CPM in Left unity drive
Mamata, BJP play reluctant partners
Naxalite-wary police woo tribals with jobs
Survey rips rural HIV veil
Food parks in pipeline
Children burnt to death
BJP suggests softer options
George advised homework for defence
Congress lobs terror-camp strike ball to govt court
US sailors say �salaam� to Mumbai

Calcutta, Dec. 17: 
Worried about the widening cracks in the Left Front, the CPM state leadership has sought suggestions from its district units by January end to improve relations with coalition partners RSP, CPI and the Forward Bloc.

Party sources said Alimuddin Street has been receiving repeated complaints from Front partners, particularly the CPI, that the CPM was taking no initiative to strengthen the coalition at the grassroots.

The Forward Bloc and the RSP are also unhappy with the alliance leader on the issue.

The CPM state committee, which met yesterday, instructed district units to take steps to ensure greater cohesion among Front partners.

�Though the state Left Front functions on the basis of an understanding among its partners, absence of co-ordination and lack of understanding is a common feature in all the districts,� a senior state CPI leader said today.

The CPM lost absolute majority in the Assembly for the first time in the May elections and is worried about criticism from its partners.

Besides, the Big Brother needs all the help it can get from its allies to consolidate its position in the panchayat elections likely to be held next year.

The party is aware of the organisational strength of its partners and realises that it might be difficult to win the crucial panchayat polls without their support.

For example, some pockets of Cooch Behar are a Forward Bloc stronghold. Similarly, the CPI�s organisational network is stronger than that of the CPM in some areas of Midnapore.

So, the CPM does not want to antagonise its partners before the panchayat polls which it considers to be as important as the Assembly elections.

The CPM is also planning to set up Left Front committees at the booth level which, the party feels, will strengthen the unity among the partners.


Calcutta, Dec. 17: 
The state unit of the BJP today asked Mamata Banerjee to spell out her stand on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s move to bring the two parties closer.

State party vice-president Muzaffar Khan said grassroots workers were still sore with Mamata for dumping the BJP to join hands with the Congress before the Assembly elections in May.

�Though Vajpayeeji has asked us as well as the Trinamul Congress to iron out differences and cooperate with each other, we will first seek the response of our grassroots workers before openly announcing our stand towards Trinamul,� said Khan.

Mamata, before leaving for Delhi this afternoon, put the onus of rapprochement on the state BJP. �We have told the Prime Minister that we will co-operate in every way to fight the Left Front unitedly in Bengal. But the onus is on them (state BJP) to work out a relationship,� she said.

The state BJP, however, appears to be hesitant about trusting Mamata and rallying behind her to fight the communists in Bengal.

�Both the Trinamul and the BJP suffered a heavy defeat in the May 10 polls as a result of a cruel decision taken by Mamata (break ties with BJP and join forces with Congress). Our workers at the grassroots were angry as a result. Now we will take stock of the situation within our party before coming out with any commitments,� Khan said.


Burdwan, Dec. 17: 
The administration has launched a drive to wean tribals away from Naxalites and bring them back to the mainstream by creating job opportunities and organising health-care camps.

�The Naxalites are telling the tribals that they are fighting for their rights. As a result, many tribals have joined hands with them and are getting involved in subversive activities,�� a senior district official said.

Burdwan police are organising a training camp where the tribals will be taught to make masks required for the Chhow dance. The camp, which will start from December 26, will initially train 150 youths.

Tribal youths in Kanksa, Ausgram, Pandabeswar and Laudaha will be offered vocational training and brought under self-employment schemes. They will be required to produce leather goods, masks and other handicrafts. Some will be engaged in pisciculture and book-binding.

�We will provide them all necessary financial assistance for the production and marketing of the finished goods,� district superintendent of police B.N. Ramesh said.

The administration feels this will also help wipe out the tribals� fear of the police and create a wedge between them and the Naxalites. It plans to simultaneously run a campaign urging the tirbals not to pay heed to Naxalite propaganda.

District magistrate Manoj Agarwal recently held a meeting with the superintendent of police and other senior officials to work out a plan to bring tribals back to the mainstream.

A survey identified health-care, accommodation, employment and security as areas affecting tribals that required attention.

Ramesh has directed his officers to make sure that tribals get preference for employment in development projects being undertaken by panchayats and private agencies.

�Realising the need for health care among the tribals, we have started organising medical camps in the villages, manned by qualified doctors. Medicines and spectacles are being given free of cost. About 700 tribals from Golkunda and Rakshitpur villages have already been treated in these camps. Some NGOs have also agreed to assist us in the exercise,�� he said.

An ambulance service would be launched soon exclusively for the tribal areas, he added.

A mobile police station has been set up to maintain law and order in the forest areas. Policemen from the mobile station will regularly visit villages, meet people and address their grievances on the spot.


Asansol, Dec. 17: 
The government is worried about the rise in HIV cases and other sexually-transmitted diseases among pregnant women in rural Bengal, especially in Bankura.

A zonal review in Burdwan, Bankura and Purulia by the HIV surveillance committee has confirmed that the infection rate for antenatal mothers has touched .36 per cent. The rate of infection for other sexually-transmitted diseases has reached .25 per cent.

The HIV statistic, though far less than the national average of .75 per cent, is alarming, said Dr S.K. Ojha, deputy director of the state AIDs control project.

The surveillance project to control and monitor the spread of the virus is jointly funded by the World Health Organisation, the state government and the Centre.

The committee recently completed its fifth round of survey on the spread of HIV. Burdwan Medical College hospital and Durgapur hospital are conducting HIV tests. Bankura and Purulia hospitals have been given the responsibility of conducting tests on sexually-transmitted diseases.

According to the latest survey, of the 132,000 people tested for HIV in the last one year, 3,200 have tested positive. In Burdwan, Purulia and Bankura, of the 3,200 antenatal mothers checked, five tested positive for HIV.

In cases of sexually-transmitted diseases, 12 positive cases were detected in the districts out of 1,490 tested. In Burdwan Medical College hospital, of the 250 antenatal mothers examined, one tested positive. In Bankura, of the 240 women tested, three cases were found positive.

Ojha said there were two reasons behind the spread of such infections. Either the women were infected by their husbands or through extra-marital affairs. But it was most likely that the women were infected by their husbands.

About the spread of the HIV virus, Ojha said West Bengal, because of its location, was in the high-risk category. �There are two ports (Calcutta, Haldia), three highways and a grand railway link connecting the south and western parts. The time has come to be alert,� he said.

Fake tickets

Police have busted a fake railway ticket racket in Kharagpur.

Divisional commercial manager of Kharagpur division V. Srivastav said a special team conducted a check on Mumbai Mail and Geetanjali Express from December 13 to 15 and found 13 passengers travelling with fake tickets.

The tickets were booked from New Koilaghat reservation office. Vigilance officers suspect the involvement of a section of railway employees in the racket.

�We have already started an inquiry and everything will be clear very soon,�� Srivastav said.


Malda, Dec. 17: 
The state government has decided to set up modern food parks in six districts to help entrepreneurs.

Announcing the decision, food processing and horticulture minister Sailen Sarkar said each park would come up on 20 acres.

Malda, Siliguri, Haldia, Burdwan, Hooghly and Calcutta are the sites identified for setting up the parks. The Centre will provide Rs 24 crore for the purpose.

Apart from factories, there would be place for marketing and storing fruits and an export processing zone, the minister said.


Behrampore, Dec. 17: 
Two sleeping children were burnt to death after a house caught fire at Sankarpur village under Suti police station last night.

Six-year-old Hosnara and nine-year-old Minara had arrived at their grandparents� house yesterday with their mother Saminara Bibi to celebrate Id.

Around midnight, a fire broke out in the house when a kerosene lamp overturned on a stack of jute. Saminara escaped with her 18-month-old son, but the two girls were trapped inside.

Neighbours came rushing when they saw the blaze, but could not rescue the children.


New Delhi, Dec. 17: 
The BJP today slammed US secretary of state Colin Powell�s call for restraint as a sign of �double-standards� but its pique was tempered by the realisation that unless Washington gave the go-ahead, it would not be possible for India to cross the Line of Control and enter Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

�His statement smacks of double-standards because the US did not exercise restraint when it came to attacking Afghanistan,� BJP parliamentary party spokesman V.K. Malhotra said criticising the US secretary of state. �So why are they asking India to be restrained?�

Asked whether Powell�s advice was dictated by the fact that both India and Pakistan were nuclear powers, Malhotra�s said: �Even Osama bin Laden and the al Qaida were supposed to possess nuclear weapons. But that didn�t stop the US from waging a war against them.�

But after two days of high-pitched rhetoric, which stopped short of declaring war against Pakistan, the BJP today sounded modest while telling reporters what it expected the government to do.

The BJP�s chief whip in the Lok Sabha said the issue of whether India should cross the LoC would be discussed at the parliamentary party meeting tomorrow morning. Some MPs have already given notices to seeking permission to speak on the subject.

Both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani are expected to attend the meeting.

Malhotra said he expected a clear-cut response from the government. The day after the attack on Parliament, BJP MPs had called on Vajpayee demanding immediate action against Pakistan. He maintained that the party�s stand had not changed: �The government must show it has done something spectacular within 10 days,� he said but refused to elaborate on what the BJP expected.

Sources, however, placed some �softer� options before the government if crossing the LoC was not immediately possible. These were:

Mounting a dozen major attacks against the Kashmir terrorists with �decisive� results

Pro-active pursuit against terrorists in other parts of the country as well

Using RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing) to pay Pakistan back in the same coin.

�We should follow Indira Gandhi�s policy of tit-for-tat. If Pakistan instigates an attack on our soil, we should instigate three more in return to teach them a lesson,� sources said.

If none of these steps can be implemented, the BJP hopes it can at least score brownie points against the Opposition on the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and the December 13 terror assault.

Advani is scheduled to make his statement as soon as the House starts and the BJP hopes to introduce and if possible push the terrorism Bill through in the Lok Sabha. This, sources said, would facilitate the government�s plan to hold a joint session if the Bill is defeated in the Rajya Sabha.


New Delhi, Dec. 17: 
The BJP has conveyed to defence minister George Fernandes that he should refrain from attacking the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) when defending himself in what has come to be known as the coffin scam.

Fernandes, who was scheduled to address the press on the issue yesterday, was also �advised� to have his facts in place before doing so. The BJP was unhappy with him for failing to answer most of the questions at a news conference he addressed on the very day the Opposition raised the issue in Parliament. Fernandes had left it to BJP parliamentary party spokesman V.K. Malhotra to hold fort.

The defence minister called off his news conference yesterday as he did not have the �necessary data� to back his stand, BJP sources said.

Though the BJP reading was that the attack on Parliament had overshadowed the coffin deal, the leadership felt they should not be caught napping if the Opposition mounted a fresh onslaught. Party strategists claimed they have done their �homework� over the extended weekend so that they were in a position to brief their MPs on the �facts� at the parliamentary party meeting tomorrow before the House met.

If Parliament was allowed to run, BJP sources said a meeting of the NDA MPs would be convened to give them a similar run-down on the CAG report. Even if the House was adjourned sine die, they would be briefed to countenance the Opposition campaign on the ground and through the media.

The defence ministry will also issue full-page ads in Fernandes� defence.

The government�s arguments are:

For the first time since Independence the government of the day had sought a special audit from the CAG into emergency purchases made during a war, Kargil in this case. A letter dated February 10, 2000 from defence ministry joint secretary Banbit Roy to the CAG, which was distributed by the BJP, stated: �...allegations have been made regarding irregularities in the emergency procurement of items for Kargil-related operations. The allegations also merit thorough scrutiny by the CAG of all these procurements.�

If irregularities were really committed in the purchase of coffins, BJP sources argued the government would never have asked for an out-of-the-way audit.

The coffins were specially requisitioned to cremate the Kargil martyrs with due public honour and, by implication, it was �improper� to question the transactions.

No name was mentioned in the CAG report nor any system mentioned.

BJP sources accused the Opposition of dragging Fernandes in the case: �There are lakhs of cases of irregularities mentioned in CAG reports, but no minister or MP has resigned so far,� maintained sources.

The Parliament�s Public Accounts Committee would go into the allegations and fix responsibility. Sources also declared the government was �determined� to nail the culprits.

BJP sources were clear that on no count should the CAG be criticised. �CAG is a very useful institution. It is a constitutional body and has the same status as the judges. If there was no CAG, there would be no accountability on the part of ministers and MPs,� said sources.


New Delhi, Dec. 17: 
The Congress today tossed the strikeback ball back into the government�s court saying it would support any action to smash terrorist training camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir if it was �well considered�.

But the �strategic� decision on whether to strike at the camps across the border would be of the government alone, Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy said today. �Congress pledges its support to the government in any well considered step it may contemplate or take to counter terrorism. There cannot be two views in the country on this question.�

Reddy parried a question on whether the party would demand the resignation of L.K. Advani after the attack on Parliament. But he complained that the government did not exchange any information on the strike.

Asked to react on the reported criticism of the party by Advani for describing the strike as a �security lapse�, Reddy said the home minister had embarked on a �unilateral propaganda barrage� after the incident claiming there was no lapse.

Asked whether terrorist bases across the LoC should be struck, he said: �Whatever decision government takes, we will lend support.�

On US secretary of state Colin Powell�s advice of restraint to India, he said: �We as a sovereign nation will have to take our own decision... Naturally, major world powers like the US, Russia and the European Union will express their views... All these are inputs.�

About the Pakistani demand for a joint probe into the attack, he said: �We are satisfied with the evidence gathered by the police in regard to the involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba.�

Asserting that Pakistan should respond to the legitimate request of India by taking action against the two terrorist outfits, he said: �Nobody can deny the nefarious nexus between the two organisations and Pakistani agencies.�

Describing the strike as a �vicious attack on the supreme symbol of the Indian republic,� Reddy said Pakistan should be appreciative of the unprecedented gravity of the black deed�. The two outfits were given �birth and nurtured� by the Pakistani agencies, he said.

The Congress Parliamentary Party will take a decision about floor strategy in Parliament tomorrow.

No proposal for a sine die adjournment of the House has come from the government, Reddy said.


Mumbai, Dec. 17: 
US sailors, from the berthed warships USS Antietam and USS O�Kane, took time off from fighting terrorism to play soccer with the street children at the Salam Balak Trust Centre, set up and run by filmmaker Mira Nair after the success of her film Salaam Bombay.

Nair�s film had portrayed the life of the city�s street children.

The sailors also scrubbed, cleaned and painted the centre for homeless children off Marine Drive in South Mumbai, in an act that bordered on naval diplomacy.

�This is a brand new experience for the sailors,� Taylor Skardon, commanding officer of USS O�Kane, who accompanied his �boys� to the centre, said. �Sailors regularly undertake voluntary community service at various ports where the ship docks.�

Cruiser USS Antietam and destroyer USS O�Kane, engaged in the Afghan war, called at Mumbai, the nerve centre of the Indian Navy, on Saturday as part of the joint Indo-US naval exercises. The warships, carrying guided missiles including Tomahawks, belong to the USS Carl Vinson battlegroup, the backbone of the Afghan operation.

US diplomats called the arrival of the battleships a sign of �deepening� military ties between the two countries. The Antietam, with a crew of 350, is based in San Diego, California, and the O�Kane, with a crew of 325, is based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier and lead warship in the group, is expected to arrive �any moment�, US consulate officials said.

The aircraft carrier is scheduled to show its might in a display open to Indian and US military officers off Mumbai tomorrow.

More than 40 sailors from the battleships came smiling to the centre in the morning, armed with gifts. They spent the whole day there, playing, talking and joking with the children, who did not speak their language.

They scrubbed the asbestos-roofed centre clean, then painted it white, a sign of peace in turbulent times.

�It�s great to see the smile on these children�s faces,� said Skardon, handing over gifts of footballs, cricket bats and balls and volleyballs to the children, who lapped them up.

Rekha Maskar, one of the trustees, said the children were happy that the sailors had taken time off to spend time with them.

�It is hard to believe that they are soldiers fighting a war against terrorism in Afghanistan.�

Capt. Rushton, commanding officer of the USS Antietam, said the naval personnel were in Mumbai at the invitation of Indian authorities. He said they wanted not just to relax, but �meet and help out� those in need in the city.

On way to Mumbai, the sailors had stopped at Singapore and Thailand, where they visited an orphanage and a home for the elderly.

�They were sad when they saw these children, but happy when they left the centre,� a US consulate officer said.


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