Pvt investors cold to Howrah, Sealdah Railway lounge project

By bappaditya paul

The Railways’ plan to set up airport-styled executive lounges for passengers at Howrah and Sealdah railway stations in public-private-partnership (PPP) has hit a stumbling block due to a lukewarm response from private investors. Howrah StationThe Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), which had last October floated tenders inviting bids from private firms to develop and operate the proposed executive lounges for five-years said that while only one firm had bid for the lounge at Howrah; there was no bidder for the one proposed at Sealdah.

IRCTC officials say that private investors are shying away from the lounge project mainly because of the five-year contract period that the Railways’ have stipulated.

The proposed lounges, with an average capacity to seat 50 passengers at a time, are to be equipped with television, air-conditioner, room heater, wifi, washrooms with shower facility and a dedicated food-beverage supply mechanism. A passenger, while waiting for her train, can use the lounge for a charge. IRCTCEastern Railway authorities identified the sites for the proposed lounges ~ near Platform No 12 at Howrah and at the existing second class waiting room on Sealdah station building’s first floor. The initial target was to commission the lounges by mid 2015 but a lukewarm response from private investors has pushed the project to a limbo.

“Prospective investors are finding the five-year contract period too short a time to recover the money that they will be investing in developing the lounge and make a reasonable profit,” said Mr Subrata Banerjee, the deputy general manager (licensing) of IRCTC east zone in Kolkata. “The scenario is same as regards the other executive lounge projects planned at the railway stations in Visakhapatnam, Patna, Guwahati etc and our corporate headquarters has taken up the matter with the Railway Board.”   Sealdah StationTo attract private investors, IRCTC wants the Railway Board to revisit the contract period and extend the tenure by a few years, even if on a case-to-case basis. “I am not aware of any decision on this by the Railway Board as the matter is being handled by our corporate headquarters. All I can say for now is that the tenders for the executive lounges are under process,” Mr Banerjee said.

At present, the New Delhi Railway station has an executive lounge for passengers, functional for nearly three years now.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 18 February 2015.)

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Bengal’s tax growth juggernaut stumbles


By bappaditya paul 

The juggernaut of growth in tax revenue that the West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra has been riding high on since 2011-12, has started slowing down this fiscal year if not coming to a halt altogether. Victoria MemorialAccording to highly placed sources in the state finance department, till the end of January, Bengal has been able to mop up a tax revenue of around Rs 35,000 crore as against the Rs 45,000 crore target that Mr Mitra had set for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

With barely two months remaining of the current fiscal year, officials are mincing no words in admitting that it will not be possible to meet the Rs 10,000 crore gap in the targeted revenue.

“The effort now is how close we can get to the Rs 45,000 crore target,” said a senior finance department official on conditions of anonymity. In the previous fiscal year, that is, in 2013-14, Bengal had witnessed a tax revenue collection of Rs 40,000 crore and it would be a loss of face for Mr Mitra if the state failed to cross that figure this time, even if marginally. Amit MitraFinance department officials are blaming a no or negative growth in entry tax collection as the main reason for lagging behind in revenue target.

“As against the previous year, we have witnessed a 21 per cent rise in excise revenue, around 15 per cent rise in VAT and there has been a robust growth in stamp duty collection. But entry tax is a major factor wherein we have so far been unable to go anywhere near the target,” said a senior official. “Our target from entry tax in 2014-15 was around Rs 1,400 crore. This is about five per cent of the total revenue projection.”

Ongoing litigation by transporters and other private parties challenging the imposition of entry tax by the state government was the reason behind the dismal entry tax collection, the official explained. The collection from entry tax in 2013-14 was Rs 993 crore, which was a remarkable fall from the Rs 1,283 crore that was collected in 2012-13 under this head. Amit Mitra 1The slowing down of revenue growth in this fiscal year will deflate Mr Mitra’s pride as he has been highlighting this as a major achievement of the Trinamul Congress government at every given opportunity.

In the 2010-11 fiscal year, that is the last year of the Left Front government, Bengal’s tax revenue was Rs 21,000 crore. From this, Mr Mitra took it to Rs 25,00 crore in 2011-12, Rs 32,000 crore in 2012-13 and Rs 40,000 crore in 2013-14.

Mr Mitra who held a pre-budget discussion with various chamber of commerce at the Town Hall on Saturday morning, refused to comment when a reporter asked him the hurdles that he faced in realising the budget targets in the current fiscal year. “The Budget will be tabled in the Assembly on 27 February; all your queries will the get answered there,” he said.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 08 February 2015.)

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Drones for by-poll surveillance in Bengal


By bappaditya paul 

The electoral authority in West Bengal is planning to use unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone for surveillance during the forthcoming by-poll in the state, but the Bengal finance department has sought to know whether this has the Election Commission’s (EC) clearance. Drone1The move to deploy drones for poll surveillance is something innovative and it will be a first for Indian elections, if the plan finally makes through. This will be in addition to measures like video recording in polling booths, posting micro observers and deployment of 100 companies of the Central force that the Election Commission (EC) has already confirmed.

As planned, five drones will be hired from a Kolkata based private firm and the firm will also operate them in collaboration with the district election authorities. While four drones will be used in the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency in North 24-Parganas; a fifth one will be put to use in the Krishnaganj Assembly segment in Nadia. The two constituencies are going to by-poll on 13 February. Central force“The drones will be mainly deployed three days in advance of the poll in sensitive areas that are prone to violence before or during the polls,” said a source in the office of the Bengal Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). “Cameras that come in-built in a drone, will stream live video feeds to five separate consoles installed in the election control rooms. The idea is to enable the law and order machinery to preempt an untoward incident in and around a polling booth and act promptly,” the source explained.

The move will cost around Rs 2-lakh and the CEO’s office wrote to the Bengal finance department for approving the proposed expenditure. Finance department’s concurrence is needed as it is the state government that initially provides fund for a Lok Sabha poll and the Centre reimburses it later.

But much to the surprise of the CEO’s office, the finance department today wrote back, asking whether the plan to deploy drones for poll surveillance has the EC’s clearance. Drone2During the 2011 Bengal Assembly poll when the same CEO’s office introduced webcasting from polling booths, and later during the 2013 Howrah Lok Sabha by-poll introduced a live monitoring system (LMS) with cameras mounted on vehicles, the state finance department did not raise any question.

“The fact is that the CEO’s office always keeps the EC in the loop before proposing any new step during an election or otherwise. The finance department is well aware of this and hence it is astonishing that they have still sent such a query,” said a senior official unwilling to be named.

The CEO Mr Sunil Kumar Gupta reserved a comment on the development on the plea that he had not personally gone through the concerned file yet.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 03 February 2015.)

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Bengal: voter enrollment at BDO offices from March


By bappaditya paul

Come March and the people in Bengal will be able to get their names enrolled in the voters’ list at a BDO office near their home. This will save them the hassles of traveling all the way to a DM or SDO office, as is the current practice. CSCThe Election Commission (EC) in collaboration with the Union government’s Common Service Centres (CSC) is setting up Voters Facilitation Centres (VFC) in all the 341 BDO offices in Bengal. CSC is a project run under the National eGovernance Plan launched in 2006.

What’s more, those wanting their names included in the voters’ list need not even carry a hard copy of the prescribed form (Form 6). All they will need is to walk into a VFC with photograph, valid original documents in support of birth date and residential address; the person manning the VFC will fill in the required information directly into a software that is integrated up to the DM office.

According to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Bengal, Mr Sunil Kumar Gupta, a room / space in each of the BDO offices will be earmarked for VFC. CSC will equip the VFCs with computer, Internet connectivity and other related apparatus such as scanners; the EC will impart necessary training to individuals for manning the facility.   Voter enrolment“Under the present system, a person can apply for enrolment of name in the voters’ list by visiting the SDO or DM office where sits the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) ~ the only person authorised by law to include or delete names. Once the VFCs are in place, people will be able to apply for name inclusion and voter card at the BDO office itself. For this, the VFC will charge a fixed amount of Rs 10,” Mr Gupta said.

Once an applicant approaches a VFC, the individual manning it will fill in all necessary information in a specially designed software and scan the supporting documents and photographs. After this, the applicant will be given a receipt and will be referred to the Assistant Electoral Registration Officer (AERO) in the same BDO office.

The AERO will check the application using the same integrated software and tally the supporting documents with the originals that are in possession of the applicant. On verification, the AERO will electronically refer the application to the ERO sitting in SDO or DM office; the ERO in turn will approve or disapprove the application using the same software.

A BDO officeIn the next visit to the VFC, the applicant will be able to check if his/her name has been included in the voters’ list and if so, will collect the voter card there from.

A joint training programme for EROs, AEROs and the village level entrepreneurs (unemployed persons nominated by local gram panchayats) for running the VFCs will be carried out in the last week of February, the Bengal CEO informed.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report was first published in The Statesman on 30 January 2015.)



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Siliguri drinking water project awaits nod


By bappaditya paul

Even as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has just held a business summit in north Bengal to woo investment, the region’s main business and administration hub Siliguri is awaiting clearance for a very basic amenity ~ a new drinking water project to cater to its ever rising population.Water1According to officials in the state Public Health and Engineering (PHE) department, it’s been over two months that proposal for a Rs 350 crore water project was sent to the State Planning Board but a clearance was yet to come through. The State Planning Board is chaired by planning minister Mr Rachpal Singh and has experts nominated by the state government from various fields as member.

The irony is that the project is nothing new and rather has been gaining dust for nearly five years now. It was first mooted in 2009 by then state urban development minister, Mr Asok Bhattacharya but it could not make any significant progress because of the political turmoil that gripped the state soon, culminating in the ouster of the Left Front from power in 2011.

Gajoldoba barrage.

Gajoldoba barrage.

The project proposes to draw water of the Teesta River from Gajoldoba barrage in Jalpaiguri using large pipes that will traverse a distance of 27 km. This will add another 83.59 million litres of water per day (MLD) to the Fulbari water treatment plant that supplies drinking water to Siliguri town and its suburbs.

The existing capacity of Fulbari plant, built decades ago, is 55.02 MLD; whereas going by the 2011 Census, the population of greater Siliguri had risen to 8.09 lakh. The government of India suggests that in urban areas every individual should get 135 litres of water a day and for rural areas it is 70 litres a day.

Siliguri town.

Siliguri town.

Principal Secretary of the state PHE department, Mr Sourav Das said that he had no immediate update on the project status after it had been submitted to the State Planning Board; the department’s engineer-in-chief, Mr Bappa Sarkar, echoed him.

Going by the way things are moving, it is unclear when this project will get the mandatory nod. And even after it gets a go ahead, if at all, it will take some more time before the actual work can begin: this is because, after a clearance from the Planning Board, the project will have to be vetted by the finance department.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 21 January 2015.)

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A case against interference


By bappaditya paul 

Expressing dismay over the declining standards of higher education in West Bengal, the World Bank’s chief economist Dr Kaushik Basu today said that the state government should not interfere with the autonomy of institutes such as the Presidency and Jadavpur University.     Kaushik BasuThe advice comes at a time when several colleges in Bengal are grappling with unrest over student union polls and the students of Jadavpur University have been agitating for months now demanding the resignation of vice-chancellor Abhijit Chakraborti for calling police into the campus. They allege that Mr Chakraborti is a political appointee.

“The politicians must realise that education is a vital sector and they should leave it to the experts to handle. There should be autonomy, which should not be interred with by the government; the government must be kept at a distance,” Dr Basu, who is also the senior vice-president of World Bank, said in an interview. He was in Kolkata for the Infosys Awards 2014 for which he had been a Jury Chair.

Terming the ongoing fiasco at Jadavpur University as “very unfortunate”, he refused to take a stand on the demand for the VC’s resignation or the police foray into the university campus saying he was “not aware of the entire episode”.Presidency University“West Bengal was once at the forefront of the knowledge sector. Presidency once used to be a globally renowned institute, which it is no longer…After Presidency, Jadavpur used to be the next best institute but overtime things have gone wrong. The nurturing of the best brains that used to be done here have shrunk remarkably. All these have to be rebuilt,” he said.

Saying that the erstwhile Left Front government’s policy of sending teachers from Presidency to the districts was partly responsible for the decline as that made talented minds leave the state; Dr Basu made it clear that the new dispensation had also failed to take the right course.

“Institutes like Presidency and Jadavpur must have the full autonomy in terms of appointments and designing their syllabus. In order to draw and retain the best brains there should be no cap on the salary of their teachers,” said the 62-year old economist, who was the chief economic advisor to the government of India until July 2012.       Jadavpur University He maintained that the “elitist nature” of Presidency and Jadavpur University must be retained to enable them regain their lost glory. “I am talking about intellectual elitism and not financial elitism.”

Dr Basu pointed out that while in the short run economic polices, GDP growth etc were important, in the long run it is the human capital that would matter most. “Nurturing and incentivising the best minds are the key to lasting progress.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This is an elaborate and modified version of the news report that first appeared in The Statesman on 6 January 2015.)

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Bengal fails to enforce Centre’s advisory on banning web-based cab services


By bappaditya paul   
West Bengal has failed to implement the Centre’s advisory on banning web-based transport service providers, such as Uber, for want of a regulatory framework. Delhi, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have already imposed the ban using the existing provisions of law.

UberThe Centre had on 9 December advised all states to put an immediate stop to all web-based transport service providers until they obtained licence / permission from the respective states. The move came following the alleged rape of a passenger in Delhi by a taxi driver associated with Uber.

Senior officials at the Bengal Transport Department, however, said they were unable to act as the advisory was unclear. They could not understand under what provisions of law the ban should be implemented.

“Web-based transport service operators function as an interface between a passenger and a cab owner/driver; they do not own a fleet of cars and instead operate by using cars of other contractors or individuals,” said Mr Alapan Bandhopadhyay, principal secretary of the Bengal transport department, “we can at best check whether the cars used by them are registered and the drivers have valid licence; banning them altogether does not fall in the domain of the transport department.”

MeruUber, Meru and Mega Cabs are the three major web/tech-based transport service providers in Kolkata. But according to Mr Bandhopadhyay, of them only Mega Cabs has around 200 cars licensed / registered with the state transport authority and hence the transport department can act against it in case of any violation of law.

The state transport department has now written to the state home department seeking advise on ways to implement the Centre’s advisory. A letter in this regard was sent to the home secretary last week. “Prima-facie there seems to be no rule immediately available to ban or regulate the web-based transport service providers,” said a senior official in the home department, “but we are studying the matter carefully to find out whether an existing legal provisions can be invoked or new rules will have to be formulated altogether.”

Mega CabsA spokesperson for Uber said that they have thousands of “driver-partners” in Kolkata providing higher quality transportation alternative to people in the city and although the driver’s are employed by registered transportation / limousine companies, as part its commitment to passenger safety, Uber was instituting a refreshed police verification for all “driver-partners”.

“Uber is also establishing a local team of specially trained safety experts to detect fraud, verify and authenticate documents and test the validity of our (internal) screening,” the spokesperson said.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 30 December 2014.)

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