Report from Varanasi: Kashi hasn’t become Kyoto

Two years as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency doesn’t seem to have done Varanasi much good.

WrittenBy:Utpal Pathak
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It was on May 17, 2014 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in the evening aarti by the Ganges, to give thanks for Bharatiya Janata Party’s resounding victory in the general elections. In an emotional address to the people of Varanasi, the PM had earlier declared:“Na mujhe kisi ne bheja hai, na main yahan aya hun, mujhe Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai”. (“Neither have I been sent, nor have I arrived. I’m here because Ma Ganga called me.”) Modi attributed his candidature from Varanasi to the will of Ma Ganga, likening himself to a boy answering his mother’s call. Given the story in the Mahabharata of how Ganga drowned her newborn sons, the river can be rather monstrous as mother figures go and considering how little has improved in the river’s pollution levels and how few of the promises Modi made to Varanasi have been fulfilled, one can only wonder what sort of reaction Ma Ganga will have.


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After two years under Modi’s wing, neither Varanasi nor the Ganges seem to have seen much improvement. Varanasi is still dirty, messy and chaotic despite all the PM’s solemn pre-poll pledges and guarantees. It is home to 1.5 million people. An estimated 2-5 lakh people additionally form part of the population as tourists and daily commuters from near-by areas. As many as 2,400 people live per square km compared to 1,800 and 1,400 in Lucknow and Kanpur, respectively.

Barring the cleanliness drive at Assi Ghat in November 2014, which the PM led, precious little has been achieved in terms of ameliorating civic conditions that have worsened over the past decade. Roads remain damaged and projects to repair infrastructure like over-bridges and flyovers are languishing. Signs at the ghats instruct visitors that soap is banned. Yet you can see countless people covered in shampoo and soap, standing chest-deep in the Ganges.

When asked about the river’s dangerously polluted waters, Swami Jitendranand, General Secretary of Ganga Mahasabha and the recently-elected general secretary of Akhil Bharatiya Sant Samiti, said, “Eight ministries are roped in and they had signed a Memorandum Of Understanding regarding Ganga. The PM is willingly looking at every minute detail and till date we had seen changes in policies for three times because the former policies were not useful. This shows how keen he is and his vision is pure and clear.”

Sadly, “pure and clear” are not words that apply to the river’s water,despite its reputation for cleansing bathers of their sins. The Sankat Mochan Foundation, which has its own Swatcha Ganga campaign, assessed the pollution at a handful of ghats between April 2014 to May 2016. Their findings are not heartening. “Previously there were 22 sewers, which dumped sewage into the Ganges. Now they have exceeded to 33,” said Dr Bishambhar Nath Mishra, president of Sankat Mochan Foundation. “The Ganga is dying and they are only concerned about cosmetic changes. The problem here is not regarding management, but the problem here is that of the political will.”

In February, this was the Sankat Mochan Foundation’s analysis of the water quality of the Ganges.

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The BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) should be less than 3 milligram per litre in river water. The higher this number, the worse the state of the river.

Unsurprisingly, Ganges’s miserable state is a great political tool. Samajwadi Party’s Surendra Patel, the Minister of State for public works and irrigation, claimed that whatever improvements were happening, were courtesy the money released by the present state government rather than the Prime Minister. “Our government announced Rs 219 crore for Varuna Corridor project around three months ago, and you can see that Rs 25 crore are already released and we have started showing our work on ground,” he said.

However, BJP MLA Ravindra Jaiswal told Newslaundry that Varanasi had not received the money that it expected from the state for the Namami Gange Project. “The research and planning is going on and we have received Rs 2 crore for a social awareness campaign which is being used properly,” he added.

Of the ghats, there is a visible difference at Assi Ghat, which was cleaned and restored by Sulabh Foundation. Similarly Dasaswamedh and a couple of other ghats, which have also been adopted by companies, have seen some improvement.One also sees several dustbins and umbrellas. There are almost 90 ghats in Varanasi and other the ones that are well-known, most remain dirty with little change. Congress MLA Ajay Rai had a simple explanation for this. “For Modi and BJP, the ghats and the Ganges are meant for events and photo sessions and fake announcements,” he told Newslaundry.

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There’s less disgruntlement surrounding Modi in Jayapur, the village he adopted under the Sansad Aadarsh Gram Yojana. It’s got one post office, three banks, solar streetlights and nearly a dozen bio-toilets. The PM has also set up a small settlement of one-room houses for homeless families, called Atal Nagar. All its residents are Musahars, which is a scheduled caste. A Khadi Gramodyog centre and a sewing-cum-training centre for women has also been set up in Jayapur. All this is striking because Jayapur — which incidentally is not home to a single Muslim family — is surrounded by villages in a starkly different state. The less fortunate villages around don’t get electricity for hours and most lack clean drinking water. Narayan Patel, who was elected Pradhan of Jayapur this year, said that he’s in touch with the PM over the phone and Modi is “concerned for every little detail of this village”.

However, there are some complaints too. Most of the bio toilets are of no use now and the village has asked for more. The solar plant is not capable of powering the entire village and only some parts are benefiting. One of the Atal Nagar beneficiaries, Mukhai, told Newslaundry that while their new homes were welcome, residents ” still need employment as we are labourers in brick kilns and that is not a full year business.”

Earlier this week, Digvijay Singh of Congress challenged the Prime Minister by saying at a press conference held in Varanasi that nothing has changed in the past two years for the constituency that boasts of having the Prime Minister as its representative. “I roamed various places in the city and found the same potholed and dug up roads everywhere,” he said.While Singh’s claims that there has been no improvement in places like Assi Ghat are unfair, it is safe to say that Varanasi has not seen the kind of development it was promised. “Kashi to Kyoto” was a catchy tagline, but there’s been no actual impact and the lofty vision of that agreement have been both neglected and forgotten. It remains as unfulfilled as the Mumbai to Shanghai promise former PM Manmohan Singh. The city remains a familiar labyrinth of rigidity, tradition, exotica, filth and chaos. Perhaps K Govindacharya had been right when he had said, “The city is not a dwelling but a message to the world.

The question is, what is the message we take away in how little success Prime Minister Modi has had in fulfilling his promises to modernize and restore Varanasi to its historic glory?

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Projects announced by PM on which work has begun:

  1. Ring Road – The project is worth Rs 262 crore and its estimated date of completion is 2018. It would go from Sandahan to Harahua. By reviving this outer ring road project, the city should be decongested.
  1. Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS) – All the power cables of the city will be fixed underground. The first sector will cost Rs 442 crore and should be completed by 2017.
  1. Facilitation centre for weavers at Lalpur – This project is worth Rs 280 crore and was inaugurated last year. The weavers will produce and sell their work at showrooms and exhibitions organized by the facilitation centre, which is scheduled to be completed by August 2017.

Projects announced, but without much progress:

  1. A four-lane road with a ring road from Varanasi to Gazipur with a budget of Rs 14,000 crore.
  1. Railway Buddhist Circuit – A railway development scheme from Varanasi to Kushinagar, worth Rs 100 crore.
  1. Hriday Yojna – Rs 89 crore, for urban development.
  1. Amrit Yojna – Rs 180 crore, for providing clean drinking water to households.
  1. Expansion of Diesel Locomotive Works worth Rs 500 crore.
  1. Remodelling Varanasi railway station, worth Rs 250 crore.
  1. For the maintenance of ghats, Rs 50 crore.

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