When I first heard about the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to build the world’s largest statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to overlook the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia on the banks of the Narmada, about 100 kms from Vadodara, I really admired him. My admiration was for two reasons.
One, it showed Modi thinking big. To plan a statue, almost double the size and height of the Statue of Liberty, a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbour in New York City, in the United States, was indeed courageous. It required a huge investment which the state could ill afford.
To make it palatable to the Gujaratis and to involve them in the process, Modi appealed to all of them to donate whatever steel they had in the form of used agricultural implements and industrial tools to be melted and used in the construction of the statue.
During the Second World War, Japan made such an appeal to the people and that is how the statue of the famous dog Hachiko was melted to make bullets for the Japanese Army.
The Gujaratis responded like they responded when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad asked them to bring at least one brick from every mohalla and village in the state for the construction of the Ram temple at the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood at Ayodhya.
The response was indeed overwhelming. A large quantity of steel was obtained, which was melted and used in the construction of the statue. The point of reference at that time was the Statue of Liberty.
The tallest statue at that time was the one of Lord Buddha in China. In fact, there were many Buddha statues taller than the New York one.
The problem with building the tallest is that it can be overtaken easily. If China decides to build a statue of, say, Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping or its current leader Xi Jinping, they can do it in no time. Even the North Korean leader is capable of building one to perpetuate his own or his father Kim Il Sung’s memory.
Since many components of Patel’s statue came from China, the Chinese know better than us about the Statue of Unity, built by the Swedish company Larsen and Toubro (L&T). The point is that the uniqueness of the statue can disappear if a megalomaniac decides to build a taller statue.
The second reason why I admired Modi was that he decided to build a statue of Sardar Patel, who was born, lived and died a Congressman. He was the Home Minister when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. I won’t reveal the assassin’s political identity for fear that someone might drag me into a case.
What is incontrovertible is that Patel had the courage of conviction to ban the RSS. Not only that, in a communique issued on February 4, 1948, the Centre said it was banning the RSS “to root out the forces of hate and violence that are at work in our country and imperil the freedom of the nation and darken her fair name.”
I wondered how Modi could even think of perpetuating such a person’s memory. In fact, every time I remember Patel, I remember the strong words he used to justify the ban on the RSS. The statue project would have been a non-starter if Modi remained confined to Gandhinagar. It got a boost when he became Prime Minister in 2014. Otherwise, how would he have found Rs 3500 crore to build it?
In contrast, the Statue of Liberty was donated to the people of America by the city of Paris. The pedestal and the park around it was built by a journalist, Joseph Pulitzer. He raised money for the project by making an appeal to his readers to contribute liberally. And they did not disappoint him.
Pulitzer chose the spot because he could see it from his office in New York. In other words, the Statue of Liberty was a people’s project.
Once, while I was on a flight, I heard the pilot’s announcement that the Statue of Unity could be seen from the plane. I was occupying an aisle seat on the wrong side of the aircraft. Hence I could not see the statue. However, the desire to see it did not leave me.
I also knew the role Patel played in the reconstruction of the Somnath temple. I wanted to club the statue and the temple in a single trip. And when our friends Ravindran Mannodi and Sarada agreed to play ball, the trip became a reality, though more than 400 km separated the two places.
That is how we landed at Vadodara, located on the banks of the river Vishwamitri. It derives its name from the Sanskrit word “Vatodara” which means the heart of the Banyan (data) tree. When I first visited Vadodara in the late seventies, it was known as Baroda.
I have fond memories of visiting the Maharaja Sayajirao University, founded by Sir Pratapsinghrao Gaekwad, in memory of his grandfather. It was a fully residential university with English as the medium of instruction. I visited the English Department where one of my relatives eventually became professor.
It was Maharaja Gaekwad who funded Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s studies in Bombay, London and the US. He was given a monthly scholarship of Rs 25 that enabled him to study in Bombay. He was also given a job in the state of Baroda, where he also faced discrimination of the worst kind.
Vadodara is a much changed city. Flyovers have replaced congested road junctions. It is still a city of education as huge billboards advertise private UGC-accredited universities and coaching institutes. I wish we had the time to visit the Laxmi Vilas Palace and the tree-lined MS University.
After a night of rest and early breakfast, we left for Kevadia by car. First, we saw a tiny statue of, probably, Sivaji Maharaj at a junction close to our hotel. One thing we all noticed conspicuously was that no motorcyclist or scooterist wore the helmet. Those who wore the helmet were few and far between.
On the way, we had tea at Tea Point, a kiosk. We wanted to order tea without sugar. We tried in vain to explain to the tea-seller in Hindi, as grammatically correct as taught by Dr Samuel Henry Kellogg’s Grammar of the Hindi language, first published in 1875. Finally, it required an interpreter’s help to know that he sold tea in three cup sizes — tiny, tinier and tiniest — and the tea remained the same.
I wish Home Minister Amit Shah, who has been promoting Hindi in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, took similar interest in promoting Hindi in his own Gujarat so that tourists like us could communicate better. He won’t do it for it would mark the finis of Gujarati.
The national highway was broad, well-maintained with little traffic. On the way, we saw huge blades of windmills being transported by truck. Windmills dot the Gujarat coastline. When we reached Kevadia, I saw a senior secondary school on the roadside. If the jailed
AAP Minister Manish Sisodia had seen it, he would have made fun of Modi’s claims vis-a-vis Gujarat’s education scene.
We passed through huge gates on the way that announced that we were nearing the Statue of Unity. As we neared the destination, we could see the statue like a speck in the hills. There were many hotels, restaurants, food courts and recreation centres on the way but most of them were either closed or had no business.
At Kevadia, we had to buy tickets at Rs 380 per person to visit the statue and three more locations, the Valley of Flowers, the Glow Garden and the Sardar Sarovar dam. Cash had no value there as tickets could be bought only electronically or through debit or credit cards.
From the ticket point to the statue is a short distance. Free, air-conditioned buses are available for the tourists. There were two pick-up points. One was deserted with a dog luxuriating on the bench meant for tourists. The infrastructure developed is enormous but the traffic was inadequate. There were electric Autorickshaws, driven by women. I asked one of them how much money they made.
The vehicles belonged to the government. The driver had to pay Rs 700 per day to the government. Any amount they received above this amount was theirs. They can charge only the fixed rates. No, they don’t get any benefits like bonus, provident fund, gratuity and pension.
On the way to the statue, I saw on the left side houses that had tarpaulin as roof. Huge stones are kept on the tarpaulin so that it does not fly off. There are hundreds of such houses which suggest that they are permanent settlements there. Thank Goodness, the administration did not think it necessary to build a wall as was done when Donald Trump visited Gujarat to keep the sight of poverty away from the eyes of the distinguished visitor.
It must be said to the credit of Modi that he has built infrastructure around the statue that would redound to his credit. When we reached the point of disembarkation, we realised how large the bus stand was. Not even 10 percent of its capacity was being used.
A short walk from the bus stop is all that is required to reach the statue. In fairness, one does not have to walk much. The pathway is interspersed with auto-walks or moving paths. The statue is misleading. One does not realise how tall it is till one reaches the pedestal.
The toes were taller than a six-foot person. The visitor does not have to strain as elevators are convenient and enticing. The ticket included the journey by lift inside the statue. Our ticket allowed us to reach the chest level of the statue. As the lift-operator told me, the height up to the chest level was equivalent to a 45-storied building.
No, we did not find any heart or lungs. Instead, we saw huge steel bars securing the statue against all possible tornadoes and cyclones. We could see the Sardar Sarovar dam from there. In fact, Patel was sculpted to be looking at the dam!
A state-of-the-art washroom awaited the needy there. The lift brought us back as quickly as we were taken there. At the basement was a large hall where the history of the statue was provided in different forms — pictorially, orally and audio-visually. A large statue of Patel’s head and the replica of the big statue provided the visitors selfie opportunities.
There was a section where the integration of over 560 native states into the Indian Union was depicted. There were pictures of the rajas and the ranis with Patel and Mountbatten. However, I could not find any reference to V.P. Menon, who as Patel’s right-hand man actually negotiated with the rulers and cajoled them, blackmailed them and forced them to sign the Instruments of Accession.
The heavens would not have fallen if Menon’s picture was included among those dangling from the roof. From there, we took an autorickshaw to visit the Sardar Sarovar dam. Photographers did not face any restriction anywhere.
There are in all 19 tourist spots created to attract visitors. We visited the Glow Garden where plastic flowers and plastic plants beckoned the tourists. There were other tourist spots like the Garden of Cactus plants, not to mention a museum of wild animals and another for dinosaurs.
To visit all of them would take three days. Since we had no plan to waste time admiring plastic flowers, we took an auto to reach the bus stand where an air-conditioned bus awaited us. On the way back to Vadodara, we again saw star hotels, restaurants, and recreation facilities that had no takers.
I do not have the statistics of the visitors but one thing is certain that the huge infrastructure created at Kevadia is being grossly under-utilised. Unless the statue fetches income commensurate with the huge investment of Rs 3500 core, the Statue of Unity will be described as a white elephant. Or, a Statue of Vanity!