India's Statue of Unity opens to great fanfare - and controversy

India hopes the Statue of Unity, which commemorates independence hero Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, will attract 15,000 visitors a day to the remote corner of Gujarat. More than 5,000 armed police guarded the huge site, on alert against protests over the
India hopes the Statue of Unity, which commemorates independence hero Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, will attract 15,000 visitors a day to the remote corner of Gujarat. More than 5,000 armed police guarded the huge site, on alert against protests over the $561 million cost to build the statue.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SARDAR SAROVAR DAM (India) • India inaugurated the world's tallest statue yesterday with fireworks, folk dances and floral tributes, deploying tight security amid an outcry by local groups over the soaring cost of the 182m-tall sculpture of an independence hero.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially opened the statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, describing the completion of his pet project as "a day that will be remembered in the history of India".

Air force jets flew over the giant figure and clouds of rose petals were dropped from helicopters onto its head as Mr Modi bent in front of the statue on the ground.

Mr Modi hailed Sardar Patel's "strategic thinking" in bringing together the disparate country after independence in 1947, and described the Statue of Unity as "a symbol of our engineering and technical prowess".

More than 5,000 armed police guarded the huge site in a remote corner of Gujarat state, with Mr Anand Mazgaonkar, a community group leader in Narmada district, accusing plainclothes officers of detaining 12 people late on Tuesday. Police denied the claims.

But the authorities took precautions in case community groups decided to stage protests to condemn the decision to spend 29.9 billion rupees (S$561 million) - much of it public funds - to build the statue over nearly four years.

Hundreds of Chinese have been among the 3,500 workers involved in its construction.

 
 

Drones and helicopters were used to keep watch in the area, said police, after the chiefs of 22 villages signed a letter calling on Mr Modi to stay away from the inauguration.

Posters showing Mr Modi with Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani were torn down or vandalised, with their faces blackened, at the weekend. Police guarded new posters put in their place.

More than 80 per cent of the local population are from tribal groups with special protected status. The Gujarat government said the 185 families moved to make way for the statue had been compensated and given 475ha of land.

Sardar Patel was a deputy prime minister in India's first post-independence government. He became known as "the Iron Man" by convincing feuding states - sometimes with a threat of force - to join the new united country.

His name had been largely overshadowed by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since 1947. But Modi-inspired nationalists have sought to put him back in the forefront, with critics accusing them of appropriating his legacy.

The statue is more than twice the size of New York's Statue of Liberty, and also dwarfs the 128m-high Spring Temple Buddha in China, the world's next-biggest statue. It is made up of nearly 100,000 tonnes of concrete and steel.

Online booking to visit the Statue of Unity has opened, with a 350 rupee admission fee for the 153m-high observation deck.

The Indian authorities hope the statue will attract 15,000 visitors a day to the remote corner of Gujarat, which is about 100km from the nearest city of Vadodara.

India is also working on a giant statue of 17th-century warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji, riding a horse and brandishing a sword, which should dominate the Mumbai shoreline from 2021. The current design would make it 212m high.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2018, with the headline 'India's Statue of Unity opens to great fanfare - and controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe