After quake, devastation of death
Tremors but no shocks at tea party
Jaya in berth bargain
Refugees march at gunpoint
Power cuts torment state
Calcutta weather

Lucknow, March 29: 
More than 100 people were killed and 300 injured in an earthquake that jolted thousands across north India out of their beds a little after midnight on Sunday, but limited its devastating fury to Chamoli and Rudraprayag districts in the Garhwal hills.

The tremors were felt in Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Kanpur, Srinagar, Jaipur, Faridabad, Gurgaon, Ambala, Chandigarh and Shimla. But the Garwhal districts bore the brunt of the havoc of what is being called the biggest quake in recent Indian history.

S.K. Srivastava, additional director-general of the national meteorological department, said the earthquake recorded 6.8 on the Richter scale. It was more severe than the earthquake in Uttarkashi in 1991, which measured 6.6, in Latur (6.3) and in Jabalpur (6.0). Like the one in Uttarkashi, it occurred in Zone 5 of the seismic belt which is classified as ?very quake prone?.

While 56 persons were already reported killed in Chamoli district and 29 in Rudraprayag, the magnitude of the disaster will unfold only in the days to come. Uttar Pradesh chief secretary Yogendra Narayan said: ?The Uttarkashi earthquake, which measured less, killed 635. It happened in the same area. This time, a repeat of Uttarkashi seems likely.?

Nandprayag town, 10 km from Chamoli, was the epicentre of the earthquake. There were reports of deaths in neighbouring Gopeshwar, Joshimath and Jhakoli. ?We were watching a Hindi film on television when chairs, wardrobes and beds started toppling over. Then the electricity went off,? said Chamoli district magistrate Uma Kant Pawar. He said he heard a deafening rumble of rocks and earth crashing down a mountainside close by. ?It looked as if half the mountain had come off,? Pawar said.

More than 30 tremors rocked the towns in the Garwhal mountains. While the earthquake lasted for close to 40 seconds last night, tremors ? measuring between 2.02 and 4.9 ? continue. Officials said another quake cannot be ruled out. Worse, bad weather and rainfall are expected. ?The real story of the devastation is still to unfold. The actual damage is in the villages,? said Uttar Pradesh home secretary N. Ravishankar.

Even many hours after the quake, reports of casualties and damage were sketchy. Telephone lines to the area were knocked out and roads were buried under boulders. Many of the villages have no communication at all and can be reached only by dirt tracks.

Rescue was hampered by the series of landslides the quake had triggered, blocking road links and snapping telecommunication and power lines. The Gopeshwar-Ukhimat, Karanprayag-Almora and Rudraprayag-Gourikund roads have been closed to traffic.

The Uttar Pradesh administration is coming to terms with the enormity of relief operations. Armed forces were asked to send rescue teams to the spot this morning. Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the air force have been pressed into service to recover bodies.

Five medical teams ? sent by the chief medical officer of Chamoli ? have fanned out in the rural areas to extricate bodies trapped beneath the debris and provide help to the injured. Thirteen medical teams have been despatched to the affected areas from the plains.

Hospitals are being readied in Bareilly and Saharanpur. While two helicopters have been sent from Sarsawa airbase in Saharanpur, a state helicopter has been stationed in Gopeshwar town ? headquarters of Chamoli district ? for lifting bodies.

Twelve relief centres have been set up in the area. The help of the Red Cross has been sought. The state government has announced compensation, which includes Rs 1 lakh for death of an earning member of the family and Rs 50,000 for death of a non-earning member, Rs 10,000 for permanent disability and Rs 25,000 for razed houses.

The quake was so severe that cracks were seen on mountains and roads. About 90 per cent of the houses in Gopeshwar collapsed. Chamoli superintendent of police Sridhar Pathak said five prisoners died when the barracks in which they had been kept tumbled.

Dehradun district magistrate P. Mohanty said five forest fires have been noticed in the region. ?Houses and trees have been damaged by these fires,? he said.

This is the second major disaster in the Uttar Pradesh hills in seven months. Landslides rocked Rudraprayag and Malpa near the China border in August last year where nearly 200 people died. Chamoli district was also hit by a mild earthquake ? measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale ? on January 23, 1996. However, there were no casualties in that quake.

Geological Survey of India (GSI) scientists in Lucknow said ?there should be no surprises? at this quake. The GSI?s senior deputy director-general (north zone), Ravi Shankar, said: ?Strict building codes have not been followed in the hills despite several warnings by scientists. Concrete multistoried buildings are being constructed in the hills. So the damage is more extensive each time an earthquake of this nature occurs.?    

New Delhi, March 29: 
For someone who revels in political mischief, the party went just according to script. Subramanian Swamy had been claiming all these days his high tea would shake up a few things and his chief guest willingly obliged. When Jayalalitha, hell for the Vajpayee government, hope for its adversaries, said: ?There was an earthquake in Delhi yesterday and this party is a political earthquake,? she really stirred things up momentarily. Was this the beginning of the end of Vajpayee? Was this the moment of an alternative?s birth?

But if her stunned audience was looking for elaborations, she wasn?t immediately willing. ?Such remarks, if elaborated, lose their charm sometimes,? she said, quite enjoying the enigma and electricity of her remark.

Just as people were jostling with the implications, came the kind footnote to the clanger. ?But yesterday?s quake in Delhi did not devastate anything, it was merely a tremor,? the lady said. So this was what she had come to the tea to deliver the Vajpayee government ? a tremor, like many she has triggered in the past.

For Swamy, though, the party had been made. Not only had all his vaunted guests (except the Yadav brethren, Laloo and Mulayam) arrived, Jayalalitha herself did the honours of feeding fuel to that fire that spreads so well and quickly in Delhi: political speculation.

Over the weekend, Jayalalitha was at the Vajpayee government?s coordination committee meeting, making her points sharply but in attendance with the coalition. Today she had lunch with the Prime Minister and tonight she dines with the man she has chosen as her latest target: George Fernandes. Raising a little storm in Swamy?s teacups wasn?t going to do her any harm. If anything, it would make the Vajpayee government sit up straighter and snivel more slavishly at her feet.

What a gathering this was: Sonia Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda among others ? three former Prime Ministers and an aspiring one, all under the same roof. Only, the setting was the Banquet Hall of the Ashoka Hotel and the occasion a tea party. Swamy would have liked it to be a political conclave, probably in the Central Hall of Parliament.

Rao, recovering from an operation, sat, Buddha-like as usual, Chandra Shekhar, aloof and sombre, ran his hawkish eye, as if looking for possibilities of a kill. But Deve Gowda, that man who so desperately wants to be Prime Minister once again, was up and about, pumping every hand in sight, except Sonia Gandhi?s, which was not on offer to him.

Among the other guests, the old and ailing Devi Lal, son Om Prakash Chautala, Manmohan Singh, Balram Jakhar, Kamal Nath, Buta Singh, S.R. Bommai, Omer Abdullah, Gegong Apang, Ajit Jogi. And there was Uma Bharti, too, a bit out of place amid ?secularists? but holding her own. ?Don?t misunderstand my presence here,? she protested even before the media could accost her. ?I am like a younger sister to Swamy and I have come here to see Jayalalitha, not Sonia Gandhi.?

Sonia Gandhi, too, had come to see Jayalalitha but she stayed barely five minutes, received a red rose from Swamy and excused herself. She did not even stay for tea. And she wanted to stay away from politics. ?Don?t ask me any political questions,? she parried. ?Jayalalitha is an old friend and this friendship continues.?

Jayalalitha herself played soft on Sonia. Asked whether she no longer considered Sonia a foreigner and, therefore, unfit to be Prime Minister, she said: ?One cannot go on repeating old statements. Nothing is static, you have to move on.? But, for the moment at least, there were no indications the two ladies were moving together politically.    

New Delhi, March 29 
ADMK chief Jayalalitha is not making the removal of George Fernandes from the defence ministry a make-or-break issue with the Centre and appears to have settled for concessions elsewhere.

Officially, she kept up the demand for Fernandes? removal. ?His actions could be a major embarrassment to the government and I have said he should be shifted to a less sensitive ministry in the national interest,? she said after a luncheon meeting with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

Later in the day, though, Vajpayee turned down her demand. At a convocation ceremony at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, he shrugged off the demand, saying ?this is a very old issue?. In Lucknow yesterday, he said there was no question of removing Fernandes and told the Congress to substantiate charges before demanding a joint parliamentary committee probe.

Today, Vajpayee advised Fernandes to call on the ADMK chief and make her see their side of the story. Fernandes, who met Jayalalitha tonight, said she had not made any demands and ?the meeting was satisfactory?. Scotching speculation that he would argue his case with files pertaining to Bhagwat, Fernandes said: ?I have not shown any file to her.?

But Jayalalitha may have extracted promises of greater ADMK representation in the Cabinet and removal of her estranged ally V. Ramamurthy from the petroleum ministry. She suggested a Cabinet expansion, handing over a list of names from her party.

She announced the Prime Minister would soon make a statement on the issue. The way Jayalalitha emphasised this move, it seemed she would get what she wanted.

Her apparent hard line on the Fernandes issue is being seen as a means of increasing her bargaining power with the Vajpayee government rather than threatening its survival. She has not served any ultimatum and seems to have tacitly agreed to live with Fernandes as defence minister as long as her demands are met.

Vajpayee was jittery because it would be virtually impossible for him to accommodate Jayalalitha and antagonise an ally like the Samata Party and a leader of the stature of Fernandes.

Jayalalitha indicated that there was little chance of her breaking away from the coalition as, unless the majority of the allies walked out, it was not possible to cobble together an alternative.

The ADMK chief confirmed that she had raised a similar demand for Fernandes? transfer to a less significant ministry at the meeting of the coordination committee on Saturday. She had argued that if her prot?g? Sedapati Muthaiah had to quit on graft charges, then, by the same token, Fernandes should resign also.

At her luncheon meeting with the Prime Minister, Jayalalitha invited him to Chennai for inauguration of the Sethusamudram project, in sharp contrast to her refusal to meet Vajpayee when he went to Tamil Nadu recently to attend a BJP state meeting.    

March 29 
Carrying little but their children and heart-rending stories of Serb atrocities, hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees are fleeing Kosovo into neighbouring countries as aid agencies struggle to cope with the exodus.

The White House insisted that the Nato airstrikes were not responsible for inflaming ethnic hatred there as President Bill Clinton worked to maintain allied support for the offensive in the fight to stop atrocities in Kosovo.

As bombs pounded Yugoslavia for the sixth day, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov announced plans to visit Belgrade tomorrow in a fresh bid to end the crisis. Russia has opposed the air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Nato spokesman Air Commodore David Wilby said at Brussels that Nato had learned from ?reliable sources? that Fehmi Agani, an ethnic Albanian politician and one of the negotiators at the Kosovo peace talks in France last month, has been executed by Serb forces in Kosovo.

More than 100,000 Kosovars have crossed into Albania and an estimated 10,000 into Macedonia, officials said. Another 5,000 have fled to Bosnia in a human catastrophe that will not easily be undone.

Ethnic Albanian sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government forces appeared to be allowing refugees to leave along specific routes in an effort to drive away as many Albanians as possible from Kosovo.

?The pattern that emerges (from their accounts) is paramilitary forces arriving, rounding people up and telling them at gunpoint to go,? said spokesman Kris Janowski of the UN in Geneva. ?So we are seeing officially-sanctioned ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.?

Lines of old, rickety cars, tractors and trucks waited along the borders carrying thousands of terrified refugees who told harrowing tales of Serbian brutality.

Scores of others walked to relative freedom, pushing old grandparents in wheel-barrows.

Most refugees were women and children who were separated from the men in their families. The men are either being detained or executed, reports said. Reports that Serb militia, led by Zeljko Raznjatovic, also known as ?Arkan?, are active in Kosovo added to the fear because of Arkan?s record of brutality in Bosnia.

Naim Pajaziti, who, along with his family, was fleeing his village in Kosovo on a tractor, lost all four of his children when a mortar struck the vehicle. ?I still have it before my eyes. Two of the girls were dead on the tractor and the others were on the ground,? Pajaziti said, after making it to Albania.

Despite Clinton?s insistence, the airstrikes against Yugoslavia appear to have indirectly contributed to the human disaster as President Slobodan Milosevic, while helpless against the hi-tech bombs, exacts revenge by driving out the Albanians from Kosovo. Preventing this kind of ?ethnic cleansing? was an immediate aim of western leaders.

?We have to recognise that we are now on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster, the likes of which we have not seen in Europe since the closing days of World War-II,? said Nato spokesman Jamie Shea.

Milosevic is emptying Kosovo of Albanians and, in the process, subverting neighbouring countries which have their own delicate ethnic balance.

The refugees are pouring into Kukes, a border town in Albania, at the rate of a thousand an hour, aid officials say. A refugee Isuf Morina described the massacre of 200 men in his village Krushe in Kosovo by Serbian forces who used automatic weapons to mow them down.

A school teacher was quoted as saying the rampaging Serbs had broken all baby carriages they could find. Once the Albanians reach the border posts, Serb police confiscate their passports as if to wipe all trace of their existence. Refugees reported even their license plates are taken away. Then the women are robbed of their rings and necklaces.    

Chinsurah (Hooghly), March 29 
Power supply in Hooghly and parts of North 24-Parganas was severely disrupted after the Bandel thermal power station collapsed on Sunday night.

In Calcutta, too, Dhakuria and adjoining areas like Jadavpur, Jodhpur Park and Gol Park suffered a prolonged bout of power cut after the CESC?s distributing station in the area tripped around 3.30 pm today, sources said. Supply was restored a little before 8 pm.

At Bandel, all four 80-MW operating power units tripped after a technical fault at the state electricity board?s 400-KV Jeerut substation. The 210-MW fifth unit at Bandel is being overhauled. Normal supply from Bandel was restored only around 2 pm today.    


Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of development of thunderclouds in the afternoon or evening. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 35.5?C (normal)
Minimum 26.6?C (3?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 95%
Minimum 30%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.47 pm
Sunrise: 5.36 am

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