A sightless old man, seated on a khatiya outside a tea stall at Raj Ghat in Varanasi, sadly tells me about his botched-up eye surgeries a few years ago, while a cheerful woman working in a chai shop casually offers me a chillum. Yes, the ghats of India’s holiest city look cleaner than when we last visited, but the rest of the city remains filthy as ever. The Dom Raja’s cremation ghat – Manikarnika Ghat – is strewn with half-burnt bodies and grieving relatives, while funeral pyres burn through the day and night, as they have for centuries. Local priests are philosophical about the future. One tells me laconically, “At last, we have Hindu Raj in India…it is what we have been waiting for.” The barber at the roadside ‘salon’ spits out a long stream of paan juice and laughs, “Whichever raj it is…my place is here, shaving heads of mourners. This is what my father did…it is what my son will do.” A strapping young man joins the conversation and says politely, “Only Hindi, please.” He wants to get into the Army and is preparing for the entrance exam. In between studies, he and his friends visit his hometown in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur. “The Nepal border is just 30 kilometres away…we go there on the weekend.” Why? “I am 21…I like to party.”
Well, the biggest party in Uttar Pradesh is scheduled for February-March 2022, when the state goes to the polls to elect 403 members of its legislative assembly. The residents of Varanasi remain indifferent and sceptical. Remember, this is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, and it was the late Jagdish Chaudhary, the Dom Raja (King of Cremators) who was one of the proposers of NaMo’s candidature in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and was suitably rewarded with a Padma Shri.
The ‘makeover’ of the ancient complex around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, which dates to 1585 CE, is almost complete. It is to be declared open on 13 December and will, no doubt, add to the hype surrounding the forthcoming elections. Never mind what displaced citizens of Varanasi feel about the gleaming new boulevards and promenade, with a museum and café, Vedic library and food courts, which involved the bulldozing of countless homes and shops near the temple. Despite all these efforts, the precincts surrounding the mandir were overflowing with curdled milk (fresh milk being the traditional offering to Shiva), rotting flower garlands and heaps of uncleared garbage. Right outside the temple gates, one had to dodge past open nullahs and piles of sewage. Thousands of pilgrims were being prodded along by aggressive cops. Meanwhile frenzied activity was afoot to ‘beautify’ the showpiece zone being created in record time and at monumental expense.
At what cost
“Abhi toh party shuru hui hai…,” I heard an enthusiastic young man with strawberry coloured hair say to his companions sporting Virat Kohli beards. They were listless and jobless. The alarmingly young kids selling tiny baskets of genda phooland diyas to float on the Ganga were pitifully undernourished. Their parents and grandparents, even more so. The Covid pandemic deprived them of their primary source of income – earnings from foreign tourists. It was a similar story with the traditional weavers of Varanasi, who endured a terrible two years of near starvation, but are looking ahead optimistically to better times.
But wait, look at the super efficiency of those involved in creating the grand Kashi Vishwanath corridor in record time! The Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for the Rs 1,000 crore ‘transformation’ in March 2019. Three hundred adjacent buildings were acquired to create 5.5 lakh square feet of space designed by project architect Bimal Patel. Voila! And it’s done! On the 13 December, our great and dynamic leader will inaugurate the space, which the other great and dynamic leader, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has inspected 36 times to ensure everything is tickety-boo. After all, the temple does attract seven million visitors annually – why not make it a worthy showpiece?
Just like the ambitious Central Vista Redevelopment Project, on which taxpayers have spent a staggering Rs 13,450 crore, this glittering project also comes with a hefty price tag. Varanasi’s divisional commissioner Deepak Agarwal said the corridor has ‘decongested’ the temple area. True, that. But at what cost? And what about the rest of the city that’s crumbling? Anyone driving through the congested bastis will be reminded of an India that is frozen in time – dusty, underdeveloped, visibly poor, with no infrastructure to speak of and nothing to display but an absence of progress and prosperity. Oh yes, Uttar Pradesh will soon boast of five gleaming new airports. Meanwhile, who will clear the garbage?
The young priest who escorted us to the temple has done his masters in Sanskrit. Another one was completing his PhD after studying French literature for three years. There is erudition and faith aplenty in this mystical city where millions come to die and attain moksha. But what of those who are living? Will their precious votes go to the creators of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor? Or will their vision extend beyond it to an India where jobs count as much as salvation? Where jobs ARE salvation?
The author is a columnist, social commentator, journalist and opinion-shaper. She has written 20 books. She tweets @DeShobhaa. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)