Doctors pillory govt for sleeping on fatal fever
More raids in dacoity zone
SC ruling widens Hindu Marriage Act scope
Saarc stage sets table for Pak talks
Strike on police greets long truce
Envoy�s dinner misses George Bush
Congres ssuffers setback in bypolls
Arun targets Cong �duplicity�
BJP in kisan race with Sonia
Uproar over licence to kill crop-raiders

Calcutta, Feb. 23: 
The state government�s delay in seeking national and international help to find out the cause of the fatal �fever of unknown origin� in Siliguri has been criticised in several quarters.

�The first team of experts that was sent to Siliguri by the health department on February 5 has returned and, after examination of all factors and samples brought back by it, submitted its report on February 13,� an official at Writers� Buildings told The Telegraph on Friday.

The team, comprising a senior professor from the School of Tropical Medicine, a senior physician and a public health officer had, in its report, recommended that the help of the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune or even the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta be sought immediately.

�The team suspected an unusual and unknown etiological agent was responsible for this after ruling out encephalitis and malaria,� the official said.

But it was a full week later and after more deaths that a fax was sent to the NIV director in Pune. That the director of medical education, after a visit to Siliguri, had tried to pass it off as cerebral malaria is also being criticised.

Calling it criminal negligence, the Medical Service Centre has said an �unpardonable delay has been committed in sending for expert teams as well as in conducting pathological post-mortems.�

The Indian Medical Association, Calcutta branch, has also criticised the delay, and recommended that the CDC be informed immediately.

The Trinamul Congress Doctors� Cell has held the health and urban development ministers responsible. It has also demanded the arrest of the director of medical education for �suppressing facts and misguiding the public.�

One aspect that is known is that the symptoms of the first seven cases are somewhat different from those who died after February 18.

�The neurological symptoms were more pronounced in the early cases. We have not found them in the later, though fever, head and backache, nausea and coma occurred in both phases. The later cases have had more respiratory trouble as well,� a senior health department official said.


Calcutta, Feb. 23: 
Barely a week after a dacoity at a petrol pump at Baruipur, armed dacoits raided three houses at Sonarpur and Kulpi in South 24 Parganas district last night.

The dacoits beat up two residents when they tried to resist and got involved in the scuffle. The dacoits hurled bombs at them.

The administration has alerted all police stations and directed senior officials to conduct raids. In another incident, dacoits attacked four houses at Hinchi in Kulpi police station area and looted cash and valuables.

The sub-divisional police officer, Canning, has been camping in the area. No arrests have been made.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
The Supreme Court has ruled that any person who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew will be covered by the Hindu Marriage Act.

The judgment settles a long-standing dispute as it makes it clear that Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs fall under the purview of the Act. The law is also applicable to Brahmos, Lingayats, Virashaivas and followers of the Prarthana Samaj and the Arya Samaj.

The order came on a petition filed by an Oraon tribal woman who had challenged her Santhal husband�s decision to marry a second time on the ground that custom mandates monogamy as a rule.

Specifying who are covered by the legislation, the apex court division bench of Justice K.T. Thomas and Justice R.P. Sethi said: �The applicability of the Act is comprehensive and applicable to all persons domiciled in the territory of India who are not Muslims, Christians, Parsis or Jews by religion.�

The bench pointed out that the term �Hindu� has not been defined under the law or the Indian Succession Act or any other enactment of the legislature�.

The judges quoted from a Privy Council order of 1903 in the Koer versus Bose case in Calcutta.

The Privy Council had said: �We shall not attempt here to lay down the general definition of what is meant by the term Hindu. The Hindu religion is marvellously catholic and elastic. Its theology is marked by eclecticism and tolerance and almost unlimited freedom of private worship. Its social code is much more stringent, but among its different castes and sections, exhibits wide diversity of practice. It is easier to say who are not Hindus, practically and separation of Hindus from non-Hindus is not a matter of so much difficulty. The people know the differences well and can easily tell who are Hindus and who are not.�

The Supreme Court also ruled that �even if a notification is issued under the Constitution (to exclude tribal marriages from the purview of Hindu marriages), the (Hindu Marriage) Act can be applied to Scheduled Tribes as well by another notification�.

�In the absence of a notification or order under Article 342 of the Constitution, they are deemed to be Hindus,� the judges added.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
Less than 24 hours after renewing the Ramzan truce a third time, India has agreed to a Sri Lankan proposal to call a meeting of Saarc foreign secretaries in May this year.

The proposed meeting, the date and venue of which have yet to be worked out, is significant as it could lead to an interaction between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries on the sidelines. This, in turn, could pave the way for a return to the talks table.

Delhi has, however, made it clear that its green signal to a foreign secretary-level meet does not mean it will agree to a summit meeting of the Saarc nations.

�The standing committee of the Saarc (which is at the foreign secretary level) will meet in the second half of May this year subject to the convenience of all member countries,� foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said. But he added there was no consensus on the Saarc summit yet.

It is significant that the end of the three-month truce and the May meeting comes close to a fortnight of each other.

On one hand, it can be seen as another chance India is giving Pakistan to restore peace. On the other, it gives Delhi an escape hatch to pull out of the commitment if things do not work to its liking.

The last meeting of Saarc foreign secretaries was held in the Sri Lankan hill resort of Nuwara Eliya in March 1999. It is too early to say whether the May meet will lead to a Saarc summit, stalled since July 1998.

Visiting Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga today held wide-ranging talks with the government, including President K.R. Narayanan, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and foreign minister Jaswant Singh. Among the issues discussed were the Saarc summit and a meeting of senior officers of its technical committee.

Asked the agenda of the May meeting, Jassal only said: �Saarc related issues�. But South Block does not rule out a meet- ing between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries on the sidelines, which could be a precursor to resuming bilateral dialogue.

Indian officials, however, tried to maintain that the proposed meeting of the Saarc technical committee and the India-Pakistan dialogue are separate issues.

�Our stand on reviving the dialogue process with Pakistan remains unchanged. To create the right atmosphere for resuming talks, Pakistan will have to stop cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir,� a senior foreign ministry official said.

However, this could be seen as India�s public posture only. Developments over the past few weeks, including a first-time phone conversation between Vajpayee and Pakistan chief executive Pervez Musharraf, have been positive. Besides, India�s three-month extension of the truce in Kashmir, as compared to the earlier one-month renewals, has brightened the chances for creation of a conducive atmosphere that could lead to the resumption of bilateral dialogue.

As chair of the Saarc countries, Sri Lanka is keen that the summit is held soon.

Kumaratunga, however, appears to have realised that India would not like to rush into it, and has decided to proceed a step at a time.

The two sides also discussed Colombo�s ceasefire initiative to restore peace in the embattled island and find a lasting solution to the decade-old ethnic strife. India assured Kumaratunga that it continued to support Sri Lanka�s sovereignty and territorial integrity and believed that a �negotiated political settlement is the only way to restore lasting peace which will meet the aspirations of all sections of Lankan society�.

Kumaratunga apprised the Indian leaders about her proposal to set up a constitutional commission that will promote a debate on the devolution package and help build a national consensus on constitutional reforms.

She also spoke about setting up a monitoring group in the Saarc, but the Indian leaders felt that further discussion was required before it is implemented.


Srinagar, Feb. 23: 
A day after the unilateral ceasefire in the Valley was extended by three months, six police personnel and a civilian were killed in a militant ambush in Anantnag district late this afternoon.

Only yesterday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had announced the third extension of the ceasefire till May-end.

A senior police officer said heavily armed militants attacked a police vehicle at Danwatpora village, near Kokernag in south Kashmir, with grenades and assault rifles.

The station house officer of Kokernag, Abdul Rashid Malik, and his five guards died immediately while two other policemen received serious injuries.

One civilian, identified as Mohammad Ibrahim, also died in the militant firing.

The militants, sources said, rained bullets on the vehicle of the officer, who was returning to the police station from Anantnag. Taken by surprise, the policemen could not retaliate, the sources added.

Two seriously injured policemen, Mohammad Abdullah and Jan Mohammad, were shifted to the Bone and Joint hospital at Barzalla in the city. Their condition was stated to be critical.

Police sources described the killing of the officer as a set back to counter insurgency operations in Kokernag. Malik, sources said, was actively involved in the anti-militancy operations in Srinagar and was shifted to Kokernag only a few months back.

The militants took away two AK-47s, four SLRs and a wireless set from the dead policemen.

No one has yet owned responsibility for the attack which follows the recent killing of three members of the India Reserve Police at Sopore in north Kashmir.

As the news about the killings reached Anantnag, senior police officers rushed with reinforcements. A massive combing operation was ordered in the area.

All-Party Hurriyat Conference chairman Abdul Gani Bhat escaped an attempt on his life yesterday during a visit to Tarzoo in north Kashmir. Timely detection of a live handgrenade tied to Bhat�s vehicle saved him.

Sena barb on Centre

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray today questioned the Centre�s decision to extend the ceasefire.

�On one hand the nation was being projected as a nuclear power and on the other the government was taking a soft stand on the Kashmir issue,� the Sena chief said in an editorial in party mouthpiece Saamna. The �Atomic Energy Department should be scrapped and converted into a flower garden�, he added.

Without referring to the BJP, he said: �Those who attacked the previous Congress regime for soft peddling on the issue have become more soft than their predecessors after coming to power.�


Washington, Feb. 23: 
For the Indian community and Indian diplomats in the US, it is an event which has come two months too late.

If only the governors from America�s 50 states had met here two months ago instead of this week, a US President would have visited the official residence of the Indian ambassador here for the first time.

Nearly 40 governors from across the US, along with their spouses, will be guests at an unprecedented dinner to be hosted by Indian ambassador Naresh Chandra at his home on Saturday.

But George W. Bush will not be among them. Had the dinner taken place two months ago, Bush may have been one of the guests: until mid-December, he was governor of Texas.

No one who has risen to the US presidency has ever visited the Indian ambassador�s residence although the former president, Bill Clinton, was in the Indian Embassy here last September when a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in front of the mission during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s visit to Washington.

The governors are here for their annual meeting, roughly the equivalent of the meetings of all chief ministers which are periodically held in New Delhi.

The dinner will also be one of Chandra�s last official acts here. He returns to India next week and will be replaced by the outgoing foreign secretary, Lalit Mansingh.

The idea of hosting the governors was proposed last year during the height of the Indo-US bonhomie by Parris Glendening, governor of Maryland, to the then Indian deputy chief of mission here, T.P. Sreenivasan.

Glendening is chairman of the National Association of Governors and Sreenivasan, who quickly saw the proposal as an opportunity to move Indian diplomacy out of Washington to America�s outlying regions, made the arrangements for the event.

Sreenivasan recently became India�s ambassador to Austria and permanent representative to UN organisations in Vienna.

Recognising the opportunities in reaching out to the governors, Indian consuls-general across the US have been invited for the dinner. It is the Indian consulates which will have to follow up on the contacts with governors.

With Indian diplomacy in the US on the upswing, Saturday�s event is seen here as the equivalent in India of foreign governments reaching out to the states to take advantage of the next stage of India�s economic reforms.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
The Congress suffered a jolt after results of the February 19 byelections to 12 Assembly seats were announced today.

The party lost the prestigious Hindoli seat in Rajasthan and Shapur in Madhya Pradesh to the BJP. The only saving grace was Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi�s victory from Narwahi over BJP rival Amar Singh by a record margin of 50,000.

Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi won from Ramgarh defeating the CPI�s Nadira Begum by 19,918 votes.

The loss in Hindoli � from where Rajesh Pilot�s widow Rama was elected to the Lok Sabha by a huge margin of six lakh votes � is all the more telling as the BJP�s Nathu Lal Gurjar beat the Congress candidate by 13,189 votes.

The Hindoli seat, which had returned Congress candidates since 1992, fell vacant after Rama resigned following her election to the Lok Sabha from Dausa. But the result would have little impact on the state government as the Congress has a two-thirds majority in the Assembly.

This is the second consecutive defeat in the Assembly bypolls in the state for the ruling party. The Congress had lost the Lunkaransar seat in Bikaner district to the BJP last year. In Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, the ruling parties managed to keep their main Congress rivals at bay.

Braving the anti-incumbency wave, the Akali-BJP alliance retained Majitha in Punjab. Raj Mohinder Singh defeated his Congress rival Sawinder Singh by more than 17,000 votes.

In Andhra, the Telugu Desam retained both Giddalur and Badvel constituencies. K. Vijayama and P. Sai Kalpana Reddy won by a margin of 19,375 and 25,098 votes respectively.

In Uttar Pradesh, the honours were shared by the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Though it retained the Sarsawan seat, the BJP failed to stop the Samajwadi Party from winning from Bhartana in Etawah district.

BJP candidate Raghav won from Sarsawan in Saharanpur district defeating the BSP�s Dharam Singh by 3,577 votes. Pradeep Kumar Yadav of the Samajwadi Party won from Bhartana beating the BSP�s Vinod Singh Yadav. The BJP was pushed to the third place though chief minister Rajnath Singh had pulled out all stops to defeat the Samajwadi candidate.

The party failed to win despite fielding the son of Balram Yadav, an influential member of Parliament of the Samajwadi Party. Though he campaigned for the BJP, Balram could not swing the votes.

In Siwalkhas, Meerut, BSP candidate Sunder Lal Verma defeated the Rashtriya Lok Dal�s Charan Singh by over 3,500 votes.

The BJP wrested Shahpur in Madhya Pradesh from the Congress. Its candidate, Ramdas Shivhare, won by over 3,000 votes.


New Delhi & Calcutta, Feb. 23: 
Disinvestment minister Arun Shourie today sought to dismiss allegations that Bharat Aluminium Company (Balco), at the centre of a selloff storm in Parliament, had been undervalued.

The value of Balco had been arrived at by using four different methods, he told reporters. �I could explain (this) before Parliament if only Opposition MPs have the patience to hear me out,� he said.

Shourie came down heavily on the Congress, accusing the party of �duplicity�. �I will bring out two papers on disinvestment carried out by Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments,� said Shourie. All three states are headed by Congress governments.

Mumbai-based Sterlite Industries, the highest bidder for Balco, had valued the company at Rs 1,081 crore. Based on the valuation, it has offered to pay Rs 551.5 crore for the 51 per cent stake.

The other bidder had reportedly valued Balco much lower at Rs 580 crore, offering Rs 280-odd crore for the 51 per cent holding. The third bidder had pulled out of the race.

After the bidding process had closed, the Chhattisgarh government sprang a surprise with state industry minister Mahendra Karma writing to Shourie on February 12, offering more than Rs 400 crore for Balco. But this is much less than Sterlite�s Rs 551.5-crore bid.

Soon after the selloff was announced, chief minister Ajit Jogi accused the government of selling Balco for a song and said it was valued at Rs 5,000 crore, when some days back his own government had offered around Rs 400 crore.

Jogi�s valuation is also higher than the rest of the Opposition�s estimate at Rs 3,500 crore.

The opponents of the selloff deal claim that Balco was hurriedly valued by an income-tax assessor who was not qualified for the intricate task.

Today, after his bypoll victory from Marwahi, Jogi was charged up. �Yeh khuli loot hai (this is open robbery),� Jogi said about the Balco sale.

�It stinks of corruption. They are selling a Rs 5,000-crore aluminium company for a mere Rs 551 crore. Why not sell it to the public or to the public sector?

�My government will withdraw all benefits, including the lease given exclusively to the company for mining of bauxite and use of government land for a cheap price,� Jogi added. Balco has mines in Korba of Chhattisgarh.

BJP spokesperson V.K. Malhotra, who was present with Shourie at the press conference, held out a veiled counter-threat to the Chhattisgarh chief minister. �If Jogi persists with the threat to cancel Balco�s mining leases, we will take recourse to constitutional remedies,� said Malhotra.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
Fearing that Sonia Gandhi would wrest the initiative with her Kisan rally here on Sunday, the BJP today scrambled to assure farmers that it had not forgotten them.

Party chief Bangaru Laxman made a fervent plea to finance minister Yashwant Sinha to draw up long and short-term measures that would benefit the sector.

Sources said the thrust of Sonia�s attack will be on rising prices of agriculture inputs, diesel, seeds and fertilisers and the NDA regimes �criminal neglect� of farmers.

The Congress chief had caught the BJP napping last year when she led a march to the Prime Minister�s residence during the monsoon session. Later, she had moved an adjournment motion during the winter session to highlight the problems faced by farmers.

That the BJP was stirred up became evident when Laxman came all the way to Parliament to address the party�s daily briefing, a job usually done by party spokesperson V.K. Malhotra.

�We have asked the finance minister to draw up long-term and short-term measures in the interest of farmers and hope this would be kept in mind when the Union budget 2001-2002 is presented,� Laxman told reporters after meeting Sinha.

Defending the steps taken by the NDA government for the welfare of farmers, he blamed previous Congress regimes for their present plight.

Laxman outlined five suggestions that the party had made to the Centre for cushioning the impact of the Vajpayee government�s policy decisions.

The BJP, he said, had suggested raising substantially import duties on all farm products which were not in short supply. In the case of items with low stipulated rates, the party, he said, had recommended hiking import duties beyond the stipulated level as a temporary measure, which was permitted by the World Trade Organisation.

Another suggestion was publicising the nutritional superiority of Indian foodgrain (scientifically proved) to stop people from buying cheaper imported varieties with low food value.

The BJP chief said the party had also advised the Centre to explore ways to restrict import of farm products by non-tariff means such as highlighting their adverse effects on health and environment.

The BJP also asked the government to speed up patenting of Indian products, especially those with medicinal value and �where we have unique identity, for example ayurvedic plants and basmati rice�.


Mumbai, Feb. 23: 
Wildlife experts, concerned about a government order that allows farmers to kill two wild species damaging their crops, sounded an alarm today as they feared rampant abuse of the state�s directive.

Several wildlife groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, said they feared the forest department order to kill nilgais and wild boars spotted in the agricultural fields could lead to a killing spree and upset the prey base in the jungle.

This, in turn, could lead to an increased man-animal conflict, with hungry tigers and leopards turning on village livestock in jungle areas.

The groups plan to launch a campaign and take the issue to the court.

Forest minister Swarup Singh Naik announced the decision yesterday at a hastily-convened state wildlife advisory board meeting.

�It�s a regressive decision without any justification. Incidents of crop damage by those animals are not so many that they call for an extreme step like this,� M.S. Kothari, WWF state director, said.

He said the government should have explored other ways to protect crops. �Farmers should be protected, but certainly not this way.�

Environmentalist Bittu Sahgal, who edits Sanctuary magazine, said the government had �given people a carte blanche to kill wild animals�.

�Today, they will kill nilgais and wild boars. Tomorrow, they will kill elephants damaging their crops and may even kill tigers and leopards,� Sahgal said.

Kothari and Sahgal, both on the state wildlife advisory board, were among the few members of non-governmental organisations called at the last minute to the meeting, where the forest minister made the announcement.

Kothari said chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had acted under pressure from MLAs, mainly from the Vidarbha region, where a few incidents of crop damages by those species were reported last year.

�The government said it issued the order because MLAs had made a hue and cry in the Assembly. But is that enough to justify killing of such wild species?� Sahgal asked.

He said the government had taken this step apparently because it had no money to compensate the farmers for the loss of crops.

�But this is an ill-advised step. It will only aggravate man-animal conflict because of the large-scale slaughter of the prey species carnivores are dependent on,� the Sanctuary editor said.

The experts attending the meeting, including Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environment Action Group and Kishore Rithe of Nature Conservation Society, suggested the farmers suffering losses be compensated, as the government paid for the cattle killed by tigers. The suggestions were immediately turned down.

The experts said the government had earlier brushed aside another suggestion that Bombay Natural History Society undertake a field project to try and find a solution to the problem.

Forest secretary Nand Lal said farmers would have to take permission from division forest officers before killing the animals. Experts called this unimplementable when the �forest department cannot check rampant poaching going on all over�.

Chief wildlife warden B. Majumdar abruptly declared the meeting closed yesterday when the activists protested in chorus against the order.

The official said a 1993 gazette notification had empowered the government to take unilateral decision on wildlife, even without consulting the Centre.


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