Wednesday, December 12, 2001, Chandigarh, India

National Capital Region--Delhi


M A I N   N E W S

George faces Oppn wrath
Centre to dilute POTO Bill
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 11
Wilting under Opposition pressure, the Vajpayee government has decided to introduce a milder version of the POTO Bill in Parliament.

The government, which tried to introduce the Bill in the Lok Sabha today but was stalled by a vociferous Opposition, has decided to limit the operation of the Bill in the country to three years from five years, drop the clause objected to by journalists and make the forfeiture of property a part of the judicial process.

According to sources, Sub-Clause 8 of Clause 3, which makes provision for punishment of a person who is in possession of information which he knows or believes to be of material substance in preventing the commission of a terrorist act and fails to disclose that information to the police, is being omitted.

Clause 7 is being modified to delete reference to the special courts, thus doing away with the jurisdiction of the designated authority and the special courts and to provide for an appeal against the order made by the designated authority to the special court.

The government has also decided to modify Clause 8 to vest power of forfeiture of the proceeds of terrorism in the special court instead of the designated authority.

Sub-Clause 3 of clause 47 of the Bill makes provision for laying of an annual interception report by the Central Government before each House of Parliament. In Clause 62, a similar provision has been made for the orders and rules also, the sources added.

They said the government’s decision in this regard comes in the wake of suggestions made by various NDA partners and also apprehensions expressed by the media and Opposition parties.

Accusing the government of financial irregularities in the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs, an angry Opposition today prevented Home Minister L.K. Advani from introducing the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) Bill in the Lok Sabha, leading to the adjournment of the House for the day amid pandemonium.

Ignoring the code of conduct agreed upon last month, a united Opposition moved to the well, strongly opposing Mr Advani’s move to bring the Bill before the Lok Sabha.

With Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi not willing to accede to the demand for immediate discussion on a reported CAG report on the shady purchase of coffins during the Kargil conflict, Opposition members belonging to the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal trooped into the well of the House, which could possibly result in their immediate suspension under the new set of rules, and sat on dharna, forcing the Speaker to adjourn the House.

In the ensuing turmoil, Samajwadi Party MP Akilesh Singh tore the copy of the Bill and flung it across the well.

As soon as the Lok Sabha assembled this morning, the Opposition was on its feet demanding a discussion on a CAG report on shady purchases of coffins during the Kargil war and with the Speaker not relenting, trouble soared, resulting in the first adjournment of the House.

As the House reassembled for the zero hour, members raised slogans like “Government chor hai..... sena khoon bahati hai, government commission khati hai”.


Kargil coffin scam rocks Parliament

New Delhi, December 11
A report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India indicting the Defence Ministry (headed by Mr George Fernandes) for the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs from an American firm at inflated prices today rocked both Houses of Parliament, leading to their adjournment for the day and helped the Opposition stall introduction of the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Bill in the Lok Sabha.

Angry Opposition members raised the issue on the basis of a newspaper report as soon as the Houses met for the day, even before the CAG report was laid on the table of the Lok Sabha.

After an initial adjournment soon after 1100 hours the Lok Sabha met at noon when Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi went through the procedure of laying of papers on the table and also called for a discussion on a calling attention motion on the situation in Bihar in the wake of denial of a financial package, even as Opposition members continued to raise slogans.

He called upon Home Minister L.K. Advani to introduce the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, seeking to replace the related ordinance promulgated on October 24. This prompted the Opposition members to rush to the well of the House and one of them, Mr Akhilesh Singh of the Samajwadi Party, tore the copy of the Bill and flung it across the well. For some time nothing could be heard in the din and Speaker was forced to adjourn the House till 1400 hours .

The Rajya Sabha was also adjourned twice in the morning during question hour, the second time till 1400 hours, when the Opposition insisted on a discussion on what they called the Kargil coffin scam.

When the Houses met after lunch, the agitated Opposition stuck to its demand for a discussion, forcing Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed and Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla to adjourn the Houses for the day. PTI


US firm told to refund 1.02 cr, explains Fernandes
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 11
Defending himself against the alleged irregularities in the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Defence Minister George Fernandes today said the US-based Victor Baiz firm had been asked to immediately refund Rs 1.02 crore for committing a “breach of contract”.

Mr Fernandes, who sought to make his position clear in the wake of adjournments forced by the opposition in both Houses of Parliament on the issue, told a press conference that “the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has written to the firm to refund the balance money and in case that is not done, it will go for arbitration.”

Reacting to the CAG report that irregularities were committed in the supply of aluminium caskets by the US firm, he said the price was negotiated by the duly constituted Price Negotiating Committee (PNC).

The Defence Minister said there was a need for a casket that could be hermitically sealed instead of locally made wooden planks as these resulted in leaking of body fluids and bad ordour. It was felt that the bodies of the soldiers should be sent home in a suitable casket in a dignified manner.

During the Kargil operation, a quotation was called from the Washington firm, which quoted a price of $ 2665 per piece. However, the PNC brought the price down to $ 2500 and signed a contract on August 2, 1999 for the supply of 18 kg body caskets, he said.

The firm made representations that supply order should be changed as it could supply caskets of 54 kg. This was not agreed to by the ministry. The firm supplied 150 caskets, weighing 54 kg each, for Rs 6 crore, which was not accepted by the MoD.

“The coffins have not be accepted by the MoD and we have already written to the US firm to return the money,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, as soon as we realised that the firm had made breach of contract, 10 per cent balance payment of Rs 18 lakh was withheld and also the warranty bond of 10 per cent of the total contract was encashed. “Therefore, a total of Rs 78 lakh was recovered from it,” he said.

To a question why the Ministry of Defence did not go for acceptance test and evaluation test before accepting the delivery, Mr Fernandes said, “the order was placed when the Kargil war was at its peak and there was immediate requirement for the coffins.”

“There were many other cases of procurements during the Kargil war where evaluation was not done due to emergency requirement of supplies,” he added.

However, when he was reminded that the coffins were delivered by the firm only six months after the Kargil war, the Defence Minister said, “we have not accepted the consignment and have asked for refund.”

He said as far back as 1995, the Western Command had initiated the case for buying caskets and the proposal was to procure aeronautical grade aluminium caskets. Other commands were also consulted and the requirement of 350 caskets was made.

Meanwhile, the 66 Infantry Brigade informed the Army headquarters that while they were posted in Somalia for UN Peacekeeping in 1994, such caskets were used for carrying the bodies and they costed $ 172 each.

Mr Fernandes said there was, however, no confirmation on paper that the caskets were available at these prices and the government could not ask the UN how it had procured coffins at such prices.

It was after that the government got in touch with its Defence Attaches in Paris, London and Washington to find out firms which could supply the caskets as per specifications. While the Paris and London attaches found no such companies, the Washington attache located the firm, Victor Baiz, which quoted an initial price of $ 2500 to $ 2118 per piece.

During Kargil operations, another quotation was received from the same firm quoting $ 2665 a piece which was brought down by the PNC by $ 165 and the contract was signed.

To another question whether he admitted irregularities and owned moral responsibility for the same, Mr Fernandes shot back saying, “Since the amount involved in the contract was to the tune of just Rs 1 crore, the case did not come before me and the CFA approved the proposal on its own...I came to know about it only after going through the CAG report.”

As far as fixing responsibility for the “irregularities” were concerned, the minister said, “The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will look into the CAG report and fix responsibility.”

He replied in the negative when asked whether he would order a separate inquiry into the case.

Referring to the adjournments forced by the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament, Mr Fernandes said “they are making a hue and cry over the issue involving Rs 1 crore and that too would be recovered by the government, but don’t they know by forcing adjournment they have caused Rs 1 crore loss to the government as a day’s sitting costs that much.”


PM in eye of storm yet again
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 11
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee finds himself in the eye of a raging storm yet again for having reinducted George Fernandes as the Union Defence Minister coupled with the NDA government’s determination to convene a joint session of Parliament if the POTO Bill is defeated in the Rajya Sabha.

Mr Vajpayee, who returns here late tonight after a five-day official visit to Japan, has his hands full with a united Opposition training its guns on Mr Fernandes once again and the introduction of the POTO Bill in Parliament.

Despite the code of conduct adopted by all political parties not to rush into the well of the two Houses of Parliament, raucous scenes and adjournments might well be the order over the next few days with the chance of any business being transacted being remote. This is particularly so as the Bill to replace POTO could not be introduced in the Lok Sabha today because of the pandemonium. Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi had convened a meeting of all leaders this afternoon to put parliamentary proceedings back on the rails but it was to no avail.

Several agitated leaders of the opposition parties observed after the meeting: “We have agreed to disagree though the Speaker enjoys all powers to suspend MPs.”

There was clear indication that the Opposition parties were not going to back off meekly but had their eyes set on causing maximum embarrassment to the Vajpayee government and gaining as much political mileage as possible out of the issue of the dismissal of Mr Fernandes and the “draconian and anti-people” POTO.

The BJP-led Vajpayee government has been saddled with one controversy after another from the beginning and the Opposition — the Congress and the Left parties — have demanded that Mr Fernandes should be dismissed immediately in the wake of the CAG’s findings about the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs.

Marxist leader Somnath Chatterjee led the “axe Fernandes” campaign here this afternoon as the CAG has clearly “indicted” Mr Fernandes. Without training his guns directly on Mr Vajpayee, he said propriety demanded that Mr Fernandes be sent packing immediately. Within the space of a few hours, the Congress adopted a similar stand when spokesperson Anand Sharma maintained that the continuance of Mr Fernandes in the Union Cabinet would be against all democratic norms and principles.

Mr Chatterjee was emphatic that Mr Fernandes should not have been taken back in the Union Cabinet especially when the government had appointed a Commission of Inquiry which was still probing the Tehelka expose pertaining to alleged kickbacks in defence deals. To make matters worse, the CAG has come down heavily on the Union Defence Ministry headed by Mr Fernandes.

Expressing the Congress stand, Mr Sharma said the NDA government had exceeded all limits in committing irregularities and corruption. He reiterated that the Congress would never support POTO.

Highly-placed sources in the government said the NDA has the numbers in the event of a joint sitting of Parliament being convened to adopt POTO. Of a total of 782 MPs of both Houses, the NDA has a strength of 407 while the Opposition tally is 349. However, if the AIADMK, enjoying a strength of 17 MPs, and the NCP with 9 support POTO, the BJP-led NDA romps home easily with a strength of 433 compared to the Opposition’s 323.

While the AIADMK supremo, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, has backed Mr Vajpayee on POTO, Mr Sharad Pawar’s NCP has desired that certain adjustments be made in the measure.


Left, Sonia seek George’s dismissal
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 11
The Left parties today demanded immediate dismissal of Defence Minister George Fernandes following the indictment of his ministry by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India for the purchase of coffins for Kargil martyrs.

Speaking to mediapersons here, Leader of the Parliamentary Party of the CPM Somnath Chatterjee said the continuance of Mr Fernandes in the Union Council of Ministers would be against democratic norms.

He pointed out that the Venkataswamy panel was investigating the Defence Minister’s conduct as revealed in the Tehelka tapes. The Prime Minister could not justify his reappointment as Defence Minister before the commission concluded its findings.

Quoting from the CAG report, Mr Chaterjee said it was unfortunate that the government was sitting quietly over the report of the constitutional body as “their only agenda is POTO, keeping an eye on the UP elections”.

“It is extraordinary, against all norms and propriety that a person twice indicted is continuing in office.... His continuation in the government is an insult to the democratic polity of the country”, he said.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi also demanded resignation of the Defence Minister in the wake of the CAG report.

“I feel astounded by the scam that they can do this to martyrs. First it was Tehelka and now other scam has surfaced. This is totally unacceptable to us”, Ms Gandhi said at an Iftar hosted by her at the party headquarters. PTI


It’s absurd, says BJP

New Delhi, December 11
The BJP said today it was absurd to blame Defence Minister George Fernandes for the findings of the CAG report regarding the purchase of aluminium coffins by the Army for Kargil martyrs.

“I think it is absurd to hold George Fernandes responsible for what has been stated in the CAG report. It was Fernandes who had asked for a special full audit report on the purchases made during the Kargil war and so it was a special audit at the instance of Fernandes”, party spokesman V.K. Malhotra told reporters here. PTI

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