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Talkpoint: Has Modi transformed Varanasi enough to showcase it to foreign dignitaries?

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Narendra Modi is hosting French President Emmanuel Macron in his constituency, Varanasi. The ancient city produces three times the waste it can treat, and sewage drains directly into the Ganga. While the government claims that the ghats are cleaner and dustbins have been set up along the riverbank, critics say the Ganga is still home to floating corpses.

ThePrint asks: Has Modi transformed Varanasi enough to showcase it to foreign dignitaries?

If we showcase Varanasi to foreign dignitaries, we can ensure private investment in it

Raghav Awasthi
RSS member and advocate

Varanasi is the oldest existing human settlement in India. It is an important site for religious tourism, and people from all over the world come to the city because of its rich spiritual heritage.

If we showcase it to foreign dignitaries, we can ensure and increase private investment in the city. Varanasi will receive an immense boost from such investments. A model similar to the one seen in Amritsar can be emulated.

The Prime Minister’s decision to take Macron to Varanasi is actually a good step. Instead of hosting all foreign dignitaries in Delhi, we should take them to different parts of the country. The UPA always had a Delhi-centric approach, but Delhi is not India. India resides in its sites of cultural heritage. Such an approach will also help boost the tourism potential of different cities owing to the coverage of the foreign media travelling with these dignitaries.

Yes, Varanasi is still generating a great amount of waste. At times, the remains of people who die young are thrown into the Ganga. But awareness about quitting such practices is increasing. In certain aspects, there has been perceptible improvement. The ghats are now much cleaner and rubbish bins line the sides.

The government’s top priority has always been to clean the Ganga and there has been visible improvement. Earlier governments did not take much interest in places of Hindu worship. However, the BJP changed that.

There is a very dedicated ministry working towards fixing these problems and I’m hopeful this momentous start will reach its logical conclusion soon.

The government is not working for the good of Varanasi, it’s all just pomp and show.

Manoj Rai Dhoopchandi
Former UP minister, SP member from Varanasi

Varanasi is a 5,000-year-old city on the banks of the river Ganga. Even now, the sewage drains in the city empty into the Ganga. Centuries have passed, but that hasn’t changed.

The biggest irony, however, is the location of the huge welcome hoarding erected for the President of France, Emmanuel Macron — right above the exit of a sewage drain.

All the projects that Macron will be inaugurating are existing schemes. Our (the SP government’s) railway project couldn’t be finished because we were denied permission and the bridges they are talking about were started under our government. Even the college classrooms that are being touted as a ‘new’ initiative were our project.

Small renovations at the Kashi Vishwanath temple don’t equal progress or new programs. The BJP’s entire campaign in Varanasi is one that looks good on the outside but is hollow inside. They have hampered travel so a foreign dignitary can take a boat ride. People’s livelihoods depend on that river.

People don’t come to Varanasi for malls and flyovers. They come to it for its history, its heritage and its culture. The banks of the Ganga are what they come to see. Modi hasn’t worked for the progress of Varanasi at all. No tangible changes can be seen in the city; instead, you can see that the municipal corporation’s building was demolished and they work out of a temporary place now.

This government is not working for the good of Varanasi, it’s all just pomp and show. All his campaigns are superficial and have made no difference on the ground.

Modi’s flagship swachhta abhiyan has failed miserably in Varanasi

P.K. Mishra
Professor & head, 
department of chemical engineering & technology, Indian Institute of Technology (BHU)

Born and raised in Varanasi, I am a local who loves this city. Varanasi has always been neglected by the administration both at the state and the national level, and it was only during the tenure of Kamalapati Tripathi that it got support and the Diesel Locomotive Works and a few other facilities were created.

Being the oldest surviving city, it has always attracted foreign as well as Indian tourists who found solace in its serene atmosphere. The city has not changed much and, even today, you can find the lifestyle of the 18th to 21st century in Varanasi.

When Narendra Bhai Modi chose Varanasi to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election and rose to the chair of Prime Minister, everyone was upbeat. We thought that Varanasi would now be totally transformed and become one of India’s finest cities. Efforts were certainly made by the PM, but the system might have foiled them. The situation on the ground does not reflect the investment being made for its development.

Prominent improvements include underground electric cables, gas pipeline, the Ring Road, speeding up of the commissioning of over-bridges and bridges over the Ganga and the Varuna. Efforts have also been made to rejuvenate and beautify the ponds and rivers of the city, but only a negligible impact is seen.

In my opinion, Varanasi has not been transformed to a level where it can be showcased to foreign dignitaries. But, being the oldest surviving city on the planet and India’s cultural capital, it certainly must be showcased to anyone interested in understanding India and its ethos.

Modi’s flagship swachhta abhiyan has failed miserably in Varanasi, as more than 3/4th of the total sewage generated in the city is continuously being dumped in the Ganga and the Varuna through Assi and other drains. The situation is so bad that the district administration is forced to make cosmetic changes before every visit of the PM to the city. Tons of flowers etc are dumped into the Ganga to minimise the foul smell. The deep-rooted corruption and an inactive municipal corporation are the main culprits for Varanasi’s condition.

No one may enjoy the exotic, erotic urban fantasy Varanasi has become

Ashwani Kumar
Poet, senior fellow at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai), and author of ‘Banaras and the Other’.

Banaras or Baranassey has always been the most beautiful holy city in India, older than history as Mark Twain claimed. It is the permanent abode of Lord Shiva and he is also the sin-eater to devour the karmic impurities of his followers and guide future pilgrims to liberation (moksha).

But this holy city has never been a hegemonic Hindu city — Muslims, Buddhists and several heterodox sects also consider it a holy place. In fact, Mirza Ghalib called the city ‘Kaba-E-Hindustan’, and ‘Chirag-E-Dair’ or the light of the world. Despite its various maths, temples, and mosques, the ethos of the essential Indian civilisation — plurality, diversity and secular traditions — is very strong, symbolising the extent and depth of the sparkling beauty of syncretic culture in Banaras.

Making Banaras a grand, seductive global heritage city is the larger political project of converting mythic memory of the syncretic culture of Hindus into the celluloid fantasies of Disneyland for the rising, aspirational neo-middle class in India. Last year, I visited Banaras for research for my book on Banaras and could see the massive infrastructural development projects underway to transform Banaras on the lines of global cities like Shanghai and Singapore. In fact, the little tradition-centric Ganga aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat has metamorphosed into a frightening public spectacle of religious mobocracy led by professional event managers and their volunteers.

In contrast, I found so much spiritual peace and religious harmony at the Sankat Mochan music festival. In this tradition of “haazari” to Lord Hanuman by singers and artists from all religions, I saw the most beautiful face of Banaras. In short, the transformation of Banaras into a cleaner urban utopia with a better lifestyle is almost done. But imagine this descent of Banaras into a concrete polygonal ‘torture house of being’, stripped of her memories of inclusive Hinduism. Let’s not forget Banaras has grown out of the uniquely home-grown idea of “Hinduism of habit”. Thus, I am not sure foreigners or natives will enjoy this exotic, erotic urban fantasy.

Macron and other dignitaries will be shown a Varanasi that has nothing to do with the ground reality

Siddhant Mohan

There is no typical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this query because, as an insider, I feel that Prime Minister Modi is still unable to feel the actual problem that lies in Varanasi. As far as foreign dignitaries are concerned, the administration has put up large posters welcoming Emmanuel Macron at the mouth of the sewage drains that empty directly into the Ganga. The reason is simple. Modi does not want Macron to witness the harsh reality of the polluted Ganga water, broken steps of the ghats, and siltation along the bank, which Modi could not resolve despite the ambitious Namami Gange project and his tenure as an MP.

Moreover, the city still seeks relief from daily traffic congestion and other conflicts over public services that arise from administrative apathy. But no problem for Macron or (Japan PM) Shinzo Abe or other such dignitaries — they get to see a Varanasi that is far from the ground reality.

Like many of Modi’s policies, Varanasi is also packaged brilliantly with little inside

Kaveesha Kohli
Journalist, ThePrint

A picturesque view of the Ganga, brand new roads, flyovers and bridges welcome you as you enter Varanasi. Similar well-made roads take you to the airport. The famed ghats of Varanasi are squeaky clean. After all, it’s Modi’s own constituency — it has to be a model of modernity and development.

However, Modi’s reforms in Varanasi are carefully crafted. The infrastructure around the ghats, the exit points of the city, the hotels and the roads are constructed to create an illusion of progress. But one look beyond the obvious and it’s like many of Modi’s policies — packaged brilliantly with little on the inside.

Once you make your way to the inner roads, the heart of the city, it feels like you have been transported back in time. You find yourself in a city dotted with filth, stray cows, bumpy roads and crumbling bridges.

While the ghats are cosmetically cleaned, the beloved Ganga — Varanasi’s main tourist attraction — is home to dead bodies, pious refuse and tons of sewage. Not very far away from the Assi Ghat where Modi has famously performed aartis, you’ll see most of Varanasi’s waste spill into the Ganga. Although Assi and Varuna are rivers, they are considered nallahs by the local population.

If you look a little further, you’ll spot people defecating in the open. Residents will tell you how the city does not know what to do with its sewage. The entire sewage system is an eye-wash; it is even built against the gradient.

If it’s exoticism that has to be sold to the foreign dignitaries, Varanasi, with its colourful aartis, has enough appeal. In fact, it seems like the ideal place Modi would wish to take dignitaries — a solid symbol of Hindu identity, rooted deeply in tradition.
While Varanasi is all things BJP, it can hardly impress as a flag-bearer of ‘New India’, which has been Modi’s motto.

Also read ThePrint’s coverage on the state of the Namami Gange scheme.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, Journalist at ThePrint.

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  1. I am surprised by the article/ comments of some. Only a idiot can write such thing about govt efforts. Can all the problems which are created by people of Varanasi themselves and administration for the last 70 years be solved in 5 years? For constructing a 2 room house its take one year , may be 2. How one can expect the transformation of whole Varanasi in 4 years. Cleaniness, to control stray animals is the responsibility of people too. I found comments of professor most idiotic. Either he has personal hatred for Modi or supporter of Akhilesh.

  2. Despite selective pressitude hatchet job using biased select imbeciles, objective reality says otherwise. It’s hard first city in India where one does not see unsightly web of electric wiring and poles. In Varanasi post Modi these have disappeared. It’s not packaging but wires have been packed underground. Grow up and learn objectivity in reporting!

  3. Our prime minister is doing a good job, but one should know know, without the co operation from locals, it will be never possible to clean the city, I am a frequent visitor to Varanasi, I have seen lot of improvement, it takes years to come to a level, critizing is easy, when u see the population of Varanasi,it’s beyond anybody’s imagination that, it could b done in few years, hope people of Varanasi will help to achieve this task

  4. The real meaning of presstitutes are applied here. Bunch of jokers why always take a negative picture of every thing that Modi does. And to that Idiot professor of BHU Swatch Bharat is not only GOI initiative. What you have done to make it right professor. Any Tom dik and Harry commenting on evetything that government does.

  5. Showcasing Varanasi to foreign dignitaries is important but more important is to make Varanasi a bit more safe and comfortable to lakhs of pilgrims from all over India coming to the city. Who are they? Poor farmers, small traders with unkempt beard, short dhoti and turban, come here with their family in tow, old parents, small children to worship Baba Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan, take a dip in Ma Ganga, in groups of hundreds. They need a roof over their head for a few days and normal hygienic food at reasonable rate. What they get instead is touts everywhere fleecing money, Pandas and UP police physically throwing them out of the sanctum sanctorum of Vishwanath Temple unless they are able to shell out substantial amount.
    Is it too much to ask for a few moments of peaceful Darshan of Baba? Is it too difficult to make a few changes in the access route to the Temple to accommodate a few hundred to have peaceful glimpse of Baba from a distance.
    In addition to beautification of Ghats can’t a few be earmarked for holy bath and worship with change rooms, toilets for the common pilgrims?
    For thousands of years people have been coming despite the immense hardship they face. They will continue to come. A small effort to ameliorate their hardship will spread the message of ‘Acchhe Din’ throughout India much faster than the big bill advertising costing crores.

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