PM shake-up pleases and punishes
Boy dies in power protest backlash
Divestment in mid-air crash
Swati admits to bad company, not kidnap
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Sept. 1: 
Promoting loyalists and punishing perceived laggards, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sent a wake-up call this evening to the government by changing guards at two crucial ministries, dropping four ministers and inducting six new faces.

The two big losers have been Sharad Yadav, who was eased out of civil aviation on a day the Air-India divestment drive suffered a body blow, and Ram Vilas Paswan, who was taken off the communications� berth. The biggest beneficiaries were Pramod Mahajan, who added communications to his bouquet of infotech and parliamentary affairs, and Shahnawaz Hussain, who moved to Cabinet rank with civil aviation.

Vajpayee�s aim behind the changes seemed as much to rid his government of �dead wood� as to address the concerns of caste lobbies in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Observers believe the exercise was meant to build an image of a �performing� government of which Vajpayee was in �supreme command�. The impression was conveyed in the ease with which he downgraded the portfolios of self-styled caste leaders, upper-class role models and temperamental MPs and rewarded personal favourites.

The exercise was originally restricted to BJP members, but Vajpayee expanded the ambit to transfer senior NDA ministers as well. Sharad Yadav, who had been unable to shake off his �reform-unfriendly� image, was shifted to coal and mines and Paswan to labour. Paswan gave the PMO anxious moments by arriving after Vajpayee had taken his seat.

Urban development minister Jagmohan, who was shifted to tourism, was planning to resign and had packed his bags. He was, however, persuaded not to embarrass Vajpayee. Maneka Gandhi, who lost social welfare to Satya Narayan Jatiya, signalled her displeasure by not showing up.

However, the changes have not instigated any palpable revolt � at least for the time being. Both Paswan and Yadav, who attended the swearing-in, seemed reconciled to the loss.

The Prime Minister said the criteria for the changes were �past performances, preferences (of individual ministers) and the need to induct the young generation�.

Vajpayee said the new entrants are all from the BJP. Asked when he would induct more allies, Vajpayee laughed and said: �The NDA is a separate entity.�

He said there was no proposal at the moment to induct the Trinamul Congress and the PMK. �There is no new message to them. They have rejoined the NDA. Whenever the question of inclusion of NDA allies arises, it will be considered then. There is no such proposal now,� he added.

Asked to comment on reports that there would be �sweeping changes� in key economic ministries, he said: �Yes, I also heard a lot about it. But nothing came out of it.�

Disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, whose performance was rated high despite the bleak selloff scenario, was also elevated to Cabinet rank. Mahajan�s infotech ministry would have lost its sheen once the convergence Bill became law. With communications, he will preside over a sprawling technology empire.

The elevation of Hussain is being sold as a �positive signal to the minorities on the eve of the UP polls�.

However, not everybody in the BJP was as lucky as Mahajan and Hussain. Jagmohan was shunted to tourism because the BJP feared his over-enthusiasm in demolishing the capital�s shanty towns may cost it dear in the coming civic polls. Jagmohan was replaced by culture minister Ananth Kumar, though it was rumoured that his head was on the chopping block.

Kumar had allowed the Swadeshi Jagran Manch to use his residence as a base to publish pamphlets slamming the Prime Minister. BJP sources said Kumar met Vajpayee and apologised.


Srinagar, Sept. 1: 
A 13-year-old boy died in police firing this morning at a village in Baramullah, where a large number of people were protesting against disruption in power supply.

Police said a girl identified as Latiefa Bano was seriously wounded in the firing. She was rushed to hospital in Srinagar.

Sources said that early this morning, hundreds of villagers gathered on the Srinagar-Uri highway to protest against the power disruption in Tappar Pattan, about 35 km from here, because of a faulty transformer.

The sources said the villagers had been pleading with the power department to replace the transformer but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Shouting slogans against chief minister Farooq Abdullah, the villagers made an attempt to block the highway but were stopped by the police. Station house officer Farooq Ahmad reached the spot along with a police contingent, but the local residents hurled stones at him and forced the officer to turn back.

The police first used batons to chase the villagers away, but they stayed put. The security personnel then sprayed bullets on the villagers from their automatic weapons, killing 13-year-old Shabir Ahmad and seriously wounding Latiefa.

As news spread about Shabir�s killing, thousands from adjoining villages rushed to Tappar Pattan. They blocked the highway and shouted anti-Farooq slogans.

Senior officials led by district magistrate Sheikh Mohammad Hussain rushed to the spot. He tried to pacify the mobs and assured the agitated villagers of action against the guilty policemen.

The spurt of violence continued with a massive explosion in the office of the Poonch district police in which three guards were wounded. The police station had been attacked by militants last month.

Four bomb explosions rocked Habbak locality on the city outskirts this morning. Sources said army vehicles nearby escaped miraculously. The fifth bomb, found planted on the road, was later defused.

Burqa diktat

The Lashkar-e-Jabbar, spearheading the purdah campaign in Kashmir, today extended the burqa deadline by 10 days. The outfit had earlier said that women in Kashmir should go out with their faces covered in a veil.

A spokesman for the Lashkar-e-Jabbar said the deadline has been extended in view of the appeal by Dukhtaran-e-Milat chief Asiya Andrabi. She had appealed to the outfit to extend the deadline in view of the heavy rush in tailor shops to get the veils stitched. Tailors in Kashmir have been flooded with orders to get the burqas stitched by Kashmiri women.


New Delhi, Sept. 1: 
The Centre�s divestment plans went into a tailspin today when Singapore International Airlines (SIA) withdrew its bid for Air-India just a day after the only other bidder for the country�s premier airline � the Hindujas � also pulled out.

SIA�s withdrawal leaves the Tatas as the sole bidder for the stake in Air-India, where the government has offered to sell 40 per cent to a strategic partner with management control.

Andrew Wong, SIA�s pointman in India, communicated the shock decision to divestment secretary Pradip Baijal this morning.

SIA said it had decided not to proceed with the bid because the atmosphere had been vitiated by the �intensity of the opposition to the privatisation of Air-India� from certain political groups, trade unions and the media.

The Tatas � who with the SIA was heading the consortium that was bidding for Air-India � said they would reassess the situation with an open mind. Conveying SIA�s decision to the government, the Tatas said in a statement: �Air-India has always been very dear to the Tatas.�

The SIA decision was the last thing that divestment minister Arun Shourie wanted to hear on the very day he was elevated to Cabinet rank. �It is a substantial setback and we should learn some lessons from it. The ferocious attack on the disinvestment process on the basis of false allegations is scaring away bidders,� he said. �Ratan Tata has written to me today saying that they are examining the situation and will state their position soon.�

Baijal said: �It is very unfortunate and will affect the divestment process.� The government has been aiming to raise Rs 10,000 crore this year from the selloff of its stake in non-strategic areas to help bring down its debt.

The statement from the Tatas sparked speculation whether the group � which has been feeling the heat of the meltdown in the economy � will now scout for foreign airline partners to prop up its bid for the airline that it once managed. British Airways, Air France and Delta Airlines had all evinced interest in picking up a stake in Air-India in the initial round of bidding but later dropped out. The Tatas refused to be drawn into a discussion on possible partnerships.

�Money is not the only critical factor. There is need for technical expertise and airline experience,� said an aviation industry source. �The Tatas had some airline experience 50 years ago but that�s clearly out of date.�

In a press note, SIA gave two other reasons to justify its decision: the first was that the slowdown in the world economy was seriously affecting the international airline business. The second factor was that SIA investments in Australasia were demanding more attention and required a commitment of substantial financial resources.

SIA, one of the few cash-rich airlines in the world, has been aiming to increase its stake in Ansett Airline, Australia�s second largest airline which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Air New Zealand. Like India, New Zealand has a cap of 26 per cent on foreign stake in airlines.

SIA, which lost out to British Airways in a bidding war in the nineties for a 25 per cent stake in Qantas, is determined to open a beachhead in Australia-New Zealand because it earns 17 per cent of its revenues from that region.

As far as SIA is concerned, the compulsions of expanding its business in Australasia means that India is no longer a lucrative place to be in. Reports in the media had also hinted that SIA wanted India to raise the 26 per cent cap on foreign stake.


Calcutta, Sept. 1: 
It was her �craving for a good life� that led her �astray� and made her a conduit in the hands of Mumbai, and later Dubai, mafia.

Refusing to admit her role in the abduction of Khadim�s owner Parthapratim Roy Burman, Swati Pal, one of the accused, gave her first confessional statement in court today where she detailed her life among international criminals but said she was unaware of the plans to kidnap the shoe magnate.

Swati, who turned approver in the case yesterday and pledged to help police in arresting the kidnap kingpins, said it was her longing for a �better and more pleasurable� life that made her leave her husband and child in Kalna in Burdwan and head for Mumbai.

According to her, �bad lads� took advantage of her �simplicity� and she became a pawn in the hands of criminals. In an in-camera session, Swati told the second judicial magistrate at the Alipore court, Raja Chatterjee, that it was these �bad lads� who introduced her to big-time criminals and, before she knew, she got sucked into the world of crime. After recording her statement, Swati told one of the policewomen escorting her: �I don�t want to go back to that nasty world.�

Swati was arrested in Mumbai by a police-CID team, along with two of her associates, one of whom claimed to be her husband. Swati had initially refused to cooperate with the police. However, later she helped the police in tracking down the kidnap masterminds by giving information about them.

The confessional statement, which the magistrate personally recorded in two hours and which was signed by Swati, was put in an envelope, sealed and stashed into a locker in the court�s custody.

Before making her statement, the magistrate asked Swati whether she understood the implications of a confessional statement and whether she was willingly making it. She was also told that her statement could be used against her in the case. Swati told the magistrate that she was aware of everything and still wanted to proceed with the confession.

However, two other accused, Swati�s husband Abdur Rahman and Mohammed Taslim alias Chunna, refused to make a confessional statement and insisted that they were innocent.

Swati was brought to the court amid tight security shortly after noon today. A �decoy�, dressed to look like Swati, was first made to enter the court to get the media off her trail. Minutes later, Swati entered the court unnoticed. The same procedure was followed in the evening when Swati was being taken back to Presidency jail.

Public prosecutor Taj Mohammed said the CID had sought a copy of her statement to help them in their investigations. He added that a copy would be handed over to them on Tuesday.

The court rejected the bail applications of Abdur Rahman and Pawan Maheshwar, a hawala trader who was arrested from Hyderabad for passing on the ransom money to the kidnap mastermind in Dubai. They have been remanded in jail custody till September 14.

Opposing their bail plea, Mohammed said that Maheshwar and his friend Vinod, who was yet to be arrested, were paid Rs 2 lakh each for transferring the ransom amount. Therefore, the hawala trader should not be granted bail. About Rehman, the public prosecutor said, there was enough evidence to establish his hand in the crime. He was in touch with Rabindranath Das, the Salt Lake ashram owner who was arrested. Das had allegedly given shelter to the abductors.




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Light to moderate rain in some parts
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