The Useless Glory of Statues and Other ‘Wonders of the World’

In the video game ‘Age of Empires 2’, you can build a ‘Wonder’ as a way to progress towards victory. The definition is a sparse one – “Building a Wonder demonstrates the superiority of your civilisation.” Similar logic probably led to the creation of the ancient wonders of the world that we learnt about in school.  And way back in 2013, as Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, laid the foundation stone for the Statue of Unity, he probably envisioned nothing short of a wonder too.

Standing at 182 metres, the Statue of Unity is dedicated to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the first deputy prime minister of India. Patel was a key player in the Indian freedom struggle, who then took on the task of uniting India as a nation after the British left. It is ironic, therefore, that a man celebrated for unity is being honoured in a time of unprecedented division.

While Patel was an advocate for many social issues, fostering Hindu-Muslim harmony was one of his main concerns. The government may have celebrated ‘national unity day’ to mark the unveiling of the colossal statue, but the ground reality remains starkly different.

Having the world’s tallest statue means little in the face of our current problems. The government continues to manufacture a new history by renaming roads and cities, in addition to erasing names from history textbooks. Lynch mobs are still a horrible reality, trolling on social media to incite fear and hatred continuously leaks from the virtual into the physical world. Sambit Patra, the BJP’s spokesperson has no qualms talking about the Ram mandir in Ayodhya on Republic TV night after night, but shies away from the cameras when asked about women’s safety.

Another issue close to Patel’s heart was education. In his time as Ahmedabad’s municipal president, the city’s school system underwent major reform. Specifically, Patel ensured that teachers got their due in terms of recognition as well as financial compensation. Meanwhile, present-day government schools are often vacant ghost towns, as teachers fail to report to work and children often stay home to help parents with their work. A large part of the Indian population is exploited by private schools for a service that is their fundamental right. But, it’s apparently okay, because we have the world’s tallest statue.

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It was thanks to Patel’s efforts that the first Congress government of Bombay took effective steps towards debt redemption and the economic progress of the region’s Adivasi communities. Ironically, the Statue of Unity was inaugurated amidst protest from tribal communities who were displaced to build the statue and are still asking for adequate compensated from the government.

Patel worked extensively for women’s safety, and it’s safe to say that he must turn in his grave at India’s current reputation. With the #MeToo movement catching fire in India, the government established a four-member group of ministers to battle sexual harassment in the workplace. It is chaired by Rajnath Singh, who seems to have little idea of what the movement is all about based on this clip:

Beyond the symbolism of the statue, arguing for its value as a tourist attraction seems like a fool’s errand as well. Even if the statue gets as many visitors as the Taj Mahal, it would take between 85 to 100 years for the government to break even on the Rs 2,989 crore (US$ 420 million) cost of building.

The Statue of Unity, therefore, is nothing but a gimmick. The purpose of this architectural marvel was realised when the Prime Minister tweeted several photos next to it. As is usual with the current government, it all came down to the optics, and how such a symbolic move will look in the context of the 2019 elections narrative. The BJP has always used Patel as an answer to Jawaharlal Nehru, diminishing the latter’s achievements and also using him to take shots at the Gandhi legacy. But the current government does not conform to any of Patel’s beliefs, least of all unity. One wonders what could have happened if the government invested this large sum of money in climate resilient infrastructure or the primary education system.

While a Wonder in Age of Empires 2 costs a lot of money and can help the player win the game, it does little to help the progress of civilisation. A university or a blacksmith, however, helps the player reach more advanced stages of civilisation. The real world is no different. The majority of the our real ‘Wonders of the World’ were built by kings, men who didn’t spend their subjects’ money for their welfare, but rather to etch their own names into history. The Statue of Unity serves little more purpose than that.

Aurko Mahapatra is a 19-year-old student of economics who loves to read and write about socio-political issues on a national and international level. He tweets @aurkomahapatra

Featured image credit: PTI