where heavier the shells had been stored. It was then that the place started reverberating with rockets flying off in all directions. Bullets whizzed past as jawans ducked. By evening, the darkening sky, already a dull red because of the brewing dust-storm, had lit up.” A bystander said Bharatpur spoke in one voice last evening: “Kaboom, Kaboom.”

Outside, in all the surrounding villages — 15 have suffered various degrees of burns — twisted and mangled metal lay strewn. The worst affected are Mandavni, Anipur and Murwara villages.

“Some of us were resting after a hot day’s work. There was a strange sound, something like ‘phhhhhhhhhht’ and then a loud explosion as one gola hit a tree and deflected off before a shrapnel hit my leg,” said an injured Kesanti, 53, of Rehmanpura village, pointing at her heavily-bandaged leg.

People are now flocking here to collect the souvenirs — the large, medium and small pieces of projectiles that had landed there.

“These are strange metals for us and will fetch a good price in the market,” a Bharatpur resident said.    

New Delhi, April 29 
The shoguns of industry who advise Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee have suggested a radical blueprint for reforms that seeks to privatise vast tracts of government ownership, restrict the domain of government’s role and influence to areas like health and education, and winch down the level of subsidies by raising user charges for public utility services.

The PM’s council of trade and industry, which held its second meeting here today at Vajpayee’s residence, asked the government to raise agriculture power tariff to Rs 1.10 paise per unit within three years, bring down the government’s holding in all non-strategic PSUs to 26 per cent, make private and secondary education compulsory, and slap additional taxes on tobacco and liquor to meet the increasing healthcare costs.

The council, which comprises six sub-groups, sought industry’s freedom to retrench or layoff labour and effect plant closures without having to seek prior government permission. Further, a unit should be allowed to close down after paying a mutually agreed compensation to the employees.

On education, the council said the government should progressively bring down the level of funding to varsities forcing them to become self sufficient and leave higher and professional education to the private sector. Concurrently, a credit market for private finance should be developed to help meet higher education costs.

The sub-group on health, comprising Mukesh Ambani and Kumar Mangalam Birla, urged the Centre to limit its role to primary and preventive health care apart from free health care to the needy and suggested enlisting private providers to deliver preventive care.

The council, which includes industrialists like Mukesh Ambani, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Nusli Wadia, Rahul Bajaj, Sanjeev Goenka, Ficci chief G.P. Goenka and CII president Arun Bharat Ram, also wanted the government to remove entry restrictions to enable multinationals to invest in an area that has until now largely been the preserve of the small-scale sector and remove controls on the sugar industry.

Among those who represented the government at the meeting were finance minister Yashwant Sinha and industry and commerce minister Murasoli Maran.

Vajpayee announced the formation of an implementation committee, headed by Sinha, which will give a status report on the recommendations at the next meeting of the council, PMO secretary N.K. Singh said. The six sub-groups of the council, which was set up in December 1999, suggested the need to intensify reforms particularly in areas like agriculture, law, administration and labour.

Vajpayee assured the industrialists that the Centre would continue with a credible divestment programme, pursue policies of fiscal consolidation, push through reforms of banks and financial institutions, and remove infrastructural bottlenecks. Underscoring the fact that economic fundamentals were strong and India’s international credibility was at an all-time high, Vajpayee said high priority would be accorded to education, health and rural development.    

New Delhi, April 29 
The Church is upset with the BJP-led government over a key proposal in the new Christian marriage Bill which it plans to introduce in this Parliament session.

There are several clauses that have made the Church uneasy but the one that it is most wary about lies at the very root of the Bill. This clause says that the new Christian Marriage Act will only apply in marriages where both husband and wife are Christians.

At yesterday’s meeting with Union law minister Ram Jethmalani, Bishop Alan de Lastic made it clear that they will not agree to the clause. The Bishop accused the government of implementing its “hidden agenda”. He felt that the clause was a ploy to curb conversions. Jethmalani, however, said the Muslim Personal Law, too, is applicable only to marriages between persons of the same religion.

The Christian marriage Bill states that it’s rules will govern marriages between two Christians. But in case one is a non-Christian, the marriage will be bound by the Special Marriage Act.

The Church representatives insisted that the clause should be changed and Jethmalani agreed to set up a sub-panel to sort out the issues of friction.

Bishop Donald D’Souza, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, told The Telegraph: “Churches have long become progressive. They are allowing inter-religious marriages. This (the new proposal) is a human rights violation and sends a wrong signal at the wrong time.”

Yesterday, the law ministry had suggested that a consensus has been achieved. Now it is clear that several Christian leaders had strongly reacted to what they believed was an attempt to trample on their religious rights.

Different sects within the religion view marriage and divorce differently and not all of them are willing to discontinue these traditions. Besides, a few groups had identified a “hidden” agenda in the Centre’s attempt to promote marriage outside the Church for a wedding between a Christian and a non-Christian.

It took women’s organisations almost a decade to push through the amendments to the 1872 Christian Marriage Act. “We have travelled a long way,” a woman activist said. There was a time when the clergy refused to even discuss divorce. The clauses in the 1872 Act are heavily weighed against women.

The new Bill will put husband and wife on an equal footing on divorce and the clergy have agreed to do away with the existing discriminatory clauses.

The new draft of the Christian Marriage Act is based on the Bill prepared by the Joint Women’s Programme, a women’s organisation.    


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