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Travels through the Hindi belt: Varanasi shopkeepers, facing displacement due to Kashi Vishwanath corridor, vent ire at Yogi and Modi

Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

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The atmosphere around the Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi is never buoyant. This is where the funerals happen. The pyres are lit. Ashes scattered. Bodies go up in flames overlooking the serene Ganga river. Mourners inhale the smoke as chants of Ram naam satya hai reverberate incessantly. Beneath the predominant air of grief, however, lies the tension of being uprooted. The dirty, narrow alleys leading to the Manikarnika ghat are dotted with modest shops selling flowers, wood, and other things required at funerals. It has been the source of livelihood for generations. Today, they are staring at displacement.

The Uttar Pradesh government, led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, is keen on building a 400-meter corridor between the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Ganga, so pilgrims get “clear access” to the temple after a dip in the holy river. It is a 600-crore project. The temple is considered one of the holiest Hindu shrines, and is inundated by devotees from across India. To construct the corridor, and then widen the road that would lead to it, the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA), has marked homes and shops to be demolished. With the temple being located right across the Manikarnika ghat, the shopkeepers around it are anxiously awaiting the axe.

 Travels through the Hindi belt: Varanasi shopkeepers, facing displacement due to Kashi Vishwanath corridor, vent ire at Yogi and Modi

File photo of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. ANI

Shiv Shankar Prasad, 49, is nervous. He is sitting at his shop selling white sheets, flowers and other items. To his diagonal left lies the ghat, where death ensures his living. To the diagonal right sits the wreckage of shops that have already been demolished. “Not much time before they reach me,” he said with a wistful smile. “My home by the Ganga is already demolished. I now live 10 kilometers from here. It has increased my daily travel costs by Rs 80 to 100.”

The authorities have compensated those who have lost their homes. Prasad, for example, got Rs 40 lakh as a one-time settlement. Shopkeepers are also supposed to receive compensation for their stores. But that is where it gets trickier. Prasad said the value of his shop lies in its location. “I sell material used at funerals on the edge of Manikarnika ghat,” he said. “People buy from me because I am right here. If I start selling the same things somewhere else, I might as well not sell them.”

Vishal Singh, secretary of VDA, said once the corridor is concluded by June 2021, those who used to have shops here would get preference. But there is a caveat. “They would get to resume their businesses on government terms and conditions,” he said. “The government would decide if the place for any shop in the corridor would be leased or rented or sold. In a sense, they would have to buy their place in the corridor. Most shops do not have titles or ownership. Yet, we are compensating them.”

Shopkeepers said they would not be able to afford the rent or the cost of the shop in the corridor, and they cannot survive on compensation of Rs 1 to 5 lakh for the rest of their lives. Singh said between 80 to 90 shops would be razed, while locals peg the number at over 200. Some shops have already been demolished, the rest await their fate. A mini trek of sorts from the Manikarnika ghat towards the temple is marked with dusty rubble, where devotees have queued up, and are being frisked by security. The lane leading to the temple is dotted with shops selling sweets or lassi or the famous Banarasi pan on both sides. That lane used to be longer.

A shopkeeper selling sweets to devotees before they head to the temple is curt. “Several journalists have come and gone,” he said. “Nobody bothers if we want to sell the shop or not. Please leave, we know talking to you won’t help save our shop.” “Those who have had their shops demolished, what are they doing? They were located right next to you,” I asked. “Might be begging somewhere,” he said.

Adjacent to the sweet shop, Girdhar Yadav is churning lassi. He is far more welcoming. “Hundreds of people going to and from the temple stop by and procure a glass,” he said, pouring one. “I sell one glass of lassi for Rs 40. Elsewhere in Varanasi, away from the ghats, it is sold at Rs 20 or 30. Yet, people do not think twice before buying from me. It is the location that matters. I do not know what I would do once I am kicked out of here.”

The project had been mooted nine years ago, but governments led by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav did not follow through.  Adityanath, however, is keen on seeing it through. Which means shopkeepers who have been here for generations would have to find an alternate source of income, which could be difficult. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Uttar Pradesh’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent as against the national average of 6.7 percent. The labour participation rate in the state is 39 percent, as against the national average of 42.81 percent.

Rambabu Sahni, 37, who lost three shops to the demolition drive, said both Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are showing off at the expense of small shopkeepers. “You will make an opulent, posh corridor while displacing the poor vendors,” he said. “Is that why we voted for you?”

Sahni, selling biscuits and water on the banks of the Ganga, said he had two general stores and a tea shop around the temple. “I used to make Rs 30,000 to 40,000 a month,” he said. “Business was brisk. They gave us Rs 2 lakh for one shop, and tell us we would have to pay Rs. 10 lakh to get a place back in the corridor. It essentially means we would not able to get back on our feet, and it is exclusively for those who can afford a place in the corridor. If you cannot create jobs, at least don’t take them away.”

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Updated Date: May 11, 2019 19:18:48 IST