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Trouble in the land of Buddha

It’s men, monks and myths versus the Maitreya Project that aims to build the world’s largest statue of Buddha in Kushinagar — where Buddha died.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2010 00:09 IST
Paramita Ghosh

What is a Japanese tourist thinking when she gets off her airconditioned Volvo bus to take a leak behind the shagun trees on the way to Kushinagar? That the road is dusty and broken, the basic facilities in the land of the Buddha are missing and she’s not coming back again?

Atul Chopra, liaison officer of the Maitreya Project that aims to change all that with a 1,000-crore project, says, “The most sophisticated building in this area is a two-storey house. We’re building to inspire. Ours is a project dedicated to love and kindness.”

Untrue. When the fence goes around the 750 acres of land the project plans to acquire with the backing of the Uttar Pradesh government in May, farmers who lose their land are not going to see it as ‘love and kindness’. They will see it as land-grab.

A 10-minute ride from the gate into Kushinagar, 56-year-old farmer Govardhan Gaur, who has been on a dharna and a one-meal fast for the past 1,015 days, addresses other farmers, lawyers and students on the way to school. By afternoon, it’s a swell. “First, they rob us of our livelihood and then they say they will bring us development.”

For years, Kushinagar has watched history happening in other places. The Maitreya Project is the big bang of this little town whose last big story happened 2,493 years ago with the Buddha’s passing, in 483 BC. So everyone is interested in the ‘makeover’, and its shape: what will go, what will remain.

Farming, which will be the first casualty, has the community up in arms. They point to “two contradictory surveys” filed by district magistrate Ashish Goel in 2003 who branded their land “barren”, whereas district magistrate Amrita Soni in 2007 said the “site of the proposed project is a three-crop agricultural land”. Another sore point is a 2003 pact between the state government and the project trust, according to which no smoke-emitting units will be allowed to function 50 km from the statue. “What will happen to the nearly 1,000 sugar mills and brick kilns? We are talking of the livelihoods of nearly 10,000 people,” says local lawyer Uday Bhan. “If the UP government cares so much about Buddha and development, why not make our degree college a university in His name? Instead of a big statue, why not build big schools, hospitals?” he asks, curling his lips.

The compensation package for lands recently acquired for the Kasia international airport 3 km from the Maitreya site, too, has made farmers jittery. “Every acre is priced at Rs 3,50,000. But farmers have been promised Rs 20,000-30,000,” they say. Avanish Awasthi, director general of tourism, however, says “compensation for farmers whose lands were acquired for the airport and Maitreya is yet to be decided…” His reasons for batting for the project: tourism is equal to development is equal to employment.

But what if Kushinagar doesn’t want to be another Dharamsala? In the tradition of the model of ‘development’ followed around the country where people for whom it is aimed have least say in the matter, this question has, of course, not been asked. “Buddha is in our hearts,” says Hira Singh, a school-master. “Buddha was opposed to statues and they are putting up a 500-foot statue in his name.” Farmers at the ‘Save our Land’ gathering offer an alternative: “Kundwa Dilipnagar, just 5 km away, is not agricultural land. Why not take the project there?”

P Khomsorn, monk-in-charge at Kushinagar’s Thai monastery, beats the Maitreya myth — Buddha will return — with one of his own. He’s a follower of the Hinayana school. The Maitreya enterprise backed by the Dalai Lama’s associate is a project of the Mahayana school. “Kushinagar is where Buddha attained mahaparinirvana. It means the last stop, the end of story...” Local monk Dhante Mahendra, also points to “lack of local participation…but if the project happens, when it happens”, he will support it, he says.

Maitreya and UP government officials have, nevertheless, pitched a project aimed to dazzle: an entrance lobby to the statue-cum-building will be bigger than a 5-star hotel. One lakh Buddha figures will be inside the structure. Water-bodies at a mid-way height. The gateway to Nepal. A future township. “It’s a bit like a supermarket, no?” asks monk Khomsom with a wan smile. “Looks like it will be full of things. The Buddha wouldn’t have liked it”.

Bhikshu Mahendra also seeks a clarification about the statue’s hardware. Its elevators, as the project brochure suggests, will go right up to the statue’s neck. “To touch Buddha’s feet is of course alright. But for people to climb up the elevator and tap his head…”

Inputs by Gopal Gupta