Why We Could Do Without Another Shivaji Statue

March 20, 2012 8:14 am by

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

The Rs350 crore Chhattrapati Shivaji statue controversy has resurfaced in Maharashtra, provoking the question whether the state should consider spending the whopping amount on a statue complex amidst pressing priorities of education and development.

If one were to cite the example of Uttar Pradesh, the memorials and statues raised by former chief minister Mayawati—of herself and others—have in fact become objects of ridicule and the huge expenditure on them has been much criticised as being wasteful.

Therefore, the recent rumblings in the Maharashtra government, suggesting a rethink on the proposed Rs350 crore Shivaji statue and memorial complex, one kilometre into the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai, should be welcomed with some relief.

On Wednesday, March 14, while interacting with reporters on the eve of the budget session, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar said that the government had called off plans to construct the Shivaji statue complex in the sea as it was facing hurdles in getting environmental clearance. He said that a search was on for an alternative site on land in Worli or Bandra.

Predictably, this revelation erupted into a controversy on Thursday, the first day of the state’s budget session, with the BJP-Shiv Sena disrupting the proceedings of the state assembly. The opposition members accused the Congress-NCP of reneging on its promise. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan tried to diffuse the controversy by stating that efforts were on to get the environmental clearance. He contradicted Pawar’s statement the previous day that the entire project had been scrapped.

It was with the boastful ‘mine is bigger than yours’ thought that the Congress-NCP government had approved the project four years ago. The idea was to construct the 300-foot statue on an artificially-created island off the coast of Chowpatty–Marine Drive and make it taller than the Statue of Liberty. The project envisaged the construction of an amphitheatre, museum, library, art galleries, revolving restaurant and the works.

To begin with, there was never any popular demand in Maharashtra for constructing the gigantic statue in memory of the iconic Maratha king, who is a part of the state’s identity. There are any number of memorials in the name of Shivaji whose name also adorns the state’s biggest airport and railway station complex. The people of Maharashtra would any day prefer government resources and initiatives be expended on good roads, good public transport, better public hospitals and good governance across the state.

The project first found mention in the 2004 poll manifesto of the Congress-NCP. It was tabled in the assembly in 2008 and reiterated just before the 2009 state assembly elections. The state at that time was in the midst of dealing with drought and farmer suicides.

Rather than revive the statue project, Maharashtra needs to draw lessons from what has happened in the backward state of Uttar Pradesh. There, the young, newly-elected CM Akhilesh Yadav announced that he would consider raising hospitals in the vast vacant spaces in the empty memorials raised by Mayawati. For this one promise, he is bound to win more admirers not just in UP but across India.

Perhaps, the Maharashtra government could consider replacing the statue plan with something far more constructive and purposeful such as scholarships of Rs350 crore or more for poor, deserving students in the state. Such an initiative would certainly be welcomed by the people who are no longer naïve enough to be swayed by populist statue announcements. It would also enhance the image of chief minister Chavan, a US-educated engineer-turned-politician who emphasises the importance of education and technology.

Like outgoing Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi who stood by his convictions, Chavan must take the bold step of announcing scholarships instead of a statue complex and walk his talk.

While Raj Thackeray was the only politician in Maharashtra to oppose the Shivaji statue plans, there were many others who had criticised the proposal as one that would lead to wasteful expenditure. Their voice, however, was not loud enough to compel the government to change its plans.

The apparent rethink on the statue-in-the-sea plan is a good occasion to ask larger questions of the government and press upon it to take up more meaningful challenges that would make a difference to the lives of the people.

This story by Abhay Vaidya was originally published on Firstpost.com.