India begins building world's tallest statue at cost of $768m

India begins building world's tallest statue at cost of $768m
The statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji is a pet project of Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
PHOTO: Reuters

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Saturday laid the foundation stone for what is set to be the world's tallest statue, as its projected multi-million-dollar cost sparked criticism and an online petition against the project.

The statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a 17th-century Hindu ruler who fought the Muslim Mughal dynasty and carved out his own kingdom, will be more than twice the size of the Statue of Liberty and five times higher than Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

The structure, a pet project of Hindu nationalist Modi, will rise 192 metres (630 feet) from an island off the western coast of Mumbai in the Arabian Sea.

When finished, it will tower over the 128-metre Spring Temple Buddha in China's Henan province that is currently the world's tallest statue.

"Even in the midst of struggle, Shivaji Maharaj remained a torchbearer of good governance," Modi said at the inaugural event.

"So many aspects of his personality inspire us."

The government of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, is expected to spend some 36 billion rupees (S$768 million) on the statue, which is scheduled for completion by 2019.

But the project has drawn brickbats from many people who instead want the government to devote its resources to infrastructure, education and development.

By Saturday evening, more than 27,000 people had signed an online petition on Change.org urging the government to drop the plans.

"Apart from a waste of money, this statue is going to be terrible for the environment; for the traffic situation in South Bombay and a security nightmare," said the petition.

Shivaji is revered by many in Maharashtra. Mumbai's main train station and airport are named after the ruler, who is also one of the symbols of a Hindu cultural revival promoted by Modi.

The plans for the latest memorial follow an earlier initiative by Modi to build a 182-metre tall tribute to Indian independence hero Sardar Vallabbhai Patel in his home state of Gujarat, at an estimated cost of 25 billion rupees ($368 million). Construction on that statue began in 2014.

Indian PM Modi goes for supper at Komala Vilas

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    "The food was good."

    Mr Rajakumar Gunasekaran, operations director of Indian vegetarian restaurant Komala Vilas, takes pleasure in even the simplest of praises from his customers, but this was no ordinary compliment.

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    It was made by visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who caused quite a stir when he dropped in at the no-frills Serangoon Road restaurant with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching on Nov 23.

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    "In all that excitement, it was all I could remember from my brief conversation with him. But the best thing was that he enjoyed the food," Mr Rajakumar, 29, told The Straits Times on Tuesday of his meeting with Mr Modi.

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    Mr Rajakumar's grandfather opened Komala Vilas - which has become something of an institution for vegetarian food on the Little India culinary scene with three outlets and a sweet shop - in 1947.

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    The restaurant was told in advance about the visit.

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    The VIPs arrived at about 9.15pm, after Mr Modi's Singapore Lecture at the Shangri-la Hotel, and stayed for 45 minutes.

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    Excited staff served them a vegetarian spread of idli (a rice cake consisting of fermented black lentils), vadai (savoury fritters) and the restaurant's famous thosai (a crepe made from rice batter and lentils).

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    "Their initial order was only for plain thosai, but Ms Ho later ordered onion and masala thosai for Mr Modi and Mr Lee to try," said Mr Rajakumar.

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    Their simple meal was accompanied by traditional Indian drinks - sweet yoghurt lassi, mango lassi and lime juice.

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    The VIPs' appearance was a major surprise for the customers.

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    Business went on as usual on the restaurant's second floor, but the first floor was occupied only by Mr Modi, Mr Lee and Ms Ho during the meal due to security concerns.

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    A crowd of gawking onlookers gathered outside the restaurant as word spread of Mr Modi's presence, said cashier Kavitha, 27.

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    She added that Mr Modi took a photo with all the staff after his meal.

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    Mr Modi and Mr Lee both posted wefies taken at the restaurant on their Facebook pages not long after dinner.

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    Describing Mr Modi as a humble man and good customer, Mr Rajakumar said: "He is also now probably the most famous person to dine at our restaurant, besides the Tamil stars who have tried our food. We are very proud."

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    Acting Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung posted a photo of the two prime ministers and Madam Ho preparing for a "wefie".

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    "And here is the selfie. :)" Mr Modi tweeted.

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    Mr Lee also posted another group photo on his Facebook page, with the caption: "Ho Ching and I took PM Narendra Modi to Little India for supper after his Singapore Lecture. Here is the wefie we took after a delicious vegetarian meal."

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    Started in Singapore in 1947 by Murugiah Rajoo, who had come to Singapore from India, Komala Vilas has since become a chain with a total of three outlets and a shop selling Indian sweets.

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    Paper thosai from Komalas Vilas.

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