Bodhi Blues A Year in India
What would the Buddha Do?
In her rebuttal to my article, Linda Gatter responded to my concerns about the Maitreya Project in Kushinagar, India with a simple rhetorical flourish that went something like this: Ms. Falcone, you are the cynical Grinch of the Maitreya Project's warm and fuzzy aspirations, so grow a heart already, and stop raining on our parade. Ms. Gatter's blind optimism provides cold comfort to Kushinagari farmers whose whole world may soon be turned upside down.
My original article tells the story of my very personal disappointment with the Maitreya Project. Many people are shocked that a Buddhist group would spend so much money on a giant statue, but initially I was open to the idea. I believed that a group with such lofty intentions would bend over backwards to do compassionate, mindful, and sometimes-difficult work with local people. I thought that any unintended negative consequences would certainly be mitigated by the ideals of a group whose sole purpose was to bring a symbol of loving-kindness to the world.
But my hopes were dashed while I was living in Kushinagar where I learned about the anxiety and fear of affected farmers. Pick up any handbook on development these days and you'll read about "participatory development," a strategy that suggests that the best way to help disenfranchised people is to ask them what they want and to invite them to participate in project design and implementation. The people of Kushinagar are being told that the ambitious statue project will be good for them, but no one from the Maitreya Project has ever tried to meet with farmers as equal agents of their own futures. The farmers are being callously swept aside, and told that benefits will trickle down to them eventually. Many farmers told me that they were willing to fight to the death for their land. So perhaps we ought to consider that however "generous" the government thinks it is being with its compensation packages, it is clearly not taking into account the full cultural significance and value of the land.
Since the impetus for the project is solely the Maitreya Project's, every single person who has donated to the statue should make sure that the organization is doing everything in their power to act with loving-kindness every step of the way. Given its high ideals and the symbolism it hopes to evoke, the Maitreya Project has a far greater responsibility to ensure mindful, kind, generous implementation of their brainchild.
Realism vs. Willful NaivetÉ
Ms. Gatter's responses to my questions reflect a willful naiveté. Invisibility is one of the problematic side effects of globalization. When some tree-hugging activist says that my sneakers are being made in a Vietnamese sweatshop by ten-year-olds, should I believe it?
The corporate response: If I can't see it, it's not happening. Moreover, if they can spin an answer fast enough, hopefully no one else will see it either.
When it comes to outsourcing work to third parties far away, we all have to be vigilant, not naïve. When working across the globe it is necessary to take more responsibility, not less. The Maitreya Project would be wrong to assert that it should not be tainted by association when its collaborators commit ethical violations.
Ms. Gatter assumes that a micro-culture of corruption will be held in check just because of the good intentions of a few very nice people halfway across the globe. Positive thinking is a good thing, but it must be coupled with a commitment to the cold hard facts. Not every Indian official is corrupt, of course, but few Indian officials would deny that corruption is a rampant everyday problem.
It is lovely that the Maitreya Project can claim that they haven't paid a paisa to anyone, but that has no bearing on the fact that the state is forcing land acquisition on behalf of the Project. State money is being divvied out by local officials and the Maitreya Project has no office in Kushinagar to carefully monitor the process. Ignoring the facts would be the height of naiveté, or even worse, the negligence of a group that would like someone else to do their dirty work for them. The Maitreya Project needs a heavy dose of realism, and they need to know that people are watching.
Even if there was no threat of corruption, the whole idea of being forced to move and find replacement farmland - and thereby lose an important network of close neighbors and family - is abhorrent to those involved, especially given that the anticipated final compensation packages are considered unacceptable to the majority of the farmers. How can the Maitreya Project have ever consented to move forward under these intractable conditions?
Ms. Gatter would like us to believe that the protests are just an effect of local politics, and not a result of the fact that the Maitreya Project chose to sign an agreement with the state that would directly result in the farmers losing their ancestral land against their will. The farmers would beg to disagree. They know that politicians and parties are constantly shifting and that District Magistrates are constantly being transferred – this is business as usual, so they are not surprised that no politicians or officials are truly committed to helping them.
Local politics is certainly at work, but the farmers are not being manipulated by politicians. At their protests this past Spring, the farmers refused to support any party en masse, since "we know very well that we cannot trust any politician."
A Public Relations Mess, Indeed
My biggest surprise in reading the rash of rebuttals and explanations published by the Maitreya Project over the past few months is that there has not been one single acknowledgement of misstep. It seems that the Maitreya Project is interested in silencing dissent and cleaning up a PR mess, but not in meaningful soul-searching or re-strategizing.
Why is "public relations" with the international press more important than local public relations with Kushinagaris? The logic of this strategy continues to elude me.
I hope that behind the scenes the Maitreya Project is working to fix what is broken, but according to the farmers, they have seen no visible policy shift yet: the project has not been cancelled, relocated, or downsized, and there is still no sign of anyone coming from the Maitreya Project to dialogue with them.
Even when the facts are ugly, ignorance is not bliss. The process of anthropological inquiry demands sustained engagement and observation over time. I know how complex the Kushinagari situation is because I have lived there and interviewed people from all sides of the debate. Maitreya Project's public discourse erases this complexity, so either they don't know, they don't want to know, or they don't want their donors to know.
I would like to take a moment to address my debate partner, Ms. Gatter. I am guessing that your intentions are good, and that you are probably a very good person, so while I am sorry if my interventions have caused you any extra anxiety, I have to insist that there are also good people being profoundly and negatively affected by the Maitreya Project plan.
So my challenge to you is this: Before you write another advertisement for the Maitreya Project in any online publications or blogs, I respectfully request that you travel to India and spend some time talking to the Kushinagari farmers who will lose their land and livelihoods to your statue project. If you must, consider this a good old-fashioned dare. You have nothing to lose…
P.S. I do have some more questions for you:
How old are the figures from the state government that the Maitreya Project is using? The farmers have demanded a new census and a new survey of the land, so given that the current statistics are hotly contested, shouldn't we stop relying upon them as if they are cold hard facts?
Why does the Maitreya Project suggest that the current course of action was the only viable one? Did anyone force the Maitreya Project to sign an agreement for the lease of an astounding 660 acres of arable land currently owned almost exclusively by small farming families? Is it true that the lease of the land will be accomplished for just one single Indian rupee, and the lease lasts in perpetuity? Isn't it true that there were many alternative sites to choose from? Why didn't the Maitreya Project insist that it would only consider land that was already owned by the state government?
Exactly whose "tremendous enthusiasm" heralded the move to Kushinagar? Which locals were consulted, and which of the many local interests did they represent? Who would consider 60% arability in an agricultural region supporting thousands relatively "unproductive"?
Who are the "independent third-party professional agencies" that will monitor the process of land-acquisition, and since you are employing them, how can you ensure their neutrality?
How will the Maitreya Project ensure that they will uphold the high Buddhist standards of compassion and ethics that your organization claims to represent? Will they be spending time on the ground interviewing Kushinagari farmers, or will they just meet with officials, as "monitors" have done thus far? Will the results of past and future monitoring be made public on your website?
If the Maitreya Project is aware of its "related responsibility," then shouldn't there be a team of proactive, committed staff (or volunteers) from the Maitreya Project working with the state government to improve the situation? Why haven't the vaunted Hindi-speaking "key members of Maitreya Project's team" gone into the seven affected villages to try to work with them, offer them jobs, negotiate extra payments on top of state reparations, or even just try to start a dialogue? What does the Maitreya Projects mean when they say that they will meet with stakeholders at "the appropriate stage"? Wasn't "the appropriate stage" years ago? What are they waiting for?