Mamata freeze signal to Atal envoy
Lashkar storms police hub
Law�s long arm reaches out to loot amid ruins
ITC pullout burns hole in tennis
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Feb. 9: 
Sparking speculation that he could offer some concessions to his demanding ally, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today despatched Yashwant Sinha to meet Mamata Banerjee, who insisted on presenting a fare-hike-free railway budget given the Assembly elections in West Bengal.

The finance minister briefed Vajpayee on his discussions with Mamata later in the evening, but details were not available.

The Prime Minister sent Sinha to meet Mamata soon after the all-party meeting called by the railway minister got over. Mamata had convened the meeting to discuss the budget and budgetary support to her department.

Though most parties made token noises for a populist budget, Mamata insisted that 90 per cent of the invitees had favoured a �pro-people attitude�.

She, however, declined to give details of the meeting, saying she could not disclose the budget proposals as �this is the prerogative of Parliament�.

Asked what she would convey to the Prime Minister after the meeting, Mamata said: �What I talk with the Prime Minister is absolutely confidential.�

The minister asserted that she could not question Vajpayee if he was firm on increasing the fares. �The Prime Minister is the captain. It is his prerogative,� she said.

However, Trinamul Congress MP Sudip Bandopadhyay made it clear that the party would insist on a populist budget. �We should go for a hike-free budget to reduce the burden on the common man,� he said.

Though today�s meet was aimed at getting an all-party endorsement to pressure Vajpayee into allowing a populist budget, most groups pushed their own regional agenda while making perfunctory noises about a common man�s budget.

The BJP did not support the demand for a hike-free budget, while the Congress stayed away from the meeting.

CPM�s Nilotpal Basu disagreed with the government�s suggestion that the fares be hiked in view of the Gujarat earthquake. He said there is a need to �balance and reconcile� contradictory trends � the railways� twin roles of being a fund raiser and a public utility service, especially in backward areas.

Mamata�s allies � the Biju Janata Dal, Asom Gana Parishad, DMK, Indian National Lok Dal, National Conference and Ram Vilas Paswan�s Lok Jan Shakti Party � demanded more funds for regional projects.

Mamata told the leaders of the regional parties to give their demands in writing. No resolution was adopted unlike last year, when a similar meeting had forced Sinha to increase budgetary support to the railways.

Apart from Mamata and Paswan, Union ministers Arjun Sethi (BJD) and Digvijay Singh (Samata Party) attended the meeting. Sethi was critical of the railways for its �step-motherly treatment� of Orissa and also for �reappropriating� and diverting funds meant for state projects.

Mamata later told reporters that Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi had met her last night and offered support.

The BJP chief whip in the Lok Sabha, V.K. Malhotra, who was present at the meet, wondered how the government would mobilise resources if there was a clamour for more budgetary allocation from �all ministries�.


Srinagar, Feb. 9: 
Launching a reckless offensive against the unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir, militants shot their way into the nerve centre of the state police this evening and killed two policemen in a stand-off that stretched for three hours.

Seven policemen were also wounded in the Lashkar-e-Toiba assault on the main control room of the Jammu and Kashmir police in the heart of the state capital.

A PTI report quoted chief minister Farooq Abdullah as saying in New Delhi that all the four militants had been killed after a gunbattle.

The attack, the most audacious since the second extension of the ceasefire, coincided with a high-power meeting convened by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Delhi. The meeting discussed the threat of an exodus by Sikhs from the Valley following a militant strike and decided to deploy more troops in the Valley to protect Sikhs.

Immediately after the raid, the army was called out and it cordoned off the complex. Power supply to both the headquarters and the control room building was snapped after troops encircled the area.

A senior police officer confirmed that two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police were killed and seven others, including the superintendent of the city south area Ramesh Jalla, were wounded in the exchange of fire. The injured were shifted to hospital.

According to sources, a group of heavily-armed Lashkar militants approached the main gate of the complex, hurled grenades and opened fire killing a sentry on the spot. Policemen manning the main gate bunkers retaliated but the militants barged in and took cover inside a one-storeyed building near the main gate.

Police and paramilitary forces rushed to the spot. But as the militants continued firing from their automatic weapons, the authorities had to finally seek the army�s help.

A Lashkar spokesman later telephoned local newspapers to claim responsibility for the attack by the four-member fidayeen (suicide) squad.

Sources said the authorities were in constant touch with the control room chief, Ghulam Hassan Bhat. He is the only senior officer present inside the complex.

�There is complete chaos inside and no one knows what was going on. We hear only sounds of automatic-weapon fire. Earlier, there were sounds of explosions. We are sitting silently inside the building,� said a policeman who was contacted over telephone.


Ahmedabad, Feb. 9: 
Protectors have turned persecutors in the quake capital.

As the survivors of last month�s seismic cataclysm begin putting their shattered lives back on track, they find themselves confronted with human-vultures who have swooped down to gnaw at the remains of the disaster.

Greed has turned policemen into robbers and neighbours into thieving opportunists.

Prabhaben Dave, who lost her husband, children and home when the earth shook on January 26, is now without any tangible asset. Whatever remained of her house was cleared out when a �friend� landed up with a truck and told neighbours that he was a relative and had come to take her furniture and valuables to Rajkot, where her brother lives.

The neighbours, either caught up in their own tragedy or too busy helping others stay out of it, found it �unnecessary� to double-check the claim.

Narsinhbhai Thakkar, a driver, recalls with horror how four policemen formed a cordon around a razed house in Maninagar soon after the quake as three others in uniform �rescued� a couple of women caught in the collapsed building. By the time, the two bodies were dragged out, they were shorn of their gold bangles, earrings and necklaces.

Though neither the army nor the police will confirm, there are any number of people who have seen how the policemen turned robbers even as the survivors tried to cope with the disaster.

Four policemen were beaten up and driven away by jawans in Maninagar when they were caught trying to pull out bangles from the bodies of women buried under the rubble of their homes.

Others are not far behind. �There have been 10 instances of men coming in small trucks and removing valuables and other things from deserted houses in this colony alone,� says Maltiben of Basantipur.

Explaining the modus operandi, Maltiben said groups of young boys hang around the worst-hit localities for 2-3 days. Posing as social workers, they make discreet enquiries about those who have lost their lives and properties.

Promising to send messages to the relatives, the boys also find out where the dead persons� kin stay. The kill is made after two or three days when another group, claiming to be the relatives of the victims, arrives with trucks and dumps into them whatever is left in the deserted houses. �People are so worked up now that no one verifies the claims made by these thieves,� says Jayantiben.

The men have promised to fight these criminals. Even as their wives and children live in relief camps, they stay back in their crumbling houses, guarding against thieves and quakes.

As 12-year-old Sushma, who is living with her mother in a tent, says: �I feel really bad when Papa goes back in the evening to look after our house.�

Sushma�s house has huge cracks, but her father says he has no option. �I won�t allow the robbers to take away everything that I worked for,� he says.

Cash from rubble

The army has helped recover nearly Rs 20 crore in cash from the vaults of a bank which was reduced to rubble. It took soldiers eight hours to dig through the ruins of the State Bank of India branch in Bhachau.

Locksmiths then broke open the chest of money, ending two weeks of anxiety for a senior bank official who had personally stood guard on the rubble.


New Delhi and Calcutta, Feb. 9: 
Cricket is expected to emerge with a few bruises from ITC�s decision to pull out of sports sponsorship, but Indian tennis is likely to bleed heavily.

Two of the biggest events to be ever held in the country � the $400,000 ATP tournament in Chennai and the $700,000 World Doubles Championship in Bangalore � had Gold Flake, an ITC brand, as its title sponsors.

The five-year contract for the Chennai tournament ended this January and the ITC was toying with the idea of discontinuing its association so that it could concentrate on the Bangalore meet. But no announcement had been made as the International Management Group (IMG) � owners and promoters of the Chennai tournament � was desperate to work out a deal which would extend the ITC contract.

IMG�s desperation stems from the fact that unlike in cricket or golf, tennis involves a far bigger expenditure to draw the top names.

For instance, Boris Becker or Carlos Moya wouldn�t have played in Chennai had they not been offered fat appearance fees. In dollars, that is a real pinch in the pocket and without the support of a sponsor as big as ITC, managing a successful event like the Gold Flake Open would have remained a dream for IMG.

The Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA), which organised the world championship in Bangalore last December, should be more worried than the IMG because the doubles tourney is yet to establish itself as a regular event in the country.

According to KSLTA secretary Sundar Raju, the Gold Flake sponsorship for this year�s championship was to have been reviewed this month. Bangalore being an ITC stronghold, it was taken for granted that the world doubles would continue to receive patronage from the tobacco giant.

�Right now I am in no position to say who will sponsor the next championship. We are on the lookout for a new partner,� said Raju. �ITC is a very sports-oriented concern in the sense that they think and plan long-term, and don�t look for returns from the very first year,� he added.

But Navroz Dhondy, CEO of Percept Advertising, one of the top agencies in the country, felt there was no point reaching for the panic button.

According to Dhondy, there would hardly be any jolt to cricket. �Even before this ban, lots of big companies have been keen to sponsor cricket,� he said.

Golf won�t be severely affected because only six of the 28 tournaments held in India have ITC (or its brands) as title sponsors, though the PGAI (Professional Golfers� Association of India) Tour is known as the Wills Tour. �It�s an umbrella sponsorship Wills is involved in, but there shouldn�t be a problem finding a replacement,� according to Brandon D�Souza.




Maximum: 28.4�C (-1)
Minimum: 14.5�C (-1)



Relative humidity

Maximum: 95%


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 15�C.
Sunrise: 6.17 am;
Sunset: 5.25 pm

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