Indian farmers oppose giant Buddha statue
An international Buddhist organization's plans may displace hundreds.
In the middle of a village square about a mile from the northern Indian town of Kushinagar, where Buddha died nearly 2,500 years ago, dozens of semiliterate, poor villagers chanted in unison last week through the humid night.Skip to next paragraph
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"The common people will prevail; we will fight and we will win," they cried, pumping their fists.
The object of their ire is an international Buddhist organization's plan to build the world's largest statue of Buddha near their village. Called the Maitreya Project ("Maitreya" comes from Sanskrit and means loving-kindness), the statue and its vast surrounding parks will offer a spiritual answer to the world's great " 'monuments' to commercial interests: high-rise business buildings, airports, shopping malls, theatres and theme parks," according to the group's website.
But the plans are pitting devoted Buddhists against poor villagers who make their living farming small plots of land that have been in their families for generations.
"There's a 'hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil' attitude manifest from the upper echelons of the project," says Jessica Falcone, an American anthropologist of Tibetan Buddhism at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. "The willful negligence shown by the leadership of the Maitreya Project calls into question the ideological underpinnings of a project that is trying to build a statue symbolizing 'loving-kindness.' "
Many of the farmers who occupy the roughly 750 acres of fertile land proposed for the statue's surrounding parks and facilities are angry, afraid, and adamantly opposed to the construction of the giant symbol of love and compassion.
For their part, the statue's planners say it is the provincial government of Uttar Pradesh, which supports the project, that is planning to relocate the farmers. The tension surrounding the statue follows a series of similar issues across India where rural peasants have opposed plans by government and industry to develop large-scale tourism or industrial projects.
Earlier this year in the state of West Bengal, where the ruling Communist Party was hoping to acquire land for use in a special economic zone, the police opened fire on protesting local villagers, killing more than a dozen and causing an uproar across the country.
Kushinagar has yet to see violence related to the Maitreya Project, but anxiety over the plans remains.
"I will cut them if they come here," says Kalami Devi, the demure, bespectacled head of the women's chapter of a local Save Our Land organization, as she makes a slicing motion across her neck to drive home her point.
"On paper, the state government has already taken the land," says P.P. Upadhyay, a district land acquisition officer, who adds that seven villages and between 15,000 and 20,000 people will be displaced. He says that if the farmers don't move, the police will be forced to remove them. "It's a clash – I think there will be a conflict."
But Linda Gatter, who works with the Maitreya Project's office in Britain, says that it is the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, not the Maitreya Project organizers, who are pursuing the construction of the Buddha and the development of the area.