Building the world's tallest statue

India aims to stand tall

Culture

A cacophony of drilling machines and hammers echoes around the hills located 90km (56 miles) from the sleepy city of Vadodara in the western state of Gujarat. A sprawl of cranes interrupts the picturesque skyline. Workers take position, single-file, to break stones in the scorching heat. Some retire under a tree; their tiffin boxes hang from its branches to keep off ants underneath. A crocodile-catcher stands by to spot any snappers strolling alongside the construction site; his job is to pouch the beasts and deposit them upstream in the Narmada river. The workers’ task is no less daunting. Thousands of men toil night and day to construct the “Statue of Unity” which, at 182 metres, will stand almost twice as high as the Statue of Liberty when it is unveiled in the autumn of 2018. That will make it the world’s tallest effigy. (The Spring Buddha temple in China reaches higher, but has a more sub­stantial pedestal.)

The sculpture is of Vallabhbhai Patel, a founding father of modern India. Also called the “Iron Man” (once, as a young lawyer, he continued pleading his case in earnest despite having just been handed a telegram that conveyed his wife’s death), he cajoled and coerced 562 self-governing princely states to merge into India soon after independence. A budget of $458m has been set aside for what is a pet project of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

The statue poses some special challenges. Given its standing posture, its centre of gravity is high, says Ashishdeep Alampat, the principal architect at Larsen & Toubro (L&T), the engineering company entrusted with building the monument. ­
To compensate for the lack of a wide base, two slender concrete pillars will run through Patel’s legs to bear the structure’s enormous load. 

The hilly area makes transport of heavy equipment a nightmare. A strong breeze can stall work for hours. At L&T’s office nearby, mobile-phone lines are usually down and internet services are flaky. Engineers must sometimes drive a few kilometres towards the city and park themselves under a tree to order raw materials online.

But by the end of 2018, the streets will wear a different look, assures A. Thiyagarajan of L&T, a veteran of many such internet-seeking jaunts. Tar roads leading up to the memorial that coexist with sprawling cotton fields are being widened. A four-star hotel and a water-sports arena are in the works, and there are longer-term plans for a university. The statue itself will offer tourists a panoramic view.

A costly colossus

At what cost? Environmentalists fret  about possible damage to the surrounding ecology. Critics question the rationale of spending millions of dollars on a vanity project in a country that is home to a third of the world’s poor. The statue “is all show off”, complains Mahendra Rajput, a local driver. “It is taxpayers’ money, my money, gone to waste.” Mr Modi doesn’t think so: “I want to see the world bowing at its feet,” he declared in 2013, when he was Gujarat’s chief minister.

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Credit: Abhishek Kumar
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