Statue of Unity: Boon or Bane?

The soon-to-be-inaugurated Statue of Unity (Photo Credits: Statue of Unity official website)

A critical analysis of the soon-to-be-unveiled Sardar Patel statue, which is being positioned as Modi government’s magnum opus

By Deepit Magee and Bhuvan Gupta

On October 31 – which is the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country will witness the unveiling of the Statue of Unity at Sadhu Bet, a river island near the contentious Sardar Sarovar dam. Standing at 182 metres, this will be the world’s tallest statue, by far. With an overall cost of Rs. 2,389 crores, it will also be one of India’s most expensive monument projects ever.

Why the government wants to build it

Like its moniker suggests, the Statue of Unity is being projected not just as a tribute to Sardar Patel, but also as an integrated project which will stimulate socio-economic growth in the region through citizen partnership. The project entails an assortment of physical establishments, events and campaigns – all funded through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model.

The statue will be accompanied by a museum, an audio-visual gallery, a light and sound show, a complex which will house several State Bhavans, and allied hospitality services – primarily with the intention of boosting tourism and employment generation in the surrounding tribal regions.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Rashtriya Ekta Trust (SVPRET) was constituted as a special purpose vehicle by the government of Gujarat, solely for the execution of this project. The Trust is the engine behind all the social development initiatives of the project; most notable of which are Fund For Unity and Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat.

Prime Minister Modi’s vision statement mentions the preservation of tribal culture, and the cultivation of the statue as a “source of inspiration for ages to come”. However, the implications of building a statue that is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty (duly advertised on the official website), and thereby uplifting India’s global image cannot be discounted.

Criticisms

The Statue of Unity project has faced criticism for reasons related to land rights, environmental impact, and resource utilization.

Land Rights

The statue is being built 3.2 km away from the Narmada Dam, on a river island called Sadhu Bet near Vadodara. In 2013, locals protested against the government acquiring this land to build tourism infrastructure, as reported by The Indian Express. The villagers claimed that the hillock was originally called Varata Bawa Tekri, named after a local deity, and was hence a site of religious importance.

Recently, Local tribal organizations said as many as 75,000 tribals adversely affected by the Statue of Unity project would oppose the unveiling, to be held on October 31. “No food will be cooked in 72 villages affected by the entire project, as we will be mourning on that day. Our rights as tribals are being violated by the government. The project is being carried out for our destruction,” Dr. Praful Vasava, a tribal leader, told IANS. Traditionally, food is not cooked in a tribal village when they are mourning for the dead.

The villagers claim that rehabilitation has not been completed in 19 out of the 72 villages affected by the statue project, where only compensation has been paid but other commitments like land and jobs have not been fulfilled. Some complain that they have been given barren, uncultivable land in exchange for their fertile land, thus endangering their livelihoods.

Environmental Impact

The lack of research on the environmental impact of the statue has also been questioned. In 2015, a group of environmentalists from across the country wrote to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests (MoEF). They claimed that the project involves construction in the river bed and the proposed reservoir, close to a sanctuary in an eco-sensitive zone, and hence will have a serious impact on both the ecology and the environment of the surrounding area. In their letter addressed to the environment secretary, the activists alleged that the project is illegal and violates the Environment Protection Act, 1986; environmental impact assessment (EIA) notification of September 2006 and a few orders given by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and other courts.

Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) — the project implementing agency of the Gujarat government — has maintained that since the total built-up area of the first phase of the project will be 19,731 square meters, it does not require prior environmental clearance as per the EIA Notification, 2006, which states that only building and construction project with a built-up area more than 20,000 square meters will require such clearance. The MoEF stood by this in an affidavit to the NGT in 2015.

In January 2016, the NGT dismissed a petition that sought a stay on construction of the project. One of the petitioners told the Indian Express that the tribunal admitted their case had merit, but said that they could not act on the case as it was not filed within six months of the laying of the foundation stone in October 2013. The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, allows for arbitration only if the complaint is filed within six months of the action of dispute.

Resource Utilisation

In the 2014 union budget, the government proposed a sum of Rs. 200 crore for the construction of the statue. Opposition parties and social media users criticized this sum by contrasting it against other provisions in the budget, such as Rs. 150 crores for women’s safety, and Rs. 100 crore for the “beti bachao, beti padhao” scheme, claiming that the government’s priorities were misplaced.

The government positioned the statue as a citizen effort through the ‘Loha’ campaign, wherein it asked farmers across villages in India to send in their used farming implements. The official website of the statue used to say that the “iron collected through the ‘Loha’ campaign will be melted, converted into rebar, and used in the foundation of the Statue of Unity, making farmers across India an integral part of building the World’s Tallest Statue.” However, the chief engineer of the project told the Indian Express that the iron will not be used for the main structure as it of dubious quality. He claimed that they could use the collected iron to make an ‘art work’ or a ‘show piece’, since it is a ‘sentiment-related issue.’

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) criticized central public sector undertakings for allocating part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds towards the building of the statue. The CAG told companies like Oil & Natural Gas Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, Indian Oil Corporation Limited, and Oil India Limited that contribution towards the construction of Statue did not qualify as CSR activity as it is not a ‘heritage asset’.