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The rescue followed a helicopter search to locate the pirates in the dense riverine forests close to the international border. Coast Guard, Border Security Force and West Bengal Police personnel swooped down on Shuktara, the trawler the pirates had hijacked late on Thursday, to free the hostages.
None of those abducted was hurt in the operation that also enlisted the help of local fishermen, who assisted the team with their knowledge of the difficult terrain.
But not a single pirate could be arrested, said the police, explaining that the criminals took advantage of the indeterminate border on water and fled towards the Bangladeshi island, Talpatti.
Lauding the security personnel for a �splendid job carried out in very adverse circumstances�, minister-in-charge of Sunderbans� affairs Kanti Ganguly said: �They (pirates) may have gone to Bangladesh.�
The police said Shuktara is one of the three trawlers that were abducted on Thursday night, the other two being Dinesh-Putul and Ma. Thirty-one fishermen were abducted, of which nine were rescued today. The trawlers were hijacked near Patharpratima, a junction where various distributaries of the Hooghly run into the Bay of Bengal, the police said.
The remaining 22 fishermen were freed on Friday, a few hours after they were abducted. The fishermen were sent to the shore by their abductors in a trawler and they alerted the administration to the abduction and also the ransom of Rs 4 lakh demanded by the pirates.
The nine who were kept back were held on Kendo island.
On receiving the news of the abduction, top officials of the South 24-Parganas police met to formulate a strategy. At Friday�s meeting, led by district superintendent of police Deb Kumar Ganguly, it was decided that the Coast Guard and the BSF would be included to launch a joint combing operation to study the terrain prior to the rescue mission.
The operation was monitored by Kanti Ganguly, the Sundarbans development affairs minister and MLA from Patharpratima.
Before starting the operation, the three agencies got in touch with local fishermen, asking them for information they thought would help in facilitating the rescue.
The next step involved pressing speedboats and helicopters into service. The combing operation began on Friday with several surveys being carried out from helicopters. None, however, proved successful.
Finally, it was the trawlers that helped achieve a breakthrough. �Fitted with antennae to intercept radio messages, around 25 of them fanned into the area, entering creeks and distributaries of the Hooghly, trying to catch interactions between the pirates,� said inspector-general of police (law and order) Chayan Mukherjee.
After several attempts to locate the hideout of the pirates, a message gave a hint of their den. Tracing the message, the security personnel reached a group of islands, including Kendo, Mayadweep and Baghmara, a few metres from the India-Bangladesh border. The team then swooped down on the pirates.
What ensued was a gunbattle and while the captives were rescued, the pirates fled in the direction of the international border.
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Portraying a melange of charm, reasonableness and practical politics, Bhattacharjee, in the first ever meeting with Trinamul, a party known for its obduracy, cut away the sharp edges of its agenda. He even got its eight-man delegation to agree to cooperate with the government on issues of common concern.
�It seems the ice has started to melt for the first time,� enthused a beaming Pankaj Banerjee, leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and also an important Trinamul functionary, after emerging from the two-hour meeting. �We are happy over the fruitful discussion with the chief minister.�
On June 7, Trinamul, at the behest of its chief, had spurned an invitation from Bhattacharjee to a talk on issues of common concern and inflicted a 12-hour strike on the state to press for the fulfilment of a charter of demands. The government today complied with several of those demands.
Expressing concern at escalating violence and political clashes in rural areas, Bhattacharjee readily accepted Trinamul�s demand for establishing all-party committees at the sub-divisional and district levels at the earliest. He also promised to take the Opposition party into confidence on major policy decisions of the government.
On the other hand, the chief minister deftly skirted a Trinamul plea that the municipal elections slated for July 21 in Asansol and Haldia be deferred. The Opposition�s alibi was that it observes the day every year as �Martyr�s Day� in memory of the 13 Congress supporters who had died in 1993 in police firing.
Accommodating the demand would be embarrassing for the government and the CPM as it would imply according martyrdom on those Congressmen for whose deaths Trinamul holds the Left responsible.
According to Banerjee, the chief minister also agreed to the Trinamul delegation�s contention that panchayat bodies should not be forcibly taken over by any political party.
The chief minister and the Trinamul delegation begged to differ on the issue of banning private tuition. While the delegation requested Bhattacharjee to withdraw the ban and instead take steps to stop the mushrooming of tutorial centres, the chief minister said this was not possible since it was a policy decision. �However, Bhattacharjee made it clear that the government will not ask for any undertaking from teachers on this score,� Banerjee said.
Asked on the delay in payment of salaries to teachers, the chief minister assured the delegation that efforts were on to regularise the payment on time.
Bhattacharjee also promised to look into the Trinamul demand that the government be a party in the power tariff hike case against CESC. Besides, he would see to it that the list of people living below poverty line was published by August 15. Trinamul had accused the government of delaying its publication.
After the meeting, Banerjee said Mamata would be updated on the outcome. �Our future course of action will depend on the government�s commitment to keep its promises,� he said.
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The Union human resources development ministry recently issued a circular, asking the state government to examine the antecedents of all madarsas applying for Central funds.
All the activities of the Islamic schools should be scrutinised to verify if they indulged in �anti-national� activities, state primary and secondary education minister Kanti Biswas told the Assembly while responding to a query on government expenses for the upkeep of madarsas.
Biswas appeared cautious as he dealt with the �sensitive subject� and skirted questions on whether the Left Front government was following the Centre�s directive.
Memories of the chief minister�s statement on unaffiliated madarsas that sparked a furore were still fresh, a section of the Left MLAs admitted. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee�s statement on madarsas was interpreted as the government�s decision to put unaffiliated madarsas under observation, causing an uproar which forced the government to launch a damage-control exercise, involving minority ministers like Mohammad Salim and Mohammad Amin.
Besides, Bhattacharjee himself issued a denial that was repeated in several public fora and in a series of closed-door meetings with madarsa teachers� organisations to �do away with the misunderstanding�.
On persistent questioning by Trinamul Congress member Saugata Roy, Biswas admitted that the government did not have any record of unaffiliated madarsas in the state. But he said that it was �a fact� that there was a large number of unaffiliated primary, junior, junior high and high madarsas.
Biswas, however, tom-tommed the government�s �successes� in madarsa education. �The Union human resources development ministry has no provision for a single paisa to be channelled into madarsa education,� he said while asking the House members to compare the Centre�s grants for madarsas with that of the previous state budget�s allocation of Rs 115 crore.
�It is the Left Front government which has installed computers in madarsas,� the minister added.
Asked on the success rate of madarsa candidates in joint entrance examinations by Congress� Abdul Mannan, Biswas said: �The madarsa board has no separate higher secondary course. The high madarsa is at par with the Madhyamik syllabus. It is, therefore, difficult to identify the success rate of madarsa students in the JEE. However, I must confess that the success rate is poor indeed.�
According to the minister, the A.R. Kidwai committee, set up to suggest how to restructure the madarsa syllabus, is expected to submit its report this month.
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The Citu-controlled Colliery Mazdoor Sabha have been blocking coal despatch since Monday from Pandaveswar, Jhanjra, Madaibani and Natunhat mines in protest against the decision of Eastern Coalfields Limited to close down the Shamla mine.
Despite an appeal by power minister Mrinal Banerjee to withdraw the blockade and a tripartite meeting convened by additional district magistrate Manish Jain, Citu activists have decided to continue with their protest till ECL authorities withdraw their decision.
The West Bengal Power Development Corporation has restricted generation at Bakreswar and Bandel units. Officials said they would have to shut down the units if coal supply was not normalised within 48 hours.
DPL closed its unit from today as they had no stocks of coal.
The power minister today held a meeting with senior officials to assess the situation. Officials of the power development corporation have informed the minister that a �disaster� is imminent if coal supply does not resume within 48 hours.
ECL supplies 16,000 tonnes of coal each day to state power units from Pandaveswar and Jhanjra mines. These two mines produce the best quality of non-coking coal with lower ash content.
ECL authorities have threatened to cease production at Pandaveswar and Jhanjra because of a huge backlog of coal stocks. Officials said the blockade resulted in 60,000 tonnes of coal being reserved in the two mines.
�Our bunker has become full due to the huge coal stock. Now we are forced to store the produced coal in the open. The exposed coal could lead to a fire if kept in the open for a long time. Second, the coal could be pilfered easily as it is unguarded. So if the coal stock is not despatched, we will be forced to cease coal production in the two mines in 48 hours�, said the ECL officer on special duty, R.R. Mishra.
Mishra pointed out that ECL authorities have to pay Rs 700 per day per wagon as damage charges for 18 wagons of the Indian Railways, which have been blocked with loaded coals.
�We have already borne a loss of Rs 7 lakh till date as damage charges for the wagons and this is very difficult for us to bear,� he said.
Addressing a press conference today, Citu leader Haradhan Roy said: �Against the plan of closing down 22 listed mines between 2001 and 2004, ECL has suspended work at the Shamla mine on the plea of so-called loss. This is nothing but the implementation of de-nationalisation and the ultimate privatisation policy of the BJP-led NDA government.�
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The dream figure was jointly drawn up by the state government�s information technology department and McKinsey at a time when some of the Left constituents are baying for the consultant major�s blood.
�The target is based on our interactions with 36 potential investors after contacting more than 70 companies with the help of consultants from McKinsey,� said state infotech secretary D.P. Patra.
The government had commissioned McKinsey last November to help the state identify potential investors in IT and agri-based industries. From a group of 70 companies, a shortlist of 36 probable investors � 11 multi-nationals looking for IT-enabled services centres, 12 IT-enabled services providers and 13 third-party IT-enabled services providers � was prepared.
The team visited the corporate headquarters of the companies in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Officials involved in the state�s first ever pitching exercise � which saw even the infotech minister knocking at the doors of six companies � are bullish about the outcome. They said the prospect of companies like GE Capital (India), Spectramind and Nexgenix setting shops in the state is only a matter of time.
According to the target, the state will comprise 15 per cent of the country�s total revenue from transaction processing and customer interaction services, including call centres, and 10 per cent from knowledge services and animation. In IT services, the state is eyeing around 15 per cent of software services export, 25 per cent of all product development, R&D outsourcing and 5 to 10 per cent of domestic software services and products.
�Given the policy environment in the state, the target doesn�t seem to be difficult to achieve. The government has already announced a number of fiscal incentives for IT investments in the state,� said Patra.
Besides, the government is now in the final stages of drawing up an ITES policy, which will address the entire range of non-fiscal issues associated with investments. The policy � which is expected to be announced within a month � will aim at simplifying the existing labour laws and giving ITES companies the status of �Public Utility Service Providers� under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947. �All these measures will help in building investors� confidence,� the infotech secretary added.
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The project includes construction of overhead reservoirs, sinking of deep tube-wells and laying of underground pipelines. The public health engineering department and the department of municipality affairs will jointly bear the expenses of the project.
The town, with a population of nearly 1.65 lakh, has been facing an acute drinking water crisis for the past few months. There are only three reservoirs at Debinagar, Ukilpara and Tulsitala, constructed by the public health engineering department, which supplies drinking water to street taps.
The residents either have to sink tube-wells on their own or fetch water from these taps. Many tube-wells dried up after the surface water-level went down in summer, the residents said.
�The area and population of Raiganj increased after it became the district headquarters. But the municipality failed to provide adequate drinking water. The Left Front has been promising piped water for the past five years but nothing has been done,� alleged Congress leader Mohit Sengupta.
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Bringing a spark of her fighting spirit into the �lost� contest, Sahgal said: �Larai to larai hain. Baad mein pata chalega� (A battle is a battle. We shall see later what happens).
Addressing her first press conference in Delhi after the Left Front fielded her against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former Captain of the INA�s Rani of Jhansi wing said she was ready to face the basic �challenge� to India from both within and outside.
�The enemy within is more dangerous because you cannot see him. Communalism is the biggest threat facing the nation today,� said Sahgal.
Setting out for a �political fight� on the presidency, Sahgal has chosen Ahmedabad for her first public programme after filing nomination papers. She will tour the riot-relief camps of Ahmedabad on June 29 before proceeding to Calcutta on July 2 and Patna the next day.
�The recent happenings in Gujarat have numbed the nation. It will be my endeavour to protect the secular and democratic foundation of the Constitution,� Sahgal said.
�Today, all the four foundation pillars of our Constitution �- secular democracy, economic self-reliance, federalism and social justice � are under severe stress. All patriots are called upon to meet these challenges,� she added.
The spotlight has not shone on her for many decades � since the guns of the INA fell silent. She was �stunned� when the Left leaders in Delhi called her up and asked her to �bail� them out.
�At first, I was quite stunned. I had never expected such a thing to happen. But I had to carry out the responsibility my party leaders wanted me to shoulder,� said Sahgal. Even if that meant being dubbed a �losing candidate� from the start of the race.
Kalam is not her �personal enemy�. �I admire him for his scientific achievements. I do not know him personally and have nothing against him,� Sahgal said. But she had one pronouncement against the nuclear scientist. �I think we will be sending a wrong signal by having a nuclear scientist as the head of the state at a time like this when there is so much tension on the border,� said Sahgal.
What about the rest of the Opposition � the Congress and the Samajwadi Party? �In every battle, there are some people who run away,� said the freedom fighter.
Unlike the Left, however, she does not feel that any �great political experience� is needed to become the President of India. What is needed, the freedom fighter explained, is a �political and social perspective�.
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No official reason was given, but indications are that Vajpayee�s aides believe it is too early for him to take any political initiative in the state. �The timing for a prime ministerial visit now is wrong,� a senior official said. �We need to wait and watch the mood in the state before the Prime Minister goes there.�
New Delhi thinks Vajpayee should try and make a correct assessment of the situation in the state instead of jumping in when moderate elements as well as the fence sitters are not ready for a political dialogue.
India believes that the ground situation in Kashmir would undergo a sea change once Pakistan stops arming and sponsoring terrorists. However, President Pervez Musharraf�s assurance to stop infiltration would take time for Indian authorities to gauge on the ground.
The impact of Musharraf�s promise on moderate militant outfits as well as extremist political groups and the general public in the Valley will take even longer to measure.
The government is hoping to conduct free and fair polls in the state and wants as many political interests to be represented as possible. It also hopes to get a good voter turnout. Delhi believes that if Islamabad keeps its promise, there will be a change in popular mood and militants might also feel the desire to come over ground.
Whether this will happen is not known. But intelligence agencies as well as A.S. Dulat, the Kashmir expert in the Prime Minister�s Office, have been working hard to get Kashmiri militants to renounce violence and take up politics instead.
Though there have been moves in this direction by some Hizb-ul Mujahideen cadre, the numbers are not significant. The Centre hopes that with time their numbers would swell. Much of this would also depend on the kind of signals emanating from Pakistan�s Inter-Services Intelligence.
The Hurriyat Conference today held a joint meeting of its general council, executive and working committee to discuss future course of action for the coming Assembly polls but refused to divulge details.
Chairman Abdul Gani Bhat said he would hold a news conference on Wednesday to give details of the meeting. The leaders also discussed the detention of several senior separatist leaders.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the Hurriyat said it was imperative to include the state�s �true leadership� in any talks aimed at resolving the Kashmir issue. Although it condemned terrorism, the Hurriyat asked the international community to raise its voice against the �state terrorism� in Kashmir.
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The �Kalam effect� seemed to have galvanised the Tamil Nadu chief minister into action today when she presented 13-year-old Avinash Chandrasekhar two cheques totalling Rs 2.51 lakh for his curiosity and scientific achievement.
The boy was one of eight whiz-kids who was successful in a competition for a place in America�s Nasa Space Center as a student navigator under the Red Rover Goes to Mars programme.
Yesterday, nuclear scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the National Democratic Alliance�s presidential candidate, had presented the ADMK chief with a copy of his Vision-2020.
�You should become another big scientist like Dr Abdul Kalam,� Jayalalithaa told the Class VIII student, while handing over the cheques. One of the cheques was from the chief minister�s public relief fund. The other was from the ADMK-run MGR trust.
The competition � to join the gamut of research work on the red planet � included tests at various levels, including group discussions and participation in teleconferences.
Avinash, whose parents accompanied him to the chief minister�s office, had recently returned after an exciting tour of the space complex.
The boy�s mother, Anuradha Chandrasekhar, had written to Jayalalithaa, detailing her son�s achievement and how he had prepared for over two-and-a-half years to participate in the student navigator contest.
She informed the chief minister that Avinash�s elaborate preparation, including interactions with scientists in research laboratories in the US, the cost of staying at Nasa, and other expenses had cost the family a tidy sum of Rs.2.5 lakh.
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The statement coincides with a Central proposal to allow international observers to tour the state during the September polls.
However, chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh said foreigners would not be part of the official teams.
�If anyone wants to come on his own, he can. We have our own observers. Foreign observers cannot be part of our structure. The law says the observers have to be government officials. The observers (have to) report to us,� he said.
�However, the foreign media can visit every place and polling booth,� the poll panel chief added.
The presence of foreign observers is one of the conditions set by a section of wavering sceptics to take part in elections.
Lyngdoh, who was addressing a press conference here, said that political parties, during a meeting with the commissioner, had demanded that �good observers� be sent to oversee the Assembly polls.
�We will send good observers, totally handpicked by us. They will not only observe the elections but see other things as well, including the security provided to candidates,� he said, adding that �they will be our eyes and ears�.
Lyngdoh said various political parties had expressed apprehensions that the special operations group (SOG) of the state police and the National Defence Front backed by renegades might try to rig the polls. �Many political leaders told me that they have already started receiving threats from these groups. This is a matter to be examined carefully.�
The CEC made it clear that security forces will not only check violence on polling day but will also make sure that nobody is forced to vote. �We won�t allow anyone to compel any voter to cast his vote. Compelling anyone is an offence,� Lyngdoh said.
He said leaders have asked for adequate security during the polls. �The candidates need better security for any meaningful campaigning�. We have discussed the issue with the Union home ministry. Orders have already been issued to the state administration and the directions will be implemented within the next few days.�
For the first time, the commission, instead of political parties, will issue voter slips, Lyngdoh said.