Vedanta suffers yet another blow

The court, while responding to a public interest litigation, has not only pronounced the land acquisition for the university project as illegal but has also directed Vedanta and the state government to return the acquired land to original owners — who include individuals as well as the Jagannath temple in Puri.

The court’s decision has also inflicted a major blow to the image of the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in the state, which had initiated a number of steps including adoption of a special bill in the state Assembly for the implementation of the Rs 15,000 crore project.

The Anil Agarwal foundation had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Orissa government in 2006 to set up a world class ‘Oxford like’ mega university and accordingly 6,000 acres of land had been identified on the marine drive near Puri for the project.

New bill
The state government had started acquiring land for the private university last year after passing the Vedanta University Bill in the Assembly.

As soon as the state authorities began the land acquisition process, several individuals as well as organisations like Vedanta Biradhi Sangaram Samiti which was spearheading the agitation by the local people affected by the project had moved the high court challenging the government decision.

The petitioners had charged the Orissa government of extending extra favour to the Vedanta group for its project by acquiring land violating several state laws. The court in its 112 page judgment accepted that these Acts had been grossly violated by the state agencies.

The state government has said that it would like to study the high court judgment thoroughly before making its next move on the issue.

Nevertheless, the judgment has provided an excellent opportunity to the opposition parties like the Congress and the BJP to corner the Patnaik government. In fact, both the parties have already demanded the chief minister’s resignation following the high court verdict.

However, what may embarrass the leaders in the coming days vis-à-vis the current issue is the fact that when the state government decided to acquire land for the project, the law as well as the revenue portfolios were being headed by BJP leaders. The BJP, it may be recalled, had shared power with the BJD for two terms between 2000 and 2009.
BJP leader and then law minister B B Harichandan has clarified that he had raised objections to the decision to acquire  temple land for the project which was overruled by the chief minister. However, neither Harichandan nor other leaders of the BJP who were part of the BJD-BJP ministry then have clarified yet as to what prevented them from resigning from the cabinet when they found the government was indulging in illegal activities and their advice was not being heeded.

Meanwhile, if a section of the local media is to be believed, the Vedanta group is contemplating to shift the university project to Andhra Pradesh and top officials of the company have already spoken to Andhra government representatives in this regard. The Vedanta has already closed two of its offices in Orissa which were coordinating the university project works.

In the event of Vedanta group shifting its university project from Orissa, the development is expected to trigger another round of war of words between the ruling BJD and the opposition parties.

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