Beyond a statue

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inaugurated a colossal statue of India’s Independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, close to the Sardar Sarovar dam project. The government has indicated that the 182-metre high statue, the world’s tallest, is in commemoration of Patel’s efforts — he was India’s first deputy prime minister — to create the Union of India out of disparate provinces and princely states in the early years after Independence; as such, it has been fittingly anointed as the “Statue of Unity”. There is no doubt that Patel’s legacy deserves greater attention, and that his contributions have long been underplayed by official histories. From that point of view, the fact that this is being rectified, and in such an eye-catching manner, is certainly welcome. Yet there is also something disquieting about the project.

The cost of the project, almost Rs 30 billion, is as outsized as the statue itself. It is hard to argue that this is the most important priority for a cash-strapped government. The government would argue that the project is capable of earning significant amounts of revenue from tourism made possible by the construction of the statue. But it could also be argued that the money spent on the statue could instead have funded several modern institutes of higher education; or, for that matter, irrigated several tens of thousands of under-productive agricultural land. There is little doubt that Patel himself would have preferred one of the latter uses. To build it near the controversial Sardar Sarovar project, which continues to be dogged by accusations of a failure to properly resettle and rehabilitate the members of the Scheduled Tribes, who were displaced, only underlines this sense of disquiet. It is true that the government did not bear the entire cost itself. But even that is somewhat problematic. About 10 per cent of the funding for the statue came from the corporate social responsibility budgets of various public sector undertakings. Is this how the oil PSUs, for example, would have genuinely preferred to spend their cash? Is it not another example of government pressuring companies to pay up for the administration’s desire to put up grand projects? And will it lead to competitive statue-building? A taller one of Shivaji is already planned in Maharashtra. 

That said, however, the scale of the achievement needs to be appreciated. The tallest statue in the world has been built in a relatively short time — it was announced before 2014, but construction only took off in recent years. It has been delivered well before estimates. This is another reminder, if any was in fact needed, that India can get its act together when it comes to projects if the political will indeed exists. It is true that not all of the statue is “made in India”. There is no place in India that could have created bronze cladding of the size and specifications required, and so it had to be imported from a Chinese foundry. But, as Larsen and Toubro — the contractors for the project — have pointed out, that is a small proportion of the total cost. In the end, the design, planning and implementation were done in India. This is perhaps the real achievement to be celebrated and the government should examine why similar efficiency and adherence to construction targets should not be replicated in other state-sponsored projects. 

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