As Uttar Pradesh prepares for Unlock 4.0, will Varanasi’s local economy limp back to normalcy?

From flower sellers to farmers, hoteliers to priests, everyone is dependent on tourism, and tough days are still ahead.

As Uttar Pradesh prepares for Unlock 4.0, will Varanasi’s local economy limp back to normalcy?

“I spend Rs 50 daily on two trips from Pandeypur to Benia Bagh, and from Benia to this market. It’s difficult these days to sell 100 garlands worth Rs 20.”

This is Jaravati, a flower seller at Varanasi’s Bansphatak market, one of the largest wholesale markets of flowers in the city. A tourist destination and temple town, Varanasi’s parallel economy comprises flower sellers, priests and hotels. This ecosystem is financially dependent on tourists and traditional ceremonies, and has been badly hit by the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid.

The lockdown began in March, and Uttar Pradesh will enforce Unlock 4.0 guidelines from today, allowing religious and social gatherings of up to 100 people. But for this niche economy in Varanasi, the future is still fraught with troubles.

For Jaravati, 65, the pandemic increased her financial burden; she often goes back home without selling even a single garland. “One day, I had as many as 550 unsold garlands,” she said. “I had to borrow Rs 50 to go back home.”

According to the Hindu calendar, July and August are auspicious — they’re the months of Sawan, when devotees throng temples dedicated to Shiva. Previously, Jaravati would earn between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000 during Sawan, but this year has been a struggle.

“There’s hardly any income and I’m incurring losses,” she said.

While the Bansphatak market currently has more sellers than buyers, a flowers wholesale market at Englishia Lane wears a deserted look.

“It’s really bad after the lockdown as people are hardly celebrating marriages or any other occasion,” said Shubham Agarwal, a flower wholesaler. “All temples are shut.”

The slump in the sale of flowers has badly affected farmers who are dependent on floral farming. With production now far exceeding sales, the economic slowdown has also taken a toll on the daily turnover in the flower markets.

“The condition of farmers is really bad. A garland that used to be sold for Rs 20 is being sold for Re 1,” said Jitendra Kumar Prajapati, a farmer. “Then there’s the menace of cattle that destroys our crops.”

Shubham Agarwal estimates that the daily turnover for farmers has dropped from Rs 50,000-2 lakh to Rs 15,000-20,000.

“As it is, there was a complete shutdown for two months during the two months soon after the lockdown,” he said. “So, the flowers that had bloomed in that season couldn’t be used and they wilted away.”

Another segment that has been affected due to the lockdown is the hotel industry in Varanasi. In January 2020, around 2.5 lakh Indian tourists visited Varanasi, according to data from the Uttar Pradesh tourism department. This figure dropped to 1,384 in June this year. Similarly, while 37,156 foreign tourists visited the temple town in January, zero visited in June, thanks to the international travel ban.

Given that most companies instituted work from home policies, and picked webinars over in-person conferences, Varanasi was no longer the destination of choice for conferences and cultural programmes.

“There are no conferences and meetings happening as companies have mostly switched to virtual mode,” said Rajeev Kumar Rai, general manager of the Rivata hotel in Varanasi. Banquet halls at hotels are no longer being booked for marriages and other family functions due to social distancing norms. “If we compare the current situation with that of last year, our occupancy rate has fallen from 90-95 percent to 15-18 percent.”

Varanasi has about 400-500 hotels and 600-700 homestays. Lakhs of people are directly or indirectly dependent on tourism, said Rahul Mehta, president of the town’s Tourism Welfare Association.

Arvind Mishra, the owner of the Kashi Khand hotel, said: “At one point, all 22 rooms in my hotel would be booked. Varanasi’s tourism industry received a fillip after 2014, growing as much as three times. No matter how much the industry saw a boom then, today the tourism industry has crashed completely. Our livelihoods are in danger.”

While the town’s ghats on the banks of the Ganga are no longer sites of mesmerising nightly aartis, local priests who were dependent on performing pujas have also felt the pinch. Raju Jha, a local pandit, said that the Brahmin community that performed karma kanda — rituals and ceremonies prescribed in the Vedas — were dependent on these pujas as a source of income.

“Neither is there any such occasion nor any religious function,” said Jha. “It’s going from bad to worse.” According to him, even during the month of Pitr Paksha, when Hindus pay obeisance to their ancestors, it’s difficult to earn Rs 200-400 a day.

“There are hardly any visitors to the ghats who will pay for tilak. Purohits sit from 5 am to 10 pm but are not even able to get money worth bohni,” he said, referring to a belief on the “luck” of a first sale or transaction.

Vinay Kumar Pandey, chairman of the astrology department at the Banaras Hindu University, echoed a similar sentiment. “Varanasi, considered India’s spiritual centre, has been adversely affected by Covid,” he said. “There are households that are solely dependent on karma kand, rituals and meditation, which in turn is connected with the number of tourists coming to the city.”

The Tourism Welfare Association’s Rahul Mehta said the town’s tourism sector, including hotels, boatmen and Banarasi sari sellers, is worth about Rs 15-16 billion, given that three lakh foreign tourists and 35 lakh Indian tourists visit Varanasi every year, on average. He said the government should consider giving the tourism sector a relief package as soon as possible.

“Even among 200 hotels that are currently operational, due to the low occupancy rate, they won’t be able to recover even the cost being endured by the management,” he said. He warns of tough days ahead for those dependent on the tourism sector.

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