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Indian police probe alleged sculpture scam

Police in northern India are probing alleged fraud in the construction of giant sculptures of elephants and low-caste political heroes that were the $1.2-billion pet projects of former leader Mayawati.

Mayawati, the populist chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state until March, built memorial parks containing sandstone and granite statues despite criticism that the money could have been better spent on the poor.

The new chief minister of the state and bitter rival of Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, estimated Tuesday that the total fraud could be as much as 400 billion rupees once everything was taken into account.

"Now that the police have initiated a probe, I am sure it will open a Pandora's box to show how much of the taxpayers' money was swindled in the name of these parks and memorials," he told reporters.

He added: "You have to also take into account the cost of land acquired to build these memorials and parks. Besides, you cannot ignore the cost that has gone into the demolition of buildings that existed on those plots of land."

Among the buildings knocked down to provide space for the projects were a prison, a sports stadium and as many as 153 residential apartments that formed a colony for state irrigation department officials.

Mayawati, who goes under one name and says the parks act as "symbols of hope and confidence" for downtrodden low-castes, warned Yadav not to raze the statues -- including many of herself -- saying demolition could spark unrest.

Her five-year rule was dogged by allegations of financial malpractice and her personal declared assets more than doubled over the period to 1.1 billion rupees, according to an affidavit filed in parliament.

The former schoolteacher, described as a "first-rate egomaniac" in leaked United States diplomatic cables, heads the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and is preparing to run for a seat in the upper house of India's national parliament.

The investigation into the memorial parks began after a complaint by a sub-contractor who accused the state's key construction agency -- U.P. Nirman Nigam (UPRNN) -- of withholding payments due for sculpting.

str-adp/bgs/ami/mtp

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