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Land protests greet Akhilesh’s Buddha

Lucknow, Dec. 13: Akhilesh Yadav today launched work on a Buddha idol that will dwarf the Statue of Liberty and foster “social unity” but the event was marred by protests from farmers alleging their liberty to hold land was being trampled.

Kushinagar, the place of Buddha’s death and where the project with the 152-metre high bronze statue will come up, is far from Gujarat’s Bharuch where the Narendra Modi government had in October laid the foundation of a 182-metre bust of Vallabhbhai Patel.

Akhilesh, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, mentioned no parallels today, only saying the project would foster “social cohesion, boost growth and tourism”. The 22-month-old Samajwadi government’s performance sheet has been stained by the Muzaffarnagar riots in August this year.

Today, as Akhilesh spoke in Kushinagar in the face of the farmer fury, many wondered how the project would build “social cohesion”.

Several people were detained, including a Magsaysay award-winning activist, Sandeep Pandey, when they demonstrated against the chief minister.

“Uttar Pradesh is a land of Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and Lord Buddha. My government wants to promote projects connected with all three to forge greater social cohesion,” Akhilesh said at the site in the state’s east.

He said the Buddhist trust behind the Rs 1,500-crore project — conceived by a monk over 12 years ago but stuck because land hadn’t been made available — had planned to shift it to another state. “But my government expedited the talks and persuaded the farmers to give land,” the chief minister told the gathering at the site around 300km east of Lucknow. The government will not invest in the project, only provide land.

The state has faced violent land protests earlier, including one in 2011 when the Mayawati government tried to acquire land for a highway in Noida.

Less than a third of the 660 acres needed for the Buddha memorial have been taken over so far, with officials claiming the acquisition was “voluntary”. The farmers have contested the statement and said over 2,000 families will be displaced. Govardhan Gond, a tribal farmer leading the protests, questioned the use of farmland for “unproductive projects like statue-building”. “We don’t know if Gautam Buddha himself would have allowed this kind of idol building on the land of the poor,” said Gond, who claimed he had also been detained.

Chief secretary Jawed Usmani, accompanying the chief minister, said the government had acquired 202 acres so far “at market prices” in the first of the three-phase project, and that Rs 64 crore had been paid. “The acquisition has been voluntary,” he said.

Besides the giant bronze statue — which will be almost 1.6 times taller than the 93-metre Statue of Liberty — the project envisages a hospital and educational institutes.

Maitreya Foundation, the trust building the project, denied any forcible land acquisition.