Believed to be the oldest living city of the world, Varanasi (known also as Banaras and Kashi) has a special place in the hearts of many Indians. It is on the bank of the river Ganga, holiest for the Hindus, who, in turn, constitute the overwhelming majority in the country. Dying in a Varanasi ghat (a flight of steps leading down to the river) or performing rituals on the bank of the river at Varanasi after one’s death by one’s relatives is the surest way to go to the paradise, it is widely believed among Hindus. The city also has the great historical value in the sense that the Buddha had delivered his first sermon on “dharma” here (Sarnath, the exact location in the city) after getting enlightenment. No wonder why millions of pilgrims and tourists from all parts of the world flock to Varanasi every year. In fact, many of them revisit the place from time to time because of its “sacredness”. And they do so despite the fact that the city, over the years, has become one of the dirtiest and polluted in the country, not to speak of the grossly inadequate infrastructure to support the rising population.
Does then Varanasi require a new vision or brand? This was the theme of a symposium organized by Rajarshi School of Management and Technology, a leading educational institute of Varanasi, which I attended sometime back. In every likelihood, the theme was determined by the after- effects of the Modi-wave in India. Varanasi was specifically chosen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, to be his constituency for the Indian Parliament. Though he contested from two constituencies—Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Baroda in his home state—and won from both of them, he preferred to stick to Varanasi. Thus Varanasi happens to be the constituency of the Indian Prime Minister, a huge brand in itself. But still, my initial observations at the symposium were that even if there were no visions or plans for the city, Varanasi will continue to be visited by pilgrims and tourists. Varanasi’s brand as a premier religious centre in India has been there since ages and will continue for ages to come. However, Varanasi does require a major tuning of the brand once one brings into account the quality of life in the city, which is abysmal, to speak the least. As our cover story this week suggests, life in Varanasi is getting nastier with each passing day.
During his election campaign nearly one year ago, Modi had talked of his vision for Varanasi. “Today, Varanasi is suffering because of poor roads, violence, traffic-jams and short supply of electricity and water. A big reason for these problems is the apathetic attitude of the Central and state governments,” wrote Modi in his blog, adding, “the interference of mafias and thekedars (contractors) in the government departments is also one of the reasons. I promise that from Centre to Varanasi, the domination of mafias involved in looting public funds will be entirely eliminated.” He wrote that despite being a major tourist attraction and a hub of handicrafts and arts, unemployment has emerged as a major problem in Varanasi. “Banarasi paan and Banarasi saree, which were the biggest trend of city market, are now fighting for their survival. We could not create a new brand for Banaras and the old ones are also losing their sheen…..the need of the hour is to restore the rich heritage of Varanasi. The cottage, handicrafts and handloom industries must be revived to generate employment locally. It will also bring back the lost prestige of the city. All this would not be possible without better civic amenities.”
But then the fact remains that the ills associated with Varanasi are not something unique; these are common to most of the cities of India. The ills are typical urban ills that India in general is suffering from these days. It may be noted here that currently, an estimated 28 per cent of the country’s people live in cities. One of India’s biggest challenges today is coping with the wave of urbanisation unleashed by economic liberalisation. An estimated 160 million people have moved to the cities in the last two decades, and another 230 million are projected to move there within the next 20 years. India, the second most populated country on the planet, is projected to add another 404 million urban dwellers by 2050, the largest addition in the world, followed by China with 292 million, a UN report has said.
But then the fact is that at the moment India’s poor infrastructure is critically over-strained. In response, the ill-equipped urban systems and the informal housing that are the slums have expanded exponentially in the last few decades without proper access to basic services such as sanitation, healthcare, education, and law and order. Despite all this, more people will continue to migrate to the cities. The country’s on-going industrialisation, while stop-start and riddled with missteps, has driven, and will continue to drive, the transformation and relocation of its pre-dominantly (rural) agricultural labour force into urban areas as they become industrial and service workers. Socially speaking, raising children in an urban environment creates a higher “option value” for the next generation, which every parents want to be a part of the middle class life.
In a study for the now disbanded Planning Commission, K C Shivaramakrishnan and B N Singh say that by 2021, India will have 500 large cities (one lakh and above size) and 4430 medium and small towns (less than one lakh population size). The impact of all this growth on space, environment and quality of life will be, to say the least, tremendous. The provision of infrastructural facilities required to support such large concentration of population is lagging far behind the pace of urbanisation. As a consequence, the urban environment, particularly in large cities, is deteriorating very rapidly. All cities have severe shortage of water supply, sewerage, developed land, housing, transportation and other facilities. The level, quality and distribution of services have been very poor. Several studies have indicated large segments of urban population do not have access to drinking water, sanitation, basic health services and education.
Politically speaking, the problems of water supply, sanitation (no access to human waste collection and disposal or sewerage system), solid waste management, land use (including illegal construction and illegal colonies, slums), transport, electricity and environment have become very sensitive. Managing the urban environment is emerging as an important political and governance issue and has become major subject of concern. For instance, toxic and hazardous wastes are often discharged into the municipal drains or dumped in small rivers leading to the major river passing through the cities. Concentrations of industries have also caused land pollution where industrial wastes are dumped resulting in pollution of ground water. Past and current efforts towards the control of pollution have been mainly through the identification and shifting of non-conforming industries. The Delhi and Mumbai Master Plans specifically provide for such shifting and have allocated land where such non-conforming industries could shift. Even the Supreme Court of India has intervened in matters to enforce such anti-pollution measures. But the political class has always hesitated to do the needful because of the factor of vote banks. Whenever the affected industries or sections protest against actions towards enforcement of anti-pollution measures, the government of the day invariably supports them. In fact, in India, but for the strong stands of the judiciary, no anti-pollution measures would have been ever possible. The same is also true as far as illegal constructions and land encroachments in urban areas are concerned. Politicians, whether ruling or in opposition, invariably support the law-breakers, not law enforcers.
Now, if we apply these bottlenecks to Modi’s Varanasi, it will be a Herculean task for the Prime Minister to weather the challenges from the vested interests that include even some age-old religious customs and practices. One of the major promises for Modi is to clean the Ganga river. But can Modi shift funeral spots on the bank of the river where dead bodies are burnt? What about the illegal encroachments or constructions on the sides of congested roads? Can he ban the polluting vehicles? Will he be able to take on the powerful traders violating the planning norms? And this in an administrative framework of Varanasi in which the municipal authorities have little power, the real power being concentrated at Lucknow, the state capital, which, in turn, is now ruled by party that is dead-opposed to Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party?
In other words, the process of urban development in Varanasi involves a wide variety of interest groups in the public and private sectors. It touches many sensitive areas such as land, infrastructure, finance, economic linkages, community involvement and environment. These are highly political subjects that cannot be dealt through a technocratic manner by ignoring the political implications for government policy, interest groups, empowerment etc. But then Modi must devise ways to implement his Varanasi vision, howsoever onerous the task may be. He has to obtain the maximum public and political endorsement of strategies, programmes and projects.
By Prakash Nanda