The Congress government in Maharashtra is gripped by memorial mania. It has sanctioned Rs.100 crore to build a grand memorial for Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha ruler, on an islet in the Arabian Sea, about 2.5 km off Nariman Point in Mumbai. The State government approved this project in 2009, called for designs and even planned to spend Rs.350 crore on it. However, the project did not move forward. If the approaching election is one reason behind the revival of the project, the commencement of work on a 182-metre-tall statue of Sardar Patel, in the adjoining State of Gujarat, is another. The Patel statue, which it is claimed would be the tallest in the world when completed, has provided the Narendra Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party high political visibility. The Gujarat government is aggressively pursuing the project. This in turn seems to have created a sense of urgency in the Congress. It appears that the Maharashtra government, which originally planned a 94-m-tall Shivaji statue, is planning to increase the height significantly. Though the government has not yet announced the revised financial estimate for the Shivaji memorial, the final figures are bound to match the grandeur of the Rs.2,063-crore Gujarat project. Political one-upmanship between the two parties is on, and the casualty is public money and space.
For many years, political parties have indiscriminately imposed statues of leaders on Indian cities. They have not spared road junctions, traffic islands and even footpaths, leading to hardships and safety issues. It was only in January 2013 that the Supreme Court ordered the State governments not to permit any more statues that would affect traffic in public spaces. In a similar way, the construction of large memorials too requires regulation. Their claim to serve a public purpose must be tested. Governments often try to legitimise memorial projects as efforts to create public spaces. They point to amenities such as exhibitions, museums, auditoriums and parks built along with them. Any attempt to improve and expand public spaces is to be welcomed, but parties in power cannot use it as an excuse to install statues and symbols, which would only serve their agenda. Installing memorials in urban spaces is a colonial legacy, and this practice has to be discontinued. Only genuine collective remembrance of people and events, such as the Bhopal gas tragedy, can be encouraged. The government too has to get its priorities right. For instance, in Maharashtra, many heritage structures are in need of protection and assistance. Instead of mindlessly spending money on gigantic memorials, it would serve the public good if it is spent on conserving neglected heritage structures.