For all the famed exploits of the 17th century Hindu warrior king Shivaji, he never extended his domain to Bombay, instead watching from afar as the fortified archipelago passed from Portuguese to English control.
Today's Mumbai, as it is now known, is the throbbing financial capital of independent India – and if local officials have their way, it will at last fall under Shivaji's imperious gaze, thanks to a controversial project to build the world's tallest statue at a cost of more than $500 million (€427 million).
The fierce debate over the plan highlights the sensitivities around history in India, and the scrutiny of government spending priorities in a country where millions still languish in extreme poverty.
"It has to be the tallest statue in the world," said Sachin Chivate, undersecretary for public works in the government of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital. "It will be a big inspiration for generations to come, just like the Statue of Liberty."
Standing at 212m on an artificial island to be built near the Mumbai shoreline, the Shivaji statue would be more than double the height of New York’s famous monument.
That follows a series of amendments to the plan: first, to ensure the statue is taller than a rival being built at 182m in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, honouring independence hero Vallabhbhai Patel; and later, to outdo a new 208m Buddha statue in China’s Henan province.
The project’s cost – initially estimated at $38 million – has ballooned along with its physical scale. In March the government signed an agreement with engineering group Larsen & Toubro to build the first phase of the project at a cost of $370 million. A second phase, which will include several landing jetties and a heliport, is projected to cost a further $160 million.
Chivate played down concerns about the statue’s cost, saying it was “not a big thing” compared with other schemes, such as the city’s $3.1 billion metro project.
Yet the project has drawn fierce condemnation from local pressure groups, who have filed several lawsuits seeking to block it. The scheme is “a criminal wastage of public funds when people are living with poverty and struggling for survival”, says one petition, filed by the leader of a local fishing community that says the statue will destroy vital breeding grounds.
Maharashtra is one of the more prosperous states in India, but lags behind on some key metrics. Its healthcare spending of $1.8 billion this year amounts to less than $20 per inhabitant: well short of several poorer states. A quarter of Maharashtran children are dangerously underweight – a figure well above the national average, according to official data.
Opponents of the Shivaji statue say it is a cynical scheme to win the votes of the Marathi-speaking community from which the ancient leader hailed, and which remains the state’s dominant group. Marathi rights in Mumbai, India’s most cosmopolitan city, have become a political pressure point – spearheaded by the Shiv Sena, a far-right group that has been accused of fomenting aggression towards Muslims and other minorities.
Chivate said the statue should be seen as an inclusive symbol. While Shivaji’s principal adversaries, the Mughal emperors, were Muslim, so too were some of the soldiers who fought with him, he said.
This is far from being India's only controversial statue project. The statue of Vallabhbhai Patel – commissioned by prime minister Narendra Modi in his previous role as Gujarat chief minister – has faced similar resistance over its $440 million price tag.
In impoverished Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati – the former chief minister and champion of India's "untouchable" castes – stirred controversy by spending $870 million on parks and statues of untouchable figures, including many of herself.
"From an economic perspective, obviously it makes no sense at all," said Reuben Abraham, head of the IDFC Institute, a think tank. "But the idea is to energise your political base."
Complaints about supposed vanity projects go well beyond statuary. One of Modi’s landmark initiatives as prime minister is a $15 billion high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Gujarat’s industrial hub of Ahmedabad. Opponents have lambasted that project as benefiting a small number of rich business people, when India’s overall train network is struggling with slow speeds and a poor safety record.
At both national and state level, Indian governments have focused on attention-grabbing, large-scale projects yielding "physical outcomes visible to everyone", at the expense of investment in health and education, said Nilachala Acharya, head of research at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, a New Delhi economic policy think tank.
In Mumbai, opponents of the Shivaji statue view it as a monument primarily to the folly of an out-of-touch political class. Concerns have been particularly strong among the indigenous Koli community, who have fished in the Mumbai area for centuries and now fear major disruption to their livelihoods.
"If Shivaji were alive today, he would never want that place to be used for this statue," said Nikhil Sathe, a local environmentalist. "He took care of his people." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018