Allies squeeze in Christian salve
Truckers? strike pinches pockets
Rapid action on reforms
Web war for city Grandmaster
Secret handover of Lanka suspect

New Delhi, Oct. 21 
Bowing to allies? pressure, the BJP-led government tonight incorporated a ?healing touch? for Christians in the draft of the President?s address to Parliament on Monday.

The changes were made after the allies, which have a stranglehold over the government through the 120 members at their command, insisted during today?s Cabinet meeting that the speech must address the concerns of Christians and dispel any sense of insecurity in the community.

The alterations were made at the behest of Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress and Vaiko of the MDMK. Both leaders had stood by the government on the diesel hike but were unwilling to concede ground on the issue of Christians? rights.

The Telugu Desam, the BJP?s largest ally which has preferred to offer outside support, too, was looking forward to an unequivocal assurance from the government to the minorities.

The allies turned on the heat at a time when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been demanding that the Pope, during his visit to India, apologise for the conversion of ?Hindus to Christianity? and seek forgiveness for what had happened in Goa more than three centuries ago.

The Cabinet today spent over an hour discussing the President?s speech. This itself was a climbdown for the BJP as it had been stonewalling questions on the Pope?s visit for the past few days.

The Prime Minister?s Office, too, had glossed over the VHP?s statements. The Prime Minister?s aides were more keen on insisting that the issue would be solved amicably and any demonstration during the Pope?s visit, scheduled for early November, would not go out of hand.

The allies had turned restive in the wake of a steady stream of VHP statements on the Pope, but only Vaiko, who was in Chennai, had taken up the issue.

However, at the Cabinet meeting today, the BJP was in for a surprise as Mamata intervened and insisted that Christians had to be reassured in the President?s speech.

PMO sources said there was no division and Mamata?s ?suggestions were accepted in toto as she wanted?. Most ministers remained tightlipped after the meeting, but a source said the President?s draft speech was ?considered? and ?approved?.

The changes will also help President K.R. Narayanan, who has been jittery about articulating a government policy with which he did not feel at one. Nevertheless, Rashtrapati Bhavan had accepted in principle that it could not deviate much from the text of the speech as it had been prepared by a government which has returned to power with a comfortable majority.

Now that the President?s statement has been changed, it will be more difficult for the VHP and its sangh parivar siblings to push through an agenda that hurts Christians.

In recent months, the militant arms of the sangh parivar have pursued this agenda with a degree of confidence, especially because the BJP made electoral gains in areas where Christians came under attack.

In south Gujarat?s Dangs ? once a Congress bastion ? the attacks split the tribal votes, guiding the BJP to victory. Similarly, in the tribal belt of Orissa, the Congress was routed and the BJP gained because of the division brought about by the strikes against tribal Christians by Dara Singh, who continues to evade arrest.    

Oct. 21 
Over 20 lakh truckers across the country today switched off their engines, sending the prices of essentials soaring in the capital and some other regions.

The tremors of the strike were, however, not felt in West Bengal as the All-India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), which called the agitation, has a marginal presence. But its ripples are bound to affect the state as the inward flow of goods has come to a halt.

The state?s truckers, the majority of whom are aligned to the Federation of West Bengal Truck Owners? Associations, go on strike from October 26. ??The effect of the strike was not perceived in the markets today but will be in a couple of days,?? said a federation spokesman.

But other states reeled under the strike?s impact as transporters went ahead with their protest after talks with the government on rolling back the diesel price collapsed yesterday.

The Centre refused to budge from its stand, but said it was ??open to talks?? with the transporters. ??However, there is no question of a rollback,?? petroleum minister Ram Naik said.

The wholesale markets were the first victims as retail vegetable sellers could not carry their goods out. In Delhi, prices of vegetables and fruits shot up despite the state government?s claim that ??necessary steps had been taken?? to ensure smooth supply. Three-wheelers and mini-tempos ferried goods to small markets and grocers at jacked-up rates.

Union public distribution minister Shanta Kumar reviewed the availability of foodgrain in states and Union Territories. A government release said there was enough stock to meet the demand for six months in every state.

The AIMTC, which represents about 32 federations and operates over 22 lakh trucks, claimed the strike was a success. ??Truck operators in the south stopped operations since last night while those in other regions joined in the morning,?? said O.P. Agarwal, organisation president.

He warned the government against invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act (Esma) as it would only make the operators more determined.

Road transport secretary Ashok Joshi admitted that the strike has had an impact, especially in Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But he said the Centre was reluctant to use Esma now.

AIMTC secretary-general J.M. Saksena said the onus of ensuring the supply of essentials lay with the government. ??We do not want to hurt the common man, but the government should make alternative arrangements. However, we have decided to ferry vegetables and fruits to hospitals,?? he said.

City taxis costlier

Taxi rates in Calcutta and its suburbs will go up by 20 per cent from Friday morning, but the fare hikes for buses and mini- buses have been deferred till Monday.    

New Delhi, Oct. 21 
The Union Cabinet tonight firmly set the course for the second phase of reforms when it cleared the telecom bailout package and approved several long-pending legislations that seek to replace the draconian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act with a milder statute, curb black money generation and white collar crimes, and permit the introduction of derivatives trading.

The eight-day-old government, which approved the Bill to open up the insurance sector to private and foreign investors at its first meeting yesterday, has clearly signalled its determination to rush through the 14 pending economic legislations whose non-implementation has impeded the reform process.

The Foreign Exchange Management Act (Fema) and the Prevention of Money Laundering Bill, which were conceived by the United Front government in 1996, are now expected to be introduced in the current Parliament session.

Fema is designed to dilute Fera which did not distinguish between criminal activities and irregular transactions. It was introduced in the last Lok Sabha but could not make progress because of the dissolution of the House after the collapse of the Vajpayee government. The replacement of Fera has been a long-standing demand by industry.

While Fema seeks to relax foreign exchange regulations, the Prevention of Money Laundering Bill will provide stringent punishment for malpractices in foreign exchange transactions.

One of the key provisions of the Bill is that it empowers bank officials to probe any deposit or transaction above Rs 1 crore; if it is found to be linked to some money laundering operation, the officials can report it to the Enforcement Directorate.

The Cabinet also approved the migration package for telecom service providers from a licence fee-based regime to a revenue-sharing arrangement. This package was challenged in the Delhi High Court, which declined to impose a stay but ruled that the new House should ratify it.

Providing a fillip to the capital markets, the Cabinet approved an amendment to the Securities and Contract Regulation Act to permit trading in derivatives.

?We are extremely pleased and hope the Bill will be passed in the winter session,? said National Stock Exchange managing director R.H. Patil. ?We expect the approvals and the regulatory framework to be in place by March when we can launch trading in derivatives.?

A derivative is a tradable financial instrument that derives its value from the price of underlying assets like stocks, bonds, indices, currencies and commodities. Derivatives are essentially meant to help market players hedge the price risks of a financial/commercial transaction over a short period ? usually three to 12 months.    

Calcutta, Oct. 21 
Calcutta-based Grandmaster Dibyendu Barua is preparing to launch onto the Internet. He will cut his online chess-playing teeth with a rather high-profile match on world champion Garri Kasparov?s own website, The tournament is called The Club Kasparov Inaugural Grand Prix.

The matchup, from December 18 to January 1, will involve 16 star players, including Kasparov himself, logging in from five continents. The organisers have approached Barua for his consent and Barua wants to play.

Those who are confirmed for the meet are world number seven Michael Adams, connecting from England, and Yasser Seirawan, who will play his first round games from Hawaii. There will be two of Asia?s finest, Utut Adianto of Indonesia and Barua of India, along with England?s Nigel Short playing from Greece, world number four Alexander Morozevich of Russia, Brazil?s Gilberto Milos from Las Vegas (the South American representative) and 1998 US champion Nick DeFirmian.

From the Netherlands, there will be Loek van Wely and Jeroen Piket. Top Spanish player Miguel Illescas and young French star Etienne Bacrot will also be on.

The biggest surprise, though, could be a player from Israel. A past world champion, Junior 6.0, the latest version of the 1998 computer chess champion from Israeli programmers Amir Ban and Shay Bushinsky, will be running as Deep Junior on massive four-microprocessor hardware and playing from the Club Kasparov offices in Israel. Barua may well be warned, because Junior recently defeated super-GM Boris Gelfand in a rapid match of two games and drew a match with the Israeli Olympiad team.

The server, though pretty Russian, is actually in Israel.

Club Kasparov?s staff of Grandmasters will provide live analysis for all spectators who log in. Players like Sergei Shipov, Svetlana Matveeva, Boris Alterman, Sophia Polgar, Ronen Har-Zvi and Alon Greenfeld will be around to provide analyses of the games. A representative of Club Kasparov will be present with each Grand Prix player for technical assistance and to provide commentary, photos and interview material. Hence Barua, too, will have the benefit of such a representative from the club in Calcutta.

?This will be my first-ever online game,? said Barua. ?I have used chess software like Fritz and others on my computer, but going online to play is something I had not envisaged till this message came through.?

He also concedes that while he knows the chessboard and the pieces thereof pretty well, he is not as comfortable with the computer.

The game offers unlimited excitement, especially with the star-cast that it will have. ?I did not have much information as to who all are playing and as to the details of rules, but I have been told that it will be a knockout-basis tourney, with eight pairs playing best-of-two games,? said Barua.

?Each game will be one-hour per player (that is two hours in all). If the game is not settled by then tie-breakers will follow after a ten-minute break. The game will completed the same day. Matches will start at about 1.30 pm GMT or 6 pm IST),? he said.

Barua wants to play from home. ?That way I can be comfortable,? he says. However, that could also create major problems in such a game. These are generally simple dial-up connections, which in India are extremely unstable. According to Devangshu Dutta, a regular online player, especially with, it can be quite a nightmare on a bad day. Such risks are especially higher in Calcutta, telephone connections here being what they are.

The system with which this online game, across innumerable time zones, works is as follows: Any web game-playing site depends on a proxy operating at either end. They route data to a central server, which in this case is of clubkasparov?s. The slower the connection, the bigger is the time lost in between. ?This time-lag can be fatal. India, despite its own high-tech silicon valley, is said to be rivalled only by Brazil in time lags, according to those who regularly play online across the globe,? says Dutta.

The technical problems that these poor connections could lead to are, of course, not too conducive to online chess. Chess today is a game with rather stringent time-controls. Any time lag at any end will mean valuable minutes disappearing at that end, not to talk about the loss of concentration on the part of the player.

?This is surely something I had not thought about,? said Barua. ?This will be my first time online, and I am absolutely in the dark as to the technical pitfalls.?

What happens if a connection is slow or if it simply snaps, as is more often than not the case in India? (That is, leaving out the many occasions when you are just not able to connect at all!) If a connection is uneven, it means more delay at a single end (which will surely be the case unless, of course, India play Brazil!). These proxy servers tend to freeze and disconnect themselves. What the player has to do then is try and log in again.

Then the real problem starts. Many such servers just do not allow you to re-login and many do not allow you to re-login and continue with the game you were playing. Accusations of unfair play and, possibly of ?cheating?, directed at Barua for no fault of his at all can come off this.

That apart, the Club Kasparov website does incorporate a decent amount of fine graphics, making it even slower for loggers from the sub-continent to access.

These are real-time problems (literally), which Barua will have to address. An alternative can be in taking up position at a dedicated 64 kbps or 128 kbps line for the duration of the game, whereby the problem of snapping of a connection is eliminated. But that is an extremely expensive proposition, and Barua might have to approach his employers, Tisco, for such facilities. ?Otherwise it could be a problem,? Barua said.

The tournament, which the website proclaims will be the first of such a series of super online Grand Prix meets, carries a total prize fund of $ 48,000, with the champion picking up $ 20,000.

Barua says he plans to get down to a serious 15-day brainstorming session with K. Sasikiran in November. ?That is the time I have at my disposal,? he said. ?From December 1 to 14 I will be out to play the Asian meet. I will be back on the 15th of the month and then get down to the Super Grand Prix.?    

Chennai, Oct. 21 
The Tamil Nadu police have arrested and deported a youth in secrecy to Sri Lanka on the charge of masterminding the assassination of a Sri Lankan Tamil leader in Colombo, sources said.

The handover has been kept under wraps because there is no extradition treaty between India and Lanka and the DMK regime is wary of a furore in the state where several Lankan Tamil expatriates have taken refuge.

Eric Soundaranayagam was arrested in Tamil Nadu a week ago, nearly three months after Neelan Thiruchelvam, a moderate Sri Lankan Tamil leader, was killed by a human bomb in Colombo.

The slain Tamil leader was known to have been close to President Chandrika Kumaratunga and involved in the drafting of a devolution package offering for greater power to Tamil areas.

Though no one claimed responsibility, the incident bore the imprint of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Thiruchelvam had been on the LTTE hitlist for hobnobbing with the Sinhalese regime and also for seeking to bail it out by helping it draw up an acceptable package.

Though he had been provided with bodyguards, they were of no use when a bomb-strapped young man crashed into his car on July 29.

The Lankan police tracked it down to the Tigers and one trail led to Soundaranayagam who had fled to a sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. He was allegedly involved in planning the assassination.

A week ago, the Tamil Nadu police zeroed in on Soundarana-yagam and alerted their Lankan counterparts.

In a cloak-and-dagger operation, he was taken back to Colombo last week by the Lankan police, the sources said.

The DMK regime is keen to keep the incident under wraps as it does not want to be seen delivering a Tamil rebel into the hands of the Sinhalese government.

Back in the Seventies, two Tamil militant leaders wanted by the then Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime were apprehended here and deported. Subsequently, the two were sentenced to death.

Then, too, M. Karunanidhi was the chief minister and the ADMK used to taunt him for ?betraying? the Tamil cause.

However, Soundaranayagam?s story broke through the screens as a Lankan Tamil youth, who had seen him board the flight to Colombo escorted by the Lankan police, spread the word in expatriate circles in the state.

Soundaranayagam?s relatives, who insist he had no role in the murder plot, are now running from pillar to post as his whereabouts are not known.

It is not clear yet whether he is in Lankan police custody, sparking fears among relatives that he might have been killed during the notorious torture of the Lankan police.

Kumar Ponnambalam, a pro-LTTE Tamil leader based in London, has raised questions about the youth?s whereabouts.

If Lankan Tamils in the state pursue the issue, it could prove embarrassing for the Karunanidhi regime and trigger a backlash.    


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