Minister quits for divine tag to tragedy
Army on alert, disease fear looms
BJP rejects second-hand donations
Delhi frets over reports on Sangh relief block
Calamity photo-op for ministers
Mulayam snub to CPM front
KPP cry for land quota
IISCO officers in wage war
Buddha bid to pick up pieces of peace pledge
No judge to try drugs cases

Bangalore, Jan. 31: 
A Karnataka minister today resigned after saying that the earthquake that devastated Gujarat was divine retribution for ill-treatment of Christians there.

“Whatever I said yesterday has embarrassed the government. I am resigning to avoid any further controversy to the government and to the Congress, which believes in secular principles,” T. John, minister of infrastructure and civil aviation, told reporters.

John said in a speech televised yesterday that “the catastrophe that has struck Gujarat is God’s way of punishing people there for ill-treating Christians and other minorities”.

“Injustice was done to our people. Churches were destroyed in Gujarat. For this injustice, God has punished them,” the minister said at a function organised by a Christian organisation, Good News Society for Global Peace.

The function, and John’s remarks, were telecast live by the regional Kannada channel ETV.

Gujarat witnessed a spate of attacks on churches and prayer meetings during in 1998, triggering concerns about the safety of the Christian community there.

Dangs, the area which bore the brunt of the attacks on Christians, was among the few regions spared by the killer quake.

The Global Council of Indian Christians expressed regret over John’s comment. The council’s convener, Sajjan George, said: “This is certainly not the view of the Church. The Church never talks of punishment. It emphasises on forgiveness.”

John, who represents the hill district of Coorg, is a liquor baron from Kerala and also runs a chain of educational institutions. He was sucked into a controversy last year when his name was linked to the Kerala hooch tragedy, a charge he has vehemently denied.

John’s resignation came after a delegation of angry BJP leaders met chief minister S.M. Krishna and demanded that he drop him from the council of ministers. Former BJP state president B.S. Yediyurappa said criminal proceedings should be begun against John as he had sowed the seeds of communal tension.

The minister said he was quitting the government because “I don’t want to give room to anyone to draw political mileage”. He, however, refused to say whether he resigned on his own or was asked to do so by the chief minister.

Sources close to Krishna said the chief minister, keen not to tarnish his progressive image, summoned John this morning and “gave him a dressing down”. “There was no option but to seek his resignation, John sealed his own fate,” the sources added.

Krishna and his senior ministerial colleagues watched video footage of yesterday’s function before asking John to resign.

The BJP, however, is trying to extract maximum political mileage. The party said that John’s resignation notwithstanding, it would organise a state-wide bandh if the government did not order his arrest.

“He should be arrested. Otherwise we will hold a state-wide bandh on Friday,” Yediyurappa said.


Ahmedabad, Jan. 31: 
The Gujarat administration today gave free rein to the army after looters pillaged through the debris at Anjar, some 30 km southeast of Bhuj, but stopped short of issuing shoot-at-sight orders against mobs of desperate townsmen.

The army sealed Anjar after the mobs were reported to have stolen utensils, furniture, clothes and valuables — whatever they could salvage — from the razed house. Only state officials, soldiers and employees of Reliance — the company that has “adopted” the town — were allowed free movement.

But the state government spokesman, P.K. Lahiri, said the tension — probably caused by mobs angry with tardy administrative response — was not worrisome enough to warrant sterner action.

The administration was today more preoccupied with estimating the human toll of the earthquake. The government estimates the number of dead in Kutch between 25,000 and 30,000. Lahiri, who is also principal secretary to the chief minister, said in Anjar, a town with a population of nearly 1 lakh, that the toll so far is 2,478. This is only a fraction of the four to five per cent of Kutch’s six lakh populace that may have perished in the quake. The number of deaths outside Kutch was put at 1,500 (around 750 in Ahmedabad).

“Our estimates are based on an assessment of the total population living in an area minus the net count,” Lahiri said.

The Gujarat government’s estimate is between a yawning 24,000 and 35,000 and is widely at variance with defence minister George Fernandes’ “personal” estimate of 1 lakh deaths. The International Red Cross today said the number of fatalities was more likely to be around 50,000.

In Delhi, agriculture secretary Bhaskar Barua played down Fernandes’ statement, saying that the toll, according to information with the Centre, stood at 7,181.

It is not clear what the gains or losses of overestimating or underestimating the toll are. But the Gujarat government, which will be giving compensation, will have to pay less if there have been fewer deaths than estimated.

In reality, it is still early to arrive at an exact figure with debris still to be cleared. Also, the number of people succumbing to injuries or disease later will add to the toll.

Lahiri said much of the debris in and around Bhuj will be cleared in three to four days. “Operations have moved from rescue to relief; rehabilitation and reconstruction will follow.”

There is no official report yet on an epidemic though doctors and healthworkers say an outbreak of diseases is likely in Kutch. An RSS worker, Ashutosh Dave, said volunteers of a team from Anjar complained of an eye infection last evening.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) dismissed fears of an outbreak. “There are no diseases or epidemics associated with the presence of dead bodies,” said WHO spokesman Greg Hartl.

A doctor in Lodai village in the worst-affected Kutch district, however, set off an alarm, saying survivors were beginning to fall ill. “I fear this is due to contaminated water,” R.K. Rajgaur was quoted as saying by a foreign news agency.

Rajgaur, who has worked in Lodai for about 20 years, said five people came down with diarrhoea on Tuesday and four others were affected today. “All the four cases today were children below three,” he added. Apprehensions of an outbreak peaked as rescue workers feared that thousands of bodies buried under rubble in the interior areas of Kutch, Rajkot, Surendranagar and other districts are decomposing. A heavy stench hangs over the flattened ghost towns and hundreds of vultures have descended on Kutch, particularly Anjar.

About 1,000 bodies have been recovered so far and mass funeral is expected to be conducted soon.

With hopes of finding any more survivors fading five days after the quake, authorities are grappling with the gargantuan task of disposal of thousands of bodies. Nearly 8,000 bodies, both claimed and unclaimed, have been consigned to flames across Gujarat. About 4,500 were cremated en masse in Kutch district alone, where entire families were buried in mounds of rubble.

Although authorities have rushed bleaching powder, chlorine tables and specialist medical teams to fight against any outbreak of disease, full rescue operations have yet to get underway in more remote areas.

The Gujarat government has started a door-to-door campaign to assess the loss of life and property. A team of 30 personnel comprising officers, doctors, contractors and workers have been sent to the affected areas, Barua said after a meeting of the crisis management group in Delhi this evening.


New Delhi, Jan. 31: 
The BJP believes second-hand stuff isn’t good enough for Gujarat. Volunteers at the party’s relief collection centre made it clear to donors that only brand new clothes, blankets, durries, and utensils will be accepted. Those who came with piles of used clothes and other material for the quake victims were turned away.

The reason: Gujarat being relatively prosperous, the “sensibilities” of the victims would be “hurt” if hand-me-downs were provided. As a volunteer at the Delhi BJP headquarters, which houses the relief collection centre, put it: “When we can give new things, why should we opt for old stuff?”

Purnima Sethi, a BJP functi-onary who has returned from a tour of Kutch and Ahmedabad, said: “People in all the affected talukas are so well-off that we feel uncomfortable giving them old clothes and utensils. Fifty per cent of the residents of two of the most badly affected places, Bhachau and Rapad, reside in Mumbai and abroad and are financially very well-off.”

Other relief collection centres in the capital were not as choosy. The state government, which has set up one at Gujarat Bhavan, is accepting any kind of material, old or new. “Donors are showing concern for the victims, so it is not proper to turn them away,” said a staffer.

Ditto for the Gujarat Samaj, which said “anything and everything will do”.


New Delhi, Jan. 31: 
South Block is over worried over reports in a section of the Western media that Hindu hardliners are trying to block relief work by Christian missionaries in quake-devastated Gujarat.

The attacks on Christians in different parts of the country, particularly in Gujarat, about two years back had put India on the defensive. Delhi’s traditional secular policies came under a cloud as many expressed concern at such religious intolerance.

However, prompt responses from both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior ministers of the ruling NDA stemmed the criticisms to a large extent.

So its re-appearance on the radar screen of the West, at a time when the world is rallying behind India with offer of financial and other help, does create problems for India.

Fortunately, the reports have come out only in a few newspapers and most foreign journalists covering the disaster have not yet focused on this aspect.

“We are trying to ascertain the veracity of such reports. But the fact that some newspapers have started focusing on it is bad enough. We don’t want it to snowball into another major concern,” a foreign ministry official said.

On January 29, The Washington Times had reported that tension between Hindus and Christians was interfering with relief efforts in Gujarat.

“Hindu hotheads are trying to dominate the rescue efforts,” the American newspaper quoted Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Saint Xavier’s Social Service Society, a Christian non-governmental organisation, as saying.

The reports also cite examples of many shouting “Long Live RSS” after being rescued by activists of the Hindu hardline outfit.

The newspaper also suggested that in Christian and Muslim dominated areas, the RSS or Hindu hardliners showed reluctance to extend help or relief assistance. Though it quoted officials and RSS workers denying the allegations, South Block officials feel the overall impression of the report is negative and may cause problems if picked up by others.

The BJP has often been described as a nationalist Hindu party in the Western media. The tag given to it during the Babri Masjid demolition stayed even after it assumed power in Delhi in 1998. What is worrying South Block is that the attacks on Christians can now, in the light of such reports, stage a comeback and put the ruling party in a spot of bother.

US President George Bush was one of the world leaders who personally called up Vajpayee in Lucknow yesterday to express sympathy for the loss of life and property in the earthquake.

But though the Republicans are keen to cooperate with Delhi and strengthen bilateral ties, Washington may have second thoughts if the image of India’s religious intolerance gathers ground in the country and elsewhere in the West.

So far, none of the foreign diplomats has tried to raise the issue with South Block. The stress has been mainly on areas where it could help Indian authorities with relief and rehabilitation efforts.

Nevertheless, foreign ministry officials want to ensure that the RSS or other Hindu hardline groups do not take this opportunity to pursue their anti-Christian agenda.

At least, not at this point of time when the world’s sympathy is with India and its people.


New Delhi, Jan. 31: 
Devastated Gujarat appears to have become the most favoured stopover of publicity-hungry ministers.

No wonder angry relatives of quake victims turned their ire on some ministers. Home minister L.K. Advani had to face a hostile crowd last Saturday and today.

Over the past five days, eight ministers, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have visited the state. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes have made two visits each.

Others who have landed there include health minister C.P. Thakur, railway minister Mamata Banerjee, junior railway minister O. Rajagopal, agriculture minister Nitish Kumar and power minister Suresh Prabhu.

Mamata and Nitish, however, did not undertake separate visits. Mamata accompanied Vajpayee, while Nitish went with Advani.

Today Fernandes, Advani and civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav left for Ahmedabad in separate aircraft to monitor relief and rehabilitation. All three took along groups of scribes.

Some ministers refused to take along dotcom journalists but made it a point to carry print and television scribes, a source said.

If Sharad and Nitish visit the quake-hit state, can bete noire Ram Vilas Paswan lag behind? Paswan’s office said he was leaving for Gujarat on Friday.

What did the civil aviation minister do in the quake-hit areas? He inspected the airports though no damage to any has been reported.

But the official reason was that Sharad went to monitor the transhipment of relief material, a job which can be done by a ministry secretary or an aviation official.

“The civil aviation minister flew in here from Delhi today and gave instructions that nearby airports at Jamnagar, Kandla and Bhuj be used properly to ease congestion at Ahmedabad airport,” an agency report said. But the same order could very well have been issued from Delhi.

Senior officials at the airport explained to Sharad that it took a lot of time to unload the big planes as each trip carried four truckloads of relief material for which 25 to 50 labourers were required.

Sharad said if the problem could be eased to some extent by increasing the work force, airport authorities could hire local labourers and a senior officer could be entrusted with streamlining the operation.

“We, from the ministry, are fully geared to meet the situation and there is no shortcoming from our side in cargo movement,” agencies quoted Sharad as telling Delhi-based reporters accompanying him on the flight.

The health minister rushed to the quake-hit areas though there was no immediate scare of an epidemic. All he did was express fears that there could be an outbreak.

As the ministers landed in Gujarat one after another, relief continued to be hampered by inept handling.

The VIP visits only added to the security personnel’s problems. Visits by some ministers could not be avoided, but the general feeling is the huge amounts of money spent on them could have been better used for relief.

The many visits have also led to conflicting assessments. While Fernandes put the death toll at one lakh, both the Prime Minister and Advani rubbished it, saying it was the defence minister’s personal assessment.


Calcutta, Jan. 31: 
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav today ruled out his participation in a CPM-sponsored third front.

Addressing a public rally at Shahid Minar, Mulayam said he will not consider calling upon Jyoti Basu or his party to join the proposed front as the CPM did not allow Basu to head the front earlier and instead “abused me” for proposing his name.

Lashing out at the CPM, the Samajwadi leader said he had projected Basu as the future Prime Minister and leader of the third front. “But the CPM not only rejected the idea but also insulted me. Should I further call upon him (Basu) and invite more abuses from the communists?” he asked.

Mulayam did not call on Basu though he met Governor Viren J. Shah at the Raj Bhavan.

Mulayam also ruled out seat adjustment with the CPM in the coming Assembly polls.

Alleging that the CPM had failed to discharge its duties towards the minorities, he said: “It is not possible for further electoral adjustment with the CPM, which has already got the support of the Janata Dal (Secular) for the Assembly elections.”

Mulayam also instructed Samajwadi’s state unit chief Vijay Upadhaya to put up party nominees in as many Assembly seats as possible. He also accused the ruling Left Front of neglecting hundreds of madarsa students in Bengal.

The Samajwadi leader complained that the government did not recognise any of the 550 madarsa schools in the state despite several reminders.

“I shall take up the matter with CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and also write to Basu and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, drawing their attention to the poor standard of madarsa education in Bengal,” he added.

Mulayam also lambasted state minister for school education Kanti Biswas for “misbehaving” with a section of students from the lone madarsa college in the city.

“It is unfortunate that Biswas avoided meeting the agitating college students when they sought an appointment with him a few months ago,” he said.


Siliguri, Jan. 31: 
Encouraged by Mamata Banerjee’s words of support, the Kamtapur Peoples’ Party (KPP) has for the first time raised the demand for reservation of land for the Rajbanshis of north Bengal.

The KPP has begun mobilising the largely agrarian community in the region to counter the CPM’s influence in rural pockets. The KPP has formed a farmers’ organisation on the lines of the CPM Kisan Sabha, called the Kamtapur Halua (farmers’) Sangathan.

Having failed to make inroads into the primarily Jharkhandi-dominated trade unions in the tea gardens, the KPP leadership hopes that the support extended by both the Trinamul Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha will help it get a positive response from the farming community dominated by the Rajbanshis.

KPP leaders, however, were evasive when asked whether their agrarian movement would ultimately water down the party’s demand for a separate state.

KPP president Atul Roy said: “Our fight for a separate state will continue. The prime objective of the formation of the KHS is to safeguard the interest of the Rajbanshi community.”

Spelling out the objectives of the farmers’ wing, Roy said: “A nine-member committee with representatives drawn from the party and the All-Kamtapur Students’ Union will serve as the core committee of the KHS. The front has prepared a nine-point charter of demands to safeguard the interests of the Rajbanshis.”

Blaming the incessant influx from neighbouring countries for the condition of the Kamtapuris, Roy said: “Influx from Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and the apathy of successive state governments to safeguard the interest of Kamtapuris are the main reasons behind the present condition.”

The KPP chief alleged that the alienation of the Rajbanshis and the lack of job opportunities stemming from the under-development of the region were the main reasons behind the political movement in the restive region.

“The Kamtapuris, who are the sons-of-the-soil of north Bengal, are today mostly landless. Under these circumstances, the Kamtapuri people cannot even fall back on their prime occupation —agriculture — due to land shrinkage. Reservation of land for the Kamtapuri people is the only remedy to this problem,” Roy added.

Incidentally, the Santosh Rana faction of the Naxalites and the Sayatta Sashan Sangram Manch, an umbrella organisation of eight regional parties seeking total autonomy for north Bengal — have also been demanding reservation of land for the region’s ethnic people.

Roy was, however, guarded in his response when asked whether the KPP would enter into an electoral alliance with the Trinamul.

“We have adopted a ‘wait-and-watch’ strategy. It is still not clear whether it (the Trinamul) is truly sympathetic to the Rajbanshis. We have to ascertain if it just wants to use the KPP for their own political gains in north Bengal or not,” he said.

The CPM has alleged that the Trinamul’s proximity to the Kamtapur outfits has exposed its “true colours”. Urban development minister Ashoke Bhattacharya said: “By extending support to the Kamtapur cause, the Trinamul has exposed its true colours. It will only alienate the party from the people of north Bengal.”


Burnpur, Jan. 31: 
The refusal of the board of Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) to ensure parity in wages for IISCO executives has triggered howls of protest from officers of the ailing steel plant.

Nearly 1,150 IISCO executives, who have been on a relay hunger strike since January 27 to demand wages at par with SAIL staff, called an emergency meeting today to finalise their future course of action.

P.C. Pan, general secretary of the IISCO Officers’ Association, told reporters this afternoon that the executives would go on a fast-unto-death from Saturday.

The association will also involve workers under the banner of ‘‘Save-IISCO Committee” and send over 300 delegates to Delhi and stage a sit-in in front of the SAIL headquarters shortly.

Benefits of adjusted pay scales as per the 1992 Wage Agreement have been denied to IISCO executives since the past five years, the officers alleged.

SAIL approved the revised pay scales for its executives at a board meeting held in New Delhi yesterday.

After the revised pay structure, a SAIL executive director will get a scale of Rs 23,750-600-28550. His IISCO counterpart will, however, continue to get a scale of Rs 11,500-400-13,500.

An E-1 (executive-1) category SAIL executive will enjoy a scale of Rs 11,225-300-17,225, much more than IISCO’s executive-9 category officers.

The chairman of the IISCO association, J. Arjun Prasad, said that Union steel minister Braja Kishore Tripathy and the steel secretary were informed about the wage discrepancy on January 11 and told to settle the dispute.

Prasad alleged that the SAIL management is trying to deny IISCO employees the benefits of the latest wage agreement as per recommendations of the Justice Mohan Committee on the plea that the company has been referred to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR).

He pointed out that Coal India Ltd has accepted the liability of enhanced salaries for executives of its BIFR-referred subsidiary, Eastern Coalfields Ltd.

“The government had approved SAIL’s financial and physical restructuring process as the Navaratna company suffered a staggering loss of over Rs 1,750 crore last year. The figure has already touched Rs 700 crore till December. How, then, will SAIL bear the extra burden for its 18,000-plus executives,” he said.

According to Prasad, if SAIL can pay enhanced salaries to its employees, it can also bring at par wages of IISCO executives.

SAIL had floated a global tender for finding a suitor for IISCO and shortlisted Mitsui of Japan, TPE of Russia and BHP of Australia. A final decision is expected to be taken by June 30 this year.

Delegations from these three companies are expected to arrive here for talks any time but it is unlikely they will be able to hold meetings until the wage dispute is resolved.


Pingla (Midnapore), Jan. 31: 
The CPM has rolled out its party machinery in full regalia for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s visit to scarred Pingla tomorrow in an effort to paper over the potholes in the chief minister’s peace formula.

On December 6, a month after his installation in office, Bhattacharjee had visited Keshpur, another flash-point in Midnapore, and earned accolades as he promised “peace at all cost”, forcing the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine on the defensive.

But after a brief honeymoon with peace, Midnapore is again showing signs of sliding back to the bloody days.

The signs are not far to seek: the mystery-shrouded, alleged massacre at Chhoto Angaria, the unresolved murder of a local woman functionary of the Trinamul Congress at Khejuri and the killing of a CPM supporter in an attack by PWG activists on a party procession at Sandhipur a few weeks ago.

Today’s attempt on the life of a CPM district committee leader is another indication that Midnapore is still a long way from peace.

The government’s concern at the sudden spurt in violence is evident from the transfer of superintendent of police Gaurav Dutta and the appointment of the less controversial Aravind Kumar Maliwal. The government is also thinking of replacing the district magistrate.

Political circles believe Bhattacharjee will reaffirm his commitment to peace when he addresses a public meeting at 11 am tomorrow at the Dakbungalow grounds in Pingla.

The CPM is making elaborate arrangements for his reception. From Mundumar, nearly 200 motorcycle-borne, red-shirted CPM cadre will escort Bhattacharjee to the meeting venue where he will be given a guard of honour by another 500 party workers.

Schoolchildren will line up along the one-and-a-half-km route from Mundumar to the Dakbungalow grounds to shower petals on the chief minister.

Pingla has been painted red with CPM flags fluttering on every housetop. The mood is the same in adjoining Sabang, Moyna, Narayangar and Gangapur from where a sizeable crowd is expected. “We think the meeting will prove to be a crowd-puller,” said Kalipada Manna, a local CPM functionary.

The local Trinamul leadership will watch the turnout at tomorrow’s meeting with interest, especially since Bhattacharjee’s Keshpur rally was a success.

The tribal belt of Midnapore is awaiting the chief minister’s visit as he is due to inaugurate the Hul festival.

Bhattacharjee will be the first chief minister to inaugurate a tribal festival in the district. Tribal folk artistes will receive the chief minister at Chandra with a traditional welcome ceremony.

Police are stepping up vigil in the region following reports that supporters of a few Opposition parties, especially the Jharkhandis, might stage a black-flag demonstration at Chandra.


Calcutta, Jan. 31: 
The special court trying cases under the narcotic drugs Act in North 24-Parganas has been crippled by non-availability of judges.

Not a single case was disposed of since January 1 as additional district judge G.R. Halder has been saddled with the added responsibility of district judge. No full-time judge has ever been appointed to try cases only under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.

The impasse is critical for accused persons awaiting trial as the Act does not provide for bail. This is why Section 36 of the Act had empowered the state to set up special courts for speedy disposal of cases.

Though matters have come to a head since the new year, trouble has been brewing since 1997. Of 352 cases registered since then, only 67 have been disposed of.

With cases after cases piling up, lawyers had pleaded with the state government five months ago to take steps to ease the problem. But the appeal fell on deaf ears. The lawyers then threatened to move the high court.


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