LUCKNOW, India – The parks filled with statues were heralded as a celebration of India's lowest caste. Authorities in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh are now investigating whether the billion-dollar project was an elaborate plot to swindle state funds.
India has been rocked in recent years by corruption scandals involving government contracts for everything from mining rights to the sale of cellphone spectrum.
However, none threatens to deliver the same symbolic blow as Uttar Pradesh's planned investigation into parks honoring the contribution of dalits, the lowest Hindu caste, to the nation, including the father of the constitution, B.R. Ambedkar.
The new state government is investigating millions of dollars it says were misappropriated by former Chief Minister Mayawati's administration as it built the statues and monuments.
"We said during election time that a large-scale scam has been committed," new Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said Tuesday, adding that several people, including former ministers, are likely to be investigated.
He suggested hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted in planting trees that were later uprooted, building and tearing down structures repeatedly, and inflating contract prices. It was not immediately clear how much of the project's estimated $1.8 billion budget may have been misspent.
Mayawati's party has not responded to requests from journalists for comment.
The park project of Mayawati, herself a dalit, has been a magnet for criticism in one of India's poorest states, where tens of millions suffer from malnutrition and many still die from treatable diseases such as cholera and diarrhea.
Though she spent more on parks than on medical supplies, Mayawati, who uses one name, has insisted the sprawling pavilions brought a long-overdue sense of pride to the dalit community.
The five concrete-paved parks are filled with statues of famous dalits, formerly called "untouchables," who rose to power and prominence. They include Mayawati and the late founder of her dalit-based party.
Dozens of larger-than-life statues of elephants, her party's symbol, also adorn the parks. Police are investigating how Mayawati's administration paid about $15 million for 130 stone elephant statues, or more than $115,000 each, while the artisans were promised only one-tenth that price.
"The actual cost should have been much less," said Ram Bahadur Yadav, an official in Uttar Pradesh's new government.
One Agra-based artisan told police he carved 11 statues for $9,800 each, but more than a year after delivering them still has only been paid a quarter of that, police deputy inspector general Ashutosh Pandey said.
Akhilesh Yadav also said money was misappropriated when buildings and walls were constructed, destroyed and then rebuilt repeatedly in the parks. Palm and date trees were planted only to be uprooted and thrown away. Many contract prices were inflated, he said.
Separately, police also recently arrested 11 people after a federal audit showed $1 billion in state rural health funds had been misappropriated.