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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 09, Dated 03 Mar 2012
    CURRENT AFFAIRS  
    WHAT ON EARTH
    Jay Mazoomdaar

    Creating Happiness? Certainly Not in Puri

    Its mega university project stuck in the court, Vedanta withdraws free education to 500 children of project-affected families

    The children were studying at DAV Public School

    Short-lived joy The children were studying at DAV Public School, Puri

    ON 30 JANUARY, Vedanta released its maiden national corporate publicity campaign — Creating Happiness, a 90-second film created by Ogilvy & Mather — across television channels. Binno, a little girl from rural Rajasthan and the face of the campaign, has already endeared herself to millions. The campaign also features 38 short films made by students of Film and Television Institute of India, Indian Institute of Mass Communication and other institutes, shortlisted by a jury including Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag. (At the time of going to press, Benegal told an activist that he was not on the jury anymore).


    Understandably, thousands of victims of Vedanta’s environmental and human rights abuse see little endearing in Binno’s smile. Now among them are 500 children from Odisha’s Puri district who belong to families affected by the Vedanta University Project (VUP). On 10 February, they suddenly became dispensable liabilities in the MNC’s mega scheme of things.

    The campaign with a media budget of more than Rs 100 crore, to quote O&M executive chairman Piyush Pandey, is “all about enabling India” and “looks forward to the people of India not just appreciating Vedanta efforts, but getting inspired to do something on their own to make India a happier place.” With that lofty goal, Vedanta’s communications and brand director Senjam Raj Sekhar told the media that the MNC “opened up all its projects and locations to budding independent filmmakers”.

    But Vedanta kept at least one location under wraps. Only two of the 38 films in the competition feature Odisha. And neither tells the Vedanta story in Puri where the MNC began sponsoring the education of 500 children in the prestigious DAV Public School four years ago.

    GADADHAR TRIPATHI from Chandanpur, Puri district, was among thousands of villagers approached by Vedanta for their land. In June 2006, Vedanta Resources Ltd had sought 15,000 acres from the Odisha government for setting up a university near Puri. A month on, the government signed an MOU with Vedanta Foundation (formerly Sterlite Foundation) for the project.

    “The company took 6,000 acres of agricultural land from us. We were told that our children would get good education for free. We were also promised quality healthcare and jobs. It even promised to build good schools in our villages. We were happy,” says Tripathi.

    In 2008, VUP signed a 30-year MOU with DAV to provide education for 500 children from the project-affected families up to Class X.

    The project website — vedanta.edu.in — reads: In an honest attempt at forging a partnership for providing quality education to the largely deprived children of the rural areas, the VUP of Anil Agarwal Foundation has been supporting the children belonging to the project impacted village for admission into DAV Public School, Puri.

    ‘Our monthly income is Rs 3,000. How can we spend Rs 1,000- Rs 2,000 for a kid’s schooling?’ asks a farmer

    The students are being imparted free education and are being provided with free transportation facilities, reading & writing material, uniforms & bags and nutritious mid-day meals.

    A Vedanta press release of 19 August 2009 claimed that 414 students had been enrolled under the scheme.

    “We admitted around 500 students by 2010-11,” says DAV Schools regional director Himansu Mohanty. “The company was paying for their fees, textbooks, uniforms, meals, etc. They also bought four buses and paid the running cost. Since many of these students were first-generation learners, they were not ready for English medium. So we created an Odia section within our premises where 350 of them were studying. Vedanta promised us three acres and a 10,000 sq ft building for this Odia medium school by 2012.” Instead, Vedanta dropped a bombshell on Mohanty in July 2011.

    THE LAW Department of the Odisha government had raised objections soon after the MOU was signed in 2006. So the Vedanta Foundation changed its private company status and became Anil Agarwal Foundation, claiming to be a public company, and signed a fresh MOU with the state government in 2007. But the Registrar of Companies, Maharashtra, in 2008, called its bluff.

    Vikash Barik is one of the students who will lose his free education

    Bleak future Vikash Barik is one of the students who will lose his free education

    Gopabandhu Daridranarayan Seva Sangha, a Puri organisation, and others moved the Orissa HC in 2008 challenging the land acquisition for VUP. Among other objections, the petitioners pointed out that the government would have no control over the functioning of the proposed university and its fees structure, and that the quantum of land sought far exceeded the purpose of setting up a university.

    In November 2010, the HC rapped Vedanta for “misrepresenting facts and playing fraud on the government”. It also noted that two rivers flowed through the acquired land, which was also in the vicinity of a wildlife sanctuary. The ruling was simple: “Lands shall be restored to the respective land owners irrespective of …whether they had challenged the acquisition of their lands or not”.

    Vedanta moved the Supreme Court against the judgment and the appeal is still being heard. But the MNC, it seems, has given up hope and its university project. It has virtually shut down its once buzzing Puri office. Even the project website has not been updated since April 2010. Its own project in jeopardy, a deeply unhappy Vedanta Resources Ltd saw no reason to keep Puri’s 500 children happy.

    BUT FOR his thoughtfulness, says Mohanty, the Vedanta-sponsored students’ dreams would have ended seven months ago: “It was in July 2011 that Vedanta intimated us that they would not be supporting these students beyond 31 March 2012. I did not break the news to the children because it would demoralise them. As the new educational year is drawing close, I had to issue the circular last week.”

    According to the circular, students will now have to pay for everything — except for school fees which, thanks to Mohanty, the DAV Trust has waived for now. From textbooks to uniforms to school bus, the new arrangement will cost each student more than 1,000 a month. “We are all farmers. Our monthly income is Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000. How can we spend Rs 1,000-Rs 2,000 for a child’s schooling?” asks Tripathi, whose son Prabhakar is in Class III.

    Purno Ranjan Swain, from Podi village in Puri district, gave four acres to Vedanta and now runs a small shop. His son Aryan is in Class III, studying English medium. With a monthly income of less than Rs 3,500, he sees no future for his son at the DAV Public School. “Almost all these kids will have to leave the big school now,” he says.

    To apparently smoothen that exit, Vedanta, the DAV circular says, will provide each student “a one-time assistance of Rs 2,000 to facilitate the transition”. For those who manage to stay on, the DAV Oriya medium school will now be limited to Class VIII. “I know the promise was of education till Class X. But Vedanta has not given us the land meant for the Oriya school without which the school will not be acknowledged and our students will not be allowed to take the board examination anyway,” explains Mohanty.

    Puri District Collector Arvind Agarwal says he is yet to look into the matter: “The company has never informed me about the decision to discontinue their education programme. Perhaps they consider the scheme as part of their university project that has not taken off yet.”

    The district administration had coordinated with Vedanta for its university project-related corporate social responsibility activities in 2007-08.

    Jayant Das, president of the Orissa Bar Association and counsel for the petitioner in the HC case, says the MNC has no justification for linking the fate of a particular project to its commitment to social welfare.

    “It is not the fault of those children that Vedanta’s lies were nailed by the HC. How could they put some children in a school that is beyond their means and then just abandon them?” questions Das. “With this decision, Vedanta has revealed that social welfare for the company is only a tool to lure and mislead people.”

    Contacted by TEHELKA, Vedanta’s Raj Sekhar denied that the MNC had “anything to do with DAV in Puri” before promising to “get back after checking the facts”. But of course, he did not, not in the middle of an ad blitz.

    Meanwhile, little Binno continues to spread happiness on television.

    Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
    jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 09, Dated 03 Mar 2012
 

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