Status quo on Vedanta land

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  • Published 29.01.11

New Delhi, Jan. 28: Vedanta’s ambitious plans to set up a multi-disciplinary university near Puri may have been virtually derailed with the Supreme Court today directing that status quo be maintained regarding the nature, character and possession of the land that was to be acquired for the project.

A two-judge bench comprising Justices D.K. Jain and H.L. Dattu also issued notices to landowners, activists and NGOs fighting against the allotment of land for the university. The court issued the order after hearing short arguments from all sides.

Orissa High Court had earlier quashed the process of land acquisition and directed that the acquired land be restored to its owners.

Appearing for Vedanta, senior counsel Anil Divan argued that the company was a public limited company and figured as such on the website of the registrar of companies.

He also said that the company had already paid compensation and taken possession of 80 per cent of the land.

Senior Orissa lawyer Jayant Das, arguing for the Gopabandhu Daridranaryan Seva, which is agitating the cause of the landowners, drew the court’s attention to the fact that a private limited company had changed into a public limited company to facilitate land acquisition by the state for it. Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for one of the landowners, said the landowners were uncertain about their fate. The court then said that it would order status quo in regard to the land that is the subject matter of this litigation.

The status quo may continue till the apex court takes a call on the legality of the acquisition.

Since it usually takes a year or two to serve notices and complete pleadings before it is listed for hearing, Vedanta’s ambitious project to have a multi-disciplinary university seems to have been virtually derailed for now.

“We will anyway have to decide whether Chapter VII would apply in this case,” Justice Jain said. Chapter VII of the Land Acquisition Act deals with acquisition for companies, in which case the government authorises the company to enter and survey the land. But in Vedanta’s case, the state acquired it for the company.

Before the case drew to a close, Bhushan drew the court’s attention to the MoU. The MoU was signed by the Orissa government with a company which was set up by three people who had never even set up a primary school.

What was worse was that they had initially sought 15,000 acre, though what was acquired was much less. Vedanta contested this figure.

Four appeals were listed today, three by the Vedanta group, and one by the state of Orissa. Senior advocate K.K. Venugopal, appearing for the state, referred to Vedanta as a “great project for the state” and urged the court to hear the case early.

All the appeals challenge the HC order setting aside the land acquisition for the project.

The high court had set aside land acquisition for the project on the basis of PIL. It had also quashed all government land granted to the company and directed that the land be restored to the possession of the original owners.

The Anil Agarwal Foundation, which proposes to set up the varsity, had sought 5,600 acre of land for the project to create a multi-disciplinary varsity in the temple town. Of this 3,400 acre have been acquired.

The high court had set it aside on the ground that Vedanta had misrepresented facts to the state government to claim that the land was being acquired for a public company when it was a private company.

The high court had based this on a statement from the ministry of company affairs. But the company claimed that it could legally change its status from a private company to a public limited company.

The appeal filed by the foundation claimed that the high court had not heard those who had accepted compensation for the land acquired. It would also be virtually impossible to trace them and recover the money paid to them, it said, enumerating the magnitude of the task of returning compensation.

The foundation claimed that of 18 villages, villagers of seven villages had handed over their lands in return for compensation. Some 3,626 persons had received a compensation amount of Rs 41,95,81,410.

It also said that in this case the acquisition would have been useful for the public. It would have created educational facilities and provided jobs to locals, the appeal filed by the foundation said. It also said that the state could always take back any land that was not utilised.

It faulted the high court for setting aside the entire acquisition. The court could always have redressed the wrongs if any, in some other way, the foundation said, claiming that it would have followed the state’s rehabilitation policy on such massive projects.