Back to business with rash of Bills
BJP weighs debate against defeat
Cong turns Guruswamy gun on govt
Smoke signals for tobacco firms
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, March 5 
Even as the Opposition hurled corruption charges against the Centre in Parliament and industry protested higher taxes outside, the Vajpayee government today decided to prove that it was business as usual on the economic front.

Responding to criticism that leniency on its part had led to the spurt in prices of onions and other vegetables last winter, the Centre introduced a tougher version of the Essential Commodities Act which makes blackmarketing and hoarding of essential goods cognisable and non-bailable offences.

It also got the Lok Sabha to pass a Bill amending the Companies Act and introduce two other crucial economic legislations — the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Repeal Bill and Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions (Amendment) Bill.

The Essential Commodities Act (Amendment) Bill comes after an embarrassing defeat for the BJP in the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi Assembly elections in November. Campaigning had revolved around the runaway rise in prices of onions and potatoes, a phenomenon attributed to poor price management by the government and largescale hoarding by traders.

A far more lenient and pro-trader essential commodities Ordinance had been promulgated last year. But when a Bill to replace the Ordinance was introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament, members protested, saying this would encourage blackmarketing.

In a bid to cool tempers, the government had agreed to set up a joint committee of the two Houses to study the Bill. The subsequent drubbing in the elections forced it to accept the stringent recommendations of the committee.

The new Bill imposes a minimum fine of Rs 50,000 for first- time offenders and Rs 1 lakh for second and subsequent offences. At present, the maximum fine is Rs 50,000.

In case of summary trials, a maximum of two years’ imprisonment will be awarded, against the current term of one year. But summary trials will not be mandatory, enabling courts to impose longer prison terms of up to seven years.

The Bill also makes it clear that no court shall have the discretion to impose less than the minimum prescribed imprisonment. States have been empowered to set up special courts for speedy trials.

Less serious technical offences will not be cognisable if committed for the first time. They will also attract lower fines and prison terms — a minimum jail sentence of three months and a maximum fine of Rs 25,000 for the first offence and Rs 50,000 for subsequent offences.

However, the Bill also tries to minimise misuse of power by the police by making it mandatory for the force to get permission from executive magistrates before raiding, seizing or examining shops and godowns.

Arrests can only be made by officers of the rank of sub-inspector and above. Minor discrepancies between stock records and actual physical stocks of essential commodities will no longer be considered an offence.

The Lok Sabha also passed the Companies Act (Amendment) Bill 1998, repealing the companies ordinance amendment.

The Bill allows corporates to buy back upto 25 per cent of their paid-up share capital, subject to a debt equity ratio of 2:1. It also caps inter-corporate lending to 60 per cent of a company’s paid-up capital and free reserves or hundred per cent of free reserves, whichever is more.

Shares bought back have to be physically destroyed within seven days of completion of the buy-back. The company cannot issue the type of shares bought back or other securities within 24 months.

The Bill also says a company will not be allowed to make inter-corporate investment if there is a default in repayment of deposits or interests.

The Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Repeal Bill, moved today, removes the ceiling on land holdings in urban areas.

The government also introduced the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions (Amendment) Bill to strengthen and speed up recovery proceedings launched by banks and financial institutions against defaulting corporates and individuals.    

New Delhi, March 5 
The Vajpayee government seems to be closing in on the option of tabling the Bihar resolution in the Rajya Sabha, instead of revoking it right away or doing nothing now and allowing it to lapse after 60 days.

Though the government’s defeat in the Rajya Sabha is inevitable, BJP sources said the ritual of tabling the resolution and going through a protracted debate would give it a “fig-leaf” of an excuse for failing to oust the Rabri Devi government. The BJP could tell its Bihar unit that despite its best efforts, the Congress “refused to cooperate” and was in favour of “restoring Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi’s jungle raj”.

The government’s problems have been compounded by the threat of a constitutional crisis, which could arise if the vote-on-account for Bihar is not passed before the financial year ends on March 31. The Assembly has to be revived at least 15 days in advance to have the budget passed.

Although Parliament is empowered to pass the Bihar budget, it cannot introduce the Bill until the resolution on President’s rule is ratified in the Rajya Sabha. Keeping this in mind, the government may have to table the resolution early next week, party sources said.

Politically, the BJP’s assessment is that another discussion on Bihar will refresh people’s memory of the Congress “volte face” — how Sonia Gandhi said the Rabri Devi government had lost the “moral right” to rule after the Dalit massacre, and then decided to vote against Central rule.

The BJP also alleged that in supporting Rabri Devi, Congress had jettisoned its Panchmarhi declaration which pledged to shun casteist and communal parties. “If the Congress opposes the resolution, we could hammer home our charge that it is anti-Dalit and anti-poor and has no compunction about joining hands with casteist parties,” BJP sources said.

The government seems to have ruled out seeking judicial intervention to prolong the Bihar battle. “This is not a legal battle, it’s a political fight and it has to be carried to its logical conclusion,” BJP sources said. They admitted the BJP’s appeal might not stand legal scrutiny, leading to another loss of face for the government.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee told ruling coalition MPs today that a decision on Bihar would be taken on Monday after he returned from a two-day visit to the state.

With the government inclined to table the resolution in the Rajya Sabha, the BJP is making a last-ditch attempt to turn the Congress around. However, it realises that after voting against the proclamation in the Lok Sabha last week, the Congress is not likely to change its mind now.

BJP spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu today urged the Congress to support the “end of jungle raj” in Bihar.

During the hour-long meeting of ruling coalition MPs this morning, two of the BJP’s allies, MDMK and Trinamul Congress, suggested that the presidential proclamation be revoked right away, without going to Rajya Sabha.    

New Delhi, March 5 
The Opposition today mounted a spirited attack in the Lok Sabha, cornering the government into promising a debate next week on the sacking of Mohan Guruswamy as adviser to the finance minister.

As the Congress, which led the offensive, sought a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into Guruswamy’s allegations of “murky deals” and “kickbacks”, finance minister Yashwant Sinha rubbished the charges and offered to resign if they were true.

“There is absolutely nothing (to these charges) except the frustration of a man who has been sacked,” Sinha said.

“If the allegations are found to be true I will resign. I am prepared to have a debate on the issue, I have nothing to hide,” he said.

The matter was raised during Zero Hour by Congress leader P. Shiv Shanker, who said the resignation/sacking of Guruswamy was “shrouded in mystery.”

While Guruswamy maintained he had submitted his resignation on January 27, the government insisted that he was sacked on February 3, Shiv Shanker pointed out.

In media interviews, too, the former adviser had accused “the Prime Minister of running a cabal and touting for the Hindujas, Advani (of) lobbying for Essar, Pramod Mahajan of siding with the Mittals and the finance minister of lacking a backbone and involving himself in murky affairs,” he added.

Shiv Shanker said Guruswamy had also questioned the conduct of certain members of the Prime Minister’s family.    

Calcutta, March 5 
The tendrils of wispy smoke used to get into Abhimanyu’s eyes, making them smart. Inhaling the stream of passive smoke from his father’s cigarette, the 20-year-old coughed, spluttered, felt out of breath.

Not any more. Abhimanyu (“Only one of my friends smoke”) has made his father give up. So has 15-year-old Aparajita.

Industry figures indicate that Abhimanyu and Aparajita are not isolated cases even as tobacco multinationals — Philip Morris, Rothmans, BAT — line up investments in India. The shrill anti-smoking campaign in the West has made such companies look to the third world. But the smoke signals from India must be worrying them.

Sales of the tobacco giant ITC started slowing down from 1996-97 when the growth in consumption fell to less than 12 per cent. Last year, the growth rate plunged to less than half a per cent. A memorandum presented to the government by the Tobacco Institute of India shows that consumption had actually fallen by four per cent during April-December 1998.

During this period, the country’s top three cigarette makers — ITC, Godfrey Phillips and Vazir Sultan Tobacco — despatched only 68.80 billion sticks compared to 71.55 billion in the previous corresponding period. The three companies account for 95 per cent of domestic cigarette sales.

The size of the tobacco market in India is estimated at Rs 25,000 crore annually. At around Rs 8,000 crore, cigarettes constitute about 33 per cent of the market, slightly less than the market for bidis.

In recent years, though, the real gainers are said to be the makers of chewing tobacco: gutka brands boasted a combined sales revenue of Rs 500 crore last year.

Industry sources say price is the biggest deterrent for the decline in cigarette sales. Statistically, the 15-35 age group accounts for the highest consumption of cigarettes the world over. But teenagers are kicking the habit because they can dip into their father’s pockets for just so much.

The cigarette lobby plays down the impact of the anti-smoking campaign. “Even in Singapore, where smoking is banned in offices and most public places, cigarette sales are going up. The slide in sales in India is influenced mainly by the constantly increasing prices of sticks guided by heavy incidence of excise duty,” an ITC source said.

Suddenly, the Marlboro man is no longer a teenagers’ role model. Suddenly, in the confines of the college canteen or the crowded dance floors of a city disco, smoking is no longer cool.

So what is? “Careers, gyms, health freaks,” says Royden D’Souza, a second year BA student of St. Xavier’s College. “It is actually the girlfriends,” says Swapan Dinda, owner of the cigarette shop on the ground floor of the Coffee House on College Street. “They force their partners to give up,” he says malevolently.

Take a stroll around the campuses and you will notice hardly any cigarette shops around. Apart from a solitary shop, the ones around St. Xavier’s College have packed up. Pramode Swaya — who has been running the Presidency College canteen for nearly the last couple of decades — speaks of a reduction in the number of smokers.

The man who owns the corner shop — and who has been hit the hardest by the downward spiral in smoking — blames it on Bollywood. “In our youth, we saw Pran and Ajit smoking on screen. But just look at the films these days,” says Md. Alam, who runs a cigarette shop on Short Street.

Well, just look at them. Titanic, its dream run notwithstanding, had been panned by anti-smoking lobbies for showing Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio as smokers. Forget Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The smouldering cigarette — as a come-on, as a symbol of simmering passion or plain rebellion is pass?.

Welcome to love in the time of sanitised sensuality. (With inputs by Kausik Datta)    

Today’s forecast: Mainly clear sky.Possibility of morning mist. Not much change in day and night temperature

Temperature: Maximum 34.3?C (1?C above normal )
Minimum 20.7?C (2?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 95%
Minimum 29%


Sunrise:5.58 am
Sunset: 5.37 pm

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