Kasya (Kushinagar): The Maitreya Buddha of Kushinagar will not be the world’s tallest statue, about 500 feet tall as it was meant to be when the project was announced in 2001. Protest and delay over land acquisition has caused the Maitreya Buddha to miss the mark and now it may not be more than 200 feet. Maitreya project is proposed at Kasya in Kushinagar. Besides the statue, hospital, mini university, stupas, Buddhist artefacts and smaller statues of Buddha might also be built at the place as part of the Maitreya project.

Local farmers have been opposing the project over land acquisition. In 2012, the Maitreya Trust decided to move the project to Bodhgaya but state government made it stay in Kushinagar. Farmers blame state government for forced acquisition and expressed resentment against sitting SP MLA Brahma Shankar Tripathi “for having pushed the project further”.

Bhumi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a group of 5,000 farmers from the villages affected is also protesting against the notification by state government that says 800 acre will be acquired for the project. “We want the notification to be nullified as it restricts us from selling our land,” said farmer leader Govardhan Pratap Gond, adding, “We should be free to sell our land.”

Kushinagar’s Kasya tehsil is the epicentre of Buddhist tourism in UP. Buddha temples built by natives of China, Thailand and Sri Lanka exist already at the place and new temples by followers from other Buddhist countries are under construction. Upcoming private hotels and meditation centres make land-deals lucrative in Kushinagar. But forced acquisition by government, said farmer Ramavtar Yadav, “is exploitation”.

In 2012, Kushinagar’s former district magistrate Rigzin Samphel divided the project into two phases after hearing the farmers’ woes. 273 acres was to be acquired in first phase and rest in second phase. Over 200 acres has been acquired so far, from farmers who sold off their land willingly. Court has stayed acquisition of the remaining 73 acres.

“It was because of the protest that government could take the land of only those who were willing to sell,” said Gond. Talking about compensation, he said, “Government in 2004 had fixed three rates—Rs 5,000 per 1,700 sq ft for land in village, Rs 8,000 per 1,700 sq ft for land between villages and town area and Rs 14,000 per 1,700 sq ft for land in town area. Due to the protest, farmers got better prices, up to Rs 1 lakh for 1,700 sq ft.”

Since the project has not taken off yet, farmers are still tilling on the acquired land adjacent to the main Buddha temple at the Mahaparinirvan Sthal. “We never opposed the project but forced acquisition of our land,” said farmer Rajesh Singh from Dumri village. In 2013, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav visited the place and laid foundation stone for the project. About a fortnight before the model code of conduct came into effect, administration got the ‘bhumi-pujan’ done and the office, Maitreya project, is under-construction at the place.

Locals, however, are still skeptical of the project. “We sought information about the Maitreya project from the culture and tourism department of UP government and also the Kushinagar administration. Surprisingly, we got no information, while government said it had none either. We only wanted to know how many people from UP and Kushinagar were involved with the project,” said farmer Shatrughan Singh.