Around 11 am, the ticket counter at gate no. 5 of Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden in Noida’s Sector 95 looks bare under the steady splatter of raindrops, barring the three-odd commuters who have parked their bikes to take shelter from the drizzle.
Raja and Smriti enter the park, after buying tickets for Rs 15 each. Inside, they stand gazing at the sandstone memorial housing the statues of BSP founder Kanshi Ram, party chief Mayawati and the architect of the Indian Constitution, B R Ambedkar. “We have come here for the first time. It’s purely for leisure,” Raja insists.
A worker stops them outside the nearly 20-ft-tall wooden door housing the memorial, telling them it’s shut for maintenance since “stones from the ceiling have been coming loose and falling off”.
Raja is disappointed that they can’t go in, but Smriti consoles him, saying, “It’s okay… The weather is beautiful.”
Memorials and parks such as this one were in news last week when the Supreme Court, hearing a 10-year-old petition against the alleged misuse of public money in the building of the statues in these park, suggested that Mayawati reimburse the money spent on the memorial.
The park, sprawled across 33 acres, has 24 elephant statues, the BSP’s election symbol, each a towering 18 feet tall.
“It (the case in the court) is a conspiracy by vested interests,” claims Radha Devi, 38, filling her bottle with water from one of the taps installed near the gate. She is visiting the park with her husband Naval Singh, 42, who sells pakodas in Delhi’s Tilak Nagar area.
“It’s unfortunate that India has never had a Dalit prime minister. What Mayawati did was good for our pride. All parties make so many promises before coming to power but barely any are fulfilled,” says Singh, leaning against an elephant statue to shield himself from the drizzle. “There should be a law to make them accountable for their promises,” adds Radha.
While commissioning the project in 2011, the then UP CM had said that the memorial would be a “symbol of Dalit pride” and a “mark of their resilience”.
By now, the rain has stopped and more couples have entered the park, looking for corners to enjoy a private moment on Valentine’s Day. At one of the now-dysfunctional fountains, two friends from Jharkhand’s Palamu district are engaged in a conversation about their job prospects. Gyanendra Kumar and Sarvan Ram, both in their 20s, have been living in rented accommodations in Noida for nearly a year. With their low salaries and high cost of living, it has been “difficult to adjust” to life in the city, they say.
Sarvan, who works as a “construction supervisor”, says there are fewer projects these days as business is down, while Gyanendra, a BTech graduate, says he is yet to find another job after the company he was working for wrapped up its last assignment and stopped paying his salary a couple of months ago.
As the conversation veers round to the park, Sarvan gets agitated.
“If the authorities want this park to shut, we are willing to pay from our own pockets for its maintenance. I was watching a video on YouTube, in which about eight lakh Dalit workers from across the country are seen pledging to pay to keep the memorial alive. If all these forward caste leaders who dominate Indian politics give up on us, we can and will do this for our pride,” says Sarvan.
“Consider the example of our district. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and our Chief Minister Raghubar Das… everyone promised that they would restore the Japla cement factory, but it has now been auctioned. It was a source of income for so many people from our village, including my relatives. I attended all the rallies of these leaders. Perhaps nobody cared enough,” says Gyanendra.
Behind them, the fountain stands dry.
Parul Sen, manager of the park, says senior authorities have been informed and “we are yet to get a response”.
It’s now nearly 4 pm and most couples have moved from the memorial complex to the nearby expanse of green.
Sen, the park’s manager, says they sell nearly 7,000 tickets in a week on an average. “The footfall is higher on holidays and during winters,” she says, adding that they doing “several things” to boost revenue from the park. “We have decided to allow commercial photography and video shoots in the park. For commercial photography, we plan to charge Rs 15,000 and anything between Rs 1-2.5 lakh for video shoots. We are also planning a canteen for visitors,” she says.
But for now, as the sun goes down, there is little activity in the park.
“I don’t think people know there is a park this beautiful along this road,” says Akash, 18, asking Shivam, 18, his batchmate from Delhi University’s Shyam Lal College, to buy a chocobar from the lone icecream vendor outside gate no. 5. “We just happened to spot the ticket counter and thought we should check it out. Perhaps if they had ticket counters at all the five entrances, this park would have been more popular.”
As he peels off his ice cream wrapper, Akash adds, “The park is a waste of money if it is not popular.”
Mahipal Singh, 22, a Mathura resident who has come to the park after wrapping up an interview for a government job in Noida, objects to the remark. “When so much could be spent on the Patel statue, why not on this?”