Under pressure

Print edition : December 17, 2010

The Naveen Patnaik government is facing court strictures and opposition criticism for irregularities in grant of mining leases.

in Bhubaneswar

Naveen Patnaik. He had a clean image when he first came to power in 2000.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

WHEN Naveen Patnaik stepped into his father Biju Patnaik's shoes and donned the mantle of leadership of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to become the Chief Minister of Orissa for the first time in March 2000, he was seen as a crusader against corruption. In his initial years in power, he did live up to the expectations of the voters who had rejected a disgraced Congress regime to bring the BJD to power. He removed several Ministers who faced charges of corruption, making the public believe that he was providing a clean and transparent administration. But now, in his third consecutive term as Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik is feeling the heat that he himself generated against his political rivals a decade ago.

Moneybag industrialisation and Vedanta Janata Dal are some of the epithets that greeted the BJD when the winter session of the State Assembly opened on November 23. The Opposition accused the government of protecting the interests of corporate houses, ignoring the protests of the common people against the loss of land and livelihood owing to unplanned industrialisation.

Accusing the government of large-scale corruption in various deals, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators said Naveen Patnaik should take moral responsibility and step down in view of the Orissa High Court order quashing the land acquisition process for the proposed Vedanta University. The Anil Agarwal Foundation was to establish the university over 8,000 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) of land near Puri. A Bill to establish the university, which was passed in the Assembly in July 2009, is waiting for the Governor's assent.

The Opposition also blamed the government for allowing Vedanta Aluminium Limited to set up a one million-tonne alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district. Vedanta even started work to increase the annual capacity of the refinery to six million tonnes by bending rules. The irregularities committed by the company were detected by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in August, and directions were issued to deny it permission to extract bauxite ore from the Niyamgiri hills for use in the refinery. The MoEF also ordered it to stop the expansion work of the refinery.

Naveen Patnaik has been facing strong criticism from various quarters for not acting upon a report of the State's Lokpal (ombudsman) on alleged irregularities in the acquisition of land for the proposed Vedanta university. In an order passed on March 17 on a complaint alleging illegal acquisition of land, the Lokpal recommended a moratorium on the project until the Anil Agarwal Foundation converted from a private company to a public company.

The Lokpal also recommended the appointment of a competent authority to thoroughly investigate and inquire into the deal in question from its beginning so as to find out the person(s)/public servant(s) responsible for advancing the cause of the Foundation in haste without compliance of various laws by the Foundation.

The plea of the public servants concerned that having the interest of the State in mind they acted in good faith and rendered all assistance to the Foundation is not acceptable though from various circumstances of the case it appears that they were victims of circumstances, having been influenced by a representative of the Foundation or having been pressurised by other quarters, the Lokpal observed.

Matters became even more complicated for the Chief Minister when the High Court judgment came on November 16 on the controversial land acquisition for the university project.

Disposing of a bunch of public interest petitions, a Division Bench quashed the land acquisition proceedings and directed that the possession of the acquired land shall be restored to the respective land owners irrespective of the fact whether they have challenged the acquisition of their lands or not. On restoration of the possession to the land owners, they shall refund the amount received by them as compensation or otherwise in respect of their lands, the court ordered.

The Bench observed that the action of the State government in issuing the impugned notifications is void ab initio in law on account of the fraud played upon the State government by the beneficiary company by misrepresenting the facts and made it to believe and act upon the same to exercise its powers to acquire the vast tract of lands in its favour for which they are legally entitled to and therefore the action of the State government in exercising its power for the purpose other than vested in it, amounts to legal mala fides.

It also quashed the grant of government lands to the beneficiary company under Rule 5 of the Government Land Settlement Rules with a direction to the State government to resume the lands given by way of lease.

The government had issued notifications for acquiring over 6,000 acres of land spread over 18 villages in favour of the company. The land acquired included 605.87 acres belonging to the Sri Jagannath Temple Management Committee and 702 acres of government land.

CONGRESS MLAS HOLD placards opposing the land acquisition for Vedanta university, inside the Assembly in Bhubaneswar on November 23.-PTI

In his reply on November 25 to an adjournment motion moved by the opposition in the Assembly on the alleged favours shown to the Anil Agarwal Foundation, the Chief Minister said that appropriate steps would be taken in accordance with the law on the court verdict.

Criticism is also growing against the BJD government for allegedly favouring POSCO-India Private Limited, which tried to obtain a mining lease for its Khandadhar iron ore reserve in Sundargarh district and also planned to acquire 4,000 acres of land to set up a 12-million-tonne-capacity steel plant. The company planned to establish its own private port near the proposed steel plant, about 12 km from the Paradip port.

Setting aside the government's recommendation to the Centre to grant a prospecting licence to POSCO, the High Court observed that the mineral policy of the State was in a total mess and that the government had adopted a policy to suit favoured parties.

In July, the MoEF asked the State government to stop acquiring land for the POSCO steel plant project in Jagatsinghpur district after a committee from the Centre pointed out violations in the Forest Rights Act. The issue has not been resolved as the MoEF is yet to take a final decision on the matter.

MINING SCAM

The Naveen Patnaik government is also facing criticism over the multi-crore illegal mining scam involving many mining companies. After the scam came to light in 2009, the State government ordered suspension of 246 leases of mines that had been operating without the statutory licence for several years.

Although the State Vigilance Department is investigating some of the illegal mining cases and has registered cases against several government officials and mining companies, petitions seeking a CBI probe into the scam are pending before the High Court. In a public interest petition before the Supreme Court, the petitioner has sought, among other things, a direction for prosecution of all those found involved in the illegal mining activities.

The Central Empowered Committee (CEC), in its interim report to the Supreme Court has pointed to the large-scale irregularities. Mining activities were going on in a large number of mines in Orissa without the requisite approvals under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, environmental clearances, and the Air & Water Acts. The mining activities also exceeded the production limit as approved under the mining plans, it observed.

Senior journalist Rabi Das, who has moved the Supreme Court over the mining scam, is of the view that illegal mining is still rampant in Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts. The country has lost huge natural resources and forest wealth owing to rampant illegal mining in the State, he said.

Despite the mounting pressure, Naveen Patnaik is trying to put up a brave face. The State government has signed about 90 memoranda of understanding involving an investment of about Rs.7,00,000 crore in sectors such as steel, thermal power, alumina refineries and ports. All these industries need large tracts of land, forest land, water and mines, which require approvals from various levels of administration. Since politicians and bureaucrats play a key role in such a situation, allegations of payment of bribes to flout the rules are mounting.

Orissa is witnessing moneybag industrialisation. All the MoUs that the Naveen Patnaik government has signed, including the ones with Vedanta, POSCO, Jindal, Mittal and Tata, should be reviewed and the violations of rules should be detected, said Bijoy Mohapatra, former Minister and senior BJP leader.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor