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Defence ministry wanted Rs.45 lakh to move boat victims: Minister

Thiruvananthapuram/New Delhi: The defence ministry asked the Kerala government for Rs.45 lakh for a military aircraft to transport the bodies of the people who had died in the Thekkady boat capsize, a senior Kerala minister said today.

The state government, however, rejected the demand and instead chartered two planes from a private airline to take the bodies to different places, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore, and spent less than Rs.25 lakh.

"We requested the defence ministry to provide a military aircraft to transport the victims' bodies and survivors to different parts of the country. They demanded Rs.45 lakh as rent. They also said the aircraft could not be used for civilian purposes," the minister told media on the condition of anonymity.

Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan has also criticised the central government for not providing a military aircraft to transport the bodies of the victims of the Thekkady boat tragedy.

Sources said Achuthanandan was negotiating with Defence Minister and former Kerala chief minister A.K. Antony on the issue.

"After the talks between the chief minister and defence minister, our chief secretary contacted senior officials in the defence ministry. They informed us that a flight, which is being used for these kind of purposes, is in Chandigarh and it will take eight hours to reach Kochi," the minister told media.

"We contacted Kingfisher Airlines and transported bodies and survivors to different locations in two aircraft. They demanded Rs.400,000 per hour and the total cost is less than Rs.25 lakh."

He disclosed that officials at the air force base in Coimbatore were willing to provide one of their aircraft but did not get official sanction from the headquarters in New Delhi.

Kerala's Home and Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who supervised the loading of the bodies into the planes at Kochi, confirmed that the state government had requested the defence ministry for an aircraft but it was turned down.

"Since that did not happen, we decided to charter an aircraft to transport the dead bodies. The entire cost will be borne by us," Balakrishnan told reporters.

According to the officials, the 41 people who died in the tragedy at the Periyar wildlife sanctuary on Wednesday evening included 12 each from New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, five each from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, three each from Karnataka and Kerala and one from Mumbai.

Unprecedented inflows in Srisailam triggered Andhra floods: Minister

Hyderabad: The unprecedented inflows into Srisailam dam across Krishna river in Kurnool district have triggered flash floods in Andhra Pradesh, state Minister for Revenue and Relief Dharmana Prasada Rao said today.

The inflows, the highest since India's independence, have not only inundated Kurnool and Mantralayam towns and dozens of villages in Kurnool district but have also caused floods in neighbouring Mahabubnagar district and posed threat to downstream Krishna and Guntur districts.

"We never had such inflows since independence and this may have caused massive damage," Rao told reporters.

Srisailam dam, which is 790 feet high, is receiving massive inflows of 1.754 million cusecs of water from Jurala project and other projects and upstream following heavy rain in neighbouring Karnataka. All 12 crest gates of the dam have been opened but the backwaters have still inundated Kurnool town.

Rao said the outflow of 1.152 million cusecs from Srisailam is reaching Nagarjuna Sagar project downstream. As 26 crest gates of Sagar have been opened, huge inflows are reaching Prakasam barrage near Vijayawada in Krishna district.

The authorities in Krishna district have started vacating people from low-lying areas in and around Vijayawada city. "Since every drop coming from upstream has to be released we are appealing to people to be on alert," said the minister.

All 72 crest gates of Prakasam barrage have also been opened to release entire inflows into the Bay of Bengal.

Rao said the priority of the state authorities was rescue operations in Kurnool and Mahabubnagar and the exact damage to houses, crops and property would be known only after the floods recede.

Maoists gun down 16 Bihar villagers, 11 detained

Patna: At least 50 Maoist guerrillas attacked a Bihar village and brutally gunned down 16 people, including five children, after tying their hands and legs, police said today as the issue gained political overtones with demands for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's resignation.

The incident, which appeared to be a dispute over land, took place late Thursday in Amausi village in Khagaria district, about 200 km north of Patna.

Villagers told police that the guerrillas had tied the hands and legs of the victims before shooting them dead.

Eleven people have been detained and are being interrogated.

"During raids, we have detained 11 people suspected to be involved in the incident," Bhagalpur Inspector General of Police (IGP) A.R. Kinni told media over phone.

Bihar police chief Anand Shankar added that the priority was to arrest those involved in the incident.

"Over 50 armed Maoist rebels attacked Amausi village and shot dead 16 villagers, including five children," Deputy Superintendent of Police Ajay Pandey said, adding that the killing appeared to be over a land dispute but that the police were still investigating.

"All senior district officials are camping in the village and security forces have been deployed. The Special Task Force along with district police have launched combing operations against Maoists in Khagaria," Pandey added.

Nitish Kumar condemned the incident and asked top officials of the state administration to investigate.

"It is a shocking incident and should be condemned by one and all," the chief minister said, while announcing compensation of Rs.150,000 to the families of each victim.

He said Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and Director General of Police Anand Shankar would visit the village later today.

The incident prompted opposition Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan to demand Nitish Kumar's resignation.

Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad also targeted Nitish Kumar by saying the state government had failed to curb the spread of Maoists.

Lalu Prasad said it was not a caste massacre but a killing by Maoists.

He added that his party leaders had rushed to the village and so should Nitish Kumar.

PM calls for reform in panchayati raj institutions

New Delhi: Exhorting state governments to strengthen legal provisions and reform panchayati raj institutions to make them effective, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today emphasised that more needed to be done to improve the institutions of local governance.

"The 73rd amendment of the constitution provides that state legislatures should empower panchayati raj institutions as the institutions of local self government and strengthen them so that they can evolve schemes for social justice and economic development," Manmohan Singh said while commemorating the 50th anniversary of the launch of panchayati raj.

"But these legal provisions have not been used effectively in our country till date," he maintained while announcing that 2009-10 would be observed as the year of 'Gram Sabha' (village councils) that provide direct participation to the people in democracy.

"Even today in many states, the functions, the funds and functionaries have not been delegated effectively to the panchayati raj institutions. We need to reform the system."

At a function attended by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj C.P. Joshi, the prime minister also rechristened the government's flagship programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).

"Mahatma Gandhi gave more emphasis on Gram Swaraj (village autonomy). To name NREGA after him is a humble tribute from us to the father of the nation," he said.

Manmohan Singh pointed out that it was only through the panchayati raj institutions that the government's programmes and schemes could be implemented in a transparent and effective manner.

"The central government has to play a major role in the effective functioning of panchayati raj institutions. Implementation of NREGA by the panchayati raj institutions is one such example," he said.

"Although there may be initial hurdles while delegating new responsibilities to the panchayati raj institutions, it is my firm belief that the outcome will be fruitful and in the interest of the country."

Security tightened in Chhattisgarh ahead of Maoists' strike

Raipur: Thousands of policemen and paramilitary troopers were relocated in Chhattisgarh's restive Bastar region today to strengthen security in vulnerable forested areas ahead of the Maoists' nationwide strike called on Saturday.

Amid a spree of Maoist violence in recent months in Chhattisgarh, state police and paramilitary troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were moved to key areas and government buildings Friday in Bastar region. Jagdalpur, the main town in the region, is about 300 km from state capital Raipur.

"Security has always been in top gear in Bastar's districts -- Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Kanker and Bastar -- but it has been further boosted with relocation of policemen to strategic areas in wake of Maoists' strike call," Inspector General of Police (Bastar range) T.J. Longkumer told media.

The 40,000 sq km Bastar region is described as epicentre of Maoist violence in India. It has witnessed some 1,500 killings of policemen, civilians and insurgents since 2004.

Maoist guerrillas had stunned the political fraternity in the state last week when they opened fire in full public view at the two sons of Bastar Lok Sabha MP and Bharatiya Janata Party senior tribal leader Baliram Kashyap, at a temple in Bastar district. One of them succumbed to his injuries at a hospital.

Security has also been strengthened in Raipur. All VIP locations, key government buildings such as state secretariat and police headquarters, ministers' bungalows and the legislators' rest house were put under a security blanket following intelligence inputs that rebels have a plan to strike in the state capital.