Government pilots the Maharaja into valuation air pocket
Atal throws open check-points
Probe ordered into UTI mess
Major sacked, stink of foul play
Domestic bliss before summit
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, July 9: 
For some inexplicable reason, the government has asked a small-time income tax assessor � Kharbanda & Associates � to assess the value of Air-India�s properties in India and abroad as part of its effort to sell 40 per cent to a strategic partner in the national carrier.

The move is a throwback to the manner in which the government appointed an unknown chartered accountant � P.V. Rao � to value Balco before it was sold to Sterlite. Rao had completed his valuation in seven days and estimated the worth of the company at Rs 1,100 crore, sparking a huge furore over what was believed to be undervaluation of the aluminium giant.

What makes the Air-India case even more surprising is that four internationally-renowned valuers � Cushman & Wakefield, Colliers Jardine India, Jones Lang Lassalle and Richard Ellis Ltd � had submitted bids to value the Maharaja�s properties.

The government�s decision not to appoint an international valuer � their bids have reportedly not even been opened � was conveyed through a confidential letter written by J.M. Morgan Stanley, the government�s adviser on the Air-India sale, asking the airline to put on hold technical and financial bids submitted by the four renowned valuers.

Instead, the government appointed Kharbanda & Associates for a fee of Rs 3 lakh, which is far too low by industry standards. Top government officials feel the decision could lead to undervaluation of Air-India�s real assets in a manner similar to the Balco case.

Air-India officials said they had invited technical and financial bids from internationally-renowned real estate valuers as the airline had properties spread all over the globe. This had, in fact, been done on the basis of a suggestion made earlier by J.M. Morgan Stanley.

However, in August last year, a letter was received by Air-India�s director (planning) from Morgan Stanley directing the airline to defer the appointment of any of the four bidders. In February, the airline�s company secretary wrote back pointing out that the process of selecting a real estate valuer had not been completed. However, this note seems to have been ignored.

Instead, the government decided to appoint Kharbanda & Associates. Air-India officials point out that aviation is a specialised field which an ordinary real estate valuer cannot handle. It requires prior experience of valuing assets of international airlines, which Kharbanda obviously lacks.

By deciding to gloss over the sealed bids lying in Air-India�s Nariman Point headquarters, the government could be inviting a Balco-like controversy.

Balco�s sale to Sterlite Industries had caused a raging debate in and outside Parliament.


New Delhi, July 9: 
India today continued its barrage of goodwill steps towards Pakistan with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreeing to push for a soft border, including one between the two Kashmirs, with an announcement to set up check-points along the LoC and the international border to make travelling between the countries easier.

This implies that many traditional points � Uri and Muzaffarabad in Jammu and Kashmir and occupied Kashmir, along with other road and rail links such as Munabao in Rajasthan and Kokhrabadh in Sindh � that were cut off after the 1965 war will now be rejoined.

The unilateral decision coincides with Pakistan�s formal invitation to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference to attend the tea party at its mission here on Saturday in honour of President Pervez Musharraf.

Delhi�s announcement is aimed at achieving at least three goals. First, by pushing for a soft border between the two Kashmirs, India on the one hand wants to further legitimise the LoC while assuring the world powers on the other that concrete steps are being taken to ease the problems of the Kashmiri people. Second, it is an attempt to tell the Pakistani people that India is serious about peaceful and friendly relations with them. Finally, it also addresses Indian Muslims, especially those belonging to the divided family with relatives across the border.

�It is our conviction that the foundations of peace between India and Pakistan have to be laid in the minds and hearts of men and women, and above all, the youth of both countries. Thus, travel between India and Pakistan should be made as simple and easy as possible,� foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said this afternoon.

She said that henceforth �Pakistani passport holders will be allowed to come by the road route and obtain visas at the check-post at Attari. An additional check-post will be opened at Munabao in Rajasthan�. Similar check-posts, Rao said, will be opened at �designated points along the international border and the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir�.

The decision will be implemented in three months.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh summoned Pakistan�s high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi this morning and informed him about Vajpayee�s decision.

At present, all visa applications are handled by the high commissions in Islamabad and Delhi. Till six years ago, the two countries had a consulate in Mumbai and Karachi, but the chill in relations led to their closure. Any person, either from Pakistan or India, willing to travel to the other side, will have to come to the two capitals to get their visas.

The Indian consular section in Islamabad issues nearly 350 visas daily. But despite this, there is a growing demand for travel to India. The Indian announcement seeks to liberalise the existing system. For example, a person from South Sindh will no longer have to travel to Islamabad to get a visa for India, but can obtain it from the nearest check-point at Kokhrabadh. Similarly, those in Punjab can get it from Attari.

The director-general of military operations spoke to his Pakistani counterpart this evening and told him about his proposed visit to Islamabad. A late night PTI report, quoting a spokesman for the Pakistan foreign office, said that Islamabad has told Delhi that a discussion on military issues relating to the LoC would be considered after the summit.


New Delhi, July 9: 
The government has decided to order an independent inquiry into the affairs of Unit Trust of India, the country�s largest mutual fund which stunned investors last week by announcing a six-month freeze on the sale and repurchase of units of its flagship fund, US 64.

The probe will cover two aspects: one, the charge that a number of companies redeemed their units in May on the basis of insider information; and two, UTI�s controversial investment decisions, especially in stocks that were favoured by a few scam-tainted brokers.


Chandigarh, July 9: 
Kargil warrior Major Manish Bhatnagar was today dismissed from service for refusing to lead a team to reclaim a key point in the 1999 conflict, a couple of days after he moved the high court charging the army judge with �tampering with proceedings�.

A general court martial, hearing the case since January, found the officer from the 5 Para Regiment guilty of flouting military discipline and cowardice.

The army court, however, acquitted Bhatnagar of the charge of disobeying Brigadier Devinder Singh to attack and reclaim Point 5203 in the Batalik-Yaldoor range for want of evidence. The prosecution could not produce any witness willing to testify that the major disobeyed orders to mount an offensive.

Bhatnagar�s counsel R. Bansal termed the verdict �harsh and vindictive� and said the army court appeared to have acted on the orders of senior officials.

�They did not allow us to produce evidence and we have ample evidence against Major Bipin Chakravorty, the judge advocate, relating to tampering with proceedings. On Saturday, we moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court and I am hopeful we will get justice there,� Bansal said.

Bhatnagar was charged with cowardice and wilful disobedience by the then GOC, 3 Infantry Division, Major General V.S. Budhwar, for insisting that his men were unfit to reclaim the crucial peak.

Chakravorty found the officer guilty of making improper projections on the condition of soldiers on June 15, 1999, when he was ordered to launch the attack on Point 5203. Bhatnagar had apparently said that his �troops are fit for defensive tasks and not offensive tasks�.

In his defence, Bhatnagar said his men had just returned from duty on the Siachen Glacier and were tired and unfit for any offensive. The major alleged that he was being victimised as part of a conspiracy hatched by senior officers and claimed that his warnings of Pakistani intrusions were ignored by his bosses.

In his petition in the high court, Bhatnagar has challenged the general court martial proceedings, alleging that it was not following proper army rules and that evidence had been tampered with.

In his 72-page petition, Bhatnagar said the charges against him were �bad in law as these have failed to prove that he disobeyed lawful command�. He said that Brig. Devinder Singh and two other senior officers, during their depositions before the general court martial, supported his contention that no orders were issued to attack Point 5203.

In his petition, the major has said that the proceedings of the court martial should be set aside and an independent inquiry ordered to determine the truth. The petition states that the army court took advantage of the fact that evidence before a military court is not subject to judicial review.


New Delhi, July 9: 
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi appeared closer to a full-fledged truce ahead of the Agra summit.

The Prime Minister today showered �wholesome� praise on the leader of Opposition for articulating the �national position� on Kashmir and Indo-Pak ties. Sonia returned the compliment, extending her party�s blanket support to the summit and wishing Vajpayee every success.

In his opening remarks at an all-party meet on the summit, Vajpayee complimented Sonia for representing India�s position on Jammu and Kashmir during her recent US visit. Minutes later, Sonia toed the Vajpayee line that the summit should not be confined to Kashmir but should include all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan in the spirit of the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.

The Congress leader ruled out third-party intervention and questioned the Hurriyat�s locus standi as a representative of Kashmiri aspirations.

The Vajpayee-Sonia rapprochement pleased many in the Congress who were unhappy at the way the two leaders had traded charges during the budget session of Parliament.

Congress leaders said Vajpayee had taken the initiative in upgrading Sonia�s visit to the US and allowed her to address the United Nations General Assembly much to the chagrin of Union health minister C.P. Thakur and others.

The Congress reciprocated by quietly dropping Vajpayee�s name from a memorandum submitted to President K.R. Narayanan over the Tehelka expose. Though the Congress had collected 6.25 crore signatures backing Vajpayee�s exit, there was no reference to it in the final draft to Narayanan.

In political circles, Vajpayee�s attempt to mend fences with Sonia is being seen as a shrewd move to keep the main Opposition party happy when his government needs support on the delicate Indo-Pak ties and Kashmir.

Moreover, the monsoon session of Parliament is round the corner and the government will need the Congress� support on key economic legislations hanging fire for many months.

The Sonia camp is also claiming victory. According to them, Vajpayee and his party are now veering round to the view that the �hate campaign� against her was �misplaced�.




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