June 7, 2009

Environmentalists worry about wildlife in Sunderbans

KOLKATA, 5th JUNE: Environmentalists are worried of the devastation caused by Cyclone Aila to wildlife, particularly tigers, in the Sunderbans, which stretches over a vast area in South and North 24 Parganas districts.

Forest officials, though, have not confirmed how many animals persished due to it."Some animals might have lost their lives in the cyclone. But we don't know how many were killed," West Bengal Forest minister Ananta Roy said. "We have ordered a survey to be completed by June 15 to determine the number of animals which may have been killed," he said.

Top forest department officials, however, claimed that the storm did not cause much damage to the forest."Wildlife, including tigers, were not much affected as the mangrove withstood the ferocity of the cyclone, though carcasses of two deers were recovered," Field Director of Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR), Subrata Mukherjee told PTI.

He said that forest department teams which visited the forest after the cyclone did not come across much damage. Director of Sunderbans Biosphere reserve N C Bahuguna confirmed the death of five deers, but said other wildlife was safe.

Asked whether there was a possibility of some wildlife being washed away following inundation after the cyclone, Mr. Bahuguna said, "The forest is intact. Every year most areas in Sunderbans experience inundation and wild animals are accustomed to such conditions." A tiger, he said, had strayed at Jamespur immediately after the storm, but forest department personnel had sent it back to the forest. Mr. Bahuguna said the wild animals must have taken shelter on higher reaches in the forest during the storm.

NGOs and environmentalists working in the Sunderbans, however, apprehended otherwise. Raja Chatterjee, secretary of The Junglees questioned how forest officials could claim that wildlife was not hit by the cyclone. "Tigers in the Sunderbans are expert in climbing trees and might have taken refuge there or might have reached higher areas. Fishing cats and jungle cats can even survive on trees.

But what about deer and wild boars? In all likelihood they were affected," Mr. Chatterjee said.He said it was not possible to assess the damage in the Sunderbans which covered a huge area in such a short time and suggested a helicopter survey for a proper picture.

Ajanta Dey, project coordinator, Nature, Environment and Wildlife Society who visited Sunderbans after the cyclone, said that she found carcasses of livestock, but not of wild animals."But it is difficult to assess from outside whether wildlife was hit by the storm or not," she said.
Mangrove tigers

Cyclone Aila’s trail of destruction in India and Bangladesh has brought world attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people who spend their entire lives in the path of tropical storms. There is concern also for the Sundarbans, a vast landscape that weathers the same cyclones. As one of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems, this region is unique in hosting endangered tigers.
Concern for these magnificent animals mounted when Aila struck, but scientists have been pointing out that they have probably fared better than people. After all, tigers enjoy the natural advantage of being excellent swimmers. It would take a detailed survey to assess if there have been serious losses but the only unusual post-cyclone event recorded so far has been that of a tiger rescued from a human dwelling.
The Sundarbans mangroves form part of global natural heritage. The composite 10,000 sq km spread of islands and tidal waterways are particularly rich in biodiversity, ranging from scores of birds to monitor lizards, river dolphins, spotted deer, macaques, and tigers. In a status report presented in 2008, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority did not venture an estimate of the tiger population in the Sundarbans because of ongoing sampling work, but reported the presence of tigers in 1,586 sq km of the landscape. Bangladesh has declared about 1,000 sq km of the contiguous area on its side as wildlife sanctuaries. Reliable population sampling for the Sundarbans tigers is crucial as good baseline data are required for conservation effort.

Preserved ecosystems provide important benefits to communities. In the case of the Sundarbans, that is evident from the significant amount of honey and wax collected by villagers each year. The mangroves are also a rich breeding ground for fish and other sea food. What is clear is that the continued sustenance of the small communities in the more hospitable parts of the Sundarbans will depend on how quickly the major threats are mitigated.
The key factors that could damage this ecosystem are sea level changes and intensifying weather events linked to climate change, commercial-scale exploitation of forest produce, and physical elimination of mangroves in the name of land acquisition. If what some research scientists believe is true, loss of the mangroves would also mean removal of protection for inland human habitations from cyclones. The available evidence underscores the need for India and Bangladesh to create a strong bilateral framework to preserve the Sundarbans — a listed UNESCO world heritage site and a lifeline for coastal communities.

Sunderbans braces for double blow

KOLKATA, 5 Jun 2009: With just 72 hours to go for the dreaded high tide to hit the Aila-ravaged Sunderbans, the government went on a high alert on Thursday, evacuating people from six islands, stationing three ministers to oversee preparations and initiating steps to counter a possible inundation. Although no cyclone or squall warning has been issued by the meteorological department, satellite images showed a wide low-pressure area that could lead to rough weather.
The weather system formed over Gangetic West Bengal two days back and will lead to widespread rain over the next 48 hours. This will coincide with the bara kotal (full moon high tide) that is set to sweep into the islands on the night of June 6-7, raising the risk of further devastation. The Met department has sent a note to the government alerting them about the impending deluge. "There could be heavy rainfall over the next two days. But as of now, there is no indication of a storm or a squall," said G C Debnath, director of Alipore Meteorological Office.
After being caught off-guard by Aila, Writers' Buildings has ordered a huge bandobast for the bhara kotal. People are being evacuated from six islands Kumirmari, parts of Chhotomollakhali, Amtoli, Lahiripur, Satjelia and Kachukhali in Gosaba and parts of Patharpratima. The army and navy have already reached some of the islands, irrigation minister Subhas Naskar said. A hovercraft is being roped in and 75 mechanized boats are kept ready from the civil defence, National Calamity Reserve Force and the army, finance minister Asim Dasgupta said.
The relief centres have been alerted and preparations are being made in advance, with stocks of water and dry food. The message from chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has travelled quickly to the block level in Sunderbans. Reports of vulnerable points along the islands were sought. BDOs started compiling lists of probable rescue centres, stocks of relief material and items they need.
On direct orders from Bhattacharjee, three ministers Srikumar Mukherjee (civil defence), Kanti Ganguly (Sunderbans affairs) and Subhas Naskar (irrigation) have been stationed at Gosaba, Patharpratima and Hingalganj to take charge of affairs when the tide hits. Mukherjee said civil defence personnel have been dispatched and would reach their areas of deployment by Friday.
"They will be on 90 boats and carry 500 life jackets. All the men will be in uniform so that they can be easily identified," he said. According to the government, 940 points on the embankments have been breached but only 381 of them been repaired. "We are trying our best to prevent casualties this time. We don't want to add to the 137 death toll," said Mukherjee.
The irrigation minister, however, claimed 65% of the embankments have been repaired. "Unfortunately, the embankments will have to brave 10 more tides before proper repair work can be started," Naskar said, adding that they want to take the help of the central government's Ganga Flood Control Commission. Almost all mud houses in the Sunderbans need to be replaced and the Rs 27,000 allotted per house from the Indira Awas Yojna isn't enough, Naskar said. "At least 2.5 lakh pucca houses are needed."
Till Wednesday, a squall had seemed a distinct possibility, leading people to fear a repeat of the May 25 devastation. The latest weather reports dispel that fear but even heavy rains could be damaging. With embankments in the Sunderbans still weakened, another inundation cannot be ruled out, fear officials. An 11-member team from the Centre, headed by joint secretary (home) Ashok Lavasa, will visit the affected areas between June 7 and 9 to gauge the situation and assess the government's demand for Rs 1000-crore aid.
A team is also expected to visit Bangladesh to learn about preparation of permanent embankments. The local authorities deny there is an epidemic. They peg the number of affected at just 5%. "Around 6,000 patients have been diagnosed with diarrhoea in Gosaba. We have enough medicines and the situation is fast improving," claimed Gosaba medical officer Girin Mondol.


Kolkata,5th June : In the wake of Cyclone Aila, the state government has roped in Reliance Industries to repair the breaches of Sunderbans embankments. It has placed an order of 15 lakh gunny bags from the Mukesh Ambani-owned company to repair 800 points along the 470-km-long embankment that has caused large-scale inundation of the area.

At Rs 7.22 per bag, the cost for the consignment will stand at about Rs 1 crore. The government will buy more gunny bags as it apprehends more breaches during the coming 10 kotals (high tides) till the year-end. “We have found Reliance gunny bags more durable and thus have placed the order,” Subhas Nashkar, State Minister for Irrigation, said on Thursday.

He added that in view of the bhora kotal (high tides) due on June 7 and 8 and the fresh depression looming over the Bay of Bengal, the state government has ordered the evacuation of around 25,000 people from six islands in both North 24-Parganas and South 24-Parganas. “Already, a large number of people have left on their own. We have asked remaining to do the same,” Nashkar said.

Personnel from the Army Engineering Corps and the Navy, who have been roped in for the project, have already begun work. Nashkar said the government plans to build brick-built houses for the people of Sunderbans. “We can use the money for Indira Awas Yojna, but I don’t think it will be adequate. So, we have to look for other avenues for money,” the minister said.

Low pressure areaEleven days after Aila hit the state, weather officials claimed a low pressure area is likely to form over the north of Bay of Bengal in the next 48 hours. However, no warning has been issued by the Regional Meteorological Office in this connection.

“Though we have not sent out any warning, we are passing the information to the government. It is too early to predict anything. The place where the depression is being formed is a little far from the mainland. We have to monitor how it is developing,” said G C Debnath, Director of the Regional Meteorological Centre, Alipore.

According to the officials, there is a possibility of rainfall over the Gangetic West Bengal till Friday noon. With the high tide on full moon set to hit the Sunderbans on June 7, large-scale inundation is being feared. If the low pressure develops further, there is a possibility of rainfall and storm. Thus, the state administration is trying to complete work on the embankments in Sunderbans as soon as possible.

Satellite images show the rotation and moisture content of the cloud clusters steadily increasing, resulting in probable formation of thunderclouds. However, with a few days to go, the clouds might weaken too. Though officials claimed a cyclone is unlikely, the fact remains that even a storm could be damaging during the high tide with the Sunderbans remaining vulnerable.

11-member Central team to assess cyclone Aila damage

KOLKATA,5th June: An eleven-member team of Central officials will be arriving in the city on Saturday to assess the damage caused by the storms brought about by cyclone Aila on May 25.

They visit the areas in West Bengal’s South and North 24 Parganas districts and the Darjeeling hills in groups. They will later hold meetings with the local administration and the State government, Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta said here on Thursday.

While the Army has been called in for the second time since the storms to assist in relief operations in the areas of South 24 Parganas worst hit by the disaster, the government has sought technical advice from it for restoration of the damaged embankments in the region.

Three boats of the Navy have been pressed into service to facilitate the sending of relief supplies to victims marooned in some of the affected areas, a Defence spokesperson said. Ten teams belonging to the Army had gone to the region to distribute food packets and water pouches. The death toll has mounted to 137.

Seats to increase at undergraduate level

KOLKATA, 5th June: Undergraduate aspirants can breathe easy as the state higher education department has finally realised that there is a dearth of seats and these need to be increased immediately considering the whopping 82 % success rate in the HS exam.
State higher education minister Sudarshan Roychaudhuri had said on Wednesday that his department had urged the Higher Education Council to request universities across West Bengal to increase seats in select colleges by 10% provided they have adequate infrastructure.
The Council, on Thursday agreed to abide by this directive. "We estimate an increase of 30 seats in each of these courses, which means 9,000 students will be benefitted. The decision to introduce a particular course in a college depends on the demand and also the number of students in the area," said Roychaudhury. Asked about the delay in beginning counselling for WBJEE qualifiers, Roychaudhuri said, "I have repeatedly requested the Ministry of Human Resources. But AICTE will only publish their list on June 30. What if we find that they have sanctioned some new private colleges? It will lead to chaos. Hence, we have no way but to start the counselling only after June 30."
It is feared that the delay might result in many students opting for colleges outside the state. A meeting of vice chancellors has been convened by the Higher Education Council on Thursday in which the details will be discussed. "We have requested the council to ask universities and colleges to deal sympathetically with students from villages hit by cyclone Aila in South and North 24-Parganas as far as the last date for submission of applications is concerned," clarified the minister.
Combining all colleges and universities in the state, there are 3,88,300 seats available which still means a deficit of 4340 seats. This year, 3,92,640 students have passed their class XII board examinations from the state.

New land acquisition policy to be introduced

New Delhi, June 05, 2009: President Pratibha Patil today said the government would reintroduce the Amendment Bill to the Land Acquisition Act and the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill in the forthcoming budget session of Parliament.

If the Bills are enacted, it will not only help in better implementation of infrastructure and industrial projects, but also safeguard the interests of farmers. That is because both the Bills contain clear guidelines to be followed while acquiring land, like compensation package and the quantum of land to be acquired.

“It will be our endeavor to have these Bills reintroduced and enacted in the budget session of Parliament,” Patil said in her speech to joint session of the Parliament.

Both the Bills were mooted in the backdrop of violent protests across the country in 2007 against acquisition of land by state governments for industrial projects in West Bengal, Haryana, Maharashtra as well as Goa. Many of these projects were related to special economic zones (SEZs).

The Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill limits the role of the government in land acquisition for private projects. Broadly, this Bill allows government to acquire only 30 per cent of the land for private projects, while the rest will have to be bought by the developer himself. Moreover, land rights will be extended to tenant farmers, artisans and those indirectly drawing sustenance from the land in question. Also, compensation could be in the form of jobs and equity shares in the company that has bought the land.

The Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Bill lays down guidelines on how the people affected by projects will have to be rehabilitated and the contours of compensation packages. In addition, this Bill also seeks to set up a National Rehabilitation Commission.

Experts point out that delay in enacting both these bills has impacted government projects, especially in infrastructure sector.

A recent assessment by the government had revealed that about 60 projects related to the Indian Railways, 20 power plants and 40 road projects were help up due to land related problems.

Bengal IT dept shortlists 3 cos for Rs 5000 crore Kalyani project

Kolkata, June 05, 2009: Three companies--Mahindra Lifespace, Raheja group, and Paharpur Cooling Towers--have evinced interest in the Rs 5,000 crore Kalyani Infotech Park, following a tender floated by the West Bengal Electronics Industry Development Corporation Ltd (Webel), the state's nodal IT agency.

State IT department sources said,"The three shortlisted bidders are Mahindra Lifespace, a Mahindra & Mahindra group company, Paharpur Cooling Towers and K Raheja Corp, owners of Shoppers Stop.We hope to finalise the private partner from the shortlisted bidders by June."

The 100 acre IT park is expected to be operational in five years from the zero date.

Webel floated the tender on September 12, inviting expression of interest (EOI) for the proposed IT park at Kalyani to be developed in public-private partnership mode. The department received several bids but shortlisted three firms.

The state needs to augment its infrastructure, around 30 new IT companies have come to Bengal in the first half of this year till date, mainly export oriented, for which infrastructure would have to be upgraded, said Debesh Das, state IT minister.

At present, the total IT space available for the IT/ITES industry in the state was about 7-8 million square feet of office space and another 20 million square feet of office space was currently under construction dedicated exclusively for the IT industry, which will be added over the next 2-3 years' time.

“With the financial meltdown, the completion date might be delayed by another year or two,” said Das.

One of the main problems because of which many of the IT projects in Bengal had made little progress was inability to get land.

Wipro and Infosys signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with the state government last year but were yet to get possession of the 90-acre land (each) that they sought for. “The department is in the process of getting the land. It will take some time,” said Das. In 2007, DLF had announced it would develop a state-of-the art world class facility on 25 acres for IT/ITeS workspace. The project had got SEZ status, but the company has applied for a denotification and has been allowed to go forth with the IT projects sans SEZ status.

“Definitely infrastructure projects are going slow in the state because of the recession, but DLF's decision to denotify the Rajarhat IT SEZ project will not affect infrastructure scenario.Now the company will get more domestic clients in place of those involved in IT exports, a major requisite for SEZs. Both ways, we stand to gain. Sector V is not an SEZ, but it has attracted many a big players,” said Das.


WBTDC to upgrade lodges in West Bengal
KOLKATA, 4th June: The first official travel guide on Kolkata was released yesterday by Manab Mukherjee, Tourism Minister, Kolkata. The book provides exhaustive information on most tourist destinations with their history, from Sunderbans to Bishnupur, Murshidabad, Dooars and Darjeeling. Mukherjee also informed that the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) is now in the process of upgrading tourist lodges and renovating its water vessels. Nine lodges are being upgraded to three-star standards. Work is complete at Digha, Shantiniketan and Bishnupur.
According to a report in Times of India, WBTDC has also decided to introduce integrated package tours in the next three months.“So far, we did not have a travel guide. Let us hope this turns out to be the first step towards restructuring our tourism facilities and infrastructure,” said Mukherjee. Apart from listing destinations, the travel guide also mentions the routes and transportation available. “I had to travel extensively for the book. The facilities have improved vastly and the state can definitely be marketed as a prime tourist location,” said Swati Mitra, who compiled the guide. WBTDC has also planned tourism plazas that will be developed by the government. “Despite the recession, the flow of tourists to Bengal has remained largely unaffected,” added Mukherjee. The tourism department will appoint consultants to promote West Bengal.

Tourism not affected by ‘Aila’

“Tourism in West Bengal has not really been affected by Aila,” State Tourism Minister Manabendra Mukherjee said here on Wednesday.

He said this at an event organised to update the press on the latest initiatives of the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC). Mr. Mukherjee said there weren’t many tourists in the area since this is not the season in Sunderbans, the region worst affected by the cyclone.

Sajnekhali, the only government tourist lodge in the area, did sustain some damage but plans were on to renovate the lodge in any case, he said.

“In Darjeeling, there were many tourists, but the major link roads had been cleared of the debris within 48 hours of the landslides so tourists didn’t suffer much.”

Asked whether enough was being done to promote Sunderbans, he said the region was ecologically fragile and must be approached with precaution.

Bengal Shristi to invest Rs 5,000 cr in tier II, III cities

KOLKATA, JUNE 3, 2009: Kolkata-based Bengal Shristi Infrastructure Development plans to invest Rs 5,000 crore in developing integrated properties in a number of tier II and tier III cities across West Bengal. Buoyed by the prospects of business activities in these areas, the company would develop more than one million sq ft of commercial spaces in places such as Durgapur, Asansol, Ranigunj, Krishnanagar and Haldia over the next couple of years.

“A number of banks, IT & ITeS, telecom and finance companies have lined up expansion plans in these cities, due to rentals, which are as low as one-third or even less than that in metro cities. If these companies get the right kind of infrastructure, which is comparable to that of bigger cities but at the same time cheaper, it would make business sense for them,” Hemant Kanoria, director of Bengal Shristi told FC Estate.

Bengal Shristi’s integrated properties are coming up in Durgapur, Asansol, Krishnanagar, Ranigunj and Haldia. Among the companies that are moving in or are likely to move in include HDFC Bank, SBI, Tata Teleservices, Reliance Webworld, ICICI Home Finance, LIC Home Finance, Apeejay Finance, Dishnet Wireless, Aircel, Reliance Petro, Canon, India Bulls, Sahara Home Finance and Motorola.

“The advantages are manifold. These companies want to expand and know there is a huge market beyond metro cities. Besides, they are also under tremendous cost pressures. In the integrated properties that we plan to develop, these companies would get developed commercial spaces with many amenities, where rentals are reasonable, apartments in the same complex where their employees and officials can stay, shopping and entertainment and club facilities within the same premises. The companies can ask their people to migrate to tier II and tier III cities where the cost of living is lower, travel time to workplace is much less and the happiness index in higher. So it makes business sense,” Kanoria explained.

Mayank Saksena, associate director of real estate consultancy company, Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj, also subscribes to Kanoria’s views. “There has been lot of movements towards tier II and tier III cities in the commercial space, ever since the slowdown broke out last October. A number of BPOs and KPOs are moving to cities such as Bhubaneswar. And this trend will continue in the years to come,” Saksena said.

Kanoria said that a number of companies have approached them, looking for modern infrastructure to set up disaster management centres and back offices in smaller cities. “In our Durgapur property, for instance, those companies, which bought commercial spaces also bought the residential apartments in the premises. This is a test case and an indication of the way things are moving,” Kanoria pointed out.

VAT panel to meet Pranab by mid-June on GST

New Delhi, June 3, 2009: Confident of meeting the schedule of introducing the Goods and Service Tax in the beginning of the next fiscal, state finance ministers will meet the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee around mid-June on various issues relating to the new tax system.

"I am very happy to know that the Union Finance Minister would be having interactions with state finance ministers on many matters, including GST, and so it will be in the middle of this month we will have the meeting on the GST," VAT panel Chairman Asim Dasgupta said here. He exuded confidence that GST would be introduced in the beginning of the next fiscal, as scheduled.

"As you know, the scheduled target date for introduction of GST is April one 2010 and we want to stick to it," Dasgupta, who is West Bengal's Finance Minister, said. When asked whether he is hopeful of meeting the deadline of April one, 2010, he said,"of course."

Right now, only broad structure of GST, which would replace excise duty, service tax at the Central level and VAT at the state level has been agreed upon between the Union Government and states. It has been agreed that the new tax system would have two structures, one at the state level and another at the Centre. However, its exact rate and items to be brought under it still remain to be decided. Also, legislative action would have to be completed after an agreement is reached between the Centre and states on various aspects of GST.

"When I say it is the beginning of April one, 2010, that means before that there are certain legislative actions required and implementation starts from April one, 2010," Dasgupta said.

Before GST is introduced, its draft structure would be put on the website and interactions would be held with traders and industry to incorporate any changes in the final tax system.

"Before that (April one, 2010), we will put on the website what is the strucutre...We will have detailed interaction not only with the industry, but with the traders at the national level, at the state level also," he said.

By the time GST is introduced, Central Sales Tax (CST), which is a tax imposed on inter-state movement of goods, has to be brought to zero since it distorts the very purpose of GST of making India a common market. CST currently stands at two per cent.

When asked whether he saw any difficulty in reducing CST by the Centre to one per cent this fiscal and zero by next fiscal, Dasgupta said, "I can make any comment only after the meeting of the Empowered Committee (of state finance ministers on VAT)."