Bengal rides on Mamata Mail
Fares frozen, freight up 3%
CPM thrown off the track
Police quiz Shah Rukh on Shah
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
Mamata Banerjee�s �pro-people� budget has triggered a crisis in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with allies protesting against the �Bengal bias� and one of them, the Biju Janata Dal, threatening to walk out of the ruling coalition.

Furious at being �cheated� by the railway minister, BJD MPs instructed party workers in Orissa to stop all trains from entering the state tomorrow.

The parliamentary party will also hold a strategy session tomorrow where withdrawal of support to the A.B. Vajpayee government is expected to be discussed.

�With such blatant discrimination, there is no point in our continuing support to the NDA government,� said senior party leader P. K. Samantray. �You cannot call it a national budget. It is a railway budget for West Bengal.�

Another NDA constituent, the Shiv Sena, has threatened protests. Taking �serious note� of the bias against Maharashtra, especially Marathwada, Sena MPs met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and demanded a meeting of all NDA partners before the budget was passed.

Sena parliamentary party leader Anant Geete urged Vajpayee to hear out the allies and include their demands in the budget before it was put to vote.

Sena leaders said Maharashtra got an allocation of Rs 68 crore last year but this was reduced to Rs 55 crore this year. Sena MPs had earlier disrupted the railway minister�s speech and had heated exchanges with her.

The Telugu Desam also protested against the lack of budgetary support to Andhra Pradesh, but its criticism was milder. Though several MPs slammed the budget, parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu�s statement welcomed certain features while criticising others.

BJD members staged a walkout in the Lok Sabha even as one party MP tore the budget papers. Party general secretary Prasanna Acharya said the BJD had walked out in protest against the �step-motherly treatment meted out to Orissa. Gross injustice has been done to the state and we will continue our protest�.

�We are giving instructions tonight to stop all Orissa-bound trains to register our protest. She is dangerous. She has cheated us,� Samantray added.

Reacting to charges, Mamata said: �I am fair to all. I understand the country well. It is an absolutely political campaign. I cannot satisfy all the 800-odd MPs.�

The railway minister said she had discussed specific rail projects for Orissa and Andhra Pradesh with chief ministers Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu. �They asked for two-three projects which I conceded,� she said, adding that new MPs did not understand the ministry�s constraints.

�Some new MPs do not know about the pink book, which cannot be discussed. Whatever Orissa wanted, I gave. It is in the pink book, they will get it in due course,� she said. (The pink book is the explanatory memorandum appended to the budget.)

Samantray said like Mamata, he was an MP for 15 years and understood the functioning of the railways. �She is telling blatant lies,� the BJD leader said.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
Mamata Banerjee today kicked off her campaign for Assembly polls from the portals of Parliament with a Bengal budget.

With no increase in passenger fares and a mere 3 per cent rise in freight rates, excluding essential commodities, Mamata�s second railway budget bettered the performance of the first, which had drawn snide remarks of having been made for Bengal.

Thundering applause should have been her reward in the Lok Sabha where she presented the budget today for not touching passenger fares, but for one fact: large numbers of the slew of trains and projects she announced benefit her home state to the exclusion of many others. For instance, seven of the 24 new express trains announced connect Bengal. To cite another, the only railway hospital to be set up in 2001-02 will be in Calcutta for Metro rail employees.

Angry Biju Janata Dal MPs, partners in the ruling coalition, walked out of the House and then staged a sit-in, complaining Orissa had been left out in the cold.

The Shiv Sena, another member of the National Democratic Alliance, stormed the well of the House, alleging that Maharashtra had been ignored. Many in the BJP ranks, too, were unhappy.

An unrepentant Mamata read through her speech even as the ruckus raised by friends and foes reached a crescendo, drowning her powerful voice towards the end. She told reporters later: �People keep asking how many trains I gave West Bengal. Does the Howrah-Bangalore express cover only Bengal... (in any case) I cannot satisfy all the 800-odd MPs.�

But her please-poll-bound-Bengal budget may not be the last word heard in the coming financial year about freight and fares. Railway Board chairman Ashok Kumar said at a news conference: �We may review the passenger fares and freight rates later.� The statement was interpreted by many to mean that a fare increase could come after the Assembly elections.

Mamata, however, ruled out any such possibility, �I don�t go for any hanky-panky. My budget is already placed in Parliament. Why should I go for a mid-term appraisal?� she said.

Mamata balanced her books by projecting higher borrowings from the market of Rs 1,000 crore, raising the total to Rs 4,000 crore.

For the second year running, the railways are planning to put off the payment of a substantial portion of dividend to the government. In 2000-01, it had opted to defer a payout of Rs 1,500 crore; next year, it intends to withhold Rs 1,000 crore � making for a total of Rs 2,500 crore. If the entire sum had been budgeted for payment in 2001-02, the railways would have been in the red with an uncovered gap of Rs 1,669 crore.

By raising the level of borrowings and deferring dividend payments, Mamata is putting a heavy burden on the railways� future.

Expenditure on railway safety has not gone up by an appreciable amount. Mamata has also refrained from taking up any new project to keep a lid on expenditure, arguing that she wanted instead to concentrate on finishing whatever had been started earlier.

Through a combination of these strategies, Mamata�s financial managers have even managed to show an �excess� of receipts over expenditure of Rs 331 crore.

Possibly to pre-empt criticism for fiscal imprudence, she told MPs: �I am not an expert nor an economist... and experts have been criticising railways... (but) we have the social responsibility of being an affordable carrier of people and goods.�

Mamata has exempted from the 3 per cent freight hike essential commodities like sugar, edible oil, salt, grains and pulses, kerosene, fruits and vegetables and cooking gas along with parcels and luggage, newspapers, magazines and medicines. She has raised freight rates for coal and iron and steel by two per cent and by one per cent on furnace oil. The freight increases, to take effect from April 1, will raise only Rs 500 crore.

Mamata pledged to earn about Rs 1,000 crore from �non-traditional sources�, a euphemism for renting out right of way along tra-cks to a fibre optic network, billboard space on rail coaches and land and roping in private partners to set up hotels, motels and supermarts on railway property. Seventy per cent of the non-traditional revenue is expected from the optic fibre network.

The size of the plan for 2001-02 has expanded by 11 per cent to Rs 11,090 crore. A part of this increase will meet a long-neglected need � renewal of a vast network of antiquated tracks.

Her other pet project to be bestowed an unspecified jump in resources is the railways� leap into the infotech age. The railway minister announced a chain of automatic teller machines to issue tickets at major railway stations.


Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
Mamata Banerjee�s railway budget, spelling a bonanza for Bengal about two months before the toughest Assembly elections in 24 years, has forced the ruling communists on the defensive.

After realisation dawned on them that each of Mamata�s proposals for new trains, projects and existing work was aimed at an invasion of their bastions across Bengal, the CPM and its associates went into a huddle to discuss how to handle its impact on the electorate.

For appearance�s sake, state CPM secretary Anil Biswas and the chiefs of other Left parties did criticise her, but the attack lacked bite. �There is no way one can praise her budget, because, if anything, it is meant to camouflage her hidden plans for a steep fare hike after the elections,� Biswas said.

From the Left�s point of view, Mamata�s budget seeks to offer rewards to her growing constituencies in South Bengal which will benefit from the new trains and several other schemes.

The rest are expected to give her image a boost in North Bengal where the Left is expected to experience a tough time, thanks to the coming together of Mamata�s Trinamul Congress with the protagonists of the ethnic Kamtapuri movement.

Biswas claimed that Mamata�s budget proposals were meant to �befool the people�, but in private CPM leaders expressed anxiety at some of Mamata�s moves � one among them relates to their bastion, Burdwan.

Riding three trains connecting Asansol, the industrial hub of Burdwan district, with Amritsar, New Jalpaiguri and Haldia, Mamata will seek to crack the communist stranglehold on the district.

As it is, the CPM and its partners have begun to lose influence in Durgapur, Raniganj, Burnpur and Kulti � all once-important towns for Burdwan � because of growing industrial sickness.

Whatever the impact of Mamata�s rail-track politics on the poll outcome, for now the CPM can only live in suspense, bereft of any weapons with the same popular appeal as her Bengal budget to attack her.

Biswas sought refuge behind a wall of intangibles with zero box-office pull. �It is useless to introduce new trains without caring for passenger safety and comfort in the existing trains. We have also seen a number of new trains introduced in the state during the last railway budget. But most of these trains are not getting adequate passengers and becoming liabilities for the exchequer. So we don�t attach much importance to new trains,� he said.

The only good news for the CPM perhaps was the controversial transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty�s silence. Last year, he had rubbed the party the wrong way by praising Mamata�s maiden budget.


Mumbai, Feb. 26: 
The Chori Chori Chupke Chupke case has taken a curious turn, with police questioning Bollywood heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan on his business association with arrested producer Bharat Shah.

Khan was called to the crime branch office yesterday, where he was questioned for more than three hours, said assistant commissioner of police Sanjay Kamble, who is investigating the case. This is the first time the actor has been called for questioning.

Actor Salman Khan was also called to the crime branch office for the second time and grilled for three hours.

Shah Rukh was not involved in the Hindi blockbuster, which police claimed Chhota Shakeel, a Dawood Ibrahim confidant, had funded despite Shah�s assertion that he was the financier.

The police said they questioned Shah Rukh mostly on Shah�s stake in, a dotcom project owned by the actor and Juhi Chawla. He was also queried on Shah�s films he had worked in.

Shah Rukh was asked if he received extortion threats from the underworld, but the police refused to divulge his replies.

A police officer said they did not find anything incriminating against the actor, but were still investigating him.

Police said Salman was questioned about his involvement in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke where he starred with Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta. He was repeatedly asked whether he had acted under duress or if he had received any threat to his life. Salman said he had acted of his own accord. He pleaded ignorance about any mob-involvement in the film.

Shah Rukh told the police that his association with Shah was industry-related. He said he had known the financier because he was the biggest name In the industry and �everyone knows him for some reason or the other�.

He said he had no idea that Shah had any links with the underworld when he joined hands with him to launch the

Sources said the actors were interrogated as part of a police effort to file a chargesheet against Shah, held under the Maharashtra Organised Crime Act. Under the harsh law known as mini-terror, the police will have to file a chargesheet within 180 days of an arrest which ends on Wednesday.

The police said investigation into Bollywood�s alleged links with the underworld would continue and they expected more people in the industry to come under their net.




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