World's largest statue unveiled amid controversy over £330m price tag and scale of environmental impact

Saptarshi Ray
Indian tri-coloured balloons fly around the

India’s nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi unveiled the world’s largest statue on Wednesday in a bid to showcase his position as leader of a new, world-beating India.

The statue of Vallabhbhai 'Sardar' Patel, one of the heroes of India’s independence movement, stands 188m (597ft) tall in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat and has been dubbed the “Statue of Unity”. 

Mr Modi, a hardline member of the Hindu-nationalist BJP party, who is seen by critics as a deeply divisive figure, watched as Indian Air Force planes and helicopters showered the statue with flowers in a political show of force. 

"This memorial to Sardar [Patel] is going to become a worldwide tourist attraction," Mr Modi said in a promotional video about the statue. "See our height, measure this nation's height. This is what we want."

The launch of the giant statue, which stands nearly twice the height of New York’s 305-ft tall Statue of Liberty, is widely seen as the unofficial launch of Mr Modi’s re-election campaign. 

The statue nearing completion in August Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

It's £330m price-tag has drawn criticism from social rights groups. The heads of 22 villages around the Sardar Sarovar Dam where it is situated wrote an open letter to Mr Modi criticising the cost and environmental destruction caused by the statue.

"We all villagers want to tell you with extreme grief that we will not welcome you on October 31. Even if you come here like an unwanted guest, you are not welcome here," they wrote.

The choice of Sardar Patel, who was a member of the rival Congress Party, has raised some eyebrows - but is seen by historians as a nod to Mr Modi’s vision of himself as uniting a new India for the global age.

The base of the statue, which has a viewing deck for 200 people, is created from metal that was collected from all around India since 2014 and smelted down as a symbol of unity.

"Vallabhbhai Patel, through the sheer act of unifying the modern nation state of India, is more Lincolnesque than most people realize," Anil Ram Sutar, the son of the nonagenarian sculptor who designed the new statue told NDTV. "So this is Modi's Lincoln memorial."

Indian workers give the finishing touches to the statue of Indian independence leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP

Known as the ‘Iron Man’, Mr Patel was India’s first Home Minister, a no-nonsense negotiator who also possessed the ability to coax religious and political rivals to the table.

In addition to Mr Patel, the BJP has been actively honouring other independence luminaries, such as Dr BR Ambedkar, a social campaigner and father of the Indian constitution, and ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose, a freedom fighter who believed in violent action to oust the British. Both are also Congress members.

Helicopters shower flower petals on the Statue of Unity during its inauguration Credit: Ajit Solanki/AP

The Patel statue was built in 33 months, but not content with one giant statue, Mr Modi has already commissioned another of a warrior king in the state of Maharashtra, set to be ready by 2021.