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Vedanta University: A Real Estate Deal in disguise?

"Vedanta University Project is the biggest land grab in the State of Orissa surpassing those in case of any industry planned by the reigning government so far. As per an advertisement given by the University, ‘Every town needs a University; This University needs a town’."

Basudev Mahapatra : February 11, 2008

When Vedanta Alumina project faced strong resistance in Lanjigarh, the man behind UK based Vedanta Resources Plc Anil Agarwal came up with his novel Idea of a University in the posh tourism locality of Orissa – over the lush green landscape between Puri and Konark. The proposal came in a perfect time as the desire for an IIT in Orissa was gathering strength in the state and Orissa CM Naveen Pattnaik and his ministry knew that getting an IIT for the state is not an easy affair.

So it was the golden idea for both – for Anil Agarwal to display his sense of social responsibility by declaring the project and for Orissa Government to divert people from demanding for an IIT and play the shrewd game of vendetta politics with the opposition political party that is in power at the centre. The MoU for the Vedanta University was signed between the Government of Orissa and Vedanta Foundation (A section 25 company under the control of UK based Vedanta Resources promoted by Anil Agarwal) on July 19, 2006 with a vision to make it stand on 10,000 acres of land near Puri-Konark marine drive road. However, following public resistance over land acquisition, the required land area has been cut short to 8000 Acres. The investment estimated for the project has been Rupees 15000 Crore.

The MoU signed for the university has placed both Vedanta Foundation, renamed as Anil Agarwal Foundation in 50 days of signing the MoU, and the Orissa government in controversy and a distrustful position as the MoU that is signed by the Commissioner-cum-Secretary to the Orissa Government, Department of Higher Education does not have any mention about the person who has signed over it on behalf of Vedanta Foundation – No name, no designation, only a signature. Who is that man and how designated he is to sign over the MoU on behalf of Vedanta Foundation? Where is the official seal?

Apart from this, the MoU contains certain clauses that put the interest of the state at the second place below the interest of Vedanta – the investor. As per the clause number 6, sub-clause (iv), “In order to allow it (the University) to function as a world class university, GOO (Government of Orissa) shall ensure complete autonomy to Vedanta and the University authorities with regard to administration, admission, fee structure, curriculum and faculty selection. The objective is to attract the best talents globally for students and faculty”. Adding to this, in the sub-clause (x) of the same clause, the MoU says that, “The University shall have the immunity from any reservation laws of the state government and a statement to this effect shall be incorporated in the legislation”.

Both the state government and the foundation say again and again that the proposed university is an initiative to provide world class education in Orissa (not to the talented and aspiring students of Orissa) and groom best talents in the campus. But, as the above clauses explain, the University is supposed to have complete autonomy over the administration, admission and fee structure, and also enjoy immunity from the reservation laws of the state. “The fee structure will be at par with international universities and there will be no special provision for the poor-but-meritorious students of Orissa. How many students of Orissa will get chance to pursue their studies in Vedanta University? Rather students from European and other Asian countries will come to this university as it would be cheaper to them. So this University would serve the purpose of foreign students mostly. Vedanta will exercise its monopoly over all these affairs and our interests will always be neglected”, says Bhimeswar Swain of Beleswarpatna, who happens to be the convener of Vedanta Viswavidyalay Sangharsh Samiti.

Citing at the promise made in the MoU for incorporation of a statement in legislation, Orissa PCC Secretary and Ex-MLA Umaballhav Rath raises the question – “How can a document (MoU) signed by an Executive like the Commissioner-cum-Secretary make a promise to incorporate a particular statement in Legislation? Isn’t it an insult to the legislature and the constitution of India? In this MoU, People’s Representatives are treated like bonded labourers of the Executives.” Not alone in this clause, the MoU has made such promises many times putting Vedanta at a privileged position, Even, it has promised for state government support in obtaining university status under an act of parliament!

When the government doesn’t have any control over the University in terms of fees or admission, Vedanta University is to enjoy exemption of all levies and taxes like VAT, Works Contract Tax, Stamp Duty and Entry Tax on construction material, R & D equipment, Lab equipment and other Educational aids for a period of 20 years. As per the official website of the University, “It would cause a loss of at least Rupees 10,000 Crore to the state. Why these benefits are extended to a company that is all set to start the University for simply Business & government has no control over it?” asks Umaballhav Rath.

The official website of Vedanta University makes it clear that “The township will give rise to schools, recreational facilities, residential areas, commercial activities, parks, cultural institutions, and a research park. The interaction between the University, the research park and business incubator will lead to an interdependent and economically generative research and education complex.” “The university will be a centre of western culture and will promote a cultural conflict in the locality. Do you think all these charitable deeds? And is this the definition of development?” – Rath adds.

Not only this, government has also empowered Vedanta to exercise extra control in the project area and even beyond. As per the MoU, Land use/ Zoning plan within 5 KM from the University boundaries shall be made in consultation with Vedanta, its Architects and consultants. This will put the 5 KM air distance area under virtual control of Vedanta and will restrict people from using their own land as per their own choice. “117 Revenue villages including part of Puri town comes within this 5 KM radious. You have Sea beach within it, agricultural land and part of a wildlife sanctuary within this limit. Once all these go to Vedanta control, people may be forced or compelled to sell out their land and shift to other places”, says PCC Secretary and Ex-MLA Umaballhav rath.

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The MoU also makes a point that, “GOO shall, at its cost, provide a four lane diversion road from a suitable point on NH 203 upto the project site. Development on both sides of the 4-lane access road shall be under joint control of GOO and Vedanta to ensure planned development”. If government will extend the road infrastructure at its own cost, why Vedanta shall have control over the road and both sides of it? This will deprive the state and people of Orissa of encashing the benefits of development. “This is anti-Orissa, anti-people and clearly an attack on our sovereignty. It is like snatching the basic right of utilizing the land to make a livelihood. The extra privileges given to Vedanta will empower it operate as a government within our government”, says Ex-Additional Chief Secretary Prasanna Kumar Mishra adding that “the MoU signed for Vedanta University is a daylight cheating to the people of Orissa who have elected this government”. It seems, government has sacrificed the interests of people and the state to uphold Vedanta interests.

To be established on these norms of the MoU, Vedanta University Project is the biggest land grab in the State of Orissa surpassing those in case of any industry planned by the reigning government so far. As per an advertisement given by the University, ‘Every town needs a University; This University needs a town’. To make its ad caption true, Vedanta University requires 8000 acres of land beside the Marine Drive road that links two major tourist attractions Puri and Konark. The total land to be acquired for the University is fertile agricultural land that provides livelihood to around 1000 families living in the villages in and around the project site. The agricultural land in this area produce 2-3 crops a year. After paddy, farmers cultivate winter vegetable and also a Ravi crop. Apart from their own livelihood, farmers living in the villages within and around the project site use to supply food crops and vegetables to most part of the district. The villagers are living comfortably by doing agriculture on their fields. So, most of the land owners oppose this land grab and stick to one point - ‘no land for Vedanta University’. “What the villagers will do with the world class University? They are comfortable with agriculture. Most of them are not literate enough to go for any kind of job. And the other thing is that villages are the economic centres. Urban people get food because village people produce. Now, as such, we are importing rice, poultry, fish and vegetables from Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and other states to meet our food requirement. If we villagers stop producing food, the import demand will rise vertically and you people would just starve? So what is the priority – Food or University?” says 90 years old Benudhar Pradhan of Belapada village who is also the president of Vedanta Viswavidyalay Sangharsh Samiti. Apart from vast agricultural Land, four villages like Naliana, Ura, Alatunga and Thoraba are to be displaced by the University project.

As government always pleads, the compensation money gives people an opportunity to start a new life. Reacting to such a question Sangram Samiti Convener Bhimeswar Swain says, “What compensation money they are talking about? Government has valued land at Two Lakh Rupees per Acre. Before the project came, I had refused to sell my land at 20 lakh per Acre. Should the compensation amount fixed as per market value or as it suits to the company? Whose interests this government should look after?”

The rehabilitation announcements in this particular project sounds hollow as, in the MoU, it is clearly mentioned that “In terms of employment, preference will be given to the local persons (only in case of non-teaching staff) subject to need and their possessing the necessary qualifications.” As most of the people have very little education, what is the chance of being employed in the university? Even, they do not have the required skill and knowledge to develop and maintain an international standard lawn or a garden.

The other fact of this locality is that, more than 20% of the total population do not own any land but are engaged in agriculture. Such people who live in the surrounding villages do not lose their homes and thus, won’t be eligible for rehabilitation, as per the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2006 of government of Orissa. What these people will do – beg or opt to be picketers? Government would drive them away even if they opt for road side vending in a municipal township. “What will we do if the lands are gone? How shall we feed our family? We shall not spare anybody if we lose our major livelihood sources. If we will be pushed to die, we won’t let anybody thrive here”, says Nakula Sagadia of Gaindola village. Shouldn’t the government take responsibility of those people and ensure them with a solid source of livelihood?

The other community who will be dethroned of their traditional profession is the potters. The traditional potters living in Bhuan and nearby villages make pottery bowls called ‘Kudua’ and ‘Bai Handi’ used in Puri Jagannath Temple as container of Mahaprasad. If Vedanta acquires the land for its university and takes control over 5 KM radius area from its boundaries, these potters won’t get clay to make these bowls and thus they will turn jobless and the Jagannath Temple Services would be hampered. They still hope Jagannath Temple Administration will highlight their issue. “But what can be expected when the temple administration hands over 500 acres of temple land at a throw away price Rupees 7.5 Crore Vedanta for its University – meaning 1.5 lakh per Acre? The cost of the land would not be less than Rupees 75 Crore, as the market price is over Rupees 15 lakh per Acre. How could they offer the land like this, has it been their own property?” – says Ex-Additional Chief Secretary Prasanna Kumar Mishra adding that, “anybody who has slightest concern for the state, its people and their emotion would rather oppose such a deal. After all Lord Jagannath is the soul of Oriyas, the cult icon of Orissa. This is not a development project but a land deal for real estate business in the disguise of a University.”

Other than these issues relating to people, their life and livelihood, the impact of the project would be much severe. “The University township that will have a population of 5 lakh including 100000 students shall require 110000 Cubic Meter water a day. “Such a huge requirement of water will make the University administration draw water under the ground which would lead to a severe scarcity of drinking water in the whole district and, particularly, in Puri town that is visited by thousands of people everyday and lakhs of people during festivals. The ground water would also attract saline water from the sea”, Says Umaballhav Rath.

The two cuts, one from Bhargabi at Gabakunda and the other from Kusabhadra at Siara, work as water releasing channels are coming in the project area. “Once these cuts are blocked or filled by the University to save the campus from flood water, at least five blocks like Puri sadar, Gop, Satyabadi (Sakshigopal), Nimapara and Brahmagiri will face the wrath of flood during every rainy season”, apprehends Kailash Chandra Swain of Gaindola Village who is also the secretary of Vedanta Viswavidyalay Sangram Samiti.

Vedanta University project would also pose threats to the state tourism as a major part of the Puri Konark Marine Drive Road will come under Vedanta Regulation which may affect free tourist movement from both points of Golden Triangle. Apart from this, there is a vast wildlife sanctuary habited by spotted sand deer and black buck species. When the existing wildlife act restricts any project or construction activities within one KM from the sanctuary limits and Vedanta University project limits are parted by the 30-40 meters wide marine drive road only. How can this be permitted?

In order to fulfill its power requirements in the university campus, Vedanta will have its own 600 MW capacity Power plant which would pose further danger to the local environment and the sea coast. Experts opine that, as Vedanta will invite other investors into its campus township for various business purposes, it will sale power to them and make profit out of it. But everything will be free from taxation upto 20 years as the MoU says.

Keeping all these problems, livelihood issues of people and legal implications aside, the state government and its administration are all committed to Vedanta to make its University stand on the proposed site. Instead of examining all steps of Anil Agarwal Foundation regarding the University Project to see that nothing is going against the interests of the state and its people, the government from its own is rather finding ways to enable the foundation grabbing land without hitch. When the Law department objected transfer of land directly to Anil Agarwal Foundation, it’s from the office of the Revenue Minister that the foundation was advised to explore the alternative of getting converted into a Public Company instead of acquiring the land through IDCO. Why involvement of IDCO was considered ‘not feasible’ in the process of land acquisition for Vedanta University?

Supreme Court has expressed its doubt over Vedanta on 23 November 2007 in a judgment over bauxite mining by the company stating that “we cannot take the risk of handing over an important asset into the hands of the company unless we are satisfied about its credibility”. Keeping a note of this, Orissa government can put scanner over all activities of Vedanta in regard to the University Project and cross verify the credibility of AAF and certificate of conversion into a public company. But, as it seems, government is motivated by the concept of World Class University in Orissa at an investment of Rupees 15000 crore – be it for the students of Orissa and Europe. The irony of the fact is that, in case the Foundation winds up, the maximum pay off liability per member is 5000 rupees only amounting to Rupees Twenty Thousand in Toto for its 4 members, as Foundation’s Memorandum of Association says in clause VIII. Will it fill up the expenses government has incurred for the purpose?

 

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