Quake distracts US team from Valley
Four die in protest meet firing
Atal assurance to Keshubhai
Call for UN toll count
Books open chapter of hope
Heat mounts on census to drop beggar tag
Bandh jitters for tea in cash season
Hill respite sparks panic purchase
Bill boost to heritage houses
Street kids� gift to quake orphans

Washington, Feb. 15: 
An early attempt by the new Washington establishment to meddle in Kashmir has now been transformed into a mercy mission for Gujarat as a result of the earthquake there which has brought in unprecedented relief from the US.

A four-member delegation of US Congressmen which left for Mumbai today at the instance of House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert was to have originally looked at attempts to make peace between India and Pakistan and resolve the Kashmir issue.

The Congressional delegation (CODEL) will still spend 10 days in India and Pakistan � including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) � but the focus of the Indian leg of its tour has undergone a complete change following the Gujarat earthquake.

Until the time of its departure for India, New Delhi had not cleared the delegation�s visit to Jammu and Kashmir although the Pakistanis are welcoming the team to PoK with open arms.

Jim McDermott, Democratic Congressman from Washington state and the new co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India, told reporters on the eve of the team�s departure: �Certainly at the core of my interest in going on this trip is somehow to get this Kashmir problem resolved.�

He added: �I think like in the Middle East, it drains people�s efforts, it drains money, it drains a lot of national effort in something that I hope will someday soon be resolved.� McDermott acknowledged that �we know we are not going there with an answer. We are not sure we even know what the answer is. But we wanted to at least see how we could in some way be helpful, because I think it is in both India and Pakistan�s interest to settle the Kashmir issue.�

But under the itinerary for the team prompted by the earthquake, it is now heading for Mumbai and thereafter to Ahmedabad and Bhuj instead of going straight to New Delhi or Srinagar for high-profile meetings with the players on Kashmir.

Ed Royce, the Republican co-chairman of the Indian Caucus, told reporters that �in India, our focus will be on the earthquake�.

All the four Congressmen acknowledged that America�s help so far has been meagre and wanted more assistance to be provided during the reconstruction phase of the affected areas.

Royce will not go with the delegation to Pakistan and PoK, but he denied that he was succumbing to pressure from Indian Americans in his home state of California, who had donated big sums for his election fund.

Royce said he had prior engagements in California, for which he had to return, but the ethnic media here is replete with stories that Royce is boycotting the Pakistan leg of the tour.

Notwithstanding the CODEL�s preoccupation with Gujarat, officials and ministers will walk the tightrope when it arrives in New Delhi next Tuesday.

This is because one of the team�s members, David Bonior, chief whip for the Democrats in the House of Representatives, is an ardent supporter of Pakistan.

Bonior, who acknowledged his links with Pakistani Americans at yesterday�s press conference, said he was going with an open mind and wanted to see the Indian side of the Kashmir dispute.

Bonior has been instrumental in arranging the team�s planned meeting with General Pervez Musharraf and its visit to PoK.

The fourth member of the delegation is Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

None of the CODEL members believes that their attempt to become involved in the Kashmir dispute will offend Indian sensibilities.


Srinagar, Feb. 15: 
Escorts of an army convoy fired upon civilians demonstrating against an alleged custody killing at Hygam village, 40 km from here, killing four civilians, including two women, and wounding 18 others.

Residents of Hygam and adjoining Bulgam, Tarzoo and Panzipora villages blocked the main Srinagar-Baramulla highway to protest against the killing of a local pharmacist, Jaleel Ahmed Shah, arrested a day before by special operations group (SOG) personnel of the local police.

Shah�s family members and other protesters took out a procession with his bullet-riddled body as soon as it was handed over to them this morning, demanding action against the SOG and raising slogans against the ceasefire.

They blocked the road and did not allow an army convoy to pass through, sources said.

Deputy inspector-general of police (north Kashmir), Dilbagh Singh, said some of the protesters started pelting stones at the police. The troops then opened fire, killing two civilians on the spot. �Two women succumbed to their injuries on the way to a hospital,� Singh said.

Shah, villagers said, was the sole breadwinner of a family of seven. However, a police spokesman said Shah was a militant and was killed in a gun battle with the SOG in a nearby jungle.

Tension gripped towns and villages in north Kashmir, where, reports said, hundreds of people took to the streets as news of the firing spread.

District officers who rushed to the spot had a difficult time as angry mobs shouted slogans against the SOG and chief minister Farooq Abdullah. �Is this the ceasefire? You are killing everyone arrested by the security agencies in custody,� shouted a youth at the deputy commissioner and the Baramulla district police chief.

The district administration this evening decided to register a case against the Rashtriya Rifle which was involved in the incident. The SOG has drawn flak for arresting suspects and civilians and allegedly killing them in custody during the ceasefire. Only yesterday there was another demonstration in Baramulla against the alleged custodial killing of a youth, Khursheed Ahmed, whom the SOG suspected for having links with guerrillas.

The spate of alleged custodial killings follows the announcement by chief minister Farooq Abdullah asking the police �not to take any prisoner as the jails across the Himalayan state are already full�.

Local people view the ceasefire with misgivings as it is widely believed here that the security forces have been conducting operations against under ground guerrillas despite the official cessation of hostilities.


New Delhi, Feb. 15: 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee promised Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel the Centre would do everything possible to get the quake-ravaged state back on its feet, even if this meant doling out additional loans and grants-in-aid.

Vajpayee made the assurance at an informal first meeting of the newly-constituted National Disaster Management Agency today. Home Minister L.K. Advani, finance minister Yashwant Sinha, disaster panel vice-president Sharad Pawar and IT and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan were also present.

Signalling that the Centre meant business, Sinha asked Patel to classify his requisitions in two columns: those that could be sanctioned in the supplementary budget, which will follow the general budget, and those that would be provided for in the next fiscal year which begins from April 2001.

Sources said Sinha had indicated that the supplementary budget would focus on rehabilitating Gujarat. Among the priorities spelt out by the state were reconstruction of government buildings housing the PWD and irrigation departments, hospitals, primary health centres, schools and colleges.

The finance minister had listed six sources of funds for Gujarat � the Centre and the state government, NGOs, bilateral aid, multilateral loan-funding from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, the Prime Minister and chief minister relief funds and, lastly, insurance companies, banks and financial institutions.

Over the last fortnight, the Centre has released Rs 950 crore for Gujarat and another Rs 500 crore is in the pipeline.

Patel told reporters after the meeting that the government�s estimate of the losses was pegged at Rs 20,000 crore, with the rehabilitation of the homeless alone expected to cost Rs 4,000 crore. BJP sources said Vajpayee asked Patel to make a detailed presentation of the relief and rehabilitation work done by the government in the first formal meeting of the disaster management panel on Sunday.

The �buck-up� message to Patel appears to be aimed at undoing some of the flak the state government received after the quake. The administration was accused of being tardy and unresponsive and Patel himself was reportedly huddled in his Gandhinagar bungalow for three days before being prodded by Advani and Governor S.S. Bhandari to visit Bhuj.


Ahmedabad, Feb. 15: 
Accusing the government of �deliberately underestimating� the earthquake toll, a minority community organisation has demanded that an international agency should conduct an �independent survey� under UN supervision to establish the casualty figure.

Expressing a lack of confidence in the Keshubhai Patel government, Maulana R.K. Sajjad, executive member of the All-India Milli Council, said: �My gut feeling is that approximately 1.5 lakh people might have died, but this government is underestimating the number of casualties. Probably it fears that if the exact number of deaths is known, it might create a problem.�

Sajjad, who has just returned from Kutch, said the government has put the toll at 18,000. �But my assessment is that 25,000 people may have died in Bhachau taluka.�

A council member said since the figures are crucial for compensation and rehabilitation, �it is necessary that an exact number of the dead be established. It can be done by an international agency.�

Builder arrested

Rajendra Vyas alias Raju, the builder of the multi-storeyed Mansi complex that collapsed in the quake killing 33 people, was arrested late last night, police said.

He was produced before a court but was denied bail.


Ambapar (Bhuj), Feb. 15: 
Twelve-year-old Nilesh Dhanjibhai Shah misses school. He even misses �Meenal madam� who used to punish him �rather too often.� Though he doesn�t know where his teacher is, Nilesh�s wish of going back to school was fulfilled today.

For the first time anywhere in Gujarat after the earthquake, children of this village went to school �- a tent organised by Major M.S. Ravindranath and jawans from the Second Maratha Light Infantry which is monitoring relief operations here.

�I have been to many places ravaged by war or nature, but have never seen a village that has shown such fortitude and dignity,� says Ravindranath. �Ambapar has become a symbol of courage and self-respect.�

There were no incidents of horading or looting in the village, he says. �The first few days were very difficult for them as they were anxious and fearful. A few even fled, but these villagers have come out of their grief and fear with amazing speed,� gushes Ravindranath.

On January 28, two days after the earthquake, the villagers redirected two truckloads of food and relief material to other villages nearby, the major says.

The sarpanch came up to Ravindranath and said: �Sahab, we would like to keep the food because we have been hungry for two days, but we know there are others who haven�t had even a single meal. Please tell the driver to go to the next village. I will talk to my people, they will understand.�

A total of 508 people died in Ambapar and 1,200 were injured but those who have survived are trying hard to piece together their shattered lives. A few farmers have started tilling their fields and the women are visiting other villages to encourage people to get back to work. It was the women who insisted that the armymen start the school for their children before doing anything else.

�The children have to go to school,� says Manguben. �The children have to understand the value of education and learn how to maintain composure. They are the future leaders of our country.�

Manguben, who has never been to school herself, adds: �What has happened has happened. I have lost my husband and two relatives, but gathering around trees and waiting for the trucks to come with food won�t help.�

Strangely philosophical, Manjuben says: �We should not let the spirit within us die, that is more important. Aje dharti kam thayo che ana thi darine tamaro atmavishwas ke tamaro manobal gomavi bastha nai. (The fear of the earthquake should not extinguish the belief we have in ourselves).�

Villagers of adjoining Tappar, Jaru, Mora and Ukkhan have also started sending their children to the school in Ambapar. There is a small shed near the area that sells toffees to children running towards it during a break.

Children don�t need breaks in a school that is still waiting for teachers. But as Major Ravindranath says: �At least, it is a beginning. Children being sent to school is the first sign of people losing fear.�


New Delhi, Feb. 15: 
Pressure is mounting on the census authorities to not classify sex workers as beggars.

Sex worker Nimmi Bai, along with three others, had made a representation to registrar general, census, J.K. Banthia, and census adviser S.P. Sharma.

They pointed out that they made their living by hard work and that the 240-odd million sex workers in the country were doing a service to society. They would rather be described as self-employed or as what they are: sex workers.

At present sex workers are included under column 9 of the census form in the category of beggars/vagabond/street children.

Banthia had reportedly pointed out to Nimmi Bai that since prostitution was illegal it was decided to include them in the category of beggars.

But this is a point Nimmi Bai refuses to buy. At a recent protest meeting she had said, �Bhikari hum nahin, woh mard hain jo hamein paas ate hain (The beggars are not us, but those who seek our company).�

Sources said Nimmi Bai�s outburst seems to have made some impact as the registrar general, census, is contemplating making some changes to appease the sex workers.

But a major obstacle before the authorities is the fact that prostitution is not legal, they said.

However, census officials refused to comment when contacted. Banthia was out of station.

Pressure is also being applied by the Bharatiya Patita Udhar Samiti which has threatened to move the Supreme Court against the registrar general and the ministry of home affairs if sex workers are denied justice.

Samiti chairman Khairati Lal Bhola said Article 14 gave all Indian citizens the right to pick their profession. �Why is the government shying away from acknowledging the presence of sex workers across the country?� Bhola said.

He reeled out statistics, claiming that there were 1,100 red light areas across the country and in West Bengal alone there were 2.75 lakh sex workers.

�Sex workers have always been part of the mainstream. During the Kargil war, Delhi sex workers contributed Rs 11,000. A few days ago, they handed over Rs 11,950 for Gujarat quake relief,� said Bhola.

He argued that sex workers toil hard to earn a livelihood just like an industrial worker.

At a conference in Calcutta three years ago, sex workers had urged the government to grant them the status of trade unions as they were working in the sex industry.


Calcutta, Feb. 15: 
The Darjeeling tea fraternity is worried that the indefinite bandh called by Subash Ghising�s front could affect the production of the first flush tea, the industry�s main revenue earner.

A senior Darjeeling planter said: �If this indefinite strike stretches for some time, then it will affect the production of the first flush tea. Out of our total production of 9.2 million kg, about 20 per cent is first flush, which fetches good price in the international market.�

The first flush is produced at the end of February and beginning of March. �The season is approaching and we hope that the problem will be sorted out soon,� industry veterans said. The industry fears that peace in Darjeeling may also be affected following Saturday�s attempt on Ghising�s life.

The GNLF said the bandh will continue until police arrest the mastermind behind the ambush. The GNLF had lifted the bandh from 8 am to 4 pm today to help the tourists stranded in the hills and in Sikkim. However, the relaxation was only for passenger vehicles and not for business and commercial establishments.

Already crippled by financial constraints, the recent wage revision has further burdened the Darjeeling tea industry. Losing the first flush will aggravate this problem.

Darjeeling has 72 tea estates and about 55,000 workers in the industry. Majority of these people are Ghising loyalists.

R.K. Dixit, chairman of the Darjeeling Planters� Association said: �The tea industry has always appreciated Ghising�s peace measures and sincere care for the progress of the Darjeeling industry. The members sincerely hope that peace and progress will continue to prevail in the hills and the indefinite strike will be lifted soon. We have strongly condemned the attack and wish Ghising a speedy recovery.�

While there is an air of apprehension among the Darjeeling planters, there is good news for the Indian tea industry. Pakistan has shown interest in buying Indian tea and it has decided to lift about 7-10 million kg this year.

A nine-member team comprising producers and merchant exporters met members of the Pakistan Tea Association to negotiate the deals.

Addressing a news conference here on Tuesday, R.S. Jhawar, chairman of the Indian Tea Association, said: �We have entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Pakistan Tea Association. Pakistan has assured us that they will lift tea to the levels of 10-15 per cent of Pakistan�s total annual requirements.�

Pakistan�s annual requirement is 140 million kg, out of which 110 million kg comes from Kenya and the rest is sourced from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.


Siliguri, Feb. 15: 
Residents of the hill areas scampered to buy essentials as the GNLF lifted the indefinite bandh for eight hours from 8 am to 4 pm. The relaxation on movement of passenger vehicles allowed the stranded people in the hills and in Sikkim to move to their destinations.

Grocery shops and vegetable vendors did brisk business as residents replenished stocks.

Hundreds of buses and small vehicles hurried to reach their destinations within the 4 pm set by the GNLF. The bandh began on Sunday, a day after the attempt on Subash Ghising�s life. All three GNLF branch committees have agreed that the bandh will not be called off until the police arrest the assailants.

Most business establishments, educational institutions, Central and state government offices continued to remain closed.

However, eateries and petrol pumps were kept open to help the passengers.

Around 2,000 passengers from Sikkim, who were stranded at Siliguri for the past four days, were moved to the Himalayan state.

A few trucks carrying essentials were also allowed to travel to the state, though carrying goods was not allowed during the recess, Darjeeling district magistrate Anil Verma said.

At some places, GNLF activists tried to stop movement of vehicles because they didn�t know about the bandh relaxation announced by the GNLF leadership in Siliguri last night, Verma added.


Calcutta, Feb. 15: 
Heritage buildings in the state will get a fresh lease of life.

The Assembly today unanimously cleared a Bill to protect heritage buildings and sites.

According to the provisions of the Heritage Commission Bill, 2001, a panel will be constituted to look into all aspects relating to preservation of national and regional heritage.

The commission, which will be chaired by an eminent person who has been involved with heritage conservation, will consist of a maximum of 21 members.

The other members will be the directors of archaeology and museum, a representative from environment department (preferably an environmentalist), representatives from the departments of urban development and municipal affairs, the mayors of Calcutta and Howrah and officials from municipalities in the hill areas.

Besides, the commission will have 11 experts from the fields of history, fine arts, architecture, conservation, law, structural engineering, town and country planning, industry and commerce.

All members will hold office for three years and can be renominated for one more term. The commission will be the sole authority for identification, preservation, conservation and restoration of any heritage building. It will advise the municipal corporations and other local bodies in preserving heritage property.

As per provisions of the Bill, the commission will enjoy the power of a civil court and can summon any person and take affidavit or take hearings.

Besides, the commission will take action against demolishing heritage buildings. It will negotiate with the sponsors in maintaining or beautifying any heritage building or spot.

Any person can appeal against the commission�s decision to the state government. The Bill says that the decision of the government will be final and cannot be questioned in any court of law.

Urban development minister Ashoke Bhattacharya, who placed the Bill in the House, said West Bengal is the third state in the country to clear an Act on preserving national and regional heritage. He said the government had earlier formed an expert committee headed by historian Barun De to find out ways and means to preserve heritage of Bengal.

The minister said the policy of the government is firm on preserving the state�s culture and heritage. Any citizens are welcome to send suggestions on preserving heritage.


Midnapore, Feb. 15: 
They are the children of a lesser god.

But, that did not stop them from contributing towards the cause of the Gujarat quake victims.

Children of beggars in Jhargram raised Rs 300 and donated it to the Chief Minister�s Relief Fund yesterday. All of them are students of Nachhipur Primary School situated in a remote tribal village of Jhargram.

They reached the town by bus but could not locate Gorachand Das, chairman of the district primary school council. They then marched to district sabhadhipati Pulin Behari Biskey who happily accepted the contribution.

Dulali Barui, a Class II student, is one of the contributors. �My father is dead and my mother is insane. My grandma goes to beg when I go to school. But I rush to her as soon as I finish my classes. I could donate only 75 paise,� Dulali said.

Tapan Karan of Class IV is another student who has donated money. His father is also dead. �My mother makes puffed rice. But what she earns from it is not enough. So she has to go and beg every morning,� he said.

The teacher accompanying them, Akhil Mahapatra, was on the verge of tears while narrating his students� dedication to the cause. �The day these children learnt about the disaster from us, they decided to donate whatever they could. While accompanying their parents during begging, they would narrate the quake victims� tales of woe to the people and request them to give more alms. They used to fan out in nearby towns after their classes for more donations. The result is today�s alms to the chief minister�s fund.

Biskey was overwhelmed. �These little children have taught us a lesson. We will remember them,� he said.

More than 75 per cent of the children in this village live below the poverty line. Their parents� main profession is to beg. Eighty per cent of the villagers are either scheduled tribes or scheduled castes. The affluent section in the village are potato farmers. After the potatoes are harvested and sent to cold storage, the affluent farmers withdraw from the fields.


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