Vedanta's varsity project puts Patnaik govt on sticky wicket

Vedanta's varsity project puts Patnaik govt on sticky wicket

Like the mining proposal, the university project too has put the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government headed by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on a sticky wicket. The opposition parties, including the Congress and the BJP, the BJD’s former ally, have charged the Patnaik administration of extending undue favours to the business group in acquiring prime land for the proposed project.

Senior Congress leader and former minister Narasingha Mishra said, “It is high time the chief minister ordered an impartial inquiry into the land scam and resigned. Even the state Lok Pal has asked for a moratorium on the project, citing illegality in the land acquisition and directed the state government to have an independent probe into the land deal.”

In July 2006, the Orissa government had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Vedanta group to set up a world class university on the lines of ‘Cambridge and Oxford.’ About 6,000 acres of land was identified for the multi-crore education project near the Jagannath temple at Puri. The government also passed a bill in the Assembly in favour of the university project.

About half of the identified land for the controversial project has already been acquired, which includes a huge chunk of land belonging to the temple.
The opposition leaders have flayed the Patnaik government on the grounds that it not only went out of the way to ‘illegally’ acquire the land, but the land is being handed over to the promotor at a throw away price. They pointed out that a House committee headed by the then Speaker had valued the temple land at Rs 80 crore. However, the state government is reportedly planning to give it for the university project for a paltry Rs 8 crore.

What has come as a shot in the arm to the opposition parties is the recent observations made by the state Lok Pal. Justice P K Patra, who is the Lok Pal, after making an investigation, ordered a moratorium on the project, observing that the land belonging to the Jagannath temple was illegally acquired in contravention of the Orissa Land Acquisition Act as well as Sri Jagannath Temple Act of 1954.
The Lok Pal also directed the state government to order an impartial inquiry into the entire controversy and submit an action taken report within three months.
Major embarrassment

The Lok Pal’s observations turned out to be a major embarrassment to the Patnaik administration. It simply maintained silence. However, mounting pressure both from the opposition parties as well as the local media forced the chief minister’s office to issue a statement recently saying that the report of the Lok Pal cannot be discussed in public including the media until its submission in the Assembly as per the provisions of the Orissa Lok Pal and Lokayukta Act.

However, the CMO’s clarification has been challenged by the opposition who described it as ‘highly misleading’.“The Lok Pal Act says that no person shall publish any proceedings relating to investigation which is pending before the Lok Pal. The media has not published the proceedings but the findings of the Lok Pal. There is no bar on the media publishing the findings of the Lok Pal”, said Bijoy Mohapatra, a long time bete noire and former colleague of Naveen Patnaik. Mohapatra is now a prominent member of the BJP.
The university controversy has pushed the government to a corner. The need of the hour perhaps is to follow the order of the Lok Pal and go for an independent judicial inquiry, putting the project on the hold. The government has to play its cards carefully as the opposition parties as well as a section of the local people who have already formed a ‘Vedanta vishwavidyalaya birodhi sangharsa samiti’ to fight the project have announced to an agitation against the project.

Even as the project is being opposed, interestingly, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) on Friday last gave the environment clearance to it. The clearance was required as the site of the proposed university is located just about 200 metres from the boundary of a reserve forest and wildlife sanctuary popularly known as Balukhand Reserve Forests and Wildlife Sanctuary.

However, those opposing the project insist that the MoEF clearance would mean nothing when locals are opposed to it. Further, it is expected to provide more ammunition to BJP to launch a fresh tirade against both the BJD and the Congress.

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