Partners wrest budget role
Youth strangles step-siblings
Atal offers 2004 sermon to sop-hungry party
Sonia gets even with Mulayam
Home heat cuts short PM trip
A crore a piece in MLA market
Jan Shatabdi berth for east
Free food for toddlers, pure water for others
Friends and foes stick to beaten track
Tender power for general managers

Calcutta, Feb. 26: 
Conceding ground to its partners in the Left Front, the CPM today agreed to interact with them before finalising the state�s budget. This year�s budget has already been drawn up.

The issue came up in today�s Left Front committee meeting when representatives from the Forward Bloc, the CPI and the RSP sought information on the highlights of the budget, which will be placed in the Assembly session beginning tomorrow. CPM politburo member Jyoti Basu, newly re-elected CPM state secretary Anil Biswas and Left Front chairman Biman Bose were among those present at the meeting.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and finance minister Asim Dasgupta told the Front leaders that any discussion on the budget a day before the session might draw a privilege motion against the government.

But the leaders refused to accept the argument, saying they could have been briefed when the budget was being drawn up in November-December. Dasgupta retorted that he had accepted suggestions from trade union and peasant front leaders before finalising the budget.

CPM mandarins sought to soothe the Front leaders by promising that the partners in the ruling Left Front would be taken into confidence while drawing up the next budget. �We may have some valuable suggestions on the budget, and it is welcome if the CPM takes us into confidence long before finalisation of the budget,� said a Front leader.

The CPI had even distributed a note containing suggestions on non-planned expenditure among Front leaders just before the meeting began. �We want the government to lay more stress on resource mobilisation and enhancement of planned expenditure in the budget for the benefit of the people,� said a key CPI functionary.

Forward Bloc secretariat member Jayanta Roy said the CPM should constitute a commission to look into the huge expenditure under non-planned heads.

Bose later conceded to reporters at the CPM headquarters that the Front partners were not briefed on this year�s budget. But he promised that the budget would be pro-people.

The Left Front chairman added that a decision was taken to strengthen the Front at the grassroots level by organising regular meetings. �This apart, we have decided to hold bipartite meetings with Front partners on a regular basis,� he added.

As part of its move to increase unity among Front partners, the CPM has lined up a string of meetings with the Forward Bloc, the RSP and the CPI on March 7, 12 and 13, respectively.


Purba Midnapore, Feb. 26: 
A youth allegedly strangled his minor step-siblings at Pitakhali village in Purba Midnapore district early this morning.

Sub-divisional police officer Debasish Bej said Niranjan Shukla, 21, the son of a Central Industrial Security Force head constable, killed two stepsisters and a stepbrother in a fit of rage. �He also tried to throttle his stepmother, Geeta Shukla, but she survived,� Bej said.

Locals said Niranjan was peeved with his father for remarrying and had threatened to eliminate his step-siblings on several occasions.

Niranjan seized the opportunity when his father was admitted to hospital for treatment. At dawn on Tuesday, Niranjan strangled his sisters, Puja, 7, and Priyanka, 6, with a bootlace. Two-year-old Ramesh, too, did not escape his wrath. Niranjan then turned his attention to Geeta, who was trying to save her children. �He thought Geeta was dead, too. Niranjan left her lying on the floor and fled from the scene,� Bej added.

After some time, Geeta regained consciousness and raised an alarm. Locals rushed her to a local hospital. Finding her condition critical, the doctors shifted her to NRS hospital in Calcutta. The three children were declared dead when they were taken to the local hospital.

No one had been arrested till late this evening. A search has been mounted for the absconding Niranjan. A police team has left for Chapra in Bihar to trace him.

District officials said police will also interrogate the head constable.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
In his first official reaction to the election results, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said they were �way below� expectations and underscored the need for �thorough discussion and introspection�.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra, however, said Vajpayee made it clear to the parliamentary party that the mandate was not a referendum on his government but �related entirely to local, state-level issues�.

Malhotra also quoted the Prime Minister as saying the results would be discussed threadbare at a day-long meeting of the parliamentary party on March 16 after Vajpayee returns from Australia.

BJP sources said the MPs wanted the meeting to be held tomorrow as it was a public holiday and Parliament was shut, much to Vajpayee�s discomfiture.

But rural development minister Venkaiah Naidu came to the rescue, saying it was �too early� to go in for an in-depth analysis.

�We need to go deep into the causes of what went wrong, where and why,� he reportedly said.

Malhotra told reporters that Vajpayee had also given a pep talk to his MPs, asking them to keep their morale high and not be �disheartened�. He asked them to start preparing right away for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

The MPs piled pressure on Vajpayee not to go ahead with the proposed labour reforms � which facilitates an easy hire-and-fire policy in units employing up to 1,000 workers � in a hurry and request the Cabinet to reconsider its decision. Vajpayee said the issue would first be discussed by the National Democratic Alliance and then placed before Parliament.

The legislators urged that telephone advisory committees be reconstituted to accommodate more BJP nominees.

�They should be reconstituted in such a way as to share power with our workers. After all, as communications minister, Ram Vilas Paswan had managed to set up his party apparatus on the strength of enlisting partymen in the advisory committees,� said a Bihar legislator.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
For once, the Chanakya was stumped.

Kingmaker Harkishen Singh Surjeet was in for a mild shock today when Sonia Gandhi declined to meet Mulayam Singh Yadav to discuss a post-poll alliances in Uttar Pradesh.

Surjeet had �advised� Sonia to meet the Samajwadi chief to smooth �rough edges�. But Sonia politely declined, saying Mulayam should rustle up the requisite numbers before seeking Congress support.

Whenever the CPM general secretary raised the secularism issue, Sonia shot back: �Where are the numbers?�

Sonia�s move is being seen as her way of getting even with Mulayam. Ten days ago, there had been a harsh exchange of words, with Mulayam threatening to �expose� Sonia after she charged him with �betraying� secular forces in May 1999 by refusing to back her.

Sonia dealt another blow to the prospects of a Mulayam-led coalition, asking newly-elected MLAs from Uttar Pradesh to �prepare� for general elections. The 20-odd legislators authorised her to decide on all tie-ups.

The Congress chief said she was disappointed by the party�s performance in Uttar Pradesh and urged the legislators to work harder for the Lok Sabha polls. She said they could take place much before 2004.

Though the MLAs could barely hide that they were all for participating in the Uttar Pradesh government, they agreed to abide by Sonia�s decision. A section, however, said the Congress should not extend support to Mulayam �unconditionally�.

Former chief minister Jagdambika Pal, who won from Basti, said: �We understand the central leadership�s compulsions. We want Soniaji to decide whatever is in the best interests of the country and the party.�

Most Congress Working Committee members said that sharing power with Mulayam would be a disaster. Referring to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threat to start temple construction in Ayodhya from March 15, they urged the Congress to stay away from Mulayam.

The best course would be to allow the BSP and the BJP to come together or wait for President�s rule, they said.

In the Congress� assessment, the BJP move to opt out was a tactical ploy to pressure BSP leader Mayavati and force her to play second fiddle. �The BJP is biding time. They are still master of the situation,� a senior Congress leader said, pointing at the crucial role of the Governor.

Congress leaders conceded they would have a problem on their hands if the Governor decided to call Mulayam.

�We will consider the issue of extending support after we are convinced that the Samajwadi Party has enough numbers to form the government,� an AICC official said.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to knock off his bilateral visit to Australia from his 10-day overseas tour beginning Thursday in what appears to be a fallout of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad�s Ayodhya overdrive.

Vajpayee will attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet at Coolum, Queensland, from March 2 to 5, but skip the two-day Australian tour that would have taken him to Canberra and Sydney.

The Prime Minister will make an overnight stop in Bali on his way to the Commonwealth meet. On the way back, he was to have spent a day in the Thai tourist resort, Phuket. Though he is likely to make a technical halt there, it is not clear if he would stay on for a day for an informal session with the Thailand Prime Minister, who is scheduled to fly down from Bangkok.

No reason has been given for cutting short Vajpayee�s tour. But indications suggest that the fast moving developments following the BJP�s Uttar Pradesh debacle and the VHP threat to revive the temple issue from next month are behind the decision.

The VHP has threatened to launch a movement in support of the Ram temple from March 15. Though there was enough time for Vajpayee to return to Delhi before that, South Block felt he should be in the country in case the situation snowballed.

Sources in the Prime Minister�s Office, however, said Vajpayee decided to return early because of the discussion on the motion of thanks to the President�s address to Parliament.

Yesterday, the business advisory committee had deliberated on whether the discussion on the motion of thanks � which is to be the first business of the Lok Sabha � could start without the Prime Minister. But some Opposition members felt the discussion should begin only when Vajpayee is present.

The PMO sources said Vajpayee now wants to return to Delhi by March 6 to be part of the discussion in the Lok Sabha and when it is taken up the next day in the Upper House.

Pak handover treaty

In yet another dilatory approach to India�s demand for the 20 terrorists, Pakistan today offered to negotiate a bilateral treaty that will provide a legal framework for the extradition of criminals as and when the two sides resume talks.

A treaty could be negotiated between the two countries under which neither would provide refuge to criminals from each other�s country, Pakistani foreign minister Abdus Sattar said.


Lucknow, Feb. 26: 
The sellers have spread out their wares and the buyers are busy bargaining. But in this market where loyalties are being sold and �friendship�� bought, prices are soaring like a rocket on a moon mission. And, like the old English song, the question on all lips is: how good is your money, will it fill our pockets?

Welcome to the MLA market in Lucknow. Legislators keen to join the Samajwadi Party are believed to have quoted their prices even as others have sent hints that they are willing to do business.

Well-informed sources say that each defector has been promised at least a crore. Others have been promised plum Cabinet berths and ministerial positions. Many have already bitten the bait.

A power broker representing a big industrial house revealed that at least 26 legislators had been bought over. Others were being pursued aggressively. The budget: Rs 150 crore.

�We had identified soft targets a while ago when it became clear that Uttar Pradesh was heading for a hung Assembly,�� he said, adding that prices, however, had gone up from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore. It could spiral with each passing day.

An Independent, who took a moral stand that he was not up for sale, said: �Ek crore se shuru hua hai, kahin pe bhi ruk sakti hai (the deals started with Rs 1 crore, there is no telling where it would stop).��

He added that legislators were getting cleverer and had their priorities well defined. �They contest elections to make money and this is quite an auspicious start,�� he said.

A Samajwadi insider said that with political commitment not an issue any more, it had become easier to strike these deals. �There is no wastage of time,�� he said. �It is either money now or a ministerial berth later, everyone has a price and they can be bought.��

A nervous Mayavati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has instructed her legislators not to budge an inch from their constituencies, but some have been spotted here hobnobbing with political poachers.

Some Congress MLAs are also reported to have expressed �interest to talk��. Congress president Sonia Gandhi called all her 25 legislators to Delhi today to give them a lesson on loyalty and integrity.

But with all parties generously distributing tickets to criminals � among them hardcore mafia dons, contract killers, kidnap experts, land grabbers and gun runners � political observers say this is something they have called for.

In the recently concluded elections, almost a third of the contestants had criminal records. Many were out on bail. Of the nearly 1,100 candidates with criminal records � 450 were booked for heinous crimes � 122 have made it to the Assembly. This lot is likely to be targeted, as they will be more than willing to strike the best deals for themselves.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The railway budget may not be a dream for the east and the Northeast but it cannot be termed as a totally unrewarding.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar has given the region six Jan Shatabdi expresses. He has also increased the frequency of four trains in the region. Services of three more trains have been extended.

The Jan Shatabdi expresses will ply on the Bhubaneshwar-Howrah, Howrah-Malda, Guwahati-Dimapur, Tatanagar-Ranchi, Habibganj-Jabalpur and Katihar-Patna sections.

New trains have been added in the following routes: Guwahati-Jodhpur-Bikaner via Jaipur; Bhopal-Howrah; Howrah-Gorakhpur via Narkatiaganj; New Delhi-Howrah and Berhampur-Bhubaneshwar.

A new passenger train will ply between Guwahati and New Bongaigaon via Golpara.

The Rajdhani Express between Guwahati and New Delhi will now run daily. The bi-weekly New Delhi-Bhubaneswar Rajdhani Express will ply thrice a week. However, the express will not touch Howrah; it has been re-routed via Adar-Kharagpur.

The frequency of the Pune-Howrah Azad Hind Express has been increased from three days to four days a week.

The weekly Gorakhpur-Howrah Express has been made bi-weekly. The Hatia-Delhi Jharkhand Swarnajayanti Express via Gaya will now ply three days a week instead of twice.

The Shalimar-Bankura Aranyak Express has been extended to Adra. The Danapur-Katihar Express has been extended to New Jalpaiguri. The Bhubaneshwar-Palasa Intercity Express will go up to Srikakulam.

Electrification of Calcutta�s Circular Railway will be extended to Prinsep Ghat. Electrification of the Ranaghat-Bongaon line has been completed. Electrification between Bhubaneswar and Kottavalasa (on the Chennai-Calcutta route) and between Sitaram and Mughalsarai (on the Howrah-Delhi route) has also been completed.

The railways plan to commission the Barasat-Hasnabad line for electrification next year.

Out of total available budgetary funds, Rs 5,508 crore has been earmarked for plan expenditure � setting up new lines, gauge conversion and electrification.

Ten per cent of this fund has been allocated for the Northeast.

Zonal railways will be given more autonomy. General managers will get more freedom in accepting tenders.

The rail budget lays the roadmap for converting some 5,000 km into broad gauge during the Tenth Five Year Plan period.

This will help connect the four metros � Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta � better.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The railway budget has announced a number of innovative schemes for the convenience of passengers.

Declaring 2001-02 as t he year for passenger amenities, railway minister Nitish Kumar introduced 16 inter-city train services to be known as the Jan Shatabdi Express. These trains would have specially designed second class chair car accommodation.

Twenty-five additional express trains would be introduced and the frequency of 14 pairs of trains increased. Seven new passenger trains would be launched and the routes of 16 trains would be extended.

The railways will develop the unreserved ticketing system so that unreserved tickets can be issued from locations other than the boarding station. A pilot project is being launched this year to enable flexibility of issuing tickets for a journey on a future date.

The Passenger Reservation System centres would cover all district headquarters and other important stations. An additional 150 terminals will be added across the country in 2002-03.

The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) will set up plants to produce packaged water under the brand name Rail Neer to provide clean, hygienic drinking water for passengers.

IRCTC will also commission 50 food plazas at railway stations to cater wholesome and hygienic food to approximately 13 million passengers every day. It will provide free food to children below five travelling on Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express.

A few trains have been introduced with increased frequency and extended service. Good news for the Northeast � the Rajdhani between Guwahati and New Delhi will now run every day with the frequency being increased from bi-weekly to four days a week. Other trains whose frequency are likely to be increased: the New Delhi-Bhubaneshwar Rajdhani Express to run thrice a week from the earlier twice a week, the Vishakapatnam-Vijaywada Janmbhoomi Express to run every day from the earlier six days a week, the Hatia-Delhi Jharkhand Swarnjyanti Express from twice a week to three days a week.

The railways will also provide comprehensive healthcare to its employees and their families.

Some of the salient components of its other services would include prevention of communicable and non-communicable diseases, monitoring of drinking water quality, monitoring of food quality supplied to passengers, improvement of environmental sanitation and imparting health education.


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
Political parties reacted along predictable lines to the rail budget, with the ruling BJP terming it �one of the best budgets ever presented� and the Opposition Congress dubbing it �illusionary, insipid, status quoist� and an �accountant�s budget�.

The Congress said it would hit the common man. The CPM, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Republican Party of India also criticised the budget while BJP allies by and large welcomed it.

CPM leader Nilotpal Basu said the �same hackneyed story� had been played out and claimed the increase in tariff would have an impact on prices of essential commodities.

BJP general secretary V.K. Malhotra said it was much better than expected. �There has been no increase in rail fares in the last three years since our government came to power. Even now, there is only a marginal increase.� For the first time, Rs 17,000 crore had been allotted for rail safety and several new trains introduced, he added.

Telugu Desam leader Yerran Naidu termed the budget a �good exercise� undertaken after due consultation with chief ministers, MPs and political leaders. He claimed that the marginal increase in passenger fares would not put much of a burden on the common people.

But CPM leader Rupchand Pal said though rail safety was a major concern, imposing a surcharge on this would hit the common man.

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy said the budget lacked direction and dynamism. He said the rationalisation of freight increase was an unhealthy practice, as it would lead to diversion of traffic from railways to roads.

Pointing out that the gross traffic receipt shortfall was as high as Rs 1,649 crore and the net reduction in plan expenditure was about Rs 1,600 crore, Reddy said the health of the railways was far from good. Pooh-poohing the announcement of 500 km of broad gauge, he wondered where the funds would come from.

Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Shivraj Patil said the budget would not benefit the farmers and the common man. �It is a beaten track budget lacking vision and will not help in expanding the railways.�

Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India said the budget offered nothing to the common man and it would not help develop the railways.

RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said there was no benefit in it for ordinary passengers and wondered how the railways hoped to mop up the envisaged Rs 13,000 crore.

Congress leaders Girija Vyas, Ramesh Chennithala and Sona Ram Choudhary dubbed the budget a �disappointment and anti-poor�. Vyas said though the government had declared 2002 tourism year, there was nothing in the budget to attract tourists. �It is much ado about nothing.�


New Delhi, Feb. 26: 
The decentralisation signal is clear in this year�s railway budget, which has taken many policy initiatives to shift control away from the Central ministry and share projects with other bodies.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar announced that more autonomy would be given to the zonal railways by delegating financial power to general managers regarding acceptance of tenders.

As a result, general managers will be able to decide quickly on procurement and other tenders, thus improving efficiency, the minister said.

Besides, in a partnership between port authorities and railway, connectivity for new ports is being provided either by port authorities themselves or through a cost sharing arrangement between railways and other ports, according to the minister.

Rail connectivity for Adani and Pipavav ports in Gujarat is a good example of this co-operation, he added.

Railway and some of the state governments are also sharing costs for suburban systems in Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta and Hyderabad, the minister pointed out.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed this month with the Jharkhand government in which the state has agreed to bear two-thirds of the cost of projects, according to Kumar.

Similar agreements will be signed with the Karnataka government for time-bound completion of some projects identified by the state government.

The railway has also recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with the National Thermal Power Corporation to explore the possibility of setting up captive thermal power plants to reduce expenditure on electricity.

The government is also seeking the participation of several non-railway agencies to strengthen the golden quadrilateral and diagonals connecting the four metros.


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