Protests greet world's biggest statue in remote corner of India

Published October 29, 2018
In this file photo taken on October 18, Indian workers pose at the base of the world's tallest statue dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam near Vadodara in India's western Gujarat state.  — AFP
In this file photo taken on October 18, Indian workers pose at the base of the world's tallest statue dedicated to Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam near Vadodara in India's western Gujarat state. — AFP

Angry local communities have warned India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stay away from the inauguration on Wednesday of the world's biggest statue, a 182 metre (600 feet) high tribute to an independence hero.

The Statue of Unity, which is twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, has been built in a remote corner of Gujarat state as a flagship project of conservative leader Modi who is to open it on Wednesday.

But people living around the 29.9 billion rupee ($400 million) statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who played a key role in unifying India after its independence in 1947, want more compensation for damage to the environment.

Posters of Modi with Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani in a town near the statue were torn down or had the faces blackened at the weekend.

The chiefs of 22 surrounding villages have warned Modi to stay away from the inauguration of the mammoth figure, which will push the 128 metre high Spring Temple Buddha in China into second place.

"We villagers are determined and would like to inform you that on October 31 you (Modi) are not welcome here. If you come here as an unwanted guest we won't welcome you," they said in an open letter sent to the district administration.

"You and your companies have not only destroyed the natural resources, but are openly and brazenly exploiting them for business."

Icon or extravagance?

The letter said that building the Statue of Unity and the nearby Sardar Sarovar Dam had "destroyed" the Narmada river, India's fifth longest, while the local population did not have enough schools, hospitals and drinking water.

Local leader and former member of parliament, Amarsinh Chaudhary, said: "If Sardar Patel was alive today he would never have agreed to build such a statue at such a huge cost".

"This is being done for political gains as tribal groups in Gujarat are still suffering and devoid of basic human necessities," Chaudhary said protests were being planned for Wednesday's inauguration.

Authorities have already laid on tight security because of Modi's presence.

Chotu Vasava, a legislator in the state assembly, said the statue should have been built in New Delhi, and that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government picked Gujarat to buy the votes of Sardar's community.

More than 80 per cent of the local population are from tribal groups with special protected status.

But the Gujarat government said the 185 families moved to make way for the statue had been compensated and given 1,200 acres (475 hectares) of new land.

The statue has been under construction for nearly four years.

About 3,000 workers, including hundreds from China, have put 5,000 squares of bronze cladding over a concrete and steel frame.

Modi has said the statue will attract "hordes" of tourists, just as the Statue of Liberty does for New York.

According to the Gujarat government, it will bring 15,000 tourists a day.

Up to 200 visitors at any one time will be allowed on the viewing gallery 153 metres up.

Critics point to the lack of hotels in the region.

The nearest city Vadodora, is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away and Gujarat's main city, Ahmedabad, is more than 200 kilometers away.

It is also in a high security zone as the Sardar dam is on a list of sensitive national installations, so all tourists will have to undergo identity checks.

There are no trains, and most tourists will have to take a bus on a four-lane highway from Vadodora.

The state government is hurriedly building a new guest house complex with a large food court to cater for an expected tourist rush.

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