The UP chief minister has been on a memorial-building spree for eight years now, the last being the recently inaugurated park in Noida. Are they the indulgence of a megalomaniac or do they serve a purpose?
Diwakar Tripathi, former chairman of the Lucknow Development Authority, remembers the day vividly. It was January 15, 2003, a cold but sunny day. Mayawati, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had inaugurated the Bhimrao Ambedkar Samajik Parivartan Sthal, a memorial for the Dalit leader and architect of the Indian Constitution spread over 125 acres on the banks of the Gomti. The function had gone off well, and Tripathi and his colleagues were unwinding at the park. All of a sudden, there was a great uproar from the gates. The crowds, held back by the police, broke through the barricades and rushed in. Many of them, Tripathi remembers, took off their clothes, shouted Jai Bhim (victory to Bhimrao Ambedkar) and jumped into the canal around their leader’s statue — just like high-caste Hindus who cleanse their bodies of sin by bathing in the Ganga at Haridwar or Banaras. Some of them had come with their lota, the inimitable Indian personal pot, and filled it in the canal. Some washed the statue’s feet with the water, while others took the “holy” water home. Tripathi knew in an instant that the memorial would trigger social change — the meek and the voiceless finally had a place of pilgrimage.
The park has got several makeovers since then and the canal has been covered. Mayawati has built many more such parks and museums. The latest of these is the Rashtriya Dalit Smarak at Noida near Delhi. Spread on 33.45 acres on the banks of the Yamuna, it has cost the state Rs 685 crore. There are 24 elephants (the election symbol of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party) in pink sandstone. And there are 12 statues of Ambedkar, BSP founder Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. Each elephant has cost Rs 70 lakh, while the statues cost over Rs 6 crore apiece. No fewer than 2,500 masons and workers were employed here.
It was a park before the state government decided to convert it into a Dalit memorial. Residents of Noida were horrified when the trees at the park were cut to make way for the memorial. Mayawati’s government did a midcourse correction and planted 7,600 trees and 150,000 shrubs there.
It was inaugurated by Mayawati on October 14, days before she gave away the prizes at the first Formula One Indian Grand Prix at Greater Noida on October 30. The park was supposed to open for all on November 1. A security guard posted on the gate tells you that it’s still closed because “some construction is still left and workers have to clean up the place”. He asks you to wait till “the next order”.
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Mayawati has drawn severe criticism for these parks. The money (over Rs 4,500 crore) could have been spent, her critics say, on laying roads, building schools and hospitals, and generating power — all sectors where Uttar Pradesh lags the national average. Epidemics happen with alarming regularity in the eastern districts of the state. No new investments have happened in Uttar Pradesh, thanks to the state of its infrastructure.
For Mayawati’s detractors, the parks, and the statues inside, are nothing but unproductive assets, the indulgence of a megalomaniac. Mayawati’s bureaucrats say that the stone used in these parks has been sourced from the districts of Sonbhadra and Chandauli. These districts, which are located on the border with Madhya Pradesh, could have come under Naxal influence had it not been for this economic activity. The economy that takes shape around these parks is not insignificant, and the biggest beneficiaries are masons, artisans and workers who are, more often than not, from the Dalit community.
The bigger impact is perhaps social and political. Why just parks, Mayawati has renamed districts after Dalit icons like Jyotiba Phule and Gautam Buddh (Ambedkar had renounced Hinduism to embrace Buddhism). Social scientists and Dalit activists see her grand design. Sociologist Shiv Viisvanathan says that Mayawati realises that the Dalit community needs to create an alternate idea of history — one that cannot be easily erased. And she has done just that in her parks.
Vivek Kumar, assistant professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, feels that the Dalit community has reason to feel empowered now. “That is the impact the parks will have. For years, they were told not to go to or enter certain places. Now they have something of their own,” says he.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary Anoop Mishra finds distasteful the whole talk of taxpayers’ money being misused in these memorials because “the parks and the museums at the end of the day are for the citizens”. The controversy, he says, often hides the good work the Mayawati government has done in the last four years: Uttar Pradesh is one of the few revenue-surplus states in the country, its public debt has come down from 42.7 per cent of the gross state domestic product in 2007-08 to 38 per cent in 2010-11, its fiscal deficit for 2010-11 was a healthy 2.7 per cent of GSDP, it has utilised over 95 per cent of the Plan expenditure in each of the last four years, and it has taken short-term loans from the Reserve Bank of India for all of 16 days in the last four years.
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But has the Dalit community really gained under Mayawati? A recent study by Devesh Kapur of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) in the University of Pennsylvania, along with Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett and D Shyam Babu, done in 20,000 Dalit households of Uttar Pradesh found that there has been a significant improvement in their socio-economic condition between 1990 and 2008. Thus, they were found to (1) live in better houses, (2) eat better food, and (3) own more consumer goods. The material markers, says Prasad, have overtaken the social markers in rural India. The study also showed that there has been a sharp fall in the number of Dalits working as farm labour, while there has been a perceptible rise in the number of Dalits running businesses. The period covered in the study is also the age of economic reform; so it’s not certain if the change has been brought about by the free market forces or as a result of the intervention from the state government.
In the last four years, Mayawati has done a lot to keep Dalits happy. She has raised the development expenditure on the Schedule Castes and Tribes from 17.9 per cent of the total in 2007-08 to 21.7 per cent in 2010-11. It now matches their population of 21.2 per cent in the state. In the last four years, each of the 2,500 Ambedkar villages (those where Schedule Castes and Tribes are a majority) has received Rs 2 crore for public works. The plan is to cover another 2,500 villages in the second phase. For 2.2 million ultra-poor families (not just the Schedule Castes and Tribes), a pension of Rs 400 per month, payable to the lady of the house, has been instituted. There are liberal financial grants for the girl child in poor households. About 150,000 houses (two rooms, kitchen and bathroom) have been distributed to the urban poor free of cost. And, Uttar Pradesh has in the last four years appointed 88,000 teachers (28,000 in madrasas), over 100,000 safai karmacharis (sweepers) and 35,000 policemen over and above the normal recruitment. This has swollen the state’s rolls by almost 15 per cent to 1.5 million. As the Schedule Castes and Tribes are also often the poorest in villages as well as cities, it is reasonable to assume they have benefitted the most from this largesse.
The debate on whether the parks are wasteful expenditure or not will continue for a long time. But then Lucknow had discovered the benefits of public works to revive a stagnant economy much before Keynes. Asaf-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Oudh from 1775 to 1797, built all the magnificent Lucknow buildings during a severe famine, which gave employment to thousands from the villages around the city. Till date, in Lucknow, those ignored by fate often console themselves and say: “Jisko na de Maula, usko de Asaf-ud-Daula (those ignored by God are taken care of by Asaf-ud-Daula).” Does a similar legacy await Mayawati?
(Virendra Singh Rawat contributed to this article from Lucknow)