Atal applies social security salve
Mulayam banks on Surjeet skills
Bajrang threatens trishul march
Badal taps Bluestar for SGPC votes
Plague scare haunts Punjab

New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today sought to apply balm on anxious workers, promising better social security packages a day after trade unions slammed his government for clearing labour reforms that will make lay-offs easier.

Yesterday�s �heartless� pursuer of economic reforms played out the part of a �commiserating� healer at a national seminar on Employees State Insurance (ESI) policy.

�The industrial scene has dramatically changed since ESI was established. So, too, has the labour movement,� Vajpayee said, reading out from his prepared speech at the opening day of the seminar organised by the labour ministry.

�What has remained unchanged is the government�s commitment to ensure social security for workers through ESI and provident fund schemes.�

The assurance came even as Left parties and their affiliate trade unions accused the government of going in for a �hire and fire� policy under World Bank pressure.

The Centre yesterday cleared an amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act, which allows retrenchment without government clearance in sick units employing up to 1,000 workers.

Vajpayee read out word by word from the prepared text, unlike earlier this month when he had digressed at a function organised by the same ministry at the same venue.

He had ignored his written speech and spoke at length on the need for labour law reforms. This time, there were no impromptu forays into the �unknown� � no word of caution to the worker for failing to fall in line with new market and technological forces.

His government would take care of the concerns of workers, especially those worst hit, Vajpayee stressed, addressing critics of amendments to the ID Act who believe that reforms without a social safety package would spell doom for millions.

�But social security cannot exclusively mean state funded and state administered security schemes. By its very nature social security implies a strong and active participation of non-state institutions, beginning with the family,� he said.

It was clear that the government�s main concern was social security � now that labour laws are going to be put through the wringer that would erode much of the existing security cover for workers.

Labour minister Sharad Yadav has been emphasising on social security measures, especially for workers in the unorganised sector. The Prime Minister also took the same line.

�We have to expand the social security net to cover tens, possibly hundreds, millions of unorganised workers without straining our budgetary resources too much,� he said.

Pointing to the sordid conditions in most ESI hospitals, he urged the government to explore the possibility of developing links between these institutions and public and private hospitals in their neighbourhood.

�Many of you will agree the ESI infrastructure is substantially under-utilised in many places. It is also being mis-utilised in some places, though they are not very commonplace,� the Prime Minister said. Yadav suggested that ESI hospitals be handed over to the Centre for better functioning.

Sena labour salvo

The Shiv Sena today threatened to join hands with Left-wing trade unions in opposing the proposed labour reforms and said that defence minister George Fernandes, who has a trade union background, should have resigned on the issue, says a PTI report.

�George Fernandes should have offered his resignation from the Cabinet on this issue because he had been closely associated with the trade union movement and has been a veteran union leader,� Sena chief Bal Thackeray said.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
The top three competitors in Uttar Pradesh are grappling with strategies to beat the fractured mandate that most exit polls have predicted in the heartland.

While the BJP has authorised chief minister Rajnath Singh to deal with the emerging situation, the Samajwadi Party, which hopes to emerge with the largest tally, is pinning its hopes on CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet to broker a deal with the Congress. Sonia Gandhi�s party has so far been ambivalent on extending support to Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The Bahujan Samaj Party�s prime concern, it seems, is to keep its flock together.

Samajwadi general secretary Amar Singh, who was here yesterday, flew back to Lucknow this evening after discussions with strategists.

But asked if there was a meeting with Congress leaders, all the Samajwadi leader said was: �No comments.�

However, a Samajwadi leader said the party was hoping �Papa Surjeet� would persuade the Congress.

Singh claimed that his party would get at least 170 seats and expressed confidence that the Governor would invite the single largest party to form the government.

BJP leaders went into a huddle with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today discussing the scenario with Rajnath and state unit chief Kalraj Mishra. Home minister L.K. Advani, BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi and former chief Kushabhau Thakre were also present.

Commenting on a possible BJP-BSP coalition government, a senior BJP leader said: �We had bitter experiences (with Mayavati) in the past. So the question does not arise.�

Rajnath, who is against playing second fiddle to Mayavati, told central leaders he would be in a position to manoeuvre if the BJP got around 150 seats.

Sources said Mayavati insists on becoming chief minister and is not inclined to accept a Cabinet berth in Delhi in exchange for support to a BJP-led government in Lucknow.

Several Mayavati supporters, like human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Uttar Pradesh minister Lalji Tandon were absent at today�s meeting at Vajpayee�s residence, fuelling speculation that the BJP may no longer be thinking of an experiment with the BSP again.

Though some party leaders till yesterday gave three options � Rajnath forming a government, sitting in the Opposition or President�s rule � Advani said the party wants to avoid Central rule.

More than the anti-Mayavati stand, it was the brinkmanship of the BJP leadership, which was evident, sources said. The leaders believe the BSP could split if the BJP manages to reach around 150 seats.

The broad outline that emerged in today�s meeting was not to have any truck with the BSP. It was also felt that if the BJP did not get a substantial number of seats, it should sit in the Opposition.

�The BJP is exploring avenues for formation of its government in Uttar Pradesh because it believes that the BJP is emerging as the single largest party. So there is no coalition with the BSP,� spokesperson Maya Singh said when asked if the BJP would take the BSP�s support in forming the government.

However, an agency report quoted Rajnath as saying �nobody can be considered untouchable� in reply to a question on the possibility of a post-poll BJP-BSP arrangement.

BJP sources said they believed that if the mandate is badly fractured, as was being projected, the new government might not last even a year.


New Delhi, Feb. 23: 
The Bajrang Dal lashed out in all directions today, rubbishing Dwarka Sankaracharya Swami Swaroopananda for �playing Congress politics�, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee for talking of a court verdict, former Prime Minister V.P. Singh for insisting on a National Integration Council meeting on the issue and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi for demanding an all-party meeting on the VHP threat of starting construction from March 15.

�No all-party meeting can stop the VHP from going ahead with construction. The talk of an NIC meeting is part of a conspiracy to prevent construction,� said Bajrang Dal national convenor S.K. Jain. �Under no circumstances will the proposed construction stop.�

Jain said 20 lakh Dal activists carrying the �trishul� would march to Ayodhya, adding �they are ready to face any situation�. The Dal leader said: �If any Muslim organisation makes an attempt to rebuild the Babri masjid at Ayodhya, the Bajrang Dal would chant Hanuman Chalisa at Delhi�s Jama Masjid.�

The Dal had drawn up a list of 3,000 mosques across the country that were built after demolishing temples, Jain said. If Muslims did not respect the sentiments of millions of Hindus, the Dal would not be able to stop a �massive upsurge� against these mosques, he said at the VHP office.

Jain dared the All India Babri Masjid Rebuilding Committee to take out its proposed march to reconstruct the mosque at Ayodhya, saying the Dal took �this threat seriously�.

Rebuilding committee president Mohammed Yunus Siddiqui said at a press conference here yesterday the marchers would carry one brick each and collect one rupee from people to meet construction expenses.


Chandigarh, Feb. 23: 
With results of the Punjab elections expected tomorrow, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal�s party is trying to stoke the embers of Operation Bluestar by getting the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee to raise a memorial for victims of the crackdown.

The army operation was ordered by the Indira Gandhi government in June 1984 to flush out extremists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple. Hundreds of Sikh devotees inside the shrine also perished.

SGPC president Kirpal Singh Badungar, a Badal loyalist, announced the decision to build the memorial. Badungar equated the army action to the massacres of thousands of Sikhs by marauding Afghan invaders in the 18th century. Separate memorials will also be raised for them.

The decision was taken at the SGPC executive body meeting early this week. �We have decided to raise a memorial for the victims of Operation Bluestar because we want the community to remember what happened in June 1984. The memorial will be built within the temple complex,� the SGPC chief said.

Sources said the Shiromani Akali Dal exerted pressure on Badungar to take the decision in a bid to influence votes during the SGPC general elections, likely to be held in September. The move was also prompted by the fear that Badal�s party would lose its majority in the committee if it fails to form the government again.

�We are ready to sit in the Opposition benches if we lose the polls. But we will not allow any interference by the Congress in the running of the SGPC. This is not a communal decision. As a party we have our own agenda. As a government we held a different viewpoint,� Badungar said. The Sikh clergy, he added, would be consulted on the form and venue of the memorial.

The move has rattled the Congress, which is on a comeback trail. �By raking up the issue (Operation Bluestar), which did not form part of the election campaign, the Shiromani Akali Dal�s motive is to touch an emotional chord,� a senior Congress leader said. He feared that his party could face immediate religious problems once in power.

The Badal government had never raised radical issues in the five years it has been in power. Instead, it projected Hindu-Sikh amity as its defining principle and had also brushed aside allegations from radicals of having forgotten the �problems� of Sikhs, including the one involving sharing of river water with Haryana and Rajasthan.


Chandigarh, Feb. 23: 
Less than 48 hours after Union health minister C.P. Thakur triumphantly announced that plague had been contained in the region, doctors at the PGIMER today confirmed that one patient, Karamjeet Kaur, was admitted from Riond Khurd village in Punjab with symptoms similar to pneumonic plague.

�At the moment, we have just one new patient with plague-like symptoms. She had earlier been admitted to the Hissar civil hospital where she had been administered medicines for the disease,� said PGI spokesperson Manju Wadwalkar.

�Samples have been taken for investigation and the results will be known only after a few days. Her condition, however, is stable. People close to her have also been advised to take precautions,� the spokesperson added.

Karamjeet�s case has caused a scare among residents of the village and the neighbouring districts of Haryana. Her husband, Krishan Singh, had earlier died of a disease suspected to be plague.

Doctors attending on her in the village suspected plague and referred her to the Hissar civil hospital, which, after suspecting that her symptoms were similar to that of the dreaded disease, referred her to the PGI.

The health departments of both Punjab and Haryana have asked all district headquarters to be alert to the possibility of any disease with plague-like symptoms.

Door-to-door surveys are also being conducted in Riond Khurd to identify those who could be afflicted by plague.

Punjab villages bordering on Haryana are in the grip of chicken pox, making it difficult for doctors to diagnose those who may have contracted plague.

The Chandigarh institute, meanwhile, has discharged one of the six patients suffering from plague. Pradeep got infected while accompanying five other patients to the PGI for treatment from Himachal Pradesh earlier this month.


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