Indian farmers oppose giant Buddha statue

An international Buddhist organization's plans may displace hundreds.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

"The Matireya Project has no part whatsoever to play in the acquisition process which is – and which by law can only be – entirely the responsibility of the government of Uttar Pradesh," says Ms. Gatter, who added that the Maitreya group would like to reach an equitable resolution with the farmers. "The project, which is planned to include significant educational as well as healthcare programs, will bring extensive benefit to the area and to India," she says.

Costing roughly $250 million and reaching three times the height of the Statue of Liberty (without its base), the 500-foot-tall bronze statue of Buddha will be the world's largest statue and the world's first so-called "statue-skyscraper." It is being designed to last for more than 1,000 years and has the backing of the Dalai Lama.

The Maitreya Project chose Kushinagar because it is considered to be the fourth-holiest site in Buddhism – where the lord Buddha took his last sip of water, delivered his last sermon, died, and was cremated – to plant its beacon of compassion and understanding.

Manicured parks and 100,000 stupas (small Buddhist devotional structures) will surround the statue. The website of the Maitreya Project describes eventually constructing a world-class teaching hospital, museum, audiovisual center, schools, libraries, and more. Maitreya Project funds come from private donations as well as through individual or group sponsorship of the Buddha's giant bronze limbs.

Local farmers have accused officials at the Maitreya Project of attempting to seize their lands in a clandestine, nontransparent manner.

"What is the price of your soul," asks Ram Prashad Gond, a semiliterate farmer with a wife and six young children to feed. "Our land is our life. We have courage – if we have to die, then we die." Other villagers say they fast daily to call attention to their struggle.

But not all area residents predict unhappy days ahead. On the road adjacent to the current Buddhist shrines in Kushinagar, T.K. Roy, a cafe owner who stands to profit from the increased traffic from pilgrims and tourists, says that about half of the people in the area are ready to give up their land, while the other half are skeptical and may need to be forcibly removed. "The whole of Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, and India will benefit, undoubtedly," says Mr. Roy. But he adds wistfully, "the tranquility of the place will be lost."

Some farmers, says Roy, are holding out for higher compensation packages, but that the government cannot pay those farmers a higher rate for their land without paying more to those who have already moved.

"It's the illiterates – they are simply confined to their religious, ancestral principles. Globalization can benefit poor people, too," says Mahesh Sharma, a manager with a local branch of the Punjab National Bank in Kushinagar. "The Buddha left his kingdom; this is all about materialism; Now it's become an industry."

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