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EDITORIALS

Tiding over the flood
Let us cut the losses to the minimum
The water accumulated in the Peerachu lake in Tibet poses one of the gravest threats to residents of villages along the banks of the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh. The panic it has caused is understandable, considering that the water may come with greater fury than was witnessed during the floods four years ago.

Mounting tax arrears
The system simply leaks
To recover tax arrears, estimated at a staggering Rs 87,000 crore, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has set up two task forces. He thinks Rs 8,000 crore or so can be easily recovered through the Chief Commissioners and the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal. Finance Ministers have often spoken about mopping up tax arrears, but with limited success.



 

EARLIER ARTICLES

THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

TERCENTENARY CELEBRATIONS
Wisdom of the hind
TDP and BJP drifting apart
Atal Bihari Vajpayee must be discovering India in a way that Jawaharlal Nehru never did. Allies who sung paens to his leadership at the helm of a successful coalition, and had few problems with the BJP’s ideology, are suddenly discovering that Hindutva is what did them in at the hustings. Prominent among those who have acquired this wisdom of the hind is TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu.
ARTICLE

Politics of peace seeking
Stalemate continues in Colombo
by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (Retd)
F
ollowing the failed but meticulously planned LTTE suicide attack against a Tamil minister in the heart of Colombo last month, security has been visibly tightened. Armed soldiers are back on the streets though cricket and wedding mania have camouflaged the prospects of increased violence, even the palpable threat of war.

MIDDLE

Conman and the cleric
by A.J. Philip
I
NNUMERABLE are the stories of smooth-talking Charles Sobhraj conning the well-to-do. But few people know how he conned Maulana Masood Azhar out of all his money when they were lodged in the high-security ward in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

OPED

Parchu cannot cause flash floods
Right strategy: prepare for the worst
by Jagmeet Ghuman
P
archu has always remained an unnoticed and small member of hundreds of tributaries of the Satluj. It enters India at Lapcha and joins the Spiti river at Khab, which falls into the Satluj at Samdoh, about 160 km from Rampur Bushahar.

Violation of labour laws in Panipat
by Kiran Deep
M
ore than two lakh labourers working in the handloom industry of Panipat, which has an annual export business of Rs 1,500 crore, are denied minimum wages and are exposed to unhygienic working conditions.


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EDITORIALS

Tiding over the flood
Let us cut the losses to the minimum

The water accumulated in the Peerachu lake in Tibet poses one of the gravest threats to residents of villages along the banks of the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh. The panic it has caused is understandable, considering that the water may come with greater fury than was witnessed during the floods four years ago. But what should not be forgotten is that there is a silverlining this time. There has been sufficient warning and that has helped people to move to safer places. If all goes well, this saving grace can minimise loss of human lives. As far as loss to property is concerned, it will depend on the kind of helping hand extended by the administration, the army and voluntary agencies. They have done a lot. Still, a lot more needs to be done. Every agency out to help the people has to act in sync like a well-oiled machine. The task at hand is gigantic and can be discharged satisfactorily only through effective coordination. In place of being overawed by the gravity of the situation there is need for taking the blow on the chin.

While the government claims that it is fully geared to tackle the problem, people of the area interviewed by the media have a different story to tell. They speak of confusion and lack of basic amenities. Some allege that most of the facilities have been provided only on paper. Such approach may pass muster in an ordinary situation but is completely unacceptable in an hour of trial. There is no scope for official lethargy in a probable emergence like this.

Perhaps some of the public anger is caused by the suspense of coping with the imminent flood. Waiting for days altogether for the flood do strange things to one’s nerves. Since it is not possible for the government to provide definite information to all affected persons, rumours also gain currency. For instance, the different estimates about when the water will come down gushing, and with what force, angered many people. Perhaps they will understand by and by that when dealing with forces of nature, no one can set a definite deadline. The attitude of the Chinese authorities has been less rigid this time than in the past but one wishes there was better information sharing and some steps jointly taken by the two countries. 
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Mounting tax arrears
The system simply leaks

To recover tax arrears, estimated at a staggering Rs 87,000 crore, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has set up two task forces. He thinks Rs 8,000 crore or so can be easily recovered through the Chief Commissioners and the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal. Finance Ministers have often spoken about mopping up tax arrears, but with limited success. Their efforts have not gone beyond a little tinkering with the tax system. Policies have rather unwittingly created a climate of evasion. During his previous tenure as Finance Minister, Mr Chidambaram had offered tax amnesty to defaulters. He collected Rs 9,800 crore through the 1997 Voluntary Disclosure Income Scheme. The message given out was: why pay taxes when you can avoid them through a VDIS?

In May last year the NDA government had admitted its failure to recover the tax arrears, then estimated at Rs 92, 000 crore. It resorted to an easy way out: just waive the amount up to Rs 1 lakh if the defaulter does not respond to notices, has no assets or goes missing. The banks too had opted for one-time settlement of bad loans, recovering a fraction of what was loaned out. In this scenario, tax evasion is encouraged. The evader no longer has any fear of the law. The honest taxpayer feels betrayed. A government that is rendered helpless by law-breakers is a pathetic sight to watch. It needs to come out of that situation of its own making and assert itself. Loan recovery has improved after the banks were empowered to auction the defaulters’ assets. The tax officials too need similar powers.

Before that, the tax machinery has to be declogged. The tax structure needs to be simplified. Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha did initiate taxpayer-friendly steps like Saral, Samman and Samadhan. Much more requires to be done. Litigation is largely responsible for the massive tax arrears. According to one estimate, some Rs 40, 000 crore is locked up in about five lakh appeals. Mr Chidambaram plans to approach the Chief Justice for a speedy disposal of major cases. Corruption is rampant in the Tax Department. Officials and defaulters join hands to beat the system for mutual advantage. A crackdown to break the nexus is urgently required. 
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Wisdom of the hind
TDP and BJP drifting apart

Atal Bihari Vajpayee must be discovering India in a way that Jawaharlal Nehru never did. Allies who sung paens to his leadership at the helm of a successful coalition, and had few problems with the BJP’s ideology, are suddenly discovering that Hindutva is what did them in at the hustings. Prominent among those who have acquired this wisdom of the hind is TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu. The TDP, which suffered its worst-ever electoral drubbing, is now at pains to show that this was the result of an alliance with the BJP. In its effort to distance itself from the BJP, the TDP did not join the NDA boycott of parliamentary committees. Further, just before the chinthan baithak, it warned the BJP that if it reverted to Hindutva, the TDP would be forced to break away. The BJP reciprocated by giving a free hand to its district units in Andhra Pradesh to decide whether or not to have an electoral arrangement with the TDP for local body polls.

As the two drift apart, what emerges is that the TDP is making a virtue of convenience. Mr Naidu, a former Congressman, reinvented himself as NTR’s political manager in the TDP with great success, and went on to inherit his father-in-law’s mantle. His targeting of Hindutva now and blaming the Gujarat riots for the TDP’s debacle in Andhra Pradesh appears self-serving if not hypocritical. He did speak out against Mr Narendra Modi’s pogrom and demanded his resignation in the aftermath of the violence. But when it was conveyed that he could go his own way if the discomfiture was too much, Mr Naidu chose to compromise and carry on with the NDA. In fact, it was after the Gujarat riots that he struck an electoral deal with the BJP. To now join the “blame-it-on-BJP” chorus and don a securalist garb does not reveal any conviction. 
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Thought for the day

If you are hurt, whether in mind or body, don’t nurse your bruises. Get up and lightheartedly, courageously get ready for the next encounter. This is the only way to take life — this is also “playing” the game! — Emily Post
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ARTICLE

Politics of peace seeking
Stalemate continues in Colombo
by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (Retd)

Following the failed but meticulously planned LTTE suicide attack against a Tamil minister in the heart of Colombo last month, security has been visibly tightened. Armed soldiers are back on the streets though cricket and wedding mania have camouflaged the prospects of increased violence, even the palpable threat of war. Nevertheless, Galle Face Green is crowded with Sri Lankan Muslims, Buddhists, Tamils, Burghurs, wallowing in the two-and-a-half year long peace dividend, oblivious of the political undercurrents that have stalled the fragile peace process for more than a year now. The Norwegian interlocutors are pointedly reminding the Sri Lankans that the ceasefire agreement is not a peace agreement.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga who resigned last week from the leadership of the United People’s Freedom Alliance in sheer exasperation with its hardline ally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who have restricted her capacity to nudge the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) proposal by the LTTE finds her credibility at stake. After all, she was the one who promised to secure peace, prosperity and development while working for a solution to the ethnic conflict. Despite impressive victories in parliamentary and provincial elections, she had been unable to set the agenda for the resumption of dialogue with the LTTE. The government is paranoid about the possibility of the Tigers breaking the ceasefire and resuming war as they and their proxies in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance, have been threatening. One can sense acute anxiety in Colombo from the chatter and clutter of the politics of peace seeking.

In the last week, the government first said that Chandrika Kumaratunga had rejected the ISGA. The next day it was status quo — talks but not on LTTE terms. What could be deciphered from conversations with a cross-section of people in Colombo is that the LTTE insist on the ISGA first and the Final Solution later. The JVP’s stand is precisely the reverse: Final Solution first followed by the ISGA. The ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has taken a more flexible position: parallel negotiations on the ISGA and the Final Solution but the ISGA would be operationalised only as part of the Final Solution.

Sri Lankans remind the LTTE that at the Oslo talks in February, 2003, they had agreed to internal self determination in a federal setup as part of a united Sri Lanka. There is considerable pressure on the government from the international community, especially donors, inducement of the $ 4.5 billion reconstruction package and the declining economy to kickstart the peace process. But she just does not have the numbers in Parliament to do it.

Besides the conflictual coalition politics, the government is beset with two other LTTE-perceived difficulties. The LTTE is worried about the defence cooperation agreement between India and Sri Lanka when it is signed and its implications on the strategic balance between Sri Lankan security forces and its own fighters. The second is the Karuna factor. It has warned Colombo not to fish in troubled waters of the East.

No one in Colombo has a clear picture of the internecine war between Tamil groups in the East since the Karuna split and his going underground and how seriously it has eroded Prabhakaran’s war-waging capacity. The majority view is that the LTTE will have to reassert its moral and military authority at the very least, in Batticaloa and Amparai in the East before it can do anything else. The Norwegian facilitators have been privately told by the Tigers that they are not ready for talks and wish to first regain the East physically, if not emotionally. Talks on the ISGA are, for this reason, unlikely to start anytime soon, which takes Kumaratunga off the hook though she is keen to call the LTTE’s bluff if she could only get the JVP around. The government is also keen not to be seen supporting Karuna as alleged by the Tigers.

On paper the LTTE is militarily stronger than in the year 2000 when it missed retaking Jaffna by a whisker. It has grown to nearly 18,000 fighters and added new weapons, including at least three 133 mm artillery guns. A new airfield, 7 km north of the bombed out old airstrip near Kilinochchi, was spotted by a UAV last month. Only seven out of 11 merchant ships carrying military cargo are reported to have delivered military cargo at Mullaithivu. This somewhat rosy picture is sullied by difficulties in recruitment and desertions.

The SLSF by contrast were frozen for two years of the previous regime. While the SLA has increased its strength to 115,000, modernisation has not kept pace. Desertions continue and recruitment is difficult. For the first time since 1962, SLA is sending a peacekeeping force to Haiti next month. The Jaffna garrison is maintained entirely by air and sea. The Sri Lankan Air Force is short of aircraft but the LTTE has no air force. The Navy has put a tight squeeze around Mullaithivu and keeps a close watch over the Sea Tigers. It needs at least two to three additional offshore patrol vessels from India for enhancing its intervention capability. Both sides appear equally balanced with the LTTE enjoying the traditional advantage of hit and run and suicide attacks.

Given this mixed scenario, the LTTE is deterred from breaking the status quo by a combination of political and military disincentives, like international pressure, financial squeeze, their continued retention on the foreign terrorists list of many countries and no real military advantage. India which is a reluctant key player and has Prabhakaran on its wanted list in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has repeated that a political solution to the ethnic conflict has to be found within a united Sri Lanka and that the ISGA has to be part of the Final Solution. This was said at the recent bilateral meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and Kumaratunga on the sidelines of BIMSTEC. Delhi has long-term strategic and economic stakes in Trincomalee harbour and Palaly airfield in Jaffna, whose refurbishment it is funding. The Defence Cooperation Agreement will be an additional deterrent for the LTTE. They take India more seriously than they pretend to.

Why should the LTTE start a war it knows it cannot win? Eelam which is probably still Prabhakaran’s goal is unattainable militarily. So while the LTTE might continue to issue periodic threat so war, it will only indulge in selective killings and violence in the East to reestablish its control. An occasional suicide attack or even a strike at an economic target in Colombo could be launched to maintain its moral ascendancy and keep Colombo on tenterhooks. It makes sense to keep the ceasefire with the SLSF while going all out to eliminate political opponents, military dissidents and anyone who dares challenge their claim to being the sole representatives of the Tamils.

There are risks and dangers in the current stalemate. The LTTE will need to show some flexibility on the ISGA. The core issues for the LTTE now is to find and bury Karuna as they believe, sooner than later, the ISGA will come to them. But how long can they parry the Final Solution? The failure to transit from a guerilla force into a political organisation encourages the Tigers to cry wolf about war.
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MIDDLE

Conman and the cleric
by A.J. Philip

INNUMERABLE are the stories of smooth-talking Charles Sobhraj conning the well-to-do. But few people know how he conned Maulana Masood Azhar out of all his money when they were lodged in the high-security ward in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

I got the story from a jailbird, who was besotted by the Maulana, and who used to write letters to the newspaper I was then working for. His letters on foolscap paper almost always dealt with human rights violations within and without India’s largest jail.

He had an excellent command of the English language and so was his handwriting. He was so prolific that we had difficulty to catch up with him. Many of his letters were, therefore, spiked, though with a heavy heart. There was no certainty that the letters would reach him if we returned them by post. And there was no other way to communicate with him.

It was in one such letter that he narrated his own experience with the Maulana, whom he first met in Tihar. At that time he was not very religiously inclined. He happened to be in a cell adjacent to that of the cleric-turned-terrorist. This was sometime in 1995-96. Under his mesmerising influence, he became a five-time-a-day praying Muslim.

But Sobhraj was made of sterner stuff. He and the Maulana became close and they discussed everything under the sun, including religion. The international cheat realised that religion was his weakness and he exploited it to the hilt.

When he told the Maulana that he was impressed by the principles and teachings of Islam, he must have felt that his incarceration had a definite Godly purpose, which was to convert a hardened criminal. And when Sobhraj convinced him that he would never commit any crime, his faith in the “neo-Muslim” knew no bounds.

Little did the Maulana know that Sobhraj was working towards a purpose. Once he knew his weakness, it was child’s play for Sobhraj to convince the Pakistani that it was not wise to keep money in his personal account with the jail.

At that time, the Maulana was the most precious prisoner. He had travelled to Jammu and Kashmir on a Portugese passport, ostensibly to attend a marriage but to coordinate the activities of the various terrorist outfits operating in the state. His terrorist colleagues even kidnapped some foreigners to secure his release and even beheaded one of them, Norwegian Hans Christen Ostro.

For a master con like Sobhraj, it was no big deal to convince him that the safest place to park his money was his own account. The Maulana’s faith in the French-born killer was so complete that he did not keep a single penny in his account.

Once the money changed hands, Sobhraj walked out of his life leaving the Maulana with no money even to buy toothpaste and oil from the jail canteen.

Eventually, Azhar was released when the Pakistani terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft and flew it to Kandahar in the then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Thus Thursday’s news of Charles Sobhraj being found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment must have come as music to the Maulana’s ears. For, no one has so far bluffed him as the conman now languishing in a Kathmandu prison.
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OPED

Parchu cannot cause flash floods
Right strategy: prepare for the worst
by Jagmeet Ghuman

The Satluj in all its fury at Rampur
The Satluj in all its fury at Rampur in Himachal. — PTI photo

Parchu has always remained an unnoticed and small member of hundreds of tributaries of the Satluj. It enters India at Lapcha and joins the Spiti river at Khab, which falls into the Satluj at Samdoh, about 160 km from Rampur Bushahar. A landslide has dammed Parchu nearly 20 km from Lapcha inside China. The height of the terrain is about 4,000 metres from sea level.

According to Survey of India data, the visible dimension of the dam is 178 by 84 by 80 metres having a volume of 1.196 Million Cubic Metres of muck. Taking into the account the submerged parts the actual volume of Parchu, the dam can be much greater surpassing that of the Bhakra Dam (14.28 MCM) and even that of Pong earthen dam over the Beas (65.7 MCM).

The 64 MCM of water has been impounded in this lake. Already power plants have been shut and thousands of people have been shifted to camps at safer places. The possibilities of the rupture of this dam and resulting calamity is being discussed by people, especially of Himachal.

But to avoid panic and devise a fool-proof strategy to avoid losses to our hydroelectrical power projects and other assets, the people need to be informed about possibilities the situation can develop into, feel retired officials of the BBMB, having long experience to man and supervise the discharge measurement, meteorological and snow-melting observatories of the Satluj and the Beas in the catchment area of both rivers.

The material of which the dam is composed of can be either a huge glacier or rocky in nature.

First, we should know the nature of the glacier capable of blocking a river. It is not a mere aggregation of the frozen water but a huge block of myriads of tonnes of ice and rocks having a volume of thousands of cubic kilometre. It moves downward and finally comes to rest at lower heights in the Himalayas, where it melts, leaving unimaginable quantities of shattered rocks which spread into miles and miles of riverbed area, sometimes creating valleys like the Sangla valley and the Baspa in Kinnuar district.

The possibilities of rupture in such a dam and in such a cold region are remote and it cannot lead to flashfloods, points out Mr Kuldeep Singh, a retired Research Assistant of the BBMB, who had served 36 years in many discharge and silt observatories on the Satluj at Luri, Rampur Bushahar, Tatta Pani and Namgia.

If the dam has been formed by a landslide, then it is composed of rocks, gravel and sand which can withstand the thrust of water. The water can either spill over the dam or can percolate through small gaps in between the rocks or filter through gravel, allowing the dam to remain intact.

The scenario again cannot lead to flash floods. Flash floods can occur if another piece of ice or rock falls into this over-flowing lake, splashing instantly huge quantities of water over the head of the dam. But such an occurrence is rare in nature. Now the question of its giving way under the pressure of the wall of water, there are many possibilities. One is that the water creates a sluice at the bottom, asserts Mr. Kuldeep Singh.

Since the glacier is in a shattered condition, any gaps created at the bottom are likely to be immediately filled with the settling down of glacier. If not, then water can rush out through small gaps in between the rocks. This cannot release water enough to create flashfloods downstream. The other possibility is the creation of sluices above the bed line may be 30, 40 or even up to 50 metres. In that situation a sluice having a dimension of 100 square metres cannot create any flash flood because of the lesser amount of water stored at that level, opines Mr. Kuldeep Singh.

Moreover, due to the topography of the Parchu area, beyond that line the Himalayas recede into a plateau and the rise in the level of the riverbed is not that steep as in the lower Himalayas, remarks Mr. Jarnail Singh, a retired senior official of the BBMB who had supervised different observatories of the Satluj and the Beas. The third option is that the lake may not contain 64 million cubic metres of water and much of the depth near the dam can be composed of ice and rocks brought down by the glacier.

Assuming an average run-off of 2.84 cubic metre per second in the snow-melting season, the total amount of water collected during the 60 days period comes to 15 MCM, which is almost 1/4th of that given by the NRSA data, says Mr. Jarnail Singh. The next possibility is that due to the cold and pressure of huge amounts of ice in the glacier, it is not possible for the water to melt the snow to cause sluices big enough to exhaust the entire body of water within a period of 2-3 hours, which is necessary to cause flashfloods. Another possibility is that water may not be able to create any sluices in the body of dams. Then this can lead to an overflowing which cannot lead to a flood at all.

One more possibility is that another body of ice may suddenly slit into this lake, resulting in the splashing of a huge quantity of water over the head of the dam leading to a devastating flood as it happened in August, 2000. But such possibilities are rare. Glaciers in the last stage of their moment are a few in number, maintains another retired official of the BBMB. So none of the possibilities discussed above can lead to flash floods. However, in nature possibilities are inexhaustible. So we must keep ourselves prepared for the worst.

With the average width of the Satluj being at 60 metres in the Rampur area, the rise in the water level can be 3.33 metres at the most which does not give rise to a situation that can be considered as panicky as is made out by the reports of various agencies.

Moreover, the water cannot move immediately from Parchu to Rampur. It will come out of sluices gradually. Parchu is about 200km above Rampur. Assuming an average width of the Satluj to 30 metres, the stretch of the river from Parchu to Rampur can contain 64 million cubic metre of water up to a depth of 9 metre that under no circumstances can surpass the level achieved in the last flash floods.
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Violation of labour laws in Panipat
by Kiran Deep

More than two lakh labourers working in the handloom industry of Panipat, which has an annual export business of Rs 1,500 crore, are denied minimum wages and are exposed to unhygienic working conditions.

In violation of labour laws, the labourers are forced to work for more than 12 hours and are exposed to the dangerous cotton dust. In most of the factories no preventive measures are taken to stop inhalation and accumulation of cotton dust. The congested factories do not have a proper workable environment. No measures have been taken to decongest the area. As a result, many labourers suffer from asthma and tuberculosis.

The condition of women and child labourers is particularly pathetic. In violation of the Supreme Court rulings, child labourers continue to work in these factories. They are paid only half the salary of a male labourer.

There are about 25,000 handlooms factories, 8,000 power looms, 333 shoddy spinning units. Besides, there are 100 woollen carpet units, 40 open-end spinning units and 60 carpet woollen spinning units.

A majority of the workers are migrants from West Bengal, U.P. and Bihar. There are thousands of skilled labourers who are “illegal” immigrants from Bangladesh. They live in congested shacks adjacent to factories under assumed names and addresses.

The labourers produce world-class product like rugs, mats, durries, bathmats, tablemats and covers, cushion covers, handloom bed cover, curtains, bags and shirts, bedsheets, napkins, towels, blankets, wall paper and carpets. They are employed on contractual wages and a piece rate system which depends upon the width and variety of cloth.

These facts came to light during a visit to factories in the city and an interaction with labourers, trade unions leaders, doctors at the ESI hospital and the police. Skilled immigrant and migrant labourers are recruited through agents who bring them to Panipat from West Bengal and Bangladesh. The owners generally pay an advance amount of Rs 1 to 2 lakh to the agents. This category of labourers is quite useful for the owners as they work 12 to 18 hours on an average daily. Women who came along with their husbands also work in the factories for just Rs 30 per day. They remain most of the time within the factories. There is no risk of their getting involved in any strike or making demands for higher wages.

Besides, to avoid any legal hassle, the owners do not maintain any record of labourers. In case, a labour meets with an accident in the factory, the owner simply refuses to accept the responsibility. He simply washes his hands off the case by saying that the injured was not his employee.

The President of the Industrial Workers Association, Mr Jai Bhagwan, said that there are four categories of the labourers— skilled, unskilled, semi-skilled and highly skilled. As per the new guidelines, an employer has to pay Rs 2,244 to an unskilled worker, Rs 2,354 to a semi-skilled worker, Rs 2,504 to the skilled one, while a highly skilled worker gets Rs 2,804. But who will dare to ask the powerful handloom industrialist lobby to follow the rules, he asks. At the end of a month the women and children get about an average of Rs 900 each, while male labourers are paid between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,200 depending on their skills, he said.

He alleged that the Labour Department has failed to maintain the safety norms and get the labourers the minimum wages as per the law. “Neither the factory owners maintain their records nor Labour Department officials bother to visit the factories to check malpractices.
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Our freedom was a hard fought one and I always felt that we should be worthy of it. I did not want India torn to pieces with religious hatred.

— Mahatma Gandhi

He alone serves the Guru who is brought to do so by the Lord Himself.

— Guru Nanak

The highest ideal we have is God. Meditate on Him. We cannot know the Knower, but we are He.

— Swami Vivekananda
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