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As the Trinamul leader left Delhi without settling the question of her return to the Cabinet, the deputy Prime Minister went public with his opposition to her return to the railway ministry.
Advani also came out in support of railway minister Nitish Kumar in his dispute with Mamata over the proposed bifurcation of Eastern Railway. Mamata has refused to join the Cabinet unless the notification splitting the railway is put on hold.
In an interview to a television channel, Advani said: �When the Prime Minister asked for my suggestion on the issue of giving the railway portfolio to Mamata Banerjee, I felt such a change was not right at this moment.�
He also scotched reports of a proposal to offer the surface transport ministry to Mamata, replacing B.C. Khanduri. That leaves the coal and mines ministry, of which Advani is holding additional charge, for the Trinamul leader, if the controversy over the bifurcation is put to rest.
�It (the split) was a Cabinet decision and not of railway minister Nitish Kumar alone,� Advani said.
Kumar has been saying this all along and he met the deputy Prime Minister for the second consecutive day today to argue against the setting up of a Cabinet sub-committee to examine the proposal for bifurcation.
The expected announcement on the panel � as a face-saver for Mamata � was not made today, making it clear which side was winning the game. Even if Vajpayee is ready to make a compromise with Mamata, with his assertive deputy going public today with his opposition to giving her the railway ministry as well as to a review of the decision to divide Eastern Railway, the Prime Minister will be severely cramped for room to manoeuvre.
Advani, however, left some space for speculation, saying that though bifurcation was a Cabinet decision, he did not know what might happen in the future. He has also spoken to Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the two are meeting in Delhi on Saturday when the bifurcation issue could be discussed.
As Mamata left for Calcutta with nothing to show to her state that delivered another blow to her today by way of a drubbing in a byelection, she was still harbouring hope of the Prime Minister staging a rescue act.
�The ball is in the Prime Minister�s court. He has the authority to direct the railway minister to withdraw the order,� she said.
�The Cabinet�s decision can be reviewed by the Prime Minister. His intervention will go a long way in settling the matter.�
Whether Vajpayee will intervene on her behalf and against the expressed wish of Advani is a question that hangs tantalisingly in the air.
Vajpayee and NDA convener George Fernandes are still working on a formula to rehabilitate Mamata. Fernandes, who has been mediating between Mamata and Vajpayee, said the issue was now in the hands of the Prime Minister. �The matter is with the Prime Minister... It is ultimately his decision.�
Kumar turned on the heat, seeking to close the option of a review. He said there was no proposal to constitute a group of ministers (GoM) to assess the decision. �I am not aware of any GoM being constituted to go into the matter,� he said, adding, �there is no proposal for any review.�
Government sources, however, said the setting up of a panel may not be made public.
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The DCA sleuths scrutinised the books of accounts, floppies and supporting vouchers of various sales deals even as Xerox Corporation announced in London that it would fully cooperate with the Indian government�s enquiry.
Jule E. Limoli, vice-president of Xerox Miera group and chairman of Xerox Modicorp Ltd, said in a statement: �We welcome the government investigations following our voluntary submissions to the US and Indian authorities and will cooperate fully with their enquiries.�
Xerox has said it paid $700,000 (Rs 3 crore) to government officials to secure contracts. Later, it added that the sum only pertained to payments made in 2000 and could be much higher if the amounts paid in earlier years were added.
Xerox Corp�s spokesman Paul Arrowsmith had said that �bribing was a long-standing practice at its Indian outfit until Xerox Corp put a stop to it two years ago when it took control of Xerox Modicorp�.
On Thursday, DCA investigators put Xerox�s �customer accounts� over several years under the magnifying glass.
Confirming the search operations, a spokesperson for Xerox Modicorp said the team of investigators was conducting its scrutiny only in the corporate office, though she did not rule out the possibility of the probe being extended to the branch offices at a later stage.
�Right now, the team of officials from DCA are collecting all sorts of information, including details about various customer accounts,� the spokesperson said. However, she said the office had not been sealed.
Finance minister Jaswant Singh today confirmed he had ordered an inquiry into the Xerox Modicorp scam on the basis of certain documents given to him by DCA secretary V.K. Dhall.
�Yesterday the DCA secretary gave me some papers on the basis of which I have ordered an immediate inquiry,� he said.
Following the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the DCA has been transferred from the law and justice ministry to finance which has since been renamed as the ministry of finance and company affairs.
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In the Howrah South Assembly byelection, Mamata�s party finished third � behind her other foe, the Congress � and had to suffer the sight of the CPM walking away with the seat with a hefty margin of over 66,000 votes.
The CPM has retained the seat but the defeat of the Trinamul nominee was so crushing this time that he lost his deposit. The number of Trinamul votes nosedived to a little over 9,500 from more than 46,000 in May 2001 when it had gone to polls in alliance with the Congress.
Reaching her home, a grim-faced Mamata picked her way through a crowd of crestfallen supporters to her room. She made herself off-limits to the waiting party functionaries.
Once inside the room, she is believed to have screamed at some of Trinamul�s leaders for the electoral setback.
The CPM�s Krishna Kishor Roy romped home with 78,097 ballots, way ahead of Srikanta Ghosh of the Congress and Brajamohan Majumdar of Trinamul who could poll only 12,963 and 9,661 ballots respectively. Both lost their deposits.
The byelection, held on Tuesday, was necessitated by the death of CPM�s Badal Bose, who had won the seat in the 2001 May election on a margin of approximately 9,000 ballots.
�If one looks at the results of Howrah and all other recent elections, one will see that the support base of the communists is expanding and that of Trinamul declining correspondingly because people do not think that Mamata Banerjee�s party can articulate their aspirations,� said Anil Biswas, state CPM secretary.
Trinamul had suffered a setback in the byelection to ward No. 10 of Calcutta Municipal Corporation in June when the party nominee had lost his deposit. Before it could fully absorb the blow, the party received another setback when it lost control of four municipalities due to factional feuding.
In the 2001 Assembly election, Trinamul�s Arup Roy had bagged 46,708 votes (44.45%) in Howrah South , thanks in a large measure to the support it received from the Congress.
Today, however, Trinamul saw its share slide to 9,661 votes (9.5%). Even if the votes obtained by the Congress are clubbed with that of Trinamul, the total adds up to 22,624 ballots, accounting for 22 per cent of ballots cast.
But the Trinamul leadership sought to keep its chin up. �The election was a complete farce. Witnessing massive rigging and police inaction, we withdrew our candidate from the poll,� said the leader of Opposition, Pankaj Banerjee.
The results were announced even though three electronic voting machines containing over 4,000 votes developed snags and could not be opened for counting.
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Their stories are invariably the same: good student, consistently high marks in school but a disaster in the Higher Secondary examinations, the results of which were announced on Tuesday. Unable to believe the marksheets that have been handed to them, they have now turned to the court � in larger numbers than ever � to redress what they believe is �gross injustice�.
Compare the figures: Last year, there were 70 higher secondary result-related cases registered with the high court; this year, in the first few days itself, the figure has touched 125. Judging by this trend, it could easily cross 200.
�We have no faith in the review of answerscripts by the higher secondary council,� said Pankaj Chatterjee, father of Oendrilla, who, against all expectations, had fared miserably in the higher secondary examinations. �All that we want is for the court to direct the council to show us the answerscripts so that we can see for ourselves how our children have fared. The marks that my daughter has received are absurd.�
Examine the case: A student of Jogmaya Devi College in Bhawanipur, Oendrilla had fared well in the Madhyamik examinations securing an overall 70 per cent with 80 per cent in the science group. She had got a letter in Physical Science, which consists of Physics and Chemistry. In the higher secondary examinations, it is precisely in these two subjects in which she has failed, securing 31 in Physics and 28 in Chemistry.
Oendrilla�s case is representative of the plight of most others who have approached the court for justice. �My daughter (name withheld on request) had done very well all through her academic career but has barely managed to scrape through in the higher secondary examinations,� said Ratna Raichoudhury. �Unless I see the answerscripts with my own eyes, I will refuse to believe the marksheet.� Her daughter, a student of a south Calcutta school, has fared poor in three of her strongest subjects: English, Bengali and History.
Last year, too, some parents had demanded that the council show them the answerscripts so that they could believe what they thought was unbelievable. The high court had also been moved.
Judges A.K. Mathur and Altamus Kabir had then observed; �We sincerely hope and trust (that) in the interests of students� the West Bengal Council of High Secondary Education will apply minds and give certain thoughts to their grievances relating to appraisal of answerscripts and review and post-publication scrutiny so that elements of transparency can be introduced.�
For all apparent purposes, the council has not paid any heed to the court�s observation. �I do not know where the copy of the judgment has been kept; I need to look into it before I make any further comment,� said council president Jyotirmoy Mukherjee.
�Let me first examine it before seeing what can be done to mitigate the grievances of the students,� he said.
A section of lawyers has interpreted this as contempt of court. �I am seriously thinking of filing a contempt notice,� said Supradip Roy, an advocate who has been approached by several aggrieved parents to file cases on their behalf.
�But my advice to my clients is to first go to the council and request them to show the answerscripts. Only if they refuse to do so, will we initiate action against them.�
Some heads of educational institutions are also examining the feasibility of jointly filing a public interest litigation against the council for the �anomalies� in the higher secondary results.
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The proposal was part of the agenda for the meeting but was not taken up since the Bengal MPs left midway. In a subtle game of nerves that is being played here, Railway Board officials said the extension could not be discussed because the MPs were not present. The modalities of financing, including the possibility of private participation, were to have come up at the meeting.
The railway ministry had proposed that if the state government was ready to bear one-third of the cost of extension, it would provide the rest of the funds.
But Delhi believes the cash-strapped Bengal government might demur on sharing the cost, which is why the proposal for private funding was floated.
�It was one of many issues that was listed on the agenda for the consultative committee meeting. We were under the impression that the members from Bengal would discuss the modalities of funding and the proposal to allow private investment for such projects,� said a board member who attended the meeting.
�The state government has not informed us about its views on the proposal that was sent to it a few months ago. A debate on their views on the project at the consultative meeting would have helped us to make an assessment. In the circumstances, we cannot do anything but wait for the state government to respond,� the official added.
A spokesman for the Bengal government, however, said in Calcutta that the state had already agreed to stump up the money and that there was no uncertainty about its participation. It has already provided and cleared the land for the extension.
If there is no difference of opinion between the two sides on funding, as the Bengal government suggests, how the views of MPs at the consultative committee meeting could affect the fate of project one way or the other is not clear. What appears to be the case, however, is that the extension has become another weapon in the larger political battle between Mamata Banerjee and railway minister Nitish Kumar.
The agenda note for the consultative meeting highlighted the need for huge investments and the role of private capital to accelerate the process of building rail infrastructure. A few states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand have already come forward to share the costs of rail-based suburban transport projects.
Speaking at the consultative meeting, Nitish Kumar said his ministry has finalised the guidelines to attract private capital for existing as well as new projects.
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Sources said: �If the proposed all-party meeting agreed on the directive of the apex court, it would be a different matter. But in the absence of any consensus, the only way to make the apex court directive non-operational is to bring an Ordinance or a Bill in the winter session.�
The precedents cited were the Shah Bano case, Vineet Narain�s hawala case and the case on the government house allotment scam.
When the apex court ordered for maintenance in the Shah Bano case, the then Rajiv Gandhi government had brought the Muslim Women�s Act to circumvent the judgment.
As finance minister, P. Chidambaram brought a �single directive� under which sanction was necessary to prosecute a government officer as a fallout of the hawala case. However, the directive was struck down by the apex court.
The apex court had cancelled allotments of several government bungalows and flats in Delhi to government officials. But by an executive order, the Centre continued the allotments.
Sources said the Centre is in no position now to implement the court�s directives in the current case and �might resort to the method of promulgating an Ordinance or introduce a Bill�.
Following the apex court directive, the Election Commission issued orders on June 29 making it mandatory for a candidate to fill in columns relating to criminal cases against him, his assets, liabilities and educational qualifications in the nomination papers. But the sources said the government is not too concerned about the poll panel order.
Law minister Jana Krishnamurthi had an hour-long meeting with predecessor Arun Jaitley at his Shastri Bhavan office and the �proposed all-party meeting was also discussed�. �It is the view of the BJP that it would be difficult to bring in the changes mandated by the apex court decision,� the sources said.
Krishnamurthi had earlier said that he would stand by Jaitley�s decision to hold the meeting on Monday to arrive at a consensus on the disclosures of a candidate�s background and that the poll panel�s decision on the matter would not be binding.
Asked what would happen to the poll panel�s orders, he asserted: �The decision of the all-party meeting would be final.�
The government predicts that almost all parties would be against the directive, �at least for the time being�, and in the absence of a consensus, a law has to be passed to bypass the apex court judgment. �In this case, the government has enough feelers that almost all political parties will agree to such a law�, the sources said.
But the issue has resulted in a tug-of-war of sorts between the poll panel and the Centre. The law ministry feels that the changes require amendments to the Representation of the Peoples Act, which Parliament alone could bring about. The panel, however, says that under Article 324, it is empowered to bring about the changes.
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Delhi put the pressure back on Pakistan saying further steps towards de-escalation would depend on Islamabad�s ability to bring cross-border terrorism to an end.
�The scope for further de-escalatory measures is restricted and prevented. In fact, an obstacle is created by Pakistan which is not showing its willingness to deliver on the pledges and commitments it made before the international community,� foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said this evening.
Army chief General S. Padmanabhan chipped in with a caution that chances of hostilities between India and Pakistan had not receded. Islamabad has to dismantle the entire infrastructure of the terrorists based on its soil to prevent tension from rising in the region, he said.
�Though the infiltration has reduced by a margin, it will require a lot of effort on the part of the other side to dismantle the entire terrorism infrastructure before infiltration comes down to a trickle, leave alone stop,� Gen. Padmanabhan said on TV.
Since May 27, when promises to stop cross-border-terrorism �permanently� were made, five Pakistani infiltration attempts have been thwarted, the army chief said. Though five such attempts were frustrated, according to army estimates, 107 terrorists managed to sneak into India during this period.
Without ruling out the possibility of an armed engagement with Pakistan, the army chief said: �My troops are there. Their troops are on the border. The reason for which we stood out there for six to seven months now is that we wanted this infiltration and cross-border terrorism to stop� It continues� If it does not stop...What do we do�We have to take some action.�
However, reports from Jammu and Kashmir said the Indian Army has started de-mining in the R.S. Pura and Ramgarh sectors in Jammu, suggesting that Delhi has begun further steps towards de-escalation.
An army statement, though, ruled out any such possibility. The de-mining is taking place as a pre-emptive measure to deal with the situation at the onset of monsoon, it said.
The mines are being removed from low-lying areas and along rivers and nullahs to ensure that they did not go adrift and cause damage to civilians, the statement said.
The tough Indian stand appears aimed at telling both the international community and Pakistan not to be complacent as Delhi would continue to maintain pressure till it is satisfied about Musharraf�s intentions on stopping infiltration and cross-border-terrorism.
It also came on a day when British defence secretary Geoff Hoon met the Indian leadership and talked on the situation along the border and the state of relations between the nuclear neighbours in South Asia.
Hoon, who met foreign minister Yashwant Sinha and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra during the day, said London was fully supportive of India�s stand on cross-border terrorism and wanted Pakistan to comply with its commitment before the international community to bring infiltration to an end.
But he also wanted to know whether Delhi could take more steps towards de-escalation to encourage the Pakistan President to maintain the tempo against the terrorists.
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The directorate of plant protection, quarantine and storage under the Union agriculture ministry believes travellers need to be stopped from unwittingly bringing in �defective or infected� plants or seeds that facilitate the entry of pests that have serious consequences for India�s agricultural economy.
At present, import of seeds and plant materials is restricted through the five major cities of Chennai, Calcutta, Mumbai (all three have ports), Amritsar and New Delhi after proper quarantine checks. Soon, tourists or frequent travellers bringing in such materials for personal use could face another round of checks at airports.
Guidelines and procedures have been put in place to facilitate �rapid detection, identification and characterisation of plant pests�, said O.R. Reddy, the deputy director of the Regional Plant Quarantine Station here, a new facility put up by the Centre with assistance from UNDP and FAO to promote safe import and export.
Explaining the logic behind checking individual travellers, Reddy and another scientist at the station, S.C. Bansal, said �carrying 10 grams of infected seeds in your baggage was much more dangerous than carrying one kg of gold from the ecological point of view�. Pests and infected seeds were hugely destructive to crops, they argued.
The scientists backed their argument for inspection with several examples. Coffee plantations in South India were affected by defective coffee beans brought in by some Sri Lankan refugees. The government has had to spend a considerable sum to curb the disease through the introduction of new bio-control agents, they pointed out. �Potato wart� was another pest that came in �clandestinely� due to inadequate quarantine regulations.
Once a go-ahead is given, plant quarantine officials would position themselves near the immigration counter to inspect plant materials and seeds. But the scientists prefer that travellers bring in plant materials with authenticated certificates or declare them for tests on arrival at airports.
There are no indications yet whether the Centre will make checks for plant materials mandatory at airports, but Reddy hinted that the phyto-sanitary guidelines might not be restricted to only import and export.
At present, the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914, last amended in 1992 to empower the Centre to levy fumigation and treatment charges, is enforced through the customs authorities mainly at the ports through which plant imports have to be routed.
Now, a draft plant quarantine Bill has been drawn up and is being studied by the agriculture ministry to ensure that its provisions �are in line with international (WTO) regulations and powers of enforcement are with us,� said Reddy, who is awaiting elevation as the chief of plant quarantine. This Bill is expected to make plant and seed checks mandatory at all international airports and empower the quarantine staff to enforce the law along with customs officials.
With the scenario of global trade in agriculture changing rapidly, India needed to develop a world-class integrated national plant quarantine service, network all the quarantine stations, build a region-wise database on pest prevalence and establish a national plant quarantine management centre, said Reddy.
In its two years of existence, the Chennai station has detected and prevented the introduction of several pests in the country. Recently, they stopped a consignment of apples from China to �segregate� the rotten ones before the other fruits could be cleared. Reddy said they had to be particularly on guard against a dozen types of fruit-flies, which are not native to India but could come through fresh fruits, a major import item.
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Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP MLA from Indore who also doubles up as the city�s mayor, is the bone of contention between the camps of chief minister Digvijay Singh and senior AICC member Kamal Nath.
Nath�s lobby is bent on introducing a Bill in the Assembly to ban a public representative from holding two posts at a time. And the immediate target seems Vijayvargiya.
Urban administration development minister Sajjan Singh Verma, a Nath loyalist, has all but declared a rebellion on the chief minister over the issue. A belligerent Verma has been advertising his resolve to go full-steam with the �one man, one post� Bill though his chief minister made it clear that the government had no such plans.
�Let Vijayvargiya carry on with both his offices,� Digvijay said, much to the BJP mayor�s relief.
The Bill proposed by Verma is similar to one recently passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The move was seen as being primarily targeted towards former chief minister Karunanidhi�s son M.K. Stalin, the Chennai mayor and MLA.
However, the Madhya Pradesh government had mulled the Bill much ahead of Tamil Nadu � even before the creation of Chhattisgarh. Tarun Chatterjee, a BJP leader from the Chhattisgarh region, was then an MLA and the Raipur mayor at the same time.
However, after some consideration, the Congress dropped the idea.
The man whose double-role initiated the moves for the one man, one post Bill still holds the two posts. Only, Chatterjee has joined the Congress. He is the PWD minister in the Ajit Jogi government and, the mayor of Raipur.
However, after Digvijay�s firm �no� to the Bill, Verma spat venom at his chief minister. �I am the urban development minister here. This is my department,� he said. �The chief minister is completely unaware about the developments in my department. He has issued statements out of sheer ignorance. The chief minister will know of this Bill only after I present it in the Cabinet meeting.�
Off and on, the Nath faction stirs up the hornet�s nest in the state Congress and the government as a usual show of strength. Last year, when the state was reeling under a severe power crisis, Nath wrote to Digvijay saying his district of Chhindwara should be spared from power cuts.
In his reply, the chief minister said only the state secretariat will be spared.
Two of Nath�s MLAs threatened to resign last year, two more threatened to do so this year.
This time round, the BJP MLA has got caught in the crossfire.
Verma said he would place the proposal for the Bill before the Cabinet soon. Once the Cabinet approves of it, the Bill can be tabled in the Assembly.
But chances are, the Bill will die an early death in a Cabinet dominated by Digvijay�s men.
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