Varanasi: A Pause In Eternity

30/05/2015 9:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Open Magazine

This article is from Open Magazine.


By Kumar Anshuman

It is 5.30 in the morning and thousands have gathered at Assi Ghat in Varanasi. Shlokas ring in the air as pundits offer morning ritual aarti to the waters of the Ganga; 'Har Har Mahadev', a chant invoking Lord Shiva, grows louder as more people join in. Girls from Panini Kanya Maha Vidyalaya recite the Vedas in unison. A stage has been set for a daily musical performance. After the aarti, Pandit Rahul Bhatt immerses the audience in the melody of morning ragas for an hour. Then it's the turn of a yoga teacher for a session. Varanasi wakes up thus every morning.

Called 'Subah-e-Banaras', this daily festival started last November with the blessings of the city district administration. "Within six months," says Pramod Mishra, convener of the Nagrik Samiti, which organises it, "this fusion of culture, music and yoga has become an integral part of city life and also an attraction for tourists who come here."

Assi Ghat, the northern most embankment of the 87 in the river city, was never so popular. Earlier, it was visited mostly by those from the nearby Banaras Hindu University (BHU). But things have changed since the city elected Narendra Modi as its Member of Parliament. Modi started his Swachh Bharat Mission from Assi Ghat. As the NDA Government completes one year in power and Modi as Varanasi's MP, Assi Ghat wears a different look. "Footfalls have increased considerably," says Kamla Kant Dixit, the administrator at Annapurna Math on the ghat. "Assi always had great potential to be developed as the most popular ghat because this is the only one where you can take your vehicle close. Thanks to Prime Minister Modi's efforts, its magnetism has been restored over the past year."

Those who live on Assi Ghat recall its bad shape. "The silt that came along with Ganga floods would completely cover its steps," says 37-year-old Vinod Sahni, a paan shop owner. "My shop used to get entirely submerged in the silt, and I had to move towards the city. With the cleanliness drive going stronger, now I can run my shop here once again."

Ghats along the Ganga are a vital part of Varanasi life, and Modi, right from his first visit, has placed special emphasis on their development. After one year, the results are evident. Sulabh International, which promotes cleanliness, has taken charge of cleaning the ghats. Removing the silt was a mammoth task. Large ferry boats were used to carry tonnes of it across the river. Most of that work is done, and the steps, which were nowhere to be seen, are now clearly visible. Sulabh is also constructing a modern toilet complex nearby. Another outfit, Rupa Foundation, run by a Kolkata industrialist called Suresh Agrawal, is also involved in cleaning up the ghats. Dustbins can be seen all over the place for people to throw stuff.


Varanasi has a couple of cremation ghats, Harishchandra and Manikarnika, that have hundreds of bodies being brought in for funeral rites every day. BJP leader Sudhansu Mehta, a close aide of Modi, has donated three mortuary boats to ferry bodies to both ghats. "It has reduced the load of the city roads," says Gulshan Kapoor, caretaker of the Jal-Thal Shav Vahini. "We will increase the number of boats as the requirement goes up. Anyone can order such a boat free of cost. In future, we would train mukti mitras (volunteers) from every panchayat who will reach the spot immediately to make arrangements." A water treatment plant is also in the offing to recycle the water used in cremation before releasing it into the river. CR Patil, an MP who represents Navsari in Gujarat, has been deputed by the Prime Minister to look after all the work on the ghats.

This February, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad inaugurated a free wi-fi service by BSNL at the Dashashwamedh and Shitala ghats, and the facility has been extended to six more ghats since. Some visitors have a few nits to pick, such as the difficulty in logging on in the evenings, when crowds gather for the evening river ritual, but it usually works. "I go every afternoon and download songs on my mobile. The service is free for 30 minutes, enough to download five to six tracks," says 19-year- old Kishor Malakar, a flower shop owner at Kedar Ghat.

"Things are improving and some changes are visible. But we know it takes time to develop a city as old as Varanasi."

The famed Manoj Tea Stall near Assi Ghat, said to be more than a century old, is a place known for vibrant discussions among intellectuals, bureaucrats, students, politicians and many others who turn up for cups of lemon tea. It is 9 am, and a debate is taking place on the importance of monuments and memorials for famous personalities. Around 20 people are arguing for and against. After listening to them for a while, I intervene and propose a new topic: one year of Modi as an MP of Varanasi. "When Modi first came to Varanasi before the election, he infused optimism among the people. The city had given up hope of a better life. The fact that we were going to choose the Prime Minister from this constituency made us feel proud," says 50-year-old bhajan singer Arvind Yogi, "Things are improving and some changes are visible. But we know it takes time to develop a city as old as Varanasi."

A 42-year-old businessman, Sameer Mathur, jumps in to blame the local regime for the slow pace of change. "The developments could have been faster had the state government cooperated with the Central schemes and plans," he says, "But, you know, there is politics involved in everything to take credit." After Modi's win, The UP government had announced 24- hour power supply to the city. At first, the power situation did improve, but residents now complain of neglect again. "Still, it's much better than earlier times," says Surendra Srivastava, a retired teacher. "An electricity project of Rs 312 crore is being undertaken, which will change the entire power scenario of the city," says Ashok Pandey, the BJP's state spokesperson.

The Prime Minister has a public relations office, often referred to as 'mini-PMO', right in the heart of Varanasi--in the Ravindrapuri area. It stays open on week days to hear out the grievances of people, and has a milling crowd almost all the time. "More than a hundred people come every day," says Shiv Saran Pathak, who is in charge of the office. "Most have letters to the Prime Minister and we go through each of them. Some are forwarded to the PMO in Delhi." Today, a 40-year-old vegetable vendor, Vidya Bhushan Patel, is here to ask for funds to treat his 12-year-old daughter Gudiya, who is suffering from a liver ailment and is being treated at BHU Hospital. He had visited the office in the past too. The PM National Relief Fund, he learns, has approved his application and the money will be sent to the hospital within a week. "This is one thing the people of Varanasi were not getting earlier. Now there are a number of applications for funds for treatment of diseases such as cancer, and of the kidney and liver," says Pathak. "Some NGOs have also chipped in, and we guide them to needy families."

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A bus stop at Jayapur, Modi's adopted village. Photograph by: Ashish Sharma

At a left turn on GT Road towards Allahabad, around 20 km from Varanasi, we ask a shopkeeper about Jayapur and he immediately responds: "Modi ka gaon (Modi's village)! It's about 8 km from here." After three or four villages, a huge board put up by Union Bank of India welcomes us to Jayapur. On 14 April 2014, a few villagers had got injured when a high-tension wire fell across the road. Modi read about it and spoke to the village pradhan, Durgavati Devi, about the incident. After coming to power, he had adopted the village under the PM's Adarsh Gram Yojna. This association has attracted a slew of development projects by various organisations. Vaju Bhai, a 42-year- old who works for Patel Fabrication, has come all the way from Surat with frames, to put up a bus stand within a day. The village's new Aanganwadi Centre is nearing completion, all done within 24 days. A new road from the village entrance is being laid with interlocking bricks. The dilapidated girl's school is getting a facelift with new buildings.

Three public sector banks--Union Bank of India, Syndicate Bank and State Bank of India--have recently opened branches in Jayapur. The country's Postal Department has opened a post office. Manoj Mishra, a 38-year-old villager, says his two tractors would once lie unused because there was no work here. "Now the company that is working on the village road has hired my tractors. I earn around Rs 500 per day," he says.

Others like Vishnu Viswakarma have got jobs at the school construction site, earning Rs 400 daily. Jayapur has a population of 4,200 with 430 houses, most made of concrete but without toilets. An NGO based in Gujarat is constructing a toilet in every house. BSNL is laying fibre-optic cables to provide the village internet and wi-fi facilities. Four new borewells have come up, and a water pipeline is being laid to link every house. "We never imagined such development in our village," says 35-year-old Santosh Patel, who heads the Gram Vikas Samiti looking after the development work. "Wherever we go, people recognise us by Modi's village. We are proud of this."

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A home in Atal Nagar, a new colony built for Musahars of the city. Photograph by: Ashish Sharma

Union Bank has lit up village streets with solar lights. A 25 KW power station is also under construction. The Musahar community, also known as Vanvasis, who are mostly labourers at a nearby brick plant, reside at the end of the village. A Gujarat- based company called Aanna Associates has built 14 pucca single-bedroom houses for them. Every house is equipped with solar lights and electric fans, apart from an inverter and water supply. The colony, to be named Atal Nagar, will soon be inaugurated and Musahar families will then be given possession of the houses. Jitu Vanvasi, 47, says all of them have got separate houses. "It was not even in our dreams to stay in a house with marble and tile fittings," he says, "forget a ceiling fan."

"These are physical changes. The biggest change has been in the attitude of people. They all are cooperating in development work," says PC Verma, 65, a retired government employee.


On our way back from Jayapur, we stop at Varanasi's Lohta area, a textile hub with more than 1,000 factories running round the clock to produce Banarasi saris. Rakesh Kumar Patel, 40, has been doing this business for 15 years now, and has around 100 looms. He is not convinced, however, by the value of the proposed mega handloom cluster announced by Modi. "When Modiji says that 'I will try to get a better market for your produce', my reply is 'Our products have a good market; you provide us better trade facilities and a better environment'," he says. He admits things are looking up now with the announcement of seven trade facilitation centres, but believes the system will work only once small players are heard. The raw material for Varanasi's sari makers mostly comes from Gujarat and Maharashtra. Patel hopes that Modi, being from Gujarat, would encourage some industries to set up facilities here to make raw materials. "If that happens, it will help our margins, since a lot of money goes into the transportation of raw material."

"Work has started on improving the city infrastructure. Roads are being widened and dividers have come up on almost every main road."

Varanasi district has a population of 3.7 million, of which 1.5 million reside in the city. With a population density of 2,400 per sq km, the city always seems overcrowded. Narrow streets and encroachments make traffic jams a perpetual problem for commuters. The city also has one of the oldest sewage systems in the country. A little rain, and the streets stay waterlogged for days. Work has started on improving the city infrastructure. Roads are being widened and dividers have come up on almost every main road. The city administration is acting tough against encroachment, and barriers have been put on both sides of the road for pedestrians not to mix with moving traffic. Almost every fortnight, a Union minister visits the city to take stock of the work going on and announce new projects. India's Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu visited Varanasi on 9 May to launch the Centre's new pension and life insurance schemes. Some parts of the city have been dug up to change old sewage lines, and the minister instructed officials to complete all the work by 2017.

Work on a proposed ring road around the city and a metro railway line is yet to start, but it has already impacted the city's real estate market. "Property prices have gone up around 30 per cent in the last six months," says Abhishek Agrawal, managing director of Sudha Realtors. His company is building several housing projects in the city's Mohan Sarai and Sarnath Road areas. "Earlier, most of the buyers were local people," he says, "But now I get queries from as far as Patna."


While Varanasi counts itself lucky to be represented in Parliament by the Prime Minister himself, they expect more--though they are ready to be patient. "The educated class knows that it takes time for schemes to be visible on the ground. We would like to give him another two years till the UP Assembly elections," says senior lawyer Shreenath Tripathy.

"For an outsider this is nothing, but for me it's a miracle. If it continues, the city will be cleaner in two years."

Developing Varanasi is a herculean task, according to some residents, and requires residents to adapt to change. Ashok Kumar Pandey, professor of sociology at BHU, points to the local culture of chewing paan and tobacco here, and says that now he notices people looking for dustbins to spit instead of doing it in the open. "People are gradually understanding their responsibility towards the city," observes Professor Pandey, "For an outsider this is nothing, but for me it's a miracle. If it continues, the city will be cleaner in two years."

The local opposition is sceptical. Congress MLA Ajay Rai accuses the government of merely announcing new projects. "Nothing is happening on the ground beyond PR exercises," he alleges, "More than 50 projects must have been announced, but work has not started in most of them."

Sameer Mathur, a businessman and BJP worker, complains of not enough schemes for the city's youth: "We need employment and not a single project targeting the youth has been announced." But he is upbeat. For Modi still has four more years as Varanasi's Member of Parliament.

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