Varanasi: Along the narrow lanes of Varanasi that lead to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the ancient city’s famous ghats, an array of shops display black and white posters. “Ek hi bhool, kamal ka phool” reads one at a utensil shop run by Manmohan Aggarwal.
In poetic words, the poster also makes a request — “Modi ji ek kaam karo, pehle roti ka intezaam karo, fir humko berozgar karo (Modi ji, do one thing, first make arrangements for our livelihood and then make us unemployed).”
At the heart of this resentment is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, the Kashi Vishwanath Precinct Development, which was recently rechristened Vishwanath Dham and has been undertaken at a cost of Rs 600 crore.
Over 200 houses and dozens of shops have been demolished in order to rid the city of its decrepit appearance and give it a uniform “Parisian” look.
In the seat represented by Modi, the two key planks of the BJP — development and Hindutva — find themselves at odds, with Varanasi’s identity as a chaotic holy town up against the modernisation project.
And displeased residents, even those who claim to have voted for Modi 2014, are making their ire known through posters of the aforementioned kind.
“No political party has raised our concerns,” said Aggarwal. “Neither the Congress, nor the SP-BSP alliance made any efforts to bring up the matter and make it an election issue. Even the media has been silent on the issue.”
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The Paris project in Varanasi
The foundation of the four-phase Vishwanath Dham project was laid by Modi on 8 March, but work began last year.
“The aim of the project is to decongest and beautify the area, remove encroachments and provide easy access to the temple for pilgrims,” said Vishal Singh, CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, which is overseeing the project.
“The idea behind the project is similar to the ambitious redevelopment of many historical cities of the world like Paris [in the 19th century], where ghettos were removed,” Singh added.
“The narrow lanes and shops encroaching on Varanasi’s streets also pose a law and order threat. If there is a stampede, a fire or a medical emergency, it will be difficult to control the situation.”
He said over 200 buildings had been acquired by the government within a 700-metre radius around the Kashi Vishwanath temple, for “a considerable compensation”. The government is in the process of acquiring the rest, Singh added.
The government’s compensation offer includes space in the redeveloped precinct for displaced shopkeepers, besides cash for the acquisition of residential buildings and shops that currently stand in the targeted area.
However, the rollout is proving far from smooth: According to Aggarwal, several owners of buildings were being denied compensation because they didn’t have ownership documents. And shopkeepers are not pleased about the fact that, even if they will be given preference, they will have to buy space in the redeveloped area.
‘Identity of Banaras under attack’
Residents of the 700-metre Vishwanath corridor area say it is the narrow lanes, old buildings and the belief that every Kashi house has a temple that form Varanasi’s identity.
“People from across the world come here and spend months and years. They come here to see these lanes, which lead to the ghats,” said Manish Kumar, another local shopkeeper.
“It is this identity that is under attack from the BJP government. Every building has great historical importance,” he added.
Retired Varanasi-based journalist Suresh Pratap Singh, standing in the midst of demolished buildings and piles of rubble in the Pucca Mahal locality, the “nucleus” of Varanasi, explained just how.
“At Lalita Gali, which leads to Lalita Ghat and falls under the project area, an ashram for the elderly used to exist, much like the numerous mukti dhams in Varanasi,” he told ThePrint.
“People believe that if you die in Kashi, your soul gets mukti (freedom) from the cycle of re-births. The ashram is now lost,” he said. “As is the historical settlement of Lahori Tola too…”
Explaining the history of Lahori Tola, the journalist said that “when the Maharaja of Lahore Ranjit Singh [1780-1839] donated the gold used at the peak of the Baba Vishwanath temple, many people had accompanied him to Kashi from Lahore”.
“While some went back to Lahore with him, many stayed back and settled here. That is how Lahori Tola got its name — the place where people from Lahore were living,” he added.
As land acquisition for the project began and buildings were demolished, several temples — both big and small — surfaced. Locals fear that these temple — to them, a sacred part of Varanasi’s identity — may bear the brunt of the redevelopment project.
Singh of the Mandir Trust is quick to quell these concerns: “We did not know that so many temples were hidden inside houses. After their discovery, the project plan has been amended and these structures will now be part of the precinct,” he said.
“We are also talking to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to identify these temples and dig up their history,” he added.
Locals, however, dispute Singh’s stated ignorance about the household temples. “It is well known in Kashi that every house has a temple. Many years ago, people built their houses around temples to protect them from foreign invasion,” said Aggarwal.
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Despite local complaints about political indifference, Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate from Varanasi, said he had been raising the issues of those affected by the project for many months now.
“This is definitely a poll issue and I have been actively participating in all the protests on the matter,” he told ThePrint. “The BJP has eroded the essence of Banaras from this project and no rehabilitation scheme for the locals has been put in place,” he added.
A senior Samajwadi Party leader claimed that the party had given up on the matter after the stakeholders themselves withdrew.
“Initially, we had been vocal in our opposition to the project, but then local people themselves backed off. What can one do in such a state?” the leader added.
Criticising the BJP, he added, “Varanasi is an ancient spiritual town. So many temples have been broken as part of the project. Had this happened under any other government, there would have been riots, but because it is the BJP and they have a monopoly on these matters, they can do anything.”
The BJP’s Kashi in-charge and MLC Laxman Acharya attributed the opposition to the project to a campaign for “political gains”.
“It was not the locals but people from outside who did not believe in the sacredness of temples. People had turned the temples hidden inside houses into toilets,” he told ThePrint.
“Due to the vision of PM Narendra Modi and the resolve of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, these temples will now be restored and the common man will have access to them,” he added.
The BJP leader also refuted concerns about locals’ rehabilitation.
“A substantial compensation has been given to them and people have faith in the government’s aim of providing houses to everyone and employment for all,” he said.
“Those who have been given compensation have no qualms against the government and they have happily moved out of the area and bought property elsewhere,” he added.
Varanasi, one of 80 Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, votes in the concluding phase of the general election, on 19 May.
Stop making fool to the Varanasi people, first arrange to improve sewerage of the city first, just 2 days slow rain spoiled the lives of the Varanasi citizens
Do nothing….take not an inch of land for factories, metros, highways. That is real development.
Then u should better take up PM seat
The print pucca kangross chamcha
If there is no development then Print has pain and if any development is there then again there is apain in The print stomach .Is there any solution to it .
we don’t expect any better from the team of Shekhar Gupta……there are always some people complaining against some development work……..but the requirement of the hour is to see that Varanasi gets decongested and beautified and sanitised….
Many years ago, the saintly Dr Singh had spoken of Bombay becoming Shanghai …
Sir very regressive article , people have been welcoming the developments in Varanasi
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