- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

KUSHINAGAR, India — A plan to build the world’s largest statue of Buddha on some 700 acres of fertile land has enraged local villagers, who say they are being thrown off the land where they have grown rice, sugar cane and wheat for generations.

“I will cut them if they come here,” said Kalami Devi, 40, the otherwise demure leader of the women’s chapter of a local Save Our Land organization, as she made a slicing motion across her neck.

P.P. Upadhyay, a district land acquisition officer in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, said seven villages with 15,000 to 20,000 residents will be displaced by the project, sponsored by a group called the Maitreya Project, whose name is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “loving kindness.”

Mr. Upadhyay has been quoted as saying that, “on paper, the state government has already taken the land,” which occupies the area where Buddha is thought to have delivered his last sermon, died and been cremated 2,500 years ago. The project is endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

It is the latest in a series of conflicts between rural peasants in India and government and industry planners who seek to develop tourism or industrial projects on a large scale.

Earlier this year in the state of West Bengal, where the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) was hoping to acquire land for use in a special economic zone, police fired into a crowd of local protesting villagers killing a dozen and causing an uproar across the country.

Linda Gatter, who works with the Maitreya Project’s office in Britain, said the state government in Uttar Pradesh has been more aggressive than the Maitreya Project organizers in pursuing the construction of the Buddha and the development of the area.

“The project, which is planned to include significant educational as well as health care programs, will bring extensive benefit to the area and to India,” she added.

Costing roughly $250 million and reaching three times the height of the Statue of Liberty without its base, the 500-foot tall bronze Buddha will be in effect the first “statue-skyscraper.”

Manicured parks and 100,000 devotional structures called stupas will surround the structure. The Web site of the Maitreya Project calls for eventually constructing a world-class teaching hospital, museum, audio-visual center, schools, libraries and more.

Inside the state, displays will include relics and the remains of Buddha’s many disciples, which have been collected by the Maitreya Project’s spiritual leader, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The relics are now on a 150-city world tour to raise money for the structure.

But local farmers have accused officials at the Maitreya Project of operating in a clandestine, non-transparent manner, and of trying to force them off their land. They say they first heard about efforts to build a statue on their land through newspaper reports.

“What is the price of your soul,” asked Ram Prashad Gond, 45, a semi-literate farmer with a wife and six young children. “Our land is our life. We have courage — if we have to die, then we die.”

Other villagers are engaged in daily fasts to call attention to their struggle.

“There’s a ‘hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ attitude manifest from the upper echelons of the project,” said Jessica Falcone, an American anthropologist of Tibetan Buddhism at Cornell University.

“The willful negligence shown by the leadership of the Maitreya Project calls into question the ideological underpinnings of a project that is trying to build a statue symbolizing ‘loving kindness.’ ”

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