Farmers’ protests may drive away Maitreya Buddha project to Bihar

The announcement by Uttar Pradesh cabinet secretary that the government will cancel a project if farmers refuse to give their land has put a question mark on the future of the prestigious Maitreya Buddha Project in Kushinagar.

Since 2005, the project has been stalled precisely because of this reason and now it appears that it may even go to Bihar. The project, supported by Indonesia and Japan-based Maitreya Foundation, was conceived in 2003. In 2005, it was decided it will be built in Kushinagar district — a centre of Buddhist pilgrimage.

The centrepiece of the project was to be a giant 500-feet, sitting Buddha statue, the largest in the world. Spread over 800 acres, the project was to include a museum complex, temples, audio-visual theatre, library and hospitality services, set amid lush green parks and meditation pavilions. A hospital and schools for the children from nearby villages were part of the project. The government had agreed to provide land which was estimated to cost around $195 million. But later, the Foundation said it could pay for the land. The state Tourism department also drew up plans for an international airport at Kushinanagar.

The site, chosen by the state government and Maitreya Foundation, includes 697 acres of agriculture land, own-ed by 2,900 farmers. Of them, around 600 had agreed to give their land. The rest have been running a peaceful dharna against the acquisition under the banner of Bhumi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. On Monday, as their agitation completed 1,262 days, the government's decision came as a good news for the farmers who have also suggested an alternative site, about 4 kms away.

Govardhan Gaur, the Samiti spokesperson, said they were not against the project, only against their fertile land being taken away. "Initially, we were told that we will be given the best rate for our land, which is why a few farmers agreed to it," said Gaur.

In 2008, when they submitted a document giving details of an alternative site which had barren land and also some forest land belonging to the government, they were told that the Maitreya Foundation had asked the state to give the best compensation rate and it will also contribute.

"Through an RTI query, we found that the Maitreya Foundation, India, does not have any money for the project and only after they are given the land, they will start raising donations," said Gaur.

An official of the Culture Department — the nodal department for the project — said the land acquisition was not even halfway through, although a year ago the government had expressed its desire to complete the project during the current tenure of Chief Minister Mayawati. "A large group still do not want to give their land," he said.

An official from Maitreya Foundation's regional office of said its trustees have started scouting for an alternative site. "They have visited Bodh Ga-ya," he said. District Magistrate SVS Rangarao said he had been verbally asked to meet the farmers and find out why they do not want to give land, but had not yet received any official orders.

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