Of a Very Tall Shivaji and Other ‘White Elephant’ Government Spending

How common is it for governments to build expensive structures that serve little to no purpose?

Concept plan of the Shivaji Memorial. Courtesy: Maharashtra government

Concept plan of the Shivaji Memorial. Courtesy: Maharashtra government

Historically, grand architecture has always been a way for rulers to project their power and influence. While on occasion these were for public use, often they were more symbolic than anything else. But do the citizens of a republic have equally little say on how their tax money is spent today? The recent controversy around the ‘tallest memorial in the world‘ planned in Mumbai seems to suggest that’s true – and that people elsewhere too have been scratching their heads at the folly of their leaders.

Here’s a look at some of the crazy “white elephants” governments in different parts of the world have come up recently.

Shivaji statue, India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is heading to Mumbai tomorrow. Not only will he be laying the foundation stone for a number of infrastructure projects, he will be also conducting a ‘bhoomipujan at the site of the Maharashtra government’s planned 210-metre tall memorial for Maratha ruler Shivaji.

How much does it cost to build the tallest memorial in the world? Rs 36,000 crore, according to government estimates. This memorial was conceived 12 years ago, but the designated amount has increased 35 times. And if that number seems too large to imagine, especially when the outcome is a statue, IndiaSpend has published a breakdown of what else could have been bought with this money.

The amount is five times the state’s electricity generation budget, 2.5 times what the state government spent on its micro-irrigation scheme, 3.5 times the budget for infrastructure developments in municipal councils and nagar panchayats.

In addition to the costs, fishermen are worried that the structure, off Mumbai’s coast, will affect their fishing grounds.

So far, 20,744 people have signed a Change.org petition saying they do not want this statue built. “This is tax-payers’ money and I am sure we would all like this money to be spend on something better – education, infrastructure, food…anything but a statue that is of no use to anyone,” the petition reads.

Hambantota airport, Sri Lanka

The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (named after the then Lankan president’s family), 18 km from Hambantota in Sri Lanka, was inaugurated by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013. According to Forbes, the airport has a 12,000 square metre terminal building, 12 check-in counters, two gates, a runway long enough to handle any commercial jets and the capacity to see one million passengers pass through every year. But low demand (the region does not get many visitors, other than a few tourists going to the nearby national parks) drove most air carriers away and the grand airport is close to defunct, earning the tag of the ‘world’s emptiest airport’ after $209 million was spent to build it.

The Ryugyong Hotel, DPRK

Ryugyong Hotel. Credit: Reuters/Teruaki Ueno/Files

Ryugyong Hotel. Credit: Reuters/Teruaki Ueno/Files

The Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea is the 22nd tallest skyscraper in the world. But that’s not the accolade it has – Esquire called it the ‘worst building in the history of mankind’ in 2008. On the other hand, the Daily Beast called it North Korea’s “best building”, so it’s all about perspective. But other than just its aesthetic qualities, the hotel remains completely vacant and off-limits to the public till date, nearly 30 years and an estimated $750 million after construction first started.

The 1,000 feet, 105 storey high pyramid-shaped building remains a mystery in the middle (and riddle) of Pyongyang.

Yamoussoukro’s Notre-Dame de la Paix, Côte D’Ivoire

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

The world’s largest basilica lies in the administrative capital of Côte D’Ivoire. It was built between 1985 and 1989 under President Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Each of the 7,000 seats inside the cathedral has its personal air conditioner – this and other factors mean that maintenance costs today are at $1.5 million every year (paid for by a trust set up by the former president). To build the cathedral, an estimated $300 million was spent, according to The Guardian, at a time when the country was reeling under debt.

With 7,000 seats and $1.5 million a year as running costs, you would think a whole lot of people went to this church. But according to the Daily Beast, this church has remained largely empty for the last 25 years. On Sunday’s, the basilica’s services attract a few hundred people. Côte D’Ivoire’s Christian population is small (in an already small country), and Yamoussoukro is 240 km from the capital Abidjan, so it’s difficult to know what exactly the builders of this structure were expecting.

The bridge from Vladivostok to Russky Island, Russia

A general view of the bridge across the Golden Horn bay in Russia's far-eastern port of Vladivostok. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Maltsev

A general view of the bridge across the Golden Horn bay in Russia’s far-eastern port of Vladivostok. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Maltsev

An estimated $1.1 billion was spent on this bridge joining Vladivostok city in Russia to Russky Island, built in anticipation of the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Community summit in 2012. At the time of construction, critics dubbed the bridge “the bridge to nowhere“, since there are 5,000 inhabitants on Russky Island.

The bridge, with the capacity to carry 50,000 cars per day, is under-utilised today.

Bantu cultural centre, Gabon

The International Centre of the Bantu Civilisations was built three decades ago in Gabon’s capital, Libreville. It was built to preserve and display cultural artefacts of Africa’s Bantus – and it’s decline is perhaps an indication that government white elephant’s are not always only frustrating but sometimes also deeply sad. Eleven African countries – Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Comoros, the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zambia – founded this cultural centre together in 1983. It cost the Gabonese government $19.7 million at the time.

The entrance of the unfinished and abandoned International Centre for Bantu Civilizations in Gabon. Credit: Maxim Novikov.  http://novikovski.livejournal.com/

The entrance of the unfinished and abandoned International Centre for Bantu Civilizations in Gabon. Credit: Maxim Novikov. http://novikovski.livejournal.com/

But after that initial spending, there wasn’t enough for the upkeep of the cultural centre. A lot of the materials to be displayed were boxed away and the headquarters of the cultural centre were moved, according to AFP. While efforts were made in the 1990s to revive the centre through exhibitions, they were unsuccessful. The crumbling building is now a squat for the homeless. A Chinese firm estimated that reviving the building would cost $67.2 million. There has been talk of the government considering such a plan.