Congress loses room in House
Police chief focus on violence belt
Killer mushrooms claim 3
Centre disowns Mamata railway promises
Drive to remove illegal fisheries
PSU workers oppose selloff
Kalraj stuns Rajnath in seat battle
Manipur muddle in President court
IT centres� closure zaps students
Canada hand in tax recast

Calcutta, May 31: 
The Congress Legislature Party cannot claim any accommodation in the Assembly building for its MLAs when they are not participating in the business.

Speaker Hasim Abdul Halim said this afternoon that the Congress cannot stake a claim for separate accommodation as it had failed to bag the requisite one-tenth of the total number of seats in the 294-member House.

The block that earlier belonged to the Congress will now go to Mamata Banerjee�s Trinamul Congress, as it has emerged the principal Opposition with 60 legislators. The beleaguered Congress has only 26 MLAs.

Trinamul Congress MLA Pankaj Banerjee will enjoy the status of a Cabinet minister as leader of Opposition, while Atish Sinha, the outgoing leader of Opposition, has now been relegated to the position of CLP leader.

Halim, however, maintained this afternoon that a room could be allotted to to the party �only if it applies for this�. He recounted that the Congress had met a similar fate in 1977 when it won only 20 seats and the Janata Party emerged as the principal Opposition with 29 MLAs. �At that time, Kashikanta Moita was the leader of Opposition from Janata,� he added.

Assembly officials said a room beside the Council Chamber is being renovated for the CLP leader. �Though the party does not deserve any accommodation, I don�t like to deny minimum facilities that it has been enjoying for years to the party,� Halim observed.

Talking about the four Independents, Halim said they could not be clubbed with the Congress as they won the elections under separate symbols. �All four will be treated as Independents,� he added. Congress sources, however, said that the four � Nepal Mahato from Jhalda, Sheikh Habibul from North Dinajpur, Abu Taher from Noada and Niamat Sheikh from Hariharpara � are likely to join the party soon. Sinha later said he had a dialogue with the four Independents on floor coordination.

Adhir Chowdhury, Congress MP from Berhampore, said from Delhi tonight that two Independents from Murshidabad � Abu and Niamat � had already written to the PCC chief Pranab Mukherjee expressing willingness to join the Congress.


Calcutta, May 31: 
West Bengal director general of police Dinesh Kumar Vajpai has asked the superintendents of police of South Bengal districts to step up their activities against criminals.

At a meeting with superintendents of police of Birbhum, Burdwan, Bankura, Midnapore, Purulia, Hooghly and Howrah today at Writers� Building, Vajpai directed Midnapore superintendent of police A. Maliwal and Hooghly SP N. Ramesh Babu to take extra initiative to ensure peace in the disturbed pockets in their districts.

Vajpai pointed out that inter-party clashes, indiscriminate arson and looting had been ravaging the villages of Arambagh, Khanakul and Goghat for about 15 months. About 111 clashes between supporters of the Trinamul Congress and the CPM had taken place in Arambagh subdivision, claiming 15 Trinamul activists and six CPM supporters.

The need to set up many more police stations and establish a wider wireless network in Midnapore and Hooghly also figured in the discussion. The police chief asked Maliwal and Babu what steps they had taken in this regard so far and the logistic support they needed.

Babu proposed that surveillance in the trouble-spots of Hooghly , including Arambagh, Goghat, Khanakul and Konnagar, be beefed up. He suggested setting up a separate police station in Konnagar and two outposts at Hind Motors and Kanaipur.

The SP also suggested the creation of a new post for circle inspector exclusively for Uttarpara and Konnagar area as now the circle inspector of Uttarpara looks after four police station areas � Uttarpara, Dankuni, Chanditala and Jangipara.

The SP told Vajpai that all the 22 police stations and 41 outposts, beat houses and town outposts had been provided with wireless sets. All police vans attached to police stations and outposts had been fitted with radio-telephony facilities.


Siliguri, May 31: 
Caught between a mysterious ailment and poisonous mushrooms, Siliguri civic authorities are struggling to provide medical care and prevent further outbreaks.

Poisonous mushrooms, which had claimed the lives of four members of Parshuram Rai�s family in Darjeeling hills last week, seems to have struck with a vengeance again, claiming three more lives today. Fifteen others are fighting for their lives.

Darjeeling sub-divisional officer K.C. Mondal said: �Altogether 18 members of two families were rushed to Darjeeling Sadar hospital yesterday after eating poisonous mushrooms. On them 11 are members of Dugra Pradhan�s family from the neighbouring Ilam district of Nepal. Bal Bahadur Rai of Chabishey 7th mile in Mirik lost his sons Tilak (15), Badal (12) and daughter Anjana (8) this morning. Rai, his wife Parvati and another child are in a critical condition.�

Parvati Rai said her children had picked some wild mushrooms, which the family had for dinner on Wednesday. �All the family members started having a severe burning sensation in the chest in next morning. We were rushed to Darjeeling Sadar hospital by some of our neighbours,� said Parvati.

Meanwhile, Durga Pradhan and his family members have been shifted to the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital near Siliguri as their condition worsened. The district authorities have urged the people to be careful while eating mushrooms.

�Wild mushrooms, which sprout all over the hills with the first showers, are hot favourites with local residents. Many villagers routinely consume them. However, only those with thorough knowledge can distinguish between the poisonous ones and the edible one. It is possible that the killer mushrooms were picked by children with no knowledge,� said a resident.

Last week Parsuram Rai (51) of Rishirhat Khasmahal lost his wife Anita (35), son Anurag (13), and daughters Poonam (11) and Binita (8) to the killer mushrooms. Parsuram is still battling for life at the Sadar hospital. The Rai children had collected mushrooms from the wild, which the family had eaten for dinner.

Even as the civic authorities struggled to cope with this tragedy, a mysterious ailment struck school students in the afternoon.

At Margaret High School, classes had resumed as usual after the lunch break today, when Salini Agarwal a student of class 7C complained of nausea and giddiness at around 1 pm. Headmaster Ranjit Chakravarty asked Agarwal to go back to class and rest.

Within minutes, 10 of Salini�s classmates also complained of the same symptoms. One by one the girls started falling ill and by 1.30 pm 13 girls reported sick, some even losing consciousness. Panic then gripped the school in Pradhan Nagar on the outskirts of Siliguri.

Chakravarty promptly informed the mayor and the deputy mayor of the Siliguri Municipal Corporation of the incident. The civic authorities rushed the girls to the Siliguri sub-divisional hospital in an ambulance. While 10 students were admitted an put under treatment for suspected poisoning, one girl has been kept under observation.

As the news of the malady spread, harried parents rushed to the school to inquire about their wards.

Additional superintendent of police Ajay Kumar said: �Initially we thought that it was a case of food-poisoning. We thought that the girls must have eaten some contaminated foodstuff from unauthorised vendors selling their wares outside the school.


New Delhi & Calcutta, May 31: 
Days after deciding to shovel its scarce resources into long-pending projects, the Centre today said the railway ministry was under �no obligation� to implement whatever Mamata Banerjee might have promised or declared.

�The railway ministry has no obligation to implement whatever former railway minister Mamata Banerjee might have promised or declared. But we shall definitely deliver all that had been passed by Parliament during her tenure,� minister of state for railways Digvijay Singh said at the Chittaranjan Locomotive Works where he flagged off Navjagran, the electric loco which can run at 200 kmph.

�We cannot take responsibility for commitments made by any individual to the people,� Singh said about Mamata�s assurance that squatters in railway land in Greater Calcutta would not be disturbed and would instead be given leasehold land. Such statements, the junior railway minister said, cannot be taken as being the stand of the government.

Singh, however, denied knowledge of his former boss� promise of an order for 120 locomotives in the current financial year. �An order for producing 90 locomotives has been placed with CLW for the current fiscal year. I have no idea about orders for 120 locomotives,� the junior minister said.

Mamata�s famous Bengal package, which she announced with great fanfare in her budget in February, is being nixed, at least for now, as the ministry is struggling to find cash to fulfil the promises made by her predecessors, including Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar, who holds the portfolio now.

CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta today alleged that the running feud between Nitish and Mamata is having an adverse impact on Bengal�s wagon industry.

�In the railway budget for 2001-2002, approved by Parliament, there is a provision of an order for 23,000 wagons. But till today, order for not a single wagon has been placed, plunging the industry into deep crisis. If it (the railway ministry) has a score to settle with Mamata, it should do it elsewhere,� said Dasgupta, who is also the state-level general secretary of the CPI�s labour arm, Aituc.

Nine of the 14 wagon-makers in the country are in Bengal, Dasgupta said, and argued that the decision could affect those companies, including Burn Standard, Braithwaite and Jessop.

He said he had met Nitish in Delhi a few says ago and the minister admitted that the wagon order would be slashed. �We have come to know that the Railway Board is slashing the order figure from 23,000 to 5,000. The decision, if taken, is totally political and plunges the future of nearly two lakh families, associated with the industry directly and indirectly, to a severe crisis and is likely to deal a body blow to the state�s economy,� Dasgupta said.

The former Rajya Sabha member urged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to intervene and ensure that orders for the 23,000 wagons mentioned in the railway budget are placed immediately as any further delay will seriously affect production in the wagon-building units.


Calcutta, May 31: 
Better late than never. That�s what bureaucrats left unsaid when they promised to free riverbeds of encroaching fisheries and brick kilns.

Officials said the task, which they would have liked to complete before the elections, has now been assigned priority status with the monsoon round the corner. They promised to carry out the drive �ruthlessly and without prejudice� and expected to finish the job within a fortnight.

�It is because of these encroachments that the major rivers, particularly those flowing through North 24-Parganas, have changed courses and breached their banks to cause flood havoc,� said finance minister Asim Dasgupta.

People �owning� these fisheries (bheris) and brickfields construct earthen dams on the riverbed during the dry season and run their illegal businesses. These dams obstruct the normal flow of the river, forcing the water to seek other, often devastating, routes of escape when the river is in spate.

Dasgupta, however, evaded a question on how these illegal fisheries and brick kilns had been allowed to flourish. �The first thing is to get rid of the fishery dams and the brick kilns. We will keep a strict watch so that they do not make a comeback,� he said.

Dasgupta held discussions on the issue with the North 24-Parganas district police and civil administration as well as with officials from the irrigation department. Also present were irrigation minister Amal Roy and relief minister Hafiz Alam Sairani.

Dasgupta said waterways like Ichhamati, Jamuna, Padma Khal and Bidyadhari were being affected by over 200 fisheries and 87 brickfields. The structures have affected the flow of the river during the monsoon, causing floods in areas that did not suffer in the past. Even the Sunderbans estuary had been affected by the erratic flow of water down to the sea.

�We had a meeting with the chief minister recently where a decision was taken that a handful of people cannot make gains at the cost of lakhs getting affected during the floods,� Dasgupta said.


Burdwan, May 31: 
Worried about the BJP government�s move to privatise Central public sector undertakings (PSUs) in the state, about 1,800 employees of the Hindustan Cables today prevented senior officials of a private company from entering the factory, forcing them to hold discussions with senior officials of the PSU at their guest house.

Three senior executives from Indo-Gulf, a Birla group company, reached here to hold negotiations with Hindustan Cables officials on the sale of a portion of the factory. However, the workers affiliated to the Citu and the Intuc squatted in front of the main entrance preventing the Indo�Gulf officials from entering the factory.

Tension ran high in Rupnarayanpur town following the visit of the Birla group officials. A huge police contingent was posted at the factory gate to prevent law and order problems.

Hindustan Cables chief general manager S.K. Basu reportedly held a discussion with the Indo-Gulf executives at the guest house as the workers continued their agitation at the factory gate.

Representatives from Sterlite Industries are scheduled to visit the factory on June 3. Citu leaders, however, said they will foil Hindustan Cables authorities� move to hand over the factory to a private company.

Workers alleged that Hindustan Cables authorities had failed to deposit about Rs 22 crore in provident fund accounts, though the money was deducted from the salaries of the employees. The workers had held demonstrations on March 19 and 20 demanding the money be deposited with the provident fund commission. The workers added that they faced problems in getting their salaries on time.

Both the Citu and Intuc are opposing the move to privatise public sector undertakings in the state � whether it is run by the Centre or the state government. In Calcutta, Citu and Intuc had joined hands to resist the state government�s decision to hand over the Great Eastern Hotel to Accor Asia Pacific.


New Delhi, May 31: 
Uttar Pradesh BJP chief Kalraj Mishra was today fielded for the June 11 Rajya Sabha elections ahead of his rival Rajnath Singh�s candidate in what is being seen as a big blow for the chief minister.

Mishra was nominated after a final round of consultation between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and party president K. Jana Krishnamurthi this morning.

Mishra and the chief minister�s nominee � former Congress MLA Surendranath �Puttu� Awasthi � were the front-runners for the lone vacancy that had cropped up in Uttar Pradesh after Rajnath quit his Rajya Sabha seat to take over the reins of the state. Awasthi had recently vacated his Haidergarh Assembly seat so that Rajnath could become an MLA.

Although there are rumours that Vajpayee might induct Mishra when he next shuffles his Cabinet, Krishnamurthi said Mishra would continue to head the party when Uttar Pradesh goes to polls.

A senior minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, Mishra had resigned shortly after Rajnath became chief minister because of differences between them, but was persuaded by the high command to take over as state unit chief. The Rajya Sabha seat is being seen as a �reward� from the Prime Minister.

Apart from Vajpayee�s �blessings�, once Rajnath pushed Awasthi into the fray, Mishra managed to manoeuvre himself to a position of strength with the support of the BJP�s state allies like the Loktantrik Congress Party (LCP) and the breakaway groups from the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Rajnath is believed to have promised Awasthi the Rajya Sabha seat, but sources said he had not bargained for the discontent within the party over the nomination of an �outsider�. The chief minister was also challenged by senior leaders at a state election meeting who asked him if he was willing to turn the contest into a partyman-versus-outsider battle. The leaders made their preference clear, saying rewarding Awasthi would only send a negative message before the polls.

The central leadership was at first leaning towards the former Congress MLA. But once Loktantrik Congress leader Naresh Aggarwal openly backed Mishra, the high command thought it politically expedient to settle for the state unit chief.

Sources said the BJP feared that if Awasthi was fielded, the party�s allies might encourage the Opposition to put up a joint candidate, create a contest and cross-vote against the party�s official nominee.

A section of the central leadership, however, felt bringing Mishra over to Delhi with the Assembly elections round the corner was �unwise�. The move, they said, could send the signal that he was �deserting� the state and �taking shelter� at the Centre, fearing a BJP rout. �It is bound to demoralise the rank-and-file,� sources admitted.

The sources said if Mishra is made a minister, he would have to quit as state BJP chief. The party could then consider appointing a backward caste leader in his place to reassure the OBCs who have been turning away from the party ever since Kalyan Singh�s exit.

BJP spokesman H.N. Dixit said �party workers are jubilant because a senior party worker has been rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat�.


Imphal, May 31: 
Manipur Governor Ved Marwah today faxed his report to President K.R. Narayanan giving his assessment of the current political situation in the state after none of the leaders or groups could form an alternative government.

It is believed that the Governor has recommended President�s rule by keeping the Assembly under suspended animation.

Marwah sent his report after Speaker Sapam Dhananjoy last night withdrew his claim to head an alternative government. The other claimant, Manipur State Congress Party (Chaoba) leader M. Hemanta Singh, also could not muster the required numbers.

The dissident camp which voted out the Radhabinod Koijam ministry seemed dejected after their attempts to form the government failed to materialise. Spokesman of the newly-formed Progressive Democratic Alliance Gangmumei Kamei, however, expressed hope that a BJP-led government would be installed before the next session of Parliament.

The Congress today demanded dissolution of the House and fresh polls. Addressing a joint press conference, state party unit president O. Ibobi Singh and former chief minister Rishang Keishing argued that no stable government could be formed by the defectors. The duo blamed the Samata Party and the BJP for encouraging defection and creating political chaos in Manipur.

When asked if the Congress high command was against Central rule, Keishing said he had convinced the central leaders about the ground situation and need for Central rule. He added that if the high command goes against Central rule, the state unit will revolt. He, however, hoped the Congress would respect the state unit�s sentiments and press for dissolution of the Assembly.

Speaker Dhananjoy has also landed in a problem with Hemanta moving a disqualification petition against him on the ground of violating the anti-defection law. The MSCP(C) leader urged the Speaker to refer his complaint to the House, so that it could elect a member to supervise the disqualification proceedings.

Hemanta argued that the Speaker violated the anti-defection law by staking claim to form the government without resigning. He also charged Dhananjoy with siding with the dissidents to topple the Koijam ministry.

Caretaker chief minister Koijam, who returned from Delhi today, accused the BJP of trying to capture power through the backdoor via Dhananjoy. He also slammed the Speaker for staking claim to form the government without resigning his office. Koijam said that since Dhananjoy staked claim, he could not exercise his quasi-judicial powers as Speaker and should resign.

People�s Front convener O. Joysingh told reporters that Central rule was the only way to clear the political muddle. He said the House should be kept under suspended animation to find a way to install a stable government. If every option fails, the House will have to be dissolved and fresh polls ordered.


New Delhi, May 31: 
The sudden shutdown of four branches of Zap Infotech, an IT education centre, has left around 2,000 students in the lurch.

Delhi police (West District) plans to send its force to the Mumbai head office of Zap Infotech to look into its suspected underworld connections. Without directly confirming a link between underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and the computer chain, deputy commissioner of police, West, Kewal Singh told PTI: �It could be anyone � Dawood or Chhota Shakeel or Chhota Rajan. We are sure that the chain was a mask. There are hidden people.�

The police swung into action after the students lodged a complaint, but they found Zap�s regional office in Greater Kailash I closed. �The staff must have been scared and closed down the office,� said Singh.

The security guard and a newly-employed attendant in the office refused to comment on the sudden closure. �The office has closed down for a day in protest, because a student fought with the staff of Zap at Rajouri Garden,� was all that they would say.

The police had arrested Zap regional manager Sushil Bhan, northern zonal manager Anshuman Mathur and media promotion executive Deepanjan Lahiri yesterday on charges of breach of trust and cheating.

Zap employees have not received salaries for several months. The franchisees, too, have not been paid rent and electricity bills for the last four months. The police officer said: �Chawla, a franchisee disgusted with Zap, went to Mumbai to meet the executive of the company, but he was not allowed to get in touch with him.�

The students said Zap had enticed them with promises of best infrastructure, placement at cheaper cost and the back-up of branches across the country. �Many students left institutes like Aptech and NIIT to join Zap in the hope of a better future,� Singh added.

The aggrieved students claimed they had paid Rs 18,000 each to join Zap courses. But they found that the institution was ill-equipped, the faculty was not qualified and that they would take a year to complete a month�s training. The institution�s inefficiency disgusted the students.

They panicked when the four Zap branches closed suddenly, forcing around 150 students to lodge a complaint with the Rajouri Garden police station in West Delhi.

The police found Zap Infotech�s response inadequate. �Although a case has been registered against the company, no one from Zap has tried to contact the police and no enquiry has been made by the proprietors of the company.� The police plans to probe Wintech, Zap�s sister concern, which, too, closed down one of its branches.

Murtaza Mitahani, who works with Wintech, and his brother, who is associated with Zap, were known to have opened such a company in the Gulf.


Ottawa, May 31: 
India will take another step towards the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) if talks now going on between officials here and in New Delhi take the shape of a Canadian-assisted programme to reform India�s tax structure.

The talks with officials of the department of revenue in the finance ministry are part of the Canadian International Development Agency�s (Cida) effort to aid the reform process in India.

Canada is credited with one of the best tax systems in the world and Indian officials have turned to Ottawa to seek help in bringing some order to the maze of India�s tax structure.

The deadline set by a committee of state finance ministers for moving to VAT is March 31, 2002, but few expect this to be met, given the laboured progress thus far in harmonising sales tax rates that are fixed by state governments.

In most of the country now, sales tax rates are uniform � the first condition for stepping into a VAT regime. Successive finance ministers in Delhi since the start of economic reforms have been simplifying the excise rates � set by the Centre � also as part of the movement towards VAT.

Five years ago, officials of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency here began a project with India�s Central Board of Direct Taxes and the Central Board of Excise and Customs for capacity development in India�s revenue administration. The project, for which Cida gave Canadian $8.5 million, was aimed at strengthening the administration of direct taxes, customs and excise in India through automation and training in tax practices.

The project came at the height of the Indo-Canadian honeymoon which saw high-level visits and a spurt in Canadian investment in India. But the nuclear tests in 1998 halted any advance to the next stage of such cooperation as Cida cancelled any new projects with India except in the area of humanitarian needs.

But, with new foreign minister John Manley�s announcement of an end to post-Pokhran-II sanctions and a decision to re-engage India, Cida will pick up the threads of cooperation from where they were left off in 1998.

George P. Saibel, Cida�s director-general in charge of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, said the agency was now going through a comprehensive review of its assistance to India. Saibel, who is an experienced India hand here, said Canada�s aid to India had become too dispersed in the last decade. There was a feeling that the agency took on too much and, as a result, there was less impact compared to the work which had been undertaken.

Talks are now under way with Indian officials on focusing Canadian assistance on helping India�s reform process, telecommunications development and energy programmes, areas in which Canada has special strengths.

Thematic and sectoral papers are being prepared here, which will later be discussed in New Delhi. But, essentially, Canadian assistance is expected to move away from procurement of goods and services to technical assistance in tune with the growth of the Indian economy.

Bilateral aid through Cida is now estimated at Canadian $30 million a year. In addition, some Canadian aid flows into India through Cida�s cooperation with multilateral donors.

The review of the aid programme and possible changes, brought about by the suspension of new Cida assistance, provide a curious example of how positive factors can, after all, emerge even from negative developments in bilateral relations.


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