A quick journey of startling contrasts
Revival and rejuvenation of Ganga has been a massive, costly effort, but to little avail
That there is only cosmetic progress in Varanasi, that it doesn’t take five years to solve basic problems were among a litany of grievances from opposition candidates
It is not just the Ganga, it is also the Varuna and Assi rivers (Varanasi gets its name from these rivers), that are being treated as garbage dumps
In Ghazipur, the poor knew about the Ujjwala scheme, but said they did not have money for refills. They seemed disappointed that they had to pay for their medicines every time
#CampaignTrailwithFirstpost to Varanasi and Ghazipur unfolded to be a journey full of overwhelming sights, insights, contrasts and contradictions, and more question marks than full stops. We navigated the interiors of eastern Uttar Pradesh to meet the leaders of these constituencies and saw them battle the heat and dust of elections – up, close and personal. We also met the locals to understand their take on who will win the elections, and many other issues fundamental to their growth and survival. My first impression of the visit to both these constituencies was that the incumbents will return to the 17th Lok Sabha. But underpinning this impression was an old proverb and my belief that the devil is always in the detail.Seeing things, which are not apparently visible, come naturally to me.
As a ‘Tournalist’ on this trail, my aspiration was primarily to understand whether what was promised in 2014 has been delivered or not. I was keen to understand the election manifestos of the contenders of these constituencies for 2019. Is Meri Kashi as Prime Minister Narendra Modi fondly calls his constituency, truly Vikas Ke Path Per? Is Ghazipur, once known as Apradh Ka Kendra, on track to becoming Pragatisheel Ghazipur? Has Jayapur the PM’s adopted village missed its target of becoming a model village? I was looking forward to getting a sneak peek into the progress on infrastructure, water, sanitation, financial inclusion, public health, Ganga cleaning, and such other socio-economic issues.
I didn’t get all the answers.
But here is my narrative – of what I saw, heard, observed and experienced – of the phenomena called Varanasi – the impressions and sound bytes, which will stay with me for long.
One of the biggest highlights of this trail was our visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor – it was nothing short of witnessing history being created or re-created in front of our eyes. Billed as the PM’s dream project, it has been conceived, to widen the corridor of the temple to 50 feet and widen access space to 45,000 sq. meters (from existing 2,400 sq. feet in which the temple is housed). It involves demolition of old illegal structures, houses and shops around the area. The move hastriggered anger and resentment against the government. Besides, it has invoked anxiety and fear among the Muslim community that the Gyanvapi Mosque next door could meet the same fate as the Babri Masjid, although the government has reassured that no harm would come to it. Over Rs 300 crore has reportedly been given to these residents as compensation and at least 40 ancient temples have been discovered, when these illegal structures were brought down. These are now open to public as part of the Kashi Vishwanath Heritage Zone. Unbelievable how these temples were hidden under illegal structures for hundreds of years, have now been unearthed, and the structures, which enveloped them, are being demolished. It is a sight one needs to see to believe. Were these temples hidden inside homes, or homes hidden inside temples? The temple complex ‘Vishwanath Dham’, will rope in all these 40 temples discovered, in its fold. It will have a direct pathway from Ganga’s Manikarnika and Lalita Ghat to the Kashi Vishwanath Jyotirlinga Temple. The government also plans to set up a hospital, rest houses, shops, cafetarias and helpdesks in the complex. There are great examples of how temples and places of religious worship (Amritsar Golden Temple, Punjab, Somnath Temple, Gujarat) have been beautifully revived in India.
Demolition seemed to be a plausible pathway to revival of the iconic Kashi Vishwanath temple. But the Banarasis did not seem to want this revival. The handsome compensation for their property also didn’t seem to change their stance. Vinash Se Vikas Nahin Ho Sakta is what many believed, and some were upset that they have lost their businesses due to the demolition of houses in the area. While, some said they have lost their identity and sense of belonging – Hum Kahan Jayenge, Kya Karenge they said, and some others were ambivalent. Protests with sign-boards Ek Ki Bhool, Kamal Ka Phool by the locals, spoke about the dissent of the shopkeepers. Was it trampling the soul or Banarasipan of Kashi to make it a Kyoto? Did it not require more sensitivity and a collaborative approach and co-opting of the civil society to soften its impact? For sure, it is making Varanasi and Kashi Vishwanath temple better, safer and more accessible? But the question in my mind was, at whose cost and at what cost?
Overview of the Constituencies and Contenders: Woes of the Weaver Community
Our visit to Lallapura and Madanpura clusters was an eye-opener to the distress of its predominantly Muslim weaver community. The labyrinthine lanes to their homes and looms looked a lot cleaner than before, but a lot still needs to be done by the locals themselves for enforcing cleanliness while retaining the neighbourhoods’ inimitable identity.
The visit revealed stark realities of how the handloom business has been severely impacted due to the advent of Chinese power looms, demonetisation and lack of transparency and adequate support from the government. Most of them agreed that the Goods and Services Tax and its advantages in streamlining their business. But some said the Banarasi sari business did better when the Congress was in power, some others were agnostic to which government came to power, as long as their livelihood and survival was ensured. Many have sent their children out of Varanasi in search for jobs and higher incomes. The Deendayal Hastkala Sankul did not seem to have created much impact. But I remember a high- profile fashion show organised by Smriti Irani, where she invited designers such as Ritu Kumar and Shruti Sancheti from Nagpur to mingle with the weavers. The craftsmen not only got good exposure, but also did brisk business. So, what’s they’re unhappy about? Preserving the rich textile heritage of Banarasi saris, which have the coveted Geographical Indicator, or GI tag, is not just up to the weavers and civil society. But the government needs to do more to improve the weavers’ livelihoods and recognise their craftsmanship.
Development and Growth – on track or side tracked?
In our meetings and interactions with the leaders and villagers, we tried to assess the progress on diverse parameters such as infrastructure, education, healthcare, sanitation and financial inclusion.
Here is a synopsis:
Ghazipur – Pragatisheel? Or miles to go?
In Ghazipur, the course of politics seemed to have undergone a silent transformation. This has happened over the last five years under Sinha’s astute leadership as we heard in his speeches, which combined PM Modi’s popular appeal, with his personal charm, focus on development, national security, peace and harmony. A four-lane highway, connecting Varanasi and Gorakhpur via Ghazipur, is coming up, and an airport is under construction. Besides, a long-pending project of a bridge being constructed on the Ganga in a bid to ease road and rail traffic. We also visited the spotlessly clean Ghazipur railway station, which is classified as a Class B Adarsh station, and has a daily footfall of 6,000 passengers, 22 trains pass through every day, connects 7 large cities and even Nepal border. It has free wi-fi, kiosk booking facility, an escalator and a wheelchair ramp. We also saw many “Izzat Ghar”s – as part of the Swachha Bharat mission – en-route to these rallies. In our interaction with the sitting MP Sinha, we were also told that Ghazipur has a medical college, a sizeable number of toilets, 100 primary schools, a government high school, Direct Benefit Transfer is working well on the ground and India Post dakiyas are taking banking to rural doorsteps. But some women we interviewed seemed disenchanted and unsure – on whether Primary Health Centres, or PHCs – were working or not along with access to LPG and the use of banking services. They knew about Ujjwala scheme, but said they did not have money for refills. They seemed disappointed that they had to pay for their medicines every time. There is also a predominant chatter that local youth is still migrating to urban centres in search of livelihood. Awareness and adoption of the many schemes that the Modi government has launched still seemed to be an issue. Also, it was not abundantly clear whether caste politics still dominated the voters’ discourse in Ghazipur, where criminal gangs once dictated local politics.
Varanasi: Vastav mein Vikas Ke Path Per?
We were given to understand that since his victory in Varanasi, the PM has visited the constituency as many as 18 times. The BJP claimed that over 300 projects were launched over the last five years in Varanasi with a total investment of Rs 30,000 crore. A large part of this was allocated for expanding highways or construction of new ones, Ganga cleaning and Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. Other notable projects include Varanasi Power Sub-station, Gas Distribution Project, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya Cancer Centre, Centenary Super Speciality Hospital at Benares Hindu University (BHU), the Deendayal Hastkala Sankul (a trade facilitation centre for handicrafts and a Powerloom Service Centre).
In our interactions with Ajai Rai and Shalini Yadav, the Congress and the SP-BSP candidate, respectively, for the Varanasi constituency, both alleged that little or no development work were carried out under PM’s leadership. The only thing that they credited him for is building the highway from the airport at Babatpur to the city. Both staunchly opposed the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project on the premise that Vinash se Vikas Nahin Ho Sakta. That there is only cosmetic progress in Varanasi, that it doesn’t take five years to solve basic problems of water, sanitation and sewage were the other litany of grievances. And that the plight of over 70,000 handloom weavers remains pitiable.
Complaints apart, both did not seem to have a plan of their own to develop Varanasi.
Jayapur – Adarsh? Ya Keval Akhyaat?
We had heard that Jayapur – PM’s adopted village – has missed its March 2019 deadline of becoming a model village. We visited Atal Nagar, a community housing project for 14 Mahadalit/Scheduled Tribe families belonging to the Mushar community.
The two-room pucca houses have a kitchen, two bathrooms and are lit with solar power installed free by Tata Power. Only a few families use their gas connection given under the Ujwala scheme. No one has got a refill for more than a year, as they have to pay the full amount upfront and wait for the subsidy to come later. The Gram Pradhan told us that the real development started only from 2017 onwards, when the funds came in. The locals don’t access banking, lack a basic health centre and hospital, schools above Grade V are a good 7 kilometres away. Nor are they getting jobs under the MGNREGA scheme. “Hum Akhyaat to ho gaye, Adarsh ka pata nahin”.
I did not understand why the people of Varanasi and Ghazipur did not demand better services like in south India where the panchayats are much stronger. Health is a state subject, and ditto for sanitation and water supply. So just because these are VIP constituencies, were there unreasonable expectations? What about the responsibilities of the panchayats, municipal bodies and state-run departments? Why were the schools and PHCs away from the hamlets or not part of them? Was it because the panchayats gave the most useless piece of land to them? Consequently, people and also teachers/doctors do go there, perhaps.
Revival and Rejuvenation of the Ganga
Scriptures say that the sagely Ganga takes the good and bad into its depths. We seem to have taken that literally. The Ganga – India’s holiest river – supplies water to almost 100 cities and towns, but is polluted by 2.9 billion gallons of waste, which is worth 4,400 Olympic-sized pools. The river has become a passage for toxic waste. In 2014, the government had promised Rs 21,000 crore to clean it up, of which Rs 600 crore was given to Varanasi alone. How much has been spent, on what, and what is the outcome? While some work has been carried, we didn’t get tangible answers to these crucial questions. It is not just the Ganga, it is also the Varuna and Assi rivers (Varanasi gets its name from these rivers), which are being treated as garbage dumps. So much so that one of the candidates we met said Assi is no longer a nadi (river) but a naala (gutter). Revival and rejuvenation of the Ganga is a massive effort, which has been attempted by previous governments as well, but to little avail. And, a lot still remains to be done. In a city and country, where rivers are worshipped, why have successive governments failed miserably at this key initiative which impacts the lives and livelihoods of so many? The team at BHU, and many locals in the constituency asserted that Varanasi has changed a lot for the better over the past five years. But some of these data points painted a contrarian picture. Were these anecdotal, or a representation of a larger reality which we were not privy to?
Passing through the beautifully-lit ghats, on the ever flowing-ever changing, but still the same Ganga, I was reflecting on my immersive experience. The sights of funeral pyres burning on the Manikarnika Ghat, and the pollution and dirt around saddened me. The sights of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the woes and voices of the weaver community, the smiles, hopes and despair of Jayapur’s women and children flashed through my mind’s eye, the pleas and promises of the locals and leaders of this ancient land echoed in my mind. Perhaps, the mysteries of Varanasi and Ghazipur and their socio-economic, cultural and political history lie in these paradoxes. Varanasi has survived thousands of years and with a little better management, can survive another few thousand. Art, freedom and creativity have the power to change society faster than politics and in the end that’s what this election is all about – do we participate in a politics of cynicism or one of development and hope? I fervently hope that Varanasi votes wisely. I whispered to the Ganga for the people of this land to get what they have asked for, what they deserve and what they have been promised as I bade goodbye to one of my favourite Indian cities.
(Kavita Sachwani is a financial services, financial inclusion and public policy professional. Views are personal)
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