Degree of commerce

Vedanta gets tracts of thorium rich land along the Orissa coast for a university. Allegations fly 

by Ruhi Kandhari

Mining giant Vedanta’s proposed university in Orissa will not only be one of the few in the world with an outlay of Rs 15,000 crore and spread across 2,400 hectares, it will also sit on land rich in thorium deposits.

Politicians and activists have been questioning the need for so much land ever since the Orissa government signed an agreement with Vedanta Foundation for the university in 2006. The land the state government has allotted for Vedanta University is about 10 times the combined area proposed for IITs in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
The university’s estimated cost is double the combined cost of the eight IITs.

“Even a world-class institute like the University of London has an eight-hectare campus. Why is so much land required for a university?” asked K V Singh Deo, leader of the BJP Legislature Party in the Orissa Assembly.

Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research has identified 1.82 million tonnes of thorium-bearing monazite resources along the coast of Orissa, Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, told the Rajya Sabha in November 2009.

Besides nuclear fuel thorium, the land allotted for the university along the Puri-Konark marine drive also contains ilmenite, lignite and zircon. “University project promoter Anil Agarwal could end up mining the land,” said Deo. “We had warned the state government when it was pushing through the Vedanta University Bill in the Assembly.” The bill, passed on July 30 last year, awaits the governor’s assent to become an act.

The BJD government led by Naveen Patnaik has denied the possibility of Vedanta exploiting minerals, saying the company has been granted only surface right over the land.

But illegal mining of sand rich in rare minerals on the Puri coast is common, Deo pointed out. The National Institute of Oceanography has also identified illegal sand mining as one of the reasons behind depleting beaches in Puri, he added.

Industry analysts say privatization of nuclear power generation and atomic minerals mining could give Vedanta the opportunity to mine rare earth minerals. “The government has announced it intends to amend the law to allow private companies in nuclear power generation and possibly other aspects of the fuel cycle. In anticipation of this several firms are planning acquiring minerals and technology,” a business analyst, who did not want to be named, said.

The Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL), set up by the Union government, also plans to mine thorium deposits in the sand of Puri beach in the future, a senior IREL official told Down To Earth. IREL is already mining rare earth minerals along the Gopalpur-Chhatrapur coast in Orissa.

Most of India’s thorium deposits are present in the beach sand of Kerala and Orissa. Atomic Energy Act, 1962, specifies that exclusive rights of any land, where atomic minerals can be obtained, are compulsorily vested in the Central government, the official said.

Critics also claim the land was allotted to Vedanta in violation of laws. Jayant Das, a Supreme Court advocate and former advocate general of Orissa, has filed a petition in the Orissa High Court against Vedanta University, pointing out illegalities. His opposition is based on his reading of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. Under the act any private company limited by guarantee (registered under Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956) cannot acquire land to set up a university.

“Land can be acquired for a university only by private companies with some embargos or by public companies with shares,” Jayant said.

Vedanta Foundation, a private company limited by guarantee, was renamed Anil Agarwal Foundation within 50 days of signing the agreement with the state government for the university. Though the state department of higher education recognized the company as converted to a public limited company, Jayant contended that the conversion of a private company into a public company with shares is not possible under the law.

Vedanta refused to comment on the matter, saying it is sub judice.

The land given to Vedanta University is close to Balukhand-Konark black buck sanctuary and a river runs through it. Four years ago about 25,000 people who stand to lose their land formed the Vedanta University Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti to oppose the venture.

The Samiti accused the state government of putting the interest of Vedanta above the law. The memorandum of understanding signed by the Orissa government with Vedanta said the government “shall ensure complete autonomy to Vedanta and the University authorities with regard to administration, admission, fee structure, curriculum and faculty selection” to allow it to function as a world-class university. “The University shall have the immunity from any reservation laws of the state government and a statement to this effect shall be incorporated in legislation,” it stated. Accordingly, the Vedanta University Bill promises that “admission to the university of students from India and abroad shall be made strictly on the basis of merit”.

The bill even safeguards the university from legal proceedings. According to the bill, “No suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted against or no damages shall be claimed from the university ... in respect of anything which is in good faith ... in pursuance of this act...”

The Naveen Patnaik government has exempted the company from state levies/taxes/duties, vat, works contract tax, stamp duty and entry tax on R&D equipment, lab equipment and tools, educational aids, and construction materials for 20 years.

President of Vedanta University Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti and former legislator of the Puri Assembly Uma Ballav Rath wondered why the government is so generous to Vedanta. The University has not even promised it will offer full scholarships to economically underprivileged students irrespective of marks, he said.

Critics suspect commercial intentions behind the university, while promoter Agarwal, who heads the Vedanta Resources, calls it philanthropy. Agarwal will provide one-third of the Rs 15,000 crore proposed to be invested in the university. The rest of the money, say project opponents, will come from two likely sources: tuition fees paid by the students and use of the real estate in the planned city around the university.

With the university scheduled to start operations by mid-2011, protests are intensifying. Activists and politicians have urged Orissa Governor Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare not to grant assent to the Vedanta University. They demand the bill should seek the approval of the President as well. “The subject of land acquisition falls in the concurrent list. The provisions of the bill are such that it cannot be assented to by the Governor of Orissa without it being remitted to the President,” Rath said.
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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