Raising questions of conflict of interest, former Orissa chief secretary Bijoy Patnaik, who allegedly played a major role in land acquisition for the Vedanta University project in Orissa, joined as the univesity’s president on Wednesday. The Orissa Lokpal, in 2010, had recommended a probe against Patnaik over his role in the land acquisition process, but the state government did not act on the Lokpal’s report.
Patnaik, who was principal secretary to the Chief Minister between 2004 and 2010, pushed for the project from 2006 till 2010, when the Orissa High Court ruled that the land acquisition process for the university was invalid as the Anil Agarwal Foundation, which was building the university, was a private company.
Vedanta challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court which, in 2012, ordered status quo on the character and possession of the land.
Even before the HC order, former Orissa Lokpal, the late P K Patra, had in March 2010 dubbed the land acquisition process illegal over alleged violation of the Land Acquisition Act, the Sri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954 and the Companies Act. Patra also recommended a thorough probe against Patnaik and other bureaucrats.
When asked about the potential conflict of interest, Patnaik, who retired from the post of chief secretary in June 2013, said, “What is pending in Supreme Court is the land acquisition process, not the university project. The university as such is a very desirable proposition. The Lokpal’s observation was about land acquisition. The government has given its reply to the Lokpal’s report. Let’s leave it aside. The issue is now before the SC, let the court decide.”
Patnaik resigned as member, Orissa Human Rights Commission, last week citing “personal reasons”.
Patra had observed that the bureaucrats were “victims of circumstances, having been influenced by a representative of the (Anil Agarwal) Foundation or having been pressured by other quarters”.
“It appears from records that the Orissa government acted in haste to accede to requests of the foundation,” the Lokpal had said, responding to a petition filed by trade union leader Dwarika Mohan Mishra.
The Rs 150 billion proposed multi-disciplinary university was supposed to spread over 6,892 acres on Puri-Konark marine drive overlooking the Bay of Bengal. It was supposed to admit 100,000 students in 95 disciplines. The Anil Agarwal Foundation, which is controlled by family members of Vedanta chief Anil Agarwal, had acquired about 4,500 acres of the 6,892 acres allotted to it. To facilitate the project, the Orissa government in 2009 passed a Vedanta University Bill. However, that did not receive the President’s assent.
When contacted, Vedanta’s group director (finance) Tarun Jain refused to comment on the issue. A company press release said Patnaik will lead the company’s university cum Smart City initiative as part of the Anil Agarwal Foundation. “Patnaik will be based out of Bhubaneswar and will also direct other initiatives on behalf of the company to serve the society and the nation at large,” it said.
Vedanta group is the largest investor in the state, with investments worth Rs 50,000 crore in an alumina refinery, an aluminium smelter project and a power project.
Congress leader Uma Ballabh Rath, who had successfully challenged the land acquisition in the high court, said Patnaik joining the company only reinforced his suspicion that the state government and Vedanta were working together. “This is a conspiracy to bring back the university project and loot the farmers of their lands,” Rath said.
From Day 1
July 2006 Vedanta Foundation, which later changed its name to Anil Agarwal Foundation, signs MoU with Orissa government to set up a world-class university.
Sept 2006 Land acquisition for university starts under Land Acqusition Act and Sri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954.
Dec 2006 Proposed area of the university scaled down from 8,000 acres to 6,892 acres by Orissa government.
January 2007 People of 22 villages in Puri oppose acquisition of agricultural lands by Vedanta.
Dec 2008 Vedanta University Bill tabled in Orissa Assembly.
Dec 2008 Trade Union leader Dwarika Mohan Mishra files 3 petitions before Orissa Lokpal alleging illegalities in land acqusition.
July 2009 Orissa Assembly passes Vedanta University Bill paving way for the university.
March 2010 Lokpal recommends probe into land deal.
May 2010 MoEF withdraws environmental clearance from the project over allegations of irregularities, illegal deeds by Anil Agarwal Foundation.
November 2010 Orissa HC strikes down land acquisition process calling it illegal.