Zee Group’s foray into higher education turned out to be a nightmare for hundreds of students who have paid lakhs for degrees which are fake, as alleged in a PIL filed in the Supreme Court of India by renowned activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
According to the PIL filed in the Supreme Court, the Himgiri Zee University (HZU), a private university owned by the Zee Group, has been allegedly indulging in all sorts of malpractices including awarding fake degrees to students in clear violation of norms laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC).
The university’s action has pushed innocent students into an uncertain, dark future. The HZU, originally Himgiri Nabh Vishwavidyalaya, was set up under an Act by the state government of Uttarakhand in 2003, with Subhash Chandra, the head of the Zee Group, as its chancellor.
After the legislation making provisions for the functioning of the university was enacted, the Uttarakhand government allotted the Taleem Research Foundation, a trust owned and run by Subhash Chandra and his family members, about 50 acres in November 2004 on Chakrata Road, Dehradun, at a highly subsidized rent to set up the university.
What’s the charge
Bhushan, on behalf of students allegedly cheated by the HZU and Zee Learn Ltd., filed a PIL in December 2015 accusing Zee Group of unlawful grant of affiliation to Vidya Vardhan Institute of Design Environment and Architecture (VIDEA) in April 2007 in a quid pro quo.
While a CBI inquiry was instituted into the issue, a case is pending against the university in a special court in Goa.
The PIL also stated that Zee Group’s activities have been less about education and more about making money by duping not only students who were beguiled into paying Rs. 3.60 lakh each for a fake degree but also global investors who invested about Rs. 110 crore in GDRs offered by the group.
The petition also alleged Zee Group to have indulged in tax evasion under the guise of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
In the past decade, since the university started its operations in October 2005, the Zee Group through its sister concerns, namely, Zee Learn Ltd., Zee Institute of Creative Arts (ZICA) and Zee Institute of Media Arts (ZIMA), also allegedly violated both the provisions of the state Act under which it was set up and the guidelines of the UGC.
For instance, it is ran 29 study centres in 15 states across India, falsely projecting them as bona fide centre of Himgiri Zee University, offering undergraduate science degree programmes and other online distance learning courses, all being unrecognized under the UGC rules and regulations.
It does not have permission to open any study centre or operate outside the state of Uttarakhand, either. In 2008, the university was directed to shut down their operations outside Uttarakhand barring them from offering distance learning courses.
The Uttarakhand government too amended the Act in 2010 stating that “all the activities of the university shall be limited to the state of Uttarakhand and that the university shall adhere to the rules and regulations of the University Grants Commission (UGC)”.
As per the state Act of 2003, the Himgiri Zee University had to set up 13 study centres across as many districts in Uttarakhand within three years of the Act coming into force. While the HZU failed to open any study centre in its home state, it entered into an agreement with Zee Learn Ltd. on 1 June, 2010, signed by Pro Vice-Chancellor to offer BSc degree in animation and VFX and other online distance learning courses through ZICA. They went ahead with this although the UGC had in a letter to the university on 16 May, 2008 asked it to close down all its operations outside the state of Uttarakhand with immediate effect.
Two months before this agreement was signed, in a reply to a question raised by some MPs, the then Minister of State for Human Resource Development D. Purandeshwari declared in the Lok Sabha on 10 March, 2010 that “Himgiri Nabh Vishwavidalya, Dehradun, has closed down its off-campus centre(s) functioning outside the approved territorial jurisdiction.”
Under this agreement, the petition stated, Himgiri Zee University is to receive only 5 per cent of Rs. 3.60 lakh being charged in fee, while Zee Learn Ltd. is to keep 95 per cent, or Rs 3.42 lakh. Thus, a staggering sum of Rs. 28 crore was collected in fees from 791 students who enrolled under these study programmes in animation and visual effects and film-making between January 2010 and January 2014, although such study programmes are to be taught on-campus.
These “students were enrolled under an online programme with the university,” the PIL says, “where franchises and off-shore centres of ZICA and ZIMA were illegally projected as authorised off-campus study centres affiliated with the university.”
After the UGC declared such online courses unauthorised, the term online was later removed from the description of programmes and the agreement signed between the university and ZICA.
However, petition goes on to allege, “…none of these 791 students have ever attended a single class on the campus of the University and the University does not have any role in the internal and final assessment of these students.”
CobraPost-JantaKaReporter is in possession of a letter issued on 6 June, 2011 by HZU Registrar Dalip Bora authorising ZICA to run such BSc courses through its centres. This clearly shows that the university was used as a front to dupe students who were assured that UGC-approved degrees would be awarded to them.
To inspire confidence in the target student community and their parents, the brochures or information booklets showed none other than Subhash Chandra himself as Brand Ambassador.
However, the HZU gave only 191 certificates till date, according to a HZU annual summary report submitted to the UGC.
Although not authorised to extend affiliation or the status of a constituent college, under the norms laid down by the UGC and the state Act of 2003, the HZU granted affiliation to Vidya Vardhan Institute of Design Environment and Architecture (VIDEA) of Goa owned by Vijay Sohoni, the president of the Council of Architecture (COA).
The grant of this affiliation in April 2007 was, in fact, a quid pro quo as Vijay Sohoni granted the university COA recognition to run architecture degree courses. According to the MoU signed between HZU and VIDEA, the university enjoys the management control over the admission procedure, academic programmes, and day-to-day activities.
But this honeymoon could not last long as soon as the lid from this scam blew off and a CBI inquiry was instituted with the agency filing a charge-sheet (Case no. RAC 120006A0002) in the court of Special Judge North Goa, who on 7 July, 2015, ordered to frame charges against the then Himgiri Zee University’s Vice-Chancellor B.C. Aggarwal under the IPC and Prevention of Corruption Act.
The lid from this scam would never have been blown off but for the students who received certificates instead of the degree that was promised by the Zee Group.
The students launched protests with many even sending legal notices to the company. Then, Prof. Abhishekh Asthana, former vice-chancellor of the HZU, not only refused to play ball but also stood his ground against all these irregularities.
Prof. Asthana was removed from the post of vice-chancellor and cases were slapped against him by the Zee Group. The petition states that this was done by the university management to harass and malign him and stop him.
In an apparent bid to stop him from going public on the affairs of the university, the Zee Group managed to get a restraining order against Prof. Asthana from the Bombay High Court on 8 March, 2008. Last year in October, Prof. Asthana brought all these illegal activities of the university in question and Zee Learn Ltd. to the notice of Central Vigilance Commissioner and the governor of Uttarakhand who is also the visitor to the HZU.
Experts are amazed over the audacity with which the Zee Group took the scam to countries beyond India’s borders. In 2013, Zee Learn Ltd. enlisted itself on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange and raised Rs 110 crore by selling GDRs to foreign investors by falsely claiming in the red-herring prospectus: “For some of the current course being offered under the ZICA and ZIMA brands, we have been affiliated with Himgiri Zee University.”
According to the regulatory provisions of the European Securities and Exchange Authority (CSSF), providing false and misleading information creates civil, administrative and criminal liability on the information provider.
Land allotment scam
However, the scam is not limited to duping the student community or their parents and global investors of their money.. The Zee Group has used its undue influence on the babudom too, as alleged by the petition.
The group secured a loan of Rs. 70 crore in 2008 from the Punjab National Bank for the HZU by fraudulently showing the 50 acres of land that was leased to the Taleem Research Foundation by the Uttarakhand government as leasehold property and diverted the funds to the group.
Taking a serious note of the illegal activities that the HZU has been indulging in over the years, the Dehradun district magistrate had on 4 August, 2010 recommended cancellation of the lease deed to the Principal secretary (revenue), and the state government has already stopped collecting lease rent from the university against the land (50 acres) on which the university has built its premises.
Bhushan said that this was a classic case of land allotment scam.
He said, “The land where the HZU is situated belongs to Taleem Foundation, which is part of the Zee Group, which had procured the land at highly concessional rates from the government of Uttarakhand for setting up of university. One of the conditions of the contract was that the land will be utilised within three years, which was breached, thus leading to the university having no rights over the land. Communications between the government and the university show that the contract stands cancelled and yet the university continues to operate from the land.”
The UGC, too, has not included HZU in its list of universities and institutions which can award bona fide degrees to their students.
In other words, whatever claims the Zee Group and its sister concerns might have made to the students and their parents, none of the degrees or courses they offered in their bouquet of off-campus learning programmes through various study centres, are valid as they are not authorised or approved by the UGC or AICTE.
Detailing all such misdemeanors, supported by evidence, the PIL has demanded a Court-monitored CBI inquiry and has sought action against the top management, including the patron, of the university, the Taleem Research Foundation, ZLL and other group companies.
Speaking to CobraPost-JantaKaReporter, Prashant Bhushan said, “Clearly they (Zee Group) were running illegal centres all over India. They had been told very clearly that they could not run any centres outside Uttarakhand. We have got a very strong case here. What they are doing is clearly fraudulent and illegal. They’ve been defrauding a lot of students by giving them degrees, which are not valid and legal. They’ve been running a number of fraudulent programmes as well.”
In December, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and PC Pant issued notices to Uttarakhand government, University Grant Commission, central government, HZU and its patron-in-chief Subhash Chandra.
Bhushan said that the matter should come up before the apex court for hearing ‘very soon.’
CobraPost-JantaKaReporter contacted UGC, HZU, Taleem Foundation, the government of Uttarakhand and the office of Subhash Chandra, but weren’t successful in receiving any responses from them.
Luxembourg Stock Exchange, for its part, told CobraPost-JantaKaReporter that it was not responsible for misleading the investors.
A statement sent by LSE said, “Please note that only the issuer is responsible for the content and completeness of any statements made, opinions expressed or reports contained in the prospectus. Luxembourg Stock Exchange shall not incur any liability or be held liable for any inconsistent or wrong statement in the prospectus.”
Whether or not they are brought to justice, the greed with which they have conducted the affairs of the HZU has put the future of hundreds of students in peril.
(We are awaiting responses from various stakeholders of this scam and will publish their responses as and when we receive them.)