Police stand guard near the 'Statue Of Unity', by the Sardar Sarovar Dam  in India's western Gujarat state prior to the inauguration of the world's biggest statue on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Panthaky / AFP
Police stand guard near the Statue Of Unity by the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India's western Gujarat state. Photo: AFP/Sam Panthaky

The world’s biggest statue, unveiled in India today as a tribute to one of the country’s founders, has been marred by protests and controversy. Two of the biggest complaints are the huge cost of the project and the fact that a vital part of the 182-meter-tall monument – the bronze cladding inside the huge creation – was actually made in China.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the ‘Statue of Unity’ as a tribute to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was the country’s first deputy prime minister. Patel is known as Iron Man of India because of his total and uncompromising commitment in forcing the princely states, which were under a regional ruler in a subsidiary alliance with the British, to join national integration after independence in the late 1940s.

The ‘Statue of Unity’, built near the Narmada River in Gujarat, is 597 feet tall and touted as the tallest statue in the world. That is 30.5 meters (100 feet) taller than China’s Spring Temple Buddha and double the height of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The giant monument, depicting Patel in a traditional shawl and dhoti, cost about Rs 30 billion (US$406 million).

Designed and executed by construction company Larsen & Toubro (L&T), it took a team of more than 3,000 workers and 250 engineers nearly three years to complete.

Politicians in the opposition Congress party were upset when Larsen & Toubro sub-leased the bronze-cladding to a foundry in China, arguing that the statue should be locally made. However, the government said it had no control over who the company gave the contract to.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) also tabled a report that said it was inappropriate for public funds to be spent on the statue. It noted that the project was not a corporate social responsibility activity by the public sector oil companies that donated money.

Air Force helicopters shower rose petals on the ‘Statue Of Unity’, dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Patel, beside the Sardar Sarovar Dam in western Gujarat state on October 31. Photo: Sam Panthaky / AFP

Patel was a senior member of the Indian National Congress and the country’s first home minister. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims that the Congress never gave Patel the recognition he was due. However, it was Patel, in 1948, who banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological flank of the BJP, which the current PM was part of. But a year later, Patel agreed to lift the ban on the condition that the RSS did not participate in elections.

However, Patel was a Gujarati – like Modi – and many believe the unveiling of the statue was to coincide with the lead-up to the 2019 election. Earlier, workers from the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a ‘Loha-Campaign’ (Iron Campaign) and asked farmers from different villages to donate tools and soil for the statue.

Tribal people unhappy about losing their land

Tribal people in about 70 villages had their land taken for the project. They later alleged that the BJP made false promises, and said they had received no benefit from the Narmada waters or sacrifices by their parents for the land.

On Monday, the headmen of 22 villages near the Sardar Sarovar Dam wrote an open letter to Modi, saying that villagers would not welcome the PM at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity. Local tribal leaders also announced a boycott of the function, saying natural resources had be destroyed to make way for the memorial.

“If Sardar Patel could see the mass destruction of natural resources and injustice done to us, he would cry. When we raise our issues we are persecuted by police. Why are you not ready to listen to our plight?” the letter said.

Earlier this month, tribal activists said that people in 72 villages near the dam would join the protest on October 31, the same day, by not cooking food. “We have also urged tribals of the eastern belt of Gujarat, from Dang till Ambaji, to join our protest by observing a bandh [a protest] that day. We are confident that the entire tribal population will stand up against the injustice,” tribal leader Anand Mazgaokar told The Wire.

To make it all worse, it is likely to be a very long time before the ‘Statue of Unity’ generates enough revenue to pay off its huge cost. The Taj Mahal, India’s most popular tourist attraction, earns about 250 million rupees ($3.4 million) from the eight million or so tourists that visit the site every year. But if Sardar Patel’s statue became as popular as the Taj Mahal, it would take more than 120 years to just break even, The Print has reported.

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