Bereft of options, and with elections drawing near, the Maharashtra government has sought to silence mounting criticism of its poor performance in the last five years by planning to erect a towering statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji riding a horse. The proposed height of 190 metres could make it the tallest statue in the world, dwarfing even the Sardar Vallabhbhai sculpture in Gujarat, which at 182 metres was till recently considered the tallest.
The choice of Shivaji was obvious: the warrior king evokes strong pride among Maharashtrians. The Shiv Sena and the MNS, who purportedly fight for the sons of the soil, continue to exploit his popularity to whip up regional chauvinism. Now the ruling alliance of the Congress and the NCP plans to go one-up on its political adversaries with this gigantic form of populism.
Earlier, the state government had planned a 98 metre-tall equestrian statue on a shivling-shaped pedestal, one kilometre into the sea from Marine Drive on 7.5 acres of reclaimed land. The new plan shows significant departures from the original blueprint. Now it would be built on an octagonal shaped structure, resembling the king’s seal. The new site is further into the sea and will include a museum on Shivaji, fountains, amphitheatre, auditorium, aquarium, facilities for sound and light shows and water sports. All of these will bleed the state government exchequer of at least Rs1,000 crore — a 100 per cent jump in expenditure from the previous estimate of Rs500 crore.
The Maharashtra government’s extravagant proposal has further stoked the controversy over building monuments, statues and memorials at considerable public cost. The former Chief Minister of UP, Mayawati, is now under the CAG scanner for her profligate ways. It is said that Mayawati had spent Rs2500 crore for the Dalit Prerna Sthal in Noida and the Ambedkar memorial in Lucknow. According to an earlier report by Rajkiya Nirman Nigam Ltd, a state government agency entrusted with building statues, her administration had allegedly spent Rs4,400 crore from UP’s 2009-10 budget, for just two projects in Lucknow — the Ambedkar park and Kanshi Ram memorial. However, during the same time, her government was tightfisted when it came to spending on treatment of serious illnesses of the poor, marriage of poor girls, drinking water for rural areas and housing for poor scheduled castes. The cumulative expenditure on these four counts was a measly Rs640 crore.
The Rs2,000 crore that the Gujarat government will spend on Sardar’s statue could have been better utilised on welfare projects. Better infrastructure, quality educational institutions and hospitals in rural and urban India would immensely benefit the electorate and contribute significantly to the country’s progress. But, governments across the political spectrum refuse to see the writing on the wall. They would rather indulge in tokenism than invest in the country’s present and future.
Statues and memorials can be source of distress for the common man. Last year the Supreme Court had directed all state governments to refuse permissions to erect statues at highways and public places to ensure smooth flow of traffic. However, in a few months of that order, the situation was back to status quo. No government wants to risk upsetting religious sentiments, regional pride or overturn caste compulsions, regardless of the electorate’s woes.