Unions in lonely insurance battle
Bengal in path of cyclone sweep
Atal blocks Krishan-Pope date
House tuition for speech-reader Sonia

New Delhi, Oct. 28: 
The much-awaited legislation paving the way for private entry into insurance was introduced in the Lok Sabha today with only the Left putting up opposition.

The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Bill was moved by finance minister Yashwant Sinha, triggering a walkout by the Left, Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which described the measure as ?anti-national and a sellout to multinationals?.

Finding little support in Parliament, the Left is taking the battle over the Bill to the streets. The agitation is being kicked off with a strike in insurance companies tomorrow with the support of all trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, affiliated to the ruling BJP.

Left parties have collected one-and-a-half crore petitions from every corner of the country and submitted them to the Lok Sabha Speaker.

The petitions will now be scrutinised by the parliamentary petitions committee. ?This is the first time the committee will have to deal with such a bulk of petitions,? said Roopchand Pal, CPM member of Parliament. He added that the petitions were signed by people from every walk of life ? economists, social scientists and professionals.

To keep up public pressure, half a dozen unions, cutting across political parties, petitioned the Speaker against opening up insurance to private and foreign investment within hours of the Bill being introduced.

Leave to introduce the Bill was given after nearly 90 minutes of procedural wrangling and objections by the Left and a statement by Sinha ruling out privatisation of state-owned general and life insurance companies.

The finance minister also refuted members? claims that the Bill was a sellout to multinationals, pointing out that foreign investment was capped at 26 per cent.

This is the fourth time in three years the Bill has come up before Parliament. In December 1996, a Bill to give the IRA statutory powers was tabled and immediately referred to the standing committee of Parliament on finance.

When former finance minister P. Chidambaram tried to re-introduce it in May 1997, he found his own allies from the Left helping the BJP to block it.

In 1998, the BJP government again tried to bring in the Bill with a wider ambit. At the time, it set the foreign stake to be allowed at 26 per cent plus 14 per cent which could be held by foreign institutional investors and non-resident Indians.

But a revolt within the party over foreign shareholding forced the government to send the Bill back to a parliamentary panel. The committee report came in March, suggesting key changes, including capping all foreign investments at 26 per cent. The current Bill has accepted all suggested amendments to pre-empt dissent within the ruling front.

Besides limiting the foreign stake at 26 per cent, the Bill says Indian promoters can initially invest up to 74 per cent, but individual promoters have to reduce their holding to 26 per cent within 10 years.

Each company will be allowed to enter only one business ? life, general or re-insurance. New insurance companies have to do at least a part of their business in rural and social sectors and can be punished if they fail to adhere to norms laid down by the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA).

The Bill stipulates a minimum paid-up capital of Rs 100 crore for insurance companies and Rs 200 crore for re-insurance companies. The IRA has the power to set up an insurance appellate tribunal to settle disputes.

It can also penalise company directors and employees for violating the act with fines running up to Rs 5 lakh.

The tariff advisory committee, which sets general insurance premiums, will be delinked from the General Insurance Corporation, restructured and given statutory powers with the IRA supervising its functioning.    

Calcutta, Oct. 28: 
The worst cyclone of this season is expected to hit the Bengal-Orissa coast tomorrow morning.

Late tonight it lay centred 180 km southeast of Paradip in Orissa and was moving towards the coast between Puri and Sagar Island.

While the October 19 cyclone hit Orissa?s Ganjam district at wind speeds of 200 kmph, the one approaching the Bengal-Orissa coast will blow at over 220 kmph.

Six districts in south Bengal and over 10 districts in coastal and northern Orissa will face the fury of the cyclone, which will last 24 hours after hitting the coast and then dissipate.

Under the influence of the cyclone, gale winds of up to 100 kmph, along with very heavy rainfall, will hit Calcutta, according to R.N. Goldar, director, Alipore met office. The rain will continue for about 48 hours.

The weather office, sounding the cyclone warning, said winds at high speeds would uproot big trees, damage houses and disrupt communications along the coast.

?As of now the cyclone is moving towards the Bengal-Orissa coast and it is not possible for us to say whether it will change course towards Bangladesh at the last moment,? said Goldar.

Orissa and Bengal governments have sounded red alerts and begun evacuating low-lying coastal villages. In both states, the army has been asked to stand by for emergency operations. Local train services from Howrah have been suspended from 10 pm.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee phoned chief minister Jyoti Basu this evening and asked him if the state was on high alert. Vajpayee told Basu that he had asked the army to extend all help to combat the crisis.

The cyclone will bring tidal waves more than seven metres above sea level at high tide. Vast areas of coastal Midnapore, North and South 24-Parganas are likely to be inundated. Howrah and Hooghly districts will also be badly hit.

In Orissa, the districts of Puri, Khurda, Nayagarh, Cuttack, Jajpur, Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak, Kendrapara, Balasore and Mayurbhanj are expected to bear the brunt of the storm.

Hundreds of tourists left Digha this evening following announcements by the police over loudspeakers about the coming storm. By late evening, Digha was virtually empty of tourists. The police also asked villagers along the coast to move to safer locations.

The severity of the storm has made the state government begin evacuation of vulnerable settlements on Sagar Island this evening. The nearby Ghoramara Island, too, was being evacuated.

Writers? Buildings has also asked the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to keep all pumps ready to clear waterlogging. The CMC has sent more personnel to its pumping stations and asked all borough offices to be vigilant.

A depression had formed near the Gulf of Thailand, 500 km east of Port Blair, on Monday. It turned into a severe cyclonic storm on Tuesday morning and began to move northwest later in the evening.

Since yesterday and this morning, it was moving towards the Puri-Balasore coastline in Orissa. But it changed tack and was heading straight towards the Bengal-Orissa coastline later during the day, meteorologists said.

?The superintendent of police and the chairman of the South 24-Parganas Zilla Parishad are on Sagar Island,? said state home minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya. ?But the people are not taking the warnings seriously as there has been no rain on the island today.?

Bhattacharya called party functionaries on Sagar Island and urged them to begin evacuation as soon as possible. ?There are over 1.8 lakh people on the island and moving them to safety will be tough unless they cooperate,? Bhattacharya said.

Another worry for the state government is the lack of funds to mount a fresh relief operation.

?We have spent everything we had from our state calamity relief fund. We were also compelled to divert departmental funds for flood relief this year,? finance minister Asim Dasgupta said. He said the state had spent Rs 61 crore during the recent floods and the Calcutta deluge on September 24.

The state government has sought Rs 721 crore from the National Calamity Relief Fund. ?We had to suffer the double blow of heavy rains and floods,? he said.    

New Delhi, Oct. 28: 
The Prime Minister?s Office has refused to give political clearance to Vice-President Krishan Kant to attend a function early next month where Pope John Paul II is scheduled to meet leaders of different religious groups in India.

The PMO decision is being seen as attempt to appease Sangh parivar hawks who are unhappy about the Pope?s visit.

John Paul II, who arrives here on November 5 on a four-day visit, is being accorded the welcome of a head of state. But the official part of the visit begins and ends on November 6 when he calls on President K.R. Narayanan at Rashtrapati Bhavan and receives Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee and the Vice-President at Hyderabad House.

The next day he is scheduled to hold a holy mass at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The same evening he is to meet religious leaders at Vigyan Bhavan, which does not have an official status.

This is the justification offered by South Block officials for the refusal to allow Kant to attend the meeting.

The real reason, however, appears to be Vajpayee?s eagerness to placate the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other hardliners in the ruling BJP. These sections have threatened to hold large-scale demonstrations in the capital during the Pope?s visit.

The Vajpayee government is negotiating with the RSS to ensure that the demonstrations do not get out of hand and show the ruling alliance in poor light before the international community.

The Vice-President?s presence at the Vigyan Bhavan function could be interpreted by the parivar as an attempt by the government to go out of its way to confer official status on an unofficial engagement of the Pope.

Moreover, if any controversial remarks are made by any of the dignitaries at the function, it can be embarrassing for a senior constitutional functionary like the Vice-President.

Earlier, the ministry of external affairs was thinking of using the Dalai Lama?s presence at the function to stop Kant?s participation. Senior Indian functionaries do not share the same platform with the Dalai Lama to show their neutrality on the Tibet issue.

But a fortnight ago, the organisers of the Vigyan Bhavan function were told that the Dalai Lama will not attend. South Block mandarins were left without a possible argument to justify why the Vice-President will not be there.

In the absence of any plausible explanations, it is now being argued by the government that Kant should not be attending a ?private? programme of the Pope.

The Sanskriti Raksha Manch, an outfit linked to the Vishwa hindu Parishad, said today it would go ahead with its Pope protest yatra.    

New Delhi, Oct. 28: 
Realising she has little time to learn the ropes, Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi has appointed ?tutors? to give her a crash course in parliamentary procedures. Senior leaders P. Shiv Shankar, Prof. P.J. Kurien and Prithviraj Chavan, all of whom lost in the recent Lok Sabha polls, are in the party?s newly-created ?parliamentary affairs committee?. Ostensibly, the panel is to serve as a link between the party and its legislative wing, but in effect it will assist Sonia carry her parliamentary load. She is entitled to have an IAS officer of joint secretary rank as her private secretary and the search is on for a suitable person. In her capacity as leader of the Opposition, Sonia has been allotted a huge room (No. 44) in Parliament House. She will move in during the next session after the decor of the room ? occupied earlier by Sharad Pawar ? has undergone changes. Among other things, Sonia wants the carpet removed, preferring the simple mosaic floor. Shiv Shankar elbowed Arjun Singh out of the new panel as the Madhya Pradesh leader has earned the dubious distinction of heading the ?coterie? around Sonia that has been blamed for the party?s poll debacle. The Congress president, who will address the CPP tomorrow, was supposed to make her debut in parliamentary debate today, but two developments prevented it (Sonia has so far read from prepared texts while felicitating the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker in the House). First, the discussion on vote of thanks on the President?s address got stretched to tomorrow. Second, since Prime minister A.B. Vajpayee is not there to reply to the discussion on vote of thanks, some senior Congress leaders feel Sonia should also avoid speaking and, instead, field someone like Madhavrao Scindia, N.D. Tiwari or Rajesh Pilot. Vajpayee is indisposed and will not attend the Lok Sabha tomorrow, the day the current session ends. Sonia today completed a week in the House and her performance has pleased the old hands. ?So far, she has made no major faux pas. Her presence has led to good attendance in the Congress benches and there has been no heckling from opponents,? a CPP leader said. He claimed that the party MPs were ?delighted? to have her around throughout the day. ?She has been meeting one and all. She is getting constant feedback and seem to be thoroughly enjoying it,? he said.    

Temperature: Maximum: 30?C (-1) Minimum: 24.5?C (+3)
RAINFALL: 0.9 mm
Relative humidity: Maximum: 93%, Minimum: 77%
Today: One or two heavy showers with a few spells of moderate rain under the influence of a severe cyclonic storm.
Sunset: 4.48 pm
Sunrise: 5.43 am    

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