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Missing the Normative Content of Unity

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s “Statue of Unity” project reaffi rms state-led corporate clientelism.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious “Statue of Unity” project has caused the country embarrassment in the global political arena. The Washington Post described it as “a 600 ft creation that says as much about India’s global aspirations as it does about the political ego of its leader,” and British parliamentarian Peter Bone pointed out the redundancy of developmental aid for a country that can make such huge expenditures on statue building. Recall that when India was spending £430 million on this colossal project, it was simultaneously accepting £1.1 billion in aid from the British government mostly for its social sector spending. Back home, the jubilation is “official” only, while the commoners, especially the displaced tribal villagers, are aggrieved. Yet, to Modi the statue is “an answer to all those who question the existence of India,” an embodiment of “our engineering and technical prowess,” and above all “a gift to the country,” for all of which the country is saddled with prohibitive (sunk) costs.

But, who knows what the actual cost is? On comparing various documents, it is observed that the expenditures publicised are much lower than those on record. The amount of ₹ 2,980 crore, frequently quoted in the media as the total expenditure of the project, is the expenditure incurred by the state government alone, from 2014–15 till date, as per the state government’s budget documents. Again, the central budget has earmarked ₹ 309 crore, separately, between 2014–15 and 2017–18. Further, in an interview to India Today (9 November 2018), Sandeep Kumar, joint managing director, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, mentioned another ₹ 550 crore that was donated by central and state public sector undertakings (PSUs), private companies, and individuals. Aggregating the three sources, the total expenditure traceable on paper stands at ₹ 3,839 crore, 1.3 times higher than the amount that is popularly quoted and reported. Equally unsettling is the quandary over the outlay of ₹ 146.83 crore from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds of the PSUs. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has disqualified this expenditure as a defilement of CSR contributions for protecting national heritage, art and culture as permitted under Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013.

Among the various objectives underlying the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Modi’s valiant attempts to appropriate Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy, is there also a surreptitious intention of garnering a “heritage” tag in validation of their grandiosity? That, however, is not enough to obliterate some crucial governance failures from the public conscience, such as the diversion of the CSR funds to unproductive activities. Though the growth of CSR expenditure in India has been tardy, yet 60% of it is generally used for the social sector on issues like health, poverty alleviation, water and sanitation, education and livelihoods generation. Siphoning off from these coffers entails a high opportunity cost, particularly in the context of the state’s shrinking role in social sector deve­lopment. In Gujarat itself, the state government’s developmental spending has shrunk from 70% to 60% of the total budgetary expenditure within a span of four years starting from 2014–15, while expenditure on non-development activities increased from 30% to 40%. Against this, how will the BJP, Modi, or even the PSUs and corporates defend the propaganda of employment (via sectoral linkages) that they are conveniently publicising to justify their stakes in this project? The lack of political will to address the joblessness pervading the economy in general, and the huge backlog of vacancies lying in the government’s backyard per se, cannot be supplanted by such frivolous economic logic. It is hard to ignore the emptiness of such claims, and even harder to dismiss the myth of the state’s empathy, especially for the marginalised. While outlays are made speedily for setting up a Tribal Research and Training Institute, all initiatives wane away when it comes to the question of social support for the tribal villages displaced by the project. Prior experiences of displaced tribal migrants in the Sardar Sarovar project have revealed that without appropriate social support even the most adequate of compensations are rendered inefficacious in the long run. Without any social, political or economic capital, or any access to various government schemes, these tribal communities have fallen victim to an overall socio-economic squeeze. If such notional costs of deprivation are factored in, the price of the project will outdo the colossus.

Unity, in the normative sense, is invaluable for people to realise their social worth. But, does the BJP desire to put the concrete normative content in the word “unity”? Naming the statue as “Statue of Unity” is a political anagram that camouflages the polarisation politics of the current government, which brazenly contravenes Patel’s ideologues of unity. The recent experiences of aggressive implementation of economic policies in the name of financial inclusion, attack on black money, and corporate insolvency, suggest that policies are applied to subdue commoners with the burden of compliance while aiding the state’s strategy of corporate clientelism.

In the statue project too, while outsourcing the bronze cladding from China, the engineering company encountered no bureau­cratic directives for compliance to the government’s flagship “Make in India” agenda. However, farmers in the Sardar Sarovar catchment area, in acquiescence to such political grandiosity, have had to forego 20% of the sanctioned canal network of 90,389 km and irrigation benefits for 75% of the 17.92 lakh hectares of farmland. Against such demonstrated irreverence of Patel’s ideals, the pompous attempt of misappropriating his legacy is only for partisan benefits, with perilous consequences for the nation’s well-being.

Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018

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