Mamata scare nudges Nitish towards rival
Centre in food purchase rethink
Sonia softens to law feelers
Ayurveda go-ahead from states
Travel bonus in pipeline
Bail rap for CBI court
Laloo looms large on jails
Threat to Jaya provokes ban
CESC weighs review option
Bangla poll fury makes director�s focus fuzzy

New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
Fear of Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee�s likely return to the railway ministry has spurred Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar to initiate peace talks with political foe Ram Vilas Paswan.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has said he would expand his council of ministers after Parliament�s winter session commences on November 19. Trinamul and the Pattali Makkal Katchi are to be reinducted.

BJP sources said one of the proposals before the Prime Minister was appointing rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu BJP secretary-general and then replacing Naidu with Nitish to make way for Mamata. Alternatively, Mamata could be sent to the rural development ministry if, of course, she condescends. But the proposal was put on hold because of internal problems.

Angered by the �insults� heaped on Nitish, one of his supporters said the Samata leader should quit the NDA government and go back to Bihar if Mamata is given back railways. �He was shunted from the railways to surface transport to accommodate Mamata Banerjee, then to bring in the BJP�s Rajnath Singh, he was shunted to agriculture and then to accommodate Ajit Singh, again brought back to the railways,� he said. �There is a limit to insults.�

Apart from the Trinamul chief�s possible reinduction as railway minister, shifting Paswan from the high-profile communications ministry to coal and mines and George Fernandes� return as defence minister also acted as catalysts in bringing Paswan and Nitish closer.

Aware that Fernandes could play a role in Mamata�s likely return, Nitish is trying to cosy up to his Samata colleague as well. When the Tehelka scandal broke, Fernandes was upset with Nitish for not using the party to defend him. Nitish, who controls the party in Bihar, did not bother to organise any public meeting or rally as was done by the NDA leadership.

Fernandes had even started wooing his old Lok Sabha constituency in Muzaffarpur. For all practical purposes, he deserted Nalanda, which has a sizeable Kurmi vote bank owing allegiance to Nitish.

He has not visited Nalanda in the last seven months. But after Fernandes� reinduction into the government, Nitish changed tack and managed to get him to address a rally in Nalanda.

Paswan and Nitish, both eyeing the same political space in Bihar, were not on the best of terms till the political developments in Delhi. The peace initiative came from Nitish, who sent party MP Prabhunath Singh to Paswan for talks immediately after Fernandes was reinducted into the defence ministry.

Sources said the two leaders have now realised that by splintering into small parties they have become more vulnerable to the BJP�s machinations.

Followers of Paswan, Nitish and Dal (U) leader Sharad Yadav want them to unite and merge their parties so that the BJP leadership cannot take them for granted. According to them, united they can also fight Laloo Prasad Yadav�s Rashtriya Janata Dal from a position of strength.

Paswan told The Telegraph as much during a recent conversation. �When we were together, we got 22 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar,� he said. Paswan had last year split the Dal (U) to form his own Lok Jana Shakti Party.


New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
With state-owned granaries overflowing, the government is thinking of delinking procurement of foodgrain from the minimum support price scheme so that it is under no compulsion to lift grain from harried farmers.

But the government will compensate farmers by paying them the difference between the support price and what they get by selling their produce in the market, food, consumer affairs and PDS minister Shanta Kumar said here today.

Foodgrain stocks in the country as on September 30 stood at 582.8 lakh tonnes. It is projected to touch 755 lakh tonnes by next April.

The grain buffer comprises 214.5 lakh tonnes of rice and 368.26 lakh tonnes of wheat, far in excess of the buffer stock requirements on October 1 of 65 lakh tonnes of rice and 116 lakh tonnes of wheat.

Kumar said the present system of procurement, which costs the government Rs 21,000 crore annually, had become �unmanageable�.

He added that there were huge losses in storing and transportation of procured grains.

Addressing the editor�s conference on social sector issues, the minister said the proposed system can be linked with the national agriculture insurance scheme enrolment, which is compulsory for all farmers and under which loan records of farmers are maintained.

Kumar said that at present, the procurement system in the country is lopsided. Eighty per cent of total procurement is from the three states of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. Under the new system, farmers across the country could benefit, unlike the present system whose reach was very limited.

The minister said the requirements for the public distribution system and that of buffer stock can be met at the state level itself through open tender.

Kumar has invited a national debate on the new proposals for foodgrain management. An expert committee has been formed by the ministry to suggest reforms in foodgrain management. It will submit its report by November 30.


New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
At a time the Congress is at loggerheads with the Centre over the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and foreign policy matters, Sonia Gandhi has named conformist Shivraj Patil as her deputy in the Lok Sabha and Madhavrao Scindia�s successor.

Some senior Congress leaders today said the party would review its stand on the Ordinance if the government came forward with a new set of proposals to strike off the �draconian features� of the new Ordinance.

The remark indicates the Congress has received some feelers from the government to thrash out a consensus on the issue. Sonia has called a meeting of Congress chief ministers on November 15 to discuss the Ordinance.

Sonia today chaired a meeting of senior Congress leaders to chalk out the party�s floor strategy. Apart from opposing the Ordinance, the Congress plans to put the Vajpayee regime on the mat on Ayodhya, the global situation, the WTO, Tehelka, the Fiscal Responsibility Act and other legislative businesses.

Many Congressmen said the high command should ask the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka to drop the �draconian� features of their terror Ordinances to strengthen the party�s stand in Parliament. The Karnataka Bill awaits clearance from the President.

Others argued that the party should review its opposition to the Ordinance if the Vajpayee regime came forward with amendments. Another group said the party should make a distinction between the central Ordinance and those adopted by the states.

Some of the prominent leaders who participated in the discussions with Sonia were Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni, Shivraj Patil, Kapil Sibal and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

Patil pipped to the post old guards like Narain Dutt Tiwari, K. Karunakaran, N. Janardan Reddy, S. Bangarappa and Shyama Charan Shukla, all former chief ministers. The second line of leadership led by Margaret Alva, Santosh Mohan Deb, Kamal Nath and Mani Shankar Aiyar was also disappointed by Patil�s appointment.

Sources close to Sonia, however, defended Patil�s selection on the grounds that he was an able parliamentarian, non-controversial, known for his integrity and scholarship. Moreover, Patil belonged to western India, earlier represented by Scindia in the Congress Parliamentary Party.

Congress leaders made it clear that Patil�s elevation would not alter the party�s stand on the terror Ordinance or other issues.

�He will not have much influence in policy-making,� an AICC general secretary said. �Patil will have more to do with day-to-day functioning inside Parliament, like attending business advisory committee meetings and co-ordinating with other Opposition leaders.�

Patil�s first test during the winter session of Parliament beginning November 19 would be to bring unity among Opposition ranks.


New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
It sounds far fetched, but Union health minister C.P. Thakur believes traditional Indian medicines have the potential to create a staggeringly huge market � worth five trillion dollars. This includes marketing of cosmetics, which at the initiative of beauticians like Shehnaz Hussain already have a wide and growing demand.

�The five-trillion-dollar figure has been given by the World Health Organisation (WHO). And we expect to reach an export target of Rs 10,000 crore within a few years,� Thakur said after a meeting with health ministers from 21 states.

All have given the Centre the go-ahead to formalise a policy on the Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM) and Homoeopathy.

The policy, which will be circulated among nearly a dozen ministries, will be put up before the Cabinet. �We will try to get the policy through in the budget session of Parliament,� Thakur said.

As for budgets, state representatives wanted the Centre to pitch in. Thakur said his ministry was willing to put aside at least 10 per cent of the health budget for Indian Systems of Medicine. This means the meagre financial allocations for public health will now have to be shared with yet another new medical department, which will cut into the ministry�s funds.

The public health delivery system is already in a shambles. Experts have, however, pointed out that it is not funds which are choking the system but inefficiency and corruption. By launching the Indian Systems of Medicine on an aggressive footing, the ministry has added a new responsibility, they added.

The health minister denied that the Medical Council of India has refused to include a few ISM modules in its MBBS course. �We are still talking to them,� Thakur said. He added that states would set up new ISM colleges and try to enroll only those students who are genuinely interested, not MBBS failures.

What the government is aiming for is a market for traditional Indian medicines that would run parallel with Allopathy.

ISM head Sailaja Chandra said one of the concerns at today�s meeting was monitoring the quality of Indian drugs and cosmetics. �They are going to be patent compatible. There should be no repeat of Basmati or turmeric,� she added. The ministry, sources said, is hopeful of capturing the internal market.

To make the packaging attractive, the government is planning to seek help from the National Institute of Design. It also hopes to give �medical tourism� a boost through its ISM policy.

�For instance, look at the way Kerala has popularised its Ayurveda clinics. We should try to do the same elsewhere,� Thakur stressed.


New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
In what could be a huge festival bonus for Central government employees, the Union ministry of tourism has proposed to the ministry of finance to restore their leave travel concessions, suspended for two years in the last budget.

Union tourism secretary M.P. Bezbaruah today said at an editors� conference on the social sector that the department was doing everything possible to shore up domestic tourism.

The tourism ministry has also approached the Union ministries of finance and civil aviation to give small incentives to the tourism industry as a token of government support.

The mandarins at Transport Bhavan in Delhi are worried by the downward curve in the tourist arrival figures.

Statistics indicate that compared to last year there has been a drop of 20 per cent in tourist arrivals in September-October, director-general of tourism V.K. Duggal said at the editors� conference.

There were over four lakh arrivals in September-October 2000 compared to the 3.24 lakh tourists in the same period this year.

However, the percentage drop is only 2 if statistics from January to October are considered. But though India is on the threshold of the peak season for tourists, October has shown a further decline compared to September. Tourist arrivals in October are lower than September by around 20,000.

This is likely to have an adverse reaction on foreign exchange earnings from tourism. So far, there has been less than 1 per cent decline in foreign exchange earnings compared to last year. The projected earning this year will be $ 2,530 million.

Union minister for tourism Jagmohan has begun hardselling India as a desirable destination in the far-eastern countries. He has held talks with the tourism industry in Japan and is now in China. He will be talking to tour operators there as well.

On his return, he will attend the World Tourism Mart � one of the biggest tourism fairs in the world � in London in mid-November and then go on to New York.


Patna, Nov. 8: 
The Supreme Court has directed the CBI court in Ranchi to dispose of the bail pleas of Laloo Prasad Yadav and Jagannath Mishra in the fodder scam case on November 26, the day they were directed to surrender.

The directive came when Laloo�s advocate Kapil Sibal drew the court�s attention to the delays in the hearing on bail petitions by trial courts. �We direct the court concerned to dispose of the application on the same date (November 26),� the court said. But it is now up to the trial court to grant bail or take the duo in custody.

The two had appealed to the Supreme Court for bail on Monday on the ground that the allegations in the CBI chargesheet were no different from those made earlier. �It is for the petitioner to satisfy the court (in Ranchi) the reasons for getting similar orders if they are entitled thereto,� the court said.

Mishra�s petition for getting himself impleaded was turned down for �there was no reason for treating his case differently�.


Patna, Nov. 8: 
Now that Laloo Prasad Yadav is ready to go to Jharkhand, where he will be tried for the fodder scam, is the state government prepared to pay the rather heavy price for housing the RJD chief in one of its prisons?

During Laloo�s stay at the Beur jail in Patna between 1998 and 2001, the RJD government in Bihar spent Rs 2.52 crore on renovating and upgrading prison infrastructure. The financial allocations were made by the state government�s estimates committee, of which the RJD chief is a member.

Official sources said, as the state spent most of its funds on Beur, expansion and modernisation of other prisons were forgotten. With most of the central district jails having been built during the British period, Bihar�s prisons lack basic amenities such as adequate drinking water supply, latrines and proper kitchens. Security systems, too, are on the verge of collapse.

Jail officials cite shortage of funds for their failure to undertake expansion. But Beur central jail has had no such problem since 1998, when the RJD chief was shifted there.

Bihar spent Rs 2,52,68,000 on various expansion and additional construction work at the prison, ostensibly to improve its living conditions and make it suitable for its most privileged inmate, building construction department sources said.

Most of the money was spent on renovating the cell that housed Laloo Yadav and other VIPs, on erecting an internal boundary wall, on installing a Buddha statue and raising a small garden for beautification. The building construction department also built a 60-bed cell on the ground floor and added a wing for the VIP security staff.

In a fresh order (no. 2676/25/4/2000), the state government sanctioned an additional Rs 55.35 lakh last year to instal a high class prisoners� ward on the first floor of an old building within the Beur jail premises. Work on this project is still under way.

�You cannot say everything was done for the benefit of Laloo Prasad Yadav, but he indeed was instrumental in quickening the process of the jail�s modernisation,� said a senior officer of the building construction department.

Beur was no ordinary prison as a number of Bihar�s criminal-turned-politicians had been lodged there, he added. At one point of time, it housed two former chief ministers, an MP and six MLAs, including Suraj Bhan, Rajen Tiwari and Munna Shukla.

Justifying the renovation and modernisation, the RJD says the conditions at Beur were appaling when Laloo first went there. �Old, illiterate, helpless people used to be languishing indefinitely, although their offence would range from travelling without ticket to committing petty theft,� Laloo said, adding he would frequently ask jail officials to clean up and provide with a fresh dress some of the �living dead� housed in the prison.

�There were days when I found depressed undertrials standing before Buddha�s statue in the morning and praying that they would get bail in the court that evening,� Laloo recollected.

Realising the need for change, Laloo, who spent a month each on the three occasions in 1998, 1999 and 2000 in Beur, says he decided to make basic amenities available to the prison inmates. Even after the state government came up with plans of constructing a separate VIP prison, Laloo confined his attention to the inmates of Beur.

�Why didn�t Laloo Yadav opt to stay in other jails of the state, so that their situation could also improve?� asks Satish Mandal, a CPI(ML) activist who spent two �hellish� months in the Jehanabad jail.


Chennai, Nov. 8: 
The e-mail threatening the life of ADMK chief Jayalalithaa, sent last Saturday by an activist of the Tamil National Liberation Army, expedited the state government�s decision to ban the TNLA and the Tamil National Retrieval Troops.

Though the notification proscribing TNLA and TNRT is expected any time, sources said both outfits �ought to have been banned long ago�.

While the immediate provocation for attracting the ban was the threat sent over e-mail last Saturday, sources said it was in the context of long-accumulated evidence on the security threat posed by both groups.

The state administration has prepared two voluminous reports on the activities of the two separatist groups, hoping to convince the Centre to extend the ban to the rest of the country.

A �Left-wing extremist group� founded in 1985 by the late Tamizharasan, the TNLA was allegedly involved in several blasts and targeting statues of leaders. Sources said Tamizharasan was subsequently stoned to death by a mob when his gang tried to rob the State Bank of India branch at Ponparappi in the erstwhile Tiruchi district.

Still active with a significant number of core members and a reasonably large support base, the TNLA established links with forest brigand Veerappan long before the kidnapping of Kannada matinee idol Raj Kumar last year, sources said.

While extending the ban on the LTTE, the Devendra Gupta Tribunal in May 1994 had termed the TNLA as a �secessionist group� drawing inspiration from the Tamil Tigers. The TNLA chief, Maran, is currently lodged in prison.

The TNRT, on the other hand, boasts a smaller cadre base but a stronger commitment to the cause of an independent Eelam. Its activists had been trained by the LTTE and even used the Tigers� weaponry to commit terrorist acts in Tamil Nadu, sources said. This included threatening those opposed to the LTTE.

TNRT members along with the Veerappan gang allegedly robbed the Vellithirupur police station in 1998. Sources said they were accused of �looting the (police) armoury to augment their weapons�.

Among the bandit�s demands for the release of Raj Kumar was the release of three TNRT activists lodged in various prisons of Tamil Nadu.

Countering the view that a state-level ban on the TNLA and the TNRT would not be effective because of their small numbers, sources said these were organisations that could surface anywhere anytime. �We are keeping a tab on their followers,� the sources added.


Calcutta, Nov. 8: 
CESC is expected to move the state electricity regulatory commission seeking a review of the tariff recommendations.

CESC had sought an average tariff increase of 92 paise per unit, but was granted only a 9-paise hike.

�The top management, including chairman Sanjiv Goenka and managing director Sumantra Banerjee, held a day-long discussion on the matter. It has been decided that the company will ask for a further review of the tariff recommendations,� sources in the loss-making power utility said.

However, neither Goenka nor Banerjee was available for comment. The company spokesperson said: �The matter is being examined now. The implications need careful study and scrutiny before arriving at any view.�

The electricity regulatory commission, in its tariff recommendations, has pointed out that while the New Cossipore and Mulajore stations generate only about 10 per cent of CESC�s power, they employ 59 per cent of the company�s staff. The commission has suggested the excess manpower be redeployed. But the commission is not in favour of closing down the two plants.

Controversy has also arisen over the cost of the Budge Budge thermal power plant. For the purpose of tariff fixation, CESC had claimed that the cost of the plant was Rs 2,296 crore. But the state electricity board contested the claim, and put the cost at Rs 1,853 crore. The commission reassessed the project cost at Rs 2,075 crore.

The matter is pending before the Supreme Court and the case will come up for hearing on November 20.

The commission ruled that it was CESC�s duty to make payments on time and that if it failed to do so, it could not pass on the burden to consumers. CESC had claimed a sum of Rs 7.18 crore to meet its liability towards delayed payment surcharge and then wanted the amount to be included in its revenue requirement.

Mamata protest plan

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today announced she would launch an agitation after the Kali Puja to protest against the proposed CESC tariff increase.

�It is strange in Bengal that the electricity tariff is always hiked during the festive period. I will decide on a bandh after I study the figures (of electricity tariff),� she told reporters.

Accusing the RPG-owned CESC of �appeasing� the ruling party, Mamata said that the hike in power tariff is the �bonus� the power utility received for it.


Calcutta, Nov. 8: 
Bangladeshi muktijoddha (freedom-fighter), journalist, film-maker and one of the most visible faces of the anti-fundamentalist struggle there, Shahriyar Kabir, is in a fix. He does not know what Cry for Amity, the third film in his trilogy focussing on fundamentalism and communalism, should begin with.

Prior to the October-1 polls in Bangladesh, which has drawn much of the countryside in a vortex of loot, plunder, extortion and rape, the film was to have started with shots of a mosque khadem (cleaner) who saw his friend and the priest of Dhaka�s famous Kali temple being butchered in 1971 by armymen.

But he is in a dilemma after the recent violence targeting minorities and Awami League activists. Kabir, the most famous face and acting president of the Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee which is still trying to bring the anti-freedom struggle fundamentalists of 1971 to book, now has a 15-year-old girl from Shirajganj in mind. Raped by 25 men till she lost consciousness on October 8, the girl � helped by others � filed a case, naming 15 persons, and is now at an undisclosed place in Dhaka trying to flee threats of death.

�I really don�t know which incident to start with,� Kabir, now in Calcutta en route to Delhi, said referring to the third part of the trilogy that has taken him from his native Bangladesh to Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Pakistan. �My duty will be to reflect the truth about what is happening on the camera lens,� he told The Telegraph today.

The first part of the trilogy (Cry for Justice) focussed on the difficulties faced by his committee and the law in bringing those who tried to sabotage the freedom struggle to book. �The film concentrates on how those responsible for the violence on Bangladeshis in 1971 are now back in power,� Kabir said. Ironically, the film � released elsewhere in May this year � has not yet been seen by a Bangladesh audience; he knows that with the same fundamentalists now a part of the BNP-led alliance now in power, chances of the film being released in a hurry are �non-existent�.

The second part (Cry for Peace) concentrates on the human tragedy in Kashmir. �I am trying to focus on the social, economic, cultural, diplomatic and human aspects of the tragedy, how the unique concept of Kashmiriyat has been destroyed,� said the film-maker, who joined the liberation struggle when he was still in college and saw his own brother being killed in 1971.

His extensive tours through Bangladesh has convinced him that the scale of the tragedy now overshoots the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition riots.

Kabir has not yet finalised the conceptualisation of the trilogy;s last part, but what will certainly find mention is the administration and the Jamaat-e-Islami�s attempts at forcing Hindus to celebrate Durga Puja. This bitter irony, feels Kabir, is the most telling comment on where Bangladesh seems headed.


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