Bill battles tobacco terror
Big brother�s loss is Jaya�s gain
Musharraf offers to host Atal away from hawks
Prize catch for Mamata
Enron draws surety first blood
Calcutta Weather

Feb. 6: 
Dr Sharad Vaidya spent a lifetime fighting against tobacco. He died last November while returning from the Chicago Summit against tobacco use.

Three months after his death, the cancer specialist�s crusade won a pathbreaking victory today with the Cabinet approving the draft of a Bill which contains several prohibitory clauses on sale and use of tobacco products.

The Bill proposes to ban smoking in public places. It will also outlaw �sponsoring of sports and cultural events by cigarette and other tobacco product companies�, once ratified by Parliament during the budget session.

Piloted by the health ministry, the proposal was adopted unanimously at this morning�s Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Called the Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation) Bill, it will replace the existing Cigarettes (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 1975.

Cabinet spokesman Pramod Mahajan said the most important aim of the Bill was to prevent passive smoking. The government also said the law would �help to discourage adolescents from consuming tobacco products�.

Such a ban exists only in three states. Delhi and Goa have enacted such regulations and a High Court judgment in Kerala prevents smoking in public places.

The Bill has more teeth than the previous Act. However, the Centre does not feel that the new law would have immediate impact. �It will certainly not bring down smoking, only help arrest the growth in the number of smokers. In Thailand, where they had they have had sterner anti-smoking strictures for long, the number of smokers has increased marginally,� a health official said.

The government does not expect its excise earnings from the sale of cigarettes, which stand at about Rs 5,550 crore a year, to fall dramatically. But in the years to come, the new law may have an adverse impact on the growth rate of tobacco firms. A health ministry spokesman said that they expected the same to happen in respect of bidis, revenue from which is Rs 300 crore annually.

Of the estimated three million deaths in the world from tobacco-related ailments, nearly one-third occur in India. �Sharad spotted over 25 years ago the major reason behind chest and oral cancers was tobacco,� said Nirmala, his wife and an anti-tobacco activist.

Tobacco giant ITC refused to comment on the ban. A company spokesman said it would be unfair to make a statement without studying the proposal in detail.

The ban, however, is set to have a major impact on ad agencies and sports organisations, the tobacco industry being one of the largest ad-spenders. Brand managers feel the tobacco lobby will try to block the implementation of the law. �If the government is serious, it should ban common branding,� Sushil Pandit of The Hive said.

Common branding is a cover for promoting a banned product. ITC, for instance, has a line of leisurewear called Wills, also a well known cigarette brand.

Sports officials fear losing crucial revenue. �If the Centre brings in the legislation we have no option but to look for alternative avenues,� a senior Board of Control for Cricket in India official said.

The industry appeared disgruntled. Assocham secretary general Jayant Bhuyian said: �It appears that industry has not been consulted in drawing up a meaningful campaign to project the dangers of tobacco.�

Only the ban on cigarettes can be enforced by the Centre, since of all tobacco products, only cigarette comes under the concurrent list. For bidi and gutkha, the states have both legislative and enforcement rights.


Chennai, Feb. 6: 
PMK leader S. Ramadoss today dumped his big brother for his �beloved sister� and sewed up a grand alliance with the Jayalalitha-led ADMK front in Tamil Nadu.

The political realignment has forced the Congress to rethink its ties with the ADMK. Though the Congress has not severed relations as yet, Sonia Gandhi is under pressure to do so from the party�s rank-and-file in the southern state.

Ramadoss, who pulled out of the NDA yesterday, today entrenched himself in the ADMK camp and affirmed his loyalty to Jayalalitha. �I�ll be bound by my beloved sister�s decisions on all issues,� he said.

The PMK leader blamed chief minister M. Karunanidhi for forcing him to part ways with the NDA. �While Annan (elder brother) Kaliagnar (Karunanidhi) sought to destroy our party, my sister wants to befriend us. It was she who had accommodated us in her front in 1998, enabled us to win four Lok Sabha seats and got us a berth in the Union ministry. We�ll always remain grateful to her,� Ramadoss said at a crowded news conference here.

Throughout the press meet, Ramadoss heaped praise on Jayalalitha while mounting an unbridled attack on Karunanidhi. Ramadoss alleged that the chief minister had instigated Vazhapadi Ramamurthy � like Ramadoss, a Vanniar � to unleash a slander campaign. Karunanidhi, he continued, had also tried to demoralise the PMK cadre by detaining them under the National Security Act.

Ramadoss claimed that Karunanidhi had also tried to pit him against Ramamurthy. The DMK leader, Ramadoss said, �gave us the feeling that he was actually enjoying the fusillades from Vazhapadi. Only after we realised that he was not serious about redressing our grievances did we choose to break away�.

The PMK chief took pains to stress that he had no problem with any other constituent of the NDA and it was with a heavy heart that he was severing links with the coalition. He was also effusive in his compliments for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee whom he described as �a great and unforgettable personality�.

Ramadoss, however, denied the BJP�s claim that he had promised to stand by the government in times of crisis. �Now that we have joined the ADMK-led front, we�ll only be bound by its decisions,� he said. The PMK leader appeared uncomfortable answering queries on whether he had got an assurance from Jayalalitha on government-formation in Pondicherry. �I�ve left it all to amma. We�ll abide by her decision,� he said.

Though Ramadoss refused to elaborate, sources said the PMK chief has clinched a deal with Jayalalitha under which the party will form the government in Pondicherry. In return, the PMK will have to be satisfied with around 20 seats in Tamil Nadu.


New Delhi, Feb. 6: 
In a clever move aimed at earning diplomatic brownie points and also at highlighting the latent divisions in the establishment in Delhi, Pakistan�s military ruler Pervez Musharraf today said he was ready to invite Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Islamabad for talks as he was the only �moderate� in the Indian government.

�Vajpayee is the only moderate and he is surrounded by hawks. So, if we have to move in any substantial way, it can only be done in a dialogue between him and me,� Musharraf said in an interview with the Dubai-based Gulf News.

Musharraf was quoted as saying that he was �absolutely willing� to invite Vajpayee, but was cautious to point out that �when one initiates such an act, one has to be very careful that the initiative is accepted�.

Officially, India tried to play down Musharraf�s latest offer for peace. �We are not aware of any such proposal,� foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said.

The latest overture from the Pakistani military ruler is based on some of the �positive� developments last week, primarily the telephonic conversation he had with Vajpayee on the Gujarat earthquake. More important for him was the knowledge that it was mainly due to Vajpayee�s initiative that the bureaucracy in South Block, despite its initial reluctance, finally accepted relief material from Pakistan for the quake victims.

By repeating that he is ready to talk to India �any time, any where�, Musharraf hopes to pressure world powers to nudge India towards the negotiations table. That Musharraf�s plan is working was proved when the visiting Greek Prime Minister, Constantinos Simitis, expressed hope that contact between the two sides, established because of the quake, will be sustained for greater engagement in the near future.

�Earthquake diplomacy could help ease tension between India and Pakistan but some compromises are necessary on both sides to find an amicable solution to the Kashmir imbroglio,� Simitis said.

Greece had begun intense engagement with Turkey, with which it has differences over the Cyprus dispute, a few years ago after an earthquake affected the people of both nations. �Earthquake diplomacy is of great use. It can help ease tension,� Simitis said.


Calcutta. Feb. 6: 
Mamata Banerjee today pulled off a virtual coup, roping in technology guru Sam Pitroda for guiding the modernisation of Indian Railways.

Plugging into his continuing admiration for the late Rajiv Gandhi, their common mentor, the railway minister appointed the telecom visionary adviser to the modernisation initiative. Pitroda�s company will also be a partner in RailTel Corporation � Mamata�s dream project for the infotech age.

Flying in from London this morning, Pitroda, architect of Rajiv Gandhi�s technology missions, called on Mamata in the railway ministry during the day.

The modalities of Pitroda�s appointment and scope of work, however, were discussed during an unpublicised meeting between him and Mamata�s think-tank, made up of Sunil Chaturvedi, a Bengal-cadre IAS officer, and Dinesh Trivedi, a Trinamul Congress general secretary, during the day.

�We feel very happy because we have succeeded in getting one of the finest technology visionaries associated with her efforts to give the railway a new look in the days ahead,� said Chaturvedi, who has been working behind the scene for several months to execute what was known in Mamata�s own circle as �Operation-Sam�.

As chairman of a just-constituted advisory committee for comprehensive modernisation of the railway, Pitroda will oversee induction of new technology and manage the launch of a resource mobilisation programme within the country and abroad. A week before the railway budget, Pitroda will present an interim report on how best the health of railway finances can be improved and resources raised.

The coming together of Mamata and Pitroda brings to an end an intense, but invisible, race among several powerful ministers to enlist the services of the techno-entrepreneur after it became known that the relation between him and a corporate giant was headed for an inevitable rupture.

Reports suggest that the Prime Minister�s Office, ministries like information technology and communications and a host of private companies had intensified their lobbying for Pitroda last December.

As part of an arrangement which is going to be in place soon, Pitroda�s WorldTel will be an equity partner in RailTel. In the next few months, the corporation will embark upon one of the world�s single largest telecom projects to lay optical fibre cable along 65,000 km of railway track and nearly 10,000 railway stations.

Advised by Mckinsey, the international consultant, to make RailTel a joint venture for smoother execution of the huge project, Mamata and his associates picked WorldTel from among a raft of global firms.

Among the factors which tilted the scales in Pitroda�s favour were his appointment as the head of a UN committee to spread the reach of basic telephony in developing nations and the presence of his firm in the telecom sector in as many as 23 countries.

Pitroda had many offers to choose from, but Mamata�s deft dealing of the Rajiv card and the enormity of the project are believed to have impressed him.

�I like it (the optical fibre project) because it is an infinitely romantic one with challenges aplenty,� Pitroda is reported to have told his associates. He was, however, not available for direct comment till late this evening.

Pitroda�s firm is expected to begin a global search for equity partners for RailTel. Powerhouses like GE Capital and Intel have shown interest in joining hands with RailTel, which will begin to witness programmed disinvestment in a month or two.

Seen through the prism of practical politics, no matter how much the PMO and individual ministries admire Pitroda and are willing to walk a few extra miles to be able to secure his services, the Mamata breakthrough is expected to rattle the BJP.

As far as the BJP is concerned, it is feeling tempted to interpret the situation like this: Pitroda is a natural extension of Rajiv Gandhi�s political philosophy.

On the surface, there is nothing in common between Mamata the street fighter and Pitroda the telecom visionary. Yet, they have managed to connect and do business together in exclusion of others because of the old Congress label, anathema to the BJP.


Mumbai, Feb. 6: 
Enron Corporation today invoked the Centre�s counter-guarantee to recover the money Mahastrashtra owes Dabhol Power Company (DPC) � the country�s first fast-track power plant it promoted amid a welter of controversies � and raised the prospect of a bitter arbitration battle.

The cash-strapped Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) has run up arrears worth Rs 79 crore in November and Rs 152 crore in January for power its critics say is priced in an arbitrary fashion. Earlier in the day, the company invoked Maharashtra�s counter-guarantee for the December Bill. The state government will have to pay within seven days.

The state government, unfazed by Enron�s last-gasp bid to recover its money, was adamant as ever �We will not pay the bills. The non-payment does not mean the state government does not have the money to clear the arrears. However, we shall strictly follow the recommendations of the expert panel to be appointed soon by the state government for finding ways to renegotiate the power purchase agreement,� state finance minister Jayant Patil said here today.

The state government has been under pressure to prise open the power purchase pact � which many say is one-sided and flawed � reached under a Congress regime in 1994, and renegotiated by a BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government two years later.

Enron, the first foreign company to take recourse to Centre�s surety, follows four multinationals which walked out of high-profile power projects in a huff after complaining of red tape.

While it is clear that the Centre will clear MSEB�s dues, it is not known if it will prune Maharashtra�s plan allocation by a corresponding amount � something the agreement said would be done in case of a default.




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